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The following essay is the latest in our occasional series reprinting major essays in SF criticism. It first appeared in 2014 in Paradoxa 26 (SF Now), and received the Pioneer Award as the best critical essay of the year from the Science Fiction Research Association. It explores the dependence of SF upon energy needs, and the genre's possible utility in responding to changing energy paradigms. We are grateful to Professor Macdonald and to Paradoxa for the opportunity to reprint it here.

Graeme Macdonald is Associate Professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick, where he teaches modern and contemporary literature, including SF and petrofiction. He has authored various works on nineteenth- to twenty-first century literature and culture, and is writing a book on oil and world literature. He is a member of the research collectives After Oil and Petrocultures.


  1. Introduction
  2. Petro-SF
  3. Power Sustains Power
  4. Junk and Dyne: Uneven Futures
  5. Aliens Offshore
  6. "We go Looking for More"
  7. Conclusion, or the "Virtually Inexhaustible"
  8. Endnotes
  9. Works Cited

Introduction [contents]

"Do you know what they will find when they reach Mars? They will find Americans out there in the desert, hunting for oil."

—King Abdulaziz (Ibn Saud, first monarch of Saudi Arabia, 1939) [1]

Let's begin with a blast from the past: the opening sequence of Star Wars (Lucas 1977). After the backstory crawl, a black screen resolves to a twinkling horizon offering a vista of distant moons and planets. Deep space lies beyond. This is a familiar canvas, lending itself to adventure, exploration, conquest—and narrative potential. In the foreground looms the upper-hemisphere of a nearby planet, over which the first scene—the spaceship pursuit—will play out. This scalar emphasis is enhanced by John Williams's famous score, which opens with a mixture of classical and excitable harmonics. These amplify the reverence and excitement at the vast territory laid out before us and punctuate the thrill of the ensuing chase. The combined effect impresses upon the viewer the relative size, speed, power, and torque of the vehicles. As the opening bars take an abrupt, dissonant character with the sudden overdubbed noise (in space!) of engine thrust and laser shots, sound and vision work in tandem to present a visceral chase aesthetic, involving dynamic drive and lift, force and velocity.

All this occurs in a matter of seconds. Vigorous thrust and forward momentum attenuate distance and bring galactic horizons into reach. As the first sizeable spacecraft streaks into shot, rockets flaming, it is pursued and shot at by a truly gargantuan craft: an Imperial Star Destroyer. Its impressive size is accentuated by the diagonal tracking movement and the time it takes to fill the majority of the screen; its triangular bow reaching across the frame and colonizing the perspective, ensuring we realize the massive scope, volume, and reach of this megaship. From this brief narrative arc and frame filling, it is abundantly clear to the viewer that she must be as awestruck by this technological behemoth as she is apprehensive about its power. The impression is sealed, moreover, as the Star Destroyer passes formidably overhead, by the sight of three massive, flaming exhaust ports, propelling the ship inexorably to its quarry. Space Opera! What a blast!

It would be misguided to dismiss superficial reactions to what are, after all, typical features of a particularly popular SF genre. Instead, I want to draw attention to ways in which the kind of thrills generated by this architecture of the techno-sublime are connected to the valorization of such "wondrous" movement and force. What might such future combustion aesthetics reveal about the energy culture we presently inhabit and the horizon of expectations it generates (what Michael Ziser refers to as "the site of an alternately ecstatic and apocalyptic jouissance, accelerated in the postwar period" (p. 322) by US road culture and the expansion of automobile infrastructure in particular)? The concerted formal geometry of the opening of one of the most iconic and significant of modern SF films does more than simply hint at the plot potential generated by the presentation of a world of enormous geographic possibility: it revels in it. The speed and temporality of narrative presentation are central markers of the energy expended to create and sustain such a world. Ten seconds confirm that entire galaxies are traversable, made reachable and accessible by the imposition of astounding, powerful, and commanding modern technology. This sprawl feature of space opera is well enough established to make it as unremarkable as it is iconic. Worlds, peoples, and multiple species are explored, traversed, and traversed again, in all modes of vehicular transportation, both animal and machine. Yet, returning to such texts in an age of late energy anxiety, with mounting ecocritical interventions into SF criticism, do we read such diegetic moves any differently? Do we, should we, stop and pause, in the wake of those burning thrusters, and ask: what is powering that Star Destroyer? What future fuel—and what conversion or combustion system—burns those flames? Is it clean? Is it safe? Where does it come from? And why should cultural critics care?

One can get quickly carried away with such questions, which have been intensifying of late, generated by increased attention to what Imre Szeman and Dominic Boyer call "the Energy Humanities," a nascent field of study that intends to rethink the fundamental nature of the relation between culture, genre, environment, and history in lieu of the energy (re)sources available at any particular time, and the mode of productive relations that both sustains and is sustained by them. The field emanates from the deep anxieties and agencies of climate-anxious late environmentalism, a situation where present and future energy forms (both "fictive" in their distinct temporal contexts) are simultaneously problem and potential solution. The role of culture and cultural critique as a means to contribute to the energy dependencies and dilemmas we face has only just begun to be debated. The theorization of what Patricia Yaeger calls "the energy unconscious"—material relating to energy forms that can be mined and discerned throughout the history of literature and across the history of literary criticism—is a solid starting point. Such a pursuit, as Szeman ("Literature," "System Failure") has noted, asks serious questions about conventional methods and means of periodization, not only about the way we comprehend and classify literary history, but also the history of modernity under capitalism's various energy inputs [2]. For Szeman, the very future of literature itself, as both proponent of and potential solution to what he calls "the fiction of surplus" and the "political fantasies" ("Literature" p. 323) in which we presently indulge, in cultural production but also in reality, is under severe threat in late environmental modernity. He acknowledges SF as the genre that might be best placed to "shake us out of our faith in surplus" (p. 325) but admits that this is not guaranteed.

This article intends to test and advance such claims for SF's potential as the genre best placed to advance our understanding not only about the present and future energy crises we face, but also the manner in which we (fail to) envisage and conceive energy as a matter for culture as much as it is cultural matter. As the opening of Star Wars shows, the demands of altered and intensified spatiality and geography intrinsic to SF are primary drivers of its energy demands. This is not just the case with depictions of space travel. For example, devising an entirely new species habitat or alien social infrastructure or terraforming project is equally energizing, whatever the scale, shape, or form. Consequently, SF's subgenres provide various manifestations of energy consciousness: invasion narratives can easily be configured as metaphors of resource extraction and accumulation; first contact, steampunk, and salvagepunk register uneven and disjunctive fuel/power eras [3]. The list of interpretive possibilities is long and varied, but I want to focus in what follows on three areas in particular, viewed through the critical lens of a significant new sub-field of energy studies: petroculture [4].

As the cussedly dominant energy source of modernity, oil and its refinements have been consonant with the historical movements and transitions of SF as a genre, and remain the key power source to reckon with in the present [5]. Any longer term study of the significant relations between energy and SF needs to confront the oil beast. Oil is culture as much as it is fugacious material. As the ascendancy of the "post-oil" novel demonstrates, the reality of oil is partly myth, projection, and fantasy; it propels various fictional narratives and generates formidable aesthetic prowess [6]. In hydrocarbon modernity, petroleum has dictated our daily conceptions, expectations, and organizations of time and space for over a century. It continues to do so, yet, somewhat ironically, as a fundamental energy form with radical finitude; an unprecedented powerful enabler with an inherent weakness in its definitive endpoints and its problematic external costs. The gathering question of a world "After Oil" illumines the interpretive horizons of space opera's grandiose expenditures. It also preoccupies the contracted visions of post-apocalyptic fiction's myriad collapse narratives, which convey entropic worlds of diminishing and unevenly distributed energy returns, amid the outbreak of resource struggles. Thus SF allows us not only to realize the nature of our long and ongoing addiction to petroleum but also the manner in which we have continually sought to occlude or sublimate the monstrous nature of our petromodern fantasy in order to drive an increasingly unsustainable petrolic life ever onwards. This contradiction, I suggest, can be unraveled and extrapolated by rethinking lost-world and hollow-earth narratives as being consonant with the contemporary fossil age in their discovery of an eruptive underground source of fantastic, mysterious—and sometimes malevolent—power.

