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Constrained creativity - writers grapple with science

Are Angels OK?

Michael Bycroft 25 April 2010

Details from the book cover

Scientists and writers may not be close neighbours, but they can make excellent friends

Back in 1996, bright stars of the New Zealand literary movement put their heads together with equally luminous members of the NZ science community. The outcome was Are Angels OK: The Parallel Universes of New Zealand Writers and Scientists (Victoria University Press), a collection of stories, poems and cartoons with a scientific theme, containing a mixture of science fiction, popular science and lab lit. Like the contributors, the book – edited by Bill Manhire and Paul Callaghan – is mixed but impressive.

So how does science contribute to literature in this collection? The answer is as varied as the book’s genres. Some of these take an idea from science, interpret it loosely in human terms and make a story out of it. In others, wormholes, proteins or equations are the characters in the story. Yet others use science as a setting, a source of metaphors, as material for history lessons, or as an entity to be explained or described. Science as metaphors is probably the most common trope in these stories, which betrays the lopsidedness of the collection. As a literary comment on science and its methods, motivations and spirit, the book is not groundbreaking. But as an experiment in a new genre, it is an intriguing read. Are Angels OK? attempts to answer the question “in what ways can science contribute to literature?” Although the answer may be “not many”, this collection is a courageous attempt to find as many as possible, albeit with varied results. The results also tell us something about the strengths and limits of literary tools.

Lloyd Jones' short story, "Elsewhen", is a good example of the book’s main accomplishment: a short story combining science and literature that avoids the usual clichés. Jones takes his cue from a lecture on time cones – those diagrams, like sharp-edged hourglasses, that physicists use to describe where an object can and cannot move through space-time. Jones’ interpretation is a kind of limbo or sideline, a diversion from the events that usually hold our attention. He veers away from physics in an attempt to "find this place in the everyday transactions of life...when time stops, then kicks on". Traffic jams, the intermission of a film, the life histories of inanimate objects, or the man who glances up at a window and sees his future wife. These are all snapshots of elsewhen, and the challenge to the reader is to find continuity in this flow of still-frame images. Jones' metaphor for this jumble of images is the tip-face, "where the bits of life circulate," discarded but full of significance. What does all this have to do with space-time? Not much; indeed the story would convey the same theme, with the same lyricism, if Jones had cut his references to Demeritus, Gödel and a physics lecture. Nevertheless, "Elsewhen" shows that, whatever else they have in common, writers and scientists are interested in common topics, like time.

What else do writers and scientists have in common, according to this collection? In their long and thoughtful endnotes to the collection, the authors give some answers. The use of the imagination, the use of "compact forms of language" (as Glen Colquhoun puts it), the "hunt for metaphors" (another Colquhounian aphorism), and an interest in paradox, are some of these answers; both physics and novel writing require "constrained creativity": innovation guided by pre-existing standards.

Science is, of course, a rich source of metaphors. Margaret Mahy’s story does for space what Lloyd Jones does for time, linking the thoughts of a dying man, his decrepitude and longing for freedom and a "way out", to a downward scale of physical objects – from the skin to blood cells to atoms to quarks. Catherine Chidgey's story about a precocious weightlifter is less explicit about its analogies, but just as reliant on them. "Pressure, load, weight, force, how much a person can bear," Chidgey writes in her endnote. "Thinking about the meanings of these terms told me about my main character's nature and relationships as well as his special physical talent."

But there are dangers in over-fishing for connections between science and writing. Some authors, like the playwright and comedian Jo Randerson, end up using literary tools to do a non-literary job. In her essay "Everything We Know," Randerson's goal is to find a pattern in relationships in nature and apply the pattern to human affairs. She takes the "sandpile phenomenon" as her natural pattern. If you drop sand into a pile and measure the size of each sandslide that occurs, you find that the frequency of sandslides of any given size is inversely proportional to the size of the sandslides: there are lots of small sandslides, a few medium-sized ones, and very few large ones. However, and importantly, it is hard to predict the size and timing of any given sandslide.

For Randerson, the sandpile phenomenon is a launching pad for a meditation on the fundamental interrelatedness of all things. "Everything is connected in life," so connectedness is good, her reasoning goes. Therefore conflict is bad. And it follows (somehow) that hierarchies are bad. Boundaries are bad too apparently. After all, "when you put a wall in a body, you get a clot. Blood gathers together in a thickened lump, which would then move fatally through the body." What follows from this Paracelsean logic? According to Randerson, "my testing disproves the hypothesis." Randerson's form of testing is not one that any scientist would recognise. Although a brave literary device, her movement from sandslides, to blood clots, to war leads only to a flighty polemic.

However, when the literary tools do work, they work very well. As Lloyd Jones writes on time:

I never knew that time could bend like sheet metal. I sort of accepted that time came packaged in clocks and watches. I never realised that there was such a thing as big time and little time. Little time belongs to us. It sits on our shoulder from the time we are born and rides us all the way to the grave. Big time belongs to the cosmos. Big time is showtime – space is a fat boy who just gets fatter.

Like most of the work in Are Angels OK?, Jones' writing reminds us that the literary style gives us something that science does not: a feeling for human psychology, how it plays out in real life and how it responds to words and images.

In one of the collection's poems, Vincent O'Sullivan writes, of science: “I like the stories, although the stories/ are not what it's about...” Focus on the stories, O'Sullivan seems to say, and you miss out on the real gift of science. One might equally say: Focus on the science in a story, and you miss out on the real gift of literature.

This collection succeeds in exploring many of the ways that science can sit side-by-side with literature. In doing so it traces out some of the limits of that project, and tells us something about the strengths and weaknesses of the people on both sides of the lab door. The collaborative spirit wins out, even if some of the combinations look clunky. Scientists and writers may not be close neighbours, this book says, but they can make excellent friends.