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Sunday, June 14, 2009

World Made by Hand

Kunstler, James Howard. World Made by Hand.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I enjoy post-apocalyptic novels and imagining how civilized society would cope with the loss of the technology we take for granted. Forget about computers, telephones, television, and our instant communication and entertainment luxuries and think about water and electricity. Neither of these would be automatically available with the turn of a tap or flip of the switch.

Kunstler imagines a world that has learned to cope (as best it can) with the loss of technology in the aftermath of several rather vague disasters including bombings, loss of access to oil, financial and governmental collapse, and a deadly flu pandemic (oddly enough, called the Mexican Flu).

The small town of Union Grove in upstate New York is one of the isolated communities trying to function after having lost most of their conveniences and a high per centage of their population. The protagonist, Robert Earle seems pretty well-adjusted to the state of things, although even he misses the occasional cold beer.

When a group called the New Faith order arrives in town, Robert and Union Grove must begin further adjustments. Here is where the novel becomes unpredictable (in several ways). Brother Jobe, the leader of the New Faith group, throws several wrenches into the town's ways of thinking and doing things. In spite of his namesake, the original Job, Brother Jobe doesn't seem to be suffering any more, and actually, considerably less, than any other survivor.

In addition to the fact that the New Faith people add an unpredictable factor into the events, there is an unpredictable aspect or atmosphere in the feel of the novel. Initially, Brother Jobe's arrival feels ominous, adding a sense of dread. Then there is an almost comical feel to the presence of the group and its members. At times, the group seems perfectly normal. This ominous/normal emotional charge moves back and forth about the kind of changes the group represents for the citizens of Union Grove.

Although I was a little nitpicky about some of the post-apocalyptic details, the first of the book was pretty interesting. However, toward the end, things got downright weird. Some supernatural stuff kind of crept in without ever being explained. It was as if Kunstler was going somewhere with several strange events, and then decided to leave them hanging.

Many of the characters, especially the women, had little development, and the novel's direction never seemed quite clear to me. Quite a few events, characters, and situations were introduced without attempt at resolution:

-why the emphasis on the young woman accompanying Brother Jobe when he arrived in town, to have her appear only once more and without emphasis?
-why did Brother Jobe feel Bullock was a dangerous man?
-why was Bullock's industry so questionable? (he seemed the one most capable of building a future, but the author appears to frown on him)
-both Bullock and Brother Jobe are leaders, does the author favor Brother Jobe?
-what the heck with the bee hive analogy?--boy, was that left hanging!
-and the prophecy?
-why was the treatment of Loren so brutal and of Robert so mild?
-what about the mystery of Brother Jobe and the jail cell?
-Bridget and Jane Ann?

There was never a point that I wanted to put the book down, but there was never a point that I didn't have questions. None of them were answered.

I'm glad I read the book because it has provided several days of pondering, not only about what was going on in the novel, but about the adjustments society would have to make to survive if society's infrastructure collapsed. Not just the physical difficulties of food and water and basic survival, but in social organization, how would isolated societies function?

In many ways, this was a pretty positive look at the future, at least in comparison to The Road, Alas, Babylon, Lucifer's Hammer, and I, Legend.

I could have sworn I read something about this novel on one of the blogs I visit frequently, but I couldn't find it.

Do you have a favorite post-apocalytic novel?

Other Reviews: Where There's a Will..., Reading Is My Superpower, Sublime Oblivion, Fizzy Thoughts, The Indextrious Reader

Fiction. Futuristic/Post-Apocalypse. 2008. 317 pages.


  1. I have a hard time with postapocalyptic books - my friend LOVES them and reads them ravenously, but I often find them really upsetting. And as well I never know what ones are good and what ones are crap...

  2. Alas, Babylon is my favorite but I also loved Girlfriend in a Coma by Douglas Coupland.

  3. I didn't like this one very much, for many of the reasons you elucidate. In fact I felt guilty that I gave it such a poor review!

    I do like Alas, Babylon as a classic, but I really love Wyndham's The Chrysalids. Also, Ronald Wright's A Scientific Romance is sort of post-apocalyptic (with time travel involved) and is quite intriguing.

  4. You have a way of making books sound so appetizing. Thank you...on the other hand, I'm gonna need a new wishlist notebook soon.

  5. Just a quick comment to tell you that Gwendolyn B. at Sea of Books has nominated me for my first award and I'm passing it on to you! Come to my blog to grab the graphic and to see who else I picked :)

  6. I highly recommend A Canticle for Leibowitz.

    If I may...

