Amish Science Fiction
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because science fiction — if you can believe it — is getting weirder.
By Mike McDowall
By day, Michael Bunker lives an agrarian life, raising crops and tending livestock on a 40-acre farm in central Texas. He has no running water in his home. Or electricity. When he bought the farm 10 years ago, there wasn’t even a house, so he and his wife lived in a tent. With their four children.
By night, Bunker writes best-selling, postapocalyptic, dystopian sci-fi novels. With an Amish twist.
The ironic juxtaposition is working out for him. The writer, who lives a self-described “plain Christian” life and has been called the “Tom Clancy of postapocalyptic fiction” (by Apocalyptic Fiction) has seen his books topping the USA Today best-seller list, he’s got a reality TV show in the offing, his agent is fielding calls from movie producers and his new publishing firm has just launched five brand-new novels simultaneously — one of his own, and four by other writers. What makes him stand out: His sketches of a world in ruins are surprisingly believable — perhaps because he knows exactly what a life without all the trappings of conventional civilization looks like.
A former digital-systems specialist, Bunker got his start as a writer via his blog about homesteading, begun after he quit the rat race. He adopted a near-Amish lifestyle and looks the part, long beard and all. The blog brought him devotees, many of them Anabaptists, who visited his farm in Santa Anna; soon, an entire quasi-Amish community sprung up around him. Those who have copped his lifestyle choices also call themselves “Plain Christians” — they weren’t born Amish, but to an outsider they look quite similar. Today, seven families live almost entirely off-grid near the Bunkers’ farm, including some unlikely candidates, such as a former computer programmer who’s married to an erstwhile “bigwig at eBay.”
Bunker describes himself as an accidental sci-fi writer. His debut, a book called Surviving Off Off-Grid, based on his blog, sold well enough that he could see his future as a wordsmith. Next, he self-published a novel in which an Amish community survives the collapse of modern society. He was surprised when online bookstores categorized The Last Pilgrims as sci-fi.
Perhaps Bunker’s best-known character is Jedediah Troyer, an 18-year-old Amish man who is eager to start his own farm but cannot afford property on an earth devastated by war. We first meet him in Book One of the Pennsylvania series, in which he’s promised an abundance of land if he signs up for emigration to a new world.
For Bunker, the link between Anabaptism and technology makes more sense than you’d think. “The Amish came to America in ships that were like spaceships to them,” he says. “It would have been pretty much like colonizing a new planet. The decisions we make as technology advances — this is the heart of sci-fi.”
Sci-fi blogger and book reviewer Eamon Ambrose thinks that much of Bunker’s success lies in precisely this authenticity: “You accept that he could survive without technology because he already does.” In the past three years, Bunker has hit the big time with the epic Wick saga and the Pennsylvania series, and last July he reached a huge milestone, topping the charts as Amazon’s best-selling science-fiction and fantasy author, ahead of such luminaries as Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, The Man in the High Castle) and Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin. Ambrose compares him to cult author Kurt Vonnegut.
Of course, not everyone is a fan. There’s a small but vocal anti-Bunker contingent online, a few of whom object to Bunker being called the “father of Amish sci-fi” because, as a user of the Internet and other gizmos, he’s not strictly Amish himself. There’s also a blogger who claims Bunker is a dangerous cult leader, although the anonymous writer’s reasons are not clear.
Born to a military father in Texas, Bunker moved around, living in Ohio and Washington, D.C., before returning to Texas at age 14. He attended Texas Tech in Lubbock, where he met his wife. They bought their first farm in 1997, gave up their jobs the following year and, by 2002, had started to focus on traditional farming, without machines or chemicals. The family is now entirely self-sufficient, and lives mostly without modern conveniences — an experience he feels has informed and enriched his writing.
These days, Bunker spends much of his life dwelling in the universe of Apocalypse Weird, a fictional realm managed by his new publishing venture, Wonderment Media. The idea: Writers can set their work in a prefabricated world, creating a richly populated alternate reality. Five books, including Bunker’s own Texocalypse Now, were published simultaneously on Feb. 23, and 19 other authors will release works set in the AW universe this year.
On the farm, water is drawn from a well, and heat and light come from firewood and candles. Yet the family travels by car rather than carriage, and Bunker keeps an office a short walk away, complete with solar power and Wi-Fi. “My wife gets worried sometimes,” he tells me, chuckling. “She likes her life and” — fittingly — “she doesn’t want it to change.”
- Mike McDowall Contact Mike McDowall