In space, nobody can hear you say you didn’t “get” it: theatre, science fiction, and genre snobbery

Ian Farnell
University of Warwick

The British author Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Machines Like Me (2019), is set in ‘an alternative 1980s London’, in which ‘Britain has lost the Falklands war, Margaret Thatcher battles Tony Benn for power and Alan Turing achieves a breakthrough in artificial intelligence’.1 This counterfactual timeline, in which technology has leapt ahead of our own present capabilities with the arrival of lifelike androids, allows McEwan to explore the shifting meanings of consciousness and morality in the age of man and machine. Promoting the release, he gave numerous interviews on the book’s contemporary resonance, one of which featured the following passage:

McEwan has an abiding faith that novels are the best place to examine such ethical dilemmas, though he has little time for conventional science fiction. “There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future, not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas”2  

Inevitably, McEwan’s comments immediately drew the ire of science fiction fans and authors alike. The reaction on Twitter verged between the furious and the facetious, with most responses keen to point out (kindly or otherwise) that the genre has always engaged with ‘human dilemmas’ and the current state of the world, be it through only slight changes to the present condition or, indeed, by travelling beyond the speed of light and/or wearing anti-gravity boots:

For many respondents, McEwan’s off-hand denial of any inherent value to science fiction (while simultaneously appropriating aspects of its themes and imagery) illustrates the alienation and disparagement experienced by the science fiction community at the hands of an apparently more highbrow, “worthy” literary realm. As Sarah Ditum explained in an article responding to the furore, the genre retains something of an ‘outsider status’ because it is often treated ‘as a kind of insalubrious “other” against which literary authors can demonstrate their superiority’.3 This leads to what she terms ‘genre snobbery’, which sees McEwan ‘drawing an impermeable boundary between literary fiction and science fiction, and placing himself firmly on the respectable side of the line’.4

The line between literary and science fiction is an ongoing debate that I cannot here award the space it deserves, but the responses to McEwan’s comments highlight the depth of feeling that this issue provokes. Some authors have navigated this territory successfully – Iain Banks, for example, wrote both mainstream and science fiction, publishing the latter with the addition of his middle ‘M’ initial; he also negated any sense of literary pretension by entirely embracing the science fiction community, once proudly yelling ‘These are my people!’ at a fan convention.5 Margaret Atwood, meanwhile, has explicitly rejected the science fiction label when discussing her own novels, preferring to think of them as speculative fiction, which by her understanding offers ‘a slight twist on the society we have now’.6 Over time, however, she has tempered her stance: in her non-fiction collection In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (2012), she recounts a conversation with renowned science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin, in which Atwood realised that her own understanding of speculative fiction matches Le Guin’s definition of science fiction, and vice versa. This encouraged her to reflect that ‘bendiness of terminology, literary genre-swapping, and inter-genre visiting’ is an intrinsic part of science fiction’s ability to reinvent and reimagine itself.7 For Atwood, then, the line between literary and science (or speculative) fiction might well exist, but ‘when it comes to genres, the borders are increasingly undefended, and things slip back and forth across them with insouciance’.8

I take this last comment as indicative of a wider shift in the perception of science fiction, which has over numerous years accrued a significant cultural stock. Two changes seem to have precipitated this, the first being the absolute ascension of technology within our daily lives, prompting questions about our present and future state that science fiction is well-equipped to handle. Second (and partly as a result of this first development, though in of itself probably the more important change) is the immense position of privilege enjoyed by the genre in contemporary popular culture. From television shows such as Black Mirror and Doctor Who, to cinematic franchises such as the ongoing Star Wars saga and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which exhibits significant inter-genre borrowing in its mix of superheroes whose powers range from science-fictional super-suits to supernatural and magical abilities), genre works now wield massive cultural capital across various narratives, which are treated as collectively shared and celebrated reference points – the “water cooler moments” – for a great number of people. In a recent article, Steve Rose compared their influence to religion:

