Out of this World in the Library

Yesterday, in four brief photo-posts on my Posterous account I highlighted snapshots — literally — from the British Library’s current exhibition on science fiction. I’m more of a fan of the genre in movies than in books but I had heard good things about the Library’s display and wanted to take a look.

The exhibition is mostly books and manuscripts that exemplify the form — locked in glass cases in a fairly dim room — but I wasn’t disappointed. It is organised into themes — the moon, visions of the future, time-travel, alien forms, alien invasions and such-like — that provide an easy framework for perusing the various artefacts on display.

Out of this World

I tend not to be very intensive in my examination of museums or galleries. I prefer to mosey here and there and see what takes my fancy. In this exhibition there was plenty to catch the eye and stimulate reflection. I’ve already displayed a few of the items that struck me (start here and work forward).

But there were a few themes that also had some impact. Prominent among them are the limitations of the human imagination, exemplified in visions of the future, most of which have been shown to be too closely rooted in the time of their conception. This was particularly true prior to the 18th century since there was not a strong conception then of the transformative power of science and technology.

That said, the age of science fiction was also striking. The earliest example on display (if I remember correctly) was a tale of interplanetary travel and extraterrestrials from Lucien of Samosata, a greek author from the 2nd Century AD. But there were also works on display from the 13th and 14th Centuries.

I guess I had always regarded the form as a fairly light type of fiction. I’m not sure why. It might reflect my predilection for science fiction movies, many of which are inconsequential entertainment, though of course there are significant exceptions. But the exhibition has enlarged my idea of the genre. I see its seriousness more clearly, as an art form that allows imaginative exploration of what it means to be human.

So, with my interest re-ignited, I’d like to get back into science fiction literature. I will start with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (a free version of which has been idling on my Kindle app for a few months now). I also want to have another look at The Forbidden Planet, to examine for myself its Shakespearean fabric and I think I’ll give one of Alan Moore’s steampunk graphic novels a go.

Anyone care to make recommendations on where to go from there?

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33 Responses to Out of this World in the Library

  1. DrMobs says:

    I shall just mention those classics where the story is still vivid in my mind decades after I have read them (and without consulting my bookshelves…).

    The Star Beast, Robert Heinlein
    The Chrysalids, John Wyndham
    The City and the Stars, Arthur C Clarke
    To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip José Farmer
    I, Robot Isaac Asimov
    The Midwich Cuckoos, John Wyndham
    The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin
    The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham

    Hmm..I may be a Wyndham fan.

    There is a list here too… http://home.austarnet.com.au/petersykes/topscifi/lists_books_rank1.html

    Happy reading!!

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks – a few of those were on display in the exhibition.

      Yes, you do seem to be a Wyndham fan…!

  2. KristiV says:

    That entrance display is fantastic! When I was in the UK in 2009, there was an installation at the Tate Modern that was a near-future science fiction scenario in which some residents of London had taken refuge in the museum. Copies of science fiction novels that had influenced the artist were chained to the metal-framed bunk beds.

    If you’re interested in the steampunk genre, I highly recommend China Miéville’s Bas-Lag trilogy, starting with Perdido Street Station. I’m reading his novel Kraken at the moment – it’s not steampunk, but features a sort of alternate “magickal” London. Probably doesn’t qualify as lab lit, but does feature a scientist as a major character. I’m actually more of a fantasy reader myself, and I’m sorely tempted to subscribe to HBO just so I can watch A Game of Thrones. I’m one of those people who cannot wait for A Dance with Dragons to be published (written???). Part of me never grew out of that phase.

