by September 3rd, 2012-
There’s more to being a writer than writing (and reading and research and self-promotion and whatever that leaves over for, you know, life).
There’s also all the other jobs that being a writer qualifies you for, such as reviewing books and teaching creative writing. Being a science fiction writer gives you expertise on all that and on science, technology, and the future.
If that’s what people think, who am I to tell them otherwise?
Actually, most of the time I can hold my head up – though do hold my hands up about one or two occasions when I’ve been asked for a media comment on some scientific breakthrough about which I know next to nothing. (‘So, Ken, what do faster-than-light neutrinos mean for the Scottish off-shore wind-farm industry?’)
One area where I’m fairly sure I’ve delivered the goods is in public engagement with science. Some time ago one of my former tutors at Glasgow University asked me to give a guest lecture on SF and the public understanding of science, and invited me back to give the same lecture several years in a row. I’ve since delivered variants of the lecture in far too many venues. When it achieved peer-reviewed publication in the SF studies journal Extrapolation, its work on this planet was done.
In 2009 I was one of two writers in residence at the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum, based at Edinburgh University. Part of a network of research institutions set up to look at the social aspects of the new life sciences and their associated technologies and industries, the Forum specialises in connecting social science research to policy-makers, the media, and civil society. It’s sponsored numerous events at the Edinburgh Book Festival, and supported creative residencies – last year it was a playwright, this year it’s a photographer and a documentary film-maker. In 2009 it was me and Pippa Goldschmidt – a terrific new writer (look out for her forthcoming novel, Wider Than the Sky) and former astronomer who as a civil servant once held the official job title ‘Controller of Outer Space’. Together, we fought crime…
Two of our initiatives I’m particularly proud of are: The Human Genre Project, a website of poems and short stories inspired by genomics; and The Social Sessions, a series of public events that included Ian Rankin and Lyn Anderson talking about crime and DNA, science journalists and social scientists discussing ‘Climategate’, and poets on science as an inspiration for poetry. The sessions came out of a wild notion that Scottish writers and journalists could be lured to relaxed, open-ended, informal discussions that offered free wine. ‘Hmm … it’s a crazy idea, but it might just work!’
Working with social scientists taught me a great deal, such as not to say ‘Social scientists and, uh, actual scientists …’
Especially not in conversations with social scientists.
Some of what I learned – and a lot I made up – is in my novel Intrusion. Along the way I also did some work with science communications people, which (via yet another outing for my SF-and-science lecture) got me an unexpected but welcome commission: to write what may be my most widely-read work to date: the script for an online informational comic about stem cell medicine, Hope Beyond Hype.
After the Edinburgh launch event for Intrusion at Pulp Fiction back in April, I was told a big secret, which I found hard to keep (but did). A few days ago it was officially out in the open: I’ve been appointed Writer in Residence at Edinburgh Napier University, with the job of mentoring students on the MA in Creative Writing course.
My immediate predecessor in this post was the great Dr Who writer Rob Shearman. The course leaders Sam Kelly and David Bishop know all there is to know about SF and about the ways of SF writers. It’s a wonderful opportunity and terrifying responsibility, and I’m looking forward to it.