We congregate in large numbers to watch them, we devote hours of study to them, we support them financially, we adorn ourselves with their merchandise and we get very angry when others speak against them. […] Outside the pop-culture bubble, religious and political hatred divide us; by comparison, stories such as Avengers and Game of Thrones unite us on a planetary level.9

Facetious as this might seem, I would not rush to disagree; the sarcastic undercurrent to the online drubbing of McEwan’s interview demonstrates the passionate territorial defensiveness that ensues when our favourite pop-culture product is derided.10 This indicates just how far the cultural tables have turned: if once it were acceptable to flaunt one’s disinterest in or disapproval of science fiction, the genre’s central place in contemporary pop culture now makes this same lack of engagement seem aloof, or behind the times. As Atwood came to realise, the borders between science fiction (as well as other fantastical genres) and mainstream or realist fiction have, in most media, been breached; indeed, in many cases, science fiction is now just part of the mainstream.

Most, but not all media. The McEwan affair has prompted me to think about how science fiction is perceived in theatre. Staging science fiction is a relatively recent phenomenon – Alan Ayckbourn wrote several sci-fi comedies in the twentieth century, and if we were feeling generous, we could consider earlier works such as Margaret Cavendish’s 1666 play The Blazing World as a forerunner of science fiction, as Dale Spender has done.11  But it is only really in the last two decades that practitioners have begun to experiment with how the genre might be truly theatricalised; even then, much of the output is concentrated in the last handful of years. Now that the impact of the cultural investment in science fiction is resonating strongly in the theatre, it is worth considering how our relationship to the wider genre impacts our experience of a play which incorporates some elements of science fiction. What cultural baggage do we bring to discussing science fiction in performance? Does our reaction to science fiction in theatre reflect or contest the broader debates around genre snobbery? I will be exploring these concepts via the British playwright Alistair McDowall, and his most recent play, X, which premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2016, and was set on Pluto in the wake of a desolated Earth. 

McDowall is, by his own frequent confession, a fan of science fiction and popular culture in general – his plays feature references to Indiana Jones, Batman and HP Lovecraft, whilst his interviews are peppered with nods to Stephen King, Battlestar Galactica, and Dungeons & Dragons. Yet, like Atwood, he has contested applying the science fiction label to his work: in an interview with The Independent, he states that although X ‘has the most obvious genre trappings of anything I’ve done – it’s space; there’s a space suit in it – I don’t think I could comfortably class it as science fiction: it’s a relationship drama that just happens to be set in space’.12 Elsewhere, he has stated that ‘I really think people would struggle to call it science fiction after seeing it’.13 Being so familiar with the genre, McDowall will almost certainly understand the implications of claiming his work is not science fiction. Thus, when he chooses to reject the label, is he, like McEwan, placing himself above an indistinct mass of generic works? I would be very surprised if that were the case – in an article published in the Guardian, he has described his own work as responding to ‘the information-rich and hyper-connected culture we’ve built for ourselves. Where everyone’s a fan of something, and the box-set reigns’.14 Clearly, McDowall is too happily ensconced within the pop-cultural state of contemporary existence than to treat it derivatively. Rather, I have little doubt that he is, like Atwood, practising some terminological bendiness – his plays are, in his own words, ‘aggressively theatrical’, and he is interested, as critics have identified, in only writing work that ‘have to be plays, that fully exploit theatre’s unique potential as a live, collective experience’.15 By refusing to shut off potential avenues of both theatrical and generic comparison, he leaves his audience to interpret his work as they see fit. It is worth flagging up here that my own article in Contemporary Theatre Review (‘Science Fiction and the Theatre of Alistair McDowall’) may seem to go some way to reducing the conversation back to that of genre. This is not my intent, and I hope that it is evident that I am instead attempting to show how science-fictional concepts have indeed influenced McDowall, but more importantly, that he has reimagined them within the wider mechanics of live performance – his use of time machines and space stations is not just for generic effect, but expresses new, determinedly theatrical ideas. Though I admit, the title is a bit misleading.16

