Oil and Tourism in the Bakken

I learned last week that my Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch has been accepted for publication. It received two more or less positive peer reviews, a good editorial review, and the endorsement of an established, but up-and-coming press. 

I now have about a month to make some serious revisions to the manuscript and to prepare maps for each of the seven tourist routes through the Bakken. The biggest challenge will be to revise the final section of the guide which is a more scholarly treatment of landscapes, tourism, and archaeology. In keeping with ideas that I began to hash out in my work on “slow archaeology,” I focused on the intersection of archaeology and modernity but instead of relating it archaeological methods, I consider how archaeology can help us to understand the dynamic landscape of the Bakken.

I make this move using a bit of puckish trickeration. Archaeology intersects with tourism to transform the past into our modern concept of heritage, which can then be commodified and monetized. This parallels the role extractive industries play in transforming geological formations into fossil fuels available for the market. Tourism binds the two together as the Bakken landscape – for both the tourist and worker – depends on oil to structure our interaction with it. 

I recent book titled After Oil from the Petrocultures group at the University of Alberta emphasizes the link between oil and the foundation of modern society. Oil is not just another commodity or resource, but also a key structuring element in our economy, political culture, and society. For the conclusion of my book, I play with Dean MacCannell’s idea that tourism (particularly self-guided tourism) provided a quintessentially modern way to organize bourgeois dominion of the world through the creation of highly mobile tourist class, and mash it up with growing interest in the archaeology of the modern (and even contemporary) world. Tourism in the Bakken (and, perhaps more broadly, industrial tourism) offers the tourist a chance to subject their own world to the critical scrutiny of the “tourist’s gaze.” Through this process, the Bakken gains a kind of authenticity – produced ironically from the tourist expectation that their encounters with the wider world exist outside the influence of tourism. In other words, tourism, particularly in places where tourists are not expected, plays directly to our modern, Western, 21st-century ways of viewing the world. What’s more exciting is that by authorizing this kind of industrial, contemporary tourism, we’re offering glimpse of the founding acts of modernity in the production of fossil fuels. Without oil, tourism, the tourist class, and our modern world would not be possible.

By re-appropriating the founding moment of modernity through the tourist gaze, we confront the complexities and contradictions necessary to produce the energy that our world – including the act of tourism – requires. In other words, we creating a way for modernity to look at itself in the mirror. 

These ideas are complex and require a familiarity with both the discourse of modernity and the more specialized critiques of industrial archaeology, archaeology of the contemporary world, and tourism. The series editor requested that I revise the final section of the book significantly and, instead of offering an academic critique, make it as accessible to a wide audience as the rest of the book. After a bit of grumbling (to myself) I decided to start that process this weekend. Keep an eye out for revised and clarified text!

More Work at North Dakota Quarterly

One of my most intriguing and rewarding projects this year is to work with the good folks over at North Dakota Quarterly to develop their digital presence. 

Today, we’re excited to post the first “Short Take” which are short essays centered on various media from books to music and film. So instead of reading my babble, go and check out Sharon Carson’s essay on Gillen D’Arcy Wood’s Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World (Princeton 2014)

I’ve also been messing with a new header image that incorporates SUN FROGS

This uses my conventional template: 


This one is a bit different. I wish there was a way to make the NDQ more numinous. I wonder if fading the edges would help a bit… but that’s tricky because if I reduce the edge contrast to introduce a gradual fade to our white website background, I’ll lose the sun frogs. 


Well, adding non-opaque white outlines to the NDQ helps a bit as does cropping a bit less aggressively.


This is probably best left to professionals. Go read Sharon Carson’s reflections on Tambora (the book and the volcano) and the social impacts of climate change.

Sneak Peak of the Bakken Goes Boom

Over the next few weeks, Kyle Conway and I will be offering some sneak peeks at our forthcoming edited volume: Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota which should come out early next month from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. 

