Fiction inspired by science: part II

13 December 2010

 Orange string theory by Sarah G..., on Flickr
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Orange string theory by Sarah G..., on Flickr

At Wellcome Collection we often get to hear of groundbreaking experiments in art and science. Less common are collisions between art and literature, in particular fiction, so we were exited to hear that short-story writer Tania Hershman had been appointed a Fiction Writer in Residence in the Faculty of Science at the University of Bristol. We asked Tania if she’d be kind enough to write us a guest post… and we got two! In the first post, Tania told us about life in the lab as a writer. In the second part she looks at where else she has found science inspiring fiction…

In the first part of this blog post I talked about what I am doing as fiction-writer-in-residence in Bristol University’s Science Faculty. Here I’ll bring you a few examples of science-inspired fiction, written by both scientists and non-scientists. I’d love more suggestions, please do comment and let me know of others!

There is already quite a tradition of science poetry, some of it collected in A Quark for Mister Mark: 101 Poems About Science, published in 2000, and more recently Dark Matter: Poems of Space, published in 2008. The first fiction inspired by science that I came across, and still my favourite, is Einstein’s Dreams, by MIT physicist Alan Lightman. Published in 1994, this could be described loosely as a novel-in-stories, an imagining of what Einstein might have been dreaming about as he was formulating his theory of relativity. Each chapter or story conjures up a different theory of time – it moves slower at higher altitudes, disorder decreases with time instead of increasing, it works in a groundhog-day fashion where people are doomed to repeat the same day again and again. Einstein’s Dreams is not only thought-provoking but beautifully written:

In this world it is instantly obvious that something is odd. No houses can be seen in the valleys or plains. Everyone lives in the mountains. At some time in the past, scientists discovered that time flows more slowly the farther from the centre of the earth. The effect is minuscule, but it can be measured with extremely sensitive instruments. Once the phenomenon was known, a few people, anxious to stay young, moved to the mountains…Height has become status. When a person from his kitchen window must look up to see a neighbour, he believes that neighbour will not become as stiff in the joints as soon as he, will not lose his hair…

Einstein also appears as a character in several sections. But this doesn’t mean that Einstein’s Dreams is designed to educate the reader. The aim of all fiction, I believe, is to entertain. Fiction takes the reader inside the skin and the mind of a character, it is about story; if the reader happens to learn anything then I consider that a bonus.

This is most definitely an apt description of Italian physicist Paolo Giordano’s stunning novel, The Solitude of Prime Numbers, which was published in 2008. The book, which has sold over a million copies, won Italy’s prestigious Premio Strega prize. Giordano does what I would say is essential for any work of fiction inspired by fact, which is to get the reader hooked on the story and engaged by the characters before slipping into the science. Giordano waits until page 143 to give an explanation of what prime numbers are, and when he does, he weaves it so beautifully into the story of Mattia and Alice that it will prevent any maths-hating reader to stop reading at that point!

In his first year Mattia had studied the fact that among the prime numbers there are some that are even more special. Mathematicians call them twin primes: they are pairs of prime numbers that are close to one another, almost neighbours, but between them there is always an even number that prevents them from really touching… Mattia thought that he and Alice were like that, two twin primes, alone and lost, close but not close enough really to touch each other.

However, there are fictions inspired by science that don’t do this quite as well – almost immediately, before the story has taken off, readers are bombarded with information that seem to have been lifted verbatim from textbooks. It is popular to use different forms in fiction, such as fake newspaper articles, blog posts, emails and letters, and this is all very well, but I would caution against using these to deliver facts you think the reader ‘must’ know. Are they really relevant to the story, to the characters? Personally, I would err on the side of less, and hope that you are inspiring your reader to, when the poem, story or novel is over, look up some of that themselves.

Thus: fiction inspired by science might inspire the reader towards science.

It’s not all scientists writing science-inspired fiction, nor should it be – there are also science-loving writers with no science background, such as Sue Guiney, whose excellent first novel, Tangled Roots, has as a physicist as one of its two protagonists. Sue spent a great deal of time with physicists, and I think she has created a wonderful character, someone who is far from a stereotypical boffin. Geoff Ryman talks about this in his introduction to the anthology When it Changed: Science into Fiction, where writers were paired up with scientists who provided inspiration for short stories. Ryman says: “Fiction has too often gone off on a tangent from science, portraying scientists as, if not actually mad, at very least cold, cut off, verging on autistic. The lives and work of real scientists are largely absent from fictions ostensibly set in the real world.”  This short story anthology contains stories inspired but not necessarily about science, and its publisher, Comma Press, with funding from the Manchester Area Beacon Early Career Researcher project, is now taking this further by commissioning fiction writers to enter into the minds of scientists at the ‘eureka’ moments of major discoveries. I am one of the writers, and I think this is a very exciting project.

Another project I’ve been involved in is Riffing On Strings: Creative Writing Inspired by String Theory, an anthology of essays, short stories, poems and plays published in 2008. The range is extraordinary, from a short story about an elderly, senile physicist and his wife to a wonderful poem with the lines: “I have seen the effects of string cheese on my son./He positively quivers./It is really something.” Many of these pieces seem to have been written by those interested in science rather than writers with a background in science.

In September, I ran a science-inspired fiction and poetry open mic night at the British Science Festival, together with science-loving writers Sue Guiney and Brian Clegg. The small but enthusiastic audience all read poetry – the winner that night, Heather Wastie, had been inspired to write her poem by a Wellcome Library article on Sir Bernard Spilsbury, Britain’s first forensic scientist. Where were the short stories? Next year, I plan on an event that is standing room only, with short story writers very well represented. Looking for ideas? Pick up a copy of New Scientist or Focus, or wander into your local university. You’ll be overwhelmed with what’s there.

Tania Hershman is founder and editor of The Short Review. You can find out more about Tania’s work and writing on her website and her blog. Her work at Bristol University can be found on their Science Faculty blog.

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