Non-Fiction Review

Evolving the alien

(2002) Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart, Ebury Press, 17.99, hdbk, xiii + 369 pp, ISBN 0-09-187927-2


Interest declared line one: I was one of the authors' draft MS readers and Jack has contributed to Concatenation as well as appeared with me on a few convention panels together back in the 1990s. But having said that I assure you of my over-riding goal to give you as an objective comment as I gave the authors. Not withstanding because , as an environmental scientist with an interest in astronomy and biospheres, I have my own ideas regarding extra terrestrial life

So, is there life elsewhere than on planet Earth? Undoubtedly few SF fans would dogmatically adhere to the notion that Earth was unique as a life-bearing world. Indeed this has been paralleled by the rise in exobiology which itself has been fuelled by the recent detection of extra solar planets as well as the discovery of water on Mars. Consequently it is about time we started seriously getting our heads around exobiological issues, especially as there are proposed missions to detect life on Europa as well as the spectral signal from extrasolar biospheres, not to mention Britain's own Beagle 2 Martian lander. Given this, Evolving the Alien is timely.

It is a fascinating look not so much at the science needed to underpin exobiology but more at the sort of thinking one needs to adopt in trying to relate our terrestrial biology to those of other worlds. Interestingly, because heavy speculation is not foremost within the scientific literature (for it can too easily be misperceived as wild speculation) the authors do not have much raw material from academia to draw on. Yet while science fact may not answer such questions as what an alien might look like, science fiction as a literary genre has certainly had many stabs at it. What the authors have done is to examine some of the science and then take some science fiction concept or approach from a specific novel and say, well this is how this SF author thought about this matter, here is how it relates to the real science. This is an unusual, yet fascinating approach. For those unfamiliar with what the genre has to offer beyond Star Trek's somewhat unsophisticated fare, Evolving the Alien almost provides a neat introduction to SF through a series of novel synopses within text boxes near the appropriate scientific points being explored. The problem is that the authors have mis-remembered, hence mis-attributed some of these. Disappointing yes, but not a disaster as the message remains the same. Now make no mistake Evolving the Alien is not itself science fiction, it merely uses SF as an illustrative tool: this is something that the Natural History and Science Museums in Kensington have known about for a while, but strangely few in the 'science and society' community have embraced.

For SF fans, the references to specific SF books will be welcome. Unfortunately the authors did not check all these out and the odd error has crept in. (It's foolish to rely solely on the memory of a lifetime of reading the genre.) But this last after all gives the rest of us the chance to be a little smug and serves to remind us to think for ourselves and not to trust the printed word. A valuable lesson in itself.

So, do the authors deliver? What does a technology wielding, extraterrestrial look like? The answer to the latter is not like Speilberg's ET, of that the authors are emphatic (as am I). The answer to the former, is that the authors do, and do not, deliver. They do not define how an extraterrestrial will look, rather they explain the sort of thought processes you need for you to determine yourself what 'ET' might really look like. This is no cheat. It is more like teaching a person to fish rather than showing them a pile of fish. Having said that, there is much the authors throw up with which to both agree and (more fun) disagree. (Science is about falsification: challenging hypothesis with alternates and observation/experimentation.) The journey they take us on is fascinating although some of their logic is, shall we say, open to interpretation. But this too is acceptable and the authors cannot complain; for if one is trying to teach people to think for themselves then one can't be surprised if people actually do. While Evolving the Alien is not my most treasured exobiology text on the bookshelf, it is certainly a most welcome addition to it. And if you have ever wondered - and SF enthusiasts surely have a developed sense of wonder ('sensawunda') - then I commend this book to you.

Jonathan Cowie

A version of this review appeared in the September 2002 edition of Biologist.

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