Skip to main content

Snapshot (SF) - Brandon Sanderson ****

Although a science fiction story is just as capable of having all the usual furniture of a novel - character building, human reactions, locations and environment and so on - there is the added depth science fiction gains by being a genre of ideas. Some of the early greats of science fiction - Asimov, for example - managed the ideas and the 'What if?' far more eloquently than they did the traditional elements of fiction writing, presenting us with cardboard characters. Although Snapshot is nowhere near as bad as the old brigade in this respect, there is no doubt that Brandon Sanderson scores significantly more on the 'What if?' aspect. This is very much an idea-driven novella.

It's a dramatic idea at that. What if it were possible to recreate a day in a city with all its inhabitants, going through exactly what happened on the day? It would enable, for instance, police officers to go in and attempt to solve a crime, able to revisit the scene and interact with those involved. But Sanderson piles on the implications by making this not a virtual reality recreation, but a meatware one. By means we'll come back to, the whole physical reality of the city is recreated, then destroyed again at the end of the day. And to make the whole thing more laden with ethical dilemmas, the police officers carry a badge that makes inhabitants of the recreated city aware that they are copies who have less than a day to live.

Although some aspects of the story are a little predictable (Sanderson, in his afterword, actually says that he assumed that readers would guess one major twist), others still manage to surprise. It's a nicely constructed story within that jaw-dropping concept of a physical recreation of the city.

There are, I suppose, two issues to be addressed. One is that, as mentioned above, this is a novella, not a full length novel. I've a lot of time for the novella format, and they work well as ebooks, but I would usually expect it to be accompanied in physical form by a good bunch of short stories. Here it's left to fend for itself, and it's possible that a book that can be read on a shortish train journey is one that feels a little skimpy for the price.

The other issue is one that, again, Sanderson brings up in his postscript. The mechanism here is pure magic (though given a vague science-like wrapper with hints of an alien involvement). It has to be magic when you think about it. It's physically impossible to recreate anything at a quantum level other than making a copy and destroying the original. The practicalities are endlessly impossible (how to capture all the information, how to store it, how to manufacture the objects and people, what happens at the boundaries etc. etc.). So it requires a little more suspension of disbelief than most SF. I was also slightly surprised that Sanderson didn't refer to one of my favourite movies, Inception, when talking about the inspiration for the story - it's hard to read this and to believe that he's never seen Inception.

Overall, though, a truly interesting novella, which, though hardly creating deep characters, at least has some magnificent ideas to play with.

Hardback:  

Kindle:  

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…

The Cosmic Mystery Tour – Nicholas Mee ****

This is another book, like last year’s Enjoy Our Universe by Alvaro de Rújula, that sets out to provide a light-hearted introduction to physics and astrophysics for the general reader. It’s from the same publisher (OUP) and packaged in the same way: as a high quality small-format hardback with 200 glossy pages, the majority of them adorned with colour pictures. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Unlike its predecessor, this new book by Nicholas Mee delivers exactly what it promises.

It’s not that de Rújula’s book was a bad one, but he just wasn’t able to think his way into the reader’s mind. He kept saying ‘physics is fun’, but he was talking about the fun a professional physicist gets out of doing it – which is a very arcane, often highly mathematical, type of fun. The result, for a non-specialist reader, was actually quite alienating. Mee, on the other hand, understands exactly how his readers think, what they find interesting, and the details that – no matter how important they …

Professor Maxwell's Duplicitous Demon - Brian Clegg ****

‘It’s not uncommon when trying to give Maxwell his rightful place in the pantheon of physics to bracket him with Newton and Einstein’, Brian Clegg says towards the end of this book. In one sense that’s perfectly true. Dip into any physics textbook and you’ll see Maxwell’s name at least as often as the other two. His greatest achievement – Maxwell’s equations – did for electromagnetism what Newton had done for gravity, while laying the essential theoretical groundwork for everything Einstein was to do.

There’s a big difference, though. A few years ago, when I was offered the chance to write short biographies of Newton and Einstein, I jumped at it – because they addressed mysteries of the universe that anyone can relate to, and their lives outside physics were, if anything, even more fascinating. At the risk of sounding downright rude, you can’t say either of those things about James Clerk Maxwell. In spite of that, Brian Clegg has done a wonderful job here of recounting just what Maxwel…