[Paleopsych] NYT: Sci-Fi Synergy
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Wed May 25 00:46:39 UTC 2005
By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN
SEATTLE, May 22 - "Most museums show you history," boasts the year-old
Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle, but "only one
takes you to the future."
And so it does, if the future includes the life-size model of the
Alien Queen from James Cameron's 1986 movie "Aliens"; a first edition
of Ray Bradbury's "The Martian Chronicles" (1950); a collection of
phaser guns from "Star Trek" (1966-present); the vinyl raincoat worn
by Joanna Cassidy in the 1982 film "Blade Runner"; and a half-size
replica of the roving explorer "Sojourner," used on the surface of
Mars in 1997.
Actually, of course, it isn't the future being shown, and it isn't
really history either. It's something like a history of the future, or
a history of ideas about the future. And as it unfolds here, it is
dizzying in its miscellany. It also has some unusual resonances right
now because science-fiction franchises like the "Star Wars" films and
"Star Trek" series have just been brought to a close.
In the museum, the influence of those epics is unmistakable, with
sound effects and lighting shaping each exhibit's environment. A
"Stardock" window even seems to look out into cinematic space, where
ships from "E. T." and "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" (along with
antiques like H. G. Wells's moon capsule), glide past one another as
observers at touch-screens learn about their origins and powers.
Other displays mix genres and media with almost gleeful abandon. A
vest worn by Michael York in "Logan's Run" (1976) is not far from a
first edition of an Ursula K. Le Guin novel and a copy of Mad
magazine. Hauntingly delicate drawings by a little-known Brazilian
artist, Alvim Corrêa, illustrating a 1906 Belgian edition of H. G.
Wells's "War of the Worlds," are around the corner from models of
extraterrestrials assembled in a mock intergalactic saloon similar to
the one in "Star Wars."
It is as if a molecular manipulator out of "The Fly" had scrambled a
century of objects, grafting together disparate media and creatures.
But within this phantasmagorical array of memorabilia, film and
collectibles, a portrait of the history of the future does begin to
take shape. The opening exhibit room, wrapped in a band of stars like
a planetarium, offers a timeline of science fiction as the exhibits
survey its preoccupations, its overlap with real science, its concerns
with society, its fans turned practitioners.
And the museum itself is really a rough first draft of that history,
created by the Microsoft billionaire, Paul G. Allen, 52, largely out
of his own collection. He gave it a $20 million, 13,000-square-foot
home in the same Frank O. Gehry building as the $240 million museum
devoted to one of Mr. Allen's other passions - rock music; in the
Experience Music Project, as it is called, Jimi Hendrix's guitar is as
readily displayed as Captain Kirk's tunic is here. In fact, scaled
back ambitions for the music project, which has been having problems
meeting original expectations, created room for the Science Fiction
Museum in a space once used for a three-story thrill ride.
But the museum doesn't leave science fiction at the level of toys and
hobby horses. It is a good place to be reminded that a genre that 80
years ago was on the margins is now, at least in its cinematic
incarnations, at the very center of culture.
Science fiction pulp magazines once featured what insiders called
"BBB's" fleeing "BEM's" - "Brass Bra Babes" fleeing "Bug-Eyed
Monsters." Not for long. Writers of the mid-20th century turned
science fiction into something more profound; many recent writers have
been scientists themselves.
Even modern cinema, with its sound effects and computer-generated
worlds, was shaped by science fiction: George Lucas's 1977 "Star Wars"
film was a declaration of independence and dominance for the genre,
setting it on its current course. The long-term television and movie
saga of "Star Trek" also created new types of fans, satirized and paid
homage to in the film "Galaxy Quest" (1999).
The ends of these franchises do not, of course, mark an end to the
genre's importance, nor do they portend an era of dissolution. And
while, aside from the cinematic items, the museum's center of gravity
seems to rest in the 1970's, causing it to lean backward rather than
forward, the collection also provides a glimpse of science fiction's
It is astonishing, for example, how often boundaries between fantasy
and reality are broken down in the exhibits themselves. Objects from
"Star Trek" are real ("The phaser," we are told, "was developed early
in the 23rd century as a defensive weapon"), while other objects, like
a 1951 Dick Tracy radio, are called toys. A "Starfleet communicator
badge" from "Star Trek" is labeled a "reproduction" presumably because
it was not really a "communicator" used on the show.
But in an exhibit of uniforms, a tunic from the 1956 film "Forbidden
Planet" shares the same case as a NASA space suit from the Gemini
program. Fiction and fact intermingle.
This is one point of an exhibit devoted to "War of the Worlds" (which
is now being made into two feature films). It offers a recording of
Orson Welles's 1938 radio broadcast, which famously caused listeners
to believe a Martian invasion was taking place in New Jersey.
After a broadcast in Ecuador a few years later, the exhibit tells us,
the news that it had only been a radio drama led to riots, the
storming of a radio station and multiple deaths.
This reaction, however extreme, is a fantasy for fantasists: science
fiction's account of the future is not meant to be fantasy. Instead it
creates a kind of "thought experiment." As one exhibit points out, it
asks "What if ..." What if you only saw the stars every 2,000 years?
This is an approach used within science as well, testing understanding
and exploring possibilities; scientists often point to science fiction
as an early influence. The museum's director, Donna Shirley, has said
that reading Bradbury's "Martian Chronicles" at the age of 12 inspired
her career. At NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, she managed the Mars
Exploration Program; here, she helped mount the museum's Mars exhibit,
which juggles science fiction and fact.
Alternate realities, of course, appeal to adolescents as well as
inventors, and in some ways Mr. Allen's museums lean toward the
former, enshrining his own adolescent passions.
Indeed, right now, the collection determines too readily what is
shown: a series of exhibits about dystopias and utopias could have
been far more powerful had the objects been selected more carefully,
and the ideas more thoroughly explored.
But the passion and homage are welcome. For science fiction may really
aspire to be more like history than fantasy, not because it aspires to
be true, but because it aspires to know what could possibly be true.
Often, in fact, it is less preoccupied with the future than with the
past; studying "what was?" can help show "what if?" Mr. Lucas's first
three "Star Wars" films, for example, actually oppose the onslaught of
the future. The villains are the masters of gleaming technology; the
heroes are retro and ramshackle, in touch with the lost powers of the
So histories of the future really deserve a museum, if only to suggest
where they might go next.
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