SCIENCE FICTION: A JOURNEY INTO THE UNKNOWN at Kunsthal, Rotterdam

Firstly, I have to declare an interest. I was rather surprised to discover that I was not only a reviewer of this exhibition, but also an exhibitor. One of my book jacket designs, for the Thomas Disch book 334, is proudly displayed in a big glass case. When I worked as a painter and illustrator I did maybe 100 science fiction book jackets, mainly in Germany, and I have to admit that I was not sad when I stopped doing them – I was/am not a fan of the genre.

Nevertheless, I approached the Kunsthal exhibition with an open mind not knowing what to expect – it really was a journey into the unknown. From the moment I stepped into the large, dark space I was excited. There were displays full of thrilling things, film soundtracks playing, giant screens showing clips from films, both new and old – the senses are constantly bombarded. It was wonderful – wonderful in the literal meaning. It was full of wonder. The sort of wonder you would have felt as a child, or even as an adult, when science fiction was ubiquitous and sexy in the 1950s. This was a time when maybe it was not fiction at all and maybe there really were little green men on Mars and all we had to do was to build a rocket to go there, remembering of course to take sandwiches and a thermos of tea for the journey.

There was a naivety in the early days of science fiction but, more importantly, a spirit of optimism and a belief that anything was possible. The universe was there to be conquered as our intrepid explorers had done with Africa and South America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. At the same time as those plucky pioneers and missionaries were bravely going where no man had ever been before, the fathers of science fiction were proposing that exploration and colonisation was possible even beyond the stars. Jules Verne and H G Wells were keen to demonstrate that by building machines with enough shiny brass handles, lace antimacassars and red velvet upholstery the universe was our oyster and no bug-eyed monster was going to stop us. Little did they know what awaited the crew of Nostromo and Warrant Officer Ripley.

The exhibition takes us chronologically through the genre with models, film props, magazines, books and costumes. There are some of Ray Harryhausen’s actual bendy dinosaurs, Mr Spock’s space suit from one of the Star Trek movies, Darth Vadar’s very own helmet from the original Star Wars film and much, much more besides. It is a beautifully presented cornucopia of an exhibition which will appeal to aficionados and the casual visitor alike. There are new sensational discoveries down every dark corridor and in every newly discovered secret room.

This is one of the best and most exciting exhibitions I have seen in a while. Fabulous – and I’m not just saying that because I am in it.   Michael Hasted   20th March 2019

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