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No Limits
      Packing Fraction
written and edited by Julie E. Czerneda
      edited by Julie E. Czerneda
Trifolium Books Inc., 122 pages
      Trifolium Books Inc., 122 pages

No Limits
Packing Fraction
Julie E. Czerneda
Julie Czerneda is a Canadian science fiction writer who lives at the edge of a forest in Orillia, Ontario, with her husband and two children. A former researcher in animal communication, she has also written non-fiction that ranges from biology texts to the use of science fiction in developing literacy.

Julie E. Czerneda Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: A Thousand Words For Stranger
SF Site Review: Beholder's Eye
Trifolium Books interview
A Thousand Words for Stranger excerpt

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Jean-Louis Trudel

Can science fiction be used to spark interest in science? Canadian science fiction author Julie Czerneda has been writing classroom resources for high school teachers and students for over a decade. She is also the author of such novels as A Thousand Words for Stranger (1997) and Beholder's Eye (1998), from DAW. In 1998, she decided to combine her two areas of expertise to produce this pair of books from Trifolium.

No Limits is a textbook built around the stories collected in Packing Fraction. All the stories appear in both books, but they are extensively annotated and analyzed in No Limits, which also provides additional information on the authors and pointers to related science fiction stories. The book uses SF to stimulate fresh and creative thinking about science. It is also packed with an array of ideas for activities to kindle a critical approach with respect to science and science fiction. Personally, I would either have loved running across a teacher equipped with such a book when I was in school or hated to see my beloved SF genre dragged into the classroom to be dissected to death. (I suppose my reaction would have depended largely on the approach of the teacher in question.)

However competent the ancillary material, the success or failure of the concept must turn on the stories themselves. In Packing Fraction & Other Tales of Science and Imagination, the stories are presented in a way that would allow the book to be also studied as a science fiction sampler in an English class, with corresponding illustrations, short interviews of the authors, and recommended books. But it's designed as the student companion to No Limits, the workbook proper.

In fact, the resulting collection of stories is well suited to its main purpose. The best story is clearly Charles Sheffield's "Packing Fraction." Not only is it the title story, but it was fittingly chosen by Julie Czerneda to lead off the collection's line-up. Crackling with tension, it first applies a nifty concept from geometry to chemistry, and then draws out an unexpected consequence in the field of physics. As a result, the tale straddles three scientific topics for the price of one, while ending on a quality punch.

Running a close second in my book is Sawyer's "Stream of Consciousness." Featuring a thought-provoking idea about alien biology, it functions as a general biology primer more than adequate for sparking discussion. The weak and mushy ending is rather anticlimactic, mostly serving to conclude the story after it is effectively brought to a stop by the revelation of the central McGuffin.

Jan Stirling's "Love is Chemistry" also delivers. The main character, Crystal, is a teenager rather convincingly portrayed by the author. The description of the events that ensue when Crystal field tests some designer pheromones in a high school setting is both stimulating and delightful. Biochemistry always hits close to home, and this story is no exception.

Carolyn Clink's poetry explores a grab bag of scientific areas including biology, chemistry and physics. While her poems may require more background than can be expected from high school readers, they should lend themselves beautifully to a careful unpacking of their secrets by science teachers.

Julie Czerneda's story takes a more sociological turn. Its main concern is the adaptation of a future human society to information technology. "Prospect Park" is a darker story than the others, describing a society where humans can be overwhelmed by the demands of being part of the network.

Finally, Josepha Sherman's story "Ancient Dreams" would ordinarily qualify as a perfectly competent instance of SF for younger readers, but it seems curiously lacking in a collection of stories centred on science. The conflict between the human archaeologists on an alien planet and the planet's inhabitants is resolved by happenstance. The qualms of the aliens are described as irrational, as if they could have no valid concerns about humans digging up the relics of their past. The humans are, on the main, depicted as intelligent and rational, while the aliens are mostly slaves of their religious prejudices. Perhaps this story can be used as an unintended example of cultural insensitivity.

However, if we take into account the collection's purpose, to foster both creative and critical thinking about science, the best three stories are those by Sheffield, Stirling, and Czerneda. All of these depict not only the best aspects of science, but also the risk of unintended consequences. Knowledge is power, but power must be handled with care.

While both books are designed for a classroom setting, Packing Fraction would make a good gift for a young reader of middle school years with a budding interest in SF. Both books can be recommended to most schools with a genuine interest in encouraging kids to appreciate science and science fiction.

Copyright © 1999 by Jean-Louis Trudel

Jean-Louis Trudel is a busy, bilingual writer from Canada, with two novels and fourteen young adult books to his credit in French. He's also a moderately prolific reviewer and short story writer.

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