Something Wicked Awesome This Way Comes

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By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked awesome this way comes – and I am not referring to the vernacular of my east-coast ‘80’s childhood or my bastardization of the Bard. I have been asked to serve as blogger/dramaturge for the upcoming Sci-Fest (sci-fest.com), LA’s first-ever festival of science-fiction plays, and a whole month of science-themed theatre sounds pretty awesome to me.

Between now and the festival (which is in May), I will be adding the occasional “bonus blog” inspired by some of the concepts explored in the nine pieces, seven of which will be world premieres. Yeah, that’s right. Seven of Nine. It is a sci-fi fest indeed!

At first blush, science and theatre don’t seem like natural bedfellows (although they do both tend to involve a lot of experimentation). But what seems at first to be a pairing destined to be less peanut butter-and-chocolate and more grapefruit juice-and-milk is actually quite exciting and long overdue. How do I know? Because Ray Bradbury showed me.

Bradbury’s 1940’s short story (later a play) Kaleidoscope will be the centerpiece of the festival, and the producers could not have chosen a better ambassador to bridge the two worlds. On the surface, he is a natural: he is a Grand Master of science fiction, an explorer of many genres including the theatre, and he did most of his writing in various haunts across Los Angeles. (Muscle Beach being my favorite of his choices – where better to be inspired about life on other planets?) But what makes Ray Bradbury a perfect representative of the festival is the same thing that makes him one of the greatest American writers of any genre: he understood that science fiction isn’t really about the science at all.

Science fiction, which Bradbury called the “robot child” of fantasy, was not an easy nut for him to crack at first, despite his love for the supernatural and fantastic. It wasn’t until his twenties that he cracked the code with “King of the Grey Spaces”, a story rejected by every science-fiction magazine at the time (it was published instead in Famous Fantastic Mysteries) because it was “a science-fiction story that was not a science-fiction story,” but rather a tale of a tested friendship. It so happened that the test in this case was space travel, but what Bradbury had discovered was that the best writing was rooted in his own human experience, with the occasional science-y thing sprinkled in. He would later write, in a 1980 essay, that “all science fiction is an attempt to solve problems by pretending to look the other way.”

Great science fiction is more emotional exploration than technological. It is problem solving through experimentation. Or, to again turn to the words of the master, “we are all science-fictional children dreaming ourselves into new ways of survival.” What is more dramatic – more theatrical – than that?! In Kaleidoscope, the setting is space, but the story is death. Accepting it, fearing it, fighting it, mourning it… The beauty of putting such a story on the stage is that nothing else comes close to the power of feeling another human experience such visceral emotions in the same room as you, only a few yards from your face.

As visually spectacular as the movie Gravity is, I found myself (spoiler alert!) barely batting an eye when George Clooney floated away into space. Are you kidding me? It’s George freakin’ Clooney. I should have wanted to run down the aisle toward the screen and throw myself after him Viking funeral-style. But when your brain is too busy trying to process the how-the-crap-did-they-do-that technology of it all, it’s hard to get emotionally attached. Even to the (once and forever) sexiest man alive.

Which brings me to the last reason I am so excited about the idea of science fiction on stage: because it IS still science fiction, after all. Kaleidoscope does revolve around (70-year-old spoiler alert!) seven actors floating in space, and that definitely presents a bit of a challenge when done live. I have absolutely no idea how the minds behind the festival are going to pull it off, but I am certain it is going to be fun to see them try! Will they achieve Superman-level feats and make me “believe a man can fly”? I suppose there’s a chance, but that’s not the point. The magic of theatre is that it is magic we make ourselves; theatre – like science fiction – is a group exercise in imagination. Who needs Sandra Bullock’s hair to stand on end?

Once again, the great Ray Bradbury himself said it best when he cautioned not to get too precious about the details of story or genre, for fear of losing the larger goal. “Let us remain childlike,” he wrote, “borrowing such telescopes, rockets, or magic carpets as may be needed to hurry us along to miracles of physics as well as dream.” Man, that guy could write.

