Does "Are Angels OK" re-invent the wheel?
No, it doesn't
David Larsen thinks that Are Angels OK? "re-invents the wheel." Here is an extract from his review of the book.
"It’s curious that Manhire, in his lively and thoughtful introduction, fails to mention the large existing body of fiction and related criticism inspired by the sciences; fails, in fact, even to whisper the term that best describes this book. This is a science fiction anthology, and a damn good one."

I agree that it is a damn good book, but not that it re-invents the wheel. The collection is not just normal science fiction, and nor is it just unusually well-written science fiction.

To be sure, Are Angels OK? is unusual for its literary fire-power. All of the authors here are first-class literary figures, respected in their own community (New Zealand) and internationally. By way of comparison, imagine if Ian McEwan, AS Byatt, Martin Amis, and John Banville were joined up with Martin Reese, Stephen Hawking, and Lord Robert Winston. The result might be science fiction, but it would hardly be "re-inventing the wheel." (The comparison also shows how unlikely the collaboration is except for a community like New Zealand, which is big enough to have first-class writers and scientists but small enough and relaxed enough to undertake such a daring experiment as Are Angels OK?)

The thing to note is that this choice of authors effects the substance of the writing, making it different from typical science fiction. I take it that mainstream science fiction, of the Asimov and Clarke kind, is less about writing science into fiction than about writing fictional science ie. writing an imaginative account of the effects of advanced technology. There are other sorts of science fiction, of course, but advanced technology and its human consequences are the main planks of the genre.

Some of the authors in this book do treat science in this way. Elizabeth Knox and Witi Ihimaera both write stories where a piece of technology is the central character (time travel and end-of-the-universe space travel respectively). But even these stories have a twist to them that puts them on the borders of the category. Knox's story is "more about family than time-travel", and about the process of scientific discovery and not just the impact of technology on our lives. Witi Ihimaera's short story is probably the most recognisable piece of science fiction in the collection, but it has an unusual amount of scientific input. Ihimaera's collaborator was David Wiltshire, a distinguished working cosmologist with high standards of realism: "the rule of the game," he wrote to Ihimaera, "is that whatever you create has to be reconciled to the known laws of physics." And the story contains whole pages of abstruse equations.

On the whole, however, science and fiction interact differently in this collection than they do in standard science fiction. In some cases the science is neither futuristic nor technology-oriented. In Margaret Mahy's story the microscopic account of the human body draws only on mainstream chemistry, biology and physics -- the trick is that Mahy describes the science in vivid terms, and uses it as a metaphor for an old man's emotional state. Lloyd Jones' short story is a literary meditation on a loosely interpreted idea from physics (time cones and the "Elsewhen" outside the cone). Vincent O'Sullivan's poems are about science in general rather than any particular technology. Colquhoun's poems do refer to specific bits of science, but they deal with real equations rather than futuristic innovations like cryogenic preservation or DNA screening. Catherine Chidgey touches very lightly on science, using it as an inspiration for her images rather than her setting.

So if Are Angels OK? reinvents the wheel, it does so with enough variety and imagination that the result deserves to be called an innovation. After all, even the wheel is open to worthwhile advances. Are Angels OK combines science and fiction in new ways -- like train tracks and hovercrafts, it puts a new slant on an old product.

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