Tagfiction

Nona’s Room – Cristina Fernández Cubas

Once again, July is Spanish Lit Month, hosted by Richard at Caravana de recuerdos and Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog. A little later than planned, I’m joining in. 

Today I’m looking at another title from the Peter Owen/Istros Spanish Spring trio (the last I reviewed was Inventing Love). The author biography tells me that Cristina Fernández Cubas is one of Spain’s most highly regarded short-story writers — and that Nona’s Room is her first book to be translated into English. After reading these six stories, I can see why Cubas has such a high reputation; and I’m keen to read more of her work. 

The opening title story sets the tone of the collection. When the narrator’s sister Nona was born, her mother told her that Nona was special, and not to forget that “special is a lovely word.” Well, maybe that was how it happened. Whatever, the narrator knows that she has felt sidelined since Nona came along:

Because my life was very different before Nona came into the world. I don’t remember it very well, but I do know it was different. I’ve got loads of reasons to think that it was better, too. Much better. But once Nona was born things changed for ever, and that must be why I got used to thinking that my mother said those words the day she came into the world. That’s the day when I started a new life as well. My life with Nona. 

(translation by Kathryn Phillips-Miles and Simon Deefholts)

This kind of uncertainty, and a slippery hold on reality, permeates all of Cubas’s stories. In this particular example, the narrator has started to lose her sense of having a life in and for herself when her parents focus all their attention on special Nona at her special school, Nona with her array of imaginary friends. It’s when the narrator sees something inexplicable happen to her sister that she becomes determined to find out the truth, and discover what secrets lie behind the door of Nona’s room… 

Yes, I am tiptoeing around something that I don’t want to reveal. But I don’t want to give the impression that this story is ‘all about the twist’: ‘Nona’s Room’ writhes and shifts all the way through, with a constant sense that something else is set to emerge. 

That same sense comes right to the fore early on in ‘Interior with Figure’, when the narrator describes the Cecioni painting of that name and says that the girl depicted “reminds me of a character in a short story I wrote recently whom I called Nona.”
The narrator of ‘Interior with Figure’ admits to being a writer but stops short of revealing her name. Still, that mention of Nona tempts us to perceive this story as being closer to reality than some of the others. Our narrator goes on to recount seeing a school party at the gallery she is visiting, and hearing one girl who has a particularly dark interpretation of Cecioni’s Interior with Figure. The girl speculates that the figure in the painting is hiding from her parents, because she knows they want to kill her for what she has seen. 

It strikes the narrator that the girl’s comments on the painting may actually be a coded cry for help. She wonders what she should do: go to the police? But what would she tell them? ‘Interior with Figure’ is a story about interpretation: a series of subjectivities which crystallise into a whole all unto itself. That’s my interpretation, anyway… 

‘The End of Barbro’ sees a woman drive a wedge between the man she marries and his three daughters. What makes this story particularly striking is that it’s narrated by the three sisters collectively:

We hardly spoke a word and didn’t dare look each other in the eye, but with a few drinks inside us we sorted through our thoughts and memories as if they were scenes from a film fast-forwarding at a frenetic pace and featuring only two protagonists: Barbro and our father. And when we remember her appearing on the doorstep barely a week earlier it seemed as if years and years had gone by. They weren’t the same, and neither were we. 

The effect of this narration is quite eerie, because we lose sight of the sisters’ individual lives and personalities (perhaps reflecting how they feel squeezed out by Barbro), which makes it harder to imagine them as characters. In turn, that makes the story’s sense of reality unstable… and there we’re back to the normal state of affairs in Nona’s Room

Elsewhere
 

Stu has reviewed Nona’s Room here; I like his comparison to Roald Dahl’s stories. You can also read an extract from the title story here at the European Literature Network. 

Book details 

Nona’s Room (2015) by Cristina Fernández Cubas, tr. Kathryn Phillips-Miles and Simon Deefholts (2017), Peter Owen Publishers, 160 pages, paperback (review copy). 

