“OK, I’LL meet you in the library.”
With those words, I had my pass into one of the innermost sanctums of science fiction – the enormous Science Fiction Hub at Liverpool University.
Now celebrating its 15th anniversary, the Hub has grown into one of the greatest and most extensive archives of SF in the world, with tens of thousands of novels, manuscripts, magazines, tapes and other sci-fi paraphernalia stored away for scholars from across the globe to explore and enjoy.
That vast anthology includes an original manuscript of Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, a collection of works by Olaf Stapledon, and an original first edition of Amazing Stories.
All in all, this is the motherload of sci-fi stuff in Britain, easily beating out the collections of geeks across the land – me included – of a few dvds, magazines, and a lightsabre.
But still – the library? After all, Doctor Who had just had a nasty experience in one with flesh eating shadows. But the chance was too good to miss, so making sure to stay in the sunshine and listen for anyone saying ‘Hey, who turned out the lights?’, I headed in.
Science Fiction Librarian (how’s that for a job title!) Andy Sawyer, who also runs a MA in science fiction studies for the university, has managed the collection since its inception.
His SF credentials were already well established by then, as a member of the Science Fiction Foundation and the editor of the magazine for the British Science Fiction Association.
He said: “My wife always says that I have turned my hobby into my job and she is right. I am lucky to be able to work surrounded by some of the giants of science fiction every day.
“It is tremendously exciting to look through the collection and see things like a typescript of Day of the Triffids. That has a famous first line about a Wednesday feeling like a Sunday, which sets the dislocated tone for the whole novel, but in this earlier version it is replaced by something much more mundane.
“It is thrilling to get that understanding into some of the great works of science fiction, to see how the author’s mind was working.”
The collection is one of only a handful around the world, with other archives being housed in California (That one’s huge, said Andy), Kansas, Toronto, Calgary, and in Switzerland’s wonderfully named House of Elsewhere.
The Liverpool Collection was originally based around Olaf Stapledon’s archive at the University, which was augmented by the archive of the Science Fiction Foundation in 1993 and a successful lottery bid for the John Wyndham archive. It is also the only one in the world to have two Hugo Awards among its collection.
Andy said: “We keep growing the collection steadily with donations from authors, magazines and private collections. Stephen Baxter has been tremendously generous, while Neil Gaiman has also donated soem of his work, to name but two.
“It is quite a small world and we sometimes get items left by a friend or colleague who has passed on, which can be poignant.
“There are always other things we would like to bring here though, and elements of the collection we want to update.”
Like many people, Andy has been delighted by the current renaissance in science fiction, fuelled by programmes such as Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica, but he believes the written word is where the real cutting edge still lies.
He explained: “The print form is still the historical background of science fiction and has always attracted some wonderful thinkers to the genre, right from its earliest days.
“J. Michael Straczynski, who created Babylon 5, said the thing about real cutting edge TV sci-fi is it is about 10 years behind what you read in the printed media, as opposed to everything else which is about 20 years behind.
“I think there’s a lot of truth in that. Science fiction has always been a kind of thinking tool that you can use to comment on society as it is now and explore it, or look into the future and imagine what it will be like.
“That presents a fantastic challenge for writers – for instance how do you describe something that no-one has ever done, or what it feels like to have an extra sense?
“Saying that, programmes like Babylon 5, Doctor Who and Firefly have some wonderful writing. When you have a Straczynski character called Alfred Bester, played by Mr Chekov from Star Trek, who is telepathic, you realise he knows what he is doing.”
You can link to the Science Fiction Hub here.
Coming soon – part two of the interview, and Andy’s sci-fi picks.