Out of this World (British Library, London NW1)

William Wiles takes a trip into the twilight zone of literary creation

Here's an idea for a science-fiction story. Humanity suffers a recurring bout of cultural amnesia. Bearers of the flame must restate the same ideas, and refute the same myths, every ten or 20 years. But, twist! This isn't some distant future but our own time. Such is the cultural Groundhog Day that afflicts science fiction. The genre contains much serious literature, and much serious literature should be considered part of the genre. The ghetto walls may be weaker than ever but the case still has to be made over and over again.

The British Library has taken up the cause with "Out of this World: Science Fiction, But Not As You Know It". Drawing on the library's collections, "Out of this World" does stellar work placing SF in a broader literary and historical context, and cataloguing its contributions to the way we think.

A central display is exemplary, bringing together four centuries of lunar excursions. This blasts off with Galileo's 1610 Sidereus Nuncius ("The Starry Messenger"), containing new descriptions of the satellite made possible by improved telescopes. Galileo speculates that the light and dark patches on the moon's surface might be continents and seas. So the moon might resemble earth - and if that were so, then the earth isn't so special within the universe. Imagination is applied to an advance in science and provokes a revelation that transforms our view of ourselves. That's what the best science fiction can do.

Other displays explore themes such as alien life, utopias and the end of the world. Household names are given their due, but there's plenty of space for the unexpected. Included are "serious" literary writers, from Doris Lessing to Kazuo Ishiguro. Non-English traditions are also well represented, particularly Russia. So we can see Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic (1971) in a beautifully illustrated Soviet magazine. (This is a real strength of "Out of this World": it's a rare chance to see seminal SF stories as they originally appeared, in magazines.)

Best of all, though, are the ephemera and curios. There is H G Wells's mildly threatening postcard of 1918 in which he promises that air machines will shortly subdue all nation states within a planetary administration. In a 1948 letter George Orwell frets over whether his next book should be called The Last Man in Europe or Nineteen Eighty-Four. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World is represented by a Polish samizdat edition from 1985.

It would have been good to see more curios of this nature and fewer everyday scraps. One senses that the curators have been hamstrung by the need to make a case for SF, rather than simply revelling in it - an objective that calls for inclusion of a pivotal SF film such as The Matrix even though there's nothing more interesting to show than its poster. But there's more than enough to compensate for the weaker exhibits. Expect to come away with a reading list of works, and worlds, to discover for yourself.

William Wiles's novel, "Care of Wooden Floors", will be published by HarperPress next year

This article first appeared in the 08 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Slum rule