A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

What truth-seeker’s library would be complete without A Brief History of Time, the famous physics book that became a best-seller with the general public. I approached this volume as a lay reader, having quite a poor knowledge of physics (sadly, I failed my GCSE Science back in school).

The book opens brilliantly, with an easily digestible chapter on how our cosmology has evolved over time, from the Greek philosophers to the present day. Next we learn about the interrelationship between space and time, how we discovered that both are not fixed and absolute, but flexible. We move to the discovery that the universe itself is expanding, and how this points to an event in the distant past that we call the Big Bang. After all this great stuff, unfortunately the book starts to slowly slip out of my control. By the time I’m hitting the chapter on black holes (about mid-way through the book), I’m eighty-percent lost. I continued ploughing my way to the finish line, not understanding most of what I was reading, but keeping by eye out for digestible tidbits – which did show up occasionally.

There’s nothing actually wrong with this book, other than the fact that there seems to be some confusion about who the intended readership is. I find it amusing that the author pauses to define the word “ellipse” in an early chapter, when several chapters later he is blinding us with terms like “quantum fluctuation.” It’s difficult to see how a book of this nature gained such popularity with lay readers, other than some very effective marketing. It’s really aimed at physics students.

Even so, as a lay reader, I gained an invaluable deeper appreciation of the nature of space-time, one which complements and enhances my own philosophical understanding of the universe. The Big Bang is not “something out of nothing,” as theists commonly misunderstand. It is all the energy of the universe compressed to infinity – where form and duration collapse, becoming an infinite all or one. There is something very profound about the nature of energy, as something that cannot be created or destroyed, when we consider that “God” (whatever that is) cannot be created or destroyed. The Big Bang is also the point at which the laws of physics cease to function. Materialistic atheists should take note that this is providing a very large clue about the limits of science in its capacity to ever provide us with a total worldview.

Regarding the mathematical complexity of much of the book, I also gained an appreciation of just how much of what science asserts is highly theoretical and subject to error. Great changes in theory frequently occur at a level far beyond my understanding of physics. But it is safe to say that the fundamentals are here to stay.

A hard read, but well worth it.

Starstormers 4: Evil Eye by Nicholas Fisk

Once again the Starstormers – four children in a home-made junkyard spaceship – blast off into space to escape the onslaught of the Octopus Emperor. Their ship, barely holding together, crashlands on a planet known as Moloch (interesting term, if you’ve read the Bible). Upon exiting the ship, they find themselves in a jungle filled with all manner of Earthlike creatures, although mutated beyond recognition – and many of them hostile. Makenzi and Tsu take on the role of learning to hunt for food, while Ispex concerns himself with locating metals with which to repair the ship. Vawn starts hearing voices in her head, discovering that there is a vast intelligence in their midst. The Starstormers eventually learn that they are not on the planet itself but have crashed into a doughnut-shaped satellite that was placed in orbit – a structure made by mankind as an environment suitable for life, but upon which life has now run amuck. And the Starstormers must restore balance.

One question occurred to me: if you crash through the outer shell of the satellite into its Earthlike atmosphere, how do you avoid evacuating the entire atmosphere into space? Well, let’s just say, if you’ve read volumes 1 to 3 of Starstormers, Fisk isn’t terribly concerned with major plot holes or wacky science. In children’s literature anything goes; it shouldn’t, but it often does. Is it sloppy storytelling? Of course. Should a writer know better than to say to himself, “Ah, kids never notice that sort of stuff”? Yes, he should. Does it ruin the book? For an eight-year-old, probably not. And so, Fisk gets away with it.

I’ve had fun on this nostalgia trip so far, but with volume 4, I’ve started to get impatient and bored. The strength of the book is in the humourous interactions between the characters. It’s just a pity Fisk couldn’t come up with better story material. I’m on the home straight now, so I’ll probably read the final volume, Volcano, just for the sake of completeness.

