Thursday, October 13, 2011

Everything is Going to Kill Everybody by Robert Brockway

The title of this one is pretty self-explanatory; it’s an examination of a bunch of various ways that everyone on Earth could get killed one day.  Or over the course of a few days to a week or so, in some cases.  It’s not really a survival manual, either, since if any of these things happen then we’re all pretty screwed.

I’m an occasional reader and a fan of Brockway’s articles over there (including his essay on why writing this book was such a pain in the ass), so I was prepared to really enjoy this.  Unfortunately, I felt that it fell into an unfortunate valley between the peaks of Funny and Well-Researched, where either approach could have worked well but somehow it just didn’t connect.  Perhaps that’s an intrinsic problem when you’re trying to write a humorous non-fiction novel about doomsday scenarios, but having not really read anything similar I can’t say for sure.

When you’re dealing with subject matter like this, a little gallows humor is to be expected, so the approach probably works best in some of the chapters dealing with human activities.  There’s the story of the Soviet officer who decided that five recorded ICBM launches were a system error and held off launching a retaliatory strike, only to get fired afterward; or the tale of how a bioengineering firm failed to perform a test of root bacteria in non-sterile soil and nearly destroyed all the Earth’s plants.  These stories are engaging and fit well with the style of humor you’d probably anticipate, talking about everyone’s giant balls and so on, and were actually pretty funny.  The humor doesn’t really work quite as well with non-human risks, since nature doesn’t have a mind to care about us with or any balls to compliment and/or mock.  I guess you could make it funny, but it didn’t work for me here, sad to say.

Where I think this book really didn’t come through for me was its failure to quantify risks.  Some of these things are way more likely than others; I’m sure, for instance, that there will be a supervolcano event or asteroid strike at some point, which would be difficult to deal with; but at the same time it’s not entirely clear that a magnetic pole shift would have any negative effects at all, and some of the other scenarios might not even be possible at all, such as Grey Goo.  I realize this isn’t a textbook and I’m not an expert, but there would appear to be serious debate around some of these proposed scenarios.  Perhaps I’m a little pedantic in that regard but I find it hard to enjoy a nonfiction work when it’s obvious that there’s other information out there on the subject that might be very significant to know.  Better citations would have helped here, I think, and some of the chapters were woefully short.

Most importantly for a humor book, a lot of the jokes were very broad and occasionally forced, when I was hoping for some laugh-out-loud moments and didn’t get them.

In its favor I never wondered why I was still reading it or anything like that.  So even though this wasn’t my favorite there’s still a lot of potential here, and I’d be interested to see if Brockway could maybe focus his next one a little tighter and raise his game.

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