Superman never made any money for saving the world from Solomon Grundy

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Summer reading interruptus: The Knowledge

So, my last foray into Summer Reading ended in media res, when I gave up on the non-Douglas Adams continuation of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  If i thought I would have better luck with non-fiction, I was quickly disabused of that notion: The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch by Lewis Dartnell is heading back to the library with most of it unread.

It was quite the disappointment, actually, because I had some high hopes for the book. The premise is wonderful: exploring how we could undertake the most basic of survival activities - growing food, finding clean water, making implements - without the vast, invisible, interconnected technological web that we take for granted every day.

Using the premise of an unspecified apocalypse that wipes out most of the people (leaving enough to recreate a society) but spares most of the stuff (a lot of which will deteriorate quickly enough on its own without maintenance), the book walks the reader through the basics of first scavenging, then cannibalizing, and then rebuilding technology. Besides satisfying basic curiosity and perhaps having some practical value, the topics discussed would be useful for writing and world-building.

Dartnell apparently has the qualifications to make this inquiry: he holds a doctorate in astrobiology but appears to be more of a scientific generalist in practice, writing for journals and television on the tradition of Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

All the pieces are there, but this relationship just didn't work. I am not familiar with any of Dartnell's other work, but in this case, the writing was just not good enough to sustain my engagement. The prose is jumpy, disconnected, and repetitive. Dartnell shies away from creating a specific scenario in which to explore his theme, and the result is a vague, mushy mess. A better choice might have been to create a particular narrative and even some developed characters to carry the technical explanations in some relatable context: the references to general examples and generic items wear thin quickly and the reader is left with no place to stand. It's like trying to read a random selection of user manuals without the devices themselves. So, back it goes to SPL.

And speaking of manuals: one good thing that came out of this sortie into post-Armageddon resourcefulness it is that it put me in mind of (and caused me to pull out) my old copy of The Way Things Work, the 1967 translation of a German tome that explains, with diagrams, the principles behind and the inner workings of all sorts of technology, from anesthesia to sewing machines and from photoelectric cells to escalators. While not specifically designed as such, this book has been such a touchstone for collecting basic technological technique that in Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's Lucifer's Hammer, one character buys his way into a post-comet-strike survivor's camp with a copy of Volume One - and the promise that he has secreted Volume Two in a safe place.

Maybe I'll just leaf through this instead.

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