Into the Unknown – A Science Fiction exhibition at The Barbican, London.

20170722_134841Is a room full of awesome geeky stuff an exhibition (interesting or otherwise), or just a room full of awesome geeky stuff? I felt it was time to find some new geek inspiration, so I took myself along to the brutalist maze that is The Barbican on a wet and miserable London afternoon. Into the Unknown is billed as “A journey through science fiction” and is meant to be aimed at fans and novices alike.

When I handed over just short of 15 of your English Pounds, I was expecting to be taken on a journey. A story, if you will, of the history of science fiction. Why it resonates? How it came about? What it means to society now? What made Shelley write Frankenstein (although this I do know, of course) to why Margret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is so important today, as the success of the awesome TV series testifies?

What I got when I passed through the darkened entry doors was a room full of cool geeky science fiction stuff, with a few short plaques of description (often placed after, or to the side of the specific exhibit). There were several cases of books on a theme – proto-science fiction, dystopia, that sort of common grouping – which ranged from a few rare editions to foreign editions to recent publications but without an attached story to them, or why the curator chose them in particular. They did have some audio taken from the books for those unfamiliar. I saw no-one listening…There was plenty of art work (from movie story boards to cities-of-the-future originals), comic books, advertising and film posters, movie props (miniatures and models, costumers), film scripts and screens showing oldy chosen random short film clips. For those with time and patience to sit with headphones on, there was a number of short films to watch. One in particular caught my attention, as it was written by a computer. It was mostly tosh, but interesting in a way.

The exhibit, then, did have some very nice pieces. The journey began with the likes of Jules Verne and Ray Harryhausen. Some of his early sketches are simply awesome. Check out these drawings:

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They also showed some of his models, and showed them next to models used in the Jurassic Park films.

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There was Darth Vader’s actual helmet, alien masks from Stargate, Giger’s drawings (with comedy annotations) from Alien 3, robots from AI and the Lost in Space TV show; ships, props and models from the likes of Fantastic Voyage and Land of the Giants and Red Dwarf and eXistence. There was the script from 2001 with its original title crossed out and the familiar one written in by hand. There was plenty of story boards and concept art, from Empire Strikes Back to Elysium. My favourite pieces were the space suits as worn by Leonard Nimoy in Star Trek, Sam Rockwell in Moon and John Hurt in Alien. Nice. No, to be fair, it was more than nice. Quite exciting, truth be told.

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For me, there were too many pictures and prints from posters and adverts, especially the cities-of-the-future motif. And way too many random film clips. And that Wonder Woman thing was awful. The book displays were the most disappointing. Just books with the occasional manuscript. Although I was pleased to see many features in my science fiction challenge (Herland, News from Nowhere, The Last Man, The Mummy, and a whole lot more.) But there was no story. No process. And very little interaction. You could play a part in a simulation from the film The Martian, but other than watching and listening throughout the room, that was it.

20170722_134144Outside the main exhibition, there were several short films to watch. I didn’t bother. A set of ‘media pods’ had games on them, but there were queues, so again I passed. I did venture down to the ‘Pit’ to see the pretty if bewildering art installation called In the Light of the Machine by Conrad Shawcross. A series of plastic monoliths with patterned holes surrounded a robot art with a light at the end. The movement of the robot arm cast a variety of shadows in the darkened room, which looked cool but meant little, and certainly not whatever pretentious twaddle the plaque described. Finally, at the exit to the Barbican, a series of screens promised an edited version of a Black Mirror episode from the first season. Which lasted about a minute before looping. Nothing more than a trailer. As brutalist architecture, the Barbican is an eerie, mystifying maze of a place, which doesn’t help the mood of the visitor looking around the exhibition.

I can’t help feeling that Patrick Gyger, who curated Into the Unknown isn’t the world’s biggest science fiction fan. Curation is stretching it too. He’s stuck a bunch of very cool stuff (and don’t get me wrong, I was excited to see art from Harryhausen and props from Alien and Star Wars and Star Trek and one or too nice early book editions) but for 15 quid, I’d expect a whole lot more. Into the Unknown is a missed opportunity to really explore science fiction. It was a chance to wow fans and educate the novice. Which is a shame. And an expensive one.

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The room is open until Sept 1. For more info, see https://www.barbican.org.uk/intotheunknown/

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Update on the The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge

books-1655783_960_720I began to think about, and write about, significant books in the history of science fiction in August 2011. I originally came up with 40 books I believed would fit the bill. Later thoughts and explorations increased this list significantly. Some I’ve wanted to read I’ve not been able to track down, such as an English translation of René Barjavel’s Ravages (1943). As I’ve been going, I’ve added a few more here and there I’d not previously considered. My mind is like an algorithm – I’ve read this so I should probably read that.

