To Seattle, serious sci-fi fans boldly go
By michael Schuman
Special to The Advertiser
The rockets are coming at you, rockets made famous in the realms of science fiction: the USS Enterprise from "Star Trek," the Millennium Falcon from "Star Wars," the USS Discovery from "2001 A Space Odyssey" and Planet Express from Matt Groening's cult television hit "Futurama," to name a few.
They're on a big screen, they're fully three-dimensional. And you select which ones you want to see with the push of a button.
We're in the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame, open since 2004 in Seattle in the same complex as the city's Experience Music Project, or EMP.
In a structure whose architectural style is best described as modern smashed guitar, the Sci Fi Hall of Fame, or SFM, like the EMP, was the brainchild of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and perhaps 60 percent of the displayed artifacts are from Allen's personal collection.
"The whole idea for both the Science Fiction Hall of Fame and Experience Music Project came from Allen," said senior curator Jacob McMurray. "Two of his favorite things are science fiction and music. His idea was the genesis for the project and he was heavily involved in the creative process."
Should you come here thinking that science fiction is a 20th-century product, consider the works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Or go back three centuries to Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels," whose main character falls into the category of shape-shifter, a classic sci-fi technique.
"Gulliver's Travels" offered thought-provoking commentary of its times, but so does much of sci fi, reaching beyond mere special effects and otherworldly experiences to possible future realities.
One exhibit devoted to Rod Serling's landmark 1968 movie "Planet of the Apes" is complete with Hollywood-ized ape costume and a copy of the newspaper, The Daily Ape. The movie depicts a world in which apes are the highest species and human beings are treated the way we treat animals in the real world. Looking past the basic story line, one can discern statements on everything from class structure to animal rights.
"Planet of the Apes" examined reverse evolution, yet the Changing Face of Mars gallery interprets how residents of the Red Planet, discovered around 400 B.C., have been historically portrayed in sci fi. The evil invaders of H.G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds" morphed into the inoffensive Uncle Martin on the 1960s sitcom, "My Favorite Martian."
Headphones enable visitors to listen to the full radio dramatization of Orson Welles' "The War of the Worlds" that terrorized Americans on Oct. 30, 1938. Welles cleverly interspersed news bulletins about the Martian landing into a broadcast of contemporary big band dance music. The bulletins sound as real as ice in the Arctic — so real that thousands of Americans believed the fictional broadcast was true. The headline on a posted copy of the next day's New York Daily News screams, "Fake Radio 'War' Stirs Terror Through U.S."
Other galleries travel to worlds of tomorrow featuring technologies such as teleportation, and time travel, and other beings, ranging from hideous monsters to artificial life. In one gallery a range of robots is displayed. One reads that the robot was introduced to the world by Czech playwright Karel Capek in 1921 in his play "R.U.R.: (Rossum's Universal Robots)," a dark story about a robot rebellion against humans.
The word robot actually comes from robota, the Czech word for labor. Interestingly, sci-fi robots usually take human form although there is no reason why they should. Like Martians, robots in recent decades have become friendlier.
Other galleries are devoted to Not-So-Weird Science, such as the mechanical implants of "Six Million Dollar Man," which are compared to real-life ones.
There are Cities of Tomorrow, with views of the metropolises from blockbusters such as "The Matrix" and "Blade Runner" to "The Jetsons."
And there's an armory, of course, stocked with ray guns, light sabers and pulse rifles — one visitor looking at a ray gun announced, "I just saw that one in a movie last night."
Artifacts are everywhere: Darth Vader's helmet from "The Empire Strikes Back"; a toy Buck Rogers disintegration pistol, circa 1936; the command chair and platform from the U.S.S. Enterprise used in the original 1960s "Star Trek" television series.
There's Biff Tannen's hoverboard from "Back to the Future II" and Farrah Fawcett's dazzling green dress she wore as Holly in the 1976 movie "Logan's Run."
The wide range of artifacts underscores the museum's purpose.
"So many people have perceptions of what science fiction is and it is often seen in a derogatory light," McMurray, the senior curator, said. "People say, 'Yeah, I watched 'Star Trek' but I'm not a science-fiction fan.' But when they go through here, they see all the things that resonate with them and they'll think, 'Wow, science fiction spreads throughout all of popular culture.'
"Science fiction has always been a really good vehicle for exploring things happening in everyday life," he said. "Look at what 'Planet of the Apes' says about race and class structure."
The museum's Hall of Fame has 53 inductees with members' photos, names and autographs etched on a blue Plexiglass wall. A beam of light shines periodically on each honoree. The list includes "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry, novelist Ursula K. LeGuin (best known for "The Left Hand of Darkness"), the iconic H.G. Wells, and filmmaker Ridley Scott, creator of "Alien" and "Blade Runner."
Michael Schuman is a travel writer in Keene, N.H.