A website about UK Science Fiction, digging through the past to uncover the future.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Buy content through ScooptWords Science Fiction and the Suburbs

Sometimes you come across something that speaks to something inside of you that you didn't even know was there. In many ways the origin of this blog can be traced back to a single photograph. You can see it here. The photograph is labelled "In July 1956 Robby visited New Malden as part of a trip to promote Forbidden Planet". It appears in 'SF:UK' by Daniel O'Brien. It is one of Archeology of the Future's favourite pictures ever.

There are so many beautiful and suggestive details in it as an image that it seems to sum up something about Science Fiction and Britain that it is like a map of territory barely explored, beguiling and filled with promises of riches available to the brave adventurer should they chose to begin the journey.

The suburbs of the thirties and forties built semis are spooky places to begin with, as they represent a dream of life embodied in plasterwork and hedges and windows inset with coloured stained glass. The suburbs are quietness, control, a sunny land between city and country. They are a place where humanity is atomised and separated. The patterns of streets and houses minimise the uncomfortable sense of unpredictability that the overlapping of lives and people in The City brings. Meetings and interactions must be planned. For some this is comfort and stability, for others this constitutes an eternal stasis, waiting and longing for something, anything to happen.

Once you have walked down your driveway and closed your door, you are allowed to be anything you can dream of being. In bedrooms and garden sheds, people create whole fantasy lives for themselves. They begin the process of becoming something else, something that transforms them. In the city, everything is about interaction, whether chosen or not. Other people are unavoidable. You can become anonymous or peacock-like in the city, but you always do it in the company of The Crowd. Due to the density of people, of industry, of work and shopping and all of the other actions of human existence, the City is unpredictable. It moves and shifts on its own, far greater than the sum of individuals in it. Whatever happens happens in public in one form or another.

In the suburbs, as long as it doesn’t happen in public, anything goes. As long as your actions don’t impinge on someone else’s space, they are fine, unknown maybe but fine. You can be as radical, as regressive, as whimsical, and as normal as you wish, as long as you’re behind your own front door. The suburbs produce the eccentrics and the enthusiasts of which Britain is so celebratory.

The suburbs in Britain are like a great dream battery, a place where energies and longings collect, waiting to be put to some sort of use. People want something else, but in their houses on their own, they can never tell if anyone else wants the same.

Imagine the suburb of New Malden in 1956. The Suez crisis is in full swing. England the great is becoming tarnished, the World is minutes away from Sputnik and a sense that the heavens are far closer than they have ever been before. The Rock ‘n’ Roll years have barely begun…

Look at the children in the photograph, dressed as children might have been a decade ago. They’re quite possibly the fruit of returning soldiers, born into the optimism of the post-war period. They’re standing in that street in the gap between Quatermass 2 and Quatermass and The Pit. Everything seems calm and ordered…

And there he is, Robbie the Robot, looking bewildered, an exotic growth transplanted. How did he find his way there? Despite being a piece of high American design, he somehow looks at home; as if by sheer force of will the dreamers of the suburbs have created him there and then. Modernist design does poke its way into suburbs in the strangest places. It crops up in public buildings mostly, and the odd secluded street. There are Sci-fi curves and moulded concrete painted blinding white vying for space with Tudor fronting and muted classic flourishes. Every so often, it seems that a dream has managed to push through to make itself real.

So it is with Robbie, lost and befriended by children already alive to the possibilities of technology. Looking at their faces, they look like they have always fully expected that a robot will turn up in their street, or that something else equally exciting will occur in payment for all of the years they have waited for something exciting to happen. Robbie is a visitor in many ways adrift in a land very different from the one in which he originated. He has arrived from a land of colour, a land of noise and movement and, basket in hand, is trying to acclimatize himself to this strange world of things that are both new and old at the same time, steeped in tradition yet also freshly minted.

We defy you to look at this picture and not feel a strange and elusive magic, a sense of something difficult to define about Science Fiction and childhood and England captured and expressed.

In quiet streets, fantastic things happen…

The juxtaposition of the ordinary and the extraordinary is a fundamental of UK Science Fiction.

Buy SF:UK: How British Science Fiction Changed The World at amazon.co.uk

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Sunday, March 26, 2006

Buy content through ScooptWords Out on the Peninsula, the future passed by...

Archeology of the Future's been out and about this weekend. We took part in this project: Greenwich Emotion Map. The project itself is as Science Fiction as they come. Christian Nold, the artist, using Global Positioning System technology and measuring galvanic skin response to indicate arousal, is engaging members of the local community in building an emotion map of the Greenwich Peninsula, home to the Millennium Dome, described by Iain Sinclair as "the tongue of poisoned land, a couple of miles to the east of The Royal Naval College". You walk, your arousal is recorded, along with your position, then when you get back the whole thing is combined and uploaded onto Google Earth, where it sits with the walk data from all of the other people who have taken part. The arousal appears as a series of peaks on the map like jagged mountain ranges. The higher the peak, the higher the emotion. Combined, the sum of the walks shows a topography of the Peninsula, a map of feeling with sloughs and heights, a physical/psychic landscape overlaying the real one.

