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Alien world close to home; Sci-fi fan and blogger Neil Macdonald meets Andy Sawyer, keeper of Liverpool's enormous Science Fiction Hub.

Byline: Neil Macdonald

LIVERPOOL has built its international reputation on many foundations, including football, music and of course, culture, but science fiction?

You may be surprised to know the city's sci-fi links run deep, because as well as being home to some of the greatest sci-fi writers in history - and two Doctor Whos - it also hosts the Science Fiction Hub at the University of Liverpool.

Now celebrating its 15th anniversary, the Hub - in Sydney Jones Library - has grown into one of the greatest and most extensive in the world.

It contains tens of thousands of novels, manu scripts, magazines and other sci-fi paraphernalia, stored away for scholars from across the globe to explore and enjoy.

The vast anthology includes an original manu script of Day Of The Triffids by John Wyndham, a collection of works by Merseyside's Olaf Stapledon, and an original first edition ofAmazing Stories, a magazine produced from 1926 onwards by Hugo Gernsback, the man who coined the phrase 'science fiction'.

Science Fiction librarian Andy Sawyer, who also runs an MA course in science fiction studies for the university, has managed the hub since its inception.

He says: "My wife always says that I have turned my hobby into my job and she is right. I am lucky to be able to work surrounded by some of the giants of science fiction every day.

"It is tremendously exciting to look through the collection and see things like a typescript of DayOf The Triffids.

"That has a famous first line about a Wednesday feeling like a Sunday, which sets the dislocated tone for the whole novel, but in this earlier version it is replaced by something much more mundane.

"It is thrilling to get that understanding into some of the great works, to see how the author's mind was working."

The sci-fi treasure trove was originally based around Olaf Stapledon's archive at the university, which was augmented by the collection of the Science Fiction Foundation in 1993 and a successful lottery bid for the John Wyndham archive.

Andy says: "We keep growing the collection steadily, with donations from authors, magazines and private collections. It is quite a small world and we sometimes get items left by a friend or colleague who has passed on, which can be poignant."

Like many people, Andy has been delighted by the current renaissance in science fiction, fuelled by programmes such as Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica, but he believes the written word is where the real cutting edge still lies.

He explains: "The print form is still the historical background of science fiction and has always attracted some wonderful thinkers to the genre, right from its earliest days.

"JMichael Straczynski, who created a programme called Babylon 5, said the thing about cutting edge TV sci-fi is it is about 10 years behind what you read in the printed media, as opposed to everything else which is about 20 years behind.

"I think there's a lot of truth in that. Science fiction has always been a kind of thinking tool that you can use to comment on society as it is now and explore it, or look into the future and imagine what it will be like.

"That presents a fantastic challenge for writers - for instance, how do you describe something that no-one has ever done, or what it feels like to have an extra sense?"

Andy believes that element of science fiction undercuts those who think it is a lightweight medium.

"We have a current Nobel Prize winner, Doris Lessing, who has been a guest at a sci-fi convention, and many other science fiction writers are incredible thinkers who influenced society on many levels.

"For instance some people mock Star Trek, but when Captain Kirk kissed Uhura, that was television's first inter-racial kiss watched by millions of people, and that made a difference.

"If people still say they don't like sci-fi, I also ask them how come they know all the catchphrases from Star Trek? That usually stumps them!

"People around the world are creating wonderful work and it fills the imagination to look at what they have come up with - their hopes and their fears too," he says.

"In the Hub, we get to look after those dreams and nightmares. But there is so much going on that we don't know about, such as stuff from non Anglo-American Society.

That is really interesting. I know a Bollywood movie is being made, set in the year 2050. I can't wait to see that."

And despite his love of all elements of sci-fi, Andy is pretty sure the actual future will not be like the versions we read about.

"If they were, we'd be getting around using jet packs and matter transporters now," he says.

"The one prediction is the actual future won't be as predicted, but it is still very interesting, challenging and fun to read about what may happen in years to come."

For more information on the Science Fiction Hub, log on to www.sfhub.ac.uk

To read Neil's blog, go to www.scifilove.net

Merseyside's sci-fi connections

Olaf Stapledon

The 'cosmic philosopher' was born in Wallasey and lived in West Kirby. His work directly influenced writers including

Arthur C Clarke and CS Lewis, with the novel Last And First Men considered a genre master piece.

Eric Frank Russell

A prolific writer of novels such as Sinister Barrier and Wasp and shorter works, including Jay Score, a groundbreaking 1941 tale which features a black ship's doctor. He is also said to have come up with the phrase 'may you live in interesting times'.

Stephen Baxter

Born in Liverpool, Baxter has published more than 40 books and 100 short stories. He has degrees in mathematics, engineering and business and is vice-president of the British Science Fiction Association and the HG Wells Society.

Doctor Who Liverpool has produced two Doctors - Tom Baker (left), who played the fourth Doctor from 1974-81, and

Paul McGann in a 1996 TV movie.

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Publication:Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, England)
Date:Aug 27, 2008
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