Here’s our introduction:

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The Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota

This book is about the human side of the oil boom in the Bakken formation in western North Dakota. We began work on it in 2013, when a barrel of crude oil sold for a little more than $90. At that time, economic optimism was the order of the day. People were asking, would the boom last twenty, forty, or sixty years? Harold Hamm, the billionaire CEO of Continental Resources, went so far as to tell the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference, “I still think we will reach 2 million barrels a day [by 2020]. I don’t think that’s over the top, folks” (quoted in Burnes 2014).

Now, as we write this introduction at the end of 2015, that same barrel sells for less than $40. What we did not know—what we could not know—when we began was that the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) would refuse to cut production in the face of dropping oil prices, in an apparent attempt to make oil production from shale, such as in the Bakken, too expensive to continue (Murtagh 2015; Olson and Ailworth 2015). In retrospect, the estimates of a forty- or sixty-year boom seem naive: by all appearances, we were at the boom’s peak. In December 2014, there were 174 rigs drilling in the oil patch; a year later, there are 65. There are also five thousand fewer jobs, and monthly in-state income on oil royalties has dropped from $128 million to $69 million (Donovan 2015). Inadvertently, it seems, we captured an important moment, when the bust people dreaded (but thought would never happen) was just on the horizon.

Our purpose in putting this book together was to give voice to as wide a range of people as we could. We were both professors at the University of North Dakota, so we sought out other scholars. We researched the boom, so we sought out our collaborators. We taught about the Bakken, so we sought out students. But we also read the news, went to art galleries, and read poetry, so we also sought out journalists, artists and museum curators, and poets. The boom was one of the most interesting things we had ever seen, and there were more ways to know it than through the cold rationality we privileged in our scholarship. Journalists, artists, and poets could reveal things we would not otherwise see, experiences or emotions that academic prose could not capture, but art or poetry could. As much as drilling for oil in the Bakken produced an economic and demographic boom, it also was an intellectual and cultural moment for North Dakota, and our book tries to capture that.

Our approach was propitious, if the controversies around hydraulic fracturing (or simply “fracking”) are any indication. In the time since we began soliciting submissions, a wide range of books have been published, each more polemical than the last. In one, an environmentalist asks what happens when she inherits mineral rights in North Dakota and has to choose between her ideals and financial security (Peters 2014). In another, a conservative media darling calls out environmentalists for what he sees as their duplicity and willful ignorance of the human rights abuses inflicted by governments of oil-rich countries on their own citizens (Levant 2014). In yet another, an investigative reporter tells the story of an Alberta woman’s fight for justice from the oil industry (and her own government) after fracking poisons her water supply (Nikiforuk 2015).

In this back-and-forth, it is clear that the pro- and anti-fracking groups are talking past each other. This is where our book does something different. By and large, contributors sidestep the controversies about fracking and focus instead on the social impact of the boom. There is much to learn here: whether we support or oppose fracking, it has had a significant impact on people’s lives. For people living in the Bakken region, life has changed, and we want to understand how. What impact did the boom have on longtime residents? On newcomers? On women? On Native Americans? How did it reshape the healthcare infrastructure? Housing? The media? These are the questions we asked our contributors to answer.

Scholars and journalists shared insight that they gained from their particular perch. But artists and poets did something more: as they talked about how the boom has reshaped North Dakotans’ sense of self—how North Dakotans see themselves and imagine their future—they evoked something akin to emotional truth. For that reason, we have devoted considerable space in this book to their work. Because art has to potential to affect viewers at a gut level, we included, among other things, a catalogue from an exhibit about the Bakken at the Plains Art Museum in Fargo. We also included comments left by members of the public.

We also decided to open this book with a prologue in the form of a prose poem. Language is an imperfect tool. It serves us relatively well when we describe technical aspects of a situation, but in other cases it falls short. We know this most acutely when we experience powerful emotions such as joy or grief and words fail us. In the Bakken, for instance, it is relatively easy to describe the monetary or environmental costs of an oil boom, but it is much harder to find words for the ache we feel when our home no longer looks the same. But in poetry, language comes closest to breaking free of its bounds. When poet Heidi Czerwiec writes, “Given enough time, a sea can become a desert; given enough time, even a desert has value,” she presents us with an image not unlike the art in the catalogue. In the dried up sea, we see our own fall from plenitude to emptiness. But the loss is paradoxical, in that it brings a new type of value. Her image brings the contradictions that undergird our experience into view. Even if we cannot put them into words, we can see them and feel them.

