Skip to main content

Europa's Lost Expedition (SF) - Michael Carroll ***

I've now read a good few in this Springer series of titles that attempt to bring science fiction and science fact together. Some are straight non-fiction, but many, like this one, are science fiction with a  'science bit' at the end - and of those, this is one of the best I've come across.

I thought I was having deja vu to start with, as one of the first in the series I read involved an ill-fated expedition to Saturn's moon Titan, while this involves... an ill-fated expedition to Jupiter's moon Europa. (At the time I didn't realise that On the Shore of Titan's Farthest Sea was even written by the same author.) Although the struggles of existence on a remote, cold moon were a bit samey, luckily the plot was sufficiently different to mean that this wasn't the end of the world.

The reason I say this is one of the best in the series is that there is some depth to the plotting. Mysterious deaths occur on the expedition. We have a flashback to an earlier expedition that went horribly wrong. Many of the characters seem to have a dubious past in the world war that devastated Earth a few years previously. It has got far more going for it than just a 'humans versus the landscape' story. I genuinely did want to read on and find out what was going to happen, and exactly what was the meaning of these hints from the past. We had a murder mystery and more to contend with as well as the boilerplate science fiction plot.

However, things weren't all rosy. The book was very slow to start, with a lot of exposition on the ship on the way to Europa. It didn't help the reader in getting a head around the various characters present on the journey that quite a few had surnames as first names, so even remembering what sex they were was a struggle to start with. (One (female) character's first name is Hadley - I couldn't help but wonder if it was a coincidence that the name turned up on one page adjacent to the words 'convection cell.') I said in the review of Michael Carroll's earlier book that his characters were two dimensional - these are a little better, but they still all feel like they've been allocated a role - the perky one, the brooding one, the religious one and so forth - and Carroll certainly doesn't do enough to cover his big reveal, which seemed obvious fairly early on.

The thing that nagged at me most in the plotting was this was supposed to take place just a few years after a third world war that made the second seem like a skirmish - yet things had already got back on track enough to send a science expedition to Europa. That just didn't work for me - nor did the way everyone just kept on doing their jobs as equipment repeatedly failed and expedition members died. I'd also say it's unfortunate that a lot of the science stuff, laid on fairly heavily in the text as well as the science bit at the end, was geology based - the hardest of all topics to make interesting to the general reader.

A step forward, though, in this brave attempt of putting together a series that educates as it entertains (and the pricing isn't as eye-watering as it once was, though ebooks are still far too expensive). It doesn't compare with good modern science fiction, feeling very 50s at best, but it is readable and some of the science bits were enlightening and interesting.

Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…