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The Future's Distant Shores

Edited and Introduced by John Michael Greer

(Founders House Publishing, March 2016, 257 pages, $17.99)

Reviewed by Frank Kaminski

Last year, author John Michael Greer posed a fascinating challenge to participants in his annual science fiction writing contest. He asked them to submit stories set at least one millennium in the future. While previous years' contests had elicited many fine entries, they had been predominantly situated in the near future. This time, Greer said he wanted accounts of "the far future, far enough that today's crises are matters for the history books, or tales out of ancient myth, or forgotten as completely as the crises and achievements of the Neanderthal people are today."1 The 12 most outstanding results of this challenge are what fill the pages of the fourth and most recent installment in the After Oil sci-fi anthology series, aptly subtitled The Future's Distant Shores.

Though I find it hard to choose favorites from this collection of intriguing tales, one that especially shines for its imagination and ambition is Wylie Harris' "The Remembrancer." Set at least 1,100 years from now, it depicts a society in which people behold the human-made satellites that remain in Earth's orbit—now referred to as "Satelitl"—with the same awe and reverence that people today reserve for the Pyramids. Were the Satelitl put into the skies by divine or human will? No one can say, and many prefer to remain agnostic on the matter, just as many people today are agnostic on the existence of a deity. Indeed, the mysteries of the Satelitl have become the very foundation for a religion and its sacred texts.

Marching Gas Pumps

If you would prefer a story set in a world more recognizable to modern humans than the one described above, look no further than Troy Jones III's "Caretaker Poinciana." Its setting is one in which the descendants of present-day Americans (unlike the characters in Harris' piece) retain an extensive knowledge of industrial-age technologies and the poisonous legacy these technologies have left behind. The year is 3071, and the inhabitants of a deindustrialized North America (now under Chinese rule) continue to manage the nuclear waste sites of the 20th and 21st centuries as best they can. Yet in spite of their efforts, radioactive plumes have spread to the extent that the valiant "Caretakers" who look after the waste repositories have essentially signed up for a life sentence: Once they move to a site, they can never leave. Jones' story tells of one such Caretaker: a selfless, elderly white woman (or "native") named Poinciana.

A common theme among these stories is the way their characters see the ruined, or at least radically changed, states of their worlds as normal. Everything about our modern-day existence, on the other hand, is viewed as bizarre or incomprehensible. The most pointed example of this appears in "Northern Ghosts" by Gaianne Jenkins. This story's main character, Medea, is a brilliant young pupil who begins studying our "ancient" era for the first time and is perplexed by what she learns. "It was weird," she recalls. "Fish swam in the sea–and not only that, they were edible. History was the doings of the Northern Hemisphere, mostly, and it was inhabited. East Antarctica lay under a kilometer of ice...It was like a world of pure fantasy." Thus, contrary to the overnight collapse of industrial civilization that we see depicted in Hollywood disaster movies, here the descent has proceeded glacially over many lifetimes.

The story just referenced is among the best in this collection, striking a nice balance of adventure, drama, discovery and intellectual breadth. As alluded to already, it unfolds on an Earth so desolated by climate change and pollution that the oceans are devoid of anything humanly edible. Nor are things rosy on land: Antarctica is the only human-inhabited continent, the other six now being too hot to support all but the hardiest life forms. Our heroine Medea is a 14-year-old farm girl who has the honor of being accepted into the elite academy at Brydz Bay. There she distinguishes herself by excelling in every subject she sets herself to studying, and by asking hard questions about the official version of history taught in her classes. She's ultimately recruited by a team of researchers studying cryptic radio transmissions that appear, inexplicably, to be emanating from the Arctic Circle. We watch Medea mature as she leaves behind her family and birthplace–and risks death during a sea voyage through Earth's lethal equatorial latitudes–to investigate the transmissions.

Just as satisfying as this account of Medea's coming-of-age, but in a completely different way, is Dau Branchazel's weirdly charming "Alay." This one takes place in a vast desert land (almost certainly on the Australian continent) peopled by various nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes. One tribe, known as the Mudhamyn, is unique for the altruism it shows in taking in human outcasts, injured animals and other poor souls with nowhere else to turn. Other tribes fear the Mudhamyn and refer to them disparagingly as "the circus." The Mudhamyn are feared all the more intensely for their custom of having their males breastfeed their young (a practice that came into being as women's breast milk became too toxic, due to bioaccumulation of pollutants in the ecosystem, to provide any sustenance). While the Mudhamyn initially seem utterly alien to us, their kindheartedness grows on us.

For those who like their adventure served with a healthy dash of violence and gore, this anthology delivers with a gritty depiction of the lives of far-future pirates. Bill Blondeau's "Finding Flotsam" follows a crew of female pirates as they ride out a monstrous ocean storm, only to fight one another to the end during a mutiny that strews the ship with blood and body parts. As oppressive as all this is, there's a certain bleak beauty to the story's setting. The most enduring image for me is that of the interminable fingerbone-shaped clouds that threaten to smite any vessel passing beneath them. The narrator describes these clouds magnificently: "Thin glassy, knobby tubes of high-altitude wind wrapped in tatters of cirrus, the Fingerbones claw the world's middle, reaching from west to east. Sailors pray that they do not descend."

Another effective portrait of violence in a post-oil age is Catherine McGuire's "Scapegoat." This piece is a reinterpretation of the famous Shirley Jackson story "The Lottery," which originally appeared in The New Yorker in 1948. Jackson's story is about an annual drawing held in one small American town, whose winner is killed by stoning. For most of the plot, we're kept in the dark as to the true nature of this lottery, unaware that its "prize" is a horrific death. Without giving too much away, I'll just say that McGuire succeeds in recapturing the ominous tone of her source material, while also giving it an inventive new twist. This twist involves not the stoning of the winner by the rest of the town, but rather a compulsory act of self-sacrifice intended to atone for the harm done to the land by previous generations of humans.

Interestingly, two entries in this collection share bird-themed titles and a preoccupation with the dereliction of long-standing tradition. The first of these is Jonah Harvey's "Bird Among the Branches," which was originally titled "The Bald Eagle, the Lame Duck, and the Cooked Goose."2 (I agree with the name change on the grounds that the first one spelled out the tale's themes a little too explicitly.) The story dramatizes the toppling of one particular ruling elite within a society that reveres and idolizes avians. The second piece is "Crow Turns Over a Rock" by Eric Farnsworth. Set in an agrarian culture where men and women live in separate communities, this story shows how one female settlement comes to question its allegiance to segregationist policies when it takes in a male disaster refugee.

After Oil 4 contains other remarkable works besides those already mentioned. There's an enthralling meditation on the importance of fables in a myth-oriented culture, followed by an equally absorbing case study of intergenerational knowledge transfer in a society that has lost the written word. In much the same vein, we encounter a wonderfully cerebral critique of the Cartesian logic that rules modern-day thought, made by thinkers who exist within a different, and in many ways superior, paradigm. Lastly, there's a sharply told whodunit that doubles as a parable about the dangers of taking the precautionary principle too far.

The most recent After Oil story contest came and went earlier this year, and while no official release date has been announced for After Oil 5 as yet, we can likely expect it within the next several months. Those of us who care about the advancement of quality post-oil fiction should be at the bookstores in droves when it arrives.



1. John Michael Greer, "Planet of the Space Bats," The Archdruid Report, Mar. 26, 2015, (accessed Jul. 14, 2016).

2. Greer, "Another World is Inevitable," The Archdruid Report, Sept. 16, 2015, (accessed Aug. 1, 2016).

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