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Scientists and authors turn science fiction into science fact

23 Oct 2009

The founder of a literary movement which argues that science fiction should be more fact than fantasy, is to publish the results of a unique collaboration between writers and scientists.

When it Changed is edited by Geoff Ryman
When it Changed is edited by Geoff Ryman

Novelist Geoff Ryman, who is a senior creative writing lecturer at The University of Manchester, paired off literary colleagues with scientists - mostly from Manchester - to produce a book of short stories.

Ryman founded Mundane Science Fiction in 2002 in a move to encourage science fiction stories to focus on action which takes place on or near to Earth, involving plausible uses of technology and science. But this latest venture goes beyond that.

The anthology, called When it Changed, is published by Comma Press and will be launched at Manchester Science Festival on 24 October by Ryman and other contributors to the book. It also features in the Manchester Literature Festival.

Ryman, who is based at The University of Manchester's Centre for New Writing said: “We wanted to go out and locate what is fresh and new in the sciences, and gives writers a chance to work with researchers to come up with different, contemporary themes.

“When it Changed actively extends the scientific repertoire of fiction --  all fiction because we have mainstream writers as well.

“But it gave some of the best SF writers I know of a chance to work closely with a scientist.

“Some of the ideas they've come up with are mind-blowing ... round the world particle colliders, virtual research, or suits that heal their wearers. And the scientists get to comment or explain.”

The 14 authors include Patricia Duncker, Ken MacLeod, Liz Williams as well as Ryman himself.

Scientific collaborators from The University of Manchester include Professor John Harris and Dr Tim O’Brien from the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics.

He added: “The best SF is a fairy tale made plausible by science that could give readers a lot to think about as well as wonder at.

“But worryingly, more and more SF is ‘literature lite’: a form of writing which makes it more difficult for readers to read between the lines.

“That means SF is losing more general readers every year.”

Professor Steve Furber, an architect of the BBC Micro computer also contributed to the book, in a collaboration with writer Liz Williams on a story called Enigma.

It is based on an imagined conversation on artificial intelligence between former University of Manchester mathematician Alan Turing, considered by many as the founding father of computer science, and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Professor Furber, who is based at The School of Computer Science, said: “I found the story intriguing as it focuses on the distinction between symbolic processing by automata such as computers and intelligent beings.

“Turing thought that computers might lead rapidly to the creation of artificial intelligence, but it’s proving to be much more difficult than that.

“However, we are now within sight of computers powerful enough to model substantial parts of the human brain.

“In my own work, I am developing chips for a computer which will be able to carry out brain modelling and similar tasks.

“This work, or perhaps similar work elsewhere, may one day give us the insights needed to fulfill Turing’s vision of intelligent machines.”

He added: “In general, my hope is that this book will make science more accessible – and that has to be a good thing.

“It will also make more people aware of what Turing did for computer science.

“And perhaps it just might make the case that science and the creative arts have much more in common than many people actually realise.”

Notes for editors

Manchester Science Festival brings together universities, organisations and key cultural partners from across the region. The Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) is the lead partner for the Manchester Science Festival, which is supported by the Northwest Regional Development Agency and Siemens.

Manchester based short story specialists, Comma Press - described as 'the literary equivalent of Factory Records' (The Herald) - have pioneered this project in collaboration with The University of Manchester, as part of a raft of anthologies challenging preconceptions about genre fiction. Comma's previous anthology in the series - The New Uncanny - won the Shirley Jackson Award 2008.

Authors are:

Geoff Ryman (Editor), Michael Arditti, Paul Cornell, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Patricia Duncker, Simon Ings, Gwyneth Jones, Ken MacLeod, Sara Maitland, Adam Marek, Kit Reed, Adam Roberts, Justina Robson, Liz Williams, Gwyneth Jones.

Scientists are:

Professor Andrew Bleloch, Liverpool University and Director of the SuperSTEM Laboratory, Daresbury.

Dr Rob Appleby, Physicist, CERN, Switzerland ; Lecturer, Cockcroft Institute and the University of Manchester , UK

Dr Jennifer Rowntree, post-doctoral researcher, Faculty of Life Science, University of Manchester

Dr Kai Hock, Lecturer in Accelerator Physics at Liverpool University . He designs small accelerators that can be used for cancer therapy.

Dr Vinod Dhanak, Senior Research Fellow in the Physics Department at the University of Liverpool . He has published research in nanoscience and on the use of nanotechnology in body armour, and is currently working on the use of nanostructures on metal surfaces.

Dr Manolis Pantos has been leading heritage and archaeological science research at STFC, Daresbury Laboratory for the last ten years.

Professor John Harris: Lord Alliance Professor of Bioethics, and Director of the Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation, University of Manchester . He is also author of On Cloning and Enhancing Evolution.

Dr Matthew Cobb, Programme Director Biology, the University of Manchester

Dr Tim O’Brien, the Senior Lecturer & Head of Outreach, for the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics. (two stories)

Dr Steve Williams is a Professor working in the Imaging Sciences Research Group, in the Faculty of Medical and Human Sciences, University of Manchester

Dr Sarah Lindley, Lecturer in GIS, School of Environment & Development, University of Manchester

Steve Furber, ICL Professor of Computer Engineering, the University of Manchester

Dr Rein Ulijn, Professor of Chemistry, the University of Strathclyde,

The Manchester Science Festival runs from 24 October - 1 November and includes over 150 science, technology, engineering and maths events for families and adults in venues across Greater Manchester. Visit

Manchester Literature Festival, celebrates the power of writing across all creative and technological media. It has produced a cutting-edge programme of activities that challenges the boundaries of what is traditionally understood literature. Visit

Geoff Ryman has published 10 books, most recently Air, and is the founder of the Mundane SF.

The book launch is on Saturday 24th October, 1pm –2.30pm at the Friends Meeting House. Tickets are £5 / £3 and to book call 0843 208 0500 or visit

Geoff Ryman, author Adam Marek, and Professor Steve Furber are available for comment.

For review copies email: Ra Page at

For media enquires contact:

Mike Addelman
Faculty of Humanities
Media Relations Officer
The University of Manchester
0161 275 0790
07717 881567