BOOKS Apoca-lit: Now what do we do?

Sur­viv­ing the end of the world as we know it

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Weekend Life - MARK MED­LEY

Last week, on his way to deliver a lec­ture at the Royal In­sti­tu­tion, one of the fore­most sci­en­tific or­ga­ni­za­tions in Lon­don, Lewis Dart­nell left his lap­top on the sub­way. He was head­ing there to talk about his new book, The Knowl­edge, a how-to guide that out­lines how hu­man­ity could rebuild civ­i­liza­tion in the event of an apoca­lypse. The irony wasn’t lost on Dart­nell that for many people los­ing one’s lap­top, and not an as­ter­oid hurtling to­ward the Earth or a fast-spread­ing pan­demic, is about as apoc­a­lyp­tic a sce­nario as can be imag­ined.

Dart­nell, a U.K. Space Agency re­search fel­low who, at 32, is al­ready one of the Eng­land’s leading sci­ence writ­ers, de­scribes The Knowl­edge as “a thought ex­per­i­ment.” But it’s a book with real-world ap­pli­ca­tions, some­thing to be stored in the base­ment next to a sup­ply of AA bat­ter­ies and bot­tled wa­ter, just in case of emer­gency.

Ba­si­cally, it is a thor­ough-yetread­able com­pen­dium of the things sur­vivors will need to know to help get civ­i­liza­tion back on its feet if it were ever brought to its knees by some­thing like nu­clear war: Dart­nell dis­cusses crop ro­ta­tion and the im­por­tance of lime and even de­votes an en­tire chap­ter to ad­vanced chem­istry.

This isn’t a tongue-in-cheek tome like The Zom­bie Sur­vival Guide (Max Brooks’ 2003 best­seller on how to live in a world over­run by the un­dead) but a book that might one day save your life.

“I do not think the world is about to end,” says Dart­nell on the phone, about an hour later than sched­uled (he lost his agenda, too). “I’m not some kind of dooms­day crank with, ‘The end of the world is nigh’ writ­ten on a plac­ard hang­ing around my neck. I don’t think our civ­i­liza­tion has to end, al­though we are clearly fac­ing some big chal­lenges at the mo­ment. Hav­ing said that, I do gen­uinely be­lieve that the book I pro­duced af­ter all this re­search, The Knowl­edge, would be a mas­sive help for a com­mu­nity of sur­vivors if they ever were to find them­selves in this post-apoc­a­lyp­tic sce­nario.”

It’s ironic that a book like The Knowl­edge is be­ing pub­lished in 2014 con­sid­er­ing that we’ve never had ac­cess, with such speed and ease, to so much in­for­ma­tion. If you want to learn about food preser­va­tion, which Dart­nell dis­cusses at length, you sim­ply have to type it into a search en­gine. If you want to teach yourself how to make soap, you can find de­tailed, step-by-step in­struc­tions on YouTube. Yet, pre­cisely be­cause of this, we’ve never been more vul­ner­a­ble. In­stead of learn­ing the skills that will en­sure our sur­vival, we’ve up­loaded them into the cloud. (That is un­less you’re a for­mer Boy Scout.)

“None of us, re­ally, alive in the world to­day have any idea about how the fun­da­men­tals are pro­vided for us,” Dart­nell says. Not that he’s ad­vo­cat­ing for postapoc­a­lyp­tic sur­vival to be added to the school cur­ricu­lum: “I don’t for a sec­ond think that along­side math and English and sci­ence lessons and French classes kids should be taught how to farm a field, or how to op­er­ate a loom, or smelt metal for them­selves.”

He can speak for him­self. Faced with sur­vival on a ru­ined Earth, many of us would prob­a­bly last, oh, two hours. Some people, un­able to con­nect to the In­ter­net for more than a few hours, regress to a child­like state. Even if we’re more pre­pared for the end of the world than at any other time in hu­man his­tory, we’ve never been at such a point where we’d fare so poorly.

Take the Black Death, which killed off as much as half of Europe’s pop­u­la­tion dur­ing the 14th century.

“If that were to hap­pen to­day, with­out a shadow of a doubt the sur­vivors would be in a much worse state now than the sur­vivors were in the mid-1300s, be­cause, back then, they had a much closer con­nec­tion to the means and meth­ods of pro­duc­tion,” Dart­nell says. “They did have a lo­cal black­smith, and some­one with a spin­ning wheel, and a loom to make clothes for them­selves … and they grew food for them­selves in a way that we sim­ply do not have the first in­kling of an un­der­stand­ing any­more. So, cer­tainly, to­day, if that were to hap­pen we’d be in a much worse po­si­tion.”

