Contents Index

In the Palace of Green Porcelain: Artefacts from the Museums of Science Fiction

Robert Crossley

Science Fiction Essays and Studies, 43 (1990), 76-103.

{76} Recall these scenes from a short list of science-fiction masterpieces: A twenty-first-century Englishman, the last human being on earth, finds relief from loneliness by studying 'the Diorama of ages' in the monuments, libraries, and galleries of Rome. A traveller, seeking his stolen time machine, takes an afternoon off to explore the darkened corridors and ruined exhibits in a derelict museum. An unhappy mathematician feels his imagination disturbingly liberated as he walks through a preerved ancient house of the nineteenth century, 'completely enclosed in a glass shell' like an enormous museum exhibit. Ten million years from now a crew of engineers in Siberia unearths a vast underground archive of scientific and historical records carved on stone tablets by the survivors of an ancient atomic disaster. A former graduate student, having escaped a devastating plague in North America, wanders the stacks of a deserted university research library, reverently handling its books. A stowaway on an intergalactic starship is {77} given a guided tour of the local city museum of an alien world, with special attention to a gallery of art reproductions and natural history models from Earth. In an era of profound climatic change, a pirate in a white suit hauls treasures up from the tropical waters covering the cities of Europe and installs them in his own floating museum. A visiting professor of physics from the moon, touring a museum of decorative arts in a sophisticated capital on the mother planet, sickens at the sight of a royal ceremonial garment made from the tanned skins of human beings. A self-taught reader in an illiterate future America sits in the film archive at New York University painstakingly deciphering the printed speeches of twentieth-century silent films. A visionary in a post industrial tribal society examines the stone pillars that once supported a vanished cathedral before an atomic detonation destroyed Canterbury hundreds of years before. A twenty-first-century Australian in a world impoverished by the cumulative effects of the greenhouse phenomenon steps into the museum of Melbourne's cinematographic society and views the slapstick comedies of his great-grandparents' culture.1

This preliminary catalogue of artefacts from the museums, libraries, and archives of science fiction provides variants of a scene that gets reconstituted with astonishing frequency in science-fiction narratives. The spectacle of an observer examining an artefact and using it as a window on to nature, {78} culture, and history permits that convergence of anthropological, prophetic, and elegiac tonalities that science fiction handles more powerfully than any other modern literary form. The building itself, as much as the artefact, is important in such scenes. A museum operates as a place that is at once social, impersonal, and contemplative; it also, necessarily, constitutes an artificial world that disorients spectators in space and time. As a locale, therefore, the museum is ideally suited to science fiction, that form of fantastic literature most concerned with the speculative and the epistemological, most focused on humanity at large rather than the private self, and most at home on other worlds and in times to come. When a science-fiction protagonist experiences an epiphany in a museum the event enacts in a very precise way the preoccupations of the genre itself.

Every public museum is a repository of some portion of the past and an act of faith in the future; it is a laboratory for humanistic or scientific research; it is an organized record of cultural differences and continuities; it stands as a secular and populist alternative to the private collections of churches and social elites. Similarly, science fiction is specially concerned with temporality and change, with the representation and analysis of cultural difference, with experimental constructions of hypothetical realities, with the intersections of natural history and human history, and with the develop- {79} ment of counter cultural and popular audiences; in all these respects it has functional affinities with the museum. Above all, both the museum and the science-fiction text have a paradoxical relationship to time. 'Virtually all the best science fiction is, explicitly or implicitly, a kind of time travel,' one recent historian of the genre has argued.2 The same might be said of the best museums. A museum is never wholly a monument to the past any more than science fiction is narrowly or exclusively a literature of the future; while the museum typically represents the past (even if only the recent past), its interest in preservation makes it profoundly committed to the future, and while science fiction is usually oriented to the future it rarely looks ahead without also glossing the present and the past. A museum may not be precisely a time machine, but it is a contrivance that collapses linear time and encourages the tourist who visits it to shuttle back and forth imaginatively among temporal worlds. Before looking more closely at the uses of such temporal disjunctions in a few of the fictional scenes in museums summarized in my preliminary list, I want first to sketch a very brief institutional history of the museum as it bears on the aesthetic concerns of science fiction.

