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Book review: 'A Is for Armageddon: A Catalogue of Disasters That May Culminate in the End of the World As We Know It' by Richard Horne

Asteroids. Robots. Religious fanatics. When it comes to human survival, it's a jungle out there.

January 02, 2011|By Nick Owchar | Los Angeles Times

A Is for Armageddon

A Catalogue of Disasters That May Culminate in the End of the World as We Know It

Richard Horne

Harper: 272 pp., $19.99 paper

After reading Richard Horne's "A Is for Armageddon," there's an obvious question to ask this New Year's weekend (besides how to get rid of a doozy of a hangover): Why bother making any resolutions this year?

Life on Earth could end tomorrow — or today, for that matter — thanks to any of a gallery of horrors served up by the universe or produced by ourselves. Do I really need to worry about dropping 15 pounds or quitting smoking this year? Just 10 minutes with this book are guaranteed to make a paranoiac out of the calmest, dullest person in the room.

Horne organizes his book using a chart titled "Periodic Catastrophic," inspired by the periodic table of the elements with abbreviations referring to crises in the Earth's past and possibly its future. "Ic," for instance, refers to the Ice Age, "Fa" for famine, "Rw" for religious warfare and "Ai" for artificial intelligence ("when your computer becomes aware that it's infuriated with you").

This is no sober tome like last year's "The Atlas of the Real World" (Thames & Hudson) with its computer-generated maps of global consumption and explanations written in a grim, we're-all-gonna-die-soon typeface. Horne gives us an Armageddon that's vivid and flashy with hip characterizations (the Mayan calendar, he says, comes in three types, "a tall, a grande and a venti version") and humor that's the equivalent of the comic relief in a Shakespearean tragedy.

If humanity must leave the Earth, for instance, where should it go? Horne suggests Mars, "the only planet in the solar system that we can turn into an extension of Earth. Think of Mars as a kind of space shed at the end of the garden."

A graphic designer and illustrator of the bestselling "The Dangerous Book for Boys," Horne gives us a book that's playful and disturbing — just like an episode of Showtime's "Dexter." Don't let the jokes and splashy colors fool you, though. He's as thoughtful as he is comprehensive. Forget, for instance, the Mayan prophecy of 2012 and start worrying about 2029, when the asteroid 99942 Apophis is expected to come "10 times closer to us than our Moon" with more flybys in the years after.

Or get nervous about ozone depletion, lurking black holes and manmade viruses. Horne's point is simple: Human life exists in extremely perilous conditions, and it's a miracle we've endured this long. Anyone who takes this for granted deserves, well, to get hit on the head by an asteroid.

And for those who don't take our fragility for granted? There's just one thing to do.

"Let's laugh in the face of extinction," Horne writes, "and hope that Death has forgotten to pencil Judgment Day on his To Do list."

nick.owchar@latimes.com

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