Wednesday 31 August 2011

From water spouts to rockets

Out of This World, British Library, London

Humanity is underrated, and if there ever was a literary genre that perfectly displayed the imagination and achievements of humanity it is surely science fiction. In a new exhibition at the British Library, the curators not only informatively chart the history of this genre, but also ask what we can learn from various authors’ interpretations of ‘Utopia’ ‘Dystopia’ and the future prospects for humanity.

This exhibition has been described as ‘like simply wondering through a well curated bookshop’. I have certainly never seen a bookshop so filled with colour, models, first editions and multimedia. Comic lovers are not left disappointed, with a significant, hugely colourful display of original comics from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. The impressive space is divided into themes such as ‘the moon’ or ‘time travel’. This exhibition that certainly appeals to more than just ‘sci-fi nerds’.  Even young children will be kept amused by talking robots and interactive iMacs.

One enters this exhibition to find a book case into which a rather large UFO seems to have crashed. An amusing metaphor to start. The library then provides a crash course in sci-fi for those who aren’t experts (like myself) listing some authors we may of heard off (HG wells, Mary Shelley) and others we may not of (Churchill a science fiction writer? Who knew?) The display then asks, ‘Can sci-fi inspire us to think? Do our futuristic pursuits all begin as science fiction?’ This exhibition has a fairly good go at arguing yes.

Through some extraordinary displays, one learns of ‘True History’, often cited as the first science fiction novel, written in 2AD by Lucian of Samosata, and chronicling a trip to the moon. The first example of many multimedia opportunities used by the exhibition comes at an interactive screen, where John Gribbin (University of Sussex) explains the triumph of ‘hard sci-fi’. That is, science fiction that must be logical and must be explained.  That building of a logical argument must advance science, he argues.

Certainly, novels involving the moon seem to be moving way ahead of the times. In ‘True History’, the protagonist gets to the moon by giant waterspout; by the 18th century it was hot air balloons (you would be amazed at how prominently they feature in old science fiction novels!) and by the 1900s the author’s imaginations were already using rockets. Getting to the moon is not the only event well predicted by authors past and present. More first editions, such as Alexander Bogdunam’s ‘Red Star’ which predicted the Russian Revolutions, and Rudyard Kipling’s ‘With the Night mail’ (1905) which accurately predicted a century of aviation to follow.

Passing under an impressive tripod-like Martian from HG Wells’ ‘War of the Worlds’ the exhibition then goes on to look at more contemporary science fiction. If science fiction writers have been right about the future before, what are more contemporary authors saying and could they really come true as well. Some may argue they already are! George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ or indeed Anthony Burgess’ ‘A Clockwork Orange’. Both predict dystopias dominated by mind control and surveillance? Chime any chords?

The exhibition divides one section to Time Travel. With various television screens displaying scientists who convinces us that it is possible. But we all know that time travel is a part of science fiction, I was more interested in what contemporary science fiction writers were thinking – especially after seeing so many of their predictions often come true! For instance, could Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Never Let Me Go’ (The original script notes are included in the exhibition – one of my favorite items) in which humans are bred specifically for the purpose of donating their organs really be realised?

The final section of the exhibits discusses the idea of Utopia. It was hugely interesting to see what has changed, and what hasn’t since Plato’s ‘Republic’ from 380 BC. More interesting, as briefly discussed earlier, is how the concept of dystopia has evolved. A subgenre not only limited to future predictions – Philip P Dick’s’ ‘A Man in a High Castle’ and Len Deighton’s ‘SS-GB’ are both ‘What If’ novels which terrifyingly speculate on the Allies’ fate had the Germans won World War Two.

While this exhibition is a must for sci-fi fans, it branches into many more themes as well. One leaves certainly enlightened about this often difficult to access genre, but also questioning the limits of progress (certainly not imagination).  Realist novels are great, but sci-fi really can broaden our horizons, predict our problems and produce solutions. I urge anyone to visit this exhibition to sample life…but not as we know it.

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