Sunday, 21 February 2016

Hollyweird Science - Kevin Grazier and Stephen Cass ***

When reading this book I was reminded of the H. G.  Wells horror/SF novel, The Island of Dr Moreau,  which features heavily in the TV science fiction show Orphan Black (far more impressive than most of the shows mentioned in the book). This is because, like the human/animals in Wells' story, Hollyweird Science is neither one thing nor another. It's as if two entirely different books have been merged, and the result is quite disconcerting.

The first few chapters are a reasonably intense, media studies type exploration of the nature of science fiction films (and, somewhat randomly, TV). There's no attempt to put science and technology in science fiction alongside real world equivalents as in Ten Billion Tomorrows - this is much more about the nature of SF film making, the need in the end for story to overrule science quibbles and the role of science advisors. (As an aside I think movie science advisors are almost always a waste of time and money as, however well meaning, they are mostly ignored. I had coffee with Brian Cox just before he became famous, and he was really excited about being science advisor for the movie Sunshine. Cox knows his stuff, but the science in Sunshine is rightly slated in Hollyweird Science.) This part of the book worked well and probably deserved four stars, though didn't have a place in a popular science review site, as it was very media oriented.

Then, suddenly, there is a massive change of gear. The book becomes a straightforward physics and astronomy primer with occasional references to a movie to pretend that the science fiction is driving the content. But it isn't. There are frequently four or five pages at a time with no significant film references, and when they come they tend to be very shallow. The pure science bits are okay, though a touch plodding, but the problem is expectations. I thought the book would be built around the Hollywood examples, but in fact they're loosely scattered nuggets, far too infrequent to do anything but highlight their inadequacy.

The science content is generally fine, though occasionally either vague or odd. So, for instance, we are told that the observable universe has a radius of 13.8 billion light years where is actually 45.7 billion light years, a quite significant difference. Most amusingly, the book has a dig at Star Trek's use of 'degrees Kelvin' for the Kelvin scale, then messes up its correction by saying the units of the scale should be Kelvins, where they are actually kelvins. Trivial, absolutely, but then so was the original complaint.

It's a shame, but the book's lack of clarity about what it is trying to do, combined with very limited movie and TV references in the solid science part and a hefty price tag for a paperback mean that it doesn't really deliver.

Review by Brian Clegg

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