And so I’m back, from outer space…

On location, Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff, Arizona. A rare moment of getting to hold the kit for a photo op as the roof of the observatory is opened.

On location, Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff, Arizona. A rare moment of getting to hold the kit for a photo op as the roof of the observatory is opened.

After 6 months in solitary academic confinement, and with The Book triumphantly written, the beginning of 2017 has seen me return to life beyond my study with renewed enthusiasm and vigour. I’ve spent the past few months steeped in the Martian imaginings of our greatest writers and scientists for a BBC Radio 4 documentary on mankind’s romance with the red planet, for which I had the great if exhausting pleasure of a weekend trip to Mars’ Earth analogue, Arizona. We visited Percival Lowell’s Flagstaff observatory to learn more about how it all began, and then descended to Phoenix to talk about where we are now, with contemporary Mars scientists at Arizona State University. There may also have been a morning spent barsooming around the Arizona desert – as close to Mars as I’m ever going to get – imagining encounters with magnificent and fearsome six-limbed Tharks. And if that sounds a little frivolous, I can assure you that it was actually very illuminating: standing on red rock, looking across the barren desert to the dust clouds on the distant horizon, it suddenly made sense why that landscape inspired the original literary visionary of Mars – Edgar Rice Burroughs – whose experiences on those plains and encounters with their native inhabitants shaped his Martian imaginings. The programme will be broadcast as part of Radio 4’s Martian Festival at the beginning of March – more details to follow.

I also had the pleasure this week of a stimulating hour’s conversation with SF writers Roz Kaveney and Aliette de Bodard for an episode of Radio 4’s Beyond Belief on religion and science fiction, which will be broadcast on Monday 13th March. And, to knock a little realism into me, next month I’ll start recording my new series of Literary Pursuits by investigating the story behind the story of E. M. Forster’s posthumously published Maurice. Fortunately, neither interplanetary nor transatlantic travel is necessary to get started on that investigation, since a treasure trove of Forster’s papers sits on my doorstep in King’s College Cambridge’s modern archives.

BBC Radio 3 Proms Extra Events 2016

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My academic work is top priority at the moment as I’ve gone into research lock-down in order to get my long-delayed second book drafted by Christmas. But it’s been a pleasure to treat myself to a break from the book to take part for the second year in BBC Radio 3’s Proms Extra events: live discussions that take place before the Prom and are then cut for broadcast during the interval of the evening’s concert. On Saturday 6th August 2016 I’ll be joining eminent science fiction novelist Stephen Baxter to talk with fellow New Generation Thinker Will Abberley about H. G. Wells and the lasting relevance of his work, especially The War of the Worlds. Then on Thursday 18th August I’ll be back in the presenter seat – a role I now enjoy even more than being a contributor – to interview the great Michael Pennington about what it’s like to perform Shakespeare and how the Bard himself portrayed the profession he knew best. All events are free and there’s one before every Prom, so plenty to choose from – if you can’t make it in person, both the Wells and the Pennington discussions will be available on Radio 3’s Arts and Ideas section of the BBCiplayer after broadcast. While you’re online, check out the new addition to the Proms season, fantastic comedian Vikki Stone‘s new behind the scenes podcast, Proms Unplucked.

The Brave New World of Science Fiction Theatre

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This week I’ve come over all dramatic, having caught the current buzz around SF theatre. This afternoon I popped down to London to watch the new Headlong production of George Orwell’s 1984 which has just begun its West End run. I have to say I found it a little disappointing. The opening was almost embarrassingly patronising as it gathered together a reading group to ‘teach’ the audience how to understand the novel. But once they got past that, it steadily improved and Mark Arends was subtly convincing in his portrayal of a psychologically damaged, disoriented, if not downright unhinged, Winston. On the train ride home I finished off a new Sci-Fi-London blog on SF theatre, which will appear here shortly. And if I could have been in two places at once, I’d also have sent my avatar over to LA to catch Sci Fest, the first science fiction theatre festival (poster above, and more on them in the blog ) which looks nothing less than tremendous. All in all, a satisfyingly science fictionaly theatrical day!

Literature and Science After Snow

So my BBC Arts TV short film is now Live and can be found here. In it I talk about the relationship between literature and science since the mid-twentieth century. This date is marked not just by the end of the Second World War and the national and international changes that ensued, but also by another date – 1959 – when the English chemist and novelist C. P. Snow took to the podium in a packed Senate House at the University of Cambridge. There he stood and boldly delivered a lecture that was to change the face of the debate about the relationship between literature and science.

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Snow believed that the intellectual life of Western societies was split into what he famously called ‘the two cultures’: the arts and humanities at one pole, the sciences at the other, an unbridgeable gulf between the two. Scientists, he said, don’t read; and literary types don’t have a clue about science, most of the ones  he knew couldn’t even explain something as scientifically fundamental as the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

So what did Snow want his lecture to do? Well he wanted it to provoke debate and he wanted it to spur people on to attempt to close the gap between the two cultures. Since Snow’s lecture, many intellectuals and scientists have risen to his challenge, working hard to prove that the divide between the two cultures is more imagined than real. Strangely enough, though, most scholars of literature and science have sought to prove Snow wrong not by looking forwards, but by looking back. They point to the nineteenth century as evidence of the intimacy between literature and science. Behold, they say, Darwin’s love of Milton, or Coleridge’s close friendship and collaboration with the visionary chemist Humphry Davy.

