The Bookworm: The stars and the sea

Terri Schlichenmeyer
Columnist

“Aliens: The World’s Leading Scientists on the Search for Extraterrestrial Life”

“Aliens: The World’s Leading Scientists on the Search for Extraterrestrial Life” by Jim Al-Khalili

By Jim Al-Khalili

c.2017, Picador

$25, $35 Canada; 240 pages

Who’s out there?

On a dark, stormy night, you might ask yourself that if you hear scratching at the door. Your mind may play tricks on you then, making you wonder if you’re being visited by something spectral, though it’s really just your imagination. Or maybe, says the new book “Aliens” by Jim Al-Khalili, you’ve got company…

Are we alone?

That’s a question mankind has wondered since our ancestors first saw stars. In the late 1800s, astronomers presumed that we weren’t, but modern scientists aren’t so sure: SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) has been around for awhile and, accidentally or on purpose, we’ve beamed all sorts of electromagnetic babble into the galaxy with nary a reply. Is there anyone out there, or are they too far away to drop in for a cuppa to confirm their presence?

Let’s say that aliens are on their way here. What Earthly reason would they have for coming?  It wouldn’t be for breeding purposes; the biology would undoubtedly be all wrong. If they’re advanced enough for intergalactic travel, they wouldn’t need humans for nutrition, nor would they need our oceans, resources or even our planet for their survival. It’s true that they may want our knowledge or culture, but why would they come in, um, person, when sending robots would be more efficient?

That’s a comforting thought, isn’t it? But then, consider what reportedly happened in Roswell and Area 51, what Betty and Barney Hill went through, and all the abductions that supposedly happen every day, and you worry all over again. Science fiction only fuels the fire. Old black-and-white movies just fan the flames. Even so, have you ever noticed that movie aliens are basically human-like?

All kidding aside, what’s out there?  Are we alone, or are other beings watching us and waiting for the right time to ring our doorbells? Does our knowledge of aliens start with knowing ourselves and our world?

Is the truth really out there – and do we honestly want to know it?

Beginning with the foundations of biology, octopi and life’s elements, “Aliens” is one of those books that makes you feel as though you’ve entered a symposium of NASA and SETI researchers who are focused on answering the unanswerable.

That feeling isn’t far off, actually; here, author Jim Al-Khalili collected essays from science professionals and researchers – his “Team Aliens” – to delve into the mysteries of life on Earth and beyond. There’s a lot of mind-blowing in that, and plenty of food for thought on not just whether life exists in other galaxies, but what it might look like. With such kinds of hypotheses, readers may be led to think beyond a comfort zone they didn’t even know they had – something that’s possible to do between chapters on SciFi writing and the silliness of old B-movies.

For some readers, this book may ask more questions than it answers. For others, it may not answer one thing. But for anyone who’s wondered if we’re just super-special within this galaxy, “Aliens” isn’t so “out there.”

“Death Goes Overboard”

"Death Goes Overboard" by David S. Pederson

By David S. Pederson

c.2017, Bold Strokes Books

$18.95, higher in Canada; 237 pages

Can you float me a loan?

It’s a common question when your friends know you’re flush with cash. Can I hold a 10 for a minute?  Can you spot me five?  Sure, you probably could, but will it be hard to collect on that debt or, as in the new noir mystery, “Death Goes Overboard” by David S. Pederson, will you be paid back swimmingly?

The weekend was all set.

Detective Heath Barrington had everything planned down to the last detail: he and police officer Alan Keyes were heading to a cabin in Northern Wisconsin, just the two of them, under the guise of a “fishing trip.” It was 1947, after all, and discretion was absolutely necessary for two professional gay men, but the getaway would be a great chance to see where their new relationship was going.

Still, despite his and Alan’s carefulness, rumors could come from anywhere, which was why Barrington was worried when his boss called him in early one day. Fortunately, the Chief didn’t want to quiz Barrington on his love life; he wanted to send the detective on a special assignment.

Milwaukee law enforcement had been following Gregor Slavinsky ever since the small-time hood got out of prison, assuming that he’d screw up eventually - and that’s exactly what happened: word on the street was that Slavinsky recently borrowed $25,000 from Benny Ballentine, a bigger crook and the guy the department really wanted to nab. Both were booked on a Lake Michigan excursion, and something was afoot. The Chief needed Barrington to find out more.

The “fishing trip” cancelled, Barrington boarded a small luxury boat for a weekend tour. With few fellow travelers – two known hoodlums, a henchman, plus a man and his elderly aunt – he thought he’d have no trouble keeping an eye on everyone, especially since the boat’s steward was an undercover cop, too. But when a scuffle, a splash and a missing crook proved otherwise, Barrington knew his assignment had suddenly changed.

Slavinsky was nobody’s favorite guy… but who among the handful of possible suspects had the most reason to kill him?

Every cliché ever packed in a noir novel – every single one – seems to be inside “Death Goes Overboard.”  You’ve got mobsters, a fedora-wearing detective in a pinstriped suit, seemingly-prim matrons, and man-hungry blondes eager for marriage. It’s like an old black-and-white movie in book form – but curiously, you probably won’t mind.

You won’t mind because author David S. Pederson has packed a lot of else in this novel. You don’t normally find a soft-sided, poetry-writing mobster in a noir mystery, for instance, but he’s here. And then there’s the sweetly chaste, budding romance between two men; not so unusual, again, except that one of them is considering something drastic in order to hide his secret, a side-plot that’s historically accurate and that fits.

So this novel is both predictable and not, making it a nice diversion for a weekend or vacation. If that’s the kind of book you enjoy, then “Death Goes Overboard” will make you buoyant.