Other-worldly wise

Science fiction is edging into the mainstream. Is it because life is becoming more like the subcultural visions of the future? asks Roger Luckhurst

May 12, 2011

From 20 May, the British Library will give over its major exhibition space to its summer show Out of this World: Science Fiction but not as you know it. It will feature more than 200 books, illustrations, cover designs and ephemera, complemented by a lavishly illustrated catalogue written by the science fiction historian Mike Ashley and an audio CD with a science fiction theme from the British Library's sound archive.

Visitors will be able to look at a first edition of Thomas More's Utopia (1516), early illustrations for Mary Shelley's formative works Frankenstein and The Last Man, and the hugely influential illustrations for works by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells from the Victorian era. How quickly the iconography is established: a Belgian rendition of Wells' Martians from 1906 instantly fixes those tripods in place. People will delight in Frank R. Paul's garish covers for Amazing Stories (the magazine that coined the term "science fiction" in 1929) and reflect on the glorious streamlined future of 1930s artists that somehow never came to be realised. If you are of a certain age, there might be a rush of nostalgia when you come across the distinct cover designs from the 1960s or 1970s. After all, there is nothing so intensely redolent of a particular era as its clapped-out visions of the future.

The exhibition comes just as the seventh British Art Show, titled In the Days of the Comet after the H.G. Wells novel, moves on tour from London to Glasgow. The show is curated around notions of time, with works that explore utopian and dystopian possibilities of the future and wrestle with the weight of history.

With these two exhibitions, has science fiction left the subcultural world and entered mainstream arts?

When I first heard about the British Library exhibition, it struck me as a significant moment. Twenty years ago, when starting my doctorate on the author J.G. Ballard, I was repeatedly told that it was a mistake to work on such a marginal figure and that I should at least pair him with a writer with a proper reputation. In 2009, when Ballard died, obituaries described him as one of the most important post-war writers in England. A year later, it was a major news story that Ballard had left his papers to the British Library. Indeed, Out of this World coincides with the scheduled opening of scholarly access to Ballard's extraordinary archive.

Even so, the British Library show notably could not rely solely on its own collections, as science fiction was considered too lowly a form to archive in the national repository until very recently. One of the curators, Andy Sawyer, is the librarian of the only specialist science fiction archive in England, at the University of Liverpool, and other loans came from the private collections of important science fiction collectors.

The subtitle Science Fiction but not as you know it also points two ways. Science fiction fans will get the Star Trek reference (Dr Leonard H. "Bones" McCoy would regularly pronounce, "It's life, Jim, but not as we know it"). Yet it also rather anxiously pleads to wider audiences that the genre is not what they might think. It invokes a cliche of science fiction culture to inoculate visitor suspicions.

That stereotype is still with us. Leave aside the science-fictional tenor of towering contemporary writers such as Thomas Pynchon, Margaret Atwood or Don DeLillo. Ignore the extent to which we increasingly exist in post-natural, purely technological environments of motorways, airport terminals and leisure outlets. Forget the cultural ubiquity of Dr Who or the billions of dollars earned by Avatar, the most successful film in cinema history. We still tend to think of science fiction as a subculture of science geeks and web nerds, socially arrested adolescents in unfunny T-shirts making private jokes in Klingon or Elvish. Perhaps Out of this World will only reinforce this view, with its glorious selection of images of BEMs and BDOs (genre shorthand for "bug-eyed monsters" and "big dumb objects" in space). If it does, that would be a shame, for science fiction is a genre that has always been good to think with, and never more so than now.

One of the key legitimations for science fiction is said to be its power to extrapolate, offering thought experiments in taking one scientific or sociological element of the present and speculating on the futures that might develop from it. The genre seems particularly good at predicting technological advances. In the 1880s on the cusp of the electrical revolution, French artist Albert Robida pencilled in much of our transport and communication technologies in his visions of the 20th century. In the midst of the First World War, H.G. Wells predicted not only atomic weapons but the exact year the atom would be split. Arthur C. Clarke was famous primarily not for his novels but for his proposals for satellite telecommunications that became real within a decade.

But is the accuracy of its predictions really what we read or look at science fiction for? To judge an imaginative genre on this measure is odd. The real pathos in many of the images and texts in Out of this World comes from how often imagined futures fail to materialise, with science fiction fulfilling the function of a historical record of the fantasies and fears of certain eras. As we know from George Orwell, a future 1984 is just a dilapidated 1948, only worse.

It is better, then, to think science fiction is less about futurology than a device for "othering" the present. It defamiliarises the contemporary world, often for satirical or political ends. A long tradition of writing from More and Jonathan Swift onwards has used the ideal utopos, the "no place", to pass savage comment on present abuses of power. In The Mummy!, Jane Webb critiqued the corrupt court of the Georgian era by voicing her complaint through a reanimated Egyptian mummy visiting London in the 22nd century. Frankenstein's monster railed against social and imperial iniquities. Science fiction was a powerful mode of critique under Stalinist regimes in the East, and the authorities knew it. The iconography of science fiction has continued to provide an immensely flexible set of resources to reflect on what it means to live in the accelerated world of modernity.

As we live through the third technological revolution, the digital one, science fiction culture is providing one of the most urgent commentaries on our specific sense of shock. Cyberpunk fiction in the 1980s gave us a language to understand virtual worlds. More recent fiction has been premised on the idea of the "technological singularity", the notion that we will shortly reach a point where technology will become autonomous and self-aware. The Terminator franchise isn't optimistic about what might follow, although others imagine futures where we upload ourselves into machines, a kind of eternal life in copies and backups. After two decades of particularly rapacious global industrial development, we are also surrounded by visions of ecological catastrophe and zombie apocalypse. Werner Herzog didn't have to use special effects for his films The Wild Blue Yonder and Encounters at the End of the World because the world has become science fictional around us.

As the British Library exhibition shows us, this is not a new sensibility but perhaps it explains why science fiction has been slowly worming its way into the core of our culture. Whether we like it or not, we're not in Kansas any more.

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