A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
This is a collection of short stories that draw on science to create their plots. Or, this is a collection of interesting scientific possibilities illustrated by fiction. Whichever way you read the stories, these are collaborations between scientists and the writer Sara Maitland, whose The Book of Silence (2010) received recent appreciative attention, and was reviewed on Vulpes here. She’s a creative writing tutor at Lancaster University, and a writer who seems to draw inspiration from casting her own life and experiences in her work. Each story in Moss Witch and Other Stories is followed by a short commentary by a scientist, talking about the plausibility and scientific basis for the plots: sometimes these are more interesting than the stories.
None of these stories are science fiction (except, possibly, the one about chromosome splicing): they are science stories. They lean heavily on the reader’s assumed openness to learning while reading, and have occasional outbreaks of academic jargonitis, which I found irritating. Sometimes they are deeply felt and compelling – ‘Her Bonxie Boy’ is a simply unforgettable story about the grip of love across species. Sometimes she uses pastiche to show appreciation for the original style – her ‘How the Humans Learned to Speak’ is a spot-on hommage to The Just-So Stories – or to retell a well-known story – Rachel’s understanding of genetics in ‘Jacob’s Sheep’ is so clever, and so true, changing nothing from the Old Testament original. Maitland tells a good historical story too: ‘Seeing Double’ is a sad, sad Gothic horror about gestational malformation; ‘Instant Light’ is a very polished retelling of the local invention of the match for Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council; and ‘Lighting the Standard Candles’ is a biographical snapshot of the forgotten parallax measurer Henrietta Leavitt.
There are some beautiful and piercing moments in all of the stories, but many – those above excepted – are flawed by feeling unfinished. I wondered about the role of the editor in putting this book together. Four of the stories here have already been published in earlier collections edited and published by Ra Page, the founder and manager of Comma Press, who also (apparently) edited and published this book too. I wondered whether the editor and author were too close to the stories, and weren’t able to see that more could be done, fewer words could be used, or that dangling ideas and loose ends could be trimmed. Many stories had outbreaks of clunky writing that ought to have been spotted and polished. Dialogue sometimes turned into exposition, rather than conversation, and left me feeling as if I ought to be taking notes. Was the science working on or with the fiction? I did feel, too often, a momentary worry that the story was turning into a wrapper for a lecture, but Maitland’s natural gifts reasserted themselves and I was drawn back in. It’s a patchy collection, but with some fine craftsmanship inside.
Sara Maitland, Moss Witch and Other Stories (Manchester: Comma Press, 2013), ISBN 9-781905-583423, £9.99
Kate podcasts about books that she really, really likes on www.reallylikethisbook.com