Kate Chisholm

A world beyond

Science fiction has never been the same since Douglas Adams so brilliantly lampooned the genre in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, first heard on Radio Four aeons ago, back in the era of flares and hippie hair.

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Science fiction has never been the same since Douglas Adams so brilliantly lampooned the genre in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, first heard on Radio Four aeons ago, back in the era of flares and hippie hair.

Science fiction has never been the same since Douglas Adams so brilliantly lampooned the genre in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, first heard on Radio Four aeons ago, back in the era of flares and hippie hair. Once again, though, the sound of robots clanking through the studio can be heard on virtually all the BBC’s wireless networks in a season of dramas inspired and written by some of the greats — H.G. Wells, J.G. Ballard, Iain M. Banks, Arthur C. Clarke.

There’s been a special affinity between radio and sci-fi since the experiments of Tesla, Marconi and Popov conjured up voices from what seemed like another, hidden dimension of existence. When Orson Welles terrified America with his purposeful adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds in 1938 he was tapping into the power of the medium; the way it stimulates and takes over the imagination, rather than sedating it. Listening can create such powerful thoughts inside the head that you lose all consciousness of what’s really going on at the prosaic level of reality and can believe yourself to be wherever your mind has taken you. Post-Hitchhiker, though, can sci-fi’s pretensions to higher philosophical truths about our existence ever be taken seriously?

Thursday’s afternoon play on Radio Four was a very short dramatisation of an Iain M. Banks novel, The State of the Art. The spaceship Arbitrary has arrived in the earth’s orbit from its utopian galaxy, Culture, in which evil has been banished by a higher consciousness, and has sent its agents, Dervley Linter and Diziet Sma, to investigate. It’s 1977 and planet Earth is at war in Kampuchea, obsessed with money, and greedy for material possessions.

Perhaps because the drama had been compressed into just 45 minutes of airtime, it was difficult to grasp in what ways Linter and Sma were different from us. Bodily they had to be given human characteristics before arriving — extra fingers, ears and a nose. All so much easier to arrange on radio. But otherwise they seemed much the same — preoccupied with notions of love, our human propensity for inhumanity and how to live a purposeful life. Linter, after a spell in Paris and New York, decides he wants to acculturate himself and stay on Earth. ‘You can’t have good without the probability of evil,’ he realises. ‘Without the possibility of failure, there’s no hope.’ Sma tries to persuade him to return.

Their conversations, tossing the pros and cons of duty and choice, of a sense of wonder and awe versus the possibility of a sinless society, were a bit like a childlike version of the Creation story, without the powerful imagery or poetic resonances. Who can forget the tree, the apple and the serpent? Images which have been found in all the great religions to provide both meaning and solace. Listening to all this sci-fi has made me realise that a lot of these fantasies are attempts to outdo the Creation myths, and especially Genesis.

Sci-fi on radio has also lost its greatest asset — the Radiophonic Workshop, closed down in 1998 in the Great Leap Forward (or backward) of John Birt’s term as director-general of the Corporation. For Hitchhiker’s, the Workshop was asked to make the actors’ voices sound ‘slimy and robotic’. There was no such treatment available for the cast of The State of the Art, led by Antony Sher. A few electronic whooshes were all that could be summoned up as Linter and Sma dashed about the universe in what was otherwise a beautifully directed production (by Nadia Molinari), their voices echoing eerily through the ether.