Thursday, November 03, 2016

The Opposite of the Literal Best

Just after the amusing, charming, and edifying pleasure of whimsical nonfiction that was Unmentionable, I was so excited to have the opportunity to follow it up with The Science of Game of Thrones--pop science themed around one of my favorite shows! Perfect follow up to pop history themed around one of my favorite authors!

Yeah, but no.  I mean, not that I had a lot of hope that there would be a lot of actual science to talk about in GoT.  Dragons, white walkers, the Wall, and how long does winter last?  There's not a lot to work with here.  But the fact is that I will take any excuse for a good science niblet, so all you really needed to do is put a little theming around the edges.

Alas, it was not meant to be.  First, Helen Keen's sense of humor is not my cup of tea.  Maybe it's how very British it is, but there's a combination of silliness and mean spirit that I just can't connect with.  She reaches REALLY far to make silly puns, makes fun of people's names and bodies and hobbies.  And while yes, people who speak Klingon recreationally are an easy target, she doesn't tease them in a fond or respectful way.

Even the science, though, is a little--well, rough around the edges.  I was kind of hoping for a set of deep dives into areas that are touched on in the story, but there was no deep dive at all here.  No topic is covered for more than a couple of pages, and some of the concepts are kind of a reach to associate with the show.

Take wildfire.  This is a burning substance that is used in war (Tyrion fires it at Stannis's invading army to defend King's Landing) and it's horrible.  So how does that work?  Now, the Mythbusters would have tried to come as close as they could to it, chemically, which I think would have been interesting.  Keen took a different tack and went with something more historically related than scientifically and talked extensively about napalm.  Okay, that's definitely an acceptable angle.  But first: napalm isn't funny, which I think she struggled with.  And second, it wasn't a very interesting history of napalm.  It was more like a compare and contrast of napalm vs. wildfire, which is not that edifying, since a) I know they're different, and b) wildfire isn't real.

My favorite parts were about the genetics of inbreeding and about possible astronomical (am I the only one who always wants to write astrological when I mean science and not horoscopes?) causes of a winter of unpredictable and dangerous length.  Those were the two sections where I felt like I really learned something. In the wild, inbreeding can actually be beneficial to animal populations--in an environment where weak individuals die off quickly, the "good" genes are the only ones left pretty quickly (though scientists admit this is hard to test, since by the time your population is so low that everyone's inbreeding, you're just on big rockslide away from extinction). And winter could be caused by something besides the orbit of the planet--passing through clouds of space debris that changes the way the sun strikes the planet--which would account for the unpredictability.

But most of it ended up being fake history lessons, and I hate fake history lessons.  I'm all there for worldbuilding, but stories about war machines and the history of armed combat that touch on but don't elucidate how war happened in the real world as an excuse to basically ramble on about Westeros with a lot of bad puns...I was very disappointed.

And now, I shall go read a bunch of the nonfiction suggestions from Jenny at Reading the End, which will make me smarter and happier as a person, I bet.

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