Disturbing the Universe

David L Clements, science and science fiction


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Science for Fiction 2019

The Imperial College & Science Fiction Foundation workshop for writers to meet and talk to scientists is back once again, and we have rather more advance notice of the dates than we have managed in recent years.

The dates are 3-4 July, starting after lunch on the 3rd and running all day on the 4th. There’s a meeting of the London Fannish Circle (The Tun) that evening and I’ll be leading a trip there after we finish for anybody interested.

The cost will be £30 to cover catering. Some financial support is available via the Science Fiction Foundation if necessary. Overnight accommodation, if you need it, is extra.

Details of subjects to be covered are still being sorted out – and will in part be determined by what the attendees are after – but it will certainly include astronomy, physics and biology, possibly all mixed together.

If you are interested drop me an email at d dot clements at imperial dot ac dot uk. Please include any specific requests for subjects to be covered, and if you have any dietary restrictions that would affect what we order for lunch and tea.


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On Worldbuilding: or Why Station Eleven nearly Hit the Wall

The more I write and read SF the more I realise that the world in which a story is set is a character in the story – that background matters to me as a reader and a writer very much, and I think this is true of many other readers.

Worldbuilding is thus an essential element of any book that is classified, whether by writer, readers or critics, as science fiction. It’s a curious skill, not unlike scientific research in some ways. You have to test your world against a variety of questions or thought experiments. If you want a scenario where evil space mining corporations want to strip mine a planet for valuable metal ores you need to explain why they can’t just do this with metal rich asteroids and avoid the (necessary to the plot) oppression of the natives.

Similar questions should be asked about the worldbuidling in fantasy as well. If you have knights wandering around in huge numbers to make your battlefields look spectacular you have to explain where their food and water come from, who made the arms and armour, and who is paying for it all.

This process isn’t just a matter of making the world deeper and more believable, it can also be a route to generating plot ideas. If a battalion of knights get their food supplies cut off there could be an interesting subplot where they have to live off the land and come into contact with the peasants who are suffering to pay for and supply their noble battles. How they interact with the peasants is a great opportunity for character development.

Worldbuilding can be hard work. For recent short stories I’ve published I know far more about their worlds than is on the page. Some of this may emerge in future projects – I’m sure this is a reason why genre writers often set several stories in the same universe – but that is far from guaranteed.

None of this should be news to writers working within the genre, though it is certainly true that some are better at worldbuilding than others. Problems arise, though, when writers who are not as experienced in the genre pay us a visit.

This brings us to Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, winner of the 2015 Clarke Award.

I bought this largely on the strength of the award, which has made odd choices in the past but which usually picks something interesting. It’s been on my to-read shelf for a while and I finally got round to it this week.

The majority of the book (I am told) is set 20 years after a plague has devastated the world’s population, but with frequent flashbacks to the immediate aftermath of the plague. This is all ‘I am told’ since I didn’t get beyond the first ~30 pages.

The writing is certainly good, with nice characterisation and well described events and locations (one in fact not dissimilar to something that happened to my Dad several years ago). But there’s a severe problem with the plague that just bumped me out of the whole thing and broke the relationship I had with the book.

The plague that changes the world in ways necessary for the plot is very infectious and very fast acting. From the information in the first chapter it seems you can go from infection to death in about 8 hours. This isn’t without precedent – the 1919 flu pandemic apparently took some people from healthy to dead in 45 minutes – but the Station Eleven plague seems to do this to everyone.

However, the disease is brought to Toronto, where the opening is set, from Moscow on a flight that lasts 10 hours. Anybody who has ever flown knows that it’ll take you rather more than the flight time to get to the airport, check in, wait around departures, arrive, get through immigration, find your luggage and then get out of the airport. Toronto’s patient zero would thus probably have died on the flight and many of the other passengers would already be exhibiting symptoms on arrival, triggering medical alerts, quarantine and the end of the plague.

Of course this also ignores what happened back in Russia before patient zero boards the plane. Why aren’t people dropping like flies there? Or in Georgia where it is meant to have started? Are the Russian authorities so stupid that they want to ignore this problem in the hope that it will just go away? Books that rely on people being universally stupid to drive the plot don’t last long with me.

The problems don’t end there. A deadly and highly infectious disease is certainly something to worry about, but a disease that rapidly kills most of those who catch it is more easily dealt with than one that has a long incubation time (like AIDS). Quarantine works fantastically well for this. You take a hospital with infected patients, stop anybody leaving, and leave it for 48 hours before you send in the teams in hazmat suits. If it takes 8 hours to kill someone infected, after 2 days the only ones left will be survivors (or in Station Eleven‘s scenario, probably nobody). The same principle can be applied more broadly.

