Unexpected Life: A Short History of Living Longer by Steven Johnson (Non-fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Topic Coverage: 5/5

A compendium of the major advances in life expectancy throughout human history. With an engaging, story-mixed-with-research style, Johnson devotes a chapter to each of the major contributions: Vaccines; Data and Epidemiology; Pasteurization and Chlorination; Regulations and Testing; Antibiotics; Safety Technology and Regulations; and Anti-Famine Interventions. While some of the stories were familiar to me, many of them were brand new. Even those I was familiar with were actually new to me: I hadn’t been aware of quite how devastating the problems were or all the tangled issues that snaked their way through solution adoption on a widespread scale.

The introduction states that the book is “a study in how meaningful change happens in society.” The ongoing theme is that it is the network of people and not just the genius that makes these massive changes possible — the journalists, activists, reformers, and amplifiers. He hammers this point frequently, accusing society of “… condensing a complex network of agents into a single heroic scientist.” And it is interesting in every case — how long it took and how hard people worked to get a solution to a horrific problem actually adopted.

The last chapter focuses on the future — AI drug design; a cure for malaria; syndromic surveillance; animal surveillance to stop virus jumping; and immunotherapies for cancers. There is some discussion of the negative impact on the planet of all these extra bodies but not much. I would have liked at least a little discussion on the need for additional birth control giving the teeming state of the world’s population.

The book makes for easy and engrossing reading. The numbers involved are astonishing, and the stories from discovery to scale to distribution eye opening. More intriguing than most fiction!

Thank you to Riverhead Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 11th, 2021.