The opening of museums as public buildings rather than private 'cabinets of curiosities' roughly parallels the historical rise of science fiction. Both the public museum and the genre of science fiction {80} are emblems of the nineteenth century's experiment in the democratization of culture. It is true that one may find suggestive anticipations of science fiction in Lucian or Milton or Swift, and so too there are prefigurings of the modern museum in ancient and Renaissance collections of natural objects and cultural artefacts. Nevertheless, most historians of science fiction find the genre achieving its authentic identity only in the nineteenth century -- either with Mary Shelley if you follow Brian Aldiss's account of Gothic origins or somewhere in the latter third of the century if you accept Mark Rose's argument that the genre is emphatically postromantic3 -- and similarly most cultural historians see the public museum as essentially a nineteenth-century creation. Ancient collections with limited access like those housed in the Library at Alexandria were more akin to the private holdings of the royal houses of Europe than to the museums and libraries of the past two centuries. The treasure hoards of feudal lords have far more in common with the contemporary market for 'collectibles' as a form of investment than with the museum's functions of conservation, arrangement, and public display of artefacts. Of other possible prototypes for the modern museum the most viable is the medieval cathedral which in its architecture and crafts (if not always in its manuscripts and art treasures) could make limited claims to be 'people's buildings', open to all.4

{81} When the first London College of Antiquaries was founded in 1572 its members celebrated their personal collections of rarities -- often the loot from so-called voyages of discovery -- more as trophies of wealth and as hobbies to be shared with fellow antiquarians than as bases for museums of science or of art; but in the eighteenth century a reformed Society of Antiquaries began to articulate the principles on which future public museums would be established. Collectors of scientific and artistic curiosities, the Society maintained in initiating its journal Archaeologia in 1770, might help prevent the darkness of ignorance from descending on a future age:

The only security against this and the accidents of time and barbarism is, to record present transactions, or gather the more ancient ones from the general wreck. The most indistinct collection has this merit, that it supplies materials to those who have sagacity or leisure to extract from the common mass whatever may answer useful purposes.5
By the end of the eighteenth century the connoisseur was in the ascendancy over the indiscriminate collector, although not every putative rarity could live up to the Society's grand claims. The century could boast Sir Hans Sloane's extraordinary 100,000 specimens that eventually formed the core collection of the British Museum, but there were also such {82} whimsical sideshows as Pontius Pilate's wife's chambermaid's sister's hat in the collection of James Salter -- a useful reminder that the connoisseur and the con artist often roam the same territory.6 But the Society of Antiquaries, while championing the scholarly value of even 'the most indistinct' of its members' holdings, was not proposing to open the collections to any but those few suitable people of 'sagacity or leisure'.

The Ashmolean is widely recognized as the first modern museum, in which natural history specimens, antiquities, and various 'curiosities' were arranged for display, for teaching, and for public inspection at a charge of six pence, so that country folk arriving in Oxford on market-day could crowd in to examine Roman burial urns, St Augustine's crozier, or the famous stuffed dodo.7 In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary's first two recorded usages of 'museum' in its modern sense of 'a building or portion of a building used as a repository for the preservation and exhibition of objects' are references to the Ashmolean.8 But the Ashmolean was not typical of eighteenth-century museums, and its location in a university town ensured that its primary audience would be scholarly. The British Museum, established in 1759, took nearly a century to begin to admit the public in significant numbers on a regular basis.9 The model public art museum in the early nineteenth century was the Louvre -- which managed to combine the populist principles of the {83} Revolution with the rich plunder gathered up during the Napoleonic wars -- and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts had similar intentions of being a 'people's palace'. But London took several decades to catch up with these democratic tendencies. The reopening of the British Museum in 1829 at its new location in Bloomsbury, the completion of the domed reading-room in 1857, and the siting of the Natural History, the Science, and the Victoria and Albert Museums in South Kensington in the second half of the century are vital signs of the coming of age of the English public museum. The dramatic potential for the emerging museum as a locale in science fiction can be illustrated by comparing two nineteenth-century futurist texts, one published when the fascination with museums was just beginning to catch the public imagination and one published later when museums were enjoying their heyday.