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks for the steampunk recommendation Kristi – I really am totally out of my depth on that one. My only previous exposure to the graphic novel (apart from Asterix) was Alan Moore’s Watchmen, which I have to say I didn’t care for. Maybe a bit to relentlessly apocalyptic…

  3. MGG says:

    You could try ‘Rendezvous with Rama’ by Arthur C Clarke and ‘Nightfall’ by Isaac Asimov

    • Stephen says:

      Ah – Rendezvous with Rama – I’m pretty sure I read that in my youth. Might be nice to re-visit…

  4. Delfinut says:

    I hope it’s on long enough for me to be able to visit! Anyway, Science Fiction — apart from Asimov and Clarke (I would second The City and the Stars), most definitely Phillip K Dick!! (V much enjoyed Do androids dream of electric sheep? – aka Bladerunner).

    The SF masterworks series might be a good place to start.

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks for those tips, though Bladerunner is one of my all-time favourite movies and, perhaps perversely, I think that may have made me hesitate to read the book…

      You have until Sept 25th to catch the exhibition…

      • Delfinut says:

        Haha, because I enjoyed the book v much, I hesitated to watch the film – I had it on me over a year before I got around to it!

      • Carl says:

        one of my favorite authors ever (next to Harlan Ellison who refuses to call his work Science Fiction”. i like the book and the movie, but they are only vaguely similar and because of that i like them both for different reasons. Highly recommend the book. as usual with books, it goes much deeper into the subject of empathy and the what is the difference between “artificial” and real life.

  5. Eva says:

    No book recommendation, but a SciFi exhibit recommendation: I went to see the Dr Who Experience at Olympia this weekend and it was *so* good. Not at all scientific, of course. (I have photos of the part where photos were allowed on my Facebook page. That was not the best part of the thing – the best part didn’t allow photos.)

    • Stephen says:

      Erm – Dr Who isn’t really my thing. Happy to watch it with the kids but don’t find it dramatically satisfying these e days (despite my enormous respect for Stephen Moffat).

  6. Grant says:

    I find with sci-fi that there are—to my thinking—so many sub-genres that I get a bit lost in them! Looking at others’ suggestions, I guess you’re after the classics – ? I’m don’t think I’m very helpful there.

    I’ve never tried sci-fi enough either! I’ve quite a few picked up from second-hand book sales I’ve still to try. One is one of those collected works books of H.G. Wells. (I have a few Huxleys and Whydhams, of course – I’ve read those.)

    I suspect really only like the very best (for my tastes) in sci-fi and the rest I can happily leave. Or maybe that I really only like the more popular stuff that spills over in mainstream novel territory? Whatever.

    “Hard” sci-fi usually appeals. Some of Benford’s stuff is good; he’s not such a fluid writer but his stuff comes with realistic scenarios from the science perspective. I’m sure if people would call it hard sci-fi, but earlier Greg Bear I loved; might be too light for your tastes?

    Sagas don’t often work for me. Aside from the length, they often don’t seem to have a “point”! (Despite that I’ve picked a *few* cheap copies to try them as others seem to think they’re good to try them out.)

    • Stephen says:

      Sounds like you’ve iread a fair bit but still not made your mind up about the genre…?

      • Grant says:

        Haven’t read much actually, but spent a bit of time trying to riddle the darn thing out! Y’know skimming them to see if I might like it. Greg Bear probably the only author I’ve read a lot of. A bit like I you I mean to make more effort. Reality is I tend to swing to light reading if I’m buried in work, back to non-fictiom when work isn’t getting to me. The silly result is I don’t read as much “proper” literature as I used to. Not good…

        Right now it’s full-on work, and I’m just finishing Pratchett’s Strata – one of the very few of his I’ve yet to read. Call me a lightweight if you like, but I can’t go past a Pratchett novel 🙂 (Not sci-fi.)

  7. cromercrox says:

    Thanks for reminding me of that exhibition, Stephen. I really ought to pop along. As for literature, I should of course recommend Futures from Nature, a collection of 101 SF stories first published in Your Favourite Weekly Professional Science Magazine Beginning With N, and edited by moi – well, I would say that, wouldn’t I? – but this anthology of very short stories serves as a taste menu of amuses-bouche that should give you some idea of what you like and what you don’t.

    Many of the above suggestions refer to rather old classics. Nothing wrong with that, and to that list I’d add A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller, Earth Abides by George R. Stuart and The Forever War by Joe Haldeman.