Petro-SF [contents]

Before we can reasonably query the size of the gas station on the Death Star, however, we need to acknowledge that—putting the claims and qualifications of hard SF aside—on a fundamental level, it might appear redundant, in fictional scenarios, to pursue questions concerning the feasibility or exhaustibility of future-fictive fuel types, sources, and supplies. This is SF: it goes without saying that we do not have overly to worry if spaceships take unleaded, or are powered by some strange new mineral found on a gas giant or a distant planet, or if they do (ludicrously) emit massive carbon plumes into the voids of space, or power-up through some perma-nuclear cell. Such questions, furthermore, can be leveled at the lack of attention to energy use, production, and supply in "conventional" fiction. Generations of critics, for example, have not worried about the reliance of the feedstock of Mr. Darcy's horse, or the coal extraction methods for Anna Karenina's train, or the frequency of wind turning Don Quixote's mills. Their plots require them to move and to turn and propel, but relegate them to background detail. Despite the fact that any narrative requires various forms of mobility and momentum as a basic prerequisite, the range of energy forms and issues that supply and generate such movement (as well as dictate and order time-space) have usually been secondary concerns, sedimented deep into the text. Periodic moments of resource crisis have supplied memorable energy-industrial novels such as Charles Dickens's Hard Times (1854) or Emile Zola's Germinal (1885) or Upton Sinclair's Oil! (1927), but the social realist fictions of the fossil age tend to revolve around the (not irrelevant) labor crises of the energy worker and their consequent societal effects, rather than the fuller social, environmental, aesthetic, and philosophical import, not to mention the future life, of the energy source itself. Moreover, a general surmise of the history of narrative fiction (with the exception, perhaps, of the globally dispersed petrofiction of the age of oil) suggests that it goes relatively unconsidered that primary and secondary energy sources enable and generate developments in form and genre. If they are noted as analytic features they are usually consigned under the subsurface of action, character, relation, story, and event.

What has changed our focus is the possible death of the human future already begun in global warming and the concomitant—and growing—resource crises of late globalization. Responding to this, the late twentieth century expansion of ecocriticism, together with such related fields as energy studies and petroculture, have provided the critical acuity to realize energy as a primary feature of the production, form, and content of any cultural expression. "What happens," asks Yaeger, "if we rechart literary periods and make energy sources a matter of urgency to literary criticism?" (p. 306). SF is a privileged genre in this context because, with all the freedom and responsibility of its speculative and imaginative prowess, it always already bears the weight of Yeager's question. Of all of the genres of modern cultural production it has throughout its history, in its myriad guises, been the most reflexively and consciously aware of energy as literary and material necessity, politico-environmental issue and techno-social system, to a far greater extent than the more orthodox forms of realism. In the latter, questions of physical power, waste infrastructure or enablement of mobility are relatively taken-for-granted, despite their centrality to almost every facet of the fictional process, from verisimilitude to plot to character trajectory [7]. SF is full of novel facilitating devices requiring a heightened sense of enablement. If you are going to fly the most basic of rockets or mobilize a near indescribably impossible intergalactic General Systems Vehicle, if you are to trade with other species on other planets, maintain a post-carbon city in the clouds or the trees, conceive a new solar-powered dirigible, or even a chair that moves through time, you are either going to have to spend at least a modicum of description and expression explaining how it operates, sustains, moves, and runs, or expect the reader herself to gauge and cognize it. (And, crucially, this need not require any modicum of "scientific" plausibility. The point, from a fuel-anxious present, is to register the positing power and the possibility of the invention of alternative systems and methods, and cognize their relative difference to contemporary power sources.)

To SF's accentuated requirements for an energy novum of vehicular systems, converter chains, and means of supply we can add expectations of "alien" and hitherto unrealized modes of living, dwelling, working, and being: all energy dependent. We would expect a literature that pivots on technocracy and technocultural possibility to consider the harnessing, production, and management of energy modes as a base matter of textual and plot concern. Put simply, histories of the future, utopian and dystopian, all require a means (or lack thereof) of fuel or secondary energy source, whether new (or redeveloped) forms of the ICE, solar, chemical, calorific, electric, muscular, excremental, etc. In an age where the future design and infrastructure of urban and suburban forms are critical aspects of the climate challenge, any cultural form aiming to project and imagine how (and where) we live in a radically different or altered way from a present era of unsustainability becomes ever more essential. As we move into the end-stages of oil (no matter how many "unconventional" maneuvers it makes to extend its life, it will run out eventually), the pressure for alternatives engages multiple fields and specialisms. Future fuel and energy technology, it is generally agreed, has to be something radically unlike what we have at present. Depictions of their perceived failure and unsustainability provide a jolt, while imaginative projections of what might replace them—good or bad, plausible or otherwise—allow a means to think through logical and hypothetical eventualities and extrapolations of the hyper-conditions of prime-moving, machine-driven technics. "Unobtanium" has become an ironic codeword for the messy yet urgent requirements for new or hitherto undiscovered forms of fuel and power generation. The old jokes about the absurdity of dilithium crystals or tylium ore are less of a laughing matter in a future promising environmental crisis.

To see the Star Wars opening scene from a petro-perspective, then, is to perceive its rendition in part realized and contextualized by oil, not only in modern cinema's production process, from location trucks to special effects labs to film stock, but also as a film conceived and consumed in the volatile climate of a mid-1970s America that had been shaken by the tectonic shifts that the 1973 oil shocks created in the world-system. Much has been written about the rejuvenated (via nostalgia) space operatic elements of the trilogy, a landmark in commercial SF, and in the history not only of modern cinema but also the modern culture industry. As Sherryl Vint notes, it "re-energized" SF as a popular mode (p. 2). It is an anomalous film in a decade of distinctly dystopian cinematic futurism responding to the deeply transformative effects of the energy crisis and the mounting atomic and ecological dread generated by emergent environmental and anti-war movements [8]. This may be the reason why (from the voluminous geekery that is the Star Wars database), the Imperial Star Destroyer is cited as powered by a "Solar Ionization Reactor". Culturally and affectively, however, we really know it runs on petroleum, not only as transmitted through the autopic sensorium and exuberant style of sound, speed, and effects, but also conceived through the fundamental political and economic forms of automobilic movement, force, and "space highway" possibility that a modern petroculture has come to project as natural and right, as auto-environmental.

From that ominous and exuberant opening declaration of exhaustive power, Star Wars (reminiscent of so many space travel scenes) deploys what Stefanie Lemenager (passim) calls a "petroleum aesthetic": expanded worlds of endless traffic, windscreen views, flashy dashboards, exhaust flares, accelerator pedals, lightspeed trails, thruster handles—basically an automobilic world of amplified energy expenditures. This might look rather incongruous with the material threat of diminishing (or withheld) reserves characterizing that infamous peak-oil decade, but such are the contradictions of the oil-saturated technoculture of petromodernity. This registers from the off (sometimes utterly without recognition and sometimes via an explicit sensationalism) as the relentless forward command of "free" movement and motive strength. It is politicized as such by the projection of imperial might and military capacity (it should be noted, for example that both sides of "the Force" have formidable and hyper-mobile armadas).

This petro-reading somewhat debunks Cold War contextualization. For who is the Empire in this scenario? The dragging of the smaller rebel ship into the larger imperial body as the opening scene develops signals the determination of a corralling energy force, confirming what Imre Szeman ("System Failure") recognizes as the "strategic realism" to which various state and capitalist agencies resort when challenged with a future of petro-insecurity. Here geopolitical ethics and global ecological responsibility are sacrificed for the deeper nationalist ambit of maintaining and controlling routes and supply—and thus military, political, and economic hegemony. As Lucas's trilogy spans one of the most convulsive and transformative decades in the post-war world system, where petro-shocks were eventually overcome, with speculative finance and gluts enabling a move (in the US and the UK) to a neoliberalism founded on (and funded by) soaring (but now volatile) oil revenues, it is one way of reading this most enterprising series (and the revival of space opera in this time) differently.

Power Sustains Power [contents]

Reading back from the present, via the past three decades of the "Weapondollar–Petrodollar" nexus [9] that has characterized US (and global) neoliberal energy capitalism since the mid-1970s, a petroreading of Star Wars' energetic panorama and its rebooted frontierism goes somewhat against the contemporaneous grain of environmentally pessimistic visions of a carbonizing world. But how can we now reread the longevity or, somewhat reading the term against itself, the sustainability of such an archetypal SF scene in the context of emergent debates about the future of energy, and the role of the humanities as part of that enterprise? I read "sustainability" in this section as a problematic (but not irrecoverable) term largely hijacked by the greenwashing propensity of late capitalism's ersatz and market-driven responses to the crises of ecological modernity, but I also want to suggest the concept's usefulness—via its perceived limitations—as a means to think through how we might better establish SF as the genre par excellence influencing the full spectrum of the energy imaginary.