The modern world, eh. Anyway…

My project is taking a lot longer than I expect, mostly because I’m easily distracted – see my Fav Re-reads posts, reading all of Vonnegut’s books and my Winter of Weird, for example. Plus people keep writing and publishing new books which I feel like I should read every now and then. Sometimes I wish they’ all stop it, just for a year or two so I can catch up. And of course I review for this site and that one too.

Fittingly perhaps, as I pause for reflection, from Utopia (1516) to Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), I’ve read 67 works which I feel have significance in the history and development of science fiction literature. My next choice is Tales of the Dying Earth by Jack Vance, as my reading enters the 1950s. It occurs to me now, that there are probably dozens of significant and classic science fiction books being published every year. My choices have been reasonably arbitrary based on a little research and a little knowledge. Just look at some of the books published in the 1950s that I have already read:

  • A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1959)
  • A Case of Conscience by James Blish (1958)
  • Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke (1953)
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)
  • More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon (1953)
  • Shadow on the Hearth by Judith Merril (1950)
  • Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein (1959)
  • The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (1951)
  • The Death of Grass by John Christopher (1956)
  • The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester (1952)
  • The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov (1951-1953)
  • The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (1950)
  • The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut (1959)
  • The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl (1952)
  • Etc, etc…

There’s no way I could read every relevant book for this project. So what I’ve decided to do, because otherwise this would take forever, and ever and ever, is to just pick 4 or 5 books from each decade that I haven’t read before (which thankfully narrows the list down a fair bit). Although I’m sure some will see this list below and yell at me for not reading them so far. Well, I’ve been busy will all the other books and comics and films and life and stuff. So shhh now (and yes I did work in a public library).

Anyway, here’s my final list:

  1. Tales of the Dying Earth by Jack Vance (1950)
  2. Cities in Flight by James Blish (1950)
  3. The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney (1955)
  4. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (1957) – maybe, if I can face it.
  5. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1962)
  6. La Planete des singes by Pierre Boule (1963)
  7. Witch World by Andre Norton (1963)
  8. The Einstein Intersection by Samual Delany (1967)
  9. Pavane by Keith Roberts (1968)
  10. The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolf (1972) – maybe, as there are 2 Wolf books here and I really want to read the other one…
  11. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon (1973)
  12. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm (1976)
  13. Kindred by Octavia Butler (1979)
  14. Ridley Walker by Russel Hoban (1980)
  15. The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolf (1980)
  16. Downbelow Station by CJ Cherryh (1982)
  17. Dawn by Octavia Butler (1987)
  18. Grass by Sherri Tepper (1989)
  19. Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler (1991)
  20. China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh (1992)

I’ve stopped here because I’ve reached 20. It’ll be a few more years before I reach this point and I’ll see where I am then, in terms of this project.

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The Year of the Ladybird by Graham Joyce

1976 was dubbed the ‘Year of the Ladybird’ because the lengthy, dry days and drought-like conditions brought about plague like conditions across the UK – ladybird 17976979swarmed across the country. By the end of September 1976, there had been a 16-week dry spell – the longest recorded over England and Wales since 1727 (according to the Met Office). Joyce fictionalises his memories of that summer (when he did indeed work in a holiday camp) by introducing us to David. He’s a student who takes a job as a Greencoat at a summer camp in Skegness, after finding a photo of his deceased father with just that word – Skegness – scrawled across its back. The other key ingredient to that scorching season was an increased political tension which saw the rise (briefly) of the National Front.

David gets off on the wrong foot when he takes his lunch in the staff canteen, sitting with (soon to be revealed NF member) Colin and his wife Terri. Before long, David becomes an accepted, able and popular member of the troop, which features singer Luca, magician Tony, dancer Nikki and all-round slacker Nobby, amongst others. However, that first day leads him to a doomed relationship with Terri, being drafted in to a NF meeting with Colin and his cohorts and the dumping of illegal spoiled meat in a disused mine-shaft. With all this going on, David and Nikki fall for each other and David’s mother and step-father are becoming increasingly worried about his behaviour. But what of the ghosts? Well, David is haunted by his dead father, but only in his head, while he thinks he is hallucinating images of a man in a blue suit accompanied by a young boy.