    However, there has been upsurge of SF lately, often in the ‘intelligent space-opera’ vein and by very good writers. Here is a pick of some favourites culled more or less at random from the Crox memory banks:

    Charles Stross – Saturn’s Children;
    Iain M. Banks – Use of Weapons;
    Ian Watson – The Embedding;
    Peter Watts – Starfish.

    Look out for books by Justina Robson, Ken MacLeod, Alastair Reynolds and so on and so forth…

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks Henry – I knew I could rely on you. If I were to put you on the spot in a desert-island-discs kind of way, which of those books would you recommend most highly?

  8. nico says:

    If you can bear 19th century style writing, Jules Verne goes into extraordinary detail as to the functioning of the machines he imagined. 20,000 leagues under the sea is an obvious choice, also voyage to the moon. There are already excellent choices above, so I’ll just throw in Cory Doctorow as a contemporary sci-fi writer. Pretty much all his oeuvre is available free online too.

    • Stephen says:

      That reminds me – I must try and find the copy of Big Brother that I got for my kids, following a recommendation from a certain Dr Ian Brooks, if I remember correctly.

      • nico says:

        Do you mean Little Brother? Get it for free there for your iDevices: http://craphound.com/littlebrother/download/

        Also I highly recommend Planet of the Apes, by Pierre Boule, there is much more in the book than in the film. Especially if you’ve seen the poor "modern" version. The 1968 film with Heston Blumenthal Charlton Heston is still surprisingly good.

        I have an Ian M. Banks on my "to read" list, but first I’m trying to finish Battlestar Galactica, the complete series were loaned to me recently…

  9. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    “a tale of interplanetary travel and extraterrestrials from Lucien of Samosata, a greek author from the 2nd Century AD”

    Seriously?! How cool is that! I want to read it now!

  10. Kieron Flanagan says:

    In my view you can’t beat a bit of Ballard. The ealier novels and his short stories are the more obviously science-fictiony but the themes (and memes) are pretty constant.

    As a scientist I think you might particularly enjoy Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, with it’s depiction of the gradual decay of the discipline of ‘Solaris Studies’. The film (the Tarkovsky one, not the Clooney one) is great too, but for different reasons.

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks Kieron. Do you have a favourite Ballard? I am beginning to realise how far behind the curve I am in my sci fi reading. Everyone seems to know it all!

      • cromercrox says:

        You said it, Stephen. You’re so unhip it’s a wonder your bum doesn’t fall off.

      • Kieron Flanagan says:

        Hi Stephen. I think the earlier end-of-the-world Ballard stuff is probably the best place to start, or the early short stories. The Drowned World or The Crystal World, the latter a bit of a riff on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. For the short stories, best just to buy the collection and dip in.

  11. Will says:

    I really can’t recommend Iain M Banks culture novels highly enough (the lastest one Surface Detail is fantastic) for a bit of proper literary space opera. Someone mentioned Wyndham as well and for hard ‘what if?’ post-apocalyptic sci-fi Day of the Triffids is perfect. Then on the more dystopian edge Do Androids Dream… or A Scanner Darkly by Dick and Neuromancer by William Gibson are good starting points.

    As a bit of a personal plug – I’ve reviewed the exhibition and a couple of the associated talks for http://www.ageekamongst.tumblr.com which is aimed at nerdy, science, historical, learning exhibitions and things to do in London.

    Ta. @ageekamongst

    • Stephen says:

      Will – Thanks for the link – I enjoyed your funny/sad account of the Time Travel panel. You really should have had the nerve to speak to her at the bar.

      Better luck next time…

  12. Hilda Cerdeira says:

    Some great books have been mentioned in the letters, but I recommend two classics: Brave New World (Aldous Huxley) and 1984 (Orwell). May be 1984 does not really qualify as Science fiction, but it is surprisingly up to date in the ideas of erasing history. It is worth to read and re-read.

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