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					Karin Tidbeck


Infinite Possibilities
Mellan Himmel och Hav From a Science Fiction
Point of View

   Where the fantasy genre has been mauled, violated and worn out over the years,
   science fiction is still virgin grounds for most Swedish larpers. Mellan himmel
   och hav not only worked with gender and social structures – it also took larping
   where no one has gone before.


T      he majority of larps in Sweden are set in the fantasy genre, usually with few
       modifications. The only exceptions are contemporary (20th century) larps and a
few surrealist events. The number of sci-fi larps arranged in the last decade amounts
to a handful. One would think this means the genre isn’t popular, but on the contrary:
people are always whining about how there are too few events. The focus of this article
is partly to discuss why this is so and at the same time look at the most recent Swedish
sci-fi larp, Mellan himmel och hav.


       Four-Sexed, Cannibalistic Quadrupeds
One great advantage of setting a larp in the sci-fi genre that cannot be stressed enough
is that there are no rules. Sci-fi can mean anything from our world in a near future, to
bizarre alien cultures in a distant galaxy. The term itself – science fiction – is no longer
really accurate, since science doesn’t necessarily come into it. It has not only come to
mean explorations in space, or technological discoveries; books classed as sci-fi have a
range of subjects and milieus. The term allows for very generous interpretation.
        Until now, Swedish sci-fi larping has to an extent been about cinematic adventure:
outlandish settings, space opera intrigue (or cyberpunk film noir) and props that go
“beep”. In short, like a great night at the movies – pleasing to the eye and the adrenal
gland, but still purely entertainment. This is one of the big differences between fantasy
and sci-fi larping: where fantasy larps almost always refer to literary works such as J.R.R.
Tolkien or games like Dungeons & Dragons, sci-fi larps point to film. The effect of this is
a process starting at the visual level (“Let’s do a Mad Max thing!”) and then moving on
to the story (“So who’re we going to put in the scenery?”). Both of these ways have their
problems. The problem of the very filmness of sci-fi larping is that if a player wants more
than cool special effects, she seldom finds it.

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       MHOH worked the other way around. There were several concepts, one to tell
stories with love as the driving force; another to experiment with gender. These concepts
were then put in a sci-fi setting, with Ursula K. Le Guin’s stories about the fictional world
of O as an inspiration. This is how good film and literature works – first a story, then the
environment in which the story is told. Done this way, the story can be put in any setting
and still work. Doing MHOH in a sci-fi world removed the players from the distracting
dogmas of known history and facilitated the experiment. This made the concepts come
through with even more force than had it been set in our time and world.
       The fantasy drama still utilises most of the rules present in our reality and
history. Because most fantasy larps really are fairy tale versions of the middle ages,
some elements are very hard to get rid of (the feudal system and inequality among
others). Whether consciously or not, players look to history for information when they
prepare for a fantasy larp. Doing so, the concept of what fantasy is becomes more and
more cemented in people’s minds. Sci-fi on the other hand is based on hopes, dreams
and theories of how or what a world could be, here or elsewhere. It is possible to make
a larp where humans are four-sexed, cannibalistic quadrupeds travelling between the
stars on water skis.
       Sci-fi in literature has throughout modern history been an ideal arena for asking
questions about the society we live in. During the first half of the 20th century writers
like George Orwell, Karin Boye and Aldous Huxley built future societies with radically
different norms and theorized about what humans might become. Later on, women
writers like Tanith Lee, Mary Doria Russell and Le Guin used the genre to pose questions
about gender. Lee envisioned a hypocritical utopia where no one had to work, one
could change sex at a whim and those who didn’t agree with the order of things were
ostracized. Russell wrote about our first encounter with aliens who had a view of gender
that was different than ours, and humanity’s struggle to understand how anything other
than our norms could even function. Le Guin wondered what would happen when
factors other than biology decided what a person’s gender would be, and created the
world of O where being a morning or evening person decides one’s role in family and
community. All these works do the same thing; they make visible the norms and rules of
our own society and question them.
       The reason sci-fi is such a great tool for social experiments is this: One can remove
the conditions we exist under and replace them with a set of others, be they physical,
mental or social. In anthropological terms this would probably be called bringing the
player to a liminal state. In an alien environment the “cues” for normal reasoning and
behaviour aren’t there all the time and it’s easier for the player to adopt a character with
a very different mode of thought. For the record, an historical or fantasy environment is
not alien – people already know how to behave and think should they end up there.
       When it comes to Mellan himmel och hav, this theory worked very well. Most players
said afterward that the new social rules (like the deconstruction and reconstruction of
gender: a man isn’t a man but a morning or evening person, and should behave like one)



220
very quickly felt natural. This transition in a familiar environment would have been very
hard, be it because of clothing, associations or other.


