Skip to main content

Science Fiction by Scientists (SF) - Michael Brotherton Ed. ***

I'm all in favour of science fiction that puts across interesting science, but I was a little put off by the preface by editor Michael Brotherton, who seems to think that the science part is more important than the fiction, and that the best SF writers have been scientists, something that is only rarely true. I don't think it's a good idea to go into science fiction writing with the smug idea that 'I'm a scientist, so I'm bound to do this well,' because it will end in tears. Luckily some scientists are excellent writers, and some of the good ones have turned up here (along with a few of the clunkers). At least we have to admit that the title is 100% accurate.

It's interesting to contrast the first two stories as they illustrate very well some of the extremes of what can be done. The first, Down and Out by Ken Wharton, features one cracking idea (though the author seems to think he has kept it from us a lot longer than he really does), but pedestrian writing. His story, set on Jupiter's moon Europa, takes place in the sea below its surface ice. We get a nicely envisaged alien intelligent life form with a viewpoint that provide's the story's twist (though as I mentioned, this was obvious far too early), but the storytelling was very basic - little more than a 'what I did on my holidays' approach to narrative, and lacking the descriptive skill to make the scenes come alive. 

How different this was from the second story, The Tree of Life by Jenny Rohn. Here we've got sophisticated storytelling and a realisation that it's not enough to have a single change of viewpoint as the justification for your story - instead there's some proper characterisation and a clever play on the role of the apple in Genesis (though it wasn't an apple in the original), plus a good dose of information about viruses, bacteria and life in a lab. While the main premise, that the world has had all life removed so Earth can stripped of its resources (except a lab and one scientist), is far-fetched - it seems perverse to choose a planet teeming with life, and even stranger to leave behind most of the natural resources, a move that is needed for the storyline, but hard to justify. There is also an oddity in the science section at the end (each story has this, and most of them good).  It describes the Earth's pre-life atmosphere as being 'full of methane and ammonia and other harsh compounds and buffeted by lightning strikes and volcanic explosions.' This reflects the 1950s 'primordial soup' idea - but the modern assumption is that the atmosphere was primarily nitrogen, water vapour and carbon dioxide. Even so, a thoughtful well-written story.

Other stories worth a mention include Turing de Force, which cleverly explores whether advanced computer-like aliens would consider us intelligent lifeforms. Like many idea-driven stories it lacks narrative drive, but it's a fun idea (though it seems odd that the aliens, who have access to the internet, can't make any deductions about us from our published science). I will also pick out Neural Alchemist as having more character development than most (though not enough happens in the story), Hidden Variables, which has a real sense of storytelling (though I'm not sure how well it would work if you didn't know what hidden variables are, and the 'science bit' is incomprehensible), and my favourite as a sheer page-turner of a story, the ISS-based horror story Sticks and Stones.

All collections of short stories are variable, but the hope is that the editor has picked the best. The problem here is that there weren’t enough stories with a professional level of writing to carry the collection. Apart from a few stand-outs, it felt more like contributions to a student magazine than the kind of writing you would expect in a professionally published science fiction collection. It’s great having the science bits - but the stories have to be up to scratch or the premise is wasted. (As I've mentioned with this series before, the pricing is also far too high for fiction, though Springer points out that universities should have access to free e-book versions.)


Paperback:  

Kindle 

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Jim Baggott - Four Way Interview

Jim Baggott is a freelance science writer. He trained as a scientist, completing a doctorate in physical chemistry at Oxford in the early 80s, before embarking on post-doctoral research studies at Oxford and at Stanford University in California. He gave up a tenured lectureship at the University of Reading after five years in order to gain experience in the commercial world. He worked for Shell International Petroleum for 11 years before leaving to establish his own business consultancy and training practice. He writes about science, science history and philosophy in what spare time he can find. His books include Atomic: The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb (2009), Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ (2012), Mass: The Quest to Understand Matter from Greek Atoms to Quantum Fields (2017), and, most recently, Quantum Space: Loop Quantum Gravity and the Search for the Structure of Space, Time, and the Universe (2018). For more info see: www…

Quantum Space: Jim Baggott *****

There's no doubt that Jim Baggott is one of the best popular science writers currently active. He specialises in taking really difficult topics and giving a more in-depth look at them than most of his peers. The majority of the time he achieves with a fluid writing style that remains easily readable, though inevitably there are some aspects that are difficult for the readers to get their heads around - and this is certainly true of his latest title Quantum Space, which takes on loop quantum gravity.

As Baggott points out, you could easily think that string theory was the only game in town when it comes to the ultimate challenge in physics, finding a way to unify the currently incompatible general theory of relativity and quantum theory. Between them, these two behemoths of twentieth century physics underlie the vast bulk of physics very well - but they simply can't be put together. String theory (and its big brother M-theory, which as Baggott points out, is not actually a the…