Friday, 22 July 2011

Out of this World at the British Library

The first thing you encounter as you enter the Out of This World exhibition at the British Library is a plaster relief sculpture of an UFO crashing into a shelf of books. It stands as a symbol of a ram-raiding, disruptive force ploughing across the carefully ordered rows of literary respectability, an intrusive invasion which is impossible to ignore, but is entirely unwelcome. The blank colourlessness of this sculpture is also suggestive of the empty page. The flying saucer is one of the abiding clichés of pulp SF, one of its embarrassments really, as it serves as the perfect embodiment of the widespread apprehension that this is a genre which is the province of obsessives who have difficulty in distinguishing between the real and the imagined. The exhibition aims to colour in the UFO of SF, to suggest that its visitation is a good thing and hopefully to provids a corrective to its bastardisation and exile into the mutant haunted hinterlands by the literary establishment. The genre still has some of its own issues of low self-esteem to deal with too. The prominent words on the wall facing the entrance lobby come from Margaret Atwood, who weighs in with a quote worthy of an inspirational corporate byline: ‘If we can imagine it, we’ll be able to do it’. It seems that no matter how many times she rejects the label of SF and consigns it to the realms of sub-literature, she is still invited to participate in events such as this (and seems always to accept, too) in a needy bid on the part of SF enthusiasts for acceptance and recognition. Atwood turns up later in a filmed interview, scrupulously defining her novels Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood as ‘end of the world literature’ and making sure that the s and f words never pass her lips when referring to her own work.

Other talking head figures are shown in this opening section attempting the notoriously difficult trick of summing up the manifold elements of the genre in one overarching definition. The winner of this years Arthur C.Clarke award, Lauren Beukes, is amongst them, as is the public face of British SF, China Mieville. Also lending their perspective on the genre as they see it are author Gwyneth Jones, the popular science writer John Gribbin, and Sumit Paul-Choudhury, the editor of New Scientist magazine, which recently published a special science fiction issue edited by Kim Stanley Robinson. Descending to the main area of the exhibition, we find a display focussing on some of the progenitors of SF, which gives the British Library the opportunity to showcase some of its venerable texts. These date back as far as the classical Greek writer Lucian of Samosata’s A True History of a Trip to the Moon from 2AD (here in a 1647 edition), a satirical tale which mocks the fantastic tales of his fellow countrymen. Further fantastic voyages are described by John Mandeville in his Travels from the 14th century (this edition dating from 1484), in which he encounters a wide variety of fabulous monsters (including men with heads below their shoulders), all of which are claimed to be authentic. An early example of the confusion between the real and imagined which derives from such rationalised fantasy. Thomas More’s Utopia of 1516, the first edition of which is presented here, is the progenitor of the politically minded strand of SF which seeks to define the ideal society, and the pitfall involved in realising it (utopia, of course, derives from Greek words, and means no-place, or nowehere). The wood cut map of the island (and maps or plans of other worlds would of course become commonplace in SF and fantasy literature) resembles the profile of a human head, suggesting that this is where such speculations should remain. There are trips to the moon described by Cyrano de Bergerac in his Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon and the Sun, a partial version of his satirical 1657 work. SF, with its ability to portray distortions of the known world whilst remaining in the same essential continuum, is an ideal vehicle for satire. The comic peregrinations and philosophical musings of Cyrano’s protagonist were evidently a little too close to the bone, since his work was only every published in extensively censored form. The illustration features splendid brass airships, a civilised mode of interplanetary travel. A slightly more farfetched means of transport is offered by Bishop Godwine in his Man in the Moon (1638), in which the lunar explorer rides a chariot drawn by a number of swans.

The exhibition is divided into sections covering particular themes and variations which have played throughout the genre’s history. The first we encounter are aliens, of course, the (green) lifeblood of SF and a great means through which the latter day Bosch-like imagination can be let loose, creating grotesque and fantastic forms. The range and diversity of SF literature becomes clear as we wander through displays centring on and orbiting around subjects such as space travel, parallel worlds and alternate histories (here linked together under the Moorcock-coined heading ‘multiverse’), Inner Space (the preoccupation of Ballard and the 60s new waves), space travel, dreamworlds and cyberpunk virtualities (gathered together under the title What is Reality?), the end of the world, alien invasion (and its precursor, Victorian tales of the invasion of England), imaginary worlds, future worlds, utopias and dystopias, time travel, and robots and artificial beings. Steampunk, the offshoot of cyberpunk which imagines Victorian and Edwardian futures past, is represented and included some of my favourite books and authors: Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates, James Blaylock’s Homonculus and Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. All of these different themes and settings can be use with varying degrees of metaphor or genuine speculation – advanced science or none.

