I Am Because You Are
Pippa Goldschmidt, Tania Hershman (editors)
Freight Books, 196 pages
Review by Iain Maloney
2015 marks one hundred years since Albert Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity although it seems like only yesterday. How time flies. To celebrate the occasion Pippa Goldschmidt and Tania Hershman have curated this collection of short stories, poetry and essays inspired by, reacting to, or crashing against Relativity.
They are ideal editors for such a project, with impressive backgrounds in science and literature. Goldschmidt has a PhD in astronomy and her books The Falling Star and The Need for Better Regulation of Outer Space engage with science and scientists in exciting and enlightening ways. Hershman worked for years as a science journalist before turning to fiction, publishing two sparkling short story collections, My Mother was an Upright Piano and The White Road.
The book opens with a friendly introduction explaining relativity for readers who may run screaming at the word ‘physics’ and it’s a credit to both writers’ talent that it makes the theory easy to understand without ever tipping into condescension. The three essays scattered amongst the stories also walk this fine line of clarity and insight, with Jo Dunkley’s piece on cosmology in particular an exceptional example of science writing while Pedro G. Ferreira’s “A Month in Berlin” displays an infectious passion for Einstein’s work.
The majority of the stories in the collection were commissioned by the editors, with an open competition providing four more. Reading the biographies in the back, it’s clear that some of the writers have more of a background in science than others. Perhaps as a result of this the stories fall into two categories: those that engage directly with the science and those that use Relativity as metaphor.
In the first category Neil Williamson’s “Shifting” posits two potential futures for a couple of scientists in what can only be described as a Schrödinger’s Baby scenario. Tasneem Zehra “Husain’s Pont au Double” — one of the stand out stories in the book – takes on the problem of observation and a troubled relationship in Paris. Helen Sedgwick’s “Quantum Gravity or: The Pigmy Marmoset and the Prefabricated Concrete Bungalow” strangely does exactly what it says in the title.
Arthur C Clarke’s oft quoted adage that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” could be extended to cover some scientific theories, and many of the stories take this line with Relativity. Vanessa Gebbie’s “Captain Quantum’s Universal Entertainment” is as surreal and quirky a study of the theory’s implications as you’re likely to find. Simon Barraclough’s “Ticked Off” — the only out and out genre piece in the anthology — is a terrifying story of the commodification of time. Ruby Cowling’s “The Two-Body Problem” uses particle physics and unorthodox typography to examine sibling rivalry between twins.
Of course no book about Relativity would be complete without an appearance by the great man himself. Dilys Rose’s excellent story “Correspondence” is a snapshot of a moment in Einstein’s life, reminding us that behind one of the most important ideas our species has ever had was a very human man. The image of a son yearning for his absent father while the father’s theory spreads around the globe is heartbreaking.
There is a lingering separation between science as theorised on blackboards and practiced in labs and the arts, literature in particular. Publishing and the media have long run with the narrative that there are science people and there are arts people and never the twain shall meet—a narrative that largely ignores reality, and the entire genre of science fiction—but which nevertheless has been powerful. When Ian McEwan published Solar, a not very good book about climate change with a Nobel-winning physicist as its main character, the mainstream literary press were up in arms at the audacity of it. Tibor Fischer, writing in the Daily Telegraph, went so far as to question whether global warming was a fit subject for fiction. In many circles it is far more acceptable to say you don’t understand Relativity than to admit to never having read Shakespeare or rejecting Dickens as a third-rate waffler, a baffling state of affairs in the twenty-first century. As part of the preparation for this book the astrophysics group at Oxford University hosted a day-long workshop bringing together physicists and writers. In her recent inaugural lecture at the University of Glasgow Professor Louise Welsh spoke about the need for more fraternisation of this kind, citing collaborations between Val McDermid and forensic scientists at Dundee University. A rubicon has been crossed, it seems. Science fiction—fiction rooted in science, fiction grown from science, fiction about science—is moving into the mainstream. What we fans of science fiction have long known is becoming the norm—science and literature are ideal bed-fellows. Pippa Goldschmidt, Tania Hershman and Freight Books are to be commended for such a diverse, intoxicating, thought-provoking anthology.
This review was first published in Shoreline of Infinity 2.