Monday, October 26, 2009

When it Changed: Science into Fiction

I associated the moment of ‘change’ with scientific breakthrough. It was surprising to learn that the title came from a favourite short story of Geoff Ryman’s. As chair of the panel and editor of the collection from Comma Press, he told the audience that not only was it the name of Joanna Russ’ story, but should be the title of every story. This synthesis of science and fiction was something mentioned by each of the panelists. The great imaginative leap required to shape both fiction and scientific research was the point of contact for each of the pairs.

The idea was a simple, but fantastic one; to team a writer with a scientist. Each pair collaborated on a story based as accurately as possible on current scientific thinking. The other people on the panel were: Steve Furber, ICL Professor of Computer Engineering. Adam Marek, a writer who has been nominated for the Frank O’Connor Award. Tim O’Brien, an astrophysicist working at Jodrell Bank. Patricia Duncker, a writer of fiction and Professor of English Literature at Manchester University. Liz Williams could not make the launch due to illness, but her short story was performed by Geoff Ryman.

Steve Furber was self-deprecating and humorous. He talked in an accessible way about his work with microprocessors, explaining that there are now more microprocessors than human beings on the planet. He is interested in artificial intelligence and is currently building a machine with one million microprocessors to attempt to recreate one percent of the function of the brain. This interest in intelligent machines and their similarity to the human brain is represented by his favourite film – 2001: A Space Odyssey. Steve explained that HAL had the right mixture of logic and emotional subtlety to be one of the most sinister fictional robots. He also told the audience that he felt the best science fiction left things unsaid. His concluding comments on the similarity between fiction and research summed up the points of contact between the collaborators. He said that both required ‘imaginative speculation, creativity and risk-taking’.

Geoff Ryman explained that Liz Williams was a writer who also had a PhD in the philosophy of artificial intelligence. Her story came about as a result of working with Tim Furber. He then began, quite unexpectedly, to perform the part of Wittgenstein in Liz’s story in a German accent.

The story was quite beautiful. Liz used mathematical and logical concepts to set the scene in an alternative Cambridge where Wittgenstein was living. The windows were perfectly proportioned, the light golden, the stones grey and ‘more like bone than stone’. This glorious symmetry hints at something sinister which becomes apparent. The other character in the story is an imagined Alan Turing. Wittgenstein becomes upset by the sight of an apple core in the room, which he does not remember eating. He talks of a mathematician named Alan whom he ‘recognised for what he was’. The eating of the apple is surely in reference to Turing’s scientific and symbolic death by eating poisoned fruit as a result of his persecution on account of his homosexuality. The opening of the story sets up a challenge to binaries – The characters both are and are not historical figures, Cambridge is both beautiful and a prison, The intelligent machine can be caught out by a ‘false note’ but it is not certain what this might be. There is a sense that in questioning the philosophy behind artificial intelligence, wider issues of discrimination and violation can be explored. In the last line of the section, nature had been inverted. The sky was black.

Tim O’Brien dates his interest in science to a fancy dress party when he was five or six. He had arrived wearing cardboard boxes covered in tin foil, dressed as either an astronaut or a robot. He worked with two writers: Patricia Duncker and Frank Cottrell Boyce.

Patricia and Tim spent some time together at Jodrell Bank where Tim works as an astrophysicist who, in his own words, ‘discovers galaxies all the time’. When Patricia was there they discovered one together. Patricia described the telescope as a kind of ‘unicorn’ which is surrounded by smaller telescopes, almost as though it has spawned. She said that she has spent many nights out on the Cheshire plain, watching the telescope move in time with the stars.
Patricia has written a narrative which blends religious experience with scientific accuracy. Both Patricia and Tim describe religion and science as a kind of ‘working through doubt’ as opposed to the certainty of faith. The religious vision which her young protagonist experiences at the end of the story takes elements of the ‘woman in the wilderness’ of Revelations and combines it with a scientifically accurate description of the life of a star.

Tim’s mind-blowing prophecy that in a few years from now we will have evidence of a planet much like Earth, containing life forms is tempered by the fact that there is no way that humans can travel more than a little way from the planet. He reminded the audience that though scientists may be able to tell that there are life forms much like ourselves by testing the atmospheres, colours and temperatures here on Earth in laboratories, it is frustrating as we will never be able to advance any further in our knowledge.

This unknowing, was a subject of Geoff Ryman’s questions at the end, directed at Tim, Steve and Patricia. All three agreed that the amount we do not know is increasing all of the time, and that the term ‘dark matter’ is there to fill the void. Dark energy is said to account for 96% of what is on the earth. Patricia Duncker suggested the term ‘dark knowledge’ could be used to cover what we do not know.

Adam Marek’s story was called Without a Shout and blended two ideas which he learned from a professor at Liverpool University. He works in nanotechnology and is developing a suit which measures heart rate, blood pressure, temperature etc. He is also developing face cream which can repair damaged skin. Adam Marek imagined a world where these ‘intelligent’ products were used to protect middle-class school kids from terrorist attacks. In the story, suicide bombers attacked the school children on an increasingly larger scale when they were fitted with suits which repaired their bodies. The chaos and horror of being blown to bits and then rearranged by ‘intelligent’ clothing is nicely contrasted with the more normal fights they have with the poorer school down the road. An audience member mentioned that what works so well about the story is that it follows normal laws and logic. Technology changes some aspects of the children’s lives, but so many others are universal and remain the same. Adam said that he has long ‘danced on the edge of science fiction’ and enjoyed the process of basing a story on actual science.

Geoff Ryman closed the readings by performing the first part of his story You. His concept of ‘life blogs’ concertinaing out of one another and allowing the spectator to experience virtual lives, the lives of celebrities and even of those long dead was fascinating. As a comment on the way in which technology has changed communication, it was not straightforward . Rather there was wonder in the proliferation of aspects. There are some beautiful images in You– ‘red soil bare of plants’, ‘silhouettes of cliffs’ and ‘shadows long and cold’ show the expanse of this unknown world. Perhaps in this space, behind the shadows and the silhouettes, there is a place for dark knowledge.


Laura Joyce runs the Red Shoes Workshop in Manchester and has a blog at

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