Skip to main content

On the Shores of Titan's Farthest Sea (SF) - 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.

Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

De/Cipher - Mark Frary ****

I was a little doubtful when I first saw this book. Although it has the intriguing tagline 'The greatest codes ever invented and how to crack them' the combination of a small format hardback and gratuitous illustrations made me suspect it would be a lightweight, minimal content, Janet and John approach to codes and ciphers. Thankfully, in reality Mark Frary manages to pack a remarkable amount of content into De/Cipher's slim form.

Not only do we get some history on and instructions to use a whole range of ciphers, there are engaging little articles on historical codebreakers and useful guidance on techniques to break the simpler ciphers. The broadly historical structure takes the reader through basic alphabetic manipulation, keys, electronic cryptography, one time pads and so on, all the way up to modern public key encryption and a short section on quantum cryptography. 

We even get articles on some of the best known unsolved ciphers, such as the Dorabella and the Voynich ma…

Paul McAuley - Four Way Interview

Paul McAuley won the Philip K. Dick Award for his first novel and has gone on to win the Arthur C. Clarke, British Fantasy, Sidewise and John W. Campbell Awards. He gave up his position as a research biologist to write full-time. He lives in London. His latest novel is Austral.

Why science fiction?

For one thing, I fell in love with science fiction at an early age, and haven’t yet fallen out of love with it (although I have flirted with other genres). For another, we’re living in an increasingly science-fictional present. Every day brings headlines that could have been ripped from a science-fiction story. Giant robot battle: Who knew a duel between chainsaw-armed mech suits could be so boring? for instance. Or, Roy Orbison hologram to embark on UK tour in 2018. And looming above all this, like Hokusai’s famous wave, are the ongoing changes caused by global warming and climate change, which is just one consequence of human activity having become the dominant force of change on the planet…

Karl Drinkwater - Four Way Interview

Karl Drinkwater is originally from Manchester, but has lived in Wales half his life. He is a full-time author, edits fiction for other writers and was a professional librarian for over twenty-five years. He has degrees in English, Classics and Information Science. When he isn't writing, he loves exercise, guitars, computer and board games, the natural environment, animals, social justice, cake and zombies - not necessarily in that order. His latest novel is Lost Solace.

Why science fiction?

My favourite books have always been any form of speculative fiction. As a child I began with ghost stories, which were the first books to make me completely forget I was reading. By my teenage years I was obsessed with fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Although I read literary and contemporary books, non-fiction, historical works, classics and so on, it is speculative fiction that I return to when I want escape and wonder. When I read reviews of my last book, the fast-paced novella Harvest Fe…