Skip to main content

Thought X (SF) - Rob Appleby and Ra Page (Eds.) *****

One of the best stories in the collection Thought X, written by veteran SF author Ian Watson, features the old idea of monkeys on typewriters writing Shakespeare (though with a brilliant new twist). For years I've hoped for science fiction that works well both as a story and at putting science across - I was beginning to think it was as likely as those monkeys typing out Hamlet. But to my surprise and delight, Thought X absolutely fills the bill.

With one somewhat disastrous exception (I'll come to that later), every single story in this collection is both a really high quality piece of writing and superbly illustrates a 'thought experiment' - the approach beloved, for example, of Einstein, of trying out scientific or philosophical concepts in a theoretical fashion to work out what would happen. Bearing in mind that this is essentially saying 'What if?' - absolutely the role of science fiction - this seems a natural pairing with SF stories. And it is. Even better, each story is followed by a 'science bit', where a scientist or philosopher explains the original thought experiment and how it fits with the story.

I'm not going to mention every story individually, but as well as the Watson story Monkey Business that I opened with, there are so many delights here - often taking totally unexpected routes to explore a well-known thought experiment from the Chinese Room to Olber's Paradox. For example, the second story, Tether by Zoe Gilbert is a beautiful, evocative fantasy worthy of Alan Garner, which also takes on an exploration of whether a perfect simulated experience is any different from reality.

I mentioned one exception on the science side - this is the opening story, Lightspeed  by Adam Marek. The story itself is well-written, though it ends rather abruptly as if it were extracted from a longer piece. But there are serious problems with the science. Usually in science fiction I would say that the 'fiction' part always has to come first and it doesn't matter if the science is more than a little mangled. But this book is explicitly about using stories to explore real scientific conundrums, so it has to be done properly.

Things start to go downhill in the book's introduction, which in talking about the story (illustrating the twins paradox of special relativity) gets wrong why there apparently should be symmetry in this time travel thought experiment (the editors say it's because time slows down on the way out and speeds up on the way back, but it actually slows down in both directions, and the apparent symmetry is because both the observer on the Earth and on the spaceship see themselves as stationary and the other as moving). The introduction then compounds the issue by saying that the explanation for this symmetry being broken (so there really is time travel) requires general relativity - where actually it's entirely within the bounds of special relativity, just harder to calculate than with the usual mathematics. Also, the story itself is wrong in portraying slowed down speech as being a big issue when receiving radio signals in a high speed ship, where actually the problems would be frequency shifts (easily fixed - my computer can do it) and time delays in conversations (not mentioned).

The reason I've gone on about this story for so long is primarily because I don't want anyone to be put off: the rest of the collection - another 13 stories - does the job so well. I can't recommend this collection highly enough: the stories are all superbly written - a great collection of writing purely taken as fiction - and but for the science errors here, do the job of illustrating the thought experiments brilliantly.  So just enjoy the first story, but relish both science and fiction with all the rest. Huge kudos to Comma Press and the Institute of Physics for this one. Excellent.


Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you

Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

How to Drive a Nuclear Reactor - Colin Tucker ****

How To Drive A Nuclear Reactor does exactly what it says on the tin. The book is a general overview of nuclear reactors. From the basic principles that make them work through to what buttons to press in what order (and of course how and why they can go wrong).Nuclear power could be a good step on the path to a greener energy future, but there is a lot of understandable fear. This book can give some idea of what an incredible feat of both science and engineering one of these machines is and, hopefully, make anyone reading it feel far more comfortable about them.The book presents information about everything, almost down to the literal nuts and bolts, giving you a near complete understanding of how a nuclear works. From putting in the fuel to getting out the power and down from the control panel to the construction material. Everything you could ever want to know is here. By the end you'll likely feel ready to walk into a control room and get started (do not try doing this, nuclear …

Being Mortal - Atul Gawande ****

I heard recently that the local geriatric ward puts a photograph of the patient in his or her prime by each bed. The aim is to help staff to treat their patients as individuals, but it makes me uneasy. Do these people only matter because of what they were, not what they are? Because once they stood proud and handsome in their uniform, or looked lovely on their wedding day?

Professor Atul Gawande has the problem surgically excised and laid out for inspection in one of his unflinching but compassionate case studies:

‘What bothered Shelley was how little curiosity the staff members seemed to have about what Lou cared about in his life and what he had been forced to forfeit... They might have called the service they provided assisted living, but no-one seemed to think it was their job to actually assist him with living – to figure out how to sustain the connection and joys that most mattered to him.’

Gawande is an eminent surgeon. As a young resident he displayed little overt emotion when hi…

Twenty Worlds - Niall Deacon *****

This is a truly entertaining and informative book, but the reason I’m giving it the full five stars has as much to do with the refreshing novelty of the author’s style as anything else. There’s novelty in the subject-matter too – the wide variety of recently discovered exoplanets orbiting other stars – but even so this is the third book on the topic that I’ve read. The first two were a lot less fun to read, and (without naming and shaming the authors) it’s worth a brief diversion to explain why.The first author was a university professor with a vast knowledge of the subject, who seemed determined to convey the entirety of that knowledge without stopping to think whether it was interesting or necessary for a general audience. The second author – another academic – took a different but equally tedious approach, with a plodding chronological account that focused as much on the dull routine of the scientists involved as on their work.Niall Deacon doesn’t make either of those mistakes. He’…