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Borderlands of Science

by Charles Sheffield

When I said that Gregory Benford should have incorporated more graphics and charts in his novel Eater, it was wishful thinking, not criticism. The same does not apply to Sheffield’s non-fiction offering, Borderlands of Science. Sheffield has written what could have been a definitive science primer and reference for sf authors. Unfortunately, his effort is crippled by a complete lack of graphics.

Now, if Eater, or any other hard sf novel that deals with difficult concepts, isn’t ruined by a lack of figures, then why should I be so hard on Borderlands? Because Eater is a work of fiction, and ultimately all fiction is about what happens to people. But Borderlands is, in the final analysis, a science textbook. I challenge you to find any basic science textbook worth its salt that isn’t packed with figures. You might counter that Borderlands is geared for a more general audience than most science textbooks—but then you’d be making my argument for me. Even Newsweek knows better than to try to explain DNA or black holes to the general public without graphics. College professors, teaching everything from chemistry to calculus, know better, too. A picture is still worth a thousand words.

Now, don’t get me wrong--despite profound reservations, I have to recommend this book.If you want to write sf, Borderlands of Science probably deserves a place on your shelf, even if you’re a scientist. I’m a scientist, but unless I’m writing about my own little corner of biomedicine I need an ectopic brain. I’ve already gone to Borderlands to help me put together a story or two. Sheffield, like Asimov, writes with authority on a wide range of subjects. He covers the basics with clarity and elegance, and most importantly he goes beyond convention to examine the most fertile ground for sf—unresolved dilemmas and scientific heresies. And he does it all with that charming Sheffield irrascibility. What he doesn’t do is provide us with figures. And that’s why there’s a huge and dissapointing gulf between what this book is and what it should have been.

Sullydog approves.

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