So what do we learn from all of this? What do scholars, journalists, artists, and poets reveal about the human side of North Dakota’s oil boom? Resources are stretched thin, and to compensate, people have had to rethink the social and physical networks that link them to others. As a result, the geographies of western North Dakota—the ways people understand their relationship to space and place—have changed. Part of this change is material, such as the demographic shift from the eastern part of the state to the western part. A decade ago, nearly a third of the state’s residents, those in Grand Forks and Fargo, lived in the narrow strip between Interstate 29 and the Red River. In other words, almost one out of three people lived within five miles of Minnesota. No longer is that the case, as towns such as Williston, Watford City, and Dickinson have doubled or tripled in size, creating unmet needs in social services, law enforcement, healthcare, housing, and other forms of infrastructure.

Part of this change is psychological, too. The stories people tell to make sense of their place in their community or the world have changed. They understand their relationships with their neighbors differently. Some longtime residents and newcomers view each other with a suspicion that grows out of a disparity in wealth and access to resources. Others look for what they share in common.

One result of these changing physical and mental geographies is that many people have had to make do with less, especially those who were already in vulnerable positions. Rents have gone up, but the stock of quality housing has gone down. Travel takes longer and is more dangerous, and unfamiliar people congregate in once familiar places. Even as the boom has subsided, social networks remain stretched for longtime residents, who face new disparities of wealth and ongoing political challenges, and for newcomers, who have left families in faraway homes in search of work. In short, there are more cracks to slip through.

But there is also resilience and creativity. Longtime residents have found ways to extend hospitality to newcomers. Artists have found ways to reimagine their place—which is to say, our place—in a landscape punctuated by oil rigs and tanker trucks. We cannot understand the challenges posed by the boom without considering the creativity it has brought about, nor the creativity without the challenges. One tugs constantly on the other.

To close, let us consider an interesting potential symmetry. In 2013, the bust was on the horizon, but we could not yet make it out. We must not forget that booms and busts are cyclical. Perhaps the next boom is on the horizon now, but as with the bust, we will see it most clearly in retrospect. As Karin Becker writes in her chapter, change has reached a plateau. North Dakota in 2015 is not the same as North Dakota in 2005. People talk of a “new normal.” The state has reversed its longstanding trend of outmigration, and the population is up almost 20 percent compared to a decade ago. The median age is younger, and jobs pay better: even Wal-Mart has to pay $17 an hour to its employees in Williston, where the average annual salary is still more than $75,000 (Donovan 2015).

The changes North Dakota has undergone are real, and we owe it to ourselves to ask how they have shaped us. We would do well to listen to everyone—citizens, public figures, artists, poets, and even scholars. This book is not the final word on the Bakken oil boom, but we hope readers will find in it something useful, a starting point for understanding how the boom has affected us and who it is we have come to be.


Burnes, Jerry. 2014. “Hamm: Bakken Will Double Production by 2020.” Williston Herald, May 23. bit.ly/1JDpCHv.

Donovan, Lauren. 2015. “Oil Patch Slides Toward a New Normal.” Bismark Tribune, December 25. bit.ly/1Sk2ULN.

Levant, Ezra. 2014. Groundswell: The Case for Fracking. Toronto: McLelland & Stewart.

Murtagh, Dan. 2015. “Shale’s Running Out of Survival Tricks as OPEC Ramps Up Pressure.” Bloomberg Business, December 27. www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-12-28/shale-s-running-out-of-survival-tricks-as-opec-ramps-up-pressure.

Nikiforuk, Andrew. 2015. Slick Water: Fracking and One Insider’s Stand Against the World’s Most Powerful Industry. Berkeley, CA: Greystone Books.

