Monday, 8 February 2016

On the Shores of Titan's Farthest Sea - Michael Carroll ***

On the Shores forms part of a major initiative from German publisher Springer to produce books that cross over between the pure entertainment of science fiction and the more informative (if, hopefully still entertaining) genre of popular science.

I was initially somewhat baffled by this self-styled 'scientific novel' as it seemed nothing more than an old-fashioned (more on that in a moment) hard science SF novel. Then I spotted the appendix that gives the 'science behind the fiction'. This is certainly one way to get round the difficulty of incorporating too much technical exposition in a novel (one of the few examples that manages put learning in the text without making the fiction stodgy is the recent L. A. Math), but the 'science bit at the end' approach didn't work for me because the 'science part' had none of the readability of good popular science - it felt more like encyclopaedia content. I suspect many readers would give it a miss. It also stretched credibility somewhat in trying to ascribe too much science to the story - the weakest part of the plot featured unlikely mass delusions (psychically triggered at that) and to try to give this a scientific basis felt like the author was digging too hard.

So, really, what we have here is a pretty straightforward science fiction story. First the good news. This gets quite gripping about three quarters of the way through when there's a dering-do rescue attempt. And the whole thing feels quite like an Asimov story (if Asimov had realised he could have more strong female characters) - which any SF reader will realise is hardly an insult. This means that what we get is a heavily plot-driven story with genuinely clever ideas and mostly realistic science (though like all SF it sometimes has to distort the science for plot purposes, something that could have been usefully explored more in the appendix).

There is, however, bad news from this assessment too. As is common in Asimov's writing, the characters are two dimensional and the writing is businesslike but not exactly great. As a standalone novel, On the Shores would have been easily up to standard in the 50s, but when set against modern, sophisticated SF like Iain M. Banks or Adam Roberts, the writing style feels dated.

The nail in the coffin for this book is that Springer is treating it like an academic book, rather than fiction. This comes across in both the format (large pages with copyright details at the start of each chapter), and the pricing, which is twice what you'd expect to pay for a paperback SF novel (Academics may have free access to the ebook from Springer ebook deals). Sadly, then, the book is not going to be very popular as a straight piece of fiction, but equally doesn't do the job of popular science in the form of fiction. It's a great aim, but it has proved elusively difficult to make real.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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