A city or nation-wide curfew for 48 hours, even if only weakly enforced, would have a huge impact on the spread of the pandemic, probably stopping it in its tracks. In the context of the book this would be even easier since Toronto is in the grip of a snow storm when the outbreak kicks off. Yes, many would die, and the world afterwards would be different, but the empty world of Station Eleven would not be the result – it would be more like the aftermath of the disease in the film Contagian than what the author was looking for. What gets into the book is a far more implausible plague scenario than the film Outbreak.

Working it out is not difficult. One single afternoon playing Plague Inc. can teach you this, which is why those of us who play the game are so happy when we manage to infect New Zealand, Iceland, Greenland and Madagascar.

When worldbuilding flaws are as deep and obvious as this I lose confidence in the entire fictional project. Yes, Mandel’s purpose with this book was not to write a virus-beating thriller. The plague is there to provide a backdrop for the changed world she wanted to work with. But if she can’t get simple things write about epidemiology why should I have confidence in anything else the writer is doing, from Shakespeare to the characters? To me, some fundamental contract with the reader is broken with the basic errors made in the first 30 pages.

And these flaws could be corrected fairly easily. The plague could simply work more slowly. If you want a sudden die off then it could be a two stage disease, with mild early symptoms and then a devastating collapse later, with the interim being a period of high infectivity. By the time people start dropping like flies it’s too late. There are actually disease that behave this way – anthrax is one, and there are more twisted options as well, such as syphilis and some of the herpes family. If the author had spoken to some scientists about her scenario this could all have been fixed. This is something I do with the Science for Fiction workshops.

Or the plague, like the war in McCarthy’s The Road could simply just be something that happened in the background, with no real details of how it happened. People could just start dying. No need to invoke the Russians, an impossible patient zero flying from there to Toronto, just a sudden devastating worldwide die off produced by an unknown infectious agent that doctors and scientists are too busy dying to determine or cure. I can buy that – the characters in the first 30 pages have no reason to know more than that. Only the writer wanted to tell me how it happened and got it wrong.

Station Eleven didin’t hit the wall but it nearly did. I’m actually rather surprised that the Clarke judges didn’t have the same reaction.

 

Edited: title misspelling corrected


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Astronomer Royal Coming to Worldcon

I’m the organiser of the science programme at the 2014 World SF Convention, taking place in London from 14-18 August, 2014. We have a press release:

MEDIA RELEASE #20

Loncon 3, the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention

14-18 August 2014 at ExCeL London

http://www.loncon3.org

media@loncon3.org

Science stars to shine at London World Science Fiction Convention

London, 8 May 2014 – Some of the biggest names in science, including the Astronomer Royal, have been confirmed to appear at Loncon 3, the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention (“Worldcon”), which opens at ExCeL London on 14 August 2014.

The extensive Loncon 3 science programme aims to take Worldcon attendees from the farthest and earliest reaches of the universe to the depths of the human cell, from subatomic particles to the theory and practice of geoengineering, from ancient Greek technology to the engineering practicalities behind low cost space flight.

Well-known names booked to deliver specialist talks and appear on panels at the convention include:

  • Baron Rees of Ludlow, a cosmologist and astrophysicist based at the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge. He has been Astronomer Royal since 1995 and was President of the Royal Society between 2005 and 2010. Lord Rees will deliver the George Hay memorial lecture sponsored by the Science Fiction Foundation, a charity which promotes science fiction and its relationship with science.
  • Dr. Tori Herridge, a paleobiologist at the Natural History Museum who delivered the 2012 Charles Lyell Award lecture at the British Science Festival and co-wrote Who Do You Think You Really Are.
  • Dr. Jenny Rohn, a cell biologist at University College London, who is the editor of the webzine LabLit.com and founder of the Science is Vital organization.
  • Prof. Ian Stewart, professor of mathematics at the University of Warwick and an author of popular science and science fiction books. He has been awarded the Christopher Zeeman Medal and the Michael Faraday Medal.
  • Prof. David Southwood, president of the Royal Astronomical Society, Senior Research Investigator at Imperial College London, and former Director of Science and Robotic Exploration at the European Space Agency.

As well as the science programme, attractions at Loncon 3 include the presentation of the Hugo Awards, the world’s leading awards for excellence in the field of science fiction and fantasy, and the Masquerade, live presentations showcasing spectacular costumes. The programme will present nearly a thousand individual items spread over five days, with panels, talks, workshops, quizzes, films, videos, autograph sessions, and more.