One of the main skills of Joyce is to draw you into a story that is very different to the one you expect to read when you pick up a copy of The Year of the Ladybird. I was expecting David to be a likeable character who falls in love with Nikki but has some trauma concerning ghosts that, perhaps, threatens their relationship. Nothing could be further from that idea. The tale is mostly about David’s perceptions of events of that summer, from his affair with Terri, the plague of ladybirds and the discovery of the truth about his dad. I didn’t like David as a character. He even describes himself as a moral coward, and I couldn’t agree more. While Nikki is clearly the sensible and desirable option, he risks everything – including his life – to spend time with Terri. But when he gets himself into dumb situations, you emphasis with him. You feel nervous and tense. I had a real, physical, uncomfortable feeling in my gut whenever I thought he was about to be rumbled. Which shows the power of Joyce’s writing.

Despite the fact that you can feel the oppressive nature of the atmosphere and you can almost feel the brightness of the summer on your face as you read the novel, it does have a noir-ish feel to it, as opposed to a traditional ghost story feel. A small and insignificant decision (where to sit in the canteen on his first day) leads to David’s life spiralling out of control, taking him in directions he’s not prepared for and distracting him from his goal of finding out about his father. It even has, it turns out, a femme fatale in the guise of Terri, whom almost brings about his self-destruction.

As always with Joyce, the prose and the dialogue feel just right. His descriptions of the ladybird plague are almost poetic. His hints at the supernatural are just enough (is the man in the blue suit a ghost?) and perfectly timed so as not to forget where the story is taking us. Mesmeric, hazy, charming and just a little nostalgic (for the older reader), this is a gem of a story by an author at the top of the ‘is it, isn’t it’ game. Graham Joyce writes a beautifully simple narrative which begs to be read slowly. It is a short but brilliant novel. Like a fine meal, take your time over it.

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – Utopia by Thomas More (1516)

I finally finished my first book in the challenge and unlike many on the list, it’s not one I’ve previously read, which I find surprising, considering my interests. I’ve read it blind. In other words, in my edition, translated by Paul Turner, I didn’t read the introduction or notes, footnotes or appendix. My intention for this, and all the titles in my challenge is to assess each book on its own merits. Is it any good? Is it a significant milestone in the history of the science fiction story? Is it worth a read?

Utopia begins with a some Utopian poetry in the made up alphabet and then there are a couple of letters. The first from More to a Peter Gilles and a second from Gilles to Busleiden. The purpose of these is to set the scene in terms of what More is talking about. Gilles is actually the real person Pieter Gillis who was a real life friend of More (again, I only learned of this on completion of the text). Busleiden was also a friend of More’s. The letters are More’s attempt to cloud issue of people not knowing about Utopia, again implying the reality of the text. The narrative that follows is set out in two books. More’s fiction, taken from this point, is intended to be a real account of a real discussion between people who have been to Utopia.

Book 1 is a discussion between More and a traveller called Raphael in Antwerp. It is a thinly disguised rant on all that is wrong with the world More lived in at the time. Raphael picks holes in European royal households, as More attempts to convince him he would make an excellent court councillor. More then uses clearly allegorically designed names for Raphael to highlight these follies, such as Tallstoria and Happiland. There is a possible hint in the dialogue that he favours communism as a political system although the character More states in the text that he thinks that even communism cannot work with human nature as it is. It is interesting to note that a lot of issues More discusses under the guise of Raphael are still prevalent today, such as the uneven distribution of wealth, the folly of war, the power of the privileged and the problems of the poor.

Book 2, then, is Raphael’s description of Utopian society, which sets out to right the wrongs described in Book 1. For the 63 pages of my edition, over half the text, Raphael describes the various aspects of life and culture on Utopia without pause or interruption. He describes the political system, how people work and play. The family structure, education, town planning, foreign policy, military tactics, religion and superstition and pretty much every aspect of live are described, pointing out how much better life is. For every description where this possible doubt in the philosophy, Raphael points out why the doubters would be wrong. Perhaps, however, because of the time when it was written, some truths remain universal. There is still sexism and slavery, which is, apparently, justified. Wives are still subordinate to Husbands and girls are allowed to marry four years younger than men, while slaves are used for unsavoury tasks. Despite this, the Utopians have no need for money. They are not greedy or selfish. They work hard and share their product of their efforts. There are neither rich nor poor. However, there are politicians and diplomats and therefore the society had laws and procedures in place in case of human frailty, not that any is ever observed. There is no sin as such, even though there is a religion and tolerance. People don’t appear to have much choice in life, however. They are almost bred for a purpose and only have the illusion of certain freedoms (a good example being their diet – you can obtain foodstuffs and eat alone, but that is frowned upon and why would you want to?) Reading some passages, I felt I wouldn’t like to be a Utopian. I think I would probably be bored and feel less of an individual.

