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Showing posts from October, 2017

What's Next - Jim Al-Khalili (Ed.) ***

There's a certain kind of book that's popular with academic publishers, where you collect together a set of essays on a topic from different contributors. Most of the contents are usually rather dull, but the odd one shines out. I assume it's a cheap way for publishers to get material, but it's rarely highly readable. This is just such a book, but from a mainstream source and packaged with a shiny foil-bedecked cover as if it were a fun pop sci jaunt through the subject of the future. Just look at that title with it's provocative tagline 'Even scientists can't predict the future... or can they?'

The whole idea of futurology - attempting to extrapolate how we and our technology will develop in the future - is doomed to failure. Everyone gets most of it wrong, and it's impossible to pick out the gems from the dross. You only have to look back at Alvin Toffler's Future Shock with its impressive disaster of an attempt to predict the year 2000, which …

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…

Sea of Rust (SF) - Robert Cargill ****

Although the Pixar movie Wall-E has demonstrated it's possible to tell a story effectively with robots as the protagonists, this was achieved using dollops of gooey anthropomorphism. What Robert Cargill achieves is far harder - to give us an engaging novel where all of humanity is dead and the only intelligence is artificial without playing the 'they're just like people, really' card too heavily.

I say 'too heavily' because I think it's fair to say that there is still an unlikely level of human-like behaviour here. Robots speak to each other in English when they could achieve vastly richer high bandwidth audio communication. And most robots appear to have gender. (Even Cargill occasionally slips up on this, at least once calling the same machine 'he' and 'it'.) We're told the use of gender is because when AIs first broke free it was decided that no robot would have to be called 'It' anymore - but there seems no logical reason why …

Super Power, Spoony Bards and Silverware - Dominic Arsenault ***

This quirkily-titled exploration of the rise and fall of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) scores three stars as a general popular science title - if, like me, you sit at the intersection of being interested in computing, gaming and business it's a solid four stars.

Once I had got over a few sniggers at the idea that game studies/platform studies could be an academic discipline, about which you can write a serious academic work with Harvard referencing and everything, I found this a genuinely fascinating book. I was never a SNES user - I made the transition from an earlier console (Mattel's Intellivision) to a Commodore 64, Amiga and then PCs for gaming - but it was impossible to be unaware of it during its heyday from the late 80s.

It seems that the SNES is generally looked back on with awe by those who were fans at the time, but Dominic Arsenault brings a more balanced view, pointing out the technical and business limitations of the product - all driven by a busin…

Before Time Began - Helmut Satz **

This is an odd little book. The aim seems to be to provide more detail about the most widely accepted cosmological theories than we usually get in a popular science title, which to some extent it does - but in a way that, for me, fails the Feynman test (more on that in a moment).

In his introduction, Helmut Satz tell us that not everyone agrees with some of the things he is going to describe, but I'm not sure that's good enough. For example, we are presented with the full current inflation theory as if it were fact, yet it seems to be going through a whole lot of uncertainty at the time of writing. It's fine to present the best accepted theory, but when there is significant concern about it, it's important to at least outline why it has problems and where we go from here.

In content terms, it's hard to fault what Satz covers - it gives us everything from a description of spontaneous symmetry breaking to the Higgs field, all with significantly more detail than you mig…

Austral (SF) - Paul McAuley ****

When I was a teenager, I devoured post-apocalyptic disaster novels, but as an adult I've tended to think that life is too short to read depressing books. Luckily, despite Paul McAuley's Austral being set in a world that has been reshaped by catastrophic climate change, it hasn't got the entirely miserable feel of some of science fiction's more hangdog works - but it certainly isn't a bundle of laughs either.

Central character Austral is an outcast, genetically modified by her eco-poet parents (not writers of verse, but involved in shaping the environment to naturally deal with what hits it). She is bigger, stronger and far more able to cope with the cold of her Antarctic home than normal humans. And for most of the book she is on the run, taking with her cousin, a young woman she has saved from being kidnapped by kidnapping her herself.

The structure of the narrative is multi-layered. We get the straight Austral story, Austral telling her cousin the story of their mu…

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…

Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams (SF) – Philip K. Dick ****

The ten stories in this collection originally appeared in various science fiction magazines between 1953 and 1955, when Philip K. Dick was still in his twenties. They’re packaged here to tie in with the TV series Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, currently showing on Channel 4. I imagine most readers –certainly those who’ve never encountered any of these pieces before – will approach the book via the somewhat anachronistic perspective of the TV episodes (most of which are best described as ‘homages’ to the original stories rather than adaptations). In this context, there’s an illuminating two-page introduction to each piece by the screenwriters behind the corresponding TV episode.

Unfortunately, with this wrong-end-of-the-telescope approach, you’re more likely to spot elements that are ‘missing’ from the originals, rather than all the extraordinary and thought-provoking ideas they do contain (many of which get glossed over in the TV version). The ideal approach would be the exact oppos…

Science(ish) - Rick Edwards and Michael Brooks ****

Seeing the subtitle of this engaging hardback it would be easy to think 'Oh, no, not other "Science of Movie X" book - they were great initially but there have been too many since.' Somehow, though, the approach that Rick Edwards and Michael Brooks have taken transcends the original format and makes the whole thing fresh and fun again.

I think the secret to their success is that they don't try to cover all the science of a particular film, but rather that they use each of their ten subjects to explore one particular topic. It also helps that, rather than focus entirely on franchise movies we get some great one-offs, including The Martian and Ex Machina. I suspect you may find the interest level of the chapters reflects to some extent whether or not you've seen the films. So, for instance, In found 28 Days Later and Gattaca, which I haven't seen, less interesting. The only other topic that suffered a bit for me was Planet of the Apes, which I have seen but …

The Little Book of Black Holes - Steven Gubser and Frans Pretorius ****

I am always suspicious when a book has a comment on the back from a physics professor recommending it for the 'general reader', as in my experience, physics professors have little clue as to what works for a non-technical audience. But in the case of The Little Book of Black Holes, Roger Penrose has got it right... with one proviso. As long as the general reader has absorbed a good popular science title on special and general relativity first.

Without ever venturing into heavyweight maths, Steven Gubser and Frans Pretorius take us through the way that both Schwarzschild's non-rotating black hole and Kerr's rotating version were derived from Einstein's equations. And they help the reader explore many of the implications for such a body were it to exist in the real universe, from familiar aspects such as time dilation to the delightful zoom-whirl orbit. For an unfortunate individual passing towards the singularity we not only get spaghettification (though not named as…