Friday, 6 November 2015

Spindles - sleep science and short fiction

A sleeping landscape, whilst walking

Sleep-walking is an intriguing phenomenon. As with plain old pillow-based sleep, it remains mysterious – not quite a part of the real, rational world where science can explain things. When Comma Press announced that their next science-led anthology of short stories would be on the theme of sleep, I was excited to find sleep-walking amongst the list of options offered to me (my first fiction commission, thank you Comma!) and snapped it up.

The premise of these anthologies is that short story writers are paired up with scientists to learn from them about a specific area of research. The writers go off and create a story based on what they’ve learned, and the scientists provide an afterword, looking at the use (or mis-use) of the science in the fiction. So, sort of sci-fi where the ‘sci’ bit should actually work, and the ‘fi’ bit is more literary, less genre.

It’s one thing to write a story to a theme, but quite another to incorporate a piece of scientific research into it without the joints showing. Given that almost all the stories I’ve written over the last year have been folkloric in content and setting – that is, quite devoid of science or scientific thought – I didn’t fancy my chances of being able to write something that felt at all natural.

It was with a certain amount of relief, then, that I discovered how mysterious sleep-walking remains, even to those bent on investigating it. Patterns can be observed, conditions created in which sleep-walking is more, or less, likely to occur, drugs administered, but the underlying reasons for it remain obscure. There is no cure.

I learned from my sleep scientist, Paul Reading, about his recent research around sleep deprivation and sleep-walking. It turns out that, for adults already predisposed to sleep-walking, a long bout of wakefulness, followed by loud auditory stimulus when able to sleep afterwards, increases the likelihood of a sleepwalking episode to nearly 100%. 

I also learned about the difference between sleep walkers with eyes shut (children usually do this kind) and eyes open. In the latter kind, some information about the world is getting through to the sleeper. This is how people manage to drive cars, ride motorbikes, seek out well-hidden cakes (I feel for sleep eaters, who don’t get to enjoy their gorging), and even kill people, all in their sleep. However, not all information gets through – the sleeper may understand that another person is interacting with them, but the part of the brain that can identify that person as a particular one remains switched off. This is a clear recipe for tragedy, in fiction as much as in life.

Being stubborn, I decided to set my sleep-walking story in the folkloric world I’ve been writing in, and find ways to replicate the conditions of Paul Reading’s experiment on sleep deprivation and auditory disturbance, but in a natural way. The very thought of eyes-open sleep-walking is uncanny, so that was fun to use. However, even in my not-terribly-science-y story, it was tough to write from a position of extra knowledge. I had to think hard about what potential readers were likely to know about sleep walking, and deal with my fairly ignorant characters, in a story where no scientist could walk on stage and explain everything.

You can decide for yourself whether I got away with it, and read thirteen other wonderful sleep-science-inspired stories by the likes of Deborah Levy, Adam Marek, M J Hyland, Sara Maitland and Claire Dean by buying Spindles from Comma Press. There’s a whole series of anthologies like these from Comma, matching writers with scientists under a theme, and I bet they were all as much fun to write as they are to read.