Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Musings inspired by Alistair McDowell's new play, "X"...

Once again, the Royal Court Theatre in London produces a really pioneering piece of theatre. "X", a new play written by Alistair McDowell and directed by Vicky Featherstone, is located within the genre of science fiction and is a genuinely thought provoking meditation on aspects of contemporary alienation. (Mild Spoiler Alert!)
Image courtesy of Royal Court Theatre website.

It is set, "Billions of miles from home, (in a) lone research base on Pluto (that has) lost contact with Earth..." (source Royal Court Press release) To contemporary cinema audiences and fans of science fiction, this is a very familiar motif. In many ways it is reminiscent of Andy Weir's hugely successful novel, "The Martian"(2011) currently enjoying a renaissance thanks to the reworking by Ridley Scott. It also incorporates touches of psychological horror that make films like "Event Horizon" (1997) and "Solaris" (2002) so terrifyingly entertaining. 

"X" explores the space between nearness and distance and it delves into the intimacy and isolation of contemporary human relationships. In many ways, this can be seen as a recurring thematic trope in the western theatrical tradition. So many works that I have seen recently cover this terrain, and of course, it is a particularly relevant theme within contemporary cultural discourse. So firstly, what makes this piece particularly pioneering? 

Well, it would appear that many producers perceive that theatre audiences are not receptive to the genre of science fiction. Indeed, this notion was echoed by the couple who sat behind me who labelled the production of "X", "a bit far-fetched" (because clearly, "A Midsummer Night's Dream," is a work of tangible realism?). It's almost as if audiences can accept science fiction in the form of a TV series, a novel or a film, but there is a collective shudder at the prospect of a science fiction play? 

This is why I consider this production 'pioneering'. I have no problem with seeing science fiction on the stage, and I would love to see much more of it. 

The issues I have with "X" are nothing to do with staging this genre, or even this specific production, which I found technically superb. What concerns me is the many theoretical problems with our collective fascination of elevating dystopian fiction, and its inherent nihilistic cynicism, to a prevalent position within cultural discourse. It's still so cool and post-modern to extrapolate every aspect of human existence into a mythical dimension of  everything's fucked and we're all doomed!


"X", like so many contemporary dystopian fictions, employs cognitive estrangement to negative ends and imagines the worst. It fails to take into account many of the more forward thinking or positive  philosophical perspectives currently circulating academia. It is at this particular moment that the theories of  Object Oriented Ontologists, such as Graham Harman and Timothy Morton, interrupt the conventional dialectic between utopian and dystopian projections and reveal a space I like to call 'The Mesotopia'. Yes it's true, the huge advances in our science and technology now make us aware of the infinite vastness of the universe, as well as the intricate interconnections of microphysical systems, but does this necessarily prove that life is now a pointless exercise?  I suppose for me, the interesting thing about Object Oriented Ontology, or Morton's theory of hyperobjects, is that even the tiniest microbe living in our stomachs has material agency. 

Time is a fiction; human existence is the briefest flight through the un-quantifiable magnitude of universal immediacy. Does that mean that the human experience is worthless and without value? Should we just accept that everything is pointless because the universe is doomed?

Conventional utopias and dystopias formulate polarities and divide these ideas along lines of human subjectivity; whereas Object Oriented Ontology removes these dividing lines and paves the way for a new genre of science fiction - a genre that embraces a new model of material realism while pontificating on the universality of the human experience. This is why I name this conceptual space, 'The Mesotopia', or the space in between.

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