There are a good number of original author’s manuscripts here, drawn both from the British Library’s own collections and from those held by the Science Fiction Foundation Collection at Liverpool University, whose librarian, Andy Sawyer, played a major part in the curation of the exhibition. The Foundation holds the papers of Olaf Stapledon, and from these, some pages of the small, holed notebook paper on which he wrote Star Maker are on display. His writing is neat and rigidly straight even though the paper is unlined. There is also a fantastic future history time line for Last and First Men charted on graph paper and highlighted in various colours of felt tip. It’s the perfect amalgam of geometry and art, a good metaphor for SF in general. Other manuscripts here include Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, scrawled in biro on A4 paper (probably in the garden shed in which he works), with plentiful crossings out and arrows placing additional sentences or phrases. Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffmann is written in ink pen on large paper with Japanese ‘kanji’ alphabetical pictograms on the front, relics of her time in the country. The sums scribbled on the first page suggest that this is re-used paper. Stars and numbers point the way to additional passages to be inserted, and crossings out are made in felt pen. There are examples of Victorian science fiction, with three pages of the manuscript for Richard Jeffries’ post catastrophe novel After London (1875), in which wild nature has reclaimed the home counties, and Edward (or Lord) Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871), a hollow earth story of a hidden race of beings vastly superior to man. There is a playscript of Karel Capek’s RUR (1921) which was submitted to the Lord Chamberlain for approval, as all plays had to be at the time. RUR stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots, and this was the first time the word was used (it derives from the Czech word robota, meaning statute labour). George Orwell’s preliminary notebook for 1984, meanwhile, contains lists in which he sketches out ideas and slogans, some of which are familiar from the final novel.

There is a typed page from a JG Ballard story dating from the Vermillion Sands period, which is apparently unpublished. Words are xxxxed out and others scribbled over with purple pen. It’s a very active manuscript page. Ballard makes reference to Francis Bacon on this page, an indication of the influence of surrealist and other modern art on his work. The other page of his here, from the 1965 novel The Drought, makes reference to Yves Tanguy, the surrealist whose planar perspectives are inhabited with strange, mercurially viscous or sharply shrapnel-like forms which, seen through an SF perspective, are alien in nature, and which are echoed in many of Ballard’s desert or concrete landscapes. This page again has extensive ink pen corrections. Ballard was clearly someone who worked hard to get the phrasing just right. One of the most interesting manuscripts here is the opening page of John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids. Except that it isn’t. This was a beginning which he ended up rejecting, and it’s fascinating to compare it with the novel’s opening as eventually published (the final text is available to read by the manuscript’s side). The original attempt reads ‘on the day when the great calamity put an end to the world I had known for almost 30 years, I happened to be in bed with a bandage all around my head and over my eyes. Just a matter of luck, like most survival’. It’s a rather prosaic introductory passage, hardly drawing the reader irresistibly in to the ensuing story. The final version does this much more compellingly, with one succinct and intriguing sentence which lets us know that time is out of joint and which creates a sense of mystery which we immediately want to find out more about: ‘When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere’.

The exhibition is greatly indebted to John Clute's collection of science fiction first editions, which are scattered throughout, and whose covers will be familiar to anyone who has a copy of his Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia. Iain Sinclair observes Clute amongst the trawlers of the old London street book markets in Skating On Thin Eyes, the first chapter in his book of walks through the capital, Lights Out For The Territory. There was ‘the science fiction and fantasy encyclopaedist John Clute – a pundit who virtually invented his own field of studies (and amassed an important 20,000 volume collection in the process)’. Having the results of his assiduous quests showcased in British Library displays must make those searches for the jewels amongst the mounds of moulding rubbish seem worthwhile. Philip K Dick’s Man in the High Castle has a strikingly simple design, placing the red Nazi and Japanese sunburst flags against a black background. The cover of Dick’s Ubik, with the title vertically displayed on a spray can, has never been bettered. Ballard’s The Crystal World uses Max Ernst’s After The Rain, which would certainly have met with the author’s approval (and which perhaps arose from his suggestion?) His High Rise has a photocollage, with the picture of the grey concrete flats ripped through at several points to reveal blue sky and clouds behind. John Christopher’s Death of Grass, George R Stewart’s Earth Abides and Brian Aldiss’ Greybeard offer a choice of catastrophes. Arthur C Clarke’s City and the Stars has a classic image of conceptual breakthrough on its cover (a similar image is to be found on the cover of the British Library brochure – this one a woodcut from Camille Flammarion’s L’Atmosphere: Meteorologie Populaire).

