Skip to main content

Don't Look Back (SF) - John Gribbin ****

Despite the frequent misunderstanding of journalists, science fiction isn't all about rocket ships and space travel (though, of course, they do crop up). It's about asking 'What if?' That's true of all fiction, but science fiction has a much more extensive canvas, and the bit that follows 'What if...' has the opportunity to go places other fiction can't, even if this can be at the cost of reducing the interpersonal insights we expect from a novel. Perhaps that's why science fiction is such a perfect genre for the short story.

In this collection, science writer and physicist John Gribbin is enthusiastic to write hard science fiction, where, as much as the story allows, the science is real. Faster than light travel and time machines are usually allowed as special permission to break that rule - and here there's quite a lot of bending of the rule elsewhere too. For example, the 'many worlds' interpretation of quantum physics (a little overused here) - is accepted by some physicists, but many don't like it (and even if it's true, has to be stretched a long way to allow communication between different alternate worlds, an essential for its use in stories). We also see similar stretching of the 'hard science' rules in the unlikeness that an alien computer virus could easily take over our computers (Independence Day in reverse) and an odd statement that you can't time travel into the future - which is the one bit of time travel that is easy to do for real.

I wouldn't normally have so much concern about the science being bent, as I think scientific accuracy should always come second to the 'fiction' part, but as the author makes a big thing about this being hard science fiction, it's probably worth pointing out that even a diamond-hard writer like Gribbin has to cheat a little with the science to make the stories work.

One good thing about a collection of short stories is that, unlike a novel, if you hit one you don't like, there will be another along soon - and some of Gribbin's stories are excellent. I'm fond of short, sudden-twist-in-the-end stories, of which this collection includes some excellent examples. There are also some very enjoyable slower and more thoughtful pieces, including one that has considerable parallels with The Time Traveller's Wife (though written well before it, unless Gribbin really does have a time machine) and a thought-provoking tale involving the return of a more powerful strain of the cattle disease BSE.

The style of these stories is often that of classic science fiction from the 50s - and like the classics, there are some that age better than others. There's a genetics-based story, The Sins of the Fathers, for example, which illustrates the dangers of being too dependent on science in a field which has moved a long way in the 31 years since it was written. A few are downright confusing to read in the way the story is structured or in the wording - I had to read '… up to the lunar orbiting satellite by which Farside maintained contact with the planet that never rose above the horizon round the station,' about three times to untangle it.

However, there's plenty of good material here, from those slow paced stories to one of my favourite of the shorts, The Royal Visit, which delivers a remarkable amount in just two and a half pages, including an enjoyably dark twist in the ending. As a bonus, and in honour of the tradition of science fiction magazines carrying factual articles, Gribbin gives us two non-fiction pieces, one on the physics of time travel and the other on our remarkable Moon and the physical impact it has had on the Earth, which (for reasons you need to read the book to discover), Gribbin likens to Douglas Adams' Babel Fish. A meaty, classic collection.



Review by Brian Clegg


  1. It would be good to know publication dates on reviews. Also alternatives to Amazon if you can find them [Amazon owns Book Depository :( ]

    1. I'm afraid adding extra links would make it too complicated - and the site is funded by Amazon affiliate payments. You can always find the publication date of this edition by clicking through to Amazon.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

The Bastard Legion (SF) - Gavin Smith *****

Science fiction has a long tradition of 'military in space' themes - and usually these books are uninspiring at best and verging on fascist at worst. From a serious SF viewpoint, it seemed that Joe Haldeman's magnificent The Forever War made the likes of Starship Troopers a mocked thing of the past, but sadly Hollywood seems to have rebooted the concept and we now see a lot of military SF on the shelves.

The bad news is that The Bastard Legion could not be classified as anything else - but the good news is that, just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer subverted the vampire genre, The Bastard Legion has so many twists on a straightforward 'marines in space' title that it does a brilliant job of subversion too.

The basic scenario is instantly different. Miska is heading up a mercenary legion, except they're all hardened criminals on a stolen prison ship, taking part because she has stolen the ship and fitted them all with explosive collars. Oh, and helping her train her &…

Euler's Pioneering Equation - Robin Wilson ***

The concept of a 'beautiful equation' is a mystery to many, but it seems to combine a piece of mathematics that expresses something sophisticated in relatively few terms and something that looks satisfying. The equation that has proved standout amongst mathematicians, as by far the most beautiful (and is only placed second to Maxwell's equation amongst physicists) is Euler's remarkable eiπ+1 = 0. What seems remarkable to me about this is that it just seems bizarre that this combination of things produces such a neat result. (Incidentally, as far as I can see, the only reason for the 'pioneering' in the title was to enable the fancy graphic on the cover of the book.)

Getting popular maths books right is incredibly difficult. When I started reading this book, I really thought that Robin Wilson had cracked it. After an introduction, he gives us a chapter on each of the elements of the equation (except the plus and equals signs), from the more basic aspects like 1 a…