SCIENCE FICTION / A library, Jim, but not as we know it: Liverpool University has Britain's first degree in SF and matching library. Robert Hanks reports

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The Independent Culture
'THE FEWER mentions of Star Trek the better,' says Andy Sawyer, hopefully, and you can see his point. Over the last few weeks he has been at the receiving end of more than his fair share of Trekkie jokes in the press, ever since the University of Liverpool announced that from next autumn it will be running an MA in Science Fiction Studies, the first such course in this country. As administrator of the Science Fiction Foundation Collection, Sawyer has had to field most of the attention, which has meant putting up with more headlines about boldly going where no man has gone before and beaming up than one man should have to bear who isn't actually William Shatner.

On the other hand, you can see why people might not take the idea of the science-fiction library altogether seriously. For most, science fiction means books about cowboys with spaceships, read by geeky, anoraked adolescents. Sawyer, naturally, doesn't share this view, but he can understand it. Walking around the Collection, now housed in a basement of the university's Sidney Jones Library, Sawyer pounces on an ageing paperback: 'This is something I tend to show people - I sort of feel that I shouldn't because I'm undermining science fiction by doing so.' It has a vivid cover - in Sawyer's words, 'an abscess, lurid oranges and yellows and these phallic spaceships going towards this angry-looking purple planet. And you look at it and you think 'Yes, that is science fiction.' ' Inside, the first thing you see is an advert headed: How To Deal With Your Inferiority Complex.

The intriguing thing about this is that the novel, Sphero Nova, by a little-remembered author called Bill Cameron, was recently cited as a primary influence by the author Ian Watson, a man who is taken very seriously indeed in British sci-fi circles (and some of whose manuscripts are now deposited with the Collection). It's quite usual for science-fiction fans to have a strong grounding in pulp. Sawyer himself recalls his initiation into the genre: 'I can pinpoint it exactly. It was listening to Journey into Space in the late 1950s . . . a typical fan's revelation of the idea that there could be something out there.' He admits that much of the material he is responsible for is tosh: 'But well, what's wrong with that? At the age of 10, there are worse things to be reading than something that gives you the sense of moving outwards somehow.'

The idea of progress was, largely, the spark behind the creation of the library some 20 years ago. George Hay came up with the idea around 1970 and, with a group of sympathetic buffs and writers, established the Science Fiction Foundation to further the dream.

Hay's profession is hard to define; his letterhead, which features a flock of soaring pterodactyls, describes him as a 'futures consultant'. His view of science fiction is derived from Hugo Gernsback, one of the great pioneers of the 1920s, the man who coined the term 'scientifiction'. Gernsback was running a failing science magazine; he added trash fiction, and sales, for want of a better word, rocketed. The Hay view is that science is intimately involved in sci- fi: that, however poor in literary terms, it is a great populariser of ideas. Science fiction is one of mankind's great intellectual resources, a compendium of potential futures. In his gloomy, Spenglerian view of civilisation, our culture is approaching the end of its cycle: he imagines our descendants poking around the ruins and marvelling at our achievements. 'If somebody came into the library from a barbarian culture, he would see what the possibilities were.'

In 1971, the fledgling Foundation came to roost at the North-east London Polytechnic (now the University of East London). But their relationship with the Poly was never more than cordial, and last year they were finally given notice to quit. This threw the Council of the Foundation into confusion, not least because of the delicacy of the Collection - some of the 25,000 books and magazines in the collection are in fairly frail condition. Although the Foundation increasingly attracts donations from publishers, the backbone of the collection is still private donations, and many of the books it holds are well-loved and much-thumbed. It includes a particularly strong holding of pulp magazines from as far back as the Twenties, some of them very tatty.

David Seed, a senior lecturer in the English department, heard about the Foundation's plight from a colleague in the philosophy department. He was already engaged on a book about science fiction and the Cold War, and started to lobby for the collection to come to Liverpool. This was a dream solution, in many ways: Olaf Stapledon, regarded as the most influential figure in British science fiction after H G Wells, was an extra-mural lecturer at the University, which holds the Stapledon archive, a natural partner for the Foundation's collection. With the space came enough funding to hire Andy Sawyer, a qualified academic librarian, for two years. And now, there's the MA course.

There's no doubt that, for Liverpool, the Library is seen as a good way of raising its profile. Seed, who will be directing the course when it begins, says that they hope to attract students from Japan and the US and since they went public they have been bombarded with enquiries from around Britain.

Seed, though, like Sawyer, is not altogether happy with the publicity. Many of the enquiries have come from people who thought it was going to be largely about film, and Seed is keen to emphasise that this is primarily a course about books. Applicants will be expected to have a degree in a literature- based subject. The 'module topics' they will study include Utopias and Dystopias, Science Fiction and the Cold War (Seed's specialism), Science Fiction and Gender. David Seed is clear that he is not terribly interested in pulp.

Which is all very well and very interesting, but you can't help feeling that the library is losing part of its charm. George Hay, grateful though he is that Liverpool has found somewhere to nurture his brainchild, says he is worried, 'because, as happens with so many other genres, it's been kidnapped by the lit crit mob . . . I am concerned that people should remember that 'science fiction' does include the word 'science'.'

Still, all is not lost. Looking at the leaflet that advertises the MA, the first thing that strikes your eye is a painting of a spaceport: the scene is dominated by a giant spaceship hovering overhead, while a large planet rises (or possibly sets) in the background. Travellers bustle around, including a pneumatic woman astronaut in a skintight suit. It's in sober browns and blues, but it's still true: look at it and you think, yes, that is science fiction.

(Photograph omitted)