Issue 8

Geoff Ryman
Final Frontiers?

As the 2007 Douglas Adams Memorial Lecture , the Institute of Ideas hosted a panel called ‘From Star Wars to the Battle of Ideas: Is science fiction good for public debate?’ The question seemed to be: is SF good enough at communicating science to be useful ?

The panel members included academics in charge of science education programmes, experts in science education, a curator of museum events, Dr. Geeta Nargund a consultant in Reproductive Medicine who was an advisor on the film Children of Men and Dr Lizzie Burns of Hollywood Maths and Science Consulting.

I got to know about the event when Oliver Morton, then an editor at Nature magazine, emailed a number of people, me included, to point out that there were no SF writers on the panel.The description of the event online said, ‘Writers and filmmakers often take their inspiration from science and ask ‘what if…?’, but when it comes down to it, they have few qualms about ditching scientific accuracy in favour of gripping narrative.’

Most of the science fiction writers I know would take issue with that statement.

As science fiction authors we spend our lives working through issues of scientific authenticity in fiction. In a lecture honouring a SF author, not one was present on the panel. Why might that be? Had we done anything wrong?

Two months before, in March 2007 Danny Boyle’s film Sunshine had been released. To sum up the story: our sun starts to die, and a second mission is sent out to reignite it. Publicity for the film described the director’s efforts to be scientifically authentic, so there were expectations that it would be an intelligent SF thriller.

But despite long consultations with the University of Manchester’s own Professor Brian Cox, the film dismayed some critics: the sun dies billions of years too soon because a Q ball hits it (when it would have passed through it), as usual in films the ship whooshes past in a vacuum, and there were inaccuracies in the depiction of weightlessness and temperatures in space.

Most of these compromises would have gone unnoticed by audiences. Nevertheless, a columnist for The Times, Anjuna Anhana wrote, ‘Danny Boyle could have achieved the same level of scientific fidelity in Sunshine by giving a calculator to a schoolboy.’ Anthony Lane in The New Yorker wrote, ‘The film is nonsense, and what counts is whether viewers will feel able to lay aside their logical complaints and bask in what remains: a trip in search of a tan.’

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?

Dear Sir,

As British science fiction writers, we are continually forced to balance scientific practice, current knowledge and future developments with the demands of fine story telling. Getting that balance right is hard, but worthwhile, because credibility is so important both to audiences and the scientific community.

In Britain, though, scientists, and people in arts, TV, movie and literary worlds do not work together as they should. This is a major problem: we all desperately need to understand each other’s constraints to create works that are entertaining, enlightening, and scientifically authentic. But worryingly, Britain is falling behind the United States, where organisations such as The National Academy of Sciences’ Science and Entertainment Exchange are forging these new and productive relationships between scientists and the entertainment industry.

This is why the workshop at The University of Manchester we are taking part in this week will, we hope, be the first step to creating a similar substantive body in the UK. More support will be needed to make this dream a reality, so we call on scientists and the creative community to back us. A new body dedicated to this task must surely benefit the millions of people around the world, who value and enjoy British fiction, film, television and the other arts.

Justina Robson,
Simon Ings,
Alastair Reynolds,
Ken Macleod,
Geoff Ryman
Paul McAuley