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When it Changed cover

I.

There is uncertainty in collision. We send accelerating towards each other particles—or, as the case may be, fiction authors and scientists, books and reviewers. When they collide, sometimes we see what we expect to, and sometimes we don't. It is often when our expectations are not met, when new test cases reveal gaps in old models and categories, that we realize we are on the cusp of change.

"Any good story is about when something, or perhaps even everything, changed," writes Geoff Ryman in his introduction to When It Changed: Science Into Fiction; "bad science protects us from having to think about real change" (pp. vii, x). In an attempt to induce more stories based in real science and the change that can result from it, Ryman paired fiction writers with working scientists tasked to educate the writers on the leading edge of their scientific research. The expectation was an anthology of science fiction stories (the pre-release subtitle of the volume seems to have been "'Real Science' Science Fiction") with the awareness of the inevitability of change that characterizes the Joanna Russ story that lends this volume its title, SF genre stories flush with the "thrill of reality" (p. ix). Another collision was in play, however: a collision of processes, scientific and creative. Given the imperative to base their work around interviews with professional scientists, Ryman and his compatriots produced a volume of stories less about change stemming from contemporary science, and more about being a contemporary scientist.

Justina Robson's "Carbon," for instance, is a vignette about a doubting scientist assigned to use corrective lenses on a scanning electron microscope (a true recent innovation) in order to check carbon nanotubing for use in a space elevator. That what is being constructed is a science fictional idea is largely inconsequential; the focus of the story is the daily life of a scientist, the banality of departmental politics. Simon Ings's similar "Zoology" isn't speculative at all; amidst a true story of the impact of randomness in scientific experiments, Ings describes the sometimes hidden ways that scientists blow off steam—the humanity that most popular portrayals of scientists don't see. The prose of both stories is typical for the volume: precise yet personable, in a first person confessional tone that may owe too much to the manner of the stories' creation, without offering a solid story-based reason for its existence. "I don't mind talking to you about these things," writes Robson, unfortunately continuing: "I know that you, being an imaginary friend, won't mind" (pp. 1-2).

Ryman's contribution, "You," ups both the speculative content and the point-of-view artistry considerably. "You" focuses on the full-sensory "lifeblogs" of a succession of scientists working on the decipherment of what may be artifacts of intelligent life on Mars, with climate change on Earth ongoing in the background. Yet Ryman's story reads equally as an examination of the contemporary scientific process: the way that scientists slowly build on each other's work, the combination of formidable equipment and eureka moments of human intuition that good science often requires.

Gwyneth Jones's "Collision" is another story that packs a lot of speculative content, and works on multiple levels. Departmental politics again figure large: an unprofitable research facility—an "Instantaneous Transit Collider" in the outer region of the solar system—is visited by supervisors from Earth, funding and staffing levels at stake. There's a metafictional aspect to the story as well, as one of the researchers constructs a memory palace based on the idea of a starship and the traditional roles and tropes of Golden Age space opera: a captain, a navigator, "a shipboard romance, what could be more natural" (p. 69). Jones has a not unsympathetic understanding of the comfort that can be offered by such stock tropes, but reminds us that they ultimately cannot hold:

In that moment, still in the penumbra of the collision, Malin saw the future. [ . . . ] She saw, with a pang of loss, that the strangeness of the universe was her birthright: but that there was another world, of brittle illusions and imaginary limits, that was forever beyond her reach. (p. 70)

"Collision" is one of the highlights of the collection judged purely as a story, particularly as an SF story—enjoyable for the quality of its writing, character drama, big ideas, and the arc of the narrative. But as part of Jones's Aleutian series of stories containing aliens and faster-than-light travel, it contains unscientific leaps that mean it feels very out of place here.

That sort of scientific unevenness plagues When It Changed. One of the more distinctive aspects of the anthology is that each story has an afterword from the scientist whose work inspired and guided its creation. Given the guidance each story received, what's remarkable is how often the scientists are obliged to correct—always with unfailing politeness—the facts in the stories. Contra Sara Maitland's fantasy story "Moss Witch," mosses can last for days without moisture; contra Frank Cottrell Boyce's "Temporary," Tycho Brahe never observed the recurring explosions that occur on the white dwarf star RS Ophiuchi; contra Ken MacLeod's "Death Knocks," developing a computer simulation of the biological systems of the human body is qualitatively different from modeling the neurology of the human mind. Etc. There's also a good deal of odd or suspect science that isn't pointed out by the scientists (although N.B. I am not a scientist, so my understanding may be at fault here). In Adam Roberts's "Hair," for instance, a scientist invents a way to add photosynthetic properties to the hair on people's heads in order to eradicate starvation . . . and then insists that the tropical citizens so endowed need to lie in the sun for three hours each day in order for their hair to collect energy. Ryman's introduction mentions that hope readers of a magazine like New Scientist experience with every issue, and (as a separate point) proclaims evolution as "the best designing function of all" (p. viii). Yet as a subscriber to New Scientist, I remember distinctly the thrill of possibility from an article on myths and misconceptions of evolution (Issue #2652, 16 April 2008); among the points made was that "natural selection's only criterion is that something works, not that it works as well as it might."

