Monday, 30 March 2009

Imagining accuracy

How important is accuracy in fiction? If you’re writing about something ‘real’ based on real information, experiences, or events do you have to stick to the facts?

If I spot a mistake in the use of science in fiction, it can throw me off course. I feel that the universe set up by the writer is flawed. If the writer can make one mistake, then perhaps others have been made too. Should I continue to believe in this universe?
And I’m more likely to be on the hunt for mistakes if I suspect that the author is using science for reasons other than telling a story.
For example, some authors appear to use science to bolster their authority. Ian McEwan does this in ‘Enduring Love’ with his use of quasi-medical papers to give a scientific ‘explanation’ for the way that one of the characters behaves. Others use science to provide pretty-sounding metaphors. Quantum physics and relativity seem to be particularly popular. The first line of ‘Cat’s Eye’ by Margaret Atwood is
‘Time is not a line but a dimension…’
After I read this oxymoron (a line does have a dimension), I very nearly didn’t read on.

And yet. A desire for accuracy can shade into pedantry. The narrator of ‘Cat’s Eye’ is an artist. She’s not likely to understand the finer points of general relativity, and more importantly, she doesn’t need to for the story to work. All she, and therefore the reader, needs to know is that her brother has become a physicist and is removed from the hum-drumness of daily life (This depiction of an egg-head scientist seems somewhat clichéd but that’s another matter).

Too close a reading of the text in an effort to check its accuracy can stop the reader from appreciating the multiple interpretations that are always possible. When I first read the following lines from the poem ‘Carnal Knowledge’ by Rebecca Elson;
‘Performed the calculus
Of the imaginary i…’
I took the ‘imaginary i’ to refer to the square root of minus 1, which is depicted as i in maths and is the foundation of all so-called imaginary numbers. It took several re-readings of the poem for me to realise that this imaginary i could also be a person, a body. (I don’t know why it took me so long, the whole poem is about bodies…)
My knowledge of maths perhaps led me to assume that there was only one meaning of this phrase, and this actually prevented me from getting a wider appreciation of what the poem could offer. I might also have made this assumption because I knew that Elson herself was an astronomer and much of her writing is about astronomy, and science.

So I think there is a danger of being too proprietorial about knowledge. It shouldn’t be off-limits. If writers make mistakes which the vast majority of their readers won’t spot, then what does it matter? They have at least stretched their language to encompass new ideas.


  1. This is another fascinating topic, Pippa. As someone with a science background, although I am not a scientist, I feel very free in my short stories to make stuff up. I used to be a journalist and to break completely with that world and move into fiction, I gave myself permission not to stick to any facts whatsoever. I don't purport to be "teaching" anyone anything about science in my stories, I don't worry that I will be leading anyone astray, since my stories are clearly marked as fiction, and as such wouldn't expect accuracy in anything else under this heading. I was nervous when my book came out that "scientists" would accuse me of a great sin, but fiction is fiction is fiction, and what of science fiction, some of the most imaginative fiction of all! Perhaps if the writer is addressing a real issue, it might be different (my main story in which I made science up is about controlling the weather). Interesting topic!

  2. Yes, I don't think writing fiction to teach people about science is ever going to produce good fiction. And if we write, we want to write good stuff...

  3. Hello Pippa! Tania alerted me to your blog several days ago, and I stopped in to say hello, and then started reading, and then before you know it, I'm leaving comments like mousedroppings of apocrypha...

    This is an interesting issue to discuss in fiction: I suspect it might be the dividing line between literary fiction that 'uses' science versus 'science fiction' the genre. I've never been one of those who pooh-poohed science fiction, I enjoyed it quite as much as anything else, but the writing and plot can sometimes degenerate into farcical exercises (I've read those too). Some of the finest literary greats also come from there. H.G. Wells -- one of my favorite greats from the past. I read a very excerpted version (Malayanized, I should say) of the Invisible Man when I was in Fifth Grade and I loved it and remembered it for ever after.

    On this penumbra of shading the truth in science in literature, I'm inclined towards trying to get at least the basic presumptions right. E.g. in that Atwood example, if I'd been her, I'd have been mortified. If you're going to quote a scientific fact, it seems to me lazy not to get that right. From there, you can extrapolate about dimensions or what have you, make up all sorts of things. A bit like for example, if you're going to use the general theory of relativity somehow, it strikes me that you kinda have to get that one right. If you're going to make another one up, you'd almost have to be another Einstein for the equation to make sense, don't you?

    What makes using 'science' in literature really tricky is that science is not static. The science topics, e.g. stem cells etc., that grip the public's interest tend to be also the ones that are fast-changing in the knowledge accumulated and research experimentation. So, for a layperson grabbing hold of scientific facts and using them accurately, it's very difficult indeed.

  4. Yet here's a thing: Lines & dimensions. Seeing Marcus de Sautoy leading Alan Davies into the 4th dimension the other night, I was reminded of a thought I once had: what if we start with space (or volume) as the first dimension (in many ways a more reasonable position than starting with a line) then we can squash it down, as it were, to give us area, and from that area, we can abstract the edge, to give us line - after which we contract to a point or location (which still implies space, of course). We can now see that there is nowhere else to go; the urge to find another dimension at right angles to the previous one disappears: we have used up all the possibilities, simply by starting at the other end.I remember being terribly excited when I first thought this in Princes St gardens, aged about 19, but perhaps it is neither remarkable nor original. O well.

  5. hi EP - thanks for your interesting mousedroppings. Yep, perhaps I'm being too kind about 'Cats Eye'. I dunno. I'm currently delving into the world of genetics and am finding it so difficult, it all seems so much more complex than physics. Even the words are longer.
    John - this reminds me of string theory and dimensions being squashed into other dimensions. String theory is either the best thing since sliced quantum physics (according to string theorists) or not even proper science (according to other physicists). The jury is out.

  6. Pippa, I came upon your blog when looking for the book containing the phrase "Time is not a line but a dimension", and have to pull you up on something - that sentence is NOT an oxymoron. The fact that a line HAS dimensions does not negate that statement. "Time is not a line (which has dimensions) but a dimension (itelf)" Do you see? Like length or height or depth. I think it's a wonderful, philosophical statement. Certainly NOT an oxymoron.

  7. welcome, folly_bizarre
    I see what you're saying.. very interesting..
    I can feel a blog coming on about how we can determine (or not) what the 'correct' reading of this (or anything else) may be.
    Thanks for stirring up doubt in my mind. I'm still not convinced it's not a mistake, but I'm willing to agree it may not be a mistake.