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  • Introduction to Focus:Petrofictions
  • Imre Szeman, Focus Editor (bio)

It requires surprisingly little effort to produce an alternative history of the past century in which oil plays the role of the central protagonist directing and organizing human life activity. Narratives of the World Wars are still typically shaped around the brave (or foolish) decisions made by generals and politicians to attack this or that enemy position following the dictates of military strategy. But ever since armies became mechanized, air forces took to the skies, and navies began to rely on oil (instead of coal) to fuel their ships, much of what passes for strategy can be encapsulated in the simple dictate to gain and maintain access to oil at any cost. In WWII, Japan and Germany began from positions of energy weakness: no oil on native soil. As a result, the drive of the Germans to Russia and North Africa, and of Japan to Southeast Asia, was motivated as much by the need for energy to keep their militaries on the move as they were by popular national narratives gone awry. Of Pearl Harbor, oil historian Daniel Yergin has written that "the primary target of this huge campaign remained the oil fields of the East Indies;" the attack on the U.S. was carried out in order to protect the Japanese flank and to safeguard tanker routes to the home island from Borneo and Sumatra. A modern world history told with oil at its center would no doubt be reductive, missing all manner of important human social, cultural, and political developments: the cause of WWII was not energy security, after all. At the same time, histories told without considering oil fail to account for the ways in which our dominant energy source shapes our lives materially and socially.

Oil is a substance whose impact has left its traces everywhere. The twentieth century would not have been the same without a source of energy easy to store and transport—one with a huge energy output per unit of fuel and which forms the basis of all manner of other substances (from plastics to lubricants) without which it is hard to imagine life on the planet today. That oil plays an important role in our lives in ways that we might not have believed—or have wanted to believe—is a fact that seems, at long last, to have become a conscious part of our social imaginaries. There is certainly no other commodity that commands public attention like oil, from news about the consequences of oil spills to expressions of growing concern about the environmental impact of our CO2 economies. The freedoms and new forms of community generated by wireless devices and instantaneous global communication systems remain weighed down by the physical necessity of oil to make social and economic systems operate. Global and domestic politics are increasingly organized around energy security, whether this takes the form of Gulf War military adventurism, battles over pipeline expansions, or strategic investments by nations and sovereign wealth funds in extraction sites around the world. At a moment in which the exemplary form of the capitalist corporation is the tech firm, oil companies still retain the position that they have for much of the last century amongst the planet's largest, most profitable, and most powerful firms. In the twenty-first century, we are no longer as blind as we once may have been to the simple fact that oil matters, and matters a great deal.

In his prophetic 1992 essay "Petrofictions," author Amitav Ghosh famously laments the lack of fictions addressing oil and what he terms the "Oil Encounter"—the historic intertwining of the fates of Americans and the peoples of the Middle East over this resource. Ghosh offers multiple reasons why the sixteenth-century spice trade—his point of comparison—generated greater fictions (for example, Luís de Camões's The Lusaids [1572]) and more of them than has oil, including the professionalization of contemporary fiction, which he claims has to come to focus on "a stock of themes and subjects, each of which is accompanied by a well-tested pedagogic technology." But if there is a single, dominant reason for the dearth...


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