Olson, Bradley, and Erin Ailworth. 2015. “Low Crude Prices Catch Up with the U.S. Oil Patch.” Wall Street Journal, November 20. www.wsj.com/articles/low-crude-prices-catch-up-with-the-u-s-oil-patch-1448066561.

Peters, Lisa Westberg. 2014. Fractured Land: The Price of Inheriting Oil. Minneapolis: Minnesota Historical Society Press.

Ontology, World Archaeology, and the Recent Past

Here’s the final draft of my review essay for the American Journal of Archaeology. In it, I review the books listed below in just over 4000 words. Needless to say, it was a super fun and very challenging project and I think the final draft of the review essay walks the perfect line between unsatisfying and incomplete and “Thank God! It’s done.”

Enjoy as I try to get my feet under me for the first week of classes! 

Alberti, Benjamin, Andrew Meirion Jones, and Joshua Pollard, eds. Archaeology After Interpretation: Returning Materials to Archaeological Theory. Pp. 417, figs. 74, tables 2. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, Calif. 2013. $94. ISBN 978-1-61132-341-2 (cloth).

Graves-Brown, Paul, Rodney Harrison, and Angela Piccini, The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of the Contemporary World. Oxford Handbooks in Archaeology. Pp. 864 pages + figs. 140. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2013. $195. ISBN 978-0-19-960200-1 (Hardback)

Martin, Andrew M. Archaeology Beyond Postmodernity: A Science of the Social (Archaeology in Society Series). Pp. x + 247, figs. 6, table 1. AltaMira Press, Lanham, Maryland 2013. $85. ISBN 978-0-7591-2357-1 (cloth).

Olsen, Bjørnar, and Þóra Pétursdóttir, eds. Ruin Memories: Materials, Aesthetics and the Archaeology of the Recent Past (Archaeological Orientations). Pp. xviii + 492, figs. 173. Routledge, New York 2014. $205. ISBN 978-0-415-52362-2 (cloth).

Rathje, William L., Michael Shanks, and Christopher Witmore, eds. Archaeology in the Making: Conversations Through a Discipline. Pp. xii + 436, figs. 28. Routledge, London and New York 2013. $220. ISBN 978-0-415-634809 (Hardback)

Fowler, Chris. The Emergent Past: A Relational Realist Archaeology of Early Bronze Age Mortuary Practices. Pp. xii + 333, figs. 24, charts 6, tables 25, maps. 14. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2013. $135. ISBN 978-0-19-965637-0 (cloth).

Errata: Chris Wittmore pointed out the POW camp that he and Bjørnar Olsen documented was in Norway, not Sweden. You’d think I could keep Norway and Sweden straight after a decade on the Northern Plains…

Three Quick Things

I’m on the road for the rest of the week and flailing about to get ready for the new semester. If you’re planning to be at the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting in San Francisco, make sure to check out one of the papers that I’m giving over the next couple of days. So, this will likely be my last post for the week, but next week should be particularly full of new semester and archaeological goodness.

Here are three quick things to distract you while the blog is on the last bit of its holiday hiatus.

1. If you haven’t had a chance to check it out, grab a copy of Nan Rothschild and Diana diZerega Wall’s The Archaeology of American Cities (Florida 2014). It’s in the University Press of Florida’s excellent The American Experience in Archaeological Perspective series. If I was one of THOSE guys, I’d teach an entire class using these books starting with the remarkable general surveys on cities, capitalism, race, gender, and labor, and then move to the specific studies on tobacco, the fur trade, the Cold War, forts, et c.  

The Archaeology of American Cities is as much a book about urban archaeology as a book about American urbanism. Organized as a topical survey with a historical introduction, the book would lead even the most text bound historian through the value of material culture in understanding both “great man” history and the history of social class, gender, race, and the economy in the US.

2. Stereo Subwoofers. I recently (like last week) installed a pair of very fast, stereo subwoofers to my main stereo. For years, I’ve avoided adding sub woofers to my system saying things like “I’m really concerned with the midrange” and “I don’t trust them to integrate with my current speakers” or “my room is boom-y enough.” I have no idea why I waited so long. My speakers are the fantastic Zu Omen Def (Mk Ib) which are lovely down about 45Hz or 40Hz, but lack real low end punch. In general, I was cool with that because I figured that I don’t listen to much music real intense lower bass and true full-range speakers in my price range sacrificed too much in the mid-range in an effort to do everything (and, yes, I know there are some good full range speakers out there, but I also gravitate toward tubes and modest wattage amps).

