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Saturday, 23 September 2017

‘INTO THE UNKNOWN: A JOURNEY THROUGH SCIENCE FICTION’

The Barbican, London
(Another exhibition reviewed after it closed. This one was about the future, so we can now tell how well it did.)



“Once considered niche, science fiction is now all around us”
- From the show’s opening text


All About Awe

Perhaps wisely, this journey through science fiction does not claim to map every street and alley of the unknown. In fact it’s something of a whistle-stop tour, with most of the making sense of the sights left up to the viewer. So, even more than usual, this essay might be tangential to the exhibition it’s ostensibly about. (Certainly, it will be partial. I’m almost entirely uninterested in seeing film props and costumes out of their context. It’s like hearing a few notes wrenched from their symphony. Worse, the nods to interactive exhibits seem somewhat half-hearted.)

Plus, following an exhibition devoted to science fiction in general, what follows generalises. For every rule it gives there will be exceptions, possibly multiples of them. Nevertheless, what we’re interested in here is tendencies, in following the through line. Exceptions matter, but so do rules. In other words, in an exhibition based on the popularity of SF, what follows largely focuses on popular SF.

In a science fiction show, you might expect things to start with Jules Verne. Though this one never really stops with him. It cites his “dual emphasis on scientific discovery and romantic adventure” as the recipe for the genre, handed down to successive generations. And it’s the recipe’s family secret, that sprinkling of the rational, that gives it the taste.

Later it adds “the genre explores the significant transformations and paradigm shift in society brought on by the Industrial Revolution”. This improves things. We’re never going to get a definition of science fiction which satisfies more than three people, so we’re better off looking to historical explanations. And the statement’s true as far as it goes. After the Industrial Revolution science and engineering saturated our world. Anything before then does seem at most proto-SF.

But is it a useful distinction? Relabel a flying carpet an anti-gravity belt and in that moment you’ve transformed fantasy into SF. As the Doctor says in ’Girl In the Fireplace’, when asked to explain what a “spatio-temporal hyperlink” is - “I just made it up. Didn't want to say ‘Magic Door’.” And SF is essentially a genre for people who don’t like saying “magic door”.

Worse, the arbitrary insistence on science as a required ingredient is often attached to to an arbitrary insistence on ‘proper’ science fiction, with everything discounted that doesn’t fit some narrow schema. It’s like a botanist devising a method to categorise only geraniums as flowers, while claiming it a coincidence they’re the one he likes to smell. The worst thing about this is that the genre gets approached as a raiding party would a storehouse, aiming to seize and make off with it’s greatest treasures, rather than seeing it as having its own ecosystem.

And arguably that relationship is not even being caught the right way up. ‘Alien’ (featured here) was a gothic horror, set in space not so no-one would scream but so no-one would ask awkward questions about where the monster came from. (Even if its own director later became confused about that.) Science fiction grew up under the oppressive shadow of the Gothic, and a recurrent source of tension was whether it would escape its gravity or not.

Arguably its relationship to the Industrial Revolution is most often to the one Gothic had to the Enlightenment. It provides a newly needed haven for irrationality, a place for the now-banished thoughts to go, where cities flew and dinosaurs still roamed if you said they did. That ostensible scientific rationalism, inasmuch as it did anything, offered a quasi plausibility which aided suspension of disbelief. It was putting sweets in a capsule so could pass them off as medicine.

As a child obsessed with science fiction in the Britain of the Seventies, all I wanted from it was an antidote to my humdrum suburban existence. If this is the known, there must be the unknown. If daily life is bound, there must the unbound. Assumptions soon followed by the questions – where can I find it? And then where can I get more of it? A subjective perspective, but one I’m willing to bet is fairly typical.



Jasper Reeves kicks off his Telegraph review, with the ‘Jurassic Park’ clip – and the “sheer awe” on Laura Dern’s face as she spies her first dinosaur (still above). Because of course the dinosaur’s instrumental, a means by which to stir that awe. Science fiction is at root about finding ways to put that face on you. Its magazines were called things like ‘Amazing Stories’, ‘Astounding Science Fiction’ and ‘Science Wonder Stories’. The covers to which were rarely adorned with promises to adhere strictly to Newtonian laws.


