William Heath, The March of Intellect, c1830 © British Museum

The Improbable Made Possible

27th May 2011

Out Of This World, a new exhibition at the British Library, seeks to explore science fiction through
literature, film, illustration and sound, and to challenge visitors’ perceptions of the genre.

Jill Glenn – not usually a science fiction fan – went to the preview.

What, asked a fellow journalist brightly, as we came to the end of our introductory tour of Out of this World: Science Fiction – But Not As You Know It is the definition of Science Fiction? Twenty of us picked up our pens, hoping for the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything (and praying that it wouldn’t be 42). Guest curator Andy Sawyer, Director of the Science Fiction Studies MA at the University of Liverpool, shifted uncomfortably, however, and explained that he’d asked himself this very question as he approached the curating of the exhibition. When he’d got to 26 definitions he’d given up. He didn’t share them, so we put our pens down again.

The structuring of the exhibition – divided as it is into Alien Worlds, Parallel Worlds, Virtual Worlds, Future Worlds, the End of the World and the Perfect World – highlights some headline definitions though, and demonstrates the problem of unifying all the different categories into one simple soundbite. The concepts are both recognisably similar… and incontrovertibly different. Sawyer quotes the critic Paul Kincaid: ‘Science fiction… consists of a series of threads (themes, devices, approaches, ideas) that are braided together’, adding that there really are no rigid boundaries, but that the exhibition has tried to be inclusive.

Science fiction, I discover when doing some background work later, has been described as ‘the literature of ideas’, and ‘writing about alternative possibilities’ – and one critic, Mark C Glassy, has observed that, like pornography, ‘you don't know what it is, but you know it when you see it’.

That’s very neat, but I rather think that Out of this World proves only that you know what it is when it’s pointed out to you. Take the question that opens the exhibition, which asks whom on the following list you consider to be science fiction writers: Arthur C Clarke, Thomas More, Jules Verne, HG Wells, Edgar Allan Poe, Joseph Conrad, Doris Lessing, Kurt Vonnegut Jr, Isaac Asimov, PD James, George Orwell, Mary Shelley, Winston Churchill, Charlotte Bronte, Kazuo Ishiguro. The answer, of course, is all of them. Some are obvious; some less so; some need only a simple mindshift to acknowledge, while some require seismic reassessments of literary position. It certainly confounded some of my prejudices.

Literary is a key word in all this. Andy Sawyer observes that the battle over whether science fiction can be literature and vice versa has long been won… it’s just that no-one noticed.

Out of this World has had to integrate some seriously disparate components, but it’s been done well. There’s plenty to see, and think about. I particularly liked the quotations, in big print, that demand your consideration at every turn. One by Rod Serling, for example, elucidates something that I’ve always wanted to know: ‘Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science fiction is the improbable made possible.’

And there’s another I liked, by William Gibson author of Neuromancer: ‘Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination.’ There’s a pertinent comment on contemporary society if ever there was one.

Sumit Paul-Choudhury (the editor of newscientist.com) observes, in one of a series of video soundbites from scientists and writers, that science fiction allows us to engage with multiple perspectives on issues that are usually of contemporary social relevance.

As a result, the exhibition is able to ask some surprisingly big questions, including ‘what sort of a world do we want?’. Even if it doesn’t give the answers, the ideas stay with you. There’s so much to learn, too. Think science fiction a largely 20th century Anglo-American preoccupation? Think again. There are works here from as long ago as the 2nd century AD, and from all over the world. Truly this is a startling global phenomenon.

Margaret Atwood’s view that ‘If we can imagine it, we’ll be able to do it’ stops me in my tracks. The power of imagination is a marvellous thing, yes, but my mind runs instantly to things that can be imagined but clearly, clearly not achieved… before I am obliged to add ‘yet…’. This certainly is a literature of ideas.

Atwood’s view links in nicely with the evidence that, long before the internet or the channel tunnel, for example, were fully conceived, writers were envisaging worlds in which disembodied communiction was achievable, and England would be linked to Europe. Andy Sawyer cautions against looking at present inventions and working back through science fiction to see who predicted them, though. Too reductive. Often, he explains, they are the ‘natural’ progressions of ideas that were actually embryonic in society at that time, or of which the author had heard a rumour. What distinguishes the novels though, is that these authors were able to pick up and idea and run with it; while many were marvelling at something in its infancy, science fiction writers were asking what if… what if… and coming up with answers.

The Martians from The War of the Worlds (HG Wells 1906)

There’s an astonishing amount of info here, a plethora of genres and sub-genres and sub-sub-genres. The team who put it together deserve credit for turning what could be a very dull, dry experience (many of the exhibits are simply books in display cases, after all) into one that’s engaging, entertaining, exciting.

To supplement the display stands and the written word there are audio clips – an interview with Ursula K Le Guin, say, and Marge Piercy reading from Woman on the Edge of Time – and short video extracts. There are even playlists of music inspired by science fiction. You’d be surprised just how many tracks the BL has uncovered. If you’re anything like me, then probably the only one that springs to mind is Bowie’s Space Oddity… but clap on those headphones, enter your own little world (how appropriate) and you can enjoy the extraterrestrial delights of Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft (Carpenters; 1976), I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper (Sarah Brightman; 1978) and Pink Floyd’s Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun (1968). And that’s only the beginning. I resisted the temptation to try the more obscure tracks – I Want an Alien for Christmas, The Martian Hop and I Married a Monster from Outer Space, to name just a few (there must have been 40 or so) – although at random I selected Flying Saucer Boogie, by Eddie Cletro. An appealingly jaunty little number, it contained the refrain ‘They were just imagination but we saw them just the same’, which seems a pretty apt comment on science fiction in general.

Alongside these comes the opportunity to interact with another intelligence: ‘Elizabeth’, a chatbot hidden inside an iMac and being used to demonstrate the Turing Test for artificial intelligence. You type the question, she gives you ‘answers’, some wackier than others. ‘Let’s talk’, she says, and the temptation to try to catch her out with some complicated question or non-commital comment is immense. ‘Tell me a joke’, I typed, refusing to engage with her conversation. Quick as a flash she replied ‘It’s better to be silent and thought a fool, than open your mouth and remove all doubt.’ Ouch!

‘Elizabeth’ had a simple but thoughtful answer to the ‘What is Science Fiction?’ question: ‘literature concerning conflicts between man, science and nature’. It’s a bit flat, maybe, but it’s adequate – and considerably shorter than most.

What science fiction is may never be satisfactorily resolved, although Out of this World goes a long way towards promoting greater appreciation of its diversity. What science fiction offers, I understand now, are different ways of seeing, different ways of understanding.

As a genre, there’s definitely more to it than meets the eye…

Out of this World: Science Fiction – But Not As You Know It continues in the
PACCAR Gallery at the British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 until 25 September.
Admission free.

The events programme features some of the great science fiction writers of recent decades including Iain M Banks (6 June); David Lodge, Stephen Baxter (8 June); Audrey Niffenegger (10 June); Michael Moorcock, Brian Aldiss (21 June) andAlan Moore (4 July).

An excellent accompanying book by Mike Ashley
(paperback £16.95; hardback £27.95) is also available.

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