The final scenes of Mary Shelley's 1826 eschatological novel The Last Man are played out in the palaces and churches of Italy as Lionel Verney and a diminishing circle of companions seek consolation for the impending extinction of humanity by contemplating 'master-pieces of art', 'galleries of statues', and other 'antiquities'.10 Arriving in Venice, the survivors climb the tower of San Marco for a prospect view of the tumbledown condition of the city's famous buildings, the paintings defaced by salt water and mud, and the seaweed draped {84} over marble artefacts. 'In the midst of this appalling ruin of the monuments of man's power,' Verney writes with romantic gloom, 'nature asserted her ascendancy, and shone more beauteous from the contrast' (p. 319). Alone after the deaths of his last two companions during a storm, Vcrney takes a grim satisfaction in imagining how, if the earth should ever be repopulated by some other intelligent species, our artefacts might offer a window on to human civilization and 'we, the lost race, would, in the relics left behind, present no contemptible exhibition of our powers to the new comers' (p. 331).

The Last Man's ultimate destination is Rome, 'the capital of the world, the crown of man's achievements' (p. 335). Its 'storied streets, hallowed ruins, and stupendous remains' (p. 335) make the whole city the great outdoor exhibit of European culture. Wandering among the sculptures of Phidias and Praxiteles, touring the Coliseum and the temple of Jupiter, Verney wants to validate the grandeur of human aspiration and achievement. But when he sees a buffalo walking along the ancient Roman avenues he understands that the age of human dominance is gone, that already other creatures have begun to occupy the space we called 'Rome'. He takes to sheltering in an abandoned palace, where he can pass his sleepless nights with splendid paintings; in a Keatsian gesture he embraces and kisses the cold marble of statues representing passionate lovers; and mimicking papal pomp he {85} solemnly ascends the steps of St Peter's to carve the numbers 2100 in stone, the date of humanity's last year. In the absence of any social context, both the artefacts and the beholder appear ludicrous or pitiful. At the end Verney harbours no more illusions about 'eternal Rome'; he feels himself a living anomaly, his body 'a monstrous excrescence of nature' (p. 340), and Rome becomes both physiologically and psychologically a deathtrap: a breeding-place for malaria and a shrine to the dead-end of human aspiration.

Few of the buildings Shelley's Verney visits can be called properly 'museums'. The power of this climactic scene resides in its focus on monuments, urban architecture, and artefacts which belong to the public perception, even myth, of imperial and ecclesiastical Rome. It is Verney's consciousness rather than the design of a curator that organizes these disparate artefacts and displays them to the reader as a lesson in the glory and the boundaries of artistic achievement. When H. G. Wells attempted a similar didactic episode seventy years later in The Time Machine (1895) he was able to do so with greater concentration and a more impressive art because he could draw upon the idea of the public museum and the experience of museum-goers in ways not quite yet available to Shelley. 'At the first glance,' the time traveller recalls of his stepping through the main door of a still-imposing though disused building 800 millennia from now, 'I was {86} reminded of a museum.'11 The familiarity of the design of its entrance ('the customary hall, a long gallery lit by many side windows') leaves him in no doubt about the building's purpose and signals to the reader that the function of this episode will be in some way analogous to our familiar museum experiences. In this instance, as in many others in the early history of science fiction, Shelley and Wells seem almost to work in tandem: she pioneering an intellectual strategy and he discovering its most streamlined narrative form; she articulating the archetype and he imagining the fictional prototype. If Shelley found a way to turn all Italy into a museum as a way of fabricating a memento mori for the human species, Wells succeeded in creating the most memorable of all science-fictional museums, the eerie, deserted, ruinous Palace of Green Porcelain.

