“Worlds Beyond Here” explores Asian American impact on science fiction

This mural by Simon Kono is the backdrop for artist Tamiko Thiel’s Augmented Reality piece “Gardens of the Anthropocene.” (Photo courtesy The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience.)

Science fiction can be so much more than mere blockbuster entertainment. A new exhibit explores the breadth and depth of science fiction through the lens of Asian American science fiction creators and fans.

The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience opened the new “Worlds Beyond Here: The Expanding Universe of APA Science Fiction” exhibit last week. Artists featured include fiction writers, designers of online games and imaginative artists with a sense of technology. The exhibit has something for everyone from avid sci-fi fans to dreamy teenagers.

The Wing’s exhibit looks at “the connection between Asian Pacific Americans and the infinite possibilities of science fiction.”

“A lot of people’s impression of science fiction comes from Hollywood films, so they think it’s all about special effects and battles between good and evil that culminate in the hero and villain having a fist fight near the edge of a cliff,” said author Ted Chiang. Chiang’s novella “Story of Your Life” formed the basis for the award-winning film “Arrival,” which starred Amy Adams, Forest Whitaker and Jeremy Renner.

“That’s not what science fiction is really about,” Chiang said, “and I hope that exhibitions like this one can help correct some of those misconceptions.”

Elements of the movie “Arrival” are featured in the exhibition, as well as illustrations from Chiang’s 2010 book “The Life Cycle of Software Objects,” in which an artificial intelligence being is “raised” over a 20-year period.

As The Wing’s exhibit staff explained, for many Asian Pacific Americans, science fiction can address issues related to identity, immigration and race, technology, morality and the human condition, all while capturing the imagination through exciting adventures in outer space and time travel.

The exhibition features a mix of literary and pop culture works for museum visitors to learn from, and interact with.

“Worlds Beyond Here” begins in the bedroom of a teenaged fan, then winds its way through several scenario rooms, from the expected George Takei “Star Trek” memorabilia, to the creative work of several Seattle APA artists working in the digital industry. A wall sized mural by Stasia Burrington features what she explained is a Japanese-art influenced “mural of an alien landscape, along with a number of alien coloring pages, which museum-goers may color, alter, cut and paste onto the mural.”

Another wall sized mural, by Simon Kono, presents a wide Seattle landscape reflecting both utopia and dystopia. It depicts the rise in sea level and destruction of communities.

Kono — an illustrator for animation, video games and other media — wants viewers to “consider the natural ecology we have now, and what the future might hold.”

“I think science fiction offers a reflection of where we are as a society at any given moment, and where we might be headed from there. It can illuminate our fears and our hopes for the future,” he said. “When considering a piece of science fiction, it’s worth it to look beyond the futuristic aesthetics and ask, what is this really about?”

Similar to other major exhibitions at The Wing, “Worlds Beyond Here,” coordinated by staff member Mikala Woodward, was created in large part by a Community Advisory Committee which worked on the ideas behind the exhibit, its direction, storyline, and design elements for more than a year.

Other room contents include prototypes of space costumes and futuristic machines. Specifically, visitors can experience an early prototype of what we now call a supercomputer, designed by Tamiko Thiel, a Seattle-born artist who lives and works in Munich, Germany. From a different creative perspective, a large hanging creature by artist June Sekiguchi sprawls long legs and softly illuminates its giant eggs, inspired by the “silk punk” themes in the speculative fiction books by Ken Liu.

Worlds Beyond Here exhibit opening at The Wing. Sculptural installation by June Sekiguchi inspired by Ken Liu books onî silk punkî. (Photo by Alabastro Photography.)

The exhibit is multicultural as well as multimedia. Artist Solomon Enos, from Makaha on Oahu Island, imagines futurist versions of South Pacific sea voyaging and depicts futures of Native Hawaiians.

Local African American sci-fi fan Wadiyah Nelson-Shimabukuro also became involved in the exhibit when she loaned her Star Trek memorabilia to the exhibit. Nelson-Shimabukuro’s collection reflects people of color throughout the Star Trek universe. She read science fiction authors such as Frank Herbert and Octavia Butler starting in middle school when she tired of conventional youth fiction.

“POC writers are creating narratives in speculative fiction that reflect their historical, cultural, gender, personal and generational experiences,” she said. “There is a vibrancy to the way this genre is being written by this new generation of writers. I’m especially thinking of the steampunk and gender bending novels published in the last five years.”

But in further reflection, a recent anthology of short stories called “Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements,” written in tribute to the much-lauded science fiction author Octavia Butler, can point to another purpose, or outcome, of the “Worlds Beyond Here” exhibition.

“Octavia’s Brood” includes stories by organizers and activists inspired by Butler, who lived her last few years in Seattle. One of the book’s co-editors, Walidah Imarisha once said at a talk at the Seattle Public Library that the book’s visionary science fiction and speculative fiction ”can help us try to envision a world without war, without violence, without prisons, without capitalism. Because when we think of that future, we are engaging in an exercise of speculative fiction.”

Or, as author Ted Chiang put it, “I think of science fiction as a way of using speculative or fantastic scenarios to examine the human condition, and that can apply to the Asian American experience just as much as to anyone else’s. That might include experiences of cultural difference and otherness, but it could also include things that no one would readily predict.”

“Worlds Beyond Here”

“Worlds Beyond Here” is at The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, through Sept. 15, 2019. The Wing is at 719 South King Street, Seattle, WA 98104.

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