Only rarely in my life as a reviewer do I get books that seem to be absolutely perfectly suited for me. This is certainly the case with Charles L. Adler’s Wizards, Aliens, and Starships: Physics and Math in Fantasy and Science Fiction, a book that combines my love for science and my love for science fiction.
The premise is an ingenious one, one that’s probably not anywhere near exploited enough in the popular science literature: use science fiction and fantasy stories as a way of elucidating science. Sure, it’s been done to death in all those “The Science of X” books where X is some movie or TV franchise, but much more rarely though non-series science fiction and fantasy, and in particular using the literary forms of those genres as opposed to the visual.
So when my contact at Princeton University Press (Hi Jessica!) offered me this book, I jumped at the chance.
The real challenge of combining science and science fiction is to do it well. And overall, with a few caveats, I have to say that Adler does a very good job of using sf & f stories to explain scientific concepts to the lay audience. The two caveats revolve around what stories he uses and the detail in which he explores the science. But those are relatively minor and we’ll come back to them in a moment.
But first, the many strengths of this book. In general, I really appreciate how Adler mixes up sf and fantasy and uses specific stories as a jumping off point for detailed explanations of physical phenomena. He does it in a way that would surely be very helpful for physics instructors looking for examples for their classrooms. The way he often integrates “back of the envelope” style calculations brings a lot of vitality to the examples. There are great explanations of conservation of mass works, as well as good stuff explaining equations, orders of magnitude, time dilation and many other aspects of physics.
The focus, of course, is on what we can learn of real physics from the realish physics in fiction. So there are chapters looking at aspects of space travel such as space vacations, colonies, space elevators, the practicality of interstellar travel, advance propulsion systems. The potential existence of extraterrestrials is also explored as is world-building and communication with aliens. Some of the most interesting chapters are at the end where Adler talks about the prospects for the survival of human civilization.
Overall, very good stuff. Interesting and engaging.
But the flaws. There are really two flaws here. The first is diversity of science fictional sources. The vast majority of science fiction texts that Adler chose were a bit on the old side. The book really would have benefited from more examples from the last 20ish years. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy was one series I thought was missing. In general, non-old-white-males authors were sorely lacking. Both those problems could easily have been solved with a little more attention to the science fiction scene of the last few decades. There are numerous best-of-year and thematic anthologies by the likes of David G. Hartwell and others that would have served well.
The other flaw is Adler’s tendency to dive into perhaps overly detailed and overly technical physics a little too quickly in some areas. The book is a best fit for someone who already has a decent amount of math and physics but with a little more care the potential audience could have been greatly expanded.
As I say, I did quite like this book and would recommend it for any academic library that collects popular science or science fiction. Large public libraries would also find this book to be useful as would many high school libraries. It would also make a great gift to any young person (or not so young!) who loves science fiction and has a bit of scientific background.
Adler, Charles L. Wizards, Aliens, and Starships: Physics and Math in Fantasy and Science Fiction. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014. 377pp. ISBN-13: 978-0691147154
(Review copy provided by publisher.)