“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 the runaway train of 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.
So – 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, on the other. The partition between C.P. Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’ melts away in the world of science fiction.
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 – like a concertina – 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.
Likewise, hypersleep – suspended animation that might make extremely long journeys possible – has long been a staple of sci-fi from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) to the Alien franchise; represented in the exhibition by the sleep pod from Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012). But what used to be a plot device to enable space crews to travel vast distances over many years on the big screen without going mad is now the subject of serious and potentially commercial study in the field of “torpor research” – notably the technology of “therapeutic hypothermia” currently under investigation by SpaceWorks Enterprises, an engineering company based in Atlanta.
As Sir Ian Blatchford, director of the Science Museum Group, puts it, there is, if only we look, a rich “symbiotic relationship” between creativity and science to be explored: “Science fiction is so much more than fiction. From parallel worlds, swarm intelligence and gene editing to time dilation, quantum teleportation and cloning, this epic genre provides a bridge that straddles the event horizon between the known and unknown, between a concrete present and a haze of possible futures.” (Full disclosure: as a former trustee of the museum, I played a small advisory role in the exhibition’s development.)
More than five years in the making – the always complex process of sourcing artefacts from all over the world made even harder by the pandemic – 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.
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, via Forbidden Planet’s Robby the Robot and the NS-5 android from I, Robot (2004), there is plenty here for a family visit at the weekend or at half-term.
All the same, this is much more than just a sci-fi fair or son et lumière ride for space geeks. Consistent with the museum’s mission, it drills deep into the meaning of the genre and its many social, psychological and cultural functions.
Those meanings can change, of course. In her trilogy, Metropolis: The Chase Suite (2007), The Arch Android (2010) and The Electric Lady (2013), Janelle Monáe took the aesthetic, conceptual framework and sheer drama of Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic and gave it fresh life – comparing the dehumanisation of the original cyborgs to the disenfranchisement of people of colour.
The scope of mainstream science fiction is constantly expanding, too: witness the surging impact of Chinese writers like Liu Cixin (and especially his masterly 2006 novel, The Three-Body Problem), Chen Quifan, and Qian Lifang. Afrofuturism has also become a dynamic genre in its own right in the past two decades (for more on this, try Ytasha L. Womack’s Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture).
This expansion is no accident, either; matching as it does the growing awareness of global interdependence and of deep-rooted social injustices. In this respect, as Glyn Morgan, the exhibition’s curator, observes, sci-fi is “both a warning call and a lantern lighting the path across difficult terrain”.
As with all creativity, this operates partly at the level of intuition and the subconscious. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), arguably the first literary work of science fiction, reflected an intimation of humanity’s inevitable yearning to defy mortality and tinker with the rules of biology.
That particular appetite has been given creative expression in countless books and movies; and the exhibition highlights Andrew Niccol’s under-rated Gattaca (1997), starring Ethan Hawke, in which society is divided into the genetically engineered “Valids” and the naturally conceived “In-Valids”.
This may prove no more than a dystopian fever dream. Still, in presenting the imaginings of sci-fi in this particular field, the curators are right to highlight the radical advance in recent genetic engineering and especially CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) gene tech that uses the Cas9 protein to edit DNA like a pair of scissors.
Once again, the gap between Hollywood adventure and real-life science (with huge social and ethical implications) is smaller than one might have thought. As Arthur C. Clarke put it, sci-fi can often be an “escape into reality”.
As one walks through the winding extra-terrestrial corridors and spaceship chambers, the most curious reflection of all is that we have, in practice, just lived through a dystopian science fiction movie in the form of a brutal global pandemic – and yet have barely come to terms with the fact (see last week’s Creative Sensemaker).
In which context: running through the exhibition like a stick of rock is the proposition that science fiction, amongst its many other functions and pleasures, is a mind gym; a space where we flex our imaginative muscles and explore the marchlands that separate that which already is, from what we still consider barely conceivable. It is an inner metaverse, in which we can get the measure of numberless alternative realities, and what each of them might mean.
In this sense, for those who truly want to raise awareness of climate emergency, Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962) is no less important a text than, say, David Wallace-Wells’ brilliant The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future (2019). We need the implacable realities with which Wallace-Wells bombards us; his spelling out of the perils of inaction. But we also need Ballard’s storytelling, his creative tractor beam, and his power to fire up the engine of the imagination.