Full details of how to become a member of Loncon 3 are available at http://www.loncon3.org/memberships/

ENDS

For more information please contact media@loncon3.org

ABOUT THE WORLD SCIENCE FICTION CONVENTION

Founded in 1939, the World Science Fiction Convention is one of the largest international gatherings of authors, artists, editors, publishers, and fans of science fiction and fantasy. The annual Hugo Awards, the leading award for excellence in the fields of science fiction and fantasy, are voted on by the Worldcon membership and presented during the convention.

Loncon 3 is the trading name of London 2014 Ltd, a company limited by guarantee, registered in England, company number: 7989510. Registered Office: 176 Portland Road, Jesmond, Newcastle Upon Tyne, NE2 1DJ, UK.

“World Science Fiction Society”, “WSFS”, “World Science Fiction Convention”, “Worldcon”, “NASFiC”, “Hugo Award”, the Hugo Award Logo, and the distinctive design of the Hugo Award Trophy Rocket are service marks of the World Science Fiction Society, an unincorporated literary society.


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Is Gravity Science Fiction?

I just wrote the following response to an article and blog comment on lablit.com suggesting that the film Gravity should not be classified as Science Fiction. I thought I should add the comment here as well.

What’s the beef with science fiction?

There are several issues with Gravity that to my mind make it more Science Fiction than Science Fact. The convenient locations of the various places on orbit is already noted, but there are other operational issues in Gravity which elide the facts to make it more convenient (and survivable) for the characters. These include the amount of time taken to put on (and take off) a space suit, and the amount of time it takes to repressurise an airlock.

But above and beyond all these, is the key science fictional idea that drives the film: Kessler syndrome, the hypthesised debris cascade that would result as space debris hits other satellites causing even more debris, and eventually wiping out everything in low Earth orbit (LEO). Even ignoring the fact that the data linking satellites, TDRS, that are used to link communications across LEO are in geosynchronous orbit (GEO) and thus immune from the effect – something the film ignores to add narrative tension – the Kessler syndrome is not something that has been probed to be real. It’s plausible, but it is not a scientific fact, confirmed (thank goodness) by experiment.

To my mind that makes Gravity science fiction more than anything else. Hard SF, for sure, since they try as hard as possible to get everything else as right as they can given the story they want to tell, but SF nevertheless.

I’d contrast this with another film that is borderline SF: Deep Impact. This posits the possibility of a large asteroid impact threatening all life on Earth. Most people would call this film SF, but, unlike Gravity and the Kessler Syndrome, we know that such giant impacts have happened in the past – one wiped out the dinosaurs.

Would you classify that as SF, like most people, or as something different?

I think what lablit.com does is great, and have a couple of things published there, but the site is oddly allergic to science fiction, trying to distance itself from something they have, to my mind, more in common with than differences.


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Cambridge Science Festival: Science as the Spark

I’ll be on a panel at the Cambridge Science Festival this Thursday:

Science as the Spark – literature inspired by science

How has scientific inquiry lead to literary works? Why is the literary presentation of science relevant to scientists and to society?

This panel, chaired by Dr John Holmes, will skirt the cliches to ask illuminating questions, investigating why a number of talented scientists, historians and artists structure their work at the intersection of these worlds.

Panel members:

Chris Beckett, novelist and short story writer, 2013 Arthur C. Clarke best novel award for Dark Eden, Edge Hill award for The Turing Test.

Dave Clements, novelist and short story writer, 2013 Sir Arthur Clarke award, astrophysicist at Imperial.

Laura Dietz, novelist, convenor of the MA in Creative Writing at Anglia Ruskin.

Kelley Swain. poet and novelist, lecturer in Humanities in Global Health for Imperial?s Global Health BSc, past Writer in Residence at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science.

Thursday 20 March, 7pm-8.30pm, Anglia Ruskin University, East Road, CB1 1PT – Lord Ashcroft Building, LAB005

It’s free, but seats are going quickly, so book now!


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Me and Jonathan Ross

A week ago I was involved with what has been called a twitterstorm concerning the appointment of the UK media personality Jonathan Ross as tosatmaster – ie. master of ceremonies – for the Hugo Awards at the 2014 World SF Convention taking place in London in August this year. A lot was said both for and against him as toastmaster, and for and against the process that led to him being asked. After a rather fraught day (and longer for members of the convention committee – I am not one), Jonathan Ross stood down.

I am not going to rehearse most of the arguments for and against him, and I am certainly not going to delve into the ad hominem and, at times, hurtful comments made by both sides. That has been discussed far too much already. But, in thinking about this paroxysm, and about some of the reasons advanced for and against, I’ve come to realise that I’m viewing SF and fannish activities rather differently to some people in the publishing industry and elsewhere.

