Sex, lies and peak oil

Prelude by Kurt CobbBOOK REVIEW

Prelude: A Novel about Secrets, Treachery and the Arrival of Peak Oil
By Kurt Cobb
Public Interest Communications, 270 pp, $14.95

From Pilgrim’s Progress to Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Atlas Shrugged, writing the didactic novel  has always been an exercise in sugaring the pill.

Instead of crafting an essay to make a point straight out, the didactic novelist hopes to use characters and plot to tell her truth slant and thus reach a wider audience. And whether it’s John Bunyan warning of the dangers of straying from the Christian path, Harriet Beecher Stowe trying to drum up followers for her father’s Abolitionist movement or Ayn Rand urging America to free the capitalists from the nanny state, the story-with-a-message has to find just the right balance of sugar and pill.

Too much pill, and it’s not much of page turner. But too much sugar, and the message isn’t very strong.

Though Cobb is an experienced peak oil blogger and speaker, as well as one of the co-founders of ASPO-USA, he resists the temptation to put in too much pill. Set in the best place on Earth for stories of political skulduggery, Washington, DC, Prelude revolves around all the trouble that a secret report on oil reserves in a Saudi-like Middle Eastern nation heaps on the heads of a beautiful young oil industry analyst and a peak oil-aware Russian musician reminiscent of peak-oil writer Dmitry Orlov.

The story is able to develop suspense, tension and intrigue because Cobb keeps information about oil depletion and its possible consequences to a minimum. And Cobb peppers the plot with just enough details of the inside workings of an energy analysis firm — the fictional agency reminds me of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, well known for its dogged optimism about future oil supplies — to add verisimilitude.

Cobb also admirably avoids the other extreme of didactic literature, coating the subject with too much sugar. It’s refreshing that Cobb is able to resist the bonbon apparently most tempting to the peak oil sweet tooth, visions of apocalypse. Though the price of crude per barrel does rise steadily throughout the story, Cobb narrates few consequences of expensive oil except a demonstration by truckers in front of the Capitol against pain at the diesel pump.

Could Cobb have offered readers a bit more sugar, perhaps of the James Bond or John le Carré variety? Could he even have afforded to mix in a bit more pill on peak oil, along the lines of say, Ken Follett, who weaves enough detail about building cathedrals into The Pillars of the Earth to qualify its reader as an apprentice medieval stone-mason?

Sure. But Cobb clearly had the good sense to keep his book short. This makes Prelude a good entreé to an issue that’s too often presented in a way to make it scary or intimidating or both. If you know someone — a friend or family member — who enjoys political thrillers but doesn’t yet know about peak oil, then Prelude is the book for them.

The subject of peak oil needs more novels. I hope that more writers will follow Cobb’s example.

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