       Theory and Practice
Larping in a sci-fi setting allows for anything to happen. The obvious disadvantage is
that nothing is a given. With a larp in a fantasy setting, for example, the players have
a concept of how to behave, to dress and what to expect since fantasy has very much
in common with mediaeval culture. In a historical or contemporary setting the limit is
one’s patience for studying facts. But unless the larp is based on a developed concept,
such as Star Wars (1977), sci-fi has a problem in that everything has to be created from
scratch. It’s not until you find yourself in the setting that you realise how spoiled fantasy
larpers are (because there are concepts for most things). Everything has to be made
up, from how to go to the toilet to what the cities look like and to what gases make up
the atmosphere. There’s no common concept of that particular reality. This means the
creator either must give the players free rein to make things up as they go along, or be
very thorough and school the players into this new world.
        MHOH didn’t present the players with a lot of information. Rather, the players
were encouraged to improvise and come up with their own solutions of what Ki’O, and
their colony Gilaa, was like. Much of the information about the planet and its history was
created in the interaction between players and writers. The advantage was that everyone
had a part in creating the world, which lead to some amazing solutions and stories about
the colony and its inhabitants. Entire traditions, customs and modes of poetry were
invented as well as weird gadgets and artefacts.
        Speaking of gadgets, we arrive at a new advantage of the “story first” -method.
An enormous amount of work was spent on creating the environments of Gilaa, but the
aim was first and foremost create a calm, meditative atmosphere that would allow the
players to focus on their stories. Props were kept at minimum cost – the players were
told to rummage through wardrobes and thrift shops rather than make spectacular
costumes, and most of the interior decoration was bought at Ikea (happened to have
lots of streamlined plastic stuff). For once, props were actually props – representations
– and not creations to show off the players’ economic means. This is a complete opposite
to all the sci-fi larps I have ever visited, where you’re no one unless you’re wearing a
customized teflon exo-skeleton. All the energy that would normally have gone into
making elaborate clothing and cool thingies could be poured into creating an ensemble.
Even though this saved a lot of time, several problems came up that came along with
creating a new world and showed how much in our day-to-day life we take for granted.
        The drawbacks of the co-creation process were that there never seemed to be
enough information, and that sometimes the existing information was contradictory.
Of course, this is what happens when some like one solution better than the other. An
interesting thing is that during the game, many players became nervous when confronted

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with a situation they didn’t have enough information to handle easily. This could mean
having to name a tool or a vehicle, or dealing with a situation they hadn’t imagined
coming up. This can be a nuisance when trying to concentrate on other aspects of the
game, but at the same time it says some important things about how people function.
       The nervousness seemed to be based on a feeling of being afraid to invent a
solution, because there surely was a ”true” solution, a rule, somewhere. In a world where
no such thing is guaranteed, the player finds herself in a void – there is not much that
can be associated to a society she is used to, which means that she will have to improvise.
On the other hand that kind of improvisation is discouraged in our own society, where
we are brought up to follow a myriad of rules and laws. This was a kind of meta-effect
I as a co-creator didn’t expect, but one that says much about how we function. That
impulse is after all the one we were trying to deal with: that voice in our heads that tells
us to follow the written and unwritten laws of society, no matter if they are healthy or
destructive.


       Conclusion
Sci-fi is a genre that offers enormous possibilities for social experiments, utopian
thinking and innovation. Unfortunately it’s not as popular in larping as it should and
could be, for several possible reasons. One is that sci-fi isn’t, like fantasy, easily placed
– it’s a collection of many genres. Another is that many larpers like to think they have to
make tons of new props and weird outfits. Yet another is that outlandish venues can be
more difficult to find, if that’s what one is looking for. Concerning all of these problems,
I think that we can learn a lot from MHOH. Sci-fi larping isn’t just about über-tech,
dystopias or cool weapons; it can also be a slowly told story about love in the desert.


       Games
Mellan himmel och hav (2003) by Emma Wieslander, Katarina Björk & al., Sweden.



       Recommended Reading
Boye, Karin (1940): Kallocain.
Huxley, Aldous (1932): Brave New World.
Lee, Tanith (1977): Biting the Sun.
Le Guin, Ursula K (1969): The Left Hand of Darkness.
Le Guin, Ursula K (2002): The Birthday of the World (a collection of short stories).
Orwell, George (1949): Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Russell, Mary Doria (1996): The Sparrow.


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posted:6/14/2011
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