Specifically, a number of writers and publishers, including Sarah Pinborough and Danie Ware, saw Ross’ withdrawal as a missed  opportunity for ‘a huge boost for the whole community in terms of publicity and credibility, reputation and sales’. Oddly, except perhaps for the sales side in the short term, I think Ross would have represented a step backwards in all of those areas.

What are Danie, Sarah and others seeing in Ross as being a boost for SF? Ignoring the specific arguments for and against Ross as an individual, he is a major UK celebrity (though largely unknown outside the country). Having such a celebrity handing out the Hugos might have drawn in the press, which would have led to greater visibility, credibility in mainstream media circles and, maybe, increased sales.

But what kind of celebrity is Jonathan Ross? He’s a media figure, famous, at some level, for being famous. He is a product of UK celebrity culture which, at its root, is interested in fame only, not content. Yes, Ross is a comics writer and his wife is a Hugo winning scriptwriter, but neither of those are what will come to the mind of the press when they think of him. He would just be another celebrity adding media glitz.

The thing is, I think SF is far more than just another media phenomenon, and that measuring success in terms of media credibility and short term sales figures is, frankly, missing the whole point.

Science Fiction is different. It is not like other fictional genres, such as crime, fantasy and genre literature. It can have similarities to them, and has to play by similar rules if it is to tell workable and saleable stories. But it also has other concerns. At its best, SF not only tells stories about engaging and realistic characters, it also builds new worlds for those characters to live in, and poses realistic challenges about the future of the reader (or viewer of a movie etc.). This is not universal in SF, and this is not unique to SF – there are works in other genres that can do the same thing (though I would classify many of these, such as 1984 and The Handmaids Tale, as works of science fiction even if the authors might not have done that at the time of writing).

This gives SF a more important role than it being a simple media classification, as something where a short term sales boost at the cost of portraying it as just another celebrity-obsessed community, might actually bring long term damage.

This is why I spend much of my time working to build and promote the science programme at SF conventions. SF at its best goes beyond the world, beyond the simple medium and its content, and offers glimpses at other possibilities, at how science works and what its results are, at the threats and potentials of the future and in the world around us. Jonathan Ross has nothing whatsoever to do with any of that, and yet that is what I see as being the core of what SF is, and what SF does. The Hugo toastmaster should be part of that, someone who represents that broader context. It shouldn’t just be another media figure promoting just another media bunfight.

The credibility I seek for SF is not among arts correspondents on newspapers and TV, the kind of people Jonathan Ross would pull in. Thanks to the persistent gulf between the Two Cultures in much of the UK, these are issues they will not examine and cannot, in the short term at least, understand. Indeed, they might misunderstand SF and the Hugos completely, accidentally or otherwise.

A different kind of credibility is needed, one that goes beyond the usual silos of the media business because SF goes beyond those silos, allowing us to imagine different futures and, on that basis, change the present. This is why organisations like the Global Business Network hire SF writers to build ‘what if’ scenarios for the future, that help solve real problems today. One of GBNs greatest successes was the peaceful end of apartheid in South Africa (and discussed in Wired many years ago).

What other kind of fiction can do that?

And if the public face of that fiction just another media celebrity, will the chances of SF doing that again be increased or decreased? I think the latter is far more likely.

That is why, even without the reputational baggage that follows Jonathan Ross around, deservedly or otherwise, I think he was a very poor choice as Hugo toastmaster.


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Thoughts on Steampunk

Prompted by a discussion elsewhere, citing The Difference Engine as the start of the steampunk subgenre, I thought I should post my responses here:

– While Gibson & Sterling’s The Difference Engine is a key steampunk influence, earlier books by James Blaylock, KW Jetter’s Infernal Devices and Morlock Night, and Tim Power’s The Anubis Gates (all excellent by the way) would be better described as the seeds around which steampunk formed.
– It is not insignificant that The Difference Engine was written by two of Cyberpunk’s greatest writers.
– The nearly complete absence of discussion of the great unwashed proletariat necessary to keep a steampunk world operating – more accurate renditions of what a realistic victorian/edwardian world would be like can be found on recent TV shows such as Ripper STreet and Peaky Blinders – just shows its failure to engage with reality. Early works like Morlock Night didn’t do this.
– That Steampunk continues as a discernible movement while cyberpunk does not speaks volumes for the fact that the latter was a better description/prediction of the world, and that steampunk is a in large part a nostalgic failure to engage with reality. The cyberpunks became the world, the steampunks take holidays from it.
I won’t say I don’t enjoy Steampunk at times – after all, who can fail to like cog-laden ray guns and stainless steel boned corsets – but I feel it is usually an entertainment with an emptiness where its heart should be.