British Fusion 2022

Installation, objects, digital, performance

Colour cutaway diagram of a flying saucer in teal and yellow 1970s British Rail livery, showing the fusion engine and passengers inside.
Concept image for British Fusion by Alistair Gentry. Fusion engine at the heart of the vehicle, with passenger and crew deck above.

In early 2022 I was artist in residence at Pervasive Media Studio, which is based at Watershed in Bristol. I was doing early research development for an accessible VR/AR/XR experience that has turned into a potentially gigantic project… British Fusion.

Our collective futures often seem very bleak, whether they’re fictional or all too real. The coronavirus pandemic has developed into an equally horrifying and mind-bindingly tedious dystopia of needless death and illness, profiteering and incompetence which seems to have brought out the worst in many of our fellow humans. It feels as if imagining a more positive future right now is more than a vague or idle hope; it’s a necessity. 21st century environmental activists, valuable as they are, tend to be really good at shaming and stigmatising individuals for not doing enough but really bad at offering either positive things to aspire to or practical solutions that actually have impact rather than just assuaging guilt.

There were also plenty of dystopias and disasters in our literature and entertainment when I was child in the 1970s, from the influence of Rachel Carson’s ecopocalyptic Silent Spring to Soylent Green (set in the far flung year of 2022!) where a food crisis is solved by recycling people into the eponymous foodstuff. But we also saw a lot of optimistic, silver-lamé-clad, robot-filled, ecologically aware, inclusive, sexually adventurous, Afrofuturist, floating in space and above all really, really DISCO futures in that period too. We don’t seem to have those any more.

I started with the weird discovery that in the early 1970s Charles Frederick– an employee of the then nationalised British Rail who sadly passed away very recently so I never got to contact him– filed a patent for a flying saucer as a means of public transport. You don’t need to be a long suffering passenger of privatised British public transport to know that we didn’t even get trains that can run on time at a reasonable cost, let alone the publicly owned and operated flying saucers that we all deserve. British Rail didn’t even bother to renew the patent (probably because you have to pay) and it lapsed in 1976.

But this got me thinking about how the history and culture of our country could have forked at that point if there had been the will and the resources to make gravity-defying flying saucers, along with the clean fusion energy plants to power them. More or less free and unlimited energy would avert, to pick one huge example, the energy crisis of the 1970s. Without the austerity and hard times of the seventies, with oil and car companies cut off at the knees, we might be living in a much kinder and and more equitable world. This is the world that I’d like people to be able to visit for a while, to feel and experience with all their senses.

This work remains in active development, to eventually be a fully immersive hybrid built/digital environment with live performers in addition to a full complement of passengers. For now you can check out some concept images below.

Monochrome line diagram of a flying saucer, cutaway to show interior and exterior simultaneously.
(Above) One of the original drawings from the Charles Frederick/British Rail patent in the early 1970s. The full patent gives further details on how the vehicle would work. Literally hundreds of other patents exist from all around the world for circular or saucer-shaped aircraft, some more practical than others, some using propellers and jets like conventional 20th century vehicles (the few attempts to construct and fly these have mostly failed), others more ambitiously using reactionless drives like this that in reality have not yet been built.
The underside of a flying saucer, with two people walking down a ramp from a yellow door while chatting and laughing, while a man in a wheelchair waits to board. The underside of the vehicle is silver and grey but the people are wearing brightly coloured clothes.
(Above) Landing gear and entrance to the British Fusion flying saucer, image by Alistair Gentry. No hover wheelchairs yet and the saucer still needs landing gear because it requires a fusion engine to provide enough power to create its contra-gravity effect, and (as its inventor notes in his patent) when it’s in flight the passengers and crew need to stay in the safe zone, away from the vast electromagnetic field, laser injectors and energy discharge on its underside.
Brightly lit teal and yellow late 1970s-early 1980s-style interior of the British Fusion flying saucer. From left to right, the passengers are ethnically diverse: two smart casual men chat, a man and a woman arm-in-arm, smiling, an older woman in a pink coat, and a professional woman using a large "brick" mobile phone.
(Above) Interior of the British Fusion flying saucer, image by Alistair Gentry. In this alternate history version of the early 1980s, there was a “long Sixties” effect with poverty on the way to being eliminated, no energy crisis, no Thatcherism or Reaganomics, no war on drugs, and no privatisation of essential services. Worldwide treatments and cures for illnesses like HIV were prioritised over profit, and nobody ever orchestrated a “disco sucks” backlash (at its core really a backlash against the empowerment and representation of women, Black people, and LGBT+ people in popular culture) so this future is still bright, optimistic, sexually liberated, multinational, multi-ethnic, lamé and swinging.