Radio

The Ghastly Impermanence: Harmless Visions

From the WNYO version of The Sleeper by Michael Symmons Roberts. Photo by Kirsten McTernan.
From the WNYO version of The Sleeper by Michael Symmons Roberts. Photo by Kirsten McTernan.

I am not a science fiction fan. Though I grew up and studied as a chemist, and I continue my lifelong interest in technology, theoretical physics, genetics, and more popular scientific subjects, I find most science fiction to be deplorably dull, not merely in accordance with Sturgeon’s Principle, but often in its very basis. While I am far from averse to a ripping yarn, I am not a child. I do not look to literature primarily for inconsequential adventure or adolescent symbols of rebellion and ego. I look to literature for some insight into the world in which I live. Only when an author uses the genre and its tropes to explore this mortal world does science fiction interest me.

On that simple matter, British science fiction has always been more appealing to me than the American variety. Where American science fiction tends, like American theater and film, to be obsessed with the notion that certain individuals are “great” and “heroic,” capable not only of changing the present but the future as well–compare this, say, with Soviet film of the 1920s and 30s–British science fiction tends to know better. In British science fiction, there are individuals and there is the world but it is clear that in any battle between the two, the world always wins.

Some have called this Old World pessimism, in contrast to America’s oh-so-wide-eyed Pollyanna attitude about how marvelous we are and the future is ours and isn’t technology grand when you wield it against your enemies in a world where your government would never use it against you of course and my what a shiny screen to view the shiny reality of my shiny life in a shiny, happy polis forever and ever with eternal youth, freedom and choice. Vorsprung durch Technik, dude. But our current reality of cancerous corporatism, bioengineering, nanotechnology and Big Data tend to imply something more like Technik macht frei. As I am not a Pollyanna who dreams of a beautiful anarcho-syndicalist libertarian future in which we are all telepathically connected by electronic waves, wear jet packs and teleport instantaneously around the cosmos, I am inclined to believe that such “pessimism” is simply an injunction to remember the way things actually are before humanity flies off congratulating itself about its own awesomeness.

British science fiction excels in these types of injunctions, so it is no secret that the BBC Radio Four decided to devote much of mid-June to Dangerous Visions, a series of radio dramas with dystopian themes. One can hardly fault the talent on display. Four of the plays are adaptations, from J.G. Ballard, Jane Rogers and Michael Symmons Roberts; the other four originals from superior radio writers like Nick Perry, Ed Harris, Michael Butt, and even renowned sci-fi author Philip Palmer.

So why do these pieces leave me cold?

A series called Dangerous Visions invites comparison with Harlan Ellison’s two-part trilogy of anthologies. But what made those anthologies “dangerous” was an editorial idea: that, in Ellison’s words, the anthology should be the nouvelle vague of speculative writing, “a canvas for new writing styles, bold departures, unpopular thoughts.” Yet there is none of that in this BBC series. In terms of writing styles, the most innovative is Michael Symmons Roberts’s verse drama The Sleeper, and verse drama is far from nouvelle vague. Put this alongside the avant-garde forms of Andreas Ammer’s Radio Inferno or the work of Joe Frank and you will find it about as modern as a pince-nez.

As far as bold departures and unpopular thoughts, the series features:

  • A vision of a misogynist future courtesy of an engineered virus
  • An alien virus that destroys terrestrial life
  • Conflicts between rich London and a poor London that goes native
  • An England returned to primeval deity worship, centred around a man-made, decades long drought
  • Clones that come with insurance

Margaret Atwood, Michael Crichton, and other popular authors have been mining these themes since the 1980s. They are anything but dangerous by any standards except perhaps of those who feel threatened by anything that explores through symbol how truly screwed up the contemporary world is–which, I think, is the main purpose of science fiction.

The only new piece that comes very close to an exploration of “the impact of scientific advance upon human beings” (to use Asimov’s phrase) is Michael Butt’s Death Duty. Death Duty uses a thoroughly conventional sci-fi conceit: Big Bad Government uses a Big Machine to oppress its citizens. In this case, the machine is a lottery, whose “winner” becomes a human sacrifice to appease the God of Drought. The lottery is of course corrupt, as all governmental machines are. It spares the children of high ranking government officials until finally one bucks the trend. The setup is standard, but Mr. Butt’s superior writing elevates this old conceit to the realm of human tragedy. His delicate handling of characters in the drama makes it my favorite of the series.

Production photo for The Testament of Jessie Lamb. Courtesy BBC.
Production photo for The Testament of Jessie Lamb. Courtesy BBC.

Ed Harris’s Billions starts out well enough. A man returns home to his wife, only to find that she is actually a clone; his real wife is “not at all well” and comatose from an auto accident. The clone is provided by the insurance company to help the family through this tragic time as a human courtesy. The piece starts out on a knife-edge between satire and drama, with a wicked wit, then loses me as it tries to dip into the realm of Philip K. Dick. Each revelation about who is real and who is a clone made my frown longer until by the end I simply wished Mr. Harris had left the entire thing ambiguous. Instead, it is all too obvious both in setting and method.

