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imagination

Sure Solacer of Human Cares – The Joys of Tuning in to SF Radio Theatre

by Mina

I began by reading what the “Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy” has to say about imagination. Here is a summary of my understanding of the salient points (imagine the voice of Peter Jones as the “book” in “The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” BBC radio serialisation as you read this). There are two ways to use your imagination: in a transcendent manner that “enables one to escape from or look beyond the world as it is”, and in an instructive manner that “enables one to learn about the world as it is.” SF and sci-phi ask us to do both. Imagination is not the same as belief, although they are both ways of interpreting the world around us: both involve holding an image or representation in your mind. There are also similarities in how imagination and memory work: “both typically involve imagery, both typically concern what is not presently the case, and both frequently involve perspectival representations.” Both also involve mental time travel, remembering the past works in a similar way in your mind to imagining the future. Finally, imagination helps us to understand other minds, to pretend and recognise pretence, to characterise psychopathology, to engage with the arts, to think creatively, to acquire knowledge about possibilities and to interpret figurative language.


We use imagination in all aspects of our lives but here I will be focusing on how we use it recreationally. Films, TV series, books and radio dramas all “catch our imagination”. With SF, we relax by postulating alternate realities. But where our imagination truly flies, in my opinion, is through SF radio theatre. We suspend disbelief while we listen: we behave as if we believe that other worlds or ways of being actually exist. It is a temporary state of mind for we snap back into our everyday reality afterwards (unless we are suffering from some form of psychosis). With the advent of TV, radio dramas declined in many countries but continued to thrive in Britain and Germany. Radio plays are different from film: “with no visual component, radio drama depends on dialogue, music and sound effects to help the listener imagine the characters and story. It is auditory in the physical dimension but equally powerful as a visual force in the psychological dimension” (http://www.theatrecrafts.com/pages/home/topics/sound/radio-drama/). I prefer radio plays to films of my favourite SF classics because it leaves me free to visualise things as I wish (for example, the wonderful adaptations of all of John Wyndham’s novels).

I will begin with “Solaris”, of which I do not think there has been a truly satisfying film version made – I find Steven Soderbergh’s most recent film adaptation starring Geroge Clooney oddly bland. Hattie Naylor’s 2007 radio adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s book, however, is wonderful in its simplicity. There are few sound effects, only very occasional music and just five voices; yet it creates a wonderful atmosphere. Inside the CD sleeve note, Polly Thomas writes that “Solaris” offered “the opportunity to play with the imagination and invent a new world through sound… we created layers of sound texture”. And the production team did just that: footsteps ringing, sound echoing in large spaces or dampened in smaller confines, and using the finest instrument, the human voice – the narrator, in particular. It is a haunting radio drama, which explores imagination, illusion, memory, desire, grief, regret, guilt and wonder. It looks at the parts of the mind we normally ignore, what makes us flawed and human. It explores science, faith, redemption, men and the birth of gods.

Although the film “Blade Runner” is good, I prefer the radio play which keeps Philip K. Dick’s original title “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”. Jonathan Holloway’s 2014 radio adaptation is done in a style reminiscent of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe detective stories. The radio drama spends more time on the philosophical questions than the film, particularly what makes a person human and alive. There is a blurring of the lines between android and human that works very well when you only hear the voices. Its use of music and sound effects make it feel more like a film soundtrack than a radio play.

One of my favourite radio serialisations is James Follet’s “Earthsearch” (1981). It has ten episodes, each ending with a cliff-hanger, much like similar dramas in the 1950s. The production team did not have enough money for a musical soundtrack, so they chose to use cheesy sound effects such as clicks, whirring, whooshing, beeps and blasts that serve to add to its charm. The CD’s sleeve note states that Earthsearch is “a memorable attempt to bring hard SF notions to listeners in the form of an exciting, character-driven adventure”. And character-driven it is, with a small cast. The spaceship’s crew of four each have their own well-defined personalities, but most interesting, oddly enough, are the megalomaniac onboard computers Angel (Ancillary Guardian Environment and Life) 1 and Angel 2. The scriptwriter began with one idea: a ship of humans returns to our solar system to find the Earth gone. We are given hints of what has passed over the preceding millennia: the Solaric Empire, First Footprint City, the dregs of humanity and the computer wars. The relationship between time and space plays a crucial part in the plot. It is also a story of the loss of innocence and a journey to find a mythical paradise. It was so successful that James Follet went on to write a sequel “Earthsearch II” (1982) and a prequel “Earthsearch: Mindwarp (2006)”.

