Literature: The appliance of science

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Science is currently king of the hill as books on previously obscure subjects shoot up the bestseller lists. A new season at the South Bank examines how literature has responded to this potential threat

"When I find myself in the company of scientists, I feel like a shabby curate who has strayed into a drawing-room of dukes," WH Auden wrote in The Dyer's Hand. That was 35 years ago; if Auden were around to upgrade the sentiment today, the curate would no doubt be a little shabbier, the drawing-room a notch more intimidating. As Benjamin Woolley, who has programmed "Miracles and Machines: Technology and the Imagination", a month-long series of talks at the South Bank, puts it: "Science is on a roll at the moment, and scientists are feeling pretty cocky."

The aim behind the season is not, however, to pit two "inevitably nebulous" terms against each other. Instead, many of the speakers will look at the way writers have responded to, and anticipated, technological advances in their work. On 21 February, "Miracle and Machines" will consider the future; today it looks back, dipping into four eras of scientific progress. Kevin Jackson's "Pandaemonium" (5pm) reassesses Humphrey Jennings's book of the same name, an anthology of reports from the 17th to the 19th centuries that provides a picture of society entering the begrimed tunnel of the industrial age. The title recalls the unnaturally sprouted "high capital of Satan and his peers" in Milton's Paradise Lost and reflects the habitual anxieties raised by acts by man- made creation.

Doron Swade, a curator at the science museum, brings these fears into sharp focus with an account of the miracle-working machines of the Victorian celeb-engineer Charles Babbage (3pm). Stepping into the modern age, the critic David Bradshaw (12noon) looks at the division of opinion about new inventions; the Vortecists loved planes, trains and automobiles, the likes of Virginia Woolf and Evelyn Waugh shuddered. Depending on your gender, Sadie Plant's views about the coming of a female technocracy (7.30pm) are either comforting or chilling. "The idea is to have lots of independent voices," Woolley explains, "rather than lots of abstract generalisations." Certainly, Douglas Adams (above), who will be plugging his work of interactive-fiction ("Well, okay, 3D adventure game"), Starship Titanic (Tues, QEH), is anxious to scotch the old claim that the author is on the way out. "It would take much more than this to kill off the novel," he suggests. "It would take Jeffrey Archer."

Events are at the Voice Box (pounds 4) today, except Douglas Adams, QEH (pounds 7) 3 Feb, South Bank, SE1 (0171-960 4242)

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