I’ve not read, or even seen The Road; but from its high visibility, and from other impressions I receive from the media environment, I gather there’s quite a thriving sub-genre of near-future apocalyptic sci-fi. No wonder here. As ever, sci-fi is, whether it deals with shiny technology or the ruins of civilization, as much about the present as the future, and our present is defined by interminable tensions between the lingering promises of the roaring 20th century and the deeply uncertain, often desolate prospects that our excess of success has bestowed upon the future. I can’t say where this ambitious new novel by poet and psychoactive plant pioneer Dale Pendell fits into the apocalyptic literary landscape, but it certainly demands the attention of anyone concerned with how we imagine the future, and how these visions affect the present.
Largely set in California, the story begins in 2021 with a global flu pandemic which wipes out a majority of the world’s human population. Death and chaos reign before the remaining population settle into a tenuous life scavenging technology and in conflict about whether to try to resurrect the project of industrial civilization or to give it up as a bad job. The style is terse and direct, interspersed with snippets from newspapers, and swinging its focus up and out in “Panoptic” chapters that relate the unfolding of events across the globe, then down and in to interviews with individuals, and particular stories of people making their way in the aftermath of the Collapse.
Although it is a virus (thought by some to be engineered by the military) that triggers the Collapse, naturally the twin shadows of industrial ecology—energy resources and climate change—loom large. Mad Max-style desperation for scraps of fuel and traces of electrical capacity haunt the early post-Collapse years, and despite the flu pandemic’s proximate role in the end of our civilization, surviving generations retain an acute awareness of the folly and greed of the people whose ruins they find all around them. Pendell unfolds the decades skillfully, showing how myths that evolve about civilization are odd mixtures of conjecture and painfully learned lessons. In one sense, such a cataclysm, severing all the lines of communication, leaves post-Collapse historical understanding plummeting into some kind of Dark Age. But in another sense, which permeates the pages of this tale, the severity of the devastation, and its ever-apparent poisonous legacy, makes for a clear and deep impression in cultural consciousness. After a few generations, people may have forgotten the details of the flu virus, or even that there was a virus; but the terrible instability and precarious arrogance of industrial civilization are seared by its implosion into the understanding of most humans.
Climate change ultimately becomes the focus of the story through a grandiose scope, which finds the final chapters dealing with the world many thousands of years in the future. Some far-future sections involve protracted narratives, but eventually the vision dwindles to flashes, snapshot glimpses of the planet heading into the next Ice Age accompanied by a human population—but for some metallurgic technologies and outlandish new mythologies—more akin to the cultures that emerged from the last Ice Age than the industrial dream/nightmare that briefly flourished in the interglacial.
Pendell is uniquely placed to tell this tale. Of course his poetic skills make for vivid images and insights; unflinching depictions of horror mingle with tender compassion and irony in the early post-Collapse decades, while the later years give ample space for the broader strokes of his social and cultural imagination. But his visions never really run riot; they are always disciplined by an adherence to the particular. The Panoptic chapters keep us grounded in ecological and geological realities, but Pendell attempts to give us windows, however small, into the human realities of the far future through individual acts: sacrifices, loves, triumphs and tragedies. This isn’t an epic in the quantitative sense—the book is a good deal short of 300 pages of well-spaced type. So forget the involved, widescreen sagas so familiar in large-scale fantasy and sci-fi. This book demands the close attention expected by a poem; its treasures aren’t poured onto the reader via rich, operatic story-telling, but need to be excavated by the reader. Or rather, the reader simply needs to allow space for Pendell’s nuggets of narrative, his speculative little scenes, to unfurl in their mind.
Alongside the poetic influence, the book is enriched greatly by Pendell’s eclectic learning, both practical and gnostic. His deep knowledge of botany, his wide reading in anthropology, his tinkerer’s grasp of engineering, his ‘mountain poet’ knowledge of bushcraft and survival basics, all nourish the narrative with authenticity. And his extensive experience in spiritual practices—Buddhism, psychedelics, occultism, and the penetrating insights into more traditional religions that these left field paths bring—amply feed the dominant speculations about post-Collapse religious activity.
While it’s true that the book’s focus on California means that it’s natural for the story to be filled with new cults and sects, sprouting from the remnants of this spiritually promiscuous landscape, and while of course any apocalyptic event would kick off numerous religious revivals, I think there’s much more to it than this. To me, the implicit message here is not only that secularism is a sibling of industrial civilization (and will suffer its fate), but also that the economics and politics that industrial civilization necessitates are targets for the sublimation of the human spiritual instincts. Operating without awareness, these instincts perhaps play a large part in the deranged trajectory of this world; and once this world collapses, religion in its more recognizable guises rushes back in to fill the void. The popularity of Buddhism, especially Zen, in Pendell’s future, seems to be more than the private fantasy of a long-term Buddhist; it seems to be the recognition that religion is natural, and that curbing its excesses requires more than repression. It requires the kind of playfulness and open-mindedness of genuine transcendence that traditions like Zen excel at. Not otherworldly transcendence, escaping the world, or merely secular rebellion against such ignorance—these two just feed each other, bringing us to impasses such as the one we now face.
When I saw Pendell read an extract from this novel last year, he prefaced his reading with a warning that we should be very careful with apocalyptic narratives. Especially aspects of his own where, after the turbulence immediately after the Collapse and the extremes of climate change have died down, things “get kind of nice.” There’s certainly a danger here of ‘apocaphilia’, of longing for a quick disaster in order to escape the prolonged disasters of civilization. But my sense after reading The Great Bay was one of deeper insight into our current condition, but also a calming of gross fears. Such long-term visions, while they can’t offer much immediate personal comfort, reassure our cells and bones that life goes on, and all we can ever do is live well.