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Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction

Image © Tristan Fewings / Getty Images

We visit the Barbican Centre's new Science Fiction retrospective

The Barbican is staging a one of a kind exhibition exploring the genre of Science Fiction alongside several installations throughout the building. Featuring literature and film, and encompassing concept art, models, props and more, the exhibition charts the journey of the genre from its earliest examples through to modern classics.

It’s a mammoth undertaking – a retrospective of an entire genre that spans multiple mediums and is notoriously hard to pin down. How exactly do you define Science Fiction? According to the exhibition itself, Sci-Fi is “a narrative genre which creates fiction in a speculative and rational way”. Speculative in the way it takes real situations, or technologies, and imagines how they may evolve. This imagining must be rational however – there is no fantasy here. This is why much of the genre contains elements of real-world history – think of the dinosaurs found in King Kong and James Gurney’s Dinotopia, or the ancient Egyptian aliens in Stargate (models of which are featured in the exhibition).

So, where exactly do you begin with Sci-Fi? The 18th century, it turns out. The exhibition starts by taking a look at the earliest examples of the genre, and revisiting literature of the period using the criteria specified above. Exhibits include early editions of Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. These books, and many others, contained stories of humans journeying into the unknown and discovering lost civilisations, ancient tribes or even dinosaurs. Sci-Fi is somewhat dominated by space travel now, so it’s fascinating to consider that in the 18th century, before we had even thought about getting to the moon, places like the Amazon or the Arctic were lands of mystery and adventure.

Image Credit: Tristan Fewings / Getty Images

As the world gradually began to get smaller, Sci-Fi had to find new realms. Adventurers entered the planet itself – think Journey to the Centre of the Earth – and dived into the depths of the ocean in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Elsewhere writers invented cities and worlds in the clouds, with the fantastic machines that travelled to these locations included thanks to the delightfully intricate fibreglass models of Jean-Marc Deschamps.

The exhibition then heads into Sci-Fi’s most well known realm – outer space. This section – and the two that follow, which focus on the civilisations and societies in the genre and technology – contain the blockbuster elements. Original Stormtrooper and Darth Vader helmets, H.R. Giger’s Alien models and Spock’s spacesuit rub shoulders with more obscure, cult items: Battlestar Galactica’s Cylon Raiders and Tweekie the robot from Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

Image Credit: Tristan Fewings / Getty Images

Glass cases filled with novels are dotted throughout the entire exhibition, along with concept art and screens playing clips from a whole host of different films and TV shows. There is so much to look at. Beautiful sketches from pioneers Ray Harryhausen and Willis O’Brien, early mediums – Super 8, lithographs, stereocards – from before the dawn of television and modern work from artists inspired by the genre. One screen allows you to scroll through Martin Panchaud’s SWANH.NET, a 123m long infographic meticulously charting all the events of Star Wars: A New Hope, whilst the original Mars Attacks! trading cards show the inspiration for Tim Burton’s 1996 movie of the same name.

The exhibition is so broad in its scope that some elements can’t help but be overlooked. Whilst mention is given to the pioneering female author Ursula K. Le Guin, and there is a brief mention of the slightly dubious nature of the white male dominance of the genre and how its conquests are reminiscent of colonialism, the overriding nature of the exhibition remains somewhat masculine. To a certain degree this is unavoidable given the gender of so many of the protagonists and authors included, however more room could be given to representing a wider cross-section of society within the genre.

Afrofuturism gets a nod via Australian duo Soda_Jerk’s two-channel video installation Astro Black. Footage of jazz musician Sun Ra is interspliced with other film, music and archive footage to create a montage that challenges the white dominance of the genre and is hilarious at times. Excited American families, huddled around to watch the moon landing, are shown watching Sun Ra – and their reactions and commentary complement perfectly.

Image Credit: Tristan Fewings / Getty Images

Outside, the rest of the Barbican Centre gets involved, with short films playing in the foyer and banks of interactive screens allowing users to listen to Sci-Fi themed music or play video games. In Light of the Machine, an art installation in the basement of the building from Conrad Shawcross, is a mechanical ‘creature’ that moves constantly, and purrs and whirs, as it’s long proboscis flits around the room. The feeling of sentience – particularly strong having been immersed in a universe of robots and AI – is astounding.

Into the Unknown is a huge achievement, and successfully manages to chart and navigate its way through the dense forest of the Science Fiction genre. It doesn’t scratch the surface so much as it demonstrates just how vast the surface is, and is a fitting and comprehensive introduction to an enormous canon of work.

Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction is at the Barbican Centre till September 1. Tickets are £14.50.