Out of This World – A British Library Exhibition

There’s something special about a book, even more so the older it is. They have a unique smell. They have texture. Heft. So what would be the point of an exhibition, albeit at the British Library, which is essentially a bunch of old books open at a single page behind glass? You can’t feel then, smell them, touch them. What indeed…

I was very excited by the prospect of visiting the Out of This World exhibit at the British Library. I’d been informed that it would be geek heaven. I’d seen a short piece on the TV with China Mieville as a talking head. My expectations had been enhanced by frequent visits to the website and watching the Twitter hashtag #outofthisworld scroll by. I was ready for this. With nervous anticipation I passed a polystyrene flying saucer that looked like it had crashed into some book shelves and I descended the stairs into the relative darkness from a 30C heat in London. I could feel the temperature drop. I could hear a vague robotic sounding voice in the distance. And is that a glimpse of the TARDIS to the right. It sure is.
Will this be as good as it seems?
The exhibit is set out in a number of areas: Alien Worlds, Future Worlds, Parallel Worlds, Virtual Worlds, End of the Worlds and Perfect World? So you begin the tour in Alien Worlds. As I reached the first section I was shown books from centuries past highlighting early imaginations. The captions suggesting these works of fiction are the seeds and origins of science fiction. Works not only by Jules Verne and Jonathan Swift, as expected, but Sir John Mandeville and Cyrano de Bergerac and others. Each area, it turns out, starts at the early ideas of the concept and takes you through the development of the idea up to modern works and authors. The books aren’t just a list of famous examples of the sub-genres, but they are carefully chosen to tell a story. The story is not just the history of science fiction, but the history of society and its ideas. The parallel is clear. As society progressed and civilisation developed, science fiction reflected the concerns of the day. As the Earth was opening up to explorers, so the adventurers of the imagination explored the future.
The books on display across the areas are an inspired selection. The majority show pages with illustrations, most famously exemplified by John Tenniel’s depiction of Alice in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (in the Virtual World area). We’re not just talking first editions or those classically familiar copies either. Early science fiction was often published in instalments in magazines such as Amazing Stories or Galaxy. Some of these original bound publications are on display, all with gorgeous Technicolor illustrations. Still? A bunch of old books? Not quite. Throughout the exhibit were listening posts with exerts from various stories as well as interviews with authors. My favourite was an HG Wells radio broadcast in which he attacked the modern world (at the time, the 1930s) and its folly in not preparing for the future, such as not fully preparing for the introduction of the motor car. The cabinets provided surprises too. Alongside the books, you can see illustrations (William Heath’s ‘The March of Intellect’), maps (from the 1741 Nils Klim by Lunvig Holberg to Discworld), magazines (for example, Interzone), ephemera (various robots, including a steampunk K9 – renamed K1889) and even examples of Manga and comics (such as X-Men). Back to the books and the selection is as eclectic as possible, and includes rare (Edwin A Abbot’s Flatland in an edition that opens out into a single sheet) and in some case unknown items (to me at any rate) – Richard Jeffries’ After London´ and JA Mitchell’s The Last American. The selection also includes tomes from around the world, such as the Polish author Evgeny Zamyatin’s My (known as We) and various works from Stanislaw Lem. I could go on listing the books, illustrations and associates wonders, but you get the idea.

The robotic voice turned out to be a rare interactive moment, with a motion-sensitive robot exposing various facts about the history of, well, robots, in science fiction. The only true failure was another attempt at interaction: Elizabeth, an attempt at an AI-style programme with hopes of passing the Turing Test. Poor Elizabeth couldn’t really handle the simplest of questions. Moving on…There are listening posts on the various benches around the room, with examples of various science fiction related music, from the Comsat Angels to Sarah Brightman, from Rock and Roll to Classical to Folk.
My personal joy, however, came from the original items scattered throughout the show. A Rudyard Kipling tome with his printed name crossed out and his signature scrawled about. Fragments of manuscripts from Angela Carter, Kazuo Ishiguro, Philip Pullman and John Wyndam. There were early scratchings from the Bronte sisters who created their own worlds and wrote short stories. I laughed, but thankfully not quite out load, at George Orwell’s letter to his publisher. Not about his concerns over the title (1984 or The Last Man in Europe) but his opinion of Satre – as being ‘a bag of wind’ and that he was going to ‘give him a good boot’.

Again, considering the majority of the room is showing off books, it is a fair size, with plenty of ideas and wonders to keep me interested for the best part of two hours. I wallowed in the atmosphere of the place and felt thoroughly engaged.
I didn’t learn much I didn’t already know concerning the history of my favourite written genre, but I did feel inspired. It is clear that the designers of the Out of This World know the subject, its practitioners and its fans very well indeed. I felt inspired to read more, write more and generally be part of the culture represented. After all, if the British Library thinks it’s an important enough genre to warrant a major 5 month exhibition, who is anyone to argue?

And so, after being so inspired, I’ve decide to embark on a reading challenge. Check it out…

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