Peak oil -- the German techno-thriller

Who needs science fiction for a fantastic plot when a global energy crisis looms?

Published March 27, 2007 4:35PM (EDT)

Energy Bulletin alerts us today to a 750-page German novel on peak oil, "Burned Out," reported to be a techno-thriller à la Michael Crichton, by the German science fiction writer Andreas Eschbach. The novel hasn't been translated into English, which makes it a bit challenging for non-German speakers like myself to evaluate its merits, but I do happen to have read the one Eschbach novel that has been published in the U.S., "The Carpet Makers."

And it was mighty fine -- a convoluted tale that begins with a planet whose population is devoted entirely to making elaborate carpets out of human hair, and ends with interstellar war and vast mysteries revealed. Eschbach, even in translation, is a gifted writer. I pick up many new science fiction novels that arrive in the mail and discard them after reading the first paragraph. But this is how "The Carpet Makers" starts:

Knot after knot, day in, day out, for an entire lifetime, always the same hand movements, always looping the same knots in the fine hair, so fine and so tiny that with time the fingers trembled and the eyes became weak from strain -- and still the progress was hardly noticeable. On a day he made good headway, there was a new piece of his carpet perhaps as big as his fingernail.

If Jorge Luis Borges had written an sf space opera, that's how it would have begun.

So, despite the Crichton comparison, I am intrigued -- and I wish that I could read in full an interview with Eschbach published on a German peak oil site, and excerpted by Energy Bulletin.

Again, to compare the USA and Europe. In the USA, the consequences [in the novel] are marked by chaos, scarcity, violence and religious sectarianism; one could speak of collapse. In Europe, the consequences are drastic -- naturally -- but the approach is "more civilized". Is this something to make European readers feel good or do you really see the cultural situations as so different?

It is less a question of cultural differences -- which doubtless exist -- than of the pressures at work. The USA is far more dependent on energy than Europe. We must keep in mind that the population density of the USA is approximately 10 percent that of Germany. It is also a large, spread-out country -- which means that commerce and transport are much greater factors. In addition, the USA has made some basic decisions [about infrastructure] differently than we have. There doesn't exist any railway system worthy of the name, and most cities are built so that one needs a car. In this comparison, Europe is in a better position.

The American mentality, however, recognizes problems faster and tackles them more decisively, while we Europeans are inclined to close our eyes and think that if we don't see an evil, it won't affect us. This characteristic could become a calamity for us in this case.

I'm not sure I share Eschbach's positive view of American decisiveness -- after all, Europe already has a carbon emissions cap-and-trade system in place, while the U.S. dithers endlessly. But the man is clearly smart, and a good writer. Somebody, please, translate "Burned Out."

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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