World Made By Hand

New Book!

amazon pic

In the best-seller The Long Emergency, James Howard Kunstler explored how the terminal decline of oil production had the potential to put industrial civilization out of business. With World Made By Hand Kunstler makes an imaginative leap into the future, a few decades hence, and shows us what life may be like after these coming catastrophes—the end of oil, climate change, global pandemics, and resource wars—converge. For the townspeople of Union Grove, New York, the future is not what they thought it would be. Transportation is slow and dangerous, so food is grown locally at great expense of time and energy. And the outside world is largely unknown. There may be a president and he may be in Minneapolis now, but people aren’t sure. As the heat of summer intensifies, the residents struggle with the new way of life in a world of abandoned highways and empty houses, horses working the fields and rivers replenished with fish. A captivating, utterly realistic novel, World Made by Hand takes speculative fiction beyond the apocalypse and shows what happens when life gets extremely local.

Full disclosures: first, I like James Howard Kunstler. I like the way he thinks and I agree with a great deal of what he says. We also share the same middle name (although I should be bloody amazed if it was for the same reason). Second, his publishers sent me a review copy of the book. Which is to say, I’m kindly disposed towards it, him and them in turn.

That said, it’s an excellent book. Alan Weisman, whose review also graces the dust-jacket, describes the book wonderfully as provocatively convincing. Kunstler’s world made by hand is post-oil, which is to say agrarian post-science. It reminded me a lot of the Tripods (except far better-written, and without aliens), the Drowned World (except far easier to read), and the like. We are without oil, cars, plastic, electricity, TV, medicine – you name it.

A couple of great things about the book, and then I’ll stop.

One, in a world where we tend to be beset by the trials and heroisms of pre-catastrophe story-telling, I love having a book that is post-catastrophe.

Two, Kunstler never really deals with the catastrophe. We are let in, with vague detail, on what happened: increasing demand for peak oil, an attack, etc. We simply know that oil disappeared. With it went science, government, modernity. We are back to eating what we can grow and catch, trading whatever we can move up and down rivers.

Similarly we also never are told about the world. The next town is outside of one’s world. We aren’t made to read about what happened, exactly, to DC, or New York, or Canada. It’s just not within the world about which we’re reading. This is just one period in one town, as it makes a transition from occupying a dead world (this would be where the resemblances above come in) to re-crafting their own. The point at which a community lets go of electricity, of (big G) Government, of living in a past of food and clothing that just doesn’t exist, and won’t come back.

This includes, by the by, steam and coal, which are notably absent from Kunstler’s world, but more curiously so than problematically. We are allowed to believe that (a) perhaps they do have technology elsewhere, and/or (b) the technology died with the people in the big cities.

Anyway. Very cool book. One of those weird ones that really moves at a non-frenetic pace, yet manages to move a lot of events through the story.

4 comments so far

  1. chris on

    Don’t you think by the time we ran out of oil, we would switch to coal (like you suggested), then transition towards building enough solar panels, nuclear power plants etc., to plan for the end of the world? at least by that time the oil lobbyists would not have any way to hinder technological change anymore.

  2. zooeygoethe on

    I think it’s a timing issue. In Kunstler’s book either (a) the oil ran out before we made it, or (b) the people who could manage the adjustment died in his catastrophe.

    Bear in mind the mere ability to go back to steam would take quite specialised expertise and – to manage it quickly – oil. Same for an adaptation back to coal.

    If we can put the infrastructure in place before we lose the oil-based energy to do so then, yeah, we should manage to limp along. If the shock is both complete and non-anticipated, we’re going to be in trouble. This is part of the convincing-ness of Kunstler’s set-up. It could certainly work out that way.

  3. Alephria on


    Wow that book looks amazingly great. I found your site because I was looking for the “Brown Skin Baby” song. Can you email it to me.. please? I could not see a link to your email on here.

  4. Paul on

    Sounds interesting.
    a future pastoral world will have to cope with a scale of man made problems several degrees of magnitude bigger than those encountered by our ancestors.
    First of all the amount of military weapons in the hands of civilians almost ensures that there will be a civil war for whatever good and clean resources are left. Then there is the state of conservation of said resources – waterways will probably be polluted from a combination of old and new pollution sources, as once “safe” deposits / factories break down. A lot of the know how will have been forgotten, and it’s not said that we’ll have access to wikipedia. Simply put I think that only a few will survive in a state of relative comfort. Most will probably live in groups, scavenging or going after the goods of those who will have survived better. It don’t look pretty – so why don’t we collectively look to actively migrate the System towards a “better catastrophe” instead of just hoping that it won’t be that bad?……

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