Flights of fantasy

Imperial's science fiction library is a unique window on our world – past, present and future.

Illustration of spaceship breaking through the page of a book

As any science-fiction aficionado knows, things that appear modest – say, the TARDIS, or the monolith at the finale of 2001: A Space Odyssey – may reveal unexpected dimensions.

Such is the case of Imperial’s Science Fiction Library which, over the course of five decades, has expanded from a handful of books in a padlocked cupboard to 10,000 volumes, plus 2,000 DVDs and 600 comics, containing an infinity of universes.

“When I was a student, the library was a few shelves of books on the ground floor of the Physics building in Prince Consort Road,” recalls Diana Ayres (Mathematics 1971), who loved to “drop in to browse or borrow a book”.

By the time Simon Bradshaw, Tom Yates and Dave Clements arrived at Imperial in the mid-1980s, the collection “lived in some grey metal cabinets up on the top floor of the Union building,” says Bradshaw (MEng Electrical Engineering 1990).

But ambitious plans were afoot.

A bequest from the then-warden of Beit Hall, Professor John Finlay, added some rare editions of early British sci-fi, including an 1895 edition of HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds, and doubled the number of books.

And with the grant of a basement in Beit Hall to house the enlarged collection, the library achieved its current form – “a space down treacherous-when-rainy stairs in a dark corner of Beit Quad, with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’”, recalls Yates (Physics 1988).

“We now had a library! " says Bradshaw. "More importantly, we now had what was effectively a clubroom.”

The library became the heart of the Imperial College Science Fiction, Fantasy and Gothic Horror Society (ICSF), which went from a meeting held once or twice a week to a place where people would hang out in their spare time.

“It helped that it was just across the quad from the bar,” adds Bradshaw. “At the time, ICSF was the biggest club at Imperial because we were the only club showing films, so we had a lot of money to spend,” recalls former chair Clements (Physics 1986), now a Reader in Astrophysics and the published author of science-fiction short stories.

The team went to the celebrated speciality store Forbidden Planet with a copy of the library catalogue.

“Tom was counting the money, I started dashing around getting books I thought it would be good to have, while the rest started at A and bought everything on the shelves the library didn’t have. They got to 'M' before we had to stop."

Today, incoming Librarian Jean Lo (Mathematics, Third Year) describes the library as “a secret underground hideout made of bookshelves and couches. A room full of people who would look at a sci-fi gadget and have silly conversations along the lines of ‘So that’s Not How Science Works, but for the sake of argument what would happen if someone did build exactly that?’ It sounds trivial, but it feels uplifting.”

Of course, ICSF is much more than simply its superhero-bunker-with-bookshelves campus space. There’s the annual trip to the bookshop capital of Britain, Hay-on-Wye, where “we rent out a barn in the beautiful Welsh countryside and just hang out and go book shopping, hiking, tea-and-cake eating, and so on”, according to former ICSF Secretary Sequoia Trevorrow (MSci Geophysics 2020) – sadly, impossible this year due to COVID-19.

And the society reaches beyond its core membership with its publications – a fanzine and newsletter – as well as the annual Picocon conference. Picocon is a day-long convention that invites leading science fiction and fantasy (SFF) authors to mingle with almost 200 attendees, often spotting big-name talent before their career breakout.

Clements organised the third convention (not Picocon 3, but Picocon Pi) and celebrates how “we got, and still get, some really great authors along to Picocons. Highlights include a very young Neil Gaiman alongside a similarly young Charlie Stross.”

Legendary author, the late Sir Terry Pratchett, was a repeat guest of honour, with Yates fondly remembering “being strangled by Terry Pratchett at Picocon 6. In a nice way, of course. Terry did everything in a nice way.”

The con’s cosy atmosphere is summed up by its organiser’s designation as ‘Picocon Sofa’ – “More comfortable than a chair” states the official ICSF explanation, while the society’s committee is headed not by a chairperson, but a ‘Chair Entity’.

Most years see the publication of a fanzine with contents ranging from short stories and reviews, to poetry, artwork and essays. And in the pre-digital tradition of the very first pop-culture fanzines, it is still produced in handmade batches.

Lo, who has been editor of the fanzine twice, says: “With all the new places and different ways people can put their writing and artwork out there, we’re so grateful to everyone who still writes to us, to see their work in little pamphlets compiled and typeset, often by a single person, printed and bound on campus. There’s something hard to articulate about this 40ish-year-old publication that feels really special to me.”

The importance of ICSF as both a community and social space is evident, as is the affection in which it is held by former and current members – many of whom remain involved, thanks to Picocon. But what is the contribution of a science-fiction library to a science-specialised university?

“I don’t think it’s any coincidence that many of the world’s leading STEM universities have long-running and active science-fiction societies.”
Simon Bradshaw (MEng Electrical Engineering 1990)

“I don’t think it’s any coincidence that many of the world’s leading STEM universities have long-running and active science-fiction societies,” says Bradshaw.

“People tend to assume that science-fiction is about the future. But a lot of good SF is really about the present, and the scientific and cultural changes that affect us all.”

Clements rates Imperial’s collection as second only to that of MIT. Lo sounds a note of caution. “I try to be careful about overstating the correlation between where sci-fi goes and where real-life science is headed,” he says.

“Certainly, there are examples of uncanny prescience, like automatic doors and Tasers and all the things Jules Verne wrote about. On the other hand, in 2018 I read Year 2018!, a novel by James Blish, and learned that we are very behind schedule on the conspiracy to build a large bridge on Jupiter made of Ice-IV.”

But many of ICSF’s champions see the reading of science-fiction and the researching of science as complementary activities.

“SFF taught me that it’s not merely OK to enjoy thinking about science and technology, it’s vital that I continue to do so to keep my mind fresh and engaged,” says Yates, who runs a firm of consultants specialising in free software solutions for companies. “Playing with novel technical ideas for the sheer fun of seeing what can be done with them still drives much of my day-to-day work.”

“I’m sure my own interest and involvement in astrobiology research has more to do with SF than it does with the rest of my research, which is concerned with galaxy evolution and cosmology,” says Clements, one of the authors of the recent paper on possible evidence for life in the clouds of Venus. In addition to inspiration, he sees the library as offering interaction – between Imperial’s students, the faculty and the wider community.

“The library is a great place for students from different departments to meet and share ideas,”
Dave Clements (Physics 1986)

Trevorrow agrees. “It allows students and lecturers not only to have something in common and debate over, but also to explore other scientific areas that they may not have otherwise thought about,” she says. “And it helps both to connect with people who don’t necessarily have a science background. Academics and researchers often struggle with putting concepts into words, while science-fiction offers ways to do that.”

ICSF offers all that, plus – as Yates gleefully recalls – the opportunity to “get inside a genuine, working BBC Dalek”.

It’s no wonder the Beit Quad basement and the myriad of worlds it contains are as popular as ever.

Imperial is the magazine for the Imperial community. It delivers expert comment, insight and context from – and on – the College’s engineers, mathematicians, scientists, medics, coders and leaders, as well as stories about student life and alumni experiences.

This story was published originally in Imperial 49/Winter 2020–21.