See also:

Starstormers 3: Catfang by Nicholas Fisk

There are five adventures in the Starstormers children’s space opera, and it has taken me a over year to locate copies of them all. This third adventure, Catfang, finally completes my set. The books are rare and hard to find on eBay, but judging by the amount of search requests my previous two reviews have generated, they are fondly remembered. I was very pleased with the first adventure, not so enamoured with the second, but something just keeps me reading. In part, I guess I’m revisiting my childhood and completing some unfinished business. But the books do hold a certain silly charm for me, even as an adult. The characters of Vawn, Ispex, Tsu and Makenzi (and not forgetting the robot, Shambles) all have their individual quirks, and the interactions between them are frequently funny.

The plots of the stories require a massive suspension of disbelief. If adventures one and two seemed unbelievable, Fisk really goes into overdrive with Catfang. At the end of book two, the Starstormers have escaped the clutches of the Octopus Emperor and are on the run in space. They now discover a stowaway on board: a cat. They name it Fang. Now, I won’t spoil the story by telling you what strange things the crew end up doing with this cat; all I will say is, “Fisk, what have you been smoking!” Because the antics in this book could only seem logical to an author floating several feet above his keyboard. But you know what? I just went with it and I had fun. And I’ll probably finish the series in due course.

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The Resurrection – Fact or Fiction? by Richard Bewes

Occasionally, a Christian friend who knows that I’ve abandoned Christianity will try to “help” me in a nice sort of way (and sometimes in a not so nice sort of way, but that’s another story). I had one of the nice experiences yesterday, when someone gave me a small book to read called The Resurrection – Fact or Fiction? by Richard Bewes. I decided to read it carefully, just to see if I had anything new to learn on the subject of the validity of Christianity.

The author begins with a short chapter called “Just Supposing” in which he describes a conversation with a man who feels sorry for Christians, i.e. wasting your lives on an afterlife pipedream. This was excuse for the author to present a “what if you’re wrong?” argument, i.e. there’s a God you’ve ignored your whole life that you’ll have to deal with. This chapter was pointless, and was a hairsbreadth away from the emotionally manipulative fear-mongering that is characteristic of religion.

The author’s brief argument for the historical reliability of the Gospel accounts relies on noting how closely Matthew, Mark, Luke and John resemble each other. He makes no mention of the fact that it’s actually Matthew, Mark, and Luke that are similar, and John is quite different. He claims that since three different people, Matthew, Mark and Luke (if those were the authors) individually told the same account with a high degree of overlap, then the account must be true. He doesn’t mention the highly plausible theory that Matthew, Mark and Luke are all sourced from a single earlier document known by scholars as Proto-Mark, which could equally account for the accuracy, regardless of how genuine or otherwise Proto-Mark was.

The author admits that the earliest fragment of any New Testament book is a piece of John dating from around 125 AD, ninety-five years after the alleged resurrection of Christ, and yet he is happy to state that we possess eyewitness accounts of the resurrection. Let me illustrate the problem. Imagine I were taking the stand in a court case and said, “I have an eyewitness account that the deed was done.” When asked to present this eyewitness account, I would then have to say, “Well, Fred saw it happen, but he didn’t write anything down for twenty years. And I only have someone else’s say-so that it was Fred who wrote it. And I don’t actually have what Fred wrote. What he wrote is long gone. Oh, but somebody else copied it before it was destroyed. No, I don’t have that copy either, but I have another one – or a piece of it anyway. This was from 95 years after Fred witnessed the deed. There you go: your eyewitness account.” I would be laughed out of court! Christians ought not to be making this outrageous statement about eyewitness accounts when they are continually relying on second-hand information.

From this point on, the author assumes his readers are on the same page and that every word of the Gospel accounts can be taken as truth. The Bible says the tomb of Jesus was empty, so it must be true. The Bible says that people saw Jesus afterwards, so this must be true. This is called evidence for the resurrection, and it is the only “evidence” presented. The author goes on to say, “Not even the smallest dent would have been made upon the world unless the disciples had been changed.” He’s saying the resurrection must have happened, because it changed the world. In other words, Christianity must be true, because if it weren’t it couldn’t have grown so big. Well, how about the impact of other major world religions? The impact of Islam is nothing to be sniffed at, for instance. Also, no mention is made of such factors as Emperor Constantine declaring Christianity to be the state religion of Rome in the 4th century. I think that might have had something to do with Christianity’s expansion across the world.

The author mentions the writings of Jewish historian Josephus as further evidence of Jesus as a historical character. Josephus wrote The Antiquities of the Jews in the late 1st century, and the volume states:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.

