“Out of this World: Science Fiction But Not As You Know It”: British Library Exhibition 20 May – 26 September 2011
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Liverpool
Unit of AssessmentEnglish Language and Literature
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Language, Communication and Culture: Cultural Studies, Literary Studies
History and Archaeology: Historical Studies
Summary of the impact
This study details the impact of the first British Library exhibition on
science fiction, produced in partnership with the Discovery Channel. The
exhibition attracted 114,878 visitors (target attendance was 100,000), far
beyond any "core" readership, and featured over 200 books, films,
recordings, manuscripts, magazines and objects. Exploring sometimes
conflicting ideas of how science fiction developed over 2000 years, and
what it does, the exhibition gave a cultural and historical context for
science fiction as an international and historically rich form of
speculative literature. It also generated new interest amongst diverse
audiences — including in libraries, the media, and in schools — and
transformed popular perceptions (of both core fans and literary
disparagers) of science fiction as a genre, and the role of women in the
The Department of English has a long-standing specialism in science
fiction (Prof. David Seed; Mr. Andy Sawyer). The University of
Liverpool is home to the UK's major research library of science fiction
(deposited 1993) and the largest English-language collection in Europe.
Andy Sawyer is librarian of the Science Fiction Foundation Collection and
has taught specialist science fiction modules within the Department of
English from 2002-2012; he was director of the MA in Science Fiction
Studies, established by Professor David Seed (1994). Sawyer has long
established science fiction research interests/ publications and is
particularly interested in how science fiction continually crystallises
out of other speculative fields, such as the way the pastoral "otherworld"
(a useful mode for satire and criticism in the 16th and 17th
centuries) is echoed in the work of writers like Ursula K. Le Guin. He is
currently researching 1950s science fiction and the early nineteenth
century science fiction writer Jane Webb (Jane Loudon), whose The
Mummy (1827) began to develop a recognisably modern rhetoric of
Research by Seed, by Sawyer and by completing postgraduate
students (Gordon MacNeill, 2009; Clare Parody, 2012; A.P. Canavan, 2012;
Chris Pak, 2013) under their supervision within the Department has been
published in monographs, journals such as Science Fiction Studies
and Extrapolation. Research has also been disseminated at
international conferences such as the annual Science Fiction Research
Association Conferences, The British Society for Literature and Science
conferences, conferences organised or sponsored by the Science Fiction
Foundation, and the "Current Research in Speculative Fiction" postgraduate
conferences held in Liverpool from 2011. Nichols, a current part-time PGR
student, publishes widely on Ray Bradbury and Science Fiction and has been
appointed co-editor of the critical edition of Bradbury's stories (Kent
State UP). Among recently-qualified postgraduates, Chris Pak, winner of
the Science Fiction Foundation essay prize (2011) and the Mary Kay Bray
award (2013) for best essay in the Science Fiction Review Association's SFRA
Review, has organised two SF conferences in Liverpool (2011, 2012);
the series continues in 2013 under the organisation of a current PGR, Glyn
Morgan. Pak is taking part in the AHRC-funded collaborative skills project
Spring', in collaboration with the British Association for
Literature and Science.
Seed's work has been central in developing the understanding of
science fiction as a distinct and complex genre. This research has been
also disseminated to a wider audience through "popular" books such as Seed's
Science Fiction: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2011), Seed's
Oxford University Press blog (7000 plus subscribers), talks and
panel appearances at national and international science fiction
conventions, such as the World Science Fiction Convention (held most
recently in the UK in 2005) aimed at knowledgeable general readers and
writers. Seed also edited the Blackwell Companion to Science
Fiction and is General Editor of Liverpool University Press's "SF Texts
and Studies" series which has published over 40 titles since 1994, adding
to Liverpool's status as a centre of study and research in the field.
In 2002 the AHRC awarded £177,000 to Dr. Maureen Watry (Head of
Special Collections, University of Liverpool) and Sawyer to create a
research gateway based on the University Library's science fiction
collections, including the Olaf Stapledon and John Wyndham archives. The
three-year project resulted in a web
interface with sophisticated search tools that give access to
records of the collections' resources and supports local, national and
This platform provided seamless searching of records of all published
materials in the collections and, uniquely, included records of individual
articles within journals and fanzines. This released a large amount of
critical material previously inaccessible to scholars and (through
Sawyer's links to national and international groups interested in the
history, study and reading of science fiction and fantasy) made this
material accessible to both academic scholars and amateur (fan) writers in
In curating the exhibition Sawyer drew on his experience developing the
study of science fiction at Liverpool over twenty years, and specifically
on his research into the formation during the nineteenth century of what
became called `science fiction' in the 1920s and the way its themes and
structures are taken up by writers who do not consider themselves "genre"
writers. A discussion of the thinking behind this appears in an interview
for the "London
Sawyer also drew on current and yet unpublished research on the
relationship between Jane Webb and Mary Shelley presented at the
conference on Jane Webb in June 2011 (Trinity College, Leeds). He also
drew more widely on the idea of the "story of the future" inspired by
Professor I. F. Clarke whose work began in Liverpool in 1950 and whose
papers are now in the University Library.
