Subtitled ‘physics and maths in fantasy and science fiction’, this is one for the hardcore science fan. In fact the best reader may well be a scientist who likes a bit of science fiction and wants to play around with how likely all the science in the stories really is.
Strangely, the most readable part is the first section, where Charles Adler deals with the goings on of fantasy, rather than science fiction. I think this is because we don’t really expect the science to work in fantasy, and we can enjoy laughing at distortion of the conservation of energy, or the second law of thermodynamics, and thinking about the physics of dragons. But when the book starts to pull apart basics like space travel, it feels like something of a betrayal.
Once we got onto science fiction, Adler shows us that practically every major theme of space-based science fiction from the basics of space travel being possible to constructing vast space stations and ring worlds and the like is all extremely unlikely because of problems with energy and many other aspects of physics. It’s frankly a bit depressing, but I could cope with it, were not that the style gets considerably more hardcore than it was in the fantasy section. In the science fiction parts we have far more pages of calculation with relatively little and relatively impenetrable explanation.
This can make the book decidedly opaque to the non-technical reader. Take, for instance, the section describing the trajectory of an apple thrown inside a spaceship that is being rotated to produce artificial gravity. Adler points out the way that the Coriolis effect will result in strange movements. But the whole description, complete with completely unnecessary equations and diagrams which explain nothing is difficult to follow and lacks any feel for the reader’s response. It is far more like a simplified textbook than anything else. This is disappointing, as it wasn’t the case with the early sections.
In the end, I didn’t enjoy the book as I much as I thought I would initially. There are two reasons. One is the old W. B. Yeats favourite ‘Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.’ For many science fiction and fantasy fans (even quite a few who became scientists), what is particularly wonderful about SF&F is that it is a matter of dreams. It takes us away from boring reality, and if it has to sacrifice a little accuracy in the way of a good story, so be it. Forget treading softly, here the dreams get the hobnail boot treatment. The other problem is that there is too much calculation and not enough explanation, as a result of which it all too often reads more like an exercises section in a textbook, rather than a popular science book.
Don’t get me wrong – this is an interesting, well-written book, and Adler has put a lot of work into it. It should be invaluable for anyone wanting to write really accurate science fiction. But it isn’t as much fun as I expected it to be.
Science fiction is one of my favorite genres, and I have pretty much grown up on a steady diet of reading about spaceships, robots, aliens, stars, and planets. In that regard I am probably very similar to most of my fellow Physicists, but by and large I had never actually set down and used any of my actual Physics knowledge in order to figure out how feasible are some of the traditional sci-fi themes. Fortunately, in this fascinating and extraordinarily well-presented book Charles Adler has gone to the trouble of exploring the Physics behind science fiction, and the result is a very intriguing and insightful book that would appeal to all die-hard sci-fi fans.
In order to get the most out of this book you should be at least comfortable with the kind of Physics that is usually taught at college freshmen level. There are a lot of equations throughout the book, and even though you won’t see any calculus or really long calculations, you should be comfortable enough with Physics equations in general in order to appreciate this material.
The book primarily focuses on science fiction literature, and a few science fiction writers in particular. Even though many of us (myself included) primarily consume science fiction in the form of movies, hardly any specific movies are ever mentioned. For the most part this works out fine, since the kind of general themes discussed here are equally applicable to both the movie and books. However, I really would have appreciated more of the references to such a staple movies as Star Wars and E.T. for instance.
The book takes a hard look at many of the most popular themes in science fiction – space travel, aliens, space colonies, tame travel, etc. – and presents a rigorous account of how feasible those themes are based on our best knowledge of the physical laws. Unfortunately, many of the more common sci-fi themes turn out to be if not quite impossible, then either unlikely or unfeasible. This is bound to put a damper on many science fiction fans’ expectation of what the future might bring in these domains (at least this is the effect it partially had on me), but at least it made me appreciate all the fantastical technological challenges that need to be overcome if we are going to have even a fraction of the fantastic gadgets that generations of the science fiction writers have been promising us.
I was less than enthusiastic about the part of the book that deals with fantasy. Granted, I am not the biggest fan of fantasy to begin with, but I do enjoy a well-written fantasy movie or a novel every once in a while. However, in fantasy writing, unlike science fiction, there is not even the pretense of trying to be constrained by the laws of nature. This going through the trouble of showing why so many of the fantasy themes are impossible in the real world, while intellectually entertaining, feels rather futile.
I would particularly recommend this book to any aspiring, or even established, science fiction writers. It can be used as a quick reference for all the main physics-related issues and themes that constantly pop up within the sci-fi genera.
There are a few other themes that constantly pop up in science fiction, but are either mentioned only in passing and in the broadest terms in this book, or not at all. These include advanced robots, artificial intelligence, advanced weapons (lightsaber!), cyberspace, cloning, extinct advanced ancient civilizations, etc. As the central theme of this book was physics in sci fi, it’s understandable why these other themes would not be covered. It would be great if some experts in those other fields offered their insights in another book similar to this one. Or if a group of authors joined forces and composed a reference work of sorts that would include all of these themes in a single volume. Thanks to the self-publishing revolution there has been an explosion of new writers writing science fiction for the first time, and a book like that one could greatly help them get a single resource where they could all the main scientific and technological facts necessary for writing believable stories.