Book review: The Knowledge, by Lewis Dartnell

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 May, 2014, 3:42pm
UPDATED : Monday, 26 May, 2014, 7:59pm

The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch
by Lewis Dartnell
Bodley Head
3 stars

Steven Poole

What comes after the end? Science writer Lewis Dartnell has written a book marketed as a guide for life post-apocalypse and, in a way, a work of speculative fiction.

The world after the end of the world, according to Dartnell, may well look pretty "steampunk": a mish-mash of technologies from different historical periods. Don't be surprised, if you survive the apocalypse, to see a salvaged car chassis drawn by a horse - as long as someone has reinvented the right kind of harness.

The early part of the book also spends a fair bit of time on some grubbily gratifying apocalypse porn, explaining why, without proper maintenance, roads and buildings will fall apart dismayingly quickly.

This all assumes some kind of disaster will destroy all stored knowledge but leave a breeding population of humans alive to carry on in an environment still conducive to agriculture. And thanks to the seers of Scandinavia, there is even a "global seed vault" buried in an everything-proof mountainside bunker in Norway, so we won't lose any useful plants either.

The conceit, then, that this is a handbook for rebooting modern civilisation is really just a cute way of framing what turns out to be something slightly different but arguably more interesting to a present-day readership.

The Knowledge is a terrifically engrossing history of science and technology. How exactly did people develop farming machinery, clocks, steam engines, glass lenses, radios, explosives, and the like? Dartnell deftly sketches the contours of each problem, and sympathetically reconstructs the reasoning applied.

We are used to thinking of "technology" as meaning machines and gadgets, but Dartnell stresses how much of modern civilisation is built on technologies of chemistry, the "processes" that enable us to synthesise indispensable chemicals in bulk.

Let's keep an eye out, too, Dartnell says, for areas where a rebooting civilisation would be able to "leapfrog" certain developments of our technological history - just as many countries in Africa have leapfrogged the landline and gone straight to mobile telephony.

Guardian News & Media