The authenticity of the above passage been disputed since the 17th century, and by the mid 18th century the consensus view was that it had at a minimum been altered by Christian scribes, and possibly was outright forgery. Think about it. We’re reading a Jewish historian admitting that Jesus was the Christ, and Jews do not believe that Jesus is the Christ, otherwise they would be Christians, wouldn’t they? Something smells off. Yet it doesn’t stop Richard Bewes, with his personal agenda, from quoting Josephus and completely disregarding the consensus view of historians on the matter.

Instead of using the available space in the book to provide detailed arguments, the author wastes space by accusing non-Christian readers of having a moral barrier to Christianity. He says it’s not a matter of evidence but a matter of willingness, because we may find the idea of converting to Christianity upsetting. In reality, the Christian is as suspectible as the non-Christian in being swayed by his personal desires. How about people who convert to Christianity for purely emotional reasons, in the absence of evidence? When a belief system is demanding your mind, body and soul, evidence is paramount. Smart people, Christian or otherwise, rule their emotions and don’t allow themselves to be ruled by them.

Doubting Thomas gets the limelight towards the end of the book, Thomas being the man who would not believe the resurrection unless he saw Jesus for himself. The author’s argument is that Thomas should have been able to trust the words of the people he had been living among, those who witnessed the risen Christ. And to us, he likewise says: “The reports of the original first-hand witnesses are enough for faith.” Oh yeah, that would be those first-hand witnesses that we don’t have.

The final page of the book is headed “Check the facts!” and is a list of Bible verses from the New Testament. I think it’s fair to say that the only evidence for the resurrection of Jesus are the writings of the New Testament. Beyond that there is nothing. Are the Gospel accounts real history? That’s the big question, isn’t it? I have yet to hear a convincing argument that they are history. There is certainly no corroborating evidence from other 1st century sources to say that Jesus was a real person. And there’s even a case for the view that the story of Jesus is a retelling of a much older myth of life, death and rebirth. History is full of such saviour God stories which have high degrees of overlap. Even the Old Testament account of Joseph appears to have remarkable similaries to the account of Jesus’ life.

The Resurrection – Fact or Fiction? is a borderline dishonest book, presenting flimsy arguments that bear no weight when scrutinised. The Christian who uses a book like this can walk away feeling that his faith has been strengthened, as long as he doesn’t think too deeply about statements like “We have eyewitness accounts of the resurrection.”

Starstormers 2: Sunburst by Nicholas Fisk

Volume 1 of the Starstormers saga ended with our heroes, Vawn, Ispex, Makenzi and Tsu, reunited with their parents on the colony of Epsilon Cool. Unwittingly they brought the evil Octopus Emperor – a being made entirely of a dust-like substance – along for the ride. Worse still, we learn that one of the Starstormers is a traitor, secretly in league with the Emperor in return for seeing their parents again.

Volume 2 begins with the Octopus Emperor enslaving the Starstormers and their parents and bringing them to his homeworld of dust. The youngsters manage to trick the Emperor and escape in their home-made spacecraft, but they must leave their parents behind. Wandering the stars, they come across a vast deserted starship. Curious, they dock and board, only to learn that the ship is heading straight for the sun. They panic. Why? Good question. Four children who were smart enough to build their own spaceship are apparently too dumb to realise that they can simply undock and fly away. When they finally do realise and attempt to take-off, they’re too dumb to uncouple the docking mechanism, and they assume the larger ship’s gravity is too strong. Oh, brother.

When the kids are finally on their way again, they head for the Octopus homeworld and make a stab at rescuing their parents. The title, Sunburst, is a reference to the encounter with the ghost ship, but this is really only a mini-adventure of 40 pages occupying the centre of this 120-page book. The rest of the volume is concerned with the Octopus Emperor.

The general gist of what I’m saying would lead you to believe I hated this book. Actually, I quite enjoyed it, and read it in a couple of days. Elements of the plot are poorly thought out, some of the writing is sloppy; Nicholas Fisk may well have written the Starstormers saga purely as a money-spinner. Normally I crucify a book like this. Instead, I find I want to chase up the remaining three volumes. The adventure, as a whole, is a fairly decent pulp space opera for kids. I’m into nostalgia in a big way at the moment, and reading Starstormers gives me the same feeling I got reading the likes of the Eagle comic as a kid. Bite-sized throwaway stories; such things have their place.