Yes, the nineteenth century was an era in which literature and science were common bedfellows. The title page of the very first issue of the journal Nature, published in 1869, in fact bears an epigraph from Wordsworth. And that epigraph remained there for nearly 100 years. But it was abandoned in 1963, only four years after Snow’s lecture. This timing is not coincidental. For the contemporary history of the relationship between literature and science is different to that of the nineteenth century. We need to look forward in response to Snow’s challenge, not look back.

And what do we see if we do indeed look beyond 1959? Well, we see a troubled relationship. Sometimes the two cultures are at war. Sometimes they are in love. In the 1990s, the famous science wars exploded in the States. Postmodern theorists argued for the equal value, even the fallibility, of all forms of knowledge. They challenged science’s claims to objectivity, authority and truth. And the scientists fought back, defending science from the perceived attack. Physicist Alan Sokal even went so far as to plant a hoax article in the journal Social Text supposedly to expose the lack of intellectual rigour of the new forms of cultural and literary theory and thought.

On the other hand, in the early years of the twenty-first century, we’ve seen moves towards reconciliation. In October 2011 the Royal Society held its One Culture festival, exploring the crosscurrents between literature and science; in 2013, the Barbican ran a season called ‘Wonder: Art and Science on the Brain’. Whilst the cultural theorists of the end of the twentieth century got into trouble because they argued for science’s similarity to other forms of knowledge, in an oddly similar spirit, though to different ends, the reconciliatory projects of the past twenty years also concentrate on what the two cultures share, be it a sense of wonder, or the crucial role imagination plays in both. But it is time to come out from under Snow’s shadow. Perhaps there is nothing inherently wrong with there being two cultures. Perhaps, in fact, we need to start valuing literature and science precisely for their differences, rather than continually attempting to bring them together. Science and literature offer us different ways of understanding the world, different routes to knowledge. And if we are to survive as a species, and retain our humanity, we are going to need to keep both.

Look Out, Here I Cam (bridge)

After an intense few months of move project management, with little time for anything else, the relocation to Cambridge is upon me and life can start to be filled up again with things other than estate agents, builders, painters, letting agents, removal companies, the list goes on. So yesterday I had the pleasure of spending the day filming with a great crew from the BBC making a short film as part of the New Generation Thinker experience. Check out last year’s films here. And yes, I did have to walk around looking thoughtful and take a book down off a shelf and pretend to be very interested in it. TV is a strange beast but it’s fascinating being part of a team creating in a medium where the images hold sway over the words. Very different to writing, and to radio. I’ll post a link to the NGT 2013 films when they find their way on to the BBC Arts page. In the meantime, there’s much more to come over the next few months, from a new blogging role for Sci-Fi-London, home of the UK’s main SF film festival, to a What Scientists Read event at the Edinburgh International Science Festival in April. Goodbye packing; hello world. It’s good to be back!

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[Bad pun blog title courtesy of my husband.]

Wombs on Legs?

Debate raged this summer about the all-male Arthur C. Clarke shortlist and the place of women writers in science fiction. That, along with the Texas abortion law changes, got me thinking about the feminist power of SF and what we can learn from it about women’s rights and how these are connected to our control of our own reproduction. That became the topic of my Free Thinking essay, which will be broadcast tonight on BBC Radio 3 at 10.45pm. As always, if you can’t listen live, it’ll be available on listen again here. Come with me on a late night journey on the Wombcraft to other imagined times and places. Enjoy the ride!

Free Thunk!

So, I am all Free Thunk! What a fantastic weekend in Gateshead with the BBC team and my fellow New Generation Thinkers. Speed dating was a heady, super-charged, intellectual comedy with the lovely Ian McMillan hooting the hooter in his own inimicable style. I came runner up each day with my idea that we should have a National Fool to keep us all honest! In slightly more serious proceedings, my discussion of Zamyatin’s dark dystopia We and the contemporary issues we are all facing around surveillance and questions of privacy, security and freedom was broadcast last night on BBC Radio 3. I was lucky enough to participate alongside a trio of the best in the business – David Aaronovitch, Sean O’Brien and Matthew Sweet. If you didn’t catch it last night, you can listen again here.

And here’s me trying to win over the love and votes of the Speed Dating public!

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BBC Radio 3 Night Waves Column on Analogy, Science and Literature

I was down in London yesterday to record my first column for BBC Radio 3 Night Waves. The science media is all a-buzz about ‘analogy’ at the moment after the publication of the new book by Pulitzer prize winning cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter and his collaborator, French psychologist Emmanuel Sander: Surface and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking. They argue that rather than analogy just being a part of reasoning, it it actually the key to cognition – the only way we understand anything is by comparing it to something we already know. Interested by their arguments, I take a look at how analogy figures in literature and science and what is can tell us about the relationship between them. It’ll be broadcast sometime next week – I’ll post the link when it comes out, so watch this space.