As Kingsley Amis puts it in his classic study of the genre, New Maps of Hell (1960), sci-fi deserves to be treated as more than “tomfool sensationalism”, and as “a humanising rather than a brutalising force”.
Necessary as they are, data, argument and evidence are rarely enough to stir humanity to undertake its greatest endeavours; for that, we must always engage the heart and the mythic zones of the mind. And it is for this reason that, as this exhibition shows to powerful effect, science fiction so often has a part to play in the greatest adventures of our species.
Here are this week’s recommendations.
The Lost King (general release, 7 October)
Hot on the heels of Penguin’s reissue of Josephine Tey’s classic detective novel on the subject of Richard III, The Daughter of Time (see Creative Sensemaker, 22 September), here comes a sprightly Stephen Frears movie based on the real-life discovery in 2012 of the king’s remains beneath a Leicester car park.
Based on the account of this extraordinary quest by amateur archaeologist Philippa Langley and historian Michael Jones, 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. An ironic footnote: there is now an ancillary row about the depiction in the film of Leicester University as the villain of the piece, its academics and staff supposedly trying to steal Langley’s thunder when the find goes public – a version of events which they hotly dispute. Truly, the past (the Plantagenet era or the 2010s) is always a battlefield.
The Elon Musk Show (BBC Two, 12 October)
As the world’s richest man is once again on the verge of buying Twitter (for $44 billion), this three-part series could hardly be better-timed. Musk is one of the most divisive figures in contemporary culture – a planetary troll as much as a messianic business leader – but it is hard not to admire the guts and energy of the young man who simply refused to take “no” for an answer.
He is, according to his brother Kimbal, “immune to risk”: which is to say that he does not accept the possibility of failure, to an extent that it is ultimately infectious. Ousted as CEO of PayPal in 2000 while on honeymoon, he has never excelled as a manager. His talents are more primal and less commonplace.
Fixated by the possibility of multi-planetary life, he was treated with disdain when he went to Russia to buy a rocket. “Fuck it,” was his response. “I think we can build this rocket ourselves”. The first three launches by SpaceX from Kwajalein Island in the Pacific failed. The fourth was a success, and would eventually deliver a $1.5 billion contract from Nasa.
His second obsession was, of course, sustainable energy and specifically the technology of electric vehicles. Again, the documentary is a salutary reminder that Tesla was almost universally assumed to be doomed, and suffered grievously as a consequence of the financial crisis. But Musk’s manic commitment to the company helped turn the tanker of market opinion: “fear turned to greed,” in the words of one candid investor.
Musk certainly knows that, whatever else his life is, it is indeed a show, and that being the heart of a global spectacle is a perilous fate. “I’m not sure I want to be me,” he muses. And yet he hasn’t stopped, has he? I wonder if he could now, even if he wanted to.
Smile (general release)
Horror movies that play with the genre – Jordan Peele’s masterly Get Out (2017), say, or Charlotte Colbert’s debut She Will (see Creative Sensemaker, 28 July) – have been a stand-out trend in recent years, and a welcome one.
All the same: it is good to see a filmmaker as talented and ambitious as Parker Finn revert to the standard tropes and techniques of the scary flick and still turn out something as compelling as Smile. Deploying the familiar “chain-of-victims” plotline, seen in (for instance) Ring (1998) and It Follows (2014), the movie introduces us to psychiatric specialist Dr Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon, daughter of Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick), a poised, professional, happily engaged young woman, apparently in control of her life in every respect.
The pivot is her encounter with a patient who has witnessed a suicide, and, as if possessed, kills herself in the most gruesome way while smiling horribly at Rose. Before long, she too is afflicted by terrible dreams and delirium; and is fast reduced to an unkempt fugitive, convinced she is the victim of a deadly curse.
Though Smile nods in the direction of self-replicating trauma as a serious, non-supernatural theme, its real purpose is to scare the living daylights out of the audience; which it certainly does with old-fashioned but highly effective jump cuts, spooky cinematography by Charlie Sarroff and a white-knuckle score by Cristobal Tapia de Veer.
Horror movies of this simple efficacy come along all too rarely, and are too often turned into dire franchises. Look what happened to the perfect movie that was Paranormal Activity (2007) – which spawned six increasingly terrible sequels, with another apparently due next year. I truly hope that the compact excellence of Finn’s movie is not debased in the same way, and that Smile 9: The Rictus of Reno isn’t on the multiplex menu in summer 2028.
