Fri
Nov 14 2008 3:31pm

Review: Death from the Skies!

Death from the Skies! gave me nightmares. They were astronomical. In both senses of the word.

Every once in a while I’m reminded of three things:

  1. Science fiction has science in it.
  2. Science fiction has fiction in it.
  3. Literature is more interesting when both are in effect.

The distinction of necessitating #2 along with #1 for maximum interest is most obvious to me when I read science non-fiction—books like Stephen Hawkings’ A Brief History of Time (now also available in Briefer form), Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Dan Hooper’s Nature’s Blueprint, and others. Obviously science can be interesting, as these are all popular books.

Yet to the world at large, science is most interesting when packaged with a story. It’s even more interesting that way to those of us who eat, drink, and breathe science. It’s why Oliver Sacks’ original book was a best-seller; every chapter might have been an essay, but at the center of every essay was a story. Having a story along with the science binds the audience closer to the author, because they start to care about the science as a more intimate matter than simply something held at remote. In fact, this is exactly where author wants the readers, because then they care about the science as much as, hopefully, the author does: at a personal level.

And that’s why Death From the Skies! is truly terrifying.

Philip Plait is everyone’s favorite blogging astronomer; his Bad Astronomy blog regularly attracts tens of thousands of viewers every day.  He’s hugely popular because not only does he cover a very cool subject matter—it’s harder to get much more awe-inspiring than galaxies ripping each other to pieces, or the vastness of nebulas and star-birthing regions—but because he explains his field with an honest and highly engaging enthusiasm, writing in a down-to-earth voice with not a little humor along the wayside.

His first book, Bad Astronomy, is great sampler of his style. I really liked it, but while I was engaged, I was not gripped. This is enough for most reading experiences.

Death from the Skies! is like Bad Astronomy crossed with a scientifically accurate Armageddon. Actually, it was like reading different astronomical disaster stories one after the other, as every chapter begins with a disaster story that shakes you to your bones. The very first chapter starts calmly enough—a man named Mark starting his day. Then it all goes to hell with the traditional asteroid crashing into the Earth, and the camera, so to speak, rolls back as the destruction cascades around the world.

Truly Plait should look into writing fiction, since a certain cruel streak is required, and he has the chops to do it. Every chapter really does read like the beginning of a science fiction story, where the Earth is devastated and then plucky humans (or something) win the day (or whatever). Actually, we stop before the plucky part. Indeed, the stories are different from traditional science fiction in that they leave no survivors, or, at least, not for long.

And once the Earth has been eaten by a black hole, scoured of all life, or swallowed by the sun, Plait comes onstage and starts explaining all the ways the story could happen in real life—forcing the reader to examine (aieeeee!) what most of us hate to think about in serious, it-really-could-happen terms. His style gets you through all that, though, explored in wonderful detail and humor, like in Bad Astronomy, except now you’re vested.

True to his charter, however, he doesn’t just leave the reader in mindless terror because, while it sells books, it also isn’t good to give people the wrong impression. That’s where Plait differs from all those earth-will-be-destroyed books out there: science may make things scary, but science also sets your feet on the ground with both things that can be done and odds that, frankly, you shouldn’t worry about. And some of the ideas and projects put in place to mitigate some of these disasters really are science fiction—like finding somewhere to roost before the Sun expands into a red giant, and how we’d need to find somewhere to roost again once the Sun had white-dwarfed itself.

It’s like a roller-coaster: after the terror and the abject fear settle down, you feel the whoa, awesome! envelop you.

Then, like an addict, you turn to the next chapter. (Or you stop for the night and read Terry Pratchett’s lighter-end spectrum books so you can sleep.)

I have to say, Death From the Skies! definitely earns its exclamation point. Even when we pull back from the human picture towards the end of the book and start looking at the entire Universe, Plait manages to keep the reader enthralled. It’s an impressive act, from start to finish. Some might say that chapter 2, dealing with what at first seems to be the innocuous subject of sunspots (not anymore to me), is bit down-tempo from the thrilling first chapter. Although the EMPs from hell really did scare my Kindle and would, at the wrong time, kill hundreds of thousands of people.  Still, though, the Earth was there and could sustain life.  But the book quickly picks itself back up and roars along for the rest of the journey, joyfully destroying the earth and all life on it many times and the universe once or twice.

This book was truly a pleasure to read, despite the scary bits, which was more or less all of it, and now I really remember all that stuff about black holes and gamma rays.


And now, some thoughts about the Kindle edition of Death from the Skies!. (This will be a new aspect to my reviews, since there are so many ways to get eBooks wrong. You’d be surprised.)

The Cover. For eBook readers that support color, a gorgeous cover can be attractive. For the Kindle, the challenges are (a) grayscale and (b) contrast, which many covers don’t take into account. The dead tree edition has a cover that doesn’t translate to the Kindle well, so it’s been replaced with something more subdued. There’s still a hint of burning doom contained in the letters, whose fonts and sizes are quite well framed, and are even more readable than the dead tree version.

Table of Contents. This is necessary in any eBook of novel length, becausing paging through in an electronic medium is not, surprisingly, as efficient as real paper. Here, not just the chapters are marked, but every important set-off—the copyright page, the introduction, appendix, and even the acknowledgements—are linked for easy access.

Figures and captions. Like many Kindle books, Death from the Skies! could have used some serious grayscale contrast considerations. This is sort of par for the course.  Unfortunatley, captions for images and tables tended to flow into the text without, for instance, different font sizes or styles to indicate what’s a caption and what isn’t.

Index. Indices are usually not done for eBooks, I find, even science ones. It’s difficult, for 500 entries/sub-entries, to create the links back to the text. I wish it had been done here (or in any number of my science eBooks).

Footnotes. In the main text, footnotes are handled as they usually are—superscripted numbers link to the individual footnote text in a back section filled with footnotes. What’s particularly nice is that each footnote sports a link (its number) that returns the reader to the original location in the main text.

Most eBook readers, Kindle included, do have a “back” button, but that gets confused with “previous page” often enough that this kind of back link is useful.

Availability note. Currently the Kindle edition is unavailable in the Kindle store. Right now it’s out for formatting repairs, but should be back in the store in a few days or so.

4 comments
MJBUtah
1. MJBUtah
I just finished this as well. My husband kept pointing out that it was probably not appropriate (or you know, normal) to be laughing out loud at a non-fiction book about science. I have read a few non-fiction books that people have recommended and a few of them started to feel like punishment for something I had done wrong. This one wasn't work at all.
Estara Swanberg
2. Estara
This sound a lot like the audiobook I've been listening to the last few weeks, Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything.

The focus is not only on danger from the skies, it's the whole set-up of the world and the scientists who discover it. Once you're past the dinosaur part and the early scientists of the Age of Enlightenment and get down to geology, astrophysics, astronomy, nuclear physics and marine biology it's awe-inspiring AND frightening how blithely humans live with little to no knowledge of what could kill them/go wrong/they themselves do to hasten this.
MJBUtah
3. Jacob P.
This book encapsulates the most important features of any science book/show/movie etc(personally, of course). "Death From the Skies," has both sublime cosmological education and entertainment. Phil Plait's enthusiasm is contagious and I hope every lover of science and astronomy or any reader at all will read this book. I finished reading the book the day after I bought it, because I could not put it down. Phil, you've done it again!
Phil's blog (an every day must read):
http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/

-Jacob
MJBUtah
4. Phil Plait
Thanks for the great review! Right back atcha!

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