In short, science fiction is normally not concerned with being rational but precisely with going mad. One of the cigarette card collection ‘Vignettes Viellemard L’an 2000’ (1901), ‘A Croquet Party’, shows people play croquet underwater. It’s the combination of strange and familiar, the billowing dress with the diving helmet, which makes it winning. Or… well whatever is going on in the cover of ‘Amazing Stories’ 1 (1926, below).


But of course those images are in the show. It’s similar to the Barbican’s earlier ‘Watch Me Move’ animation exhibition in it’s sense of sheer sensory overload – science fiction truly is all around you. Perhaps it even exceeds its predecessor, through not being staged in the cavernous main gallery space but cramming itself into the smaller Curve. Exhibit cases jostle with multi-imaged LED screens, while clips from films play overhead.

Sometimes pressing proximity makes individual exhibits hard to see and hear. But the upside is that this throw-it-all-in approach is carried through to content. Even as we read that restrictive rational explanation, clips are playing of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ and ‘One Million Years BC’. Neither of which are actually science fiction by that definition. But on the other hand, who cares? A journey through science fiction shouldn’t just take you through the respectable suburbs. It’s a genre which encompasses ’Stalker’ and toy plastic robots, and the show does the right thing in spanning that.

Judging a Genre By Its Cover

Compounded to which, the more of this exhibition I saw, the more convinced I became that this was primarily a visual medium. Popular science fiction was about narratives only in the sense that they allowed a framework to insert images. If those pulp magazines were filled with text stories, what sold them was their lurid covers and crazy illustrations. Even John Campbell, editor of ’Astounding Science Fiction’ and seen by many as the bold Martin Luther figure who singlehandedly raised the standards of magazine SF, regularly asked for stories to match the ready-supplied cover art. Once more visual media was widespread – comics, films, TV shows and later computer games – the pulps had their role usurped. But even those successors were still a little too in hock to narrative. SF was best seen in slideshow mode.


Take the classic ‘Mars Attacks’ trading cards (1964, example above). They’re numbered, have brief narratives on their backs and follow a loose trajectory which roughly resembles a story. (There are Martians. They attack us. They unleash torments on us. We counter-attack. We win.) But what their format really allows them to do is cut straight to the next cool image. And frankly ‘Independence Day’ (1996) would have been a whole less dull if they’d followed that lead, and just showed the smashed-up White House while not bothering with those cliched characters and their tiresome sub-plots.

(It’s also a further example, as if we needed one, of how thin a veneer the science is in SF. The Martians, which become the central characters by default, are effectively depicted as skulls in plexiglass helmets. They’re Death in SF trappings. They unleash Biblical plagues upon us. (Including ones of giant flies and another of giant spiders. It’s not clear why the spiders go for us and not their more traditional diet of flies, but there you go.))

Though if SF was about images, there was never a house style. Both Frank R Paul and Virgil Finlay illustrated for the pioneering ‘Amazing Stories’. That’s Paul’s cover up above, and it’s not surprising to see him adorning the first issue. Both in composition and imagery, he’s considered as pioneering if not defining. His penchant was for dramatic depictions of technology, often at vast scale, with human figures marginalised if present at all. You’re not surprised to hear he had a sideline in technical drawing, or that human figures were not his forte.


While his art looks suitably awesome the lack of sophistication also makes it engaging, slightly fannish the better to be engaged with by fans. Whereas Virgil Finlay’s more accomplished work often foregrounded the (human or alien) figure, building it up with stippled contours with an effect nothing short of sumptuous. See his ’Spacesuit’ (1956), above. It made for a great double act.


But the predominant tendency was to sharp, clear-cut images, in some ways the equivalent of the text stories’ direct and functional prose. Brian Aldiss wrote in his SF history ’Trillion Year Spree’ “the stories were built like diagrams, and made clear like diagrams.” And so was the art. Arthur Radebaugh’s newspaper strip series ‘...Closer Than We Think!’ (1958/63, example above) even use descriptive arrows.

Cities Going Up

When the show promises to focus on “where mankind was headed: upwards!” it’s not immediately clear whether they mean space rockets or city towers. But perhaps that’s as it should be, for the future city is a trope just as verticality is a motif of SF. Most obviously the future city is the antithesis of the current city – the congestion and pollution after a Fairy Godmother has waved her wand over it. But more widely the awe-inspiring city is the counter to, and predicated upon, the Romantic evocation of the sublime in nature.