Before I advance, however, a note of caution. If SF is the literary mode with the most inherently radical potential to educate and curry debate over an entirely new means of envisioning and imagining our energy futures, in its extremes it also broadly demonstrates more than a vestigial trace of an apparently unsustainable world: either one of "powered-up" excess and expenditure or of "powered-down" entropy and disaster. This is the open contradiction of the energy dilemma faced in the environmental present. Put simply: how can we still be thrilled by the afterburners on a future craft, impressed by its specs and capabilities, if that same process is cognized as an ongoing future-pollution or resource-wasteful event? On the other hand, it seems to be a strong, globally popular belief—and one that energy majors themselves are invested in advancing—that the end of oil signals disaster, chaos, and collapse (itself often presented and received as dramatic and thrilling). I want to review and perhaps push the notion of SF as a genre that allows us to confront such contradictions, by moving beyond conventional, "decadal," market-cycle or "future-same" readings of sustainability in this non-estranged, capital-extended sense. The kind of sustainability I mean is that described by Allan Stoekl as "the only sustainability we can live in . . . a life stripped of all illusions concerning that very sustainability" (p. 50). Which means a life "after-oil."

SF challenges us with images and scenes of the limits, logic, and credence of our present mode of unsustainability, often by itself presenting unsustainable—either wholly nonrealist or hopelessly utopian—visions of a consequential world of excessive energy expenditure. On the other hand, it also offers visions of worlds where a wholly new system of radical sustainability and non-polluting energy expenditure has been conceived and set in practice, either in the shape of rationally envisioned, non-toxic new social modes of "balanced" living, economizing, and moving, or visions of system collapse and projections of inertial struggle and resource calamity.

To consider the forms, uses, and dimensions of energy in SF is to question the limits of emergent, dominant, and residual forms of power and supply, and the extent and plausibility of their refinement in cultural production and its variety of genres [10]. What is powering those spaceships? What heats those megacities? How are its inputs extracted and refined and commodities made and distributed? I do not intend these as crude questions; the fact that future fuel or hypothetical power sources are or may be entirely "made up" can in fact provide a useful vision, a starting jolt to think of alternatives to the inherent flaws (and impressive prowess) of our carbon-driven system and the hegemonic energy ontologies it reproduces. Any cynical response that recognizes the fuel of SF as purely fictive denies the place of impossibilist visions as potential solutions to present and projected ecological crisis. Something else is required, and any form that enables interrogation as to what its replacement might be, and how (in)credible/(im)possible it is, is entirely necessary to the discussion. Any interpretation, for example, that perceives space opera fictions as entirely unsustainable, as baroque or naively utopic projections that are a logical extension (or exaggeration) of a world that refuses to see oil-based living as entirely fantastic and ultimately impossible to sustain, loses sight of the sheer power of the popular desire for utopian living and of the necessity to understand its political and (environmental) potential as a means to build alternatives. As I will argue, even the very irresponsibility of the space opera vision of energetic excess can offer a platform to question the sustainability—and achievability—of such future forms and systems. In doing so it allows us to measure the scale and extent to which our present forms are excessive, built on unsustainable desires with no future. Put another way: if it is commonly understood that such visions are "impossible" and unsustainable, then how do we turn this (unsatisfactory) response into a useful one in the context of the (deferred) necessity to find environmental solutions? Even asking why such visions are "unsustainable" is surely a start?

Junk and Dyne: Uneven Futures [contents]

As petrofiction has gained cultural traction, an archaeology of energy literature has begun identifying and connecting a global repository of carbon texts from the peripheries and semi-peripheries of the world system [11]. And here, SF plays a prominent role, even in the ostensibly non-SF text [12]. Frederick Buell argues that the story of oil in the post-war world is one where a ubiquitous substance, once fundamentally associated, in the age of abundant gushers and cheap gasoline, with celebratory images of modernity, plenitude, and exuberance, becomes increasingly unable to shake off its dark underside as a catastrophic figure signifying conflict, pollution, and volatility. Such a "mutually reinforcing" (p. 283) energy matrix, bearing uneven entanglements of exuberance and dread, permeates the history of SF. The early age of oil, for example, denoted wealth, liberal forms of freedom and emancipation, and future potential. The Golden Age of SF is much aligned with the bright paraphernalia of the expanded and accelerated twentieth century world that oil delivered (and in parts helped destroy). The technological shifts that oil brought were, we have to remind ourselves, in many ways astounding: to the developed societies the semblance of an SF world accelerated into reality. But oil's utopian promise was always implicitly aligned and hard to disentangle from the very baseline contradictions of modernity itself, embodying all its shocks and radical unevenness. While environmentalists declaim its ongoing use in a death spiral energy mix with other fossils, neoliberals, energy companies, and governments alike are apprehensive about its eventual exhaustion and dwindling supplies leading to social breakdown. Economic systems, especially those powered by speculation and rent, remain mired in oily investments and assailed by divestment campaigns. The future of oil is inextricably bound up with financial products and the entire futures industry, a legacy in many ways, of 1973.

As I have noted, above and elsewhere, SF has always registered the fantastic disaster of powerful (and often mysterious, as yet inconceivable) energy resources [13]. Oil might not directly appear in visions of the future, but its spectral presence is traceable throughout, either in energy substitutes or interpretive extrapolations. Buell's admixture of exuberance and dread not only presents in the distinctions between the subgenres of SF but also inhabits many of its individual texts. Contradictions are also manifest in the SF text's coeval presentation of overlapping and disjunctive energy forms. This we should expect in a future-oriented genre, where the radically new meets with the historically backward in varieties of relation and expression.

Such contradictions are exemplified in a novel published just prior to Star Wars, one with a much more tempered but nonetheless equally expansive and visionary outlook on our future energy landscapes. M. John Harrison's The Centauri Device (1975), which has been called a vanguard novel in the refurbishment of space opera—even an "anti-space opera"—was published in the backdraft of the OPEC oil crisis, which the novel stretches into a larger future scenario of Arab/Israeli led forces battling out an intergalactic struggle for ascendancy and control, via the search for a mysterious and powerful object/weapon [14]. Harrison's novel was written in a 1970s Britain in energy-derived economic turmoil—amid power cuts and coal disputes—and yet to receive any benefits from the onstream revenues of recently discovered North Sea Oil (the initial infrastructure and capital controversially owned and controlled by US companies). The novel registers a recognizable propulsive "roadhog" aesthetic in its various descriptions of ship styles and anarchic travel, though amid its play with glossy livery and dash, it also notes the darker pay-offs from powerful new forms of energy payload. The spacer antihero, Truck, is haunted by "mounting alien energies" (p. 85). His deepest desire is revealed as a parody of a boy-racer sensibility, immediately identifiable with all the techno-fetishes of the fueled-up automobilic culture that Ziser identifies as a late 60s phenomenon:

the secret of a new propulsion fitted to [his ship] the Ella Speed (which was now somehow longer and slimmer, chased and inlaid, with a white flaring at its stern)—immense brass wheels, concentric and eccentric, which might enable him to shoot through into unmapped Galaxies. (p. 162)

This romantic-affective petro-aesthetic appears consistently. Impossibly beautiful anarchist spaceships are described with an attendant decadence, as "white, gem-like flames burnt at their sterns" (p. 64). Presentation-cool these ships may be, ("gem-like flames" is repeated elsewhere [p. 78]) but equally accentuated is the "white heat blazing at their sterns and a trail of stripped and violated particles streaming out behind them" (p. 80).

