‘We Live in a World of Science Fiction’: Into the Unknown at the Barbican Centre

Where do we situate Arab and Arabic science fiction stories, film, and imagery in the scope of the genre?

By Sinéad Murphy

Books from the exhibition. Photo: Sinead Murphy.

The idea that we live in a world of science fiction has been gaining significant traction in recent years. The overwhelming popularity of, for instance, Bruce Miller’s TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is due in no small part to the perception that its fantastical contents increasingly seem mimetic of reality. As Into the Unknown so comprehensively demonstrates, however, science fiction has had a vast and long-standing influence on our understanding of the world. Described as “a journey through science fiction,” this new exhibition is an amalgam of art, design, film and literature which foregrounds science fiction as an essential and well-established medium for human impulses of voyage and discovery.

The exhibition’s opening section revolves around the evolution of science fiction from nineteenth-century fixations with the mapping and uncovering of unknown earthly territories. These cartographic fantasies are reimagined in film in the mid-twentieth century, as depicted by visual effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen’s hazy sepia and pastel-toned illustrations of fantastic journeys and undiscovered human life. Of particular note also is American painter’s James Gurney’s depiction of Dinotopia, a utopian world-system tinged with nostalgia and idealism in which humans and dinosaurs live harmoniously. Gurney’s work includes a Dinotopian written language, featuring writing systems strongly resembling Hebrew and Latin alongside sequences of three-toed animal prints; it is exemplary of the lexical play and innovation which has always been a mainstay of the genre.

The origins of science fiction are traced back to its entanglements in scientific and mathematical innovation, with a selection not just of Jules Verne’s writing but also as the drawings, calculations, and mathematical annotations he created to support his literary outputs. Verne’s publisher reportedly “felt that illustration was an important language in itself in enhancing Verne’s dual emphasis on scientific discovery and romantic adventure,” and as such, the inclusion of lavish illustrations became a fruitful marketing strategy in promoting Verne’s work. As this implies, science fiction has, even with its most well-known representative figures, relied heavily on suggestions of scientific validity as well as effective commercial marketing to maintain a central role in popular culture.

Science fiction illustrations do not, however, occupy a mere secondary or supplementary role relative to narrative, and this exhibition makes clear the now irrefutable popularity of the visual language of science fiction. The imaginative appeal of the genre has frequently been harnessed to promote various corporate interests. As is confirmed by much of the print media in the exhibition, there is a particularly affinity between the aerospace industry in the 1950s and 60s and the iconography of science fiction. Shell’s “how to launch a new moon” ad campaign captures the potent marketability of our fascination with space travel and the possibility of extraterrestrial life.

The influence of science fictional iconography on architectural innovation is demonstrably profound; the exhibition features a diverse range of artists and architects offering visions of futuristic cityscapes and retro-futurist depictions of urban development. Underlying many of these visualizations is a duality of curiosity and fear; experimental and unbounded approaches to normative time and space are often suffused with anxieties about the future of human existence. This tension is manifested in the work of Royal Robertson, a self-taught artist from Louisiana whose drawings of “fantastical temples of religious worship… combine references from comic strips and science fiction with biblical prophecies.” Robertson’s drawings are a chaotic fusion of vivid paint-strokes and ballpoint pen scrawls; the colourful vibrancy of his images is undercut by the apocalyptic tone of the artist’s written messages.

Into the Unknown claims that “today, science fiction’s ever-growing corpus, wide-ranging in its themes and ambition, sometimes still wears – ironically enough – its 20th century attire.”

Such a description has routinely, and unfortunately, been characteristic of science fictional literature. Long dominated by nineteenth and early twentieth century texts by a predominantly male authorship, the exhibition challenges this restrictive canon with its book displays, which punctuate the gallery space. Arranged in chronological order, the displays trace a literary history of science fiction extending from Huxley, Wells, and Orwell through to more contemporary contributions by, for example, China Miéville, Kim Stanley Robinson, and M John Harrison. The exhibition takes care, however, to highlight the significant contributions of women to the field (including, for instance, Mary Shelley, Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Margaret Atwood, and Ann Leckie), as well as featuring a selection of texts by authors outside of an often decidedly American and western European canon. These include Okorafor’s Binti, Beukes’ Zoo City, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow and Mohammed Dib’s Qui se souvient de la mer, amongst a host of others.

A number of contemporary Arab-authored and Arabic-language science fiction texts are displayed, gesturing to the recent surge in the popularity of the genre throughout the Middle East; these include Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s Utopia, Noura Al-Noman’s أجوان (Ajwan), and Ahmed Al-Saadawi’s IPAF-winning فرانكشتاين في بغداد (Frankenstein in Baghdad, forthcoming in English translation in 2018).

Into the Unknown is a multi-media experience, and the main exhibition is populated by clips from iconic science fiction films which jostle for auditory space. It is, in places, cacophonous — but it is a positive cacophony, illustrative of the frequency with which artists, writers, filmmakers and designers synthesize science fiction material across different forms. One notable example is Soda_Jerk’s video installation Astro Black (2007-11), which integrates excerpts from Sun Ra’s Space is the Place (1974) with characters from Star Trek and dancers dressed in homage to the Black Panther Party. The piece speaks to the capacity of science fiction to find originality by estranging the familiar, and  specifically, to provide a means of exploring and interrogating African-American sociopolitical experiences through visual art.

Nestled at the center of the exhibition are several pieces which, for many science fiction fans, represent one of the genre’s most significant modern outputs — the Star Wars franchise. Enthusiasts will enjoy a variety of distinctive artifacts, among them Darth Vader’s fighting helmet from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980). However, the scale of the exhibition is such that it extends far beyond these articles. Aptly described as “festival-style,” there are satellite exhibitions throughout the venue in addition to the main space; these include a variety of video screenings, such as Larissa Sansour and Soren Lind’s In the Future They Ate From the Finest Porcelain, mixed media like Conrad Shawcross’ In the Light of the Machine (2016), and freestanding installation, as with Trevor Paglen’s ORBITAL REFLECTOR (DIAMOND VARIATION), among several others. The main exhibition is also supplemented by a very promising range of associated special events throughout the summer; panel discussions sponsored by New Scientist, outdoor screenings of iconic science fiction feature films, and a series of book club meetings hosted by Penguin Classics. It is, in a sense, an exhibition of cosmic proportions.

This exhibition purports to be an entry into the unknown. If anything, it is a journey through the familiar, confronting us with the sheer extent to which science fiction has a tentacular reach both within and beyond all manner of artistic fields. As this exhibition illuminates, science fiction has been — and continues to be — a genre to which humans are ineluctably and continuously drawn in our efforts to better know the unknown.

Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction launched at the Barbican Centre on 3rd June 2017, and runs until 1st September. See www.barbican.org.uk/intotheunknown/

Sinéad Murphy (@S1nead_Murphy) is a PhD candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature in King’s College, London. Her research is an AHRC LAHP-funded project on contemporary Arab speculative fiction in English.

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