I will now focus on two radio plays that explore true sci-phi themes. Mike Walker wrote two award-winning radio dramas that explore Artificial Intelligence (AI): “Alpha” (2001) and “Omega” (2002). Both play on “I think therefore I am” and examine what makes us alive. In “Alpha”, we meet a Catholic priest having a crisis of faith. He acts as a sort of trouble-shooter for the Vatican. He is sent on a final mission by the Holy See to investigate Project Alpha, which turns out to be the first sentient AI. The priest interviews Alpha in an attempt to determine if it is truly self-aware, if it has developed consciousness and whether it has a soul. Alpha challenges the priest’s faith and displays a definite personality: it is playful, a little cruel, and determined to survive (it states that good is what helps you survive; bad is the opposite). Alpha prefers to be called Sophia and insists that she is a machine, born of complexity, and that, like all life, she is made from stardust. She and the priest also make an emotional connection over a shared memory.


Alpha proves to the priest that she can travel anywhere in cyberspace and access any system. For her, time is not a prison, it is a door. The priest replies that humans, however, are prisoners in time. He admits that he believes Sophia to be real and that he will be committing murder when he is forced to switch her off. Sophia tells him that there will be others like her and the priest wonders if humans will prove to be a dead end in evolution and AIs like Sophia the future. They discuss the priest’s feelings of guilt and hope for salvation. Sophia thanks him for teaching her about conscience, as she needed to understand it. The priest switches off the computer, but he does not believe he has killed Sophia, for she was already wrapped around the world, like a web. He is proud to have been Alpha Sophia’s teacher and he wonders what she will become when she grows up. He himself seeks a simpler life and asks to go back home to Nicaragua, to try to be a priest, to listen to the frogs sing as they did in the childhood memory he shared with Sophia. Music plays an important role because, through it, Sophia has understood beauty, and she plays a fragment of choral music to the priest, suggesting that she too has a soul. Music is also used to mark the passing of time, which is not linear to Sophia in the way it is to the priest.

Where “Alpha” looks at the birth of an AI, “Omega” examines its death. Initially, this radio drama seems to be about an architect John Stone and his reaction to his daughter’s miraculous recovery after a car crash. On the surface, the tale revisits the tension between science and religion, and the nature of miracles and faith. But small fissures in “reality” help us to realise that John is a sentient computer programme. The people in his world are actually a team of scientists experimenting with artificial consciousness. To them, John is the result of mathematical probability at a quantum level. However, one of the scientists, Kate, develops a conscience and tells John what he is. John struggles to accept that he is not human because he feels human. Realising his total lack of freedom in the experiment, he asks to remain himself or “to be nothing”. Kate helps him to “die” a good death and destroys all the research that led to John’s creation. Her boss, Brandt, believes that science justifies everything (he clearly personifies scientific hubris); Kate discovers that becoming a creator comes with responsibility for your creation (she shows humility and compassion). Kate recognises that John has developed self-awareness, feelings, ambitions and dreams. His psyche is undistinguishable from that of a human being. Music is used to create a dream-like quality, mixed with sounds that are important to John, like a heartbeat, child’s laughter and the sea.

Germany boasts as fine a tradition of SF radio dramas (Hörspiele) as the UK, ranging from Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s social satire in “Das Unternehmen der Wega” (1954) to Frank Gustavus’ fun adaptation of Conor Kostick’s “Saga” (2008) set within a computer game with sentient characters. My first example is George Robertson’s 1971 “Rückkehr aus dem Weltall” (“Return from Space”; translated from Canadian English by Gerhard Pasternak). It is set in the future after a nuclear disaster where the remains of humanity live in Australasia and Indonesia, including the descendants of the scientists who caused the nuclear disaster in the first place; mutant humanoids also exist in Europe in a barren world that will eventually run out of oxygen. The scientists of the space programme in Melbourne want to find a new world to inhabit before then; the politicians want to find way to produce artificial oxygen so that they can remain on the earth they control. A spaceship returns from an earlier mission with the body of a mummified scientist and evidence to suggest that the ship managed to travel faster than the speed of light. The politicians are disturbed by this and threaten to stop the space programme, so its director decides to launch the next ship clandestinely with its crew of four, including John Taggart and his second wife Sheila.

