This is a review article I wrote for Vector back in 2010. I should note that my views on sf poetry have changed somewhat since then.
These days, the forms of SF and fantasy most people encounter will be fiction, film and television. However, I have been recently reminded that it also exists in other forms, though they are often far less visible. I wondered why this might be. Is it that some narrative forms are better suited to SF than others? Is it actually possible to create science fiction poetry or drama, to take two examples?
In February 2010, on the Guardian’s Theatre blog, Natasha Tripney posed a similar question, asking: “Shouldn’t there be more sci-fi on stage?” Tripney speculated that contemporary playwrights were afraid of looking silly if they did try to bring science fiction into the theatre: “playwrights who choose to stray into sci-fi territory often do so almost apologetically – creating plausible near futures, recognisable worlds that differ from ours in only minor details.” This seems hardly surprising, not least because SF on film has undoubtedly raised expectations about how SF drama should look. Tripney herself noted that “what might be acceptable on screen and paper can look absurd on stage”. I think it’s telling that the book-to-theatre adaptations she cites – Blind Summit’s version of 1984 and Poul Ruders’s opera of The Handmaid’s Tale – adhere to the “recognisable world” model. Perhaps the closest the stage can get to “proper” science fiction is through the portrayal of androids or robots; Tripney mentions Alan Ayckbourn’s Comic Potential and Tamsin Oglesby’s recent Really Old, Like Forty Five, and we should also recall Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. Reading the comments on the post, it seems that for many people, science fiction in the theatre means spectacle or something deeply outré, preferably both. Ken Campbell’s huge productions of Illuminatus! and The Warp from the 1970s were invoked again, the implication being that science fiction theatre also means weird and unwieldy performances, something that is clearly not going to suit a West End theatre audience.
If we have a particular idea of how science fiction should look, it becomes too easy to miss stage productions that aren’t obviously presented as SF. I’d argue that J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls – revived by Stephen Daldry at the National Theatre in 1992 to great acclaim – is as much science fiction as it is social critique. Priestley was interested in J.W. Dunne’s theory of time and this is reflected in all the Time Plays, An Inspector Calls among them. I don’t doubt that a sophisticated SF reader would surely appreciate Priestley’s arguments. More recently, the National Theatre has returned to Priestley with a well-received production of Time and the Conways, though his fascination with time is, in this play, less immediately obvious and it inclines more towards drawing-room drama. However, T.S. Eliot’s The Family Reunion, produced at the Donmar Warehouse last year, played with ideas of time and identity in ways that seemed entirely familiar to me as an SF reader.
However, to return to Tripney’s blog post, a number of comments suggest that the real SF theatre action arises in smaller, regional venues and in places where – and it seems odd to say this – the suspension of disbelief becomes a more self-conscious exercise. One commenter talked about “leaving room for the audience/reader to do some of the imaginative work for themselves”, which I had naively supposed was what theatre was actually about. This suggests that there is a received idea of what a stage production ought to be like. Without an elaborate West End-style set, how can one put on a play set on an alien planet? If one understands that one is in a theatre with a limited budget for sets and so on, it becomes suddenly possible. Anecdotal evidence suggests that all over Britain small theatre companies are putting on all kinds of adventurous productions that most of us will never ever see because of their inevitably limited outreach. I wonder what we are missing.
Which leads me to the play script for The Last Pixel Show by Graham Andrews. Produced by New Theatre Publications, a publishing house owned by the Playwrights’ Cooperative, it is a one-act drama clearly aimed at a small (presumably amateur) theatrical company. The plot revolves around a scientist who has run into a problem with his computer which has been subjected to a power surge from a supernova and is now behaving oddly. The scientist suspects that this is evidence of artificial intelligence having achieved autonomy. Unfortunately, no one will listen to him, and the bulk of the drama revolves around a set of almost incomprehensible interactions between various people who seek first to understand and then dismiss his claims.
Why, one might ask, are the characters so desperate to reject the notion of the existence of an autonomous artificial intelligence? It is clearly not out of fear, nor out of scientific ignorance. Despite its curious 1970s feel in terms of character portrayals and gender attitudes, this is a world where such things as holographic communication are normal, to the point of being annoying when they don’t function properly. However, by the same token, there is a lot of curiously unnecessary explanation of computers and how they work, couched in language that once again takes us back to the 1970s. In the end, I feel the science-fictional element of this playlet is included for rather ham-fisted comic effect rather than as a contribution to the genre.
