Book review: ‘Soonish’ by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith

‘Soonish’ by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith is a witty and informative skip through where we are with emerging technologies and their potential consequences.

Wife and husband team Kelly and Zach Weinersmith set out their stall at the start of ‘Soonish: Emerging Technologies that will Improve and/or Ruin Everything’ (Particular Books, £22, ISBN 9781846148996), a light-hearted but thorough run through technologies that are set to have a massive impact on the world in the near future. Their guiding principle, they explain, is to let the reader imagine they’re sitting at a bar and someone asks them “Hey, what’s the deal on nuclear fusion power?” How do you answer that and communicate the excitement, theoretical benefits and potential obstacles - not to mention the science behind it - without boring the listener enough to get them to try and swiftly change the subject?

As the multitude of science and technology professionals who’ve found themselves in this unenviable position know all too well, the sweet spot is a hard one to hit. To their credit, the Weinersmiths get it almost perfect in ‘Soonish’, which looks at developments in ten emerging fields, handily ordered in scale from outer space through power plants down to the human body.

Dr Kelly Weinersmith is a researcher on the staff of the BioSciences Department at Rice University, while her husband Zach is the cartoonist behind, among other things, the long-running webcomic ‘Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal’. Interspersing the technical commentary with cartoons that often refer in a tongue-in-cheek way to how the pair went about researching the narrative gives the reader a touch of light relief as well as an insight into the workings of the popular technology genre of non-fiction. 

Along the way they examine where we are with everything from  interplanetary travel to that elusive flying car in a style that manages to be both entertaining and informative at the same time. Lightening heavyweight science and technology with a small dose of humour can grate when it’s done with a heavy hand. Here the touch is light, if resolutely American in style, and helps to get the message across rather than distracting from it.

Don’t expect one of those relentlessly positive exercises in crystal-ball gazing that describes how a flying car in every garage is just around the corner. ‘Soonish’ embraces a comfortable degree of cynicism, encapsulated in a series of ‘Concerns’ sections that act as a warning of what could happen if we get what we want.

Picture: Zach Weinersmith

The Weinersmiths are in the UK in November for a double-header of evening lectures at the Royal Institution in London. Expanding on the theme of their book, they will give audiences a snapshot of the transformative technologies that are coming next, from space elevators to fusion-powered toasters, and explain how they will change our world in astonishing ways.

See the RI website for details of the events on Monday 6 November and Tuesday 7 November and to book. Tickets are £16 (concessions £10, Royal Institution Members and Patrons £7).

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