Skip to main content

Is the Universe a Hologram? - Adolfo Plasencia ***

This is a very strange book - it reads like a cross between a collection of totally unrelated science essays and Waiting for Godot. Each essay is in the form of an interview with a scientist (the term is stretched a bit to include architects and human resources experts) and the Beckett-like nature is occasionally emphasised by interviewees who don't have English as a first language who scatter the unedited interviews (complete with painfully polite introductions) with interest terms such as 'teletransportation.' Even the book's subtitle 'Scientists answer the most provocative questions' has a touch of the Google Translate about it.

In his introduction, interviewer Adolfo Plasencia explains the use of dialogue in teaching. He tells us that when Lewis Carroll has Alice think 'what is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?' Carroll was criticising the teaching of his day which 'ignored the example of great teachers such as Plato and Rousseau, who considered dialogue to be essential for sound education.' What this misses is that teaching dialogues were carefully written, not a verbatim transcript of a conversation - and that there's a very good reason why we don't find them in popular science books. Because even the best science-teaching-by-dialogue, such as Galileo's three-way version, feel stilted and dull by modern standards. What we understand now (and what Alice had in mind) is the importance of narrative in good science writing. Alice's conversations were those in a well-written fictional narrative, not the real life, stultifying version.

It's not all bad. Each time I came close to giving up, I'd hit on a little nugget of really interesting content, whether it be on Casimir forces or graphene. But I suspect you could edit the good bits out into a single article. It wasn't helped by the quite long interventions for the interviewer, who seemed determined to get across his political message that Europe is better than America, and that scientific cooperation is leading the way to the European unification, which must surely follow from the wonderful EU.

This book must genuinely have seemed a good idea as a proposal, but the heavy-going dialogue combined with the weak format of a collection of unrelated essays from different sources makes it a noble failure.

Hardback:  

Kindle:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Infinity Plus: Quintet (SF) - Keith Brooke (Ed.) ****

When I was younger there was nothing I liked better than a good, deep, dark (frankly, often downright miserable) science fiction story, and this collection delivers excellent modern examples that would have fit easily into a thoughtful if downbeat 70s collection such as the 'New Writing in SF' or the Interzone magazine of the day (one was actually first published in Interzone, in 1987 - the rest date between 1989 and 2010).

If I'm honest, I prefer more upbeat fiction now, but that doesn't stop me appreciating the quality of these five stories, put together by the SF website and publisher Infinity Plus. I've rarely seen a better contradiction of Margaret Atwood's putdown of science fiction as being limited to 'talking squids in outer space.' What we have here is pure character-driven storytelling with not a mention of space, spaceships, ray guns or aliens. It's the inner world, not the outer trappings of sci fi tropes that interest these writers.

On…

The Lost Planets - John Wenz **

Reading the first few lines of the introduction to this book caused a raised eyebrow. In 1600, it tells us, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake 'for his radical views - that not only was the Sun just one of many stars, but those stars likely had planets around them as well.' Unfortunately, this bends the truth. Bruno was burned at the stake for holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith - for conventional heretical beliefs amongst which his ideas on cosmology were trivial. This was an unfortunate start.

What John Wenz gives us is a people-driven story of the apparent early discovery of a number of planets orbiting other stars, made by Peter van de Kamp and his colleagues at Swarthmore College in America, most notably connected to a relatively obscure star called Barnard's star. Wenz is at his best dealing with personal conflict. The book really comes alive in a middle section where van de Kamp's discoveries are starting to be challenged. This chapter works wel…

Bone Silence (SF) - Alastair Reynolds *****

Of all the best modern SF writers, Alastair Reynolds is arguably the supreme successor to the writers of the golden age. He gives us wide-ranging vision, clever concepts and rollicking adventure - never more so than with his concluding book of the Ness sisters trilogy.

Neatly, after the first title, Revenger was written from the viewpoint of one sister, Arafura and the second, Shadow Captain, had the other sister Adrana as narrator, this book is in the third person. It neatly ties up many of the loose ends from the previous books, but also leaves vast scope for revelations to cover in the future if Reynolds decides to revisit this world (he comments in his acknowledgements 'I am, for the time being, done with the Ness sisters. Whether they are done with me remains to be seen.')

As with the previous books, the feel here is in some ways reminiscent of the excellent TV series Firefly, but with pirates rather than cowboys transported into a space setting. Set millions of years in…