Skip to main content

The Ultimate Interplanetary Travel Guide - Jim Bell **

Not too long ago, NASA brought out a series of spoof ‘space tourism’ posters for various destinations in the Solar System. For people like me, who have watched NASA depressingly fail to send humans to the other planets for decade after decade, it was just another painful twist of the knife. On the other hand, the posters probably have more appeal for younger and less cynical minds, by presenting familiar astronomical objects in a new and engaging way. There may even be scope for a whole book along these lines – and that’s what Jim Bell has attempted here.

The main thing I learned from it is that my brain is programmed to read either fiction or non-fiction, and can’t handle a 50:50 mix of the two – which is what this book is. It drove me mad –  not least because I could see that the same material, presented as straight non-fiction, could have made a really excellent book. Using the NASA posters as a starting point, he could have enumerated the potential ‘tourist sights’ at each location, describing them as they would look to a human observer up close, and what special equipment or precautions would be necessary. That much is purely factual. The next question is what would need to happen to make such a tourist trip practical – if such-and-such a technology is developed, if such-and-such a social/economic/cultural trend is reversed, etc. By making all those ifs explicit, readers could judge for themselves whether the author is talking sense or not.

But Bell doesn’t do that. He writes the book as if it’s an actual tourist guide from 200 years in the future, with no distinction between what is real and what is speculation. There are data tables showing hard facts like diameters and surface temperatures, alongside travel times from Earth (e.g. 6 hours to the Moon and a month to Jupiter) that are meaningless without some indication of the technology being assumed. Tourist attractions range from ‘real’ ones (natural features and historic landing sites), through sensible speculations (e.g. ice mines on the Moon and deep-sea research stations on Europa) to completely arbitrary ones (Star Wars style speeder races on Mercury and jazz festivals on Deimos).

I’m not being overly kind about the book, because this is a popular science website aimed at adult readers and that’s who I’m reviewing it for. In all fairness, however, that’s probably not the author’s target audience. I can see that sci-fi fans with little interest in the ‘boring’ details of real-world science may well love the book. It’s certainly a very attractive package, with full-colour illustrations on every page and no dauntingly long blocks of text to read. It looks, in fact, just like one of those lavish coffee table books you see in The Works just before Christmas each year. I’ll even hazard a prediction of my own at this point. Possibly this Christmas, or failing that Christmas 2019, you’re going to see this book on sale in The Works at a very affordable price. If you happen to be looking for a present for a sci-fi mad youngster, it will be just the thing.


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


Review by Andrew May

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

On the Fringe - Michael Gordin *****

This little book is a pleasant surprise. That word 'little', by the way, is not intended as an insult, but a compliment. Kudos to OUP for realising that a book doesn't have to be three inches thick to be interesting. It's just 101 pages before you get to the notes - and that's plenty. The topic is fringe science or pseudoscience: it could be heavy going in a condensed form, but in fact Michael Gordin keeps the tone light and readable. In some ways, the most interesting bit is when Gordin plunges into just what pseudoscience actually is. As he points out, there are elements of subjectivity to this. For example, some would say that string theory is pseudoscience, even though many real scientists have dedicated their careers to it. Gordin also points out that, outside of denial (more on this a moment), many supporters of what most of us label pseudoscience do use the scientific method and see themselves as doing actual science. Gordin breaks pseudoscience down into a n

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under