February 16, 2010

Hawkings should stick to lectures

George's Secret Key to the Universe
by Lucy & Stephen Hawking

George's parents dislike technology so much that they don't own a phone, a television, or a computer. So naturally, George is fascinated by his next door neighbours Eric and his daughter, Annie, and their superintelligent computer Cosmos. Cosmos can open a portal into space, allowing the kids to hitch rides on comets and asteroids. When a mad scientist steals Cosmos and traps Eric in a black hole, George and Annie have to rescue him.  
It sounds exciting, and there are some impressive photographs of planets and stars, but the story is very poorly written. There are too many superfluous and extraneous details, awkward phrasing, puzzling situations, and condescending characters. A few chapters could have been eliminated altogether since they don't advance the plot in any way.  

Interspersed with the narrative are well-written explanations of the solar system, which made me wonder why the Hawkings didn't write a nonfiction book instead. There is also an excellent chapter about black holes. That one chapter (out of 32), called What You Need to Know about Black Holes, is exactly how the book should have been written. 
The climax has George winning a science competition (he receives a standing ovation!) by giving an speech. I strongly suspect that the Hawkings have never been to an actual science fair. 
Extremely disappointing. And the mad scientist didn't get a proper comeuppance either!

This time, George and Annie follow mysterious clues that may lead them to an alien life form. Slightly better than the first book because it includes essays about space travel and the search for extraterrestrial life.
Unfortunately, the treasure hunt comes to a dissatisfying end. The clues were written by the mad scientist, who was trying to exact revenge because Annie's father had interfered with his research and had made false accusations about him. Annie gets her father to apologize, which he does very grudgingly.
In fact, the adults in both books are not portrayed very positively. One wonders if Hawking has a dislike for teachers or fellow scientists. Whatever the reason, it's not going to leave kids with a very good impression. 
In an epilogue, Hawking says that the most exciting treasure hunt of all is the understanding of the Universe and everything in it. A nice message trapped in a not-very-good book.

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