Adding two quick Zu subwoofers to my system and setting them to pick up from around 45Hz has after a single day of listening blown my mind. There is so much musical information below 45Hz and these new additions to my happy speaker family have expanded the soundstage, defined instruments more clearly, and, of course, added impact to rock, hip-hop, and reggae. I can also say with some confidence that I now have enough subwoofer power (400 watts x 2) to destroy my 19th century house and perhaps the core of the earth. I won’t do this, but it’s empowering to know that I can.

3. North Dakota Quarterly. If you don’t care about subwoofers or American archaeology, I probably can’t help you that much… other than to point you in the direction of North Dakota Quarterly’s site. Go and check out me and managing editor Kate Sweney talking NDQ on Prairie Public Radio’s Main Street or go and find something cool to read from the archives.   


I’ve been thinking about roads a bit over the last month. First, my colleagues with the Western Argolid Regional Project and I are giving a paper this week at the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting on roads, routes and abandoned villages. I then had an interesting conversation about the role of roads as a form of local power in the Bakken oil patch. Finally, I enjoyed parts of Penny Harvey and Hannah Knox’s book Roads: An Anthropology of Infrastructure and Expertise (Cornell 2014). 

Dimitri Nakassis and I drew upon some of the early research in the Western Argolid to argue that roads and routes play a key role in constructing a “contingent countryside” in Greece. We identified three abandoned sites – two settlements and a fortification – and argue that they make sense in a landscape understood through a series of dynamic connections linking mountain villages to intermediate lands that ring the fertile plain. Families from mountain villages used these intermediate lands as a source for both winter pasture and hardy crops that did not require irrigation. Rugged, but well-defined mountain roads marked the social and economic relationship between mountain villages and their intermediate lands, but these routes had limited value to the state which invested in major arteries linking politically and economically important villages to the major regional markets. The state supported the paving of these major routes for carts and then motorized transportation over the course of the late 19th and 20th century, and in time, these major routes came to dominate the structure of settlement across the landscape. The spread of roads complemented the political organization of the state and the development of institutions like schools and government in towns linked to the center by roads further transformed the relationship between settlements. Roads, then, reflected both growing influence of the state on the structure of settlement in the 20th century. Abandoned villages and other rural places reflect social relationships that the material authority of the state has overwritten.

Roads have been an important focus of attention in the Bakken oil patch. From tragic road accidents to the need for greater investment in core infrastructure, roads have were a key issue in how people have come to understand the impact of the Bakken boom. Historically, routes linking western North Dakota to market and production centers elsewhere shaped settlement in this region. A grid of local roads provided access for farmers to plots of land at a remove from major overland or rail lines. The maintenance of these local roads remains a concern of the county, whereas major interstates – like US Route 2 and 85 or state roads in the area – are under the control of extra-regional entities. As a result, major arteries into the Bakken are developed much more quickly than local routes and with an eye toward state and even national economic interests. At the same time, the county does have the right to close or limit access to roads and many of the rural roads designed to provide access to agricultural land and homesteads are now routes plied by heavy trucks accessing remote oil wells. The tension between the interests of the state and the interests of local communities plays out in attitudes toward roads through the area.

Finally, Harvey and Knox’s book, Roads, provides a convenient set of comparative and conceptual tools to articulate the role of roads in the political, economic, and social life of communities. My reading focused primarily on the sections related to the state involvement in road building in Peru and how this both formalized and disrupted relationships between communities and settlement patterns there. While none of this counts as profound, I do think that the relative invisibility of roads as archaeological artifacts in regional level survey has perhaps led to their under appreciation as a structuring element in both pre-modern and modern settlement.     