How, then, has X been interpreted? Most critical reaction to the piece engaged with the play on its merits, even if reviewers found the piece challenging or slippery. Dominic Cavendish, for the Telegraph, best summarised this sentiment when he wrote: ‘Was I tempted to scream? A little. But that’s partly the point: the pioneering provocation fires up the cylinders of debate. Mission accomplished’.17 Elsewhere, reviewers commented positively on the play’s science-fictional aspects, approaching them in the wider context of the performance: Catherine Love noted that X, like ‘the best sci-fi’, plays cleverly ‘on our deepest fears and preoccupations’, while Andrzej Lukowski praised McDowall’s interpretation of the genre as a ‘neato metaphor for the human mind [which] more playwrights should explore’.18 However, he also noted that ‘the show is so unabashedly other that I suspect it’ll be heavily misunderstood by folk suspicious of something that’s as influenced by 2001 and Event Horizon as any of the theatre canon’.19 

He was not wrong. Perhaps the most damning critical trend was expressed by Anne Treneman, who wrote that ‘people who go to see X will wonder if they “got it”. It’s that kind of play’. Her tone throughout is relatively dismissive, drawing on a smorgasbord of generic terminology to express her distaste:

It’s all rather queasy-making […] There’s a bit of horror, a smidge of schmaltz. It’s all packed into this two-hour dystopian space odyssey. I’m surprised that the Royal Court’s artistic director, Vicky Featherstone, could keep up.20

Her views were echoed by Mark Shenton, who also noted that he ‘didn’t “get” it’, having also trivialised the production as ‘a B-movie version of a space station’, replete with actors who ‘don’t look much like fit astronauts’.21 Shenton in fact has previous form here: he found Anne Washburn’s 2014 play Mr Burns (which the survival of The Simpsons in a post-apocalyptic landscape, thus being both highly pop-cultural and science-fictional) to be so offensive that he actively avoided her next production. Her next piece, in fact, was a stage adaptation of cult TV classic The Twilight Zone – given Shenton’s distaste for her theatricalization of The Simpsons, he probably did well to avoid it.22

What does it mean, to say you do not “get” something? On the one hand, it does not necessarily mean that the play in question has no value, merely that it has been placed out of reach and comprehension, via any number of influencing factors: poor direction, a patchy script, sub-par performances, or a confusing mise en scène. On the other, it implies a certain level of resistance, a reluctance to engage with the piece on its own terms. Treneman and Shenton, in announcing that they did not “get” it, therefore seem to be laying the blame at the feet of the production. However, the meat of each review fails to point out any significant dramatic defects with the piece, and instead resorts to dredging up various science-fictional clichés of dystopian space odysseys and B-movie space stations, as evidence of the play’s inferiority. Just as telling is Treneman’s incredulity that director Vicky Featherstone could ‘keep up’ with the play’s narrative – an attitude that suggests a kind of obvious, widely-shared understanding on Treneman’s part that X was naturally incomprehensible, that nothing could be done to salvage it, and that Featherstone gave it her best shot. This reveals that her ultimate criticism lies not with the production, nor even with the script, but the concept itself. 

Why this total rejection? Perhaps Shenton and Treneman feel that they lack the cultural currency to participate in an equitable discussion of a play which draws on a cultural capital with which they have little familiarity. Perhaps not “getting” it is a way of disguising this deficit. It is difficult (even ideologically dubious) to ascribe motive or narrative to a subjective, critical review, and I am aware that this is exactly what I am doing. However, from their tone and lack of serious engagement with X, it seems sensible to conclude that they likely entered the auditorium with preconceived, almost certainly negative, assumptions of science fiction, and were perhaps unwilling to have these beliefs challenged; in effect, they exhibited genre snobbery. In the wider context of science fiction, this lack of receptivity is problematic because, as Ditum pointed out earlier, the genre is often used as a punchbag by authors of a literary bent. Thus, when critics announce that they simply do not “get” X, they are leaning (consciously or otherwise) on the assumption that science fiction is of a lower cultural quality. 

