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Richard de Nooy

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

#BookWalk | Irregularity – A Time Machine Disguised as an Anthology

Irregularity cover “The history of science clearly offers rich territory for the imagination. In Irregularity it has inspired stories about people’s efforts, successful and unsuccessful, to know the world better and make it comprehensible, for tales about the things that prove unknowable, and the tension between order and chaos. The result is a wonderfully eclectic mix that asks questions about the boundaries of science and what we can know. But it is more than just entertainment; writing and reading fiction can help us interpret the past and come closer to it. Like all writers, historians need imagination to draw together the papers in archives and objects in museums to tell their stories. Without it, history would be little more than lists of dates and facts,” write Richard Dunn and Sophie Waring in their afterword to this fascinating anthology, published by Jurassic London in collaboration with the Royal Museums Greenwich to coincide with their exhibition Ships, Clocks & Stars: The Quest for Longitude.

As a contributor to this anthology, I must suppress the urge to wax lyrical about the stories it contains, but I will say that I am still glowing with pride to stand among such outstanding authors, all of whom have the capacity to usher us gently into their own little time machine, before whisking us away and immersing us in the world’s and lives and histories they have chosen to reimagine. Their stories have not only enthralled me, but have also instilled an urge to delve into biographies and other works of non-fiction to learn more about the learned minds so artfully brought to life on the pages of Irregularity. To celebrate the efforts of my co-contributors, I will skip joyfully back through the pages of the anthology and pick a flower from each of their stories, in the hope that this colourful bouquet will tempt you to wander out into their world and make your own discoveries.

The afterimage of thousands of books hung imprinted on my eyes. It did not matter to me if each and every one was full of provable falsehoods and stupidities: any text is an image of a mind, and any mind is worthy of attention. (Nick Harkaway in the framing story of Irregularity)

The next thing he said gave his wherefroms away even if he hadn’t just told us: he was truly an Englishman no matter how far flung he would ever travel, for as a conversational gambit he disparaged his home weather. “Plenty worse than these climes, the weather in England. Damn rain and the drizzle.”
(from Rose Biggin’s A Game Proposition)

At night she brought her candle down to the floor and lay on her stomach, marvelling at the work of the spinning spiders, the flame of the candle illuminating the intricate patterns of their mysterious creations. How did they do it? How did they know the exact length of the thread required, where to send it, how to attach it so that they might cling to any surface, however impossible?
“What will you tell me tonight, spiders?”
If she closed her eyes, she thought she heard their voices.

(from E.J. Swift’s The Spiders of Stockholm)

I buy a medical journal, because my hand can only take so much, and I need to know where the blood in the body comes at its thickest. The concept of this seems so logical to me, now, that I can scarcely believe that I didn’t see it before. To take the body – such a perfect device of itself, and practically a clock, so permanent and constant is the rhythmic beating of the heart – and to somehow infuse my escapement with it!
(from James Smythe’s The Last Escapement)

“No man knows the precise value of such celerity!” Newton exclaimed, crossly. He had managed, without being observed by Boyle, to use his thumbnail to gouge a crescent-moon sliver from the nail of his forefinger. He was attempting, again without being observed, to manipulate this into the keyhole of the lock of his handcuff.
(from Adam Roberts’s The Assassination of Isaac Newton by the Coward Robert Boyle)

The quiet authority in his voice, and the gravity of all the men, made me think that perhaps there was truth in Venter’s story. This was, after all, a new world. Things were different here. Animals may yet exist of which Linnaeus had no knowledge, I mused. Look at the wonders they have found in New Holland: beasts with both fur and eggs.
(from Henrietta Rose-Innes’s Animalia Paradoxa)

The cathedral will not sustain a cat. I brought one two nights ago during another of my perambulations – a great tom with a white streak down its nose. I set it beside the north-eastern wall in the crypt and it bristled and hissed, backing away from the stones, staring wild-eyed in every direction before streaking off. Today a wall beneath the south transept crumbled and the labourers shouted out, for they had discovered a cat’s carcass therein, much aged and dried out.
(from Archie Black’s Footprint)

I looked, and beheld a small island of basalt rock, barely a comma upon the unending page of the ocean, a little protrusion that reminded me of those desolate lands where nought but fungus and tawny shrub grew in the side of the cliff, and where yet on these meagre pickings survived many birds adapted to nest in crevices, and insects to feed off of the birds, and more fungus which fed off the rotting bodies of the insects, life thus finding its way in even these most desolate of places.
(from Claire North’s The Voyage of The Basset)

And so I thundered down the tower’s staircase to the Guild’s quarters, where I wandered along the murky passage, rapping on several doors before I heard the fall of footsteps approaching. You can well imagine my surprise when the preparator himself opened the door, releasing a pungent draft of camphor and spirits from the room beyond and affording me a glimpse of the macabre specimens that lined the shelves like the pale and misshapen demons of some awful nightmare trapped in glass.
(from Richard de Nooy’s The Heart of Aris Kindt)

At dinner, over which Mr. Canevin exerted himself greatly, ordering his cooks to deliver a feast far beyond our capacities to imbibe even a quarter of, I revealed that the main purpose of this lengthy journey was less concerned with matters of Jamaica and more to travel on to Port-au-Prince in order to discover the problem at the Cranache Plantation.
(from Roger Luckhurst’s Circulation)

She made her way down the steps to stand with the vast creature, and it backed away to keep a discreet distance, snorting steam. The behaviour seemed completely natural, no different from an elephant who respects his keeper in the hope of earning a bun. The others stared in awe, but my profession demands certain instincts – and besides I was eager to ingratiate myself with the lady now I knew who she was.
“What is the next stage?” I asked.

(from Simon Guerrier’s An Experiment in the Formulae of Thought)

Up at break of day to get away the remainder of my things; which I did by lighter at the Iron Gate. In the evening, Sir W. Pen and I did dig a pit, and put our wine in it, and I my Parmazan cheese. Pen said that talk has already turned to the French, and that the sensible amongst them have already fled home. Many rumours about the Abyss, and fancy is plentiful: that it reached out to grab a baby from his mother’s arms; that it speaks in whispers – but only so you’ll lean close enough that it can eat you.
(from M. Suddain’s The Darkness)

She opens and closes the wooden arms of the device, presses the fleshy pad of her little finger against the pointed end, attempting to divine its true purpose. She runs, giggling, to find a scrap of drawing paper and uses the dividers to scratch a circle into the parchment. Uneven and imperfect. But a circle none the less. She hugs the instrument to her chest, rocking it like a baby.
(from Kim Curran’s A Woman Out of Time)

Carl kept his disappointment to himself. He had hoped, standing in the man’s private shed, for a feeling of connection to Thomas Fairchild, the longing disappeared in a breath. There was no life in the little building: no papers or a forgotten cap, no boots by the door or an old glove, its thumb worn from use. Thomas’s business legacy, the nursery, had been left open and his nephew had stepped in seamlessly, as Carl could see by the number of workmen tending to the plants and trees. His other legacy lay in a dark drawer in a stone building in London.
(from Tiffani Angus’s Fairchild’s Folly)

(Click here for more about Irregularity and the many ways you can get your hands on a copy pronto.)


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