New Scientist, Flash Fiction Competition 2010
New Scientist is a for-profit popular science magazine, published since 1956, based in the UK. I find it easier to describe this magazine in negatives: it isn’t a peer-reviewed scientific journal, and it doesn’t specialize in one particular scientific field. The paper edition is accompanied by a comprehensive web site (www.newscientist.com) which offers up-to-date news content. The longer articles are usually partially available online, requiring subscription for full access.
To the best of my knowledge New Scientist has held a flash fiction contest twice. The first one took place in Sept-Oct 2009. It called for 350 word stories describing the world 100 years from now, and was judged by a panel led by Stephen Baxter.
Interestingly, the 2009 contest was preceded by a selection of stories about the future, written by famous science-fiction writers (http://www.newscientist.com/special/sci-fi-the-fiction-of-now). One, named “Kelvin 2.0” (http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20327263.700-kelvin-20-by-stephen-baxter.html), written by Baxter himself, touched on a similar point as “Starfall”, about short-lived stars. Lord Kelvin, together with Herman von Helmholtz, authored a now-discredited theory that the stars shine by converting their gravitational energy into light. Stellar lifetimes then would be only millions of years. Baxter described a future when the humanity needs Lord Kelvin to help people learn how to cope with the thought of the inevitable thermal death of the Universe. The death has moved from millions to billions of years, but it still remains just as inevitable.
The second competition happened in Oct-Nov 2010. The word count limit was the same, and the stories had to describe the world if a discredited scientific was actually factual. The contest announcement cited some examples: what if the ether existed or the light was made of corpuscles emitted by the eyes. Neil Gaiman was the judge, but he was given a selection of only ten nominated stories to choose from. The winner appeared in a special Dec 2010 paper edition, and all ten stories that made the final cut were posted on the magazine’s web site (they are all accessible at http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/culturelab/flash-fiction-competition-2010/).
“Atomic Dreams” (http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/culturelab/2010/12/flash-fiction-2010-atomic-dreams.html), by Jerome Cigut won the 2010 contest. It is a story composed entirely of news clippings, spanning the period 1937-2005, including one from New Scientist itself. This form underlines the limitations of the 350 word limit. In effect (and this is true for most of the final ten nominations) “Atomic Dreams” lacks an exposition, climax, and resolution. There is not even a proper protagonist-antagonist pair.
The titles and news items here serve to describe a sequence of historical events in an alternative world where atomic power technology is so easily accessible that it replaced internal combustion engines in every day use by the mid-twentieth century. However, the author has put clippings to good use to make a point that humanity never fails to fall into the same trap twice. The story left me with a bittersweet feeling that there might be hope in the future. Neil Gaiman complemented the minimalism, which nevertheless “shows us our own world through a mirror”.
The two runners-up were “Starfall” (http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/culturelab/2010/12/flash-fiction-2010-starfall.html), by Kevin Hennley, and “Gaius Secundus ER” (http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/culturelab/2010/12/flash-fiction-2010-gaius-secundus-er.html), by Shaun Freney.
“Starfall” is a doomsday scenario told from the point of view of a physicist, member of a team that predicts the end of the world. The story plays with the chicken licken (chicken little, for the American readers) falling sky folktale, except skies literally fall here. I encountered some inconsistencies: if the stars have fallen before, then the equilibrium between them (which in the story is maintained by the light pressure “The force of their light and their attraction to one another balances the pull of Earth.”) would have been changing and they would not be unmovable objects. I feel a lot of space is wasted describing in detail the ‘theories’ of Leibniz and Poincare. A strong point is the framing structure, used to turn the global catastrophe into personal tragedy for the characters.
“Gaius Secundus ER” has a more traditional structure, and it is not surprising because it describes a setting somewhat familiar to many from the famous TV show “ER”: a patient is rushed into an emergency room in a hospital where doctors with strangely Roman-sounding names strive to save his life. Except the medicine here is different, and the author plays brilliantly with many old misconceptions that the medical science has gone through, over the centuries. There is even a nice game of words at the very beginning that sets the tone of the story and gives a hint of what’s to follow. This is my personal favorite among the top stories.
A few more stories stand out. In my view, “Chain reaction” (http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/culturelab/2010/12/flash-fiction-2010-chain-reaction.html), by Bev Vinsent, is the most literary of them all, filled with small surprises (watch for the window) and unspoken hints. The characters are given depth, not an easy feat when you have only 350 words to play with.
Another memorable piece is “Returns” (http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/culturelab/2010/12/flash-fiction-2010-returns.html), by Will Mitchhell. In the USA the title would have probably been “Reruns”, referring to the popular habit of TV networks to fill in airtime with old shows. The story combines an original premise with a forceful political position, described with some typical British understatement as a personal discovery of the protagonist.
Finally, “Bioethics Paper” (http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/culturelab/2010/12/flash-fiction-2010-bioethics-paper.html), by Claire King, didn’t work for me. Still, I won’t forget it because of the effort it took to go through it. Perhaps the problem was the form?the story is written as a exam with two parts and ten questions. But the author literally gives the reader a test?I found it hard to put together the picture of the world where the exam comes from, may be because I lacked the necessary background. A little nitpicking?a scientific paper, even an exam would not introduce abbreviations if they are not used in the text.
Notably, the premises used in the ten stories can be split into rather well defined categories. Four are biology related: Lysenko’s theory of the environmentally acquired inheritance is correct; homeopathy works; the Native American belief that eating something causes people to assume its properties is correct; and pneuma is the original material from which everything living is made. There are five physics or astronomy-based premises: atomic bombs can start a chain reaction in the Earth’s atmosphere; Venus and Mars are habitable without terraforming; stars live only six thousand years; the Universe is closed and small, barely a hundred light years across; atomic power is easily accessible (strictly speaking this is technological rather then scientific assumption).
There were no excursions into economics or the social or behavioral sciences, which is hardly surprising, given the audience of New Scientist: five of the authors have backgrounds from natural sciences or engineering, two are writers (one is rather accomplished, with more than sixty published stories), one is a librarian, and two are economists. However, there were no obvious biases among the last group?for example, one of the economists wrote a story with a biological premise, the other with a physics/technology-based one. Both artists wrote about physical theories, and the librarian about a biological one. On the other hand, the two professional biologists wrote about biology, and the two engineers wrote about physics.
Three of the ten selected pieces were written by women, as far as one can tell from the short bios and the names. Two wrote about biology, one about physics. The list of finalists was dominated by English-language countries: US and UK contributed three participants each, Australia two, France and Canada one each. However, not all of the writers were actually born in the countries where they live?for example the Canadian was originally from India.
It is nice to see a new contest for hard science fiction becoming a tradition in times when many readers complain about the alleged death of this genre. Of course, the extremely compact format turns most of these stories into short descriptions of ideas rather than sophisticated literary works with complex story arcs and full-blooded characters. These stories have to act like jokes, with surprising punch lines, they must be operating with hints and employing cultural references that would deepen the readers experience. Most of the selected finalists succeed in this difficult task.
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