Just an update – all the copies of Prelude in circulation are presently going ’round, but if past experience is any guide, the books should have at least one more cycle before the end of the month. So watch here for the next announcement.
In some ways I’m not the optimal audience for Kurt Cobb’s _Prelude_ in that I generally hate thrillers. I find the “ordinary person caught up in a chase sequence” thing silly, and while I can read science fiction and suspend belief long enough to believe in wormholes and colonization, or mysteries, and believe that the town of Whateverville experiences a murder rate that makes Detroit look like Mayberry, and that the local private detective also owns a quilt shop, bakes elaborate wedding cakes and picks locks on the side, and happens to be dating a retired police officer/opera singer, I have more trouble with thrillers. I guess I’m a coward, but I somehow find it hard to believe that the tendrils of power are so secret and universal that you can buy off every cop anyone might tell a story to, every reporter, every everyone, ensuring that you have no choice but to solve the mystery yourself while running for you life. When the black copters start chasing me ;-), I’m calling the cops and going home and pulling the covers up over my head. This, however, would make a boring book.
Perhaps that’s why I actually liked _Prelude_ – mercifully, Cobb spares us the rooftop helicopter chases as the vision of a unified government in which local, state, federal and civil figures all conspire collectively. Cassie and Victor, the protagonists, have encounters that are almost plausible in the era of Wiki-Leaks – almost.
The biggest reason I liked _Prelude_ though, is that it fills a major gap in the peak oil oeuvre. Here’s a light, plausible, fun, short read that you can hand to someone who has never heard of peak oil. Cobb’s mastery of the thriller conventions is sufficient that everyone who encounters it will recognize themselves as on familiar ground, and by telling the story as a high-tension mystery to be solved, gradually unfolding the information about peak oil to a reader, Cobb may have done one a greater service to the larger community of activists than almost anyone else. We all know people who will never touch a non-fiction book with the word “oil” in it – but who devour light novels like candy.
Think about how important this is – we all know how meaningful fiction is in these roles. The obvious example is the degree to which Michael Crichton’s revolting garbage about climate change framed and shaped the denialist debate for so many. Now imagine Crichton’s evil powers turned to good – instead of denying the material and technical limits that we are encountering, imagine someone wrote a popular thriller about how climate change – or in this case, peak oil – was real? Think about how much that matters.
Because Cobb is working towards a particular kind of genre, with a particular kind of audience, it can be hard to review this sort of book. The book is not heavy, it doesn’t take long to read, it isn’t subtle and if you are longing for the kind of complexities that Kunstler’s work brings up, you won’t them. The only complex parts of the book are those where Cobb explains the technical limits of energy production. He makes this as light and accessible as possible, and the explanations are extremely well done. Cobb’s gift is his gift for clarity, and he manages to make explanations of shale gas and oil reserves readable enough that I think the majority of his target audience won’t simply skip over them. Even those fairly familiar with the subjects might learn something new as well – but what’s most appealing to me as a writer is to watch Cobb’s grace at dispensing technical knowledge to an audience that may not be per se interested in oil – the audience seeking simply to escape into a familiar sort of a book.
Cobb’s is a novel of pre-apocalypse, and that’s interesting because he leaves open the question of outcomes. When Cassie is brought to a group of peak oil true believers, they debate how the outcomes might play out and what the time frames might be. Victor, who is pretty clearly a younger and slightly hotter Dmitry Orlov (actually, his cover pic looks rather like the author photo of Orlov on _Reinventing Collapse_) summarizes Orlov’s position – the collapse will be financial and political, but the cause won’t be the same, and the US will in many ways not fare well because of the heavy debt obligations and dependencies built up by fossil infrastructure.
Other peak oil theorists show up in the background of the writing – Cobb seems to have taken the best ideas liberally, and laid them out for his readers, for which I give him credit. As Eliot put it, immature poets borrow, mature poets steal. Cobb is a mature poet who rightly takes the ideas he needs and inserts them into his fiction so as to present a whole picture. I’m just sad that Greer’s problem vs. predicament distinction didn’t come with a long-bearded Druid character to accompany it – sadly, the peak oil believers are a polite, dull bunch. I suppose this adds to the overall credibility of the issue, but what’s funny about the real peak oil movement is that its strangest figures (me included) aren’t really nearly as strange as the truth.
I know that most of us reading this were searching for fun parallels to people we know/know of, and there are quite a few, but I’ll let you find them yourself. Looking for thinly fictionalized familiar people is a great party game, and I’d spoil it if I mentioned the ones I spotted. It does make a good parlor game.
It isn’t a perfect book – some of the transitions are a little heavy handed, and almost all the supporting characters are dull, and hard to tell apart from one another. In many cases, though, these are conventions of the thriller, which bring to life only a few real characters and leave the rest as background and cannon fodder. Most of the things that I don’t love about the book are not bugs, but features – that is, this is a particular kind of book written in a particular kind of genre and it uses the conventions of those genres well. For the same reason you can’t add Russian-novel complexity to teenage romance, you can’t slow down a fast-paced thriller with pesky details like secondary character development, and plenty of thriller writers (even though I dislike the genre, I went and read a few just to make sure that Cobb really did have the genre down) like Grisham or Hoban are much heavier of hand than Cobb.
In some ways, I have to imagine that writing this kind of book is harder than writing a Great American Novel about peak oil – or at least it would be for me (note, I don’t claim here that I wouldn’t write a crappy example of a Great American Novel, just that that genre seems more accessible). The kind of writing that Cobb has to do to make the peak oil story available to people is *hard* – you have to be concise, light of hand and engaging with difficult technical concepts to an audience that may have the faintest understanding of the issue. Even if I didn’t like the book – and I do – I’d be awed at what Cobb has accomplished.