In 2007, Lucy Hawking teamed up with her superstar physicist father Stephen to write a popular science trilogy for children. The George series, aimed at readers aged 8+, turned out to be so popular that a fourth instalment (George and the Unbreakable Code) appeared in 2014, and a fifth has been published earlier in the year: George and the Blue Moon.
George Greenby, the son of eco-warrior parents, and Annie Bellis, the daughter of the world’s most famous physicist — Eric, based on Stephen Hawking himself — suddenly face the opportunity of a lifetime. They have been accepted onto a junior astronaut programme, for kids aged 11-15, to prepare for a manned mission to Mars in 2025. (In a way this actually makes sense: if you want to send intelligent, well-trained adults to Mars, you have to start rather early, as the journey itself will take several years.) Now they need to beat their fellow candidates in order to be selected as the first humans to set foot on another planet. Oddly enough, Eric has just been fired from his job at the space facility where this selection will take place, due to a disagreement about ethics…
The storylines of the earlier George books were often quite contrived, but this book presents an exciting mix of The Hunger Games and Ender’s Game — although perceptive readers might wonder why George and Annie would bother applying to be astronauts if they can use Eric’s supercomputer Cosmos to portal through space, as they do at the start of the book to get to the ‘blue moon’ Europa. For an adult reader, the plot is hilarious: it doesn’t only refer to these famous science fiction stories, but it also criticises the Mars One project, which aims to send people to Mars by 2025. Mars One intends their journey to be a one-way trip, and until 2015 there were plans to turn the astronaut selection process into a reality TV show by Endemol (famous for Big Brother and American Idol). In George and the Blue Moon, this selection process soon turns lethal.
All of the George books combine an adventure plot, in which George and Annie have to save the world, with sections that contain very contemporary real-world scientific exposition. Surprisingly, the science in this latest instalment is much less complex than in the previous books. The scientific content had been increasing in complexity with every new book: George and the Big Bang explained particle collisions, gauge bosons, and quantum theory; George and the Unbreakable Code contained advanced computer science and M-theory. For the intended readership, this was getting out of hand. The informative sections of this latest book contain more understandable topics for this age range: terraforming, driverless cars, the periodic table, weight vs. mass — until the final informative section, which suddenly attempts to explain quantum teleportation in a page and a half and contains such phraseology as ‘eigenstate’, ‘entangled’ and ‘uncertainty principle’. Vaguely remembering the plot of the previous books is enough to understand the story, but in order to understand the science too much is expected from the reader in terms of the knowledge they should have picked up from these works.
The language Annie and George use in George and the Blue Moon is as up-to-date as the science. In the fourth book, the two suddenly started speaking in modern teenage slang: George greets Annie with ‘YOLO!’. Using such slang of course makes the book immensely at risk of sounding extremely outdated within five years. However, the science described in the book is so cutting-edge that this too will likely be outdated within five years: part three, George and the Big Bang (2011), covered the Large Hadron Collider and its search for the Higgs boson, which was discovered in the year of publication of the book. The clue George uses to save Eric, recognizing the Higgs boson as the only hypothetical one among a series of particles, was therefore outdated astonishingly soon.
Despite its high price for a children’s book, £12.99, this instalment seems to have been made with a smaller printing budget than its predecessors. First of all, the book has been edited a bit carelessly, unlike the previous books: it contains wobbly sentences such as “One evening Annie even got a message which must have come from Ebot [Eric’s robot] as it was cryptic sentence.” More importantly, the first three George books had multiple full-colour picture sections, printed on glossy paper, which presented beautiful Hubble imagery and even graphs and computer simulations. The fourth book, George and the Unbreakable Code, still contained pictures, but they were all in black and white — which made it difficult to make out what exactly was pictured on some of them. George and the Blue Moon, disappointingly, does not contain any picture sections at all. This is a pity and a missed opportunity: a lot of brilliant new photographs have been taken of Mars recently, which would fit very well in a book about a Mars mission. George and the Blue Moon has the most exciting storyline of the series so far; it deserves to have been given the same luxurious treatment as its predecessors.
‘George and the Blue Moon’ is available in hardback from most bookstores, RRP £12.99.