16 October, 2009

Help Me Out, America

Calling all Americans. I need your opinion on something.

I've written a book and it's going to be published in February 2010. It's a near-future thriller set in Europe. The background to the tale is that the world is just recovering from a very serious depression brought on by us hitting peak oil. The depression, which lasted fifteen years, was worse than anything experienced yet - millions starved, resource wars were fought, governments toppled.

It's a very minor part of the story but it is mentioned that of all the countries of the world, worst hit was the USA. It's dependence on oil and its strongly consumer-driven economy meant that the effect of peak oil was worse there than anywhere. The economy collapsed. Tens of millions were unemployed and most of them were starving. Riots and civil unrest threatened to turn into civil war as an ineffectual government dickered around with fiscal stimulus. Things looked bad until a strong, right-wing government, with fundamentalist Christian roots was elected and immediately took a firm grip of the situation. (Imagine a strong George W Bush, or a Sarah Palin with brains.) Unfortunately, they use their emergency powers and a mandate from a population scared to death about what is happening, to push through some constitutional changes - abolishing the separation of church and state and ensuring that only candidates affiliated to the official church can run for office.

Over the next couple of decades, the new government does, in fact, stop the country from plunging into chaos, but at enormous cost. Opposition parties are banned, many universities - hotbeds of anti-government sentiment - are closed down under the new blasphemy and insurrection laws. The ones that remain are 're-focused' on theological teaching, with the closure of many 'blasphemous' science departments, especially the biological sciences, geology, astronomy, philosophy, and physics. Theology replaces science teaching in schools. Many, many people are arrested and executed for anti-government and anti-religious crimes and the FBI is turned into a feared and energetic prosecutor of the new laws and policies.

Ironically, although peace returns to the streets and Americans are being returned to work and the homes they had lost, the country's prosperity, without the leading edge science and technology that once powered it, has nose-dived. With GM crops and livestock classed as 'abominations', the (future version of the) Internet strictly censored, and other countries surging ahead in the recovery, America is actually receiving massive food aid shipments from Europe and Asia - a fact the Christian fundamentalists in power are suppressing through their control of all media.


Here's what I need help with. As an American, does this scenario seem so far fetched, so completely unbelievable, to you that you would have a low opinion of a book in which it occurs?


RJS said...

Well, I'm an an American, so I'll give it a shot. :)

I wouldn't say it's completely impossible--history shows us that what you often get is the unexpected. It might be most plausible if the crash happened *very* quickly--any situation in which a government must move with speed is dangerous, democracy not being designed for efficiency. If people have time to actually think about things, they're usually more cautious about changing things like that.

Removing the separation of church and state is not something that could be done by any sort of emergency powers that I can think of, though, and I suspect that a real-life civil war would result if a serious effort was made in that direction. There's a long, intentionally painful process involved in amending the Constitution.

As far as the overall book, I guess it depends on how important this background is to events in the novel? If it's a sort of side detail I doubt I would give it much thought (other than a mental note about the author's likely political views--which don't *generally* affect how I view their work).

There are plenty of people in the US who are worried about a very similar scenario with 100% seriousness. I'm liberal (for an American) but I also an optimist, so I'm not really worried.


graywave said...

Thanks, RJS.

It is a side detail, but I still wouldn't want to include anything too improbable. The view from outside America is very different from the view from inside and, in this case, I think the inside view is more likely to be accurate.

Frostie said...

I'm not American (I'm actually Canadian), but I think that it's completely plausible for something like that to happen. I don't have any examples, but that's all you really wanted to know anyways, right?

I'm very intrigued by the scenario you've presented; I'll make sure to pick up a copy when it comes out. =)

graywave said...

Thanks for the vote of confidence, Frostie, but, as a Canadian, unfortunately, your vote doesn't count ;-)

The thing is, I have a strong suspicion people outside the US will see this very differently from people inside.

Besides, I think Margaret Atwood spoke very loudly for the Canadian view when she wrote 'The Handmaid's Tale' :-)

Flavio Q Crunk said...

Firstly, (and I get tired of reiterating this) CANADIANS ARE AMERICANS TOO. We're all part of NORTH AMERICA.


I think this is quite possible. But I don't think we'll ever hit peak oil, simply because the price will become too much of a barrier as you get closer and closer to the peak.
But that's all crap! The story's already written! And it's fiction!

Anyhoo, I think that your story is very probable, but think it might come in the form of the United States mortgaging too much of its future for the now. With the way Bush, and now Obama are running up the debts and deficits of the country, we will never be able to pay the federal reserve back and are pretty much screwed.
I predict we will cause our own downfall before any outside force will. Once that happens, we're ripe for the pickin for any power hungry group.
I once had a friend from Poland who said, "There have been many great nations in the past. And they all fell. One day, the United States will fall too."
And that was very true.

But other than that, what's your story about?

David said...

