BOOKS Apoca-lit: Now what do we do?
Surviving the end of the world as we know it
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.”
Norman Reedus, left, and Danai Gurira in The Walking Dead. Unlike the TV show, our worst-case scenario is unlikely to involve zombies.
The Knowledge by Lewis Dartnell is a compendium of useful information about what to do in a post-apocalyptic scenario.