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Posted on 16 Nov 2021 in Non-Fiction |

HENRY GEE A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth: 4.6 billion years in 12 chapters. Reviewed by Robin Riedstra

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Henry Gee manages to convey 4.6 billion years of history and a planet’s sense of yearning in one slim volume.

Douglas Adams wrote in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe:

 In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.

And since that time people have tried to encapsulate the entirety of this anger-inducing world we live in, in the shortest amount of time. There was Julian Barnes with his literary triumph A History of the World in Ten and a Half Chapters, then famously Jerry Brotton’s A History of the World in Twelve Maps, and now Henry Gee has entered the arena with A (Very) Short History of Life On Earth: 4.6 billion years in 12 chapters.

How does this attempt stack up? In short, remarkably well. Although this approach is markedly different from that of Julian Barnes, being a work of non-fiction rather than fiction, it still manages to encapsulate feelings of awe, wonder and longing.

The first chapter is entitled ‘A Song of Fire and Ice’. It isn’t a tale of Westeros and Essos, but it is gripping in its own way. In fact, Gee manages to capture the drama of a sweeping epic fantasy in the opening lines of this study of life: ‘Once upon a time, a giant star was dying.’ It is impossible not to be captivated by this dramatic opening that harkens back to fairytales we were told as children. But it also serves as a warning that just as ‘once upon a time’ is the beginning of countless fables, so is this inevitable force of creation and destruction the fate of countless planets. The Earth is beautiful and worthy of having its story told, but it is also locked into an inevitable destiny.

Although the subject matter can be quite technical, detailing fusion and atoms, the book is surprisingly easy to read because of the quality of the writing. Energy doesn’t just cease and things don’t implode; rather: ‘The day came when the fuel ran out completely. Gravity won the battle: the star imploded.’ Gee’s narrative style keeps the content engaging and gives reference points for unscientific minds by utilising common motifs in human experience such as battles, competition, and action.

The chapters are also quite short, which helps keep the pace going and prevents any area from getting bogged down in too much detail. But doesn’t prevent Gee from being able to express his facts through beautiful prose.

The cloud of gas, dust and ice was enriched with the elements created in the supernova. Swirling around the new Sun, it also coagulated into the system of planets. One of them was our Earth. The infant Earth was very different from the one we know today. The atmosphere would have been to us an unbreathable fog of methane, carbon dioxide, water vapour and hydrogen. The surface was an ocean of molten lava, perpetually stirred up by the impacts of asteroids, comets and even other planets.

Through Gee’s masterful storytelling, he manages to give this scientific exploration of the universe and Earth an almost human sense of longing to be considered as more than the sum of its parts. You become emotionally invested through this sense of yearning and want to find out what happens next, as if Earth is your new favourite character. This identification with the planet keeps you flipping through to find out more about what may have previously been dull, scientific data. And the gravitas is just staggering.

A planet is more than a jumble of rocks. Any planet more than a few hundred kilometres in diameter settles out into layers over time. Less dense materials such as aluminium, silicon and oxygen combine into a light froth of rocks near the surface. Denser materials such as nickel and iron sink to the core. Today, the Earth’s core is a rotating ball of liquid metal. The core is kept hot by gravity, and the decay of heavy radioactive elements such as uranium, forged in the final moments of the ancient supernova.

Like all good stories about creation, there must be a nod to humanity’s destruction. The Norse have Ragnarök, the Bible has the Book of Revelation, Julian Barnes has ‘The Dream’ in A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, and Henry Gee’s A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth has an epilogue, which notes that although mammals generally last for around a million years, homo sapiens are ‘exceptional’. Which could mean that we will get our extinction over and done with in half the time, or twice the time. Who knows? You’ll have to read the epilogue and decide for yourself if we might precipitate:

 … what has been called the ‘sixth’ mass extinction, an event of similar magnitude to the ‘Big Five’, the extinctions at the end of the Permian, Cretaceous, Ordovician, Triassic, and Devonian periods – events detectable in the geological record hundreds of millions of years later.

Or if our exceptionalness makes us self-aware enough that we will in fact take enough steps to limit this potential annihilation of humankind. Although, if Barnes is to be believed, humanity will probably just get bored with it all and self-destruct.

I did note that this book was criticised in the review in Kirkus for not being detailed enough and not including pictures, but as I have read the title I am unconcerned by the fact that A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth: 4.6 Billion Years in 12 Chapters is a break-neck whip-around of our entire history, from creation to possible destruction. Gee has rather kindly provided a Further Reading list at the back of the book, and there are a handful of diagrams.

Highly recommend this book for the time-poor science buff, or anyone wanting to get an overview of life, the Earth and everything, in manner that will leave you feeling moved.

Henry Gee A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth: 4.6 billion years in 12 chapters Pan Macmillan 2021 PB 288pp $34.99

Robin Riedstra is a reader, writer, reviewer and 2020 Dorothy Hewett Literary Award shortlistee. In her downtime she teaches, and blogs at Write or Wrong about mental health, her love of Australian literature and whatever tickles her fancy bone.

You can buy A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.

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