Cloud Atlas: Fiction is Immortal

The third story in the Cloud Atlas sextet is “Half Lives: A Luisa Rey Mystery,” which the reader later finds out is a work of fiction being read by one of the later characters in the novel. Luisa Rey is a serious reporter who is stuck working for a tabloid in the fictional Buenas Yerbas, California, 1975. Luisa meets Rufus Sixsmith by chance one night. Sixsmith was formerly a scientist at the Seaboard HYDRA nuclear power plant on nearby Swannekke Island. Sixsmith tells Luisa that he was fired from Seaboard for expressing his belief that the plant is not safe. Luisa attends the unveiling of the plant at Swannekke and listens to a speech by Seaboard CEO, Alberto Grimaldi. Grimaldi claims the Swannekke plant will help end the United States’s dependence on oil for fuel:

“Our great nation suffers from a debilitating addiction.”

Alberto Grimaldi, Seaboard CEO and Newsweek Man of the Year, is king of the dramatic pause.

“Its name is Oil.”

He is gilded by the podium lights.

“Geologists tell us, just seventy-four billion gallons of this Jurassic ocean scum remain in the Persian Gulf. Enough, maybe, to see out our century? Probably not. The most imperative question facing the USA, ladies and gentlemen, is ‘Then what?’”

Alberto Grimaldi scans his audience. In the palm of my hand.

“Some bury their heads in the sand fantasize about wind turbines, reservoirs, and”— wry half smile—” pig gas.”

Appreciative chuckle.

“At Seaboard we deal in realities.”

Voice up.

“I am here today to tell you that the cure for oil is right here, right now, on Swannekke Island!” He smiles as the cheers subside.

“As of today, domestic, abundant, and safe atomic energy has come of age! Friends, I am so very, very proud to present one of the major engineering innovations in history … the HYDRA-Zero reactor!” (103)

Sixsmith watches the same speech from the television in his home and feels even more compelled to expose that the Swannekke plant is unsafe:

Frustrated and weary, Rufus Sixsmith addresses the TV.

“And when the hydrogen buildup blows the roof off the containment chamber? When prevailing winds shower radiation over California?”

He turns the set off and squeezes the bridge of his nose. I proved it. I proved it. You couldn’t buy me, so you tried intimidation. I let you, Lord forgive me, but no longer. I’m not sitting on my conscience any longer. (107)

Shortly after his vow, Sixsmith is murdered by Bill Smoke, an assassin for Seaboard.

Luisa begins to investigate Sixsmith’s murder and realizes that he had written a report with all of his findings and was going to go public with it just before his death:

“He was murdered, Jakes.”

Jakes represses a here-we-go-again face.

“Who by?”

“Seaboard Corporation. Of course.”

“Ah. His employer. Of course. Motive?”

Luisa forces herself to speak calmly and ignore Jakes’s mock conviction.

“He’d written a report on a reactor type developed at Swannekke B, the HYDRA. Plans for Site C are waiting approval. When it’s approved, Seaboard can license the design for the domestic and overseas market— the government contracts alone would mean a stream of revenue in the high tens of millions, annually. Sixsmith’s role was to give the project his imprimatur, but he hadn’t read the script and identified lethal design flaws. In response, Seaboard buried the report and denied its existence.”

“And your Dr. Sixsmith did what?”

“He was getting ready to go public.” Luisa slaps the newspaper. “This is what the truth cost him.” (p. 114)

Luisa befriends Seaboard scientist Isaac Sachs who gives her a copy of Sixsmith’s report: “some five hundred pages of tables, flowcharts, mathematics, and evidence” (140). However, before she can use it to expose Seaboard, Bill Smoke pushes her car containing both her and the report off a bridge. Luisa manages to the escape but is unable to save the report. Meanwhile, a plane with both Grimaldi and Sachs as passengers explodes mid-flight, killing everyone onboard. Seaboard’s head of security, Joe Napier, seeks out Luisa after she is attacked by Smoke. He pleads with her to drop the story and save herself. Federal Power Commissioner, Lloyd Hooks takes over as CEO of Seaboard. It becomes apparent that Hooks hired Smoke to kill Luisa, Sixsmith, Sachs and Grimaldi to ensure the success of his coup. Luisa receives the location of another copy of the report in a letter from Sixsmith delivered after his death. She is able to get it but Smoke and Napier kill each other in the process. Luisa is able to expose Hook and the following article is printed about him:

LLOYD HOOKS SKIPS $ 250,000 BAIL PRESIDENT FORD VOWS TO “ROOT OUT CROOKS WHO BRING IGNOMINY TO CORPORATE AMERICA” A BYPD spokesman confirmed the newly appointed CEO of Seaboard Power Inc. and former Federal Power Commissioner Lloyd Hooks has fled the country, forfeiting the quarter-million-dollar bail posted Monday. The latest twist to “Seaboardgate” comes a day after Hooks swore to “defend my integrity and the integrity of our great American company against this pack of nefarious lies.” President Ford entered the fray at a White House press conference, condemning his former adviser and distancing himself from the Nixon appointee.

“My administration makes no distinction between lawbreakers. We will root out the crooks who bring ignominy to corporate America and punish them with the utmost severity of the law.”

