books film peak oil

Peak oil and science fiction

A couple of weeks ago I was making my regular pilgrimmage to London’s second hand bookshops*, and down in the basement of one of them I found a rather curious cultural artifact: a novel called Oil Seeker, by Michael Elder. It’s long forgotten and rightly so, but Oil Seeker is a work of science fiction published in 1977, and it combines two fears of the time – the Cold War and peak oil.

Oil Seeker is set in the future, when the earth’s oil reserves are entirely depleted. To survive, humankind has to search for alternative sources of oil – in space, obviously. Oil Seekers are ships sent out to scan distant planets and report back through ‘sub-etheric radio’, while avoiding the enemy Ship Seekers that are out to get them, for the whole world is now divided between the two factions of Combloc and Capbloc.

Let’s not worry that the idea of a ‘Capitalist bloc’ is somewhat antithetical, that oil in space is a rather unlikely proposition, or that despite being in the distant future, the ship’s computers still deliver their results by ticker-tape. As I said, it’s not a very good book. However, Michael Elder would have been writing in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis, when OPEC first started flexing their muscles. The prices at the pumps were playing havoc with the global economy, resource depletion was a daily reality, and the end of oil caught the imagination of this particular science fiction writer.

As we know, disaster was averted, mainly by the discovery of Alaskan and North Sea oil. The prospect of oil shortages receded. Nobody would have written a book like Oil Seeker in the 80s or 90s – but they might now. In 2008, the combination of speculation and rapidly rising consumption drove the oil price to record highs. As usual, recession duly followed, although since it coincided with the financial crisis it’s hard to who was most responsible. It’s becoming apparent that maintaining oil supplies is getting increasingly difficult, and many believe the Iraq war was primarily about oil.

Add these factors together, and you might expect to find a new generation of cultural stories. The communist and capitalist distinctions are obsolete, but there may be modern equivalents, say aggressive corporate interests versus docile native people. And so from Michael Elder’s Oil Seeker we come full circle to James Cameron’s Avatar –  a story about conflict and resource depletion in space.

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*For any book-loving Londoners who might be reading, this is the tour I carry out every few months: I leave the office in Victoria and catch the 24 bus up to Charing Cross Road, and visit Quinto and Any Amount of Books. The latter has a shelf of advance and ex-review copies downstairs. I then walk down the road and pop into Fopp, where the books are new but cheap. From there I catch the 73 bus to Euston and walk down to Judd Books in Cartwright Gardens, see what’s new in the School of Life, and end up in Skoob, probably the best second hand bookshop in London.

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