Inside that vast structure of metal, glass, and tile the traveller explores galleries of palaeontology, mineralogy, botany, zoology, chemistry, military history, ethnography, industrial history, and many others unspecified in the course of a long and wearying afternoon. Excepting some sketchily described futuristic machines in one gallery, all of the exhibits might have been found in London in 1895. Wells's Palace is almost certainly a composite of the several branches of the British Museum in Bloomsbury and South Kensington as they existed at the close of the nineteenth century. In uniting these separate buildings into one 'Palace' Wells accom- {87} plished in fiction and in the future what Prince Albert dreamed of at mid-century: a single grand institution that would acknowledge the interdisciplinary nature of anthropological study and that would not separate natural history from human artefacts in the study of culture. Surviving photographs suggest that some details of Wells's Palace are drawn directly from the Victorian museums he knew: the enormous fossil of a brontosaurus at the entrance to the Palace is reminiscent of the brontosaurus that dominated the East Dinosaur Gallery of the Natural History Museum and 'the old familiar glass cases of our time' duplicate those that the trend-setting British Museum had just installed in its ethnographic galleries. The cracked and smashed 'white globes' the traveller sees hanging from the ceiling of an interior gallery undoubtedly reflect the recent installation of electrical lighting in the buildings at Bloomsbury and South Kensington.12

Many commentaries on The Time Machine either ignore this chapter, or view it as a kind of interlude in the narrative, or give it short shrift as a supply depot out of which the traveller can arm himself to recover his machine and so advance the plot to its proper culmination in the year thirty million.13 But Wells and his traveller have to go out of their way to get to the Palace of Green Porcelain -- eighteen miles the traveller estimates -- and there may have been more convenient ways to get fire and a club into the time traveller's hands if that was all Wells {88} was after. The Palace is a locale central to the aesthetic and moral design of The Time Machine, I suggest, because Wells saw the institution of the museum as an immediately accessible icon for the narrative's philosophical concerns with nature and culture, time and change. In what he calls 'this ancient monument of an intellectual age' the traveller, alternately exhilarated and dismayed, receives a vision of mortality, of the inexorable processes of time, of the frailty of human culture second in power only to his more famous apocalypse in the year thirty million. If that later vision of the world's end offers the definitive view in The Time Machine of the hostility of the cosmos to terrestrial life, the epiphany in the Palace of Green Porcelain is the book's most concentrated lesson in the vanity of human wishes and the brevity of mind.

Any catalogue of artefacts from science fiction's many museums would have to give pride of place to the contents of Wells's Palace: the sealed camphor and matches, the bulky corroded machinery, the Eloi necklaces fashioned out of fossilized bones, the dummy dynamite caps, the inoperable guns, and the easily vandalized stone idols arranged in what the time traveller names 'the ruins of some latter-day South Kensington'. But the most spectacular moment in the Palace of Green Porcelain comes when the traveler enters a room hung with 'brown and charred rags'. At first mistaking them for decayed military banners, he quickly grasps that he {89} has happened upon the museum's library and that the rags are what survive of its books. Staring at the empty bindings, he wryly places the fate of his own seventeen published scholarly papers on optics into the framework of a universal disintegration of texts: 'They had long since dropped to pieces, and every semblance of print had left them. But here and there were warped boards and cracked metallic clasps that told the tale well enough. Had I been a literary man I might, perhaps, have moralized upon the futility of all ambition.' In his epiphany in the museum Wells's traveller, not for the last time in the narrative, marks the end of a world. The 'sombre wilderness of rotting paper' in the Palace's library furnishes an elegiac commentary on the fantasy of the triumph of will over time, of art over nature. Precisely because the time traveller does not speak out of the wishful sensibilities of 'a literary man', the episode amounts to a matter-of-fact repudiation of the bravado that opens Shakespeare's fifty-fifth sonnet:

Not marble nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this pow'rful rhyme.
Tellingly, what survive best in the Palace are the means for destruction -- sulphur and camphor and matches, rusty hatchets and a mechanical lever recycled into a mace; the works of intellect and imagination are only as durable as their materials. {90} Poetry, philosophy, criticism, scholarly journals, scientific romances, the printed words you are reading right now: these are far more fragile.

