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More Than Just Science...
Rachel Armstrong
interviewed by Thomas Cropper

When Dr Rachel Armstrong tired of life in the N.H.S. she must have wondered what on Earth she could do next. Recovering from depression caused by the stress of work, she launched herself into the literary scene by winning a competition at the ICA investigating new ways of performing literature. That set up a chain reaction in her mind that led to stunning debut, The Gray's Anatomy. I interviewed her towards the end of 2001 at the Battersea Arts Centre.
   It soon became clear that she had been repelled rather than influenced by the work of contemporary science fiction writers. Strangely enough, it is the work of Douglas Adams, who loathed to be called a science fiction writer, which has had the greatest effect on her work. Speaking in an interview in 1983 with writer Neil Gaiman, Adams said this of science fiction: "I've read the first 30 pages of a tremendous amount of science fiction novels. One thing I've found is that no matter how good the ideas, a lot of it is very badly written."
   Such a sentiment is echoed in Armstrong's book. Adams' Hitchhiker's books offered her something that was missing in mainstream SF, something deeper than simply comedy.

I loved the idea of Adams' future. One where everyone is as ludicrous and foolish as they are today. They have this fantastically advanced galaxy, but they don't use it for war or anything else. They use it in the most inane ways they can. I loved Star Wars and everything like that, but it wasn't what I wanted to write.

Comedy provided Adams with license to play with the borders of the genre. Armstrong, though, set herself the task of writing a serious book transferring the surreal mania of Adams for a more straight-faced novel.
   Set in a distant future in which mankind has harnessed 'cosmic powers' to travel the galaxy, the book documents the meeting of our world with that of an alien species called 'the Grays'. Mixing sci-fi, parody and art it escapes the traditionally conservative root of the genre. She feels let down by mainstream science fiction. Fiction in general - and science fiction in particular - is increasingly becoming market orientated. Publishers, obsessed with the perpetual search for the elusive guaranteed bestsellers are reluctant to encourage originality.
   It is a book grown from experience. As a young doctor she could have had little idea of what life held in store, but after two and a half years of what she calls 'sheer hell' she found herself looking for a new direction.

I was dying there. I just couldn't take it any more.

The hours and working conditions were such that she was plunged into a spiral of depression, a spiral from which she sometimes thought she'd never escape. When a colleague committed suicide the gravity of the situation was made chillingly clear.
   And so she took the leap of faith. Leaving behind a career for which she had studied must have been terrifying. On the face of it this must have seemed a complete turn around. After all, it is difficult to think of two more conflicting professions than medical doctor and novelist, but it was her experiences in medicine that, combined with an interest in spirituality, produced a new way of looking at science fiction. A way based less on ideas of science and more on images of intellect, philosophy and faith.

I won a competition at the ICA called 'Rush' that was investigating alternative ways of performing literature. It was an experiment in mass abduction in which we kidnap the audience as if it's an alien abduction. We had four experts who talked about their thinking on what made a human. There was a scientific explanation and a religious explanation. The audience voted and in the end the religious guy won. His explanation was that we are defined by a sense of collective, which functions as a human mind. That got me thinking. We take science for granted and any other explanation is dismissed. I realised that there is more than just science.

Seeking a way to express herself she found inspiration in the work of modern artists like Franko B. and erotic dancers such as Tom and Mouse.

The images of mutilation they achieved with their bodies brought back memories of my days as a young doctor. I had been close to death and working with death everyday in casualty. It's something you have to learn to cope with and treat as normal if you're going to get through it. When I did Mass Abduction I pieced together these images that these artists had brought to me. It resolved my feelings and provided a broader spectrum of inspiration than just the art world. I tried to stand outside our species, to get rid of all my prejudice, to tell stories using my knowledge of science and art.

The result is a sci-fi book that rests upon different pillars to those traditionally used by sci-fi. It stands on religion, on the human idea of self, on art and on social parody. Much sci-fi fare is founded on ideas of scientific expansion mimicking an advanced version of the Wild West. Space, to Western writers, is the undiscovered country. It is a frontier land full of unknown and potentially hostile creatures. Her vision is one based in the mind. It is one involving the meeting of cultures and experiments in variations of life, faith and propriety.

It's a parody of everything. The aim is to dis-respect science, to look at the intellect. However much science changes in the future we won't change much. I love the work of Douglas Adams because of his ridiculousness. Sci-fi is normally a war story or a thriller. Out of fantasy and sci-fi it is sci-fi which can be much more ridiculous. I'm trying to make it more humanistic. It was a dilemma. I couldn't get too scientific about it because it gets uninteresting after a while. It did take a bit of hammering out so I could sit down and work out what was going on in this world so I could move my characters in and around the framework once I came to write it.

Her future is very human, very real. Like Adams she deconstructs and parodies. She reflects and she studies mixing humour, surrealism, philosophy and theology into one glorious gestalt. She shies away from the traditionalism of SF/fantasy resting her story on characterisation and suggestion. Her characters are lowly, vulnerable and fallible. Although the world she has created is a billion miles from anything we know today you find yourself identifying with the characters and slotting yourself into her universe.
   In the book the doctor figure that discovers the humans finds that he risks angering the elder 'Grays' if they discover the truth. He therefore disguises it as an entertainment game presenting himself as the bold, intrepid hero investigating these savage and brutal beasts. She says of the character:

The 'Star Commander' is a deviation within a culture. He changes the species. Their worldviews are changed.

The way the people follow the image he projects on screen is another layer in this story of a parody against the mass media.

The whole thing is fashions. People want to be unique, they want someone to notice them, but they want to do this while fitting in.

It is a social comment on celebrity, the fantasy of self and tyranny of social pressure. We are introduced to a world alien from our own, but which we are allowed to explore with our own imagination. The world is not over described. In fact the book takes the assumption that you are already familiar with the world of the Grays and it is the human world that is alien. Ironically, this serves to illustrate her world even more vividly. We create it in our minds. We discover it for ourselves, and the deeper we go the more we see its flaws and the more we see it resembles our own.
   This is an intense examination of the mentality of the human condition. We examine ourselves through the eyes of an outsider and by drawing opinions on them we are led into conclusions about ourselves. It draws upon modern art to such an extent that it becomes a work of art in itself. This is certainly not written like a normal novel. It is difficult to pick up a single lead character in it; there is no discernable narrative for a long time into the story. As such it might have some people shaking their heads in puzzlement, but what it does do is create a story in which you don't know what's coming next and that's about as much as you can ask from any book.

Rachel Armstrong

Gray's Anatomy

Books by Rachel Armstrong:

Art & Design:
Sci-Fi Aesthetics

Space Architecture
(editor, 2000)

The Gray's Anatomy

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