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New light through old windows : exploring contemporary science through 12 classic science fiction tales
Webb S., Springer International Publishing, New York, NY, 2019. 320 pp.  Type: Book (978-3-030031-94-7)
Date Reviewed: Jun 28 2019

Science fiction has often been prophetic--sometimes wrongly so, sometimes very much on point.

New light through old windows is a collection of science fiction stories--the earliest is from the early 19th century and the most recent is from the mid-1930s. Each story comes with a brief essay about the author and the story; a scientific discussion of what the science relating to the story looks like today; and a brief bibliography. The stories are often written in the language of the time, and as such may not be entirely appealing to a modern reader’s taste, but the visions range from silly to compelling to very much on point.

The least realistic story must be “The Diamond Lens” (written in 1858, by Fitz-James O’Brien). In it, the main character sees a vision of a microscopic woman swimming around via a powerful microscope. The discussion is mostly about what microscopy shows us and how much we still need to learn about the microscopic world.

Perhaps the most powerful story is “The Scarlet Plague,” by Jack London (written in 1918, around the time of the Spanish flu pandemic), in which a survivor recounts the onset of a population destroying plague to his descendants. Recent disease outbreaks, including Ebola in West Africa, are mentioned (though the book was written before the latest outbreak). Oddly enough, the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is not mentioned, though this is one of the most widespread of recent pandemics.

“The Universal Library,” by Kurd Lasswitz, which considers a library with all possible books, is a clear forerunner of Borges’ “The Library of Babel.” Oddly, this falls under the topic of big data, which is kind of the opposite thing, as neither the Borges nor Lasswitz libraries contain anything like data, except accidentally.

“A Martian Odessey,” by Stanley G. Weinbaum, the newest of the stories, will be the most familiar in tone and topic to science fiction readers of today.

“The Tachypomp: A Mathematical Demonstration” by E. P. Mitchell covers the notions of generating arbitrarily fast travel (howbeit in a very limited distance). The impossibility of this is covered in the discussion, but probably relies a bit too much on hand-waving.

Overall, the text is a bit uneven. Some of the commentaries are a bit stretched in their references between the story and the science (“The Diamond Lens” might be the worst of these). The commentary on “The Tachypomp” covers relativity in a superficial way; it is unlikely to be of interest to anyone who knows the physics, and equally unlikely to be convincing to non-physicists.

One other quibble I might add is that sometimes the dates and publication history of the stories are a bit difficult to find. A brief bibliography of some related science fiction stories, or stories by the same author, would be a nice addition.

Still, the book might prove to be interesting for a reading and discussion class, either a class providing an overview of modern science for non-scientific students or a general studies class aimed at scientific students.

I think there’s a good idea here--combining (literary) readings with scientific discussion is likely to be fruitful and interesting in the right context, and with the right readings. I’m less sure that this is it.

Reviewer:  Jeffrey Putnam Review #: CR146611 (1908-0291)
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