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English academic "LabOratory" at Literary Festival

Posted on 11/10/2011
By Light Alone by Adam Roberts

Acclaimed science fiction writer and Royal Holloway, University of London lecturer, Adam Roberts will explore the future of science fiction at this year’s Cheltenham Literary Festival.

Professor Roberts will join broadcaster Mark Brake tomorrow (12 October) for an open discussion of the fact and fiction of science fiction and how, with the growing sophistication of technology, the boundaries have never been so blurred.

Professor Roberts, who’s latest novel By Light Alone was published to rave reviews, admits that when he discussed the plot with a biochemistry and biotechnology professor, he didn’t know how the scientist would react. But to his surprise, he didn’t think the idea was too farfetched.

By Light Alone features a world in which people have been genetically engineered to photosynthesise sunlight with their hair so that hunger can be a thing of the past. It creates a world divided into the wealthy who still eat food, especially delicious delicacies; and the poor who don’t, instead sitting in the sun soaking up sunlight.  

Professor Roberts explains: “I was working with Professor Rein Ulijn, now of Strathclyde, and ran the idea of photosynthesising hair past him – that hair follicles could be genetically altered so as to photosynthesise sunlight and add energy to the bloodstream.  He, surprisingly, didn’t think it a totally crazy idea. He thought hair could be altered to photosynthesise, but he had reservations about how this would translate into sugars in the bloodstream.”

Although Professor Roberts collaborated with Professor Ulijn at the early stages of his novel, he doesn’t believe you have to have in-depth science knowledge to succeed as a science fiction novelist.

He says:  “I read widely in the sciences, there are a great many popular science books published now that make this easy. This is one of the reasons Science Fiction attracts me so much: it is precisely the literature where art and science overlap.”

Professor Roberts believes that beneath its fantasy element, science fiction can tell us a lot about our own societies. He says: “In By Light Alone, although the technology was invented as a way of solving world poverty, one idea behind the novel is that it would on the contrary exacerbate the problem, creating a huge class of people more wholly disenfranchised than any poor before them.  Science Fiction does more than simply dream up cool new technologies and ingenious devices; it bridges the gap between ‘tech’ in the abstract and social being in the actual.”

  • LabOratory Science Fiction Futures is at 5pm in Imperial Square as part of the Cheltenham Literary Festival on Wednesday 12 October.


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