The first skyscraper went up sometime between 1849 and 1885, depending on who you talk to. But any of those dates seem akin, or immediately prior to, the gestation period of classic SF. ‘Metropolis’ originated in a 1924 visit director Fritz Lang made to New York. His reaction, “the buildings seemed to be a vertical sail, scintillating and very light, a luxurious backdrop, suspended in the dark sky to dazzle, distract and hypnotize”, described a template which lasted decades. Future cities are often lightly but brightly coloured, as if lit up from within, or even pure white.


Yet even as it builds on something already in existence, the Future City itself starts from scratch. Any actual city you’ve ever been to is an accrued composite of different buildings, almost always an amalgam of different eras. Whereas the future city always has a unified look, any residue of the present done away with by that magic wand. But it often goes further than this. Many of the films shown in this section essentially make the city a character in it’s own right, the pioneering ’Metropolis’ (1927, still above) even naming the film after it.


And the spaciousness of city fits well with the sleek, slipstreamed lines of SF art, for example ‘Clean Air Park’ by Fred Freeman (1959, above). That sheer verticality is sometimes implied to have transcended even gravity. Many of the images up above are unconcerned with natural viewpoints, we’re simply looking in from whatever angle best conveys the scene. Whereas in Freeman’s example, we have three corollaries for our elevated perspective. There’s the plane, the monorail (with passengers’ faces at the windows), but most of all the terrace on the left – those heads’ view-spot almost matching our own. In the future even everyday folk will have a semi-omnipotent God’s-eye view.

Cities are often found not just full of flying stuff but floating in their own right, particularly in ‘Air Wonder Stories’ (“Science aviation stories”, Hugo Gernsback’s sequel to ‘Amazing Stories’, 1929/55). They’re frequently held aloft by whirring rotor blades, like a helicopter but with suburbs. Or failing that they can be under the sea, the better to allow for floating people or equipment.



The show comments how “the idea that the future was linked to commercial innovation led to the concept of ‘tomorrow’ being widely used in advertising… providing the newest and most indispensable commodities that capitalism could imagine.” Sometimes the connection is so oblique as to be confounding. What mind thought the way to advertise Seagram’s Canadian whisky was futuristic cityscapes? But adverts such as Bohm’s ’From Airport to Town Through Monorail’ and Shell’s ’Through the City Of Tomorrow Without a Stop’ (both above) look like SF images with the logo of a company sponsor appended, the future as product upgrade.

Okay, so everything floating, in perfect alignment and gleaming white… if that starts to look a little like paradise, then technological utopianism could almost be defined as turning heaven from a function of space into one of time. And yet the line between utopia and dystopia seemed strangely thin. ‘Metropolis’, which did so much to define the trope, was a clear-cut dystopia. The workers are downtrodden at the same time the walkways are raised. The domineering building in the centre of the still above was called the New Tower of Babel, and the film is stuffed with catacombs, hallucinations and other Gothic tropes.


While a Penguin edition of Orwell’s well-known dystopia ’Nineteen Eighty-Four’ gave it a skyscraper cover (above) which could easily be modelled on the Barbican complex we’re in. As mentioned another time, the future city of ‘THX 1138’ becomes so antiseptically white it becomes dystopian in it’s own right.


Two parallel displays of magazine covers are helpfully labelled as utopian and dystopian. And yet the same gleaming towers are in each. It’s just on one side they stand boldly upright, while on the other they’re being toppled. (See Paul’s cover for ’Wonder Stories’, 1934, above). We can rise. Or we can rise and fall. Those would seem to be the options. Providing fans got their requisite dose of awe, perhaps it didn’t matter much.

Its Roots In Rule

Primitive societies often conceive of the future as behind us, as it creeps up on us unseen. SF takes precisely the opposite tack, insistently setting it firmly in our sights, straight ahead. Yet a list of things SF was by and large unable to predict would be long. It wasn’t even able to foretell its own future, for the most part. It could hold a distorting mirror to its present, that was all. Switch the TV on for a random film, and it’s often easier to date it to an era if it’s science fiction than if it’s contemporary set.


