This first novel by founding member of the Association of Peak Oil (ASPO) and prominent science writer Kurt Cobb, whose commentaries on the depletion of resources appear frequently in S-Citizen magazine and is author of Resource Insights blog, was written with the stated purpose of informing the unaware public of the danger presented by the peak of global fuels. In Prelude, Cobb manages to give the reader new to the concept of Peak Oil a good survey course in the essentials of oil production, while telling an engrossing story with a likable, interesting protagonist, that will keep the reader turning the pages, and introduce the reader to the world of oil production and the reality of terminal resource decline.
Cobb has wisely avoided the temptation to write another work of "doomer porn" of struggle and death in an imagined post -peak collapse, and set his novel in the present day world. "I decided to create a narrative set firmly in contemporary society," Cobb states. " I wanted a story that would reframe the way people read the daily news and the way they interpret their everyday experience. My premise was that readers would more readily identify with a world familiar to them than one set in the distant future or transfigured by an imaginary crisis."
What he gives us instead is a fast-paced, suspenseful novel whose actions center around the career of its protagonist, the appropriately named Cassandra "Cassie" Young, an attractive and highly talented, but complacent young energy analyst who is a rapidly rising star at her firm, which very much resembles real-world Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA); and the shattering of her complacent world view and her belief in her work as she discovers both the lie of endless cheap energy, and the deep corruption of her firm.
Cassie has, like many top professionals, built a stunningly successful career in her field at a very youthful age, not only by her exceptional talent, but by never questioning her firm's gospel, which is that the world has an infinite reserve of cheap, accessible oil, and that we can rely upon the magical power of technology to solve any all problems, including the potential terminal decline of the substance that fuels it. It is when Cassie meets Victor Chernov, a brilliant and eccentric Russian musician and wealthy former oil trader, that her cozy, privileged personal world is turned upside down and she confronts the fact of the peaking and inevitable depletion of the world's most critical resource, and the destruction of her career and the life she's built upon it. Victor is a believer in the Peak Oil theory and he manages to interest Cassie enough in attend a ASPO conference, but Cassie remains skeptical until she brings Victor to the housewarming at the palatial new home of her firm's egotistical CEO, Larry Hillard, where Victor discovers, in a casual conversation with a landscape worker, that the house was paid for by a shadowy entity that turns out to be a front for one of the firm's major clients, the Kingdom of Ammar,the world's largest oil producer.
Here, Cobb illustrates the power of denial as Cassie at first dismisses the evidence of her employer's malfeasance and corruption. When she and Victor leave his party, he asks her how she thinks Hillard can legally pay for his landscaping through his company, and Cassie, as yet oblivious to the implications, replies, "he must have the best tax lawyer in Washington." But the seeds of doubt have been planted; and Cassie, troubled by the clear conflict of interest, delves deeper, enlisting Victor's assistance in breaking into her boss's email, where she discovers the firm's most closely guarded secret, the true figures for Ammar's reserves, which are far below the numbers published by the firm.
Events move quickly from here, and Cassie finds that her view of her world has changed forever. She can no longer function in her career, for that depends upon her ability to remain blind to the implications of the report that she has stolen, and even her relationship with her lover, Paul, is tested, and fails, as Paul is revealed as self-centered and cowardly. When Cassie confides to Paul that she might be in a great deal of trouble because her theft of the report has been apprehended, he shrieks," How could you do this to me!", and it is too obvious to Cassie that the consequences to her are his last consideration.
The conclusion of the novel is less than satisfying, as Cassie is forced to end her career, and accepts a massive severance check in return for her silence regarding the contents of the stolen report, and her permanent retirement from the energy industry. Thus, she can do no good with the knowledge she has gained at price of her career and risk of her very life, but her $2 Million severance check will permit her to make a separate peace,, as it were, and the novel concludes with her decision to leave her high-powered career and Washington D.C. forever to "go live in Vancouver... on some land... and grow a few tomatoes."
Many readers will be critical of Cassie's rapid transition from True Believer in the gospel of perpetual cheap energy and the magic of technology to solve any problem; to Peak Oil believer after a month's acquaintance with one man, a conference, and one damning document' and anyone who has ever worked in the financial world knows how unlikely it is that an employee who broke into the CEO's email and downloaded highly sensitive documents would be allowed to escape with so little punishment, let alone a lavish payout. In the real business world, people like Cassie are utterly, completely, totally destroyed, if they're even allowed to live, and they're fortunate if they're allowed to slink away utterly discredited and completely impoverished with no chance of recovery to a decent career ever.
Many other readers may also question Cassie's ethics in allowing herself to be "bought" and silenced, but I find her believable and sympathetic, and in her place, I would not have acted differently. Why risk everything you have, including your life, to deliver a message the world does not want to hear? Our young Cassandra rightly perceived that her message would only meet with contempt and denial from a public that has too much invested in not hearing it, and that the best use she could make of her unwanted new knowledge was to save herself... and go off to Vancouver and grow some tomatoes.
Altogether a very pleasurable, fast read and a novel I'd recommend to the non-Peak-Oil aware among your friends and relatives.