Frontiers of Science Fiction: curator’s note

Featured image from Frontiers of Science

Frontiers of Science Fiction is a Rare Books & Special Collections exhibition that features works from both The Frontiers of Science strips and our science fiction collections. It is on display in the Level 2 Exhibition Space in Fisher Library until 15 August 2021.

Excerpt from Frontiers of Science strip number 035 showing machinery such as robots and rockets, with text that reads "Science today conceives a time when electronic super-intelligences would prove so much more efficient than humans, that they might take over the earth..."
Frontiers of Science 035

Frontiers of Science was a groundbreaking Australian syndicated newspaper comic strip published internationally between 1962 and 1980 and created here at the University of Sydney. Its aim was to disseminate scientific knowledge in an easily comprehensible way during the height of the Cold War between Russia and America, to a public fascinated with, and indeed enmeshed in, the scientific and technological rivalry between the two world blocks. The “space race” was inextricably tied to the “arms race” and defined the era from 1945 till 1990.

The original Frontiers of Science strips ran from 1961 and were significant as a means of communicating and popularising science. The series was produced and distributed by Press Feature Service, and co-written by Professor Stuart Butler from the School of Physics at the University of Sydney, and journalist and film-maker Bob Raymond. Early artwork in the series was by Andrea Bresciani; it was continued later by David Emerson.

Four black-and-white photographs, each portraying one of the four creators of the Frontiers of Science.
Photographs of the four creators of the Frontiers of Science strips, from left: Professor Butler, Bob Raymond (behind a movie camera), Andrea Bresciani and David Emerson

The Library’s Rare Books and Special Collections holds the archive of these strips, and the physical copies of the original paper ‘pulls’ – five days of strips that could be sent to the newspapers around the world for publication.

Rare Books and Special Collections also has several science fiction collections donated and acquired over the years, including the Steele, Graham and General Science Fiction collections. These form a comprehensive survey of 20th century speculative science writing. 

The exhibition Frontiers of Science Fiction is an attempt to find the intersection of science fiction writing and science by juxtaposing the Frontiers of Science with these myriad SF books. In doing this, it is hoped that a kind of imaginative tableau of ideas in the 20th century, the popular scientific imagination, and the current state of scientific ideas (via QR code links to online content) will inspire interest, thought, and imagination.

The exhibition is arranged in themes broadly defined by the literature as an easily accessible and populist point of contact. Themes include ‘The Moon’, ‘Relativistic Travel’, ‘Rockets’, ‘Cryonics’, ‘Robots’ and ‘Plagues from Space’. It includes original Frontiers of Science sheets next to the books, with QR codes linking to the contemporary science for the theme.

Here is a brief taster of a few of the themes:

Life in the Computer Age 

This Frontiers of Science piece from 1965, probably of all the collection, encompasses more accurate predictions in one edition than all the others, and in some ways has the most relevance to the lives we lead today. It also highlights how difficult it is to predict what may happen in the future.

Tim Berners-Lee, the initiator of what became the worldwide web in 1991, envisaged something entirely different to the system that we have today. He certainly expected something which would democratise information and its transmission, but by his own admission, he never foresaw the leverage that vast commercial interests now exert upon all of us using the internet.

The comic strip Frontiers of Science number 178 showing a man with a wired remote control scrolling through some text on a small, 1960’s style television screen in his living room. He is perched on an easy chair and smoking a pipe.
Frontiers of Science, number 178

This single panel from the Frontiers of Science strip 178 (11/02/1965) is concerned with the way that information from all libraries will be available in your living room. It is not too far off in terms of the internet at least, and more specifically e-books in the modern academic library.

The hierarchical notions of information access prevalent at the time are predicted to remain intact in this vision, and libraries are named as the big player in information technology. The fullness of time has proven libraries have become in some ways marginalised as they are no longer the only receptacles of knowledge. The reality has been an atomisation of information via internet and its social media, which over 30 years have slowly and increasingly become concentrated in the hands of the tech giants that hold most power: Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook; companies that recently faced congressional hearings on their monopolies.

This Frontiers of Science pull has a lot of other ideas too:

  • The need for a more human interaction language for interface, which came true in Basic then language interfaces via the QWERTY keyboard
Comic strip Frontiers of Science 178 showing a woman at a QWERTY keyboard tape -punching device. Second panel has a woman at a large computer terminal with reel-to-reel tape. Text says: “Methods are now being devised to enable computers to read printed or even hand-written material.” Third panel shows a man at a desk holding a microphone and reading from a paper script in front of another large bank of computers. The text says: “Computer ability to analyse and obey voice commands is also close to achievement.”
Frontiers of Science, number 178
  • The extension of this to voice command (Siri and Alexa)
  • Prediction of extra leisure hours because of the alleviation of drudge jobs
  • Phone calls or communication to computers automating the product supply chain end to end
  • Radar speed traps and centralised government revenue collection- taxation boon
  • Instantaneous translation
  • The paperless office

Looking only at voice command, we could take the example of Siri:

Apple’s proprietary voice recognition and response software, native to billions of devices worldwide in homes, offices and pockets, has a dark 1970s precedent in Dean R Koontz’s novel Demon Seed (featured in the exhibition).

