Monday, 28 August 2017

Book review: Fifth Planet

Fifth Planet by Fred and Geoffrey Hoyle is a sci-fi book (no!). Goodreads gives it 3.5 and that seems about right; read the reviews there.

Plot holes: solar motion is, I think, so slow that we'd have forever to see Helios coming; certainly more than a century. Could I try to work that out? Suppose it is a light-year away, how long could it take to get here? Suppose it takes a century; then it would have to be travelling at 3,000 km/s relative to us. Wiki tells me that hyper-velocity stars can get to maybe 1000 km/s; but they are exceptional and rare, and wouldn't do. Never mind; it doesn't matter; the point is, the plot is driven by the idea of star systems "colliding", and that was an idea at the time, and that's where the book comes from.

Another is the astonishing lack of interest the astronauts show in their new world. Despite knowing it contains chlorophyll they have brought along no biologists. Or scientists of any kind.

In the book the other side are one of the traditional tropes of sci-fi, the evolved-so-far-past-us massively-civilised sorts who can barely understand our primitive urges. Who nonetheless make unaccountable mistakes; well the plot would be somewhat boring without the mistakes.

In a way, the most interesting part is the total failure of prediction, both social and scientific. On the social side, society hasn't evolved in the slightest since when the book was written, despite being more than 100 years ahead. For example, the first female astronaut occurs as a propaganda exercise during the launches for the expedition; and this despite space-travel being so routine that ~500 engineers are sent up into orbit to help assemble the ship. Oh, and the female astronaut is pretty helpless, defers to the men, and is (as the book says) "of course" trained in nursing. Fred and Geoff really were dinosaurs. On the science side, the folk in the book are still using punched cards in 2080; F+G clearly put no effort into prediction. That's not totally unreasonable; it probably read fine when published and they had other ideas for the book (I'll get to that). Another rather amusing element comes when Conway muses how hard it is to find his wife, and wonders about a scheme whereby people could be located; perhaps they would clock in at public stations every 15 mins or so. But of course they couldn't be expected to predict smartphones or GPS; no-one else did.

So what is the book about? Pffft, read it for your self, it is kinda worth it. The core hard-science idea is star systems moving with respect to each other. The core soft-science idea is their rather kooky ideas about what "life" itself might be in terms of 4-dimensional surfaces; I wouldn't take that too seriously.

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