How to Write Science-fiction: Sara Maitland, Adam Marek, Dr Rob Appleby, and Ra Page; Bluedot, Jodrell Bank Observatory, Orbit stage, July 8-9 2017.

When a Science-fiction writer’s panel kicks off with the sound of foxes howling you know you’re in for an interesting ride. The three men sitting on the front row are in full foxy regalia, and keen to vocalise their appreciation for our writers. Professionals, Sara Maitland, Adam Marek, Dr Rob Appleby take the greeting in their stride, as does our chair, Ra page of Comma Press.

Ra gets down to business straight away: What should Science-fiction do? What is the responsibility of Science-fiction? Does it have one? Should it? Questions like these are as much a part of the genre, as is the argument on where writers position themselves, in relation to them.

H.G Wells was very much on the social side, he used science as a metaphor, taking liberties, scientists would protest: story over scientific fact. Something Jules Verne has criticized for him – he himself was serious in his science research. There has always been this dichotomy between writers and scientists. 150 years as a genre, and the argument for the balance of fact and fiction in science-fiction narratives continues, as our panellist’s spirited discussion will show.

So what does happen when you pair writers with scientists? as Comma Press like to do. You get electric narratives that pursue scientific theory to the edges of reasonable deduction, and then push beyond those edges into the purely speculative realms of ‘Yes, but what if..?’ This is where the H.G Wells’s and Jules Verne’s of the Sci-fi world part company.

Both Sara Maitland and Adam Marek draw on scientific research and theory to inform their stories. Just how much they choose to allow that scientific knowledge to influence, or shape and direct their narrative arcs is variable, as their readings and the following discussion illustrates.

Dr Robert Appleby is invited to start the discussion. A theoretical physicist, he knows a little something about space travel and the laws pertaining, (his primary research at Manchester University is in the physics of particle accelerators) so Adam Marek’s short story exploring the time dilation effects of space travel and the twin paradox thought experiment generates some excited discussion. For those not in the know, the Twin Paradox is a thought experiment in special relativity which works something like this: take a pair of twins, leave one in settled in a comfy armchair with a cup of tea and a good book (I can recommend Thought X, Comma Press), strap the other twin into a spaceship and wave him off from a safe distance. Space twin shoots off to take a turn through the galaxy before returning home. Back on Earth, the reunited twins discover that whilst Space twin has maintained his/her youthful looks, Armchair twin has visibly aged. How does one Space twin avoid the same aging rate as Armchair twin? Well, according to Einstein’s special theory of relativity, ‘time’ as a singular notion does not exist. We all experience time differently, consider an hour spent in an algebra class compared to an hour at the pub with mates (unless you’re really into your algebra, then the latter may be the agony). Now how much Armchair twin has aged, depends on the speed at which Space twin travelled – we’re talking light years here. Space twin will have experienced, say, six years out in space, while on Earth, ten years may have passed. The effects of time dilation means both twins experience passage of time differently.

Currently, this effect is only experienced by elementary particles enjoying round trips in a particle accelerator, averaging at a light speed of 99.99999, lucky little devils.

For us armchair bound humans, stories like Marek’s speculative Lightspeed are a glimpse into a future where such space travel at the speed of light is a common experience and the twin paradox is not merely a hypothetical thought experiment, but an increasingly troubled reality for our protagonists.

Nowak, a lightspeed pilot, is having relationship issues with his wife Martha. For her, the excitement of living on a Space station in an inflatable pod has palled. Her research, investigating the effects of sperm motility in microgravity has not panned out as expected. But Nowak’s passion for his job, which is what keeps them in space, shows no sign of diminishing. The relationship is not helped by the time dilation effects of Nowak’s trips. There’s the long, awkward, phone conversations where the speed of their voices distort and turn the simplest of communications into a major effort. Nowak’s voice is heard at a third of its speed, imagine a simple ‘hello, how are you,’ slowly elongating like a piece of chewing gum, only to speed up ridiculously the closer he gets to the Space pod. Then there’s the important events he keeps missing, like their daughter’s birthday. Nowak’s promise of ‘I’ll be back in a couple of hours’, is met with his daughter’s puzzled ’T er ysdy’ and his wife’s angry ‘Yu mssd t…’T’s sndy Hr’. Nowak is left baffled ‘That’s impossible. It’s Friday.’ But he’s lost three days and not even realised it. The longer his journeys, the more warped time becomes. Counselling sessions ensue (and he hasn’t even mentioned to his wife yet that thanks to his frequent flight missions, his ageing has slowed right down, whilst hers has continued, at a ratio of one and a bit years to four years).

It’s a great reading by Marek and he finishes just in time for the distinctive sound of an aircraft passing above us to be heard– it’s perfectly timed – we applaud.

From outer space sci-fi, to more familiar home territory, but no less strange for it. Sara Maitland begins with ‘personally, as a feminist, I believe Mary Wollstonecraft wrote the first science-fiction book with Frankenstein, before all these boys.’ There’s some great follow up repartee between our panellists before Maitland begins her reading, an excerpt from, Dark Humour (Moss Witch anthology).

As part of the story, we’re treated to a brief etymology lesson on the word melancholia because ‘the classicist in Maitland insists’. The story considers what poetry can give to science, and the names, the naming of things, is incredibly important to our protagonists, the theoretical physicist is nostalgic, ‘all the old stars have names and stories to go with names – gods and heroes and monsters and…sort of linking, connecting with other real stuff…but now H11 regions…NGC 406. How can anyone love something called NGC 406?’ His partner disagrees, she likes the cold, neatness of hard facts, and besides ‘This is physics, not poetry; we don’t want metaphors.’ For her, there is enough beauty in thoughts of ‘H2O molecules huddling closer together as the temperature drops.’ But he wants a ‘Theory of Everything,’ with the romance of stories. It’s the stories behind the names that create the meanings, the connections. The problem is now all science comes up with for new discoveries is ‘gobbledy-gook words.’ There’s an unhappy tension, for our protagonist, between the science and the storytelling.

