Longtime readers of this blog (not to mention those who know me on other forms of social media) are no doubt aware of my addiction to learning new stuff. Well, okay, maybe not any new things; I tend to stay away from celebrity gossip, sportsball statistics (to the endless disappointment of my lovely wife), and reality contest shows that don’t involve Gordon Ramsey.

But if there’s a book that combines science, technology, history, and writing prompts, I’m all over it. That’s at the top of my reading list. There’s no way I’d buy the book on a sale and then let it languish in my to-read pile for five years.

. . . okay, that’s what actually happened with The Knowledge. And yet, before I finished it, it was already one of my favorite books of all time, and at the top of my list of recommendations for anyone writing SF&F — and possibly even as a textbook in certain high school or higher education classes. It’s the best single source for teaching the history of science and technology I’ve ever seen, and it does so from the engaging and entertaining perspective of “Civilization has collapsed; what now?”

Inside the Book

The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Civilization in the Aftermath of a Cataclysm (this is an Amazon Affiliate link), by scientist and researcher Lewis Dartnell, isn’t a survival guide or a prepper manual; rather it is a wonderful lesson on history, science, and technology as seen through a very simple writing prompt which inevitably spawns thousands more. He notes the difficulties inherent in rebuilding civilization without a guidebook, and outlines strategies — and the science behind them — that could be taken when ‘rebooting’ the world.

Exploring the ruins of the Metal World (personal screenshot from Horizon: Zero Dawn)

When I finally got around to reading this book, I had recently completed my first playthrough of Horizon: Zero Dawn, a third-person video game exploring the post-apocalyptic landscape of the American Southwest in, well, the aftermath of a cataclysm. For reasons that come out in the course of the story (if you have never played it, do it; if you’re not a gamer, put it on story difficulty and think of it as an interactive movie), the world ended in the 21st century and very little knowledge was left over for the almost-Neolithic societies that came after. I’ll probably do a post on this story when I get time to play the sequel, so I’ll save it for then, but suffice to say that a lot of trouble could have been avoided if the characters had access to this book.

Dartnell begins with a discussion of the fall of civilization and the ‘grace period’ of the survivors: how to scavenge on the ruins of what came before and how long you could potentially do it (depending on how many mouths you have to feed) in order to have time to restart the industries you need to allow a sizable population base. It includes a lot of real-world examples of DIY modernism, with my favorite being the way the Bosnian city of Goražde, when cut off for three years by Serbian forces, jury-rigged car alternators to paddle wheels, floated them in the river, and ran their own power grid from that.

To that end, chapter three focuses on agriculture, detailing the basics of the science behind farming; anyone who’s cracked open a history book (or played Age of Empires) has at least heard of crop rotation, but Dartnell goes into detail on how it works, why, and what plants can be used for the process. Attention is also given to various tech levels of farming, rather than being one-size-fits-all.

After that, the discussion segues naturally to the fourth chapter, Food and Clothing, which details the science behind food preservation and how to use plant fibers to make clothing. The next chapter, Substances, does the same thing for things like heat generation, making soap, using acid, and more. Further chapters cover materials science, medicine, power generation, transportation, communications, advanced chemistry, and methods of time-measurement and navigation. There is no index, but the various examinations frequently reference other chapters, so it’s surprisingly easy to bounce around gathering information on a specific topic that might cover multiple chapters.

Using a focus to project an AR overlay on the post-apocalyptic world (personal screenshot from a cutscene in Horizon: Zero Dawn)

The final chapter isn’t the most exciting, but it was very memorable to me. Throughout the book, since I kept thinking of the Horizon setting, I couldn’t help but notice the multitude of times that Dartnell referenced modern measurements, usually metric/SI, in his instructions and strategies. The people of the world of Horizon, without finding and learning to use ancient technology like a “focus” (the main character’s semi-cheat power in the story), had no conception of metric or anything like it. Even if they could read the book, there was so much in there that they couldn’t use.

Fortunately, Dartnell anticipated my (undoubtedly not unique) concern. The final chapter, titled The Greatest Invention, details and explains the scientific method and then describes a series of experiments that can be used without any measurement system to recreate metric’s basic units. Any hands-on physics teacher should buy this book for that alone and use it in the classroom.

