Novel approach

Heriot-Watt's Greg Michaelson has traded writing computer science textbooks for a work of fiction, discovers Olga Wojtas

September 4, 2008

Computer science professor Greg Michaelson did not submit his most recent publication to the research assessment exercise. "I've produced two textbooks, three co-edited research collections and around 65 journal and conference papers, but this is the most exciting thing that's happened to me," the Heriot-Watt University professor said of his latest work - a novel, The Wave Singer.

Published last month by Argyll, the book describes a future dystopia - after a satellite disaster has knocked the Earth off balance - and focuses on three communities living on the now-dry seabed of the Beauly Firth.

"They have access to records about how we lived, and to machine-age technology, but they're living a Stone Age existence," he says. The Wave Singers sing the sound of the missing sea, but everyone lives in dread of the impending Great Flood. Professor Michaelson says this may be analogous to fears of nuclear war that dominated the 1960s when he was growing up.

"I guess all stories say something about how the author views the society around them, but there's nobody in it I know. There are lots of bits and pieces: Tintin and Moomin, and Van Morrison and Beatles references."

He declined to categorise the novel, saying: "It's just a story. I want to be able to tell a good story and make a coherent argument, and that comes out of teaching."

His Heriot-Watt colleagues are intrigued and supportive, but also surprised that he found time to write a novel, since he is head of department as well as a teacher and researcher. He wrote it in the evenings, he says, between 2000 and 2007. But he has a proven track record of writing quickly, producing almost a chapter a week for his PhD over ten weeks after he came to Heriot-Watt, having already written his first textbook.

This was in 1993, a good 20 years after he went to the University of Essex to study maths and transferred to join one of the early cohorts of computer science students. He went on to the University of St Andrews for his PhD, but failed to finish it because of the competing attractions of student and left-wing politics, a motorbike and playing in a band.

Professor Michaelson nonetheless got a first lecturing post at Napier College, followed by four years at the University of Glasgow. He says he has found writing fiction much tougher than academic writing. "The textbooks came naturally out of my teaching and research. You know what to do, and everything is well defined and structured. But with a novel, the only material you've got is other people's writing and you don't want to write like other people."

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