Lloyd Hooks’s disappearance, interpreted by many observers as an admission of guilt, is the latest twist in a series of revelations triggered by a Sept. 4 incident at Cape Yerbas Marina Royale in which Joe Napier and Bill Smoke, security officers at Seaboard Inc.’ s controversial Swannekke Island atomic power stations, shot each other. Eyewitness Luisa Rey, correspondent to this newspaper, summoned police to the crime scene, and the subsequent investigation has already spread to last month’s killing of British atomic engineer and Seaboard consultant Dr. Rufus Sixsmith, the crash of former Seaboard CEO Alberto Grimaldi’s Learjet over Pennsylvania two weeks ago, and an explosion in Third Bank of California in downtown B.Y. which claimed the lives of two people. Five directors at Seaboard Power have been charged in connection with the conspiracy, and two have committed suicide. Three more, including Vice CEO William Wiley, have agreed to testify against Seaboard Corporation. The arrest of Lloyd Hooks two days ago was seen as vindication of this newspaper’s support for Luisa Rey’s exposé of this major scandal, initially dismissed by William Wiley as “libelous fantasy culled from a spy novel and wholly unworthy of a serious response.”  …   Cont. p. 2, Full Story p. 5, Comment p. 11.  (434-435).

This part of Cloud Atlas is yet another example of the life and energy equivalency. Hooks has chosen his human sacrifices to pay for energy, very similar to what the Capital does in The Hunger Games. However, he is unable to murder Luisa and so his plan for that energy fails.

Also, I like to think that the reason that “Half Lives” is described as fiction in Cloud Atlas (character Timothy Cavendish receives a “Half Lives” manuscript later in the novel) is the same as my own reason for reviewing works of fiction about energy. It is far more likely, however, that the work is fictitious so that the audience will consider whether souls can just as easily be contained in characters in fiction as they can in live persons. Stories may in fact be alive, in a sense. Regardless, the fictitious nature of “Half Lives” allows for later characters such as Timothy Cavendish, Somni and Zachry to interact with the story on some level. Cavendish reads “Half Lives” and then his memoirs are made into a film about his life. Somni watches that film and then Zachry’s people deify Somni. Major events of human history are hidden from Somni and Zachry but both are able to interact this text. Fiction is immortal. If this is true, than fiction is great rhetorical tool for moving ideas throughout history.

 

Energy narrative characteristics found in this novel: life=energy, environmental degradation, corporate ruthlessness, exaggerated inequalities, impedes labor unions/civil rights campaigners, segregation, insurrection

The Hunger Games

The plot of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is driven by coal. The main characters in the series, Katniss, Peeta, and Gale, all live in District 12, which was formerly known as Appalachia: “Even hundreds of years ago, they mined coal here. Which is why our miners have to dig so deep” (42).  In this post-apocalyptic world, District 12 provides all of the coal for a country called, Panem, which is ruled by “the Capitol.” District 12 is one of the poorest districts in Panem, and is divided into two social classes, the coal miners of the Seam and the merchant class that sells to them, a clear example of exaggerated inequalities and convenient racism. The worlds of both classes revolve so entirely around coal, that the curriculum in District 12 schools is entirely based on it:

Somehow it all comes back to coal at school. Besides basic reading and math most of our instruction is coal-related. Except for the weekly lecture on the history of Panem. It’s mostly a lot of blather about what we owe the Capitol. I know there must be more than they’re telling us, an actual account of what happened during the rebellion. But I don’t spend much time thinking about it. Whatever the truth is, I don’t see how it will help me get food on the table. (41-42)

The descriptions of the coal miners in District 12 are quite similar to the ones in King Coal: “Men and women with hunched shoulders, swollen knuckles, many who have long since stopped trying to scrub the coal dust out of their broken nails, the lines of their sunken faces” (4). Not only is it uncomfortable work, coal mining appears to have returned to being just as dangerous as it was during Sinclair’s time:

Then there are the mine accidents…A family once brought in an unconscious young man pleading with my mother to help him. The district doctor who’s responsible for treating the miners had written him off, told the family to take him home to die. But they wouldn’t accept this. He lay on our kitchen table, senseless to the world. I got a glimpse of the wound on his thigh, gaping, charred flesh, burned clear down to the bone, before I ran from the house. I went to the woods and hunted the entire day, haunted by the gruesome leg, memories of my father’s death. (178-179).

As she references in this passage, Katniss’s father died in a mine explosion, leaving her to be the provider for her family. Without Katniss’s help her family would starve:

Starvation’s not an uncommon fate in District 12. Who hasn’t seen the victims? Older people who can’t work. Children from a family with too many to feed. Those injured in the mines. Straggling through the streets. And one day, you come upon them sitting motionless against a wall or lying in the Meadow, you hear the wails from a house, and the Peacekeepers are called in to retrieve the body. Starvation is never the cause of death officially. It’s always the flu, or exposure, or pneumonia. But that fools no one. (28).

Katniss had to sign up for the “tesserae” at an early age. Beneficiaries of the tesserae receive a year’s supply of grain and oil in exchange for their submitting their name into the Hunger Games lottery additional times. The Hunger Games is a battle royale between young adult representatives of each district. The Capital hosts it every year as punishment for the rebellion of the districts many years earlier. Naturally, Katniss and Peeta win the famous lottery and are sent to kill each other and kids from other districts in the Hunger Games arena. With some clever survival techniques and a political romance, both Katniss and Peeta make it out alive, but it seems that they might have accidentally inspired a revolution in the process.

In Catching Fire this revolution plays out. The Capital cracks down on each of the districts, especially District 12. They close the mines, introduce more capital punishment, try to starve the citizens and eventually send Katniss and Peeta back into the Hunger Games arena. However, these tactics only cause the rebellion to spread:

As the days pass, things go from bad to worse. The mines stay shut for two weeks, and by that time half of District 12 is starving. The number of kids signing up for tesserae soars, but they often don’t receive their grain. Food shortages begin, and even those with money come away from stores empty-handed. When the mines reopen, wages are cut, hours extended, miners sent into blatantly dangerous work sites. The eagerly awaited food promised for Parcel Day arrives spoiled and defiled by rodents. The installations in the square see plenty of action as people are dragged in and punished for offenses so long overlooked we’ve forgotten they are illegal. Gale goes home with no more talk of rebellion between us. But I can’t help thinking that everything he sees will only strengthen his resolve to fight back. The hardships in the mines, the tortured bodies in the square, the hunger on the faces of his family (Catching Fire 131-132).

