Skip to main content

Hollyweird Science - Kevin Grazier and Stephen Cass ***

When reading this book I was reminded of the H. G.  Wells horror/SF novel, The Island of Dr Moreau,  which features heavily in the TV science fiction show Orphan Black (far more impressive than most of the shows mentioned in the book). This is because, like the human/animals in Wells' story, Hollyweird Science is neither one thing nor another. It's as if two entirely different books have been merged, and the result is quite disconcerting.

The first few chapters are a reasonably intense, media studies type exploration of the nature of science fiction films (and, somewhat randomly, TV). There's no attempt to put science and technology in science fiction alongside real world equivalents as in Ten Billion Tomorrows - this is much more about the nature of SF film making, the need in the end for story to overrule science quibbles and the role of science advisors. (As an aside I think movie science advisors are almost always a waste of time and money as, however well meaning, they are mostly ignored. I had coffee with Brian Cox just before he became famous, and he was really excited about being science advisor for the movie Sunshine. Cox knows his stuff, but the science in Sunshine is rightly slated in Hollyweird Science.) This part of the book worked well and probably deserved four stars, though didn't have a place in a popular science review site, as it was very media oriented.

Then, suddenly, there is a massive change of gear. The book becomes a straightforward physics and astronomy primer with occasional references to a movie to pretend that the science fiction is driving the content. But it isn't. There are frequently four or five pages at a time with no significant film references, and when they come they tend to be very shallow. The pure science bits are okay, though a touch plodding, but the problem is expectations. I thought the book would be built around the Hollywood examples, but in fact they're loosely scattered nuggets, far too infrequent to do anything but highlight their inadequacy.

The science content is generally fine, though occasionally either vague or odd. So, for instance, we are told that the observable universe has a radius of 13.8 billion light years where is actually 45.7 billion light years, a quite significant difference. Most amusingly, the book has a dig at Star Trek's use of 'degrees Kelvin' for the Kelvin scale, then messes up its correction by saying the units of the scale should be Kelvins, where they are actually kelvins. Trivial, absolutely, but then so was the original complaint.

It's a shame, but the book's lack of clarity about what it is trying to do, combined with very limited movie and TV references in the solid science part and a hefty price tag for a paperback mean that it doesn't really deliver.

Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…

The Cosmic Mystery Tour – Nicholas Mee ****

This is another book, like last year’s Enjoy Our Universe by Alvaro de Rújula, that sets out to provide a light-hearted introduction to physics and astrophysics for the general reader. It’s from the same publisher (OUP) and packaged in the same way: as a high quality small-format hardback with 200 glossy pages, the majority of them adorned with colour pictures. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Unlike its predecessor, this new book by Nicholas Mee delivers exactly what it promises.

It’s not that de Rújula’s book was a bad one, but he just wasn’t able to think his way into the reader’s mind. He kept saying ‘physics is fun’, but he was talking about the fun a professional physicist gets out of doing it – which is a very arcane, often highly mathematical, type of fun. The result, for a non-specialist reader, was actually quite alienating. Mee, on the other hand, understands exactly how his readers think, what they find interesting, and the details that – no matter how important they …

Shadow Captain (SF) - Alastair Reynolds *****

One again, Alastair Reynolds demonstrates his mastery of complex world building. This is a sequel to Revenger, but while it's ideal to have read that first, I didn't feel a huge loss from not having done so. (But I'll be going back to read it.)

What sets these books apart is the richness of the setting. The Ness sisters, Adrana (the narrator of the book) and Arafura, along with their small motley crew, sail their spaceship through a far future solar system, where the planets have long since been dismantled to produce millions of small habitats and storage asteroids known as baubles. The civilisation in the system has risen and fallen many times, leaving mysterious technology (and contact with some low grade aliens) in a scenario that mixes high tech with a setting that is strongly (and intentionally) reminiscent of the world of seventeenth century shipping.

Spaceships are primarily powered by vast acreage of solar sails, privateers hunt bounty from the baubles and even th…