A review of three ‘sort-of’ post-oil novels: Prairie Fire and Taming the Dragon by Dan Armstrong, The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall
Prairie Fire: A Novel
By Dan Armstrong
483 pp. iUniverse, Inc. – Apr. 2007. $25.95.
Taming the Dragon: A Novel
By Dan Armstrong
163 pp. iUniverse, Inc. – Feb. 2007. $13.95.
The Carhullan Army
By Sarah Hall
209 pp. Faber and Faber – Aug. 2007. £14.99.
U.S. release – Apr. 2008, under the title Daughters of the North (240 pp., $13.95).
Reviewed by Frank Kaminski
The year 2007 is when novels depicting a world after peak oil can truly be said to have arrived. Just as prices were surging at the pumps, so bookstore shelves were teeming with fiction that dared to imagine what life might resemble once there was no gas left at all.
The subject of oil’s peak and decline served as the very raison d’être of two of these novels from 2007 (Andreas Eschbach’s sublime Ausgebrannt and Alex Scarrow’s ridiculous Last Light), but it figured more subtly in the remaining books. These latter novels—let’s call them “sort-of” post-oil novels, for lack of a better term—featured peak oil as merely one in a smorgasbord of issues, some of the others being climate change, depleting grain reserves, and the loss of rights and freedoms. Among these sort-of post-oil novels, Dan Armstrong’s Prairie Fire and Taming the Dragon, and Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army, are particularly notable.
I like Armstrong’s two novels a lot. Set concurrently in the near future, but on opposite sides of the globe, they tell two halves of the same story. It’s a complex, sharply written, melodramatic suspense yarn that manages to be at once as entertaining as any kind of Jason Bourne/Ethan Hunt adventure and as serious a treatment of today’s issues as an exposé by Upton Sinclair.
Hall’s Carhullan Army, in contrast, isn’t nearly so much to my liking. While the book caused quite a critical stir, I personally found it to be as wrongheadedly understated as Armstrong’s novels are vividly pointed, and as gratuitously oppressive and macabre as his are fun and exhilarating. Try as I might, I could not acclimate myself to that novel’s sense of morbid gloating, with recurrent images of ingesting feces, crows pecking out eyes, and maggots riddling carcasses (and even one live body) being particularly graphic examples of this ghastly motif. I don’t fault Hall for imagining a horrific post-oil future—I fault her for not being able to turn the horrifics into something more meaningful than mere malignant decoration. In short, reading Carhullan Army was an excruciating endurance test that proved as inconducive to worthwhile post-oil insights as it was to a healthy appetite.
The near future of Prairie Fire is a recognizable extension of our present, in which peak oil and other related ecological threats continue to loom ominously—only more so, having been ignored for an additional decade. There hasn’t been any sort of die-off or other such catastrophic event, and we never hear of a reprisal of those long lines at the gas pumps that we all remember from the 1970s. But world oil consumption has swelled from eighty-five million barrels a day to a daunting 100 million barrels a day, and there’s no denying that the world is well past peak production. And, in America at least, no real progress has been made in the transition to an alternative energy infrastructure, so unshakable is the nation’s faith in markets to signal the need for a transition.
Peak oil is an incredibly broad and complex issue (so thoroughly do the “long fingers of petroleum”1 pervade every aspect of our modern lives), and so it’s appropriate that Armstrong chisels off just one manageable piece of it to tackle in Prairie Fire. That piece is oil’s role in present-day industrial agriculture. Prairie Fire rightly sees modern agricultural practices as fundamentally unsustainable, since they rely at every single stage (not just that of transporting food) on fossil fuels, which are finite, nonrenewable resources. Nor is the problem merely one of fossil fuels’ finite nature—there’s also the great harm that they do while they’re here. Their intensive application in modern agriculture has, among other things, leached away topsoil and biodiversity, contributed a huge share of the CO2 emissions that drive climate change, and wiped out ocean life through fertilizer runoff.
