Monday, February 15, 2016

The Science of Monsters by Matt Kaplan

In the darkness it came. There was no way out. Cornered and helpless, all who found themselves in this dreaded place knew their fate.
Can anyone guess which monster this opening quote is about? If you guessed the Minotaur, then congrats, you know your monsters extremely well!

I've actually been wanting to read this since I read The Science of the Magical (link leads to my review), although topically, this is a lot more similar to Monsters by David Gilmore (again, link leads to review. And I'll just italicise the title when talking about to, to prevent confusion from the actual monstrous topic). But unlike Monsters, this book is a lot more accessible. Not that Monsters wasn't readable, but it had this academic air throughout. The Science of Monsters is very casual, and has a lot of humour.

Especially the footnotes. Can I take a moment to express how much I love the footnotes here. I mean there is information, but most of it is just funny. I really looked forward to reading them, when normally I just ignore footnotes and end notes.

Although it isn't formally divided this way, I think the book can roughly be divided into two halves. The first is about how monsters came about. What inspired the Chimera? What inspired the stories of vampires? Of golems?

Most of the theories are interesting, and quite believable, although like the previous book, I think when it comes to the Bible-related stuff, his interpretation is a bit off, like for the Leviathan. But it's not a big deal or a cornerstone of the book. And anyway, it's all theories, right? Good to read something different.

The 'second half', is more on the possibilities of other monsters. Can dinosaurs be resurrected? What was going on with medicine in Frankenstein (can it happen?)? Can computers think can become like HAL? Stuff like that. Again, not agreeing with everything, but definitely food for thought.

If there's one weakness of the book, it's that it's almost exclusively Western oriented. Chinese dragon comes up briefly once, and Chinese ghosts once, but other than that, it's all about Western monsters. Compared to Monsters, it's a bit of a pity.

Actually, just to digress, why do we translate the Chinese "龙(long)" as dragon anyway? It seems to me that they're both two very separate creatures, not only in appearance, but in terms of how each culture treats the creature.

Overall, this was a good read. It was fun reading the theories of how mankind could have come up with various monsters, and the author definitely does a good job with making them all seem plausible. Totally recommended for people interested in monsters, along with his other book The Science of Magic, and Monsters by David Gilmore. I'll end with the last lines of the book, which I quite liked as well:
We can stand petrified as we gaze at the monsters we have be- come and allow worldwide nuclear and environmental destruction. Alternatively, we have the opportunity to take action, behead the beast, and claim a future where the mask of the monster safely sits somewhere else.

(A version of this review first appeared on my Dayre)

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