Approaching the end, or just the end of an Age?

Horrified yet enthralled. That’s the best way to describe my state of mind as British Petroleum’s broken well gushed uncontrollably into the Gulf of Mexico.  The well was capped and it didn’t turn out to be the apocalypse, though people living on the Louisiana coast might beg to differ–their lives will never be the same. But it was still a pretty clear sign that our civilization is overextending itself. Essential resources are getting scarcer and harder to reach. It can’t go on like this forever.

The disaster reminded me of a novel: Ian MacLeod’s The Light Ages.

The novel revolves around a substance called aether that’s pumped out of the ground by huge engines. Not the stuff doctors once used to anesthetize people, but a flowing substance with magical and industrial purposes–closer to the stuff alchemists and early scientists once believed flowed around our planet, a medium containing stars, comets and angels.

Aether powers a great civilization that uses it for everything from construction to medicine to communication. Important magic spells are jealously protected by guilds that control various industries. It’s a civilization of great beauty and great ugliness. Improperly handled, aether is poisonous and pollution is widespread. Aether is absolutely essential to civilization. And it is running out.

I wouldn’t call MacLeod’s novel allegorical, but there are definite parallels to our civilization. Aether’s analogue in the real world is obviously petroleum. The civilization in the novel is perched on the edge of a great crash. Yet the crash doesn’t lead to the end of the world. Just a new Age. Kind of scary but in a way optimistic. (The sequel, House of Storms, describes a new Age, also powered by aether, and a different kind of crash. The novels are self-contained and I highly recommend both.)

Like MacLeod’s fictional aether, oil is terrible yet essential. It has allowed us to create works that previous generations — and maybe generations to follow — would call magic. Works that will likely end when the oil runs out. And it’s only one of the vital resources that are running out. When it happens, will it mean the end or just more change? It’s possible that another fuel for our civilization will turn up. Humans are pretty resourceful. Not much we can do except wait and see.

I have seen MacLeod’s novels referred to as “steampunk,” (again with the labels!) a blending of science fiction and fantasy that usually involves an alternate history where civilization reaches great heights using “old-fashioned” means. If you like to read and that appeals to you, check out The Light Ages and House of Storms. I would also recommend The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson, a novel about high level computing during a strange alternate version of the Victorian Age; and Perdido Street Station by China Mieville, a steam-powered civilization so bizarre you can’t really describe it as alternate (or possible), that is dark, rich in detail and fascinating.

There is also a budding musical scene (fad?) called steampunk: Check out this article in the Guardian. The name describes the lyrical themes more than the style of music, which in the examples I’ve heard are basically cabaret. The Clockwork Quartet is one of those groups:

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