Scientific theory and fiction are both narrative, stories we tell to make sense of the world. Whether we're talking equation or plot, the story is orderly and elegant and leads to a definite conclusion. Both can be terribly exciting. Both can change our lives.
I was nine was I realised I wanted to be a white-coated scientist who saved the world. I was nine when I read my first science fiction novel. I don't think this is a coincidence, though it took me a long time to understand that.
For one thing, I had no idea that the book I'd just read, The Colors of Space, an American paperback, was science fiction. I had no idea that people divided books into something called genres. In my world, there were two kinds of books: ones I could reach on the library shelves, and ones I couldn't. My reading was utterly indiscriminate. For example, another book I read at nine was Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, dragged home volume by volume. But my hands-down favourite at that time wasn't a library book, it was an encyclopaedia sampler.
When my parents were first married, my father, to make ends meet (they had five children in rapid succession), sold encyclopaediae door-to-door at the weekends. Long after he'd stopped having to do that, he kept the sampler. I loved that book. Bound in black leather, it had gold-edged pages and the most fabulous articles and illustrations--artists' impressions of the moon or Mars or a black hole. It was state-of-the-art 1950s, samples of articles on everything from pastry to particle physics. I would read that book on Saturday mornings, lying on my stomach on my bedroom carpet. Those pages were my Aladdin's Cave. I read entirely at random. Looking back, probably the thing that hooked me irrevocably was that almost every article was incomplete: they finished mid-paragraph, often mid-sentence. I knew, reading that black sampler, that there was more, that the story always continued, out there somewhere, in the big wide world.
One Saturday morning when I was nine, I read the most gobsmacking thing of my life: everything in the world was built of something called atoms. They were tiny and invisible and made mainly of nothing. If you could crush all the nothing out of the Empire State Building, it would be the size of a cherry pit but weigh...well, whatever the empire state building weighs. I clapped the book shut, astonished, leapt to my feet and thundered downstairs. In the kitchen, where my mother was cooking a big fried breakfast for seven, I announced my incredible discovery. She said, "How interesting. Pass the eggs." I blinked. "But Mum! Atoms! The Empire State Building! A cherry pit!" And she said, again (probably with a bit of an edge), "Yes. Very interesting. Pass the eggs." So I passed the eggs, and wondered briefly if my mother might be an alien. (Unlike many of my other friends it never occurred to me to wonder if I might be adopted: too many sisters with features just like mine. Understanding of some of the laws of genetics was inescapable.)
I spent the rest of that weekend in a daze, resting my hand on the yellow formica of the kitchen table while everyone ate their bacon and eggs, wondering why my hand didn't melt into the table. They were both mainly nothing, after all. What else in the world wasn't what it seemed? What other wonders were waiting for me to stumble over them?
About a month later, I was helping my mother clean the local church hall where she ran a nursery school during the week, and under a bench I found a book with a lurid red and yellow cover: The Colors of Space. (Until two weeks ago, I didn't know the author was Marion Zimmer Bradley. I could easily have found out anytime in the last few years, but I didn't. Not checking on memory is one of my superstitious behaviours. I also don't take photos of special occasions or keep a journal. I don't like freezing things in place. I prefer fluidity, possibility. However, before I sat down to write this essay, I went to Amazon.com, looked up the book, and ordered it. When it arrived, I was delighted by the lurid red and yellow cover, then amused when I realised it explained something that puzzled my friends a dozen years ago. My first novel, Ammonite, was published in 1993. The first edition had a truly cheesy red and yellow cover with a spaceship front and centre. No one could understand why I wasn't upset but, clearly, I was drawing fond associations with my nine year-old self, remembering another ugly paperback. When I've finished writing this, I'll re-read it...)
I don't remember a thing about the story or the characters, only that it was about aliens (aha, I thought, imagining my mum) and the discovery of a new colour. That night, lying in bed, I nearly burst my brain trying to imagine a new colour, just as in my teens I would drive myself to the brink of insanity (not so hard, really, when a teenager) trying to imagine infinity.
At some point we moved to a new house--we were always moving--and the black leather encyclopaedia sampler disappeared. By this time I had discovered Asimov and Frank Herbert and a collection of '50s SF anthologies with introductions that banged on the SF drum and introduced me to the notion of genre. I was hooked. Through these stories, far more than through any school lessons, science came alive for me: surface tension (Blish's "Surface Tension"), ecology (Herbert's Dune), multi-dimensions (Heinlein's "And He Built a Crooked House"), politics (just about anything by Asimov). Science became my religion. I stopped day-dreaming about taking gold in the Olympics and started thinking about changing the world. I didn't fret over minor details such as which discipline to choose--who cared whether it was physics or chemistry or maths or biology that ended up saving humanity?
