Two shorter non-fic reviews

I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction lately – including some absolute crackers that deserve a whole post to themselves – and I don’t mind saving them to write about for the new year. Meanwhile, today I have two shorter non-fic reviews for you…

Set Phasers to Stun by Marcus Berkmann

set-phasersIf you’ve read this blog for a while, you’ll know that I remain huge Star Trek fan. My favourite series is the original Star Trek, but my favourite character is Jean-Luc Picard from ST:TNG.

Over the years I have read so many books about Star Trek too, but the one thing they have in common is that apart from the encyclopedias and reference books, they’ve only been one person’s personal view.

  • I’ve read memoirs by William Shatner (several, one reviewed here), Leonard Nimoy, Nichelle Nicholls, George Takei, James Doohan and more.
  • I’ve read production histories by Herb Solow (Inside Star Trek), Chris Whitfield’s The Making of the TV Series and more.
  • I read well over 100 fiction spin-offs in the late 1980s and 1990s.

That’s a lot of Star Trek books!

Now I’ve added Berkmann’s review of the franchise to the list. He is unashamed at concentrating on classic Star Trek and ST:TNG. The other TV spin-offs (DS9, Voyager, Enterprise, the Animated ST) do get brief mentions towards the end, as do the new rebooted movies, but that’s fine with me. He says in his introduction, that his book isn’t aimed at fans:

What I haven’t seen is a book aimed at the general reader, at the person who has grown up with Star Trek and watched it with enthusiasm, but has never felt the pressing need to wear a prosthetic Klingon forehead over their real head. This is that book.

However, witty though his premise might be, (I would never wear a prosthetic Klingon forehead, – I’d be in Doctor Crusher’s Teal outfit), he is doing himself down because fans also need general histories. Set Phasers to Stun steps back from the geekiness of all the specialist texts, and delivers a potted history of the genesis of the series through its first two iterations in detail. Berkmann has read all the Star Trek books, and is able to bring them all into the timeline at the appropriate point, quoting far and wide. Berkmann writes with his tongue firmly in his cheek, so it’s a very light-hearted read for the most part – although he is appropriately serious when considering the plight of Grace Lee Whitney who played Yeoman Rand in the first series.

His approach though, means that even for hardcore fans, there were nuggets to be found in this entertaining book, which I very much enjoyed (8.5/10).

Source: Own copy

Marcus Berkmann, Set Phasers to Stun (Little, Brown, March 2016) Trade paperback, 320 pages.


We are all Stardust – Conversations with Stefan Klein

stardustSubtitled ‘Scientists who shaped out world talk about their work, their lives, and what they still want to know’, this book is a collection of interviews carried out over quite a number of years by German journalist Klein and are reproduced from Zeit magazine. Klein  studied physics and biophysics and was previously an editor at Der Spiegel winning a prize for science journalism.

The slightly strange thing about this book is that many of the interviews were conducted in English and then translated for publication into German. Then they were re-translated into English by Ross Benjamin for this collection (with interviewee permission).

Each conversation concentrates on one aspect of the interviewee’s work. He starts off with cosmologist Martin Rees on the beginning and end of the world, and then Richard Dawkins on egoism and selflessness, two British scientists who are not afraid to court controversy. Both talk freely with Klein boding well for the rest of the book which includes scientists both well-known to me (Jane Goodall, Craig Venter) and others I didn’t know (V.S.Ramachandran et al.)

One of the best interviews for me was with Jared Diamond: geographer, ornithologist, historian, author of Guns, Germs and Steel … his list of interests and accomplishments goes on and on. One of Diamond’s big ideas is to always look at the bigger picture to see how all the little details fit in – scientists and historians can get blinkered. A fascinating man.

Another fascinating conversation was with molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn who studies ageing, for which she was awarded the Nobel prize in 2009 for her work on telomeres. They are the endcaps on our DNA strands that protect our chromosomes from degeneration/ageing. You can now have your telomeres measured to estimate when you’ll die – I’m not sure I’m ready for that!

There are 19 interviews in total including a totally contrived one with Leonardo Da Vinci at the end, using Da Vinci’s own words in answer to questions. This aside, this was an interesting collection of conversations, well worth reading if you have a general interest in science. (7.5/10)

Source: Own copy

We are all Stardust – conversations with Stefan Klein, trans Ross Benjamin (Scribe, Dec 2015), paperback, 288 pages.

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2 thoughts on “Two shorter non-fic reviews

  1. The Star Trek one sound great! I’m a TNG and Voyager fan mostly – I wonder if he’ll carry on and do a book about the later series. My outfit for the convention would be Seven of Nine’s uniform… but only if I could borrow a suitable body for the occasion… 😉

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