Something is stirring in Seattle. Seattle Center was the site of the 1962 World's Fair. It has the famous Space Needle. It is connected to the city center by a monorail. It is the way the future was: Jetsons and all. But the future is coming back to Seattle Center, and that future is us.
In a striking purple building designed by the architect Frank Gehry, a new museum is being born. Previously the building was home solely to the Experience Music Project, but part of it has now been taken over by something called Experience Science Fiction (ESF).
The new museum is the brainchild of Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen. Although most of the practical organizational tasks are being handled by Allen's own company, Vulcan Inc., the museum has a stellar Advisory Board of science fiction luminaries. It includes Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Steven Spielberg, Ray Harryhausen, Majel Barrett Roddenberry, Michael Whelan, Arthur C. Clarke, Charles Brown, Octavia Butler, Bjo Trimble, and Forry Ackerman, to name but a few. The chairman of this illustrious group is Seattle-based writer Greg Bear. I talked to Bear to find out how he got involved and what we can expect from the museum.
Cheryl Morgan How did you get involved with the museum? Did you get a phone call saying, "Hi, this is Paul Allen?"
Greg Bear I got an email suggesting that there might be a museum about science fiction in Seattle and would I like to be on board? And I answered back, "but of course!" Gradually I discovered, as I suspected, that Paul Allen was involved.
CM: Does Mr. Allen have a specific plan for the museum, or is he just setting it in motion?
GB: Paul set it in motion, and then guided the process. Paul and his sister, Jody Allen Patton, and the people they have hired to work on this project have a great plan. The advisory board contains a working committee of artists, writers, and movie makers, all of whom contribute. From the early stages, we've been doing a lot of outreach, advice-seeking, and good old-fashioned market research. It's all very creative, but also thorough and professional. We want to create a working hyper-museum that will last a long time.
CM: How did you end up chairing the Advisory Committee?
GB: My tastes and experience (and those of my wife, Astrid) seemed to strongly reflect what Paul and Jody wanted for the museum. We knew a lot of the people that they wanted on board, so we made many of the phone calls and set up the contacts. Of course we were not the only people called upon to participate in those early days: Neal Stephenson and Tom Disch rendered sage advice. But somehow I ended up with the honor of chairing it.
CM: Was there a great scramble of people wanting to get on the Advisory Committee?
GB: No, because it was invitation only. Obviously there are a lot of people whose help and input we can use, so for that reason the board will be a circulating committee and there will be an opportunity to get involved in a couple of years. Ultimately, we want to involve as many people as possible. We want to hear from everybody, and that certainly includes the fan community.
CM: I heard a story that you got a phone call from Steven Spielberg asking if he could be involved.
GB: Steven had heard about what was going on and was keen to get involved. But we definitely had him on the list from the very beginning.
CM: How will you handle the mixture between different science fiction media? You have books, you have art, you have radio, TV, and movies.
GB: They will all, in a very creative way, be combined to form a terrific whole. When you go to ESF, you will find out what inspired authors when they wrote their classic novels, what filmmakers were being influenced by when they made their films. You will be able to track your favorite characters, ideas, and themes through all of the aspects of books, films, comics, and television -- as well as gaming.
One thing that books don't have, of course, is a heavy component of props and special effects. Writers fortunately tend to have very low budgets, so we can go wild in our heads -- but not in physical reality. So people will come to the museum to see the movie props, to enjoy the spectacle, but in doing so they will learn about where the people who made these things got their ideas. And that will lead people back to the origins of SF, which everyone agrees is books, stories, magazines; the wellspring of ideas that comes out of the literature and the original art.
CM: So there is a definite intention that people will come into the museum because they have seen movies and will come away wanting to read books.
GB: Reading books, certainly, and also better understanding the movies that they love. And of course we have some very fine science fiction movies being made right now. In my own career, I've been heavily influenced by movies -- some movie ideas are certainly starting to feed back into books. The filmmakers are contributing substantially to the dialog, and have been at least since Metropolis! We will be exploring that circularity in the museum.
CM: You are calling the museum an "experience," so presumably there will be a lot of interactive exhibits. You want people to come and experience something.
GB: Yes: kids, adults, kids of all ages. We want you to come in and follow your muse through the ideas of the authors and creators that you want to investigate. There will be screens, interactive programs, and printouts. You will even be able to take your ideas back home through the Internet.
CM: Visitors will be able to create their own web sites?
GB: Our guests will be able to come back to the ESF web site and investigate the topics that they found interesting when they visited the museum. If you don't have enough time to see everything you wanted to see, or learn everything you wanted to learn in the museum, you will be able to follow it up when you get home.
For example, you might visit the exhibit that allows you to imagine genetically engineering yourself to be Human 2.0. You can adapt yourself to be a water breather, or to live on a gas giant planet, or whatever. You'll get an image on the screen showing you what you would look like with the modifications you have selected, and you will be able to email the file to yourself or print that out and take it home with you.
CM: It sounds like there is a lot of potential for education here.
GB: Huge potential. We are reaching out through the National Science Foundation and educational groups, high schools and colleges. We'd like to involve them all.
CM: You'll be working with teachers?
GB: We'd be delighted to have school tours. Teachers can hold lessons in the museum. But we'd love to have a tour for octogenarians as well. We don't care how old you are. . . .
