Out of this World exhibit at the British Library

Published On May 26, 2011 | By Joe Gordon | Books, Comics

As we’ve mentioned here a couple of times recently, the British Library in London has just started an enticing exhibition entitled Out of this World: Science Fiction, But Not as You Know it. James Bacon was fortunate enough to get along the sample the BL’s science fictional offerings and I’m delighted to say he was kind enough to write us a very thorough guest blog reporting on it:

Science Fiction as it should be….

In twenty four hours, I have visited The British Library twice to see the Out Of This World Exhibition. It is truly excellent, a fine example of how to demonstrate a whole genre with loving care and place it in context in both science and history without taking away the excitement and imaginative ideas that it gives.

It’s an incredibly well thought out and intelligent exhibition. It’s not at all small, and there is quite a large quantity of interesting works, first editions, manuscripts, poignant connected ephemera and inspirational artwork on display. Nothing is there just for the sake of it; the whole exhibit is broken up into themes, and within these themes are specific groupings, each window like its own sub-theme. These groupings have a distinct purpose and story to tell. It’s like science fiction is being treated in a proper way.

As one approaches a cabinet, there are times when it is only intuitive to question the eclectic mix of items on display, but there is a theme to each display and this allows random books to appear that initially seem totally out of place and not really suited to their peers but then upon closer consideration there is a plainly obvious connection.

In the auspicious surroundings of the British Library, not at all far from the front door, there is the PACCAR gallery, and this space is cleverly used for the Out Of This World exhibition. There is no charge to see the exhibition, and as one walks in one is confronted by a pristine white flying saucer crashed like a charging Rhino into a set of bookshelves. It’s a stunning object of art but also illuminates visually a lot more: is science fiction and its imaginative ideas the cause of upset and questioning? Is it literally the car crash of the literary world?

As one steps through, it is clear that this is a large exhibition, curved cabinets in a high ceilinged gallery, that is dark and atmospheric, while the soft background sound of strange moody noises create a serene and separate space. Then the voice of China Mieville, emanates from a small screen… I catch his words as he talks about the genre: ‘Compelling’ , ‘Something unreal about reality’, ‘Realism is somewhat limited ‘.

I am astounded as I see the first cabinet, and there is a Fanzine, from winter of 1952, Slant emanating from Belfast and edited by Walt Willis and James White, and this simple nod to history and a connection makes me smile. Above me a naked man, falling into or coming from a lit funnel, and then to my side a massive tripod looms over the room, juxtaposing elements of science fiction, action, inhumanity, thought and the unknown.

The selections of books are gorgeous. There are scientific romances, with ornate inlaid covers, and Amazing Fantasy in its striking colour and first editions. Older tomes fill a section about Imaginary voyages, John Mandeville’s Travels from 1357 which in the colour 1484 edition looks like a role player’s dream come true and there are maps, Nils Klim by Lunvig Holberg from 1741 has a map showing the inner worlds planetary system quite dissimilar to the large Discworld map later in the exhibit.

Suddenly the brightness of the front page of sheet music assails one and A Signal from Mars – march and two step by Raymond Taylor from 1901capturing part of the moment and sitting well amongst books about the Red Planet. I see my second comic, Tintin Destination Moon and not too far away a privately distributed circular, by Sir Arthur C Clarke, of The Space Station – Its Radio Applications from May 1945. How fiction and nonfiction can popularise ideas are here, and an example is Konstaintin Tsiolkovsky’s efforts to popularise the idea of jet propulsion as a method into space with his fictional work Dreams of Earth and Sky from 1895.

Everything is spaced out quite nicely. Cabinets are not over filled and there are enough to capture or remind those au fait with the genre of treasures, while there are connections that beguile and impress. Information on the works are clear and explain what the piece was about as much as what it was reflecting. I like the clever placement of prints by William Heath from his series March of Intellects from 1825-1829 mocking the enthusiasm for invention and new technology.

Such visions of the future abound, and Fred Jane of Jane’s Fighting Ships created a series of images, Guesses at Futurity, and the third, with street lamps suspended in quite an unusual way, is on display in Pall Mall Magazine from 1894, while Anthony d’Offay’s colourful Moscow of the Future series of postcards from 1914 show a different yet familiar capital two hundred years hence.

The desire for merchandise is not immediately visible in this exhibit—the focus is on the written works—but I found it interesting to see next to the play script of R.U.R. – Rossum’s Universal Robots- by Karel Čapek. that was submitted to the Lord Chamberlin 1921 is accompanied by a replica robot, which is very human in shape, from 1923.

