The Science Museum in London has an area for temporary exhibitions, and their latest is called Science Fiction. We visited as a family recently. It’s a particularly imaginative and playful exhibition that asks a range of questions that are pertinent to the themes of the Earthbound Report.
Visitors are allowed into the exhibition hall in groups, because you enter by boarding a ‘shuttle’. In a bit of participative theatre, the shuttle blasts off and delivers visitors to a spaceship orbiting the earth. An alien AI has been tasked with understanding humanity and our prospects, and we’re being welcomed aboard to help them. In particular, our imaginary AI has collected various items from science fiction for us to peruse, and reflect on some questions they have been trying to answer: why do we imagine other worlds? What does speculative fiction do for us? Can it help us solve real world problems or is it just escapism?
There are some intriguing examples of how science fiction has led to real world change. A screen shows clips from early films about going to the moon, and then the actual the actual footage. Did science fiction lay the groundwork for the moonshot? Did we need to imagine it in detail first, before we could ever believe it possible?
Elsewhere we see an early pacemaker, and learn that its inventor, Earl Bakken, was inspired by the story of Frankenstein’s monster. Electricity couldn’t bring a body to life, sure, but what could it do? Medtronic, his company, pioneered the early use of electronic devices in healthcare, including insulin pumps worn by many diabetics. In another room, we learn how Mae Jemison became America’s first black astronaut after seeing a black actress on Star Trek. The fictional story opened a door in Jemison’s imagination.
Having made this connection, the exhibition turns to climate change and the environmental crisis. Our AI friend wonders whether we will be able to deliver the transformations needed to prevent catastrophe, with examples of dystopian cli-fi and more positive examples that imagine a way out – like the novels of Kim Stanley Robinson.
Finally, visitors step into the spaceship’s ‘viewing gallery’, where we can see the earth turning beneath us. I found this a poignant and reflective space, despite the big childish buttons.
You can view Science Fiction in a variety of ways. Pop culture fans will find iconic objects from Star Wars, Alien and other franchises. Those with an interest in the literary legacy of science fiction will find passing mentions of the history and the development of the genre. You could browse it for the science, which includes cybernetics and faster than light travel. If Maybe the exhibition does too many things and doesn’t go deep enough on any of them, though personally I really enjoyed the broad brush approach. It also works well for children, with its spaceship corridors and interactive elements (my daughter came dressed in a spacesuit in order to get the most from the immersive experience.)
What I particularly enjoyed was the gentle prompting to think about science fiction and the role it plays in setting out future scenarios. Whether we want to label it science fiction or not, we won’t solve any of the big problems of the 21st century without imagination.
“Science fiction goes beyond being an art form,” says the AI. “It offers humans a whole way of thinking about the world and the problems you face. As a laboratory of the mind, science fiction seems to allow humans to experiment with their futures.”
- Science Fiction is on until May the 4th (and somebody’s planned that, haven’t they)
- It is unfortunately £15 a ticket for adults, but it’s still cheaper than actually going to space