All of the Above

Timothy Scott Bennett’s novel, All of the Above, was published in August 2011. If you’ve been paying attention, you recognize the author’s name: Bennett and his partner, Sally Erickson, put out the superb documentary film, What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire. I reviewed the film briefly about four years ago.

On to Bennett’s debut novel, which is the first of three or four (depending on his future mood). Actually, I strongly suspect it’s the first of one, unless he hurries. And that’s too bad, because after 469 pages this reader was left wanting more.

The book is science fiction in the manner of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. That is, All of the Above makes us comfortable because it focuses on a future most readers will find implausible. Ensconced in an unlikely setting, we allow our guards to drop as we follow the page-turning story. As with Vonnegut, though, our laughter comes in self defense.

In All of the Above, Bennett quickly develops characters we care about, as well as a few we love to hate. His excellent pace and appropriate use of foreshadowing kept me from putting the book down. I’m very busy here at the mud hut with an overwhelming assortment of tasks, and I read the book in three days.

I will not spoil the story, which couldn’t be more timely. The publisher’s website drops a few hints, including this teaser: “Bennett now uses fiction to continue the conversation he began in his documentary regarding the social, psychological, and spiritual implications of our global human predicament. The story offers an inspiring and challenging view of the news of the day.”

A few passages from the book are exemplary of the inspiration and challenge posed by All of the Above:

In this physical plane, Mrs. President, it’s the soil and water and forests and sky and plants and animals upon which our very lives ultimately depend. The structures of civilization cannot exist without those things. And yet we live inside of those structure — houses, offices, stores, factories, cars, roads, subdivisions, cities, whatever — and those structures keep most of us almost totally disconnected from the real world that serves as their foundation. So you might begin to see the benefit of just sitting for a while with the notion that not only is this culture not in touch with reality, but that this insanity lives inside of you.

If the quote above sounds like it’s delivered by a fire-and-brimstone preacher, bear in mind that it’s preceded with this line: “As Obie spoke, his voice grew louder, and his eyes glinted, like a televangelist reaching the high point of his sermon.”

I’d say what we lost is our sense of the sacred nature of creation …. There are indigenous folk and spiritual peoples, and again not just humans, who have stayed the course, so to speak. And certainly there are mystics in our midst who have managed the same. But for the most part, the people of the dominant worldwide culture, even if they worship some version of “God in heaven,” operate in what they experience to be a mechanistic and dispirited world, a bleak landscape of so-called “resources,” with no epic story, no truly-satisfying meaning or purpose, and no felt connection to the larger Universe.

I agree with Edward O. Wilson (in his excellent 1998 book, Consilience) that a mechanistic worldview, described by physicists and evolutionary biologists, actually can — and for me at least, does — lead to an epic story with satisfying meanings and purposes, not to mention a felt connection to the larger Universe. And I also agree with Bennett’s broader point: Wilson and me aside, very few people have a meaning, purpose, or felt connection of any kind, much less one inspired by, and connected to, the universe we occupy.

Of course it’s that bad. It’s worse than that bad. You don’t need to ask me. Check your own heart. It’s the biggest shared secret of our time. Go up to any American on the street and mention how we’re destroying the planet and the vast majority of them will say, “Oh, I know ….”

This book doesn’t merely preach, though, and it’s certainly not preaching to the choir. Even when it’s preaching, it’s not preachy in a burdensome manner. All of the Above, like What a Way to Go, provides a brutally accurate portrayal of the dire straits in which we’ve immersed ourselves. And then, just when most artists would give in to the hopelessness of it all, this novel does what the film did: It offers a way out.

In the end, the book echoes the film. It offers a way out that depends on us, individually and collectively, finding the way in. Into our hearts and souls and feeble little brains. Into our inner selves. Into our consciousness. And, of course, into our communities.

And those communities aren’t just human: They’re plant and animal communities, too, and entire ecosystems with which we share an isolated rock in an expanse as broad as the consciousness of our entire species. Will it be sufficient?

I’m not ready to give up. Reading the book provides the kind of tonic I need to weather the storm. I strongly recommend this superb novel.

Comments 9

  • I read and enjoyed “All of the Above” on your recommendation. Not normally a sci fi fan, but the format allows serious topics to be addressed. As to the sequels, can’t wait.

  • You picked out the same kinds of passages as I did. I’m a pretty slow reader – or rather only read when I have nothing else to do – but AOTA (already an acronym!) has sucked me in but will probably spit me out at the end with a disconcerting “pop!” leaving me sitting dazed wondering what the hell that was all about. Of course it’s a grand allegory, but surrounded by home truths – there is a phrase that I won’t quote because it really is an eye-opener that needs to be read in context, that sits easily on the same table as some of the best moments from What A Way To Go. Tim may have a little way to go with his sci-fi art, although he wears his influences on his sleeve; but as a memo to the human race this book is a pretty damn good start to any writing career.

