Thought X: Fictions and Hypotheticals

Thought X: Fictions and Hypotheticals
Edited by Dr Rob Appleby and Ra Page
Comma Press, 304 pages
Review by Pippa Goldschmidt

This volume is the latest in a series of anthologies published by Comma Press showcasing specially written short stories inspired by a specific theme. This one takes as its subject ‘thought experiments’, experiments carried out in the safety of one’s own head to explore the world. Each short story is accompanied by an essay written by an expert in the field.

Thought experiments can be used to expose the apparent misconceptions of a theory and one of the most famous was devised by Schrödinger to clarify what he thought of as the wrong-headed interpretation of his own wave equation by other physicists. The cat trapped in a box who simultaneously exists in the quantum states and is both alive and dead until the box is opened was meant to be a reductio ad absurdum, an obviously impossible circumstance. In this anthology Schrödinger’s cat is used inventively by Margaret Wilkinson in her story ‘If He Wakes’ to explore the complex relationship between an adult daughter and her father who may (or may not) be living in a nursing home.

That story succeeds because it’s able to get beyond its inspiration and work as a short story in its own right, but not all the stories in this anthology manage to shake off their obvious starting point. Thought experiments share many characteristics with short stories, such as a reliance on a narrative which exploits the possibilities inherent in the set-up, and a reliance on an imagined world. And sometimes these shared characteristics seem to operate as an inhibitor. If a short story is also a thought experiment then can it sufficiently assert its own literary merits? Can a short story be more than a simple population of the underlying thought experiments with words? ‘Lightspeed’ by Adam Marek suffers from a workmanlike approach to its inspiration the Twin Paradox, in which an astronaut experiences the passage of time at a slower rate compared to the people left behind, and because of this he has problems with his marriage. But it’s not wholly believable that this character wouldn’t understand and be able to quantify the effect of time dilation on his domestic life.

In contrast, ‘Red’ by Annie Kirby takes the famous ‘Mary’s Room’ experiment and turns it into something genuinely new. In the original experiment a young girl growing up in a monochrome world has an intellectual knowledge of the colour red, but apparently lacks a full understanding until she experiences it for the first time. This short story has the confidence to invert the main idea and isn’t afraid to depart some distance from it. ‘Monkey Business’ by Ian Watson imagines those infamous monkeys randomly hitting typewriter keys and after some unpredictably long period of time, producing the entire works of Shakespeare. The fact that this thought experiment is so well-known could have acted as a disadvantage, but Watson manages to use his own narrative to extend our understanding of how the experiment might actually work.

‘Keep It Dark’ by Adam Roberts is a terrific imagining of a possible (and quite bonkers) answer to Olbers paradox—that apparently naïve question of why the sky is dark at night which has worried several centuries of astronomers and philosophers. The accompanying essay covers a lot of ground but presents the answer to the paradox a little too simplistically.

The essays vary in their technicality and there is a small amount of repetition across them, but it is fascinating to read about ‘Mary’s Room’ by the man who actually came up with the idea. And it’s also refreshing to see actual equations and diagrams in a book of stories. This makes for a lively mix of styles and subject matter. Comma are to be applauded for encouraging fiction writers to write (and readers to read) about such unusual topics.

This review was originally published in Shoreline of Infinity Issue 7