References to the research
Sawyer, Andy (2006) Ursula K. Le Guin and the pastoral mode. Extrapolation
(vol 47 issue 3) pp. 396-416.
Sawyer Andy. (2011) `The Science Fiction Short Story'. In: Cox, Ailsa
ed(s). Teaching the Short Story. Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan.
Sawyer, Andy. (2011) `Kazuo Ishiguro's 'Never Let Me Go' and "outsider
science fiction".' In: Groes, Sebastian & Lewis, Barry. ed(s). Kazuo
Ishiguro: New Critical Visions of the Novels. Basingstoke, Palgrave
MacMillan. pp 236-246.
Sawyer, Andy and Seed, David (eds.) (2001) Speaking Science Fiction.
Liverpool, Liverpool University Press.
Seed, David, (1999) American Science Fiction and the Cold War:
Literature and Film. Edinburgh. Edinburgh UP.
Pak, Chris (2011) `A Fantastic Reflex of Itself, An Echo, A Symbol, A
Myth, A Crazy Dream': Terraforming as Landscaping Nature's Otherness in H.
G. Wells's The Shape of Things to Come and Olaf Stapledon's Last and First
Men and Star Maker. Foundation: the International Review of Science
Fiction. Vol. 40 No. 111 p14-31
Winner of the 2011 Science Fiction Foundation essay prize
AHRC Resource Enhancement Award (English Language and Literature) April
2002 - October 2005, £177,441 to Watry and Sawyer
Details of the impact
Feedback and commentary indicate that Out of This World was
successful in bringing new audiences into the British Library, by
representing a view of science fiction that challenged the preconceptions
of fans and non-fans through presenting searching questions about the
origins and function of the genre. The exhibition highlighted significant
but under-considered examples, and asked a diverse audience to reconsider
"received wisdom" on matters such as the role of women writers (e.g.
Margaret Cavendish, Mary Shelley, the Brontë Sisters, Charlotte Perkins
Gilman, Margaret Atwood) in creating science fiction. China Miéville
(author) argued in his opening speech that, `Part of the point is to bring
those to the British Library who would not necessarily otherwise come but
to bring those who would otherwise come to the BL into the science fiction
room and to point out to people who think that they have no interest in
this field that actually they should be interested in science fiction but
they have been interested in it all along, without necessarily knowing
While the exhibition introduced the various interpretations of science
fiction to a broad `cultural' audience which tended to ignore the field or
view it through the lens of popular television programmes, it also
challenged the opinions of committed fans who might have previously found
themselves suspicious of more "literary" interpretations. (BBC
report May 2011 Miéville). One science fiction fan wrote, typically,
interesting, really informative. Made me want to go away and read more
sci fi plus 'discover' different authors'. Another wrote: `The
first display defied my expectations confronting me with work I'm either
unfamiliar with or hadn't previously considered in the context of
The scale and reach of the exhibition and associated school visits is
described below and the feedback from audiences through media and social
media is used to support the impact claimed.
Out of this World was presented in association with the Discovery
Channel, which produced a series of four TV films on science fiction
topics. It attracted a broad audience of readers, teachers, school and
university students and academics (footfall 114,878; target attendance was
100,000), and extended far beyond the core "fan" audience. The audience
for the talks and other events was `drawn from a wide variety of ages and
backgrounds, with a relatively even gender balance.' (BL report). An
associated blog attracted about 800 views per week during the
duration of the exhibition and was still attracting 200 a week in March
A programme of 27 talks and associated events attracted 5,615 (the second
highest total for any events programme yet run in association with a BL
exhibition and comfortably in excess of the target 4,500). Events included
talks and panel discussions by writers such as China Miéville (20 May);
Iain M Banks (6 June); David Lodge and Stephen Baxter (8 June); Audrey
Niffenegger (10 June); Michael Moorcock, Brian Aldiss (21 June) and Alan
Moore (4 July). Other talks included Brian Appleyard, Jack Cohen, Ian
Stewart and others on "Aliens" (18 June); Richard Holmes on Mary Shelley
(22 June); Niall Ferguson on Alternative History (29 June); a discussion
on cloning (1 August) and a celebration of the work of Robert Holdstock (2
September). The "Worlds of Wonder" discussion of the future of speculative
fiction included Rachel Armstrong, Neil Gaiman, Peter F. Hamilton and
critic Kari Sperring (4 September); and there was a discussion of the work
of J. G. Ballard (23 September).
