Why London’s new sci-fi exhibition is not to be missed
Plus, a rundown of the books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency
Tuesday 11 October 2022 By Matt d’Ancona
‘It seemed to me when I started writing in the late fifties and early sixties that the future was a better key to the present than the past,’ said the late J.G. Ballard in a 1986 interview. ‘One had to look at the next five minutes to understand what was going on now.’
And not only the next five minutes: the intimate relationship between the world in which we live today and the multiple futures made possible by technological, social and scientific change is one of the binding themes of the Science Museum’s excellent new exhibition, Science Fiction: Voyage To The Edge Of Imagination (booking until 4 May). Though we often consume it as mere entertainment or escapism, science fiction also functions as a creative lab in which we probe and test, at both the practical and psychic level, the broadest potential of our species, planet, technology and place in the cosmos.
As the exhibition demonstrates, there is strong connective tissue between our creative imaginings and the real-world investigations of scientists; between CGI futurism and intergalactic sagas, on the one hand, and the cerebral labours of the lab and the seminar room. My favourite example is the so-called Alcubierre Drive. So obsessed was the Mexican theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre by the idea of ‘warp speed’ in Star Trek that he proposed a theory in 1994; according to which, without actually travelling faster than light, but by using colossal mass to contract spacetime itself in front of a spacecraft, it might be possible to make interstellar journeys after all. To say the least, his theory remains just that. But it illustrates the fizzing relationship between, so to speak, the Starship Enterprise and real-life scientific enterprise.
More than five years in the making, the exhibition has a claim to be the largest of its kind to date. Its form is aligned with its content: though it has serious points to make, it is framed as an interstellar journey in which the visitor is guided from room to room by an AI avatar. (Full disclosure: as a former trustee of the museum, I played a small advisory role in the exhibition’s development.)
The exhibition is much more than just a sci-fi fair or son et lumière ride for space geeks, drilling deep into the meaning of the genre and its many social, psychological and cultural functions. Running through the exhibition like a stick of rock is the proposition that science fiction, amongst its many other functions and pleasures, is a space for us to flex our imaginative muscles and explore the marchlands that separate that which already is, from what we still consider barely conceivable.
The curation is terrific, but so too is the space given for fun and awe. From the magnificent Mondoshawan alien from Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997) in the antechamber, to Iron Man and Darth Vader, there is plenty here for a family visit at the weekend or at half-term.
Here are this week’s recommendations:
The Lost King (general release, 7 October)
Based on the account of the discovery of Richard III’s remains by Philippa Langley and Michael Jones beneath a Leicester car park in 2012, The Lost King dramatises the unexpected fixation with Richard that Langley (superbly played by Sally Hawkins) develops after watching a production of Shakespeare’s play. Defeated by Henry VII at Bosworth, Richard, she suspects, is the victim of Tudor vilification and may not be the wicked usurper of popular legend. Her investigation serves as a proxy for her own longing, as a sufferer from ME – also known as chronic fatigue syndrome – to recover some sense of agency. Steve Coogan (who co-wrote the script with Jeff Pope) is good, too, as her ex-husband, striking a nuanced balance between exasperation and residual loyalty. Though the device of Richard III’s intermittent appearance before Hawkins does not quite work, her performance alone makes the movie worth seeing.
The Romantic: The Real Life Of Cashel Greville Ross by William Boyd
William Boyd’s 17th novel tells, in fictional form, the life of Cashel Greville Ross (1799-1882): a life, it transpires, stuffed with adventure, disguise, travel and moments of exquisite irony. The Scots-born Irishman Ross is a protean figure – part Phileas Fogg, part Flashman, part Zelig. He fights at Waterloo, hangs out with Byron and Shelley, does time in prison, smuggles Greek antiquities, farms, explores the Nile, and much else besides. Proof that, while there are many flashier and more faddish British writers of fiction, there are very few who are in Boyd’s literary league.
$oul $old $eparately by Freddie Gibbs
It is something of a mystery that it has taken this highly-regarded 40-year-old rapper so long to break through to the mainstream, but his fifth studio album and first with Warners really ought to correct that injustice. Framed conceptually as a performance in the fictional $$$ Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, Freddie Gibbs’ fifth studio album presents itself as a lush, luxurious experience – but derives its lyrical power from the hard path that got the rapper to the top, and from the price that he and others paid. Rick Ross, Musiq Soulchild, DJ Paul, Moneybagg Yo and Pusha-T are all recruited to the enterprise – and there is even a comic outro by mega-podcaster Joe Rogan on ‘Rabbit Vision’, just to remind us that Gibbs is one of the wittiest artists working in his genre.
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to email@example.com.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the week and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner