Rarely does anything date faster than our visions of the future, from the flying cars and under the sea croquet parties of the En L’an 2000 cigarette cards; to the need to ‘retire’ bio-engineered replicants who travel to Earth illegally and assimilate to 2019 Los Angeles, as proposed by Ridley Scott’s 1982 film, Bladerunner – although this isn’t necessarily so far from our reality of fake science propelled by GOOP-y ‘lifestylers’ and Trump-ed up news.
By definition, science fiction should balance the speculative with the rational, taking where we stand as the starting point, and blowing it up and outwards – pushing the boundaries of our knowledge and imaginations. The sense of wonder, and a willing suspension of disbelief are imperative, as the genre flits from the near-future to the prehistoric, the distant future to the recent past. Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction, which opened at Barbican on 3 June, features everything from Jonathan Swift’s Robinson Crusoe, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; to Dune, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Terminator. As well as various iterations of Star Wars and Star Trek, obviously.
The exhibition design, by Ab Rogers’ studio ARD, drops you further into the already sci fi-esque architecture of the Barbican Centre – with Modernist ideals and aesthetics so often crossing over with those of science fiction – and the imposing structures require you to look up and around, at works hovering high towards the ceiling and low to the ground. Into the Unknown covers the strange and the familiar with equal weight, both in terms of subject and familiarity. It doesn’t shy away from conveying the complexity of the genre, or its potential for commercial success.
The show, which was curated by historian and writer Patrick Gyger, considers both Thomas More and Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s visions of Utopia. The former a socio-political satire and imagining of a parallel reality devoid of private property published in Latin in 1516; and the latter a novel written in 2011 and set in 2023 which tells the grim account of a gated community in the north of Egypt where the wealthy are insulated from ‘The Others’, those who remained outside of Utopia after the collapse of the Egyptian middle class and the apparatus of the state. There is an interactive piece by Territory Studio, based on their work on Ridley Scott’s The Martian, spacesuits worn by John Hurt in Alien, Sam Rockwell in Moon and Cillian Murphy in Sunshine ; and Astro Black, a two-channel video installation by Soda_Jerk that looks at Sun Ra’s theories of Afrofuturism, and considers the centre or focus of science fiction and social politics in Black Atlantic sonic culture.
Into the Unknown engages with prehistoric romance, dinosaurs collaborating with humans, forgotten sea-monsters awoken by atom bombs, parallel worlds or galaxies, artificial intelligence and clones. The tales can be ones of utopia or dystopia, and are commonly interlaced with the socio-political climate of the day.
While it can be an opportunity to speculate on the potential to overcome divides, hardship and conflict; the motivations, themes and impact of science fiction, whether in the context of film, literature or comics, can also be problematic. The history of its plots and storylines is one closely aligned with the ‘othering’ of people. Along the lines of race, religion, culture or gender, the glorification of war, and visions of imperialism – although the racial dynamic in these instances is often flipped, creating sort-of self-flagellating visions of Western colonialism, somehow, and perhaps subconsciously, intended by the authors, as a means of eschewing shame or guilt. A key example of this is H. G Wells’ War of the Worlds, which establishes the British invasion of Tasmania as analogous to the warring Martians: “The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”
There are of course instances where science fiction relates to society in an engaged and positive way. Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which depicted aliens as peaceful beings, suggested that humankind may have reached a point where it was ready to interact with the cosmos. It portrays almost youthfully optimistic communication with the unknown as a positive attribute, and new technologies as a natural progression of development and an indication of health and growth.
The 1976 film, Logan’s Run engages with climate change, overpopulation, urbanism and individualism; and since 1977, Star Wars has told tales of rebellion against a brutal totalitarian government. Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 film, Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution, takes another, more dystopian angle. Shot in and around the Modernist buildings of Paris, it follows secret agent Lemmy Caution as he tries to destroy Alphaville and its dictatorial computer Alpha 60, which has outlawed free thought, love, poetry, emotion and any form of questioning. Author of a variety of post-apocalyptic dystopian fictions, including Vermillion Sands and The Atrocity Exhibition, J. G. Ballard often took inner space rather than outer space as his science fiction battleground. The author is said to have despised the term ‘science fiction’, and referred to his writing as being, instead ‘apocalyptic’. He focussed on our interactions with strange and exotic technology, Brutalist architecture and gated communities, assassinations and graphic representations of collisions.
Science fiction can’t entirely be viewed through the realm of socio-political context and consciousness, it is equally important as a narrative structure for entertainment. The B Movie tradition, including Attack of the 50 ft Woman, The Blob and It Came from Outer Space, lives on in science fiction comedies like Repo Man, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Class of Nuke Em High; and the aesthetic and narrative devices of sci fi have long been adopted, for better and worse, by designers in a variety of contexts.
Into the Unknown includes early advertising by the aerospace industry, which adopted the visual language and iconography of sci fi and Modernism – both associated with visions of progress – to promote jobs and feats of engineering in the midst of the highly politicised Space Race. The ads showed airships engaging with explorations of the sky, leisure and war, and utilised the language of fiction and entertainment to lighten what was, and remains to be, an ethically complex invention.
The influence of science fiction, and its potentialities that became realities alongside it – such as geodesic domes, mobile technology and space travel – can be seen in everything from Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, which went on to influence Steve Jobs (and many other tech bros); to Archigram’s Plug-In City and Walking City; Marshall McLuhan’s writing on media; Sheila Levrant de Bretteville and April Greiman’s work for the women’s movement; Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and early issues of Wired magazine. The aesthetic of “the future from the past” can be seen in contemporary sportswear, as details and in the form of the fabric and in generally useless wearable tech. It is being employed in an interesting, forward-facing way by designers and publishers like David Rudnick, Landfill Editions, Metahaven and Hassan Rahim; and illustrators Essy May, La Boca and Viktor Hachmang.
What unites classic expressions of science fiction is the willing suspension of disbelief, but what is perhaps the strangest, and most interesting skill of the genre is its ability to predict our most boring, limiting inventions – mechanisms that show humanity’s knack for invention but need for a higher or outside control – exemplified by the sentient computer in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Hal 9000’s, slow refrain of “Just a moment, just a moment, just a moment.”