Barbarians and nuclear bombs; Carlin explores catastrophes

"The End Is Always Near: Apocalyptic Moments, from the Bronze Age Collapse to Nuclear Near Misses," Harper, by Dan Carlin.

This is a book about nasty things: epidemics, famine, sieges, civilizations collapsing and nuclear war. Carlin is fascinated by societal catastrophes. And he's very interested in the questions these sorts of disasters bring up. What was it like to live through these extreme events? How tough were people back then? Would we be able to handle that kind of adversity today?

Carlin is known for his popular "Hardcore History" podcast, in which he adds idiosyncratic insights to detailed stories about Julius Caesar's conquest of Gaul or Nazi Germany's disastrous invasion of the Soviet Union. This book is pretty much like a print version of his podcast. Carlin's love of military history remains prominent. He has the same tendency to make out-of-the-box comparisons — like illustrating a point about the Spanish influenza by bringing up the Avengers' archnemesis Thanos. And he loves a nice, meaty digression. In fact, this title might set a record for footnotes in a non-academic book.

Carlin is quick to say he isn't a historian, but he is an informed and talented storyteller, whether writing about barbarians or superbugs. Carlin describes people of past eras as biologically the same but "culturally alien." What he does best — in his podcasts and in the book — is give his audience a sense of that "alien" past. He wants people to consider what it was like to live through the fall of the Roman empire or the jittery beginnings of the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms race.

Readers of this book might feel relief that they live in times without the looming threat of barbarians, the plague or society-wide famine. But Carlin is here to remind us of what his father used to say: "Don't get cocky."