Non-Fiction Reviews

Science Fiction
Voyage to the Edge of Imagination

(2022) Glyn Morgan (editor), Thames & Hudson, 30, hrdbk, 287pp, ISBN 978-0-500-25239-0


Science and science fiction are my two key passions and so it is not surprising that I am an absolute sucker for books that bring these two together. This book itself is one designed to accompany an exhibition running this autumn (2022) and spring (2023) at the Science Museum in Kensington. I am no stranger to that museum and often visited it as a young child. In fact in recent decades hardly a year has gone by when I have not dropped in on one occasion or another and in recent years have greatly enjoyed their science films on its IMAX screen.

Having said that, though accompanying it, the book stands alone from the exhibition which I hope will get very many visitors. (If you are reading this in the autumn of 2022 and early 2023 and can get to it then I do urge you to do so.)

Science Fiction: Voyage to the Edge of Imagination is a lavishly illustrated, full colour, coffee-table book. It is divided into five sections each having three subsections by other contributors: primarily SF authors and (arts) academics.

But before we get to the five principal sections, we get three, what are effectively introductions: a short polemic on science and SF by the museum's director, Ian Blatchford, who effectively alludes (without referencing the man) what astrophysicist Carl Sagan calls science's dance with science fiction. Author Nalo Hopkinson provides some musings on what science fiction is for. (The short answer being not prophecy but rumination on what humanity is capable of for good or evil.) Editor Glyn Morgan usefully provides the introduction proper and includes that most fundamental science fiction question, 'what if?' It also notes that this book was created during the CoVID-19 pandemic which itself was a somewhat SFnal time.

The first section proper looks at people as machines and machine people. It kicks off with an article by Sherryl Vint who takes on a ride largely from Frankenstein (illustrated by an early voltaic pile) and its spinout fiction to robots via of R.U.R. and Metropolis.

Colin Milburn begins his contribution noting that the world-wide-web inventor, Prof Sir Tim Berners-Lee got inspiration from Arthur Clarke's short 'Dial F for Frankenstein', before exploring Samuel Butler's novel Erewhon, and E. M. Forster's short 'The Machine Stops', to look at the growth of robotics and humans possible over-reliance thereon. Along the way we get the computer conflict in 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Matrix films.

The section ends with an interview with the Chinese SF author Chen Quifan. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that this Chinese born and living author gets much of his inspiration from western writers and scientists.

The second section 'Travelling the Cosmos' looks at the history of spaceflight through the lens of the US-Soviet space race and SF (using both western and Soviet examples). He then moves on to Chinese widescreen space opera and Any Weir's The Martian among other exemplars.

Next, Rachel Livermore takes us beyond the Solar System noting, As Douglas Adams did, the hugeness of space, how long it will take the Voyager probes to traverse the void, and provides SFnal hacks such as suspended animation (cf 2001 and Alien) and Einsteinian time dilation as used by Al Reynolds and Ursula K. LeGuin among others as well as wormholes (Stargate and Contact). She ends with the look at the recent boom in exo-planet detection. A solid chapter.

The section ends with an interview with the US SF author Charlie Jane Anders.

The third section is on 'Communications' by Roger (The True History of a Dark Fantasy) Luckhurst. Very timely, among his first observations are of the role Nichelle Nichols played as Lt. Uhura and he alludes (only) to her work as a NASA ambassador to ethnic minorities. Along the way real-life SETI attempts at communication, the Voyager probes' disc and fiction from Close Encounters and Arrival to Solaris among others.

Rachel Cordasco provides an overview of SF from around the world. At the best this can only be the briefest of whistle-stop tours but it does note the domination of western and Soviet (which spills over into Eastern Europe) SF of the genre throughout the latter half of the 20th century and the rise of east Asian SF in the early 21st. Despite the huge ground to be covered this is one of the best summary overviews of international SF I have read in a while.

Between the chapter on communication and the next (an interview) we get an interesting artistic flow-diagram of the History of SF that originally appeared in Ward Shelley's The History of SF. It is just a bit of fun, but a fascinating and absorbing double page spread.

Next up is an interview with Vandana Singh, the physicist and SF writer which is followed by the fourth section on aliens.

Within the aliens section, the initial aliens chapter is possibly the weakest part of the book: it gives the Drake equation without any mention of its estimates; has a couple of pages on UFOlogy (which has little to do with SF and nothing with science other than as a psychological phenomenon); and some of the ground covered in the communication chapter is reiterated.

The editor gets his own chapter entitled 'Infinite Diversity: Pleasures of the unknown'. It has to be said that it is rather quirky, and I am certainly not sure what this chapter's take-home message is other than SF is a diverse genre. (And the paragraphs and points raised on alien shapes in the Star Wars films would, as Jack Cohen might point out, have been better explored by a biologist.)

The section ends with an interview with the SF writer and clinician Tade Thompson. This gets really interesting once it gets beyond the wahat was it that attracted you to SF, and did SF give you an enthusiasm for science questions. It has well made points on cryonics and an interesting take on space battles.

The final section is on anxieties and hopes in SF. Its first two chapters respectively look at nuclear war (or the threat of) and climate change. It ends with an interview with Kim Stanley Robinson much of whose work touches upon global warming.

There are also four pages of further reading recommendations and I have a good few of these already on my own bookshelves though many are sadly out of print. This list of citations is itself divided into sections that respectively cover the book's principal sections. Here a word of advice, many of these are useful, but some (in my opinion) are turgid polemics and so I would recommend anyone following up to browse the physical book first before buying, or check them out via interlibrary loan, so as to ascertain the true gems there are many here from the dross.

All said and done this is a coffee-table book and not a reference work. While it is no Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopaedia (an excellent SF history summary guide) or From Science Fiction to Science Fact (an admirable introduction to SF's overlap with science and technology), it does provide an interesting tour of the genre and as such scientists who are SF aficionados, as well as SF fans who are into science, will enjoy the ride. What certainly makes it are the copious, colourful and lavish illustrations. Whoever did the picture research and layout editor certainly needs a special mention (but doesn't get one perhaps it was the book's editor himself?).

While not quite a 'must have' book, it sure comes close. Indeed, that we have all too few well-illustrated books on the genre does make this the sort of title many should consider getting. Better still, if you have an SF aficionado in your family then this would make an ideal Christmas or birthday present, they'd really appreciate it.

This book scores as a lavishly illustrated and informative genre overview and includes some well-made points as to how SF relates to the real world. Big plus points here.

Having said that, as an independent companion to a Science Museum exhibition on science and SF, it doesn't do that much. I would have liked more contributions from scientists who are knowledgeable about SF, or scientists who write SF, and a lot less from those in university humanities departments. Yet, as a coffee table book, it is not expected to do much heavy lifting and so serves its purpose well enough.

Above all, as I said at the start of this review, if you are reading this in the autumn of 2022 and spring of 2023, and can get to the Science Museum, Kensington, London, to see the science and SF exhibition, then do so. From the advance press publicity it does look as if this will be not just an exhibition but something of a science and SFnal experience.

Jonathan Cowie


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