What I Like About the Book

I’ve never seen a better book for teaching the history of science and technology. I already knew a lot about the things talked about in the book, and I was still new to over 80% of this book. There’s so much information in here that you’ll be learning things on rereads and thinking “How did I miss that!?” Answer: because you were still thinking about the last thing you learned even as you read on, and your brain can only handle so much at once.

The historical approach lets the reader see how we got to where we are, but Dartnell also makes it clear when certain avenues of technology and sequences of advancement aren’t inevitable or required. One of my favorite details in here was about a competing design for a refrigerator that doesn’t run on electricity, but which lost in the free market because of the wonders (and advertising dollars) of early electric companies.

The book de-mystifies the underlying industries that make modern society possible while simultaneously promoting the wonder of the world around you. Things you took for granted will be shown in a new light, and things you always wondered about will be explained. It brings to mind Leonard E. Reed’s famous essay, “I, Pencil,” which argues that the complexity of modern society is so great that even the humble pencil cannot be known by only one person. The Knowledge similarly and — while the author avoids social commentary — inevitably leaves the reader with the understanding that it takes a family to survive, a village to live, and a civilization to thrive.

This book would not be out of place in either a science or history class, and I encourage teachers to look at how they might integrate the information into a lesson plan or even build a whole unit around reading the book. The engaging nature of the premise turns what would be a dry recitation of facts into a fascinating thought-experiment that fans of dystopias and post-apocalyptic books, movies, tv shows, and video games would love. Even if not all of your students are fans of The Walking Dead, they’ll certainly be familiar with the premise, and it would no doubt help classroom engagement.

How an Author Can Use the Book

If you’re writing fantasy, science fiction, or post-apocalyptic fiction, you need this book. Hopefully you already got that impression, but if not, I’ll try to convince you.

One of the most challenging aspects of worldbuilding is coming up with realistic technological progression, or even how much a supposedly more ‘primitive’ culture should know about science. The difficulties inherent in coming up with something realistic usually wind up defaulting to some era of real history — usually something European — and covering it with some unique elements to keep it from feeling too generic.

Whether you’re writing steampunk, epic fantasy, portal fantasy, space opera, or hard SF, this book is essential to overcoming that kind of pitfall. The way Dartnell describes being able to ‘skip’ several elements of technological progression, either due to prior knowledge or because the path the real world took isn’t inevitable, helps model a truly alien or divergent culture. Whether it’s a non-spacefaring alien species, a lost colony knocked back to a subsistence level due to a devastating event, or Bronze Age elves who understand viral diseases because magic, this book will give you the necessary information to construct something convincing.

Another challenge is plausible scenarios for radical change in society. This is good for post-apocalyptic, dystopian, steampunk, dieselpunk, and even magicpunk settings, where rapid change in technology has wide-ranging effects on society in either direction. While the book focuses on the apocalyptic, obviously, the lessons it presents are good fodder for any setting with rapid technological change, whether it’s a Connecticut Yankee portal fantasy/isekai scenario, the magicpunk settings of Legend of Korra or the D&D world of Eberron, or a time travel/alternate history setting like 1632.

The second chapter alone, focusing on the grace period where survivors scavenge from the bones of civilization, is absolutely vital for anyone writing post-apocalyptic of any flavor (except perhaps a story taking place generations after the event, such as Horizon or the Shannara series).

All in all, I can’t think of many SF&F subgenres that wouldn’t benefit from the research in this book. Urban fantasy is one, as it generally takes place in a contemporary setting with all of our current supply chains. A space opera that leans more toward the ubiquity of Star Wars (where even primitive cultures usually have some familiarity with galactic-level technology) or the more singular focus of Honor Harrington (where the story rarely shows anything but high-tech human societies) similarly benefits little from this book. Even if you write either of those, however, most authors aren’t going to be one-series ponies and this book will only benefit your home library. I have consulted it many times, and even listened to the audiobook three times — and it’s very rare for me to revisit a book, no matter how good.

I cannot recommend this book too highly.