Talking about stories of science

I attended my first ever Fiction Lab last week. I’ve been meaning to get along to one of their meetings for ages – it has been going for two years, meeting monthly – so was glad to finally make it. Several Nature Network regulars were there – Richard, Stephen, and Jenny who runs it.
The book choice was Arcadia by Tom Stoppard, which I must admit was a strong draw for me as I love Stoppard. This was the first time the group has discussed a play – usually they discuss novels. I would not normally class plays as fiction (different Dewey Decimal class numbers, don’t you know) but I guess plays are all about telling stories so it’s fiction in a way.
The book choice attracted a larger than usual audience – about 20 people – several of them like myself first-time attendees. We were a varied group: some practising scientists, some ex-scientists, someone from the marketing world, one person who had done an Eng Lit degree before moving into science, a couple of people involved in public engagement work, a clinical psychologist, some science/literature crossbreeds, and a librarian.
We sat in a big circle in the cafe at the Royal Institution and Jenny welcomed us, giving a quick run down of how things would proceed. Then each person in turn briefly introduced who they were and gave a more-or-less pithy statement of their reaction to the book, plus a score (marks out of ten). Jenny made a note of the scores and calculated an average at the end. This took about 30 minutes.
After that first round of reactions the discussion was declared open and proceeded in a pretty informal manner. Most people had enjoyed the book, and most loved it, though there were some dissenting voices. Several people had seen it produced as a stage play and one person had acted in the play. This was an interesting extra dimension in the discussion.
I had enjoyed Stoppard’s trademark verbal wit and dexterity, his fizzing dialogue and intellectual fireworks. The play was set in two time periods – 1809 and 1989. Some of the 1989 characters were trying to establish the history of some of the 1809 characters. This involved hunting through archives and books for scraps of evidence. Some of the fun came from the mis-interpretation of partial evidence trails, and the over-hasty rush to conclusions. (It couldn’t happen in science of course).I marked the book 8 out of 10 as I had really enjoyed it but felt there was little emotional impact. Several gave it 9 out of 10 and one person even gave it 10 points.
There was criticism that the scientific elements of the book (mostly mathematical) were rather shoehorned in. Some readers felt the ending was weak – I agreed. Some people found the rapid switching between time periods confusing in the final scene but I enjoyed that. That section apparently worked better on stage, prompting thoughts about other aspects of the book that we missed by simply reading it rather than seeing it performed. A couple of people suggested that the quickfire dialogue was easier to understand in performance, which surprised me. I find it easier to assimilate that kind of dialogue on the page, at a slower pace.
All in all it was an enjoyable discussion and I was glad to have been given a reason to read Arcadia. I ended up thinking that if Fiction Lab didn’t exist then someone would have to invent it, and I am glad that Jenny did! Fiction Lab is well worth a visit if you are within reach of the Royal Institution on 12th April .

About Frank Norman

I am a retired librarian. I spent 40 years working in biomedical research libraries.
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14 Responses to Talking about stories of science

  1. Richard P. Grant says:

    I don’t think it took Jenny 30 minutes to calculate the average…

  2. Stephen Curry says:

    Nice account Frank – coming along for the next one?

  3. Jennifer Rohn says:

    More like an hour, Richard – you know me and maths.
    Thanks for the nice write-up, Frank. I should point out that we’ve had that same high turn-out and a significant proportion of new faces for the past few times now, so perhaps it’s more down to word of mouth than Mr Stoppard. I’m a bit worried about the next book, which I chose because Foyle put it up in a prominent ‘science in fiction’ display. I haven’t started the book yet but hear reports that the science is of the Ross-from-friends variety, and it might be a racy for some of the more squeamish of our number…

  4. Frank Norman says:

    @Richard – hah! My bad, infelicitous phrasing. But I did rather lose sense of time as the discussion was interesting.
    @Stephen – I’d like to. I have something else on that evening but I may be able to make it.
    @Jenny – I like “a bit racy”! Good to hear that the group is regularly getting good numbers.

  5. Maria Hodges says:

    What is the next book?
    You should have played it safe with the Thomas Hardy one in Foyle’s Science in Fiction display, not so much racy as downright depressing. Though I suspect his novels were considered racy in their day…

  6. Eva Amsen says:

    I’ve seriously considered going to a Fiction Lab now that I’m at least in the same country, but it would mean I’d have to start work at 7:30 so I could leave on time, buy an expensive train ticket, rush to get there, leave immediately after it’s over, and come home late. I don’t want to imply that Fiction Lab isn’t worth all that, but…

  7. Frank Norman says:

    Maria – the next book is Jonathan Coe’s The House of Sleep .
    Eva – go for it! Perhaps you could work Fiction Lab into an editorial and claim the meeting as work? or arrange a meeting in London conveniently on the same day?

  8. Richard P. Grant says:

    ‘Playing it safe’ isn’t something we like to do at Fiction Lab.

  9. Eva Amsen says:

    I do need to go to London at some point, but I don’t get to pick the date, so I’d have to be very lucky.

  10. Richard P. Grant says:

    I guess you’ve got a probability of 0.2. Not so very lucky, mebbe.

  11. Eva Amsen says:

    How so? There is 1 fiction lab per month, so that’s about 3% of the year. Would that be my odds (assuming I make it there within a year)?

  12. Jennifer Rohn says:

    The Hardy is on our list, Maria. Surprised you saw the Foyle’s display too. Was it the one at Westfield, or has Foyle done it everywhere? I keep meaning to blog about it…

  13. Maria Hodges says:

    There’s a similar display at St Pancras Foyles. It’s been there about a month so they must be almost ready to change their stock… very good selection though. Ah, maybe I could join you for the Hardy one. I bet I can guess the ending.

  14. Richard P. Grant says:

    I meant the chances of your day being a Monday were one in five; assuming you can at least choose the week.

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