Non-Fiction Reviews

Blockbuster Science
The Real Science in Science Fiction

(2017) , Prometheus Books, £18.99 / Can$25.50 / US$24.00, hrdbk, 336pp, ISBN 978-1-633-88369-7


The first book of this kind which I read, out of the school library, was Science and Fiction by Patrick Moore (Faber, 1957). It featured mostly the early practioners, starting with Lucian of Samos, and when it got to modern times it looked only for authenticity, coming close to saying that only Arthur C. Clarke was worth reading. For the aspiring science student which I was then, it told me what I wanted to hear, though contact with the Scottish Branch of the British Interplanetary Society later broadened my horizons, making me realise there was more to SF than just technical accuracy. Still, I’ve always hoped for a newer book which would look at modern SF from a similar perspective – a science-based counterpart, if you will, to the more philosophical and literary issues explored by Brian Aldiss in Billion Year Spree. The few books which have attempted it have been really disappointing, though more focussed ones like Laurence M. Krauss’s The Physics of Star Trek have achieved it within their subject areas.

Here in Blockbuster Science: The Real Science in Science Fiction David Siegel Bernstein agrees with Aldiss that SF began with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, so skips proto-SF Lucian, Bishop Godwin, Cyrano de Bergerac et al. Yet H.G. Wells gets hardly a mention, Jules Verne fares little better. On his first page Bernstein says, “This book exists to help you to understand a few of the more popular topics in science as well as how they are used (and sometimes misused) in science fiction, This book is not only for science fiction fans who want to know more of the science behind the plot...” The italics are mine; I would go further and say that he is not writing primarily for science fiction fans. What it is, he continues, is “is for the curious – anyone who wants to know more about the natural world and the universe of which they are a part. It’s for the science geek in everyone.” And, given that many people nowadays would become curious about science through films and TV, the title may draw them in and the text may lead them to authors and books which have handled the topics, in fiction as well as encouraging them to pursue the science further.

On that level, the book succeeds pretty well. Bernstein has set himself a very big task: he mentions 30 upcoming topics in the Introduction “plus many more”, and he does discuss many more. To object to how he does it would be like the scientists who objected to the popularising gimmicks of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. The style is chatty, to the point where Bernstein’s suggestion that the book can be read piecemeal, looking up specific topics, is quite a good one. Otherwise, the constant wisecracks could become wearing, like Sean Connery’s in From Russia with Love. The style reminded me of those ‘science in 5 minutes’ animated YouTube features which US websites keep offering, to the extent that I found a jaunty little tune running in my head as I read on. There are times where it becomes wearing or falls completely flat - “In 1974, Stephen Hawking discovered that black holes evaporate through Hawking radiation. He discovered something with his name. What are the odds of that?”

But there are other moments which are spot on. He makes a distinction between evolutionary theory and evolution as observable fact, which I have not seen so succinctly, put even by Richard Dawkins, and suddenly I thought I saw Bernstein’s legal background show through.

He is also a man of firm opinions. On UFOs, for instance, he is extremely brief: “Don’t let the -ology fool you. Ufology is pseudoscience, a belief mistakenly taken as science. Nothing about it is based on the scientific method.” He spells out Hynek’s categories of 'Close Encounters', to explain the film title, and moves on without further discussion. On Armageddon: “That idea is so zany it isn’t worth addressing in a book interested in science”. And on Star Trek, “I have yet to hear of a mechanism backed by science on that show”. That one is a little unfair, since Gene Roddenberry took a conscious decision not to include such explanations (cf. The Making of Star Trek, 1968). Althoough it did let him get away with an awful lot which could have been corrected.

I did have some misgivings. Having rightly emphasised the distinction between mass and weight, why not also explain density and so avoid confusing sentences like “The Sun will also become lighter” when it expands? (Mass loss comes later, as Bernstein correctly states a page further on.) Explaining gravity differentials simply as “changes in gravity” is not helpful. And the section on rocket science is inaccurate, ironically enough. It’s not true that all high-energy propellants need cryogenic storage, nor that all nuclear propulsion is banned by United Nations treaties – that applies only to Orion-style nuclear pulse, which is confused with thermal nuclear propulsion at least twice, while other options aren’t mentioned. It did make me worry that experts in other fields might be equally unhappy with the sections on their specialities, but I think I would have spotted more errors if they were common.

OK, so this is not a book for professional scientists, or even for amateur ones like myself. Also dedicated SF readers will be disappointed that there’s so little discussion of how the topics have been handled in SF – Bernstein tends to outline the science and then simply mention books and films which relate to it, sometimes giving a list but more often just citing one or two. For someone who wants to write SF and doesn’t have the scientific background, the book would not be very useful in itself, but what it does do is to tell you where to go for the real insight, both in the chapter references and in the Reading List which follows them. (And the references really are references and not additional material which could have been added to the text with more effort.)

Really, as its title implies, this is a book for enthusiastic filmgoers, with no scientific background, who want to know what the blockbusters' science elements when they get home.  And in that it succeeds very well.

Duncan Lunan

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