Julia Golding's latest novel for children is a wonderful fantasy set in an alternative 19th Century in which Science reigns supreme and curiosity is a crime. Philosophy and religion are outlawed and life is rigidly structured. Ree and Henri are both curious children; Ree is a talented sculptor and Henri a scholar and amateur detective. Both children face discrimination and set backs but they must work together to solve a mystery. The setting for their adventures is Museum Island home to a vast museum and school of learning where science is celebrated but questioning authority is a punishable offence. Ree's father is sent away for allowing his daughter to become an apprentice stonemason, Henri's progress as a scientist is hampered by those prejudiced against his dark skin. This is a tale of adventure and mystery with a host of brilliant characters including a number of animals, some of which are sadly now extinct, the story is full of intriguing detail about the museum and the animals that live in the menagerie there. The science that is revered is rooted in 19th Century beliefs of female inferiority and disciplines such as phrenology which espoused the idea that the shape of the head was an indicator of intelligence and temperament. There are big questions asked here about whether science and faith can coexist and the danger of being over reliant on one way of thinking. A really intelligent and exciting book which will get young minds thinking and questioning. A must for fans of Julia Golding's Cat Royal mystery series or fans of Robin Stevens and Emma Carroll.
I had a chance to ask the author some questions about the book and her writing in general:
Q1. Although Museum Island and the setting of your book is your own invention you must have done a huge amount of research into the history of science. Are you a science buff? Are there any discoveries you made while researching that particularly fascinated you?
Gosh, I'd like to be known as a science buff! I'm almost tempted to pretend... OK, OK, I confess! The truth is that, as a writer, I'm used to getting to grips with new areas of knowledge and going to experts for help. Actually, that's part of the fun of being a fiction writer - I've gone up in biplanes, visited theatres, gone to a Tudor banquet... The background knowledge for this novel came out of a non-fiction series for children called The Curious Science Quest which I've written with the help of Andrew Briggs, Professor of Nanomaterials at Oxford University, and Roger Wagner, artist. In six books we look at the history of science as two time-travelling guides, Darwin's tortoise Harriet, and Schrödinger's cat, Milton, visit all the key moments from the cave dwellers to 2018. The style is adventure with illustrations, cartoons and really bad jokes.
I made many discoveries while studying for this but I do have some favourites, such as Aristotle being the first to do a capture and release biological experiment to investigate dolphin snoring. You couldn't make it up! So when you see those statues of bearded Aristotle you can think of him as the 4th century BC David Attenborough.
Q2. The book is set in an alternate 19th Century - do you think there are lessons to be learned to prevent us becoming a society that places science far above faith? Are we turning into that society?
The setting is fantastical, a wonderful, magical natural history museum that maps out the story of science through its open rooms, dusty corners and abandoned chambers of old ideas. It does, however, have a firm grounding in 19th century thought. I imagined what might've happened to society if a fundamental kind of Darwinism took over - not a version of his thought Darwin would recognise but one that pushed his ideas to an extreme. Scientists in the book become like a ruling religious authority, a high priesthood only allowing scientific questions, not ones of meaning and purpose, the realm of philosophy and religion. It makes for great drama as you can be a thought criminal!
And yes, I think there is a danger we elevate scientific knowledge above other kinds of wisdom, mixing our categories. Take for example the recent last publication by Stephen Hawking 'Brief Answers to Big Questions'. The press made much of him saying that there is no God or afterlife, as if his view was definitive, a bit like the ruling authorities in my novel. Hawkings isn't giving a scientific answer though, because you can't use scientific method to prove the existence of God or an afterlife either way. It's a category error of knowledge. Think about it a little. Hawking might be saying that he can't see the need for God in what he observed in the universe - or what is traditionally known as the 'God of the gaps' theory (I happen to agree with him under those terms). When we find something we don't understand we shouldn't say 'Ah-ha, that's God's work' but instead we should try to be better scientists and look for an explanation. It might take a while to come. Most religions, though, don't now think of God as popping in to tinker with the machinery; we think of him as the Creator, so rather than say 'Where is God in the universe? I can't see him.' I prefer a question that says 'What kind of God would make this kind of universe? What does that tell us about him? Why can we understand it in the first place? And what does understanding mean?' That's one part of the battle of ideas I'm trying to dramatise in the book: the argument about who gets to say what kind of questions we can ask.
Q3. Do you have any favourite scientists? Especially women scientists who perhaps don't have the fame they deserve?
One of the joys of writing the novel was to learn more about the women in scientific history. If you remember that education for women is an extreme exception for much of recorded history, their achievements are remarkable. Among my heroes is Hypatia, head of the school in Alexandria in around 400 AD (this was the leading place of scientific learning in her era). She was a great mathematician and earned her position through talent. She also lost her life to a mob in a religious riot, showing the particular danger to women taking such a prominent role. I've put her in my book, or at least there's a character who honours her memory. Then there's Caroline Herschel, a survivor of domestic abuse and bullying, who in the late 18th century discovered her own comets and helped her brother, William, in his groundbreaking stargazing work (he discovered Uranus among other things). She was the first woman to be awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society and was only denied full membership because of her gender. There are many more women to discover, but that's just a taster.
Q4. Your inclusion of various animals that are now extinct is a reminder of how destructive humans have been in their pursuit of knowledge and resources. Do you have a favourite animal that no longer exists?
I had great fun making a dodo a main character. He's called Phil and gets into a lot of trouble - in fact, he is one of the reasons Ree, my main female character, starts the book with a major disaster on her hands. But we all know the dodo, so maybe I should mention Ziggy? She is a Tasmanian wolf, a doglike striped creature. This species only went extinct last century so there are photographs of them if you want to look up this largest meat-eating marsupial. She is aggressive and uppity, quite a handful, but that's in part because she is guarding her joey, her baby, Zag, in her pouch.
Q5.What is your writing process like? Are you very organised and plan in detail or do you like to just write and see what happens?
I wouldn't say I'm organised, but I am efficient. I have a set time of day for writing (morning) and make myself 'go to work' at a cafe to do this. If I stay at home I waste time. I think about what I'm going to write the afternoon and evening before, so that's when the planning happens. If there's something particular I want to include, I'll note it in my notebook, but usually it's just in my head. I've only done very detailed planning for an adult psychological novel I wrote under my pen name Joss Stirling (it's called Don't Trust Me). I had to produce a spreadsheet to make sure the drip-feed of information happened in the right order - very complicated!
Available now Lion Children's Book in paperback and e-book. Thank you to Anna at Midas PR who kindly provided me with a copy.