An intriguing collection of interconnected stories, Sophie Ward’s debut book Love and Other Thought Experiments makes for a good introduction to the English actress-turned-author.
Told primarily through the eyes of married couple Rachel and Eliza, Love… spans the course of this century as well as the world, with stories set in Brazil, England and the United States. It starts with “An Ant,” where Rachel wakes up thinking that an ant has crawled into her eye, and while having no evidence, asks Eliza to believe her improbable story. It ends in the far future, with a story focused on their son Arthur, who has an improbable story of his own, one he also asks people to take on faith.
The ten stories here take inspiration from various thought experiments and psychological concepts. Thinkers cited ran the gamut: classical philosophers like Pascal and Heraclitus to modern ones like Hilary Putnam and Frank Jackson. It sounds like heady stuff, but readers need not be too aware of these concepts. They’re used as jumping off points and inspirations for stories, which riff off these themes.
Take the second story here, “Game Changer.” Inspired by the famous Prisoner’s Dilemma, a piece of game theory about the advantages of cooperation vs self interest, this one follows Ali, a young boy in Greece, who journeys out into the ocean after an errant soccer ball. Ward divides the story into three endings, one for each way the experiment can go: people can cooperate towards a common goal, one can go at it alone or one can simply give up. Each shows Ali’s life taking drastically different courses, which sets up a conceit of multiple timelines that run throughout the book.
Later in the book is “New to Myself,” a story that takes inspiration from Helaclitus and asks if we’re the same person when every part of yourself is replaced as one ages, as cells die and new ones take their place:
“She wondered if she could even be the same person now that every cell in her body has been replaced, more than once. It didn’t seem to matter so much when the effect was growth and health, but now that shrinkage and damage were the order of the day, it mattered a lot. Was it possible her mind could escape the same process?” (pg 176)
But the story goes weirder from there, with themes of isolation and replacement, that someone isn’t who they’re supposed to be. These later chapters, which expand and build on similar ideas and are set in a futuristic North America, all build off one another and lead the book to it’s compelling climax.
Not all the stories work as well as those, though. The one following Rachel’s parents, who’ve retired to Brazil and a life of leisure, never quite clicks. It’s payoff only comes later, after we find out this couple’s fate; the story itself doesn’t exactly progress the plot, instead only sort of filling in some background details. Furthermore, it shows her mom as bigoted and mean-spirited, a typical English kind of anti-trans person. Take this scene, when her mom repeatedly misgenders a trans woman and expresses her malice:
Her companion waited to be introduced. He stared at Elizabeth with dark eyes in a sallow face… She wanted to slap him. These are the people Beatrice wanted her to know, the motley group of whom she was supposed to have something in common because of her daughter’s life choices. Outcasts. Women with beards and men with breasts and sad little marches and ugly clothes and always wanting to be different and difficult and angry when she was the one who should be angry.” (78-79)
Indeed, this is such a typical example of a certain attitude that it bears breaking down. First, there’s the misgendering, the way her mom refuses to see the trans character as a woman (or trans men as men). Then there’s the labelling: outcasts, she calls them, suggesting they wouldn’t fit into a proper society. There’s petty insults: the “sad little marches” where people make themselves known and find safety in a crowd. And the kicker: it’s the mom who’s the victim here, a role she puts herself in. Why? Because she doesn’t agree with what she calls her daughter’s “life choices,” a phrase suggesting that she views this as an act of rebellion, a phase, something that’s being done to spite her.
It’s a small moment in the book, but it illuminates a whole mindset and when played against the unconventional family dynamics of the book – two moms in one relationship, two dads in another – it’s attitude sets off a generational divide, one I expect Ward’s somewhat acquainted with as LBGTQ writer, one London’s The Times once called “The first high-profile British actress to come out as a lesbian.”
If Ward’s name sounds familiar, it’s because before turning to writing, Ward worked as an actress: she starred in adaptations of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and starred in more than a handful of British TV shows. But this is familiar ground for her as Ward holds a pHD in philosophy and literature. She’s also had stories published in numerous anthologies.
Typically, when an actor turns to writing, it’s usually with a gossipy autobiography or with a children’s book. Ones who write serious fiction are uncommon, especially if it’s the kind of book that wasn’t ghostwritten. With this collection, Ward doesn’t exactly reinvent herself, but she turns out a good collection and shows off a knack for the inventive and for speculative fiction.
This collection originally came out in the UK back in early 2020, but only received a North American publication this past September by Vintage. When it originally came out, it was longlisted for the Booker Prize, but didn’t win. But it shows Ward as a talented writer, and someone worth watching (for the curious, she has a new book coming out in early 2022). And while it doesn’t always work, Love and Other Thought Experiments is an interesting debut, one that sets the stage for her next novel.