Adventures in Podcasting: Richard, Kostis Kourelis, and I talk about the four best books they read this year

As mandated by the culture of podcasts and media, we have created an end of-the-year best-of list.   Bill, Richard and guest Kostis Kourelis discuss the 3 or 4 books we read this year and found most thought-provoking and interesting.  Without any collusion or prior discussion of our choices, we have created a list that includes non-fiction, fiction, surreal realism, pleasant works, painful works, old works, new works, short works, and long works.  Get reading!


William Caraher’s Top 3 + [1 bonus]:

Kostis Kourelis’ Top 4 + [1 bonus]:

Richard Rothaus’ Top 3 + [1 bonus]:

Bill makes a wonderfully obscure reference to a “Borgesian Nightmare.” He is referencing the Jorge Luis Borges short story “On Exactitude in Science.”  You can listen to the story here.  (Also, please note, we delivered a podcast that spontaneously included Louis Aragon, Walter Benjamin, and Jorge Luis Borges, and we challenge you to find another podcast that has done that).

Bruno Latour got an explicit reference, but you should note that he is frequently lurking in the background.

We referenced the Bloomsbury series “Object Lessons,” and recommended Brian Thill, Waste (2015).

All three of us highly recommend Erik Anderson, The Poetics of Trespass (2010)

We rashly promised a podcast vel sim along the lines of “Bakken Mancamps in 100 (or maybe 25) Objects,” inspired by Richard Kurin, The Smithsonian’s History of American in 101 Objects (2013).

The erudite Dr. Kourelis also mentioned all of these:

And, don’t forget to mark your calendars and get your plane tickets for the UND Writers Conference, April 6-8, 2016.  Bill and Richard will be there, and we can recommend K.S. Robinson’s Red Mars as a thoughtful and enjoyable science fiction work about exploration, society, and more (and Mars).

The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World Archive for 2015

As promised (and just a little late), volume 6 of The Archive of the Archaeology of the Mediterranean World. At just under 550 pages and just over 163,000 words, it includes all the posts from 2015 and this year with images and clickable links!

As with previous volumes, I recommend taking this down to your local book binder and having it bound in rich, soft, Corinthian leather. It makes a great gift!

For those feeling impatient and nostalgic, copies of Volume 1Volume 2Volume 3Volume 4, and Volume 5 are still available.

Blog Archive Color 01

Read it or download here:


I’m totally enamored by the little series from Bloomsbury Press titled Object Lessons. The books are small (and I have a thing for well done, small books). The feature eye-catching covers with relatively simple graphic designs. The name of the series is printed at the top of each cover in all caps, in a simple sans serif font with the word “Object” in white and “Lessons” in grey and no gap between the words. The title of the individual books appears in a different sans-serif font, lower-case letters below the graphic in bold white against the cover’s black background.  The authors name is below the title and shares the primary colors of the cover graphic. 

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Brian Thill’s book, Waste, is beautiful little essay on the role of waste in our lives. He documents through vivid case studies some of the physical, digital, and chemical waste that we produce every day and that infiltrates our lives. The chapter titled “Million Year Panic” caught my attention because I’m thinking a bit about a short chapter on the American West for our little book on the Alamogordo Atari Expedition. Thill makes explicit the link between sites like the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico and the dump of Atari games in Alamogordo. (His work echoes many of the sentiments in Lippard’s Undermining, which I discuss here).  

Thill locates WIPP and the Atari dump at the intersection of our desperate realization that when we’re gone, our waste may no longer have meaning. He recounts how the designers of the WIPP facility solicited suggestions from around the world on how to mark this site as dangerous and toxic for tens of millions of years. The result was the “Expert Judgement on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the WIPP” (.pdf) which produced numerous recommendations on how to mark out the site as deadly. Conversely, the excavation of the Atari games looked to recover our “wasted” youth and to determine whether it still held meaning. 