That was the beauty of being twelve, and then thirteen. I didn't have to deal with reality. I didn't have to ignore with scorn the messy inexactness of zoology in order to devote myself to the purity of maths or to the measurability of chemistry. Watching a bird, considering Newton's laws, learning about the tides of history seemed equally important. I wanted it all. The world sparkled. Einstein's photoelectric effect, a spoof proving one equals two, Popper's swans and Pavlov's dogs: I fell in love with each in turn, depending on what class I was in. (Funnily enough, I never much liked any of my science teachers; they never liked me, either.) I tried on future identities: discovering an anti-grav drive; feeding all those starving children in fly-buzzed parts of the world; finally pinpointing the location of Atlantis.
At the same time, I was busy being a teenager. I tried on here-and-now identities: short hair or long? Hippie or punk? Beat poet in black or sweet-faced thing in pastels? Judas Priest or David Bowie? Monty Python or Star Trek?
An American SF editor, David Hartwell, has said that the golden age of SF is twelve. He has a point. The essence of being twelve, and of science fiction, is potential. They are both all about hopes and dreams and possibilities, intense curiosity aroused by the knowledge that there's so much out there yet to be known. As we get older and do fewer things and fewer things for the first time, that sense of potential diminishes. The open door starts to close--just like the anterior fontanelle of an infant's skull.
Reading good fiction, particularly good SF, keeps the adolescent sense of possibility jacked wide open. A sense of possibility maintains plasticity, it keeps us able to see what's out there. Without this sense of possibility, we see only what we expect.
Someone who runs on the same beach at dawn every day for two years gets used to certain things: being alone, the hiss and suck of the waves, the boulder that juts from the rock pool at the point where she leaps the rill, the cry of the gulls, the smell of seaweed, all in tones of grey and blue. So there you are one morning, running along, cruising on autopilot, using the non-slippery part of the boulder to give you a boost as you jump over the rill, listening unconsciously to the gulls squabbling over something at the water line. You're thinking about breakfast, or the sex you had last night; you're humming that music everyone's been listening to the last week; you're wrestling with some knotty problem for which you have the glimmerings of a solution. There's a dead body on the beach. You run right past it: you literally don't see it.
It's counterintuitive, but it happens all the time: the white-faced driver staring at the tricycle crushed under his front wheel, "I just didn't see him, officer." The microbiologist who skips past the Petri dish in a batch of sixty cultures with that curiously empty ring, that lack of growth, in the centre. The homeowner who returns to his condo and doesn't see the broken window, the muddy footprints leading to the closet and the suitcase full of valuables lying open on the bed. Every day, during our various routines, the movie of what we expect plays on the back of our eyelids while our brain goes on holiday. How many times do we got out of the car at the office and realise we don't remember a thing about the journey?
Reading SF, the over-riding value of which is the new, keeps our reticular activating systems primed: we expect everything and anything. And if we expect, we can see. If we see, we try find an explanation. We form a hypothesis. We test it. We learn. We tell a story.
A science fiction story not only excites us about the world, it excites us about ourselves, how we fit within the systems that govern our universe, and excites us, paradoxically, about our potential to change the world. The best SF is, in a sense, about love: loving the world and our place within it so much that we make the effort to make a difference. But science fiction changes more than the world, more than our place in the world, it changes us. Science fiction has changed the discourse on what it means to be human. It introduced us to the notion that the nature of body and mind are mutable through tall tales of human cloning, prosthetics, genetic engineering. What would people look like today without prosthetics (contact lenses, artificial hips and knees, pacemakers and stents, dentures), cosmetic surgery, gene therapy? The more we change our story of ourselves, the more we change.
Which brings me full circle to the idea of fixing memory. I don't like taking photographs or keeping a journal because, on some level, it stops me learning about myself. If I freeze an image permanently, I can't revisit it and recast it, I can't retell the story. I believe in story. Without it we don't learn, we don't grow, we don't re-examine what is known to be known. I believe in science fiction stories, I believe in scientific theories. I read a novel about the fragility of the Y chromosome, or a text on the myth and mystery of the constant, phi, and both make me stop and think: Oh. My. God. Each blows me away. Puts a shimmer around my day. Lightens my step. Urges me to turn an eager face to the possibilities of tomorrow.