Should we worry about the pollution suggested here, or is the "environment" capable of soaking it all up and remaining largely unaffected? Questions concerning the damaging effects of spent/burnt fuel and the spoil of emissions waste on a contained, "off-planet" or "elsewhere" atmosphere are further advanced in Harrison's novel by its presentation of uneven energyscapes. On the one hand we have an entirely fictional "natural" form of "future energy"—"sub-dyne fuel." This is presumably refined from the mysterious Dyne Fields through which Harrison's spaceships navigate, making "improbable progress through the impossible medium" (p. 22), in order to reach other galactic destinations, using their "dynaflow drivers" (p. 22). This "impossible medium" combining fuel, space and terrifically expanded geographies, is of course derived from the act of hyper-travel itself, a central megatextual feature from Wells onwards. This is, and has always been, in itself a form of petroleum elision, in its erasure of the embodied, economic, and environmental problem of long, fuel-sapping journey times. The petrol engine had provided for radical compressions and expansions of time and space, erasing and easing distance, and as Wells himself argued in The Science of Life it presented the opportunity to ask questions concerning changes to our psyche and physiques made by the new petrocultural infrastructures: "Is a living man fundamentally a machine?" (p. 22) [15]. The fuel/body metaphor persists in Harrison's work, powering K-ships in the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy [16], published 30 years after Centauri. In Light (2002), for example, the cybernetic/prosthetic ability to become one with your individual ship is advanced, a media/body concept that confirms not only Lemenager's description of the affective infrastructure of petro-private lifeworlds constructed throughout the twentieth century, but also what Karen Pinkus insists is a retro-continuation of the futurism that has accompanied the auto-industry since Henry Ford and will persist, it seems, well into the future, even in its mooted alternatives to petroleum. Pinkus argues that

it is important to note that future fuels have been a consistent feature of the auto over the years, whether allied with a traditional or a futuristic design or simply suggested in promotional literature. Concept vehicles have been put forward as future solutions to diverse problems that include the high price of gasoline, environmental concerns, and dependence on foreign oil. ("On Climate" p. 1006)

Present questions of future travel and power systems thus exist uneasily in Harrison's novels as they do throughout SF in general, where dual-track energy environments are common. Often a state-of-the-art energy system exists alongside archaic and out-dated infrastructures remaining in use. Such uneven development (also reminiscent of developed economies' "offshoring pollution" in late fossil capitalism) is clear in The Centauri Device's description of Junk City, an "industrial complex" on the galactic periphery:

In the evil glare of a failing temporary power plant that had somehow never been shut down, its foundries and plastic factories links in a well-established chain of warrens which served the hinterland pushers.

It was a nerve-racking horizon of slag tips and cooling-towers, leaning chimneys and gutted workshops, cold furnaces sadly gravid with congealed ore and fluxes, all linked together by a black-etched spiderwork of gantries, man-high conduits and precarious diagonal conveyors. Smoke and vapours vented from the overtaxed condensors of the power plant roiled between the rusting hoppers, drifted across the soaked ashy earth at the height of a man's waist to hang reeking over the terraces of the opencast mines.

Reactor glare beat its way up and down the spectrum, now white and electric, now somnolent and purple—a constant unhealthy flicker of partially contained plasma struggling against the abused lines of force that restrained it, filling the wind with an awful, modulating, voracious roar like junk-tides of an abandoned planet at the very gutter-edge of Time. The denizens of this city, white eyes and thin demented bones, watched the light racing and arcing across their grim skyline, and huddled close. Why should they be any less desperate for comfort than their customers? That leaky old engine menaced them, but they depended on it. (p. 121)

This energy-dependent, unsustainable city of 2367 is remarkably reminiscent of the energy production sites of industrial modernity, retrograde sites increasingly confined to the periphery of the unevenly developed capitalist world system [17]. Here, the not-quite-post-industrial extraction and generation of "dirty" power is generally occluded by what Owen Logan identifies as a predominantly "supply-side aesthetic," governing the energy ontologies of many of the consumer-fixated economies of the world system. This valorizes the potential (and, indeed, the aesthetic visual effects) offered by the "gem-like" flame and simultaneously buries the material toxic effects that vapor trails and petroleum externalities leave in their wake. Such myopic cognition, Harrison's description reminds us, is actually a form of harmful dependency, a point authoritatively accentuated by Mathew Huber as a central aim of the "petro-privatism" created by the long post-war conjuncture of the petroleum industry and neoliberalism's advancement of a life in which all our freedoms and "necessities" are both "made-possible" by and dependent on the extended refinements of oil. This condition is attentive to the bejeweled effects of energy systems in operating various comforts and commodities, from vehicles to heating to electronic appliances but less switched on to the hierarchical production dyads of resource extraction and corrupt governance. Harrison's Junk City exemplifies those "offshore" sectors of the world energy matrix, "energy peripheries," where power is alienated yet still lurking, menacing, emitting a toxic, "nerve-wracking" form of dependency. Writing in a decade in which "energy was the number one political issue" (Yergin p. 625), Harrison would certainly have been aware of this. In a mid-70s UK, convulsive disputes over energy futures were class-bound and regionally uneven. The lagging but still powerful domestic coal nexus, however, was confronted by the might of the newly energized offshore oil industry. This virtually ensured the irrevocably global orientation of national energy interests, placed within the international carbon web.

The nineteenth century advent of the fossil-industrial complex virtually ensured a bump in the degree of spatial and economic uneven-ness in technology, distribution, and infrastructure—with a certain guaranteed "backwardness" inherent in over-dependence on "unclean" and/or "inefficient" energy forms and their means of generation. Its extended finitude ("at the gutter-edge of time" and space) and environmental precarity has only served to heighten global and regional inter-state conflict and competition for the best and most effective sources of energy. Requirements for sustainability only serve to ironize the tendency to retain fossils as the "best outmoded" option. I will demonstrate later how the "post-oil" text realizes this paradox and intensifies its accompanying unevenness, imagining future expressions of environmental crisis and social disparity. I want, now, however, to extend Harrison's registration of the energy periphery into a wider analysis of the uses of SF by writers and critics seeking to expose the manner in which oil's destructive power has so often been structurally de-realized and mystified in modern culture.

Aliens Offshore [contents]

We can see the agonistic features of the hidden petro-world in the end-of-the-century backlash against the foundations of hydrocarbon culture, where the climate-driven shadow of over-reliance becomes increasingly difficult to obscure in the domestic and foreign policy of petro-states—from the UK and the US to Russia, Nigeria, and across the Gulf—and their underwhelming actions on local and global ecology. To reiterate: the superficially "celebratory" qualities of mid-to-late twentieth century petrolic social and economic life—typified by what Nabokov recognized in Lolita's (1955) infamous road trip as the neonized "gasoline paraphernalia" (p. 153) of post-war US auto-culture—have been systematically deflated in its reliance on a substance figured dreadful: as a "monstrous" or "alien" energy form with an "indescribable" and "unimaginable" future and a remorselessly global spread. Petroleum has always had a habit of lurking in the depths, only to irruptively burst to the surface during periodic moments of exceptional crisis. Environmental consciousness, however, has focused on oil's ultimate uncontainability, meaning it finds itself monstrously exposed and unable to return to the depths of our energy awareness. Recall, for example, the castigation of Californian society's detachment from the reality of cheap energy in Jean Baudrillard's America (1986), which warps and extends the Nabokovian "admiration" of an infrastructure transforming desert and scrub into "banal suburb" and "giant car." California is of course both cradle and apotheosis of Western petroculture or "petrotopia" (LeMenager p. 64). Pondering (and, being Baudrillard, perversely admiring) such a world's "hyperreality" as a "utopia that has behaved from the beginning as though it was already achieved" (p. 29), he sees it as a "fiction," full of "plastic viewpoints," where "things seem to be made of a more unreal substance" (p. 30). This is the oil, without which suburban life, transformed in late petroculture from dreamworld to deathworld, cannot exist. Baudrillard notes this paradox, in his description of the "aromatic hillsides" of Santa Barbara, where

the villas are all like funeral homes. Between the gardenias and the eucalyptus trees, amongst the profusion of plant genuses and the monotony of the human species, lies the tragedy of a utopian dream made reality. In the very heartland of wealth and liberation, you always hear the same question: "What are you doing after the orgy?" What do you do when everything is available—sex, flowers, the stereotypes of life and death? This is America's problem, and, through America, it has become the whole world's problem.

All dwellings have something of the grave about them . . . the unspeakable house plants . . . the proliferation of technical gadgetry inside the house and beneath it, around it, like drips in an intensive care ward, the TV, stereo and video which provide communication with the beyond, the car (or cars) that connect one up to that great shopper's funeral parlour, the supermarket. (pp. 30-1)

Here, in the Californian lifeworld, is the very manifestation of a petro-necromance, with a "resort-style civilisation" guaranteeing "the loosing of the seals of the apocalypse" (p. 31). And what maintains this utopia? "These drilling platforms—"oil sanctuaries"—keeping watch in the night, like grand casinos, or extraterrestrial spacecraft" (p. 33). These alien generators, the tripods of urban modernity, are hidden from view, but their substance is everywhere required. This mediation LeMenager sees everywhere in the history of America's oil-built "environmental" architecture. Derricks and refineries help build a "petrotopia" of malls, suburbs, airports, and electronic commodities. This represents itself "as an ideal end-state, repressing the violence that it has performed [on various environments] and the dialectics of social and environmental process" (p. 75). In screening its petroleum dependency from sight, American petroculture creates instead a "monstrous reproduction of itself in its own image" (p. 75) manifesting in freeways, sprawl, and smog.