  • Hi Guy,
    Thanks for the review. It affirms that my thin kng might be on teh right track as well.
    It is too soon for it to be in the Ontario library interloan system but i will sure look.
    Glad you are heartened by it too.

  • Added to my “must see tv” list.

    From “Wisdom of a Hopi Elder” (linked from

    “And do not look outside yourself for the leader…

    “There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are torn apart and will suffer greatly…

    At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally, Least of all ourselves”
    That quote, along with Lame Deer’s “people are being too clever, they forget how to live without the machine…” and “Why didn’t you get us out of here when there was time…” (anne frank).

    My head is spinning. Time for a nap, let it sort itself out.

  • Sounds like a winner of a book. Thanks for the review Guy

  • Climate change is increasingly chaotic.

    NASA: it rained so hard the oceans fell
    Barry Saxifrage Posted: Sep 27th, 2011
    Snippets below from the article at,1

    “The year 2010 was one the worst years in world history for high-impact floods. But just three weeks into the new year, 2011 has already had an entire year’s worth of mega-floods. “ — Meteorologist Jeff Masters

    According to this jaw-dropping NASA report, worldwide rainfall and snowfall were so extreme, in so many places last year, that sea levels fell dramatically.
    Sea levels have been rising steadily for over a century as the ever warmer ocean water expands and the world’s remaining glaciers and ice sheets melt. In fact sea levels are rising twice as fast now as they were a few decades ago. As the NASA chart above shows there have been some ups and downs but nothing in the modern satellite record comes close to the 6 mm drop worldwide last year

    Send ArticlePrint Article Read More:Climate Snapshot Sustainability Alberta Tar Sands Andrew Weaver BC Bolivia Brazil Climate Change co2 coal Columbia flooding fracking James Hansen Manitoba NASA oil oil sands Pakistan Tennessee

    Meteorologist and former hurricane hunter Jeff Masters told Joe Romm:

    “In my thirty years as a meteorologist, I’ve never seen global weather patterns as strange as those we had in 2010. The stunning extremes we witnessed gives me concern that our climate is showing the early signs of instability.”

    Munich Re, one of the world’s top re-insurance companies, states:

    “…it would seem that the only plausible explanation for the rise in weather-related catastrophes is climate change…Globally, 2010 has been the warmest year since records began over 130 years ago, the ten warmest during that period all falling within the last 12 years. The warmer atmosphere and higher sea temperatures are having significant effects. Prof. Peter Hoeppe, Head of Munich Re’s Geo Risks Research/Corporate Climate Centre: ‘It’s as if the weather machine had changed up a gear. Unless binding carbon reduction targets stay on the agenda, future generations will bear the consequences.’”

  • Mike Sliwa has contributed an excellent guest essay. It’s here.

  • “We’ve doubled the world’s food production several times before in history, and now we have to do it one more time,” said Jonathan A. Foley, a researcher at the University of Minnesota. “The last doubling is the hardest. It is possible, but it’s not going to be easy.”

    Please consider the following questions about the statements just above of my facebook friend.

    What do you think John means by the words, “The last doubling”? If “last” means the last in a succession of doublings, then how many more doublings of world food production do you believe the Earth can sustain? Or does his deployment of the word “last” mean the final doubling of world food production because he recognizes already that a planet with the size, composition and ecology of Earth cannot reasonably and sensibly be expected to sustain any more doublings? When John reports, “The last doubling…is…not going to be easy.”, does he express doubt about the Earth’s capacity to sustain even the doubling he believes is possible? What is the probability the Earth cannot sustain the doubling John believes is possible?

    What is the probability that the effort made to “double the world’s food production\” beginning now will lead to the radical dissipation of Earth’s finite resources and irreversible degradation of Earth’s ecology to the extent that our planetary home will be made unfit for all children to inhabit?

    How is Earth to be protected from the consequences of doubling the world’s food production: from outrageous per capita overconsumption and excessive individual hoarding of natural resources; from soon to become unsustainable overproduction leading to suffocating pollution and uncontrollable climate destabilization; and from unbridled overpopulation activities. All of which are adamantly advocated and recklessly pursued on our watch by many too many ”movers and shakers” (aka, One Percenters, masters of the universe, little kings in pin-striped suits proclaiming they do God’s work)?

  • We face a colossal, human-induced global predicament. Emerging and converging ecological challenges we have chosen to ignore rather than acknowledge during my lifetime is in large part the result of the way silence is employed by ‘the powers that be’ and their minions to prevail over science. Hysterical blindness, willful deafness and elective mutism of knowledgeable human beings with feet of clay rule the world every bit as much as malignant narcissism, pathological arrogance and extreme foolishness of greedmongering masters of the universe rule the world. This pernicious situation is as intolerable as it is dangerous to future human well being and environmental health.