Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Different Engines – Mark L. Brake & Neil Hook ***

I looked forward to this book with great anticipation. In my younger days I was a great fan of science fiction, and am fascinated by the overlap and influence that flows between ‘real’ science and fiction that uses science as its backdrop, its hook or its foil.
I think, for this reason – the intense anticipation – and one other reason, I was rather disappointed, so I want to get that negative part out of the way first. One problem was the style. Books about science fiction are usually written in a very approachable fashion, as is good popular science. This felt a bit too much like an academic work, rather than an engaging read. (This might have been the authors’ intent, but Macmillan Science is supposed to be a popular science imprint.) I found myself skipping bits where I was getting bored, never a good indicator.
The trouble with the anticipation is that there is so much key science fiction missing. This falls out of the structure of the book, which looks at a particular era in science, then matches up science fiction to that science. But the trouble with this is that many of the SF greats don’t fit that timetable well, and so aren’t really featured. The 1950s/early 1960s were a rich period in SF greats, but we’re limited because this has been labelled as the ‘atomic age’, so it’s all about the rather dull post-apocalyptic writing of the period. I could moan, for instance, about the lack of coverage of Blish or Pohl or Wyndham, but I really only need to point out that Isaac Asimov gets only two tangential references to say enough.
Given this worrying start, it might seem that three stars is a generous rating. Yet the book has some likeable features. It takes science fiction seriously, it provides a lot of detail on the often overlooked pre-H.G. Wells proto SF, and it brings out the relationship between fiction and science well.
A final amusing thought. Although actually published in 2007, the book claims to be published in 2008 – could it be the authors have access to that stalwart science fiction prop, the time machine?
Review by Martin O'Brien

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