Filler content with facts – Part 2

Continuing on from Monday’s post, here are two more reviews comprising the second part of a feature on non-fiction titles that originally appeared in Black Static #4:-

THE FACTS, AND NOTHING BUT THE FACTS (continued)

It’s a maxim of mine that you can never have enough reference books, but perhaps that’s no longer true in the age of the internet when, in theory at least, whatever information you need is only a google search away. Nonetheless the appeal of the book lingers, of holding a big, fat volume in your hands and being able to dip in at your leisure, to find stray nuggets of information and follow them wherever they lead, in the same way that you do internet links, and yet somehow, ineffably different.

I’m not sure how to go about reviewing a reference book though. Surely nobody expects me to read the Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained (Chambers, 760pp, £35) from cover to cover, and then chase down all of the articles to determine veracity etc? Not a review as such then, but more of a mention. It is a chunky volume and a well made book, a thing of beauty in its own right, with easy on the eye text and plenty of illustrations. There are over 1,250 alphabetically arranged entries, covering a wealth of subjects, plus 24 essay style panels, dealing in somewhat more depth with such things as Mythology, Cryptozoology, Spiritualism, Cults, Secret Societies and Hoaxes, to name just a few.

The Chambers Dictionary doesn’t seem to be intended as comprehensive on any particular topic, as I’m sure the editors would be the first to admit, but it is ideal as a gateway book, that invaluable first port of call for any investigation of the paranormal, supernatural and related matters. There’s also, as with many reference books, a sense of the serendipitous about it, a combination of the very things you expect to find and some that maybe you don’t, the volume casting a wider net than the scope of your enquiry may have allowed and delivering up intriguing if unexpected pieces of information, as for instance in the entries for ‘H P Lovecraft’ and ‘The Necronomicon’. I found an entry for ‘Ghostwatch’, but no mention of ‘Stephen Volk’, alas, or entry for either ‘Black Static’ or ‘White Noise’. Oh well, guess you can’t have everything, but maybe they’ll catch us next time around, and in the meantime this handsome and eminently useful volume is already retailing at over a tenner off at Amazon.

Stephen King doesn’t rate an article in the Chambers Dictionary either but no matter, as Lois H Gresh and Robert Weinberg have gifted him a book all his own, The Science of Stephen King (John Wiley & Sons, Inc paperback, 264pp, £11.99). To my mind there is something of the contrived about this title. While he often pitches his ideas in a technological patter for the sake of verisimilitude, science has never struck me as that big a deal as regards King’s oeuvre, with the very ‘impossibility’ of much that he writes being part of the frisson his work induces in the reader. These authors seem to realise that and say as much when, for instance, discussing the implausibility of what happens in the story ‘Trucks’, only to carry on regardless and use this fictional example as a springboard for a discussion about robotics and the development of artificial intelligence.

Nonetheless, the ‘terrifying truth behind the horror master’s fiction’ is a compelling hook and the book Gresh and Weinberg have produced is an agreeably entertaining and informative document, one which will enhance appreciation of both King and state of the art science. There are nine themed chapters, each dealing with one aspect of technology – time travel, dimensions, pandemics, psychic powers etc – and tying them in to King’s work. In an informal, chatty style the authors discuss how this theme was used previously in fiction, giving examples and providing a historical context, and they then go on to address what King brought to the subject and how original his contribution was. After that we get into a science-light but absolutely fascinating discussion of the facts behind it, so that there’s a potted history of quantum mechanics as part of the parallel worlds thread, a history of plagues in the past and assessment of their likelihood for future, the various equations regarding the existence of life on other planets, and so on. It’s a fun read, with the authors keeping the explanations simple enough for a technonoodle like me to follow but detailed enough to demonstrate that they (and presumably King also) know their stuff. Basically, it’s the teaspoon of sugar approach to science, though that might not be an entirely appropriate metaphor in the circumstances, and if you or a horror lover in your life want to learn a bit more about matters scientific then this book will do the job painlessly and well.

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