So. Is Utopia any good? Is it science fiction? What is it? What it’s not is a story. There is no plot. There are no characters, other than More and Raphael, and they are narrators or describers. There are none of the traditional elements to a tale. There are no relationships, no emotions, there are no pitfalls to overcome. It is an allegory. It is a satire, but it is not a novel. All the hype that surrounds the history and tradition of the text meant that I was left a little cold. I had been expecting more of a traveller’s tale, an adventure in a new land, rather than just a monologue. This brings me to the style. As well as cold, I found it very dry. As mentioned, over half the text is relentless description. Even a dialogue with More would have been more interesting. At the end, More the character suggests that he wanted to cut in and make comment throughout the monologue, but held back. An author’s excuse?

Maybe I’m being too harsh? This was 1516 after all. This is fictional prose, which was more common than a novel. The ideas are clearly transmitted and the messages clear. I just didn’t enjoy it as a book.

So. Science fiction. No. There is no evidence that there are any science fictional elements to the work. There is nothing in the Utopian society that cannot be mirrored here and now, or even when the book was originally conceived. Clearly, there are elements of the society which have been used in other science fiction novels, and hence it’s only legacy. From Le Guinn to Clarke, from Orwell to Moore, there is a clear path from Utopia to modern science fiction. You could even take the view that it is the forerunner of alternative history.

I was massively disappointed with Utopia. It is in no way science fiction. It is not even the sub-genre of fantasy known as imaginary voyage, as no-one goes anywhere. It is not a story. It is a rant, and a bit of a boring one at that.

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The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge

So, after my trip to the British Library’s Out of this World Exhibition, I felt inspired to do a crazy reading challenge. I’m not going to set myself a time limit, but I am going to read 40 of the most influential science fiction books starting at Thomas Moore’s Utopia from 1516 to White Queen by Gwyneth Jones (1991). And of course, blog about the experience.


Anyway, here’s the list:

  1. Thomas Moore – Utopia 1516
  2. Francis Godwin – The Man in the Moon 1638
  3. Jonathan Swift – Gulliver’s Travels 1726
  4. Voltaire – Micromegas 1752
  5. Rudolf Raspe – Baron Munchhausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels 1785
  6. Mary Shelley – Frankenstein 1818
  7. Mary Shelley – The Last Man 1826
  8. Jane Loudon – The Mummy 1827
  9. John L Riddell – Orrin Lindsay’s Plan of Ariel Navigation 1847
  10. Jules Verne – Voyage to the Centre of the Earth 1864
  11. Samuel Butler – Erewhon 1972
  12. Richard Jefferies – After London 1885
  13. HG Wells – The Time Machine 1895
  14. HG Wells – The War of the Worlds 1889
  15. HG Wells – A Modern Utopia 1905
  16. Edgar Rice Burrows – A Princess of Mars 1912
  17. Yevgeny Zamiatin – We 1920
  18. Olaf Stapleton – First and Last Men 1930
  19. Aldus Huxley – Brave New World 1932
  20. CS Lewis – Out of a Silent Planet 1938
  21. George Orwell – 1984 1949
  22. Ray Bradbury – The Martian Chronicles 1950
  23. Arthur C Clarke – Childhood’s End 1953
  24. Alfred Bester – Tiger Tiger 1956
  25. John Wyndham – The Midwych Cuckoos 1957
  26. Robert Heinlein – Stranger in a Strange Land 1961
  27. Philip K Dick – The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch 1965
  28. JG Ballard – The Crystal World 1966
  29. Samual Delany – The Einstein Intersection 1967
  30. Keith Roberts – Pavane 1968
  31. Lary Niven – Ringworld 1970
  32. Thomas Pynchon – Gravity’s Rainbow 1973
  33. Ursula Le Guinn – The Dispossessed 1974
  34. Russel Hoban – Ridley Walker 1980
  35. Gene Wolf – The Book of the New Sun 1980
  36. William Gibson – Neuromancer 1984
  37. Margaret Atwood – A Handmaid’s Tale 1985
  38. Sherri Tepper – Grass 1989
  39. Gwyneth Jones – White Queen 1991
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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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