Out of this World: Science Fiction but not as you know it

During my meeting with Paul Gravett last week, amongst the feedback and recommendations he gave was the suggestion that I visit the British Library while I was in London to see their science fiction exhibit Out of this World. So it was, finding myself with a morning to spare before my departure that I trotted over from Kings Cross to take a look around.

After being briefly accosted by suspicious security – guess I have one of those faces – I made my way inside to be confronted with a U.F.O crashed in a book shelf and an introductory statement: ‘The imaginary worlds of science fiction can inspire us to re-examine our own world’  a fairly apt summary of what I love about the genre. Advanced technology and outlandish concepts can be pretty damn cool in their own right but I suppose the main reason I hold longterm interest in and respect for SF is its ability to deviously tackle very real matters beneath the veneer of escapism.

Living up to the exhibition subtitle, refreshingly the first display defied my expectations confronting me with work I’m either unfamiliar with or hadn’t previously considered in the context of science fiction. I had the idea lodged in my mind that the genre was an invention of the last two centuries, however apparently Lucian of Samosata’s True History features everything from moon trips to encounters and war with alien life, being written around the 2nd Century AD! It might have been intended as a satire of the times waning myths and there’s little in the way of scientific credibility to be found, but all the same the basic science fiction template is there, well over a millennium before the term itself was coined.   

Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962) also received a mention; definitely part of the genre when considered as such and yet deceptively not a book which comes to mind when I think of SF. It’s undeniably dystopian in its setting and themes but perhaps because its uncompromising social message always cut so close to the bone personally something about it struck me as feeling more real than usual sci-fi fare.

Of particular relevance to my project and chosen medium was the inclusion of many comics and graphic novels throughout the exhibition. Again, Marvel superheroes aren’t the something I’d naturally associate with SF either, but an interesting inference was made by the accompanying text. Scientific plausibility might be in short supply with invincible Kryptonians and radioactive spiders, but these characters and the worlds they inhabit often form a gateway to more complex examples of the genre as we mature. Looking back on a childhood spent obsessively collecting Spiderman pages from the Funday Times it strikes me that there may be some weight to this argument.

Elsewhere Hergé’s Tintin: Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon (1953-1954) were highlighted not only for their obvious SF theme but for the suggestion of a political inspiration in the artwork. With the author having lived through the Nazi occupation of France and suffered accusations of being a collaborator thanks to his obedience to their censors, its hard not see the resemblance between the featured rocket and the German V2’s as a comment on the duality of technology – as a tool of advancement but also destruction.

Generally speaking, it was pleasant to see many old favourites cropping up throughout with broader considerations of their predecessors, influence and place in this enormous lineage. The work of H G Wells frequently punctuated the displays acknowledging his considerable contribution the genre, with a particular treat being a BBC radio recording in which he considers the consequences of rapid technological development and the “want of foresight” in predicting the impact of new inventions, displaying the mindset which likely drove much of his writing while simultaneously being so far ahead of his time.

Being painfully honest though, while the work of authors familiar to me such as Philip K Dick and William Gibson also made key appearances, for much of my visit I was also reminded of the sheer volume of important sci-fi I am yet to truly discover; Frank Herbert, Pat Cadigan, Isaac Asimov, HP Lovecraft, Jules Verne, Greg Bear… They’re all authors I at least know of but as a SF fan it’s pretty embarrassing to admit that I still haven’t read any of their work directly. This is not to say I’ll be squeezing them all in before I finish the MA, but as a personal goal I’d certainly like to familiarise myself with them more in the near future when time permits.      

I felt that Arthur C Clarke also represented an especially large gap in my experience as his name reoccured throughout the exhibits being responsible for or at least connected to more than a few notable works. Besides collaborating in the scripting of Kubrick’s famed 2001: A Space Odyssey (while writing the novel of the same title simultaneously), in a somewhat remarkable move a paper he published on satellites is said to have inspired our current system of orbital communication – a likely product of his degrees in physics and astronomy, making him more a qualified rather than abstract SF author.

Approaching the end via Frankenstein, Ghost in the Shell and 1984, in a moment of bizarre coincidence I found one of the final items on show to be the book I’m currently reading; Charles Stross’s Accelerando (2005), the title referring to an increasing tempo in music with the novel’s main focus (from what I’ve covered thus far) appearing to be the increasingly rapid, and frankly disorienting development of technology. Seemingly complimenting this concept, a video featurette by the exit discussed the prospect of ‘The Singularity’;  a point in the future at which we will have to enhance our intelligence in order to keep pace, as every aspect of our lives is transformed by technological advancement.

There’s blatant parallels here with the cyborg focus of my own project but more than that, this final thought in the exhibition made a strong impression on me being an embodiment of everything I find compelling and terrifying about science fiction and the future ahead of us. The feeling that these developments will stop being luxuries and start becoming necessities as we plunge into the post-human era. Thankfully for now at least it’s just compelling fiction, but I think it’s safe to say I was indeed made to “re-examine” my own world as I walked out into daylight.

So, ‘out of this world?’ Yeah, I think so. And with entrance being free  (providing security don’t eat you alive) this is a trip I’d recommend to anyone in London this Summer who fancies something a bit unusual.

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