The Romantic: The Real Life of Cashel Greville Ross – William Boyd (Viking)
There are many flashier or more faddish British writers of fiction than William Boyd – but very few who are in his literary league. In this, his 17th novel, the 70-year-old master of the art claims, with tongue firmly in cheek, to be drawing upon a cache of autobiographical material to tell, 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.
Those familiar with Boyd’s work will know his affection for the “whole-life” novel: The New Confessions (1987), Any Human Heart (2002) and Sweet Caress: The Many Lives of Amory Clay (2015). 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.
And what does it all add up to? In his seventies, he reflects upon the evanescence of his past: “With a little effort he could remember some incidents and places with absolute clarity but great tracts of his life, and what he’d done, month by month, even year by year, were a kind of blur.” Yes, but it need not be so. This is where the novel as a form – in the hands, more to the point, of a great novelist like Boyd – performs the paradoxical task of deploying the imagination as a tool of deep truth-telling.
Crassus: The First Tycoon – Peter Stothard (Yale)
“If Marcus Licinius Crassus had died in 54 BCE he might have quietly entered history as Rome’s richest man, its first modern financier and political fixer, the brutal victor in a war against escaped slaves and an equal of Julius Caesar, whom he had played a huge part in creating.”
So writes Sir Peter Stothard – former editor of the Times and the Times Literary Supplement – in this terrific biography of a key protagonist in Roman history who has been subject for many centuries to what EP Thompson called “the enormous condescension of posterity.”
In under 150 pages, Stothard, who has written a string of excellent works on the ancient world, retrieves Crassus from that fate, and explores the business genius of his subject who, at one time or another, owned most of Rome’s three square miles. Trading loans and debts as well as land and votes, he achieved a form of plutocratic power that was both innovative and looked down upon by the patricians of the republic.
Yearning for the imperial accolades that had been awarded to Pompey and Caesar, he marched with 50,000 men upon the Parthian Empire – a military adventure that ended in disaster. History is a cruel muse. But in Stothard’s fine prose we see not only the whole picture of Crassus’s life but also how consequential a figure he truly was.
An Intimate History of Evolution: The Story of the Huxley Family – Alison Bashford (Allen Lane)
It says a lot about the Huxley dynasty and its influence upon the history of ideas that Aldous (1894-1963), author of the dystopian masterpiece, Brave New World, Antic Hay and Crome Yellow, is only a second-order protagonist in Alison Bashford’s wonderful book.
The dominant duo are Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-95) and his grandson Julian (1887-1975) – Aldous’s brother. Thomas was proud to be known as Charles Darwin’s “bulldog”, the intellectual juggernaut who took on all who dared to dissent from the theory of natural selection. Julian was a biologist and self-styled “transhumanist”, who was both secretary of London Zoo and the first director general of Unesco, but made a greater and more insidious impact in his embrace of eugenics and of Gregor Mendel’s ideas on heredity.
Opposed though he was to the Nazi doctrine of race purification, Julian nonetheless believed that “a quite small measure of negative eugenics could enormously reduce the burden of defective humanity which the race has to carry on its shoulders”, and wrote a series of articles on “The Negro Problem” in America.
Though Bashford reminds the reader that such notions were commonplace at the time, she does not let the Huxley clan off the hook. Though the book would be worth reading simply as a work of intellectual history, it has an additional sting in its tail; reminding us that many of the ideas that the eugenicists of the past advanced with repellent clarity – especially, the gradual normalisation of gene editing – are being quietly implemented in the labs and clinics of the world today. In vitro veritas.
$oul $old $eparately – 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, and taking its title from ‘Education’, a track from the 2019 Gibbs-Madlib collaboration, Bandana, (“Drugs for free / Soul sold separately”), it presents itself as a lush, luxurious experience – but derives its lyrical power from the hard path that got Gibbs (AKA Frederick Tipton) to the top, and from the price that he and others paid.
‘Blackest in the Room’, for instance, relishes its jazz instrumentation, but is full of bleak remembrance (“My cousin live in Flint, she been sick since they fucked the water up”). ‘CIA’ is named after the “biggest daily blows” to the Afro-American community – Crack, Instagram and Aids – and presents itself explicitly as a personal reflection (“I did this album off pages ripped out my diary/Confessions and hard lessons, killers confide in me”). 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, and has long been, one of the wittiest artists working in his genre.
