Non-Fiction Reviews

Different Engines

How Science Drives Fiction and Fiction Drives Science

(2007) Mark Brake & Neil Hook, Macmillan, hrdbk, 16.99 / US$24.95, 265 pp, ISBN 978-0-230-0-1980-5.


I have yet to come across a really all-encompassing book on the relationship between science and SF. So it was with great interest that Brake and Hooke's offering came my way, especially given the promise of its sub-title.

As it transpired it turned out to be a very readable and engaging introduction to the history of SF as it parallels that of the development of science and technology. This is covered by the authors in seven chapters. The first of these deals with the origins of SF. Here astronomer Johannes Kepler's Somnium [The Dream] (1634) is credited as being the first SF book and the astronomer Nicholas Copernicus for creating SF. (Others may disagree and, for example, Brian Aldiss has cited Frankenstein (1818) as the first SF novel -- there is merit to a number of views.) The authors also note that there is earlier proto-SF (though they do not use the term). Chapter 2 takes us through the industrial revolution, Darwin, Wells and Verne. Chapter 3 looks at the early 20th century, cosmology, Einstein's relativity, and SF pulps. Chapter 4 is an examination of the mid-20th century, its Cold War, distopias, 1984, and the book and film On The Beach: this last is credited as having 'saved the world'. (Perhaps there is a little hype occasionally.) The race to the Moon is covered in chapter 6 along with some environmentally related, as well as feminist, SF. Chapter 6 deals with the information sciences and the rise of cyberpunk. Finally, in chapter 7, biology and SF are explored.

Different Engines is a fascinating review that scientists into SF will hugely enjoy and as such I do thoroughly recommend it. However I am still waiting for that really all-encompassing book on the relationship between science and SF. The problem with Different Engines is that it stops a long way short of actually delivering of its self-proclaimed goal of describing 'how science drives fiction and fiction drives science'. Science itself is not defined (though bravely they do define 'SF') and from this startling omission it becomes difficult to examine the relationship between it and SF: indeed 'science' in the book is continually exchanged in meaning with 'technology'. Nor is there any examination of whether scientists read SF, or whether SF has inspired scientists: there have been surveys that cover this and I have in the past even reported one very pertinent one here within Concatenation. Needlessly it goes without saying that without this underpinning, more thorny questions -- such as why SF loosely appears to predict scientific and technological developments, or SF and the C. P. Snow two cultures debate -- are not explored (the former is briefly mentioned). This is a huge shame especially given that the authors are two academics who are involved with undergraduate teaching of the interplay between SF and science: I really had expected some delivery on the sub-title's promise. Nonetheless much interesting ground is covered and I do largely agree with the authors' end-of-book conclusions even if they do not actually provide the hard data for this; I do so wish those studying the arts would present more evidence-based arguments (but then being a scientist I would say that). The text is properly referenced and along the way many fascinating facts do emerge: for example the origins of the phrase 'to go where no one has gone before'. So, while you wait for that all-encompassing book on the relationship between science and SF, Different Engines will very usefully serve to whet your appetite and keep the wolf from the door.

Jonathan Cowie

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