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Companion to the Cosmos - John Gribbin

Review by Simon Newman

John Gribbin's Companion to the Cosmos (Phoenix Giant, 615 pp, £11.99 paperback) is essentially an extremely comprehensive account of current cosmological knowledge, useful for giving a grounding to both science-fiction and to super- high-powered Galaxy-smashing deity type antics. It begins with an introduction, Where do We Come From?, which explores the beginning of the Universe (or Universes), and of ourselves. This is followed by the bulk of the book, an A-Z encyclopedia of astronomy, from Anglo-Australian Telescope to ZZ Ceti stars, by way of chaos, galaxy, gravity, space, time, and pretty much everything in between.

The book concludes with three timelines, covering the birth dates of major scientists, key dates in our understanding of the cosmos, and key dates in history, especially those of scientific interest.

So, it sounds like a pretty dry book, of interest mostly to astronomy buffs, yes? Well, for one thing, it's written in an extremely clear and accessible style. I'm no astronomer, but I do have an interest in realism in science fiction, both written and roleplayed. And I found it fascinating. It's the only reference work I've ever read from cover to cover (occasionally skipping ahead to the most intriguing bits). If you've ever listened to a dose of Next Generation technobabble and thought "I can do better than that!", then this book is for you (John Gribbin is not paying me for this review, sadly). It's packed with hard science made easy, from an author's perspective it's an indispensable resource for the creation of credible science fiction universes, as well as an immensely enjoyable read for the scientifically curious. And while the many biographies of eminent astronomers are of less immediate interest, they do provide a wealth of authentic starship names for an author's sf setting!

I bought my copy in Blackwells for £11.99 early 1998. While it was well worth the money, I was a little dismayed a few months later to find it on sale, in hardback, in a London bargain bookshop for £5.99. So, if you're lucky enough to find it in some second hand shop, z-shop or Ebay, my advice is to snap it up.

That said, I do have some criticisms: well, £11.99 is still a lot of money for a paperback, no matter how fat. In this case it's worth it, though. Although illustrated in b&w, the book does lack maps, aside from a rough depiction of the Milky Way.

If you want maps and have Internet access, the following website by Winchell Chung is absolutely fantastic. It contains numerous maps of our stellar locality, star catalogues, essays and links to some great science articles.

Judgement: ?/10

Unless stated otherwise, all content © 2001-2005 Craig Cochrane. All rights reserved.