Quantum Leaping

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The other day, a girlfriend and I were discussing the defining challenges we all face in each decade of life. You know, in the first ten years it is mastering the basics, like walking, talking, and not soiling yourself; in the next ten it is navigating social situations and surviving high school (again, without soiling yourself); and in your twenties it is coming to understand that you have not actually figured it all out and that you really are still kind of a shit. Now in our thirties, we decided that the major lesson we are fighting to learn is the challenge of letting it all go – not worrying so much about how we are perceived and instead just living the life we want to live.

This is a challenge facing all people, but definitely one that is significantly harder for women. Our fearless leader, Barbara Streisand, summed it up nicely when, after a decade and a half spent pushing the rock that was Yentl up the Hollywood hills only to be vilified for it, she said, “Why is it men are permitted to be obsessed about their work, but women are only permitted to be obsessed about men?” At my first job after college, I can remember the frustration of feeling this double standard but not being able to define it. When I defended one of my ideas in a meeting, I was invariably chided for “taking things personally”, while my male colleagues who did the same were praised as “passionate” and “assertive”. The societal expectations for women are far more defined and far less forgiving – and it really doesn’t help that random estrogen surges occasionally make us cry for no reason at all.

So my girlfriend and I started talking about how often we let the judgment of society (or even the potential judgment) have more say in our behavior than our own desires. Do I want to be starting a family? No, but I feel like I should. Do I want to cut this negative person out of my life? Yes, but I am afraid she will hate me. Do I want to tell this story or voice this opinion? Yes, but what if they call me a bitch? Even with Tina Fey declaring “bitch is the new black,” that one still hurts. But we need to stop letting ourselves be so limited, and instead allow ourselves to reach our full potential. In other words, we need to unleash our inner quantum.

The Theory of Quantum Mechanics exists because over the years scientists have come to understand that, at the atomic level, particles operate in far more interesting and liberated ways than boring solid objects do in the real world. The marquee headline being that atomic particles can and do exist in two states at once. Why? Because of quantum. Duh.

Regardless of why or how, the big problem for many scientists (and other logical types) is the idea that there are separate rules for particles and objects. After all, objects are made of particles, so shouldn’t things be able to act just as “quantumly” as their parts? That little syllogism is probably why so many of us – you too, don’t pretend – believe deep in our bones that quantum tunneling, teleportation, time travel, and all those sci-fi fantasies must be possible.

One of these scientists, Aaron O’Connell, was so certain the logic must follow that he became the first person to actually get a solid object to be in two places at once. No kidding. For a fully respectable explanation of his breakthrough, check out O’Connell’s 2011 TED talk (Making Sense of a Visible Quantum Object), but for now let me hit you with the highlights. To achieve his result, O’Connell had to figure out what it takes for a physical object to “unleash its inner quantum” (my silliness, not his). The answer tuned out to be… nothing.

Literally nothing, in this case. O’Connell created a tiny piece of metal that he then suspended over a void in a containment device that allowed him to remove all light, sound, and air, and lower the temperature to just above absolute zero. When completely free of any interference, the tiny object began to “breathe”. More precisely, they found that it was both still and vibrating simultaneously – which means its various particles were both stationary and bouncing around like pong at the same time. Two states, one object. Whoa.

The analogy O’Connell uses to explain is an elevator. As solid objects, we basically live life in a crowded elevator, with lots of other things to keep us company and keep us acting “normal”. But just like you and I are way more likely to get jiggy wit the Muzak when there are no other passengers or visible security cameras (admit it – I am not the only one), solid objects are more likely to behave quantum mechanically when they are alone.

On a practical level, I am pretty sure that this means Aaron O’Connell has proven the show Quantum Leap to be entirely accurate, except for the fact that Sam could see, hear, breathe, and didn’t boil to death in a freezing vacuum. On a broader level, though, his discovery is important because it reinforces the idea that the more we can kick out of the elevators that are our heads, the closer we can come to operating at our full potential.

For us, it is a matter of shutting out the light of all the eyes that are watching and judging, banishing the inner sounds of self-doubt and pride, ignoring the winds of both criticism and praise, and not feeling the heat of embarrassment or fear. If we can boot all of that interference out of our elevator, maybe we can finally start to live quantumly – both remaining solid (the person we are, the qualities we cannot change) and at the same time vibrating freely (quantum leaping like fools to the Muzak of our souls).

Or, maybe we’ll just invent time travel, which would be pretty cool too. Oh, boy!