Dead Writers in Rehab – Paul Bassett Davies: a snapshot review

Debauched writer Foster James wakes one day in what appears to be a rehabilitation clinic, with no memory of how he got there. Adding to the mystery, the other patients are all famous writers – Ernest Hemingway, Wilkie Collins, Dorothy Parker, and others. But those writers are all dead… aren’t they? If so, what does that make Foster, who certainly feels alive? The secret to this place may lie with the strange figure glimpsed at the edge of the grounds… or perhaps with the on/off romance between the clinic’s two doctors.

Paul Bassett Davies has written for film, television and radio; Dead Writers in Rehab is his second novel, recently published by Unbound. It’s a splendid dark comedy: most of the chapters are in the form of patients’ “recovery diaries”, so you’ve got a parade of pastiche voices that is a joy to read. But, just when you think you have the novel pinned down, it reveals a serious heart – and changes shape more than once.

Dead Writers in Rehab determinedly follows its own path, which is a quality I love in fiction. In short, this book is a delight.

A version of this review was originally published on Twitter. 

Book details 

Dead Writers in Rehab (2017) by Paul Bassett Davies, Unbound, 273 pages, ebook (review copy). 

The Cut – Anthony Cartwright: a snapshot review

The Cut is the second title in the “Peirene Now!” series (following breach), fictions commissioned by Peirene Press to respond to current events. It is Peirene’s Brexit novel, set in Anthony Cartwright’s hometown of Dudley, which voted decisively to leave the EU in last year’s referendum.
Cartwright explores the issues around Brexit through two main characters: Grace, a documentary maker from Hampstead, who has gone to Dudley to interview people for her new film; and Cairo, a boxer who works cleaning up industrial sites and becomes Grace’s principal interviewee.

Both characters have their preconceptions challenged over the course of the novel. Grace has ideas of what her film’s narrative will be, but the reality she finds in Dudley is too complex and nuanced for that. Cairo makes clear that there’s a whole way of life which has declined over the years, for many different reasons. There’s a real sense of a situation that is almost too complex to articulate — hence the tendency to appeal to overly simplistic explanations.

For his part, Cairo finds that Grace is not quite the out-of-touch tourist that he’d assumed; instead, her arrival gives him a genuine opportunity to reflect and reconsider, to think that life could be something different after all. By focusing in on a few characters, Cartwright is able to illuminate a matter like Brexit on a human scale. The Cut is a sharp novel indeed.
A version of this review was previously published on Twitter. 

Book details 

The Cut (2017) by Anthony Cartwright, Peirene Press, 129 pages, paperback (personal copy). 

A Review of Nightjars, part 3

It’s time for the third part of my review of Nightjar Press chapbooks (the first two parts are here and here). As before, these are reviewed in the more-or-less random order that I read them.

Conrad Williams, ‘The Jungle’ (2013)

Our narrator is an artist who’s working on a jungle scene with no animals; he wants the scene itself to suggest their presence, menace and violence just out of sight. When he’s not painting, he likes to take his two-year-old son Fred to the playground or somewhere; though he’s determined that Fred should not be placed in the way of danger. On this particular outing, the pair pass a man who appears to change into a large animal — and then the jungle continues to encroach. 

Conrad Williams is one of my favourite writers working in dark fiction, horror, whatever you prefer to call it. I always feel that he’s in full command of his material, and that’s the case again here. He ramps up the tension, giving ordinary places a sense of looming danger. He also stops in just the right place to cap it off. 


Alison Moore, ‘The Harvestman’ (2015)
 

Earlier this year, I read Alison Moore‘s third novel, Death and the Seaside. As it happens, this story was the foundation for that novel, though it works perfectly well as a piece of fiction in its own right. 

Eliot is living on the south coast of England. He owes some rent to his landlord, Big Pete; and also has eyes for barmaid Abbey, Big Pete’s girlfriend. One day, Abbey invites Eliot to the flat above the pub, that she shares with Big Pete. This isn’t likely to end well.

Moore’s story evokes the atmosphere of an off-season, slightly dingy seaside town; but there’s a vein of symbolism running through ‘The Harvestman’ that really enriches the piece. Eliot has long spindly legs that remind him of harvestmen, creatures that disgust him, that can just detach a leg if they get trapped. For different reasons, both Eliot’s father and grandfather lost the use of their legs; the question becomes, can Eliot escape his situation with himself intact? Reaching the answer to this is an intriguing journey. 

