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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.


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Review by Brian Clegg

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