The 1968 anthology England Swings SF, edited by Judith Merril, has a pop art collage cover, a mix of photography, varied typography and bold shapes and squiggles. It offers ‘speculative’ rather than science fiction (the 60s saw attempts by several sf figures to shift genre definitions) and promises ‘a new kind of trip’. It leaves us in little doubt as to the period from which it emerged. Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker (1937) has a graphic design redolent of its times, with two translucent hands juggling a planet as if it is a plaything, with a corona of stars looking like the insignia of an interplanetary League of Nations. I was surprised to note that this first edition was in fact a paperback. Stapledon’s First and Last Men, presented here in its 1931 New York edition, has a very art deco cover, with a string of globes (representing the planets of the solar system to which mankind expands) floating in front of a row of elegant skyscrapers. It could be the backdrop for a Fred and Ginger number – tripping the light fantastic across vast gulfs of time and space. Finally, Hannes Bok’s cover for John W Campbell’s Who Goes There (the basis for Howard Hawks’ foray into SF, The Thing) is simply wonderful; a striking contrast of bluish grey and red with a strangely feminised monster filling up the space, squatting awkwardly as if still not fully formed. Its nails are varnished red, its three eyes circled with long lashes and a smeared paint swirl of red hair stiffly unfurls behind its head. Its mouth is a red gash punctured by vampiric teeth. It’s a grotesque image of terror and desire combined. Heady stuff for 1947.

There are a couple of listening posts at which you can hear music which has drawn on science fiction, although the exhibition itself is accompanied by everpresent, atmospheric drones of the sort employed to evoke interstellar drift. The obvious examples are present, including, of course, Space Oddity. Actually, Bowie’s perennial favourite is an interesting example, reflecting the disillusion with the space programme and the sense of alienation for which it stands as a metaphor which were recurrent themes in the fiction of the likes of JG Ballard and Barry Malzberg at the time. There is a good selection of less well known music here too, however. Peter Hammill’s Red Shift is one of a number of songs he wrote, either for his solo LPs or with Van der Graaf Generator, which make sophisticated use of science fiction ideas, or science as metaphor (which amounts to the same thing); others include Fog Walking, Man Erg, Pioneers Over C, Traintime, Breakthrough, the Clarke-quoting Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End, and that great end of the word epic After the Flood. New wave gets a look in with Spizzenergi’s increasingly desperate repetition of the question Where’s Captain Kirk? Robots are the protagonists and antagonists of Kraftwerk’s Robots and Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots (from an LP which ends with the splendidly and quintessentially science fictionally titled track Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon – Utopia Planitia). The space programme is represented by Brian Eno’s twinkling piece of ambience Under Stars from the Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks record, and Blur’s Beagle 2, which was composed as the call sign for the ill-fated Mars lander of that name. Sun Ra was a personal embodiment of everything science fictional, cloaking himself and his Arkestra in his own SF mythology (and often in an actual spangly and brightly coloured cloak, too). He is represented here by the lengthy invocational chant and free jazz number Space is the Place. The Comsat Angels score a double with their track Eye of the Lens, which references the excellent Langdon Jones story from New Worlds, whereas there name is derived from a JG Ballard of a similar vintage. Ballard has inspired a number of artists, and gets a display case all to himself, where you can hear The Normal’s Warm Leatherette (essentially Crash as electronic pop, later persuasively covered by Grace Jones) and The Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star, apparently inspired by the short story Sound Sweep.