 

Christopher Burns, ‘The Numbers’ (2016)

One morning, Danny arrives unexpectedly at his family’s farm. He’s not particularly welcome, not after trying it on with his sister-in-law (though as far as he’s concerned, he was picking up on her cues). More generally, Danny is seen as the useless appendage of the family, having sold his share in the farm and being unable to get a job (he was never good with numbers, after all). Still, he is taken in and given breakfast — then it’s down to business. 

This is a story of two halves, beginning in a rather subdued fashion (albeit with a definite undercurrent of tension) before turning deftly into something darker, that casts those earlier comments about Danny in a new light. It’s very well done, with such a strong impact. 

Book details 

‘The Jungle’ (2013) by Conrad Williams, Nightjar Press, 16 pages, chapbook (review copy). 
‘The Harvestman’ (2015) by Alison Moore, Nightjar Press, 12 pages, chapbook (review copy). 

‘The Numbers’ (2016) by Christopher Burns, Nightjar Press, 16 pages, chapbook (review copy). 

Harmless Like You – Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

Earlier this week, the Desmond Elliott Prize for first novels was announced. The winning book was Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, which I’m reading at the moment. The novel I’m looking at today, however, was one of the shortlisted titles. Rowan Hisayo Buchanan has written a tale of navigating life at the confluence of two cultures – and it’s a strong debut.

In 1968, Yuki is the daughter of a Japanese family living in New York. Her father’s company is sending him back to Tokyo, but Yuki is torn over the prospect of going there: on the one hand, she doesn’t have a single friend in New York; on the other, Japan is a distant memory for her.

Skipping class at school, Yuki meets a girl who calls herself Odile, and who dreams of being a model. Odile becomes the closest thing that Yuki has to a friend, and Yuki decides to move in her and her mother Lillian, a romance novelist. Yuki wants to be more like Odile – which is to say, she’d like to be whiter; Yuki is never quite able to resolve the tension she feels of being between two cultures. The two experience teenage girlhood in New York – but when Odile gets her dream, they start to drift apart, and Yuki has to look elsewhere for a connection.

Buchanan is excellent at delineating the development of Yuki’s different relationships, how each grows alongside the last to begin with, before gradually superseding it as circumstances change. The author also evokes Yuki’s feelings about art brilliantly. Yuki’s great desire is to be an artist; her feeling for art is visceral. Here she is experiencing an exhibition of contemporary art for the first time:

Warm tears raced down her cheeks and into her mouth. She swallowed them, imagined the salt absorbed by her gut and revolving up again towards her eyes. The clear white gallery lights pointed and blurred like stars. It was as if someone had peeled off the crisp outer layer of her skin so that the whole world felt achy and glowing. Finally, this sadness was no longer trapped in her cramped body. It was a living thing and bright as joy itself.

This is a raw, deep emotion that seems to emerge spontaneously. An outside observer may not understand, may think: why is she being driven to tears by a pile of dirt? The sense is that this feeling of Yuki’s doesn’t fit into the world; her wish as an artist is to create a space in the world where it will fit – just as she is looking for a space for herself.

Alternating with Yuki’s story is that of her son Jay, almost fifty years later. Half-Japanese, half-wit, Jay was abandoned by his mother when he was a young child. Jay’s main story begins as he becomes a father; a few months later, he loses his own father, who died after swerving off the road to avoid a deer; dealing with his father’s estate will finally lead Jay to confront Yuki.

Jay’s situation is not quite an inversion of his mother’s, but the landscape of his life is different. As a gallery owner, the art world is no mystery to him. He’s puzzled by parenting, though; and still ponders his place in the world. Perhaps we might say that Jay had at least part of a path through life illuminated for him in a way that Yuki didn’t; but he still has to find his own way through in the end. Harmless Like You is the story of how both Yuki and Jay come to a conclusion in life, by finding each other.

Book details

Harmless Like You (2016) by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, Sceptre Books, paperback, 308 pages, paperback (review copy). 

Breathing into Marble – Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė: a EuroLitNetwork review

I have a short review up at European Literature Network of Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė’s Breathing into Marble. It’s a dark family drama, and the first title published by Noir Press, which specialises in contemporary Lithuanian fiction. I won’t say much more, except that the book is warmly recommended. 

