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Kings of a Dead World (SF) - Jamie Mollart ****

Jamie Mollart's Kings of a Dead World is a challenging read, but is a great demonstration of why science fiction is much more than just space operas (fun though they can be) - the genre gives a unique opportunity to explore the worlds of 'What if?' I'm not quite sure why, but dystopias - which this very dark book is with a vengeance - seem to be back in fashion. To be honest, in difficult times likes these I prefer to read enjoyable escapism, but if someone insists on publishing a dystopian novel during a pandemic, Jamie Mollart has discovered a way to make the concept fresh and interesting.  The book has three interlaced storylines. One is from before the collapse of society as we know it, pretty much around the present, which is 50 years in the past of the other two storylines. In that future world, most of the population is put to sleep for months at a time, emerging for a month of life before being put back to sleep again. We see this occurring from the viewpoint o
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Make Shift (SF) - Gideon Lichfield (Ed.) ***

MIT Press has published a series of collections of science fiction short stories, each with a particular message in mind, often around the impact of new technologies on some aspect of society. So, for example, a recent addition, Entanglements , looked at the impact on relationships and families of emerging technologies. The series is known as 'Twelve Tomorrows', though in the case of Make Shift there are only 10 stories. This is a rapidly assembled collection where the focus is being post-pandemic: the idea was to be positive and show how science and technology could create a fairer, more hopeful world in the aftermath of what many stories assume will be a whole series of pandemics, starting with Covid-19. There is always a big danger with fiction-with-a-message that the earnestness of the message will get in the way of the storytelling, and that's certainly the case in a number of stories here. In general with these collections there a couple of standouts and a couple of

Science Fiction - Sherryl Vint **

Many science fiction fans enjoy also reading books about science fiction (me included), so this addition to the MIT Press Essential Knowledge series is of interest - particularly as Sherryl Vint tells us that she isn't taking the usual route of a history or describing key works, but rather focussing on what 'science fiction can do, how it has been described by a variety of constituencies in distinct ways for multiple ends.'  Vint does recognise that science fiction is many things to many people - but rather than embrace this diversity, she seems determined to force it into a particular image (that you are only likely to appreciate if you can cope with somebody using ‘imaginary’ as a noun rather than an adjective). We are told SF is about change - but I'm not convinced that's accurate. It is about storytelling (which is hardly mentioned here) that asks 'What if?' - so it's not so much about change as things being different. The obsession with change prod

Journey to the Edge of Reason - Stephen Budiansky ***

  Compared with the sciences, mathematics can seem relatively short on interesting characters. There's no doubt that the subject of Stephen Budiansky's biography - Kurt Gödel was an engaging subject, from his effective shattering of the certainties of the mathematical system to his increasing oddity in his later life, but perhaps surprisingly this claims to be the first significant biography of Gödel. Budiansky gives us plenty on the context of Gödel's work and life - and a brief exploration of Gödel's incompleteness theorems (though their nature means that it's hard to give more than a faint impression of how they do what they do). Unfortunately, though, this is not a particularly accessible biography. With many scientific/mathematical biographies, poor accessibility can be down to a lack of context, with too much focus on the detailed complexities of the science or the maths. Here, though, the issue is the reverse. There is far too much context, so much so that Gö

Bergita and Urs Ganse - Four Way Interview

Bergita and Urs Ganse are siblings and the authors of The Spacefarer’s Handbook – Science and Life Beyond Earth , a translation of their German book, published by Springer in 2017. Urs is a theoretical space physicist, with a research focus on plasma simulations and works at the University of Helsinki in Finland. He uses supercomputers to model the near-Earth plasma environment and its interactions with Earth's magnetic field. Bergita is a university professor at Saarland University in Germany, an orthopedic surgeon and a physiologist. Her research focuses on the musculoskeletal system in spaceflight. She is a co-investigator of an ISS experiment, and she teaches Space Medicine to university students. Why Space?  Urs: I guess we were exposed too much to science-fiction as children. We watched Star Trek every day, read books about space and played computer games. Somehow, spaceflight became a solid part of our normal understanding of the world. Ever since then, it has seemed kind of

Shape - Jordan Ellenberg ***

I really enjoyed Jordan Ellenberg’s earlier book How Not to be Wrong , so looked forward to Shape with some anticipation. In principle what we have here is a book about geometry - but not seen from the direction of the (dare I say it) rather boring, Euclid-based geometry textbooks some of us suffered at school. Instead Ellenberg sets out to show how geometry underlies pretty much everything. Along the way, we are given some nice turns of phrase. I enjoyed, for example, Ellenberg’s remark on the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, where Ellenberg remarks Hobbes was ‘a man whose confidence in his own mental powers is not fully captured by the prefix “over”’.  Whether or not what we read about here is really all geometry is a matter of labelling (as is the ‘number of holes in a straw’ question that Ellenberg entertainingly covers). Arguably, for example, there is some material that is probability that can be looked at in a geometric fashion, rather than geometry that produces probabilistic result

Livewired - David Eagleman ****

Popular science book topics are a bit like buses - you wait ages for one on a particular topic/route and then a whole string of the turn up. This is yet another title on the workings of the brain (though to be fair to David Eagleman it was already out in hardback, so he was at the start of the queue). Thankfully, Eagleman gives us a whole new way of looking at the human brain's capabilities, suggesting the reason Homo sapiens is so versatile and capable is down to the extreme plasticity of the human brain - its ability to rewire itself on the fly, or livewiring as Eagleman calls it. This is a fascinating topic. It's not that the idea of the brain as a self-patterning system that adapts and changes as inputs vary is new, but the sheer depth and speed of the phenomenon is only relatively recently understood and Eagleman gives us a very wide range of examples, from a young child who had half his brain removed, but developed normally, the remaining half taking on all the roles of t