Fiction inspired by science: part I

8 November 2010
 Laboratory by tk-link, on Flickr

Laboratory by tk-link, on Flickr

At Wellcome Collection we often get to hear of groundbreaking experiments in art and science. Less common are collisions between art and literature, in particular fiction, so we were exited to hear that short-story writer Tania Hershman had been appointed a Fiction Writer in Residence in the Faculty of Science at the University of Bristol. With the winner of this year’s Wellcome Trust Book Prize about to be announced, we asked Tania if she’d be kind enough to write us a guest post about fiction inspired by science… and we got two! In the first of them, Tania tells us just what she’s been up to at Bristol…

Whenever I tell people I’m writer-in-residence in the Science Faculty at Bristol University, they look puzzled. What are you actually doing? they ask. They assume I am reporting in some way on what goes on, or helping the scientists to write. They don’t imagine – especially if they are scientists themselves – that I am writing fiction inspired by being in the labs. When I explain this, if it is a scientist I am talking to, a funny look comes over their face. But what we do is mostly boring, they say. Oh no, I say. You have no idea – every little thing in the lab is fascinating to me, from the purple latex gloves to the sandwiches people eat in lab meetings. It’s a different world.

If you Google ‘fiction inspired by science‘ many of the results you will find are actually science inspired by fiction, or science inspired by science fiction. But there is a growing field of short stories, novels and poetry that is inspired in some way by scientific research or by life in the laboratory, or by the history of science or the language of science. Some of it is called Lab Lit (there is a great website, LabLit.com, which publishes and discusses this ‘genre’). Maybe we could call it all SciLit, instead of the more unwieldy ‘science-inspired fiction’.

SciArt is a well-known term, but often it seems to refer only to the visual arts, such as in Stephen Wilson’s fabulous new book, Art+Science Now. This must be, I assume, because fiction inspired by science is thought to be science fiction – although science fiction is not necessarily inspired by science. And science fiction isn’t considered ‘art’ by this world, but that’s another blog post.  I don’t think I write science fiction. I have only recently begun to read science fiction, and although I’m finding much to enjoy, I am not sure aficionados would consider what I do to fit in there. SciLit is – or can be – something else entirely.

I have a BSc in Maths and Physics but quickly realised that while I have a great love for science, I didn’t have the aptitude to be a scientist. I trained as a journalist and spent 13 years writing about science and technology. But fiction was my other first love. I started by taking inspiration from reports of science: half the stories in my first book, The White Road and Other Stories, took articles from New Scientist as their starting point, and then my imagination took over. For example, the title story took its inspiration from this article in New Scientist:

What’s long, white, and very, very cold? The road to the South Pole is nearing completion; this road will stretch for more than 1600 kilometres across some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world

My short story is about an American woman who sets up a roadside café on this ‘white road’. (New Scientist published the story online)

Spending time in the labs witnessing the daily doing of science was the next natural step. I have been spending a day a week for the past six months in a biochemistry lab whose research is on wound healing, and a month ago I was awarded an Arts Council England grant to produce a collection of short stories inspired both by being in the lab and by a 100-year-old biology text book.

My aim is not necessarily to write fiction where science is the main character, but also to simply use the scientific world as a backdrop for the things all fiction is about: love, death, relationships etc… Have you ever wondered why, when millions of people worldwide work in laboratories, there are few TV sitcoms set in labs? Or chick-lit novels or blockbuster films? Yes, there is The Big Bang Theory, which I do love (an am not embarrassed to admit that I get many of the physics jokes) but I would argue that this does little to dispel the myth of the scientist as a genius barely functioning in society! We have all manner of fiction set in workplaces, from lawyers’ offices to the emergency room, so why not the lab? No wonder there are so many misconceptions about what scientists do and what science is (it’s about hard facts, black and white, being right or wrong…), because knowing what goes on in laboratories is not part of our everyday, unless that’s where we work.

Real laboratories are peopled by a wonderful and varied mix of researchers, often from around the globe, of all shapes and sizes, all temperaments and personalities, just like in other workplaces. In real laboratories, things often go wrong, preparing experiments and carrying them out takes a long, long time, and it is this that I am interested in. I like to make things up, so while I am taking notes on my days in the biochemistry lab, they are more about how the researchers use language to talk about their work, to talk to each other, and what the rhythms of life are in a lab than writing down whole scenes which I will then transpose into fiction. That’s not my idea of fun.

Right now I am playing with the concept, and one of my first attempts, aptly entitled Experimentation, was a piece of flash fiction written for an episode last June of the Radio 4 program Off the Page which was about science. The program’s titled was ‘Blinded by Science’ which was designed to be deliberately provocative, as if science was a malevolent force intent on duping the public or so complicated that non-scientists would never understand it. So I wrote something humorous to read out to try and counter this misconception. My short short story is published on the Bristol University Science Faculty blog (of which I am currently the primary blogger). It is purely fiction, not based – although they think otherwise! – on anything any of the scientists I am ’embedding’ with did or said. Here is an excerpt:

He decides to run the experiment before lunch. He feels sure, given her past behaviour, that she will comply.

12.03pm

He sits at the microscope, counting bacteria. He hears her coming. She stands by his bench. She picks up a pipette.

“I’d rather you didn’t do that,” he says.

“Oh,” she says. “Ok.” And she puts the pipette back and walks off.

He writes in his notebook: 12.03 I say: “I’d rather you didn’t do that.” She says “oh”, “ok”. He sets his timer for half an hour.

12.33pm.

He sits at the microscope, counting bacteria. He hears her coming. She stands by his bench. She picks up a pipette. He looks up. He smiles at her.

“Hi,” he says.

“Oh,” she says. “Sorry, I was just…” and she puts the pipette back and walks off.

You can read the rest of the story on the blog.

There are scientists who are writing fiction, plays, TV shows and films inspired by science, but I think we need more in order for the world of science to become demystified. This is only going to happen if writers get in and experience it. I would recommend to any writer that they find a residency in a science department – it’s filled with inspiration for writers and artists – and, more than that,  I think the members of the lab enjoy having me there, asking odd questions that perhaps require them to explain themselves and their research in a new way. I hope it is a two-way process, that it is not just me who is benefiting from this. Only they can answer that.

In Part II of this blog post, I’m going to bring some examples of science-inspired fiction that I love, and some words of caution about what doesn’t work so well.

Tania Hershman is founder and editor of The Short Review. You can find out more about Tania’s work and writing on her website and her blog. Her work at Bristol University can be found on their Science Faculty blog.