Introducing: Science Fiction Collections Curator Thomas Dillon


Thomas Dillon, Science Fiction Collections Curator at the University of Liverpool, talks us through the largest catalogued collection of science fiction materials in Europe…

Hi Thomas. Tell us about the University of Liverpool’s Science Fiction Collections and your role there.

We make the claim that the Science Fiction Collections, based here in the Special Collections and Archives department at the University of Liverpool, is the largest catalogued collection of science fiction materials in Europe. We make the distinction that it is the largest catalogued collection rather than simply the largest collection because there may be other collections in private hands that are bigger, but they are not catalogued or open to the public. The collection contains over 35,000 books from the nineteenth century to the present; around 2, 500 periodical titles including magazines, critical journals, comics, and zines; and archives of important figures in science fiction and related genres such as John Wyndham, Olaf Stapledon, Ellen Datlow, Ramsey Campbell, John Brunner, Eric Frank Russell, and Harry Harrison. As such it is a vital resource for the study of science fiction and a fascinating record of the genre as it has developed over its history.

“My greatest pleasure is walking down the stacks, encountering items and objects that I didn’t know we had”

My role comprises two main tasks: caring for and promoting the collection. As part of my care for the collection I work on collection management, cataloguing, and acquisition. My promotional work sees me organising events, answering enquiries, and writing articles or taking part in interviews. Even the most mundane of these tasks is transformed by the material I work with on a daily basis. My greatest pleasure is walking down the stacks, following the shelves of books, opening up boxes of magazines or archives, and encountering items and objects that I didn’t know that we had.

When, how, and why was the collection established? 

The majority of items in the collection are on deposit from the Science Fiction Foundation (SFF). The SFF was founded in 1971 to promote and facilitate research into science fiction and was originally based at the North East London Polytechnic. The SFF comprises two main activities: the publication of the research journal Foundation: the International Review of Science Fiction (1972-present) and the maintenance of a research library.

The research library transferred from the North East London Polytechnic to the University of Liverpool in 1993 where it joined science-fiction archives already owned by the University of Liverpool, such as the Olaf Stapledon papers, or those soon to be added such the archives of Eric Frank Russell and John Wyndham. The science-fiction holdings of the University of Liverpool and those on deposit from the SFF became the Science Fiction Collections. An Administrator (later renamed Librarian), Andy Sawyer, was appointed to look after the collection with an additional remit to set up and run the first MA programme in science fiction studies.


What brought you here? What do you love about Science Fiction?

I’m sure I could start with my childhood love of fantasy and Ursula K. Le Guin but the trajectory that led me to my current role began at Birbeck College in London. While I studied for a PhD in science fiction studies at the university, I worked evenings at the university library. After my PhD ended I flitted between library work and academic roles before securing the role as Science Fiction Collections Curator here at the University of Liverpool. The job is a dream for me, combining an academic knowledge and love of science fiction with my practical experience of academic libraries.

“Science fiction lets us take a step back to see things differently”

Science fiction is often accused of escapism – being fun, unrealistic, and unserious. There is a certain truth to these accusations. It is a pleasure to leave our world behind for a time especially in our current climate. However, what I love about science fiction is that it only ever lets us escape so that we return again to our world with fresh eyes. The idea of metaphor – the description of one thing by reference to another thing – is a good analogy for science fiction. Just as a metaphor can renew the way we see things by surprising comparisons, science fiction lets us take a step back to see things differently by asking us to compare our reality with the one described in fiction.

Historically, Science Fiction wasn’t considered especially diverse. Are things changing? Is this reflected in the collection? 

Yes, thankfully things are changing, though not fast enough. There are probably two key ways in which the historical dominance of white-male Western perspectives is being challenged. The first is that we are seeing the commercial and critical recognition of a number of authors of colour in the last decade or so, such as N. K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, Tade Thompson, Aliette de Bodard, and Rivers Solomon. This is not to say that there were no authors of colour present in the genre before, only that the quantity and visibility of non-white authors has increased. Secondly, we are undergoing a critical reappraisal of the genre that is challenging the idea of science fiction as historically monocultural. Academics are now looking beyond the traditional venues of science fiction, such as magazines and science fiction publishers, for authors and works that have been critically marginalised. In addition, a number of anthologists have pushed the boundaries of the definition of science fiction to encompass previously excluded traditions. Grace L. Dillon’s collection of Indigenous Futurist stories Walking the Clouds (2012) and the two volumes of the Black speculative fiction anthology Dark Matter edited by Sheree Renée Thomas (2000, 2004) are examples of this generic expansion.

