Book Review: The Hidden Reality

Physicist Brian Greene’s latest popular science publication, The Hidden Reality, is a departure from his previous works in that domain. Subtitled Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos, it sure sounds like something the deep-thinking writer of The Elegant Universe and Fabric of the Cosmos would write. But while his first two books serve as excellent primers on modern physics and modern cosmology, respectively, Greene isn’t interested in rehashing all that here.

Don’t get me wrong. For anyone looking to get a firm conceptual grasp on the deep physical laws which (apparently) govern the reality we live in, those titles are exactly where I’ll steer you. But there’s an untapped audience more interested in some of the implications of today’s cutting-edge physics than the details of the theories themselves.

To wit: parallel universes. The concept has spawned sub-genres in both science fiction and fantasy (alternate history and urban fantasy being perhaps the most prominent examples). More broadly speaking, most genre fiction imagines worlds perhaps highly disparate or only slightly tweaked from the one we know so intimately.

What makes The Hidden Reality a little more accessible than its written antecedents is its survey nature. Each chapter discusses a different theoretical multiverse, each implied by a different physical theory.

Our own three-dimensions of space and one of time might in fact be something akin to spots growing on the soap bubbles of a higher-dimensional brane, as described in string theory. We might exist in a virtual world, simulated on one of many computers in the “real” universe. We might find countless, infinitesimally-different versions of ourselves living in different quantum realities, endlessly splitting.

Greene wisely introduces the requisite scientific background only as needed, rather than spending the first third or half of the book slowly building up the edifices of quantum physics, general relativity, and inflationary cosmology.

It’s intriguing to imagine that one or several of these versions of a multiverse may actually exist, in some cases may be discoverable, and, depending on how they come about, may describe very different arrays of parallel realities. The idea of another version of you that is allergic to shrimp is interesting enough, but the concept of different universes with different fundamental constants, different origins and destinies, is fascinating in a different way.

I probably wouldn’t recommend this title to the decidedly casual reader. This is still Brian Greene, technically accurate, cogently argued, but intellectually demanding. But anyone with at least a passing interest in the real science behind other worlds should find The Hidden Reality illuminating.

(Vintage, 2011)

Reprinted with permission from The Sleeping Hedgehog
Copyright (2012) The Sleeping Hedgehog

Book Review: Triggers

A couple of years ago, one of Robert J. Sawyer’s novels was turned into a prime-time television series, in the vein of 24. For fans of the science fiction writer who missed it, this may come as a surprise. Sawyer novels are interesting, perhaps even epic, but what they are not is action-packed. And indeed, the change of genre was a conscious one in the hopes of attracting a mainstream television audience.

But it got the writer thinking. Maybe he could write a thriller novel, something that might appeal to the sort of audience his series had brought to his fiction. He came up with an idea: what if an experiment gone awry suddenly caused a random group of strangers to become psychically-linked to each other, able to access memories not their own? And what if one of those people was the president of the United States, on the eve of a major military operation, resulting in an unprecedented breach of national security?

It sounds sufficiently thrilling to be worth a shot, and Sawyer must have thought so, too, since it was only a short time later that Triggers was born.

Dan Brown wrote a couple of techno-thrillers, which were heavy on the thriller and frequently inaccurate on the technical details. Still, they were readable, if not thought-provoking. Sawyer, coming at the problem from the other side, must have had a different sort of struggle. Trying to keep the frenetic pacing required while exploring the kind of philosophical quandaries that keep SF readers and writers so addicted to the genre must have been quite a balancing act.

If I were to treat this as a straight thriller, there were probably some spots after the first third or so of the novel where I might have said “we don’t need this scene”, “that’s slowing us down too much”, “we need another disaster right about here to ramp up the immediate tension again”.

But it’s not a straight thriller, and we do need those scenes, and the novel does maintain its tension, just not of the same kind as in a pure thriller. Sometimes it’s an emotional tension, and sometimes it’s the anticipation of nascent intellectual discovery. Sawyer develops his characters more, allows them (and the reader along with them) to sit and think about things a lot more, and fills in a lot more (fascinating) technical background on the scientific underpinnings than a thriller writer would.

This should come as no surprise. After all, a number of Sawyer novels one might point to involve little more than smart people sitting around and talking, and you can’t expect him to forgo this sort of material entirely. Calculating God, for example, is a book-length conversation between a dying paleontologist and a visiting extraterrestrial. There is some action in there, but not the violent sort one finds in the genre of espionage and assassins.

The ending of Triggers, too, is of a very classic SF sort. It’s one previously employed by a couple of past SFWA Grandmasters, whom I will decline to name, rather than give anything away. And it’s also very in line with themes of consciousness explored by Sawyer over much of his career. I’m reminded of one of his early hits, The Terminal Experiment, along with his recent WWW trilogy.

