The Grolier Club looks back to the future in an exhibition of science fiction and the fantastic from the collection of author and antiquarian bookseller Henry Wessells.
A Conversation larger than the Universe represents the Grolier’s first-ever presentation of speculative fiction, in a highly personal selection of 70 books (many signed or inscribed by their authors), magazines, manuscripts, letters, and works of art, dating from the mid-eighteenth century to the present, on view in the second floor gallery from January 25 to March 10, 2018. From Gothic romances to classic fantasies to cyberpunk and frightening dystopian fiction, the works map out a universe of hopes, dreams - and nightmares.
The exhibition A Conversation larger than the Universe traces the origins of science fiction to the eighteenth-century Gothic, with Thomas Leland’s Longsword (1762). Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) grew from this Gothic tradition but she accomplished something new with her tale of the creation of a fully autonomous and intelligent artificial human being: the first science fiction story. On view is a copy of the first American printing of Frankenstein from 1833. Mary Shelley also wrote the first secular apocalypse, The Last Man (1826), in which a terrible plague destroys all humanity. Other landmark works from the nineteenth century on view include After London (1885) by Richard Jefferies and The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) by H.G. Wells, a tale of animals transformed into human beings which eminent American author Gene Wolfe has called “the ultimate science fiction novel.”
The heyday of pulp fiction in the 1930s is evoked by book and magazine appearances of Doc Savage. Also on view is Katharine Burdekin’s frightening novel, Swastika Night, published by Victor Gollancz in the summer of 1937, imagining a world seven hundred years after a Nazi victory, where women are reduced to the status of breeding animals and history and literature have been exterminated.
In the 1960s, science fiction was at the center of the counterculture. In San Francisco, Chester Anderson used $300 from his advance for a novel, The Butterfly Kid, to become printer to the Diggers and the summer of love. The New Wave brought literary innovation to science fiction and included American and British authors such as J. G. Ballard, Thomas M. Disch, and Samuel R. Delany. Disch and Ballard were contributors to the satirical ’zine Ronald Reagan The Magazine of Poetry, published in London in 1968.
William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer sent shock waves through science fiction. Gibson invented the word cyberspace on his portable typewriter in the early 1980s, yet the author did not go online until 1996. His first response to the experience is on view in the exhibition.
The Grolier Club has always fostered and documented the book arts, and this show includes examples of fantastic literature in books from celebrated fine presses: William Morris and his Kelmscott Press provide the archetype of the map in fantasy literature, with The Sundering Flood (1897); and the beautiful Doves Press Hamlet (1909) is a ghost story that points to the resonance of Shakespeare in science fiction as in all forms of literary activity.
The exhibition also charts how women authors have been at the heart of science fiction and the fantastic since the earliest stages, with works by Mary Shelley and Katharine Burdekin, as well as Sara Coleridge, author of the first fairy-tale novel, Phantasmion (1837), Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, and Alice Sheldon, who wrote brilliant stories under the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr., in the 1960s and 1970s. Closer to the present are works by Karen Joy Fowler, Wendy Walker, Eileen Gunn, Kelly Link, Greer Gilman, and Susanna Clarke.
Other topics include the influence of the First World War on science fiction and the fantastic, Imaginary Voyages, Dystopia, Literary Innovation, Humor, Rock ’n’ Roll, Bibliography and Scholarship in the field, and what’s happening in science fiction and the fantastic right now.
Notable authors whose works are also on view include Richard F. Burton, translator of the Arabian Nights; Lord Dunsany; H. P. Lovecraft’s first book, The Shunned House (1928); Philip K. Dick; Brian Aldiss; James Blish; Jean Rhys; John Crowley; Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; Peter Straub; and pioneering scholars E. F. Bleiler and John Clute. The exhibition concludes with Christopher Brown‘s Tropic of Kansas, a gripping novel of political change in a dystopian alternate America (published July 2017).
An illustrated catalogue accompanying the exhibition, A Conversation larger than the Universe. Readings in Science Fiction and the Fantastic 1762-2017, with a descriptive checklist of the materials on view, published by The Grolier Club, will be available in January 2018.
PLEASE NOTE—RENOVATION UPDATE
The current exhibition in the first floor gallery is Radiant with Color & Art: McLoughlin Brothers and the Business of Picture Books, 1858-1920, on view through February 4, 2018.
It is the final presentation in the Grolier Club’s main floor exhibition hall while the space undergoes a complete renovation - the first in thirty years.
However, a full schedule of exhibitions will continue in the second floor gallery during the renovation process. Following A Conversation larger than the Universe is the Spring exhibition Westward the Course of Empire, opening March 21, 2018.
The first floor exhibition hall will close at the beginning of February 2018 for approximately nine months. The scope of the renovation will include the latest innovations and conservation specifications for display cases, lighting, ventilation, and sound systems. The project will enhance the auditorium function of the exhibition hall for educational events and greatly expand storage for the rare book collection on the upper balcony. Designed by Ann Beha Architects of Boston, the newly renovated exhibition hall is scheduled to reopen in December 2018.
VISITING THE GROLIER CLUB
47 East 60th Street
New York, NY 10022
Hours: Monday - Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm
Admission: Exhibitions are open to the public free of charge