Alice Roberts writes a strong book with vivid, emotive descriptions in “narrative” parts where she describes her own experiences researching the content. These not only draw the reader in, but enlighten us to some of the extremes of cultural diversity in the world today. Not only this, but both in her interactions with the peoples she encounters and via the science which is applied and discussed, a strong anti-racist message percolates throughout.
In terms of science content, the book is packed with information developed at a steady and manageable rate and broken up by occasional headings and divisions in time or location. Roberts dutifully warns her reader about the degree of reliability in different measurement techniques and is comfortable using ranges and debating the implications if the true value lies at an extreme. She introduces and recommends scepticism and reiterates scientific explanation, such as the ambiguities in carbon dating, after the subject has been long left unmentioned and the reader may have forgotten her original statements.
However, I found the confused style which lies between fact and narrative fiction difficult to follow, especially in the absence of any introduction to the character, which assumes prior knowledge and leaves the unenlightened reader unable to empathise with her experiences. As such, the book was especially hard to get through early on, with little reward for my efforts. I was shocked at the revelation over halfway through that Roberts is a vegetarian; as a vegetarian myself I was consciously considering the strains her journey would have put on my diet, only to discover near the end that she had omitted these throughout. The other characters she introduced were so many in number, all named, explained and then abandoned after a few pages that following the present time journey was nothing short of arduous and frustrating. The lability of the narrative could have been improved with a much stronger construction: I found The Incredible Journey to move at frequently varying paces in time and space; Roberts allowed the section headings to do much of the work of an introduction most of the time and occasionally backtracked (poor chronological structure).
In the more fact based sections, the author showed a tendency to “info dump”, where the scientific explanation interrupted action, grew too in-depth and then returned to action having entirely distanced the reader (and possibly driven them to skip).
Suitability for GRAB (the Great Read at Birmingham)
My surprise at the selection of The Incredible Human Journey by this year’s committee is twofold: the one being that in 2011 The Rough Guide to Evolution was selected, which is thematically similar; although these books do not appear on consecutive years, I was under the impression that the organisers were keen to give different subjects equal coverage and select reads with the widest content; my second source of surprise was the flimsiness of the connection between The Incredible Human Journey and Birmingham: whilst Alice Roberts is indeed Professor of Public Engagement in Science, this is not mentioned in the book, whilst her affiliation with the University of Bristol is reiterated, and there are no visits to or mentions of Birmingham.
Other things bother me: that the style is not conducive to the intended reading method: dipping into sections to read about different bits of history. Not only is it semi-narrative, but explanations of scientific methods are at first introduced and then reapplied in later sections without (as makes sense for the book) repeating the explanation. The author also frequently mentions previous experiences and not all sections are firmly defined.
More worrying is the approach to science presented by the narrative parts of The Incredible Human Journey. Whilst encountering opposing scientific theories and duly relating them, Alice Roberts describes entering into these situations already prepared not to have her mind changed, not a approach to science that the University would wish to encourage. In some cases she presents strong evidence to support the theory to which she sticks and retain her original viewpoint, but this does not excuse the unscientific outlook the reader will naturally relate to through the voice of the author.