All of these themes come into sharp relief in Prairie Fire; but there’s yet another side to the crisis of modern-day farming that is absolutely at the heart of the book: the human side. Prairie Fire gives a sympathetic human face to the desperate predicament of today’s family farmer. It sees the family farmer as a dying breed, driven almost out of existence by the industrial, “big guy does it best” model of agriculture (to quote one fictional farmer) that dominates modern farming, and suffering at the hands of an agricultural system that is both antiquated and broken. For the past fifty years, it’s been getting harder and harder to make farming pay, and the American farmer has become “little more than an indentured servant to the merchant class,” in the words of National Grange President Forest Mahan, one of the book’s key characters.
The plot unfolds over a one-month period late one spring, when the plight of the farmer somehow seems more urgent than ever before. Prompted by three separate cases of despondent farmers setting their fields and farms ablaze—and of one farmer even immolating himself in the process—the nation’s farmers decide to undertake their first serious effort at unification in nearly forty years, forming a union called the Nonpartisan Farmers’ Alliance. Given how connected the world is today with computers and e-mail, the Alliance’s leaders believe that their movement has a far better chance of success than previous farmers’ strikes have had, in which geographically dispersed farmers have lacked the ability to communicate all at once. They’re all agreed that now is the time to take action. If they don’t act now, in a few years they won’t have enough political clout left to take concerted action.
The man chosen to lead the Alliance is a charismatic, down-to-earth war hero and third-generation Kansas farmer named Nathaniel Cromwell. When first approached about leading the Alliance, Cromwell declines. He’s had his share of politics, and they left a bad taste in his mouth. A retired Army colonel, he won a Medal of Honor and enjoyed national fame for leading a Special Forces unit on the hunt for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. But during his time in the service, he also discovered some unpleasant truths about the Army’s involvement in heroin trafficking—and, idealist that he was, he decided to use his proverbial fifteen minutes to speak out about them. Rather than being lauded for his idealism, he was hushed up and discharged from the Army.
For the past ten years, Cromwell has led a simple, quiet life raising wheat and feed-grain corn, with his mother and teenage son on their mid-size family farm. He has no interest in reentering the political arena. But he does eventually relent and agree to lead the Alliance, when the others persuade him that no other potential leader has the same kind of recognition and respect among everyday farmers as he does.
Also near the top of the Alliance’s chain of command is the aforementioned Forest Mahan, who, in his espousal of organic farming methods such as reduced tillage to conserve soil, is a ringing endorsement for the notion of the American farmer as earth steward. There’s also a militia general named Vincent Hayes, who is seen as a whacko by many for his persistent calls for secession from the union. But, maverick that he is, Hayes nonetheless feels honored to serve under Cromwell and agrees to try things the colonel’s way for now.
Taking their cue from those recent and highly publicized field burnings, Cromwell and the others decide that their protest should take the form of a vast prairie fire in America’s heartland. Individual farmers will set fire to their own fields as part of one, big, nationwide operation coordinated by Hayes, and resulting in the burning of hundreds of thousands of acres’ worth of grain. Few other forms of protest could be more symbolic, or capture more media attention. And because of a shortfall in the Asian grain harvest this year, the world’s reserve stocks are lower than they’ve been in several decades, meaning that the grain now sitting in farmers’ fields gives them a tremendous amount of leverage.
The Alliance’s leaders are well aware that their actions will doubtless trigger food shortages in much of the Third World. But this isn’t a point on which the novel dwells for very long, except to establish Forest Mahan’s own personal rationalization for the field burnings. Mahan reasons that whatever food shortages come about in the near term will pale in comparison to the catastrophic shortages that would inevitably occur later on anyway—if today’s unsustainable model of agriculture were allowed simply to crash and burn under its own elephantine weight, rather than being replaced by something sustainable.
The farmers go public with their strike demands and, after getting the cold shoulder from both Congress and the national media, set off the first of what will prove to be two spectacular mass field burnings. As images of the colossal conflagration flash across TV screens, propaganda from Washington, D.C., tries to reassure the public that it doesn’t represent a national security threat because grain supplies really aren’t low enough for the world’s grain reserve to be in jeopardy. In private, however, the president and his cabinet are frantically trying to figure out a way to quell the protest. Should the burnings be treated as a national security emergency and the farmers as terrorists?
