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Don't Look Back (SF) - John Gribbin ****

Despite the frequent misunderstanding of journalists, science fiction isn't all about rocket ships and space travel (though, of course, they do crop up). It's about asking 'What if?' That's true of all fiction, but science fiction has a much more extensive canvas, and the bit that follows 'What if...' has the opportunity to go places other fiction can't, even if this can be at the cost of reducing the interpersonal insights we expect from a novel. Perhaps that's why science fiction is such a perfect genre for the short story.

In this collection, science writer and physicist John Gribbin is enthusiastic to write hard science fiction, where, as much as the story allows, the science is real. Faster than light travel and time machines are usually allowed as special permission to break that rule - and here there's quite a lot of bending of the rule elsewhere too. For example, the 'many worlds' interpretation of quantum physics (a little overused here) - is accepted by some physicists, but many don't like it (and even if it's true, has to be stretched a long way to allow communication between different alternate worlds, an essential for its use in stories). We also see similar stretching of the 'hard science' rules in the unlikeness that an alien computer virus could easily take over our computers (Independence Day in reverse) and an odd statement that you can't time travel into the future - which is the one bit of time travel that is easy to do for real.

I wouldn't normally have so much concern about the science being bent, as I think scientific accuracy should always come second to the 'fiction' part, but as the author makes a big thing about this being hard science fiction, it's probably worth pointing out that even a diamond-hard writer like Gribbin has to cheat a little with the science to make the stories work.

One good thing about a collection of short stories is that, unlike a novel, if you hit one you don't like, there will be another along soon - and some of Gribbin's stories are excellent. I'm fond of short, sudden-twist-in-the-end stories, of which this collection includes some excellent examples. There are also some very enjoyable slower and more thoughtful pieces, including one that has considerable parallels with The Time Traveller's Wife (though written well before it, unless Gribbin really does have a time machine) and a thought-provoking tale involving the return of a more powerful strain of the cattle disease BSE.

The style of these stories is often that of classic science fiction from the 50s - and like the classics, there are some that age better than others. There's a genetics-based story, The Sins of the Fathers, for example, which illustrates the dangers of being too dependent on science in a field which has moved a long way in the 31 years since it was written. A few are downright confusing to read in the way the story is structured or in the wording - I had to read '… up to the lunar orbiting satellite by which Farside maintained contact with the planet that never rose above the horizon round the station,' about three times to untangle it.

However, there's plenty of good material here, from those slow paced stories to one of my favourite of the shorts, The Royal Visit, which delivers a remarkable amount in just two and a half pages, including an enjoyably dark twist in the ending. As a bonus, and in honour of the tradition of science fiction magazines carrying factual articles, Gribbin gives us two non-fiction pieces, one on the physics of time travel and the other on our remarkable Moon and the physical impact it has had on the Earth, which (for reasons you need to read the book to discover), Gribbin likens to Douglas Adams' Babel Fish. A meaty, classic collection.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

  1. It would be good to know publication dates on reviews. Also alternatives to Amazon if you can find them [Amazon owns Book Depository :( ]

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    1. I'm afraid adding extra links would make it too complicated - and the site is funded by Amazon affiliate payments. You can always find the publication date of this edition by clicking through to Amazon.

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