A sci-fi spectacular at the Barbican

Recently, the New Yorker ran a story about SciFutures, a network of science fiction writers who produce customised stories for companies. Executives then use these stories to help position their brand, anticipating future trends and technologies. Naturally, SciFutures creates stuff for the military. Their stories about ‘smart guns’ and ‘Fear Battalions’ have been discussed in workshops by senior NATO officials, who want to ensure they don’t keep fighting the last war so are using science-fiction to prepare for the next one.

Such real world application of science fiction concepts underpins some of the thinking behind ‘Into The Unknown’, the Barbican Centre’s excellent exhibition devoted to sci-fi that runs at The Curve exhibition space until 1 September. A few years ago, an exhibition at the British Library addressed the same topic but could not do it justice using books alone – it felt like walking around a huge reading list of books that you weren’t allowed to touch. The Barbican is able to cast the net far wider, taking in cinema props, literature, comics, magazines, advertising, video art, film clips, graphic art and audio in an almost overwhelming assault on eyes and ears.

Models, Ray Harryhausen Foundation at ‘Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction’ (installation view; 2017), at the Barbican Centre. Photo: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

At the start, ‘Into The Unknown’ attempts to define science fiction. It’s about stories that are both speculative and rational – logic puzzles, essentially – but also ones that transmit a sense of wonder. And it’s that sense of wonder that the Barbican really goes for, drawing out numerous overlapping memories of favourite films, books and comics. Here are gorgeous models by Ray Harryhausen and H.R. Giger, Victorian advertisements depicting future cities, magic lantern slides of Jules Verne adventures, colourful 8mm film reel boxes for alien B-movies, Star Wars

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