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Powells.com
Saturday, September 27th, 2008
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The World without Us

by Alan Weisman

The World with Us

A review by Doug Brown

The concept of a world devoid of humans is a vivid imagination stirrer. It has been a theme of post-apocalyptic science-fiction books and films for decades. Much of the success of films like Road Warrior and Omega Man/I Am Legend is the titillation of seeing our familiar world laid waste, devoid of humans. Wiseman has taken it out of science fiction by talking to architects, sewer workers, museum archivists, etc., and getting their considered take on what would happen to our creations if humans suddenly disappeared.

The first third of the book is devoted to this fascinating gedanken experiment. How our buildings would fall apart, how our city streets would collapse into canyons, how plants would invade and continue the decay of our former world. This is by far the best part of The World without Us, and the reason folks should read it. (One surprise for me: ceramics would last a very long time, most of our metals wouldn't.)

After the first third, though, the book loses focus and becomes a general (and sometimes generic) environmental study. Most of that portion is about what we're doing to the world now (and have done in the past), rather than what would happen if we left. There's a bit of speculation on how long our detrimental effects would persist in our absence, but the primary emphasis is on the now. We have eliminated once common species like passenger pigeons. Our plastics are filling the oceans; our use of petroleum scars the skies; our mining scars the land. I don't want to diminish the importance of these facts, but there are plenty of more scholarly treatments of them out there.

The section on Chernobyl, discussing the return of animals to the area, was the original genesis for the book. An editor read the article in Harper's and planted the idea of a book about a world without humans. However, that original article doesn't really cover what the new book is about, and, thus, it seems a missed opportunity. The interesting thing about Chernobyl is that it offers a perfect living -- if that's the right word -- laboratory for this book. There is a large zone around the former plant where people haven't lived for over 20 years. What has happened to the buildings and towns that were abandoned? How decayed are the roadways, sewers, and power lines? What have the plants and elements already torn asunder? All we are told is animals started returning within a year of the disaster and seem to be doing well for themselves despite the radiation levels (a somewhat hopeful message).

Despite the ramblings and more anecdotal parts of the book, The World without Us is still well worth reading for the first third. Even the later sections are worth reading -- albeit with a grain of salt -- for their emphasis on our long-term environmental effects. The first part, though, is the book you are expecting from the title. The World without Us is a thought-provoking read and should be part of any dystopian science-fiction writer's concordance.


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