This review was first published by Booklist on May 1, 2020.
In his latest, Mlodinow (Elastic, 2018) offers a heartfelt account of his friendship with theoretical astrophysicist Stephen Hawking. They met in 2003 and collaborated on two books before Hawking’s death in 2018, A Briefer History of Time (2005) and The Grand Design (2010). The narrative anchor of this memoir is an account of their collaborative process of writing the latter interwoven with details about Hawking’s life, how he learned to live with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and his ground-breaking work in cosmology. Fellow physicist Mlodinow has a scientist’s perspective on Hawking, eschewing often hyperbolic media accounts. He does an admirable job of explaining the cosmological concepts without overwhelming casual readers. Their working relationship quickly turned into friendship, and Mlodinow gleans many insights into the kind of man Hawking was—passionate, rebellious, funny, warm, unconventional, stubborn, sometimes peevish, often controversial, and unafraid. He was a complex person driven by a passion to understand, overcome the limitations of his disability, and make human connections. Mlodinow renders a satisfying and humane portrait.
This review was first published by Booklist on March 1, 2020.
Rather than present a straight biography, Livio’s (Is God a Mathematician?, 2009) goal is to explore the parallels between Galileo’s fate and the science denialism happening today. He makes apt arguments and offers compelling reasons why science and religion shouldn’t be at odds. Livio is an astrophysicist and his perspective on Galileo’s importance as a professional scientist is particularly valuable. Galileo didn’t just make grand discoveries—he invented new experimental methodologies, established math as an essential tool for scientific work, and challenged Aristotelian primacy of thought experiments with verifiable observation. In short, he created the modern scientific method. Livio also explores Galileo’s work in the arts and humanities: he studied philosophy; he was an accomplished musician, poet, and visual artist; and he was active in the arts community. His arts background was essential to how he made many of his breakthrough scientific discoveries. Livio argues that the distinction we make between the humanities and the sciences is false and damaging, and that Galileo illuminates a better balance between the two. A refreshing perspective on Galileo’s legacy.
This review was first published by Booklist on September 15, 2018.
Nevala-Lee (Eternal Empire, 2013) presents a necessary addition to the history of science fiction: a critical look at the life and work of John W. Campbell, legendary editor of Astounding magazine and the central architect of science fiction’s golden age. This period, and the men most central to it, defined the path that still dominates the genre today. Part biography, part history, Astounding covers Campbell’s relationships with his most important writers (Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard); their tumultuous personal lives; the role their wives played in their careers; and the effect WWII and the atomic bomb had on the genre. Campbell and others truly believed science fiction could save the world. Nevala-Lee delves into the development of dianetics and Campbell’s split with Hubbard over Scientology. He also addresses the many biases, prejudices, and personal failings of these eminent men. At times, it feels like Nevala-Lee attempts to accomplish too much, and the mix of history with biography isn’t always comfortable, but it’s all necessary to understand how science fiction became what it is today.
This review was first published by Booklist on May 22, 2018.
Westfahl (Science Fiction Quotations, 2005) offers a well-considered reevaluation of Arthur C. Clarke’s legacy, tracing broad topics and contradicting some commonly held beliefs. For example, although many separate Clarke’s technical sf from his quasi-mystical imaginings, Westfahl shows it to all be of a piece: near-future technology is relatively comprehensible to modern readers, whereas far-future technology would be so far beyond our comprehension as to appear magical—a logical conclusion. His analysis is most valuable in its scope, ranging beyond Clarke’s major works and considering his myriad stories, his less successful novels, his nonfiction, and even his juvenilia. Where this book fails is in its attempts to grapple with Clarke as a person. Clarke was a deeply private man, and there’s little evidence to consider about his life beyond his published works. Westfahl tries too hard to read too much significance into what little evidence there is. It’s a bit abstruse for anyone unfamiliar with Clarke’s work, and it verges on hagiography at times. Still, a worthy analysis of an important sf writer.
The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst isn’t the most comprehensive biography of Lewis Carroll out there. That’s not the author’s intention. Rather, he seeks to explore the available material on Carroll and Alice Liddell—much of which has never been published—as well as their historical context, to trace these elements to the genesis, content, and legacy of Carroll’s most famous works.
This is the biography of a literary creation more than a biography of its author or his Muse.
The book is structured in three main chronological sections, beginning with Carroll’s childhood and ending with Alice Liddell’s death, along with a prologue and epilogue: