Fiction as a thought experiment

The final event I went to at this year’s Ilkley Literature Festival was another Comma Press one. For a few years they’ve had a project where a writer gets paired with a scientist: the scientist briefs the writer on a particular topic, the writer writes their story which is somehow linked to it, and the scientist then provides an afterword. The latest anthology of these stories (due out next month) is called Thought X, and is concerned with thought experiments.

Having spent a total of 9 years at 3 universities immersed in maths and theoretical physics, I hadn’t realised that thought experiments were anything other than an everyday matter or that the concept might be unfamiliar to people (I can’t think why people complain about academia being disconnected from the real world…). There are a variety of different sorts of thought experiment, some just an ‘imagine you have a…’ to get people to grasp a concept, others that either stop you from having to do an experiment (because you’ve worked it through logically via your imagined scenario) or that highlight a flaw in a theory by showing that there would be some contradiction if you thought your way through it in this case.

We heard extracts from three of the stories respectively based on the grandfather paradox in time travel, Laplace’s demon, and Schrödinger’s cat. Each thought experiment gave the author an existing narrative (e.g. there had to be an element of time travel and it had to involve some version of killing your own grandfather) around which to base their own narrative. Each of the three stories were different in tone and setting, and it sounds like it should be an interesting book.

To follow the readings, Professor Steven French of the University of Leeds (coincidentally Mark the artist’s academic grandfather i.e. his PhD supervisor’s PhD supervisor) talked about the importance of thought experiments in science, the history of Schrödinger’s famous cat and the many-worlds theories of quantum mechanics, as well as literature as a thought experiment. Which made me think science fiction is almost always explicitly a thought experiment – what happens if we increase global temperatures, what happens if there’s a scarcity of resources, what happens if we develop this technology? A good cue to go write some.

Looking at the future of Iraq through fiction

On Friday evening a regrettably small audience gathered at the Ilkley Literature Festival to hear about the new book of short stories from Comma Press. Called Iraq+100, it’s an exploration of what Iraq might be like a hundred years after the 2003 invasion, i.e. in 2103. Comma Press founder Ra Page and the book’s editor Hassan Blasim (sometimes with the assistance of an interpreter) talked us through the idea behind the book, what it’s like to be a writer in Iraq, and the lack of a science fiction tradition in the Arab world.

Hassan Blassim is a writer and film-maker who fled Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and after 4 years on foot across Europe (writing all the way) settled in Finland, where he is still based. He has been published in English by Comma Press for nearly ten years. Hassan made the point that all across Europe ‘international’ literature festivals often mean work from North America or other parts of Europe, there is little African or Arabic literature available, so the Iraq+100 anthology was a good way of getting some Arabic stories translated into English.

The idea for the book arose in 2013, from the 10th anniversary of the invasion and most of the stories in it were written before Isis took Mosul in 2014 thus dramatically changing the narrative. Consequently the book was delayed until some stories dealing with the legacy of Isis had been written, but the result is a mixture of hopeful, dystopian, and satirical writing. Apparently all the writers were hesitant about setting work so far in the future, at first. Since the 1940s there has been a small sci-fi presence, mainly in Lebanon and Egypt, but there wasn’t the nineteenth century industrial revolution in the Arab world that kickstarted the genre in Europe. Hassan’s view also is that there have been so many conflicts in Iraq, everyone’s writing is influenced by war and conflict and they don’t have the luxury of sitting back and letting their imaginations run wild. “Peace is a great laboratory for imagination,” he said.

In Iraq, Hassan said, the ‘official’ writers are affiliated to government bodies and aren’t free to write as they choose, though the most danger for writers there now comes from the religious militia and not the government. He is hopeful for the future as the rise of Isis has made it easier for writers, or young people on Facebook, to criticise religion and religious figures, which would have been unthinkable in 2006. Young people in Iraq are protesting weekly about religious governance, although that appetite for change is rarely (if ever) shown in Western media.

This was an eye-opening evening, which I think shows the importance of literature in translation for getting a true view of situations in other countries.

Ken Livingstone entertains Ilkley

An hour in a surprisingly less than packed King’s Hall with Ken Livingstone and we learn that (to summarise) pretty much everything that’s wrong with Britain can be blamed on Thatcher, bankers, and tax-dodgers, and most things wrong with politics (and in particular the Labour party) are Tony Blair’s fault. Which I think we already knew so it was a largely convivial evening among friends, marred only by interviewer Ruth Pitt’s insistence on asking several questions about Jeremy Corbyn’s handling of the Remain campaign. The referendum is long over, time to deal with the aftermath not endlessly dissect the handling of it.

