It’s very annoying to go away for a couple of days and discover that the only book you’ve brought with you is a resounding DUD. This is what happened to me with What Does A Martian Look Like?, filed under ‘popular science’ and written by a pair of jovial geezers who the jacket tells me also knocked out The Science Of Discworld. Alarm bells should perhaps have gone off then and there but the bookshop was closing and I was in a hurry.

The book’s cover blurbs are all from science-fiction authors, not scientists (although many sci-fi authors surely know a lot more about science than, say, me). A few chapters in it was obvious why. The book is very complimentary towards science fiction, which can be a fantastic vector for the imagining of truly alien ecologies. I’ve no problems with this approach at all – in fact as a jumping-off point for discussion of alien science it works very well. The thing is that while the authors flatter science fiction, they also lay into ‘proper science’ with a very big stick. The book becomes repetitive, cranky and boring as they re-iterate time and time again how very, very stupid everyone else involved in ‘astrobiology’ or ‘xenoscience’ tends to be. Well, maybe they are, but after a hundred or so pages of snarky common-room abuse and airy dismissals the reader really doesn’t care any more. It’s a shame because the basic notion – that theories and concepts of life shouldn’t be bounded by what is observable on Earth – seems a good one. But the constant bashing made me tired of the writing, and then – worse – mistrustful.

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