    "why was Bullock's industry so questionable? (he seemed the one most capable of building a future, but the author appears to frown on him)"

    Kunstler doesn't like industrial civilization. Bullock is rebuilding it, in his own small way. Jobe on the other hand represents the return of God to the world.

    "why was the treatment of Loren so brutal and of Robert so mild?"

    Wasn't it because Loren actively insulted Karp?

  7. sublime oblivion - I really need to read A Canticle for Leibowitz, it is practically a classic.

    Surely Kunstler wouldn't advocate disregarding progress of the kind Bullock was making? There were some obvious messages concerning serfdom, but that didn't really seem to be the case for Bullock's people.

    So much concerning Brother Jobe, on the other hand, seemed both actively and passively sinister. At times he seemed normal, even likable, but the power he wielded among his members was cult-like. Also the weird "bee hive and fat lady" scene didn't seem like any normal theology. I found it almost occult and very worrisome.

    Loren's treatment seemed impersonally brutal,even though Loren was insulting, and Robert's seemed personally mild. Karp did mention the fiddling aspect, but it still didn't come across for me.

  8. I thought I left a comment the other day, but I guess I didn't. I can't think of a single post-apocalytic novel I've read though I'm sure there must be at least one. So no recommendations from me. (I'll probably wake up in the middle of the night with a whole list!)

  9. I haven't read the book but I remember seeing it at my library last Fall and making a note of it. I really liked your review and think I'll have to continue to keep this one in mind. In a way it's good when a book leaves you with so many questions right? I get the feeling this would be a good one for a book discussion too.

    Last year I read A Gift Upon the Shore by M.K. Wren - I loved it. One of the characters is determined to have culture survive in the future and so becomes a keeper of books.

  10. Iliana - Oh, yes, I do think this book would stimulate discussion--and on many levels!

    Thanksfor the M.K. Wren recommendation!

  11. I haven't really read many postapocalyptic books--I've probably seen more movies that fall into that category. I want to read The Road and I, Legend eventually.

    World Made by Hand sounds different. I am not sure it would be something I'd enjoy reading. I like the cover though. :-)

  12. LF - No, the book is not exactly enjoyable reading, but it isn't as negative or depressing a view as The Road.

    The parts I like best in post-apocalyptic novels are those in which the human spirit rises above the situation and learns to live in the circumstances that exist. I like seeing how how people feed themselves without supermarkets, plant without modern equipment, put up food without refrigeration, how they reorganize society to fit a new paradigm, etc.

  13. booklogged - Oops, skipped your comment! Not everyone likes this genre, McCormack's The Road probably garnered new readers, though.

  14. Jen, oddly, I did not find The Road to be that depressing although I thought I would. I read two young adult Post apocalyptic titles a while back: Z for Zachariah by Robert O'Brien and Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer. Z for Zachariah is very good, particularly because it features a strong, intelligent young woman. I had some issues wiht Life As We Knew although overall I liked it, and it also had a very likeable, resiliant teenage girl as the central character. In spite of some irritating, intrusive political statements, it was a good book. I like this genre, too! It's practically the only SF I read.

  15. Deb - Maybe I found The Road more depressing because the devastation was so great. Rebuilding that world would be so very difficult.

    I've never read Z for Zachariah, although it has been on the best lists for YA fiction for a long time. I'm not familiar with Life as We Knew It, but I'm jotting both of them down on my post-apocalyptic list. Thanks!

  16. I liked this one but had many of the same problems you did with it. Why not make the doctor or the dentist a woman? I absolutely hated The Road though. Now i'm off to Amazon to look up Z for Zachariah and Life as We Knew It.

  17. Melanie - I wasn't as impressed with The Road as many people were; it was really depressing, but it may have been a more realistic vision of what might happen after an apocalyptic disaster. At least it didn't have any weird "hive" scenarios. :)

  18. I enjoy these kind of books sometimes myself and as I began reading your review I found myself drawn into the plot. However, that is a long list of unexplained events and plot points not wrapped up. One or two to get you to read the next book or to keep you thinking about the book for days afterwords is one thing, but when there are that many I can't imagine that there feels like any closure to the book and you're left feeling unsatisfied.

  19. Rebecca - The book wrapped up too neatly in one way, and yet left so much unresolved. The conclusion had a hurried feel to it, as if the author just wanted to finish and be done.