In addition to this main plot thread, Armstrong weaves in several subplots that serve to both heighten the suspense and add comic relief. I particularly enjoyed the thrill, guns, and explosions of Cromwell’s flashbacks to his time in the Army, leading his Special Forces unit through the al Qaeda mountain strongholds of Afghanistan. We’re not sure at first just where this adrenalin-charged subplot is going; but when a couple of its main characters begin to put in appearances in the present to help supply some shock-and-awe tactics for the farmers’ strike, it all starts to make sense.
Another important plot strand centers on a plucky, celebrated Washington political columnist named Linda Bennett. In a series of nationally syndicated columns, she has long been chronicling both peak oil and the predicament of the American farmer. When she’s sent on a mission to find and interview Cromwell for a story, she winds up becoming a part of the action, as well as one of the book’s main love interests.
One of the most peculiar things about this book is its subtext about slavery. The farmers’ actions are likened at one point to “an uprising of the slaves” and their strike to a modern-day civil war.
The book’s final chapters surprise us with several betrayals and tragic turns, and Armstrong leaves the story’s outcome ultimately unresolved. Is the grain strike all for naught, or does it actually succeed in effecting some reforms that once again make family farming a viable proposition? And do we, in the Western industrialized world, begin to take some intelligent steps toward a transition away from fossil fuels and unsustainable agricultural practices, or do we just continue in our shortsighted ways? We never find answers to any of these questions. Thus, my main complaint about Prairie Fire isn’t really a criticism as much as a desire for more of a good thing. I really wanted to spend more time with the characters and to find out what happens next.
Yet I suspect that this desire on my part is really a selfish one. For I think the novel’s lack of resolution is actually a measure of how good a writer Armstrong is. A bad writer would have told us what happens next—but Armstrong never tells, he only shows.
While Armstrong’s other novel, Taming the Dragon, doesn’t tie up any of Prairie Fire’s loose ends, it does broaden our understanding of the first book by showing us one of its subplots from a fresh perspective. The subplot in question is one centering on a huge grain buy-up, constituting one-fifth of total world supply, at the hands of a global super-elite. In Prairie Fire, we met the brilliant young commodities analyst who enabled his employer—the epitome of corporate greed and revolving-door politics—to profit obscenely from this grain buy, along with the deep-pocketed executives, attorneys, and politicians in charge of policy there. In Taming the Dragon, we learn of the sinister links between this grain buy and an elite Chinese merchant family called the Teochui Kongsi, which has deep ties to the world heroin trade and is led by a fearsome, murderous tyrant named Zhao He.
The main character of Taming the Dragon is a twenty-five-year-old German engineer named Hans Fruehauf. Having just earned his doctoral degree from the University of Dresden, Hans has come to China to inspect the colossal Three Gorges Dam for his new employer—one of the dam’s big investors—as part of a final loan review. Though Hans has much book learning and speaks both English and Mandarin, he is a classic naïf: intense, shy, idealistic, and unworldly. This is his first trip ever out of Europe.
And Hans is far too much of an idealist, just yet, to doubt the upbeat propaganda coming from the Chinese regarding the immense mega-project over which they’ve been presiding for the past two decades. But all of that changes when he actually gets a chance to visit the world’s largest hydroelectric dam for himself, and to observe the horrific levels of silt, toxins, and other pollutants that befoul its vast watershed. The deadly combination of a diminished Himalayan snowpack and a warm winter has only magnified these appalling contaminant levels. Nor is this situation deleterious only to the ecosystem of the dam’s watershed. It also, Hans concludes, threatens to spell disaster for the dam itself—the dam’s expensive new generators have already started gumming up from the silt. All of this confirms the dourest predictions of the dam’s harshest critics. In short, Hans starts out uncritically accepting the Chinese engineers’ word about the great promise held by the dam, and ends up realizing that there’s no way he can support these same sanguine claims in his final report without lying through his teeth.
