Monday, April 14, 2008

George's Secret Key to the Universe by Stephen and Lucy Hawking - review

I read this book some time ago. December it was, yes, December 27. During jury duty. They showed a Queen Latifah movie in the jury waiting room. Also half of The Devil Wears Prada, and ever since then, I have had this nagging need to find out how it ended. Not enough to Netflix it though. I have a feeling that post-transformation, it all goes downhill and probably comes to conclusions that I would Not Agree With, based on assertions that are ridiculous.

Anyway, the book. I had some problems with it, and I wasn't going to review it, because, while I have in the past been known to boldly trash books that everyone else likes and call down the wrath of authors who actually go out looking for their reviews, well... why pick on Stephen Hawking?

But just in the past week, two different friends have mentioned that they listened to it on audio and just loved it.

Now, George's Secret Key to the Universe, I have to say, does a very bold thing, integrating astronomy and physics into the story - and not just as sidebar information, though there is plenty of that, plus an insert of full-color photos just as if it were a Karrine Steffans memoir. (Everything in these pictures is real, though, unlike those pictures of Ms. Steffans with her shirt off.) (I approve of sidebars, by the way. When I was a kid, they were just starting to appear in textbooks, and, when available, they were all I read.)

In this book, however, George goes on adventures in space and solves problems, all the while learning about and using elementary astrophysics. Given the disastrous state of science knowledge in this country, I would really like to be able to thrust this book into the air and yell, "Science! Story! No reason they can't go together!"

But. God, it really pains me to pick on this. Ok. George lives with his parents in a somewhat ramshackle house in the suburbs. His parents are major crunchies, environmentalists who seek to live as much 'off the grid' as they can. Candles, nettle tea, home-grown food. Fine so far. But the parents take the very unusual stance that technology, because it enables consumption, is bad. They won't have a computer in the house and are suspicious of science.

I have two problems with this. First of all, I know a LOT of environmentally-conscious people, in all shades, from old-fashioned communal hippie to new-fangled Prius-driving vegan. And I'm not sure I've ever met a single one that was anti-technology, or who denied that science can help decrease our mis-use of natural resources. Solar power, anyone?

Secondly, I feel like the authors are setting up a conflict that doesn't have to be there. George is going to get in trouble, because this is a children's book, but does part of the trouble he's in have to be for defying his parents? An evil villain is after him, and he has to avoid being sucked into a black hole at one point. There's no reason his parents couldn't be supportive. Except for, oh yes, they're retarded hippies who hate computers.

There is a rapprochement at the end of the book between the parents and the scientist next door who has been mentoring George in his explorations of space and science. Both factions come together at an environmental rally, and the parents see the error of their reasoning. Well, of course it's erroneous reasoning! Nobody actually thinks like that! Oh, hell. Maybe they do in England. I'm probably just making a big deal out of nothing.

But there's one other thing: George's "secret key to the universe" is the ENTER key on a sentient laptop named Cosmos. Does that bother anybody but me?



Esri Rose said...

Environmentalists as anti-technology? Huh?

It could definitely be considered weird to have a science-oriented kids' book and then throw a magical computer into the mix.

Fuse #8 said...

Good for you. My boss reviewed this and pointed out that for a book by a scientist, the science in this puppy was just the teensiest bit sketchy. Glad you were the dissenting voice. I just didn't read it, period.