CM: Are there any particular ideas that the museum staff have come up with that sound like they will be really good fun?
GB: All of them. The whole museum will be an experience, but I'll save a few surprises for when you get there.
[At this point Greg listed the museum's main exhibit areas. Here is a brief tour. For more details see the museum web site.]
Homeworld: This area of the museum eases visitors in gently by grounding them in things with which they are familiar. It will present a history of science fiction, a Hall of Fame, a look at how SF interacts with society and an introduction to fandom.
Fantastic Voyages: Now the visitors are ready to visit strange new worlds. Fantastic Voyages deals with how they might get there. It looks at starships, at alternative modes of travel such as wormholes and time machines, and the sort of technology that we might want to take along with us (everything from universal translators to ray guns).
Brave New Worlds: This exhibit looks at the many different worlds of SF. There will be cityscapes, utopias and dystopias, terraformed oases and apocalyptic wastelands.
Them!: Alien worlds are, of course, inhabited by alien people and creatures. Them! introduces us to everyone from Klingons to spice worms. It includes robots and androids, and it considers how humans might choose to change themselves. There will also be a section on SETI and the search for real aliens.
Make Contact: Finally the departing visitors are encouraged to continue their exploration of science fiction through various other means. This will include news of special events, information on how to use the museum website, outreach programs and so on.
[Meanwhile, back with the interview:]
CM: This is a science fiction museum and not a fantasy museum. You have said things like The Lord of the Rings will need their own museum because you just don't have room. But where are you going to draw the line?
GB: I personally draw the line by saying that if you use science to get from one place to the next rather than magic then that's science fiction.
CM: So Anne McCaffrey is in?
GB: Anne McCaffrey is in. There's a little bit of magic in McCaffrey's work, as there is in Star Wars. We'll allow the fantastic element in. We will allow things like ESP, and time travel, which some scientists say is possible and others say isn't. Comic book science fiction will be included. Is The X-Men science? The comics say that these people are mutants. A geneticist might dispute the believability of that claim, but it is a science fictional explanation and we can discuss that.
CM: You mentioned earlier on that you wanted to get fans involved. In what way will fans be able to contribute?
GB: They will be able to do that through the web site, which we expect to be up and running full blast sometime in January. Right now there's just a form for submitting email. Visitors to the museum will also be able to leave suggestions with us. As we've been speaking at cons over this past summer, we were able to secure a range of suggestions. We will do our best to respond to the concerns of our audience.
CM: Will visitors to the museum be able to find out about fandom?
GB: Yes. We have fan history stuff that we are working on. People might not want to spend their time at the museum looking at that sort of stuff, but we can provide references as to where to go get it. Maybe we'll be able to help some of the fan history archives by putting some of their material on display.
CM: Do you have any plans for taking parts of the show on the road, such as to a Worldcon?
GB: We have held panels and put up displays at Worldcon, the San Diego Comicon, Baycon, Westercon, Foolscap, Norwescon (where we originally presented the concept), and elsewhere. Future con exhibits are planned! Unfortunately, we can't take many of the exhibits or artifacts on the road -- it wouldn't be fun to watch a movie prop crumble into dust before your eyes!
CM: How much of the content is going to be US-sourced and how much are you reaching out into the rest of the world?
GB: Science fiction is a worldwide phenomenon, so ultimately we'll be talking about non-English SF. But what we have to do now is focus on those people we can get access to easily. We are interviewing people across the US, and if overseas visitors come here we'll grab them too. We've got Candas Jane Dorsey from Canada and China Miéville from England -- we've got Harry Harrison who also lives in the UK now, John Clute, and we are trying to arrange to talk to Brian Aldiss and many others. We hope to make journeys to places like Sri Lanka, to talk to Sir Arthur C. Clarke; eventually we may go to Japan, France, Los Angeles, and other foreign countries.
GB: We'd love to get interviews with French comic book writers. I'd love to get an interview with Moebius, for example. Ultimately everyone will get involved. We have the budget right now to interview anyone who can get to us. It is the budget for trips to Paris that presents more of a problem. Too many staff members want to go!
CM: Presumably the Glasgow Worldcon will be a big opportunity.
GB: Yeah, we'll have a big presence in Glasgow.
CM: If you had to sum up the objective of the museum what would it be?
GB: Most ordinary people don't have a clear notion of what science fiction encompasses. We found when we were doing our market research that people loved The Matrix, they loved Star Wars, but they didn't connect them with science fiction. We want to educate them. We want to suck them in and subject them to all of the vast range of material that is available: the books, the magazines, the writers and editors, the artists, the special effects people and so on.
CM: Greg Bear, thank you for talking to Strange Horizons.
Experience Science Fiction expects to open in June 2004. You can sign up through the web site for an email service bringing you the latest news on the project.
Copyright © 2003 Cheryl Morgan
Cheryl Morgan's native habitat is the U.K., but the species has also been found in Australia and California. Naturalists believe that the species is migratory and that it follows the publication patterns of science fiction novels. Ms. Morgan is also the editor of the Hugo-nominated online science fiction and fantasy book review magazine Emerald City and is an occasional reporter for Locus and reviewer for Foundation. Her previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive. To contact her, email firstname.lastname@example.org.