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 (1989), Was (1992), Unconquered Countries: Four Novellas (1994), the hypertext novel 253 (print edition: 1998), Air (2005) and The King's Last Son (2006, 2008 (US)).

Read an interview with Geoff Ryman



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"I am just a spark. But all sparks are essential to the running of the thing if it's to run at all along the road of light. And it does run. Just listen to that roar!"

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.

The 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 It Changed 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).

But 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 scientists:
"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 Witch.)
Thirdly, 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 Skies, 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.

Fourth, 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.




Read a story from this collection in New Scientist


Stefani Nellen lives and writes in the Netherlands. Her short stories have been published in Cosmos, Inkwell, Apex Digest, Best of the Web 2008 and Web Conjunctions, among other places. She's a graduate of the 2008 Clarion workshop at San Diego.

Stefani's other Short Reviews: Claudia Smith "The Sky is A Well"

Heather Beck "10 Journeys Through the Unknown"

Mary Anne Mohanraj "Bodies in Motion"

John Joseph Adams (ed) "Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse"

"Best Gay Romance 2009"

                     
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