Vector 97 Reviews

Isaac Asimov – Life and Time
John G. Taylor – Black Holes

In Life and Time (Avon/Discus, 273pp, $2.50) Asimov, a qualified chemist, writes mainly on biology; the book is well-informed, clearly written, admittedly stodgy and repetitive at times, but in its modest way a success. In Black Holes (Avon, 208pp, $2.25) Taylor, a professor of mathematics, writes ostensibly on physics but with large dollops of mysticism; the book is ill-informed, fuzzily written, admittedly showy and evocative at times, but with its frightful pandering to every class of popular mysticism it deserves to be a failure.

Asimov's collection is the usual stuff, hallmarked as always with careful research and a sense of plot rare in non-fiction; there is a bonus for nonmathematical types in that (biology being the chief subject) the ever-tempting wodges of numbers are infrequent, and another bonus for dislikers of Asimov facetiae in that these essays were written for markets other than F&SF, and thus omit the traditional introductory gags. The 26 essays range from 1960 to 1977; with the exception of a fairly recent plea for solar-power satellites (something which the darkening economic climate has made almost risible), they haven't dated. Each essay, even if written down for the US equivalent of the TV Times, contains some hoarded fact or insight; worth a look.

Black Holes should not be here for review. It was first published in 1973, before many major advances in black hole theory; it has not been revised in six Avon printings (nor even, it seems, corrected: scientists cited include [Carl] Saugan, Schwarschild, Scharschild and Einsten). Even for its time it was an unworthy book, opening with three chapters of content-free mysticism before ever getting down to the black holes – a bad structural flaw – and descending again and again to statements of utmost wildness to hold the attention of a presumably gullible public. "It may be that under extreme conditions [the force of gravity] becomes repulsive and allows us to build the much-conjectured anti-gravity machine." "Without doubt there is someone out there, possibly even searching at this very moment for life like ours." (For life like theirs, surely?) "Perhaps in the past travellers from far-off stars have conquered the black hole and harnessed its power to drive through the heavens to visit us here on Earth. Have records of the past described these visitors and their strange craft?" "One interesting explanation is that Satan and his followers were aliens disobedient to their leader and were punished by him by being cast into the black hole power source ..."

The physics – especially in the discussion of entropy and black-hole power sources – tends to be dangerously misleading; Taylor may be good at maths, but his popularizing descriptions are sloppy. There is some nonsense about rockets scooping bits from a black hole during its initial collapse, without mention of the half-second or so this collapse takes. The fundamental inseparability of space curvature and mass/energy is happily ignored: "If the Earth were suddenly annihilated yet no disturbance made in the space around it ..." We even get "The frozen image of the star [which collapsed to form the black hole] would be very dim." Very dim is presumably Taylorspeak for black.

Much of the book is simply outdated. Black holes are known not to be eternal. Those tiny, hypothetical "mini holes" or quantum black holes supposedly created in the Big Bang have been shown to be unstable, undergoing spectacular dissolution in a fraction of a second. You don't hear much talk about "white holes" any more, either. The pious warning against the creation of lethal mini-holes in the laboratory also seems silly both because of their instability and because the pressures involved are many orders of magnitude greater than forseeably possible. (In fact this must have seemed just as silly in 1973 for the same reason.)

Black Holes is, in short, a very bad book. It was never a good one; what small worth it had in 1973 has decayed with the swiftness of a quantum black hole; its continual reissue is inexcusable.

F. Paul Wilson – Wheels Within Wheels

(Sidgwick & Jackson, 177pp, £5.95)

This author's second novel displays several characteristic vices of the Lesser (or Spotty) American SF Writer. It is part of a future history, "a novel of the LaNague Federation", set in the universe of Wilson's first book Healer (the plot of which is summarized within for your convenience). It is expanded from a considerably shorter piece – a 1971 Analog story of the same title. There are aliens of the cheapest bargain-basement variety: the Mark II Enigmatic.

The ostensible lead character is a woman who we are told is smart, aggressive, dynamic etc., having risen to the top the hard way in the face of brutal sexism: a facade swiftly undermined by an author who is (a) a little too amazed that this mere woman does so well; (b) apparently convinced that rising to the top the hard way means inheriting the firm from Daddy and then sacking the directors; and (c) careful to ensure that the real action lies with deceased Daddy (in flashback) and various male henchmen. The lady's major piece of action comes when she rather sensibly tries to shoot a villain in the back; unfortunately he notices, and gets her with his fearful psychic powers.

The plot lacks the convolutions promised by the title. It's partly a detective story unfairly turning on hitherto unmentioned psychic powers (see above) and made a mystery only by the enigmatic and reticent aliens, who Know All but are much aware that being enigmatic is their sole justification for being here at all: they thus play the part to the hilt. The other plot component is political, dealing with a fiendish plan to abrogate the "LaNague Charter", whose principles are rooted in long study of Heinleinian economics: the all-important thing is to have a free market which governments are not allowed to muck up with taxes, tariffs, consumer protection, or indeed anything else besides, presumably, a few laws making bad debts a flogging offence. If we only had a LaNague Charter, back would come the Victorian days of prosperity when one could make a fortune and nobody who was anybody suffered from it. (In Wilson's universe there are no poor except for the enigmatically rustic aliens, who like it that way.) Back in the plot ... the book's political/economic manoeuvrings are quite devoid of subtlety, requiring that all the good folk be incredibly moronic in order to miss the obvious until the last chapter.

Wheels Within Wheels is a fast-paced, Analog-type book, affording a modicum of enjoyment if read at the prescribed fast pace while the higher cerebral functions are looking the other way.