But just because I’ve been sitting here explicating where Triggers differs from your standard thriller, don’t get the impression that I’m arguing against that label. I just think SF fans should know this Hugo, Nebula, and Campbell award-winner hasn’t gone over to the dark side. There’s still plenty of food for thought here, nestled between gun-fights and explosions.

(Ace, 2012)

Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright (2012) The Green Man Review

Book Review: The Chronoliths

Robert Charles Wilson is fast becoming the guy I pull out when I want to stealth-gift SF to my non-genre friends. It used to be Margaret Atwood or Michael Chabon, but it’s nice to be able to point to someone firmly in the genre as an example of some of the finest writing being done today, period.

Read the rest of my review at AESciFi.

Keeping Up With Reviews

I’m down to my last three review titles on hand. I expect to finish off two of them (a pop physics book from Brian Greene and a text from an academic press for Library Journal) this week. Then I’ll get started on the last by the weekend, and hopefully put a big dent in it before a new batch of review copies from a favourite small press of mine will be introducing me to a new author.

I’ve made notes of a few books from another publishing house I plan to request, but I’m not even going to ask for them until I get caught up with my other stuff.

You might well ask, with so many review books, when do I get a chance to read for pleasure? Well, the answer to that is two-fold:

First, by and large, I do get pleasure from reading these review books, or I wouldn’t have requested them in the first place. Some were assigned to me, rather than requested, but I have broad interests, so I usually enjoy them, as well.

Second, I do find time to slot in books I’ve bought and paid for (though I make fewer purchases these days than I used to and have mostly been working my way through a two-year old pile). Sometimes I’ll have a pile of six books to review, and after reading half of them, I’ll grab something from my non-review pile that will be a fast read, a sci-fi paperback, for example, and take a couple of days with that before jumping into more review copy.

It all depends on my deadlines, of course. But deadline-wise, I’m doing okay. I haven’t been late on any assigned reviews this year. Not that that’s a frequent occurrence even at the worst of times.

Book Review: Physics of the Future

Michio Kaku is a physicist and science popularizer, taking a page each from the books of Neil DeGrasse Tyson and fellow string theorist, Brian Greene. He’s written several popular science books on the wacky and wonderful words of relativity, quantum mechanics, and string theory. His last book, however, Physics of the Impossible, was a departure from branes and n-dimensional space. He used fictional technologies like teleportation, time travel, and Star Trek’s phasers as jumping off points for the known physics of today.

That book turned into a Science Channel program of the same name, and the approach was successful enough that he’s done something similar this time around. In Physics of the Future, however, there is a clear, unifying theme. Though he still offers somewhat of a grab bag of physics, drawing on all different areas based on what’s interesting right now, it’s all geared towards answering one question: what are the next hundred years going to look like?

Kaku looks at basically every technology or technological field that is a) integral to our lives, and b) likely to undergo serious changes in the next few generations. There’s a chapter on the future of computing, a separate one on artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, medicine, energy, and space travel. Each chapter has an introduction, a vision of the near future (until 2030), mid-century (2030-2070), and the far future (2070-2100).

The last two chapters, the future of wealth and the future of humanity, are less about any specific technology than the specific changes to our economic, social, and legal systems as a result of these technological changes. The end of wealth, for example, is about our transition to a more and more information-based economy throughout the world, and how we will need a new economic system with the end of scarcity (though he points out certain things will remain scarce, primarily knowledge workers whose labour can’t be automated).

The text is very readable, any number of sections could be essentially lifted from the book and used as feature articles in Popular Science or Discover. For all I know, selected excerpts have indeed seen magazine stands. Kaku is careful not to get bogged down too much in the science behind these technologies. The book’s audience are technology geeks, futurists — most of us, in fact, of the digital age. It’s for the curious layperson, not just the educated layperson. No physics education required

Speaking as someone who has some education in physics, this is nevertheless refreshing. Kaku could have screwed things up by doing too much — trying to give a detailed grounding in the physics when the book is really about how the technology will affect our lives. Having spoken to three hundred scientists at the leading edge of their fields, I’ve no doubt he took enough notes for a dozen technical volumes. But he resists the temptation to ramble, considering societal consequences in broad strokes while avoiding technical trivia.

And that’s the beauty of this book. It’s deep in insights but not bogged down in details. The result is a fast read that you’ll continue thinking about long after you’ve finished the book. Time will tell which predictions hit the mark. But it gives all of us something to look forward to, whether we expect to experience Kaku’s epilogic “day in the life in 2100” or not.

Reprinted with permission from The Sleeping Hedgehog
Copyright (2012) The Sleeping Hedgehog