But, I wonder, what is science, physics – if not a long speculative fiction in its own way?

The narrative of our existence is bound up in myths and magic, in thought experiments and the ‘What if?’ of it all. Science and Story: ‘Same theory, different language,’ explains Maitland’s theoretical physicist to his partner, ‘We’re all speculating now, well out in front of our technology or even our facts, our data. That’s why you need stories, images, metaphors; to stimulate and integrate the imagination.’ And this is, really, is at the heart of what our writers are all aiming to do. Dr Appleby explains in his afterword to Dark Humour, on how our understanding of the universe’s building blocks has changed over time, ‘the four humours of earth, air, wind, and fire have been replaced with the atomic picture of protons, neutrons, electrons. They’ve been further refined into four fundamental forces, and a Standard Model of seventeen fundamental particles. We even have the possibility of replacing our fundamental particles with superstrings vibrating in eleven dimensions! But the idea remains the same: there is an elemental story at the bottom of it all, with a finite table of particles, or a finite cast of characters, if you will. We tell the story of our universe through these characters. Their names may change over time, but they are all part of the same story.’

For Maitland, science is like a prism, ‘you use science as a metaphor. I’m not very good at thinking of plots. Science, theory, it stimulates a way of working on stories.’ Besides ‘it’s tough being a witch,’ the science offers a helping hand.

Marek explains it as ‘the story is a medium to push past the boundaries of this theory’.

Ra Page leans forward to ask, ‘What’s the role of thought experiments? Marek responds simply, ‘you play games, explore the possibilities, the consequences of the paradox. You look for the limits of the theory’.

For both Marek and Maitland, as writers it’s about taking these huge scientific concepts and bringing them down to a human level, they look for the conflict. Marek uses the analogy of a particular film scene he remembers has having an impact on his writing process, ‘in the distance you see this huge explosion take place in silence, but close up, on a balcony what you see is a paper cup slowly falling over. You’re thinking of how it (the science) could go wrong at the human level. I’m always looking for opportunities to punch holes in paper cups.’ It’s not so much then the large, and for most people still abstract, theory but its smaller, more measurable effects on daily lives, the materialistic details you might say, that make the story.

More questions come from the audience. Fox No. 1 wants to know, ‘how much has science-fiction influenced Science? Maitland agrees up to a point that it’s more ‘a collaborative process’ between the two. She illustrates her point with a list of examples from literature, think of the E-book reader, Huxley and test tube babies. The fiction came first, the science followed.

But also, ‘fiction writers typically have written stories constrained by the law of science.’

Another question posed to our writers wonders if there is a conflict between good science and strong narrative. It depends on individual taste, and personal preferences, on how writers utilise the science, it can go either way.

The discussion moves into movies. Maitland confesses, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen a science-fiction movie. Oh, wait, I did work on Kubrick’s A1, and then much to everyone’s delight segues into a little bit of Hollywood gossip, before returning to the discussion in hand.

The ideas in science are enough for Maitland, the specifics of the science, the laws, can be more of a hindrance, than a help, in her opinion. The questions get more personal, and larger: Have you ever ignored science for a good story? Are you responsible for the future? Do you feel an obligation to, a duty to tell the (scientific) truth?

An earnest Marek goes first and presents a passionate argument for respecting the science. Research is clearly a serious business for him. ‘Creativity works best with restrictions; it allows your mind to generate stuff.’ Maitland takes a different stance, the complete opposite in fact, ‘if the sub-particles don’t match, match it to a magic wand.’ Yes, the science is there and yes it has its part to play in storytelling, it’s the catalyst – but that doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be the driving force of the narrative. Science and the poetry in storytelling are intimately linked. There is something truly fundamental about locating our stories in something bigger, larger. The panel are agreed on this. Think of Einstein, ‘a moment of genius to change the paradigm of our universe,’ and with it our narratives.

As for being responsible to the future, ‘It’s about intention,’ Marek says, ‘I hope I wouldn’t accidentally write something to inspire someone’s darkness. Reality is a story. A story is defined by the way we choose to tell ourselves about it. Storytelling is like a dark art because you have the ability to change perceptions. There is a responsibility, like the Socratic oath: do no harm.’

Balderdash, Maitland jumps in. Alright, she didn’t actually say balderdash, but her reaction kind of carries the sentiment. What Maitland actually says is: ‘It’s never crossed my mind, it doesn’t bug me’. I’m beginning to think there’s just a little bit of the devil’s advocate in her, she’s visibly enjoying this, as are we all. Marek and Appleby take it on the chin. They do all agree, however, that the whole Science-fiction genre is very much a moreish thing. Think about it, they ask, who’s bothered with the epic poem and updating it? (apologies to the poets out there shaking their fists) Science continually gives us opportunities to ask that ‘What if?’ and the ‘How can it go wrong?’ (cue Jurassic Park, look where all that messing with creation got us). As Maitland succinctly expresses it, you ‘cannot drain a good form.’ But amidst all this talk of generating narratives out of ‘what could go wrong?’ there is a caution too from our writers, to be careful not to focus on just the negatives, for we’re moving into a paradigm where we need the hope of Utopia that Science-fiction narratives can offer. That said, as Marek puts it, there’s not a lot of harm to feeling some misery in art either.

What’s clear by the end of the discussion is that H.G Wells and Jules Verne’s debate is still going strong in this genre, and that Sara Maitland, Adam Marek and Dr Appleby are more than happy to indulge us, and each other with the consequences.

Usma Malik

Comments are closed.