(Editors: Penelope Lewis and Ra Page)
This is the latest in Comma Press‘s series of short story anthologies exploring specific areas of science and scientific thought through the medium of fiction. Each writer is paired with a scientist working in the particular area they have chosen to investigate, with the scientist afterwards offering a commentary on the completed story. It’s a unique and intriguing concept – putting the science back into science fiction, you might say – and the afterwords here are without exception fascinating, offering a wealth of information and specific insights. The introduction to the anthology also, with its illustrative graphs and explanation of what our brains are actually doing while we sleep, is essential reading.
I must add though that for me personally, sampling the afterwords immediately after reading each story proved distracting, breaking the spell the story cast – rather like seeing an over-eager zoologist rushing to dissect the carcass of some small and beautiful animal, when as a naturalist, all I really wanted to do at that point was to observe the creature in its natural habitat. So whilst I’d recommend these afterwords wholeheartedly on their own terms, I’m not going to discuss them here, and would personally suggest saving them to read separately, once you’ve had time to properly appreciate these delicate morsels of fiction and the games they play.
And so then to the stories! In order of the Table of Contents, here we go:
- My Soul to Keep by Martyn Bedford (Afterword by Prof. Ed Watkins). Kim is a sleep technician, working in a sleep lab alongside Dr Aziz. They’re caring for and seeking information about Charlotte, a young woman diagnosed with Persistent Hypersomnic State. Charlotte has been suffering from depression and the amount of time she spends asleep has been gradually increasing. As the story opens, she’s just coming up for a full year without waking. As a ’21st Century Sleeping Beauty’ she has attracted a number of fans and acolytes, all of them women, who have taken up residence in a makeshift camp outside the sleep lab. “I log the data sets,” Kim informs us. “It’s what I do. What we do round the clock. Polysomnography, each 12-hour block of recorded information processed and analysed, every variation in the pattern and physiology of her sleep pored over for signs of change or clues to PHS. There never is any change, though. Charlotte’s sleep is as remorseless, as featureless as a desert.” I really liked this one. It’s a delicate, subtle story, exploring the lives and emotions of Kim, who has two sons of a similar age to Charlotte, and Charlotte’s mother Evelyn, who wants to withdraw her daughter from the program and take her home. There’s a restless, uneasy quality to Kim’s thoughts as she finds herself drawn ever deeper into Charlotte’s world. A meditation, perhaps, on how the stresses of the modern world impact upon our ability to process them.
- Left Eye by Adam Marek (Afterword by Dr Penelope A. Lewis). “Nancy puts her hand on Left Eye’s hot shoulder. The strength in him. That wizened baby’s face. Moments of wishing she wasn’t here.” We are in the near future. Nancy is an expert in Targeted Memory Replay, a technique whereby programming the sleeping brain to recall events or sensations experienced during waking hours can help to alleviate the symptoms of PTSD. Up until recently, Nancy has been working with soldiers returning from the combat zone. When a private company offers her a lucrative new job opportunity, she accepts with alacrity – only to discover that her new test subjects are being experimented upon without their consent. Anyone who has read Karen Joy Fowler’s novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves will guess what the twist is here, and Marek’s story is equally devastating, equally morally complex, though on a smaller scale. A difficult, essential read, with no easy answers offered. The character of Nancy is brilliantly evoked in just a few short pages.
- A Sleeping Serial Killer by M. J. Hyland (Afterword by Isabel Hutchinson). A writer, Maria, explains to a psychotherapist she meets by chance in a cafe how she believes her violent nightmares are a kind of safety valve, siphoning off her rage and trauma and leaving her free to live a well adjusted life. ‘Even after an especially gruesome dream I wake in a mood of ‘lucid indifference’ and this cycle started when I was a child. From about the age of seven I was certain that I wouldn’t end up like ‘them’, my family, and that my nightmares weren’t a bad thing but a good and special trick that my brain played to make me tougher’, explains Maria. In her dreams she’s a serial killer, and that’s where this alter ego will safely stay. This is a fun one, a snarky little piece of metafiction – the story’s narrator and author share the same name – that nests its layers of unreality like glittery shreds of wrapping paper in a game of pass the parcel. There is serious intent here of course, but Hyland seems determined not to let us get too earnest about things by constantly undermining her clever little edifice with the worm of dark humour. I love the way this story is written.
