University of Calgary

Seeing Sci-Fi History in a New Light

Submitted by alumni on Tue, 04/11/2017 - 23:22.

Seeing Sci-Fi History in a New Light

One of the largest collections of sci-fi research in the world resides within UCalgary’s Libraries and Cultural Resources.
by Heath McCoy

The Gibson Collection

The tool is invaluable to researchers in particular, says Forlini, because, in its vastness, the Gibson Collection is still such an untapped resource with mysteries to be uncovered. For example, Gibson used a series of symbols to categorize the stories in his anthologies, but no one has been able to crack the code as to what these symbols actually meant.

“The collection is very much a raw resource that needs sifting through to fully realize exactly what’s there and what’s of value,” explains Forlini. “A lot of these materials are unknown. They have not been gathered into anthologies elsewhere or studied by scholars at all. We’re discovering a lot of works that have been neglected entirely. For example, we’ve identified more than 80 women writers in the anthologies. They don’t appear in any bibliographies of the science fiction genre.”

Discoveries made within the Gibson Collection might even change the way scholars view science fiction history, adds Forlini.

“When literary historians were first trying to establish science fiction as a genre worthy of academic study, they established a canon,” she explains. “Here are the major works and the major writers, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, writers who brought this intellectual pay-off. This is whom we should pay attention to. But, by doing that, they downplayed the fact that science fiction is a mass-market, popular genre. If you really want to tell the history of a mass-market genre, I’m not sure you’re best served by only looking at the major authors.”

The Messy Interactions

The Gibson anthologies provide a valuable insight into “the messy interactions” between all levels of writers, Forlini says, from the minor figures, who may have only contributed a handful of stories, to the major authors, who were often publishing in the same periodicals early in their careers. “How were these so-called minor writers moving the genre ahead in ways we don’t realize?” she asks.

Now, with the recruitment of John Brosz, who specializes in research data and visualization with Libraries and Cultural Resources, Forlini and Hinrichs are hoping to take the project into even more ambitious territory. Their plan is to embody the physical characteristics of the Gibson Collection within the Speculative W@nderverse.

“Visualization allows us to explore an overview of this vast collection, enabling scholars to find trends and outliers in the evolution and history of the science fiction genre,” explains Brosz. “Visualization also captures the physical attributes of the books themselves, such as paper texture, illustrations and typography, as well as marking and notes made by readers.”

Forlini adds: “We realized that, when we’re presenting these anthologies in digital form, we’re losing the history embedded in their physical features. A book is more than just a vehicle for content. It’s a historical artifact, and when you digitize it, you’re tampering with that historical evidence. We still want to preserve content for textual analysis, but that’s only a part of the wealth of information that is contained in a book.

“Is there some way to digitally preserve those historic markers of the physical book? This is what we’re attempting.”

You can request to view the material on the fifth floor of Taylor Family Digital Library by calling Special Collections at 403.220.3608 or email U

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