Fiction Reviews


(1998) Gregory Benford, Orbit, £10.00, hrdbk, 372pp, ISBN 1 85723 627 0

Of all the things one expects to get from slapping heavy nuclei together in a high-energy accelerator one would not expect a football-sized particle, yet that is exactly the result Prof Alica Butterworth got when she started hurling uranium nuclei together at close to light speeds: well, that and a wrecked collider. Amid the wreckage her colleagues do not realise what the ‘football’ may be, so she was able to discretely remove it to her own university lab. There she finds that the object may hold the secret to the Universe's creation. However physicists from the collider are hot on her trail. Who will unravel the mystery first?

Written in as much in a thriller style as it is science fiction, Cosm successfully captures what it is like to be a physcist using the exotica of SF ‘sensawunda’ to replicate the real sense of wonder that many of today's science researchers feel at the moment of discovery. Throught the book Alica has to combat the forces of university administration, inter-institute rivalry, peer review, hostile green and religious movements, not to forget the law. All of which make for a fast-paced yarn that counters the intllectual and more tedious process of teasing apart the whys and wherefores of a new natural phenomenon. SF readers who are scientists will find Cosm hugely entertaining, I hope that other SF fans will enjoy it equally.

As it happens Gregory Benford is a physicist in his own right, so one would expect the author to both get the science right and to reveal a little about how US scientists work as compared to those from other countries. There is indeed stacks of science and it is interesting to see his characters use a mix of c.g.s. and SI units (compared to SI that dominates in Europe). While the science is plentyful and largely accurate, given the central imaginative 'what-if' premiss underpinning the story, there are one or two boo boos.

A minor irritation is that there is no explanation of time dilation on the Planck-energy properties of photons 'emitted' by the cosm. Benford may have ducked this deliberately because it would result in all and sundry being irradiated by high energy (higher than gamma/cosmic) rays. There is also an absolute howler in chapter 7 when a black body radiation graph is portrayed with the x axis erroneously labelled as frequency when it should have been wavelength (or the reciprocal of frequency). This error will make copies of Cosm's first edition valuable in years to come, ranking it with first edition copies of Niven's Ringworld where (chapter one) the World rotates the wrong way.

Jonathan Cowie

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