Robert W. Bly,
The Science in Science Fiction
(BenBella, 2005)

The subtitle to The Science in Science Fiction -- "83 SF Predictions that Became Scientific Reality" -- struck me as sounding a bit too much like the headline on some beauty magazine or tabloid newspaper at the grocery checkout. And while there's more truth to it than might be found in the latest article about a nun giving birth to bigfoot's baby, it's still a long way from an accurate description of what you'll find inside Robert Bly's latest book.

The Science in Science Fiction contains some well-researched explorations of the cross-pollination that occasionally takes place between science and science fiction. Ideas from one realm inspire explorations in the other. It delves deep into the history of science fiction, employing lengthy quotes from works by H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, John W. Campbell, George Orwell, Robert Heinlein and a host of others.

But Bly takes way too many liberties in order to shoehorn all of the 83 "predictions" into this book. Almost immediately, he backs away from his central concept, allowing additional categories of ideas to help bolster his numbers. In his introduction Bly notes that the book will include ideas that "originated in science fiction and we are getting increasingly close to making it a reality." Flying cars and jet packs make the cut as a result.

From there Bly wanders further astray by including ideas that originated in science, but were "brought to the public's attention by science fiction writers." So black holes and neutron stars make the list.

But the book really goes off the rails by including chapters where "the idea originated in science fiction and has not yet been realized in actuality by science, but it is at least theoretically possible according to current scientific findings (e.g. time travel, teleportation)." Sure these are great ideas and there are lots of interesting books and stories that can be cited if these concepts are squeezed into the book, but they are clearly not predictions that have become scientific reality. Then, not satisfied to stay within his incredibly loose boundaries, Bly tacks on nine "runners up," including faster-than-light travel, monsters and miniaturization and shrinking rays -- essentially because he thinks they're too much fun to leave out.

The other big issue that I have with The Science in Science Fiction is that by playing the numbers game, the book frequently becomes no more meaningful than an incomplete shopping list. Under each "prediction" Bly has compiled a short catalogue of novels and stories that employ the concept. And while a list of science fiction tales exploring exoskeletons or X-ray vision can be reasonably thorough, how can one hope to even scratch the surface of the SF examinations of artificial intelligence or rocket ships?

And why are first contact, aliens and UFOs separate chapters? Similarly, atomic war and nuclear war?

Bly would have produced a much better book had he restricted himself to a dozen key science-fiction concepts. Goodness knows the three-paragraph entry on radar could have been relegated to the introduction rather than being a chapter on its own. And when the entries for artificial life and robots contain cut-and-paste paragraphs about Sony's Aibo artificial dog, you know the author is stretching his content much too thinly.

As mentioned above, the story excerpts featured in most chapters are terrific, the high point of the book in fact, but it would have been wonderfully enlightening to have authors commenting on their predictions as well. This occurs only once when Arthur C. Clarke, referring to his 1945 nonfiction article "Can Rocket Stations Give Worldwide Radio Coverage?" is quoted as calling it "the most important thing I ever wrote."

Unfortunately The Science in Science Fiction is a long, long way from the most important thing I've ever read.

by Gregg Thurlbeck
29 April 2006

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