A Tale of Chemical Futures

In 2016, the Royal Society of Chemistry commissioned two science fiction writers to imagine possible chemical futures. These fictions were part of a more general review about the place of chemistry in Britain, and occurred against a background of nervousness about cuts to the research budget. In one of them, published in the Society’s online magazine Chemistry World, John Gilbey “imagines a future without chemistry as we know it.” Gilbey extrapolates from changes in the prominence given to the material side of chemistry and its supersession by techniques of simulation to imagine conditions in which chemical expertise was not available for even basic analytical tasks, and where chemical practices have been preserved only illicitly. Here is an excerpt from his story, Testing Times. The protagonists are faced with the outbreak of a new disease which they cannot analyse. They hear of a facility which may be able to provide the services which they seek, and its owner explains to them the reasons he has maintained chemical practices when these have been abandoned in official and academic settings:

Waking with a start, I saw a set of strip metal gates in front of us emblazoned with a large sign saying ‘Biosecurity: No Access’. Beyond it, low agricultural sheds stood in ranks framed by the green, and possibly toxic, hills of the West Country. We both got out of the car, and I reported our arrival to Emma while Becca made a phone call. Moments later, a scruffy-looking young man came up and unlocked the gate. Becca gave a whoop of recognition, along with a full body hug that left him fighting for breath. ‘John, this is Spike.’ He shook my hand warmly. ‘Any friend of Becca’s is welcome here. Come on, we’re in hut six.’

It was a chicken farm, or looked like one. Hut six was superficially like all the others, but instead of being full of chickens pecking contentedly around on a barn floor it housed a set of facilities unlike anything I’d seen before. We were standing in a glass-walled office, complete with coffee machine and family photos, looking out on a working space about 50 metres long. It was dotted with clusters of machinery and robotics, some of which I recognised from our fabrication plant – but others were custom-built workstations and groups of dramatically hacked old-school analytical instruments.

Spike, an engagingly gangly twenty-something with ginger hair, poured us all coffee then waved an arm gleefully around his empire. ‘How do you like it?’ he asked with a grin. ‘Very impressive,’ I replied. ‘But what exactly do you do here?’ He smiled. ‘We specialise in short run fabrications and testing for the more discerning customer. Stuff for specialists, hobbyists, people looking for custom builds that the big boys won’t touch.’ Recreational drugs, in other words. That certainly explained the security and camouflage, along with the obviously high level of investment. ‘Not just drugs,’ Spike explained, in pained tones. ‘We do a lot of stuff for photographers who still want to use silver-based imaging – it isn’t all strictly illegal.’

Once we had explained the scale of our analysis problem, in gross violation of James’ instructions, Spike looked pensive – then surprised. ‘Are you really telling me that no one else in the UK has the capacity to do this? Damn. Things have got worse than I thought! But, yeah, sure – we’ll help. As long as we get – you know – immunity for the other stuff we do,’ he finished with a smile. ‘How many samples did you say? 10,000? Yeah, we can run that through in under a day if I pull in some favours.’

On Writing About Chemical Legacies

Remarkable interview from Interalia Magazine with the environmental sociologist and writer Rebecca Altman, in which she talks about the craft of writing about legacies of plastic production and pollution.

The single most significant influence [on my writing] was the near dream-like week I spent at an environmental writing workshop with the poet-biologist, Sandra Steingraber, author of Living Downstream, and most recently, the curator of Rachel Carson’s work on toxics for the Library of Congress.

Steingraber had left academia to write about the science of environmental health for the public. It was the first inkling that such a path was possible, maybe even vital. I soaked up everything she had to offer about craft and pacing and tone and emotion. I remember her saying how Carson deployed iambic pentameter when she wanted to make a particular point all the more piercing. Being otherwise untrained, Sandra encouraged me to keep writing by ear and to be influenced by the rhythms and musicality of my early years.

What Steingraber helped me understand about sound, John McPhee helped me understand about shape. How grateful I’ve been for his writing about writing in The New Yorker. One essay in particular, called Structure, ran in 2013, just as I was wrestling with writing about plastics for the first time. How I struggled to organize the complexity and volume of the raw material I’d collected.

McPhee offered the idea that each work of narrative nonfiction has a guiding image that shapes it, that helps carry the piece’s meaning or theme. Structure could do some of the piece’s heavy lifting. Alongside his essay were schematics that charted the various shapes his essays had taken. Straight-line narratives that plodded ahead chronologically. But also stories told in the shape of a river. A U-shaped curve. A looping spiral.

Thanks to McPhee, American Petro-topia, a story about one particular plastics plant, eventually took the shape of a circle, a living plant’s lifecycle—from seed to sprout back around to seed. The Benzene Tree, which I wrote for The Atlantic, drew on the image of a wave to tell the story of the rise and fall of entire classes of industrial chemistries. When writing Time Bombing the Future – a story about fluorine and the forgotten chemical legacy of the Manhattan Project ­– I held onto the image of a bomb. The fuse was set in the opening paragraphs. It doesn’t go off until the end. Only a brief coda is offered to move readers through the aftermath.

I’ve returned to McPhee whenever I get stuck, which is often. I write about chemistry – and so for me, writing is an act of synthesis, too. Things get complicated. My notebooks are filled with McPhee-like sketches of all the possible shapes a story might take.

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