“What era of science fiction would you like the exhibition to focus on?”
“Hm. All of them.”
That was roughly how the conversation ended between the Swedish historian, writer and curator, Patrick Gyger and administrators of the Barbican in London about creating the exhibition “Into the Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction”. The exhibition, which ran from June to September in London, has now come to the Onassis Cultural Center in Athens.
At the outset, Gyger believed that he would merely provide the organizers at the Barbican with some assistance to help them set up a run-of-the-mill sci-fi exhibition with spacecraft and aliens that he was not interested in taking on. However the final result was something different: an exhibition about science fiction as a whole and its many, varied forms.
“Science fiction existed 200 years ago or 2,000 years ago, depending on who you ask,” Gyger informs us. The satirist Lucian of Samosata (AD 120 – 180) is considered by many to be the father of the genre thanks to his True History, a book which featured the the earliest known depictions of space travel, alien lifeforms and interplanetary warfare. Others cite Mary Shelley as science fiction’s mother, with her classic tale of scientific experiments gone wrong in Frankenstein.
Gyger himself dates the dawn of science fiction writing to the 16th century and that era’s tales of explorations of strange, utopian lands.
The ‘science’ in science fiction is generally a way to distinguish the genre from fantasy stories involving ghosts, magic, dragons and other supernatural elements. Science fictions generally requires a logical basis on which fantastical stories can be built.
“In the one, if a plant starts talking it is because it is haunted, whereas in the other it is probably because it is genetically engineered or a robot. Science fiction creates a different world in order to say something about our own,” the curator says.
The first visionaries
The exhibition begins with the section ‘Extraordinary Voyages’ and the different worlds that have been imagined by writers throughout the ages – from the writings of Jules Verne, to Gulliver’s Travels to Jurassic Park.
We then take a tour of ‘Space Odysseys’ visiting the familiar-to-many universes of Star Trek, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Interstellar.
Visions of the future can be seen in “Brave New Worlds” which explores societies and cityscapes – dystopian and not – such as in the worlds of Metropolis, 1984, The Hunger Games, A Handmaid’s Tale and others.
Cyborgs, robots and artificial intelligences such as the Terminator, Interstellar’s TARS and Sonny from IRobot – at times are humanity’s helpers, at others its enemies – are the focus of Final Frontiers, a section exploring questions of human identity and transformation, augmentation and mutation.
Throughout the exhibition a total of 800 exhibits will be on display, some of which are rare and valuable, such as the Harkonnen Capo chair which was created for the film Dune by Hans Gyger, the original designer of the iconic Alien, and sketches by the artist and special effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen who became widely known for creating the Earth-attacking monster in the 1957 film, “20 Million Miles to Earth”.
“Science fiction is not first and foremost about spaceships blowing up,” says Christos Carras, the general manager of the Onassis Cultural Center. He cites the book “The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula Le Guin which depicts a world inhabited by beings that can swap their genders at will, which raised – in 1969 and via science fiction – questions about gender identity.
After all, science fiction has been often used as a vehicle to raise questions about politics, race and more, as shall be explored in the parallel events that will be held alongside the exhibition at the Onassis Cultural Center, as well as in an upcoming Afrofuturism festival.
“Our goal is for people to see the breadth of the genre, that this is a larger area than what we normally come into contact with through the movies,” Carras says.
In Greece, while there is a wide consumption of science fiction books and films, few such works are created. “On the contrary it is minimal and not just in comparison with the USA or northern Europe, but even with the other Balkan countries which produced many such works from the 50s until the 80s. The audience is sophisticated but few works have been produced – a fact which continues today despite the explosion we see in comic books.” So says Thanasis Moutsopoulos, a professor of History of Art at the Technical University of Crete who will participate in panel discussions about science fiction in Greece in the context of the exhibition.
Before we hang up the phone, Patrick Gyger tells us that society as a whole needs more positive visions for the future and that science fiction can provide them. But of course, it is dystopian visions that tend to make more of an impression – like that represented by Darth Vader’s mask – one of the event’s most iconic exhibits.