Into the Unknown – A Science Fiction exhibition at The Barbican, London.

20170722_134841Is a room full of awesome geeky stuff an exhibition (interesting or otherwise), or just a room full of awesome geeky stuff? I felt it was time to find some new geek inspiration, so I took myself along to the brutalist maze that is The Barbican on a wet and miserable London afternoon. Into the Unknown is billed as “A journey through science fiction” and is meant to be aimed at fans and novices alike.

When I handed over just short of 15 of your English Pounds, I was expecting to be taken on a journey. A story, if you will, of the history of science fiction. Why it resonates? How it came about? What it means to society now? What made Shelley write Frankenstein (although this I do know, of course) to why Margret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is so important today, as the success of the awesome TV series testifies?

What I got when I passed through the darkened entry doors was a room full of cool geeky science fiction stuff, with a few short plaques of description (often placed after, or to the side of the specific exhibit). There were several cases of books on a theme – proto-science fiction, dystopia, that sort of common grouping – which ranged from a few rare editions to foreign editions to recent publications but without an attached story to them, or why the curator chose them in particular. They did have some audio taken from the books for those unfamiliar. I saw no-one listening…There was plenty of art work (from movie story boards to cities-of-the-future originals), comic books, advertising and film posters, movie props (miniatures and models, costumers), film scripts and screens showing oldy chosen random short film clips. For those with time and patience to sit with headphones on, there was a number of short films to watch. One in particular caught my attention, as it was written by a computer. It was mostly tosh, but interesting in a way.

The exhibit, then, did have some very nice pieces. The journey began with the likes of Jules Verne and Ray Harryhausen. Some of his early sketches are simply awesome. Check out these drawings:

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They also showed some of his models, and showed them next to models used in the Jurassic Park films.

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There was Darth Vader’s actual helmet, alien masks from Stargate, Giger’s drawings (with comedy annotations) from Alien 3, robots from AI and the Lost in Space TV show; ships, props and models from the likes of Fantastic Voyage and Land of the Giants and Red Dwarf and eXistence. There was the script from 2001 with its original title crossed out and the familiar one written in by hand. There was plenty of story boards and concept art, from Empire Strikes Back to Elysium. My favourite pieces were the space suits as worn by Leonard Nimoy in Star Trek, Sam Rockwell in Moon and John Hurt in Alien. Nice. No, to be fair, it was more than nice. Quite exciting, truth be told.

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For me, there were too many pictures and prints from posters and adverts, especially the cities-of-the-future motif. And way too many random film clips. And that Wonder Woman thing was awful. The book displays were the most disappointing. Just books with the occasional manuscript. Although I was pleased to see many features in my science fiction challenge (Herland, News from Nowhere, The Last Man, The Mummy, and a whole lot more.) But there was no story. No process. And very little interaction. You could play a part in a simulation from the film The Martian, but other than watching and listening throughout the room, that was it.

20170722_134144Outside the main exhibition, there were several short films to watch. I didn’t bother. A set of ‘media pods’ had games on them, but there were queues, so again I passed. I did venture down to the ‘Pit’ to see the pretty if bewildering art installation called In the Light of the Machine by Conrad Shawcross. A series of plastic monoliths with patterned holes surrounded a robot art with a light at the end. The movement of the robot arm cast a variety of shadows in the darkened room, which looked cool but meant little, and certainly not whatever pretentious twaddle the plaque described. Finally, at the exit to the Barbican, a series of screens promised an edited version of a Black Mirror episode from the first season. Which lasted about a minute before looping. Nothing more than a trailer. As brutalist architecture, the Barbican is an eerie, mystifying maze of a place, which doesn’t help the mood of the visitor looking around the exhibition.

I can’t help feeling that Patrick Gyger, who curated Into the Unknown isn’t the world’s biggest science fiction fan. Curation is stretching it too. He’s stuck a bunch of very cool stuff (and don’t get me wrong, I was excited to see art from Harryhausen and props from Alien and Star Wars and Star Trek and one or too nice early book editions) but for 15 quid, I’d expect a whole lot more. Into the Unknown is a missed opportunity to really explore science fiction. It was a chance to wow fans and educate the novice. Which is a shame. And an expensive one.

