Friday, November 22, 2013

Andrea Barrett's Science Fiction

In the 42nd in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Andrea Barrett, author of Archangel (W.W. Norton), discusses the similarities and differences between writing fiction about science and writing science fiction.

A few weeks ago I went to a series of readings and classes where eight excellent science fiction writers read their work and responded to questions. I was intrigued by what they were writing; also by how they described their working process. How differently, I thought, we found our way into stories! A few days after that—pure coincidence, as far as I know—a thoughtful reader emailed me about Archangel. Frederick Pohl, he said, one of science fiction’s grand masters, had defined science fiction as “a way of thinking about things”—and in his opinion I was a science fiction writer. That same week, a journalist asked me if I’d ever considered writing a science fiction novel.

“Um,” I said. “Maybe?” 

Since then I’ve been wondering how this genre, about which I don’t know enough, might be related to what I do. The fictional characters who take center stage in the five long stories of Archangel are influenced by real characters from the worlds of science, medicine, and technology, and they wrestle with real scientific problems. A woman trained in astronomy, struggling in 1920 to explain Einstein’s new theory to everyday readers, encounters a famous physicist who passionately resists that same theory. A genetics student, experimenting with fruit flies in the 1920s and 1930s, falls sequentially under the sway of scientists promoting competing views of inheritance. A high-school teacher first encounters Darwin’s ideas through biologist Louis Agassiz’s fierce opposition to them at a summer school for natural history that took place in 1873—and so on. Lots of scientific ideas, for sure—yet somehow I don’t think of these stories as being about science. They’re more about the feeling of being engaged in that work. Not about ideas and theories themselves but about people in the act of formulating, contemplating, rejecting, and reacting to them, during a half-century when such theories were overturning our view of the world.

Albert Einstein,
vampire hunter?
While I was searching online for the source of that first Frederick Pohl quote, I found something else he said: “The science fiction method is dissection and reconstruction. You look at the world around you, and you take it apart into all its components. Then you take some of those components, throw them away, and plug in different ones, start it up and see what happens.” With science fiction, that can mean extrapolating into the future, or into an alternate universe; setting invented characters along paths that can’t, or don’t yet, exist in the world we know. Although I’ve so far worked only within the context of this world, I recognize that method. Sometimes my fictional characters brush against actual characters, doing what they are known to have done: and what are those conjunctions, so clearly invented, but extrapolations? Take some of those components, throw them away, plug in different ones—insert the words ‘from the historical record’ after the word ‘components’ and that’s not far from what I do. 

Reading about Einstein’s theories, for instance, I also read about Scientific American magazine’s 1920 “Einstein Essay Contest,” which offered a prize of $5,000 for the best popular essay on the topic. The editor in charge of the contest—delightfully referred to as “The Einstein Editor”—after reviewing the submissions, wrote a cranky essay about what he called the “Divergent Viewpoints as to what Constitutes a ‘Popular’ Essay.” I thought I might write a story about him and what it felt like to sift through those papers. Then I thought I might write a story about a woman who wrote one of those papers. Then I thought—well, I ended up very far from there, as I did from the early ideas of all these stories: because as soon as I begin to sketch a character, her feelings come with her onto the page. 

From her feelings her life begins to come into focus; from the shape of her life more feelings arise, which result in actions and images and lines of dialogue that create still more actions, and bring to life other characters. For me, that path of emotion is the real trigger for a piece of fiction. Not an idea, which is necessary but not sufficient. Good science fiction transmits ideas, sometimes fabulously exciting ideas, but the best of it also evokes our passionate feelings. Somehow, for reasons I don’t quite understand, thinking and reading about science puts me in touch with a different ‘alternate world’—the one we inhabit in times of hope, despair, conflict, passion, envy, and all the varieties of love.