Books & Literature

Book Review: Apocalypse How? by Oliver Letwin

NON-FICTION: An urgent and eye-opening examination of how technology is leaving society open to myriad catastrophic threats.

A fantastic read that serves as an alarm bell to the oblivious and unknowing.

Have you ever thought about what would happen if a satellite went down? If the world wide web failed? Perhaps we have fleetingly thought about the impact it would have on our social life, or we have experienced the inconvenience of trying to pay for goods with a card that doesn’t work – but how bad can it really get?

Former UK Cabinet Minister Sir Oliver Letwin shares his extensive departmental knowledge and insights in his latest publication, the disquieting and dystopic novel Apocalypse How? As a Minister of government policy for over twenty years, he is the perfect candidate to depict a technological catastrophe and its impact at a range of societal levels.

Although the technological catastrophe depicted seems implausible at first, the careful structure of knowledge and facts mixed with personal stories within the disaster makes it both relatable as well as realistic. The prologue grips you from the start as it describes the impact of the disaster on three unconnected people in different locations and sets the scene of a mystery to solve.

In the same way as a mystery novel unfolds, with a gradual unveiling of facts, Letwin narrates his novel by alternating the chapters – one chapter of factual analysis and the next, the progress of each individual and their journey throughout the disaster. By presenting the book as a mystery you are involved in thinking how and why this disaster has occurred.

Consequently, rather than reading the story as an observer, Letwin cleverly makes you an active participant in the analytical process. Letwin’s intent in structuring the book this way is to make us start to think about our reliance on technology and just how interconnected all our systems are; and which areas of our life would be impacted in what he terms as a ‘black swan’ event.

By definition, a black swan event is rare, has a major or calamitous effect, and could have been expected given the relevant data available in risk mitigation programmes. Letwin talks a lot about the difference between defence planning and resilience planning on a societal level, about how the imaginable is actual and about how we need to prepare for black swan events.

The impact of the technological disaster as described in Apocalypse How? serves as a parable and should be an alarm bell to the oblivious and unknowing.

Reviewed by Rebecca Wu

Distributed by: Allan & Unwin
Released: March 2020
RRP: $34.99

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