And at the same time as he’s having these revelations about the Three Gorges Dam, he’s also gradually uncovering the workings behind the huge grain buy-up mentioned earlier. In the course of his dam assessment, he accidentally stumbles upon some secret documents related to this great swindle. Curiosity getting the better of him, he embarks on an adventure that leads to a harrowing ordeal of captivity and almost-certain death in the dreaded lair of Zhao He. The novel is, in large part, about how this terrifying misadventure strips Hans of his innocence and makes a man out of him.
He discovers the grain-buy documents during his passage up the Yangtze River as part of a series of tests on the water. They’re hidden away inside a trunk that he last saw being unloaded from a car chauffeuring a beautiful young Chinese woman named Xian, whom he’d met and developed a crush on at the airport. (He will eventually come to learn that this fine, reserved young lady is none other than the daughter of Zhao He.)
Hans does get a chance to get up close and personal with Xian at one point during his trip up the Yangtze, though it takes place when he’s too ill to remember much of it. He has suddenly fallen sick after taking a scuba dive in the Yangtze’s lethally polluted waters, and Xian comes to his bedside to help nurse him back to health. He remembers her kneeling beside him and feeding him spoonfuls of an herbal soup while holding a warm compress to his forehead. This tender gesture only fans his helpless, virginal infatuation with her. And after asking too many questions about Xian and swiping the keys to her trunk (which leads to his discovery of the secret documents), Hans finds himself being unceremoniously booted off the boat the next time it docks.
Xian gets off at the same stop and transfers to another boat, and Hans manages to bribe several locals into helping him find her. The last of these unfortunates is a young taxi driver who refuses to drive the entire distance to Zhao He’s forbidden Teochui Palace—forcing Hans to walk the last several hundred kilometers—and who, in spite of this prudent precaution, still doesn’t live to tell of the journey.
Hans is escorted roughly to a dungeon in the palace’s basement, to await torture and execution at the behest of Zhao He. Meanwhile, Zhao He summons Xian to find out what she knows about this trespasser. She admits her role in helping nurse him back to health but insists that nothing happened between them. Her father is unmoved by this and says that Hans will be tortured into telling them what they need to know, and then summarily dispatched. But when Xian mentions Hans’ engineering background, his doctorate in hydrology, and his work related to the Three Gorges Dam (all of which she learned from the boat’s captain), Zhao He decides that the young engineer just might be more valuable alive than dead.
For it turns out that the fate of the Three Gorges Dan is an issue very dear to the aged kongsi leader’s heart. Out of a deep-seated concern for the health of the Great River, he has long been vehemently opposed to the project. It represents one of the few political battles that he has ever lost. In Hans Fruehauf, he sees one last chance to try to thwart the dam’s completion. In addition to which, he is looking for someone to tutor his daughter in calculus. She is to inherit part of his business empire when he dies—and in order for her to do so, it is imperative that she acquire a technical education.
After releasing Hans from his confinement in the basement and giving him a room in the palace, Zhao He invites him to dinner. Ostensibly, this is so that he can formally thank Xian for tending to him when he was ill. But the real reason for the invite is that Zhao He wants to ask Hans to stay for another week so that he can tutor Xian, thus assuring her success on the upcoming national exams and her admission to engineering school.
The book has several parallel lines of dramatic tension from this point on. The first two are Hans’ passage into manhood and his budding, forbidden romance with Xian. Then, once he’s gotten away from the palace and resumed his assessment of the Three Gorges Dam, there’s his quandary over whether to toe the party line about the dam (at the expense of Zhao He’s good favor and any chance of a future with Xian) or to tell the awful truth about its environmental consequences (at the expense of his job). Armstrong keeps us guessing the whole time with several unexpected but credible plot reversals.
Armstrong’s portrayal of the Three Gorges Dam as an environmental catastrophe in the making is backed up by solid research into the real-life controversy surrounding the dam. And his snapshot of the dark underworld represented by the Teochui Kongsi is believably realized and filled with intrigue. Also, the classic literary theme of human versus nature acquires new life in this book, with repeated references to the Yangtze River as a dragon-as-yet-untamed.
