Friday, 26 July 2013

Futures Past: SF History in Leeds, P.5 Professor Cyril Oakley

Professor C.L. Oakley (1907-1975)
David I. Masson was previously featured on this blog for his role in founding the University of Leeds SF collection by donating books from his personal library. The rest originated in the gift of Professor Cyril Leslie Oakley, who began in 1971 to present his own extensive collection of science fiction literature to the Brotherton Library's Special Collections.

Appointed Brotherton Professor of Bacteriology at the University of Leeds in 1953, Professor Oakley was a founding fellow of the College of Pathologists and at various times edited the Journal of Pathology and the Journal of Medical Microbiology. He was awarded a D.Sc. by the University of London in 1953, elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1957 and made a CBE in 1970. He died in 1975.

Sadly, there are few that now remember Professor Oakley but SF was just one of his many and varied interests. Former students and colleagues can recall a lecture on ‘Bug-eyed Monsters’ addressed to members of the Medical and other student societies. These were illustrated with slides of the magazine covers that later formed part of his gift, notably Amazing Stories and Wonder Stories, which have recently been made available online. It doesn't seem too much of a stretch to assume that Oakley's interest in SF was informed by his career as a scientist, and whether his lecture was delivered in a serious manner or just for fun (one would guess the latter), it is still indicative of the extent to which these realms were more closely aligned in the past than perhaps they are today. The time when SF stories were regarded as the speculative branch of science as opposed to complete fictions are therefore within living memory, and it's a period I'd like to explore further in this blog.

This post adapts text from the booklet Visions of the Future: The Art of Science Fiction by Paul Whittle and Liz Stainforth.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Guardian Books - Five Science Fiction Novels for People who Hate SF

Guardian Books recently featured the article, 'Five Science Fiction Novels for People who Hate SF'. This title is in-keeping with a slightly annoying tendency of some literature feature writers:- to offer a pre-emptive apology, assuming that readers will be automatically put off by the SF label.

But is this really reflective of what people think? So often has the well-worn, albeit legitimate, argument about SF's resonance with societal issues been stated that it seems contrived to make it the opening gambit of the article. Nevertheless, we are told, 'science fiction is all around us, from clandestine electronic surveillance to robots taking our jobs', echoing J.G. Ballard's 1971 observation that, 'everything is becoming science fiction. From the margins of an almost invisible literature has sprung the intact reality of the 20th century'.

In this case the writer, Damien Walter, is obviously an SF fan, so the early disclaimer is soon forgotten because of his evident enthusiasm for the genre. His picks are:

5. China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh
4. The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks
3. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
2. Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
1. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

Le Guin's exploration of gender and race issues, Gibson's prophetic vision of the disturbing progress of technology and Banks' end-of-history based adventure story offer plenty for readers to get their teeth into. All things considered, this list is less 'Five SF Novels for people that hate SF', and more five novels for those that enjoy reading (less catchy, I know!) That being said, I recently joined a book group where the first novel we read will be my suggestion of The Female Man by Joanna Russ. It'll be a good opportunity to find out if the old sterotypes about SF come out in a group of voracious, library-based readers. Watch this (outer)space...

UPDATE: November 2015

Apparently others have also found critics' separation of literary and genre fiction frustrating. See the following articles in The Guardian and The Norwich Radical:

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Life in Wax: Teaching Collections at Leeds

Still from Quatermass and the Pit (1967)
For many years now, arguably since the advent of the SF genre, insects have enjoyed an association with aliens in the popular imagination. From the archetypal bug-eyed monster depicted on the covers of early SF magazines, to the nightmarish insectoids of Starship Troopers, to the ant-like physiology of the creatures in Quatermass' pit, writers and filmmakers have drawn much inspiration from the insect world in their representation of martians, forms often regarded as frightening and strange.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the first thing I thought of when I saw the wax models of Hydrophilus piceus, or 'The Great Water Beatle' (see image below) were dormant, chrysalis-like aliens. These are part of the collection at the University of Leeds' Museum of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, and were formerly used in University teaching from the late 19th century onwards. What is unique about Hydrophilus is that it is the only insect to have been reproduced by the noted embryo modeler Adolf Ziegler (1820-1889). Louis Compton Miall (1842-1921), former Professor of Biology at Leeds, was widely acknowledged as one of the world’s foremost experts on The Great Water Beatle, second only to Karl Heider (1856-1935), who provided the drawings that the wax series was based on.

Hydrophilus piceus, or 'The Great Water Beatle'
While scaled up in size, the models replicate even the minutest features of the beetle throughout different stages of its life cycle, making them ideal for the study of biology and zoology, since they could be observed by a class of students. With real specimens being both expensive and difficult to present, wax models provided a clear visual aid to teachers trying to explain the development of human and animal embryos as three-dimensional structures.

During the latter part of the 19th century, wax models became instruments not just for teaching, but for research. Embryological development was called upon as key evidence in evolutionary debates and the models' great detail and accuracy meant they could be used in new investigations. Due to the public interest in embryology, wax models, along with text and print images, were displayed in a number of private and public museum collections. 

As well as Ziegler's water beetle, the collection holds series detailing the development of the pig, the vertebrate eye, the human heart, and the convolutions of the human brain. For further information, please visit: