From fact to fiction and back again

Comma Press highlights the Eureka Moment

Joely Black 21 November 2010

Apt reflection: When It Changed cover detail

The stories shed new light on the process of science, on the complexity of scientific life and the huge numbers of people ignored in the simplistic stories of great discovery that we see in mainstream media

The portrayal of scientific breakthroughs in fiction and mainstream media is usually a very limited affair. In film and literature, scientists tend to be portrayed as lone heroes, often struggling against authority or fighting to keep their discoveries out of the hands of dangerous governments. When it comes to the history of science, breakthroughs that changed the course of history from Newton and Einstein to Hahn, the isolated scientist experiencing the dramatic “eureka moment” has become part of the general public’s understanding of how scientific discovery unfolds. The truth is far messier and more complex, and many scientists and their work are forgotten.

One effort to change all this has come from Comma Press, a relatively new not-for-profit British publishing initiative dedicated to promoting new fiction and poetry. Last year, they released an anthology of short stories under the title When It Changed. Edited by Geoff Ryman, the collection presents a series of commissioned works resulting from an active collaboration between scientists and writers. The aim was to explore the “eureka moment” – the stories of scientists involved in great scientific discoveries, and the moments that changed not just scientific history, but the wider world. More importantly, they wanted “to re-introduce research ideas with literary concerns”, in what they say is a bid to bring the science fiction genre back to actual science. What they’ve actually done is to contribute to the emerging “lab lit” genre.

Writers involved in the project were introduced to and worked with scientists and historians of science in an effort to get behind the headlines of the big science stories that have changed our world. The collaborative process took many forms, some writers becoming deeply involved in conversations with scientists and others preferring to seek out help when they needed a broader understanding of their chosen subject.

Judging by the first edition of the book and work presented at festivals, the results have been as successful as they are varied. Some writers have clearly engaged with the matter to such an extent that the detail is exact and specific; conversations between characters fling the reader from the complexities of nuclear fission to the politics of 1940s Germany, or paint broader strokes, with stories that span whole lifetimes, dipping in to sample specific moments of personal or scientific importance.

The writers themselves have taken very different approaches to collaboration. Comma Press claims on its website that the key to bringing real science back into fiction is to create a relationship between writers and scientists, to ensure that the science presented in fiction is accurate. Of course, it would be impossible to relate every detail of the messy business of scientific discovery, and all the actors involved, but the collaboration is intended to make scientific fiction realistic rather than purely fantastical (and, by extension, impossible). Some writers obviously worked very closely with scientists and have made a real effort to convey precise detail, whereas others have preferred to use literary style to convey general scientific concepts.

The stories are extraordinary not just because the writers collaborated with scientists to produce them. They also shed new light on the process of science, on the complexity of scientific life and the huge numbers of people ignored in the simplistic stories of great discovery that we see in mainstream media. They have re-introduced readers to the messy nature of scientific discovery, from the politics of the age in which the discovery took place to the personal issues of the scientists involved. The result is a break both from the tropes of scientists as they often appear in modern fiction, and from the fairytale stories of dramatic discoveries by one heroic figure, whether in the bath or under a tree or indeed in a patent office.

Scientists are brought to life in a manner that is rarely seen; instead of seeming to be a species of human set apart from the rest of the world, locked away in laboratories fussing over their test tubes and microscopes, the actors involved in these stories are thoroughly woven into their time, struggling as they do with personal conflicts, political struggle of various kinds, and in some cases, severe discrimination. It highlights the fact that science does not take place in a social vacuum, and that scientists, just like everybody else, have to balance their intellectual lives with their wider worlds, whether it’s children and families or large-scale political change.

After releasing a first edition last year, Comma Press is now planning a second. As an independent publisher supported by the Arts Council, and in this project by the Institute of Physics, they have had the opportunity to explore ideas that mainstream publishing might not consider. The results have been incredible, and are well-worth reading, both as an educational tool and purely for enjoyment.

This year provided the Press with the opportunity to seek a wider audience, as two overlapping festivals, the Manchester Literature Festival and Manchester Science Festival gave them a chance to introduce the idea of collaborative writing between scientists and writers. Their reading and debate at the Godlee Observatory at the University of Manchester Institute for Science and Technology concentrated on the theme of “story” and how it can be both useful and frustrating to scientists as they try to reach the general public and raise awareness of the realities of science. The book featuring the stories that appeared at the event has not yet appeared, but based on the presentation, it will be worth looking out for.

It is fantastic to see a publisher make the effort to reintroduce science back into fiction. Their website even include a page with advice on how not to write fiction featuring scientists. Hopefully, with a boost from exposure at festivals and the rise of independent publishing, the lab lit genre will gain a lot from Comma Press’s investment in the eureka moment, and perhaps lead creative media to have one of its own.