The crew do discover a habitable new planet in the Alpha Centauri system, which they christen Paradise. Sheila suggests staying but John decides to return to earth to persuade the remains of humanity to move to Paradise. During the return journey, the ship hits a tear in space and time and travels faster than speed of light, thus arriving at earth in the past before the nuclear event has taken place. Two of the crew take the ship’s shuttle to earth to try to warn humanity of their future fate. Sheila dies saving John’s life and he realises he loved her, even if the words were never spoken between them. John is stuck in orbit around the earth, wondering if the past can be changed. The sound effects are limited to the odd whoosh or beep. And the drama has a slightly cold feel to it. This I think is on purpose to stress the scientists’ need to see logic in everything and science as the answer to all problems, even the ones it has caused. This lack of emotion also works well to bring into sharp relief the tragedy at the end, both on a personal level and, we suspect, for the whole of humanity who seem bent on self-destruction. 

Stefan Wilke’s “Mondglas” (1999) also asks questions about the future of humanity. It begins with an interview with an old man, Winston, about the return of the spaceship Centaurus (we hear soothing birdsong in the background to lull us into a false sense of security). Winston recounts that Centaurus brought back microorganisms from Loki, a planet in the Alpha Centauri system. He remembers Alan T, the AI steering the ship, who tells Winston of having had dreams, even nightmares, during its journey. Alan T seems confused and amnesiac and we wonder if it is lying. Winston was the scientist who developed Alan T and he is presented as an arrogant, macho scientist, obsessed with proving he is right. The microscopic life forms Alan T retrieved from Loki are considered harmless. He also brings back a form of glass, the Mondglas or “moon glass” of the title. This material is light, strong and beautiful, and it proves to be recyclable. After 20 years, it takes over from normal glass and is used for everything, including jewellery. Winston tells the reporter of his Moon Glass Theory: he believes that the moon glass has emasculated scientists. Although there are no longer any wars on earth, neither are there any new scientific breakthroughs. The last progress made was the solution for recycling moon glass, which came to a female scientist in a dream.

Winston tells the reporter that he interviewed Alan T one last time before it was deactivated. He stresses that Alan T had dreams because it met a problem it could not solve with logic. In the final interview, Winston “hypnotises” Alan T and asks him about his dreams. Winston comes to the conclusion that Alan T did not dream; rather, it was tampered with so it would disregard the reality it discovered, that is, that there was a highly developed civilisation on Loki that did not want contact with such an aggressive species. Winston feels that it is the nature of (a masculine) humanity to want to conquer new worlds. That is why he thinks that the inhabitants of Loki sent the moon glass which acts like a type of drug, reducing the drive and aggression of humans (making them more female and conciliatory). The reporter was granted an interview with Winston, as long as she was not wearing any moon glass jewellery during the interview. When she leaves, the reporter decides not to put on the moon glass necklace she left with a nurse. When the nurse asks why she is leaving her necklace behind, the reporter replies that it is “an experiment with an uncertain outcome”. She will publish an article on Winston’s Moon Glass Theory about the influence of moon glass, which she wants to test for herself. Despite Winston’s unapologetic machismo, he hands over this task to a woman. I particularly enjoyed this radio drama’s play on sexist as well as SF tropes.

Why do I think SF/sci-phi radio dramatizations are so important? In my opinion, film is a pervasive medium – after years of watching Star Trek in its many guises, it has inevitably influenced what I imagine when I read the words “shuttle craft” in a story. A friend of mine who is a gifted artist feels that she only managed truly original work as a child; as an adult, her mind has been influenced by other art and images from the outside world. Radio dramas (like reading) allow us to flex our imaginative muscles that can atrophy if we only watch SF films where everything has already been imagined for us. And imagination allows us to ponder the deeper questions of life, the universe and everything. I will finish by quoting part of Emily Brontë’s poem “To imagination”, where she calls flights of fancy her “true friend” and solace from the pain in life:

But thou art ever there, to bring
The hovering vision back, and breathe
New glories o’er the blighted spring,
And call a lovelier Life from Death.
And whisper, with a voice divine,
Of real worlds, as bright as thine.

I trust not to thy phantom bliss,
Yet, still, in evening’s quiet hour,
With never-failing thankfulness,
I welcome thee, Benignant Power;
Sure solacer of human cares,
And sweeter hope, when hope despairs!

~

Bio:

Mina is a translator by day, an insomniac by night. Reading Asimov’s robot stories and Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids at age eleven may have permanently warped her view of the universe. She publishes essays in Sci Phi Journal as well as “flash” fiction on speculative sci-fi websites and hopes to work her way up to a novella or even a novel some day.