Imagine being forcibly woken after eight hundred years of suspended animation, to be faced by a heartless corporate clone informing you that the programme you signed up for has run out of money, so you’re going to be turned out into a society you can barely comprehend with no support whatsoever. This is the unenviable position that Laura, heroine of the play Futureshock, finds herself in. Back in 2030, with Earth going to hell in a handbasket, NASA funded an exploratory mission to an alternative planet many light-years away. To encourage people to sign up, they promised to deep-freeze their loved ones and reunite them in a thousand years’ time.
But NASA went bust centuries ago, Laura discovers that she’s the only person who survived the revivication process, and her partner’s mission won’t reach its destination in her lifetime. Worst of all, perhaps, humanity has found alternative solutions and nobody really cares.
Laura’s an appealing character, if a little dogmatic at times. A poet, passionate and romantic, she believes that she has been betrayed and that, regardless of the current circumstances, society is morally bound to honour the sacrifices that the original explorers made and underwrite them, regardless of cost. It’s an argument that cuts little ice with the glacial, cloned manager of the facility, Nicoletta. In her world, clones are accepted as completely human, legislation protects them from offensive language and the imperfections that, Laura feels, make her uniquely human are despised.
Between these two extremes, a male mediator, Stampfer, proposes a compromise. Laura will be humanely killed but everything about her, both physical and emotional, will be uploaded into a data file and made available to her partner, if and when he returns. The only alternative is for Laura to stay alive and live a miserable life on the fringes of society with no means of supporting herself.
What would you do?
If you’re a fan of Doctor Who, you might have come across this dilemma before. Back at the end of the 2008 series (we won’t go into details) the Doctor managed to grow a second version of himself, one that “had the same memories, same thoughts, same everything,” and left him in another universe with the woman he loved, as a kind of consolation prize. The storyline split Doctor Who fandom down the middle. Many saw it as a happy ending, giving those who appreciate such things a whole imaginative universe to play in. Others were appalled – how could you really love someone, and then settle for his double, while the original person continued to live and suffer without you?
For all its laughable plots, Doctor Who has often shown an uncanny knack for asking the questions that challenge us to define what makes us human. Futureshock does the same. Laura’s objection to the proposed solution is that the data file “won’t be the real me,” because already she’s had experiences, and laid down new memories, that won’t be included. But eventually she goes along with the proposal. I’d love to have seen a second act where we heard the arguments from her lover’s point of view, assuming he eventually got home.
Science fiction and theatre aren’t natural bedfellows. Maybe it’s because we tend to think of it as epic and spectacular. By contrast, Futureshock, a three-hander on a minimalist set, is a very intimate piece. But, in addition to establishing three characters who were more than just representatives of conflicting positions, it opened up all kinds of cans of worms, shedding light on the preoccupations of contemporary society. There was satire of the way that inhumane, financially-driven government welfare cuts are couched in impersonal language to remove their sting. There was commentary on our idolization of physical perfection and the fickleness of celebrity culture. However, it’s Laura’s philosophical dilemma that stays with me.
If you believe in the concept of a unique human soul that survives after death in a recognisable form, you’re going to have problems with Laura’s fate. On a personal level, what interests me was that I thought it was a humane, pragmatic solution. I understood, without really endorsing, the arguments of the future society that they couldn’t commit in perpetuity to expensive promises made centuries ago for reasons that were no longer relevant to them. This was very different to the way I’d felt about Rose being left with the duplicate Doctor. Admittedly, I’d had years, rather than minutes, to get emotionally invested in the characters in Doctor Who. And I resented being expected to settle for pragmatic compromise. I saw the narrative as an epic romance, and such an ending jarred and did not sit well with me. It was a bit like Aragorn acknowledging that really he’d been a bit silly to go around mooning after an Elven lady for so long, and settling for a quiet life with a nice village girl instead.
That suggests that, when it comes to whether or not we’ll buy into an ending, the tone of the narrative is all-important. Some stories stick up their fingers in a glorious WTF gesture to real life and glory in being an alternative to it. Others make it clear from the start that they’re about ideas rather than feelings. That’s an over-simplification, of course, and the best ones should aim at doing both. Whether or not they succeed is, of course, another matter.
And then there’s post-modernism, and the self-aware narrative. But that’s another story.