Putting the science back into fiction

A new book aims to engage with genuine, rather than far-fetched, advances. Matthew Reisz reports

November 19, 2009

The future is not what it used to be. Yet much science fiction continues to rely on a limited range of familiar scenarios - time travel, interstellar space travel and a world of sentient machines - none of which is going to happen any time soon.

The genre pays far less attention to genuine scientific advances, both exciting and disturbing, that writers arguably ought to be engaging with.

So could it be time to put the science back into science fiction? Geoff Ryman, senior creative writing lecturer at the University of Manchester, believes so.

When he was leading the well-known Clarion workshop at the University of Michigan, he discovered that his students - aspiring young science fiction writers - were scientifically literate and left of centre, and tended to be anxious about climate change and other possibilities rather closer on the horizon than intergalactic voyaging.

This led Mr Ryman to produce the Mundane Manifesto for "a more earthly science fiction", which banned the use of motifs such as aliens and faster-than-light travel.

He has now taken this a step further and edited an anthology that consciously embraces "the surprising stuff going on that is not reflected in fiction".

The working method was to bring 15 established fiction writers together with practising scientists based at the universities of Manchester, Liverpool and Strathclyde, the Daresbury Laboratory and the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics.

Their expertise covers fields ranging from particle physics to invertebrate physiology.

The result has now appeared as When It Changed, published by Comma Press in Manchester.

One writer, Mr Ryman said, was inspired to create "a wonderful picture of the doubts and emotional experiences of a scientist at work".

Another became intrigued by the possibilities, not least for the illegal drug trade, of carrying out tests on virtual human beings.

Novelist Michael Arditti was keen to get involved because he "had never written anything science fictiony and knew it would take me out of my comfort zone".

"I was glad to be taken into another world. What I thought would be a constraint turned out to be a liberation," he said.

Mr Arditti's story, In the Event of, is set underground in a post-apocalyptic world and uses the theme of cloning to explore issues of identity, family conflict and the role of the imagination.

He said he was grateful to John Harris, Lord Alliance professor of bioethics at Manchester, for a conversation that "cleared up a few misconceptions, provided the basic information and stopped me making mistakes".

The scientists, who supplied brief afterwords to the stories they helped to shape, were delighted, according to Mr Ryman, "to see their research walking and talking".

Even the most unexpected topics could prove inspiring.

Jennifer Rowntree, a postdoctoral researcher in the faculty of life sciences at Manchester, explained the strange biology of mosses and other bryophytes to novelist Sara Maitland.

It may sound challenging to turn this into fiction, but Ms Maitland produced a dark fairy story entitled Moss Witch.

Dr Rowntree said she was thrilled by her ingenuity in "imagining an intelligent, human-like creature who works like a bryophyte".


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