In Beta Testing the Apocalypse, Tom Kaczynski presents us with a series of essays on how humans have shaped the world around them. It looks at architecture, acoustics, urban sprawl and personal transport. Its stories have characters and a small sprinkling of plot, but the book isn’t so much about story-telling as intellectualising. This isn’t entertainment, really, in the traditional sense of the word.
Kaczynski’s ideas are undeniably interesting and are presented in an unusual way. For example, in an exploration of how acoustics might have influenced the choice of which caves early humans decided to live in, he gives the story a modern twist. The cave dwellers become actors on a prehistoric movie set, and one of the actors is a struggling musician, so can readily understand and refine the sound of the cavern set. He becomes deeply involved; unwilling, in the end, to leave his new habitat. Another story sees the protagonist sitting in his car, commuting to work on an American freeway, given the illusion of freedom when, in reality, he’s on a vehicular treadmill, driving round in an endless cycle of work and suburbs.
Despite the trappings of story, there isn’t enough to make this entertaining for the casual reader. Anyone that likes the exploration of ideas, particularly the relationship between humanity, geography, architecture and technology, might get a kick out of reading something different, especially presented in such an unusual form. But in my opinion, the stories obscure the ideas, while the ideas get in the way of making the stories enjoyable enough.