Book details 

Breathing into Marble (2006) by Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė, tr. Marija Marcinkute (2016), Noir Press, 192 pages, paperback (review copy) 

Inventing Love – José Ovejero

The book I’m talking about today is part of Peter Owen Publishers’ ‘World Series’, which is published in association with Istros Books. Twice a year, they publ ish a set of three titles from the same country or region; Spain is the country of choice this spring. The publishers have kindly sent me a set of the books, so I’ll be looking at all three in the next few weeks.

Inventing Love is the second of José Ovejero’s novels to be translated into English. Our narrator is Samuel, a single man drifting through life at forty. He’s someone who has trouble with the idea of love:

I’ve always avoided the word ‘love’. It’s a noun that’s been devalued, a coin so overused that it’s been rubbed smooth, so that you could hold it between your fingers without feeling the relief design, a coin that I wouldn’t dare use to pay for something in case I was accused of being a fraudster…Does anyone really use it? Do couples really gaze into each other’s eyes and say ‘I love you’?

(Translation by Simon Deefholts and Kathryn Phillips-Miles)

One night, Samuel receives a phone call telling him that his lover, Clara, has been killed in a car crash. The thing is, Samuel has never known anyone called Clara. Seizing the chance to add a little colour to his life – and curious as to who this Clara might have been – he goes along to the funeral.

None of Clara’s family or friends knows what ‘her’ Samuel looks like, so it’s easy enough for ‘our’ Samuel to step into the role. After the funeral, he is approached by a woman who turns out to be Clara’s sister, Carina. She’s heard a lot about Samuel, and is curious about this man who led her sister to have an affair. Carina gives Samuel her card; over time, they get talking – about Clara most of all.

At first, it’s Samuel who gets to learn about Clara, allowing him to build his mental picture of this young woman he never knew. But Carina wants to understand the side of her sister that only Clara’s lover would have known… so Samuel has an opportunity to imagine part of Clara’s character for himself, and indeed to shape the image of Clara in the minds of those who did know her.

I don’t think the events of Inventing Love are meant to be taken literally – there are too many fortuitous coincidences for that. Instead, I think of Ovejero’s novel as a space to explore what it means to have a mental picture of someone else, by stretching the concept to such an extreme. 

One issue emerging from the book is how well we can actually know others. Samuel is clear on his view:

We share our lives with strangers. We can live with someone for decades and not know how she really feels when she says ‘I love you’ or replies to a question with the words ‘I’m not angry.’…We live with fantasies we create for ourselves in order to explain to the other person and to create a relationship that reassures us and gives us what we want.

He’s right in a strict sense, in that we are all individuals without direct access to each other’s minds. But then again, it’s not as if Samuel has made much of an effort in the long-term relationships department, so how sure can he be that it’s impossible to know another person?

Rather ironically, there is someone else whom Samuel thinks he knows, and that’s Clara. After some digging around online, he manages to find her Facebook profile, but he doesn’t want to go any further: “I don’t want to enter the false intimacy of her wall because I already know who Clara is, and I don’t want reality to spoil her.”

So there you go: Samuel can gather and imagine all the detail about Clara that he may; his image of, and feelings towards, her could be larger-than-life – but the Clara in his mind will never be ‘real’. Taking a cue from the novel’s title, perhaps the key question facing Samuel is whether love is something he can invent for himself, or whether it has to be found. 

Elsewhere 

Read an excerpt from Inventing Love at European Literature Network. 

At the time of writing, I can’t find many English-language reviews of the book online. Michael Orthofer has written it up at The Complete Review; he also links to Larry Nolen’s review of the Spanish original at the OF Blog, as well as a number of reviews in Spanish. 

Book details 

Inventing Love (2013) by José Ovejero, tr. Simon Deefholts and Kathryn Phillips-Miles (2017), Peter Owen Publishers, 219 pages, paperback (review copy). 

The Photographer – Meike Ziervogel

You might know Meike Ziervogel best as the publisher of Peirene Press; but she’s also built a career as a novelist over the last few years. The Photographer is her fourth novel (published, like the others, by Salt), and draws upon the history of the 11 million Germans who fled west in 1945 to escape the fighting. Like Han Kang’s Human Acts (albeit in a rather different way), Ziervogel’s book examines a large human event at an intensely individual scale.

