Non-Fiction Review


Life on Other Worlds: The 20th Century Extraterrestrial Life Debate

(1998) Steven J. Dick, Cambridge University Press, 12.95, pbk, pp xiii + 290, ISBN 0 521 79912 0

This title only came out in paperback in 2001 and, as the author is US based, it is only now (2002) slowly percolating beyond academia and, indeed, the US so you may well have missed this fairly nifty review of the last century's review of the extra-terrestrial debate.

Importantly the book's sub-title - The 20th Century Extraterrestrial Life Debate - is as fundamental as the title Life on Other worlds. This book is not a review of the current literature on 'Life on Other Worlds' - so do not be mislead. It is, however, a fairly competent review of how we viewed exobiological questions in the last century, and as such is a worthy addition to the literature. In fact it is such a good a review that it comes complete with the flaws of the 20th century debate! For a start it is written by an astronomer and an historian of science. This last is probably the most useful for, as academia is now beginning to realise, astronomers are not hot in the bioscience department and you really need a multi-disciplinarian with one foot solidly in the biosciences if you are going to discuss 'life'. (The clue is in the term 'bio'.) But hey, that didn't stop the extraterrestrial debate of the 20th century being dominated by astronomers and cosmologists and so it is perfectly fair that this book is written by one. (And by the way, the afore is not some sort of a gripe, simply fact. The molecular biosciences simply were not developed enough to meaningfully contribute to the debate until the last quarter of the 20th century. Similarly until the century's last couple of decades ecology had not merged with geology sufficiently to form the new biosphere, or Earth system, science.)

Fortunately for us, Steven Dick does take a run up to the 20th century and looks at some pre-20th perspectives which provides the book with some added value. The ground covered includes the: philosophical historical perspectives as to the concept of aliens; life in the solar system from Lowell to possible Martian fossils; beyond the solar system; extraterrestrials in the art; UFOs; the origin of life; SETI; and the implications of extraterrestrials existing. Doubly fortunately for Concat regulars this little lot includes SF perspectives which is fair game given how much science fiction has done to popularise the concept of alien life. The review of UFO discussion is sober, indeed for my taste a little sympathetic: after all we all know that some jumped onto the UFO bandwagon simply to get attention and, worse, others to make a buck out of the gullible and Dick skips those key bits.

What Steven Dick has done is to cover a huge amount of ground in just a few hundred pages (less considering the figures and b&w photos). Here is where the book falls down. He has not produced a tight work. He leaves out much. For instance there is no report of the huge body of criticism of Hoyle's panspermia by those outside of astronomy, and the review of aliens within SF is confined to the big Anglophone sellers from War of the Worlds and The Martian Chronicles to Star Wars. Hal Clement is covered in a couple of sentences which refer only to Mission of Gravity (and the astronomical and not biological aspects of that book and there's no mention of his other works that do have more of an exobiological focus). While other works such as the Strugatskys' Roadside Picnic or McDevitt and, say, The Hercules Text just do not get a mention. Part of this is that there is so much ground to cover in a short space, but equally part is the debatable choice of what to address. To be fair this is a little (but not completely) personal. I would not have devoted so much space to Lovell or UFOs. The former's take can be summed up concisely even if he did have a big impact in the early 20th century, while the latter is largely a waste of time that added nothing of any significance whatsoever to the debate (though, I'll give you, may have stimulated it).

So now I come to the big question. Do I recommend this book or not? Well, if by chance you do not have an exobiology text and are interested in the topic then this is as good a book as any to get you going. It is a scholarly text but a breathtaking race of a review of over a hundred years work by hundreds of people, hence inevitably somewhat superficial: but, hey, that should not matter for an introduction provided you realise that that is what it is, 'an introduction'. It is written to first-year university level which should mean that it is accessible to science fiction fans with a solid interest in science. (But not those for whom New Scientist or BBC's Horizon is a bit of a struggle or uninteresting). For those with a fair bit of familiarity with exobiology there is little you are unlikely not to have encountered elsewhere. Nonetheless it is a useful packaging of material (albeit an astronomer's perspective) and you will probably find some new material you have not encountered before. The paperback at the price, which is cheap for an academic text, you do get value. Yes, I give this one the thumbs up.

Jonathan Cowie


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