Finally at the end of Catching Fire, full-blown rebellion brakes out. The Capital firebombs District 12 in retaliation and most of the population dies. A few people are able to escape including Katniss, Peeta, Gale and Katniss’s family and eventually in the final book, the districts are able to overturn the Capital and establish a new government for themselves.

The Hunger Games series is one of the clearest examples of the life and energy equivalency that I have studied. The Capital does not care about District 12 as long as they meet their coal quotas. They do not have any safety laws in place. They do not care if there are accidents or deaths in the mines, as long as their coal quotas are met. To ensure that their energy is paid for, as all energy must be paid for with life, the Capital creates the Hunger Games, which requires two human sacrifices from District 12. Their deaths make sure that the coal is paid for. In the year that there are no deaths from District 12 in the arena, the Capital loses their energy, and in order to get it back they must go to war. However, the rebels realize that they can pay for it with their own lives and so the Capital is destroyed in this pretty bleak energy narrative.

 

Energy narrative characteristics found in these novels: life=energy, environmental degradation, political oppression, exaggerated inequalities, impedes labor unions/civil rights campaigners, segregation, convenient racism, nomadic existence, insurrection.

King Coal: Undercover Boss

“Mary,” he said, “did you ever read about ants in Africa?”

“No,” said she.

“They travel in long columns, millions and millions of them. And when they come to a ditch, the front ones fall in, and more and more of them on top, till they fill up the ditch, and the rest cross over. We are ants, Mary” (58).

In King Coal by Upton Sinclair, Hal Warner, the son of a rich coal tycoon, decides to go undercover to learn about the mining business from the workingman. Hal dons the name “Joe Smith” and gets a job with the General Fuel Company (GFC), the company of one of Hal’s college friends, Percy Harrigan’s father, so that his own employees will not recognize him. In order to get the job Hal has to swear that he does not belong to a union. Over time, Hal befriends the miners and begins to realize the corrupt business practices taking place. For example, the bosses show favoritism to certain workers because of their ethnicity, which causes racism to be rampant in the coal camp. Hal also laments about the difficulty of the work itself, after he changes positions from taking care of the mules to working directly in the mines:

If any one had told him the horror of attempting to work in a room five feet high, he would not have believed it. It was like some of the dreadful devices of torture which one saw in European castles, the “iron maiden” and the “spiked collar.” Hal’s back burned as if hot irons were being run up and down it; every separate joint and muscle cried aloud. It seemed as if he could never learn the lesson of the jagged ceiling above his head—he bumped it and continued to bump it, until his scalp was a mass of cuts and bruises, and his head ached till he was nearly blind, and he would have to throw himself flat on the ground…It was amazing how many ways there were to bruise and tear one’s fingers, loading lumps of coal into a car. He put on a pair of gloves, but these wore through in a day. And then the gas, and the smoke of powder, stifling one; and the terrible burning of the eyes, from the dust and the feeble light. There was no way to rub these burning eyes, because everything about one was equally dusty. Could anybody have imagined the torment of that—any of those ladies who rode in softly upholstered parlour-cars, or reclined upon the decks of steam-ships in gleaming tropic seas? (38)

Hal also realizes that the coal bosses are cheating the workers out of their commission. The bosses weigh each worker’s cart of coal and determine how much that worker will be paid. The bosses always underrepresent the amount of coal in each cart. Hal notes that the government has passed a law that allows for the workers to appoint a check weigh man to check the bosses’ estimate of the coal weight. Hal argues with one of the miners about whether unions are needed to enforce such laws:

“How do you feel about unions?”

Hal answered, “They’re one of the things I want to find out about. You hear this and that—there’s so much prejudice on each side. I want to help the under dog, but I want to be sure of the right way.”

“What other way is there?” And Olson paused. “To appeal to the tender hearts of the owners?”

“Not exactly; but mightn’t one appeal to the world in general—to public opinion? I was brought up an American, and learned to believe in my country. I can’t think but
there’s some way to get justice. Maybe if the men were to go into politics—”

“Politics?” cried Olson. “My God! How long have you been in this place?”

“Only a couple of months.”

“Well, stay till November, and see what they do with the ballot-boxes in these camps!”

“I can imagine, of course—”

“No, you can’t. Any more than you could imagine the graft and the misery!”

“But if the men should take to voting together—”

“How can they take to voting together—when any one who mentions the idea goes down the canyon? Why, you can’t even get naturalisation papers, unless you’re a company man; they won’t register you, unless the boss gives you an O. K. How are
you going to make a start, unless you have a union?”

It sounded reasonable, Hal had to admit; but he thought of the stories he had heard about “walking delegates,” all the dreadful consequences of “union domination.” He had not meant to go in for unionism!

Olson was continuing. “We’ve had laws passed, a whole raft of laws about coal-mining—the eight-hour law, the anti-scrip law, the company-store law, the mine-sprinkling law, the check-weighman law. What difference has it made in North Valley that there are such laws on the statute-books? Would you ever even know about them?”

“Ah, now!” said Hal. “If you put it that way—if your movement is to have the law enforced—I’m with you!”

“But how will you get the law enforced, except by a union? No individual man can do it—it’s ‘down the canyon’ with him if he mentions the law. In Western City our union people go to the state officials, but they never do anything—and why? They know we haven’t got the men behind us! It’s the same with the politicians as it is with the bosses—the union is the thing that counts!”

Hal found this an entirely new argument.

“People don’t realise that idea—that men have to be organised to get their legal rights” (41-42).