In a small Pomeranian town, a young girl named Trude dreams of being whisked away by her prince. In 1933, shortly after turning eighteen, she finds him: a photographer named Albert. His work allows the couple to travel Europe; later they have a son, Peter. However, Trude’s mother Agatha never takes to Albert: he’s “a boy from the gutter”, not fit for her daughter. Discovering from Peter that Albert listens to enemy radio is all the pretext Agatha needs to report him to the authorities and get him sent to the front. In 1945, the family is forced to leave for Berlin before Albert has returned. The rest of Ziervogel’s novel chronicles how this broken family heals itself.

Appropriately enough given its title, The Photographer revolves around themes of image and appearance, which are often tied to social status. So, for example, we begin with Trude’s dreams of a romantic life – which, for a while, she gets. But, when the family flees to Berlin, those dreams come crashing down around her:

She hasn’t even put on any lipstick and looks like a common woman with a tear-stained face whose husband has just been taken away, has just died. There are thousands and thousands of these women. She feels ashamed to be one of them now.

All of a sudden, Trude feels that her individual, exceptional story has collapsed into something generic: the tale of any other refugee wife. To an extent, she’s right: in the grand sweep of history, she will become part of a statistic, one of those 11 million people. What Trude overlooks, though, is that each of the refugees has their own life, as rich to them as hers is to herself.

In 1947, the family is reunited after Albert has been released from Russian captivity. Here, there is a key lack of images: Albert and Peter can’t remember what the other used to look like, and therefore can’t recognise each other in the present. They have to get to know each other from first principles in order to bridge the gap of the years

Albert’s sense of displacement extends to how he has come to think of photography:

While before the war the camera was his extended eye, which he used to capture his view of the world, it was now what protected him, behind which he hid, which kept him, the real Albert, at a distance. Far, far away from everything that was happening around him.

Where Albert once faced the world with confidence, now photography is just about his only point of stability. No surprise, perhaps, that he attempts to reach Peter by trying to get him interested in photography, although the boy would rather spend his time boxing. Ultimately, it seems, Albert and Peter need to learn to see the world through each other’s eyes. 

The Photographer has that wonderful combination of being dense with reading, yet with an openness to the writing. The novel is structured like a photo album: whole lives are narrated, but intermittently. Some events are told in detail; others have to be inferred by the reader; still others are so private that they don’t appear on the page. This is a novel of history as something lived through and looked back on, vivid incidents scattered among the threads of life.

Other reviews 

Read other reviews of The Photographer by Mika Provata-Carlone at Bookanista, and Jackie Law at Bookmunch

Book details

The Photographer (2017) by Meike Ziervogel, Salt Publishing, 171 pages, paperback (review copy). 

A Review of Nightjars, part 2 

A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed a trio of chapbooks from Nightjar Press. Now here’s another set, again reviewed in the order that  I read them.

Hilary Scudder, ‘M’ (2013)


Our narrator, Anna, leaves a strongly worded goodbye letter for her husband, then sets out in search of the bar where her lover – referred to only as M – is waiting. She goes into the side entrance of a hotel, and soon finds herself caught up in strange happenings where she clearly doesn’t belong. She is rescued by a young woman named Kristina, who encourages Anna to re-evaluate her life.


I have to be honest that I didn’t grasp this story fully. There are some details suggestive of a particular time and place (perhaps Germany, perhaps the early 20th century) which, if correct, would give me some further context for what happens. But then again, the setting often feels timeless. I am left thinking of the hotel as representing the glamour and danger of a life with M, as opposed to the glum misery of Anna’s current life. Her journey then becomes a kinetic way of resolving the dilemma in front of her.



Tom Fletcher, ‘The Home’ (2015)


I’ve always enjoyed reading Tom Fletcher’s stories; and here is a short, sharp demonstration of why. A man sits in an armchair watching the TV, which shows his wife traversing a blank grey landscape. A caption states that this place is haunted by a predator known as ‘The Home’.

The metaphor of creeping old age is plain to see throughout this story; but the strangeness of the scenario only serves to amplify it. The ending has a double impact, from both what happens literally, and what it represents in real life.



