Science meets fiction

Adam Marek photo

Comma Press had published a series of ‘real’ science fiction anthologies, and I’ve been lucky enough to contribute to all of them so far. The editor at Comma Press, Ra Page, did a physics and philosophy degree, and then an MA in English literature, so he has a brain hemisphere in each area, and fuses them by commissioning writers like me to write short stories inspired by real science.

The brief

The brief always involves going to spend time with a scientist, discovering their work and asking lots of questions, and then imagining some kind of dramatic scenario that shows the impact of this science on everyday folk.

These commissions have taken me to some amazing places. For the book When it Changed I travelled to Liverpool University to hang out with Dr Vinod Dhanak – a nano-scientist whose work has applications in futuristic military body armour. For Biopunk I travelled to the Roslyn Institute in Edinburgh to meet Professor Bruce Whitelaw and learn about next generation cloning projects. For the most recent anthology, Beta-Life, I travelled to an artificial life conference in Sicily to spend time with Dr Susan Stepney, who is working on an unconventional computing project to grow buildings from seeds. And for Litmus – short stories from modern science I got to spend a day at Jodrell Bank with Dr Tim O’Brien – he studies exploding stars for a living, how cool is that?

Visiting Jodrell Bank

The brief for the Litmus book was to pick a famous moment of scientific discovery from a list, then meet up with a scientist who is an expert in this field, and write a short story in which this ‘Eureka’ moment occurs. The story didn’t have to be a strict, accurate description of the moment as a piece of historical fiction – we were all free to do with the material what we wanted, so long as the moment of discovery was present in the story.

I chose the discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation in 1965 by Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias. This was the discovery that proved the big bang theory was correct. In my story, Penzias and Wilson are children, and they are led to their discovery while trying to find the cause of a persistent buzzing in Robert’s head.

On my research trip to Jodrell Bank, while Tim O’Brien and I scoffed cream teas, he told me all about the birth of the universe and then took me on a tour of the facility. He led me along an underground tunnel that comes out right underneath the Lovell Radio Telescope. We had to duck beneath the moving support structures as they swung the dish around to look at another part of the sky. The framework that holds the dish in place has been painted so many times that the white paint has formed into stalactites that drip down from every strut. The dish is an amazing thing to see from any angle, but it was a real privilege to be able to stand right underneath it. What a marvel it is.

Astrophysics is mind boggling of course, but Tim had a real skill for explaining it in terms I could understand. The food metaphors especially appealed (the developing universe is a cake mix and the galaxies are raisins).

The challenges of turning science into fiction

The challenge with story commissions like this is how to get across the actual science bit. How do you artfully convey the real information part of the story to your reader? You could have one character explaining it to another character, but there are better ways to dramatise the information, releasing it more discretely. This is a story we’re talking about, not a magazine article, so its first job is to entertain, not inform.

Another challenge is knowing where to focus the story. On each of my visits with scientists, I’ve left with dozens of pages of notes. And over a cup of tea on the train home, the ideas start to come. Always so many. But which is the right one? Science is a rich source of inspiration and for me there’s no greater thrill than being given a glimpse of the future and casting my net out there, hoping to bring back something that’s never been seen before.

About the author

Adam Marek is the award-winning author of two short story collections: Instruction Manual for Swallowing and The Stone Thrower. He is an Arts Foundation Short Story Writing Fellow. You can find out more about Adam’s work at www.adammarek.co.uk

Comma Press is a not-for-profit publishing initiative dedicated to promoting new writing, with an emphasis on the short story. It is committed to a spirit of risk-taking and challenging publishing, free of the commercial pressures on mainstream houses. You can find out more about their books at www.commapress.co.uk