Tag: Comma Press

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).

“The more you saw of a person the less you knew them”

Jane Rogers, Hitting Trees with Sticks (2012)

It’s no surprise to see “Winner of the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke Award” on the front cover of Jane Rogers’ first story collection – The Testament of Jessie Lamb is probably her best-known novel right now, and no doubt for many (including myself) it was an introduction to her work. So it seems worth asking as a way in, where do the stories of Hitting Trees with Sticks stand in relation to Jessie Lamb? Well, think of that novel as a tale about understanding – about a girl trying to explain herself to the parents who can’t understand the choice she wants to make. Understanding (or failure to understand) is a theme that also runs through this collection, and Rogers approaches it from many angles.

There are some adolescent protagonists in Hitting Trees with Sticks, but they don’t necessarily get Jessie Lamb’s chance to set their thoughts out. In ‘Sports Leader’, a boy who’s missed out on a place at college takes a job as a window cleaner – partly because it lets him nosy into other people’s houses. One senses that he means well at heart, but isn’t too worldly-wise; as a result, others may take advantage of him. The Sports Leadership course for which he still holds out becomes a symbol of the boy’s thwarted hopes and potential.

At least he still has a life ahead of him, though, unlike the title character of ‘Where Are You, Stevie?’ The story begins with a narrator, Amanda, expressing her current frustrations: Christmas is getting earlier, and why have they sent that young lout to work at the theatre, it’s not as if he’ll do anything… But she is brought up short when she learns that Stevie is dead. We then hear from Stevie’s grandmother, his girlfriend, and his neighbour, who each reveal more about him; we come to see how Stevie got into the situation he did, and that there was more to him than Amanda supposed. The presence of Stevie looms large even though he is fundamentally absent; he is understood by the reader as he could not have been by those in his life.

Elsewhere in the collection, Rogers’ characters are finding that they didn’t know as much as they thought, or try to hide knowledge from others. The narrator of ‘Kiss and Tell’ was on a writing retreat with a famous politician whom she at first thought obnoxious, though she eventually had cause to change her mind. ‘The Tale of a Naked Man’ sees a Ugandan man arrive home nude at 4am in a bush taxi and attempt to convince his wife that his story of being waylaid by bandits is true – but there’s no real way of knowing, as story piles upon story. In ‘Conception’, a mother is reluctant to tell her daughter what she and her partner were thinking when the girl was conception. ‘Morphogenesis’ presents Alan Turing as a man who apprehended the workings of the universe as had none before him, but was ultimately destroyed by a human world that refused to understand him.

The title story of Hitting Trees with Sticks is also its closing piece, and for me its most powerful. It is a first-person portrait of Celia Benson, an old woman with dementia. Rogers takes us inside a psyche which continually makes and remakes the world. Celia’s viewpoint makes sense to her, and the details that don’t fit are mistakes or absent-mindedness – the Meals on Wheels must be for some poor old dear, not her; and Celia has obviously just mislaid the shopping. But then the moment passes, and a new present is formed: Celia has lost the sense of continuity that would enable her to engage with the world – though of course, as far as she’s concerned, nothing is wrong. ‘Hitting Trees with Sticks’ is a harrowing piece of fiction, made all the more so by our knowledge that its protagonist cannot step out of the perspective we experience through her narration. As readers, we understand Celia all too well.

This book has been shortlisted for the 2013 Edge Hill Short Story Prize. Click here to read my other posts on the shortlist.

(Read some other reviews of Hitting Trees with Sticks: Shortly Speaking; Carys Bray for The Short Review; Carlotta Eden for Thresholds; Elizabeth Simner for For Books’ Sake.)

War Stories: Hassan Blasim and Ben Fountain

Hassan Blasim, The Madman of Freedom Square (2009)
Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012)

One thing I feel I ought to do more often as a reader and reviewer is engage with the issues; I tend to think more about how novels and stories work as pieces of fiction, and park the issues they deal with to one side. I probably shouldn’t do that, and certainly couldn’t do that with the stories in the Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim’s collection, The Madman of Freedom Square (translated by Jonathan Wright), because they’re all about how stories shape people’s experiences of war and its consequences.

The opening piece, ‘The Reality and the Record’, illustrates what I mean. After a scene-setting introduction – which explains that refugees arriving at reception centres have the stories they tell to gain asylum, and the stories they keep to themselves, the ones about what really happened to them – we launch into the main body of the story, an account given to a Swedish immigration official by an Iraqi refugee. Our narrator tells how he was kidnapped from his work as an ambulance driver, and forced to appear in a video claiming to be a member of the Iraqi army. He describes how, over the subsequent months and years, he was kept in captivity, sold from group to group, and placed in front of a camera innumerable times, to play all manner of roles.

