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Annalee Newitz
Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction
Doubleday / Random House
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-038-553591-5
Publication Date: 05-14-2013
306 Pages; $23.95
Date Reviewed: 06-23-2013
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2013

Index:  Non-Fiction   Science Fiction

Humans are a morbid species, able and willing to contemplate their own demise with an almost gleeful appreciation. Considering apocalypse, our imaginations go into overdrive, bringing on visions the world without us, our empty cities overrun by those hardy survive-it-alls, the cockroaches.

Annalee Newitz thinks otherwise, and in 'Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction,' she makes a great case for humanity as being every bit adept at survival as la cuharacha. Newitz brings a fresh vision to visions of doom and gloom. She's chock-a-block with hard science that shows just how dire things have been, but she has an ultimately sunny outlook. It's not optimism, exactly, but more of a grim appreciation of the plusses that brought us to the brink.

Newitz brings a smart sense of organization to the book, which is important because she intends to cover not just the past 4 billion years, but a few million into the future as well. She starts at the beginning, the first burst of life on earth, then sallies forth through one catastrophe after another with brio and verve. As one of our strengths is our ability to tells stories about what happened, thus at least allowing for the possibility of avoiding making the same mistake twice, Newitz offers a whirlwind tour of the mass extinctions that have already wiped the earth clean. It's an entertaining reminder of mortality at a mind-boggling scale.

Time is important to Newitz, and she does a fine job pulling her readers back to what she finally calls "The Million Year View." Having covered the big extinctions, she pulls in a bit closer and examines the human record, which is uncomfortably filled with misfortunes that nearly wiped us out. The "nearly" is important, as she pivots here and looks to how we have survived, then moves on to speculating what might happen in the future and how we might live through what's surely coming.

The pleasure in reading 'Scatter, Adapt, and Remember' starts with the prose. Newitz is fun to be around, and reading this book is a constantly pleasure. She has mastered the fine art of writing with a sly sense of (species)-self-deprecating humor even when she's slinging the bleakest facts. 'Scatter' features a large cast of guest scientists, and she manages to craft sharp character portraits and give readers a concise idea of what they're about.

If Newitz is crafty at the sentence level, she's equally so when it comes to the overall arc of the book. There are a lot of ideas and stories here, and she's picked them carefully for both readability and fit-ability into her bigger idea, nicely summarized in the title. From past to present to future, from scientific fact to informed speculation, Newitz manages to create tension and momentum. Reading 'Scatter' is like one of those science fiction scenarios where the captain of the starship uses the gravity well of a planet to sling his vehicle ever faster into the great beyond.

Given its focus on catastrophe, death and one extinction after another, with a heaping side order of "you cannot ignore the fact of climate change, so get over it and start doing something about it," it is as amazing as many of the facts you find within that 'Scatter, Adapt, and Remember' is so much fun to read. Consider mass extinction and make yourself smile. If you look in the mirror and see a cockroach looking back, you're not in a Kafka story. That's not a monster. It's the inner you, your happy ending.

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