Wizards, Aliens And Starships by Charles L. Adler (book review).

March 26, 2014 | By | Reply More

Oddly, of all the aspects of my book collection, the section I regard as being most precious is the non-fiction where SF authors discuss their craft or with the likes of Poul Anderson and Hal Clement, explain the maths of world-building. As these books are increasingly rare and I doubt neo-SF writers have come across them because they are often below their radar to spot.


Reading the introduction to ‘Wizards, Aliens And Starships’, physicist Charles Adler was raised on the same books as I was and indeed he cites Anderson’s article ‘How To Build A Planet’ as the inspiration to do an up-to-date version to give you the maths and lowdown of what it takes to cover all the scientific principles you might need to have a your fingertips to make your stories plausible or at least minimalise any fudging required to make a planet design work. If you want to look this up and something Adler didn’t point out because he didn’t know of its existence, you need the book ‘Turning Points’ edited by Damon Knight (pub: Harper & Row, 1977).

I was a little concerned by the ‘Wizards’ aspect, especially as Adler started to discuss the ‘Harry Potter’ books and magic but a lot of that was more concerned with the amount of candlepower their school needed as modern day technology didn’t work there. Adler makes a point that many SF authors who’ve turned to writing fantasy still apply SF cause and effect rules which tends to uphold Clarke’s Law that it’s only magic when we can’t explain it.

Adler only touches briefly on the more esoteric things like teleportation, pointing out the energy requirements alone would make it impossible. Saying that, there are so many different ways for teleportation in Science Fiction that I’m less inclined to think that intanglement would be the way to go. Works great at the quantum level but not for massive objects. As you can spot by now, the fact that I’m prepared to chew over alternatives, that this book is making me think and not to be pinned into only a few choices. Science Fiction is there to explore different ideas after all.

The discussion about the likes of mermaids and dragons and their impracticability makes for some fun. I accept the idea that mermaids are mammals although I do wonder if a sub-species can have a tail instead of legs, why not have gills as well as lungs to supplement breathing underwater? I doubt if evolution would be that half-cocked and, unlike whales and other cetaceans, their size would mean smaller lung capacity and only capable of shallow waters. Oddly, I always thought with dragons that just because they are large, doesn’t mean their body volume doesn’t contain air sacs like birds to reduce their body weight.

Something that will make most of you sit up is the problems of gravity and space stations and Adler cites ‘Babylon 5’ for getting it mostly right. He raises a question about where DC’s square Bizarro world is but unless it’s been moved in the various realities and reboots, I never saw it as belonging to our star.

One thing a lot of non-fiction books on Science Fiction possibilities that is rarely if any given time for is the expense. With this book, especially with space travel, Adler makes it very clear how much everything costs under current monetary values. If anything, it reasserts my assertion that any species should get a meaningful space programme going before inflation kicks it down.

When it comes to space travel, Adler is really in his element and you get a full rundown on chemical rockets to the more exotic anti-matter possibilities. None of them get around the problem of how to beat the time it takes to travel to and fro to even the nearest star systems, let alone other planets hereabouts. With all the formulas given, if you know the numbers, you should be able to work out most things you’ll need under our current understanding. This doesn’t necessarily mean this will turn your stories into physics lectures but the underlying knowledge should at least ensure you don’t make silly mistakes in working out time and distance. This book would have spared me a few hours research in a story I wrote last year.

Probably the nearest thing Adler comes to discussing ESP is looking at telepathic communication of the twins in Heinlein’s ‘Time For The Stars’ and how each twin has to slow down or speed up their communications to be heard. Considering the medium seems to fall outside of general relativity terms, I tend to think that telepathy would still be somewhat instantaneous and they wouldn’t be able to tell any difference in relative velocities because each would be in their own time bubble.

The discussion on time travel ignores alternative realities being created and the universe preventing it happen in the first place. There are subjects like this that when seeing the possibilities laid out, I couldn’t help thinking I can find a way around this and I suspect in the months to come, I’ll be leafing through to work something out. Knowing what is possible will always open up possibilities even within such confines. A lot of SF writers these days avoid killing the grandfather since it’s been written about so many times.

I hope you all will pay attention to what Adler points out about global warming. Although I doubt it will generate any stories, the point that all ecologist scientists don’t see it as a theory but something that is happening needs to be read.

Reading how long it would take to terraform Mars into an Earth-like environment is both long and expensive. If anything happened to the Earth, it doesn’t look like a good option for short-term planning. Personally, I would think a large asteroid or moon and digging in would make more sense. As I said, this book is making me think.

This book wouldn’t be anything without discussing big dumb objects and the problems of creating Dyson spheres or even a ringworld shows their own problems. I think a lesson from this is that it’s about time that SF authors need to come up with other forms of artificially created habitats. Adler praises Larry Niven for the details in ‘Ringworld’ but I’m sure he amended a lot of detail in its successive books after being corrected by some physicists who checked his figures. I should point out that Adler isn’t really pointing out new solutions but more to do with applying science and formulas that have to be taken into account with things created so far. Probably the most significant thing is that starships don’t really need weaponry because all they need to do is to aim their powerful engine exhausts to fulfil the most damage. Makes note not to look at the size of alien starships weaponry but the size of their engine exhausts.

If there is a flaw with this book then it is Adler is basing all of this book on current science and technology. Even when he moves up to the possibility of anti-matter, it is still limited by what we know today and not a possible breakthrough. He doesn’t touch on string theory although I suspect, like me, he sees it still as theory than practical. Although scientific laws aren’t likely to change, even if you go back a decade, graphene wasn’t even thought of and now is being seen as the material capable of revolutionising computer technology amongst other uses. The stumbling block with space travel is expense and fuel, yet a scientific revolution could even change that so I tend to see some things as obstacles to overcome than to lose hope.

As you can tell by the length of this review, this book offers a lot, not only to SF authors but to any of you who want to see the real science in operation because this supplies most of the answers you need. Make sure your copy gets a serious read and well-thumbed.

GF Willmetts

March 2014

(pub: Princeton University Press/Wiley. 378 page indexed hardback. Price: £29.95 (US), £19.95 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-40514-907-5)

check out website: http://www.wiley.com/wiley-Blackwell  and https://press.princeton.edu/

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Category: Books, Scifi

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About UncleGeoff

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’
If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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