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Future imperfect

Robin Wilson explores the strange world of science fiction at the British Library

Out of this World, British Library, London NW1, until 25 September, free

The British Library’s summer show, Out of this World, is a multimedia exploration of science fiction and fantasy literature. Clearly, considerable effort has been invested so that the exhibition’s diverse audience is entertained, with bespoke furniture and graphics, large, theatrical models, and audiovisual and interactive elements. But it is an exhibition that, unlike many of the library’s recent shows, is formed essentially around the novel as a vehicle for illustration and graphic expression.

The show’s guest curator Mike Ashley has been given what most science fiction fans would see as a dream assignment: to search through the library holdings for its store of extraordinary fantasy literature and to construct what amounts to a temporary national archive of futures past. Ashley, a prolific science fiction writer, teaches the master’s in Science Fiction Studies at Liverpool University, is a solid guide through the genre, or rather its archipelago of sub-genres. Ashley has organised the material so as to emphasise the technological and biological aspects of science fiction writers’ imagination although thoughts about the sociological or philosophical implications are sadly understated.

There is also little attempt to distinguish between the motivation of prominent male science fiction writers, such as Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov, and those of female writers working across a similar period such as Ursula K Le Guin, Doris Lessing and Angela Carter, who engage with the genre for distinctly different purposes and with very different results.

Equally, there is little attempt to explore how different political perspectives of writers have affected ideas within science fiction. While, for example, there is some representation of Soviet novels - the work of Stanislaw Lem appears in a section called ‘Confronting the Alien’ and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We appears in the concluding section on utopias - there is no serious effort to explore how the imagined future might differ within a socialist system as opposed to the West.

This lack of a diverse sociological or indeed critical exploration of the legacy of science fiction perhaps points to one of the core problems in attempting a visual or artefact-based representation of a literary genre. Despite the fantastic array of graphics and illustrations associated with science fiction, very little of that body of work actually reflects the subtlety of its written endeavour. The show is less an exhibition about science fiction than it is about the graphic culture that is associated with the history of its publication. It seems, therefore, a fundamental flaw in the curatorial strategy not to have discussed in any significant detail the intellectual contribution of the individual artists and illustrators in isolation.

Yet because of the graphic emphasis, the show also finds considerable common ground with architecture and design. There are several examples from architecture’s past that are explicitly inspired by science fiction, including work by Archigram, the 1960s avant-garde group, or Lebbeus Woods, the American experimental architect. Any graphic render of an imagined building in fact shares with science fiction the concept of futurity: the imaging of the near future and of projected change. As you might expect, the show features regular examples of fantastical architecture and urbanism. The erudite, postmodern illustrations of utopia by Italian artist, architect and set designer Luigi Serafini are notable in this respect.

Alternative approaches to cartography also emerge as an important subcategory of the graphic element in this exhibition, with a late 19th-century engraved map of Giovanni Schiaparelli’s Martian Canals being a particularly strange and beautiful example. The amalgamation of so many different graphic media and techniques within one space and on one such specific topic is perhaps the most surprising aspect of the show. These include early woodcuts, such as an illustration from a 17th-century Dutch edition of Lucian Samosata’s 2nd-century True History, engraved plates from the 18th and 19th centuries; the slick gouache and early airbrush creations of the paperback pulp sci-fi of the 1960s and 70s; the latest computer animations in the ‘Steampunk’ idiom.

With scant curatorial interpretation of the imagery on offer we are, quite refreshingly, free to explore this body of work and its abrupt conjunctions without any impositions of a hierarchy of artistic worth.

Robin Wilson is a writer on art, architecture and landscape, and teaches the Architectural Utopics course at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL

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