Baudrillard's excoriating take on the private inanity of jogging is elaborated into a metaphor for the needless energy sacrifices of American neoliberal subjectivity, expending the individual body for conservation, but simultaneously creating an environment and a social body resembling "the world of Blade Runner, the post-catastrophe world" (p. 39). In this, the carbon wrought (sub)urban world is faux-Utopian, running on empty in its naturalization of petrochemically-induced artifice:

Not to be aware of the natural light of California, not even of a mountain fire that has been driven out to sea by the hot wind, and is enveloping the offshore oil platforms in its smoke, to see nothing of all of this and to carry on running by a sort of lymphatic flagellation till sacrificial exhaustion is reached, that is truly a sign from the beyond . . . This entire society, including its active productive part—everyone—is running straight ahead, because they have lost the formula for stopping. (p. 39)

It is instructive to remember such a critique of America's—and the world's—insatiable appetite for a lifestyle based on sustained petroresources was written prior to the twenty-first century disaster events, from the "blood for oil" 9/11 wars to Deepwater Horizon and the 2008 financial crash. These events massively exposed the unsustainability of the offshore petro-system that the ecological structures of American natureculture—including Main Street and Wall Street—require in order to function as usual. They did not, in themselves, cause a swathe of SF easily identified as allegories of (eco)system collapse. Yet the opportunity for an uptick in the post-oil imaginary—commercially and ecopolitically—was not missed.

As environmental modernity has insisted upon "realistically" confronting the unsustainable levels of present petroleum extraction and burning, so cultural production has sought to drag Baudrillard's alien monster out of the shadows and inshore, making the oil-monster a more visible prop of the world we inhabit. An arresting example is the image prefacing Jonathan Skinner's poem "Auger," a response to the Deepwater Horizon crisis. It is a to-scale rendition of the tension-leg platform of a Shell oil installation in the Gulf of Mexico's Auger field superimposed over the city of New Orleans [18].

Skinner sees the Platform "like a giant alien creature," and the suggestion of invasion is clear, but the effect of the imposition is to demonstrate the very centrality of the alienated oil-extraction process to the centre of modern social and economic life. The platform is 200 miles off to the southwest of the city, submerged in the Mexican Gulf, but its true production regimes are established at its urban heart, straddling its organizational and institutional centre. Skinner's "drilled" poem graphically suggests offshore oil worlds are always onshore. They may appear alien—vampiric tripods, simultaneously sucking out the resources of the metropolis, and injecting oil into its bloodstream—but the effect is to remind the viewer of the giant, hidden mechanism that surrounds, hovers and hooks itself around our lived environments—and our cultural products—on a routine basis. The disastrously mundane circulation of oil has much to do with the naturalization of our everyday petroculture, but, as Rob Nixon has notably shown, this "slow violence" does not accord with a contemporary culture of immediacy and spectacle [19]. Exceptional events such as Deepwater Horizon literally bring the violence of oil—and the mystified and abstracted manner of it as commodity—horrifically and dramatically to the surface. This classic "beast-from-the-depths" trope is settled in SF and is a useful analogue for the prehistorically fugacious substance that lurks beneath the ocean—and its tentacular reach.

There might be a temptation to conclude that employing the "alien/ weird" form to illustrate the submerged infrastructure of oil and oilscapes in our energy cultures serves to perpetuate notions of oil as otherworldly and somewhat amorphous; that an image of the oil monster such as Skinner's poem uses detracts from the need to identify the anthropogenic foundations and social mechanisms of any oil system. If "dirty" energy appears entirely alien and irruptive, however, the reader of many petrotexts becomes aware of a correlative intent to reveal the structuring conditions of the people working on and operating such a mystified system [20]. This may be for future study to debate. What is clear is that a stage has been reached where oil is inextricably bound up with the kind of sublimated dread and monstrosity that mid-twentieth-century fictions of the atomic threat demonstrated. Given the ever-extending carbon-web, it has become standard to fully evoke such a fantastic, enabling substance as fantastical: as alien and malevolent but somehow (and depressingly, for techno-utopians, petro-states, and environmentalists alike) radically uncontainable. This once futuristic substance, in its refusal to become past, remains future threatening. This is partly to do with a prevalent inability to see its passing as anything other than a catastrophic problem: as ushering in a world of chaos and collapse. And elements of SF contribute, with varying degrees of directness, to this attitude.

Consider, for example, how myriad images of the various spill and burn zones of dead oilscapes—such as depictions of dry wells in Texas, Baku, or Venezuela—are configured as somehow wasteful or mournful, displaying a world of obsolete technology and rusting machinery to rival any of the best post-apocalypse landscapes. The work of art-photographers like Edward Burtynsky or Daniel Beltra is prominent here, but so too the shots of African oilscapes by photojournalists such as Ed Kashi and George Osodi, who frequently depict the extra-terrestrial appearances of pipelines, refineries, and storage tanks, cyborged into the villages and bush of the Niger delta and the megaslums of Nairobi and Lagos [21]. Beltra's and Burtynsky's shots of the vast spread of an oily ocean, a scene of environmental petro-violence borne by the Deepwater spill, compose a horrific form of petro-sublime. Their images capture the lurid, spreading appendages of oil stretching and choking across the marine surface, reaching out of the frame and spilling onto the shores of our environmental consciousness. There is a problem, however, in the instant and short-term gratification of such horror-sublime. Disaster events tend to have dispersant image-effects: they are, however horrific, short-lived, and do little to register the vast amounts of oil contained and burned daily. Only by considering the horror of oil's banality can we begin to register its everyday use as a central substance in the environmental fantasy that is late capitalism. In this sense, oil, stored, circulated and safely contained in vast quantities around the world's petro-systems, is always already immaterial and uncontainable. It is irrepressibly evaporating, slow-violent—and unseen.

We need, then, to go back to the source. The problematic uncontainability of deep underground powers is part of the history of the SF energy imaginary, and our contemporary petro-dread provides for new readings of such texts. The hollow earth/lost world narrative is the most obvious. Consider the petrolic relation between environmental disasters from the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater to the opencast Mordor of the Canadian Tar Sands, and the unearthed monster narrative resounds with ecocritical potential. It is surely no coincidence, though, that the first fifty years of the oil age, from mid-nineteenth century onwards, are consonant with such stories, from Jules Verne's Voyage au Centre de la Terre/Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) to Arthur Conan Doyle's "When the World Screamed" (1928). One of the most apposite here is H. P. Lovecraft's "At The Mountains of Madness" (1931). Read from late petroculture, this renowned adventure-horror becomes a story of carbon-dread and careless adventurism. The conclusion, where a nebulous subterranean force that has consumed a prior civilization is revealed, is replete with suggestions of fossil-terror [22]. It is worth recalling that Lovecraft's story relies upon a technological fix to advance its plot: a new form of drilling technique borne by state-of-the-art equipment allows the exploration team to bore through ground ice in hostile conditions. This is resoundingly familiar in an age of fracking and unconventional energy, where technological advances reflecting Lovecraft's fantasy allow energy companies to push back the projected limits of peak oil, ushering in an age where oil and gas will endure for some time yet. The consequences, of course, are seemingly unspeakable, and confront the limits of the knowable in the context of global warming's prospects.

As Lovecraft's narrative advances, the reader is certain a horror will come, but uncertain as to how it will manifest. What is clear is where: spilling and gushing from the ground up. The source of the horror has already, it seems, consumed one humanoid species. What shape it will take, we can only really guess; though we know something will come if we persist with the drilling and "enduring" of fossils. Warming is, to amend the words of Lovecraft's narrator, the "thing that will be." What eventual shape it will take, exactly, is multiform and hyperobjective, almost all disastrous [23]. The projection of horror thus becomes ironically fictional, but all too horrifically unreal. The story becomes a remarkable reading, then of the discovery—and surfacing of the horror-bringing subterranean source of a death substance:

What we did see—for the mists were indeed all too malignly thinned—was something altogether different, and immeasurably more hideous and detestable. It was the utter, objective embodiment of the fantastic novelist's "thing that should not be"; and its nearest comprehensible analogue is a vast onrushing subway train as one sees it from a station platform—the great black front looming colossally out of infinite subterraneous distance, constellated with strangely coloured lights and filling the prodigious burrow as a piston fills a cylinder.

But we were not on a station platform. We were on the track ahead as the nightmare plastic column of foetid black iridescence oozed tightly onwards through its fifteen foot sinus; gathering unholy speed and driving before it a spiral, re-thickening cloud of the pallid abyss vapour.

