|The Science of the X-Files|
|Berkley Boulevard, 289 pages |
|A review by Todd Richmond|
"...the purpose of this book is not to nitpick. The intention is to pursue the truth, in scientific terms, as far as we know it... What you'll find within this book are the answers to many impertinent questions, an exploration of the truth as far as we know it, and a peek at what might lie beyond the shifting line that defines the limits of our knowledge."Lofty goals, and as I found, this book falls a bit short. To be fair, it would be impossible to cover every aspect of the science in The X-Files in one book, but the choice of topics is somewhat scattered and poorly organized.
The first chapter, "Physical Oddities," is about people like Leonard Betts ("Cancer Man"), Eugene Victor Tooms and Flukeman. Betts is the "man" who is, apparently, made of cancerous cells, can detect cancer in others and regenerate body parts (even his head!). Cavelos talks a lot about what cancer is and what causes it, but nothing more than you could find in a good textbook. She doesn't address at all the question "Why does he need to snack on tumors?" or "Why can he sense tumors in others?" Instead she addresses the regeneration of limbs but doesn't point out how implausible it would be for a human to lose a head and regenerate it. Even if the body could be kept functioning artificially, the regenerated head would have none of the memory or learning of the previous head (brain).
Cavelos pursues similar lines of presentation with Tooms and Flukeman. Tooms is the subject of two episodes; a mutant that feasts on human livers and can contort his body to fit through six-inch spaces. This section does, however, have a good discussion of aging and Hutchinson-Gilford Progeria Syndrome as well as a good discussion of mutation and the improbability (but not the impossibility) of creating something like Flukeman.
The second chapter talks about family and group traits and abnormalities: Eladio Buente and his brother in "El Mundo Gira;" Samuel Aboah, one of the "Teliko" who must suck the pituitary gland out of others to survive; Eddie van Blundht and his father, who have tail-like appendages, and the ability (at least Eddie does) to change their appearance at will. The author discusses acquired characters and punctuated evolution but avoids any discussion of Lamarkian evolution (passing acquired characters onto your offspring). She doesn't raise the possibility of mutations that accelerate the mutation process, like those that affect the DNA repair process. She jumps around quite a bit when discussing the Teliko, going from pituitary glands, to pigment production, and then back to a discussion concerning camouflaged creatures ("Detour") from earlier in the book. There's a good explanation of the fungi that infects Eladio Buente and host-pathogen interactions, but Cavelos fails to discuss the improbability of a substance (incorrectly termed an enzyme) that could cause a multitude of different fungi to proliferate out of control. But then she turns around and correctly dismisses the possibility of conjoined twins (Leonard and Larry in "Humbug") who can disjoin.
The third chapter starts out with a long discussion about Scully's cancer and its possible causes, and I immediately thought: Why wasn't this section combined with the earlier section about Cancer Man? While this chapter is entitled "Unusual Disorders and Amazing Powers," it probably should have been called "Crazy Chemicals" because most of the chapter is about ergot and pheromones. There's a description of ergot (an alkaloid known to cause hallucinations and bizarre behaviour) and one of its derivatives, LSD. The X-Files writers must really like ergot, because it's been featured in a number of episodes. The section on pheromones and whether or not they exist in humans is mostly concerned with the episode "Genderbender."
Chapter Four "Earthly Oddities" is mostly descriptive, talking about cockroaches, frog deformities and organisms that live in extreme environments of hot or cold.
Chapters Five and Six get into the subject that the X-Files is all about -- aliens and UFOs. "Aliens from the Skies" is about the possibility of alien life reaching Earth via meteorites. There's also a discussion of the black worms or the black oil that appears in a number of episodes. Cavelos considers other organisms we can use as models from nature. There's a description of the process of developing vaccines and a discussion about the possible effectiveness of vaccines against these organisms. The author rejects the idea of antibodies being acquired through ingestion, saying that all compounds would be broken down in the stomach, making me think that she has never heard of the developing work on oral vaccines. But then six pages later, she makes reference to a German study that found that DNA can pass through the digestive system intact.
Chapter Six probably should have been combined with Chapter Five. There's a description of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and a consideration of whether we are alone in the universe (something I've seen done much better in other places). There's another section on evolution, and again I wonder why all of the discussion and explanation of evolution wasn't covered in a single section. She considers alien-human hybrids and the five different kinds seen in various episodes.
The final chapter is on technology. Here, Cavelos talks about the roachbots from "War of the Coprophages" and progress in robotics. There's a section on implants, but she really doesn't discuss the limits of current technology or the vision of nanotechnology. She provides information about artificial intelligence, the Turing test, and progress in making thinking machines. She does comment on how illogical the AIs were in "Ghost in the Machine" and "Kill Switch," being more melodramatic than logical. She talks about genetic engineering, homeobox genes and the Great Mutato, all of which would have been better off in the first chapter with the rest of the discussion on mutants and mutations. Cavelos presents more information about vaccines, smallpox bees, and emerging infectious diseases. Again I wonder -- shouldn't all of the vaccine information have been in one place?
I can't really give this book my reviewer's stamp of approval. Despite the fact that this is a popular culture book aimed at the general public, it might have been a good idea for the author to have provided references. Although running footnotes may be too much to ask for, a bibliography at the end of the book, divided up by chapter, would have been appropriate. The disclaimer on the front is also interesting: "This book was not authorized, prepared, approved, licensed, or endorsed by any entity involved in creating or producing The X-Files television series or films."
But the biggest problem I have with the book is Cavelos' unwillingness to dismiss the pseudo-science of The X-Files. Cavelos definitely has trouble saying "This is purely from the imagination of the writers -- this is not possible." While I enjoy The X-Files as much as anyone, some of the science is definitely speculative and, sometimes, utter fiction. I expected a rational evaluation of the science -- this is what we know, this is what may be possible, and this is totally unreasonable and why. The trouble is, Cavelos meanders around, superficially treating some subjects while overemphasizing others. The information is scattered and disorganized.
Perhaps the best indication of the type of book this is appears on the very last page, where you'll find an advertisement for Erich von Däniken's Chariots of the Gods. If that appeals, by all means pick up The Science of the X-Files.
Todd is a plant molecular developmental biologist who has finally finished 23 years of formal education. He recently fled Madison, WI for the warmer but damper San Francisco Bay Area and likes bad movies, good science fiction, and role-playing games. He began reading science fiction at the age of eight, starting with Heinlein, Silverberg, and Tom Swift books, and has a great fondness for tongue-in-cheek fantasy Óla Terry Pratchett, Craig Shaw Gardner and Robert Asprin.
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