Monday, 7 April 2014

Wizards, Aliens and Starships – Charles L. Adler ***

Subtitled ‘physics and maths in fantasy and science fiction’, this is one for the hardcore science fan. In fact the best reader may well be a scientist who likes a bit of science fictionand wants to play around with how likely all the science in the stories really is.
Strangely, the most readable part is the first section, where Charles Adler deals with the goings on of fantasy, rather than science fiction. I think this is because we don’t really expect the science to work in fantasy, and we can enjoy laughing at distortion of the conservation of energy, or the second law of thermodynamics, and thinking about the physics of dragons. But when the book starts to pull apart basics like space travel, it feels like something of a betrayal.
Once we got onto science fiction, Adler shows us that practically every major theme of space-based science fiction from the basics of space travel being possible to constructing vast space stations and ring worlds and the like is all extremely unlikely because of problems with energy and many other aspects of physics. It’s frankly a bit depressing, but I could cope with it, were not that the style gets considerably more hardcore than it was in the fantasy section. In the science fiction parts we have far more pages of calculation with relatively little and relatively impenetrable explanation.
This can make the book decidedly opaque to the non-technical reader. Take, for instance, the section describing the trajectory of an apple thrown inside a spaceship that is being rotated to produce artificial gravity. Adler points out the way that the Coriolis effect will result in strange movements. But the whole description, complete with completely unnecessary equations and diagrams which explain nothing is difficult to follow and lacks any feel for the reader’s response. It is far more like a simplified textbook than anything else. This is disappointing, as it wasn’t the case with the early sections.
In the end, I didn’t enjoy the book as I much as I thought I would initially. There are two reasons. One is the old W. B. Yeats favourite ‘Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.’ For many science fiction and fantasy fans (even quite a few who became scientists), what is particularly wonderful about SF&F is that it is a matter of dreams. It takes us away from boring reality, and if it has to sacrifice a little accuracy in the way of a good story, so be it. Forget treading softly, here the dreams get the hobnail boot treatment. The other problem is that there is too much calculation and not enough explanation, as a result of which it all too often reads more like an exercises section in a textbook, rather than a popular science book.
Don’t get me wrong – this is an interesting, well-written book, and Adler has put a lot of work into it. It should be invaluable for anyone wanting to write really accurate science fiction. But it isn’t as much fun as I expected it to be.
Kindle version:  

Review by Brian Clegg

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