A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson: Or…A Search For Heroes
Everyone has a book in them. At least, that’s what they say. I’m not sure who they are, but it is a truism as much as anything else. What if you want to write more than one? Where do you get ideas from? What is your inspiration or muse?
I’ve no idea. It is a personal thing, but I’m going to write about a book now that might spark some ideas, some interest, some characters and situations. This isn’t a book review, more a wander through it, pointing out bits in the hope that others will spot an idea and write a book I’ll look forward to reading.
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson was published in 2003 and it does exactly what it says on the cover. It takes us all the way back to the beginning of time and brings right up to date (for 2003) by the end of it. More than anything, to me, it is a goldmine of information, characters, plots and inspiration.
Whether we like it or not almost every novel ever written, good, bad, published, ‘trunked’, read by everyone, read by a few, has at its heart the ‘human condition’. Many authors, I’d be so bold as to suggest, write books that are influenced by the world they are exposed to. Events unfold in the modern world in the glare of the media, with rapid news updates and videos of war-torn countries, poverty and space flight. We get the full gamut the world has to offer. Don’t be shocked to see fantasy, and dare I say science fiction, novels that have hints of Brexit, Syria and Trump within their pages. I am not sure an author can avoid it.
To my thinking then, exposing yourself to the past is a great way to get some inspiration. And I don’t mean just learning about Henry VIII and his Six Wives (or one, depending on your own interpretation of divorce laws in the 16th Century). I mean looking at the history you can find outside of school textbooks, outside of feature films which tend to be a little on the inaccurate side (U-571 anybody?). This is where A Short History of Nearly Everything comes in.
In this book, by Bill Bryson, a self-confessed poor student of science, the focus is on the discoveries that humans have made and the characters that made them. Sugar-coating and hero worship are not to be found within the pages.
Take the discovery and codifying of palaeontology. The backstabbing, backbiting and downright treachery of scientists whose statues still have pride of place in museums is tragic, yet exciting. Within those chapters is every aspect of character, story and justice you could ever wish to read. A dreamer whose only love is the discovery of new dinosaurs is betrayed by a better known, but less scrupulous scientist who takes the credit, prevent publication of our hero’s newest theory. Yet at the end, the glory-hunter gets his comeuppance and we can rejoice a little, though the hero’s tragic end is full of tears.
Even moving forward in time to the discoveries of the universe in the 20th Century, human success and failures are brought to the fore. Where there may be no description of each and every character, there are hooks aplenty for a reader to be interested, and for an author to purloin. Scientists, giants in their field, who take our understanding forward in leaps and bounds yet run into brick walls of misunderstanding, are followed by others who stand on their shoulders, see the faults and paste them over with inspiration.
The science of biology, of diseases and immunology are covered with speed and gusto; scientists who put their own lives on the line to make discoveries that will save, or not in some cases, millions. Men and women who put their own lives at risk to do so, surely the definition of bravery. Heroes in their own right and not a single bullet fired or sword swung, but maybe the odd spell of brilliance.
And there is a whole chapter or two dedicated to Clair Cameron Patterson; a hero to whom we owe our lives, yet few of us know anything about. A man who set out to prove the age of the earth and ended up fighting a long war against the lead industry which led to, eventually, the banning of lead additives to petrol amongst other things. You could do worse than basing a hero on that kind of unremitting dedication to a cause. What book couldn’t be improved by a lone figure, sure of his data and experiments (skills with a sword, dagger, magic), standing up against a faceless enemy of seemingly insurmountable wealth and influence? It is Lord of The Rings all over again.
Again and again in fantasy we look to empires, at kings and queens, that are a reflection of our own history, be that British, Frankish or Chinese. Authors dip into the well of our own past and twist it to produce a reflection that has hints of our own history. Some take a ladle full to splatter it throughout the story, some use a careful pipette.
Perhaps there are others who look further afield from the kings and queens towards people who have made history a richer place than the political machinations of those in power. Maybe they look to those whose impact on our lives is taken too much for granted yet is deeper and longer lasting than any war fought in a foreign land.
In a book I recently reviewed for this very site, Path of Flames, one of the more interesting viewpoints was that of a scholar, a man of learning. When you think about it magicians, sorcerers and scholars are some of the greatest heroes in fiction; Gandalf, Belgarath, Merlin, Pug, Elminster. They all speak to us of the power of learning. That physical strength is a transient power, only good for the young. Intelligence and dedication to learning lasts a lifetime.
What I am saying, in near a thousand words when maybe a hundred could have done the same job, is let’s look to learning and science for the inspiration behind our fictional heroes.
In an age of mass media, of social media and soundbites, a ‘post-fact’ society, a time when government ministers can say they don’t need experts (UK), when people take for granted the benefits of science, when conspiracy theorists are more famous than those whose small inventions and discoveries save millions of lives a year, I’d like us to look beyond the momentary glory of physical achievements to those who have spent a lifetime learning and whose discoveries will enrich lives beyond their own mortal span on earth.
Scientists are our magicians, which is no surprise to those who understand Clarke’s third law, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
A Short History of Nearly Everything is a great way to find out about these women and men, about their drives and the world they lived in. There is a wealth of inspiration to be found within.