Start your journey through science fiction with this extract from Into the Unknown curator, Patrick Gyger‘s introductory essay ‘A Journey Through Science Fiction’ from the Into the Unknown exhibition catalogue, available through the Barbican Shop.
‘We live in a world of science fiction.
Not in a science fiction world, as some claim, constructed by the apparatuses depicted in past tales of the future. Thankfully, the vast majority of science fiction did not predict our time. We would otherwise be surrounded by intoxicated drivers in flying cars, subjected to a robotic uprising or confused by yapping Martians, and would be living underwater, in space or in post-apocalyptic wastelands, fed on pills, or worse even, Soylent Green.
Worlds and events are distant and amazing enough to create a wow factor but close and believable enough to be relevant and remain credible
But there is no denying that science fiction has probably never been so popular, or at least so mainstream. Once considered niche, the influence and commercial success of science fiction film and television in recent decades is primarily responsible for the genre’s broad appeal. After a century of growing attention to science fiction, it is now widely considered a cultural force, or a perspective to be taken seriously and reflected upon. Although generally considered difficult to define, science fiction can be summarised as a narrative genre which creates fiction in a speculative and rational way. It is speculative in the sense that it pushes the boundaries of our knowledge and imagines new settings, technologies, and situations. It is also rational, hence the ‘science’ element historically attached to it; the origin of many misconceptions. These elements (fiction, hypothesis and reason) allow the genre to be distinguished from futurology (which is non-fictional), fantasy (which is non-rational) or general fiction (which isn’t highly speculative). Two elements also found in classic science fiction are the ‘sense of wonder’ – as the genre relishes in the marvelous, adventure, and outlandish visions – as well as a willing suspension of disbelief from the reader or spectator. In science fiction, worlds and events are distant and amazing enough to create a wow factor but close and believable enough to be relevant and remain credible.
The genre plays with incredibly powerful ideas about the mysteries of what is still unknown to us…
Beyond an entertainment value, science fiction operates as a distorting mirror, reflecting our world in a specific way so as to underline some of its potential or absurdity. Shedding a different light on ourselves or our surroundings, science fiction can be seen as a commentary on identity, society, or the scientific and technological issues of its time. Still, limiting science fiction to its usefulness as a tool for exploring our reality, and therefore instrumentalising it, would deny its many other powers: to inspire, warn, enthrall. For the genre plays with incredibly powerful ideas about the mysteries of what is still unknown to us, and the power of human ingenuity to uncover or decipher them. While doing so, it has created a rich language of iconography within the pages of novels, on the big screen or inside the pages of comic books. It has conjured forgotten cities buried in time, exotic planets populated by fantastic beings, extraordinary exploits of science and engineering, and spectacular transformations of our environment and our own selves.
Thus science fiction is all around us, creating an ever-growing corpus, wide-ranging in its themes and ambition, whilst sometimes still wearing – ironically enough – its 20th century attire: lost worlds filled with dinosaurs; swashbuckling space exploits to rescue princesses; spandex costumes to disguise the perpetrator of impossible but heroic deeds. As we begin to recognise the long-lasting influence of science fiction on visual culture, it feels to be – alongside us – on the cusp of taking a bold leap into the 21st century, encouraging us to embark on a journey that is truly into the unknown.
Read Patrick Gyger’s full essay, plus others by a range of scholars and experts in the field, including award-winning author Bruce Sterling, in the Into the Unknown exhibition catalogue, available in the Barbican Shop
Into the Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction is open until 1 September 2017
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