Tales turn on mystery and imagination alone

March 24, 2006

Fiction should be about telling good stories, not championing scientific accuracy, insists Philip Pullman

Robert May, the former chief scientific adviser to the Government, in his recent article in The Times Higher (February 17) lamented the failure of popular television drama to present science accurately and gave as an example the recent ITV1 series Eleventh Hour , starring Patrick Stewart.

We all notice the things we're most interested in. I watched the first episode, and what put me off was the mannered filming, the relentlessly fidgety editing. I hardly registered the inaccurate science.

If the makers of that series had obeyed the basic principles of film storytelling - have something interesting happen, put the camera in the best place to see it and change the point of view when you need to rather than just because you can - I might have taken more notice of the science.

But would I have spotted the things that were wrong with it? And furthermore, if I did, how much would it matter and why? I have no scientific training at all; the education system in this country allowed me to drop all science after O-level biology, and although I read New Scientist and Scientific American and devour books of popular science of every kind, I am no expert on anything. What I am is the average intelligent viewer, or reader. And as such, I'm in a position to say that even if the science is egregiously preposterous, I'll still overlook it if the story works; but if the story fails, it doesn't matter how good the science is.

For example, a book that works magnificently is David Lindsay's visionary masterpiece, A Voyage to Arcturus , written in 1920. The story concerns the adventures of two travellers who encounter temptations, perils, landscapes and characters of intoxicating beauty and mind-shaking moral vileness. The whole book is suffused with a religious vision that is almost Blakeian in its ferocious originality. The science comes into it because the two men travel through space, and their adventures take place on another planet.

But the author's method of transporting them to their destination is, frankly, ludicrous. They use a bottle filled with "Arcturian back-rays", which, as one of the characters explains, consist of "Light which goes back to its source... Unless light pulled, as well as pushed, how would flowers contrive to twist their heads round after the sun?"

Well, really, I mean to say. Bottled back-rays, indeed. But it doesn't matter. Nor does it matter that Lindsay's prose is stiff and cumbersome and his characters are two-dimensional. The story is a moral vision of such authority and force that it's far more interesting than many much better novels filled with much more accurate science; it transcends all its limitations. And I'm not sure that it's the job of fiction, or drama, to present science accurately in any case. That task is done exceptionally well by the superb works of non-fiction that we're lucky to have around us today: books written by Richard Dawkins, Roger Penrose, Stephen Hawking, Jared Diamond, David Deutsch, V. S. Ramachandran... This is thrilling stuff to read, and it informs and arouses interest in science as well as it could possibly be done.

But fiction is different. What fiction has to do is tell a story, and the science, like the politics, or the law, or whatever other background it's set against, is there to do what backgrounds do - support but not distract.

It has to be accurate enough, and that's all.

So the question is, as Humpty Dumpty said about language, "which is to be master?" Is the fiction to serve the science, or the science to serve the fiction? All I'd say here is that fiction created for some instrumental purpose is seldom any good. If fiction is going to inspire readers to become interested in science, it must first tell a good story; and good stories are the children of imagination, not of conscience. Writers can't command their imaginations: "Information in, story out" is a process that belongs to public relations, not to art.

Finally, it's easy to underestimate the sophistication of readers and audiences. People know what fiction is; they know when they're watching drama; they know that things are simplified, or emphasised, or left out to make a story work. Even if they couldn't name metaphor and irony, they use them every day and recognise them in a story.

I think that few people really expect to get fact from fiction: they know enough not to expect fact from their newspapers. Science is strong enough to survive storytelling.

Philip Pullman is author of "His Dark Materials". He will be discussing science in fiction at the Oxford Literary Festival on Saturday, March 25.

Copyright © Philip Pullman 2006

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