Ballard can also be heard talking about his fiction and views on SF in general. He rejects the narrow definition of the genre created by Star Wars and Doctor Who (not sure I’d agree with him that Who is imaginatively constricted) and the American magazine tradition and draws attention to scientific romance and the ‘great river of imaginative fiction’ which has run through literature since time immemorial. The recording seems to be of a rather low sampling rate, which results in a strangely appropriate digital breakdown of the sound, creating an artificial, cybernetic feel to this version of Ballard. Not a great deal of attention is paid to the cinematic side of the genre, which is perfectly understandable in an exhibition taking place in the country’s largest and most venerable library. There is a full-sized Tardis here, however, in front of which you can pose for photos, and also a page of manuscript from a Who score. Unfortunately, it’s not some graphic depiction of a radiophonic workshop theme or the music for a Dudley Simpson soundtrack, but the rather less thrilling manuscript of Francis Chagrin’s score for the Dalek Invasion of Earth movie. There is also a lovely model of K-9 made by James Richardson-Brown in the brass, pipes and rivets steampunk style.

The visual side is represented not only by some fine book covers, but also by magazine and book illustrations such as Alvim-Correa’s depiction of the Martian war machines wreaking havoc with their death rays in a 1906 Belgian edition of The War of the Worlds (or La Guerre des Mondes in this case, of course). This powerful and quite brutal image (we see two smoking bodies lying in the garden of the cottages which are being destroyed) has been used in the British Library’s publicity for the exhibition, and you can see why. A stylised print from an 1899 Dutch edition is also very striking, with the machines, here made to look rather more anthropomorphic, towering in godlike fashion above hills and houses alike, casually tossing off swirls of lightning in their path. A 1931 edition of The Time Machine, meanwhile, has a fine 4 colour print illustration of the terminal, end of world beach which the traveller gazes over. Sidney Sime’s illustration for Lord Dunsany’s the Gods of Pegana is characteristically atmospheric, depicting a spectral figure emerging from a sepia tinted night forest whose trees seem to glow with a mysterious bioluminescence. Most enjoyable are the visions of futurity envisioned in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Here we have a series of pictures from an 1874 Pall Mall magazine, in which the street lighting of a future city is suspended from floating balloons, and a series of 1914 Russian postcards imagining a magical Moscow, complete with the usual elevated monorail network threading between high-rise buildings. Albert Robida’s Le Vingtieme Siecle – La Vie Electrique from 1892 somewhat satirically shows a future in which Parisians have taken to the skyways in their flying cars, and must negotiate a thicket of intertwining telegraph cables, above which airship serenely glide. Fashions don’t seem to have changed a great deal, and gentlemen still take off their hats to a passing lady. Perhaps the most remarkable visual work on display here is Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphiniarus (1981). Serafini, an architect and designer, has created and illustrated an imaginary world complete with flora, fauna, inhabitants and an alien civilisation. As a sustained act of detailed imaginative invention, it is remarkable, and the images on display are remarkable; dream architecture merging with mountainous land and seascapes.

There are some surprising inclusions here, fully justifying the exhibition’s subtitle Science Fiction But Not As You Know It. Most startling (an probably particularly vexing to the dedicated literary snob) are the notebooks of the Bronte Sisters, in which they detail, in tiny, neat writing in small notebooks, their imaginary kingdoms of Angria and Gondal, vaguely located in Africa and the North Pacific. Another such imaginary land was created in great detail in the early twentieth century by the American legal teacher and scholar Austin Tappan Wright, who built up the world of Islandia over a period of many years, having originally dreamed of it as a boy. There was no apparent intention to publish the results, this was creation for its own sake. Other writers who would not normally be associated with SF are also included. Bertrand Russell’s late collection of stories Nightmares contains several science fiction tales, and Joseph Conrad’s The Inheritors (1901) imagines a superior race from the future, the Dimensionists. There are several examples of samizdat literature, illicitly published copies, from beyond the iron curtain, which focus on the great dystopian novels of the twentieth century. A Polish version of Zamyatin’s 1924 novel My (also known as We) dates from 1985, 3 years before its eventual official publication in the Soviet Union. There is also a 1985 samizdat copy of Brave New World. In such forms, dystopian fiction found an underground readership under conditions of dystopian reality, allowing people to compare and contrast. Further dytopian fiction comes in the form of the British government’s 1980 Protect and Survive booklet, which offers entirely useless tips as to what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. One such suggests that you can ‘lie flat in a ditch’, presumably to make it easier for the burial crews. One final book to note is the original 1895 US edition of The Time Machine, published in New York and prominently attributed on the cover to one H.S.Wells. Whatever happened to him? This is a great exhibition for the SF fan, and hopefully for the mildly curious, too. It demonstrates the widespread reach of the literary genre, and its ability to address the bewildering transformations of our technological age. It’s also colourful, imaginatively rich and damn good fun. It’s a space well worth exploring.

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