"THE FEWER mentions of Star Trek the better," says Andy Sawyer, hopefully, and you can see his point. Over the last few weeks he has been at the receiving end of more than his fair share of Trekkie jokes in the press, ever since the University of Liverpool announced that from next autumn it will be running an MA in Science Fiction Studies, the first such course in this country. As administrator of the Science Fiction Foundation Collection, Sawyer has had to field most of the attention, which has meant putting up with more headlines about boldly going where no man has gone before and beaming up than one man should have to bear who isn't actually William Shatner.
On the other hand, you can see why people might not take the idea of the science-fiction library altogether seriously. For most, science fiction means books about cowboys with spaceships, read by geeky, anoraked adolescents. Sawyer, naturally, doesn't share this view, but he can understand it. Walking around the Collection, now housed in a basement of the university's Sidney Jones Library, Sawyer pounces on an ageing paperback: "This is something I tend to show people - I sort of feel that I shouldn't because I'm undermining science fiction by doing so." It has a vivid cover - in Sawyer's words, "an abscess, lurid oranges and yellows and these phallic spaceships going towards this angry-looking purple planet. And you look at it and you think `Yes, that is science fiction.' " Inside, the first thing you see is an advert headed: How To Deal With Your Inferiority Complex.
The intriguing thing about this is that the novel, Sphero Nova, by a little-remembered author called Bill Cameron, was recently cited as a primary influence by the author Ian Watson, a man who is taken very seriously indeed in British sci-fi circles (and some of whose manuscripts are now deposited with the Collection). It's quite usual for science-fiction fans to have a strong grounding in pulp. Sawyer himself recalls his initiation into the genre: "I can pinpoint it exactly. It was listening to Journey into Space in the late 1950s . . . a typical fan's revelation of the idea that there could be something out there." He admits that much of the material he is responsible for is tosh: "But well, what's wrong with that? At the age of 10, there are worse things to be reading than something that gives you the sense of moving outwards somehow."
The idea of progress was, largely, the spark behind the creation of the library some 20 years ago. George Hay came up with the idea around 1970 and, with a group of sympathetic buffs and writers, established the Science Fiction Foundation to further the dream.
Hay's profession is hard to define; his letterhead, which features a flock of soaring pterodactyls, describes him as a "futures consultant". His view of science fiction is derived from Hugo Gernsback, one of the great pioneers of the 1920s, the man who coined the term "scientifiction". Gernsback was running a failing science magazine; he added trash fiction, and sales, for want of a better word, rocketed. The Hay view is that science is intimately involved in sci- fi: that, however poor in literary terms, it is a great populariser of ideas. Science fiction is one of mankind's great intellectual resources, a compendium of potential futures. In his gloomy, Spenglerian view of civilisation, our culture is approaching the end of its cycle: he imagines our descendants poking around the ruins and marvelling at our achievements. …