Except as Ken pointed out early on, politicians need to learn from history, so perhaps dissecting it is a good thing in principle, just not in a relatively short interview. He also pointed out that because scientists tend to speak in cautious terms, politicians don’t tend to listen to them, and not many politicians have a scientific background so they remain technically unguided on many science-based issues (climate change is his biggest worry in this regard). In one of many memorable phrases of the evening (several of which it’s probably not a great idea to repeat) he said that when he was young, politicians were old, ugly and dull, concentrating on policies. Thanks to Blair (naturally) it’s all focus groups and telling people what they want to hear, with many MPs going from university to advising an MP to becoming one themselves. “They’ve never run stuff,” he complained – few ex-councillors, trade unionists, even small businessmen compared with say 30 years ago.

Ken Livingstone partly ascribed the rise of Jeremy Corbyn (which came as a surprise to him) to the anger of working class voters all across the Western world, veering either to the left or the right but not sticking to the centre: both Trump and Sanders in America, Podemos in Spain, Marine Le Pen in France for instance. He reckons that if Corbyn wins the 2020 election (which Livingstone believes he can) it will be the most significant election since 1979 and could/should herald real change. He did also point out that some of Corbyn’s ‘extreme’ policies were considered perfectly reasonable by previous governments (not only Labour!) and some of his own far-fetched GLC ideas of the 1980s are now accepted by the mainstream (like gay marriage, which was eventually introduced by a Tory government, unthinkable 40 years ago). He gave us an insight into long-running media smear campaigns and what dissenting voices have to put up with. It’s enough to put you off getting involved in politics in any way.

I’m not an uncritical fan of Ken Livingstone, though we share many political views. While I hadn’t heard of Jeremy Corbyn until he stood for the Labour leadership last year I’ve known about Ken for most of my life (you’d have to ask Big Brother for a rough estimate, but I think it’s since the days of Michael Foot) so it was interesting to go along and see him this evening, being largely amusing and laid back, making serious points, and not being afraid to speak his mind, as usual. And anyone playing the ever-popular Ken Livingstone Hitler Bingo would have scored in the first five minutes. If I was part of the Labour top team I think I’d consider measuring him up for a gag.

Technological supremacy, the not so direct path

Talking about technological innovation and what wins out, recently, I discovered that friend of a friend Carolyn Dougherty had written a great article on just such a topic. It’s called On Progress, On Airships and you can read it in Steampunk Magazine 5. She talks about how the invention that ‘wins’ (i.e. enters the mainstream) is not necessarily the best or the safest, which although you may have realised that before, still makes you stop and think.

Coincidentally in the same week I stumbled across a novel called The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore, which is about the legal battle that saw Edison triumph with his lightbulb. I haven’t read it but it sounds like an interesting angle (though I must admit the phrase SOON TO BE A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE STARRING EDDIE REDMAYNE is putting me off just a tad).

Ilkley litfest: Tim Smith photographs Gujarat

This evening in an eerily deserted Ilkley I went to see Bradford-based photographer Tim Smith talk about his Gujarat project. I learnt a lot about the history and geography of that part of India, for instance I had no idea it was about the size of the UK (both in area and in population) or that more than half of British people with Indian backgrounds have their origins there. Interestingly there are specific localities connected, so that Gujaratis from Batley are predominantly connected to one part of Gujarat which is a different area from those who live in Bradford, different again from those in Leicester or Wembley.

Tim began his career in Bradford in the mid-eighties working with the Bradford Heritage Recording Unit (oral history and documentary photographs), and it was from the large numbers of migrants he photographed in Bradford’s mills that he eventually worked so much on documenting migration to Britain. As he said this evening, the textile work was the ‘pull factor’ that encouraged people to come to the UK, but he wanted to see the story from the other end. Hence he spent 2 months in Gujarat in 2014.

His style is photographing ‘ordinary people doing everyday things’ whether that’s in Bradford, Leicester, London or Surat. There was a nice symmetry to some of the pictures he showed: Indian restaurants in Bradford and English-style restaurants or food stalls in India; the interior of a church in Mumbai that could have been anywhere in England, and the interior of a mosque near Bradford that could have been India. One of my favourite pictures was a woman in a shalwar kameez playing cricket on a beach, which happened to be in India but could just as easily have been Blackpool.

