I grew up on live theater; my mother was a drama teacher and playwright, and I myself earned my thespian points in high school. So when a troupe called The Pulp Stage invited me to an evening of “bite-sized” plays, I was intrigued.
The Pulp Stage is a Portland, Oregon, theater company whose mission is to find ways of making theater that appeals to people accustomed to movies, TV, and computer games. As its name suggests, it is particularly interested in science fiction, fantasy, and suspense. On the evening in question, there were five ten-minute plays, all derived from stories by professional-grade authors. One, for example, was based on a short story by four-time Hugo and Nebula winner Nancy Kress.
Defying most modern conventions, the group’s playwrights had converted these stories into dialog-only stagings in which the actors read their lines from iPads, and the only movement was when they entered or exited a scene . . . by the simple expedient of rising from a chair or sitting back down. Other than occasional facial gestures, there was no action.
When needed, a narrator would fill in background information, but at least two of the plays had no narration whatsoever. One involved a darkly humorous meeting between a hit man and his client, in which it wasn’t clear who might ultimately wind up dead. The other was the Nancy Kress story. Based on her 1994 Omni magazine short “Margin of Error,” it was a two-actress affair, focusing on a confrontation between sisters engaged in nanotech research, with the future of humanity hanging in the balance. All of the stories developed real tension, even thought I could have shut my eyes and missed nothing important.
It helped that the actors were good. But the whole concept was shockingly subversive.1 Today’s science fiction movies are spectacles. We’ve grown so accustomed to them that we take phrases like “eye candy” and “brainless” for granted. After one such movie, I remember being appalled when a friend shrugged off its illogic by casually commenting: “It’s science fiction; it’s not supposed to make sense.”
But for a few minutes, I was exposed to the opposite perspective. In introducing the evening, one of the actors suggested that the simplicity taps into a deep tradition. “If the professors are correct, drama started with a campfire and a story,” he said.
“I’m passionate about great storytelling and particularly the magic of oral storytelling,” adds Matt Haynes, the group’s founder and artistic director. “There are few things more inspiring or empowering than getting taken on a ride with zero tech.”
Not that this concept is as radical in theater as it is in science fiction movies. Shakespeare’s plays were written to be performed with minimal sets (although they did call for props), and more recent theater has long had room both for productions like Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, whose script calls for “an empty stage in half-light,” with “no curtain, no scenery,” and extravaganzas like Les Miserables, whose intricate, rapidly changing sets represent a triumph of both set design and stage management.
But there’s another rule of theater: set design needs to serve the story, not supplant it. For those of us who love the printed word, this should be no surprise. We know that ultimately, the story that matters takes place not on the stage (or page) but in the minds of the viewers (or readers). All too often, the fancy stuff grafted onto today’s movies is a distraction or, worse, an excuse for producers to focus on visuals at the expense of story.
Not that fancy visuals are always bad. Part of what made The Martian an exceptional film was that the effects made it look as though Matt Damon’s character really was marooned on Mars. Rather than intruding on the story, these effects helped establish it: increasing the focus on the hero’s efforts to survive and find his way back to Earth.2
There are, of course, other circumstances in which a picture (or special effect) really is worth a thousand words. In 2011, Wired polled its readers on what they thought were the best science fiction/fantasy special effects of all time. And while there were plenty of nominations for things like the sandworm in Dune or the liquid-metal assassin of Terminator 2, the one Wired chose to put top on its list was a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey in which, on a spaceship in free fall, a stewardess nonchalantly plucks a floating pen out of the air and begins to write with it.
It’s an example of what is sometimes called the telling detail: a tidbit that uniquely helps set a scene. It worked particularly well in 2001 because in 1968, when that movie was made, it couldn’t be done with CGI3 and was utterly unexpected. More than anything else, that single effect made viewers feel they were in space.
Such details can also work their simple magic in print. One of the most famous is in Robert A. Heinlein’s 1942 novel Beyond This Horizon, which opens with a character searching for an office, pushing a button, and nonchalantly watching as the door “dilated.” That little detail was an instant revelation that wherever this story was set, it wasn’t 1942 America.
One can argue that neither the floating pen nor the dilating door is realistic. I lose enough pens around my home, where gravity should keep them parked in place, that I can’t imagine letting them drift around in zero gee. And an irising door is circular, which means that unless it’s in zero gee (not the case in Heinlein’s story) it’s going to have a rim that would be easy to trip over. But from a storytelling point of view, does anyone care? The more important point is that given just a modicum of information to work with, our imaginations are amazing at surrounding us with entire worlds. We simply don’t need all the fancy high-tech eye candy we’ve become so accustomed to seeing.
It’s something we knew long ago as children. How many parents have been startled to discover that their kids would rather play with the boxes their fancy toys came in than with the toys themselves? But when you think about it, it’s not so surprising. The toy is constrained to be whatever its manufacturer created it to be. A box can become anything: rocket ship, racecar, sailboat, time machine—children’s imaginations know no bounds.
Science fiction has long been called the literature of ideas, not the literature of special effects. Could it be that all the high-tech details are too often nothing more than over-engineered toys that strangle our imaginations and stop us from flying to the moons of Procyon IV in cardboard boxes of our own imagination?