Schubert: String Quintet, Quartettsatz – Brodsky Quartet and Laura van der Heijden
There are those who believe that the “Adagio” of Schubert’s great “Quintet” – completed shortly before the composer’s death, but not performed until 22 years later – is the most beautiful passage of music that humanity has ever been inspired to create. Well, I’ll leave you to make your own minds up on that one.
What is certainly true is that the Brodsky Quartet have achieved a wonderful symmetry in releasing this recording to mark their 50th anniversary. They played the quintet with their mentor Terence Weil at his retirement concert – and are now joined by Laura van der Heijden, a young cellist of prodigious talent, to perform the same great work in the chamber music repertoire.
Theirs is a subtle, restrained and altogether satisfying interpretation which captures the complex vacillation between joy and melancholy that defines the Quintet. As a bonus, there is a fine rendering of the 10-minute curio, the “Quartettsatz” – which feels as though it was intended to be part of something greater, but is still delightful on its own terms.
The End, So Far – Slipknot
It’s a conundrum, isn’t it? How does a nu metal band remain vigorously theatrical and as mad as a box of frogs on stage for more than a quarter century? Somehow, Slipknot, the masked maniacs who first assembled in Des Moines, Iowa in 1995, have pulled off this unlikely feat, and this, their seventh studio album, shows how they have done so.
First, unlike many bands at their position in the arc of success, they still refuse to dial it in. The excellence of We Are Not Your Kind (2019) might have proved a dangerous temptation to rest on their laurels, fill stadiums and go through the motions. But, if anything, The End, So Far is superior to its predecessor.
There’s plenty of thrash metal mayhem here, of course – notably, ‘The Dying Song’ (“You’re radical rather than rhetorical, babble like an oracle/ Why am I always in your debt?”) and ‘Warranty’ (“Isn’t this what you came here for?”) – but there’s also a strain of infectiously weird space rock throughout the album. And ‘Yen’ is more like a spooky story than mosh pit fodder. Enormously enjoyable noise, from a band that has come closer than any other to inheriting Motörhead’s crown.
Thanks to Tortoise member Jelena Sofronijevic (@jelsofron) for her review of Jews. In Their Own Words (The Royal Court, until 22 October):
“‘Is this the Promised Land?’ ‘No, it’s the Royal Court.’ – the opening lines of Jews. In Their Own Words homes in on anti-Jewish racism from the liberal Left: those who would naturally consider themselves anti-racist. Writer Jonathan Freedland strikes a balance between contemporary spoken-word-style interviews, and medieval re-enactments of the history of antisemitism. It’s documentary journalism, but also melodramatic, to satirise and ridicule stereotypes. Money (both rich and stingy). Blood. Power. Israel. It’s a sort of theatrical companion piece to David Baddiel’s Jews Don’t Count.
Material is taken verbatim from the media – often attracting knowing, uncomfortable laughter from the audience. We hear a tweet to co-creator Tracy-Ann Oberman, demanding she go back to “counting shekels”. Conservative newspapers print conspiracy theories accusing Jews of spreading Covid through Coca Cola. Nor does JITOW shy away from confronting the stage on which it stands, examining the long history of derogatory tropes through Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Caryl Churchill’s 2009 production at the Royal Court, Seven Jewish Children.
JITOW explores the ways in which its various witnesses interact and disagree – on, for instance, the responsibility of Jews themselves to tackle these stereotypes. Georgia de Grey’s stark design is constantly moving, permitting the cast to take on multiple roles. The formidable Steve Furst shines as both a Stoke Newington labourer, and Howard Jacobson (‘he’s won the Booker Prize!’), whilst Louisa Clein is the image of Oberman herself.
Myths are debunked along the way – ‘There’s no such thing as a kosher steak!’. But JITOW also posits anti-Jewish racism as unique, less visible, and all too often explained away by the bogus claim that “punching up” (against a group caricatured as powerful and wealthy) is axiomatically different to attacking less powerful groups. Which can lead to absurd, circular arguments, whereby efforts to tackle antisemitism are misrepresented as proof that Jews have disproportionate influence. JITOW begins to break this cycle, and move forward.”
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner
Photographs courtesy Science Museum, Twentieth Century Fox, CBS Photo Archive, Getty Images, BBC, Paramount, Manuel Harlan/Royal Court Theatre