Turning Science into Fiction
It’s always an exciting moment for me, when a new commissioning brief comes through for one of Comma Press’s Science into Fiction books.
It works like this: an email arrives from Comma Editor Ra Page. He has selected a group of short story writers he wants to contribute to the book. He sends each of us a list of scientists working in a field related to the subject of a new anthology. We get to read a little about each scientist, and the topic area they have proposed. And then we rush to claim the scientist or idea with which we feel the most affinity. Once paired up, a date is set where we get to meet the scientist, or at least chat with them on the phone, to learn more about their work. Our job as writers is to then turn the science into a short story.
And this is such a pleasure!
Because for me, science is such a rich vein of inspiration. I’ve been able to work with some amazing people doing fascinating work: For When it Changed, I worked with a nano-scientist whose studies have applications in military body armour; For Bio-Punk, I got to visit the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh (home of Dolly the sheep – the first cloned mammal) to learn about the latest applications of cloning technology; For Spindles, I got to experience a hideously disturbing experiment in a sleep lab; For Litmus, I visited Jodrell Bank to work with an astronomer who studies exploding stars; and for Beta-Life, I got to attend an artificial life conference in Sicily to work with a scientist who is trying to work out how to grow buildings from seeds…
Comma’s latest anthology explores thought experiments and their use in science. A thought experiment is one which can be conducted from an armchair, using logic alone, to answer a question about some aspect of the universe or human experience.
For my story, I was lucky to work with Tara Shears, Professor of Physics, who works at Liverpool University and CERN. Tara Shears is a particle physicist, and so an ideal person to talk with about The Twin Paradox – the thought experiment that most excited me.
The Twin Paradox works like this: if you get identical twins, and stick one in a rocket, and then send him or her off into space, travelling at close to the speed of light, when the twin returns to Earth, they will be physically younger than the twin left on Earth.
This works because time slows down the faster you travel. The effect is observable in a tiny way with synchronised clocks when one is placed in an aeroplane and flown about for a while. Upon landing, it will have lost a little time.
But if we’re using twins, rather than synchronised clocks, and close-to-light-speed space ships, rather than aeroplanes, and making a journey that lasts months or even years, then the effect is much more dramatic. The space-faring twin could arrive back 10 years or more younger than their earthbound brother or sister.
But that’s not a story I was interesting in telling.
There’s not much drama there. ‘Oh! You look so much younger – that’s so unfair!’ ‘Eeesh, is that what I’m going to look like in 10 years?’.
My approach for writing fiction always begins with thinking about the impact of technology on ordinary people and relationships. So for the Twin Paradox story, I started thinking about the time dilation dilemma on a smaller scale.
What if there’s a couple living on a space station with their young daughter? What if the husband’s job involves him making repeated shuttle-runs into deep space at close to light speed? His experience of time would be different to his wife and daughter’s. He might have been away for a couple of days, but to his family, the time might actually have been a week or more.
I could easily imagine how this might put pressure on a relationship, and create juicy conflict – the most important element in fiction.
I had lots of questions for Tara Shears about how the story might work, and what kind of time dilation effects the family might experience. We were talking at one point on Skype when I wondered what would happen if the husband and wife in the story were talking with one another in the same way (assuming the technical/technological hurdles could be overcome) while he was flying at close to the speed of light.
Tara said that when the husband was flying away from the space station, his family would appear slowed down dramatically, including their speech. To his family, the husband would also appear slowed down. And when he was flying home, they would all appear to be sped up. This is due to the Doppler Effect, which either compresses or expands the wavelength of a signal depending on whether the observer is moving towards or away from the source of the signal. It’s what makes the pitch of a police siren shift as the car travels towards and then away from you.
This intergalactic Skype conversation became the starting point for the story, branching out to explore how time dilation could really screw with the family dynamic.
You can read the story – Lightspeed– in Thought X, along with other stories exploring different thought experiments, from writers including Zoe Gilbert, Adam Roberts, Andy Hedgecock, Robin Ince, Claire Dean, and Anneliese Mackintosh and more.
I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the book myself.
Thought X is available directly from our website in paperback and eBook.
Discover more of our Science into Fiction series here
Adam will also be returning to tutor our London Short Story course starting in July. More information on our website soon.