(CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, January 2014, 198 pages, Hardcopy $10.80; Kindle $5.00)
In the century and a half since transcendentalist thinker Henry David Thoreau first coined the term "voluntary poverty," it has been variously a buzzword, a meme within environmental circles and a dreaded epithet smelling of sacrifice and deprivation.1 For those concerned with practical responses to the era of resource depletion now upon us, however, it has yet another meaning: it's a matter of simple survival logic. As our society's resource base dwindles, those who depend the least on finite resources, by being poor in material wealth but rich in enterprise and entrepreneurship, will fare the best.
Author and schoolteacher Randall S. Ellis will doubtless be among this latter group. A connoisseur of Thoreau and other mainstays of self-reliance thought, he has a bit of a Walden-like setup himself in the town of Price, Utah. That's where he and his wife Linda live amidst the wild tundra and a personal collection of several thousand books. It's also where he had the inspiration to write Autumn Night and Other Tales of the Future, a collection of short stories about environmental refugees in a near-future American West.
The back cover blurb refers to these pieces as "dystopian science fiction and fantasy tales [in which] men and women struggle to preserve a remnant of civilization in a new dark age." For the most part, that's an accurate description of these quite competently written tales. They probe with great insight and earnestness the failings of our present industrial system, and strive to show readers another way. The stories do have their faults, however, chief among them a lack of drama and character development. But on the whole, Autumn Night is an important book that strives to educate readers at the same time as it entertains them.
Besides "men and women," there's another category of character that should be added to the line quoted above: cats. In a bit of anthropomorphic fun, we meet several walking, talking cats who are part of the larger society and who have plenty to say about the decline of industrial civilization. (The presence of these talking cats gets back to the "fantasy" part of the book's milieu.) One cat, a sage Siamese named Woo Zen, expresses sadness at humans' inability to recognize natural beauty or the shortsightedness of their own ways. To another cat she laments with a sigh, "There have been men and women of wisdom amongst humankind but their voices are largely unheeded."
Sharing much the same cast of characters, as well as the same backstory of industrial self-destruction, these stories feel more like chapters in a larger saga than separate, self-contained narratives. They all take place around a city called Ampleforth, in ramshackle settlements blighted by disease, poverty and bands of toughs intent on plunder. Those who don't wish to be robbed–or worse–must project an image of abject poverty, letting their homes and yards go to ruin so that would-be marauders think they've already been ransacked. Energy is unaffordable for all but the super-rich, so nearly everyone travels by foot or bike and does without electricity, indoor climate control and other erstwhile modern amenities. There's also no governance or public safety as we now know them. And the dead are dispassionately retrieved from their homes like so many bags of secondhand goods, to be interred in mass graves.
The book's central characters are a group of people uniquely suited to the conditions of this post-industrial future. They include writers, former librarians, teachers and other men and women of letters who were living Thoreau's ideal of voluntary poverty long before it became a necessity. Despite being dismissed as "unproductive" scholars, these individuals have a profound advantage over most other people. They are thoroughly practiced in the most sought-after skill set these days, which is the art of being poor while still living well.
A common thread running through these stories is the virtue of imperfection and impermanence. One character aptly makes reference to wabi sabi, a centuries-old Japanese cultural aesthetic that finds beauty in things that are aged, used and worn. Adherents of wabi sabi strive to glorify signs of wear on their physical possessions, for example by using gold to repair cracks in broken pottery.2 Similarly, the characters in Ellis' stories furnish their homes with old, weather-beaten furniture and rely on previously obsolete technologies, such as physical library card catalogs with handwritten index cards, to carry out the tasks of daily life.
Autumn Night offers an interesting, if conventional, portrait of the political moment following the Great Decline (as the collapse of industrial society has come to be known). People across the formerly developed world are in denial about the loss of the reality they once knew, so much so that they're willing to elect despotic leaders who vow to restore the old order by any means necessary. Thus, there is strong public support for initiatives like the American Pledge of Loyalty to the Homeland, which grants leaders blanket authority to do whatever they must in order to deliver on their promises. In addition to giving up their freedoms and democratic ideals, many people have also surrendered their very autonomy. Legions of former city dwellers and suburbanites have gone to work as laborers for wealthy landowners in exchange for guaranteed food and shelter.
Those who refuse this bargain learn the agonies of hunger and want. In a piece starkly titled "Hunger," a widowed mother recounts how, in the months following the onset of the Great Decline, government food distribution became unreliable and incapable of sustaining life. People without the knowledge or means to grow their own food had to hock their few material belongings to obtain assistance from farmers. Yet even this option ceased to be available within a couple of years, as the perceived value of such items steadily fell (what good is an electronic home entertainment system when electricity is far too scarce to be spent on entertainment?). For most people, there was only one choice left at this point–whether to toil in servitude to rich landowners or take what one needed from them by force. The frequent sprees of killing and banditry that continue to afflict rural areas attest to those who have chosen the latter option.
My main beef with this book is that it's too light on character development. I just don't feel like each character has a distinct personality, voice or overall way about him or her. Rather, I sense that each character is a slightly different version of the author, Randall Ellis, and that his or her voice is really Ellis' voice. The dialogue so often comes in the form of impeccably grammatical paragraphs that are a joy to read, but that don't make for believable conversation. A wider range of personalities, with more opportunity for drama, conflict and banter amongst themselves, would have greatly increased my involvement in the story.
This does not, however, mean that there aren't exceptions to the above rule–the book does have its moments of genuine pathos. In one poignant story, a former teacher named Samuel chances upon a slave auction in which, to his horror, a student of his from years before is being sold. Shouting over the loathsome jeers of the audience and the auctioneer, Samuel joins the bidding in hopes of buying his former student so that he can spare her from a life of abuse and exploitation. The epigraph for this chapter tells us that "[d]arkness forever abides in the heart of fallen man;" and indeed the tragic spectacle of the slave auction leaves a bitter darkness in Samuel's heart that will forever haunt him.
Like its author, Autumn Night is nothing if not deeply literate. It's filled to the brim with erudite quotations and allusions, perhaps the most pointed of them being Samuel Johnson's remark on the role that adversity plays in shaping self-awareness. "Adversity," Ellis quotes Johnson as saying, "has ever been considered the state in which a man most easily becomes acquainted with himself." This quote has been an inspiration to many for pointing out the beneficial aspects of life's tribulations. Certainly it's a fitting credo for anyone committed to building community resilience in the face of these turbulent and uncertain times.
1. Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1854), 9.
2. Billie Mobayed, quoted in "my love for wabi sabi," Peanut on the Table, http://peanutonthetable.com/2013/02/03/my-love-for-wabi-sabi (last updated Mar. 13, 2013; accessed Mar. 17, 2013).