I’m glad I got The Many Worlds of Albie Bright from the library rather than the book store. Didn’t like it. Why? See below.
If you’re looking for middle-grade science-fiction/fantasy involving physics and a child who goes on a quest to find a lost parent, you can’t go wrong with Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 classic A Wrinkle in Time.
Let’s talk about the banana in the box.
Yes, bananas contain potassium; yes, potassium decays radioactively; yes, I am willing to suspend disbelief for magical plot devices, such as the potato-powered world-stepper in The Long Earth. Still, I’m having trouble with the banana box.
Albie hooks a USB Geiger counter to his mother’s quantum-computing laptop, which is linked to a high-tech lab. So far so good. When the Geiger counter detects radiation from the banana he’s pointing it at, it makes a clicking sound and he can “teleport” to a parallel world. If nothing is detected by the Geiger counter, it’s quiet and he’s stuck where he is.
I’m really not sure what the box has to do with anything, apart from trapping his neighbor’s cat, but never mind.
My problem is the banana. The rate at which it emits radiation and triggers the teleportation makes neither narrative sense nor scientific sense.
It’s overly convenient that a particle decays if the plot needs a particle to decay, and not otherwise. I would expect Albie’s device to fail at a critical moment (which it doesn’t), but I would NOT expect its functionality to be supposedly random yet invariably well-timed (which it is).
From a scientific standpoint, even things that are only mildly radioactive are emitting LOTS of beta particles or gamma rays all the time, some of which wind up being detected by a sensor if the level is over some threshold. According to what I read online, a single banana has “only” 14 radioactive decays per second. Yet Albie’s banana is spoken of as if it’s not emitting anything at all most of the time, until suddenly a probability wave collapses and a single particle decays, which produces a gamma ray, which is detected by the Geiger counter, which then clicks to signal that Albie is teleporting.
Geiger counters, as we likely know from pop culture, click more frequently when in the presence of stronger radiation. As a narrative prop, they’re great for creating and increasing tension in settings where the main characters are wandering around in potential peril. Albie’s Geiger counter is not used as an analog signal of danger, however. I couldn’t even tell whether it was clicking once or multiple times. Neither makes sense. According to my understanding, Geiger counters click continually when they’re on and there’s some radiation, because radiation isn’t detected in individual, discrete doses of one unit. But if Albie’s banana has only emitted exactly one gamma ray, his Geiger counter shouldn’t keep clicking after detecting it.
I learned a bunch of stuff about bananas and Geiger counters, which is good, but what I learned doesn’t quite match up with what’s in the book. Thus I’d say the book needs either more science or less science. Probably less, since the science that’s already in there felt like too much.
Hadron collider? Check. Many worlds? Check. Schrödinger’s cat? Check. Quantum computing? Check. Quantum entanglement? Check. Black holes? Check. Cold fusion? Check.
Sheesh. How many physics concepts do you think you can shoehorn in a middle-grade novel that’s less than 200 pages?
Too. Much. Exposition.
What makes superior books like A Wrinkle in Time and The Long Earth work is the story. Not the science. In good science-fiction, the science and its fictional extensions are the premise, not the point.
That’s even true for books like The Martian, in which the entire plot is a series of episodes in which the main character solves seemingly real, physical practical science problems with his brain and his hands and a bunch of only slightly futuristic technology. Fine, the character explains a few chemical reactions. But author Andy Weir keeps tension high. We don’t care about the chemical reactions, we care about whether Mark is successful in generating oxygen, or burns his eyebrows off, or blows up the fragile enclosure that separates him from the deadly vacuum of space.
I can’t care about Albie because I feel like he only exists as a vehicle for the author to force-feed me a load of dumbed-down pop-science. The boy’s full name, Albert Stephen Bright, is nothing more than an homage to a couple of famous physicists you may have heard of. I could stomach this uncreative hat-tipping if it weren’t also spelled out in excruciating detail. Signposting would already have been unsubtle, but this author leaves nothing to the imagination.
Yes, I know I’m an adult and not the age of the target audience, but if I’m a kid that doesn’t mean I have absolutely zero powers of inference, and it probably does mean I don’t want to be lectured at any more than I already am. Give kids some credit and let them have some fun.
Yet, not enough fact-checking!
One of Albie’s classmates, Victoria, has made a model of the city of Pompeii at the foot of her baking-soda volcano. Albie’s strange ignorance on the subject of volcanoes is an excuse for her to deliver this didactic bit of explanation:
“It’s a volcano. Mount Vesuvius erupted nearly two thousand years ago. When it blew its top, it buried the town of Pompeii under a layer of volcanic rocks and ash. Nobody could escape the deadly lava flow, and thousands of people were buried alive or burnt to a crisp.”
She could have said something like “This is the volcano that destroyed Pompeii. Duh.” Then we’d have felt curious instead of bored. Even if we’ve never heard of Pompeii, even if we’re only 8 or 12 years old, we know more or less what volcanoes do. There’s no need to spell it out.
Or is there?
Victoria says “nobody could escape the deadly lava flow”. Um, yes they could. Did you see any of the videos from the eruption in Hawaii in 2018? Here’s one. You’ll notice if you watch that video, or any video about volcanoes, that far from the volcano itself, the lava is so slow you can outrun it by walking. What travels much faster, and what killed the citizens of Pompeii, is clouds of poison gas and suffocating ash. The technical word for those clouds is pyroclastic flow. Moreover, “most Pompeiians had plenty of time to flee” because the volcano was far away and the eruption visible for hundreds of miles.
If Pompeii had been covered by a “tidal wave of bubbling lava” like the kind Victoria’s model inspires Albie to imagine, everything would have been destroyed. Archaeologists wouldn’t have been able to dig out all the perfectly preserved artifacts now on display in the history museum in Naples, and modern-day tourists wouldn’t be able to walk the streets of the ancient Roman city.
Fine. So, obviously Christopher Edge is not a geologist and has never visited Pompeii. Not his fault. Still, I don’t see how anyone writing a science-fiction book who bothers to mention Pompeii, a city famously well-preserved, could think that the people in it were killed by lightning-fast rivers of lava.
Interestingly, a cursory internet search reveals that scientists recently overturned the common, longstanding assumption that gas and ash killed the inhabitants of Pompeii. Now they are saying it was extreme heat. People were baked alive by hot air before they had time to suffocate.
Okay, Chris. It wasn’t lava, but it wasn’t gas and ash. My mistake.
There’s one thing I’m grateful to author Christopher Edge for. He made Tom Cruise the President of the United States in a parallel world! And he did it without quite spelling out exactly what he was doing. Thanks for that.
When and Why I Read The Many Worlds of Albie Bright
I am reading this for the Middle Grade / Young Adult Fiction Book Club. Even if nobody else is. Borrowed the ebook from the Singapore library system.
Genre: Young Adult Sci-Fi
Date started / date finished: 21-Mar-20 to 22-Mar-20
Length: 176 pages
Originally published in: 2016
Amazon link: The Many Worlds of Albie Bright