At school, what were you better at: maths or English? Where did your passions lie – with the arts or in science? Most will be familiar with such questions. From an early age, the two subject areas have been partitioned for us – a status quo that few bother to challenge. But can the arts and science overlap? Or if not overlap, then interface? At the very least, is there some kind of liminal space wherein ideas might cross-pollinate?
Rob Appleby and Ra Page certainly think so. For these two editors have compiled Thought X – an anthology of short stories wherein
‘…authors have collaborated with scientists and philosophers to explore an unlikely common ground between their respective disciplines: the art of story-telling.’
So what has produced that common ground? It’s the ‘thought experiment’ –
‘…an argument with no recourse to evidence; a hypothetical leading to a paradox; a ‘what if’ devised to invoke our deepest intuitions about how the world must be. In short, a fiction.’
Without question, the idea on the table stands out. Perhaps this liminal space has been examined before, but from the perspective of this reviewer, the grist of this anthology is unique. But what about the execution of that idea – does it follow through; come good on all that potential..?
Picking this book up, there seemed many ways in which it could fall flat. Most obviously, in trying to deliver on such a lofty brief, the stories could degrade as works of fiction per se – as stories. (Put another way, the scope for pretentiousness or convolutedness, seemed huge). But even if the authors succeeded in ‘keeping it real’, how would the ‘science bit’ surface? Would it be jarring – over-protruding? Conversely, what if it didn’t even surface at all? A ‘sweet-spot’ seems to be presenting itself – to interweave the scientific / moral questions into the story, to the point where they are all but seamless – protruding just enough to trigger the reader’s mind; induce a train of thought… (It’s worth mentioning the anthology’s structure here – each story is followed by an afterword by a scientist or philosopher, who expands upon the particular thought experiment in context. This is a fantastic ‘extra’, for those who want it – but if the sweet-spot is to be hit, the stories must need no such crutch). The question therefore becomes – was the sweet-spot hit? Answer: Oh God yes it was…
Adam Marek’s ‘Lightspeed’ opens the anthology with the story of a man, a space pilot – one of the first people ever to travel at near light speed – but someone who also cannot escape his moaning missus, bringing him straight back down. Zoe Gilbert’s ‘Tether’ is also about being grounded on terra firma, and the concomitant desire to take flight – though the escape here comes from being ‘as high as a kite’. In this magical realist story, the kite-flying is literal, however as allegory it holds for all the living-dead – those who only truly come alive within their bubble of drink / drugs / religion / music / celebrity / reality TV / …. What’s the difference between knowing everything about the theory of ‘X’, and actually experiencing ‘X’? This question is unpicked in ‘Red’ by Annie Kirby – through a woman who wakes up one day to a black & white world – having suddenly lost the ability to see colour… And now think back to a pivotal moment in your life, and ask yourself – where would you be today, had you chosen ‘B’ instead of ‘A’? In ‘XOR’ by Andy Hedgecock, this thought experiment is brilliantly teased out.
Any Cop?: Thought X is based upon a standout idea – and is executed to near-perfection. Barring one or two contributions wherein the ‘science bit’ was a little out of synch with the story, almost all are masterful. (It would be criminal to not mention Equivalence by Sandra Alland or The Child In The Lock by Robin Ince – stories that were simply breath-taking). In contrast to what the cover illustration hints at, this is no tech-heavy / geek-soaked affair. The imagination, inventiveness and range of story-telling being showcased here, will not easily be matched.