* * *
Entertainment isn’t the only arena in which this is a concern. All the way back in 2006, Time magazine wrote about how multitasking is bad for the brain—ironic, I will admit, because I draft-wrote much of the first half of this editorial while half-watching my local basketball team fight for its life in the NBA playoffs (they lost). And while writing while watching basketball is an extreme example of multitasking (one that for me forced a very careful rewrite) it’s symptomatic of modern life. We live in a world of constant stimulation, frequent distraction, and limited opportunities for the adult equivalent of playing with boxes.
We are surrounded by a fantastic world our grandparents could never have imagined . . . and too busy with it to pay attention to the parts that our grandparents might still recognize.
In 1986, I took a summer off and bicycled solo across the U.S., armed with little but maps and sixty pounds of camping gear. When I later wrote a book about it, I described the journey as a decision to exit the fast lane and spend a summer not just in the slow lane but (literally) on the road shoulder. I calculated that my average pace (including sleep time, rest breaks, meals, inching up giant hills, etcetera) was a little over 3.2 miles per hour. I also realized, a bit to my shock, that once I’d settled into the slow rhythms of the trip in the first couple of days, I had never been bored. Cold, wet, windblown, and miserable, yes. Bored, never.
Since then, on the rare occasions I’ve taught writing seminars, one of the exercises I assign is for people to go somewhere relatively quiet, sit down, and basically watch the grass grow. It’s not as boring as the cliché implies, because what it teaches you is to observe.
A few days after the basketball game, I found myself finishing this editorial in a park on a hot spring day. There wasn’t much going on, but there were joggers on a nearby track, cottonwood seeds in the air, and commuter traffic on the road behind me displaying all the moods of urban drivers on a too-hot afternoon.
Eventually people from my running club were scheduled to use the track for their evening workout, and I would shift my attention to them. But in the interim, other than the risk of shorting out my keyboard with sweat (the temperature was approaching 90°), it wasn’t a bad place to sit and think.
Sitting there, I wondered how much my musings were inspired by my earlier reference to Our Town, which centers on a young woman who, after her death, gets a chance to relive one perfect day. Her heartrending conclusion: “I didn’t realize. It goes so fast . . . Oh Earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?”
I realized that not everyone has the privilege (or desire) to do as I was doing: writing, thinking, and watching the grass grow as I waited for my runners to arrive. But I’m going to suggest that my summer on the road shoulder and The Pulp Stage underscore the same basic fact of life: a critical one that children playing with boxes are not yet to old to have forgotten.
From the children’s perspective, it’s the power of using our own imaginations, rather than deferring to someone else’s. From the adults’ perspective, it’s the power of training ourselves to observe. Could it be that they both exercise the same part of our brains?
A friend recently suggested setting aside a day a week to free ourselves from high-tech distractions; she calls it an “electronic Sabbath,” though she herself isn’t Jewish or Christian.
It’s an interesting idea, though I’m not sure the set-aside has to be as radical as a full day off. My hour sitting by the track was one of the most relaxing times I’d had in weeks, even though I was definitely tethered to my computer, if for no other reason than that I’d rather type than try to decipher my handwriting, later on. But I do think there’s major value to setting aside time to think, imagine, and observe. That, more than anything else, was the lesson from my long-ago summer observing life from the road shoulder.
Happily, as people who enjoy reading plain, unadorned words on paper and imagining what they depict, Analog readers may be well ahead of most of the world in doing so.
Pulp Stage founder and artistic director Haynes puts it all in terms of delight. That, he thinks, is the greatest purpose of storytelling, though he defines it broadly enough to include not just the excitement, during the story, of wondering what will happen next, but the excitement, afterward, of trying to figure it out in greater detail. “With delight,” he says, “comes mind refreshment: an ongoing, waking equivalent to a good night’s sleep and restful dreams.”
And while he doesn’t say it directly, his work with The Pulp Stage suggests that he believes that an essential part of delight lies in freeing the imagination to do what it does best. Which, again, is exactly what print science fiction, at its best, has always done.
1 The Pulp Stage isn’t the only troupe doing such presentations. Elsewhere, it’s sometimes called reader’s theater.
2 Me, I’d have given last year’s special effects Oscar to The Martian, but the movie that did win, Ex Machina, used its effects for basically the same purpose, helping establish the robot Ava as both alive and non-human. One movie used effects to create a setting; the other used them to create a character.
3 To produce this effect, director Stanley Kubrick glued the pen to a pane of glass and carefully filmed the scene so the glass was invisible.
Richard A. Lovett is one of the most prolific contributors in Analog history. A former law professor, he not only holds a law degree, but a Ph.D. in economics and a B.S. in astrophysics. He also coaches distance runners, including several Olympic Trials competitors, and has worked as a travel writer, humorist, hazardous-waste analyst, sports writer, and food-safety and nutrition writer. He once did a hundred-mile cross-country ski race north of the Arctic Circle in Greenland and coached a woman to fifth place in the world championships in the grueling sport of snowshoe racing, in which he himself competed three times in the national championships.
His short-story collection, Phantom Sense and Other Stories (collaborations with fellow Analog mainstay Mark Niemann-Ross), is available in print or ebook from www.amazon.com and Kindle. Early this year he published another Analog-related book, Here Be There Dragons: Exploring the Fringes of Human Knowledge, from the Rings of Saturn to the Mysteries of Memory, containing eighteen of his more popular Analog fact articles, all updated for 2017. Find him on Facebook, or at www.richardalovett.com.