Skip to main content

Scatter, Adapt, and Remember – Annalee Newitz ****

I’m not a natural audience for books about surviving disasters (even though I wrote theGlobal Warming Survival Kit). I can’t stand disaster movies, because I can’t take the pragmatic ‘Oh well, some survive,’ viewpoint as I watch millions perish. So I thought that I would find this book, with its subtitle How Humans will survive a mass extinctionsomewhat unappetising – but I was wrong.
The Earth has gone through a number of mass extinctions, where a fair percentage of living species have been killed off. The most famous is the one that mostly took out the dinosaurs around 65 million years ago, but there have been others and, Annalee Newitz points out, if we want to see the long term survival of the human race, we need to be able to make it through one, should it turn up, whether caused by climate change, pandemics, a supervolcano or an asteroid.
What Newitz does surprisingly well here is weave together what are really around four different books, all in one compact volume. We start of with palaeontology, looking back over previous mass extinctions, getting a better understanding of what happened, what survived and how it survived. From here we segue into human pre-history and history, drawing lessons from the plight of the Neanderthal and the impact of plague and other pandemics. After this, in a transitional section we see the examples of the three techniques in the book’s title – scattering in the Jewish disaspora, adaptation in cyanobacteria (and how we could use it) and remembering on the part of the gray whale, before taking another transition into a more science-fiction driven view.
Newitz starts by pointing out the potential lessons to be learned from the SF writing of Octavia Butler who is apparently ‘one of the 20th century’s greatest science fiction writers’, which I was a bit surprised by as I read a lot of science fiction and I’ve never heard of her. The segue here is into the shakiest part of the book where it dabbles in futurology. This broadly divides into relatively short term survival approaches and longer term diaspora into space.
One of the reasons this is the weakest part of the book is that Newitz offers us castle-in-the-air solutions with no obvious way (and certainly no hint) of how to get there from where we are now. So she says we will need underground cities if we need to survive some kinds of impact, while we would be helped by building green cities that merge biology and construction… but it’s not clear how we would ever get started on such major, long term projects. She doesn’t address the reality that humans are very bad at taking the long view.
I was, though, pleasantly surprised by this book, particularly the first half. This is genuinely interesting and thought provoking, up to and including the Octavia Butler section. And though it goes a little downhill after that, it never fails to be readable and interesting – just a little far fetched. So congratulations to Newitz on taking the rare long view – and in having optimism for our ability to survive what the universe can throw at us.
Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

De/Cipher - Mark Frary ****

I was a little doubtful when I first saw this book. Although it has the intriguing tagline 'The greatest codes ever invented and how to crack them' the combination of a small format hardback and gratuitous illustrations made me suspect it would be a lightweight, minimal content, Janet and John approach to codes and ciphers. Thankfully, in reality Mark Frary manages to pack a remarkable amount of content into De/Cipher's slim form.

Not only do we get some history on and instructions to use a whole range of ciphers, there are engaging little articles on historical codebreakers and useful guidance on techniques to break the simpler ciphers. The broadly historical structure takes the reader through basic alphabetic manipulation, keys, electronic cryptography, one time pads and so on, all the way up to modern public key encryption and a short section on quantum cryptography. 

We even get articles on some of the best known unsolved ciphers, such as the Dorabella and the Voynich ma…

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Paul McAuley - Four Way Interview

Paul McAuley won the Philip K. Dick Award for his first novel and has gone on to win the Arthur C. Clarke, British Fantasy, Sidewise and John W. Campbell Awards. He gave up his position as a research biologist to write full-time. He lives in London. His latest novel is Austral.


Why science fiction?

For one thing, I fell in love with science fiction at an early age, and haven’t yet fallen out of love with it (although I have flirted with other genres). For another, we’re living in an increasingly science-fictional present. Every day brings headlines that could have been ripped from a science-fiction story. Giant robot battle: Who knew a duel between chainsaw-armed mech suits could be so boring? for instance. Or, Roy Orbison hologram to embark on UK tour in 2018. And looming above all this, like Hokusai’s famous wave, are the ongoing changes caused by global warming and climate change, which is just one consequence of human activity having become the dominant force of change on the planet…