How sci-fi went mainstream

To tie in with the Into The Unknown exhibition, on now at London's Barbican, we look at how sci-fi has become a major cultural force...

It’s not always easy being geeky. The celebrated genre writer Ray Bradbury knew this all too well; as a kid growing up in the 1920s and 30s, he was intoxicated by all things otherworldly and imaginative: classic horror movies, pulp sci-fi stories about Mars, comic strips detailing the exploits of Buck Rogers. Eventually, Bradbury’s peers teased him mercilessly, until, in a bid to fit in, he ripped his Buck Rogers comics to shreds. But far from helping the young Bradbury draw a line under his obsessions, the destruction of his beloved comics left him feeling unhappy and soulless.

“One day, I burst into tears, wondering what devastation had happened to me,” Bradbury writes in an introduction to one of his short story collections. “The answer was: Buck Rogers. And life simply wasn’t worth living.”

The only way to end the pain, Bradbury found, was to turn back to the stories of space rockets, dinosaurs, ghosts, monsters and alien planets. By going back to Buck Rogers, Bradbury kept the flame of imagination glimmering in his head – a flame that would one day lead to his own unforgettable stories, including Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Martian Chronicles.

“Since then, I have never listened to anyone who criticised my  taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas,” Bradbury writes. “When such occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.”

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For a generation who’ve grown up with Star Wars, the revived Doctor Who TV series, Guardians Of The Galaxy and far more besides, it’s perhaps hard to imagine a time when sci-fi was considered to be the preserve of the young, the childish or the less-cultured. What was once widely regarded as a niche genre has since gone mainstream. Sci-fi is now everywhere we look: in cinemas, in bookstores, on television.

At the Barbican in London – one of Europe’s largest cultural centres – a major exhibition, Into The Unknown, chronicles more than a century of science fiction. There are famous works of literature; there are dinosaur models created by the late Ray Harryhausen; there are original artworks and props from Star Trek and Star Wars and Alien. For curator Patrick Gyger, the chance to create an exhibition at such a prestigious venue is a symbol of how widely accepted sci-fi has become.

“I was surprised that science fiction had become so big, so mainstream, in a way,” Gyger told me, just a few weeks before the exhibition opened on the 2nd June. “It’s been nothing but niche for most of its existence […] The big coup is doing this exhibition at the Barbican. For me, that’s the main thing.”

We certainly have Ray Bradbury, and many other writers, artists and filmmakers like him, to thank for the popularity of science fiction in the 21st century. For more than a century, there was a broad distinction between the “high culture” of literary novelists like James Joyce and Jane Austen, and the “low culture” of the writers who largely emerged from pulp magazines and cheap paperbacks: Bradbury, Philip K Dick, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ursula K Le Guin. 

For much of the mid-to-late 20th century, genre writers broke through into the “literary” realm only on rare occasions; Margaret Atwood and Kurt Vonnegut are two examples of authors who managed to break out of the genre pigeonhole; as Patrick Gyger points out, “Once something becomes recognised as good enough, it’s not science fiction anymore.”

This is partly down to the origins of sci-fi literature itself. Because of its escapist element, the work of such pioneering authors as Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels), HG Wells and Jules Verne was widely read by children. In the 20th century, the rising popularity of comic strips and pulp magazines during the Great Depression era led to a longstanding association with “quick fix”, populist entertainment: tall tales of laser guns, bare-chested heroes and women in peril.

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That attitude soon fed into cinema and television: such films as Metropolis and Aelita may have been ambitious and groundbreaking, but it was the adaptation of Alex Raymond’s comic strip series, Flash Gordon, that captured audiences’ attention in the 30s and 40s. The more widespread understanding that sci-fi could offer so much more than just escapism  came by degrees. From the sea of identikit invasion and radioactive monster movies of the 50s and 60s came a small yet vitally important movies that showed the genre in a more sophisticated light: The Day The Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet Of The Apes. On television, Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass And The Pit, Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone and Doctor Who brought intelligent sci-fi storytelling to a wider audience. 

Through these movies and shows, not to mention the work of the authors already mentioned, the words and imagery of science fiction have gradually pervaded modern pop culture. Today, even someone who isn’t into Doctor Who would likely recognise the protagonist’s blue police box, or be able to hum its theme tune. People the world over are at least vaguely familiar with the sights and sounds of Star Wars. A person who’s never read a sci-fi book in their life would probably be familiar with some of the phrases George Orwell introduced to the cultural lexicon through his dystopian novel, 1984.

“The genre itself has become more popular,” Gyger says. “It has very much followed mainstream pop culture. So it went from the pages of magazines to paperbacks to comics to film. It’s very linked to the media. And it has generated a huge amount of images that have influenced us generally. So it has become a very strong force in pop culture.”

Beyond the obvious popular appeal of Star Wars or the sci-fi elements of the Marvel movies, there might also be another reason why science fiction remains such a useful genre. As we become ever more reliant on technology in our everyday lives, sci-fi has become a logical means of making sense of an increasingly complex, interconnected world.  

“Then science fiction helps us read the world we’re in,” Gyger says. “It doesn’t shape the world we’re in, but it helps us read the world we’re in. And we’re in a world where there doesn’t seem to be many alternatives. […] It’s a very strong tool to approach reality. And science fiction is a strong one, because it takes one perspective, and transforms it in an exaggerated manner. It puts it in the future or the near future to see what happens when you’re dependent on your phone. Or it can record what you see, like in Black Mirror. That’s why Black Mirror is such an important show. It doesn’t say, ‘This is what is going to happen’, of course – it talks about the present.” 

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With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see how one generation of genre storytellers has inspired the next: George Lucas was thinking about the classic Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers strips and serials when he made Star Wars. Star Wars, in turn, inspired a wave of writers and filmmakers to create space opera stories of their own.

For Patrick Gyger, it’s a pattern that will continue well into the future; tastes may change, and interest in sci-fi may come and go, but it’ll still be sparking storytellers’ imaginations for decades to come.

“People who are in their 40s are now commanding the world, and those people were raised on Star Wars and Close Encounters,” Gyger says. “Those guys in the 70s, doing those films, they were raised on pop, pulp culture. Indiana Jones is completely referential to pulp, H Rider Haggard and so on. So maybe every 40 years or something – the generation who’s 10 now, maybe in 30 years they’ll revive science fiction again. In 2045, or 2049, there’ll be a big science fiction thing. That’s my prediction.”

Into The Unknown runs from the 3rd June to the 1st September at London’s Barbican Centre. You can find out more information and book tickets at the Barbican’s website.