Wells's successor as historian of the future, Olaf Stapledon, imagined more durable textual artefacts surviving time's processes, but foresaw an equivalent fragility in the mental and moral stability of future users of the materials preserved from the past. One entire stage of Last and First Men (1930) can be described in terms of a pair of crucially placed archives. Stapledon's Patagonians, struggling to contrive a human civilization some 100,000 years from now, are psychologically devastated when a team of archaeologists discovers in the basement of a derelict building in China metal plates from which twentieth-century books were printed. Decoding this futuristic Rosetta Stone, Patagonian linguists and cultural anthropologists realize that their own culture, at a stage roughly equivalent to the European Renaissance of the sixteenth century, had been long since surpassed and that their human ancestors had not been primitive but highly and dangerously developed. Everything the Patagonians thought they were discovering and inventing was in fact a recovery. Some of them find this revelation a deterrent to initiative and become reactionaries incapable of facing the future because paralysed by the past -- others take the evidence of a lost high civilization as reason to hope that such a level of material comfort and intellectual vigour might be achieved again.

{91} In the upshot this 'progressive' mentality wins out, though the triumph is as problematic and as compromised as that of our familiar twentieth-century progress. The Patagonians restore civilization at the price of nationalism, global warfare, economic rivalries, class stratification, squandering of planetary resources, and at last the unleashing of the djinn in the bottle of atomic energy. A chain reaction scalds the planet and destroys all but thirty-five members of the human species, and thus the ruined Chinese depository of printing blocks predicts the cycle of human risings and fallings central to the aesthetic and psychological design of Last and First Men; the artefacts miraculously preserved from the twentieth century serve only to stimulate the cataclysm of the hundred-thousandth century. Out of that cataclysm the survivors in Siberia, before sinking after several generations into subhuman barbarism, create a stone archive preserving as much knowledge of the Patagonian civilization as they can on carved tablets, along with a pictorial dictionary and grammar. The project falters when newer generations begin to resent 'the hardship of engraving endless verbiage upon granitic slabs'.14 Inevitably, several million years later, that stone museum is unearthed, its artefacts decoded, and its ideals recycled into the evolved human species Stapledon calls the Second Men. The condition of the literary artefacts in Wells's Green Palace and the uses made of the historical records removed from Stapledon's archives testify to both {92} the grandeur and the ironies in the human project of composing imperishable monuments, whether in stone, in metal, or in words.

In George Stewart's Earth Abides (1949) the library at the University of California at Berkeley has a similarly pivotal role in defining an attitude toward civilization. Initially Isherwood Williams cherishes the library as a cultural temple and a bulwark against a reversion to barbarism in the aftermath of a global epidemic. 'Here rested in storage the wisdom by which civilization had been built, and could be rebuilt', we are told after Ish carefully breaks into the building.15 But as a new arcadian society forms, the library's treasures, at first invested with a taboo status by Ish, come to seem largely irrelevant to the future. Books, after all, will be 'mere wood-pulp and lamp black' (p. 268) in an unlettered culture. When a great fire burns most of the San Francisco Bay area near the end of the novel, the elderly Ish observes among the gutted buildings of the university campus the still-intact library, its million volumes amazingly spared from the flames. He feels he should rejoice in this preservation but is no longer sure that the accumulated wisdom of earlier ages will matter to the future. Guiltily, he turns his back on the literary and scientific culture embodied and entombed in the library: 'Will I dream of a million books passing in endless procession, looking reproachfully upon me because after so long I have {93} begun to have doubts in them and all they stood for?' (p. 309).16

As Ish stands in the reader's near future pondering a more distant future he loses confidence in the ability of a bankrupt past to offer any usable guidance for those who will shape the new society. 'History repeats itself,' according to one of the central aphorisms in Earth Abides, 'but always with variations' (p. 176), and therefore the relation of past and future will always be problematic. In a later post-catastrophe novel which imagines a less attractive illiterate society than the neo-Amerindian one Stewart projected, Russell Hoban has staged an epiphany in the closest thing to a museum in southeastern England to survive the nuclear holocaust that ended twentieth-century civilization. At 'Cambry Senter' the latter day mystic Riddley Walker discovers a crypt that once sat beneath Canterbury Cathedral. Entering the hole in the ground where, as it seems to him, stone trees grow out of the earth, he is shaken by his perception of a saner ancient world whose artisans carved pillars with such cunning art and out of an instinctive sense of the wholeness of things:

it come to me what it wer wed los. It come to me what it wer as made them peopl time back way back bittern us. It wer knowing how to put ther Belts with the Power of the wood be come stoan. The wood in {94} the stoan and the stoan in the wood. The idear in the hart of every thing. If you cud even jug only put your self right with 1 stoan. Thats what kep saying its self in my head. If you cud even jug only put your self right with 1 stoan youwd be moving with the girt dants of the every thing the 1 Big 1 the Master Chaynjis. Then you myt have the res of it or not. The boats in the air or what ever. What ever you done wud be right. Them as made Canterbury musve put ther Belts right. Only it dint stay right did it. Somers in be twean them stoan trees and the Power Icing they musve put ther Belts wrong.17
In Riddley Walker (1980) these relics from medieval culture outline the tragedy of Riddley's world and ours but they also define the aesthetic of the artefact Riddley is making as he struggles with a degenerate language to write the autobiographical and anthropological narrative that we read, a text in which Riddley attempts to put himself -- and the world -- right again.

In Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End (1953) the epiphany takes place on another world, although as in The Time Machine from the moment the protagonist enters the alien building of the overlords there is no doubt in his mind that the structure must be a museum.18 The stowaway Jan Rodricks, stunned by the radical strangeness of daily life on another planet, gets 'a much needed psychological {95} boost to find himself in a place whose purpose he could fully understand'. But if he finds the physical layout of the interstellar museum familiar and reassuring, Jan does not find his actual tour of the museum an antidote to culture shock. Far from it. In an interview with the Curator for Earth he is distressed at how few of the terrestrial specimens he can identify and at the magnitude of his ignorance of human culture. His pride chastened, he then is given a further jolt when he sees the model of an enormous eye of a 'cyclopean beast' from a distant stellar system (p. 197), an eye so frighteningly alien that it further reduces the stature of human beings in the midst of a Nature infinitely inventive and profoundly inhuman.

J. G. Ballard's The Drowned World (1962) is enacted on our own planet but its physical environment is in many ways as alienating as anything in Childhood's End . The most spectacular site in The Drowned World is the submerged London planetarium to which the biologist Robert Kerans descends in diving gear, but the essential museum-locale in the novel may be Strangman's 'treasure ship', a mobile monument to kitsch and rapacity. Strangman, the leader of a gang of vandals who plunder the abandoned cities of Europe, has installed meretricious pseudo-art in the form of fake marble columns, peeling gilt banisters, gold-coloured draperies and tassels that, we are told, give the ship's decor the look of 'a bad film set of Versailles'.19 The ship's {96} cataloguing room contains a miscellany of good and bad pieces looted from museums: stone limbs and torsos, an ornamented altar piece, stacks of gilt-framed pictures, pairs of huge cathedral doors, pieces of arm our, equestrian statues, ceremonial ink stands, and other assorted bric-a-brac. Strangman, walking his visitors through the storeroom, identifies this mass of stuff with a single identifying phrase about its original home: 'Sistine Chapel' or 'Medici Tomb'. One of the tourists on this pirate ship murmurs, 'Aesthetically, most of this is rubbish, picked for the gold content alone' (p. 93). Another member of the party says of the museum relics simply, 'They're like bones' (p. 93). And two black sailors from Strangman's crew turn this into a derisive chant: 'Bones! Yes, man, dem's all bones! Dem bones dem bones dem. . .!' (p. 94).

Strangman, as Mark Rose has indicated, is the pivotal figure in The Drowned World, and his project to drain the water from London and re-expose the artefacts from the city's lost museums is a ghoulish activity.20 The museums in Ballard's narrative are the tombs of the past, and the effort to reclaim the past -- whether by acquisitive madmen like Strangman or by Kerans's scientific expedition into the sunken planetarium -- leads to revulsion, nightmare, and flight. Ballard's museums, presided over by the spookily elegant skeletons of Delvaux paintings and the surreal images of Max Ernst, have an elegiac function like the Palace of Green Porce- {97} lain, the Rome of The Last Man, and the ruins of Canterbury Cathedral, though where Wells, Shelley, and Hoban emphasize the achievements that have been lost, Ballard highlights (even more emphatically than George Stewart) the dilapidation of Western culture and (with Clarke) dramatizes the alienation of the museum visitor from the artefacts. Ballard's science-fictional museum becomes either a sterile memento of a world well-drowned as in the underwater planetarium or a cultural rummage in which artistic accomplishment is inextricably linked with vulgarity, robbery, and racism.