That's the real problem here: not this litany of nitpicks, but that the real science of the afterwords is frequently both more interesting and, crucially, more dramatically suggestive of change than what's in the stories themselves. Ryman's "You" focuses on the scientifically questionable idea of life on Mars, while underplaying the changes to the idea of individual identity that might result from the full sensory lifeblogging he describes. Michael Arditti's "In The Event Of" is an unremarkable clone story in which the existence of clones hasn't altered the nuclear family dynamic. Stories like Roberts's, meanwhile, are essentially about why change is so difficult. In this vein, Chaz Brenchley's "White Skies," is a climate change story where a scientific disagreement on how to ameliorate climate change has led to the efforts of both camps canceling each other out, even as the ocean levels rise. Paul Cornell's "Global Collider Generation: an Idyll" has humanity building a world-encircling particle collider in a political climate that explicitly mirrors the détente of the Cold War: history repeating, larger and larger colliders, no end in sight. And then there is Adam Marek's "Without A Shell," in which scientific advances in body armor serve mainly to emphasize the interpersonal significance of foregoing said armor. Marek's story, pleasing enough if rather slight on its own, is emblematic of what went wrong with the science in When It Changed. It and too many of the other stories use science merely to ramp up the scale of existing contrasts; to give readers connections to what we know, or think we know (familiar names like Brahe, familiar ideas like mosses needing to stay moist), even if those thoughts are wrong. To protect us, in other words, from having to think about real change.

That's a shame: this should have been a book that I could enjoy more than I did. At several points in Ryman's introduction I wanted to cheer. What Ryman writes about change, these things I know. I know them from having the Challenger shuttle disaster as a formative moment; from always feeling a little angry, in its wake, at stories that pick up far in the future, humanity zooming across the galaxy and waving to aliens—as though the path to that future was so clear and easy as to be above depiction, as though it were an inevitable trajectory that required from us no change. I know them from growing up reading anthologies of New Wave SF, stories that struggled to address in form and content the possibilities opened up by the new models science was creating. I know them from following magazines like New Scientist, websites like Futurismic, and being disappointed that more stories aren't written about the interesting real science going on all the time.

II.

And yet, I should not have enjoyed When It Changed: Science Into Fiction as much as I did. I was, going in, suspicious of Ryman's central conceit: that what fiction needs right now, more than anything, is an injection of real science. Ryman's introduction is at times a frustrating game of strawmen and bait-and-switch, as he (rightly) chastises the bad science in popular science fiction on TV and in film, says nothing about the state of written SF, and then offers up this volume of written fiction, some of which is SF and some not, as a corrective. This, although I'm not sure that there aren't currently more trained scientists writing fiction than ever before. And this, although the strand of SF that is self-conscious in its use of genre tropes as symbols and metaphors, the strand that takes on the aspirations and dreams of humanity and wonders "even if we could . . . " as opposed to "when in the future we do . . . " has always been well-represented in the vanguard of SF that does depict change.

(Another reason I shouldn't have enjoyed When It Changed is that it's a fairly self-consciously British volume. When one complains about the science found in big-budget American films and TV shows—admittedly dreadful—while giving Doctor Who a pass as "delightful," assembles "writers from all over the UK" [we won't mention Kit Reed], and fills a volume with stories containing passive-aggressive jabs at America, it's a real question as to whether said volume will really help bring about change, or just make the home team feel good about themselves.)

Of course, the argument that there should be more of x doesn't mean that all stories should be x, and that leads to the saving grace of When It Changed.