Pretty much every day I go to work among a group of different genders and sexual preferences, and from different races. I expect you do too, and I expect neither of us think about it very much. But that diversity, which we take so for granted, for most of SF’s history either lay unimagined or consigned to the most ruinous dystopia. Women, for example, don’t just not show up in the workplace – they don’t appear at all for much of the time. And when they do they’re mostly (in the words of the 'Mars Attacks' card above) prize captives for aliens to grab. But let’s focus on race, as it has a special place here.

After the Industrial Revolution the show comes up with a second origin story for the genre, which seems more on the money. For science fiction’s roots lie less in the science than the colonialism of the Nineteenth century. The more telling example is ‘An Explorer’ also from the cigarette card set ‘Vignettes Viellemard L’an 2000’ (1901) if somewhat less charming than the previous example. The titular European explorer buzzes above an African village in his propellor plane, frightening the superstitious natives. They’re depicted, unsurprisingly, the standard racist colonialist way. But the plane is futuristic looking, the colonialist image already morphing into something SF.

In an irony, this means a genre so concerned with the fantastical had its roots in actual accounts. Tim Youngs has argued 
“Explorers, missionaries, soldiers, colonial administrators, scientists and others produced accounts of their experiences… Their writings should not be seen as entirely separate from the novels or poetry of the time. Explorers and novelists read some of the same books and one another’s works.” Those accounts were often popular in themselves, such as Henry Morton Stanley’s ’How I Met Livingstone’ (1872) and ’Through the Dark Continent’ (1878), which coined that once popular term for Africa. But they also sparked a rise in popular adventure stories.

The point is less that fiction was being marshalled into cheerleading for colonialism, even if that was often an effect. (Ideology replicates itself without trying, most of the time.) In fact it was driven as much by discovering the ruins of ancient civilisations as it was by encountering living cultures. The point is more that, by opening up and throwing a spotlight onto the liminal, colonialism created space for story settings. So it led to a literature which could place the fantastical on the periphery, while having a ready-made means for encountering it.

It’s contradictory nature was to evoke the strange, exotic and otherly, whilst simultaneously insisting that we had a place there. This is most exemplified by the trope that explorers were taken as the return or the reincarnation of the foretold ancient ones (used in H. Rider Haggard’s first two main books, ’King Solomon’s Mines’, 1885 and ’She’ 1886). Colonialism came with an inbuilt futurism, “we are more advanced” easily eliding into “we are the future”.

But as colonialism was also expansionist that periphery was forever pushed against. Africa, Asia and hazily located ‘lost islands’ were invoked as story settings by the accounts of explorers, only to be surpassed as soon as they returned with their confoundedly complete maps. This didn’t happen in a neat or schematic way. Edgar Rice Burroughs starting writing with a series set on Mars (John Carter) in 1912, followed by the Africa-based Tarzan books later the same year, then another series set inside a hollow earth (Pellucidor) two years later. But it was the general direction of travel, and one circumstances mandated.


Antarctica would prove the last stand. Lovecraft’s ‘At The Mountains Of Madness’ (1936, above) locates his Elder Things there, inspired by a South Pole expedition a few years earlier. Yet it’s written with the conceit of being a warning, of deterring further expeditions – which perhaps sums up the irony.

Whereas Arthur Radebaugh’s painting ‘City in Antarctica’ (1960), is not of Lovecraft’s ancient city, strange and foreboding, it’s very existence enough to shake your sanity from you. Conversely, it’s a human centre. A handy label explains how nuclear power dispels that pesky cold. Those liminal spaces where the strange hung out have now become inhabited by us. Yet Lovecraft was already setting up the next step, as he associated his ancient civilisation with aliens. After Earth-based adventures quite literally ran out of space, the solution was… well, space. The colonialist’s pith helmet soon transformed into a space helmet.

But then, to expedite the process, three things happen in parallel. There’s an emerging criticism of colonialism, there’s colonialism itself taking softer forms relying more on economic dominance than naked land grabs. And there’s America, itself a former colonial subject, becoming the dominant global power. So SF’s more metaphorical take allowed for a figleaf; as sensibilities got more delicate, those savage black tribesmen could be recoloured a decoy green or substitute blue. But in the same step science fiction exacerbated the distinction between savage and civiliser, put them more than poles apart.

