I recently visited the new Science Fiction Museum (SFM) in Seattle. Even though the folks at SFM had been very gracious about providing a press packet, I decided to wait to read that sort of insider/background information until after I'd visited it, so that I could get a sense of what it was like to visit SFM as a normal person. (Hey, I can dream, can't I?) I therefore limited my preparation to checking SFM's very snazzy but far too complicated website to check the museum's hours and locations.
I found that info without difficulty, but, lured by the intrinsic seductions of the web, I snuck a peek at the calendar to see if there were any special events I might take in during my visit. Immediately, I got an electronic shorthand version of what the SFM would be like. There are four subheadings under the Calendar tab: Books, Media, Conventions, and At The Museum. Out of curiosity, I clicked on Books. Two events were listed. Both dealt with writing speculative fiction in general, rather than being about books per se. One was a science fiction writing class with James Gunn; the other was a link to Viable Paradise. Both were useful, but neither was directly related to books, and neither was local. What's more, there was no mention of other local events that were book-specific, such as upcoming readings a few miles away at Seattle's University Bookstore (in August, Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson [together]; in September, Margaret Weis and Neal Stephenson [independently, but wouldn't together be fun!) or, even closer, at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Company, which hosts a monthly science fiction reading group.
Intrigued, I clicked on Media, and was told "We're sorry, but there are no current events matching your search." Curious. No SF-related media events happening or coming up? On the other hand, click on the Convention tab, and you'll see a well-organized and apparently exhaustive list of upcoming cons, complete with dates, contact information, and links. Cons all over the world, but no media events anywhere? Beyond intrigued, I clicked on At The Museum—and was brought first to a fairly detailed discussion of the upcoming writing class with James Gunn. The class sounds good...but it is offered online, not at the museum. I had to scroll all the way to the bottom of the page to find a single event onsite. The event, however (Global Issues, Sustainable Solutions, offered by the SFM's Teacher Institute), sounds great. It's an all-day workshop on the human impact on the environment, and appears designed to integrate the kind of forward-looking thinking that characterizes the best of SF. I'd love to take that class.
I eventually tore myself away from the web and returned to my "no research" resolution, but I was left a bit confused. SFM sounded like a wonderful, promising place, but a place that had not yet discovered its true identity. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect.
But I knew how to find it! After parking near the Seattle Center, I walked over towards the immediately recognizable Experience Music Project (EMP). Like the Space Needle, which towers a short walk away, EMP has highly distinctive architecture that has come to define the Seattle skyline. However, while the Space Needle, built for the 1962 World's Fair, is tall with clean lines, EMP is low to the ground, and is multi-colored and irregularly shaped. Both are visions of the future, but the Space Needle is something out of The Jetsons, all spare and overtly technological, while EMP comes from some post-Terminator future, blending the technological with the organic in a wavy mass that thwarts the eye. EMP is a cyborg building. It seems quite appropriate that EMP houses SFM, that both go by acronyms, and that the entrance to SFM is on the Space Needle side of EMP, so that you are suspended between futures as you enter the Science Fiction Museum.
And as I approached, I have to admit: I was skeptical. Part of this was the nature of the hype. There were a number of low-tech signs (little fliers on wood triangles three foot high) offering package deals for lower prices (Space Needle + EMP + SFM = $33), and claiming that these were the three top attractions in Seattle. Hucksterism gives me an immediate rash of skepticism. Moreover, the outside of the museum, with the faux attacking space ship reaching over a display board, didn't really work for me. It seemed almost cynical, a sort of "we know we're playing here" kitsch. It raised my hackles a bit, and so, suspicious, irritated, and unclear as to what I was getting into, I entered the Science Fiction Museum.
Once inside, I found that the museum's earlier friendly readiness to provide information—they offered to arrange interviews, private tours, etc.—was matched with tickets left where I'd been told they'd be (not always the case, by a long shot), and with a press packet. A few steps, and I was passing through a set of doors that were clearly intended to be space ship doors (not quite an air lock—closer to the shuttle doors on Star Trek) and I was in!
And I was overwhelmed. What the heck was going on? There were bright lights and glowing spheres, and important looking things lining each wall. After a minute, I sorted things out. The first step into the area I entered, Homeworld, was clearly meant to be a science fictional experience. The overall light level in the room was fairly low, which meant that the glowing sphere in the room's center stood out even more vividly; visitors stopped in their tracks to goggle at the images chasing one another around the (apparently hovering) sphere; these images eventually resolved into graphics and a loop of clips from famous SF movies. It was a great first sight, but it did odd things to crowd flow. People stopped just inside the door, first to stare, and then to smile as they remembered the first time they saw the earth stand still, or somebody pull a light saber. The result was that there was a bit of congestion just inside the door; I saw several people bump into one another.
I turned to my left first, and walked through a timeline of science fiction, which started thousands of years ago (who knew?). The timeline had two distinct sections. Down low, about thigh level, there was a text-only board, dense with factual information. On the wall behind it, a timeline focusing on the twentieth century highlighted key facts or perspectives against an engaging background collage of science fictional images. Everything from old black and white photos of early writers and classic pulp covers forward made an appearance, ending with contemporary images like Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as the Men in Black and the cover of Ted Chiang's collection The Story of Your Life and Others.
