Book Review: Challenging Instincts and Questioning Humanity

Thought X: Fictions and Hypotheticals

Edited by Rob Appleby and Ra Page

The gentle pattering of heavy rain and the distant threat of thunder intermingle with birdsong. I’ve managed to find a comfy corner in which to hide away and as I momentarily glance from the window, I wonder how the promise of summer was broken so swiftly. I’m delighted.  

I’m reading Comma Press’s newest collection of short stories; Thought X: Fictions and Hypotheticals. This anthology is the just the latest in an acclaimed series of science-inspired short-story anthologies, Science into Fiction, which Comma have been producing since 2008.

Edited by Rob Appleby and Ra Page, Thought X focuses on breathing life into thought experiments. These are the hypothetical scenarios dreamt up by armchair philosophers and scientists to prove, disprove, or explain scientific theories. Many of us are already familiar with Schrödinger’s Cat, mused upon in this anthology in Margaret Wilkinson’s dreamlike If He Wakes, or The Infinite Monkey Typing Pool, examined in Ian Watson’s fantastical Monkey Business, but few of us have been able to comprehend how these thought experiments might play out in real life.

By inviting authors and research scientists to collaborate on stories around particular areas of science, technology, or science history, Comma Press is cracking open the ‘so what?’ questions that inevitably follow on from the scientist’s or philosopher’s ‘what if?’

 the reader is forced to question how humanity will adapt

“From Newton's Bucket, to Maxwell’s Demon, from Einstein's Lift to Schrödinger’s Cat – all are examples of 'fiction' being used at the highest level, not just to explain, but to deduce, to prove. In this unique anthology, authors have collaborated with leading scientists, to bounce literary, human narratives against purely theoretical ones, alloying together real stories with abstract ones, to produce truly extraordinary results.”

Award winning writers, including Robin Ince, Adam Marek and Annaliese Mackintosh, have been brought together to consult with leading scientists, including Professor Ian Stewart (as featured on BBC4), Professor Jonathan Wolff and Dr Tim O’Brien (BBC’s Star Gazing), and bridge the gap between literature and science. 

There are fourteen stories in total, each accompanied by an afterword composed by a scientist closely connected to that particular thought experiment and this gives a rounded scientific and philosophical background to the narrative. In one case the scientist, Professor Frank Jackson, is the inventor of the thought experiment in question, Mary’s Room, explored in Annie Kirby’s chatty and surreal Red.

The first tale is Adam Marek’s Lightspeed, which is based within a classic science-fiction setting of a space station. The station is breaking down, gravity switches off and on again, throwing inhabitants into weightlessness as Martha and Nowak’s marriage disintegrates. Lightspeed explores the problems of lost time encountered when travelling at faster-than-light speeds, a narrative device reminiscent of the classic eighties film Flight of the Navigator. The story fast-forwards to a period in human civilisation when the unfathomable scenarios proposed in thought experiments, in this case, The Twin Paradox, have become everyday issues in the mundane lives of ordinary people, ‘nine billion dramas locked inside a marble’. Through tightly woven and humorous prose, the reader is forced to question how humanity will adapt in a world where an extraordinary scenario, such as a spouse experiencing a single year to their partner’s four, becomes the everyday.

 a book that combines scientific thought and theory with expertly crafted prose

Annaliese Mackintosh’s Inertia is a beautifully poetic rumination on a postulate of Einstein’s Special Relativity set between flashbacks and a father’s deathbed, while Annie Clarkson explores the possibility of automatons creating meaning from mimicry in her brooding tale The Rooms, and Laplace’s demon is examined in Sarah Schofield’s strangely uplifting tale The Tiniest Atom.

In Robin Ince’s The Child in The Lock, Neil has a new pair of shoes. Not just any shoes, these shoes ‘were even better than the shoes you’d wear at a funeral’ but on his way to impress Tom, he spots a young boy drowning in a lock. What follows is an intricately spun web of bitterly dark, uncomfortable and contradictory self-delusion exploring the psychology at the heart of Thomas Nagel’s thought experiment The Drowning Child. Ince’s chilling narrative lays bare humanity’s infinite ability to look in the other direction in a story that makes for uncomfortable reading. 

Overall, this is a book that combines scientific thought and theory with expertly crafted prose in an eclectic collection of genres and styles that reflect the vast reaches of the philosophical principles behind the theories. For those with a scientific background or familiar with the thought experiments in question, the anthology provides an entertaining conduit through which the real-world application of these ideas can be explored. Yet for other readers, each short delivers a fascinating insight into the bewildering universe we inhabit.

Forcing the reader to re-evaluate long-held assumptions and challenge instincts with its often counter-intuitive hypotheses, Thought X is a compelling and provocative read.

Thought X: Fictions and Hypotheticals edited by Ra Page and Dr Rob Appleby, is published by Comma Press and is available now.

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