I don’t normally write speeches in advance for events, but I was glad I got something on paper for Stranimondi 2016 because as it turns out, every word I said had to be translated into Italian on the spot by the superb Chiara Reali (thank you, Chiara). I had a wonderful experience at the con and I thank everyone for the warm and generous reception.
This speech is loosely based on a blog post that I never published called ‘Cry Me a River’–as ever, I wear my heart on my sleeve. Maybe it will interest a few of you.
First I’d like to thank the organisers very much for inviting me and especially Giorgio Raffaeli for taking care of all the details. This is my first time in Italy, and I have my partner and our children here as well, so it’s very exciting. I don’t know anything about the Italian science fiction scene, and so it’s also very stimulating and I hope enlightening for me to be here with you.
I’ve been going back and forth about what I should talk to you about today. And then I thought, you probably have no real idea who I am or what my work is about, so I’m going to talk a little about that. But first I was thinking that it’s a funny coincidence that your other Guest of Honour is Alastair Reynolds, and of course he is an astrophysicist who worked for the European Space Agency before becoming a science fiction writer. And I am a science fiction writer who, in my forties, returned to university, and with one thing and another I’m now studying for a Master’s degree with the Astrophysics Research Institute in Liverpool. And that’s really funny—I don’t know if anyone has ever done what I’m doing, going completely against the natural order of things.
How did this happen? Well, the simple answer is failure. I had failed as a writer—I’ll tell you more about that later. Back in 2010 I was a mother of three small children, freelancing from home. My seventh science fiction novel had been released, it was shortlisted for the British Science Fiction Association Award and the Clarke, and yet it wasn’t selling. I did an interview in which I was asked about the low percentage of women winning the Clarke Award, and that triggered an online discussion on the Torque Control blog, then run by Niall Harrison. I was happy to see the topic being taken seriously; back in those days if you googled ‘women in SF’ you’d go straight to links like ‘Hot chicks of Sci-Fi TV.’
Then a prominent male science fiction writer decided to weigh in. This is someone who has a high profile in the UK and earns a lot more money than I do. He linked to an article claiming that women are scarce in science because we simply ‘aren’t interested in carburettors and ohms’.
I can still remember the physical blow that those words felt like. Such a betrayal from my own community. I was angry but mostly I was crushed. Online I told everyone, ‘I’ll be in the shed, hitting the Muay Thai bag.’ But actually, I cried. A lot. I remember sobbing to my partner, ‘It’s not like I want to be the most famous writer ever. I just want a place at the table.’
At the time this happened, I had just learned that my American teaching qualification wasn’t acceptable in the UK, which meant I couldn’t get a job. The UK government was funding training for science teachers, so I had been planning to take a few biology courses to qualify for the funding. (Coincidentally, around the same time the writer Steph Swainston did something similar with Chemistry teacher-training). After the remarks about carburettors and ohms I was just so furious and felt so betrayed that I thought: Forget biology. I’m going to prove this person wrong.
I ignored the fact that I’d taken my last maths course at 15 and had received a D. I signed up for my first Open University courses in maths and physics.
If I’d known what it would really be like, I probably wouldn’t have had the courage. The first few years getting up to speed with maths and physics were horrifying: gruelling and demoralising in equal measure. Talk about stranger in a strange land. The mindset I’d developed for writing wasn’t required here. For maths you need ferocious concentration and a willingness to be wrong but calmly go again. And again. And bloody again. No emotion needed or wanted—it only gets in the way.
Now, this was a problem for me. Emotion is the fuel I use for writing. Not only was cold, rational cogitation not my metier, but I suspected I was actually allergic to it. It didn’t help that I wasn’t sleeping much and was still running around after small children to a stupefying soundtrack of ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ and ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ theme music.
But I hung tough. Luckily, the initial hurdles were the highest: calculus and mechanics. By mechanics I don’t mean carburettors, but the motion of objects under gravity. You know: like rocket science.
Now, I’m fighting the urge to say, ‘But I can’t really rocket science, I’m rubbish.’
It’s true that I’m never going to be the world’s most quantitative person. And I have to confess that in fact I don’t really care about carburettors—I’m not big on metallic machines, generally. But I care deeply about nature, and here’s the thing: rocket science is the tip of nature’s iceberg. There’s a lot more to physics than orbital mechanics.
Physics underpins all nature. It’s a fantastical field of study—full of mystery, as weird as you can imagine but weirder. The close relative of physics, applied maths, is ubiquitous in the world today. Biology, economics, environmental science, social science—you name a discipline and you can find maths being used to model reality and to make predictions. We live in an age of big data. All of this is to do with the nature of nature—and who isn’t interested in that?
These big questions are for everyone, not just for those of us who are mechanically-inclined or have testicles. They are for all of us.