It is worth clarifying that not every science fiction play has been met with this reception. Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, for instance, was critically lauded when it opened at the Royal Court in 2014, and subsequently transferred to the West End; its exploration of virtual reality and three-dimensional, immersive holographic experience did not encounter much critical resistance. Nor should my highlighting of these negative reviews encourage the suggestion that all science fiction plays deserve a critical free pass. However, I believe that this is a debate worth having, because the theatre has only relatively recently begun to incorporate science fiction, and these early attempts (and their critical reactions) can shape the long-term perceptions of the genre in performance. At this juncture, while the majority of critical responses to X and other plays influenced by science fiction are undertaken in good faith and engage willingly with the theatricality of the piece, the attitudes of Treneman and Shenton reduce the conversation to a subjective, derivative discussion of genre. Ultimately, this bias against genre stories (or any other narrative form) runs the risk, as McEwan did previously, of demarcating between stories which do or do not belong on the stage. As something of a litmus test in this regard, I find myself eagerly awaiting the critical reaction to David Greig’s upcoming stage adaptation of Stanisław Lem’s science fiction novel Solaris (1961). Lem’s narrative has much in common with X: both are set on space stations, within which the characters remain isolated, and both feature inexplicable events beyond the scope of immediate comprehension. It will therefore be interesting, given these similarities, whether the objections raised against X – that it resembled the creaky tropes of outmoded sci-fi cinema – will be revisited in Greig’s version, or whether its status as a literary classic (enhanced by its film adaptations under acclaimed directors Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972, and Steven Soderbergh in 2002) shields it from this treatment and instead positions it, as Ditum would put it, on the respectable side of the line. 

Regardless of whether critics draw favourable comparisons between Solaris and X or not, McDowall himself has expressed a desire not to see this line redrawn at the stage. In fact, he would no doubt be disappointed at the rejection of any form of theatrical experience, science-fictional or otherwise – in his Guardian article, he is at pains to position science fiction and popular culture within a mosaic of interconnected ideas, all of which have equal value and relevance:

The smashing together of marginal and mainstream, high- and lowbrow, fact and fiction, has carried over from the internet into every art form […] Theatre seems one of the last places for this to take hold. I’ve seen countless plays that tip hats to the theatrical heritage of this country and others, plays that fuse dance and other live arts, but in my experience it’s rare to see a play that feels truly woven into the vast cultural network we inhabit […] I think it’s a mistake to put up fences between entertainment and art, between high-and lowbrow, between theatre and anything else. It’s all the same. It’s all diversion. It’s all brain food.23

The more interesting questions posed by science fiction’s arrival on the stage are not whether it belongs there: as McDowall suggests, there is room in theatre for the traditional, the innovative, the rarefied and the popular. Instead, we should turn our attention to how science fiction is interpreted via the unique medium of live performance, through living bodies and collective experiences. As the theatre continues to familiarise itself with the genre and wider popular culture, critics, scholars and audiences alike must ask themselves: do we wish to limit our dramatic experience? Or should we recognise that regardless of genre, it’s all theatre, it’s all brain food? There is, to my mind, nothing to be gained by transplanting genre snobbery to the stage, or by fabricating generic divisions between Greig’s Solaris and McDowall’s X. As Iain Banks teaches us, these are our people.