We turned up on the first spring-like Sunday afternoon this year and were kitted out by Christian with a little GPS device that looked like a mobile phone and , attached to the first two fingers on our left hands, two wires that led to a little silver box that measures a tiny electric current across the skin. The more aroused we are, the more we sweat, the more conductive of current our skin becomes. Standing in a silent residential street, Christian explains with relish that there are twenty four satellites above us and that the GPS device needs to contact at least three of them to be able to locate my position. We tell him it's all a bit Science Fiction.

"I designed this stuff, so it can't be that science fiction," grins Christian. "Off you go."

Setting ourselves an hour to walk, we set off with no fixed idea of where we're going.

According to Iain Sinclair's book 'Sorry Meniscus' , the Peninsula was never a part of the Greenwich story. Formerly Bugsby's Marshes, "The Peninsula was where the nightstuff was handled: foul-smelling industries, the manufacture of ordinance, brewing, confectionery, black smoke palls and sickly sweet perfumes... The Peninsula thrives on secrecy. For as long as anyone can remember much of this land has been hidden behind tall fences. Walkers held their breath and made a wide circuit. Terrible ghosts were trapped in the ground. A site on the west of the Peninsula, now captured by the Teflon-coated fabric of the Dome, had once featured a gibbet where the corpse of some pirate, removed from Execution Dock in Wapping, would be left to decay."

There's still ghosts on the Peninsula, the physical remnants of The Millennium and all that it did or didn't mean. The Dome itself, we noticed walking around the outside of it today, is like a tribute act to that other great Dome of national identity, The Dome of Discovery at the Festival of Britain. There is obviously the Dome itself, but also the struts that hold it up, each one like a child's version of the Skylon. Pressing our noses up against the fences and gazing in, there are weeds pressing up through the concrete of deserted car parks. There are empty offices, all of the furniture pushed to one end as if the Peninsula had been tipped and shaken slightly. Small pieces of wreckage, shards of scrap, metal, upended benches. All looks as if the area has been vacated in a hurry.

We walked through the millennium Village, flats and houses built to take advantage of the regeneration of the Peninsula. Modernist design, of the kind that was used for social housing, is here repackaged and resold to a much more exclusive class of dweller. Some of the huge, colourful flats a quite literally cut off, surrounded by marshland crossed with wooden walkways, as if moated. These are buildings left stranded. The regeneration never happened. The Dome opened, then it closed. There's the great sense of a boom town built by the river, only to find that the river has changed path, leaving the roads empty, the sky too wide, the streets silent and unmoving.

For all of the order imposed by the rigid, controlling architecture and traffic flow design, the Peninsula is still home to the higgledy-piggledy overlapping of different periods and types of industry so beloved of location shoots. We even saw a film crew huddled in the middle of a mud coated concrete yard, dwarfed by huge boilers, all pipes and ladders like primitive space craft now lying on their sides and rusting in the rain. There are deserted houses. There are twisting pipes and strange smells behind chainlink fences. Wharfs jut into the grey river with machinery corroded to a halt. Great machineries sprout into the sky, some with chimneys burning off excess gas. There are yards full of scrap, huge piles of rubble. We see a decaying warehouse, one side collapsed, a rusting boat nuzzling it from the water. Despite of of the rhetoric, despite the notions of control and renewal, the Millennium Project failed. For most of our walk we were the only people in sight, half expecting to see an invasion, or a lonely astronaut lost and adrift amongst the concrete. Under a mile from hyper-ordered private Island of Canary Wharf, there's a landscape that is huge moon base copy at Winnerton Flats; a landscape that is the entropic world of J.G. Ballard where even meaning has run out of energy; a landscape where the Festival of Britain collides with the scrapyard where Susan goes home each night to her Grandfather, much to the curiosity of Barbara and Ian. Arcane technologies are housed in concrete or stand on masts, rotating slowly. On the Peninsula, different futures jostle with each other, all trying to remain viable, all past.

Returning to base camp, Christian uploads our walk onto a laptop which is projected onto the wall in front of me. A jagged set of peaks cuts a serated path up to the tip of the Peninsula, like a body drawn at speed towards the dense gravitational pull of the Dome then flung back on its way. Christian shows me how to label each of the peaks, letting us add annotations to our journey. We notice how much higher our arousal has been than some of the others who have taken part.

Science Fiction has a lot to answer for.

You can see section of the Greenwich Emotion Map here, with a further explanation of the technology and method: http://www.emotionmap.net/index.htm

Buy Iain Sinclair's 'Sorry Meniscus' from amazon.co.uk here.

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