Hal will change his opinion about unions later in the novel, but first he tries to convince the bosses to the change their ways with the law. The miners choose Hal to be their check weigh man, however when Hal tries to work with the bosses, they try to bribe him into keeping his mouth shut. When it becomes clear that the Hal cannot be bought the marshal attempts to frame Hal for accepting a bribe so that the workers will no longer trust him. Though Hal outwits them, he is eventually put into the jail by the marshal. The marshal threatens Hal and tells him that he has two choices: he can admit to stealing money and be fired or he can go to jail for ten years. Hal lets the marshal in on the fact that he is not really a worker but the son of a wealthy businessman. The marshal immediately changes his tune and lets Hal go.

Shortly thereafter, there is an explosion in the mine. The explosion was caused by the dryness of the air, which is saturated with coal dust and allows for sparks with any sort of friction. These explosions can be prevented by the sprinkling of a special chemical around the mine, something that the bosses frequently neglect to do. After the explosion, the GFC seals the mine because it will suffocate the fire and leave much of the coal unburned, however, this seals up many of the workers as well. The bosses are only interested in saving the property, one of them even shouts: “Damn the man! save the Mules!” Hal tells this story to a reporter, who prints the story but claims that since his is from a poor-man’s newspaper that it will not prompt a rescue operation. Hal seeks out Percy Harrigan and tells him and his guests about the horrors of the mine:

“You’ll hardly be able to believe it; but nothing has been done to rescue these men. The criminal has nailed a cover of boards over the pit-mouth, and put tarpaulin over it—sealing up men and boys to die!”

There was a murmur of horror from the diners.

“I know, you can’t conceive such a thing. The reason is, there’s a fire in the mine; if the fan is set to working, the coal will burn. But at the same time, some of the passages could be got clear of smoke, and some of the men could be rescued. So it’s a question of property against lives; and the criminal has decided for the property. He proposes to wait a week, two weeks, until the fire has been smothered; then of course the men and boys will be dead” (137).

Percy agrees to tell his father’s employees to open the mine but they convince him that everything is already being done to do so and that Hal Warner is wrong. The workers organize a strike and a union to demand their rights from the bosses.

Hal pleads with the United Mine Workers to support the strike. They tell him that though they would love to be able to support the workers they do not have the ability to help them, since it would take resources away from strikes they are more invested in:

Don’t misunderstand us!” [the union boss] cried. “It’s heartbreaking—but it’s not in our power to help. We are charged with building up the union, and we know that if we supported everything that looked like a strike, we’d be bankrupt the first year. You can’t imagine how often this same thing happens—hardly a month we’re not called on to handle such a situation. (192)

King Coal is the quintessential novel about the early American coal industry. It exposes the seedy underbelly of big business at the turn of the twentieth century. It is similar to Oil! in that the book is extremely dense and full of important passages about corporate corruption, lack of political oversight, racism and the need for Sinclair’s socialism and unions. Coal was what moved the world before oil and still provides a significant amount of energy to power grids across the United States. While the ruthless and supposedly now, archaic practices of the GFC in the novel can no longer exist to the same degree today in the United States, they still exist around the world, and we support them through our consumerism.

I attended a lecture recently by Prismatic Ecologies author, Jeffrey Cohen on “Geophilia, or the Love of Stone.” His lecture inspired me to think about humanity’s fascination with not only coal but also oil and other energy minerals in a new way. Cohen one of the reasons for humanity’s fascination with stone especially in Medieval thought because it represents immortality. I wonder if it is this obsession with taking an immortal substance from the earth and using it as a life force is just a way for humans to try to rob the mineral of its immortality. This theory would both explain the life and energy equivalency that is so common in energy narratives and the hesitation of humans into looking into alternative energy sources.

Energy narrative characteristics found in this novel: life=energy, environmental degradation, corporate ruthlessness, political oppression, exaggerated inequalities, impedes labor unions/civil rights campaigners, segregation, convenient racism, nomadic existence, insurrection.

Cities of Salt: the Myth of the Positive Energy Narrative

“How is it possible for people and places to change so entirely that they lose any connection with what they used to be? Can a man adapt to new things and new places without losing a part of himself?” (Cities of Salt 134).

Like Oil!, Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif, is an example of the classic corporate ruthlessness story. A group of Americans, likely backed by the government, drill for oil in the 1930s Persian Gulf. They displace and abuse the groups of people there as well as destroy the environment. Cities of Salt begins with the Americans discovering oil in a desert oasis, called Wadi al-Uyoun. The Americans that come to the Wadi al-Uyoun are referred to with religious imagery. The people there wonder if they are jinn because they are not Muslims yet they speak Arabic, and do not appear to want the water that is found in the wadi. The emir tries to convince the people that the Americans are not jinn but rather their saviors with a more positive form of religious imagery: “Don’t be afraid. We want you to help them in every possible way. They have come from the ends of the earth to help us.”

When the Americans start drilling for oil in the wadi, the machines are described with religious imagery as well: “Lights that shone from them were like shooting stars” (98). Miteb al-Hathal, an elder in the community, is vehemently against the Americans taking up residence in the wadi. He sees the machines as a sign of the apocalypse: “Deep inside him he knew, when the thunder stopped, that the world had ended” (98). The people of Wadi al-Uyoun have similar feelings to Miteb al-Hathal as they “looked on with fearful eyes in utter silence, not knowing when the gates of Hell would open up and swallow everything.” Later in the novel, the Arabs still refer to the Americans using religious imagery. They name the pleasure cruise that arrives in Harran (I will explain more about Harran later) “King Solomon’s ship” and “Satan’s ship” because of the American’s wild displays of pleasure. The workers consistently claim that the Americans have some sort of supernatural powers: “The Americans have come between our men and their wives; they’ve made fools of us and tomorrow they’ll use their witchcraft to turn men into women and women into men! They’ll conjure us into monkeys! God damn them and the day they came here! God help us—I seek refuge in God fro Satan the accursed” (531). Munif’s use of religious imagery is reminiscent of the positive energy narratives found in religious myths. By making the Americans into devils, he is asserting, whether consciously or unconsciously, that there are no positive energy narratives anymore. There will never be another god or angel delivering life force in the form of an energy resource to a group of people suffering from sickness, death and other demons. Instead, the people will suffer at the hands of the new evil, greed.