In addition to being much shorter in length than Prairie Fire is, Taming the Dragon also tells a smaller, simpler story. In lieu of Prairie Fire’s maze of plot threads and points of view, Taming the Dragon consists of one long, sustained close-up shot of the personal drama enfolding Hans (only a few scenes departing from this viewpoint). Even so, there’s a bit of overlap between the action of one book and that of the next. For example, some of the main characters of Taming the Dragon put in brief appearances in Prairie Fire, and the two books share one scene in common (though one novel supplies the scene’s beginning and the other its ending). However, the books need not be read in any particular order for them to make sense.
Dan Armstrong is editor and owner of a small publishing company and online magazine based out of Eugene, Oregon, called Mud City Press. He’s also a novelist in his spare time. Prairie Fire and Taming the Dragon are two of his three novels published so far through the print-on-demand electronic publisher iUniverse. (The third one, Puddle of Love, is a wonderfully quirky small town drama featuring several variously psychopathic characters—and told by a protagonist who, like William Holden’s character in Sunset Boulevard and Kevin Spacey’s in American Beauty, happens to be dead at the start of the plot!) The imagination, range, complexity, and panache of all of these novels provide ample evidence that some of the best writing talent out there goes sadly unnoticed by the public at large.
The technothriller melodrama of Armstrong’s novels stands in stark contrast to the awful dystopia of Sarah Hall’s Carhullan Army, a book that seems every bit as determined to vanquish us as Armstrong’s novels are to delight and rouse us. Yet for all its bewilderingly, almost absurdly immutable grimness, Hall’s book was nonetheless inspired by her real-life observations of disaster. Hall, a native of England, was deeply affected by the devastation wrought upon Cumbria during the winter of 2005, when severe flooding displaced hundreds and triggered systematic failure. She came away from the experience with a dread sense that our “darkly predicated future” may finally be at hand. And that suspicion, together with her longtime desire to “write a novel about female aggression,” compelled her to pen Carhullan Army.2
For all its bleakness, the fictional future of Carhullan Army isn’t all that sophisticated in its use of post-oil fiction tropes. It’s quite conventional, for example, in its positing of a sudden crash leading to die-off and totalitarian rule; hotter, longer summers and less distinct seasons overall due to climate change; and a general sense of lost innocence among the general population, based on the realization that bad things can, indeed, happen within our lifetimes. Hall overlays these clichés with beautiful prose and wonderfully evocative descriptions (one of my favorite phrases is “rain that feels wounded”), but this strategy serves only to make them seem a little less vacuous.
As with James Howard Kunstler in World Made by Hand, Hall doesn’t tell the entire back-story behind her post-oil dystopia (in fact, she’s even more miserly in her details than Kunstler is). We’re given vague, passing references to a rash of fuel shortages; the implementation of a nationwide driving ban; and the restructuring of England into crowded, fortified settlements where feral dogs prowl, epidemics rage, and medical supplies run short, as part of some long-past “Civil Reorganization.” These references to the past are just oblique enough that readers are likely to have trouble making the connections unless they’re already initiated into the concept of peak oil. It may be that Hall’s understated approach to the material is simply the result of her not wanting to beat readers over the head with the book’s peak oil themes. But even so, it also happens to be an approach that lends itself wonderfully well to authorial laziness.
The main character of Carhullan Army is a young woman named Sister. This is the name that was given to her three years ago, and it’s the only one that she answers to now. Her old name is unimportant. She ceased to have an official name when she ventured outside of her designated “official zone” of Rith in search of the legendary Carhullan. In leaving her official zone, she surrendered her English citizenship; and the government now recognizes her merely as an “unofficial.” She was the last woman ever to go looking for Carhullan. She relates these details in the course of a police interrogation that frames the entire story, having been detained under a law called the “Insurgency Prevention (Unrestricted Powers) Act.”
The novel’s opening scene, set early one “wet rotting October” morning, has Sister gingerly slipping away from the cramped tenement room that she shares with her husband. Deftly going through the motions of a getaway that she’s been rehearsing for the past month, she carries only a rucksack and her late father’s antique rifle. (Like Robert Earle’s late father-in-law in World Made by Hand, her father is described as a man of the twentieth century whose death spared him the trauma of seeing that century’s wonders cruelly annihilated.) Carhullan is about forty miles away, and she plans to make the entire journey on foot, since the only people with access to automobiles nowadays are those doing official salvage work for the English government’s recovery effort.
