Lowdown: A whole new world becomes visible and accessible to an ordinary child.
Let the record say that the first Stephen Hawking book I got to read is not Brief History of Time or anything bombastic as that, but rather a book aimed at 9 year olds plus called George's Secret Key to the Universe. Then again, George’s Key was co-written by Stephen and Lucy Hawking (don’t ask me what relation if any exist), so it’s impossible for me to say how much of it was written by the famous scientist and how much by the person whose day job is being a writer.
Should I care? Not really, when the book at hand is a very engaging adventure story I gobbled enthusiastically despite it being aimed at significantly younger kids than yours truly while, at the same time, I was exposed to lots of interesting scientific facts and theories mostly relating to cosmology. Liberals, Nationals and Family First voters are warned, though, that the book has an overall greenie messages and poses the significant of causing your children think for themselves!
The story of George’s Key follows a child called George. George is a pretty ordinary child living in a pretty ordinary Western town. There is a catch, though: George’s parents are environmentalists of the extreme kind. They don’t allow electricity or cars, they eat vegetarian food they make on their own, and they don’t allow George to have the computer he covets so much. Instead, George has to settle with a pig.
Adventures commence when George’s pig breaks into his neighbors yard and George follows it. There he finds a girl his age, her father the scientist, and Cosmos – the most powerful computer in the world! Cosmos allows our new gang of friends to enter a window in space and explore it first hand. Which, indeed, our friends do, in the process teaching us lots of things about our solar system.
Every good story needs a villain, and in George’s Key that villain comes in the shape of George’s schoolteacher and a bunch of school bullies that like to pick on easy prey. That teacher covets Cosmos, and with the bullies’ help things come down to being able to rescue oneself from a black hole (no one would have expected black holes in a Stephen Hawking book!).
My edition of the book was obviously the English one; everyone was "cross" with one another and everyone speaks and behaves in very English ways. You can say that reading this edition is a bit of an anthropological experience. Yet the nice thing about George’s Key is its loyalty to scientific facts and its promotion of the scientific method. Indeed, the book carries in it a lot of the messages carried in Carl Sagan’s Demon Haunted World, a book on the virtues of the scientific method, only that George does it in a much simplified and distilled way that should be more accessible. The story is augmented by the occasional side panel providing straight facts about all sorts of celestial stuff that even I, a person not that foreign to astronomy, learned a thing or two from. The book also features some very sexy color photos of space artifacts which managed to captivate my two year old with their flashy colors. Yet with all of its scientific pretensions it has to be said George’s Secret Key to the Universe is very much a science fiction book, by virtue of the fact a tool such as Cosmos is not something we will be able to see any time soon. It is, however, a smartly crafted tool to help develop the story with.
Another tool that helps Geroge’s Secret Key to the Universe are the drawings / sketches accompanying the book. They’re really good! I often wonder why adult books do away with drawings; done right, as is the case here, I find they greatly enhance my book reading fun factor.
The last point I would like to emphasize about George’s Key is its villains. I was rather surprised to find teachers vilified as much as they do in the book, especially given Stephen Hawking’s own role as an educator. It’s not just the baddie being a teacher, but rather the entire way in which schools are described as a boring place that does nothing for its pupils’ good other than keeping them off adults’ hair. It sounds harsh, but I have to say totally agree with the Hawkings here: The way our education system has been going and the way it keeps on aiming at nothing more than high marks, its real value as an educator has long been forgotten and neglected. Want good education? Go read yourself a good book. Start with this one.
Another villain related issue is to do with the bullying factor. Personally, I don’t recall ever suffering from bullying at school, although I have witnessed it done to others. However, the way school bullying and cyber bullying are described today, it sounds to me as if the problem is much worse than it used to be. Given that bullying is usually the result of the bully’s own craving for attention, we once again get a glimpse at the wrongs of living in a society where money is the first and final arbiter and people come last.
Overall: A highly pleasurable read with insight for everyone to pick. 4 out of 5 stars.