Friday 29 July 2011

London: Science Fiction in the Library

Last week I mentioned the Doctor Who Experience exhibition which I recently visited in London.

I was also lucky enough to get to the British Library for its Out of this World: Science Fiction But Not as You Know It exhibition on science fiction literature.

Aside from the appalling title which crams in two science fiction cliches, the exhibition was excellent.

I was wondering how interesting a book-based exhibition could be, given the obvious lack of visual material, but the British Library boffins had come up with brilliant ways to stimulate the imagination of visitors.


First up, they'd divided the exhibition along the lines of six sub-genres: Alien Worlds, Future Worlds, Parallel Worlds, Virtual Worlds, End of the World and Perfect World. This both made the content more manageable, and underlined the fact that science fiction is a great big unwieldy collection of many diverse approaches to fiction.

It also provided a way in for those who weren't that familiar with SF (a far more preferable abbreviation than the dreaded 'sci-fi', by the way). The opening section, Alien Worlds, drew connections between the long history of fiction involving journeys to strange lands (think Gulliver's Travels) and science fiction stories which explored other planets.

Within this section were some amazing examples of proto-SF written well before the novels of HG Wells and Jules Verne, including a centuries-old Greek text which told a story of travel to the Moon.


From there, the exhibition demonstrated how relevant SF can be to topical issues. The End of the World section, for example, included apocalyptic fiction addressing human destruction of the environment; the Virtual Worlds section looked at the way technology changes our lives; and the Perfect World section addressed both utopian and dystopian visions of the future.

And both Future World and Parallel Worlds showed how SF could stimulate the reader to imagine both how things could change in the future, and how things could have been different in the past if certain key events had not occurred. This 'parallel world/alternate history" type of fiction is one of my personal favourites. In this section - in fact through all the sections - I was busily jotting down book titles for my reading list.

Crowd pleasing elements

As you'd expect, the exhibition featured many books and manuscripts. There was also a fair bit of audio-visual material, including recordings of radio interviews with such SF luminaries as Arthur C Clarke. There were more light-hearted elements as well, including a virtual drawing board where visitors could design an alien; a cute interactive robot (pictured above, courtesy of the British Library); and a computer housing an artificial intelligence with which one could chat.

A couple of crowd pleasers were a full-size model of the TARDIS exterior from Doctor Who, and a Martian tripod from The War of the Worlds, which towered above visitors (both pictured, courtesy of the British Library). I walked through its struts a couple of times before looking up and realising it was there, looming above me. Another gem was the model of a steampunk version of the Doctor's robotic dog K-9, constructed by a fan.

Postcards and a tea towel

As I reached the exit, I found a few computers set up from which I could send e-postcards bearing classic SF novel covers, with virtual stamps featuring the faces of SF authors. I dispatched a few of these, then headed for the exhibition's shop.

A friend back in Melbourne had expressed interest in getting hold of something from the exhibition, so after browsing, I selected three postcards of old-fashioned science fiction covers, along with a tea towel bearing the cover image of a French edition of The War of the Worlds. Classy. Along with a copy of the exhibition guide, it made an eminently postable collection of items that could fit inside an A4 envelope, soon en route through time and space via the Royal Mail.

Out of this World is an excellent exhibition, which continues until 25 September 2011 at the British Library, 96 Euston Road, London (admission is free). It'd be particularly worth recommending to book-reading friends who are a bit wary of science fiction - I can't think of any better way to introduce someone to the genre's deeply fulfilling pleasures. 

This post was brought to you by HBF, a leading Australian provider of travel insurance.


  1. The postcards are now framed and up on the wall, the tea towel is on the wall near the kitchen - where else would you put a picture of the Martians attacking Earth? Wish I could have seen the exhibition for myself but a present is very,very nice!

  2. Hi Tim,

    Thanks a lot for your post and for letting us know about it. It's such a nice feeling to hear from happy visitors!

    All the best, Katya Rogatchevskaia, co-curator of Out of This World: Science fiction but not as you know it.

  3. Thanks for the review, Tim. Glad you enjoyed the exhibition. Nothing finer than a tea-towel showing invading Martians!

    Andy Sawyer
    Science Fiction Librarian
    Special Collections and Archives
    University of Liverpool Library (Guest Curator of Out of This World: Science fiction but not as you know it.)