Dreaming Of a White Future

It should be said that SF scarcely stands alone, much art of this era is whitewashed. If America was a multiracial nation, you wouldn’t know it from its received self images. New York street scenes, for example, are often depicted with all white faces. For a long period music histories tended to assume black people kicked off genres which white folk went on to develop. More in touch with their animal instincts, they could hit on things we couldn’t. But without us those things stayed in stasis. It was us who turned their twelve-bar blues into the more sophisticated rock music, and so on. (This is such blatant nonsense you might wonder how people could ever believe it. But they didn’t, they assumed it.) 

But combining this whitewashing with futurism has a potentate effect. The techno-utopians were dreaming of a white future, where along with pollution and litter black people were consigned to the past.



Which is why it’s a good, if not an obvious, choice to include Sun Ra’s 1974 film ’Space Is the Place’ (1974, still above). Back-to-Africa movements, however understandable, always risked playing along, trapping of black people in the past, while his Afro-futurism did the opposite. The film portrays him both as an alien and as visiting royalty. His UFO takes off again with black folks aboard.

(Reviews concentrated more on Soda_Jerk’s “video cycle” ‘Astro Black’ (2007/10). It’s best conceit was a formal one, presenting the video in two screens to match the twin turntables of the hip-hop DJ. But it’s insertion of SF images into hi-hop videos, such a flying saucers placed behind Public Enemy, became an over-elaborated gag, an overlong YouTube video. The juxtaposition of the musical theme as greeting in ‘Close Encounters’ with Sun Ra, on a nearby film screen, seemed more attention-grabbing for being accidental.)

Friends and Relations

When a show’s on a subject as vast and sprawling as SF, you inevitably come away with a wish list of things you’d have liked more focus on. Let’s focus on just one. What might be the connections to Modernism?

Modernism was, like SF, about fashioning a new art for the future, with one main group in each even calling themselves the Futurists. Modernism, like SF, had a strangely polarised relationship with science and engineering, sometimes embracing it, sometimes actively siding with it’s irrational other. Modernism, like SF, was reliant on colonialism, Picasso for African masks, Gauguin for primitive Tahiti. Modernism, like SF, was a multi-media movement which always seemed to centre visual art even when it didn’t intend to.

You can scarcely look at the clean lines of those future cities and not think of Corbusier’s plans to raze and replace downtown Paris. Or Berenice Abbot and the New York photographers of the Barbican's earlier ‘Constructing Worlds’ exhibition.

And perhaps that’s not surprising when the chronologies run so closely. If we follow the show and take Verne as the start of the classic SF era, then we could reasonably pinpoint his ‘From the Earth to the Moon’(1865) as the starting gun. The first Impressionist exhibition was a mere two years earlier.

Yet, to quote Aldiss again:
“Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism exerted no influence.” Modernism moved away from straightforward depictions of things, even if this wasn’t the linear march into abstraction that some like to imagine. Whereas SF art often moved in almost the opposite direction, a hyper-real slickness which culminates in the endlessly empty grandeur of Chris Foss’ airbrushed book covers. True, the slickness could lend a deadpan quality to the absurd images, like Escher’s etchings. But that was a different path to Modernism.


As ever, exceptions apply. Perhaps the closest connection to SF was not Italian but Russian Futurist art, coming out in the open with the Constructivist look to Protazanov’s ‘Aelita Queen of Mars’ (1924, still above.) But for the most part SF art meets Modernism, and abruptly stops, at Pop Surrealism. For this reason the connection doesn’t seem to be a rich one, as that tween-stool genre so frequently looks simply trite. Their paths cross so seldom you figure they must have been avoiding one another, like two siblings who dislike admitting their attachment.

But exceptions to Aldiss’ rule apply, such as Arthur Radebaugh and Chesley Bonestell’s aerospace industry adverts of 1957/60. ‘Probing Beyond Present Knowledge’ uses almost Suprematist abstractions, presumably to better attract applications from the alpha scorers.