Being anthologized can be the best or worst thing to happen to a story. An excellent story that doesn't fit the theme or argument of an anthology may at best be under-appreciated, if it does not indeed bring down the whole by puncturing the argument. On the other hand, a story that falters when asked to stand alone may yet contribute something vital as a piece of an argument or theme. And When It Changed, appreciated as what it is, contains more of the latter type of story than the former. Intentions and expectations, marketing and labeling aside, a volume of stories about scientists and their research is not an altogether unsatisfactory or unworthy outcome, taken in itself. As Ryman also notes in his introduction, there's a paucity of well-rounded portrayals of scientists in popular media. Scientists in fiction are typically mad, borderline autistic, or would rather be doing something other than science (generally either art or shooting people). There's precious little acknowledgement in fiction that science is a day-to-day job with its own trials and rewards, like and yet unlike most other professions. When It Changed is in this sense something of a corrective, with its stories often working better together than they do singly.

Brenchley's "White Skies" is for example a fairly by-the-numbers story of a floating community made up of ships (a "township"): it's Waterworld, or Miéville's Armada, hardly a unique vision. That said, what the story adds to the collection is very important: an illustration that there are real disagreements in science, between scientists. Other stories fill in other areas. Ryman's "You," as noted, illustrates how scientists build on each other's work; Jones's "Collision," the produce-or-perish mentality of scientific research funding. Cornell's "Global Collider Generation" reads in some ways like a parable of the cooperation needed for large-scale international science projects. Maitland's "Moss Witch" has something in it of the young, earnest scientist doing field research; Robson's and Ings's stories furnish older, somewhat more jaded depictions. The overall impression of professional science conveyed by When It Changed is not complete, not wholly satisfying—the composite picture drawn of scientists is still rather stunted and mad, the science itself at times jarringly integrated. But amidst these overlaid stories, there does begin to emerge a sense of the complexity and conflicts of the scientific endeavor, an inkling of what moves scientists. Patricia Dunker's "The Bellini Madonna" is not the best story I've read at evoking a sense of the wonder of science—Dunker's moment of revelation is too list-like and mechanically repetitious, as a tourist in a church is transfixed by a vision of "the massed galaxies and planets, spinning outwards into eternity, hurtling away from the gigantic explosion of creation, the distant binary stars and their attendant planets, moving at fantastic speeds away from the centre, glorious, beautiful, unfettered, hurtling into the vastness of eternity" (p. 230). Planets, hurtling, eternity, yes, got it. But Dunker's story does exactly what it needs to do here, putting that sense of scientific wonder in a context that a non-scientist, or someone who has never read science fiction, can understand.

That in fact is the other joy of When It Changed: that it is a volume in which non-fiction, mimetic fiction, fantasy, and several strains of science fiction can profitably co-exist; that it ends up being orthogonal to genre. I can imagine the volume being cited as evidence of the death of science fiction, or of the health of science fiction. It is, quite happily if quite unintentionally, not a book where one can say you'll like this if you like Mundane SF, or if you like SF in general, or if you don't like SF in general. Like any good collision, any true experiment, we never quite know what to expect from each story. It bypasses reader expectations. In this, it at last begins to approach Ryman's goal of capturing the frisson of change.

In a recent review of Cory Doctorow's Makers in this venue, Anil Menon suggested that certain fictions might be better cast in new, speculative forms of non-fiction. The stories in When It Changed take an opposite, and thus related, direction. These stories are often hyperaware of their own fiction: from Robson's "imaginary friend," to the metafictional references in Jones to the bald conclusion of Cornell's story, " . . . even here in fiction" (p. 24). The effect of this is to give readers disinclined to value these works as fictions an excuse to not take that aspect seriously: the stories feel akin to the character-centered non-fiction science writing of Simon Singh's books such as Fermat's Enigma and Big Bang, Steven Levy's Hackers, Freiberger and Swaine's Fire in the Valley, or Riordan and Hoddeson's Crystal Fire. The stories gathered in When It Changed are less about dramatizing scientific ideas—the tack taken by other notable science-into-fiction efforts such as Calvino's Cosmicomics, Lightman's Einstein's Dreams, and Živković's Seven Touches of Music, and characteristic of authors such as Ted Chiang, Greg Egan, and Peter Watts. Rather, the volume reads like an attempt to use fiction to humanize the processes whereby we enact scientific ideas upon the world. When It Changed does this imperfectly, with enough limitations of scope and execution as to feel hardly essential. Yet it has a novelty that goes beyond the trivial; its faltering feels like the faltering of first steps.

Matt Denault (mdenault@yahoo.com) has never lost the seriousness of a child at play—especially when it comes to reading. He lives just outside Boston.



Matt Denault has never lost the seriousness of a child at play—especially when it comes to reading. He lives just outside Boston. Depending on when you are reading this, he either has or had a blog called Lingua Fantastika.
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