Yet we love to daydream about the end of days. Sure, we’ve been writ­ing about the apoca­lypse since be­fore the Book of Rev­e­la­tion, and these kinds of things are cyclic. But at the mo­ment, we seem par­tic­u­larly en­am­oured with the end.

Godzilla re­cently stomped into movie the­atres (there are no mu­tant lizards in The Knowl­edge); The Walk­ing Dead is the most pop­u­lar show on ca­ble TV (ditto zom­bies); pub­lish­ers con­tinue to crank out books that be­gin af­ter the end (San­dra New­man’s The Coun­try of Ice Cream Star, out this sum­mer, looks par­tic­u­larly promis­ing); and The Last of Us, about a man and young girl travers­ing a post-apoc­a­lyp­tic land- scape, was ar­guably the most-ac­claimed video game of last year.

“We like our com­fort­able life, but you al­ways get this fris­son when you’re re­minded that this might not last for­ever,” says Dart­nell of the genre’s pop­u­lar­ity.

“Maybe some­thing will hap­pen that will fun­da­men­tally change your life. Maybe there will be some kind of catas­tro­phe, as has struck many, many civ­i­liza­tions in the past — the Greeks and the Ro­mans, the In­cans and the Aztecs and the Mayans. You can list dozens of civ­i­liza­tions that have col­lapsed.

“We’re com­fort­able now, but don’t get too com­fort­able,” he warns. “We’re not in­vul­ner­a­ble. Maybe some­thing could knock us off our pedestal of mod­ern civ­i­liza­tion, and you’re back to ba­sics and do­ing it yourself.”

That’s what hap­pens to the nar­ra­tor of For Ta­mara, a new book by Ed­mon­ton poet Sarah Lang that, sim­i­lar to The Knowl­edge, is struc­tured as a how-to guide, the dif­fer­ence be­ing the ma­te­rial is pre­sented as one long, heartrend­ing poem from a mother to her young daugh­ter as they hunker down in a bunker some­where in North Amer­ica in the aftermath of what ap­pears to be a nu­clear war.

Orig­i­nally, Lang set out to write about the idea of home. (As a grad­u­ate stu­dent mov­ing from school to school, she says she hasn’t lived in a house where all the boxes have been un­packed in roughly a decade.) Then, she be­gan ex­plor­ing how one would cre­ate a home from scratch. Pretty soon, she re­al­ized she was writ­ing “a sur­vival guide. This is what you’d tell your kid if they didn’t have any books.”

Al­though For Ta­mara is fic­tion, Lang’s book is a well-re­searched piece of writ­ing — who knew that you could use chalk as tooth­paste, and soak­ing hard­wood ash in wa­ter makes lye? — that would serve as a good backup in case you sur­vived the apoca­lypse but your copy of The Knowl­edge didn’t. (“I wasn’t about to print some­thing that was in­ac­cu­rate,” she says.)

While it’s filled with prac­ti­cal tips, like “save all seeds,” and “al­ways keep a fire go­ing,” the source of much of the poem’s power is the fan­ci­ful ad­vice (“plant flow­ers,” “have fam­ily din­ner”) and yearn­ing rec­ol­lec­tions of the for­mer world the un­named mother pro­vides her young daugh­ter. She con­jures up now-gone an­i­mals, dishes on the joys of break­fast in bed and wishes for noth­ing more than to watch old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Gen­er­a­tion along­side Ta­mara. It is these mo­ments, think­ing about the sim­ple in­dul­gences and luxuries that would be the first things to dis­ap­pear, that gave Lang the most trou­ble.

“It kind of did drive me crazy,” she says of the writ­ing process. “At a cer­tain point you don’t want to think about the end of the world any­more. It’s de­press­ing. The idea that you should have that sense of para­noia in your head con­stantly isn’t re­ally healthy.

“There’s a dif­fer­ence be­tween hav­ing a first aid kit and some bot­tled wa­ter and a flash­light in your house and hav­ing a stock­pile in a bunker.”

Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

Nor­man Ree­dus, left, and Danai Gurira in The Walk­ing Dead. Un­like the TV show, our worst-case sce­nario is un­likely to in­volve zom­bies.

Pen­guin Press

The Knowl­edge by Lewis Dart­nell is a com­pen­dium of use­ful in­for­ma­tion about what to do in a post-apoc­a­lyp­tic sce­nario.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.