• ‘Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction’

    Accurately predicting the development of technology is notoriously difficult. Personally I’ve always felt that this is because the things that are predictable through extrapolation (nuclear fusion as a power source, space travel) tend to take much, much longer to reach a given point than first expected, whilst the true game-changers (personal computing, new materials) tend to appear suddenly without anyone giving a warning. That hasn’t stopped writers, artists and others trying, of course, as the Barbican’s new exhibition on science fiction is all its forms shows. It also illustrates many other aspects of that genre and proves just how deeply SF has embedded itself into our culture, in turn drawing on societal developments for its next iteration.

    The treasure trove that has been assembled in the Barbican’s Curve Gallery – spanning literature, film, music, architecture, advertising and more – begins with a well-made point; that no matter how far out SF gets, it almost always remains wedded to tropes that belong in the 19th, let alone 21st century, such as lost lands, exotic creatures, bold deeds and – still – women to rescue. The curators also note however just how much of the groundwork for the genre was laid with that period’s literary fiction, from Jules Verne and H.G. Wells to Edgar Rice Burroughs and Arthur Conan Doyle. Rarely-seen original art, annotated manuscripts and miniatures from early films confirm this thesis, which also posits a link to the genuinely hazardous and impressively intrepid explorations of the real world’s unknown territories that was taking place contemporaneously.

    With this first section also illustrating the principles of display used throughout the exhibition – a rack of novels from the period or theme in question, surrounded by items of other types – and featuring gems such as the painstaking research commissioned by Verne from a noted mathematician to render his space flight fantasies as credible as possible (a century before Christopher Nolan did the same thing for ‘Interstellar’), the scene is duly set for the Barbican’s journey to begin.

    A definition of science fiction that carefully differentiates it from similar fields is helpfully given, with any work that is fictional and hypothetical and rational qualifying. The term itself was first coined in 1926, notwithstanding what the exhibition calls the proto-science fiction of those earlier pioneers; by this date the cinema, the airship and aeroplane, the submarine, telecommunications and the tank had all leaped from the minds of theorists and writers into reality, showing that movements invariably acquire a label well after they demonstrate their existence and indeed acceptance in wider society.

    Warfare is its own seed for new inventions, and the exhibition is particularly strong (if subtle) on how the might of the American military-industrial complex of the 1950s and 60s and its parallel effort on the other side of the Iron Curtain both co-opted and inspired SF imagery to proclaim the power and positivity of its goals and achievements, with a dash of Pop and Abstract art thrown in too. The path from stylish press advertisements for defence suppliers like Martin, Raytheon and Los Alamos to the sober, efficient orbiting weapons stations of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ is a short one.

    Peaceful civic projects (“deserts will bloom through atomic power”) also make their debt to the genre obvious, and even consumer products were not immune from its power. A wall of digital screens scrolling and sliding magazine spreads dating from after the last war is a highlight. One suggests – utterly absurdly, yet entirely seriously – that the brand of whiskey you drink has a firm connection to space exploration far into the future.

    Televisual and theatrical SF franchises make plenty of appearances, with robots, space ships and advanced technology from the 1970s up until today. Spacesuits – hanging from the pitch-black ceiling is a slight disturbing manner – are there in abundance.

    Colonisation, another of those long-ago modes of human endeavour, has had perhaps the strongest effect on contemporary expressions of SF, albeit that today’s entries tend to focus on the appropriation and control of the self rather than the soil. Artefacts relating to works as diverse as ‘Neuromancer’, ‘Inception’ and ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ make this clear.

    Ultimately all SF shines a light on us now rather than us in the future, though in doing so it can sometimes store up questions for those generations to come. Looking at the exquisite miniature Capitol building dome crumbling under attack from flying saucers made for the Charles H. Schneer/Ray Harryhausen film ‘Earth vs. the Flying Saucers’, for example, one cannot help but wonder whether recent events in Washington, DC prove that the greatest threat to world peace might in fact be firmly terrestrial in origin.

    This is, in the main, an absorbing attempt to summarise and introduce the world of science fiction to audiences that are familiar and new to it. Inevitably it only scratches the surface of what must be the genre with the widest possible spread of them all, not helped by a lack of clear section or chapter splits and the occasional curious choice of object. This could perhaps have been addressed – at least in part – by a better use of the remaining spaces in the Barbican complex. The promise, in early publicity, of exhibits on display throughout the centre as was done very effectively with the James Bond exhibition a few years ago is not in truth fulfilled; a range of video projections is visible without paying, whilst a ticket for the Curve includes admission to two installations (a short film and a moving ‘sculpture’, in an enclosure constructed on the main concourse and in the Pit theatre, respectively), but neither is in truth of any merit.

    But for inspiration, a few discoveries and a reminder that the roots of speculative fiction are broad and firm, this step ‘Into the Unknown’ is worth taking.

    ‘Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction’ continues at the Barbican Centre until 1 September 2017.

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here

final cover

Chris's third book reveals the hidden gems and well-known landmarks of London's rich built history, from shops that survived the Great Fire to the 2012 Olympic village's Deconstructivism, from Royal palaces to pleasure palaces, and from extravagent banks to Modernist apartments. Chris appeared on London Live to chat with presenter Reya El Salahi about the book; click on the still below. Follow the book's Facebook page for more events and news.

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