After the Americans start drilling, the wadi ceases to be a paradise and can no longer sustain the community that lives there: “After destroying the first grove of trees, the tractors turned to the next with the same bestial voracity and uprooted them. The trees shook violently and groaned before falling, cried for help, wailed, panicked, called out in helpless pain and then fell entreatingly to the ground, as if trying to snuggle into the earth to grow and spring forth again” (106). As a result, many of the residents of the Wadi al-Uyoun follow the Americans to their new place of interest, Harran, in hopes of finding work. The Americans mock the workers in Harran because they do not know what they are doing. The workers also have to use dangerous machines that they do not know how to operate. Many of them consider leaving but as soon as they receive their first paycheck, they change their minds: “No one had ever dreamed of getting that much money, and none had ever possessed that amount before” (185). The Americans soon segregate Harran into two sections, American Harran and Arab Harran, thereby forcing the Arabic workers into the more rundown part of the city. In addition, the Americans divide the workers into castes. For example, they send the troublemakers to “Station 4,” which is notoriously dirty and difficult work, to segregate them from the other workers.

Mizban, an Arabic worker, dies as a result of poor working conditions, yet the Company refuses to pay: “The company stubbornly refused to pay any payment, because the ‘law is the law, and rules are rules.’ Their excuse was always that responsibility for the workers’ welfare had not been transferred to the company until after Mizban’s death, “and before that date the company did not recognize or assume any rights or liabilities’ (366). Mizban’s death and later, the death of Hajam, causes the workers to have their first thoughts of rebellion: “When workers talked about the armed Bedouin who were to avenge Hajam and Mizban—for they were all sure that they would come today or the next day—they lowered their voices and agreed that they would prepare a place for Ibn Hathal and his Bedouin to stay; they would be hidden in places that no one would discover, and Ibn Rashed would never find out” (384). One of the workers, Daham, starts carrying a gun around, and later fire is set to the American camp. The Americans believe that it is Miteb al-Hathal who is responsible but the novel is never clear. It is possible that a disgruntled worker is really to blame.

The Americans start work on a pipeline from Wadi al-Uyoun to Harran. They find the heat in the desert unbearable. In this instance, we see nature fighting back, since had they not destroyed the wadi, they would have had some shelter from the heat:

The Americans were in the same nervous, quarrelsome frenzy that had possessed them during the dredging of the harbor, with one difference: this time they were in the desert, in the midst of Hell itself. They were used to going back to their compound ever day, to its swimming pools and air-conditioned rooms, but here, now, they were like animals surrounded by raging fire (505).

The workers start playing pranks on the now vulnerable Americans. One worker captures a jackal and lets it loose in the American camp. He sings a afterward about nature will exact retribution on the Americans for their crimes: “O blue-eyed Americans, wherever you go/ Wherever you try to flee,/ The sun is above and the scorpions below./ The lizards mangle your balls/ And the foxes feast on your asses,/ O blue-eyed Americans, wherever you go/Where will you flee, O eyes of blue?”

When the Americans finish their pipeline they let go many of the workers and as a result a strike breaks out. The company doesn’t believe they are at fault: “We’re convinced that the matter goes beyond the firing of the twenty-three workers. The company has laid off workers in the past and there was no reaction at all. Not only that, the company subsequently rehired them, or some of them. But this time our preliminary assessments indicate the existence of other reasons, of acts of incitement that did not obtain in previous instances. We believe that these causes, these acts have nothing to do with the company.” The workers band together and feel more and more empowered as they do so:

They felt afraid, but still dared to say things they would never have said had they not been so consumed with sorrow and anger. Why did they have to live like this, while the Americans lived so differently? Why were they barred from going near an American house, even from looking at the swimming pool or standing for a moment in the shade of one of their trees? Why did they Americans shout at them, telling them to move, to leave the place immediately, expelling them like dogs? Juma never hesitated to leash out with his whip when he found the workers in “restricted areas” (595).

The company asks their Arabic security guards to put an end to the strike, without violence, at least at first, they said. However, violence is exactly what happens. First, two men are killed, but this seems to inspire the workers to charge despite the gunfire and overwhelm the company’s security force. The workers take the day and the company is forced to reinstate them: “His Highness ordered the reinstatement of all workers to the company, and the company has acceded to his wishes. His Highness also ordered for the formation of a committee to study and identify the responsibility for the recent events.” Munif ends the novel on a positive note, despite the fact that the Americans still remain in the Gulf. I tend to agree with Amitav Ghosh’s theory about the ending, that Munif wanted to give the workers the positive ending that he knew they would never receive in real life.

Energy narrative characteristics found in this novel: life=energy, environmental degradation, nature fights back, religious element, corporate ruthlessness, political oppression, exaggerated inequalities, segregation, convenient racism, nomadic existence, insurrection.

Oil!: How to Buy the Presidency of the United States

Oil! by Upton Sinclair is a classic example of how oil corrupts businessmen and government alike. Sinclair was inspired to write the novel following the Teapot Dome Scandal, which was when the Secretary of the Interior, Albert B. Fall, accepted bribes to lease petroleum reserved for the navy to two private oil companies during the 1920s. The novel follows the life of James Arnold Ross Jr., or Bunny, who is the son of one of an upcoming oil tycoon. I wish that I could go into more detail in describing each of the key scenes in this novel, but I would end up with a post five times as long, thus I will only discuss the following two scenes: beginning of Ross Sr.’s corporate ruthlessness on a local level in Paradise, California, and Ross’s and Roscoe’s corporate ruthlessness on a national scale when they attempt (and eventually succeed) in buying the president of the United States.

