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Based at The University of Edinburgh, the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum is part of the ESRC Genomics Network and pioneers new ways to promote and communicate social research on the contemporary life sciences.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Enter Science stage left - Ned Beauman and Nick Harkaway, 14 August 2012

Genomics Forum blogging team at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2012
Blog by Christine Knight

I went along to Ned Beauman and Nick Harkaway’s session Fiction for When You’re Feeling Sinister having not read either of the authors’ books (confession!), but looking forward in particular to hearing about Beauman’s latest, The Teleportation Accident. Part of the novel (as the Book Festival programme informed me) is set in the physics laboratories of Los Angeles in the 1930s, and representations of science in fiction are something I’m especially interested in right now because of my own What Scientists Read project (shameless plug!). This is investigating the influence of literature on scientists, but often brings up the opposite phenomenon – how science and scientists appear in fiction.

Free coffee and pastries were a tasty prelude to a fun, funny, offbeat session in the Spiegeltent, which kicked off with readings from both authors of their ‘intellectually gleeful novels’ (as aptly described by the chair). The bite-size samples certainly made me want to go and buy both authors’ books immediately and devour them in full. Perhaps I should be focussing on the science here (this is Genotype, after all!). But I also want to convey the breadth and inspiration of a session that ranged in its first 10 minutes from the highs and lows of ketamine; to second novel syndrome; to whether it’s ok to start a chapter with a character waking up (officially not, but both authors do, so Beauman thinks it’s all right). It was also a session with some gems of advice for wannabe writers. Cue Harkaway: ‘You write every day, and you keep writing, and after a month you have an appreciable amount of text, and after a year you have a book.’ (If you want to do it quicker, sign up for National Novel Writing Month in November.)

Back to the science…! As mentioned, I sat down in the Spiegeltent, apricot danish in hand, expecting to hear about the physics labs of LA. But in fact the representation of scientists and laboratory-based science in fiction never came up. (I’ll just have to read The Teleportation Accident and add a postscript to this blog later.) Instead, science and technology took the stage unexpectedly in a provocative discussion of genre fiction versus literary realism, led by Harkaway. He suggested (and I agree) that in contemporary literary fiction, ‘technology and science are slightly dirty in some way’. In other words, there’s a sense that to write a literary novel (as opposed to a genre novel), the author should remove all reference to technology – especially, I take it, those supposed ‘technologies of unreality’ such as online social media (my term here, though not my view). Yet these are precisely the technologies that arguably define life in this postmodern world – as Harkaway pointed out, ‘reality is weird’, and perhaps novels should be, too. I’ll just have to read Harkaway’s Angelmaker as well and find out.

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