Other events included a rehearsed reading of Karel Capek's play RUR:
Rossum's Universal Robots (6 July) and the launch of Lemistry,
a tribute volume to Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, (9 September). Musicians
George Clinton and Nona Hendryx talked about science fiction influences on
their lavish stage shows and albums, and a night of futuristic music on 17
June saw The Radio Science Orchestra and Global Communication perform live
at the British Library.
A separate, aligned programme of school visits and educational events
resulted in 3228 attendees taking part in workshops; 79 teachers attending
CPD events, and 496 participants attending family events. Other events
included: study days for `A' level students; a young researchers' project
working with students at risk of exclusion; workshops for local Camden
Primary and Secondary Schools as part of Pop Up (a Festival of
Stories taking place in summer 2011 in the Kings Cross area).
Out of this World attracted much national and international press,
radio and TV coverage and interest, in particular from places which might
have previously considered science fiction a minority interest, including:
The Guardian and The Observer, The Independent, The
Daily Mail online, CCTV News (China Central Television 24-hour news
service); BBC2 "Culture Show". The Times Higher Education Supplement,
Times Literary Supplement, New Scientist, New York
Review of Science Fiction; the Huffington Post. The
Daily Telegraph wrote that 'Seeing the history of one genre in
one room is extraordinary....Out Of This World redefines the sci-fi
genre, showing the ways in which we think about ourselves in relation to
others: aliens, humans or our future selves. It is a means of reflecting,
prophesising and allegorising the world and the human condition.'
The exhibition's emphasis on the role of women in the genre was also
significant. It triggered a BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour discussion,
on 25 May 2011, that asked `Is Science Fiction Still A Male-Dominated
Genre?' Sawyer advised the producer on possible speakers. Spin-off talks
included events at Alfreton Library, Derbyshire and Toxteth Library,
Liverpool connected with the Lemistry volume, talks at the Oxford
Literary festival (19 March, 2012) in company with the author Gwyneth
Jones, and the Frodsham Literary festival ("Weaver Words") September,
recent article in The Huffington Post cites the exhibition
as a key moment in garnering a significant interest by mainstream cultural
institutions in science fiction.
As a direct result of Out of this World, The Science Fiction
Foundation Collection has been invited to exhibit at the forthcoming World
Science Fiction Convention (London, August 2014) which will attract
4-5,000 people including writers, publishers, general readers and
Another significant outcome was the recognition of the exhibition by the
British Science Fiction Association, who gave it a "Specially Commended"
award for `its success in encouraging the general reader to explore and
enjoy science fiction' at the Easter SF Convention in 2012.
Out of this World has also altered the British Library's
perception and expectation of its own reach and impact. A spokesperson for
the British Library has stated that the `SF exhibition helped convince
them that there is an appetite for less traditional displays', which had a
direct effect on their commissioning a new exhibition on comics called
`Anarchy Between the Lines'
Sources to corroborate the impact
- Exhibitions Officer at the British Library, can be contacted to
corroborate the impact of the research on the planning and structuring
of the exhibition, including the selection of objects and the reasons
for their selection.
- Chief Events Officer at the British Library, can be contacted to
corroborate claims about the associated events that were planned to
support the exhibition and the response to them from members of the
public from British Library feedback.
- Learning and Digital Programmes Manager at the British Library, can be
contacted to verify claims regarding the educational
programme associated with the exhibition and its response.
- Numerous press/TV reports are still available on the web, including CCTV
News report (China Central Television 24-hour news service),
demonstrating the world-wide interest in the exhibition. This was
previously available on CCTV website but is now hosted on the University
of Liverpool's website for the purpose of this exercise.
in the Mail Online, 20th May 2011, demonstrating the
roots of the exhibition in popular fears of invasion.
- Article by Roger Luckhurst, "Other-worldly
Wise" in the Times Higher Education Supplement 12 May 2011,
demonstrating how the exhibition shows science fiction questioning our
idea of the future.
in The Guardian (24 March 2011) corroborating coverage of
the relevance and range of the exhibition.
Science Fiction Association has given a special award to the
British Library for its Out of This World exhibition `in recognition of
the support it has received and its success in encouraging people to
explore and enjoy science fiction'.