Fiction About Science at AWP 2014

I returned yesterday from Seattle where I attended the national meeting of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP). The conference was attended by over 10,000 people, an odd mixture of writers, writing programs, current students in writing programs, publishers and bookstores. The emphasis was definitely academic, and I felt at home with the workings of the program: the program schedule, with panel discussions, individual presentations, plenary sessions with well-known speakers, and exhibits (some publishers, others for writing programs and still others with services for writers like editing, reviewing, publishing and promotion). However, there were also many writers in attendance, some published, others self-published and still others with manuscripts, either finished or still in progress. The last day of the meetings was open to the public, bringing together conference participants with readers.

I attended under the auspices of Chanticleer Book Reviews, participating in a signing event and helping out in various ways with the operation of the Chanticleer booth. I had plenty of time to attend sessions and wander around the nearly overwhelming exhibition halls. I talked to more strangers in the four days of the conference than I have in the last six months.

One of the highlights of the conference for me was a panel discussion titled “Science and Fake Science in Fiction” sponsored by Fairleigh-Dickinson University. When I saw it on the program, I was very excited. It’s easy to see why I was so interested. The participants were Rene Steinke, moderator and author of the novels, Holy Skirts and The Fires; H. L. Hix, a poet, who has a PhD in philosophy and participated in the seminar as a philosopher; James Weatherall, the author of two nonfiction books, The Physics of Wall Street and The Physics of Finance, who holds an MFA from Fairleigh-Dinkinson and PhDs in physics and philosophy; and David Grand, author of Mount Terminus, The Disappearing Body, and Louse. Grand is also at Fairleigh-Dickinson. Hix lives in Wyoming.

Hix, the first speaker, talked about what he sees as the parallels between theories in science and narrative fiction–an interesting philosophical question to discuss “…in front of the fireplace [with] a a modest nip of good scotch…” in hand, in the words of his online bio–but of limited interest to both readers and writers. The next speaker was Weatherall, who addressed the problem of explaining technical terms like fractals to nonscientists in nonfiction books on science. But he, too, seemed to be addressing the wrong problem. The last thing readers of fiction want to do is wade through a page or more of explanation, no matter how well written, in the middle of a scene, and figuring out a way to explain science in fiction is one of the most challenging aspects of writing fiction about science. The last speaker spent much of his time reading from Mount Terminus. However, he admitted that while he loved technical terms like tachistoscope, he didn’t really know very much about what a tachistoscope is or how it works. He just liked the atmosphere such terms created. I confess that I found the passages like this that he read tiresome and more like what editors and readers call information dumps.

By the time the formal presentations were over, I was seething with questions! Anyone interested in science (and fake science) in fiction would be. One of the first questions from the audience was from an unpublished author, who asked a truly relevant question: How does an author write in the first person for scientist characters who obviously don’t need the explanations of technical terms and concepts that the nonscientist reader does. Curiously, Weatherall said he thought it was impossible. By this point, I was about ready to stand up and shout, Haven’t any of you people read any of the compelling novels on the Lab Lit List? Several other writers asked similar questions about how to incorporate and explain science to their fiction readers. The answers struck me as unhelpful for both writers and readers.

Finally, I had the good fortune to be recognized to ask the last question, and I essentially asked whether any of the panelists were familiar with novels with realistic scientists doing realistic scientific work. Steinke responded with James Powers’s The Echomaker. I pointed out that Powers is an excellent but demanding author. I also mentioned another one his novels, The Gold Bug Variations, but added that I didn’t recommend it to readers who knew nothing about baroque music and the fugue form. I don’t recall what the other panelists offered, but without asking I stood up and added that it appeared none of the panelists had read Jennifer Rohn’s The Honest Look nor Pippa Goldschmidt’s The Falling Sky. Because I’d gone to the AWP meetings to promote Vanessa’s Curve of Mind, I also mentioned it as another example and added an elevator pitch. cover_1.25I felt really uncomfortable doing the latter, but clearly some of the writers in the audience were cheering me on! (By the way, my novel now has a new cover shown at the right.) Except Steinke, all the panelists have a background in philosophy and should find the way the problem of negative results in science is handled in Rohn and Goldschmidt’s stories instructive, especially Weatherall, who among his many specialty lists the philosophy of science.

In spite of the negative tone of my comments here, it was encouraging to see the question of putting real science, instead of fake science, into fiction. The room where the panel took place was packed with people at the beginning. Steinke began the session by telling the audience that the panel would not be discussing science fiction and encouraged people to leave if that was why they came. A few brave souls with seats at the end of the aisles did. But after the first panelist had finished others began drifting out until about half the original audience remained at the end. I conjecture that they left for the same reason I stayed to ask a question. I think the title led them to believe they would learn why there are so few novels about science or how to write narrative fiction about science, just as it drew me into the session. The interest shown by everyone in the topic though makes me hopeful that the US is catching up with Europe’s interest in fiction about science and that more US authors will be inspired to produce more novels in this emerging literary genre.

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2 Responses to Fiction About Science at AWP 2014

  1. Kirk June 3, 2014 at 7:19 AM #

    Thanks for adding your voice, Andrea! Just wanted to add that I reviewed “Cantor’s Dilemma” in November, 2012 . In spite of a few flaws, notably the fact that Cantor’s work is acknowledged by Stockholm far too quickly, it’s a good place for the nonscientist reader to start reading novels about realistic scientists doing realistic work.

  2. Andrea Rothman June 3, 2014 at 2:25 AM #

    I enjoyed reading this Kirk. I also completely disagree on the “impossibility,” of writing science-in-fiction stories or novels in the first person. I think people ultimately don’t read enough.
    A novel I would definitely recommend is “Cantor’s Dilemma,” by Carl Djerassi.

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