Science fiction is inherently dramatic; the highest grossing movies tend to be SF, with their ability to find compelling visual metaphors for the tension between what is possible and what is not (yet). Stage productions are fewer, possibly because of the misguided notion that loads of special effects are needed, and until recently there have been no SF spoken word evenings in London. Kudos then to publisher Unsung Stories for putting on Unsung Live, an SF spoken word event whose second outing was last night at the Star of Kings pub near King’s Cross in London.
With a probability level worthy of the genre, there were actually two science-based shows at the same pub on the same night. Unsung Live’s organiser, George Sandison, had to descend from the Unsung eyrie to save us from our own Britishness, because whatever planet one finds oneself on it is always better to queue, even if it’s for the wrong thing.
Unsung Live’s format is simple: four writers read short stories and there’s an interval after the first two for beer, sherry etc. George kicked things off with some facts about Ursula Le Guin, whose birthday is today. Le Guin waited ten years between her first rejection letter and sending her second story off. Granted, she sent the first one when she was eleven but still; it’s Ursula Le Guin! Puny Earthlings. Also, she was in the same class at school as Philip K Dick, a factoid in the same probability league as having two science-based nights in the same North London pub, but immeasurably more significant.
Fortunately, Unsung Live was a great show and I use the word ‘show’ unreservedly. Given the cliché of the SF community as being shy and retiring, one might have expected awkward mumbling but unless you’ve been living on… not Mars, that would be impressive and Pluto is all the rage at the moment so I shall make this post interactive and leave it to you to fill in a suitably out of touch location… geek is cool! Also, the writers were all very good performers and satisfyingly varied both in content and presentation.
David Hartley is a weaver of strange tales, which he performs regularly in his native Manchester. His story was about an elephant hunt, but this hunt was mimed. Imagine those puppets from the stage productions of ‘The Lion King’ or ‘War Horse’ only consisting entirely of acrobats in grey being ‘hunted’ by a strange, clearly dangerous man who mimes the use of a high calibre hunting rifle. Unfortunately after the first elephant is killed, its blood depicted by ribbons and the whole thing streamed live on the internet, the man wants another go and unlike us is not willing to queue. This was an impressive piece, full of bizarre humour and ambiguity about how much less dangerous imagined violence truly is than the real variety, performed with hypnotic intensity by the author.
Cassandra Khaw read her story from a phone, which made me feel a bit old. I soon forgot that though because the piece got to me almost immediately, with images of young love being like cream and older love having a different texture entirely. It explored a love story between a man and a woman, possibly Man and Woman, across various landscapes to the edge of the world, at which point the pursued female has to turn back and engage, sprouting wings that are sticky with new-born blood. The male character literally has no heart, but warmth comes from somewhere inside him nonetheless. This quietly told tale was imbued with a sense of visceral sensuality, close to horror and with a poetry that lent it the rhythm of myth. I would read all four of last night’s stories again but perhaps this one most of all because it was so enigmatic.
Robert Sharp delivered another love story delineated by a geographical restriction, this one of the entire universe, which it turns out just isn’t big enough after all. A remorseful lover mourns the death of his partner in an accident and resolves to prove that her research about the curve of the universe is correct. Stealing a space freighter, the protagonist sets off to map the stars from every direction, relativity ensuring that while he is not gone that long in Earth time his voyage lasts millions of years in his. Fortunately, he is able to renew himself, a sequence that includes a great line about him being mere ‘patterns with an agenda’ since the cells of the original man have long since been replaced. Proving his lover’s theory brings him back home sooner than expected and a twist I want to tell you about but won’t in the hope that this piece will be published. Delivery of this story was interesting as well, with Robert sitting and chatting to the audience as if he was the narrator. This approach set up a good SF tension between what is real and what isn’t that inadvertently rhymed with the themes of the opening story.
Simon Guerrier is an old pro at radio drama (see my previous post ‘Secret Science’). He thus made great use of dialogue for exposition, which again suited live performance. This structure had the additional advantage of being able to parse out information in response to apparently reasonable questions, while using tone and speech rhythms to make the narrator immediately recognisable, at least to begin with. An investigator is called to the apartment of reclusive millionaire Rex Halford. Rex seems odd but it’s difficult to say exactly why. Who Rex is and the unique nature of his problem are questions forming a guessing game with a number of clues that with hindsight are gags in themselves. This story was a lot of fun and had many of Simon’s trademark clever jokes, a couple of which were also outrageous plot twists. The piece had a light, easy but compelling pace with a friendly delivery that was just right for the last story of the evening.
At a time when publishing is struggling to make sense of the new world order, live events like this feel like the way forward. Go to the next one so in five years’ time you can say you were there.