From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think science fiction and fantasy authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for the SF/fantasy author, so worth looking for.
Annalee Newitz of iO9.com has fired the shot heard ’round the post-apocalypse with her readable, funny, insightful, and well-researched book Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction.
I suppose I should start out by revealing a growing bias on my own part against the flood of apocalypses we’ve been reading, seeing on TV and in the movies, and playing on our computers and gaming consoles recently. There’s really only one that I consistently love, and that’s The Walking Dead. But even then, I cringe at the basic assumptions about how quickly and how thoroughly we’ll all descend into barbarism, and that knee-jerk assurance that we’re hanging on to our civilization by the thinnest of threads. Frankly, I just can’t buy that, post-plague, post-asteroid strike, etc., the biker shall inherit the Earth. All evidence seems to point to the contrary. It’s the smartest people, the most adaptable people, and the best educated people, not the most blindly aggressive and selfish, who survive.
As the title states, Newitz posits that there are three ways in which humans, and other animals before us, have survived global catastrophes. But first she puts the whole thing into perspective by running down a frankly disturbing history of global mass extinctions that have already happened. This planet is the best place we know of for humans to live (not coincidently, since we evolved here) but it has all sorts of weapons to use against us on a moment’s notice, and then we also have all of space to contend with. The more you know about how inimical the universe is to human life the more likely you are to adopt a religion and stay there, probably in fetal position, weeping, for as long as you can. I get it, and read the first part of this book and you will too.
Keeping with that theme, the second part is actually titled “We Almost Didn’t Make It.” Kind of a downer, but then not really. After all, we did make it. Or at least, we’ve made it this far. And that’s the most attractive part of this book. It’s actually immensely hopeful even as it drags us through some really depressing territory.
The meat of the book comes in the third part in which we see the title come to life as examples of how we, and other animals “made it,” despite the odds against.
We scatter, planting seeds (literally and figuratively) in as many different places as we can so that if something terrible happens on one continent (or one planet) the people on the other continent (or other planets) will survive to carry on. As a difficult to dismiss example, Newitz details the Jewish Diaspora. Despite Hitler’s best efforts, the Jewish people survived the Holocaust because even with the devastation of their communities in Europe, Jewish populations in North America and elsewhere weathered the storm and carried their traditions into the new century.
If humans are good at anything it’s adapting to new environments. I’ve pointed this out in my worldbuilding classes when we talk about the spread of technology, how quickly we adapt to new paradigms, going from a two-year wagon train to a six-hour flight in a century and a half, and only about fifty years into that ultra-fast travel we (I, anyway) can’t stop bitching about how long it takes to get from Seattle to New York. So if the climate changes dramatically on Earth, maybe the thing to do is to change ourselves to match it.
And that’s not as defeatist an idea as it may seem at first blush. This is what we do—why we come in different colors, tend to be thinner or fatter, shorter or taller, and so on, based on where our ancestors chose (or we forced) to settle.
We also have the best and longest memories of any animals on Earth. I don’t have to reinvent every technology that’s been invented before me from the wheel to the smart phone. I might have no idea how to get the Snoqualmie Falls hydroelectric plant started up again after the zombies have been dealt with in my neighborhood, but surely it’s written down somewhere.
And how about this, which I had to highlight, the concept of storytelling as a survival tool:
Humans’ new facility with symbols allowed us to learn about the world around us from other humans rather than starting from scratch with direct observations each time we went to a new place. Like walking, symbolic thought is an adaptation that leads to more adaptations. Modern humans could venture into new territory, discover its resources and perils, then tell other bands of humans about it. They might even pass along designs for tools that helped us gain access to foods specific to a certain area, like crushers for nuts or scoops for tubers. Aided by our new capacity for imagination, those bands of humans could familiarize themselves with alien regions before ever visiting them. For the first time in history, people could figure out how to adapt to a place before arriving there—just by hearing stories from their comrades. Symbolic thought is what allowed us to thrive in environments far from warm, coastal Africa where we began. It was the perfect evolutionary development for a species whose body propelled us easily into new places. Indeed, one might argue that the farther we wandered, the more we evolved our skills as storytellers.
Newitz worked from interviews with scientists across a wide range of disciplines, and even draws examples from science fiction. She invokes Octavia Butler in this rather inspirational passage:
But, as Butler told a student attending one of her lectures, “There’s no single answer that will solve all our future problems. There’s no magic bullet. Instead there are thousands of answers—at least. You can be one of them if you choose to be.” First, however, you must be brave enough to turn away from death, embrace the change, and survive.
This book is a must-read for anyone who’s thinking about diving into the crowded pool of post-apocalyptic fiction. Though it may actually make you think twice and instead tell a hopeful story of a geohacked future in which we all live happily ever after in bioengineered houses under a sky cleaned of carbon, at least if you decide to stick with the End is Near, your End will be a lot more plausible for the lessons learned in Scatter, Adapt, and Remember.