What if the Moon didn’t exist?, Neil F. Comins

Harper Collins, 1993, 315 pages, C$26.75 hc, ISBN 0-06-016864-1

“What if” is one of the most important concepts in human thought. It’s the bridge between imagination and knowledge. It is the written expression of curiosity and inquiry. It is the first step toward any new discovery. It should be the motto of Speculative Fiction. It is the reason behind What if the Moon didn’t exist?

But whereas SF writers might postulate, dramatize and dispose of in a few pages without any scientific rationale, Moon‘s author “is a professor of Astronomy and Physics at the University of Maine.” This isn’t just a collection of fancy questions: Comins answers them in more detail than you ever would have wanted to know.

For instance, if the Moon didn’t exist, not only would nights be much darker, but the Earth would not have been slowed down by tidal forces. Consequently, you could expect lower tides, hurricane winds (up to 400kph), high waves, rapid erosion, a stronger magnetic field, a later appearance of life on the planet, shorter days (8-hour days) and a generally harder time for anything approaching intelligence. All explained in meticulous detail.

But Comins isn’t satisfied with only explaining what would have happened if the Moon didn’t exist: He goes on to explore the effects of a closer moon; a less massive Earth; a more massive sun; a nearby supernova; a black hole impact… among others.

In concept, Moon is a good idea. In execution, it manages to be only worthwhile. The biggest flaw is the style, which is fairly readable, but not gripping nor densely fascinating as a few other science non-fiction authors. To put it simply; there’s no compelling reason to keep on reading Moon beside mild intellectual curiosity.

Alas, there are also a few gratuitous extrapolations to marr the book, probably the most glaring being that beings of the high-wind moon-less Earth could very well develop telepathy. Uh-huh.

Then there’s the fact that Moon is at time a relentless propaganda piece for environmentalists. The last chapter, in fact, is about ozone depletion. The remainder of the book is often of the type “See how we’re lucky?” It might have been interesting to see Comins imagine a better Earth than our Earth. Alien freaks and nonpartisans of the anthropomorphic theory will be disappointed while reading this book: The chances of intelligent life existing elsewhere in the galaxy are more remote with every chapter of the book.

Still, it’s an interesting work. While it doesn’t quite attain expectations, it’s still a welcome refresher on the forces that make our planet tick. SF writers should take a look at Moon to learn how to do decent world-building, and curious laypersons should at least browse through the most interesting chapters. What if the Moon didn’t exist? is an average non-fiction book with a clever premise but an ordinary result.

But I Digress, Peter David

Krause, 1993, 256 pages, US$14.95 tpb, ISBN 0-87341-286-9

Peter David describes himself as a “writer of stuff”.

For instance, you might know him as the writer of some of the best Star Trek novels ever written—from the hilarious Q-in-Law to the maudlin Imzadi. Or you might know him as the writer of a few Babylon-5 episodes (“Soul Mates”, “There the Honor Lies”). You might remember his name on a few novelisations (The Rocketeer, Babylon-5: In the Beginning), or a few movies whose scripts he wrote (TRANCERS IV, OBLIVION). You might know him as the writer of several comics, from X-Men to Spider-man. Or, you might even remember him as the writer of one infuriating column in Comic Buyer’s Guide, “But I Digress”.

But I Digress collect almost three year’s worth of columns from the eponymous series. Covering a wide range of subjects -from the obvious comics, to Star Trek, to movies, conventions and more serious social issues, But I Digress is also a self-revealing portrait by one of the most versatile “writer of stuff” today.

Peter David has the gift of writing in a way that will not leave you indifferent. Most of the time, he will make you laugh. That’s David’s trademark and he doesn’t disappoint here. Don’t miss “An Animated Discussion”, a panel reuniting Disney’s favorite heroines: it’s a hoot, much like David’s recommendations to budding comic writers. (“Don’t bother coming up with a mutant team called ‘X-Crement’. Better men than you have already tried it.”) and anecdotes from the convention circuit. The book is full of zippy one-liners that will make you laugh aloud… Hey, better that than a sharp stick in the eye!

But David is also able to bring the reader to serious reflection of serious issues, bringing the same verve to social commentary than to comic discussions. He is someone who cares about stuff in addition of writing about it. His first L.A. travelogue is especially poignant.

Since these are columns published in a comic magazine for comic readers, it’s a fair bet to state that this will appeal more to faithful comic buyers that the general public. Readers unfamiliar with the wonderful world of comic publishing will feel lost in the first pages. Which isn’t to say that it’s completely inaccessible: This reviewer was eventually able to piece up a coherent picture of the comics industry with minimal outside sources.