I had to reinvent myself a little to get on the physical science path. I don’t think I appreciated how much reinvention I’d done until a couple of years ago an acquaintance from my son’s school dropped in for coffee. We sat at my kitchen table catching up: she was working on an artistic project in her spare time, and I had just started learning quantum mechanics. She looked at me sceptically.
‘Yes, but do you believe in all that?’ she asked. I laughed nervously. Had she mistaken quantum mechanics for homeopathy? After all, crystallography and crystal healing sound similar.
‘I don’t have to believe in it,’ I said. ‘The technology that comes out of quantum physics is working right now in your phone. The evidence is everywhere.’
That’s how I ended up trying to explain Young’s double-slit experiment. But when she looked at my diagram of wiggly light waves heading towards a wall with two slits in it, she started giggling. She said, ‘Sorry, only they look like sperm!’
It was about then that I recognised myself in her. Remembered all the times my linear, organised brother (he grew up to be an engineer) had tried to walk me through an algebra problem, only for me to interject something about unicorns.
One book that I wish I’d had when I started is Barbara Oakley’s ‘A Mind For Numbers.’ Oakley started out as a Russian translator in the US Army and changed to maths and engineering in her mid-twenties to improve her career prospects. Like me, she had to start from scratch, and she subsequently made a study of how people learn math and science. As an engineering professor, Oakley has described learning methods that are supported by neuroscience, methods to enable anyone of any age to learn advanced maths, taking advantage of the brain’s plasticity.
While I’ve been slowly reinventing myself as a trainee scientist, the culture has been changing its attitudes to women. The process of change is painfully slow, but it is getting better. In the UK a senior physicist was sacked not long ago for joking that women should be in separate labs because ‘they cried and you fell in love with them,’ but in my day this kind of talk was normal. When I see high-profile scientists losing their jobs for sexual harassment, I remember my math teacher from when I was twelve. (Coincidentally, this was the year that I stopped being any good at math.) Mr. Ryan kept an iconic poster of fifteen-year-old Brooke Shields on his classroom wall, the one where she’s wearing only a pair of tight jeans, saying ‘Nothing comes between me and my Calvins.’ Mr Ryan wasn’t considered creepy back then—he was the cool teacher. That’s what I mean when I say the culture has changed.
Another thing changed while I was working on my degree, and that was the surge of attention paid to women science fiction writers whereas before we had been summarily ignored. This was the result of many, many online and in-person conversations across the science fiction community in the US and UK. Ann Leckie’s work broke out, with its lens on gender-based assumptions, and from what I could gather this wave of support was the result of a direct effort on the part of her publisher and the wider science fiction community as a whole to raise the profile of women writers.
While all of this was going on I was slowly writing Occupy Me, which was published earlier this year. I worked with the attitude that I would push my ideas as far as I possibly could, take the biggest risks, knowing that only a few people will read it. I was able to do that because—thanks to physics—I am no longer afraid to fail. Moreover, I no longer care whether I am recognised or not. I can assess the value of my own work, and I know when I’ve achieved what I set out to do with a novel, even if no one else does. I am at peace with failure.
What does this feel like?
It’s like building boats and launching them only to watch them sink, maybe in the harbour, maybe farther out. You don’t even wait for the wreckage to wash ashore. You just go get more wood and do the work that it is in you to do. Over and over. That’s what it is.
And the truth is, all boats sink, in the end. Everybody dies. Nothing is permanent. So failure is not to be taken personally. Moreover, there are a lot of interesting things that happen when you allow yourself to get really comfortable with failure, to get up close and personal. To sit beside failure without flinching, to smell it, to converse with it. Eventually failure becomes a companion and not something to be feared. And most importantly, failing is not the end, it is the beginning.
So, what is my work about? Occupy Me is a high-energy, wild puzzle about consciousness and cosmology. All of my books are about consciousness, explicitly or implicitly. Many of them also deal with duality, and it’s very normal for me to use different parallel viewpoints to create an effect. The way I do this—especially in Maul, which has just been published in Italian by Zona 42 as Selezione Natural—is to juxtapose storylines that don’t really belong together, and to let them play off on one another, let them bump and collide and see what comes out. I’m very interested in the concept of negative space: what isn’t there as opposed to what is. And one thing that I like to do is allow space for readers to form their own interpretations. Some people are frustrated by this feeling of openness in my work. This groundlessness and the feeling of disorientation that I like to cause in you. But to me, that’s what science fiction is for, even more so than realistic fiction. It is for you the reader to work your imagination and contribute your own interpretation. I write books for people who like to chew on ideas, who have teeth and who want to think. I do not spoon-feed.
Thank you so much for having me.
(double slit image from philschatz.com)