Thursday, March 20, 2008

Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku (Doubleday, 2008)

For the longest time, in the Pop Science publishing field, there were two camps: the scientists who attempted to enlighten the lay reader on scientifically verifiable concepts, such as Relativity and geology; and those books considered 'wacky', written about fringe subjects such as time travel and telepathy. These latter books were often shelved in 'New Age' sections in bookstores.

But as the new century has dawned, it's turned out that many of these 'wacko' theories, often heavily ridiculed in the scientific community, are now gaining a measure of respectability as new research in fields such as quantum physics (with the advent of super string theory), neurobiology (the emerging ideas of neuroplasticity), molecular chemistry (the manipulation of atoms on silicon wafers), among others, appear to open up new avenues of conjecture about the nature of existence, and the new possibilities of invention.

Michio Kaku boldly steps into the realm between the two camps with Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel. The book is an attempt to address the disparity between science and science fiction (into which the fringe theories were often dumped). It's not a defense nor an attack, of these ideas; it simply proposes to explore in an open and curious manner, the 'possibilities' of these theories and technologies existing.

Kaku sets up a classification structure for the 'impossible':

Class I impossibilities
are technologies that are impossible today, but do not violate the known laws of physics.

Class II impossibilities are on the very edge of our understanding of the physical world, and they are technologies that might be realized on a time scale of thousands or millions of years.

Class III impossibilities are technologies that violate all known laws of physics. If they were to exist, they would essentially signify a giant shift in our understanding of physics.

With such a classification structure, Kaku then proceeds to explore ideas from pure science fiction, such as phasers, teleportation, starships, antimatter, and robots; and parapsychology and the paranormal such as telepathy, precognition, and psychokinesis.

Kaku's tone is playful and all-accepting, and as always, his distillation of bizarre concepts for the average reader (as in his delightful Hyperspace)is superb. And for that tried and true fan of science books, someone who keeps up with all the science magazines, there will still be a surprise or two.

My only regret is that Kaku's examples for these 'impossibilities' mostly come from film and TV, which in a sense is understandable from the mass audience goal of this book, but I feel that if he'd taken a little more time to investigate some of the more ground-breaking sf literature out there, he could have opened up avenues of further exploration for the casual reader who wanted to better conceptualize these ideas in action, as in the new wave of Space Opera of Neal Asher, Peter Hamilton, etc. and the heady idea-laden works of Stephen Baxter and Greg Egan, to name but just a few examples.

Nevertheless, barring such a minor criticism, Physics of the Impossible is an excellent attempt to entertain and enthrall through the combination of pop culture SF and nuts-and-bolts science.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Eclipses, vomiting children, & crowded trains...

The end of a heavy week of work, design, and general trip-planning mayhem culminated in one of the longest days on record for me filled with strange occurrences.

Leaving work yesterday, I managed to catch the cool lunar eclipse altering our skies. It was in the rusty-hazy phase, very ephemeral, and it was still happening when I got off the bus in the neighborhood I live in. I was surprised to see many groups and couples taking note of (and in some cases sitting and watching) the eclipse; like fireworks. It was nice to see people paying attention beyond the drudgery of our lives. Technically and poetically we were looking at our shadows (or the cumulative effect of our shadows), and I waxed philosophically to myself while I prepared for my trip to New York City to visit my girlfriend.
You can read a great piece on the eclipse here.

While waiting for the bus to get me to the airport, I happened to stand next to a couple with a child, who I realized had just thrown up on her stroller. The air was thick with the smell, but what disturbed me was the realization that the parents were high--inebriated, whatever-- and how the child was trying to convey its discomfort, and the parents belated responses, when they weren't bickering with each other. They half-heartedly scraped off the stroller, didn't let her sit in it (that god!) and then got on the same bus I did. I just kept on thinking about the kid growing up with parents who are locked into these vicious little worlds, and what they would teach the child about the world at large, and whether the kid would get to know someone outside of the family dynamic (school, friend, stranger) that would show them there's more to life than this...Anyhow, sweet natured child won over bus riders, even with the suspicious odor floating around.

A pretty benign plane trip later and I found myself on the long trip from JFK airport to Washington Heights on the A train. And this is where finally this post related to BOOKS!

As the carriage crowded up, I stole glimpses of the books people were reading; it's like an addiction for a bookseller, just a bit of the cover or spine, or if one is close enough, the page header... If we don't figure out what the book is, it drives us crazy.
I guess you could say I was Bookspotting on the train.

