I love science fiction. I was first introduced to it at the tender age of 8, via the glorious medium of Thunderbirds repeats on Friday afternoons. From there, I discovered Doctor Who and Star Trek. Then, a couple of years later, I was directed to the works of Asimov and Clarke (and Douglas Adams, of course). And from there, things just sorta grew. Despite the best efforts of secondary school to wean me off this juvenile nonsense, it’s an interest I maintained into adulthood and, indeed, even had the opportunity to study at university.
So when my good chum Succubusface drew my attention to the Out of This World exhibition at the British Library, I figured it had to be worth seeing. One of my flatmates recommended it, and so the decision was made. On Saturday, Succubusface and I made our way to St Pancras.
I tend to be a little wary when serious literary folk start talking about science fiction because, as I suggested in the intro, there’s a tendency to be rather snobby about it, to assume that it’s a juvenile genre of square-jawed space heroes firing ray guns at marauding robots. I once came across a critical essay which suggested that Nineteen Eighty-Four wasn’t science fiction because it was too good.
I couldn’t disagree more – I believe that science fiction is as valid a literary genre as any other. It grants the licence to explore questions that could not easily be answered in other genres. What does it mean to be human? How do we know what’s real? What if humanity isn’t superior in the universe? What responsibility do we have to that which we create? How might political systems work when played out over centuries? One of my favourite novels is Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man, the story of a man who struggles with Christian faith all his life, only to find himself transported to first century Galilee and the reality of the beliefs he’s fought – a story that inherently relies on time travel, but whose subject matter (religion and idealism) is universal. Another is, as I said above, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which Douglas Adams uses the broad canvas of space opera to satirise and absurdify (is that a word?) our society.
Of course, there’s a lot of junk lit out there, and this was particularly prevalent before the 1960s and the rise of the New Wave sci-fi movement. The picture on the right is a fine example. However, I am reminded Sturgeon’s Law. Science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon was once confronted with the suggestion that ninety-nine per cent of science fiction was crap. His response was to look at the interviewer with an expression of mild bewilderment and say, “Ninety-nine per cent of everything is crap.”
The exhibition takes a more enlightened view than many critics, and as such would be enjoyable both to hardened geeks and relative newcomers. It describes itself as “science fiction, but not as you know it,” a mission statement which it fulfils admirably. A lot of the works covered therein are not what one would traditionally consider science fiction (although, when you think about it, they are). Things like Thomas More’s Utopia, J. G. Ballard’s High Rise or Stanley Kubrick’s film Doctor Strangelove. The classics you would expect to see are in there – Childhood’s End, Foundation, Flatland, Metropolis, Doctor Who, War of the Worlds, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (spoiler: yes) and the like. There were also quite a few of the less widely known and yet equally worthy works, like Jane Loudon’s The Mummy and Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker.
The exhibition is ordered by subgenre – dystopia, apocalypse, alien invasion, time travel, steampunk etc,which I think serves to make it all more approachable to the casual non-geek. It also showed the many different approaches to different concepts – the utopia/dystopia section featured works as diverse as The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World, Utopia, Nineteen Eighty-Four and V for Vendetta. The displays explained the basics of each subgenre in an understandable and non-patronising way.
Speaking as a geek, I found it utterly absorbing, and might even make another visit. I found a load of titles that weren’t familiar to me, but which are now firmly on my reading list.
The only caution I would give is that it’s not really a great exhibition for young children. There’s the funny sleepy robot and the draw-an-alien activity, but the displays are very wordy and I suspect that boredom would quickly set in for a child. For everyone else, though, I can’t recommend it enough.