Novelist Sophie Ward on being long-listed for the Booker Prize, thought experiments, nuances in relationships
Love and Other Thought Experiments pushes readers to question individual philosophies, our understanding of complex emotions and belief systems that are constantly governing our everyday lives.
“I have described the feeling as ‘liberated’ because for a long time, when I was writing my book and also when I was trying to find a publisher, I was told that the genre was hard to define,” says novelist Sophie Ward on being long-listed for the 2020 Booker Prize, “Now I think that, as reflected in this list, the restrictions of ‘genre’ are changing. At least, I hope they are. And that has implications for the books I am writing and want to write.”
Debut novelists have dominated the 2020 long-list of the coveted literary award. Ward’s philosophical fiction, Love and Other Thought Experiments made the cut, along with other debutants such as Avni Doshi for Burnt Sugar, and C Pam Zhang for How Much of these Hills is Gold. Ward’s novel which questions, toys with, and provokes our thinking has been described by the jury as “an extremely original, genre-bending novel that melds Anglo-American analytical philosophy with realist social drama and futuristic science fiction.”
Reminiscent of the interconnected lives found in books like Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Ward’s novel traverses multiple countries with its characters, oscillating between past, present and fantasy, connecting lives and stories – each one a different thought experiment woven into a sublime narrative of love, death and longing.
“Thought experiments are devices of the imagination used to investigate the nature of things.”
Ward explains through a magazine picked up by her character Rachel from her partner Eliza’s reading material. It is almost like a warning — a disclaimer — that the reader is about to walk on a road that can take multiple turns, perhaps through plural worlds towards not one, but many possible destinations.
On being asked what got her interested in these philosophical theories, the author explains that she was struck by specific thought experiments and their integration of the arts and sciences. “When I applied for my PhD, I had the idea that I would like to expand the thought experiments into a composite novel. I was most interested in the thought experiments in philosophy of mind and how human consciousness is unlike a computer.”
Love and Other Thought Experiments explores these theories through ten sections that put Ward's characters to test, questioning what are the limits of reason, whether we can share brains and if computers can feel emotions. The book follows the story of Rachel and Eliza, a couple on the cusp of parenthood. Its thought experiments take off when Rachel believes that an ant has separated from its colony, entered her eye and now lives in her brain. To have Rachel’s conviction contested by her partner – a scientist – lays bare the question of faith, while simultaneously opening a debate on the nature of reality. This dialogue unravels like several balls of wool, scattering out as colourful threads across our consciousness.
“The ant herself, actually came to me from my computer keyboard,” Ward observes. "Insects are part of all our lives, and I happened to have ants living in my keyboard.” She adds, “I wondered how an ant might attain human consciousness, and fused that idea with the test of faith for Rachel and Eliza.”
Following this process, her book opens with the 17th century mathematician Blaise Pascal’s wager about the existence of god — a rudimentary probability theory suggesting that believing in god's existence would lead to infinite happiness. However, it is suggested that this credence far outweighs the non-belief, which, if proven as untrue, would doom one's life to infinite unhappiness in Hell. Drawing on this proposition, she remarks that there is often a non-religious belief or faith at the heart of many relations, “I think our relationships often come to a time of trial, where we have to decide whether we are truly committed to the idea of an ‘us’, or not.”
The actor and novelist imbues each phase of the book with similar dilemmas in the stories of her characters, the two expecting parents, Rachel and Eliza, Rachel’s mother Elizabeth, her son Arthur, his dad and his husband, Greg. Each strand of thought experiment is glued together and held together by the undercurrent of love that seeps into the consciousness of every character.
Ward has appeared in several theatre and on-screen productions, including the 1985 show, Young Sherlock Holmes, and has portrayed the character of Dr Helen Trent in the British police drama, Heartbeat. She has worked in productions of the Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre such as Private Lives and Hamlet, among others. About juggling the two artistic processes, she says, “I feel very fortunate to have been an actor and I have loved collaborating on projects. But writing gives me more autonomy and I especially appreciate that I can express these ideas at a time when most theatres are closed.”
The coronavirus crisis and the resulting social distancing has not, however, dampened her spirits, as she has always been happy entertaining herself, she says. A judge for the Royal Society Prize, an award given for the best popular science book, she has been occupied with reading 50 submitted entries. Her work on her new book continues as she is now in the process of editing a story about a 1990s' police investigation, combined with the journals of an 11 year-old girl in 1975. And while awaiting the shortlist and the winner announcement, Ward had also been devouring the other books long-listed for the 2020 Booker Prize, along with her own.
In her debut novel, Ward highlights the trials and tests of contemporary relationships, of love being conditional, all of which are tied to many strings like identity, faith and reasonability. But for her part, the author says, “I am not thinking of ‘conditions’ so much as the complications of love and relationships.”
“When you read Sally Rooney’s Normal People, you can see how younger people’s relationships are changing,” she continues, “and perhaps the digital age has helped to encourage a distance and a difficulty of expression.”
She is, however, not as quick to dismiss the digital age as an era of erasure of empathy. Instead, she suggests that online experiences also have the capacity to help us understand complex emotions and lives.
However, there is something terribly dark about her protagonist Rachel imagining the ant devour the tumour growing within her body and prolonging her life, and the tension that hangs between Rachel and Eliza as they raise Arthur without mentioning said episode. Ward’s ingeniously carved narrative cuts through that discomfort. Her perceptiveness as a writer makes her readers empathise with every character – with Rachel’s belief and Eliza’s doubt, Arthur’s understanding of reality and Elizabeth’s acceptance, and even the ant’s viewpoint. She remarks, “I imagine any experience that broadens your horizons and helps you to see beyond your own life and feelings, helps you to understand the lives of others.”
Quizzing the writer about her own philosophical bent on writing these myriad narratives yields answers that are akin to the message delivered in the Bhagwad Gita, of living life as best as we can, regardless of the positive or negative outcomes.
Love and Other Thought Experiments pushes readers to question individual philosophies, our understanding of the complex emotions and belief systems that are constantly governing our daily lives. And while contemporary philosophy tends towards dismissing the idea of duality in consciousness, Ward says that for her, the important thing is to, in fact, experience this individual consciousness, whether it is “a matter of the electric brain or zeros and ones”, because we feel it nonetheless, and it is the primary influence on our humanity.
Sophie Ward’s Love and Other Thought Experiments has been published by Corsair
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