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Fairy tales from the lab

The Master of Sweet Dreams by Andrew Ivortow

Tania Hershman 4 January 2011

Trickster: detail from the cover

Why does he feel the need to hide his identity, I wonder to myself? Is he going to reveal the dark secrets of lab life to the uninitiated?

A book subtitled “Laboratory Fairy Tales” and which claims in its back cover blurb to be about “the life, death and afterlife of scientists... the drives, ambitions and pains that shape a scientist's existence” is immediately intriguing to me. And to add to this, I google the author and discover that Andrew Ivortow is the pen name for a “Professor of Physiology in a distinguished British University”. Why does he feel the need to hide his identity, I wonder to myself? Is he going to reveal the dark secrets of lab life to the uninitiated? I begin to read.

There are nine “tales” in this very slim self-published volume, ranging in length from one page to a hefty eighteen. Ivortow seems to want to share lab life with non-laboratory dwellers but also includes his fair share of in-jokes that non-scientists like myself could find somewhat puzzling. The first tale, The Instrument, is a combination of these – the story of Mark, a researcher who actually lives in his lab. And here comes the in-joke: “Mark was in the prime of his research powers – strong, energetic and very good looking – the age when scientists make their discoveries and long before the time when bald, decrepit and worn out researchers receive prestigious prizes and are finally revealed to the general public.”

The premise of this story is a fascinating one: Mark is given a Christmas present by a creature who appears in his lab, a box which can become any scientific instrument he would like it to be. However, no sooner has the reader's appetite been whetted by this do we move away from Mark to the “creature” who gave the gift, and then the story ends. It's a shame the author didn't carry on writing; this is a great idea to explore, to learn more about Mark and how this gift affects his “drives, ambitions and pains”.

The second tale, the one-page long Four Ages of a Scientist, came across to me as nothing more than an in-joke, albeit one that raised a chuckle as it took a dig at mathematics, theoretical physics and systems biology. The stories Application for Research Funding (Grant application), Heaven and Hell for Scientists and The Mind of an Achiever left me feeling similarly, I'm afraid.

The title story Master of Sweet Dreams grabs the reader's attention immediately with the first line: “I died recently (two centuries ago).” This is another lovely premise, as the main character is reincarnated as a kind of spirit who enters the mind of a small boy:

I became familiar with the music of the brain. I learned the murmurs the brain produced when my boy was playing happily on the street. I was in his brain when he was fighting with other children – sometimes winning, sometimes losing. I was in his brain when his pet rabbit died. I learned the buzzes of an angry brain and the whispers of a saddened brain.

Beautiful writing here, very evocative. This character stays with the young boy through his adulthood to his death, then skips into other brains and into that of a poet, where he begins to learn “to conduct the human brain”, playing a neuron “like a flute” to create brain melodies.

This is a sweet tale but for me it was lacking in the tension necessary to create a powerful and lasting work of fiction. The main character, this “master of sweet dreams”, didn't seem to want anything and so the reader is not compelled to keep reading to find out what happens. Events unfolded without much contention, much conflict. There are several places here where this story could have taken that turn, perhaps staying just with the small boy, or with the poet. We are told at the beginning that the main character had been a novelist before he died, but this is never mentioned again, which is a shame!

The Evening in Library (this may be a typo, there are several in the manuscript, which is also a shame) once again has a very intriguing premise, of a scientist who has a research associate, Rebecca, who sings. She is “the laboratory siren... young and sometimes not very young researchers were drawn to the laboratory by her singing and many would never be able to come out again”. However, this doesn't seem to have any bearing on the rest of the story. The scientist meets ghosts from his early lab life in the library, and discovers that he himself has just died. The older ghosts then proceed to assess his entire scientific life – and here are more digs at the scientific community: ”On rare occasions, however, they displayed a complex mixture of envy and delight (a sentiment well known to scientists, indicating that someone else has produced a masterpiece in their research field)”. However, this story doesn't quite deliver on its promise either. Rebecca, the lab siren, never reappears, and the story seems to stop just as it is getting interesting.

Maybe by calling this collection “fairy tales”, the author was signalling to the reader not to hold them up to the same scrutiny as short stories, that they were just written for fun and shouldn't be taken as more than that. This is a great pity because here is a scientist who writes well, who has a fantastic imagination and who wants to give readers insight into lab life, but has not given himself the time and space to explore and develop these ideas fully. He might want to take inspiration from books like Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman, for example, or The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano, as well as short fiction that has nothing to do with science but shows just what a short story can do. Perhaps we will hear from “Andrew Ivortow” again in the future. I do hope so.

Other articles by Tania Hershman