By “that car,” I mean Sam’s ’68 GTO, of course. It’s elicited a few comments, the most recent being on yesterday’s Amazon review: “…I did scratch my head about Sam’s ability to find gas but realized I so enjoyed the idea of him in that GTO that I let it go…”
I actually did quite a lot of research into mixed fuel cars but very little of it ended up being in the book, apart from a few throwaway remarks about being able to afford “real gas.” At one point there was even a whole section on gassing up the car. On the suggestion of my agent, it was cut from the book very early on as she felt that it slowed the story down. I was sad to see it go as I thought it illustrated a recurring part of Sam’s life well. I’ve pasted it below, so you can make up your own minds.
Obviously, given the future that I created for Paradigm, getting actual gas for a car would be extremely difficult. The only gas available would be domestic, and even then it would most likely only be available in areas close to oil fields. But the history of automobile fuel is not simply one of hydrocarbons, and while gasoline has been the dominant fuel for most of that history, there are alternatives. The most well-known of these are methanol and ethanol, which have seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years.
For centuries before the automobile was even thought of, methanol and ethanol provided fuel of another kind – alcohol. A favorite tipple, it was known as the “water of life” and has been warming Scotsmen right down to their toes since at least the 14th century. By the end of the 19th century and the rise of the internal combustion engine, inventors were looking at practically anything that could be used to generate a spark. By the time Ford started producing his Model T in 1908, the jury was still out on which fuel would become the standard, so the Tin Lizzie was made to use either gas or ethanol, or a combination of the two.
The abundance of cheap gasoline led to methanol and ethanol being discarded as a fuel in most production cars until very recently, but it didn’t vanish completely. In 1964 seven cars crashed on the second lap of the Indianapolis 500, killing two drivers. The gasoline in the cars exploded, not only ending the lives of the drivers, but also sending dense black smoke across the track, reducing visibility to zero for the other drivers. One driver, Johnny Rutherford, was using methanol as fuel, and although it leaked following the crash, it burned at a much lower temperature and was invisible. The following year, the USAC Indy car competition mandated the use of ethanol in race cars on the circuit. Methanol is also used by many short track organizations, as well as in drag racing and monster truck competitions.
In recent years, ethanol has become more familiar, as it can be made from corn, which makes it politically attractive. (It has also accelerated the destruction of rain forest in Brazil, as woodland is cleared for grain production.) Methanol, on the other hand, can be made from almost any biological material, including animal waste.
Fast forward to the America of Paradigm, a place where the population has been decimated as the result of waves of antibiotic-resistant diseases, and where the sky is a permanent, opaque yellow. The computer-laden cars of the late 20th and early 21st centuries quickly transformed into giant paperweights as their systems failed and repair became impossible. So how would people get around? Walking, cycling, and draft animals would certainly see a resurgence, but if you wanted a car it would have to be an old one. It would have to be mechanical, with exchangeable parts, and it would have to be mixed fuel.
In the world of Paradigm, methanol and ethanol make perfect sense. It’s easy to make with whatever is to hand, and you can use it to power machinery, heat your home, and as a nightcap (I don’t recommend that last one, by the way, not until well after the apocalypse!). People in isolated communities across American would be producing quantities of it for their own use and for barter whenever a bright red 1968 GTO thundered into town.
So here is the section that I cut on how Sam gets fuel for the car. It takes place immediately after he and Nathan escape from Century City:
They had to stop for gas an hour out of Century City. Sam would have liked to put more miles between them and it, but the police chase had used a lot of juice and the gas gauge was a tad unreliable. Once it got below a quarter of a tank you could still have nearly a half a tank or nothing but fumes. He’d learned this the hard way, of course, and had no desire to trek who knew how many miles with nothing but optimism and an old gas can.
He glanced at Nathan, who was snoring softly, exhausted after his eventful evening with Michelle-Lynn Longford.
“Alright for some,” he muttered, pulling off the highway and rolling into the scattered remains of a small town.
The approach was depressingly familiar – a dirt road, pockmarked with spots of decaying asphalt, lined with the crumbled remains of stuccoed bungalows, long since stripped of anything of value and now slowly turning to dust as if they and the people who had lived in them had never existed.
Sam guessed that it had probably once been a farming community, back when the great irrigation canals had brought water to the arid land and turned the flat southern valleys into acre upon acre of orchards and corn.
The desert farms had been one of the first things to go after the second collapse. That was the time of the water wars, when people had begun to realize that the world they knew was disappearing forever and that a community’s survival would depend on holding onto its resources against all challenges. The people in the mountains to the north stopped the flow of water to the south and the wars had begun. Sam couldn’t remember who had won. Probably nobody. Most likely they’d just fought each other to a standstill. But the water never returned to the parched valleys and the old farms vanished almost overnight as fertile fields became wastelands of heat, wind and tumbleweed.
