Yael Goldstein-Love on Elegantly Weaving Science into Fiction
"I'd forgotten the fundamental law of fiction: don’t mess with suspension of disbelief."
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You wouldn’t think you’d need to brush up on quantum mechanics to write about what it feels like to become a mother, but somehow that is exactly the situation in which I found myself five years ago. My son had nearly died during his birth, and, at home with a healthy newborn, I felt I was existing in multiple realities simultaneously. It wasn’t just a second reality in which my son had died that felt like a shadow world lurking beside my own; there was also a world in which he’d rolled off the changing table, one in which his head slipped beneath the water during his bath, and so on. My mind was constantly split between these possibilities, and the result was so psychologically trippy that I felt there was no way I could capture it in realistic fiction. It was sci-fi that gave me the perfect metaphor for the existential strangeness I was experiencing: suppose at the moment a baby is born, the laws of physics briefly change so that parallel worlds not only exist simultaneously but also affect each other. To me it felt almost true. There is something about giving birth—when the universe spores off a new universe, a whole new human, that the preceding one did not—that seems as though it ought to complicate the physical laws of reality for several months at least.The science was like a heavy piece of statement jewelry. I needed to make sure I was wearing the jewelry, and not the other way around. The science always had to serve the story.
Luckily for me, my father is a physicist who specializes in foundations of quantum mechanics, and in my childhood home the dinner conversation was far likelier to revolve around the two-slit experiment than what happened at school that day. I knew enough about the relevant science to play around with it. But I knew my upbringing was a disadvantage, too. I’d been raised on technical conversation, and it would be tempting for me to overload the novel I envisioned with heady concepts. I made myself a set of rules. I would never introduce a term I didn’t need or explain a scientific theory in more detail than was necessary for the plot to hang together. I would never give two explanations where one would suffice. I would make sure that in any conversation where science was being discussed, the relationship between the characters was also deepening and shifting. I formed these rules by revisiting fiction that elegantly weaves in science, such as Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Octavia Butler’s Kindred, and, my childhood favorite, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. In addition to these rules, I had a metaphor I thought would be helpful. The science was like a heavy piece of statement jewelry. I needed to make sure I was wearing the jewelry, and not the other way around. The science always had to serve the story.
But accessorizing with science turned out to be far harder than I imagined. My rules, my metaphor—once I started writing, they didn’t seem as helpful. Something was going wrong on the page. Scenes that should have been frightening were instead so dense the fear couldn’t get a purchase. Scenes that should have been moving were instead confusing. I wrote and rewrote. I thought and rethought. The situation got pretty dire. I’d forgotten how bad until, in writing this piece, I went back to a long missive I’d sent the quantum computing expert Scott Aaronson explaining my project, and found this gem: “At the moment of birth the system BABY is in superposition with all the possible ways this birth can play out.” This was not even the silliest sentence in the email.
In response, Aaronson gave me the best piece of writing advice I’ve ever received. “Imagine,” he wrote, “if C. S. Lewis had tried to use [quantum mechanics] to ‘explain’ how a wardrobe whisking the children to a magical land of talking animals made perfect sense. That would’ve taken me completely out of the story, and made me unable to read any further.”
Whoosh. It all clicked into place. The reason the science was wearing me instead of the other way around was because I was trying to make the science make sense. The science in my book could never really make sense, because the world did not actually work the way I was describing. This sounds so obvious, but it’s surprising how easy it is to forget this when you’re in the thick of world-building and everything seems so close to right. I could sort of squint and believe the system I’d created. I’d fixated on tweaking the fundamental laws of nature to fit my psychological metaphor, and forgotten the fundamental law of fiction: don’t mess with suspension of disbelief. By trying to force the science in my book to work, I was doing exactly that. Funny that it took a scientist to remind me.
The Possibilities by Yael Goldstein-Love is available now via Random House.