Tuesday, March 2, 2010

We All Live in a Science Fiction Novel


Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Mac Rogers.

First of all, I would like to say that I'm grateful to Shay Gines, Morgan Tachco, and the rest of the IT crew for inviting me to write on “Full of IT” this week. Let me kick off with a subject that's near and dear to my heart. A few weeks ago, 99 Seats pointed out a conversation on the Guardian blog asking why there isn’t more science fiction in theater.

Last year, the invaluable Charlie Jane Anders of io9.com wrote an article on novelists who had started off as science fiction authors and then moved on to that weird, indefinable genre we call literary fiction. Anders and io9 asked them if they had left science fiction for good, and Karen Joy Fowler (Sarah Canary, The Jane Austen Book Club) responded with this marvelous quote:

“In the last couple of weeks I've read about toxoplasma — the parasite that alters our behavior until we're simply pawns in the paws of housepet cats; a woman in India found guilty of murdering her fiancé based on her brain scan; a site on the internet where for a monthly fee a computer will pray for you ceaselessly. Stan Robinson says we all live in a science fiction novel now and it's clearly true. So I truly believe that science fiction is realism now and literary realism is a nostalgic literature about a place where we once lived, but no longer do.”

I think that’s fantastic and spot-on, and an invaluable consideration for makers of theater. The Guardian piece raises the concern that’s most often associated with science fiction theater – How can we realize the spaceships and the lasers and the hovercars and the bug-eyed aliens on our limited budgets? – and of course, they’re thinking of West End and moderately budgeted London companies. That consideration goes quadruple for those of us making plays for a few thousand bucks a show, if that. But to me, that concern misses what is centrally valuable about science fiction as a genre of storytelling, not to mention what is centrally valuable about theater as a venue for storytelling.

What distinguishes science fiction from other genres, it seems to me, is its approach to the exploration of ideas and character. We’re used to action movies and thrillers set in universes with science fiction trappings (Star Wars, Alien, and everything that has issued forth from these), but genuine speculative fiction, to me, has to ask: What if we were who we are – what if we kept on being who we are, human beings who fear loneliness, want orgasms, stress about money, crave power, abuse our bodies with bad food and alcohol, stumble across odd moments of grace – and then something game-changing but entirely possible happens?

Technology escalates and offers us an advantage we couldn’t have before? We encounter an extraterrestrial species? But we’re still who we are. Not: how does something catastrophic change us? But rather: given who we are, at our cores, how do we react to catastrophic change? How do we adapt what is immutable about us to a frightening or exhilarating new context?

That’s the key. Science fiction does what any form of storytelling (when well-implemented) does: it gives us a way into looking at ourselves, both our communities and our individual hidden lives, by adding a paradigm-shifting catalyst. It’s like that substance on forensic police procedurals they spray on crime scenes to make the blood glow. Revolutionary technology or aliens are the spray. The blood is us.

I think theater is a superb venue for these sorts of stories. Sure, we can’t provide the liquid metal or the Prawns or the photon torpedoes or the Daleks (and the last thing theater should be doing is competing with film or television to realize the same effects), but what that means is that we spend less time with the catalyst and throw more of our attention to the people affected – how they are altered and how they stay the same.

No one’s expecting a play to wow them every two minutes with a computer generated effect, but sadly, in general, people are expecting plays to bore them to tears with long dark nights of the soul, secrets coming out between lovers and families, small tragedies and revelations in living rooms, discussed at great length while no one’s allowed to go to the bathroom. Science fiction makes stories a lot more fun for two reasons: 1) robots and aliens just make everything cooler, obviously, and 2), as Fowler noted, science fiction is how we’re already living. We interface with technology on a daily basis in ways we didn’t imagine a few years ago. More of our public and private lives take place in front of computer screens. We have virtual/international communities to add to our local ones. We live under the threat of chemical and biological agents that didn’t exist a decade ago. Science fiction a genre that is looked down on by a lot of people, but it might be the most relevant genre of the day.

This has gotten a bit long, so tomorrow I’ll write about some practical applications of science fiction on stage, and then Thursday and Friday I’ll move on to some other subjects.


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