Blockbuster Science: The Real Science In Science Fiction by David Siegel Bernstein (book review).

November 6, 2017 | By | Reply More

I doubt if anyone today has read all the SF stories that are currently out there. We might have specialisation and know all of them in a particular sub-section but even that depends on the number of years to read. I know more about SF from the ‘Golden Age’ but back in the 1960s-80s, it wasn’t that difficult to read all the important SF authors. Although there are many SF books out there now, I can’t recall anyone citing that many as being truly significant in changing how we think about things or revolutionised any of the SF tropes.

One thing that is less likely to change is real scientific knowledge and how much you know. If you have a bent for writing Science Fiction then you will always want to keep up with what is going on and want a few books that you can quickly browse or read to give you the gist of knowledge that shows you know what you’re writing about. If you’re just a reader, then it’s more like you want to add understanding when you get into a debate about a favourite book. In that respect, David Siegel Bernstein’s book ‘Blockbuster Science: The Real Science In Science Fiction’ should not only be on your shelf but in short order very well thumbed as he explores all aspects of science and what you really need to know.

For the more knowledgeable amongst us, you might also play the game of when Bernstein sites a particular thing but doesn’t give an example, you might draw on your own knowledge and give your own example. It’s also the difference between just reading and reading with an intent to remember. As I said at the beginning of the review, no one knows everything in Science Fiction anymore and, even in research, things do get overlooked. For example, Bernstein points out that if time machines existed and possible, then they could only travel as far back as the first existing time machine. What Bernstein doesn’t know is that Wilson Tucker applied this in his time travel stories as far back as 1970 with ‘The Year Of The Quiet Sun’. Likewise, probably the first story to feature multiple versions of one individual crossing over each was 1958 story ‘All You Zombies’ by Robert Heinlein which became a 2014 film ‘Predestination’ showing new times were created every time you travelled into the past and avoided the ‘Grandfather Paradox’, where you shouldn’t accidentally kill one of your own ancestors.

At the end of each chapter, there is a section devoted to examine some of the problems from the text. If you can’t develop story ideas from this then you might as well give up writing.

When he looks at parallel realities, Bernstein is wrong to think that Marvel’s ‘Secret Wars’ belongs to one, assuming he’s referring to the original 1984-85 one and not the 2015 one. I say that only because he also refers to ‘Crisis On Infinite Earths’, which was also from the 1980s. By this century, Marvel has diversified its Marvel Universe quite considerably. He would have been better off selecting their ‘What If-’ title as a better example of alternative realities. Equally, I’m sure in his passing shot that no one cares in Science Fiction about alternative realities will get a large volley of ‘No’s’. SF fans are kinda passionate about such things.

When it comes to cyborgs, I was surprised that Bernstein didn’t explain it was the abbreviation for ‘cybernetic-organism’ there or in the glossary at the back of the book. Oddly, although he notes Cyborg from DC Comics, he doesn’t match his real name listed in ‘Celebrity Fictional Cyborgs’. Granted, with the new JLA film coming out, everyone is likely to then make the connection, but it does seem odd and I’m sure people will think they are two different characters. I’m less sure if Doc Octopus should be included because his arms template could be divorced from his body. A better choice might have been Anaconda or even Forge. As to being able to transfer consciousness to other bodies, we’re back to my old friend, AE Van Vogt’s ‘Null-A’ (1948 and 1956) books and even Robert Sheckley’s ‘Mindswap’ (1966), both of which are far earlier examples. Very little is new in SF.

The examination of terraforming Mars and Venus produces its own problems. Although Bernstein points out the unlikelihood that Venus can be done with what we know now, his suggestions of meteor bombardment could still apply and we’re back to Van Vogt again. Keeping a high density cloud layer, if the rest of the planet could be tamed, would keep out most of the dangers exhibited by our sun, providing it wasn’t a toxic gas.

With robots, although it’s interesting that Bernstein points out that a mechanical arm of one killed a human in real life in 1979, it’s still not an effective AI controlling it. I mean, the machine wouldn’t have known better or suffer remorse, so it’s simply a machine following its instruction template. As to the Laws Of Robotics, even with revised versions as noted here, I suspect Asimov would still also refer to one of his own articles where he pointed out just how difficult it is to write such instructions without getting paradoxes.

Interestingly, we both appear to agree on how steel was created by the accidental addition of wood/carbon to molten iron that hardened it considerably.

However, when it comes to Marvel’s super-elements, although Bernstein mentions vibranium and puzzles over Thor’s hammer, which he neglects to mention is made of uru although whether that is its name or material is never really explored. He does totally miss out on adamantium which is the material that a certain clawed mutant’s skeleton is composed of. Equally, Captain American’s shield is a composite of adamantium and vibranium. Purely from my own hypothesis that I wrote about years about, the instability of the current run of radioactive elements could reach a later stability period but we’ve yet to reach it yet doesn’t mean it can’t be out there or be equally rare from nature.

Under invisibility, Bernstein describes a time lens that could slow or speed light up but doesn’t know about SF author Bob Shaw’s ‘slow glass’ stories (circa 1966). The same also applies a bit further in with reference to the Star Trek: Next Generation holodeck where he totally forgets Professor Moriarty and his desire to get out of his holographic status but given a holographic universe to explore instead. Bernstein frequently describes something but it tends to look like he half-remembers but can’t place something considering the accuracy of his descriptions. Good thing there are people like me about.

Please do not be put off by any of the comments above. A lot of the criticisms are based on his lack of knowledge or could have better examples in the Science Fiction department than his knowledge of science which is put over in an informed and understandable manner. Bernstein provides a bibliography of his books and films and there’s a certain lack of spread in his knowledge in that department. As I commented at the beginning, there are few people with extensive knowledge of Science Fiction these days and mine certainly covers the 50s-80s more than he does.

If you want a well-rounded knowledge of science this book would be handy to have on your bookshelf. About the only thing he doesn’t really go into is string theory or the viability of teleportation and psionics although I suspect those remain in the realm of Science Fiction than possibility.

GF Willmetts

November 2017

(pub: Prometheus Books. 336 page illustrated indexed hardback. Price: $24.00 (US), $25.50 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-63388-369-7)

check out website: www.prometheusbooks.com

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Category: Books, Science, Scifi

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About the Author ()

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 15 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’
If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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