Science fiction and fantasy
by Lewis Dartnell
This book is partly a how-to for various technologies, from their intermediate stages to their more advanced versions. However, it's a very shallow how-to. In some cases it would be possible to take the instructions and put them to practical use, such as the sections on extracting potash or building a stethoscope. For many other technologies there's a brief overview of what they are and which other technologies are necessary before they are possible, but detailed instructions are beyond the book's scope.
The Knowledge covers farming techniques, food preservation, cheese making, weaving looms, candles, making quicklime, medicine, soap, materials, power, transport, clocks, and much more. It's not just about how to recreate these technologies, but also how important they are to us. I found the range of topics left me awestruck at the scale of the collective effort it takes even to build an intermediate civilisation, never mind an advanced one. The book skips a lot of organic chemistry, molecular biology, materials science and engineering, because of course it can't cover everything. Nevertheless it has a huge scope. I often found that frustrating, because just as I got interested in one topic the author would be skimming past and moving on to the next.
One thing The Knowledge does bring home is the fragility of our civilisation, due to the immense complexity of the framework it sits on, and also other factors. The chapter on agriculture explains how dependent we are on oil, for instance. The author also mentions how long the Chinese enjoyed an advanced pre-industrial civilisation without taking the next step into industrialisation. Progress isn't inevitable.
Although this book dips shallowly into myriad topics, I think it's a must-read for anyone planning to write post-apocalyptic fiction. For general readers it promises an eye-opening overview of just how much knowledge it takes to make our society work, and how daunting it would be to have to recreate it.
4th July 2014
If you like this, try:The Information by James Gleick
An eclectic account of the history of communications.
The New North: The World In 2050 by Laurence C. Smith
Will rising population and temperatures and thawing permafrost lead to a future dominated by bustling northern cities?
Review © Ros Jackson
Source: library copy
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