Borderlands of Science, Charles Sheffield

Baen, 1999, 367 pages, C$32.50 hc, ISBN 0-671-57836-7

We live in interesting times. Everywhere you look, things are changing, and they’re changing at an accelerated rate. It used to be that a decade could pass without perceptible difference. Not anymore. Going back a decade from 1999 brings us to a world still locked in a cold war, without Internet, without decent personal computers, without quasi-classic cultural references like JURASSIC PARK and TITANIC. Anecdotal evidence aside, we are now collectively running along in a race called Progress.

Most of this progress is fuelled, directly or not, by science and technology. In Borderlands of Science, noted scientist and SF author Charles Sheffield tries to establish what is the extent of today’s knowledge. “This book” writes Sheffield in his introduction, “defines the frontiers of today’s science.” This isn’t an easy task, and even though Sheffield makes valiant efforts, the results still fails short of his ambitions.

Part of the problem, as Sheffield himself acknowledges, is that science is so mind-bogglingly all-inclusive and specialized to the point of rarefaction, that no sane individual can aspire to know all about it. Sheffield is, by formation, a physicist/mathematician with a body of experience in astronautics. This makes him an ideal writer to talk about physics and space exploration, but that doesn’t make him an authority in chemistry, biology or computer science. Indeed Borderlands of Science falters when it tries to dissect these subjects, an impression strengthened by the pell-mell organization of the book.

The second problem of this book is that it’s targeted, not to a general audience, but to aspiring science-fiction writers. You would think that publisher Jim Baen, in his marketing genius, would aim for a layman’s audience numbering in the… oh… few millions. But instead, Sheffield passes his time pointing out potential “story ideas” where simply stating the state of current research would do just as well. Granted, this is an artifact of the book’s origin (it derives partly from a series of lectures given by Sheffield to a bunch of wanabee SF writers), but it’s still annoying to the (far numerous) readers without any interest in mining “story ideas” from this book.

Another marketing misfire is more readily obvious, at least on the hardcover edition: As it is now common with Baen large editions, their art geniuses have slapped a coat of metallic paint on the cover, making it garishly unpleasant to look at. Of course, given the already-ugly nature of the illustration itself, this might have been done intentionally. Still, Borderlands of Science deserved a more restrained cover along the lines of most popular-science books.

Even despite these various flaws, Borderlands of Science manages to be a pretty decent scientific vulgarization book. Sheffield writes with a certain amount of wit, and the result is a book that goes deeply into scientific jargon, but which always return before it’s too late. Even though the structure is a bit hesitant at times, there is a very complete table of content, index and many documented references.

In short, a decent popular-science read for hard-SF fans.

[January 2000: Bad news for Sheffield: The ideal limits-of-science book already exists, and is called Visions, by Michio Kaku. It actually begins with a question raised by Sheffield at the end of his book: “Is this the end of science?” and proceeds from there by saying that the basic discoveries have been nailed down, but that the science of mastery awaits… Read the review, or the book, for more details.]

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