Part 1

Ross discovers an “ocean of oil” underneath the property of the Watkins family in Paradise, a small town in Southern California. Ross then buys the Watkins’s property at only the land price rather than also paying them for the oil he found on their property. This is first of many immoralities committed by members of the oil industry throughout this novel. The Rosses integrate themselves into Paradise life and become good friends with the Watkinses and other members of the town. Bunny becomes good friends with Paul and Ruth Watkins, while Ross squares off with Old Man Watkins and his religious son Eli. As Bunny gets older he begins to realize that his father is not as much of a hero has he reveres him to be. Ross tends to cut corners and invest the money he makes in expansion rather than in making safer working conditions. As a result, one of Ross’s workers, Joe Gundha, has a fatal accident at the well, but as the narrator puts it: “the less you thought about a thing like that, the better for your enjoyment of the oil-game!” (153). Shortly thereafter the well in Paradise, catches fire and explodes, causing major damage to the environment around it:

They were never to know what did it; perhaps an electric spark, or the fire in the boiler, or a spark made by falling wreckage, or rocks blown out of the hole, striking on steel; anyhow, there was a tower of flame, and the most amazing spectacle— the burning oil would hit the ground, and bounce up, and explode, and leap again and fall again, and great red masses of flame would unfold, and burst, and yield black masses of smoke, and these in turn red. Mountains of smoke rose to the sky, and mountains of flame came seething down to the earth; every jet that struck the ground turned into a volcano, and rose again, higher than before; the whole mass, boiling and bursting, became a river of fire, a lava flood that went streaming down the valley, turning everything it touched into flame, then swallowing it up and hiding the flames in a cloud of smoke. The force of gravity took it down the valley, and the force of the wind swept it over the hill-side; it touched the bunk-house, and swallowed it in one gulp; it took the tool-house, everything that was wood; and when there came a puff of wind, driving the stream of oil and gas to one side, you saw the skeleton of the derrick, draped with fire! (160-161).

In order to put the fire out, Ross orders that the well be blown up, an extremely risky job for his workers: “the man who worked in that hole was risking his life— suppose the wind were to shift, even for a few seconds, and blow that mass of boiling oil over him! But the wind held strong and steady…they would go as close as they dared, before they set the dynamite” (162). What is worse, is that Ross does not even seem dazed by the well’s explosion, as if environmental disasters like these and dangerous labor practices are all happenstance:

[Ross:] “Why, boy, we got an ocean of oil down underneath here; and it’s all ours— not a soul can get near it but us! Are you a-frettin’ about this measly little well?”

[Bunny:] “But Dad, we worked so hard over it!”

Dad laughed again.

[Ross:] “Forget it, son! We’ll open it up again, or drill a new one in a jiffy. This was jist a little Christmas bonfire, to celebrate our bustin’ in among the big fellers!” (163- 164).

Part 2:

Many years later, Ross partners with the corrupt Vernon Roscoe, who convinces him that they should buy politicians to protect their oil prospects. At one point in the novel, Roscoe and Ross conspire to win the Republican nomination for president for Senator Harding. Roscoe and Ross believe that Harding is more likely to keep the government out of the oil industry and leave it to the private sector:

“Dad, you’re proposing to buy the presidency of the United States!”

“Well, that’s one way to say it. Another is that we’re protecting ourselves against rivals that want to put us out of business. If we don’t take care of politics, we’ll wake up after election and find we’re done for…”

“It’s such a dirty game, Dad!”

“I know, but it’s the only game there is. Of course, I can quit, and have enough to live on, but I don’t feel like being laid on the shelf, son.”

“Couldn’t we just run our own business, Dad?”

“There’s no such thing, son— they’re jist crowding you all the time. They block you at the refineries, they block you at the markets, they block you in the banks— I don’t tell you much about it, because it’s troubles, but there’s jist no place in the business world for the little feller any more. You think I’m a big feller because I got twenty million, and I think Verne is a big feller because he’s got fifty; but there’s Excelsior Pete— thirty or forty companies, all working as one— that’s close to a billion dollars you’re up against. And there’s Victor, three or four hundred million more, and all the banks and insurance company resources behind them— what chance have we independents got? Look at this slump in the price of gas right now— the newspapers tell you there’s a glut, but that’s all rot— what makes the glut, but the Big Five dumping onto the market to break the little fellers? Why, they’re jist wiping ’em off the slate!”

“But how can public officials prevent that?”

“There’s a thousand things that come up, son— we got to land the first wallop— right at the sound of the bell! How do we get pipe line right-o’-ways? How do we get terminal facilities? You saw how it was when we came into Paradise; would we ever ’a got this development if I hadn’t ’a paid Jake Coffey? Where would Verne and me be right now, if we didn’t sit down with him and go over the slate, and make sure the fellers he puts on it are right? And now— what’s the difference? Jist this, we got bigger, we’re playin’ the game on a national scale— that’s all. If Verne and me and Pete O’Reilly and Fred Orpan can get the tracts we got our eyes on, well, there’ll be the Big Six or Big Seven or Big Eight in the oil-game, that’s all— and you set this down for sure, son, we’ll be doin’ what the other fellers done, from the day that petroleum came into use, fifty years ago.”

