The Knowledge: How To Rebuild Our World From Scratch by Lewis Darknell (book review).

May 1, 2014 | By | Reply More

I’m often on the look-out for non-fiction books that can be useful to showing the details of what would go on under real life protocols that you can then use convincingly in Science Fiction. With this book, you can’t go more into real life SF than here with this book, ‘The Knowledge: How To Rebuild Our World From Scratch’, which shows how to build ‘civilisation’ again after a global apocalypse.


We see the post-apocalypse in Science Fiction all the time but here author and scientist Lewis Darknell works out from what happens to the habitual environment and what you need to do to survive. It’s less about fighting off the scum who would steal the shirt off your back or the zombies chasing you down and more to do with getting some meaningful old-fashioned technology built. As has been pointed in the past, there is not one person today who can create any of our technology on our own any more. All we could rely on is the supplies we have around us but even that won’t last long, especially without anyone maintaining electricity generation. Think about how much work has to be done in restoring electricity lines after some severe weather. It’s often said that if everything broke down, then things would fall apart within three days. I tend to think it might be a little longer than that but it depends on what you need. Certainly, there wouldn’t be a delivery of fresh food nor the replacement of petrol and diesel, which if you have to hand-pump out of garage tanks is going to take some time. From my perspective, if there’s a manual, I can probably get anything to work but building something is more complicated from scratch when you don’t have some electricity to start with. Having to rely on other people to have a similar ability to cope and you’re in a lot of trouble if they don’t, can’t or slack off because they don’t understand why some things have to be done quickly.

There are some advantages, of course, if the world isn’t turned into a surface of nuclear waste or needing to get away from a nuclear winter. If you have access to some supplies and equipment as you rebuild yourself into a farming community, so much the better. From there, you can re-build the technology and avoid some of the hit and miss stuff that are forebears had to go through in getting things right. I think Dartnell is making the assumption that at least some scientific and practical people are left although this book should provide some guidance with what you need to know and, more importantly, what to get.

Darknell prioritises what you need to do first for water and food and you certainly wouldn’t want to hang around in cities. Well, not after you’ve gathered some gardening tools and seeds to go along with your other supplies before fleeing. The deterioration of metal structures would make any tall building suspect after a few years and bridges even more. It belays the fact of just how much maintenance really goes on. I love his selection of which foods last longer than others and something we can all learn from even in our present condition of the world. It might reassure a lot of people that their drugs will last beyond than their expiry date and that the pharmacy product companies really need to do some revisions of their dates.

The details of setting up your own crop farm has Darknell explaining why certain things are done and how much cereal crops take out of the ground. One thing he did forget to point out about some crops is that they can be non-fertile so don’t plant all your seed at once and keep your eyes open for any wild crops that can be cultivated. An odd point for those interested in where some current jargon and sayings come from will find them cropping up a lot. I mean did you know that the word ‘spinster’ before it meant an unmarried woman was used as the name of women who spun wool? They were, for the most part, unmarried, so the label stuck.

I do think that if Darknell does a follow-up to this book that he might consider showing how to build a loom and other such equipment from scratch or even improvising them. I suspect a lot of people reading this book will look at the wood sketches included and end up being clueless as to how to build one. Wherever you are, keeping a herd of dairy cows is a very good idea if you want a decent supply of milk-based Vitamin D. If you’re planning to make bread, don’t forget to get a supply of yeast if you want a traditional loaf. I can see people reading this book and making a ready list of what they would need to pick up as vital for survival. You would certainly want to have this book ready to go.

When he deals with some basic chemistry like making steel or glass, I suspect many people are going to wonder if there’s a foundry or glassworks nearby to make things a little easier. Unlike medieval times, in a post- apocalyptic world, there’s a better than even chance of having some of the basic equipment left. Where Dartnell comes into his own is telling you want ingredients you need and how to extract the elements you need with basic equipment. In the long term, such knowledge would be more valuable that raiding supermarkets for supplies. You do have to think long not short term in such things.

One thing that quickly becomes apparent is long range transport systems like roads will clearly not last long without repair so breeding horses would quickly become a priority. Dartnell doesn’t hit on the use of boats or even aeroplanes. With the latter, I can understand that there would be a lack of trained pilots, but although he instructs on how to make a workable yacht, what you really need is a bigger boat to trawl for fish.

There is so much to choose from but everything has its own level of importance, especially with hygiene and sanitation. Considering some of the recent weather-based disasters, some of this information has practical applications even now. If you travel, it might pay to carry a small supply of salt and sugar – keep it in their original packets so you can prove this to airport customs folk – in your baggage.

Seeing the origin of the forceps used in child birth and why some doctors kept it secret for so long so they had an advantage over other doctors is at least something that won’t happen again. The knowledge of how to make pain-killers from scratch or rather from plants is sure to be of some relief to many of you. Finding the penicillin bacteria a lot of the time is more a matter of observing the cultures you grow and pick out which one is killing the rest.

Harnessing mechanical power is a lot harder but I agree with Dartnell, it’s better to start off with what nature has to offer first and create a water-wheel and a windmill to generate the required nascent power to create heat and energy to grind cereals to make flour. If you can create a cam-shaft, then things can really open up for you. Once you can move up to steam power then you’ll also have a bit more mobility. Although Dartnell doesn’t say this in his book, petroleum is used in a lot more different ways than driving cars and it would really make more sense to preserve that for other uses than driving around.

Although I doubt if we’ll ever be short of paper too soon, Dartnell goes into some detail in how to manufacture the white stuff. I saw this process at Wookey Hole in Somerset in my youth and it does take a little skill to get right. Adding a little rag into the paper mix will make for stiffer material that will endure longer. What I hadn’t realised is that if you want to create your own India ink then you need to use soot mixed with tree gum and water and is useful for printing presses. That’s a lot simpler compared to making silver chloride for photography.

When it comes to chemistry, I do wish Dartnell had pointed out that most chemical reactions generate some heat and fumes and shouldn’t be done in confined spaces or at least not where you could breathe them in. You certainly wouldn’t want to breathe in ammonia, especially as it’s used in a variety of materials. Looking at the Solvay process, you have a decent way to make several chemical compounds at the same time and recycle the waste to use again.

Developing timepieces and sextons will take a bit more precision and I like the technique to get the correct time from the position of Barnard’s Star.

There are some things I wish he’d at least mentioned like the various cycles that nature provides with carbon, water and nitrogen, especially as he only touches on the latter, and how to exploit them. Knowing how they function makes them more exploitable.

I’m only touching on the surface of some of the things I’ve learnt from this book. Dartnell himself admits at the end that ‘The Knowledge’ isn’t completely comprehensive but it will give you enough of a start to know what you need to acquire to get things moving again. There’s still a problem of knowing what kind of disaster that would affect all of mankind, let alone what is left and how many people, but Man is supposed to be adaptable so be flexible with this knowledge as it might save a lot of lives.

From a Science Fiction perspective, a lot of this knowledge could also be applicable to those of you who strand your characters on alien planets. The plant life would certainly be different but the basic chemicals remain pretty much the same for you to build from similar resources making this book a useful template to own. Although I think the book starts off a little higher than scratch, it won’t leave you with an itchy head wondering what to do next. Totally fascinating.

GF Willmetts

April 2014

(pub: The Bodley Head. 341 page indexed hardback. Price: £20.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-847-9227-4)

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About the Author ()

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 15 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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