From an early age, Sister has known that she possesses uncommon strength. And indeed, she is risking everything now—a place to live, her job at a factory, an unhappy but secure situation with her husband—on a gamble that may well not pay off. What will she do if the women of Carhullan are no longer there, or if they turn her away? she suddenly wonders in panic.
She hikes over crumbled blacktop roads and past the overgrown relics of malls and abandoned cars. It’s pouring down rain, and before long she’s soaked and blistered. Just as she’s beginning to despair of being able to make the last three-quarters of the journey, a good Samaritan conveniently comes by in a beat-up old van and pulls over to offer her a ride. He’s a government employee using the vehicle for official salvage work. Through their conversation, and through Sister’s reveries during the ride, we begin to learn something of Carhullan and its history.
An all-female farming commune located high in the mountains of rural England, Carhullan has been controversial since it was first established back in the waning days of the industrial era. It was founded by two idealistic Cambridge graduate students, and its population has steadily swelled to several dozen, even though no actual recruiting has ever been done. One by one, a steady stream of women in awe of Carhullan’s self-sufficiency mystique, and sick of the city grind, has ventured over to the rural half of the country in search of Carhullan’s exotic and forbidding locale along the British fells. Over the years, there have been police investigations of Carhullan, in response to estranged husbands’ claims that their wives have been kidnapped and brainwashed. But no charges have ever been pressed. Among the general public and the media (before the national media folded up, that is) Carhullan has been variously admired, condemned, and puzzled over.
Sister has been in thrall of the Carhullan women for years, in spite of her father’s stern directive that she was to have nothing to do with them. She’s amassed a collection of newspaper articles about the place and has two portraits of its enigmatic leader, Jackie Nixon. She has even met some of the Carhullan women in person—in fact, they’re how she got her name. When she was a teenager, they would make weekly trips into town to sell their produce. They treated her nicely, and their parting remark to her was always, “Thank you, Sister.” Now, finally making the pilgrimage to Carhullan herself all these years later, she reuses the old nickname, and it sticks.
Like the decomposing corpses on which it lingers so baroquely, Carhullan Army becomes rawer and uglier the further on the plot progresses. And some of its most disquieting images appear during its second act, in which Sister arrives at Carhullan, is captured by a patrol of several women, and endures a loathsome, stomach-turning solitary confinement as a sort of hazing required for initiation into the clan. This is the scene alluded to earlier, in which maggots feed on the wounds covering her stricken—but live—body, and in which she begins eating a pile of human feces on the floor before realizing what it is. That Sister will eventually choose, of her own free will, to undergo this ordeal again later on in the plot, as her character continues to evolve and inculcate herself into the strange ways of Carhullan, would impress even the most hardened of Darwin Award devotees.
Over the remainder of the book’s plot, Hall paints an admittedly atmospheric, well-realized portrait of Carhullan and its inhabitants. She gives us a satisfying sense of the rigors and rhythms of daily life there, and creates complex, convincing characterizations of its key personalities. She’s clearly put a reasonable amount of thought into the workings of the farm and how it manages to be self-sustaining. She even introduces us to a group of male characters living on a satellite farm, whose purpose is somewhat comparable to that of male bees in a beehive. And, true to her original intent, the novel certainly does work as a tale of female aggression. In the chapters that lead up to its climax, the women prepare to defend Carhullan against an offensive that they know the Authority has been planning for some time (hence the word “Army” in the book’s title). Also of interest is the way in which the novel cuts a bisexual subtext with a coming-of-age story.
But again, I just wish that the novel’s post-oil world were as fleshed-out as these other thematic elements—and that its gore and grit were a great deal less so.
1 Oilman, “The Long Fingers of Petroleum,” Independence Journal, Mar. 15, 2005.
2 Mark Thwaite, “Interview with Sarah Hall,” The Book Depository.co.uk, http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/interview/with/author/sarah-hall (accessed Apr. 12, 2009).