Review: The Need For Better Regulation of Outer Space by Pippa Goldschmidt
For the Love of Science
Fiction about science is unfortunately a much rarer beast than science fiction. Since C P Snow wrote about the British nuclear bomb project in the latter half of the 1940s, few authors have operated so clearly and expressively in this field than Goldschmidt.
Her well-crafted stories move from the mundane, all too smelly world of the laboratory to larger geo-political, environmental, sexual-political and historical concerns. Her characters are generally scientists, or of that milieu, living what are occasionally sterile, middle-class lives, as if the content and methodology of science renders them brittle and almost without breath. Intriguingly, Goldschmidt’s crisp and engaging prose uncovers deep humanity, compassion and genuine tenderness, for example Alan Turing’s discovery in ‘The Snow White Paradox’,
“There. Breasts. He has breasts, small but decidedly feminine in shape. This is what they’ve done to him. There was a man in ancient times called Tiresias, Alan learnt about him at school. He was also a paradox, he was a man with breasts, and he was a blind man who could see.”
While the genius of the scientific method and of what it has given humanity is not to be ignored, the central paradox of the nuclear bomb undercuts many claims science might have to morality. As Glasgwegian poet Thomas Campbell wrote in 1799 “O star-eyed Science! hast thou wandered there, / To waft us home the message of despair?”
This theme is best explored in the excellent and fascinating ‘Heroes and Cowards’: a fictionalised account of Bertolt Brecht’s time in exile in the USA working with actor Charles Laughton on the play ‘The Life of Galileo’. In a parallel narrative it is revealed that both Brecht and Robert – Daddy of the Bomb – Oppenheimer are being spied upon by agents from The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The poignant irony that a committee set-up in 1938 to act as a bulwark against Nazism is by 1946 investigating one of the world’s most famous anti-Nazi campaigners on suspicion of Communist sympathies is deliciously rendered and belies the scale of the US ruling elite’s paranoia. Charles Laughton is beautifully depicted here and, as in the earlier ‘The Snow White paradox’ featuring Alan Turing, there is intense sympathy for the predicament of gay men at a time of great sexual hypocrisy. For both Brecht and Oppenheimer there are many parallels to be drawn between their lives and works. Both are new Galileo’s challenging authority but each by different means. Laughton is an outsider who has found a kind of ‘English’ compromise that allows him to live almost contentedly in the Hollywood hills, but the HUAC spies are always lurking. Every character appears compromised by the historical moment of their existence, including the spy from whose viewpoint much of the story is told,
“I should be out there, working, gathering information. But after I’d had to translate some of Brecht’s poetry for the hearing I’d got into the habit of reading it. I pick up my notebook and thumb through it until I reach the poem that keeps singing in my head:
Just whose city is the city?
Just whose world is the world?”
These short stories provide a highly original, and engagingly human, slant on science and its practitioners past and present. Read and enjoy.
(Originally published in Gutter issue 14)
The Need For Better Regulation of Outer Space by Pippa Goldschmidt
Freight Books, RRP £8.99, 178 pp