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Breakthrough - Marcus Chown *****

Update for new paperback title The original title of this book was 'The Magicians': this may seem an odd one for a popular science book, but it referred to what Chown describes as ‘the central magic of science: its ability to predict the existence of things previously undreamt of which, when people went out and looked for them, turned out to actually exist in the real universe’. That may be true of all branches of science, but physics – which is what the book is about – is a special case, because its theories are rooted in mathematical equations rather than words. This makes the matter completely black-and-white: if the equations predict something you had no inkling of, then either the maths is wrong, or that thing really does exist. This book describes some remarkable instances where the maths was right. Actually, I’m not sure the old title was strictly accurate. It’s true that it centres on people – both the theoreticians who came up with the predictions and the experimenta
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World Brain - H. G. Wells ***

Today, we mostly remember H. G. Wells as a writer of science fiction, but he was a prolific non-fiction author (not to mention penning comic/romantic novels such as The History of Mister Polly , which became Half a Sixpence as a film). To those used to his tightly crafted science fiction, the non-fiction can be distinctly disappointing. In its day, some of it was very popular, but now it comes across as turgid and mannered. But this little book, which I'd never seen before, is a bit lighter on the reader, in part because its main content is a series of speeches on a concept that some suggest prefigures Wikipedia - there's an element of truth in that, but Wells' intent was much broader. While I hadn't come across the speeches that are pulled together in  World Brain , I was aware of the suggestion that Vannevar Bush's 1930s memex concept was a sort of precursor of hypertext based on the then hot new technology of microfilm. Wells is also influenced by the ability of

What on earth (or off it) is a science fiction reading protocol?

Those of you who come to this site looking only for reviews of popular science books might be feeling there has been too much science fiction of late. I try to provide a balance of the two, but I confess that during the pandemic, I have found fiction more something I've looked forward to reading than non-fiction - so please forgive me! While not a review, this feature is inspired by a book - a non-fiction title - but science fiction is, admittedly, its topic. Over the years, the number of science fiction books and short stories I've read runs into four figures - and I've even had a few SF stories published. I've also read quite widely on the history of science fiction, but a book title I spotted the other day totally threw me. It's the first time I've ever rushed to buy a book without having the slightest clue what it was about. The title was The Reading Protocols of Science Fiction: discourses on reading SF . To make it more intriguing, the book's blurb, a

The Greatest Adventure - Colin Burgess ***

The history of our space exploration has involved a very small number of people going into space at huge cost and at the loss of a good number of lives - yet it is something that remains of interest to many, and seems to fit well with the human urge to explore new frontiers. Even trivial excursions like Richard Branson's quick skip to 100 kilometres makes big news. There has been some backlash about show-off billionaires (and it's true of some), but this misses the bigger point of the advances being made in our ability to explore the solar system. In The Greatest Adventure, Colin Burgess sets out to give us a detailed history of the space race and our space-going achievements so far. I would say that Burgess largely succeeds with one big hole. Let's get that out of the way first. Over the last decade or so, the nature of the space business has transformed hugely. US manned space vehicles have always been commercially built, but were government funded, planned and controlle

Fire of the Dark Triad (SF) - Asya Semenovich ***

Classic science fiction from the 1950s, such as the work of Isaac Asimov, is rightly criticised these days for lacking characterisation, a tendency to tell rather than show, and an absence of meaningful female characters, even if the ideas were often excellent and the action scenes could be quite engaging. In many ways, this novel takes us back to those flawed classics of the genre. The problem is worst at the start. The first twenty pages or so takes us from prehistory to the future in such a skimpy way that it is tedious to read. This is the telliest opening I have ever seen in a published piece of fiction. It's often little more than a summary, with a key concept for the book covered in little more than a page. Here we discover  that gateways to parallel universes are discovered where variants of Earth aren't occupied by intelligent life, giving a limitless opportunity for colonies to be set up and develop in their own way, eventually becoming a threat the the Earth. The oth

This is Your Mind on Plants - Michael Pollan ***

There is a powerfully American cultural flavour to this book that even comes through in the title. I'll be honest, that title baffled me initially. The first thing it made me think of was the TV show 'This is Your Life', then I wondered if it was about having ideas while lying on a straw mattress. In reality it's a complete misnomer - it's entirely about Michael Pollan's life on plants (and the psychoactive chemicals derived from them) - it's a very me-oriented book. I was sold this as a science book, but it really isn't. Pollan describes his interactions with three plant-derived chemical substances: opium, caffeine and mescaline - but there's hardly anything about the science of what's involved, just a brief, dictionary-like reference to how these chemicals act. It's all about Pollan, what he experiences, how he feels. That Americanness also comes across in his casual acceptance that someone he deals with keeps an assault rifle by his desk,

Clarissa (SF) - Karl Drinkwater ***

Having a series of books is nothing new in science fiction, but Karl Drinkwater is taking the interesting line of having a main series of novels accompanied by a set of novellas that fill in history or generally expand the picture outside the main line of the series. In this third 'Lost Tales of Solace' book we get a key piece of the backstory. The main Lost Solace line features military renegade Opal, accompanied by a ship with a powerful AI as she searches for her sister, Clarissa. In this novella we discover how Clarissa became lost when the space liner Solace suffered a catastrophic interaction with a strange phenomenon in this fictional universe's equivalent of hyperspace. In many ways this should be the most important of these supporting novellas so far, but for me it was the weakest. There are number of reasons. Clarissa is ten, and reading a first person account from the viewpoint of a ten-year-old is more than a little wearing. That strange phenomenon the ship enc