Ian Farnell is a Wolfson Foundation-funded student at the University of Warwick, where he received an MPhil upon completion of his MA by Research. He has been published in Studies in Theatre and Performance, and has written on Alistair McDowall for Sci-Fi: A Companion (published by Peter Lang). He can be found at www.stagethefinalfrontier.co.uk

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Notes:

  1. Penguin, ‘Machines Like Me, Ian McEwan’. Penguin publishing website, date unknown. https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/111/1117889/machines-like-me/9781787331662.html [accessed 20.06.2019]
  2. Tim Adams, ‘Interview, Ian McEwan: ‘Who’s going to write the algorithm for the little white lie?’. Guardian, 14th April 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/apr/14/ian-mcewan-interview-machines-like-me-artificial-intelligence [accessed 19.06.2019]
  3. Sarah Ditum, ‘It drives writers mad’: why are authors still sniffy about sci-fi?’. Guardian, 18th April 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/apr/18/it-drives-writers-mad-why-are-authors-still-sniffy-about-sci-fi [accessed 22.06.2019]
  4. ibid.
  5. Paul  Kincaid, Iain M. Banks – Modern Masters of Science Fiction series (Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2017), p.25.
  6. Valerie Martin, ‘Author Q&A’. Random House for High School Teachers, October 2006. http://www.randomhouse.com/highschool/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780307264602&view=qa [accessed 26.06.2019]
  7. Margaret Atwood, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (London: Hachette, 2012), p.7.
  8. ibid.
  9. Steve Rose, ‘The new nerds: how Avengers and Game of Thrones made everyone geek out’, Guardian, 1st May 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/may/01/the-new-nerds-how-avengers-and-game-of-thrones-made-everyone-geek-out [accessed 26.06.2019]
  10. To be fair to McEwan, he has since attempted to correct the record in an interview with Wired Magazine, (https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.wired.com/2019/05/geeks-guide-ian-mcewan/winamp/) in which he states that he enjoys many science fiction books and films, and that he would be very happy – ‘honoured, even’ – if people considered Machines Like Me to be science fiction. He does, however, further muddy the waters by then saying ‘But it’s much else, that’s all I’m trying to say’.
  11. Dale Spender, Mothers of the Novel (London: Pandora Press, 1986), p.43.
  12. Holly Williams, ‘Alistair McDowall’, Independent, 20th March 2016 http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/features/alistair-mcdowall-the-future-of-british-theatre-on-setting-a-play-on-pluto-and-sympathising-with-his-a6939136.html [accessed 24.06.2019]
  13. Mary Halton, ‘Interview: Alistair McDowall, Exeunt Magazine, 29th March 2016 http://exeuntmagazine.com/features/interview-alistair-mcdowall/ [accessed 22.06.2019]
  14. Alistair McDowall, ‘Where are all the plays about today’s hyper-connected world?’, Guardian, 6th November 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2014/nov/06/plays-today-hyper-connected-culture-mr-burns-teh-internet [accessed 23.06.2019]
  15. Williams, Independent, March 2016.
  16. TBC ADD CTR DOI
  17. Dominic Cavendish, ‘X rivetingly marks the birth of the sly-fi genre’, Telegraph, 6th April 2016 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/theatre/what-to-see/the-royal-courts-x-sees-the-birth-of-a-new-genre-sly-fi—review/ [accessed 20.06.2019]
  18. Catherine Love, ‘Review: X at the Royal Court’. Exeunt Magazine, 7th April 2016. http://exeuntmagazine.com/reviews/review-x-at-royal-court/ [accessed 24.05.2019]
  19. Andrzej Lukowski, ‘X’. Time Out London, 6th April 2016. https://www.timeout.com/london/theatre/x [accessed 25.06.2019]
  20. Anne Treneman, ‘Space odyssey’s out of this world…but not in a good way’. The Times, 6th April 2016. Print, p.17.
  21. Mark Shenton, ‘X review’. London Theatre, 6th April 2016. https://www.londontheatre.co.uk/reviews/x-review-alistair-mcdowalls-new-play-at-the-royal-court-theatre [accessed 25.06.2019]
  22. This production later transferred to the West End, again demonstrating the incredible cultural (and commercial) capital that science fiction and popular culture wield.
  23. McDowall, Guardian, 2016.

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