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The room is open until Sept 1. For more info, see https://www.barbican.org.uk/intotheunknown/

The profound impact of being a geek

I am what I am, so said Shirley Bassey, Gloria Gaynor, Popeye and many others. I don’t particularly like labelling or placing people in pigeonholes. And yet I call myself a geek. I grew up with early computers (Vic 20 and C64) and superheroes. I always loved Star Trek and Star Wars. As I grew older I became fascinated by horror and supernatural, aliens and monsters. I read science fiction and fantasy and comics avidly. I now watch The Simpsons and Family Guy and have 100s of DVDs for my evening’s viewing. I love my smartphone and my laptop. I wear T-shirts referencing movies and occasionally visit conventions and collectors fairs. However, most of my friends are not geeks. My social habits are not geek related. I work in a library and converse about all manner of topics. What am I, really? In Rory’s recent article, he might call me a natural post-geek.

This all sounds like surface to me. Hobbies and interests. Not who I am. But…What I watch and read and wear defines me. I believe my geekiness is more profound than surface effects, and I suspect this applies to many other people as well. My political view point, my musical tastes and even my career choices have been influenced by the habits and interests of the geek.

A few examples then?

As a growing teenager I watched endless repeats of Star Trek and Monkey. A million words have been said about the cultural impact of the former. It had a profound impact on me as well. You really do learn about the world; war, race, friendship, loyalty and more. Meanwhile, my first taste of non-Christian Western white-dominated culture came from Monkey. For purposes of context, I grew up in a working class area of North-East England; at school, there were only two non-white pupils in over a thousand. In both shows, the motivations of the characters aren’t always black and white. People are complex and relationships are complex. McCoy and Spock are always at odds. Spock, the brain and McCoy, the heart, and yet they would lay their lives for each other. Tripitaka teaches Monkey that actions have consequences.

Spiderman to me was always about an awkward teenager finding his way in the world. Clearly, Stan Lee pasted his message on thick with the classic ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. To me, that also meant behaviours have consequences. I learned to respect myself and others.

I didn’t know many people who shared my tastes during those formative years. As many a teenager, however, I felt lost, alone and often felt like a failure. Horror films repeatedly featured the outsider. I was particularly drawn to movies where the sympathy lay with the monster. I remember seeing James Whale’s Frankenstein when I was quite young, and feeling compassion with the creature as he was cast out and misunderstood. Later in life, I came across Clive Barker’s Nightbreed. I wanted to live in Midian. I wanted to live with the monsters.

John Wyndham is the author of many of my favourite novels. I first read The Chrysalids in my late teens. David is a telepath in a post-apocalyptic world that has fallen on hard times. Society is ruled by religious zeal and physical bigotry. He bands together with other young people with a similar ability. David overcomes adversity and eventually finds acceptance in a different community. While I was never a Christian, this was my first experience of fundamentalism. I learned about how intolerance is often based on fear and ignorance. I learned that the rights of the individual are paramount. I also learned that you really can trust some people.
So I learned about people and I learned about the world. After all, isn’t that what science fiction is about? What it means to be human? What it means to be alive in the world? Fantasy and horror, I believe, is truly about character. How we face adversity and how we relate to other people in our lives. How we see ourselves?
Of course, all good comedy is meant to make you laugh, and all good drama is meant to make you feel tense, or to cry, or to feel loved. So, Buffy is just a blonde in a short skirt who stakes vampires and saves the world (a lot). No. She is someone who lives life with heart and soul. She shows us how hard it is to grow up, to take responsibility, to love and to lose. I laugh during Band Candy. I cry at The Gift and The Body and I ache during Once More With Feeling.

I have only read one book that made me cry. When watching TV or a film, the emotional impact tends to be instant. When Spock or Buffy dies, you can see it coming and it hits you. The written word by its nature unfolds slowly and has occasional unexpected reveals. I read slower than average and I don’t try to second guess or skip down the page. I had heard great reviews about Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, so gave the books a shot. I was instantly hooked and read them back-to-back. Superb plotting and characterisation, and interesting philosophy and criticism which matched my own thoughts and beliefs. I didn’t see it coming, and didn’t expect it, but at the end of The Amber Spyglass when the children and I repeat, children, Lyra and Will realise that they have to part in order save their worlds… To me that is the most powerful sacrifice I have come across.

So, what is a geek? Someone who likes Cosplay or collecting comics? Someone who thinks aliens and spaceships are cool. Someone who wants to be just like Batman? Maybe, but my bet is they are so much more. They are intelligent and educated, world-wise and well-rounded individuals. I understand myself and the world, and the people who inhabit it. Thank you Stan Lee, Gene Roddenberry, Joss Whedon, Neil Gaimen, Philip Pullman, John Wyndham and all my other teachers.

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