It is absolutely necessary, for the peace and safety of mankind, that some of earth's dark, dead corners and unplumbed depths be let alone; lest sleeping abnormalities wake to resurgent life, and blasphemously surviving nightmares squirm and splash out of their black lairs to newer and wider conquests. (pp. 334-5, 339)

"Keep it in the Ground" has been the contemporary rallying call of climate-activists as territories all over the Earth are ever more pockmarked with new drill-holes for various extended oil and gas ventures, and the final section of "At the Mountains of Madness" chimes with that advocacy. This is no anachronism, since the very non-renewability of oil ensures the petro-text's anxious undercurrent. Almost every petrofiction, even the most exuberant early "gusher" tales of epic discovery, register concomitant worry that this is a short-lived boon and an environmentally destructive substance. A life built on oil is inherently future-dystopic, utterly fictive and, as a phrase from the above passage suggests, "of the fantastic novelist's": both sensationally disastrous and always already temporary. The driving context for a contemporary reading, of course, is the unsustainable—and very likely unreachable—target of avoiding the most recent scientifically agreed danger of a 2-degrees temperature rise. Given that the amount of proven reserves already purchased on the stock market will likely be burnt, this is the "sleeping abnormality," the speculative and "unspeakable" situation that looms as a material eventuality [24].

"We go Looking for More" [contents]

Biophysically and financially, oil futures are one of the most significant and publicly mediated challenges to a future of environmental safety. It is no real surprise, then, to find a boost in what Szeman ("System Failure") describes as the most identifiable responses to this scenario in SF: despairing visions of eco-disaster/apocalyptic environmentalism or the more assertive—some might argue irresponsible—techno-utopian solutions, most typical of space opera [25]. I will return to the latter in conclusion, but I will first briefly address the petro-concerns laced through what has been identified as the "post-oil" text.

A characteristically ironic feature of eco-apocalypse narratives is their detectable strain of regret for the comforts and security of the petrolife we are now struggling to maintain: a "past" life, a post post-peak of continually desired or extended oil, most notably in its depletion, and especially after the event of an oil-driven collapse. Echoing the now well-rehearsed point about the difficulty of imagining the end of capitalism, it is admittedly, generally difficult to project beyond oil "realistically." Yet it is a reality that oil will end. How are we to read (often spectacular) descriptions of smashed highways, abandoned automobiles, ruined factories, faded billboards, derelict buildings, in texts riddled with eruptions and expressions of resource violence, without an entirely mournful response? Why is it that an imagined future without hydrocarbon excess and abundance (unevenly distributed) of a certain order seems difficult to conceive as hopeful, manageable, or even celebratory? Is life in slo-pocalyptic or sudden-collapse fiction anything other than a struggle?

Might it be better to read texts such as Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006) or Sarah Hall's The Carhullan Army (2007) or Steven Amsterdam's Things We Didn't See Coming (2009), with all their grief-tinged petro-artifacts, as offering a radical pessimism, a preventative culture-shock, as a form of preparation for the inevitably shattering fossil fuel-depletion ahead? Possibly. I do not wish to press any particular judgment here, on whether we should regard their subtextual attitude as problematic: as a logical—if ironic—extrapolation of a world so addicted to oil it cannot cognize any way to return to a pre-disaster life or transition to a post-oil reality, imagined post-post-apocalyptically as one where fossil energy is absent or radically reduced. It is true that many post-petrol novels herald some kind of (for me, worrying) neoLuddite return to a world of superseded social forms. Many such plots turn on the contradiction that somehow holding on to the remnants of a past super-fuel life, a fossilized life, or somehow returning to it, is pathetically desirable yet utterly impossible. McCarthy's novel does this consciously, I think, with its traces of dead roads compulsively followed, navigated by "a tattered oilcompany road map" (p. 43). Throughout, micro-quantities of kerosene and gasoline are divined from drying sumps and forecourt gas tanks, micro-alleviating the painful pedestrian odyssey through the "carbon fog" of the fallen world [26]. The novel recognizes that the faux-abundant forms of petro-life are non-returnable, a point made forcibly in the scene where the father and boy reluctantly quit the underground bunker they find full of pre-packed food (it had to be a non-renewable underground bounty that offered the best source of short-term exuberance and sustenance). That it is too dangerous, and unsustainable in the long term, for human survivors of catastrophe to remain in a space of unexpected abundance is a fairly explicit metaphor for the contradictions of the consumption economies we kill sustain ourselves with in the present: "the richness of a vanished world" (147), as the narrator poignantly remarks. The father recognizes a long-term generational responsibility, but the novel is short-termist on all fronts, from temporal organization to prose style, plot and focalization, and—similar to many others in this eco-apocalyptic genre—remains pessimistic to the possibility of a revived planet in the future.

If the message of the apocalypse is "do not rely on fossil fuel," then the world rendered by the apocalypse in SF usually does not listen, especially as multiple narratives hinge upon the dramatic desperation of attaining and sustaining dwindling or hidden supplies. This is not the world of the Imperial Star Cruiser's boosterism, but reiterations of a Mad Max-ianism, strewn across a variety of fictional vehicles, from television and Hollywood blockbusters to such speculative fiction as Alex Scarrow's Last Light (2008), Robert Charles Wilson's Julian Comstock (2009), or John Michael Greer's Star's Reach (2014). The second part of Justin Cronin's trilogy of vampire-viro-apocalypse, The Twelve (2012), for example, is strewn with references to the wasted automobile infrastructure of a post-wipeout US, with the wrecked gas station making innumerable appearances in the plot [27]. Energy supply and (re)generation is central to the first two parts of Cronin's trilogy, with crucial scenes staged around village power stations, biodiesel plants, and new food plantations. "Fuel was a constant worry," we are told, "yet somehow they always found more in the nick of time, their passage protected by an unseen hand" (p. 164). The life of the deracinated survivors is punctuated by the quest "to find more gas" (p. 105). A journey for sanctuary is ironically enabled by draining noxious oil from abandoned cars and old tanks, seeking to avoid the viral monsters of the world they created, yet again being inexorably followed by craven beasts (who themselves hang around gas pumps, waiting for their human prey) as they venture ever further to seek petroleum deposits. The central section of The Twelve, called "The Oil Road," details the attempt by survivors to create a barricaded route to access and delimit petroleum, the very lifeblood of their survival. This is humanity's continuing vampirism, as is explained clearly to one of the central protagonists:

"Where's the reserve?" The oil, Peter knew came from a holding tank deep underground . . . "Oil floats, so we pump in water and out it comes . . . How much is left down there?"

"Well, a shitload basically. By our estimates, enough to fill the cookers for another fifty years."

"And once it's gone?"

"We go looking for more." (p. 277)

Here is the zombified expression of extended oil, a world where petroleum, despite everything, remains undead. Its deathly brilliance, its accelerant uses, allows a form of desperate survival, and, as is explained, the ironic monstrosity of this is that the monsters themselves require the life of humans to extend, as permanently untapped deposits for future consumption. For humans, who create the monster-filled future, are themselves the ultimate, "organic" form of energy supply. As one character points out: "why destroy an energy source that maintained the very existence of [the viral] species?" (p. 292) Quite simply: no oil, no humans, no monsters.

Conclusion, or the "virtually inexhaustible" [contents]

The eco-apocalypse genre usually moves in narrative arcs from violence to turpitude, depending on relative access to energy. The field is packed. But what of post-oil fictions of renewable energy? The utopian imaginations of a powered-down society seem less realized. While not at all unidentifiable, they are less immediately apparent, and certainly seem less appealing in the popular SF marketplace. (There must be dynamic drama to be made in wind or tide or hydro-power? Powering down surely does not preclude thrill?) The message from the overall evidence seems to be that the speed and force of the combustion-machine aesthetic confirms its cognitive and libidinal grip on contemporary envisioning, and the components of space opera certainly rely to some extent on this attraction. Here, the Imperial Cruiser rides again and again. This, however, may be entirely the wrong way to think about the textures of space opera as a post-fossil genre, even at its most flagrantly imaginative rendering of dizzying new worlds of expanded mobility, ceaseless movement, superlative trade distances, impossible vehicular transport, flashy action, and so on. On the surface it may reflect what Stoekl calls "the sublime of externalities," a category where "we experience awe before the sheer task of calculating sustainability" and give up, defeated by the incalculable effort, envisioning instead a "fantastic" world of bountiful energy expendability and easy extraction (p. 45). But, he continues, "Is the recognition of the sublime in this case a defense strategy, a way of affirming ourselves before the horror of an incipient apocalypse—the roasting of the world caused by mindless overconsumption?" (p. 45). Might space opera, seen in this light, offer a more effective platform to realize "post-resource" fiction than the speculative forms of the apocalyptic?

