Friday, 29 July 2011

London: Science Fiction in the Library

Last week I mentioned the Doctor Who Experience exhibition which I recently visited in London.

I was also lucky enough to get to the British Library for its Out of this World: Science Fiction But Not as You Know It exhibition on science fiction literature.

Aside from the appalling title which crams in two science fiction cliches, the exhibition was excellent.

I was wondering how interesting a book-based exhibition could be, given the obvious lack of visual material, but the British Library boffins had come up with brilliant ways to stimulate the imagination of visitors.


First up, they'd divided the exhibition along the lines of six sub-genres: Alien Worlds, Future Worlds, Parallel Worlds, Virtual Worlds, End of the World and Perfect World. This both made the content more manageable, and underlined the fact that science fiction is a great big unwieldy collection of many diverse approaches to fiction.

It also provided a way in for those who weren't that familiar with SF (a far more preferable abbreviation than the dreaded 'sci-fi', by the way). The opening section, Alien Worlds, drew connections between the long history of fiction involving journeys to strange lands (think Gulliver's Travels) and science fiction stories which explored other planets.

Within this section were some amazing examples of proto-SF written well before the novels of HG Wells and Jules Verne, including a centuries-old Greek text which told a story of travel to the Moon.


From there, the exhibition demonstrated how relevant SF can be to topical issues. The End of the World section, for example, included apocalyptic fiction addressing human destruction of the environment; the Virtual Worlds section looked at the way technology changes our lives; and the Perfect World section addressed both utopian and dystopian visions of the future.

And both Future World and Parallel Worlds showed how SF could stimulate the reader to imagine both how things could change in the future, and how things could have been different in the past if certain key events had not occurred. This 'parallel world/alternate history" type of fiction is one of my personal favourites. In this section - in fact through all the sections - I was busily jotting down book titles for my reading list.

Crowd pleasing elements

As you'd expect, the exhibition featured many books and manuscripts. There was also a fair bit of audio-visual material, including recordings of radio interviews with such SF luminaries as Arthur C Clarke. There were more light-hearted elements as well, including a virtual drawing board where visitors could design an alien; a cute interactive robot (pictured above, courtesy of the British Library); and a computer housing an artificial intelligence with which one could chat.

A couple of crowd pleasers were a full-size model of the TARDIS exterior from Doctor Who, and a Martian tripod from The War of the Worlds, which towered above visitors (both pictured, courtesy of the British Library). I walked through its struts a couple of times before looking up and realising it was there, looming above me. Another gem was the model of a steampunk version of the Doctor's robotic dog K-9, constructed by a fan.

Postcards and a tea towel

As I reached the exit, I found a few computers set up from which I could send e-postcards bearing classic SF novel covers, with virtual stamps featuring the faces of SF authors. I dispatched a few of these, then headed for the exhibition's shop.

A friend back in Melbourne had expressed interest in getting hold of something from the exhibition, so after browsing, I selected three postcards of old-fashioned science fiction covers, along with a tea towel bearing the cover image of a French edition of The War of the Worlds. Classy. Along with a copy of the exhibition guide, it made an eminently postable collection of items that could fit inside an A4 envelope, soon en route through time and space via the Royal Mail.

Out of this World is an excellent exhibition, which continues until 25 September 2011 at the British Library, 96 Euston Road, London (admission is free). It'd be particularly worth recommending to book-reading friends who are a bit wary of science fiction - I can't think of any better way to introduce someone to the genre's deeply fulfilling pleasures. 

This post was brought to you by HBF, a leading Australian provider of travel insurance.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Doctor Who and the City

I've been home from Europe for two weeks now, and the jet lag seems to have gone.

It didn't stop me getting some solid work done last week, in any case. In the course of five days I wrote five new articles from scratch, which I owed to various newspapers. That effort was followed this week by an intense focus on my Lonely Planet chapters, which are due before the end of August.

One of the newspaper pieces I was writing was of my journey through the Doctor Who Experience, a big exhibition currently on in London. Yes, I know, that was my reaction too: "You're paying me to write about this?"

I don't want to pre-empt the article, so I won't talk about the exhibition here. What I do want to do is show off some publicity shots kindly supplied to me by BBC Worldwide, which they used to drum up interest in the exhibition when it opened.

Here's the first:

If you're also a long-time fan, you may recognise it as a modern take on a famous scene from the story The Dalek Invasion of Earth, first broadcast in late 1964 (just a few months after I was born!).

Here's the next one:

And yes, it echoes a scene from the classic 1968 Cyberman story, The Invasion. Poor old London seemed to be invaded by alien menaces around the clock back then.

The final shot is this one:

The monster here is The Silence from the latest season of Doctor Who, but the scene mystifies me. I have the feeling it's also modelled on a scene from a classic Doctor Who story (one involving Autons perhaps?) but I can't figure out which. Can anyone help me out?

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Coming Home to Melbourne

Hi all, I'm back. Did you miss me?

Of course, due to the wonders of modern information technology I never quite went away.

Being able to keep up with friends via Facebook and Twitter is a great thing of course, and it's really reduced the sense of loneliness that can set in when travelling by myself for weeks on a Lonely Planet job.

On the other hand, it can feel a bit odd being connected to everyone at home while being in a foreign environment; both virtually close and literally far away.