Stories upon stories upon stories – not just all these fake videos, but the refugee’s account itself, because who would believe such an outlandish tale? Generally speaking, I’d read something like ‘The Reality and the Record’ and praise its aesthetics in using story, the way it resists a definitive interpretation… I can still do these things, but I can’t ignore the emotional impact of Blasim’s portrayal of war as a maze of realities in which a person can so easily become lost. The narrator of the tale’s frame comments at the end that ‘the ambulance driver summed up his real story in four words: “I want to sleep,”’ p.11); those four words say so much.

Elsewhere in The Madman of Freedom Square, we see more characters being damaged and destroyed by war, stories, or both. The narrator of the title story refused to believe tales of two young blond men who left good fortune in their wake, until he was wounded in an explosion and apparently rescued by them; Blasim shows how blurred the line between sanity and delusion may be, and the final sentences are especially chilling. ‘The Truck to Berlin’ is another tale which layers hearsay upon anecdote in depicting what happens to a group of Iraqi men who pay to be smuggled out of the country; in the darkness of the truck, they don’t know what’s happening, or even if they’re actually heading to Berlin as promised – the conclusion is both brutal and powerful.

Dedicated ‘to the Dead of the Iran-Iraq War’, ‘An Army Newspaper’ revolves around a fairly straightforward – but nonetheless effective – metaphor. The now-deceased editor of an army newspaper’s cultural page narrates how he received anonymously-authored exercise books containing the stories of soldiers, and published them – to great acclaim – under his own name. But the books kept coming, until he was besieged. At the story’s close, the editor cries out to the writer who has temporarily brought him back to life, ‘why do you need an incinerator for your characters?’ (p.20). That’s just one example of how Blasim brings home the stark realities of war. Not all the stories in The Madman of Freedom Square are as successful, but the best pieces alone make the book worth buying. I’m very grateful to M. Lynx Qualey of the ArabLit blog for bringing Blasim’s work to my attention.

***

A new novel of the Iraq war comes from US author Ben Fountain, a debut novelist in his fifties. Nineteen-year-old Billy Lynn is the star of ‘Bravo squad’, who became the toast of America after an embedded Fox News crew filmed them winning a firefight against Iraqi insurgents, and the video went viral. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is set on the final day of the soldiers’ ‘Victory Tour’ organised by the government, when they will be guests of honour at a Thanksgiving Day football game in Texas, before returning to Iraq.

Fountain’s main subject could be summed up, I think, as the gap between the reality of the soldiers’ experiences at war, and perceptions of them at home – it’s all about stories again. The people he meets on the Victory Tour treat Billy like a hero:

They want autographs. They want cell phone snaps. They say thank you over and over and with growing fervor, they know they’re being good when they thank the troops and their eyes shimmer with love for themselves and this tangible proof of their goodness (pp. 39-40).

But for Billy, what he did on that day in Iraq was – well, just something he had to do:

Billy did not seek the heroic deed, no. The deed came for him, and what he dreads like a cancer in his brain is that the deed will seek him out again (p. 40).

Already, new realities are being woven around those three minutes in the life of Bravo squad. Technically, even the name ‘Bravo squad’ is incorrect, but that’s what they’ve been dubbed by the media, and so that is who they now are. Movie rights are being negotiated: Hilary Swank is interested in playing Billy, and the fact she’s a woman is irrelevant in the face of a possible film deal. So, the boys of Bravo are losing control of their destiny, but they’re used to it: ‘manipulation is their air and element, for what is a soldier’s job but to be the pawn of higher?’ (p. 28)

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is one of those books which I had to keep stopping reading to make note of something interesting; I don’t find myself doing that as often as I’d like. I’m still left with a nagging sense, though, that the plot of Billy Lynn is not quite enough to support a novel of this length – but there is a nicely-done sub-plot in which Billy falls for a cheerleader at the stadium, which has the uncertainty and awkwardness of a teenage crush that begins suddenly but may not have the chance to last.

But it’s Fountain’s prose to which I keep returning. One of my favourite sections in the novel comes when Bravo squad are introduced to the footballers and Billy sees behind the scenes: there’s a clear contrast drawn between these enormous men with all facilities on hand, and the soldiers of Bravo squad. As his Victory Tour comes to an end, Billy reflects on the implications of the discrepancy between the image and reality of war:

For the past two weeks he’s been feeling so superior and smart because of all the things he knows from the war, but forget it, they are the ones in charge, these saps, these innocents, their homeland dream is the dominant force…Their reality dominates, except for this: It can’t save you. It won’t stop any bombs or bullets (p. 306).

Whether in Fountain’s novel or Blasim’s collection, the stories win – and, so often, it’s the characters who lose.

Links

The Madman of Freedom Square
Hassan Blasim’s website
The publisher, Comma Press.
Interview with Blasim at The Short Review.
Some other reviews: A Year of Reading the World; Mithran Somasundrum for The Short Review; M. Lynx Qualey for The Quarterly Conversation; Alan Whelan for Lancashire Writing Hub.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Interview with Ben Fountain in The Scotsman.
The publisher, Canongate Books.
Some other reviews: Naomi Frisby for Bookmunch; Bite the Book; Boston Bibliophile; Curiosity Killed the Bookworm.

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