See also:

Starstormers by Nicholas Fisk

I remember buying this book from a mail-order school book club when I was about eight years old, although I was so uninterested in reading as a child that I probably didn’t consume the book till I was about thirteen, when the reading bug finally bit me. Now, over twenty years later, I’m being bitten by the nostalgia bug, so here we go again …

Four children, Vawn, Ispex, Tsu and Makenzi live in a boarding school on Earth, while their parents are busy building a colony on the planet Epsilon Cool. It has been years since they last saw their parents and more before they ever will. Bored and frustrated, they come up with the crazy scheme of building their own spaceship out of parts salvaged from a spacecraft junkyard. They name their ship Starstormer and blast off. Weeks later, soaring through space on route to Epsilon Cool, they come across an ancient colony ship from earth called the Conqueror. The inhabitants have developed a strange religion, worshipping the “Glorious Ones,” whoever they are. Ispex is first to figure out that there is great peril here for the Starstormers.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It’s clear from the beginning that the story requires a tremendous suspension of disbelief, what with kids building a spaceship, but once you accept that, you can get on with enjoying the tale. The four children have diverse character traits that make for interesting drama. I had one worry, initially, about a particular moral stance taken by the book: I didn’t like the way the author had one of the kids resorting to fraud in order to obtain spaceship parts. But the surprise ending casts a new light on the character’s actions. The ending leaves much unexplored, and feels like a cliffhanger from a multi-part drama. And indeed, there are five volumes in the Starstormers saga, each around one hundred pages. I’ve already found and purchased volume 2 on eBay.

An excellent children’s space adventure.

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Strontium Dog: Search/Destroy Agency Files 01 by John Wagner & Alan Grant

Strontium Dog was one of my favourite characters from the pages of the weekly British sci-fi comic 2000 A.D., which originated in the early 1980s and continues to flourish today. I read the comic erratically in my youth, so until now I’ve only been scratching the surface of the amount of Strontium Dog strips that have been published. In fact, you could say I’m still only scratching the surface, since this mammoth 330-page tome is merely one of four.

The comic is set in the 22nd century, some years after an atomic war on earth – a war that left many people mutated because of a radioactive isotope in the fallout called Strontium 90. Fear of mutants became the new racism among “norms.” Mutants lived in poverty, unable to get jobs. As a solution, the government offered one job to all mutants – a job that no norm would take: Search-Destroy Agent. SD Agents are bounty hunters, scouring the galaxy for the the worst of humanity – sometimes to arrest and sometimes to terminate. But the public don’t call the bounty hunters SD Agents; they call them Strontium Dogs.

Johnny Alpha is one. His mutation left him with the ability to see into men’s minds. He also carries an assortment of weaponry, including a blaster that can fire bullets through solid matter, set to detonate at a specific range, and a range of bombs that can manipulate time itself. Johnny works with a partner, Wulf, a viking warrior from the past.

The stories are wild and wacky, even going as far as sending Johnny on a mission to earth’s past, to bring back Hitler to pay for his crimes against humanity. The one thing I noticed, as an adult, reading this stuff, is how unafraid the writer was to wreak havoc. Often, the innocent are slaughtered along with the guilty, with reckless abandon. If memory serves, I think that’s something you would rarely see in 2000 A.D.‘s 1980s rival The Eagle. Heroes were also allowed to have a darker side, seen in Johnny’s willingness to fulfill a contract without asking too many questions about the target.

The writing credits in this volume go to T.B. Grover and Alan Grant (I’m assuming T.B. Grover is a pseudonym for John Wagner). Both writers are highly imaginative. Carlos Ezquerra quickly finds his feet as the principal artist. (I think this trio are also responsible for a lot of early Judge Dredd, too.) The only place the volume falters is with the inclusion of a few Strontium Dog strips that came from 2000 A.D. annuals of the period. These were written and illustrated by outsiders, and are amateur by comparison. But I guess they had to be included for the sake of completeness.

I wasn’t awed by Strontium Dog, but it was an entertaining and imaginative set of stories, worth reading.