- The Rip Van Winkle Project by Sara Maitland (Afterword by Prof. Russell G. Foster). The Greek gods Hypnos, Morpheus and Circadia call a meeting to discuss the worsening state of the world, which Circadia puts down to a wholesale human rejection of the dark. ‘It isn’t about money,’ Hypnos agrees. ‘They’re bullying each other into working inefficiently and for far too long for free. Even when they aren’t working they are up all night – shopping, something called ‘onlining’, even just staying awake to watch television shows they say are rubbish.’ Meanwhile, teenagers Sally Brampton and Matt Oliver go unwillingly to school, grouchy and resentful after being pulled from sleep by the demands of a world they are in no rush to join. Rooted in the natural world and spiritual contemplation, this witty and humorous story is everything we might expect from Sara Maitland. Rich in poetry and mythic imagery, this is a meditation on the restorative properties of sleep and the power of dreams – but not only dreams, as Circadia keeps reminding Morpheus – to return us to a state of energy and inspiration. A delightful piece.
- Benzene Dreams by Sarah Schofield (Afterword by Prof. Robert Stickgold). A potentially dangerous commercialisation of the techniques we witnessed in Adam Marek’s story, ‘Benzene Dreams’ tells us about Phil, a computer programmer who’s developed a new app called DreamSolve, which has the power to reinforce customer preferences or behaviours by learning and manipulating patterns of memory during sleep. Both big business and government are in a fiendish hurry to get their hands on DreamSolve, only there seems to be a problem – Phil won’t be bought. ‘You’re a wholly moral being, Philip, look at you. It’s adorable and terrifying all at the same time,’ says Diane, left-leaning government executive and supposedly the good guy. Phil soon learns that in this kind of race for primacy, no one is the good guy, and he is powerless. Schofield manages to make a chilling story very funny. I hope Phil gets his dog.
- Counting Sheep by Andy Hedgecock (Afterword by Dr Simon Kyle). ‘Fay flicked through sleep habit-tracker diagrams with their colourful spikes, spindles and histograms, explained the intelligent alarm clock function and demonstrated the sleep deficit indicators. “You put your phone under your pillow and it records tossing and turning, checks if you snore or talk in your sleep, and works out the best time to wake you with music, birdsong or whatever you like.”‘ A bunch of sociology lecturers at a FE college are encouraged to utilize the Dormouse app to regularise their sleep habits and up performance. Linden, scared of losing his job, complies with the guidelines. Lea is also scared of losing her job but is less prepared to put up with management bullshit. A shot across the bows from a writer who has clearly experienced this kind of corporate newspeak first hand and is rightfully angry. Linden is losing it – Hedgecock seems to be showing us a vision of what life might be like if the sleep app in ‘Benzene Dreams’ became a reality. I’m totally with Lea. Also contains Thea Gilmore reference. If this story doesn’t get you riled up you’re clearly already a pod person.
- Thunder Cracks by Zoe Gilbert (Afterword by Dr Paul Reading). ‘Now at thirteen years old, she is apprenticed to her father at the High Farm, where he makes workers of the wild horses and knocks the farm-born ones into good shape. Not the son he wanted but his eldest child, and he has no inkling how hard she has to try not to run away from those beasts, to be still when she looks at their rolling eyes, their twitching shoulders, She cannot harness their might, the way her father does.’ ‘Thunder Cracks’ feels a little like Whale Rider, only with horses. We are in an agrarian past, or possibly future. Madden is being schooled by her father to take over his work when he becomes too old to do it himself. Is it the storm that has caused Madden’s sleepwalking, or is she the emissary of forces beyond her control? Zoe Gilbert’s story, with its affecting poetry, its timeless setting, its stark illustration of how myth, magic and people are bound to a landscape, is easily my favourite of this anthology so far, at least partly because it seems so determined to take the original brief as inspiration only, to go its own wild way. I love it intensely.
