Science Fiction at the British Library

I’m a bit ashamed to admit how long it took me to realise what a great place the British Library is.  With miles of subterranean book shelves and underground trains to move the volumes around, I had thought it was a place reserved for academics and studious people with really serious reasons to want to read difficult to find books.

And indeed there are plenty of people there like that, people with more important things on their minds than brushing their hair or co-ordinating their outfits, but there are also lots of other people there too.  Ones like me who appear to prefer the surroundings of the cafes to those of the reading rooms.  Because it’s a place where it is perfectly acceptable to show up on your own, find a comfortable spot, either inside or out, and settle down for as long as you like with a book, a laptop or a notebook.

Perched in my preferred corner of the outside café, I’ve overheard discussions of PhD theses, lesson plans, and on one unfortunate occasion when I was accidentally in the middle of the first actual meeting of some new virtual friends on a new parenting website, the perils of breastfeeding.

I’ve started to think of it as my London club, the place I go to when I’ve some time to kill between meetings, or when I want to do some writing away from my desk.

In a permanent exhibition it is possible to view, amongst many other precious pieces, the Magna Carta or the Sherbourn Missal, and wonder at the ancient penmanship and extraordinary detailed illuminations and, if you’re so inclined, to listen to learned explanations of the objects that put them in their historical context.

At the moment they are staging an additional exhibition  Out of this World, Science Fiction, but not as You Know it.  And what a fascinating examination of Science Fiction in all its manifestations it is.

I would never have described myself as a lover of SciFi; I’m not that interested in tales of alien worlds or monsters destroying civilisation, but I did grow up in the 1960s so some of my earliest memories of television are of hiding behind the settee when the Daleks were on ‘Dr Who’. And later, I too, wondered what it would be like to be beamed up by Scotty, and wished we had anti matter engines producing warp factor speeds on tedious car journeys.

But apart from reading ‘The Day of the Triffids’ at school, I would have said that I’d not read any science fiction.

This exhibition showed me how wrong I was, how narrow had been my definition and my thinking on the subject.  Any book set in an imaginary land, or with an imaginary technology or political system can fall into the broad church.  Margaret Atwood calls it ‘speculative fiction’ when she writes about a possible future world in which few people survive the coming of an ecological disaster in her novels ‘Oryx and Crake’ and ‘The Year of the Flood’.

And I realise I’ve read quite a bit of that.

In one section of the exhibition various writers are interviewed on what for them makes SciFi and distinguishes it from other genres.  One suggested that it differed from fantasy in that in SciFi you could make one leap, one flight of fancy, but from there, everything had to be logically consistent.  Most stories then flow from observing the drama of human characters dealing with the environment into which they are thrust.  The future depicted is always a construction from images of the contemporary present and past.

So far from being about technology, most SciFi is about the human condition; and it usually reflects the concerns of the period in which it is written.  In Victorian times, it was all about adventure and discovery and the perils that might be encountered: Jules Verne going to the centre of the Earth or HG Wells exploring time travel.

In my youth, the worries were about totalitarianism and the end of the world in a nuclear war, so I was given ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ by Orwell and ‘On the Beach’ by Nevil Shute to read at school.

Now the fear is more that the world will die a lingering death from man made causes, through some ecological disaster or some slowing of fertility, so we see books like Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ matching the ascendancy of fundamentalist religion and infertility in a tightly controlled society, or PD James’ ‘Children of Men’ in which the years after the last baby was born a pregnant woman holds the only hope for survival of the species.  In Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’, the post apocalyptic environment is used as a setting for the examination of the nature of fatherly love.

As well as the books on display and the story of the various themes that have been covered over the history of the genre there are amusing props and the obligatory Tardis, as well as the opportunity to draw your own alien to be added to a digital archive.

According to a Philip K Dick quote ‘Reality is that bit that refuses to go away when I stop believing it.’

It’s all fiction. It’s fun and it’s free.

Leave a comment


  1. brendan stallard

     /  May 30, 2011

    “British Library”


    Ack. I’ve never been. Terrible admission.

    “beamed up by Scotty”

    Flying zillions of air miles since 1968, I have long wished for that wonderful idea to be invented. Should have been by now, right?

    “hiding behind the settee when the Daleks were on ‘Dr Who’.”

    The first time, “Dr Who” came out, the first episode caused such a sensation that unprecedented the BBC were forced by the clamour to repeat ep 1 and 2 on the second week.

    I didn’t hide behind the sofa, but I heard it calling to me:)

    “Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’” Hmm, I’d have read that as a feminist rant. Nothing wrong with that, it is still as necessary as it has been for 300 years. It’s just that Atwood is nearly unreadable at times, for me.

    Despite that, a post apocalyptic world might well involve all sorts of interesting scenario surrounding securing the future of the species.

    A tricky, triple-barreled and interesting, thought-provoking post. Thank you.


    • Hi Brendan, we’ll have to disagree on Atwood, although I prefer he earlier works (like A Handmaid’s Tale) to her more recent forays into the post apocalyptic world (Oryx and Crake etc), I don’t think she’s a ranter! But I agree it’s a pity we’re having to wait such a long time for a transporter system.

  2. Gillian Holding

     /  May 30, 2011

    I love visiting libraries when going places, and I was thrilled recently when my 18 year old popped in the BL on a recent trip to London “because she wanted to see it”. She couldn’t get into the bit she wanted without a card, and didn’t have the ID to get a card but plans to try again on her next visit down…

    • It’s a great place. I found the proscription against having any drinks in the Reading Rooms made it tricky for me to work there for any extended period; I understand why no drinks are allowed but I didn’t like going out for some food/water, while leaving my desk ‘bagged’ with piles of books. As well as ID, it’s a good idea to have a list of books (and the BL reference – available on line) she’d like to see when she applies for the Reader’s ticket, as they asked me for my list before they’d give me a card.


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