The Shape of Things to Come; the Future Beckons for Liverpool. So It Is Appropriate That the City Should Be an International Centre for Science Fiction Studies

Article excerpt

Byline: David Charters

IN A world, where so much changes so quickly and the innovative become the antique in the blinking of an eye, science fiction writers are presented with ever- spreading possibilities in their desire to chill, stimulate and stretch the imaginations of readers.

And the bespectacled philosopher studying papers in the library knows the subject as well as anyone.

This unassuming looking chap in a sports jacket is Andy Sawyer,director of science fiction studies at Liverpool University, the only one in the country to run a MA course on the subject.

The university also keeps the vast collection of manuscripts, fanzines,comics and other publications belonging to the ScienceFiction Foundation.

Here,are the official archives of such writers as Wirral-born Olaf Stapledon,celebrated for Last and First Men (1930)and John Wyndham.Also, the reare documents relating to Ramsey Campbell, theacclaimedhorror author from Liverpool, who now lives in Wallasey.

But the essentials of the science fiction story have remained much the same since Mary Shelley first walked the banks of Lake Geneva in 1816, forming her vision of Frankenstein's monster.

Then,in England, this style, which deals with people of the present or the future being confronted with a shocking new invention, the supernatural,an alien invasion or an unfor seeable change in their circumstances, was called ``science romance''or ``speculative fiction''.

The term science fiction was first used in the America of the 1920s to describe stories which appeared in magazines and comics,often with lurid illustrations,exciting young minds with visions of monsters, space exploration and the possibilities of a calamity that could destroy our civilization, still quaking from World War I.

More mature stories had already come from Jules Verne (Journey to theCentre of the Earth and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea),HG Wells (TheTime Machine and War of the Worlds) and Aldous Huxley (BraveNew World).

In their wake came Arthur C Clarke (theSpace Odyssey and the Ram a series) and John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris (1903-1969), who wrote stories under various names,but is best known as John Wyndham.

Sawyer is one of the world's experts on this extraordinary writer who gave us many short stories,The Day of the Triffids (1951),The Kraken Wakes (1953), The Chrysalids (1955)and The Midwich Cuckoos (1957).

Although the then widespread fear of nuclear extinction hovered over much of his work,Wyndham explored how ordinary Britons would react in extraordinary situations. For example,in The Midwich Cuckoos,an entire community of females is impregnated by an extra- terrestrialforce. Might sound like a fine excuse,but a swollen tummy takes some explaining to your lesbian partner or husband who has been away at sea for 12 months. It gave Wyndham the opportunity to examine human relations while telling a cracking yarn.

Sawyer,51, received his BA in literature at Essex University and then studied at Liverpool University for his Master of Philosophy while working as a librarian for Wirral Council. …