Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction by Annalee Newitz

Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, published by Doubleday, is the newest nonfiction offering from Annalee Newitz—familiar voice from io9 and editor of previous nonfiction anthologies such as She’s Such a Geek!: Women Write About Science, Technology, and Other Nerdy Stuff. This project is a hybrid work, a popular-science style research project that begins with the hard facts of mass extinction events on our planet and concludes, in quite speculative territory, with the technological futures we may work toward to avoid being wiped out in the next extinction.

To quote the flap copy:

As a species, Homo sapiens is at a crossroads. Study of our planet’s turbulent past suggests that we are overdue for a catastrophic disaster, whether caused by nature or human interference. It’s a frightening prospect, as each of the earth’s past major disasters—from meteor strikes to bombardment by cosmic radiation—resulted in a mass extinction… But in Scatter, Adapt, and Remember, Annalee Newitz […] explains that although global disaster is all but inevitable, our chances of log-term species survival are better than ever.

Going on to call the book a “brilliantly speculative work of popular science,” that brief introduction to the project gives a good idea of what will follow: science, history, and the future—in one bright narrative thread.

The first half of the book is an engaging, research-oriented exploration of prior mass extinctions, points at which humanity itself suffered major losses of life, and “Lessons from Survivors” wherein Newitz details various strategies for survival that have been useful in the past. The second half moves past the already-happened into the might-happen and the hopefully-will-happen: how we could survive and thrive. Each chapter is oriented around a particular research topic or idea and grounded with thoroughly cited information as well as interviews with researchers and developers; each leads comfortably into the next, as well, creating a well-structured linear progression through the various subjects and points of interest.

Newitz’s prose, too, is welcoming—descriptive, informative, yet also colloquial. There is never a point at which the book loses its conversational tone, and that makes the exchange of facts and research fun. It’s kind of like chatting over a cup of coffee about mass extinctions and weird science. That’s the “popular science” bit of the equation, of course, but maintaining lively prose while nonetheless teaching the reader about cyanobacteria is a skill—one which Newitz certainly possesses. The touches of the personal also help on this score; in the chapter on diaspora Newitz brings in her own Jewish experience, and in nearly every chapter, the scientists and researchers who are interviewed are described as individuals first so that their voices are, in some real way, embodied for the reader.

Scatter, Adapt, and Remember is also, as mentioned above, quite science-fictional in premise and in execution: it is concerned with the human ability for story-telling as a survival method, the potential for speculation to help our species survive, and also the real-world possibilities and implementations of things that are familiar from SF. Newitz’s experience with the genre informs much of the inflection and focus of the research—there’s a section on Octavia Butler, to my delight—which gives a real sense of the interdisciplinary nature of our attempt at surviving for another million years. So, too, does the wide variety of information contained therein, the interviews with particular scientists and other researchers, and the careful attention to balancing speculation with concrete possibilities inside and outside of scientific fields.

These are the two threads united throughout this book: the concrete world of research and experiment, and the speculative world of stories and potentiality. Together, Newitz argues, they offer our species a possible road to survive another million years, capitalizing on our unique capability for symbolic communication and community-building. As you might have guessed, this is a tonally positive book: it is hopeful and occasionally playful. Newitz is not primarily concerned with dragging out the grim facts of past extinctions merely to frighten; this book, instead, uses that background as research material to discover what we can do to survive. It’s not about doomsday, but about learning, building, and improving as people.

But, interestingly enough, I loved the first half of the book best—though I very much enjoyed the whole experience. This is likely because some of the opening information was new to me: it was a fresh experience, a series of learnable narratives and interesting stories (there’s that whole symbolic communication thing). The speculative sections, though fascinating and forward-thinking, paradoxically felt so familiar as to be a little less amazing—I blame having read a bit too much SF in my own time. I suspect this will be an experience many readers who are also science-fiction fans will have. On the other hand, this familiarity is pleasurable in a different way. I enjoyed the process of thinking about stories in which I had seen these sorts of technologies employed—and then considering the fact that we are in the process of now making them, or finding ways to make them in the future, for real and concrete and not made-up. That’s novel and certainly intriguing.

Additionally, each speculative chapter feels shorter and more topical than the early chapters. I had a tendency to reach the end of one of these chapters, for example “Every Surface a Farm,” and want another twenty pages on the topic and the current state of the research. Newitz’s prose, enjoyable and engaging as it is, must be the culprit: I simply wanted more. And that’s a positive thing. I’ll be doing further research of my own, having finished Scatter, Adapt, and Remember. I can’t ask for more from a popular science book than to stoke my curiosity and offer me enough ground to run on if I want to seek more information.

All together, this is a genuinely fun book—particularly for something with the words “mass extinction” in the title—that offers a contemporary, wide-ranging look at science, stories, and humanity’s potential for survival into the far-flung future using those things. Newitz is an optimist—though she points out in the introduction that she initially hadn’t been intending to write a project about human survival at all; more the opposite—and the sense of hope, wonder, and determination that she brings to this book make it a solid, provocative, and even inspiring text.


Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction by Annalee Newitz is available now from Doubleday.

Lee Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.


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