Seen: a romance (Nora Roberts);

a book about autism (which seems to have taken over from bad drug addiction stories as the subject du jour amongst nonfiction readers);

"In the Blink of an Eye", a book about film;

"The New Kings of Nonfiction"-- why "New Kings"? Who were the old ones? And why, since there is a female or two in the line-up, pay tribute to a time when most of the paid writers were white and male? If they were going for something hipper than 'New Masters' or 'Best of', why not go for the throat: "The Shit-Kickers of Non Fiction", or, getting in line with the merger of Biz-speak and pop culture: "Future-proof Imagineers of Sense Reporting" (thanks to Office Life for the assist), or how about "Bad-ass Motherfucking Truth Tellers"--that I would read;

and the kicker-- an older gent bundled his way onto the seat next to me (with my bags I left little room for comfort), and lo and behold! Out of all the people on the train that could sit next to me, the conspiracy nut whips out a computer print-out entitled "The Illuminati and the House of Rothchild"... Sad thing is I knew most of this guy's attitudes (and the content of the article) from my occasional forays into fringe culture.

And the best part of all this Bookspotting: nary an Oprah book to be seen!

Friday, January 18, 2008

On Crap

This is an excerpt from an email I sent to a friend, sometime last year. Why am I now digging it up out of its clammy grave? One reason is the surprising (to me) commercial success of the book in question, 'The Name of the Wind" (not to be confused with 'The Shadow of the Wind", which did not suck). The other reason is trickier and harder to pin down. On the one hand, I'm glad and personally grateful for the immense support the science fiction community gives its members. It was that community that gave me hope during my formative years. But if such support is unquestioning, and involves no constructive criticism, the genre which we love and believe in so much will never evolve. We know sci fi and fantasy can be innovative and brilliant and well-crafted; we know we don't have to settle for crap. And while I realize that the following rant, gentle reader, is not actually constructive, I just couldn't help myself.

Why don't people respect fantasy as a genre? This is a question often pondered by fantasy's many bright, articulate fans. The answer lies in such bloated doorstoppers as 'The Name of the Wind', due out from DAW next week. I ended up with an advance copy of this book some months ago. The cover blurb assured me that it was a brilliant first novel, sweeping, original, and blah blah blah. The usual. And it's true, I have (sadly) been unable to quite forget the opening description of the title character - a brooding, worn, but somehow still magnetic man of secrets, who moves, we're told, with the movement of a man who knows a great many things. And there are three kinds of silence. And a pall of shadow hangs over this valley.

I have to confess; I didn't read the whole thing. Mostly I just carted it around, reading choice passages of deathless prose out loud to my roommates. The story is told in flashbacks, taking us all the way back to the Mystery Man's early childhood. Luckily, for the purposes of the plot, our hero is a natural genius with a photographic memory, making it possible for him to know everything about everything, which is very handy for his Struggles with Adversity. Orphaned at a tender age, he makes his way across a typical faux-medieval fantasy landscape, populated by Ye Olde Stock Characters: the tribe of Fantasy Gypsies, plucky bands of thieving children (so popular last year), the wise old wizard (or alchemist, or whatever) mentor/ surrogate father, Dark Riders, etc etc etc. It's a lumbering Frankenstein monster of a book, its limbs cannibalized from books that don't suck. You'll see a bit of Perdido Street Station here, a bit of Lord of the Rings there, a bit of the Farseers trilogy over there.

Even more magical than our hero's staggering genius is the fact that his lonesome, brooding road is strewn with winsome maidens, all of whom find him irresistible. There's the troubled free spirit he meets on the road, the brainy but attractive librarian, the comely student nurse, and even, in a broadminded gesture on Rothfuss' part, an older (but still sort of hot) businesswoman. All of them want to jump our hero's bones, because, as Rothfuss knows, nothing is more appealing to your average female than a teenage boy. Especially one who knows everything in the world. Oh, yeah, and he's on a Quest for Vengeance. Or something.

At 800-odd pages, the book manages to take us, in painful detail, though a whole year of this kid's life. Since he's middle-aged when we first meet him, it's safe to assume that there's a lot of story planned out between now and then. Or at least a lot of pages. A lot of lucrative pages, since this sort of crap seems to sell like mad. For Rothfuss' sake, I hope he is actually being paid by the page, and that he gets to enjoy every penny. Maybe he can take some time off, think a little, and his next book will be a masterpiece. A girl can dream.