Sunday, 14 October 2012

Saturday night at Madlab

I was curious to go and check out Madlab because they are going to be hosting a 'write-in' for NaNoWriMo at the beginning of November. The place had its street art painted shutters closed but the bell was answered promptly.  Inside a motley collection of chairs and an ancient leather sofa provided seating for the select audience. Up the bare wooden stairs are two more floors of workshop space, mainly dedicated to community projects, computing education and creative pursuits. Last night it hosted an interesting discussion on forging links between science and writing. Last night was the launch of BioPunk, a new collection of short stories from Comma Press (based at Madlab and they specialise in short story collections). This collection has been specially commissioned to examine the impact of biomedical research. Writers had each picked from a selection of topics and gone out to visit scientists working in the field to learn about their work and it's potential impact. Being writers what emerged was not just stories about how things are but examinations of what might be. Two of the authors read from their stories; Jane Feaver wrote an investigation into the world of volunteer human guinea pigs and Gregory Norminton some kind of futuristic ideas about body modification (the part he read only hinted and wasn't long enough to get to the part where we learn what exactly was involved). This was followed by some of the scientists involved in the project talking about their work, not only in terms of what they actually do but in terms of what progress might be possible in future. Since the book had only just been released and had not been read by the audience most of the questions were then pitched at the ethics of scientific research. One young man in particular had come to quiz them about animal experimentation, and, judging by what he was saying to his friend as I happened to be following them down the street afterwards, he was not particularly satisfied with the responses. The thing that came up that was of more concern to the scientists is the issue of patenting of genes that was severely restricting research. In some ways it was interesting how scientific interest mirrors the ideas of writers (and the general public to some extent). Everyone has ideas about what they would like to see science achieving, the progress in terms of cures for diseases and ways to make life better. The aim of the story collection, and speculative fiction in general, is to be an outlet for these ideas, ideas that are not futuristic or far-fetched, but grounded to a certain extent in scientific realities; where might our current fascinations and intentions lead us in the near future. Several of the scientists talked about recent progress and how things that once seemed unimaginable, like organ transplants for example, have become commonplace and normal. It makes the fantastical idea that writers summon from their imagination somehow a real possibility, something that can be both inspiring and frightening. The collection sounds intriguing and I may well invest in a copy.

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