The Edge of the Sky by Roberto Trotta

I get a fair number of books to review, but I’m often pretty bad about writing them up in a timely manner. Of course, most of them are well over 70 pages long, which is why I’ve managed to turn around Roberto Trotta’s The Edge of the Sky: All You Need to Know About the All-There-Is in the course of a weekend.

As you can probably get from the title, this is a book about astronomy written in Up Goer Five style, using only the thousand most common English words (which are helpfully listed near the start of the book, in case you want to check whether he cheated…), plus proper names. And there’s only so far you can run with that conceit (says the guy who wrote not one but two pop-physics books about a talking dog…). It does a quick run through modern astronomy framed by the musings of an astronomer during an all-night observing session with a giant telescope (a “Big-Seer” in Upgoerese). This includes a bit of personal history:

She would never have thought to end up here.

She had not been one of those kids with a clear idea of what they are going to become. And to become a student-woman was not something she had dreamed of– even less to become a student-woman who studies the All-There-Is.

Her family wanted for her a real job: a job everyone knew about.

A doctor– that was a great job. She would have been good at that, they thought. Or one of those people who wear horse hair on their head and try to trip up other people for a living. They explain how things have really gone, say, if someone has killed another person, and have to make sure they are believed.

I excerpt this bit because it gets the basic idea across, and also shows the weakness of the form. Namely that if you don’t already know a bit about what he’s talking about, Upgoerization can render relatively simple ideas utterly baffling. I puzzled over that last paragraph for a disgracefully long time before I remembered the key fact: Trotta is British, or at least based in the UK. Which explains the relevance of horse hair.

And that’s the problem I end up having with the whole Up Goer Five thing. It’s sort of interesting as a technical exercise, in the same way that, say, a villanelle or a double dactyl is interesting. But beyond demonstrating the cleverness of the author, I’m not quite sure what the point is supposed to be. English offers a rich and amazing bounty of descriptive words with fine shades of meaning, and not making use of that seems kind of silly. The circumlocution required by the Upgoer form ends up obscuring as much as it reveals.

And that’s pretty much the review of the book right there. Trotta does an impressive job of boiling astronomy down into Upgoerish, and it’s fascinating (in a writerly sort of way) to see how he manages it. He also gets full credit for not “dumbing down” the discussion in anything but a linguistic sense– the survey of astronomy presented here is compact but mostly complete, including mysteries of dark matter, dark energy, and inflation, and a good discussion of how we know those things exist. It’s not clear to me, though, that this book would convey all that much to people who didn’t already know the basic outline of the subject.

Of course, the counter to that is that this might be an effective outreach to people who like language games and constrained verse forms. The whole Up Goer Five thing was vastly more popular than I would’ve expected, so clearly I don’t have a great read on the appeal of this sort of thing. Maybe there are people who will pick this up to appreciate a virtuoso display of formally constrained writing (it’s certainly that), and end up reading astronomy books containing a wider range of words to pick up some of the finer points.

So, anyway, I wish I had a stronger opinion to offer on this. It’s an outstanding example of the form, and if you’re more interested in that form than I am, I definitely recommend checking it out. Which I know is the worst kind of tepid “Sure to appeal to people who like this sort of thing” review, and will probably result in Basic never sending me another free review copy, but there’s such a mismatch between this book and my tastes that it’s hard to say anything more.

  • By Chad Orzel
  • Posted in Uncategorized
  • Tagged astronomy, Books, In the Media, Physics, Physics Books, pop culture, , Science Books, Science Writing
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