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Dream on

Spindles from Comma Press

Richard P. Grant 10 April 2016

Light-headed: detail from the cover

It is difficult to write fiction that addresses a particular brief, where the external science becomes the imperative

The key to all good fiction is the human imperative. Whether your story is set in a courtroom, among dreaming spires, in a submarine, in outer space or even in a laboratory should, in the end, be neither here nor there. The relationships, conflicts (external and internal) and emotions of humans are what drive us to read, and indeed tell, stories.

The offerings of Comma Press should need no introduction to regulars. We’ve previously reviewed Litmus, a collection of short stories of scientific discovery, each with accompanying commentary from a scientist. Comma Press has published five books in this vein; the latest, Spindles, concerns sleep and the science that studies it.

Commissioning 14 short stories about one topic, especially one that is so familiar and yet simultaneously mysterious, was a courageous decision. One might think that being told once about the effects of sleep deprivation, something every parent of a toddler already knows, is probably enough. And surely there’s only so much one can read, as a non-specialist, about REM sleep and EEGs and polysomnography before drifting into some kind of dreamworld oneself.

The mistake that Spindles makes, as did Litmus before it, is to try to persuade us that the topic is important. It is difficult to write fiction that addresses a particular brief, where the external science becomes the imperative. This collection is not as extreme as Litmus, where the influence of the scientists on the fiction itself was readily detectable, but one still comes away with the feeling that the fiction is subordinate. And let’s be crystal clear about this: Spindles makes a definite distinction between the authors of the fiction, and the ‘key’ scientists with their titles and qualifications.

Unsurprisingly, the best stories in Spindles are those where sleep plays at most a cameo, where the science of sleep doesn’t even get a look in: Lisa Blower’s touching treatment of depression, and Annie Clarkson’s sensitive and touching tale of middle age.

And sadly, the book as a whole is marred by its editing. The biographies appear to have been thrown in with no thought to consistency or readability; there are naive punctuation errors, silly spelling mistakes and an excess of exclamation marks. Spindles feels just like an arbitrary collection – beyond a general “It’s all about sleep” philosophy I feel as if its component parts have simply been thrown together.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the scientific commentaries, the ‘Afterwords’. I think if you’re going to embark upon an endeavour such as this, you need to decide at the outset what the point of the science bits is. Do you really want them to be exhaustively referenced literature reviews, or would you rather they were engaging pieces that entertain while informing, and don’t make the reader think “Oh God, not again”, and skip straight to the next story?

While it’s probably not the fault of the scientists – again, the entire book is in need of a damn good edit – the commentaries do not know what they are supposed to be: whether they’re meant to be chatty and science comms-y; accessible; educational; or indeed just plain patronizing. I certainly don’t know.

And here I think is the crux of the matter. Spindles doesn’t know what it wants to be, and ends up as real as an instantly forgettable dream.