With the subtitle “How Science Fiction Technology Became Reality And Shapes The Future,” Ten Billion Tomorrows seeks to analyze the intersections of the sci-fi literary genre and the world in which we live. Brian Clegg’s latest focuses on a few key things—in general, it tackles bigger pop culture offerings the likes of Star Wars and Star Trek, while delving deeper into the science-fiction canon by making quicker mentions of lesser-known properties—rather than attempting to serve as a science-fiction encyclopedia. And it wears its affection for science on its proverbial sleeve, admitting an overall penchant for the positives that have come from technological advances over the (still acknowledged) negatives.
That’s why it’s something of a surprise and a letdown to find that, while noting science fiction was (and is) never really about predicting the future so much as building a good story on some scientific principles—which sometimes get closer than others, as they are simply bound to in large numbers—Clegg spends the majority of the book explaining just how impractical, implausible, and incompatible with modern times some of the biggest ideas in science fiction really are. Androids were a nice idea, but the rise of the nanomachines were the true innovation in robotics, Clegg explains. But we did not need a book to explain that dinosaurs cannot yet (and likely never will) be recreated in the real world like in Jurassic Park.
Despite the downer vibe Ten Billion Tomorrows often creates, Clegg has the ability to keep readers engaged through his personal approach. He does not shy away from acknowledging his own fandom or interests in science, while not over-inserting himself. As a result, Ten Billion Tomorrows reads much less like an academic textbook than other books that have tried to tackle pop culture through science—for instance, Kip Thorne’s The Science Of Interstellar. That also makes it much more fun to read Clegg’s explanations and theories, such as a fascinating look at how the weakest part of The Matrix was the flaw of trying to use humans as energy (and most people thought it was the series’ third installment).
Ten Billion Tomorrows is the type of book that will have readers reciting fun facts to anyone who will listen. In one chapter, we learn that the first cloned mammal, a sheep named Dolly, received her name because scientists pulled the cell they used for the process from a mammary gland, so they named the sheep after Dolly Parton. Kangaroos are able to jump as much as they do without intaking enough energy to justify all the movement because their legs work much like springs, absorbing energy that can be re-released with each jump.
But as good as Clegg is at putting things in layman’s terms—explaining how we’re not seeing the electric current itself in lightning but energized atoms in the air, while also offering comparisons for measurements like a half-billion Joules to put them in context—his passion for the subject matter also proves to be his downfall in certain chapters. An analysis of tractor beams, in particular, shows just how passionate Clegg can get about the topic at hand while also being one of the densest passages in Ten Billion Tomorrows.
As great as Clegg is about writing science in a way that is understandable (and how much of a hook the pop culture ties prove), the reader still needs a strong interest in science if they’re is going to wade through multiple pages on special relativity. Ten Billion Tomorrows is a great read for anyone who comes to it with a passion for the science behind science fiction—anyone, essentially, like Clegg, who was inspired by the fantasy enough to learn about the reality—but it’s unlikely it’ll keep more casual pop culture fans on the line long enough to instill that passion.