Skip to main content

Wegener’s Jigsaw (SF) – Clare Dudman ****

Recently we’ve had something of a spate of books that present science or history of science through fiction, what with Arturo Sangalli’s Pythagoras’ Revenge and Douglas Richards’ The Prometheus Project. Clare Dudman sets out to provide a scientific biography of the man who devised the concept of continental drift, Alfred Wegener, but in fictional form.
There are pros and cons to using ‘informative fiction’ this way. The good side is there is a natural narrative flow. There is no sense of a story being imposed on the information and not fitting well with it as can happen when a purely fictional story is melded with scientific fact. The downside is that the strongest parts of the story may well not be the ones that are about the individual’s life. (I had a similar problem with moving picture pioneer Eadweard Muybridge in my biography of him (admittedly non-fiction, but still strong on narrative). The most dramatic aspect of Muybridge’s life, the murder of his wife’s lover, occurs before any of his interesting work.)
In the case of Wegener, his life – and the story – really seemed to come alive when he was undertaking expeditions across Greenland. Here the story becomes truly gripping, in the style of a man-versus-the-elements novel. But there is no science of interest at all here. Wegener’s big ideas – continental drift (the precursor to plate tectonics) and the meteor theory of moon craters – come up in rather dull periods of university life.
There are two questions to be asked. Does this work as popular science, and does it work as a novel? I have no doubts about the former. It got across the story of Wegener’s life and work as well as any straight scientific biography would, if not better. As to the latter, Clare Dudman has great style, and really pulls you into the realities of life on the Greenland ice. The only slight concern I have about it as a novel is that the book is written as a first person historical reminiscence. Inevitably this means there is rather more ‘tell’ than ‘show’ in the way things are put across – it can seem a little disengaged from reality compared with a narrative that really puts you in there with the action.
I don’t know if it was the writer’s intent, but the other observation that came across strongly to me is how much expeditions to hostile places that involve sacrifice and suffering, like Wegener’s, are about the people, not about the place or science. They are, in effect, a form of showing off – in the end, the achievement is arbitrary and has very little value. It makes for a strange contrast between Wegener’s truly valuable scientific insights that were largely ignored at the time, and this terrible waste of life (Wegener’s own, not to mention all the dogs and ponies that get slaughtered) for little more than an ego trip. Fascinating.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

De/Cipher - Mark Frary ****

I was a little doubtful when I first saw this book. Although it has the intriguing tagline 'The greatest codes ever invented and how to crack them' the combination of a small format hardback and gratuitous illustrations made me suspect it would be a lightweight, minimal content, Janet and John approach to codes and ciphers. Thankfully, in reality Mark Frary manages to pack a remarkable amount of content into De/Cipher's slim form.

Not only do we get some history on and instructions to use a whole range of ciphers, there are engaging little articles on historical codebreakers and useful guidance on techniques to break the simpler ciphers. The broadly historical structure takes the reader through basic alphabetic manipulation, keys, electronic cryptography, one time pads and so on, all the way up to modern public key encryption and a short section on quantum cryptography. 

We even get articles on some of the best known unsolved ciphers, such as the Dorabella and the Voynich ma…

Paul McAuley - Four Way Interview

Paul McAuley won the Philip K. Dick Award for his first novel and has gone on to win the Arthur C. Clarke, British Fantasy, Sidewise and John W. Campbell Awards. He gave up his position as a research biologist to write full-time. He lives in London. His latest novel is Austral.


Why science fiction?

For one thing, I fell in love with science fiction at an early age, and haven’t yet fallen out of love with it (although I have flirted with other genres). For another, we’re living in an increasingly science-fictional present. Every day brings headlines that could have been ripped from a science-fiction story. Giant robot battle: Who knew a duel between chainsaw-armed mech suits could be so boring? for instance. Or, Roy Orbison hologram to embark on UK tour in 2018. And looming above all this, like Hokusai’s famous wave, are the ongoing changes caused by global warming and climate change, which is just one consequence of human activity having become the dominant force of change on the planet…

Karl Drinkwater - Four Way Interview

Karl Drinkwater is originally from Manchester, but has lived in Wales half his life. He is a full-time author, edits fiction for other writers and was a professional librarian for over twenty-five years. He has degrees in English, Classics and Information Science. When he isn't writing, he loves exercise, guitars, computer and board games, the natural environment, animals, social justice, cake and zombies - not necessarily in that order. His latest novel is Lost Solace.

Why science fiction?

My favourite books have always been any form of speculative fiction. As a child I began with ghost stories, which were the first books to make me completely forget I was reading. By my teenage years I was obsessed with fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Although I read literary and contemporary books, non-fiction, historical works, classics and so on, it is speculative fiction that I return to when I want escape and wonder. When I read reviews of my last book, the fast-paced novella Harvest Fe…