Monday, October 15, 2012

Science friction

Bio Punk, Saturday 13th October, 6pm, MadLab

Words by Joely Black.

Tonight, Manchester’s hub of creative geekery, MadLab, plays host to a book launch by the publisher Comma Press. Their new collection of short stories, Bio Punk, has ventured for the first time into the world of biomedical research and the future. Over the last few years, Comma Press has established itself as a leading light in exploring new territory in fiction. Among the most exciting of its projects is one that brings together scientists and writers to create scientifically accurate short stories. This isn’t science fiction, but ‘lablit’. The difference is that while the writers are creating works of fiction, the science within is true to the real life of scientists and science as it is done.

Past books in this series have created fiction around past moments of scientific brilliance in Eureka, and the life of Alan Turing in Litmus. This time, their writers have met and spoken to scientists working in biomedical research. Publisher Ra Page introduces this as the century of biology, just as the 20th century was the century of physics. Bio Punk is very much about the present and the future, rather than the past. It’s also about the ethical and moral boundaries against which this research presses. The fight over stem cell research, the use of animals in research, the possibilities to prolong and change human life and human bodies - all these developments in science strain its relationship with non-scientists. The work of Comma Press explores this strain, these challenges.

First of all, we hear from Jane Feaver. Jane describes the struggle to cross the boundary between scientist and writer. It comes out in her reading, which describes the experience of being a volunteer for a scientific study. Science sometimes seems to inhabit a strange bubble, created as much by the scientist as by non-scientists. I’m moved, as Jane was, by the appreciation of those individuals who volunteer for these trials and receive no real recognition for what is often a difficult sacrifice. 

Gregory Norminton reads next, looking into the future at the possibilities presented by ‘extreme’ body modification, and where this science might take us in the future. His work echoes backward as well as forward. Body modification has existed for thousands of years, but as biomedical research allows us to do so much to modify and change the body, new and often terrifying prospects emerge. In this scenario, the bizarre recent story of people with ‘bagel-heads’ swollen by saline solution is simply the thin end of the wedge. Gregory has cleverly woven together science and cult into one in a chilling story about the threat of dogma, whether religious or scientific.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of this evening is the discussion that follows the reading. The audience is genuinely engaged; the questions are all deep and challenging. Nihal Engin Vrana joins us by Skype from Strasbourg, and the technology works very well. He and Melissa Baxter discuss their work and how it felt to work with non-scientists to create fiction. Nihal explains how working with Gregory helped him see new angles to his work, particularly the negative that he rarely considered. It’s clear that much of this project depends on the individuals involved and the relationships they’ve developed. Yet even an interaction that doesn’t seem immediately fruitful, as in Jane’s case, can still produce insightful fiction that opens the door on an aspect of research.

In this enclosed space, it’s clear that the discussion could go on all night, dealing with issues that affect a far wider audience than could attend this evening. As one audience member comments, biomedical research is inherently more personal than physics or mathematics, because it is about the body, the living flesh over which we feel we have ownership. Wherever living beings are concerned, science faces major ethical challenges. Nihal is optimistic, though, having been motivated by a dying father. It’s not merely personal in a negative sense, but positive as well. Once again, Comma Press has had the imagination to take both science and literature in new directions, to the benefit of all concerned.

Joely Black is a writer, author and gamer living in Manchester. She has published three fantasy fiction books and is currently working on a post-apocalyptic novel with the author Daren King. She blogs about gaming, fantasy, sci-fi and books at and on Twitter as @TheCharmQuark. 

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