Leone Ross, ‘The Woman Who Lived in a Restaurant’ (2015)


A woman walks into a local restaurant, sits down at the table, and stays there – for days, weeks, years. She is served meals, and washes in the restroom. Any member of staff who takes against her is promptly sacked. The maître d’ tells the story to one new recruit: the woman had fallen in love with the chef-proprietor; but he was already tied to his restaurant. When the chef and the woman made love, the restaurant caused a small earth tremor in protest. The restaurant would not be left out of its owner’s affections, so the woman stays there to appease it.


All of this is told in the most delightfully measured prose, as carefully placed as the elements of a fine restaurant dish. That prose style creates its own world for the story, so that everything within it seems quite logical and natural. By the end, I was reluctant to leave.


Book details


‘M’ (2013) by Hilary Scudder, Nightjar Press, 12 pages, chapbook (review copy).


‘The Home’ (2015) by Tom Fletcher, Nightjar Press, 8 pages, chapbook (review copy).


‘The Woman Who Lived in a Restaurant’ (2015) by Leone Ross, Nightjar Press, 16 pages, chapbook (review copy). 

Thought X: Fictions and Hypotheticals 

Thought X is the latest anthology in Comma Press’s ‘science-into-fiction’ series, which sees authors paired with scientists to produce a story inspired by a particular idea, with the scientist contributing an afterword that elaborates on the scientific background. (I reviewed a related title, Sara Maitland’s collection Moss Witch, a few years ago.)

The theme for this new anthology is thought experiments. The editors point out in their introduction that there have been contrasting opinions over what exactly constitutes a thought experiment. I am much more of a fiction reader than a scientist (which was certainly brought home to me while reading the book!), so I apologise for any misunderstanding or oversimplification in the review that follows. Essentially, as I understand it, a thought experiment is a scientific ‘what if’ scenario used to highlight a particular question, or a limitation in a theorem. But I can’t resist quoting Terry Pratchett’s definition of a thought experiment, from The Unadulterated Cat: “one which you can’t do, and won’t work”.


I found that, with many of the fourteen stories in Thought X, I hadn’t known about the particular thought experiments beforehand. Now, with the benefit of the afterwords, it’s interesting to see the many different ways in which the writers drew on their thought experiments. In the spirit of placing an artificial structure on something to help describe and explain it, I’m going to organise this review according to how far the different stories refer to their thought experiment directly.


So, first of all, there are stories that don’t mention their thought experiments at all. In ‘The Child in the Lock’ by Robin Ince, Neil has been invited to dinner by his work colleague Tom, and is keen to make the right kind of impression – he’s even bought some new shoes, a pair that Tom. Neil is very early for his train, and goes for a walk to pass the time. He hears some splashing in a nearby lock, and sees the figure of a child. Should he go to the rescue?


The ‘Drowning Child’ scenario (as Prof Glen Newey’s afterword tells me) was put forward by the philosopher Peter Singer as an example of situation where taking the action which most would consider morally right (rescuing the child) would come at a certain cost to the only person nearby (getting wet, and so on). Ince has Neil reluctant to intervene (and ruin his nice new shoes?), then able to rationalise that choice to himself (maybe the kid is diving for coins, or something). The use of short paragraphs in quick succession emphasises the rhetorical dance of Neil’s thought process. The end of the story is suitably chilling.


Hannah, protagonist of Annie Clarkson’s ‘The Rooms’, needs a job. Her brother Alex gets her one at his company, training an artificial intelligence to interact in convincingly human ways. Hannah spends her working day in an enclosed room, across a desk from Myla, a robot in the form of a beautiful woman (there are no requests for male bots in this line of work, Alex tells her). She asks Myla questions on a range of prescribed topics, guiding the bot towards sufficiently ‘woman-like’ responses.


The thought experiment in this case is known as the ‘Chinese Room’, and essentially asks whether a computer carrying out various processes could be capable of understanding what exactly it is doing. Clarkson’s piece likewise asks whether a bot like Myla, simulating the appearance of humanity, could be capable of that. ‘The Rooms’ works well enough on this level alone, but here is where Prof Seth Bullock’s afterword really shines, because it explores the many different ways in which the story reflects its thought experiment: Myla may not understand what she is doing during her sessions with Hannah, but neither does Hannah, really – she just talks, with no sense of how it is affecting Myla. Could it be said that work undertaken in the Rooms is ultimately only of meaning to the client? And so on. I left Bullock’s afterword with a deeper appreciation of Clarkson’s story.