The rest of Homeworld had seven other foci, most of which led logically into one another—the Science Fiction Hall of Fame exhibit fits logically between the Science Fiction Timeline and the Science Fiction Community exhibit, which flows smoothly into the Science Fiction and Society exhibit. Others are interesting in themselves, but seem a bit odd where they are. The Changing Face of Mars exhibit contains good information, blending physical bits of history, like older telescopes used to observe Mars, with a video loop blending statements from scientists and writers like Ray Bradbury. I enjoyed the exhibit—but wouldn't the moon be closer to the homeworld than Mars? Where's the exhibit about science and science fiction related to the moon?
By the same logic, I should object to the presence of the Star Trek Feature Case there in the Homeworld. It was just sort of plunked down, not obviously connected to other exhibits. I couldn't object, and it didn't even occur to me, because it gave me a serious case of geekbumps. In case the term's not obvious, geekbumps are goosebumps brought about by a purely geeky flash of excitement, but one that includes self-recognition. In this instance, it was a nearly electric jolt that was accompanied by the words "That's the real captain's chair from the Enterprise! And a console!" And, of course, by a flood of memories from the ninth grade English project in which friends and I did an original Star Trek skit. (For the record, I was the alien menace.) Those were my first geekbumps of the afternoon; they wouldn't be my last.
Having mentioned one of SF's dreaded but often heard terms (geek), I should mention that I was intrigued to see how fandom would be handled. The answer is, it was treated as a legitimate community worthy of respect. Sample fanzines were presented, and photos from various meetings of writers, readers, and creators (what do you call Ray Harryhausen anyway?) hung in places of honor. Some of the details of fandom remained a bit Byzantine, even when explained on video; I wouldn't expect those new to the topic to come away with a clear understanding of why the slogan FIAWOL (Fandom Is A Way Of Life) emerged, but honor and respect are clearly there. At the same time, I got a sense that the exhibit may mark the end of an era in some ways. Some of the fan activity is now so common, either in daily life or via television, that it's not clear why such separate communities might continue to exist. To be specific, when so much of the population plays some form of video game, and SF or SF-related movies rule so much of the market, and role-playing and dress-up are common place (Rocky Horror, drag shows, The Go Game), it seems like everybody's a fan. Science fiction's very success may lead to the erosion of fandom as a distinct community.
From Homeworld I descended a rather steep set of stairs to Fantastic Voyages/Brave New Worlds. This larger exhibition hall was arranged in thematically grouped clusters of varying complexity and success. Homeworld had the central media sphere, and then the exhibits lined the walls; downstairs, concepts rubbed up against each other a bit more pell-mell. The exhibits ranged from the highly specific, like a display of spacesuits, or an armory of science fictional weapons; to more open-ended presentations like Amazing Places (alien worlds, environments, and landscapes), Metal or Mortal (robots and androids), and The Interplanetary Lounge (aliens, aliens, aliens!). Some of these exhibits were successful primarily as exercises in completeness. For example, when I walked by the Special Equipment Locker, my response might be translated as "Yeah, okay, communicators and scanners, gotcha." I could see why they presented them; I wasn't all that interested.
By contrast, the Spacedock brought the geekbumps back in force. Its huge video display showed many of science fiction's most famous space ships zipping through the same universe. Most people recognized the Millennium Falcon first, but I was stunned how many visitors not only recognized the cylindrical ship from Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous With Rama but commented on its presentation, along the lines of, "Oh yeah, I thought that was Rama, but it looks kinda small. Well, maybe it's farther away. I'd like to see some of the detail."
Every time this happened, I looked at the speakers. They looked normal enough, and that's worth noting in itself. EMP, the Experience Music Project, draws a broad crowd, including a fair number who are overtly cool, with stylish hair, clothing, and accessories. I was afraid that SFM would draw primarily fans, but while there were a few walking clichés (SF tee shirt, slogan buttons, poor hygiene, glasses, etc.), the vast majority of the visitors seemed, well, normal; and having been a geek my whole life, it was a bit disorienting. I saw some very stylishly dressed women, of the sort I would have expected to find only in EMP, commenting on the spaceworthiness of various ships—and one or two joined me in trying to get the video display to make them fight, or, failing that, race. (Oh, like you've never thought about it!) Other visitors were amusing in their lack of irony. While standing in front of the display case that included a communicator from Star Trek, a woman answered her cell phone, without seeming to notice how similar it was in appearance and function to the objects she was admiring. But for the most part, SFM visitors were perfectly ordinary. SF as mainstream.
Not only that, the visitors seemed to appreciate quite a number of the exhibits. No, appreciate is too bland a word in some cases. On the lower level there is a display window with viewing benches in front of it. As I approached, the people sitting there let out a collective "Oooh!" I rushed over to see what the deal was, and found that SFM had provided essentially a window onto alien worlds, with the visuals presented in a way that gave depth. For a moment, just a moment, I felt like I was actually peering into the dark, dystopian world of Bladerunner. Nice! After a moment of shared experience, another video started, explaining some of the themes and meanings of the film—and then the world changed. Exit Bladerunner, enter The Matrix, smoothly and almost seamlessly. Another "Ahh!" More pleasure, and more explanations. Then the world of The Jetsons.