Except for the part about the removal of GM crops somehow lowering food production (there's no evidence GM crops do anything other than increasing seed company profits and increasing the amount of pesticide used) I find it entirely plausible.

Given how easily Americans rolled over for the loss of their constitutional rights through the PATRIOT Act, warrantless wiretapping, etc. it's not out of the question a religious, 'strong man' government could take over. I think audiences are more receptive to dystopian visions than utopian ones right now.

And yeah, I am American.

Mary Jo said...

I believe anything can happen after this last decade.
Employment Rate, low-wages, rampant abuse, gangs, children w/guns, flooding victims still in Feema Housing, no dental care.under and unisured millions,
businesses going under, wounded coming back with insufficient healthcare and rehab, elderly dying of abuse in nursing homes anything else?
Religious fundamentalists trying to take over the world!! Need I say more...

graywave said...

Thank you Flavio, David and Mary Jo!

Flavio (and all Canadians) I do apologise for the "Americans" thing. Isn't it possible that we have one word here that means two things, both usages being correct?

The peak oil thing is debatable. Of course, we'll never run out of oil, the price will just keep going up and up. But that doesn't mean farmers and hauliers could afford it. And what what does that do to the price of food, pharmaceuticals, plastics, well, everything, really.

As for your vision of collapse through massive debt, I suppose that's possible too. People expect growth and they expect things to keep getting better, having standards of living driven down in a creaking economy would certainly encourage change!

David, your point about how the fear sparked by 9/11 made people shockingly willing (eager, even) to have their civil liberties trashed, is one of the reasons I found this scenario plausible. When people are scared, they're willing to do whatever it takes to feel safe again. If that means bringing back the ne-cons, or worse, I don't see them cavailling.

As for GM crops. I think, at this stage, let alone the future, it would be almost impossible to find many large-scale wheat or corn crops not 'polluted' by GM genes. A government driven by ideology rather than good sense might just take the view that anything which is the product of a blasphemous science (genetics - all those damned Darwinists!) is itself Satan's work. But I'm willing to concede this point if pressed.

Mary Jo, I was heartbroken to read Kurt Vonnegut's 'A Man Without a Country'. Like you, he was bitterly disillusioned with what had become of the US under the Bush administration. As one of my heroes, it hurt that he died so unhappy about what had become of his country. If only he'd lived a couple more years to see Obama elected!

Francesca said...

As a sometimes reluctant USAian (awkward alternative to American which is, as Mr. Crunk pointed out, applicable to two whole continents full of people), I think that the scenario is highly possible. Sadly. Obviously it's not the only way the dice could roll but much of the way the USA tends comes from the heartland, conservative middle rather than the liberal coasts.

Also this occurs to me -- one of the mainstays of liberal power in the US is New York and its satellites, as well as LA and its satellites. The collapse of the US economy would bring down its biggest cities because those have the greatest concentration of people whose jobs aren't about doing anything or making anything but instead rely on the collective illusion of money.

The whole idea that the church and the state are separate in the US is laughable -- so I don't think there's any concerns there about imagining a religious minority creating a Christian States of America. Consider the uproar when there was a Catholic president. We elect Protestants. In God We Trust. One nation, under God.

However, if I run with the thought-experiment of the collapse of the US economy and central government as it stands, I think that the US would fracture along already existing lines. Texas would absolutely be its own country. The Mason-Dixon line would be more than a road sign. This collective of states is already huge and unwieldy even with us all agreeing to try and make it work. The survivalists will have food, weapons and the attitude that will bring them to power in their communities. Liberal hippy-dippies like myself will be eaten for lunch. Except that I knit and bake and garden so I'm hoping I'd find a commune somewhere that would accept that I am not a societal leech.

Also, think of someone like Rudy Guiliani. New Yorkers accepted him very reluctantly at first and he imposed an almost fascist approach to cleaning up Manhattan and the result is a safer, nicer city and everyone was content.

Have you read Jennifer Government? It suggested the quiet, calm and eventually total takeover of the government by the large corporations. This is also a potential future.

I could waffle on for ages. But tap ten USAians on the shoulder and ask them the same question and you'll get ten different answers. There are so many different cultures wiggling along side by side here.

SO yes, I can see this happening. And would it would be horribly Orwellian (whereas right now I think we're tending to a more Huxley type of self-destruction).

graywave said...

Francesca, thanks for your thoughts. I love the distinction bewteen an Orwellian and a Huxleyan self-destruction.

I had considered the States seceding and the USA breaking up, but opted for the rather darker scenario where this is avoided by the emergence of strong leadership. At least with secession, the States can all renegotiate the Union when things settle down.

Francesca said...

Since much of my last comment was somewhat runaway express train of thought rather than well planned, logical argument, I would just like to add this:

The scenario you describe will not strike anyone as too far-fetched to swallow. So from a literary (rather than a strict political theory POV, whatever that is) you're good to go and I am looking forward to reading your book when it hits our shelves.

graywave said...

Thanks, Francesca. And I really hope you enjoy it!

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