Beyond our world and back again

Science fiction often suffers from a problem of perception but a new show at the British Library reinforces its cultural importance

Science fiction is one of those slightly uneasy categories and concepts. The genre still tends to be seen as the preserve of nerdy fantasists, most likely male, with a yen for spaceships, aliens and implausible intergalactic adventures that have nothing to do with real life. As a reader of science fiction, faced with this reaction, you know the person you are talking to either hasn’t read any, or has read some inferior SF, disliked it, and become convinced the genre has nothing to offer grown-ups.

Science fiction is everywhere

It’s a paradox because science fiction’s influence today on global culture is huge. Everyone has seen films like 2001, Alien, Blade Runner, The Terminator, Matrix, Minority Report and Inception, not to mention the six instalments of Star Wars. Doctor Who is constantly being regenerated (in both senses) and finding new audiences. Computer games, an inherently SF form of entertainment, are completely dependent on its legacy of ideas and imagery – from Mass Effect 2 to Defense Grid: The Awakening. There is also a steady stream of intelligent, more inquiring SF films: Gattaca, Dark City, Code 46, Timecrimes, and Alfonso Cuarón’s electrifying Children of Men, a dystopian vision of the UK in the near future.

But the literature of science fiction, where all this came from, remains so marginal and déclassé for some that when so-called literary authors produce SF – Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go – their books are safely shelved with the ordinary fiction to avoid contamination.

Out of This World: Science Fiction But Not As You Know It, a compendious exhibition now at the British Library, signals this problem of perception in its subtitle. A series of video interviews with experts on SF, the first thing you see on arrival – after a big, prejudice-confirming model of a flying saucer crashed into the wall – succinctly states why SF is worth anyone’s time. “There is something unreal about reality,” says China Miéville, widely feted author of The City & The City, “which is why realism as a literary form, although you can do wonderful things with it, I think is ultimately somewhat limited.” As another interviewee points out, the genre can be used to explore moral, social and philosophical ideas; one might also add scientific ideas, if it wasn’t a common error to assume that to be SF’s main purpose.

The venue is a library so the exhibition’s focus is bibliographic, with copies of many familiar SF classics – The Island of Doctor Moreau, Solaris, Dune, Slaughterhouse 5, A Clockwork Orange, Neuromancer – as well as works that should be better known: Olaf Stapledon’s mind-boggling Star Maker (1937), Stanislaw Lem’s cosmically witty The Cyberiad (1965) and The Female Man (1975) by uncompromising feminist SF writer and critic Joanna Russ, who died recently. The curators, Andy Sawyer of the University of Liverpool, and Katya Rogatchevskaia of the British Library, classify this wondrous mass of vision­ary pleasures according to the kinds of world being explored: alien, future, parallel, virtual, and perfect, which covers both utopias and dystopias. There is also a section devoted to the end of the world, subdivided into cosmic disasters, the hostile planet, alien invasions, the ruins of humanity, and the world convulsed by war – terrestrials show an inexhaustible appetite for tales of their own annihilation.

The bookishness presents a challenge that isn’t entirely resolved: how to convey the content of literary works that must by definition be read to be appreciated? Each volume, whether shown closed or open, where there’s a picture to see, receives a paragraph of summary – the exhibition entails an unusual amount of reading. Although visual imagery is not the primary concern, the curators still rely on visual impact to make the subject accessible and involving. The antique images – a trip to the moon in a transparent globe (1687); an airborne taxi floating above a city (1883) – are invariably fascinating. But the editions of later books are often not the best cover designs that exist for these works, and some are of no artistic or graphic interest, however important the fiction.

It’s frustrating, too, that illustrators are in most cases not credited, and quite an oversight to ignore the contribution of a SF artist of Hannes Bok’s stature; his signature can fortunately be read on the cover of John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There? (1948) – later filmed as The Thing. But who was responsible for the covers of Philip K Dick’s Ubik (1970), John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider (1975), or the reissue of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1979)? One of the most original later designs, for Judith Merril’s England Swings SF, a collection of speculative fiction published in 1968 by Doubleday in New York, is also a mystery. The hardback cover is highly graphic, equal parts collage and abstract doodle, with blocks of spot colour, like a cross between an Eduardo Paolozzi screenprint and a piece of Ray Johnson mail art.

If the literary focus assumes a committed reader already persuaded of science fiction’s intellectual interest, aspects of the exhibition design suggest a younger visitor. A towering Martian tripod out of HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898) strides across the gallery, and there is a Tardis, a model of K9, a rocket suspended from the ceiling, and a Clay/9000 talking robot. The zappy exhibition graphics, with aliens, a space station and an atomic mushroom cloud, include sweeping panoramas of futuristic cities, though these artists are also uncredited. It’s a pity the budget couldn’t stretch to sourcing original posters for Metropolis, Forbidden Planet, 2001 and other films, rather than scanty reproductions. Here, again, the curators’ concentration on the book as a text has led them to underplay other means of exploring science fiction better suited to a gallery.

Despite these reservations, Out of This World makes a winning case for the cultural significance of science fiction. No SF enthusiast should miss this unusual show and SF refuseniks would find much that could change their minds. Science fiction conducts thought experiments that launch us imaginatively into artfully constructed alternative realities as a way of helping us to understand the world as it is now and where we might be heading next. That matters to everyone.

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