When Shells Crumble

Chris Carlsson


ISBN 978-1-959556-82-4      448 pages        $25.00


"Activist mines the soul of San Francisco amid catastrophe in sci-fi novel"

   review in S. F. Chronicle

King Tides! Intelligent fungi! Martial Law!

Heat waves! Atmospheric rivers and floods!


The inventor of the Hempattery quits her corporate job to pursue her visionary biotech experiments only to find a back-burnered idea of hers was stolen, bioengineered, and disseminated by mysterious biohackers, leading to a new malleable fungus that takes on properties no one expected. The Robertson family, a sprawling black San Francisco clan, finds itself at the heart of this swirling urban saga. From the 101-year-old matriarch through her youngest son Frank, a UCSF cop, to the urban farming granddaughter Janet, sons and daughters move through this strangely familiar San Francisco.


After a Supreme Court-endorsed reversal of the popular vote in Arizona and Wisconsin leads to a new Republican government in 2024, protests erupt, and a National Emergency is declared. When security forces open fire at a Dolores Park protest, resistance blooms and surprising new agents of history appear, from urban peasants, activist plumbers, and mountain squatters, to underground scientists, disaffected security personnel, and rebellious tech workers. The federal government begins to erode from within as its efforts to dictate food and energy consumption falter while climate catastrophes produce unprecedented economic and ecological crises.

Chris Carlsson is one of the great bards of San Francisco, whose activism and storytelling have reshaped the way we understand our city’s past—and changed its future. When Carlsson offers a vision of urbanism to come, you’d better pay attention.

     —Annalee Newitz, author of The Terraformers

and Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age



Carlsson invites us to put the imagination back in the revolution. When Shells Crumble is reminder that the path from dystopia to utopia may not be as long as we have feared it to be.

     —James R. Tracy, co-author No Fascist USA!

The John Brown Anti Klan Committee and Lessons for Today’s Movements



Futurist and thought provoker Carlsson once again imagines a near-future scenario where disaster spawns opportunities for radical self-reliance. San Francisco and the greater Bay Area are where history, politics, culture and environment create a messy stew of biotech, inequality, activism, and overreaching federal crackdowns. But wait—mysteriously enabled flora and fauna may be allies in the struggle! As with his first novel After the Deluge, Carlsson’s ideas will stay in your mind long after you put down his tale of radicalized plumbers and urban gardeners.

     —Laura Lent, retired, formerly Chief of Collections & Technical Services,

San Francisco Public Library



Most dystopian fiction takes the reader to strange new worlds where mutations are large and grotesque. The strength of Chris Carlsson’s When Shells Crumble instead arises from how close its future-world is to our present-day Trumpland realities. Enriched by Carlsson’s deep, sympathetic understanding of San Francisco Bay Area alternative undergrounds, When Shells Crumble brings us into a landscape of martial law and spirited resistance to it, made all the more chilling by how little distance there seems between his imagined nightmare scenario and the near-nightmare we currently inhabit.

     —Joseph Matthews, author of The Blast


Chris Carlsson, co-director of the “history from below” project Shaping San Francisco, is a writer, publisher, editor, photographer, public speaker, and occasional professor. He was one of the founders in 1981 of the seminal and infamous underground San Francisco magazine Processed World. In 1992 Carlsson co-founded Critical Mass in San Francisco, which both led to a local bicycling boom and helped to incubate transformative urban movements in hundreds of cities, large and small, worldwide. In 1995 work began on “Shaping San Francisco;” since then the project has morphed into an incomparable archive of San Francisco history at Foundsf.org, award-winning bicycle and walking tours, and almost two decades of Public Talks covering history, politics, ecology, art, and more (see shapingsf.org). Beginning in Spring 2020, Carlsson added Bay Cruises along the San Francisco shoreline to his repertoire.


Carlsson has written three previous books, the most recent being Hidden San Francisco: A Guide to Lost Landscapes, Unsung Heroes, and Radical Histories (Pluto Press: 2020). His 2004 novel is set in a future “post-economic” San Francisco (After the Deluge, Full Enjoyment Books: 2004), and his groundbreaking look at class and work in Nowtopia (AK Press: 2008) which uniquely examined how hard and pleasantly we work when we’re not at our official jobs. He has also edited six books including three “Reclaiming San Francisco” collections with the venerable City Lights Books. He redesigned and co-authored an expanded Vanished Waters: A History of San Francisco’s Mission Bay after which he joined the board of the Mission Creek Conservancy. He has given hundreds of public presentations based on Shaping San Francisco, Critical Mass, Nowtopia, Vanished Waters, and his “Reclaiming San Francisco” history anthologies since the late 1990s, and has appeared dozens of times in radio, television and on the internet.