As well as books, unusual items from the minds of the great writers are available to see, theTimeline for Last and First Men from 1930 in amazing intricate detail laid out on a massive graph paper in hand – coloured inks and two items from John Wyndham—an alternate hand written ending of The Kraken Wakes for the US Ballantine edition and the first page of The Day of the Triffids, with the beginning struck out for the one that we might know, When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.

As I walk on, I am continually impressed by the variety of items on display, the hand written score for The Dalek Invasion of Earth, broadcast in 1964 by composer Francis Chagrin is another example of science fictional music, matched by a Carl Bernstien arranged music hall piece written by Frank W Green of The Battle of Dorking. This book is a personal favourite, something I imagine most readers will find in the exhibit, something they especially like, The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer from 1871 caused a little stir, vividly describing the invasion of Britain which in a short time after being serialised and produced in pamphlet form had sold over 100,000 copies.

The ruin of humanity, both from natural disasters and events as well as at our own hand, is evident and makes one think, and it is poignant to see a copy of the Central Office of Information publication Protect and Survive from 1976 next to Raymond Biggs When the Wind Blows.

I am pleased to report that comics are represented at the exhibit, although grateful that they are not at all the focus. The media of comics deserves its own exhibition, and I secretly hope that whoever was responsible for this one has the vision to do comics a similar honour. Important pieces do get shown, and I was not at all surprised to see an original black and white inked page of Grandville by Bryan Talbot next to a finished photo of the final page and there the most wonderful work open for all to see, next to the Absolute Edition of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

It is the smartness with which each group is displayed that makes me smile. In one cabinet we have a very nice edition of Slaughter house 5 by Kurt Vonnegut, The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger and a model of the DeLorean from Back to the Future III. The model is small and does not take away from the books at all and reminds one of how stories of time can be told in various forms.

There is then a human bottleneck, I wonder as to how this could be so, but soon it is very obvious – in a group entitled Utopias and Dystopias there selection of Orwell items – and everyone slows down a little to carefully examine the treasured items on display. Here is a moment for pause, a chance to slowly look at a typed sheet of paper and an open note book a little larger than a copy book .

These are a letter from George Orwell to publisher Frederic Warburg in 1948 trying to decide the title of his work, with two titles, The Last Man in Europe and Nineteen Eighty Four, being those mentioned. Next to this, an open note book, from 1943 shows words and ideas, an outline of sorts of a future work reflecting the concerns of then yet to be published, and in his own hand, words such as Newspeak and Ingsoc are there to be seen.

Next to this is a video clip of the BBC 1954 live recorded version of the book, staring Peter Cushing and directed by Nigel Kneale, beautifully filmed and honest to the original, it may be a surprise that it was the cause of some considerable controversy at the time resulting in early motions and amendments being tabled in Parliament and the board making the final decision as whether to repeat it or not.

And as of to remind one of more modern times, directly across from the Orwell items is a copy of Warrior 19, its colourful and striking cover next to open pages of the comic, again as if carrying through, the pages show the score and there simply placed is a mask, comic icon and tool of many protestors, where fiction meets reality.

(protestors demand the release of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei clad in V for Vendetta masks, which have become something of a universal mask/badge for freedom protestors of all sorts worldwide, doubtless to the delight of messrs Moore & Lloyd, pic borrowed from the Atlantic Wire article)

As I leave retracing my steps, I hear the soft and gentle voice of Lauren Beukes (rhymes with Lucas) and with that light South African accent, she says of science fiction ‘A way of putting a different perspective on things to help you put things into perspective’…’Take you somewhere interesting but also reveal something about the human condition. ‘

Quite indeed.

The Out of this World exhibition runs at the British Library until September 25th and is free to enter; we should also remind you that Alan Moore will be giving a talk at the British Library on July 4th at 6.30pm. Many thanks to James for such an in-depth report

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About The Author

Joe Gordon

Joe Gordon is ForbiddenPlanet.co.uk’s chief blogger, which he set up in 2005. Previously, he was professional bookseller for over 12 years as well as a lifelong reader and reviewer, especially of comics and science fiction works.

One Response to Out of this World exhibit at the British Library

  1. Lilla says:

    I must totally agree with this assessment of the exhibition. I was blown away when I went to see it – it’s a thoroughly impressive collection, presented in a sophisticated and accessible way. I highly recommend it.