Unfortunately an hour proved to be too short a time to fit everything in and sadly Tim had to rush through the last half-dozen photos, but it was an interesting evening with some wonderful photos and I’m sorry I missed the exhibition that arose from this trip (though there is of course a book).

Ilkley Litfest: Mike Jay

The first event I went to at this year’s Ilkley Literature Festival was an eye-opening talk on the history of asylums. Straight away, in my first sentence, I’ve struggled with what to call them, and that difficulty in terminology was the first thing Mike Jay addressed.


His book is called This Way Madness Lies, and he stressed that none of his word choice is intended to be offensive but when you’re covering hundreds of years of history the words people use change as much as the attitudes. Madness, lunacy, insanity, mental illness. The affliction as permanent and inherent, or able to be treated with rest, electric shocks, drugs. The asylum as prison, hospital, home. All these changes in perspective reflect changes in society or the progress of medicine.

It is not a linear, progressive history and Jay suggested there were cyclical elements and also – which I found particularly thought-provoking – that if you took a snapshot at any one time you would find examples of both good and bad conditions. He also talked about delving into several hundred years worth of the Bethlem hospital (‘bedlam’) archives over the last decade, and gave a very brief overview of the ‘open air asylum’ at Geel in Belgium, which I hadn’t heard of but has about as long a pedigree as Bethlem (Geel is a town in which there is a centuries-old tradition of taking people with mental problems as boarders with families).

All in all, a packed 45 minutes where Mike Jay rattled through a number of topics from his (illustrated) book and showed a selection of slides including art by asylum inmates, some or all of which were taken from the book. As the audience questions about the effects of austerity on mental healthcare today, and the possible future for psychiatric treatment, showed this history illuminates the present and I’ve added this hefty volume to my To Read list.

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

I kept picking up this novel in charity shops, my eye caught by the font on the spine every time (very suggestive of the 1920s, to me), reading the back and thinking Maybe. Then I stopped seeing it and after a while I spotted it again and immediately bought it in case I missed my chance. I’m so glad I did.

There was this jazz band in Berlin between the wars, mixed white, black, Jewish, German, American but what was important was the music. They loved to play music together. They gelled. Hiero Falk their young trumpet-player went missing in Paris in 1940, but not before they’d recorded enough to allow them a small following in years to come. Fifty-two years later Hiero’s two American band-mates have been invited to a Berlin jazz festival, the first time they’ve returned to the city. It brings a lot of memories and secrets bubbling to the surface and tests their seventy-year friendship to the limit.

I normally avoid second world war books. When I was little the black and white films on TV in an afternoon were heroic war adventures (when they weren’t either Cliff Richard or an Ealing comedy), and I had my fill of Biggles, The Silver Sword and The Machine Gunners, and repeated talk of Hitler in school history lessons, so by the time I started reading grown-up books at age 11 or 12, I made a conscious decision not to go there. Much as I love Evelyn Waugh, I have never read the Sword of Honour trilogy. The fact that this novel had its roots in pre-war Berlin and occupied Paris was the main reason for my hesitation in buying it in the first place. Though the narrative moves back and forth a little between 1992 and the late 30s/1940, it is predominantly a novel set in wartime and the build-up to war, but it’s the music that is the focus.

I’m not particularly knowledgeable about jazz though I recognised a few real names Edugyan introduced to the mix. However, I do understand the importance of music, I could relate to the drive, the brotherhood of true fans, the way they clung to it through everything that was happening, and the euphoria when the band was playing at its best. All that is conjured brilliantly, as is the nervy claustrophobia as the tension mounts. I found I was just as tense (if not more so) about whether they would get to cut the disc with the Big Name as about the imminent invasion of France. That is testament, I think, to the way this novel is about a few vivid characters rather than a time, a place or a movement.

All in all a powerful novel that leaves you thinking for a while afterwards, mainly about facing up to the past, and living with consequences. It did take me a few pages to get into the rhythm of the first-person narrative (one of the black American jazz musicians, using slang and with a tendency to say ‘a orange’ rather than ‘an orange’, for instance) but once I had, it seemed perfectly natural and easy to read. Definitely one for the music fans, genre not important – if you can take or leave the radio yourself I suspect you’ll struggle to understand some of the motives in the book.