Some stories in Thought X have a discussion of their thought experiment woven in. A powerful example is ‘The Tiniest Atom’ by Sarah Schofield, in which Frank goes to visit the family of his fallen comrade Ted. Frank doesn’t give his name to Ted’s widow Nancy, even saying to her mother: “They call me Ted.” He helps around the garden, and generally makes himself part of the household.


In flashbacks to the trenches, Frank tells Ted about Laplace’s demon: a theory suggesting that the movement of everything in the universe, down to the smallest atom, follows a predetermined path; and that an intellect vast enough to process all that information could then predict the future. Frank had been working on a machine to do just this, and Ted has come to continue the task. Schofield uses the idea of the clockwork universe as a metaphor to explore the emotional displacement caused by the First World War: Frank’s death has created a vacuum; Ted, the outsider with the widest view of this particular ‘universe’, is ideally placed to fill it.


In ‘Red’ by Annie Kirby, Alice wakes one morning to find that her world is black and white – she can no longer perceive colours. A doctor compares her situation to the ‘Mary’s Room’ thought experiment devised by Prof Frank Jackson (who also provides the afterword). Mary lives in an entirely black-and-white room, but through excellent educational resources and intelligence, she has learned everything known to physical science about the world (including the human mind). The question posed by this scenario is: if Mary leaves the room and perceives colour for the first time, does she now gain new knowledge (given that she has studied the science of colour perception)?


Alice concludes that she is actually the opposite of Mary – she had colour perception and then lost it, for a start – but the story of Mary haunts her nonetheless. She dreams repeatedly of Mary, and certain features recur – the colour red, or Mary’s opening question: “What did you bring me?”. As Kirby’s tale unfolds, the theme of hidden (or lost) knowledge becomes key. We see Alice’s relationship with her partner Laurel unravel as Alice loses sight of what brought and held them together. We also see, chillingly, what lies buried in the imagery of those dreams.


Finally, there are stories that place the thought experiment itself at their centre. In ‘Keep It Dark’ by Adam Roberts, scientist Kay and blind theologian Broome travel out to a seemingly abandoned radio telescope, to meet their old colleague Lorenzini, who claims to have solved Olbers’ paradox: that is, in an infinite universe with an infinite number of stars, why doesn’t the night sky blaze with light?


The solution, according to Kay (and confirmed by Prof Sarah Bridle in her afterword) is simply that the universe is not infinite; but Lorenzini is convinced of another answer. He believes that all the light has been swallowed by dark matter, and he will not brook any disagreement. As the story progresses, tensions rise; but Roberts narrates this through Broome’s viewpoint, so one doesn’t ‘see’ exactly what is going on. The reader is left to interpret the meaning of what can be sensed in a world composed mainly of darkness.


Ian Watson’s ‘Monkey Business’ is all about the proposal that an infinite number of monkeys bashing away at typewriter keyboards would eventually produce the text of a Shakespeare play. Watson imagines a simulated world where that experiment plays out. 37 robot monkeys type away in the Templum of the city of Scribe. There are people to check their output for signs of Shakespeare; and whole industries to provide paper, ink, and other resources.


The story follows two characters journeying to Scribe, in order to see the monkeys. Along the way, we discover just how many variables there are in this scenario. Can any of Shakespeare’s plays be typed for the experiment to succeed, or does it have to be a particular one? Does it matter whether or not the capitalisation is correct? What if different monkeys typed out fragments that could be assembled into a complete play? And so on. It’s all told in an enjoyably theatrical style, and illustrates what a pleasure it is to think around with these thought experiments.


Publisher’s competition


Comma Press are currently holding a competition to give away a full set of their ‘science-into-fiction’ anthologies. The full details are here, but essentially you have to tag Comma on Twitter or Instagram with a photo of your copy of Thought X, along with the hashtag #ShareYourThought. The winner will be announced on 21 May.


Book details


Thought X: Fictions and Hypotheticals (2017) ed. Rob Appleby and Ra Page, Comma Press, 260 pages, paperback (review copy).

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