With the distinctive Space Needle towering 600 feet above it, the Seattle skyline already seems a bit otherworldly, the perfect site for the world's first science fiction museum.
The Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame sits in the shadow of the Space Needle, but it shines a light into the far reaches of imagination.
"Science fiction is all about 'what if' and so we continually, throughout the museum, talk about, 'Here's the science fiction view of things and here's reality," said museum director Donna Shirley. "This is what really happened.'"
Donna Shirley was once head of the U.S. Space Agency's Mars Exploration program. She sees her job here as fostering a different sort of exploration.
"We have a mission to hook young children into science fiction and thereby hook them into being interested in literacy, being interested in science, being interested in engineering and in the way society works," she said.
She and her staff pursue that mission through the museum's displays and interactive exhibits.
"This exhibit is called 'The Changing Face of Mars,'" said Trevor Anthony, manager of multimedia production for the Science Fiction Museum.
"It's the exhibit in which we're most directly looking at the relationship between science and science fiction," he said. "This really fascinating symbiosis if you will, this kind of interchange of ideas, oftentimes some will be invented by science fiction. A case in point would be the concept of terra-forming, which is now being talked about with regard to Mars."
Or the robots envisioned in the 1920s by Czech playwright Karel Capek, or almost any of the medical instruments and communications equipment on the classic television program, Star Trek, which is well represented in the museum's Homeworld exhibit. One featured item is Captain Kirk's chair, including the self-destruct mechanism which never got to be used.
As we narrowly escape self-destruction, we move on to the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Some of the Hall of Fame inductees are part of the Museum's board of advisors, including Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury. The chair of the advisory board is the Hugo award-winning author, Greg Bear.
"Science fiction is the only literature that recognizes that change is inevitable," said Greg Bear. "And it's a literature of philosophy, it's a literature of ideas, it challenges you to understand where change may be happening and what to do about it. I think that' s its most important aspect but on the other side you just have to look back on it and say it's just fun. I wouldn't say it's escapist, not if we include classics like 1984 and Brave New World. So we have all the varieties of science fiction. I think the only proper comparison in the arts, and it's not quite accurate but it's close, is that we could call science fiction the jazz of literature."
Other exhibits throughout the museum include Fantastic Voyages, Out of the Ashes and Brave New Worlds. And all of this began with the vision and investment of one man: Microsoft co-founder and president of Vulcan enterprises, Paul Allen.
"You know, I was exposed to science fiction at an early age, and I think science fiction, it's actually about science and where science is going to take humanity and culture in the future," he said.
Mr. Allen cites his personal sci-fi collection as an inspiration for the new science fiction exhibits. So far, his commitment in the science fiction enterprise totals $20 million. But he says it's more than a singular interest or idiosyncratic investment.
"The original impetus was certainly my idea but you don't do that without trying to fit your idea and your vision into a community, and what the patrons of a museum are going to expect to see when they visit," said Paul Allen.
Paul Allen is hoping his blend of passion and measured planning will translate into a new Mecca for science fiction fans locally, nationally, globally and perhaps at some point, throughout the galaxy.