Following the success of The Falling Sky, serial writer-in-residence Pippa Goldschmidt sought “an antidote to writing a novel.” To that end, as she explained at the launch party at Edinburgh’s Looking Glass Books, she opted for the short form “to explore new ideas and new characters… a wide ranging mixture of different styles,” and the result is The Need for Better Regulation of Outer Space.
Not so much science fiction as the fiction of science, that subgenre which is known as “lab lit,” while former astronomer Goldschmidt may write from a female perspective it is far from chick lit, and as demonstrated in opening story Introduction to relativity, a charting of the decaying relationship between two bodies, their dynamic inherently unstable, the inevitability of entropy swallowing all optimistic outcomes, the safety goggles through which she views her sisters in science are far from rose tinted.
Similarly, in The search for dark matter a relationship tries to resolve itself in the manner of subatomic particles; viewed from the outside, the quantum dynamics make no sense, and all the particles know is what they are driven to do and they derive little joy or satisfaction from it.
How accurate do you need to be (to get on in life)? sees an underappreciated researcher deciding to claim her due recognition by throwing a hefty spanner in the works during a live television broadcast, while The voice activated lift is the first of two stories to visit the collection’s titular concept, where an administrator is assigned a riddle and throws themselves into a paradox.
Inspired by an event which occurred at the Royal Observatory of Edinburgh, though a century before Goldschmidt’s own residence, The first star recalls a time when the men looked at the stars while the segregated woman were relegated to cataloguing the photographic plates produced in the upstairs realm. Focusing on one of the “calculators,” as they were known, she worries about the future and longs for a pot of jam, while in the back of her mind is the memory of war. “Men are funny about their wars, they act as if they own them, and perhaps they do, for I don’t think women ever start them.”
It is human nature to look for rational explanations for inexplicable, sometimes tragic, occurrences, and due to the nature of their inclination and training scientists are more wont to do this, as exemplified by Albert Einstein in That sinking feeling where with the surrealism of The Master and Margarita he is presented with grotesque simulacra of his past, tormenting him.
Inevitably, there is much classical experimentation, the laboratory investigations of the named individuals paralleled with speculation into their lives between the moments which came to define them, but perhaps the best story of the collection is the atypical Safety checks, the shadow of the radio telescope and the visits of the man from the ministry lending it the sinister atmosphere of Quatermass.
Recurring themes are the comfort of technologies which don’t judge their users and loneliness, as in The competition for immortality where a programmer who longs to connect with the real world beyond her simulations finds her colleagues in the practical sciences equally unaccustomed to interactions beyond examining specimens, and family surfaces in Identity theft and No numbers while Goldschmidt’s writer-in-residence experience informs the Möbius strip of The story of life.
The image of an apple appears twice, first in The Snow White paradox in the hand of Alan Turing, the bitter poison sweetened by the famed mathematician’s fond memories of Disney’s animated adaptation, then in the hand of Robert Oppenheimer (again) in The equation for an apple. While the circumstances of Turing’s life and death are well known they are usually framed in terms of his achievements; instead Goldschmidt writes for the man.
Also loosely inspired by actual incidents, Heroes and cowards parallels the collaboration of Charles Laughton and Bertolt Brecht on the play The Life of Galileo with the bestowing of an award upon physicist Robert Oppenheimer for his work which led directly to the atomic bombs which ended the Second World War.
It is a line which Goldschmidt has granted to Brecht which best describes her own stories: “I want my audiences to think, not to feel.” In contrast to the character portrait of The Falling Sky, these are largely observational pieces, almost analytical in their approach, the lack of identification with characters whose lives and motives are not easily comprehended meaning the stories can feel curtailed, the full potential of their impact not quite reached.
The Need for Better Regulation of Outer Space is available now from Freight Books