Now don’t get me wrong, I love a spooky story. I’ve written about ghosts, monsters, dimensions of time and space, aliens, mythical creatures and all manner of weird stuff. You could say that I peddle my wares on the weirder side of life. So why would I want to give you a rational explanation for the mystery behind the inexplicable? Sorry… did I say rational? Rational maybe, if you happen to be a quantum physicist.
In this engaging Ted talk, Jim Al-Khalili explains the strange world of quantum biology and uses quantum physics to answer some of life’s bigger questions like, ‘how does a robin know to fly south?’.
Quantum entanglement was famously described by Einstein as ‘Spooky action at a distance’. Entangled particles behave in such a way that when something happens to one, the other is affected, even when separated by distance. Entanglement happens when two particles meet and have some form of physical interaction. Quantum entanglement could even explain connections between mind and matter, connections between the minds of many people, the relationship between the conscious and the sub-conscious mind and the exercise of free will. It gives a scientific explanation to phenomena traditionally cast as supernatural; telepathy, remote sensing, psychokinesis and weirdness that skirts around the fringes of Sci-Fi; teleportation or faster than light travel, quantum computing.
Ever had an inexplicable sense of connection to another person and wanted to understand more about love and romance and the validity of unseen mystical connections? This article from Space.com describes quantum entanglement as ‘love on a subatomic scale’.
In the New Scientist this week, Stuart Clark considers ‘Universal (un)Truths’ and What if… quantum weirdness were weirder? Well, here’s the thing… it is. “There is nothing stopping the quantum world having different levels of underlying correlation – only a universe with exactly the right level of weirdness produces life.” So there you have it. Weird things happen because nature is ‘quantum mechanical’. And that really is the best answer the scientists can give us.
According to this article in Forbes, “quantum physics tells us that our fate is not written in the stars”. Well – I don’t believe in fate, but I do believe in physics. So now you have the scientific explanation behind weirdness – thinking back to that time when your phone rang and weirdly… you knew who it was before you even looked at the screen – was it coincidence, or quantum entanglement? I’ll let you figure that one out.
As well as discovering a rich backdrop of inspiration, I uncovered untapped memories of my own. When I was a little girl, my grandfather used to take me and my siblings to traction engine fairs. I remember the green fields and muddy tracks, bold red and green painted engines with huge wheels and pumping pistons. Most of all, I remember the noise and smell; the sudden whoosh as steam was released that made me leap behind the safety of my grandfather and set my heart hammering against my ribs. The grimy, oily scent would stay in my nostrils for days and linger on the periphery of my senses. I was barely the height of those massive cast-iron wheels and the engines terrified me, deeply embedding a sense of awe. It is that same sense of awe that drew me towards speculative fiction with its big question of ‘what if?’ and then steampunk fiction, drawing on a nostalgia that has sat in the back of my mind for most of my life. If science fiction deals with the ‘what if?’ of pure invention, then perhaps steampunk deals with the ‘what then?’ – a reimagining of what has already been discovered.
My aim was to write a piece of fiction using the city as a backdrop, evoking a strong sense of place. Victorian London has always been a classic backdrop for steampunk and because I know the city well, I felt able to feed on its nostalgia. I chose Paris because it fascinates me and the similarities and differences between the two cities was interesting to explore. So with the background suitably steampunk, I managed to get in a bit of steam-powered tech alongside the retro-futuristic inventions. The protagonist’s story itself attempts to subvert the norms of the historical times, simply by the fact she is female attempting to enter a male dominated profession. And of course, there have to be aliens involved somewhere.
Hope you enjoy it – published this week in Electric Spec.
I have always been fascinated with the world that lies beneath London. I guess that travelling through the underground system every day sets off my imagination and so, many of my stories link to underground stations and stops. Getting ahead takes us a little further, literally into the bowels of London.
Although we take it for granted, London Underground uses tunnels originally built by the Victorians and an interceptory sewage system that delivered London’s reprieve from the ‘Great Stink’ of 1858. When it comes to feats of engineering, the Victorians were never short of imagination. You only have to look at the legacy of their work in London to realise that it was an era of industrial revolution and innovation.
My initial approach to research is usually with the people. I love the stories behind people and I’m fascinated by human motivation and behaviour, so I try to link the human stories to a place, then link the stories to each other. I like to get out and write in different places; parks, cafés, libraries, museums, underground stations, benches or anywhere in London where I can soak up the atmosphere and let it spill over into my fiction.
Place is important to me, but my stories are driven by character. I have to say at this point, that I didn’t take my research to the logical conclusion and into the London sewage system, that would be… well, eww. I found this wonderful book called London under London: A subterranean guide, by Richard Trench and Ellis Hillman, which explores the labyrinth of the city beneath our feet. So I let my own imagination run loose and exploited the use of ‘what if…?’
If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs… (Rudyard Kipling)
I saw this written on the board at the Liverpool Street Central Line on National Poetry Day:
Coincidentally, I wrote about my own journey on the Central Line for my MA Writing the City class. Here is my version:
Today, the central line turns inside out.
Anticipation of a bumpy ride home clings to every traveller as the tubes invert at Oxford Circus. The bleeping doors crash closed but instead of trapping us in, we are expelled into the blue skies, hovering above Tottenham Court Road, waiting to disappoint us with the clouds of tomorrow. The expression of boredom, a face worn by every daily passenger, is replaced by the curiosity of thousands, flying through the air, chased by the crescendo whine of the tube line as it picks up speed towards Holborn. At Chancery Lane, the suits of TM Lewin shoot down below the surface and the shoppers hang on with a confused desperation to the fabric coated seats, wondering where the train has gone. A melodic voice rings over the tannoy.
‘This is your driver speaking. The Central Line rocks this evening with a totally awesome service. We guarantee to fly you to your destination within an inch of your lives. May passengers be informed that we are not being held at a red light and take a dim view of such restrictions imposed by management. Please take your rubbish with you when leaving, as contrary to popular belief, the earth is not a big round green wheelie bin. Next stop, St Paul’s.’
At Bank, people laugh and throw their left-over sandwiches at city folk who stand beside their skyscrapers, wondering why the world has turned flat. Seats fly from the train as we race above Liverpool Street, where people and their bags, children and their sweets are systematically sucked into tubes running like veins through the bowels of the city.
East is east and Bethnal Green smells of talcum powder and old music hall routines, long forgotten beneath the tiles of the station. Mile End, world’s end; view from above with passengers dropping from on high without a care in world to where they might land. A white light shines on the horizon as we rocket on through to Stratford; land of our salvation, so the legacy tells us.
The rush of an air vent behind me distracts my attention from the muted voice on the opposite side of the platform, ‘Duh, duh da. Duh da da dah.’ Doors whoosh open. ‘Ladies and Gentlemen. This is Stratford. Alight for Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and Westfield Shopping Centre. Normal service has now resumed. Stand clear of the doors.’
The roar of the rails rumble beneath my feet.