And as much as I enjoy the daily discoveries that come with travel, here are a few of the things I missed from Melbourne:

1. The Vibe. This is a matter of personal taste, of course. Some people are perfectly suited to Adelaide, others to London or New York. But I've loved Melbourne ever since I first set foot in the city in 1991, and the romance has grown deeper since I moved here in 1998. For me it has just the right balance of bustle and international vibe, along with a friendly nature and creative core.

2. The Coffee. Unless you're in New Zealand or Italy, you just can't get as good a cup of espresso-style coffee anywhere else (and to be honest, I'm not that sure about Italy). Yeah, I know, in some ways it's trivial - but I like the way we've fastened on the cafe culture as something to care about and make our own, and the sense of connection our best cafes provide.

And I think our cafe culture's finest moment came on 29 July 2008, when Starbucks announced the closure of 75% of its Australian stores after it had failed to beat the local offering via the usual corporate marketing assault.

A recommendation: Brother Baba Budan, my favourite cafe.

3. The Food. Particularly the casual food, as served in Melbourne cafes. In Poland, for example, there's plenty of good restaurant dining, but not much in the way of cafe food beyond cakes and the odd toasted sandwich. I love the quality of the cafe dining here.

A recommendation: The fine and exotic breakfasts at the Duchess of Spotswood.

4. The Grid. Melbourne's city centre is built on a rectangular street layout, aid out in 1837 by surveyor Robert Hoddle. There's something comforting and familiar about the regular pattern and the familiar street names: Collins, Bourke, Flinders etc. Not to mention their little cousins: Little Collins, Little Bourke and so on. And don't get me started about their fascinating black sheep relatives, the alleys and laneways.

5. The Trams. I love trams wherever they are in the world, and there are lots of them in Melbourne. The tram is a marvellous way of getting around; far superior to its cramped inferior rival the bus, and more engaged with its immediate environment than its faster rival the train. And in the basic way they operate, they've hardly changed since the 19th century, which makes them a bit of everyday steampunk.

6. The Bars. Like the cafes, there are plenty of these scattered around the city, small and idiosyncratic. It's another area of Melbourne life that seems immune to being transformed into corporate chains.

A recommendation: The Asian-themed charms of Golden Monkey.

OK, so sue me - I love Melbourne. And I'm fresh enough back from a long overseas trip that I'm not afraid to say it.

(Just one request - can we turn the heat up? And why is it dark so early? Oh... winter. OK.)

Got any other favourite Melbourne places to add? Feel free to comment...

Sunday, 3 July 2011

London: Mind the Gap

Many people have become entranced by the London Underground map since its inspired creation in 1931 by Harry Beck.

Discarding the idea that the lines should closely follow real-world geography, Beck laid out the subterranean railway lines in the manner of a circuit diagram. The concept was immediately popular, and the rest is history.

The map is obviously practical, but there's also something intriguing about its design. Perhaps those angular connecting lines in different colours engage the human propensity for seeking hidden patterns; the map might be hinting to our subconscious minds that it contains the true meaning of the universe, if only we'd peer at it hard enough.

Or perhaps it's the Tube station names, a jumble of London's sometimes quirky place names rendered in a neat font side by side on the map, sparking the imagination. Neil Gaiman perhaps created the greatest expression of this Tube map fascination in his TV series Neverwhere, in which an alternate London was populated with strange characters named after Underground stations.

And I know about this curious fascination with the London Underground myself of course, having authored a novel drawing heavily on the Tube and its names, Mind the Gap (also available for Kindle, he added subtly).

So seeing I'm in London for a few days, I thought I'd list a few random stations that hold some meaning for to me, from my visits to the British capital over the years:

Tower Hill: It was upon leaving this station in 1990, on our first trip to the UK, that Narrelle and I stumbled upon a section of the Roman wall that originally encircled the City of London. Slightly cliched, but still a magical 'touching history' moment.

Barbican: It was from here that we walked to a production of Shakespeare's much lesser known play Coriolanus, revived because its depiction of the downfall of a tyrant held new interest after the then-recent fall of Europe's communist regimes.

Baker Street: We're both great Sherlock Holmes fans, so how could we resist visiting his home turf? When we first travelled through the station, it had Holmes' likeness depicted in its interior wall tiles (I don't know what the situation is now).

Russell Square: This was our local station when we first visited London, staying in a fairly forgettable tourist hotel nearby. Loved the square, though, a classic central London element.

Covent Garden: A bunch of disparate memories here - the lifts that take you up and down because the station is so deep; the Australian accent that was once used for the recorded lift announcements; and most fondly the Tintin shop that's located nearby.

Southwark: One of the newer stations; thought of fondly for both its proximity to the reconstruction of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, and for its impressive steel plate 'underground Dalek base' design.

Monument: It was only by accident that I discovered the source of its name, stumbling across the monument to the Great Fire of London, the conflagration which started near here in 1666. It's an imposing column over 60 metres high, and was designed by Christopher Wren.

Aldwych: The only station I've used which has since closed, Aldwych was on a short branch off the Piccadilly Line, located on The Strand and close to Australia House. Its lifts needed expensive replacements in the early 1990s but as it was only lightly used, the station was closed in 1994. It's now often used as a film set, dressed to imitate different eras as required.

Elephant and Castle: My final choice. Partly because it has a magnificent name, and partly because I passed through its attached shopping centre yesterday and took the above photo of this equally cheesy and marvellous statue at its entrance.

Do you have any favourite London Underground stations? Let me know via the comments field below. And remember - MIND THE GAP. You'll be glad you did.