What I’ve Been Reading, March 2016

Some theatre, some sci-fi, some sci-fi theatre. That’s what I’ve been reading.

100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write by Sarah Ruhl – The title pretty much explains the book. It’s a collection of one hundred partial essays, almost all of them about theatre. The immediate question that this raises is: why read a book that isn’t complete? And, if you’re looking to learn something, or be informed, or be totally and utterly convinced of something, this is not the book for you. But if you want to be stimulated and provoked, this book is terrific.

First of all, Sarah Ruhl has a fascinating mind. Almost every essay probes into some question or insight that I never would’ve come up with. And, because the essays don’t have to come to some grand point, and very often end with questions, I was left to further explore the topic on my own. The book reads very quickly, and I probably could’ve blown through it in one sitting if I didn’t keep stopping to think, and argue with myself about the ideas she raised in her essays. My only caveat is that I don’t know how interesting the book would be to someone who does not have some experience with theatre—as an audience member, as a performer, or even just as someone who reads plays. My advice for such a person would be: go experience some facet of theatre, and then read Sarah Ruhl’s 100 Essays. It’s fantastic.

If you’re still unconvinced, you can go to her website and read a randomly selected essay (or two, or five.)

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer – This is the first book of the Southern Reach trilogy. An area of coastline and marsh in the southeast US, Area X, is deserted of all human life, but thriving with animals and plants behaving in strange ways. The book is narrated by a member of the twelfth expedition into Area X, the goal being to explore, investigate, and record as much of Area X as possible. The book mostly centers around the discovery of a building which is not marked on the map given to this expedition, which descends deep underground with no apparent end.

The book is not very plot-centric, and it’s not very character-centric either (although there are a few interesting bits of psychology with the narrator.) It’s mostly an exploration of this strange, frightening world, which I absolutely loved. VanderMeer has a perfect balance between what is seen and what the reader is left to wonder about. The few glimpses at truly horrifying or disturbing things that he gives stuck with me, and will probably stick with me for awhile.

It’s a great book to get lost in. It’s slow, creepy, and fascinating.

“White Dust” by Nathan Hilstrom – This was the cover story of the January edition of Asimov’s, and rightfully so. The story takes a simple concept—teleportation via cloning—and extrapolates it to inventive and somewhat scary conclusions. It brings up questions of identity, and how identical people can behave differently based solely on which one is the “real” one. The story is an excellent example of how science fiction can probe into psychology and humanity in ways other genres can’t. Not to mention, it’s a really punchy, suspenseful story.

Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke – If you’re unfamiliar with this book, or the premise, it’s about what happens when an alien race arrives on Earth, and puts a stop to war, hunger, and all the ailments that humanity had put itself through for the past forty thousand years. These aliens, called “the overlords,” appear to be benevolent, though their motivations are unknown.

The book is much more a book of ideas and philosophy than it is a book of characters and story. I didn’t mind that too much—the ideas are interesting, and there’s still enough of a story to stay invested. What happens to humanity when no one really has to struggle for anything? What happens to nationhood when the whole world is ruled by one entity? What happens when every necessity is provided for, and everyone is free to pursue passion projects? Part of what’s interesting about it is reading it fifty years later, when many of the phenomena in the book exist, to some extent. For example, this:

‘Do you realize that every day something like five hundred hours of radio and TV pour out over the various channels? If you went without sleep and did nothing else, you could follow less than a twentieth of the entertainment that’s available at the turn of a switch! No wonder that people are becoming passive sponges—absorbing but never creating. Did you know that the average viewing time per person is now three hours a day? Soon people won’t be living their own lives any more. It will be a full-time job keeping up with the various family serials on TV!’

Overall, I liked the book. Some of the speculation about utopia became a bit tedious, but the final chapters were more meaty, with a really intriguing conclusion. If it had been a long book I probably wouldn’t have liked it as much, but it’s a short novel, and it’s conciseness serves it well.

Mr. Burns, a post-electric play by Anne Washburn – How to explain this play?

The play takes place after some undefined apocalypse, which has resulted in a total collapse of power and widespread meltdowns of nuclear power plants. The first act is a group of survivors trying to recall the Cape Feare episode of The Simpsons, and telling the story and all the jokes to each other. The second act is that same group of survivors seven years later, when they have become a troupe of traveling actors with a repertoire of dozens of Simpsons episodes, and they are practicing one of their shows. The third act is set seventy-five years after that, and it’s a performance of the play that was being rehearsed in the second act. Kind of.

I love this play. I’d love to see it performed. For a start, the world-building is terrific. World-building has to be done differently in plays than in prose, and this play does it with small comments and brief little arguments that the characters have, which only hint at what happened, and the world they live in. It never feels clunky, and it leaves plenty of room for the audience to wonder about the parts that aren’t filled in.

The characters aren’t particularly memorable, but the characters aren’t the point—and they’re not poorly written, they just don’t have any conflicts or goals that differ from the goal of the group. The focus of the play is really the story that the characters are telling, and how it changes, and how it becomes the story of humanity in the final act. It evolves from just a bit of comforting entertainment that a few survivors are trying to tell, to a full-blown musical, with characters turned into icons—and that’s really where the greatest development of the world is, in the third act. It barely resembles the episode of The Simpsons, and has taken on elements that seem like archetypes of the post-apocalypse, describing the destruction of civilization, the struggles of the survivors.

Reading the play is like being an anthropologist. The play is a study of human civilization, and the evolution of story-telling, and the needs it serves. It’s awesome.

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