If the energy unconscious forces us to confront this measure of sustainability in any text, then is what Szeman calls the "fiction of surplus" reflexively apparent in all SF texts, or particularly in those where excess is considerably—and explicitly—spent again and again? Consider this passage, from Iain M. Banks's first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas (1987), which opens with another ship seeking to escape, straight out of the factory on maximum acceleration mode, "on spent engines . . . corkscrewing as fast as it could, as directly as it dared" (p. 4). The exhilarating petroleum aesthetic is once again apparent, the novel appearing in the mid-80s uptick of "accessible" oil and excess gluts. Reading it from the present, however, an irony insists on appearing, notably by the closing postscript:

In practice as well as theory, the Culture was beyond considerations of wealth or empire. The very concept of money—regarded by the Culture as a crude, over-complicated and inefficient form of rationing—was irrelevant within the society itself, where the capacity of its means of production ubiquitously and comprehensively exceeded every reasonable (and in some cases, perhaps, unreasonable) demand its not unimaginative citizens could make. These demands were satisfied, with one exception, from within the Culture itself. Living space was provided in abundance, chiefly on matter-cheap Orbitals; raw material existed in virtually inexhaustible quantities both between the stars and within stellar systems; and energy was, if anything, even more generally available, through fusion, annihilation, the Grid itself, or from stars (taken either indirectly, as radiation absorbed in space, or directly, tapped at the stellar core). Thus the culture had no need to colonise, exploit or enslave. (p. 451)

Here is a bold vision of future inexhaustibility, of multiple, cheap resource frontiers opened up, with ever new fuel extraction and technology measures. This appears a world where Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROIE) calculations are not required any more, and where energy is not, on the surface anyway, entangled in power relations and imperial struggle [28]. The retrograde unevenness of Junk City machineries seems gone. The challenge for the contemporary reader still living in oil is to read such a projection as either another entertaining (and thus diversionary) spin on the energy sublime, avoiding a future of inevitable depletion and decline, or as offering a spur to a solution in its utopian, techno-optimistic projection. The inherent choice configured by SF's estranging qualities surely means we remain skeptical of a scenario developing where offshore fantasies prove as crude and "virtually inexhaustible" as mooted "realistic" solutions for transition? Certainly "insane fantasy" is what an environmentalist such as George Monbiot ("Interstellar") sees in the avoidance strategies of popular cinema, evinced by a movie such as Interstellar (Nolan 2014). Here, a "techno-optimistic" solution to looming planetary catastrophe is yet again thrown-up by the culture industry. By refusing to confront the hard possibility of earthly transformation, such a vision, for Monbiot, offers a form of "political defeatism" that effectively carries out the work of climate-change-denying agencies, including corporate capital. For Karen Pinkus, such an apparently outrageous future vision is "simply a present projected forward" ("Thinking" p. 204). This "future" has in fact been a recurring characteristic of our energy hopes from the (failed) promises of Atomic energy to the Hydrogen vehicle, promises that were "never going to signal the end of the carbon present" (p. 204). The "imaginary future" of many SF works, Pinkus argues, "is a future of boundless possibility based on technology but based in an entrenched continuity with a familiar/familial present" (p. 204).

This may be true, but there remains a subtle irony in the passage from Consider Phlebas, conveyed in that "virtually," concerning the projection of a world(s) where it will all be solved in the end as only ever virtual. The magic bullet for effective climate threat reduction, and the considerable political, economic, and governmental organization required to arrest it, in fact requires a massive degree of reality reflecting the gargantuan effort, scale, and scope of Banks's Culture vision, perhaps engineered by Szeman's hopes for "rational futurism" governing technological transformations and economic priorities [29]. This would feel like a whole new energy universe, a world where problematic emissions were not magically solved. This latter vision is one that a comic novelist like Douglas Adams satirized and exploited. His Hitchhiker's series [30] understood that the ability to inconsequentially bend space and time and shunt matter and material back and forth across realities and histories was a boon for the SF writer who remained both burdened with and invested in the literary requirements to find a "credible" means to do the transitions. So it is that the Heart of Gold, the spaceship in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980), has an "Infinite Improbability Drive." This "was the most beautiful and revolutionary ship ever built":

The Heart of Gold's Improbability Drive made it the most powerful and unpredictable ship in existence. There was nothing it couldn't do, provided you knew exactly how improbable it was that the thing you wanted it to do would never happen. (p. 14)

The subtle comedy of the double (triple?) negative hits right at the heart of the future-fuel/climate change dilemma, where the actual fiction of surplus is played out in "improbable" fictions of utopian and dystopian deferral and denial. The culture of the infinite drive via the fossil fuel era, as Dipesh Chakrabarty forcefully reminds us, has been linked to expansions of the modern right to "freedoms" throughout anthropogenic history. Yet at every point this "freedom" has occluded its restrictive and violent origins and endpoints, and has been hugely energy-intensive, to such an extent that we are unable to extricate this kind of fossil economizing from our short or long term, "infinite" vision of an actually realizable sustainable future. In this sense the "infinite drive" of oil-driven capitalism needs to radically rethink the improbability of that practice as futuristic. The power of SF's inbuilt reflexive awareness of the limits of its own infinite drive is what establishes its credibility on this issue. Here, fantastic visions satirize and reveal the energetic fantasy of the present's unfuture. Adams's subtext is, therefore, as ironically alert as it is worryingly simple: it is not going to happen, is it? Perhaps that is not the right way to pose the question, but it is for SF critics to debate. The point is, "it"—configured as environmental collapse—will happen, unless we develop the energy to reconsider and redirect the relentless fueled-up culture of the improbable drive's finitude. Can SF take us there, if only by taking us somewhere else entirely?

Endnotes [contents]