I end as I began with Wells and Shelley. Almost the time traveller's last act in the Palace of Green Porcelain, a gesture that from one perspective is the most trivial in the whole narrative, occurs when museum-fatigue has left him with a waning interest in the silent galleries he has been exploring. He enters a room full of ancient totems from a great cross-section of planetary cultures and pauses before a massive figure carved in soapstone: 'And here, yielding to an irresistible impulse,' he says, 'I wrote my name upon the nose of a steatite monster from South America that particularly took my fancy.' This piece of apparently gratuitous vandalism, this desire to announce his presence and even to claim possession of the artefact not only makes an incongruous link between Wells's self-consciously proper Victorian and Ballard's sleazy Strangman, it also stands as one of the most provocative com- {98} mentaries on the recurrence of museums in science fiction. Wells's traveller, anonymous to us, in an act of mischief carves his signature into an ancient artefact encountered 800,000 years from now. Every reader of The Time Machine remembers the pair of flowers the traveller brings back from the future to his dinner guests in 1895, but the impulse to leave behind some graffiti in 802,701 is an equally eloquent -- and perhaps a more revealing -- gesture. Although no one will ever read it, the traveller cannot forgo the self-important announcement that Kilroy was here. Mary Shelley's Lionel Verney does much the same sort of thing in his final days, getting white paint from a deserted shop and, as he makes his way toward Rome, inscribing his name in three languages on a conspicuous place in each town he passes through: 'Verney, the last of the race of Englishmen'. Beneath this flamboyant obituary, he adds as postcript, this time only in Italian, a more homely cri de coeur addressed to the figment of another survivor: 'Deh, vieni! ti aspetto!' [Come, I beg you. I am waiting for you!] (p. 332).

To these self-focusing flourishes we might add Ish's discovery of his own name written on the check-out slip of a book on geography in the Berkeley library (p. 268), Kerans's startled vision of himself in a mirror in The Drowned World's planetarium (p. 106), and Jan Rod ricks's irrational and overwhelming conviction that that single, gigantic, artificial eye is staring at him (p. 196). In all these {99} instances we are reminded that in the showcases of science fiction's museums we are what is chiefly on display. The artefacts in the museums may be historical, extraterrestrial, or futuristic, may be the most elegant products of a refined civilization, the unfathomable evidences of a totally alien mind, the shameful testimony of human crimes, the poignant relics of a vanished splendour, or junk indiscriminately preserved by time's accidents. Whatever its source, whatever the predilections or deficiencies of its curators, the science-fiction museum invites the reader to become a tourist and to peer into the glass case in wonder and often in alarm at an object that collapses distances of time and space, disorients and displaces the observer, and ultimately requires us to put ourselves right again. Such curiosity, disorientation, estrangement, and altered perception is a sequence the reader of works in this most modern of fictional genres frequently undergoes. Certainly in science fiction's museums, if we look long enough, we will at last and almost inevitably see with unmistakable clarity an object inscribed not only with Kilroy's name but with ours.


1. The events summarized come from these novels, in order: Mary Shelley, The Last Man (1826); H. G. Wells, The Time Machine (1985); Yevgeny Zamyatin, We (1924); Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men (1930); Gcorge Stewart, Earth Abides (1949); Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood's End (1953); J. G. Ballard, The Drowned World (1962); Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed (1974); Walter Tevis, Mockingbird (1980); Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker (1980); and George Turner, The Sea and Summer (North American title: Drowning Towers) (1987).

2. Karl Kroeber, Romantic Fantasy and Science Fiction (New Haven, 1988), p. 27.

3. See the opening chapters of Brian Aldiss, Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (New York, 1986), pp 75-52 and Mark Rose, Alien Encounters: Anatomy of Science Fiction (Cambridge, Mass., 1981), pp. 1-23.

