A common trait that many Science Fiction, Sci-Fi, and Fantasy aficionados seem to share is the love of things. Figurines, statues, props, and day to day objects adorn with our obsessions. They clutter our shelves, walls, table tops, and really any surface that can hang, hold, or display these things. This is not an uncommon behavior for fans of any genre or domain. Sports fans have their stashes of trinkets and garb displaying their colors and love of the game. However, the proverbial geeks of Science Fiction, Sci-Fi, and Fantasy seem to take this to an extraordinary measure.
In Sociological terms our common stock of knowledge, our lust for tangible objects, our language and bona fides can ascribe us as a loose subculture. The history of this geekdom is as interesting as it is humble. From best sellers like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells in the late 1800's to the struggle of pulp books and being taken serious by literary institutions and mainstream culture during the Golden Era of the 1930 through the 1960. Now this subculture seems to be on top of the most watched shows, blockbuster movies, and all manner of best seller lists.
Though all of the minute details of the genre can be debated as to the difference between Science Fiction and Sci-Fi, I’ll leave that for another article. Though I tend to agree with Harlan Ellison’s views on the matter. And if you don’t know who Harlan Ellison is, you are part of the problem and should confine yourself to a chair with the Transformer movies on endless loop. That’s supposed to be torture and the type AM would inflict on me.
This article is focused on Science Fiction as a general genre to include Sci-Fi and Fantasy. Objects from posters, mugs, shirts, key-chains, bookends, to you name it, will be bought and displayed. Why is this? I think the answer will vary with each individual. Some possibilities may be a way to signal to other geeks. Displaying a similar admiration for something could lead to a conversation, new information, etc. It could be a way have modest mental vacations from the grind of daily living. It can also be nothing more a declaration of love for something that has brought us joy and escape. Maybe it’s a bit of all three.
Perhaps it’s something else. Something a little deeper. Cultural Heritage depends largely on items excavated from sites, records of language, customs, history, music, and most often the sites themselves. When we consider this in terms of the Science Fiction subculture which was essentially born from literature starting with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, our Cultural Heritage is derived from the publications of these first stories.
In archaeology the idea of what defines an artifact is subjective. We can look to the Archaeological Resources Protection 16 U.S. Code § 470bb for a good legal definition for protected artifacts. Essentially anything that was found at a site and analyzed with the intent of finding the story behind the object; how was it made, what’s it doing here, what did people use it for, how did people view it, etc, and it needs to be at least 100 years old. Not to be confused with antiques which are more or less commercial products that have some unique value to a person, just like art is in the eye of the beholder.
Obviously this is a gross overview but the important thing to consider is the emotional attachment the item has for the individual. In the same context as when we look at an old map which was used as a guide from one destination to another, the old books are a guide from ideas and story arches we may take for granted now to the ideas that rock our world. There inlays the crux, the importance to the field of Science Fiction and the emotional bonds we feel to those tangibles.
Similar to archaeological items and even pieces of art, being in the presence and if you’re lucky enough handling the tangibles of our heritage can be an exhilarating moment. Holding a first addition of an Isaac Asimov article, a Harlan Ellison paperback, or a Philip K. Dick novel brings us closer to the time it was new, it was an undiscovered treasure. Being a momentary custodian of an artifact like these has allowed me to reflect on the media. Before there was social media, the internet, instant messages, and connectivity not unlike the kind written in the Golden Era; there was print, and just print.
During that time no one had an idea of the need to preserve copies of the printed books. Thinking they were throw away stories that were good for a quick read. Similar to comic books from that era. Kids would read them, roll them up, and stick them in their back pockets. Since then the comic book market has been saturated by worthless and subpar “collectibles”. Gold foiled, in a collector’s bag, with a trading card, and collect all variant covers.
Unlike the fanfare whenever Superman dies the 100th time, these older books were printed and distributed during a time when the new stories and new ideas carried the weight. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with a serial and I personally love many of them. I hit up my local comic book shops twice a month for my pulls and will spend an entire weekend visited all of the shops in the Valley of the Sun to find the issues I need to complete my collections.
It was this hunt for my collections when I recognized the excitement I’m sure we all feel when we find treasure. This led me to the task of finding what artifacts of my beloved genre in the collections available. Luckily I have access to the Arizona State University libraries and their collections. As I’ve gone back to school for another degree, I decided to use my placement and access to my advantage.
Searching the databases for titles of the greats, getting lost in the stacks, searching for treasure has been a humbling experience. As a person that spends most of his days and nights on a computer as a digital curator for an archaeological project, computer forensic investigator, student, and aspiring writer, it was good to roam the cold media again.
The Hayden Library at the Tempe campus is where I did most of my initial hunting. Searching for mostly first editions with short stories so I could read them in a sitting, I found some treasures. Within the special collections in the Luhr’s Room, among the stacks, and on microfiche, I found some of the masters: Asimov, Clark, Guin, Ellison, etc. It was great. Similar to my quest of nostalgia after reading Ready Player One. My search for ROMs of old games and weekends watching my old favorite movies, led to discovering a moment when all my cynicism, all my experiences during combat, and a sort of adolescent returned for a fleeting ripple of time.
I suppose the point I would like to make is that it is important to rediscover our past from time to time. And for eras previous to our own it is vital to discover our heritage through the items. I’m a bit of a romantic when it comes to things like this but as I’ve seen at conventions, shops, markets, forums, etc, we all are to an extent. Libraries are becoming more scarce in our modern lives and when they are gone they will rarely come back. So I encourage you to use the libraries you have access to, travel if you need to, get a team together, make a day of it, and rediscover the books that paved the way for the present and cherish these artifacts.