Synaesthesia Magazine Science & Numbers - Page 11

Do you think there is ever anything too big to write about?

Through these commissions I’ve been lucky to be able to hang out with a nano-tech scientist who is building the military body armour of the future, an astronomer at Jodrell Bank who studies exploding stars, a genetic engineer at the Roslin Institute (home of Dolly the sheep) who is trying to get one species giving birth to another, and, most recently, a computer scientist working in artificial intelligence trying to grow organic buildings.

As well as talking with the scientists, I do a lot of reading around the subject – on the web, in books, watching YouTube videos. I do A LOT of research. It’s important to me that however surreal or absurd the subject matter of my stories, they are securely tethered to reality.

When I wrote 'An Industrial Evolution', which is in my story collection The Stone Thrower, but was firstly a commission for Comma Press’s Biopunk anthology, I had to do a huge amount of research on genetic engineering, fertility, orang-utans, rainforests, and the palm oil industry. Weeks of research. In the short story, the reader only sees the tip of the iceberg, but you have to build in your mind the rest of the iceberg so that the little tip is pushed clear of the water.

No. But you have to bow to the limitations of your form. In a short story, you have to keep it simple. The secret to writing about big things in short stories is to find the tiny thing within the big thing that is representative of the whole.

What do you think it is about the short story form that makes it an almost perfect space to write about science and technology?

I’m not sure that the short story lends itself in particular to writing about science anymore than the novel, but for the particular kind of stories that I like to write – fantastical or absurd combinations of reality and fantasy (often with a speculative bent), the short story is the best form.

In a short story, you can put forward a completely absurd conceit, and you only need to play it out for one act – in a novel, you have to keep developing the narrative, each act introducing a new level of action and consequence. There’s only so far you can take an absurd conceit before it either fizzles out into something closer to reality (which is unsatisfying for the reader), or builds to such surrealistic proportions that the reader won’t believe it anymore.

You recently attended the artificial life conference in Sicily, what was it like catching a glimpse into life 60 years from now through the eyes of scientists?

Oh, it was amazing! The other writers and I contributing to the new Comma anthology were sat in a gorgeous hotel all day with scientists talking about swarms of collectively intelligent robots, downloadable memories, uploadable experiences, futuristic military devices and so on – it was all mind-blowing stuff. And the best thing was that even though the ideas they were talking about in their vision for 2070 were really ‘out there’, they weren’t unbelievable – these guys are actually working on the foundation technology to make these things a reality. 2070 is going to be awesome, just you wait.