The center of town wasn’t much better than the outskirts, but it was clear that there were people here, even if they were hunkering down behind closed doors until they knew who was in the strange car and what their intentions might be.
Sam drove slowly, looking for the telltale tanks. People used all kinds of methods to make their fuel, but the one thing they all had in common was storage tanks. Sure enough, the last building on the main street had a tall fence around it and four large plastic tanks inside. He stopped the car and walked up to the fence.
Silence…and then the slow creak of an old wooden door.
“What d’you want?” The voice was young but wary.
“I was wondering if I could get some fuel for my car!” yelled Sam.
The door opened a little wider and a boy of about thirteen poked his head out and gave Sam and the car the once-over.
“What you got?” he asked.
“Stuff,” said Sam. “You better come look.”
The door closed, then opened again and the boy emerged carrying a long pole with a nasty-looking blade at the end. Sam guessed it had been for sawing branches off trees back when there had been orchards. It was certainly old enough, the wood was splintered and grey and the blade red with rust.
That is, Sam hoped that it was rust.
“What’s going on?” muttered Nathan, blearily.
“We need gas.”
“Here?” Nathan got out of the car and looked around. “I hate these kind of places.”
“Yeah, well, I couldn’t risk running out.”
The kid stopped about four feet from the fence and stared first at Sam, then at Nathan and then at the car.
“Nice car,” he said. “What you got?”
“You’re on,” said Sam, nodding to Nathan and opening the trunk.
Nathan sighed, ran his hand through his hair, took a deep breath then smiled broadly and marched up to the fence.
“Hi!” he said. “I’m Nathan, you are…?”
“Wally,” mumbled the kid, taken aback.
“You got any electricity in there, Wally?”
“ ‘Course I do. Old genny. Plenty of juice as you can see.”
“Well, this is your lucky day, ‘cause in exchange for some of your juice we can provide you with some of the finest kitchen appliances this side of…well, anywhere, really.”
“Appliances. Time saving devices for when you’re cooking and such.”
The kid stared at him for a moment, then stepped forward and unlocked the gate.
Nathan led the way to the trunk of the car and explained the various machines to the wide-eyed Wally, while Sam leaned against the hood trying not to look impatient. He glanced at his pocket watch and wondered which Carolyn Bast would do first: head to Bakersfield to start her war or come after the Paradigm Device.
Eventually Wally decided to take a George Forman Grill, a blender and the toaster/egg cooker combo thing that Sam had thought no one in their right mind would ever want. He got into the car and rolled it through the gates and up to the tanks.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Ethanol,” said Wally, smiling. “I go up to the mountains in the truck and get stuff to make it. It’s pretty good.”
Sam nodded and started filling the tank while Wally took his new toys up to the house.
“Nice work,” he said as Nathan closed the trunk.
Nathan nodded, “I thought he’d want a pocket generator too, but he wasn’t interested.”
After a few moments Wally reappeared on the porch, along with an old lady leaning on a stick. She handed the boy a bottle, waved at the strangers and disappeared back inside.
“Grandma says to thank you for the fine trades. Usually we can’t get much at all. She said to take some for your own enjoyment if you like.”
He held out the bottle, which was empty. Sam and Nathan stared at him blankly.
“Sorry, what?” said Nathan.
“Of the juice. She said to take some to drink along the way.”
“You drink the gas?”
Wally nodded enthusiastically. “This batch tastes pretty good. Sometimes it don’t. Depends what we make it with.”
“You can’t–” began Nathan, but Sam stepped forward and took the bottle.
“Thank your grandma for us,” he said, smiling. “It’s a kind gesture and we appreciate it. Don’t we?”
“I’m…er…yes. Very much.”
Sam screwed the gas cap back on and filled the bottle. Wally held out a stopper and grinned.
“Good to meet you.”
“Good to meet you too, Wally. And good luck with the business.”
They got back in the car and Sam backed slowly out of the gate. Wally watched and waved until the car was out of sight.
“Here,” said Sam, handing Nathan the bottle. “Stash it in the back seat.”
“You’re not seriously going to drink it are you? This stuff’ll make you go blind. Or worse.”
“Of course I’m not going to drink it! I’m not an idiot. But it was meant kindly and it would’ve been rude not to take it.”
“Rude? Sam, that kid could die from drinking ethanol!”
“You think us not taking the gift and giving him some lecture is going to stop him? No, it isn’t. But we left having made his day a good one and I’m betting he doesn’t get too many of them.”