It’s a testament to David’s writing skills that this book can be read in a flash. More like an assortment of tasty treats than a full-blown meal (to fall back on culinary metaphors again), But I Digress is great entertainment with an unusually high re-readability factor. A fairly complete index will help casual readers find their bearings.

[Byline: Reviewer Christian Sauvé is a Reader of Stuff.]

Wag The Dog (1997)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Wag The Dog</strong> (1997)

(In theaters, January 1998) Let’s face it: January’s a rotten month for first-run moviegoing. It’s either shlocko-B-Grade-late-night-TV fare dumped by the studios in the middle of the winter because there’s got to be something on the screens during the month, or else a few Oscar hopeful released late in December in a few major markets for academy consideration, and who get wider release in January. Among them… Wag The Dog. An American president is accused of sexual misconduct with a young female. One crack spin doctor gets on the case and diverts the attention of the public with threats of war. A Hollywood producer is hired. It ain’t real-life, although in Mid-January 1998, we could almost feel ourselves being pulled slowly in a Phil K. Dick novel where current events were being uncannily predicted by Hollywood. Wag The Dog will probably pass into history as being at the right places at exactly the right time, but fortunately the movie remains decent on its own terms. Unfortunately, the script isn’t as good as it could have been. The unlikeliness of the described situation -despite the above paragraph, I stand by the word “unlikeliness”- is such that a deliberately over-the-top treatment (à la, heh-heh-heh, The Producers) would have been vastly more successful. To put it simply, Wag The Dog‘s premise is neat but doesn’t have a lot of relevance. So why try? On the other hand, Dustin Hoffman is quite funny after a while, and Anne Heche does a fine bit of window-dressing. If Robert DeNiro is a bit dull (intentionally), Dennis Leary and William H. Macy are great during their short screen time. I liked it, but it’s far from being one of my favorite films of 1997.

Nano, Ed Regis

Little Brown, 1995, 325 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 0-316-73858-1

If you don’t find the future terrifying, you haven’t been there. Yet.

I just made up this epigram, (write to me if you use it) but maybe it should be the motto of every serious futurist. More and more, the pace of progress is increasing. The old adage about how things change to remain the same simply doesn’t hold true anymore: What we’re seeing in the crystal ball is that we’re on the brink of massive, irreversible and completely alien changes that will forever alter the face of the human race.

I’m overreacting? Barely. Consider Genetic Engineering. In maybe a decade (probably less), we’ll be able to fiddle with genes well enough to correct most of humankind’s worst flaws. Myopia? Diabetes? Arrhythmia? Crooked teeth? Gone, gone, all of them! You’ve heard it from elsewhere; let’s not go in more detail here. Genetic Engineering has the potential to do… well… almost everything.

(Digression: Genengineering might be, evolutionary speaking, the only way for a sufficiently advanced civilization to survive. Reason being that civilization stops natural evolution, and there must be something -short of eugenics- to ensure the betterment of the species, right?)

Even before reading Nano, I thought that nanotechnology might have an even bigger impact. Now I’m sure of it.

Nano is a layman’s account of the new proto-science of nanotechnology. I say proto-science because it’s fairly young, and it’s not a “traditional” science that fits in easily with physics, chemistry or biology. Nanotech is, simply, the study and manipulation of objects at the atomic level. What can you do with it? Everything.

Machines able to rearrange matter atom-by atom could be tailored to build any imaginable object. Repair your body. Kill viruses. Provide food from dirt. Power your car. Completely destroy any object and re-use the raw atoms to make a brand-new (or well-thumbed) copy of Dune. Whatever. Nano explains it in crystal-clear details. Make no mistake, Nano is a book-length pamphlet about nanotech and why you should be prepared for it.

But Nano is also very much the story of Eric Drexler. Drexler, while still an undergraduate, hit upon the theoretical notion of manipulating atoms. The remainder of his life so far has been dedicated at making this concept a reality and Nano describes the obstacles he had to face, from incredulity to lack of academic recognition.

The book advances more or less chronologically, following Drexler’s career and occasionally looking into parallel tracks. We progressively get caught in the excitement of the subject, and by the end of the book, you should be as much a convert to nanotech than Regis wants you to be. A few photos (not enough) illustrate this book.

The two biggest assets of Nano are its mind-blowing subject, and a limpid style. Ed Regis should get kudos for an exceptional job of bringing a heady subject to everyone’s level. I learned stuff, and I had a good time while doing it. I can’t think of higher praise for non-fiction books.

What’s more, Nanotech is important. It’s the wildcard of all of our future, it’s the siren song for most SF, it could be the last technical innovation. When it will happen (and there are few theoretical reasons why it should not), everything will change. Read Nano.  Be prepared. Preview the future.