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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Where Science, Fiction Meet

A Seattle museum is Paul Allen's homage to a genre that evolved from 'pulp' into literature, and influenced real discovery along the way.

December 10, 2004|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — In 1947, Robert A. Heinlein published a novel called "Rocket Ship Galileo," about a group of whiz kids who build their own ship and fly into space.

This summer, 57 years after the book, SpaceShipOne was launched from the Mojave Desert, becoming the first manned spaceflight by private citizens. The accomplishment capped a remarkable story about a group of whizzes who decided one day to build their own ship and fly into space.

If the stories sound similar, it's because one inspired the other.

Science fiction became science fact. And now the stories of "Rocket Ship Galileo," SpaceShipOne and the connection between the two occupy the same display case as the newest exhibit in the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame.

The museum, which opened in June, is the $20-million brainchild of billionaire sci-fi buff Paul Allen. He happens to be one of the whizzes behind SpaceShip- One and the owner of a yellowed paperback copy of Heinlein's book. He read it when he was 11.

"Science fiction is a big inspiration for creativity and for thinking out of the box," Allen said in an e-mail exchange. "It forces you to think about the world and about future possibilities, and it reinforces the idea that creativity can be expressed in new ways through science and technology."

The museum shares space in the same hyper-modern psychedelic building, under the Space Needle, with another of Allen's creations, the Experience Music Project, a rock 'n' roll museum that opened four years ago.

Touted as the only one of its kind on the planet, the Science Fiction Museum is 13,000 square feet of history, schlock, interactive gadgets and paraphernalia, from Frankenstein to "The Matrix."

A mural-sized timeline traces the evolution of science fiction from its earliest pioneers in the 19th century -- Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells -- through its transformation into a pulp genre, with stories of bug-eyed Martians, mutant 50-foot women in miniskirts and indestructible superheroes. For many people, science fiction, in the words of sci-fi writer Octavia Butler, was "kid stuff."

But then something happened: Science fiction became not just respectable but respected, according to Eric Rabkin, professor of English at the University of Michigan. Science fiction is now a mainstream genre, spanning the range of artistic endeavor from the cartoonish to the prophetic.

"As recently as 10 years ago, people [in academia] thought of science fiction as beneath consideration," Rabkin said.

Today, major universities such as Rabkin's offer courses in sci-fi literature. Science fiction writers, such as Butler, now win MacArthur fellowships, the so-called "genius grants," and some have their works turned into blockbuster movies. Five of the 10 top-grossing movies of all time are science fiction. "Star Wars: Episode IV," and "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" rank second and fourth on the list.

The final seal of respectability has come from the group with the reputation as being the hardest to convince: scientists.

The museum's board of advisors includes not only writers and movie directors (Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, James Cameron) but accomplished physicists and aerospace engineers with Ivy League affiliations. Two board members conduct research for NASA.

The museum director, Donna Shirley, spent three decades as an aerospace engineer and led NASA's billion-dollar Mars Exploration Program.

If there's a salient theme in the museum, it is the symbiotic relationship -- some might even call it a collaboration -- between science fiction and science. The SpaceShipOne exhibit, which stands in the lobby just outside the museum's formal entrance, sets the tone for the mind-expanding stuff inside.


Shirley gave a recent tour. She is 63, with rosy cheeks and a speckling of gray hair. She speaks with authority, like a school principal, but occasionally erupts in childlike exuberance.

"See the prints?" she said, gesturing to the three-toed, glowing "alien footprints" on the floor that serve as a tour path through the museum. "They're for people who don't know where to go."

The museum has two levels. The first is designed to feel like the cosmos: black walls that simulate outer space, twinkling with stars and galaxies. The second is supposed to be the main deck of a spaceship, with giant computerized screens like windows looking out at spaceports and cities of the future.

There are more than two dozen exhibits. Some are comical, like the one entitled "THEM!" which showcases some of the most famous monsters, androids and aliens in the science fiction world. The biggest, the original Alien Queen from the 1986 movie "Aliens" -- 19 feet of latex and fiberglass -- crouches inside a glass case.

"You wouldn't want her standing all the way up," Shirley said.

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