“It’s all very well for a feller to go off in his study and figure out how the world ought to be; but that don’t make it that way, son. There has got to be oil, and we fellers that know how to get it out of the ground are the ones that are doing it. You listen to these Socialists and Bolshevikis, but my God, imagine if the government was to start buying oil-lands and developing them— there’d be more graft than all the wealth of America could pay for. I’m on the inside, where I can watch it, and I know that when you turn over anything to the government, you might jist as good bury it ten thousand miles deep in the earth. You talk about laws, but there’s economic laws, too, and government can’t stand against them, no more than anybody else. When government does fool things, then people find a way to get round it, and business men that do it are no more to blame than any other kind of men. This is an oil age, and when you try to shut oil off from production, it’s jist like you tried to dam Niagara falls.” (p. 299-300).

They are successful and sure enough Senator Harding becomes President Warren G. Harding. Roscoe and Ross become more successful than ever, and are able to continue to expand despite several strikes from their workforce, at least for a while. As I mentioned earlier, there are many more scenes in Oil! that make it one of the most important energy narratives to read. There are strikes, labor abuses, dirty politics, and dog-eat-dog business dealings, not to mention a manipulation of the masses through religion. In fact, Oil! is the only one of the narratives that I have written about so far that has all of my twelve energy narrative characteristics. If you have the time, I definitely recommend reading this novel, as it is both enlightening and an interesting read.

Energy narrative characteristics found in this novel: life=energy, environmental degradation, nature fights back, religious element, corporate ruthlessness, political oppression, exaggerated inequalities, impedes labor unions/civil rights campaigners, segregation, convenient racism, nomadic existence, insurrection.

The Matrix: The Human Energy

Whenever I watch the Matrix I think of this commercial:

 

What they weren’t thinking of was this:

The human pods in the Matrix. Photo from Matrix Wiki.

 

Many years before the Matrix is set, future humans create machines with artificial intelligence. The machines get tired of serving humans and so they rebel. The humans fight back by attacking their energy source, the sun. The machines strike back by growing humans and using their bioelectricity as a source of energy. In order to keep the growing humans under control, the machines created a virtual reality called the matrix. The humans are plugged into the computer program and experience full lives as if they were living in the early 21st century.

The humans outside do not have the resources to wage war against the machines and so they hack into the matrix to try and rescue humans who start to disbelieve.

We don’t know who struck first, us or them, but we know that it was us that scorched the sky. At the time, they were dependent on solar power, and it was believed that they would be unable to survive without an energy source as abundant as the sun. Throughout human history, we have been dependent on machines for survival. Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony. The human body generates more bioelectricity than a 120-volt battery and over 25,000 BTUs of body heat. Combined with a form of fusion, the machines had found all the energy they would ever need. There are fields, Neo, endless fields, where human beings are no longer born. We are grown. For the longest time, I wouldn’t believe it, and then I saw the fields with my own eyes; watched them liquefy the dead so they could be fed intravenously to the living. And standing there, facing the pure, horrifying precision, I came to realize the obviousness of the truth. What is the Matrix? Control. The Matrix is a computer-generated dream world built to keep us under control in order to change a human being into this [holds up a coppertop battery].

–Morpheus

 

The idea that human beings can literally be used as energy against their will is immensely disturbing, and so is the idea that our reality is not reality but rather a system of control. Of course, my mentioning these two facts about the Matrix is not at all a subtle way to say that these two facts are a comment on the energy industry today. People in Nigeria, for example, are forced to work for very little money in outrageous conditions because they have no other opportunities and know no other reality. They are the energy that powers the energy industry. They are human energy.

Energy narrative characteristics found in this movie: life=energy, environmental degradation, political oppression, exaggerated inequalities, segregation, convenient racism, nomadic existence, insurrection.

Avatar: an Alien Invasion Film

“This isn’t a war,” said the artilleryman. “It never was a war, any more than there’s war between man and ants.”

― H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds

 

The plot behind Avatar is simple: aliens leave their home planet, which they have depleted of natural resources, and invade a new planet with the hope of stealing its natural resources. Luckily, the people rise up and kick the aliens out with the help of a handy computer virus and the President’s kick-ass fighter pilot skills! Oh, wait a minute, that’s Independence Day… Joaquin Phoenix melts their skin with water and beats them with a bat? Nope, that’s Signs. Right, right, this movie is where the cowboys blow up the aliens that are searching for gold.

Do you see where I’m going with this? Avatar is just another alien invasion film, except that this time, humans are doing the invading. And what are they invading for? Energy resources of course!

The corporation that is inspiring the ruthless invasion in this movie is referred to as “the Company,” as James Cameron is rarely a fan of subtlety. The Company is after a super-conductive mineral named unobtanium, which is used for all sorts of things, including energy production. They fund an expedition to a moon, referred to by the humans as Pandora. Pandora appears to be a giant rainforest and is inhabited by the Na’vi, giant, blue-skinned humanoids with cat-like features and cat-like reflexes. The Na’vi live in complete balance with nature, so naturally they are upset by the idea of humans mining their world for unobtanium. The Company funds a project called the Avatar program, where scientists mix human and Na’vi DNA to create Na’vi bodies that humans can “drive”. Being inside an avatar allows for humans to explore Pandora since its air is toxic to humans and its environment is difficult to navigate. The Company, who is represented on Pandora by a character named Selfridge (more subtlety), also hopes that humans who appear to be Na’vi will be more effective in convincing the Na’vi to allow humans to mine on Pandora.

Selfridge to Grace Augustine (lead scientist in the Avatar program): “Look, you are supposed to be winning the hearts and minds of the natives. Isn’t that the whole point of your little puppet show? You look like them, you talk like them, and they’ll start trusting us. We build them a school, we teach them English. But after, what, how many years, relations with the indigenous are only getting worse.”

Augustine: “Yeah that tends to happen when you use machine guns on them.”

