Non-Fiction Reviews

The Knowledge
How to re-build our world from scratch

(2014) Lewis Dartnell, Penguin Press, 20 /Can$32.95 / US$27.95, hrdbk, 340pp, ISBN 978-1-594-20523-1


What if some disaster hit the world? Yellowstone erupted? Or some super-SARS viral plague wiped out 99% of the population? How would we survive? How would we rebuild? This is the SFnal teaser if not exotic human ecology question posed by microbiologist Lewis Dartnell. It is the question considered in the (fifth episode I vaguely recall of the) original BBC series Survivors by Terry Nation.

Now, in the interests of openness and transparency, I should declare that I am personally acquainted with the author following our doing a joint-presentation on exobiology, and indeed I provided some information on global warming for the book (hence if you get this title you will see this listed in the acknowledgements and references). However I will as always endeavour to keep this review objective.

What this book is not is a summary of the 'how to' knowledge you will need in the event of a disaster though it does give numerous practical tips such as pointers on how to make soap. Having said that it provides more than enough that you can easily search the internet for the finer 'how to do it' detail. (Of course you will need to do this before the world as we know it, and the internet, ends.)

What this is more of is a discussion of a thought experiment as to the kinds of problems you will likely encounter and what some folk who deliberately live alternatively do do to get by. This includes those having to live alternatively such as those in besieged war zones. There are chapters on: the end of the world; the grace period (immediately after the catastrophe that killed everyone where we can still pick up things like batteries and cans of food); agriculture; food and clothing; materials; medicine; and transport.

The Knowledge will delight SF fans given that it does reference some genre works (including the aforementioned Survivors) and its head certainly is in a post-apocalyptic frame of mind, not to mention pleasure scientists (into SF) as it takes us back to how technological developments first arose from particular historical studies. That it is written in an easy-to-read, chatty style at a junior school science level means that it will be accessible to many. It is as good to dip into this book randomly as well as to sit down and read it linearly from star to finish. It is a sound casual read for those into both science and those into end-of-the-world (Quiet Earth) scenarios, and arguably an essential read for anyone seeking to craft a story set in a post-apocalyptic environment.

Jonathan Cowie

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