- The Night Husband by Lisa Tuttle (Afterword by Stephanie Romiszewski), ‘A fantasy played out in my mind as I lay awake at home that night. Dr Bekar’s astonishment would lead to a more in-depth study which, although tedious, I must allow in the interests of science. Papers would be written, and I would be invited to appear at scientific conferences, and even on television. Others like me might come forward – how misunderstood we had been! – at last, our suffering was not in vain. Dr Bekar would write a book, and there would be a documentary made about my life, maybe even a docudrama, something like that one starring Robin Williams – Awakenings.’ A woman is plagued by sleep problems that started in childhood. She turns to a sleep clinician for advice, yet ends up finding answers much closer to home. This story has an intriguing premise, but for me it wore its research a little too openly on its sleeve. I think Tuttle would have been far better to dump the sleep lab stuff entirely and write more about the characters and their personal problems. To be honest, I’m coming to believe this is an issue that may be built into this particular format by default. Writing fiction is a intensely private process. There is a danger that having one’s research sources physically present in the form of a scientific collaborator might actively interfere with that. I can see myself writing more about this problem in my summing-up.
- Narcolepsy by Deborah Levy (Afterword by Prof. Adam Zeman). ‘He reaches for a packet of chocolate and marshmallow biscuits called Wagon Wheels and unwraps the foil as he speaks.’ Why not: ‘He reaches for a packet of Wagon Wheels’? Is this story aimed at people from Mars, or is Levy simply afraid of being seen dropping brand names a la Stephen King? (I ate my first Wagon Wheel more than forty years ago, at my grandma’s caff in Nottingham. These things ain’t new.) The wagon wheels (lower case) reappear later on in the story so I guess this might count as a kind of oblique foreshadowing. Oh, and do look out for what Gayatri says to the flower seller about Ilya Kabakov – priceless. Reads like Rachel Cusk – in fact, this story brings back to me all the reasons I wrote this blog post. Oh, I get it, I get it, but this kind of writing makes me so tired. Which is probably appropriate, given the subject matter. I’m guessing that the story is an extended poetic metaphor created to mimic the ‘waking dreams’ of narcoleptics, and, my appalling sarcasm aside, my writing self admires it tremendously, even if only for the fact that it shoots the brief in the head and keeps on running.
- Voice Marks by Claire Dean (Afterword by Prof. Manuel Shabus). When we reached a particular gritstone crag, Dad always stopped and said, he’s still in there. This sleeping knight wasn’t one of Arthur’s army, Dad said he was from another time. Once, I asked him what the name was for the bright orange rings that spattered the stone. They’re voice marks, he said – the marks his voice leaves when he shouts out. Whenever I asked after that he said lichen, only lichen.’ A beautiful, resonant story about memory and loss, and how the names and faces of the dead are returned to us as we sleep. There is a whole novel in these couple of thousand words. A lovely piece of work, up there with the Gilbert for me.
- Trees in the Wood by Lisa Blower (Afterword by Prof Ed Watkins). ‘This leaves me in the kitchen with the twins, Margot and Henry, who have just turned five and are still in their school uniforms squabbling over jigsaw pieces under the kitchen table where they also now like to eat. I have told Mia that I don’t agree with them eating off the floor like dogs, but she says at least they’re eating and it keeps them quiet and I spot a few rubbery-looking pasta twirls on the floor and a dollop of what looks like hardened ketchup.’ Laura lives alone. She hasn’t been able to sleep since the death of her mother. She’s spending the night at Mia’s house on the advice of her doctor, that she should undergo a course of ‘sleeplessness with someone you trust’. Mia is a palliative care nurse with five-year-old twins, a teenage daughter, and a never-there husband. She’s completely exhausted. The two women share an evening. From between the cracks, secrets emerge. The details and textures of the women’s lives are utterly different – and yet there is something that each can give the other. An emotionally draining, hard-hitting story with an unexpectedly positive outcome. Brilliantly written.
- In the Jungle, The Mighty Jungle by Ian Watson (Afterword by Dr Thomas Wehr), ‘Our toxins quickly taught predators to ignore us. I can kill a lion who only touches me, sniffing. We can also induce a numbness that is more like inattention. Halfmoonlight striping darkbark branches bushing leaves. Does Du-du wear a thing upon Du-du’s head? Hard to see, hard to know.’ Alien entities communicate with prehistoric humans by entering their dream-space. There is the unspoken assumption that these aliens may have been the ‘missing link’ in human development. A curious, and curiously attractive story, experimental and lyrical at the same time, with a backward nod to the science fiction of the 1970s New Wave.
