Fictional science

Sphere and stand - D7960_1

One of the few objects included in the exhibition was John Russell's 1797 Selenographia. Image (c) National Maritime Museum.

Yesterday, I went to the British Library’s exhibition on science fiction, Out of this World, which does an immensely good job of making exhibition cases displaying little but books interesting and engaging. There are graphics, a select number of objects, music and speech recordings, digital interactives and some large-scale sculptures to keep anyone from three years up entertained – as proven by the fact that my son was sufficiently distracted to allow me a good look at the main content. It is, though, that core – the words and illustrations in books, comics, graphic novels that have played with notions of science, our futures, extra-terrestrial life, parallel or alternate realities – that is the real and justifiable draw.

I am not, I must admit, a huge Sci-Fi fan, but the ideas it includes are undeniably fascinating, especially when the genre is broadened to include George Orwell, Philip Pullman, Lewis Carroll or Thomas More alongside Wells, Azimov, Ballard and Dick. For me, not surprisingly, the best part was the inclusion of what might be termed Pre-Sci-Fi. This was a theme that I pursued briefly as founding editor of the British Society for the History of Science‘s then-new glossy newsletter, Viewpoint, as a topic with, I hoped, real academic interest and popular appeal – also an excellent source for illustrations!

The articles, some of which dealt with texts that can be seen in the British Library exhibition, were published in the three 2006 issues. There was Mark Brake and Neil Hook on Francis Godwin’s Man in the Moone (1628), Patricia Fara on Ludvig Holberg’s A Journey to the World Under-ground (1741), Graeme Gooday on Albert Robida’s Le Vingtieme Siecle (1882) and Kate Hebblethwaite on John Jacob Astor IV’s A Journey in Other Worlds (1894). [These issues used to be available on the BSHS website, but currently seem to have disappeared. I am making enquiries! – update: back issues of Viewpoint will be available after the launch of an updated version of the Society’s website this summer. In the meantime, if you apply directly to me and grovel nicely, I should be able to supply copies of individual articles.]

While not all are great works of literature, they are fascinating in the way that they and their reception tell us help reveal something of the time in which they were written, and how science and technology were then understood, admired and feared. It is clear that although fantasies about other worlds or other times have always been part of literature, the idea that the future would bring progress in science and an accumulation of ever-more-powerful technologies was not present until the 19th century, when the impacts of the industrial and (putative) second scientific revolutions were becoming clear. The 1763 book The Reign of George VI. 1900-1925, for example, imagines a long-distant future to have essentially the same technologies as those known to the anonymous author. The exception is, perhaps, imagined flying machines (goose-powered, steam or balloon) but by and large it is fair to say that the idea that the future might look very different to the present did not kick in until living memory could grasp the extent and speed with which daily life had already changed.

One of the things that caught my eye in the exhibition was not, in fact, a book, but two of a series of prints from 1825-29 entitled ‘The March of Intellect’. They are by William Heath, under the alias Paul Pry, and satirise the fashion for novelty and scientific learning. This is

One of a series of prints entitled 'The March of Intellect' by William Heath, 1825-29 (source NMSI Collections)

making fictions with scientific ideas and impossible technologies, but contains none of the ‘futuristic’ trappings we are used to in late 19th- and 20th-century sci-fi. It does, though, contain clear hints about the effect of new technology on society – note, for example, the liberated female on her flying machine on the right.

There is plenty to explore, laugh at and think about in each print, but I like this one because of one detail that hits two themes I have been working on of late. On the left there are two tunnels, leading to the North Pole and South America. Arctic exploration was, in the early 19th century, a project that was pursued by the Board of Longitude, while the shape of the southern tunnel is clearly based on M.I. Brunel’s Thames Tunnel – a wonder of the world that had received much publicity but was still some years from completion. It is the mix of fantasy and reality – playfulness and seriousness – that is most rewarding here, and in the exhibition as a whole.

About Rebekah Higgitt

Rebekah Higgitt completed a PhD in the history of science at Imperial College London in 2004 and did postdoctoral research at the University of Edinburgh. She was Curator of History of Science and Technology at the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory, Greenwich between 2008 and 2013 and is now a senior lecturer in the School of History at the University of Kent. Her research and publications have mainly focused on scientific institutions, scientific biography, history of science and the relationship between science, government and the public in 19th-century Britain. From August 2020 she will be Principal Curator of Science at National Museums Scotland.
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2 Responses to Fictional science

  1. Pingback: Out of this World in the Library | Reciprocal Space

  2. Pingback: The Giant’s Shoulders #36: The ABCs of the History of Science « The Dispersal of Darwin

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