(Figuration Press, Spring Issue, May 8 2016, 110 pages, Print $12.00 per issue, $39.00 annually, PDF $7.00)
Those who enjoy fiction set in the deindustrial future should check out Into the Ruins. It's a new quarterly magazine exploring possible futures beyond our current age of unsustainable consumption and growth. To quote Editor-in-Chief Joel Caris in his introduction to the first issue, the magazine seeks to capture "all the vagaries of human experience, good and bad, in an era of decline and collapse and, most critically, consequence." Judging from its first issue, Into the Ruins promises to supply a nice mix of short stories, book reviews, commentary and other quality content.
The most accomplished piece in this first issue, from a human interest standpoint, is Catherine McGuire's "'Naut." This is no surprise. McGuire has established herself as a distinguished author of post-collapse fiction, whose work has unfailingly been a high point of Founders House Publishing's After Oil anthology series. Her tales shine for their absorbing premises, telling conflicts and genuine pathos. In "'Naut," she tells of a future society, somewhere in the former U.S.A., where select groups of specially trained people known as "USAnauts" set out to remap the countryside. The 'nauts face great danger from polluted lands, barbarians and the elements, and many don't return. The story begins with a family man, Lawry, in crisis after his wife, Marie, becomes taken with the 'naut wanderlust. What follows is a probing study of family relationships in a dystopian age, as Lawry and Marie work toward a compromise that will fulfill Marie's need for adventure while keeping the family together.
Besides McGuire, two other After Oil alumni make appearances in the inaugural issue of Into the Ruins. One of them, going by the pseudonym Tony f. whelKs, is an English journalist, permaculturist and amateur radio operator; while the other, N.N. Scott, is a world-traveled history scholar. Scott's "American Silver" is an espionage yarn set in the northeastern corner of a United States embroiled in civil war. Our protagonist uncovers a scheme by the government of Cleveland to keep armaments out of Pittsburgh's hands by hijacking a shipment of coffee in which the weapons are being smuggled. WhelKs' "The Last Knut of Linsey Island" is a meticulously crafted portrait of a society ruled by practices and beliefs that would today seem superstitious–for example, that one can ward off rising seas by placating the gods–but which are no more misguided than the follies underlying our civilization.
Since a key driver of humankind's predicament is our heedless consumption of fossil fuels, it's fitting that one of the contributors to Into the Ruins thus far has been an oilman. In his day job, he's the owner of an engineering service company that caters to the oil drilling industry.1 By night, he pens fiction under the byline J. Shamburger. His short story titled "The Specialist" takes place in a future where cheap, abundant electricity is a thing of the past and electronic tools and appliances have been replaced by antiques from pre-electricity eras. Even essential services like medicine must do without electricity, and that's where the specialist of the story's title comes in. He's a doctor called to the scene of a horrific accident, and as he tends to the wounded he provides a glimpse of what rapid-response medical care could resemble in a non-electrified world.
For me, one of the high points of Into the Ruins is that it challenges our society's misconceptions about evolution. Most people assume that evolution means continually moving toward greater complexity or perfection. However, John Michael Greer, a brilliant historian of ideas as well as editor of the aforementioned After Oil series, has pointed out that this isn't at all the case, at least not in the field of evolutionary biology. Greer observes that while some evolutionary lineages have grown in complexity, others have done the opposite, and the vast majority of life forms today "belong to phyla that have not added any noticeable complexity since the Paleozoic."2 Thus, evolution isn't endless advancement; it's just adaptation to changing circumstances. Greer argues that it's only because of the unprecedented growth we've experienced in recent times that we've lost track of this fact and come to equate evolution with progress. By showcasing futures in which humans have returned to previous modes of living, Into the Ruins provides an antidote to this mistaken thinking.
I also like that this magazine has the potential to broaden how both readers of science fiction and people in general think about technology. Almost everyone today associates technology with computer chips and gadgetry. Far less attention is paid to intermediate forms of technology like solar cookers, gravity-powered water pumps and simple agricultural tools. Yet innovations of this latter type are the ones featured in Into the Ruins. G. Kay Bishop's "Coyote Year," for example, describes a community in the former Southern United States that has achieved the breakthrough of large-scale rice cultivation amidst the ravages of industrial collapse and runaway climate change. This community has also developed a wondrous conveyance known as a "castaway canoe," consisting of a wooden boat with retractable keel plates for plying the shallow coasts of an increasingly watery world. Despite lacking the engine and microprocessors of a modern-day boat, this craft is nearly amphibious, sliding over high reefs just as gracefully as it weathers turbulent ocean squalls.
Another refreshing thing about these stories' depiction of technology is that it flouts the usual binary of uninterrupted progress and complete collapse. As Caris remarks in his introduction to the first issue, sci-fi set in the future usually shows worlds that are either uniformly more advanced than ours or utterly devoid of our modern innovations. That isn't so in these new tales, as Bishop's "Coyote Year" attests. Although most communities in Bishop's future live an agrarian lifestyle bereft of industrial-era machines, the machines still do exist. There's still an Internet and a Wikipedia, for instance, even if they're much less frequently updated and more difficult to access. In other words, as with the decline of any real-life civilization, the dissolution of industrialism has been uneven and messy, unfolding at different rates in different places, and still ongoing even long after its outset.
There are three book reviews in the first Into the Ruins issue. The first review, by collapse author and poet Justin Patrick Moore, is of Dale Pendell's The Great Bay: Chronicles of the Collapse (North Atlantic Books, 2010). This novel's story spans from the present to the 19th millennium and shows how climate disruption could potentially shape the future of human cultural evolution. Moore's discussion of the book is cogent and fascinating. The other two books reviewed are The Well by Catherine Chanter (Simon & Schuster, 2015) and The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi (Knopf, 2015). These last two novels are cautionary extrapolations of the current water crisis, and Editor-in-Chief Caris gives them a sharp appraisal.
Although Into the Ruins is a fiction magazine, it welcomes letters to the editor on a range of topics both fiction- and nonfiction-related. The letters published so far have covered everything from the pitfalls of powering one's home with photovoltaic cells to cycles of human history to one man's travails in attempting to replace a generator pull cord. Of course, some correspondents have addressed the subject of fiction and storytelling, and their observations have been astute. I especially enjoyed Justin Patrick Moore's well-chosen quote on the importance of stories to human survival. "As Barry Lopez pointed out in his book Crow and Weasel," writes Moore, "'sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.'"
Issue one closes with a note from Caris in which he ponders the peculiar brand of sci-fi he has decided to publish. In this editorial, Caris laments people's tendency to associate sci-fi with high-tech romps in space, no matter how unlikely such romps have come to seem in our present reality of limits and decline. The editor goes on to remark on how would-be contributors keep flooding his email inbox with such tales, even though the magazine's submission guidelines clearly state he won't publish them. Caris concludes with a renewed call for sci-fi stories "rooted in science." "Our planet," he implores, "is not boring or mundane. Let's spend some time exploring it and the futures it holds for us, shall we?"
1. J. Shamburger, comment on Art Berman's post titled "Rig Productivity is a Red Herring," The Petroleum Truth Report, Sept. 7, 2015,http://www.artberman.com/rig-productivity-is-a-red-herring (accessed Jun. 6, 2016).
2. John Michael Greer, "History's Arrow," The Archdruid Report, Dec. 24, 2008, http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2008/12/historys-arrow.html(accessed Jun. 4, 2016).