Exclusive Author Essay
Not many people know that I am a failed science fiction writer. I got into science through reading SF at a very early age (eight), and, like the clown who wants to play Hamlet (or the other way around), I always wanted to write fiction. Eventually, I managed to do so, learning the tricks of the trade through collaborations with two skilled novelists, Douglas Orgill and D. G. Compton. I even managed to get a couple of novels published all by myself -- counting the collaborations, I've published more novels than Joseph Heller. But not to such effect.
My agent complained about this, since apart from the first book I wrote with Douglas Orgill (The Sixth Winter) none of these novels were commercially successful. But a strange thing happened. Through the discipline of learning how to plot stories, build up suspense, and get inside believable characters, I found that my nonfiction writing was getting better. Even my agent had to agree. By writing novels, I became a much better science writer, even if the novels didn't succeed on their own terms.
It started out the other way around -- The Sixth Winter
grew out of my interest in the nonfiction developments in the scientific study of climate change, and another collaboration with Douglas Orgill, Brother Esau, out of my interest in human evolution. Both appeared in the early 1980s, just before I set to work on what is still my best-known book, In Search of Schrödinger's Cat.
Writing about science fact that reads like fiction (quantum physics) clearly benefited from the novel-writing! The circle from fact to fiction and back again was completed when I returned to the theme of human evolution in Being Human (written with my wife, Mary), and the storytelling aspect of writing fiction was particularly useful in a string of scientific biographies that I got involved with, including Richard Feynman: A Life in Science (also written with Mary).
Emboldened by this, I went back to writing fiction. I wrote my very best novel (The Sixth Winter included) and had a good publication deal lined up. Then, the publisher went bankrupt. I still have the novel, if anyone would like to take a chance on publishing it, but I've promised my agent not to write any more unless and until it sees the light of day. Even so, for those with eyes to see (as they say), my latest book, The Birth of Time,
clearly bears the stamp of a writer who has been at least once around the fiction-writing block. Since this book deals (in part) with my own scientific work, it involved some personal storytelling which I could never have managed so well without that background.
So when people ask me who the biggest influences on my career have been, the answer has to be, first, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke (for their fiction, not their nonfiction), and then Douglas Orgill and David Compton, for teaching me how to do it. And I've not given up. Maybe I'll try a movie script....
John Gribbin is a visiting fellow in astronomy at the University of Sussex and the author of many popular science books, including In Search of Schrödinger's Cat, Almost Everyone's Guide to Science, and Q Is for Quantum. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (a unique honor for a science writer).