Yes, these worlds were media creations, media SF, and in the case of The Jetsons, made comically accessible to the lowest common denominator—but they were unified by their themes, and in the museum by the explanations provided, which guide visitors to view pop culture creations seriously, even analytically. And here the museum showed a good sense of timing, alternating experience that is impressive in itself with contrasting experience, to guide thought, then adding a quick dollop of instruction. This instruction came from a range of sources. A number of film makers (Lucas, Cameron), scientists, fans, writers (LeGuin), and fans who became writers lent their voices to the project, giving a good sense of the breadth of SF's influence.
And, while many of the most visually striking displays came from media SF—they had robot B9 from Lost in Space! The real B9! "Danger, Will Robinson!" Okay, down, geekbumps, down!—I hasten to accent that print SF was well-represented, and that SFM sought out ways to root the presentation of media creations in the written SF, and, as much as possible, in the scientific developments that supported them. Some presentations seemed designed to draw visitors who might know only contemporary media SF to print works, and to older, classic films. For example, links were made between the alternative cityscapes of Bladerunner, Fritz Lang's Metropolis, and China Mieville's New Crobuzon (the setting for Perdido Street Station). Likewise, the Worlds of Wonder exhibit would draw people intrigued by Solaris or Dune (the movies) to Dune the book, but also to Larry Niven's Ringworld and Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity.
Written SF was also made appealing for a generation oriented to vision by lavish and loving displays of cover and interior art (such as the drawings that originally accompanied Weinbaum's "A Martian Odyssey"), and in a few cases, handwritten notebooks or manuscripts (Poul Anderson's story notes!). This is another place where SFM is helping the remnants of longstanding barriers dissolve. When Poul Anderson started writing, science fiction was still a pulp genre, and it would have been hard to imagine any library, university or museum holding his papers. Then, for a fairly long time, the only likely place to even archive them might have been James Gunn's Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas. To have Anderson's woek presented with such honor...wow. The only thing better would have been being able to touch them.
Which brings me to my geekiest complaint of the visit: the Science Fiction Museum is a museum! That's just not right. When you go into a place like the Armory, full of light sabers, pulse rifles, and Klingon edged weapons, shouldn't you be able to take them out and play with them? I mean, especially when there's a kid right there saying, "I wonder how you use that one!" Wouldn't that be a public service for me to show him? No? Okay. The Armory is, however, where I sighed and said out loud, "Paul Allen has the coolest toys," because, while I loved the robot toys, I'd owned most of those growing up. And, while I'd love to play with the mask from Predator or the T2 arm, all I could do is wear the first and swing the second. But with an armory full of weapons...but I digress.
But doing so does allow me to mention SFM founder Paul Allen. Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, is a Seattle-area resident, and the main reason SFM is here, rather than in, say, Manhattan, where so much of SF's early publishing history is found, or Hollywood, where paraphernalia from SF's film lineage might be found. Allen donated or loaned many of SFM's cooler toys, um, exhibits, funds the museum, and, since he is co-founder of EMP, which houses SFM, one can assume he had a hand in finding it a home, too. Allen's money and high profile may be one of the reasons SFM has been able to land some of the loaned or donated materials on display—a number of items from 20th Century Fox, a number of items from Warner Brothers—but Allen and SFM co-founder Jody Patton have worked hard to develop an extensive advisory board. The board draws on local figures (Greg Bear chairs the board, and Octavia Butler and Neal Stephenson both serve), and incorporates writers who are also academics (James Gunn), editors (Stan Schmidt, David Hartwell, Charles Brown), and film makers (James Cameron), giving SFM a broad base of expertise and a rich network of contacts.
But again, the main reason I thought of Paul Allen while wandering from exhibit to exhibit was not for his money or success (sorry Paul), but for his cool toys. I want them, and I suspect most of you would want them to, or at least some of them.
There are a number of things I'd like to see SFM do differently. I'd like to see more ties to local special events. (Where was SFM during Black to the Future, held a few minutes away, on the grounds of the very same Seattle Center?) I'd like to see more active ties to ongoing local communities and activities, like the readings mentioned above. I love the idea of the class with James Gunn, and would love to see more such. I'd like the information on the website to be a little clearer, a little better organized. I'd like them to let me in the Armory.
But all of that said, dang, this was fun. I entered suspicious and cranky, and SFM washed that away. I enjoyed my visit to the Science Fiction Museum. More than that, my trip through SFM allowed me to both bathe in nostalgia for my lost robot toys, and to experience anew that primordial sense of wonder that drew me to science fiction in the first place. While its presence may in some ways mark the end of science fiction as a wholly distinct community, the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame is a long overdue recognition of science fiction's value and contributions to our larger society. To provide such recognition and fun at the same time—that's impressive. Thanks, SFM.