Two recent publications from Hilltop Press – Mistaking the Nature of the Posthuman by Steve Sneyd (described by Ian McMillan as “the best science-fiction poet in the land”) and Time Grows Thin, a collection of the work of Lilith Lorraine, compiled by Sneyd –reflect the beginnings and current state of SF poetry, and raise similar questions. There is no way of knowing how many science fiction poets there are in the world, but clearly enough exist to sustain the Science Fiction Poetry Association which gives two annual Rhysling Awards (named for the blind poet Rhysling in Heinlein’s “The Green Hills of Earth”). Many well-known names are featured among the winners but how many of them are known primarily as poets? Conversely, how much does science fiction poetry impinge on the consciousness of the average science fiction reader, let alone those outside the genre? In the same way that I wonder whether theatre can be a successful medium for science fiction, I question whether poetry and science fiction are suited to one another.
There is a long history of the fantastic in poetry, stretching as far back as Beowulf. My favourite medieval poem is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; it is clearly a favourite of a lot of present-day poets, with Simon Armitage the latest to recast it in modern English. Samuel Taylor Coleridge had more than a passing taste for the fantastic (“Christabel”, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan” are three that spring to mind). Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”, Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” and Browning’s “Childe Rolande to the Dark Tower Came” shouldn’t be overlooked, while across the Atlantic, Edgar Allan Poe was as much poet as short-story writer. In modern times, perhaps the nearest we come to something science fictional is the Martian poetry movement, active in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in which poets – most notably Craig Raine – sought to defamiliarise the familiar by describing ordinary things as though they were being seen by a Martian. I doubt whether it was science fiction in the strict sense of the term but it chimed with the desire to unsettle the perceptions that seemed to emerge in post-New Wave SF. And more importantly, it was visible and discussed outside the genre.
Although Lilith Lorraine was at one time well-known among genre readers, her work was probably not that visible to outsiders and even within the genre she had been forgotten until Steve Sneyd began to promote her work. A good half of Time Grows Thin is taken up with the results of his biographical research and Lorraine’s story is undoubtedly fascinating. Lilith Lorraine is the pen name of Mary Maud Dunn Wright who was a newspaper reporter and radio announcer as well as an early SF fan and a writer who produced science fiction poetry during the first half of the Twentieth Century. However, while we should rightly honour Lorraine as a pioneer, I am not convinced that her poetry has worn that well in the last sixty years. It is difficult to get any sense of how her work was originally received, though Sneyd suggests that her work was much admired. Encountered as individual poems in magazines, I can see that her poems may well have seemed strange and exotic. Read now as a collection, it is difficult to avoid noticing a sense of sameness about them. She does not seem to have experimented with form to any significant degree and such structural variation as there is seems to come about as much by accident as by intent. She favoured traditional rhyme schemes wherever possible; the science-fictional content emerges from her choice of image and vocabulary. The poems themselves rely heavily on a post-apocalyptic nostalgia for a long-dead past, frequented by wise and ascetic aliens, not unlike Ray Bradbury’s Martians. The mood is almost invariably dark while the brooding intensity of so many of the poems now seems rather angsty and adolescent.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that while Lorraine seems to be constructing some sort of internal narrative history – referring to named characters and so forth – it is impossible to get a broader sense of her universe. She saw her work as “inspiring the heroes who will face the last frontier. Let us only hope that they will lead an ape shambling into the Pleiades armed only with the club of the atom, but one who is more than man, armed with divinity and glorified with humanity”, which positions her among the writers who saw the potential of science fiction to promote an expansionist agenda in space, and yet this sits oddly with the sense of disappointment in so much of her writing. I do think Sneyd has done an important piece of work in bringing together these poems; what I would like now is to see her work compared with that of other writers working in the same period, to see if any useful connections might be made.
Looking at Sneyd’s own collection of poems, Mistaking the Nature of the Posthuman, I return to the question of what makes an SF poem. Sneyd is clearly much more adventurous in his writing, in terms of form, structure, language and even punctuation. His choice of subject is also much more varied than Lorraine’s and his poems are littered with references to the work of earlier poets. Sneyd’s science fiction is certainly not tinged with nostalgia for something that hasn’t happened yet but faces the future squarely and pragmatically. Indeed, his subjects and images are often unexpectedly mundane, reflecting the fact that science fiction is now very much part of everyday life. And yet, on occasion I could not help thinking there was something a little too self-consciously science-fictional about individual poems, as though he were trying slightly too hard to make the point.
I doubt SF poetry will achieve a wider currency in the immediate future. There is a gap, not easily bridged even among readers who are familiar with a wide range of SF, between a genre that is fiercely narrative and a form that seems better suited to contemplation than to action. The broader cultural awareness of science fiction is still focused on a limited range of tropes and images drawn mainly from cinema and tv and it is difficult to see how SF poetry for the general reader can work easily once one moves beyond the hackneyed cliché. This suggests that SF poetry and SF drama are unlikely to ever to enjoy the same popularity as novels or films, and that there will not be a clear body of poetic or dramatic works that can be pointed to as examples of SF. Conversely, this suggests that SF poetry and drama can exploit an element of surprise in ways that novels and films no longer can, and that they will always turn up in unexpected places, challenging people’s perceptions.