- A Careless Quiet by Annie Clarkson (Afterword by Dr Paul Reading). ‘I tried to list in my head any symptoms I could have noticed, all those instances when you dropped something, or stumbled or fell, or shook a little, or couldn’t keep up, or when your foot went to sleep that time a few months ago and the sleeping in the day and the dreams. I didn’t know what was just age or tiredness or coincidence, or something I could have picked out from everything else, and said, ‘Something is not right here, Carl, let’s get this checked out.” A married couple experience changes in their life as their daughters grow up and they approach retirement. But Carl is suffering from strange dreams. He’s talking to himself in his sleep, and striking out at people who aren’t there. ‘A Careless Quiet’ is sensitively written but it reads more like a piece of life writing and there’s no real story here. We guess the ending long before it arrives.
- The Raveled Sleeve of Care by Adam Roberts (Afterword by Dr Penelope A. Lewis). ‘A word here as to his appearance: I would not have cast him, were i filming a melodrama about a German doctor. He did not look the part: no wire-framed spectacles, no kettle-shiny bald forehead, no agitated precision of movement.’ Flicking over to see what was on the Horror Channel last night, I came in midway through a movie called Outpost: Black Sun – ‘a German scientist by the name of Klausener is working on a terrifying new technology that will create an immortal Nazi army’ – which seemed to consist mainly of Jeff from Coupling grappling with a zombified Eva Braun inside some sort of secret bunker. I switched off, immersing myself instead in this weirdly similar but markedly better written story by Adam Roberts, in which the allusions are clever and literary and the humour is wholly intentional. The plot is simple: a French Nobel laureate makes the acquaintance of a mad German doctor who is working on the ultimate weapon – sleeplessness. He is persuaded by some equally dodgy Americans to pursue the Herr Doktor out to his secret compound in Argentina. ‘There was a single image, a portrait photograph of exactly the person you would expect to find in Schlechterschlaf’s study.’ There’s fabulous stuff like this all the way through. The story is wonderfully, boisterously insane, and exquisitely written. I loved every moment. And who else but Adam Roberts is going to call his Nazi villian Doctor Badsleep?
There are some outstanding stories in this anthology – I would single out the Gilbert, the Dean, the Blower, the Roberts and yes, the Levy for particular mention. As with any themed anthology, there is a tendency towards repetitiveness, a problem I think has been particularly exacerbated by the presence of such detailed scientific guidelines. The number of stories here featuring sleep labs, for example, is far higher than what would normally occur. Spindles presents us with a conundrum: it is an anthology that explores its subject matter intensively and in depth. It is also an anthology that presents, in places, a curious uniformity of approach. It will be noted that the stories that impressed me most were those that scampered, like recalcitrant schoolchildren, away from the brief.
I must also admit to having doubts about the overall wisdom of Comma’s ‘science into fiction’ concept. From the outside, the idea always seemed attractively intriguing. Now, having experienced it in close up, I am forced to conclude that this particular approach means that the stories are forever in danger of seeming merely like illustrations for the scientific afterwords. ‘Time to separate the science from the fiction,’ says Professor Robert Stickgold as he kicks off his afterword to Sarah Schofield’s story. You can almost hear him rubbing his hands together in his eagerness to get started on the dismantlement process. Sadly I couldn’t disagree more. By this point I was beginning to feel that these afterwords were having much the same effect as the electric light in Sara Maitland’s story: deadening the natural responses, destroying the secret rhythms of a mysterious and essential process.
I must stress that tolerance for such disruption may vary, and there will no doubt be many readers who relish the opportunity to get up close and personal with the scientific documents in the case. For these people, reading Spindles will provide an enthralling journey. Yet the ineluctable fact is, what scientists do and what writers do are two rather different things. That writers – and especially writers of science fiction – can, do and maybe even should draw upon the work of scientists in finding inspiration, direction, and a sturdy armature for their fiction is not in question. But to have the blinding interrogation lamp of fact shone directly – and so immediately – upon the fruits of their labours has had, for me at least, a seriously deleterious effect.
‘Like being shown a magic trick, and then having some other c**t walk out onstage immediately afterwards to show you how it was done?’ Chris suggested, when I was telling him about this. Yes, exactly like that.
And yet. It is impossible not to admire what Comma are doing here, and any project that innovates so intelligently is to be applauded. And so I would commend you to read this book. Immerse yourself in its contents and find out for yourself how you feel about them. I would expect science fiction readers and writers especially to come away invigorated and most likely inspired by the experience.
[DISCLAIMER: I received a review copy of this anthology direct from the publisher.]