A History of the Future is a great title for a book. Classified, I suppose, as a dystopia, James Howard Kunstler’s novel is set in upstate New York, not too far from now. A war in Israel has led to the destruction of major US cities and our electronic, consumptive way of life suddenly comes to an end. Small pockets of people, such as those in Union Grove, try to reconstruct a way of life where executives now have to become farmers and those who were used to having plenty still can’t manage without thinking of others as servants. It is a quiet and disquieting world. Perhaps the most striking thing about Kunstler’s vision is how prevalent religion is within it. An entire swath of the middle of the country has followed a former televangelist back to pre-Civil War ideals and seeks to make white supremacy national policy. Other pockets of governments resist the growing strength of this backlash, but most people are just trying to get by, uninvolved in large-scale politics.
The most sympathetic group in the novel, at least in my reading of it, is the New Faith Covenant Brotherhood Church of Jesus, run by Brother Jobe, himself a former southerner. This church moves, lock, stock, and barrel, into Union Grove and begins to build a commune that, unlike those of the local Presbyterians and secular rulers, manages to thrive. Brother Jobe has mystical abilities and his heart is in the right place. As things continue their decline amidst the everyone for him/herself attempts to restore order, this fellowship manages to pull itself together through common belief and perhaps a bit of divine intervention. In the future these aren’t so easily teased apart.
Not a typical action-packed dystopia with raging violence, Kunstler sketches a more gentle apocalypse. It’s not a final disaster and big government has not yet reemerged to stamp its will on a malleable people. Women and men relearn what it means to work by hand and to live with less. In some ways the vision is comforting. Still, those who will have been patrician in the past manage to become feudal lords, of a sort, in this new world. Not everyone can fit into that pattern. The overall picture in what seems to be a parable is that pre-industrial society did, in fact, work. It wasn’t perfect, of course. Monasteries and lords embodied different values where no one could truly claim to know what this was all about. The future, it turns out, is mostly the past.