Out There–Book looks at science topics raised by pop sci-fi

Review by C.J. Bunce

On my first read of the 134-page book Out There: The Science Behind Sci-fi Film and TV, I had the assumption it was a book for kids.  That is the only context in which I think the book works.  Slated for publication in August, this new publication by writer Ariel Waldman barely scratches the surface of some major topics in science fiction that have been explored before in movies, TV, documentaries, novels, and non-fiction.  I think for young kids the book works–approaching it as an introduction to someone who never has heard of Star Trek or Alien, let alone thousands of obscure science fiction movies and TV series, or their inspirational source material via more than a century and a half of speculative fiction–because it’s possible kids haven’t already explored these concepts before.  But 21st century adults should know the contents of the book already.

Out There is a combination of 19 short essays, most featuring interviews with scientists in a myriad of fields.  I’d almost swear I’ve read this book in the 1970s, only using more science fiction books to illustrate its ideas.  The author asks questions about the possibility of earthlings ever encountering life “out there,” via exoplanets, giant spaceships, or through communication and contact with extraterrestrial life.  Examples come mainly from mainstream sci-fi movies as opposed to serious science fiction.  Interstellar and Passengers are movies that were for audiences who hadn’t already seen its topics visited and revisited through thousands of hours of classic TV (and also books, which are only peppered into the text sparsely).  Despite the title of the book, it barely references the vast library of science fiction television series.

Not every subject approached gives a wrong answer, but most aren’t surprising.  Are asteroids really like they’re presented in most movies?  Not in movies like Armageddon, no.  But doesn’t everyone know that already?  One essay discusses spacesuits and includes the participation of Mythbuster and maker Adam Savage, but it’s basically the results of a room of people sitting around talking about how cool spacesuits in movies are.  Yes, the world is a lot better educated as to the kinds of loneliness an astronaut might feel on a long voyage to Mars after living through an extended pandemic.  Is cloning related to life “out there”?  Probably not.  Do humans need to worry about our sun collapsing or black holes?  Also, probably not.  Do the movies referenced get these topics depicted accurately?  Not the movies referenced, but other movies, TV series, and books have.

The book entirely misses the mark in its discussion of cyborgs, defining cyborg so broadly so as to include literally everyone (if you wear a spacesuit, you’re a cyborg by its definition).  I also noted some factual errors throughout, oversights that seemed to indicate a lack of first-hand knowledge of the movies being referenced as examples.  If you’re only giving subjects like Artificial Gravity or Suspended Animation three pages of coverage, what should readers expect?

Note that although the book is being released in hardcover, it contains no photographs of its interviewees or subjects, and minimal chapter page art, something that might lean against the book being something useful for getting kids interested in science of STEM concepts.  One quirk: its chapter breaks include multi-colored dot images you’ll swear are intended to contain “magic eye” images (they don’t).

The book features a foreword by astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison.

This is a book about a topic that should capture the interest of anyone, but it only scratches the surface, only asks the most basic of questions, and primarily seeks opinions from people who are not the foremost authorities on the subject.  Out There is available now here at Amazon for pre-order.  It is scheduled for release August 22, 2023.

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