“I believe it is the duty of the collection not only to respond to changes in the genre but in some cases to lead it”

This shift is not yet registered in the collection, beyond collecting the newer works that are being published. I believe it is the duty of the collection not only to respond to changes in the genre but in some cases to lead it. And so it is one my priorities to begin highlighting diverse voices within the collection and actively collect items that expand what it means for something to be science fiction. To this end, I have worked with Neil Drew-Lopez, a Student Partner at the University of Liverpool, on launching a guide to decolonising science fiction that links to items in our collection that can help with this important work. This is first step in ensuring that the collection reflects the emerging diversity of contemporary science fiction and the way that its history is being re-considered.

What, in your opinion, are some of its key holdings? 

With a run of major science-fiction magazines from the UK and the US from the 1920s to the present and a broad range of science-fiction novels, the Science Fiction Collections act as a national centre for the study of science fiction. At the same time, the collection’s unique archives of science-fiction figures make it one of international significance to researchers all over the world. The most important archives are those of Olaf Stapledon, the philosopher and novelist best known for his innovative and epic future histories Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937); John Wyndham, author of celebrated works of science fiction The Day of the Triffids (1951), The Chrysalids (1955), and The Midwich Cuckoos (1957); and Ellen Datlow, the influential science-fiction and horror editor who worked with William Gibson to develop his early short-stories that would become the centre of the Cyberpunk movement.


Is there anything surprising lurking in the stacks?

Yes, many things, and I am discovering more all the time! We have a typewriter belonging to Arthur C. Clarke on which it is believed that he wrote an influential essay, ‘Extra-Terrestrial Relays’, in which he predicted the use of geo-stationary satellites in global communications. Another fascinating item that really engages audiences is a copy of The Daily Mail from 1928 purporting to be published in the year 2000. The journalists correctly predict the Channel Tunnel but were way off on the prediction that rats would be eliminated from Britain by the millennium.

scifi-archive-Clarke Tyepwriter_web

My current favourite is a notebook belonging to the poet Marilyn Hacker that includes edits, spelling corrections, and spoof reviews of Samuel R. Delany’s epic novel Dhalgren (1975). Not only is Delany dyslexic but the novel itself revolves around the uncertainty of language, all of which must have made the editing a tricky process. Hacker’s parody review from the Daily Telegraph reads ‘[i]n search of sensationalism, Delany’s novel touches the very bottom of the cesspit.’ Sadly, the Daily Telegraph appears not to have corroborated Hacker’s parody by writing an official review of the novel.

Who tends to use the collection? Who can?

The Science Fiction Collections are consulted mostly by researchers of science fiction. In addition, students on the MA in science fiction studies regularly use the collection, and a number of science-fiction enthusiasts visit to see items of particular interest. The collection is in theory open to all. However, a number of barriers, not least of all the physical barriers at the entrance of the library, restrict access to the majority of people. Many will not have the confidence to navigate academic spaces or may not feel comfortable or welcomed within them. Some are unable to visit due to the geographical distance and/or costs associated with travelling to the library.

“I look forward to sharing the amazing worlds of science fiction contained in the collections”

Before anything else, most people cannot visit because they don’t know we exist! Part of my work to promote the collection is to break down some of these barriers. Public events encourage those who might not necessarily feel welcomed in an academic context to see some of the materials, while interviews such as this one, as well as articles, and blogs aim to make the collection more widely known. Finally, we have launched a platform, the University of Liverpool Digital Heritage Lab, for viewing some of our items in digital form for those unable to visit us due to distance or cost.

If you would like to visit us or have any enquiries about the collection, then please do get in contact. My email is t.dillon[at] I look forward to hearing from you and sharing the amazing worlds of science fiction that are contained in the Science Fiction Collections.

As told to Mike Pinnington

Further Reading: S is for Science Fiction

Posted on 31/05/2024 by thedoublenegative