shining the spotlight on short story collections
Comma Press, 2012
“We should worry about bio-error more than bio-terror. “
Comma Press has a reputation for boldly venturing where non-genre presses – small or large – rarely go. In recent years it has brought out collections of short fiction in ‘the new uncanny’ genre, translations of European authors, and a tribute anthology to Stanislaw Lem. They also published Litmus, a collection of 17 fictionalised accounts of major scientific discoveries.
This latest project, Bio-Punk, involved inviting writers to pen a story in response to a selected cutting-edge area of biomedical research. A scientist or bio-ethicist was assigned to partner with each author, provide advice and write an afterword to the piece. ‘An experiment’ the introduction calls it, and it is an experiment that is hugely successful. The writers include some well-known names such as Simon Van Booy, Toby Litt, and Sean O’Brien, as well as newer writers who have won acclaim but not yet had a full book published. Sixteen working scientists from institutions across the UK contributed their expertise and insight.
The stories take on a variety of forms – some are fantasy, some realistic, and one, which looks at the world from the perspective of a tadpole, is intriguingly surreal. If they appeared in an anthology of a different name, most would not draw attention for being designed to raise bioethical issues. Some approach the subject only tangentially. Annie Kirby’s tadpole story, Xenopus Rose-Tinted, is an allusive and poetic read. The poor commentator however seems to feel obliged to rake through it for ethical issues that just are not there. The story might not meet the brief, but it’s one of the best in the collection.
The excellent stories are offset by several weaker ones, perhaps four out of the fourteen. Van Booy’s and Schofield’s in particular did not seem to me to be up to their usual standard.
The technologies addressed in the stories include brain scanning, synthetic bacteria, fatherless reproduction, DNA engineering, extended longevity, and implanted memories. The question posed on the back cover is one that recurred to me often as I read: Which of these technologies would you wager is pure fiction, and which currently being developed in the lab?
On that note Simon Ings’ story is firmly in the present, in a Cuban-American setting in Florida. The narrator is a medical scientist, an atheist, and, to further complicate identities, an African-American. His Cuban wife is expecting a baby that has been diagnosed in the womb with spina bifida. Their insurance does not cover an inter-uterine operation, so the narrator makes arrangements to travel to Cuba. When he tells his wife of his success in booking the operation, she just shrugs. She refuses to give in to hope. In her mind she has accepted that her child will be disabled.
Simon Ings’ prose is a pure joy to read and his story soars from the opening sentence. The narrative skips easily from a Cuban-American barbecue to a discussion of the narrator’s scientific work, and on to the reminiscences of an aging Soviet scientist in Cuba. Among other themes, the story warns of the dangers of giving in to hope. No matter what cutting-edge therapies become possible, we will still have to confront the realities of death, illness and disability.
The scientist’s response to this story is equally fascinating. The essay looks at how biological research is embedded in a wider society that doesn’t always value knowledge for knowledge’s sake. ‘Society, ideology, politics and economic imperatives coalesce to determine scientific practice, to be sure, historically, and still to this day.’
Gregory Norminton’s contribution is another noteworthy success both as a piece of gripping fiction and a thought-provoking problematic. In style and ambition it harks back to the classic sci-fi stories of the sixties and seventies. Toby Litt’s story and subsequent commentary take a cautionary look at how unequal access to ‘miracle treatments’ will inevitably lead to nefarious dealings.
I haven’t mentioned the scientists by name, but that’s not to underestimate their role in this joint venture. It’s because the names of writers is more useful information to the readers of this review. In fact when I revisited this book, it was to read through a couple of the essays again. I was often made uneasy at the sheer speed of progress in the biological sciences.
This book is an exhilarating read and a unique hybrid of fiction and fact.
About the reviewer: Aiden O’Reilly graduated in mathematics and spent seven years in Germany and Poland. His short fiction has appeared in many journals and anthologies. In November 2008 he won the McLaverty Award, and was awarded a 2012 Arts Council bursary for literature.
His collection of stories Greetings Hero will be published by Honesty Press in December.