The Manchester Review
Geoff Ryman
Final Frontiers?
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On the other hand, critics praised the depiction of the characters as scientists not action heroes, and the ship had convincing features such as an oxygen garden. Are expectations for complete scientific accuracy in entertainment reasonable?

In the DVD commentary on the film, Professor Cox said, ‘Sunshine is not a documentary. It's trying to just, in an hour and forty minutes, get across a feeling of what it's like – not only to be a scientist, because obviously there's much more in it than that. So, I found it interesting to watch the kind of people that get upset because the gravity is wrong.’

In 2009 I edited an anthology of original fiction called When it Changed: Science into Fiction.Supported by Dame Nancy Rothwell in her role as Manchester Area Beacon and with funding from the publisher Comma Press, I commissioned stories that were collaborations between fiction writers and Manchester area scientists such as Matthew Cobb, Tim O’Brien, and Rob Appleby. The writers included SF writers such as Ken MacLeod, Justina Robson, Adam Roberts and Gwyneth Jones; Simon Ings who had been an SF writer at times; young literary guns such as Frank Cottrell Boyce and Adam Marek; and established writers of mainstream fiction such as Patricia Duncker. Sara Maitland’s collaboration with Dr Jennifer Rowntree was short listed for the BBC National Short Story Award.

What struck me working with both scientists and writers, was how unsure the scientists were about collaboration. Some seemed to worry that they would have to come up with the plot. Others simply referred their writing partners to their previously published papers. Some however enthusiastically joined in, bouncing ideas back and forth with their authors.

I became convinced that there is a protocol to giving scientific advice to the arts.

Consultants need to do more than point out what is improbable or to correct an artist’s naïve suggestions. There needs to be a basic understanding of storytelling or the expectations of media audiences. Scientists or scientifically literate authors who consult on entertainment projects need, in my view, to understand that, say, a military storyline in the future still needs to preserve human contact, drama, loyalty and betrayal. They need to preserver ‘the Band of Brother storylines,’ as SF film expert Dr David Kirby’s puts it. Consultants need to suggest scientifically authentic alternatives that can help the dramatists and storytellers achieve their broader aims.

Dr Kirby teaches a course in Science Fiction film and literature within the University of Manchester’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM). He is the author of Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema (MIT University Press, 2011) which explores the backstage role science consultants play during film and television production. According to Dr Kirby, the best science consultants are not ‘the science police’. The most successful provide the writers or producers with ‘the means by which accurate science adds to a fictional text’s entertainment value or intellectual appeal.’

That’s why I was delighted when he asked me to help run a one-day conference now called Putting the Science in Fiction. The event, co-funded by CHSTM and CIDRA (The Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in the Arts), is bringing together screenwriters, producers, scientists, academics, media professionals to discuss a range of issues from story collaboration, to media presentation of science, to a panel on how scientifically literate authors such as Ken MacLeod, Alistair Reynolds and Paul McAuley work with science to tell stories.

Its last session will focus on how to provide a more collective solution. David Kirby has contact with such American organizations such as The National Academy of Sciences’ Science and Entertainment Exchange. (Click here) It matches volunteer scientists and consultants to particular projects needing advice – anything from a writer on a tight deadline to someone needing advice on design or plotting. As of April 2012, the Exchange has assisted over 450 consults, many on major film and TV studio productions.

What form should a similar body take in the UK? Could this approach be extended to the other arts: dance, theatre, fine arts? How could it help the lone freelance authors? If there is a skill in collaborating with people from the arts, can it be taught? Could short scientific briefings be provided online? Scientific courses for writers? Given the need to capture a mass audience for expensive entertainments, what are reasonable expectations of scientific authenticity?

Six writers attending the conference have signed a joint letter, also published today in The Manchester Review (see below) calling for the creation of such a body.

When I was working on my own story for When it Changed, I had the help of Dr Manolis Pantos of the Daresbury Laboratory. He was using new techniques to date cultural artefacts. In my story, small patterned cylinders had been found on Mars, and particle bombardment was helping to date them. How, on Mars, could we produce such particles? Oh, offered Dr Pantos, they will probably have portable synchrotrons by then. Portable synchronized particle accelerators on Mars? My mind at least boggled.

Science into Fiction should not be thought of as a corrective to creativity, or a brake on excess. It will be the source of new fresh ideas in the arts. Boldly going where no one has gone before?