Selfridge: “Right. Come here. [holds up mineral] This is why we’re here. Unobtanium. Because this little gray rock sells for 20 million a kilo. That’s the only reason. It’s what pays for the whole party. It’s what pays for your science. Comprendo? Now those savages are threatening our whole operation, we’re on the brink of war and you’re supposed to be finding a diplomatic solution. So use what you’ve got and get me some results.”

The Company recruits Jake Sully, a paraplegic former marine, to take over his late twin brother’s avatar. Sully is approached by the head of security on Pandora, Colonol Quaritch, and asked to spy on the scientists, whom he believes to be less and less accepting of the idea of mining unobtanium. Sully becomes a bodyguard to Dr. Grace Augustine, the lead scientist in the Avatar Program, and her assistant, Norm Spellman. While Augustine and Spellmen are out researching the local flora, Sully’s avatar is attacked by the local fauna and is forced to flee into the forest. He is rescued by Neytiri, the Na’vi chief’s daughter. Neytiri determines that Sully is protected by the Na’vi goddess, Eywa, after Sully is touched by a seed of the Eywa tree. She then takes him to her her mother, Mo’at who is the clan’s spiritual leader. Mo’at says that it is the will of Eywa that Sully learn the ways of the Na’vi. As Sully becomes more and more integrated into the Na’vi’s society, he begins to regret his mission to spy on them for Quaritch. Sully learns that Selfridge and Quaritch want to mine directly under the Na’vi’s village, (called Hometree). Quaritch becomes impatient and threatens to use force to remove the Na’vi if Sully does not convince them to move in a timely manner:

Selfridge: “Sully, find out what the blue monkeys want. You know I mean, we tried to give them medicine, education, roads. But, no, no, no, they like mud. And that wouldn’t bother me, it’s just that their…their damn village happens to be resting on the richest unobtanium deposit within 200 klicks in any direction. I mean, look at all that cheddar.”

Sully: “Well, who gets them to move?”

Col. Quaritch: “Guess.”

Sully: “What if they won’t go?”

Col. Quaritch: “I’m betting that they will.

Selfridge: “OK, OK, OK. Look. Look. Killing the indigenous looks bad. But there’s one thing that shareholders hate more than bad press, and that’s a bad quarterly statement. I didn’t make up the rules. So, just find me a carrot that’ll get them to move. Otherwise, it’s going to have to be all stick. OK?

Col. Quaritch: “You got three months. That’s when the ‘dozers get there.”

 

Instead of convincing the Na’vi to move, Sully takes out a bulldozer that is set to destroy a sacred sight to the Na’vi and Quaritch manages to catch it on film. Quaritch also raids Sully’s personal video logs and shows Selfridge one of the logs where Sully admits that the Na’vi will never leave Hometree, so Selfridge, somewhat reluctantly, orders a raid on Hometree.

Col. Quaritch to Sully: “You let me down son. So what, you find yourself some local tail, and you just completely forget what team you’re playing for?”

Augustine: “Parker, there is time to salvage the situation.”

Col. Quaritch: “Shut your pie hole.”

Augustine: “Or what, Ranger Rick? You gonna to shoot me?”

Col. Quaritch: “I could do that.”

Augustine: [to Parker Selfridge] “You need to muzzle your dog.”

Selfridge: “Yeah, can we just take this down a couple notches, please?”

Sully: [to Col. Quaritch] “You say you want to keep your people alive? You start by listening to her.”

Augustine: “Those trees were sacred to the Omaticaya in way that you can’t imagine.”

Selfridge: “Aw, you know what? You throw a stick in the air around here, it’s going to land on some sacred fern for Christ’s sake.”

Augustine: “The wealth of this world isn’t in the ground. It’s all around us. The Na’vi know that, and they are fighting to defend it. If you want to share this world with them, you need to understand them.”

 Col. Quaritch: “I’d say we understand them just fine thanks to Jake here…

[Sully on tape]: “They aren’t going to give up their home. They’re not going to make a deal. For what? For lite beer and blue jeans? There’s nothing that we have that they want. Everything they sent me out here to do is a waste of time. They’re never going to leave Hometree.”

Col. Quaritch: “So, since a deal can’t be made I guess things get real simple, Jake.”

Augustine, Sully and Spellmen are able to escape from the base, with the help of helicopter pilot, Trudy Chacón. Sully is able to rally of the clans of the Na’vi to attack the Company forces, in an attempt to drive them from Pandora for good.

Sully prays to Eywa to join their fight against the humans. The Na’vi fight against the humans and just when it appears that all hope is lost the animals of Pandora launch a concentrated attack and take out the remaining humans. The humans are forced to leave Pandora with the exceptions of Sully, Spellmen and a few other scientists. Sully says: “the aliens went back to their dying world. Only a few were chosen to stay.”

The plot’s similarities to an alien invasion film are a metaphor for how ridiculous it is for a company to come in and take a society’s natural resources. The audience is always behind the humans in an alien invasion film and feels a sense of global pride when they work together to kick out the invaders. So why do we think it is okay to send a company to a foreign country to drill for oil and commit atrocities to the people and the environment there in the process? Sully claims that the Company was able to do this by making the Na’vi their enemy: “This is how it’s done. When people are sitting on s*** that you want, you make them your enemy, then you’re justified in taking it.” The humans develop a convenient racism towards the Na’vi, calling them blue monkeys and referring to them as if they were animals, and so they feel justified in destroying them. Fortunately in this narrative, the weaker force is both able to revolt and win their revolution (with aid from nature herself!) against the invaders, even if that is not the way it is in real life.

Energy narrative characteristics found in this movie: life=energy, environmental degradation and destruction, nature fights back, religious element, corporate ruthlessness, political oppression, exaggerated inequalities, segregation, convenient racism, nomadic existence, insurrection.