Friday, 28 March 2014

Synthetic Biology: Here Be Monsters?

Over the last few weeks I've been working on a story commission from Comma Press, in conjunction with TRUCE.

The project focuses on A-Life future and unconventional computing. As with previous science-into-fiction projects, writers and scientific consultants are partnered up and they chat in person or online about a particular area of research. The writer asks (in my case embarrassingly naive) questions and from these conversations the writer draws together a fictional narrative, this time set in 2070, using and exploring the particular area of research as a metaphor, axis or catalyst for the story. The science is checked by the consultant to ensure that it is grounded in fact and they then write an afterword to accompany the story. It is an utterly delightful collaborative process.

The area within this project that I chose is synthetic biology. If you look on the internet for information about the latest developments in synthetic biology, you come up with a jumble of some well written, if sometimes overly simplified, newspaper articles about particular cases, reams of comments on posts often about how the world will probably grind to a halt unless we revert back to all things 'natural' and a lot of very speculative information and spectacular images. Picture a Victorian freakshow of Frankenstein monstrosities for a future generation and that's pretty much the scene.

There's a big divide between the science fact and the understanding of the general public. Sometimes, in abbreviation or in an attempt to add jeopardy or dynamism into a report, the science breakthroughs within synthetic biology can be twisted into something very peculiar - a far cry from the actual science fact. Occasionally, the science world isn't a great communicator - perhaps because of valid fears that truth, shared, will be trampled in pursuit of edgy copy. Making the science fact clear and true but in an accessible, engaging way to the layperson is really tricky. For this project, and those that have come before it, in When it Changed, Litmus, Biopunk and Sara Maitland's Moss Witch, Comma Press has rounded up scientist consultants who are not only at the very coalface of these scientific areas, but who are also brilliant communicators, with both the writers involved, and also the general public.

It's a marvellous project to be involved with but also terrifying. I have researched widely, visualising what the world, and indeed synthetic biology, will look like in 2070 and now I'm attempting to pull a narrative from these threads. It keeps me awake at night. The current world seems very antiquated when I blearily raise my head out of the story to look around.

My science collaborator Professor Martyn Amos is a brilliant communicator, and really good at answering my stupid, occasionally left field, questions. We've got some big ideas to play with in the field of synthetic biology. The difficulty is trying to select which bits to focus on, so that the story becomes something narrow and deep and not a synbio monster. We both agreed, early on in the process, that while synthetic biology will be the driving science subject in the story, neither of us wanted to portray it in a doom ridden apocalyptic way.  It felt more interesting to address how it will improve our lives, and within this what the inevitable downsides, or psychological effect of it will be. How will it impact our relationships with each other? How will it change the way we see the world? These questions seem more pertinent and engaging.

 It is a privilege to be working with Martyn and I'm really looking forward to the Beta -Life event in Edinburgh with Comma Press, Martyn and writer Robin Yassin-Kassab next month.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Being Mslexic

I've been a huge fan of Mslexia since I first subscribed as an undergraduate. Mslexia, 'For women who write', has been a source of inspiration, encouragement and joy throughout my writing journey. So it was delightful to be asked to make a small contribution for a feature in the latest issue.

Katie M Anderson, a fantastic writer, trainer and consultant, composed the feature about life after completing a creative writing MA and asked several writers, including myself, about our experiences of our writing-life post MA. It was a huge privilege to be asked. The article is great - detailing anecdotal response and also hard facts about how many writers go on to publish work after finishing a creative writing MA.

It is an encouraging read, especially given the recent resurrection of the debate of the value of the creative writing MA. Read more about Katie's article here, on her blog, and find out more about Mslexia here. Thank you, Katie for the brilliant article, and to Mslexia for producing a cracking publication.