This paper presentation was part of the Academic Track during the 77th World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) in Dublin from August 15-19.
Today I am presenting you some thoughts on the different forms of historical reception within Science Fiction. The examples come from well-known tv and movie productions like The Expanse, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Jupiter Ascending and Star Wars.
When we discuss visual Science Fiction, certain elements seem do define these divers genres. For example, megalomaniac cities with enormous skyscrapers reaching into space are very important to give the setting a futuristic touch.
The architectural iconography of Science Fiction oscillates between the reception of actual buildings, styles and designs and the need for alienation. Depending on the plot and setting, the Science Fiction elements can be designed in either utopian or dystopian ways, referring to historical, current or futuristic impressions.
Let us begin with a famous building here in Dublin: The Long Room in the Old Library of Trinity College. It is an astonishing example for Neo-Renaissance interior design and was built between 1712 and 1732. In the middle of the 19th century, the Long Room became its current design with gallery and the wooden vault.
Although Lucasfilm is denying any resemblance of the Long Room with the Jedi Archive shown in „Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones“ from 2002, there is no doubt that the set designers used it as a historical model for the most important archive in the Galactic Republic.
The biggest changes were made within the building materials, the floor and most obviously with the columns. They appear now as an alienated version of antique columns, playing with forms and elements.
Besides those changes in design, the structure of the Long Room was kept. The most interesting aspect is that the artists show on the one hand a hyper technological society and on the other hand a well-known old institution like a library or archive. Therefore, they kept the bookshelves as they were and digitized the hell out of them. Literally the books were replaced in the same size and order as before with light elements, fulfilling the same purpose.
Our next form of reception can be found in the famous tv show Stargate. Here, one of the most powerful races for millennia are the Asgard. I am sure you see where I am heading: the reception of Nordic and Celtic mythology and its visualization. The Asgard appear as little grey aliens and look a lot like the little green men that populated the early Science Fiction.
In the Stargate universe, the Asgard are the source for the Nordic and Celtic culture on Earth and are still shown like we would think of them. For example, Thor, the high commander of their fleet, disguises as human hologram and looks like a cliché Nordic man.
Inside their clean and reduced but still decorated spaceships or other items of Asgard origin, you can find runes and geometrical line and knot decorations everywhere. As Thor is playing an active role in many Stargate plots, the use of the old symbol „Thors Hammer“ is manifold. To this day, it is one of the best-known symbols that stands for the whole Nordic mythology. It is not surprising that is shown in Stargate a lot. Sometimes in a traditional way as monument with high tech in it (that the people see as magic of course).
But also in a more sophisticated and transitional way: Thors hammer Mjölnir is one of the most powerful weapons the Nordic gods possessed. And the Asgards in Stargate are one of the most powerful parties, due to their technological advancement. Therefore, the spaceships of the state-of-the-art class has the form of… Thors hammer!
Marvel Cinematic Universe
Another famous example of Norse & Celtic reception, also in form of Asgard and Thor, can of course be found in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Here as well, the Asgardians are not gods in the human definition but highly advanced in technology somehow-humans. Comparable to Stargate the technology is covered with engravings and decorative elements deriving from Medieval art.
A good example is the throne (which seems to be in the shape of the old symbol for Thors hammer) with its complicated pattern of lines and knots. It covers the whole monument, not leaving any blank space. This so called horror vacui, the fear of void, is part of Medieval book illuminations. A famous example with Insular art influence is the Book of Kells from around 800.
Of course in the Marvel movies those patterns are not copied one by e but they are inspired by sources like this old book.
When planning this paper I wanted to discuss the Palace of Asgard in the movies as it is an exceptional and monumental building. Last Sunday I was searching my whole library and three databases (plus Google Image Search) for hours as I knew there was a model for this pipe shaped additive structure in gold with a road heading towards it. And then it hit me: Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz!
Besides the similarities in the architectural design, in many receptions the powerful wizard uses technology to appear mighty and magical. The same way the Asgard technology in Marvel appears to humans on Earth (even though it is not just illusions and tricks). But the Emerald City, as the capital and advanced city, is also visualized in the same iconographical way as Asgard.
So far, we have looked at different ways of reception: reciting the interior structure of an historical model as seen in Star Wars, a symbolic or iconographical way as in Stargate and, as far as it comes to decorative patterns, also in Marvel and in a compositorial way as seen in Emerald City and Asgard.
The next way of reception is in my opinion one of the most common ones in Fantastic imageries: the reception of historical architectural styles.
Our example is taken from the Science Fiction movie Jupiter Ascending, directed by the Wachowski twins and released in 2015.
Without going into detail about the plot, I will show you one of the main settings outside Earth: a refinery space station inside the planet Jupiter. Besides being used as refinery it is also the representational seat of the main antagonist, who belongs to a galactic elite with unbelievable power, wealth, resources and magic-like technology.
The main factory building is a combination of industrial design and Gothic elements from medieval cathedrals, all monumentalized and constantly repeated. Upon closer inspection, the decorated pillars and pinnacles from Gothic cathedrals can be found everywhere on the outside of the building.
Furthermore, pointed windows with tracery, decorative Gothic friezes and other elements can be recognized. The concept art and production designs for the movie makes these references to medieval sacral architecture even more obvious. The historical Gothic repertoire of significant elements is also transformed, monumentalized and abstracted to give it a more futuristic look and to vary the forms.
The following images and comparisons of Jupiter Ascending with famous Gothic cathedrals where discussed leaving the script.
The last example I will show you today comes from the very successful tv show The Expanse that has been airing since 2015. In the show, not in the books, the capitol of one of the three power blocks in the solar system, Earth, is New York City with the UN headquarters.
The plot is set in the 24th century and the skyline of Manhattan evolved.
The well-known New York skyline with the iconic buildings from our time are aligned with futuristic skyscrapers that overtop them massively. But not only the size of the buildings underline a plot in the future but also materials, shapes and the whole design. The towers appear for recipients of our time like wet dreams of architects. And they are. For now.
Actual buildings you can find: NY Life Insurance Building, Woolworth Building, One World Trade Center, World Financial Center, and, funnily: a monumentalized Transamerica Pyramid was transferred from San Francisco.
The Expanse is set 300 years in the future and they have awesome technologies. But in my opinion one reason for the success of the tv show and the books is that society, technology and discussed problems are not too far away from our experiences. Therefore, the combination of known and futuristic towers is convincing and gives the plot an architectural future-y context.
So why are there this different ways of historical reception in the visual Science Fiction (and also in Fantasy)? They all have in common that they play with our, especially Western, image memory. They refer to known spatial structures, decorations or complete buildings and build a bridge from the current and known to the always speculative futuristic. All Fantastic genres discuss actual social, cultural or philosophical questions in a new, unknown and different context.
The use of historical models, from direct receptions to loose quotations and associations, connects the Fantastic with our world. The models are sometimes copied, or transformed or highly alienated. They play with clichés and romanticisms (Gothic is dark and evil like all the Middle Ages) but they also give us an idea of what might be possible, a glance at the future.
Science Fiction opens a door to possibilities-to-be. The historical models you can find everywhere in SF, just as in all the Fantastics, help us to get through that door. At least mentally.