4. On the development of the modern science museum out of private libraries and 'cabinets of curiosities' see Silvio A. Bedini, 'The Evolution of Science Museums', Technology and Culture, 6 (Winter 1965), pp. 1-29. Alma S. Wittlin chronicles the emergence of the 'public service' function of the museum in The Museum: Its History and Its Tasks in Education (London, 1949).

5. 'Introduction', Archaeologia, or Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity, Published by the Society of Antiquaries of London, vol. I (1770), p. ii.

6. On the collections of Sloane and Salter see Arthur MacGregor, 'The Cabinet of Curiosities in Seventeenth-Century Britain', in Oliver Impey and Arthur MacGregor (eds), The Origins of Museums: The Cabinet of Curiosities in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Europe (Oxford, 1985), pp. 147-58. See also Michael Hunter, 'The Cabinct Institutionalized: The Royal Society's "Repository" and Its Background', also in Impey and MacGregor, pp. 159-68.

7. Reports of early tourists to the Ashmolean, including continental scholars scandalized by the open-admissions policy, are cited in Martin Welch, 'The Ashmolean as Described by its Earliest Visitors' in Arthur MacGregor (ed.), Tradescant's Rarities: Essays on the Foundation of the Ashmolean Museum, 1683, (Oxford, 1983), pp. 59-69.

8. Useful discussions of the early history of the word museum in English appear in Wittlin, The Museum, pp. 1-8 and in Hunter's appendix to 'The Cabinet Institutionalized' in Impey and MacGregor, The Origins of Museums, p. 168.

9. On discontent in the 1820s over limited public access to the British Museum's collections and reading-room, see Edward Miller, That Noble Cabinet: A History of the British Museum (London, 1973), pp. 122-4.

10. Mary Shelley, The Last Man, introd. Brian Aldiss (1876; rpt, London, 1985), p. 313. Further references to this edition are given parenthetically.

11. H. G. Wells, The Time Machine: An Invention (London, 1895), ch. 11. The 16-chapter format of the first edition was later altered to a 12-chapter format, often adopted in later reprintings; in the latter, the episode of the museum falls in chapter 8. All citations in this essay are from chapter 11/8.

12. Kenneth Hudson discusses Prince Albert's ideal of a unified museum in Museums of Influence (Cambridge, 1987), pp. 69-70. Photographs on pp. 77 and 71 show, respectively, the new glass cases at the British Museum and the brontosaurus skeleton in the Museum of Natural History.

13. In The Definitive Time Machine: A Critical Edition of H. G. Wells's Scientific Romance (Bloomington, Ind., 1987), Harry M. Geduld sees the visit to the Palace as an 'autonomous' episode in which Wells 'is depicting scenes rather than developing plot' (p. 12). My own earlier commentary on the Palace in H. G. Wells (Mercer Island, Wash., 1986) treats it only as a place where the traveller 'procures weapons' (p. 26). An important exception to this general neglect is John Huntington's account of the visit to the museum as an instance of Wells's mediation of opposites in The Logic of Fantasy: H. G. Wells and Science Fiction (New York, 1982), pp. 46-7.

14. Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men (1930; rpt. New York, 1968), p. 95.

15. George R. Stewart. Earth Abides (1949; rpt. New York, 1971), p. 116. Further references to this edition are given parenthetically.

16. Ish's wistfulness about the good old days is countered throughout the novel by Em, the new Eve of the emergent arcadian society, who indicts the failures of the Euroamerican imagination. As a women and an African-American, Em refuses to mourn the lost cultural literacy of the past, makes mordant observations on the 'communication' that resulted from European voyages of exploration to Africa and the Americas (p. 174), and derides the vindictive male God of Judaeo-Christian tradition (p. 258).

17. Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker (1980; rpt. New York, 1982), pp. 161-2.

18. Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood's End (1953; rpt. New York 1974), p. 194. Further references to this edition are given parenthetically.

19. J. G. Ballard, The Drowned World (1962; rpt. Harmondsworth, 1965), p. 92. Further references to this edition are given parenthetically.

20. See Rose's superb commentary on The Drowned World in Alien Encounters, pp. 127-38.