I confess Nick Perry’s London Bridge does absolutely nothing for me. It is something I would expect on a slightly futuristic version of Whitechapel or, worse, CSI. The only part of it that resonated at all with me was the very final line. I feel the opposite way toward Philip Palmer’s Invasion, where the main body of the play is lovely and the ending disappoints me. The sonic environment here is claustrophobic and mysterious from the very first sound. One knows instantly that this world is far from the obvious tropes of adventure story/crime story that affect the other work in the Dangerous Visions series. Its relentless narrative is deliberate, methodical and forces the listener to work in order to put all the pieces together–exactly what I like. With a subtle treatment of its Angel of Death theme,  for forty minutes it is an excellent drama. Particularly impressive is the remarkable acting of both leads, Amita Dhiri and Edward Hogg, whom I wish to hear many times again in the future. The ending, unfortunately, smacks of a Twilight Zone episode, but the piece is still well worth hearing.

The adaptations in the series are a mixed bag. J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World suffers, I think, in this radio treatment, though I am not quite clear why myself. The sonic environment is crystalline. The acting is fine. I’m just not sure it all coheres. Ballard’s work is notoriously prose-bound and this novel in particular would challenge any attempt to make it work through narration or any other device Graham White might think to use in making it come alive.

concrete island
Georgia Groome and Andrew Scott in Concrete Island. Courtesy BBC.

The other Ballard adaptation, Concrete Island, also by Mr. White, avoids narration completely and actually gains from its translation to radio. The novel has always struck me as rich with ideas but a bit precious in execution. In Mr. White’s adaptation here, much of what is superfluous in the book has fallen away. Instead this adaptation reimagines the work in the present tense, to force the listener into the experience rather than simply witness it. Director Mary Peate has worked well with Graham White on The Unfortunates and she works well with him here. Given a much more purely relationship-based story than The Drowned World offers, Ms. Peate maintains the slightly absurd but menacing tone important to make Ballard’s novel seem like anything other than ridiculous, and her use of actor voices is perfect.

Michael Symmons Roberts’s own adaptation of his opera, The Sleeper, has the same problems of adaptation as The Drowned World. The clues within the opera libretto that something is rotten in the world of the sleep cult are visual, with no real audible equivalent. The ending therefore seems to be either a deus ex machina or a plain old cop-out. The verse is handled sensitively and the acting is excellent, but in order to accept the whole piece, one has to accept it as something more than a simple undercover cop story. I do not think the radio version quite succeeds.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb I have not read, so I will not comment on it as an adaptation. Originally I listened to it in 15-minute bits rather than in its omnibus form. This may have stolen some of its impact, but probably made me more tolerant of the character than I would have been had I been stuck with her for over an hour. The casting strikes me as well-met, but Jessie Lamb is such an obnoxious, shallow and self-centered character that I have difficulty processing the story. I am sure the novel’s author Jane Rogers (who also adapted it for radio) wants me to consider that the entire fate of mankind is in the hands of youth. I accept that such youth may be quite heroic, while also eminently unpleasant. Convinced of these things, however, I still wait for the author to make it worthwhile to suffer the unpleasantness. The radio version contains only Jessie’s version of the story, and perhaps that is what leaves me slightly alienated from it. The other two voices in the novel would probably make me more sympathetic to the entire situation in which Jessie finds herself. I will let you know after I read the novel. As it is, the radio version is thoughtful and dramatic, but strikes me as incomplete.

All in all, this is a fair series of fair dramas but it is nothing outstanding. It is most certainly not dangerous. Had it been, I suspect it would not have been on Radio Four. Greg L. Johnson noted about Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthology that the real reason for its reputation was “not for its stylistic experimentation, but simply because it contained a high number of good ideas turned into good stories. That these writers were consciously seeking new ways of expressing those stories and ideas was an added bonus.” That last sentence hides a greater truth. It was not a bonus: it was the entire point of the anthology. Those “good ideas” Mr. Johnson appreciates required the “stylistic experimentation” he slights. The two are inseparable. Ellison’s goal was to revolutionize the genre with material and style that editors of the time simply would not touch. New ideas require new ways of expressing those ideas: new wine does not go gently into old bottles.

There are neither new ideas nor forms in these quasi-dangerous visions from the BBC. Perhaps this is because science fiction is no longer the hidebound genre it was in the 1960s. Even the laity now accept that science fiction can reach incredibly high levels of artistry. A science fiction writer these days has at her disposal all the tools and ideas already established within the genre, which has grown astronomically (forgive the pun) since the first Dangerous Visions arrived on the literary scene. It is very difficult in our rather permissive and ostensibly tolerant society to devise anything that might rupture people’s view of the genre, or, goodness forbid, offend them with provocative visions. The BBC have not done so. I doubt anyone will anytime soon, particularly in the extremely conservative genre of science fiction radio.

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net