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The Edge of Science

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To celebrate science week, schools will be sharing the achievements of humankind, the mysteries of the world and the universe. There will be an abundance of hungry minds, baffled minds, and open minds of both children and adults. The quest? To inspire and inform. And if some minds can be blown along the way, then all the more joyful, and worthwhile, it will be.

Books will be a vital resource – aren’t they always? – and the nonfiction section of the library is rich in science texts. But what can fiction offer us? I was lucky enough to speak to science IN fiction writer Christopher Edge. His latest book, Escape Room, blew my mind.

Photo credit Chris Close

Science Fiction or Science IN Fiction?

The first thing I wanted to know was if there was a difference between science fiction and science IN fiction. “I shy away from my books being described as science fiction. People have a picture of what that represents, from H.G. Wells to blockbusters about aliens blowing up the White House. It’s supposed to take scientific theories and expand them into fictional contexts. Science IN fiction is different. It’s using science to help understand the world. But that fiction can be realism because science is a way of understanding reality.”

Science IN fiction then leans more towards realism and scientific fact, which Christopher finds attracts children who might not immediately go to fiction. “They find something that resonates with them. The facts I sometimes weave in.”

Stories and Science – the connections

Christopher however, never writes fiction to impart scientific knowledge. “I’m taking inspiration from scientific knowledge to explore ideas in fiction. About love and loss, or what it means to be alive.”

How that links to science and nonfiction is interesting and useful. “Science and stories are trying to do the same thing: they’re both about looking at the world around us, understanding it and our place in it. They’re both about experiencing the universe and what it means to be alive, but how they go about communicating this is different.”

Christopher blends the two in his writing. It’s the high concepts of scientific theory that can hook the more fiction-shy readers. Christopher wasn’t fiction-shy as a child. He described himself as an “incredible book eating boy,” roaming far and wide in genres. Although he admitted to reading 2000 A.D. on his paper round before putting it through someone’s letterbox. He only came to nonfiction and science later in life. Christopher finds his books hard to pin down genre-wise as a result.

The allure of science theory

But he likes to be hooked into reality and real scientific research. He also admits that he probably puts more detail than needed into his writing. Detail which many readers may not notice. However, this adds to the authenticity and depth. “Ideas threaded through Escape Room are there from the beginning” bringing rewards to the reader and great satisfaction to the writer.

Even though The Longest Night of Charlie Noon, is perhaps his “most elliptical” story, Christopher knows the importance of having depth, but also that his readers must also be able to “swim on the surface” and still get full enjoyment from the experience. And those swimming in Christopher’s writing are boys and girls equally. All loving science and experiencing the world together.

Experiencing the world and exciting readers about it is important to Christopher. Current science is just as important as future science. “In The Jamie Drake Equation the technology of sending tiny probes using sails to travel three-quarters of the speed of light to a star five light-years away was based on Project Starshot, which Mark Zuckerberg was developing with Stephen Hawking.” Christopher also relates it to very recent events, “Who would have thought a year into a global pandemic scientists would develop a vaccine.” Science in fiction doesn’t have to be far-flung into the future to work or have meaning.

It’s not just current science. We should also explore past achievements and the ramifications of scientific developments too. “Science has built the world around us for the good and the bad,” something dealt with in Escape Room. “Science isn’t there to be uncritically celebrated, but as ideas to be explored in a multitude of ways.”

Part of that exploration is being wary of its potential as well. Something which fiction is able to explore with perhaps more honesty than nonfiction. Such was the utopian vision of the internet and now the realisation of the hurdles and problems it’s brought. Misinformation being one of them, and inspiring one of the rooms in Escape Room.

Fiction is a refuge from children’s digital lives

Christopher sees fiction as a refuge for children from their “digital lives”. Online learning has banished the snow day to history, “so books and stories are an escape.” But what’s important to Christopher is not just escaping, it’s the understanding and the possibility they can “inspire you to create a better world.”

It’s what he wanted to do with Escape Room. For it to be all three of those things. And even though he was trying (and succeeded) to write a page-turning adventure story, the ending is all about giving “empowerment to the reader.” Something which fiction is perfect at. Especially in uncertain times such as we’re experiencing at this point in history. “Even in dark times, it can be a world of wonder.”

Christopher hopes, even though Escape Room has some scary parts, that it’s exciting and communicates the message that “this is a world worth saving.” He insists that it’s not about preparing children for future technology, but to “remind children about the creativity and the way they’re looking at the world now and carrying that into their adult lives. Not becoming jaded or pessimistic.”

Christopher’s optimism and passion for future generations comes across in his writing. He might find quantum physics baffling, but he can ”hook on to it at a poetic level and create a story about it” inspiring children to believe it’s possible that they can shape the world they want to live in. Not the one past generations are leaving them.

Christopher cares deeply about the world children are living in. Fear of the future is “inherent in growing up… for lots of children childhood isn’t a golden time.” However, Christopher’s writing can turn this into being hopeful, without giving false hope. “What a story like The Longest Night of Charlie Noon does is say the future doesn’t exist yet. It’s reminding the reader of the agency they have in life and that they’re not powerless.”

Christopher’s empowerment comes from writing stories. He knows he has a good idea when everything suddenly reminds him of it. “Looking at the world as a source for creativity,” and that’s what he hopes his readers get out of his books. “I was a child built by books. Build yourself up with enough stories, and your own will come tumbling out.”

Science IN fiction is so much more than a different delivery system for facts and information. Christopher has taught me it’s a way of understanding the universe at a human level. Connecting readers to the world around them, inspiring them, and empowering them. There is hope for the future. The world is worth saving. One day it will be a scientist who saves the world. But it could very well be a fiction writer that inspires them to.

I asked Christopher to recommend some books for adults. Ones that spark curiosity and inspire educators and parents:

  • The classic Cosmos by Carl Sagan – an enlightening exploration of the Universe shot through with wonder (I’d also add The Demon-Haunted World the book Sagan co-wrote with Ann Druyan, which is a very prescient book from 1995 which seems to describe the world we live in today).
  • The Importance of Being Interested by Robin Ince – From the very interesting mind of Robin Ince this book is a paean to the importance of staying curious)
  • The children’s non-fiction of Alom Shaha – Mr Shaha’s Recipes for Wonder and Mr Shaha’s Marvellous Machines – wonderful books for children, parents and carers to share and create marvels with, written by a brilliant science communicator.

You can hear Alom Shaha talk about his passion for science in a previous episode of our podcast In the Reading Corner

And you can also listen to Christopher Edge talking about his story for younger readers, Space Oddity and The Longest Night of Charlie Noon

Christopher Edge’s Escape Room is available now.