  1. Quoted in Bronson ("Thicker Than Oil", 17) [return]
  2. "What might happen if we frame intellectual and cultural periods and the literatures they encompass not in terms of movements . . . but in relation to dominant forms of energy?" ("Literature" p. 323). "What if we were to think about the history of capital not exclusively in geopolitical terms, but in terms of the forms of energy available to it at any given historical moment?" ("System Failure" p. 807). [return]
  3. This might be the expression of technological unevenness (with colonial and geopolitical subtexts) evidenced in first contact fiction. Ken MacLeod's Learning the World (2005), for example, (with conscious spoof genre-overlap) presents winged alien/humanoid/bat people trying to evolve flight technology, who are confronted by future humans in a generation starship powered by "a titanic engine . . . a cosmogonic machine [which] compacted the equivalent of a multi-megaton nuclear explosion into a space the size of a hydrogen atom" (p. 240). Or, the overlapping and heterotopic energy forms of China Mieville's Bas-Lag trilogy (Perdido Street Station (2000), The Scar (2002), Iron Council (2004)) in which magical forms of energy co-exist with the more ostensibly (but no less "magical") scientific, from the Torque and Crisis Energy to Thaumaturgy and Possibility Mining. Social unevenness exists in the post-refinery world of John Burnside's Glister (2008), and is economically and spatially distributed in the separate communities of "Innertown" and "Outertown," living in the shadow of a vast, obsolete, and mysterious chemical plant. [return]
  4. This emergent critical constituency, exerting claims for a cultural perspective on the history, present, and future of oil-based modes of living, has already stimulated wider expressions and critical focus on the general relations between fuel and cultural forms (including SF), providing serious impetus to the larger role of the Humanities in the debate over energy. See Barrett and Worden; Canavan; Szeman; LeMenager; Wilson and Pendakis; and the research cluster at [return]
  5. For an authoritative and wide-ranging source, see Canavan, who notes the irony that so many notable future societies in SF remain petro-economies. [return]
  6. Frank Kaminski offers one of the few extended essays on this topic, with interesting example texts. See also the anthology After Oil: SF Visions of a Post-Petroleum World (2012), edited by John Michael Greer. [return]
  7. See, for example, the entry on "Power Sources" in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (accessed January 2016) [return]
  8. We need also remember that this decade consolidated the Mad Max post-apocalyptic vision of resource depletion and oil sanctity. In this, despite a world of massive political and biophysical upheavals, petroleum emerges as an ever more precious and totemic commodity of function and power. [return]
  9. The term is from the Retort Collective's questioning of the "Blood For Oil" thesis of the 2003 Iraq War as eliding more fundamental questions about the periodic restructuring of capitalist forms of profitability. This is a form of oil fetishism, which established new roots in the OPEC crisis, from which oil majors emerged enriched and more powerful, and a new mode of hawkish, US-controlled globalization ("military-neoliberalism") was formed. [return]
  10. For a humorous but knowledgeable take on the plausibility of future fuel in SF, see Wenz. [return]
  11. On the rise, notable texts, and chief concerns of Petrofiction, see Ghosh; Szeman "Introduction"; Macdonald "Oil"; and Walonen. [return]
  12. Most of the fiction of the fossil age transposes elements from SF and fantasy to register the sensational, affective and objectively observable effects of the new energy regime. From the "fairy palaces" and "smoke serpents" of Hard Times to the Underworld and fabled beast imagery rendering Germinal a lost world of Hellish experience, the novel of coal cleaves to miasmic forms of myth and fantasy. Novels of oil encounter, such as George Mackay Brown's Greenvoe (1972) or Abdelrahman Munif's al-tih/Cities of Salt (1984) employ alien-invasion and robot-machine motifs throughout to demonstrate how the accelerated transitions of petro-development are experienced as inhuman. [return]
  13. See Macdonald, "Resources." [return]
  14. The magic-bullet, quasi-scientific "object," the classic device of so much SF, is more recently evident as a miraculous form of "clean" energy generation in such Hollywood blockbusters as The Dark Knight Rises (2012) and as The Tesseract of The Avengers (Whedon 2012). This, incidentally, can also be attributed to the various speculative imaginings of a hitherto unconceived "future energy," whether an eternal battery or perpetual fusion reactor, or some other kind of "mystical" or techno-utopian energy form. These and most other variants are really oil by any other name—with or without the toxic emissions. Its physical power—not to mention its capital force—seems, in the "after-oil" imaginary to require nothing less than like-for-like substitutes. Oil has often had magical qualities attributed to it in various world spaces of its discovery, especially in territories where "traditional" or peripheral cultures have been confronted by the coming of oil. Writers from Nigeria to Venezuela, Saudi Arabia to Scotland have employed language, styles, and concepts of magic realism and fantasy as they have sought to register oil's (false) promise of "free" wealth without cost and labor. This "magic"—which is not always conceived as a positive force—is also connected to oil's unexpected eruptions: seemingly "out of nowhere," bringing massive transformation and astounding physical power (see for example Wenzel, Coronil). As Wenzel (462) notes, "the petroleum industry itself, is not immune to the discourse of petro-magic." The locality and singularity of the techno-utopic device is rendered simplistic in light of the concept of the "hyperobject" (e.g., climate change, an oil field, the biosphere, etc.) in ecological philosophy (see Morton, Ecological and Hyperobjects). We might argue that the actual Centauri Device, once it is discovered, has a hyperobjective ambience in the spread of its power and abstraction. [return]
  15. He writes: "A mouse or a man works in much the same way as a petrol motor; its fuel is its food, and precisely after the fashion of a petrol motor, if it lacks either fuel or air it will cease to move, and slowly become cold. Moreover, the living engine needs an exhaust; as exhaled carbon dioxide or in other ways it must get rid of the products of this combustion or they will clog its system and impede its working" (p. 22). [return]
  16. Comprising Light (2002), Nova Swing (2006), and Empty Space (2012). [return]
  17. Samuel Delany uses the exact same term—Junk City—in an interview on his Trouble on Triton (1974) to describe those urban zones of "techno-chaos" and low-tech obsolescence in the consumer electronics commodity city of late (and future) capitalism (p. 303). [return]
  18. The image appears in the US Government's National Commission's "Report to the President" (39) on the Deepwater disaster, available at The report also has a graphic section (35) on the various types of offshore platforms, appropriately entitled "Deep Sea Monsters." The poem and image are available at (URLs accessed January 2016) [return]
  19. Sheena Wilson and Andrew Pendakis, writing on the spectacle of a huge Bucketwheel Excavator on display by the highway in the Tar Sands development area of Northern Alberta, describe it as an unusual moment when oil fails to occlude its domain from public vision, appearing as "an oil extraterrestrial, anonymous, without use or place, beyond sensible scale, a creature, weapon or tool, perhaps . . . At once hideous and foreign this is an object freed to a place beyond stable relations, beyond meaning or inherence, pure defamiliarization in all its discomfort and uncertainty" (p. 1). [return]
  20. Werner Herzog describes his Lessons of Darkness (1992), which documents the attempt to cap the burning oil wells of Kuwait in the aftermath of the 1992 Gulf war, as "a science fiction film," as "a way of explaining that the film has not a single frame that can be recognized as our planet, and yet we know it must have been shot here," and as "a requiem for a planet that we ourselves have destroyed" (p. 248-9). The film reverses the perspective on oil as extraterrestrial, offering instead an extraterrestrial viewpoint on the "alien" apocalypse of oil on earth. It "progresses as if aliens have landed on an unnamed planet where the landscape has lost every trace of its dignity" (p. 249). The humans responsible for re-capturing the oil proceed by means of reigniting the gushers. They appear anonymous, spacesuited throughout, and are referred to by the voiceover as "creatures." Herzog admits he was trying to capture our petrol world as "a darkened planet somewhere in our solar system" (p. 249). [return]
  21. See;;; (URLs accessed January 2016). [return]
  22. Subsurface fear is replicated in petro-narratives throughout the following century. Consider, for example, the Bedouin tribe's incredulous reaction to oil's discovery by the US oil company in Munif's al-tih/Cities of Salt: the earth "began to do incredible, unfathomable things . . . there was a prolonged tremor within the earth, like a convulsion, and the insides of the earth began to spill out" (p. 65). [return]
  23. There is an interesting future correlate in Fred Hoyle's The Black Cloud (1957), in which an unknown gaseous phenomenon comes from space to threaten the entire Earth, blocking out the sun. [return]
  24. The 2013 International Energy Agency "World Energy Outlook" report concluded that the rising demand from the emerging economies, despite all attempts at carbon reductions, still "leaves the world on a trajectory consistent with a long-term average temperature increase of 3.6 degrees C, far above the internationally agreed 2 degrees C target." It also predicts a tenfold increase in the production of unconventional fossil fuels to 100mb/d. On the futures question and the financialization of the Carbon Web, see Berners-Lee and Clark. [return]
  25. In another iteration of the themes in this essay, Szeman ("Oil Futures") sees a possible resolution in "rational futurism," and views as exemplary the large scale terraforming efforts of a neo-planned economy in Kim Stanley Robinson's Science in the Capital trilogy (Forty Signs of Rain [2004], Fifty Degrees Below [2005], Sixty Days and Counting [2007]). [return]
  26. "There were two gas pumps outside and they sat on the concrete apron and lowered a small tin can on a string into the underground tank and hauled it up and poured the cupful of gasoline it held into a plastic jug and lowered it again. They'd tied a small length of pipe to the can to sink it and they crouched over the tank like apes fishing with sticks in an anthill for the better part of an hour until the jug was full" (p. 229). The laborious contrast with the speed and ease of the self-service forecourt of the pre-collapse world is apparent in repeated action and prose style. Here the novel signals both a return to the pre-oil primary labor of subsistence (the fishing time) and also the inability to let go of the useful remnants of petroleum. [return]
  27. "The twelve regions of blackness blotted the city, but elsewhere, lights still glittered in the gloom—flickering streetlamps, filling stations and convenience stores with their distinctive fluorescent glow, porch lights left burning for their owner's return . . . a traffic signal eighteen floors below still dutifully turned from green to yellow to red and then to green again" (p. 22). In a later scene, a creature hides in the gas station, revealing itself as a protagonist siphons fuel from a 4/4. The gas station is the culminating location of Monsters (Edwards 2010), where huge, tentacled alien beasts meet and energize as they move into the US from Mexico. In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Reeves 2014) the plot turns on the (re)discovery of hydroelectric power in the post-apocalyptic forest foliage of the apeworld, where a prominent scene shows the humans celebrating as the lights and noise of a derelict gas station come back on. [return]
  28. Though, as ever in the Culture series, black-ops and imperialist notions are everywhere afoot. [return]
  29. Of course, this all contravenes our long acculturation to an energy source with relatively "effortless" extraction and combustion physics. Oil has repeatedly corroborated Marx's "Free gift" of nature, but in an "unconventional oil" era, this is no longer the case. [return]
  30. Comprising The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979), The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980), Life, the Universe and Everything (1982), So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish (1984), and Mostly Harmless (1992). [return]

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