And things became different after the classic era of both traditions, when they were less keen on their own identity. The Sixties ’New Worlds’ featured illustrations by Pop Artists Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton. The two most influential SF films of the Seventies, which defined rival aesthetics which remain with us today, were ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Alien’. And both got their looks in large part from Jodorowsky’s abortive ‘Dune’. (Described here dryly as “widely regarded as one of the greatest SF films never made”.) And Jodorowsky was strongly Surrealist influenced, to the point of wanting to cast Dali. Yet his script happily played fast and loose with Herbert’s classic novel, while he cheerfully claims never to have read.

Like There’s No Tomorrow

To go back to that opening text, science fiction is no longer a minority pursuit of geeks and enthusiasts, it’s gone mainstream. (By this point the argument is self-evident. If it hadn’t, there’d hardly be an exhibition about it at the Barbican.) And yet fandom remains.

It goes unremarked on by this show, but in fact fandom was one way SF was genuinely pioneering. It engendered the first fandom, kicking off a concept that then spread to other areas. Nowadays we perhaps tend to focus on the negatives of fandom, seeing it as the possessive lover who doesn’t like their significant other fraternising with anyone else, however casually. (And seeing as we are all fans, there may well be some displaced self-criticism there.) But it can also mean a dynamic, not merely a transmittive, relationship between creator and audience. As such, like the genre it’s a fan of, fandom is not monolithic but multitudinous. But, as with the genre it’s a fan of, let’s generalise a little.

I expect most people reading this will know of the Puppygate farrago, where a bunch of disgruntled far right dickheads tried to game the Hugo awards. (Their claim was that SF had a social justice bias which required correcting. A more accurate explanation might be that, with science fiction having grown up without them, a bunch of man babies threw a tantrum.) And fandom rightly responded to their overt racism and misogyny by collectively stymying them. Which fits with my personal experience that science fiction fans tend to be at least socially liberal.

But fandom largely remains the preserve of white, well-off Westerners. And, as is so common in modern political debates, so furious were the anti-Puppy arguments over racism and misogyny that no attention was paid to class. Which tends to be something of a general blind spot these days. But then that might have a particular truth for fans.

Things have moved on from the days of Asimov’s ’Foundation’ trilogy, where SF was overtly a literature about an intellectual elite for an intellectual elite. But it remains an exclusive club where the alpha brains get to meet. As is common with the privileged, fans are often keener to imagine they got their way through their own efforts than their privilege. And the fact that they were proven to be ahead of the curve, that everyone finally caught up with their once-eccentric interests, is just further proof they were right all along.

As an example of the type SF fandom attracts, many exhibits in this show come from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. And Silicon Valley entrepreneurs notoriously see themselves as Ozymandian types who should be given the freedom to techno-fix the world, while the job of the rest of us is just to get out of the way of their bright bulbs lest we stop them lighting up. And SF is popular partly as a sandbox for their elevated imaginings, where they work out what the future should be so they could let the rest of us know.

These ideas are concerning because, rather than the fantasises of cranks they seem zeitgeisty. Or, to put it another way, “no longer niche”. However what’s curious is that, at the very same time, techno-futurism never seemed on shakier ground. As said over the Seventies return of Quatermass the world of that era seemed contrapedal, which became reflected in an SF endlessly flipping between utopian and dystopian. Now, it seems, that coin has landed. And it’s tails.

Time was, when people would suggest that the Gothic was tied to a particular historical period and that SF had superseded it. But, like the Titans of Greek myth, popular SF has been swallowed whole by its older sibling, Gothic horror. Which then swelled up to apocalyptic proportions. That essential awe can now come only when accompanied by fear and revulsion.


Films are probably the most popular SF medium today. And for every ’Star Trek’ there’s multiple apocalypses of one kind or another. Even Gothic’s quasi-Medievalism is now everywhere, the Breughel painting appearing in ’It Comes At Night’ or the most Medieval laboratory you’ve seen lately showing up in ’Alien: Covenant’ (above). Perhaps that opening quote is wrong. It’s the Gothic which is all around us. Like ’Mars Attacks’ or ’Silence in the Library’ its skull just resides inside that SF space helmet (below).


Which is something of a paradox. We have a self-assured technocratic elite whose interests and assumptions have effectively gone mainstream, where limiting their operations would be widely seen as folly. Yet they operate inside a society that has almost completely given up on the notion of a better future. You couldn’t write a fictional society like that, it would just look like you were contradicting yourself. And yet that society is the one we live through…

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