In this book, Siri (or Google Hub or Apple Home) are presaged in heroine Susan Harris’s home security system: an AI which becomes obsessed with her, ultimately attempting to own her mind and body via the powerful control it exerts.

Cover image of Dean R. Koontz's book Demon Seed, featuring a woman looking behind over her shoulder plugged in to a large machine through multiple cords
Rare Books & Special Collections SF K822 J2 1

Frontiers of Science 026, entitled ‘The Giant Leap’ deals with contacting other intelligences and crosses over thematically with some notable books in the SF genre.

Frontiers of Science 026 showing a profile of a man looking heavenward and text reading “Assuming the existence of highly advanced beings on other planets, argues Professor Bracewell, why not use their knowledge to jump ahead of ourselves and complete our understanding of the universe?”
Frontiers of Science 026

Many of the books in the exhibition are concerned with the details of alien contact but a few of them delve more deeply to speculate on the existential and conceptual problems humans face in such contact.

Arcady and Boris Strugatsky’s expert exploration of alien contact and its implications is called Roadside Picnic (1971). In this book, the remains of an alien visit to Earth create a restricted zone where artifacts left behind have unfathomable powers, and some people – “stalkers” – come to claim some of these objects for their mysterious effects, at great personal risk.

The titular metaphor relates to this: what would the remains of a roadside picnic look like to the animals of the forest? The book implies that our meagre understanding makes us the animals in this scenario, in the face of an intelligence too advanced to fathom.

In The Listeners by James E Gunn (1972), the message received from the vast reaches of space divides humanity and causes untold tumult.

In our copy on display, the cover features an image of the Arecibo Message. This radio transmission was sent to a cluster of stars 25,000 light years away to demonstrate the power of the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico in 1974. It is a three-minute message of exactly 1,679 binary digits – which, if arranged in a specific way, can explain basic information about humanity and earth to extra-terrestrial beings. It has as yet only travelled a small fraction of the distance to its destination.

The Arecibo message as sent 1974 from the Arecibo Observatory, from Wikipedia:
The Arecibo message as sent 1974 from the Arecibo Observatory

Relativistic travel 

Einstein’s theory of general relativity has in recent times become affirmed as a correct model of the universe at the macro level. The collision of two black holes and the detection of the gravity waves that emanated from this event happened via CalTech’s LIGO observatory in 2016. The new LIGO discovery is the first observation of gravitational waves themselves, made by measuring the tiny disturbances the waves make to space and time as they pass through the earth.

In Frontiers of Science 435, part 2 of the strip concerns itself with explaining Einstein’s idea of gravity waves but notes that scientists at the time considered them impossible to measure.


Comic strip Frontiers of Science 435 showing a boy observing ripples in a pond and the face of Albert Einstein, A caption reads “Einstein’s general theory of relativity, formulated in 1916, said that gravitational fields around bodies in space, if disturbed, should also produce waves- of gravity”
Frontiers of Science 435

Einstein’s later theory of special relativity deals with what happens to bodies approaching the speed of light. Frontiers of Science 636 from 1973 illustrates this well, and the Library’s science fiction collections represent this in a number of well-known books.

Frontiers of Science comic strip 636 part 3 includes a picture of an astronaut greeting an older man, with onlooker. The caption says: “This is why a future traveller could return to Earth from a long space journey a younger man than his twin, who stayed on earth.”
Frontiers of Science 636

In Poul Anderson’s book Tau Zero (1970), 50 space travellers are compelled to continue accelerating to near light speeds after miscalculating planetfall. Ultimately, relativity as per Einstein’s model mean they can witness the end of the universe, its rebirth and make a new planetfall in an entirely new cosmos.

Similarly, Joe Haldeman’s book, The Forever War, has a decidedly 1970s twist on relativistic interstellar travel. In his novel, the effect of time dilation between the earth and the travellers going off to wage war against an implacable and virtually unintelligible enemy means the returned soldiers are perpetually at odds with the Earth they come home to after decades of Earth time. Haldeman’s own experiences as a returned Vietnam veteran colour this tale of an Earth (read America) that has upturned the values that drafted him.

All the wonderful covers of the books chosen for display are not possible to show here but traverse the breadth of artistic expression for the genre over the years and should not be missed. We hope to see you at the exhibition.

About the curator: Mark Sanfilippo is the Library’s Learning Spaces Officer. He has worked in the museums and galleries sector, notably at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and Sydney’s Living Museums. He practises and has an interest in art, design and visual communication, and has an addiction to art supplies and rickety musical instruments. His approach to science is that of a fascinated layperson. He is an advocate of the possibilities of the imagination in interdisciplinary approaches, particularly when applied to the sciences. This is his first solo curated exhibition.

Cataloguing the Graham Science Fiction Collection

Library staff working with Rare Books & Special Collections are invited to blog about significant items and interesting discoveries. Here, Rare Books & Special Collections cataloguing assistant Simon Cooper writes about the Graham Science Fiction Collection.

During the Covid-19 period the Rare Books & Special Collections cataloguing team has been tackling, from home and using photos, the books in the Graham science fiction (SF) collection. The books number around 30,000. In addition, the collection includes large holdings of comics and magazines, serials or journals, all still to be catalogued online.