World Made by Hand by James Howard Kunstler

World Made by Hand is a dystopian novel by American author James Howard Kunstler, published in 2008. Set in the fictional town of Union Grove, New York, the novel follows a cast of characters as they navigate a world stripped of its modern comforts, ravaged by terrorism, epidemics, and the economic upheaval of peak oil, all of which are exacerbated by global warming.

Narrated by Robert Earle, a local carpenter who has lost his wife and son, the novel focuses on four separate “cultures” that represent the directions society could go after a breakdown of modern social norms. The government has disintegrated and the lights have flickered out. Kunstler only alludes to the cause, which seems to be an amalgam of climate change and global battles over resources (mainly oil). Parts of the country are as lawless and grim but other areas, like Union Grove, NY, are rustic and communal. World Made by Hand explores the tension between these two elements, where the water is clean, the fish are huge, and they all farm but gangs of former motorheads mine the town dump and strip abandoned buildings for their aluminium window frames. 

It is jarring however as Kunstler depicts a collapsed world whereby the 2020s the engines of commerce have grounded to a shuddering halt, the arm of the state has withered into oblivion, and the electric lights of modern civilization petered out, ushering in a new Dark Age, both literally and metaphorically. This depiction of then (2008) near future and today’s present really shocks you and makes you consider what daily life would be like if our current world went “offline.” The best, and in some ways worst, part of this book would be its plausibility particularly as Kunstler acknowledges that there would be both benefits and drawbacks to such a life. The future depicted in this world is wholly plausible as he describes world oil supplies running out, something that scientists predict to be an inevitability in the near future.

All in all, this is a great post-apocalypse story and it doesn’t even have plague zombies or giant radioactive roaches. It does have a remarkably detailed and frighteningly plausible setting coupled with well-rounded, believable characters and a plot engine – the effort of people to create law and sanctions in a lawless world.

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