Henry Gee zips through the last 4.6 billion years with enthusiasm and rigor. Drawing on the very latest scientific understanding, he tells a tale of survival and persistence that illuminates the delicate balance within which life has always existed.
[The story of life on Earth] is an epic story, and like most epic stories it cries out for a good editor. In Henry Gee, a British palaeontologist and senior editor of the scientific journal Nature, it has found one. Yet Gee has his work cut out. The story doesn’t really get going until the end. The first two thirds are about slime. And once there are living things worth looking at, they keep keeling over ... It’s perhaps a little bit belittling to cast Gee’s achievement here as mere “editing”. Gee is a marvellously engaging writer, juggling humour, precision, polemic and poetry to enrich his impossibly telescoped account ... Gee’s book is full of such dazzling walk-on parts, but most impressive are the elegant numbers he traces across evolutionary time ... To weave such interconnected wonders into a book the size of a modest novel is essentially an exercise in precis and a bravura demonstration of the editor’s art. Although the book (whose virtue is its brevity) is not illustrated, there are six timelines to guide us through the scalar shifts necessary to comprehend the staggering longueurs involved in bringing a planet to life ... Gee’s final masterstroke as editor is to make human sense, and real tragedy, from his unwieldy story’s glaring spoiler: that life dies at the end.
‘Once upon a time…’ The opening words of Henry Gee’s new book give notice that what follows will be a story – and a dazzling, beguiling story it is, told at an exhilarating pace. The scale is apparent from the first of a set of mind-boggling timeline graphics: this runs from the birth of the universe to ‘Extinction of life on Earth’, alarmingly close to the dotted line indicating ‘NOW’. This is a book to give you a dizzying perspective on such small matters as human civilisation ... A hugely enjoyable page-turner.