When It Changed: Science into Fiction, An Anthology
Edited by Geoff Ryman
Comma Press 2009, Paperback
Awards: Moss Witch by
Sara Maitland, 2nd Prize, 2010 BBC National Short Story Award
Geoff Ryman is a Canadian citizen living in
the UK. He divides his time between writing and teaching at the Centre
for New Writing, University of Manchester. His books and
stories have won 14 awards. He is the author of The Warrior Who Carried Life
(1986), The Child Garden
Countries: Four Novellas (1994), the hypertext novel 253 (print edition:
(2005) and The King's
Last Son (2006, 2008 (US)).
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Reviewed by Stefani Nellen
Whenever I finish a book I loved, I think about all the ways in which
it could have failed but didn't. It's my way of adding an additional
layer of appreciation to the still fresh pleasure I took from the book
– an appreciation laced with surprise, admiration, and relief.
The idea behind When It Changed
is to reconnect science fiction to actual science in order to show how
exciting it can be. How exciting both can be, actually.
mechanism: Pair up writers and scientists and let them discuss current
research, speculate about the implications, challenge each other as to
what is possible and what isn't.
The result: A collection of fifteen short stories, each followed by an
Afterword by a scientist.
This could have been rather boring: A couple of science fiction
stories about soap-opera characters tossed by shallow-yet-tempestuous
plots through a universe conveniently equipped with "hyperspace" FTL
travel, super-hyper-fuzzy intelligence, brain-in-a-vet virtual
realities and heartbroken computers (all of these making the story, you
know, science fiction). Meanwhile, the scientists (possibly put off by
the typically less than flattering portrait of their peers in such
stories) could have commented testily that all of this was very far
fetched indeed, and left it at that.
Well, it worked out differently. When
is both an amazing collection of science fiction and a truly
interesting "teaser" menu (in the form of the scientist-provided
comments) of the cutting edge science done today. I learned a lot
without being lectured, both about good storytelling and about science.
Four things struck me. First: The range of topics. There are stories on
"obvious topics", such as particle physics (Global Collider Generation: An Idyll,
by Paul Cornell; Collision,
by Gwyneth Jones), cloning (In the
Event of, by Michael Arditti), fMRI of the brain (Doing the Butterfly by Kit Reed),
and our future lives-in-blogs (You,
by Geoff Ryman; this story also contains some very unusual and sexy
imagery relating to the interface between language and numbers).
there are also stories on how we smell (Zoology by Simon Ings, which also,
extraordinarily, I think, made me pity a maggot), body armor technology
(Without A Shell, by Adam
Marek), and stylish photosynthesis (Hair,
by Adam Roberts). Among many others. Suddenly, my life is filled with
things I knew little/ nothing about beforehand, and now want to read
more about. Good.
The second thing I found interesting was to
see how well science and fiction complimented each others. Again, there
could have been a painful contrast between mind-blowing, visionary
stories and dusty, deeply skeptical scientific commentary. This is not
the case here. I was so amazed to read about the things that are being
done in science right now that I found the "afterwords" every bit as
engaging as the actual stories.
It was particularly intriguing to see
how little the stories sometimes deviated from reality, e.g. Frank
Cottrell Boyce's short-and-sweet story about (ultimately) the
intersection between astronomy and astrology (Temporary), the "Virtual Man" used
in Death Knocks (Ken
MacLeod), the experiments described in zoology, and the brief vision of
space in The Bellini Madonna
(Patricia Duncker). Again, these are only a few examples among many.
Conversely, it was exciting to see how the writers spun the science
into absolutely unpredictable stories that were anything but "idea"
pieces, and that more than once seemed to delight the commenting
"I thoroughly enjoyed Sara's story. It did a great
job of imagining an intelligent, human-like creature who works like a
bryophyte." (Dr. Jennifer Rowntree on Moss
and this is probably related to the last point made above: I loved it
that the stories explored such different voices, formats, and
storytelling techniques. Probably most impressive, to me, was the eerie
"we" storyteller in Chaz Brenchley's White
which initially feels somewhat odd, and in the end left me feeling,
well, mute. And desperate. But in a good way. (I don’t want to give
away too much). Liz Williams' Enigma
is told in short vignettes, Temporary in letters. You is an occasionally confusing
(but never annoying) direct address/ voice-over montage. Global Collider Generation: An Idyll
is laced with present-day Internet headlines/ blog comments, to
hilarious effect (the tired phrase, "you couldn't make this up" comes to
mind). Other stories take more conventional form, but all feel real and
well thought through. The array of characters and worlds is stunning.
and as a former member of the scientific community (and the spouse of
one) I feel this deserves mentioning: Several stories here give good
and accurate descriptions of what it feels like to do actual science
and experience the daily routine of research. While homage is being
paid to the eccentricities that come with this form of existence, I was
relieved to see none of the usual suspects (mad professor with
fantasies of world domination/ autistic quasi-robot who, despite his
brilliance, is a clueless assistant to a super-villain/ sultry test
tube lady with a smoky voice and a fitted lab coat two sizes too small
(the latter makes an appearance in Collision,
and of course she has her own story...)). Carbon
by Justina Robson is primarily (to me) a story about what it feels like
to be a scientist: the slow progress, the necessity to "sell"
knowledge, the mixture of hopelessness and elation, and the flights of
thoughts taking place in the most mundane surroundings imaginable. It
is my favorite story in this collection.