Kurt Vonnegut famously hated being labelled as a science fiction writer. In fact, recalling his life since being labelled that way, he once went as far as to say that ‘I have been a sore-headed occupant of a file drawer labelled science fiction ever since, and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.’ There’s no denying that in the Fifties and Sixties science fiction was getting a bad rep, and undeservedly so.
Of course, writing this in the new millenium (a time after many science fiction stories were set), our enlightened selves know that stories about little green men can be just as engaging as any other form of fiction. The British Library has even put on an exhibition; ‘Out of this World: Science Fiction But Not As You Know It’ collating many classics of the genre, as well as taking a look at its origins.
Set among an array of sights familiar to science fiction fans, including a full size TARDIS, are various collections of books devoted to a common idea in science fiction. Topics on display include virtual worlds, space, aliens, time and the end of the world. Each of these offers a surprisingly broad history of the subject, supported by various books and images. I was frequently surprised at how long a subject like time travel has been in the literary canon, and these sections were often highly informative.
Also on display are many audio clips and interviews with authors. The highlight of this being an in depth interview with author Margaret Atwood, discussing many subjects around her work.
Of course an exhibition on science fiction wouldn’t be complete without interactivity. Clay 9000 is a robot that senses when you’re around and is happy to tell you about his favourite passages from books. However, I was less than impressed when he told me about the death of all humans, and the subsquent rise of robots. I sincerely hoped he wasn’t connected to Skynet, but luckily my fears were short-lived. A chatbot named Elizabeth was present to show us how far computers have come in being able to hold a decent conversation.
The exhibit was quick to point out that no computer has ever passed the Turing test, designed as a mark of a truly intelligent algorithm. Elizabeth displayed this fact incredibly well, failing at my first sentence. To be fair, a bit of Geordie dialect was never going to go down too well in a library based in London.
While the exhibit is relatively small, it manages to pack in a whole load of interesting history and geeky fun to merit a trip for the discerning science fiction fan. If, on the other hand, you hate the thought of antennae on anything bigger than a cockroach, and take yourself a little too seriously, well, there’s a lovely bathroom just next to the exit.
Out of this World: Science Fiction But Not As You Know It is open until 25 September at:
The British Library
96 Euston Road,
Tel: 020 7412 7442
Image copyright © British Library Board.