Both the WIPP and the Atari dump fall in part of the world which contemporary society has tended to see as a marginal. In the last 70 years, we have dropped atomic bombs, buried radioactive material, and dumped high tech waste in the deserts of the American West (not to mention mining, syphoning of water, and selling off of land), and this activity has generally neglected the delicate ecosystems and, more importantly, disregarded the rights of indigenous communities in this area. In other words, the discarding of waste in the southwest, reflects not just increasingly outdated views of the desert ecology, but also views of race and culture propelled forward by the seemingly inexorable pace and priorities of capitalism.

Archaeogaming, Red Mars, and Future Archaeology

Last spring, Richard Rothaus and I had a few conversations with with Andrew Reinhard about the idea of archaeogaming. Andrew has loosely described archaeogaming as archaeology in and of video games and talks about it at great length on our podcast here.

This past month, I’ve done the unthinkable. I decided to read a novel. I know, this is usually something I do in the summer, while trying to fall asleep after a long field day, in an unfamiliar bed, surrounded by the sounds of a Greek or Cypriot village. This mid-year departure for my normal routine was prompted by the announcement that Kim Stanley Robinson would participate in this years University of North Dakota Writers Conference. So I decided to pick up his Mars trilogy and (re?)read the first book – Red Mars – over the last couple of weeks. 

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For those of you unfamiliar with the book, it details the first human efforts to colonize Mars in the early 21st century. The main characters are the “First Hundred” of permanent human residents of Mars who established the first colony there, argued about the future of human habitation on the red planet, and continued to shape Martian politics and policies once the planet became open to more extensive immigration and exploitation. This drama is set against a well-researched and engaging topographic and scientific backdrop which convincingly establishes the potential character of Martian colonization (within the constraints of mid-1990s technological imagination…. in other words, very little internet, but rather extensive use of robots, artificial intelligences, and transnational corporate influences). The book covers the first 20 years of life on Mars.  

Reading Robinson’s detailed descriptions of Mar got me thinking that his novel could represent a nice venue to extend the idea of archaeogaming. Robinson take immense care in his description of the Martian landscape. A number of the main characters spend weeks at a time traversing the sparsely populated planet and describing both natural and man-made features on their trips. Moreover, the 20 year span of life on Mars and the rapid development of technologies necessary to establish sustainable and permanent settlement there left behind a significant quantity of objects. Robinson clearly has archaeological sensitivities in his work. Certain objects appear periodically even after they no longer feature in the plot of the book. For example, Sax Russell’s solar-powered windmills (scattered across the planet’s surface in a failed attempt to increase surface temperatures) continue to appear in the book long after their initial purpose (both in the plot line of the book and in the Martian landscape) had lapsed. The first settlement on Mars, Underhill, undergoes formation processes as larger settlements with more amenities arise across the planet. The apartments that the “First Hundred” occupied at Underhill are turned over to storage and sections of the settlement are repurposed as research, habitation, and industrial sites spread across the Martian landscape.

Red Mars will undoubtedly resonate with folks in North Dakota as a major aspect of the plot involves the exploitation of the planet by transnational companies who bring thousands of short term workers to Mars. The living conditions for these workers are functional, but modest, and most workers (at least initially) accept these conditions because their goal is to work hard, make money, and return to an increasingly restive Earth with the additional security of wealth. At the same time, there are those among the First Hundred who have grave reservations about those who are exploiting the Martian environment and work the thwart efforts to turn Mars into a massive industrial zone. 

The idea of archaeogaming is that the objects and landscapes present in video games represent a way to engage with challenging ideas in archaeological method, ethics, and practice. Documenting fictional artifacts in a novel as detailed and panoramic as Red Mars is not substantively different from exploring a fictional world of a film or video game. Whatever autonomy is lost because the reader has to follow the authors narrative (rather than the relatively more user-centered experience of a video game) is made  in Robinson’s use of subtle detail that presents an elaborate backdrop of archaeological detail without quite allowing the reader to engage fully with objects or the landscape. The elusiveness (and allusiveness) of Robinson’s landscapes feels far more real than the detailed, cartographic, and hyperreal landscapes of video games. This does not discount the potential of archaeogaming, but perhaps expands its scope to include the textured landscapes of the science fiction novel as the immersive realm of pixels.  

Go read the book and mark the UND Writers Conference on your calendar.