Fantastic Worlds

Libraries are having a tough time in the digital age. While you can access oceans of digital articles with the click of a mouse (especially if you have a university login), librarians and hard-copy enthusiasts are struggling to negotiate their roles in the Internet era. For better or (mostly) for worse, Google has replaced the real-live person who helped you with your research; sales of paper books, especially scholarly ones, are plunging. In any case, it is with great pleasure that book lovers get a chance to see artifacts on display in a place that gives careful attention to the physical book.


The role of the museum in preserving books and inspiring the public to pursue further research was on my mind throughout my visit to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. In particular, I was excited to see the Fantastic Worlds exhibit put on by the Smithsonian Libraries, one of the core research institutions in the Smithsonian system. Literature and science: if you haven’t guessed by now, these are the favorite topics here at The Virtuoso.


The exhibit, which opened July 1, 2015, can be found in the American History building on the lower level, wedged between The Value of Money and the American Enterprise exhibits (adjacent and closely related to Inventing in America, Inventive Minds, The Object Project, and Places of Invention). The placement, whether purposeful or not, is apt. On one hand, Fantastic Worlds is scarcely American in nature: it features books mostly by British and French authors, and though the influences of these works on contemporary or future American works could easily be traced and discussed, there are only a few Americans to be found in the small, dark room. One is Edgar Allan Poe; another is engineer, inventor, and Smithsonian secretary Charles Pierpont Langley, whose inclusion could just as well be a spillover from the exhibit next door on American innovation.

On the other hand, Fantastic Worlds is clearly thematically relevant to both innovation and the story of money. The objects and interpretations on the former focus on the (relatively short) history of business and technology in America and how innovation transformed everyday life (almost overnight in many cases). It’s about culture, and commerce, and the hopes and dreams of innovators and consumers. And just a few feet to the left is the monetary exhibit, a shrine to the cold, hard value of these new ideas and products. Where else but between the two should you find the opportunity to explore the process of how the unknown, the mysterious, and the wondrous became the known, the categorized, and the assimilated, and then sold to the curious masses? Fantastic Worlds is as much about writers capitalizing on sensations and intellectual fads as it is about great works of art.


It’s difficult to compare the exhibits themselves: those on American innovation have huge spaces in which to describe many aspects of many decades; Fantastic Worlds has an alcove in which to awe the few curious passersby. The artifacts are small and delicate; the room is dark to protect them from damage. Though beautiful to book lovers and antiquarians, Tik-Tok on the page doesn’t shine quite like the cinematic Tin Man next door in Hollywood. But this is where the digital age comes to the rescue: there is so much the Smithsonian Libraries can do on the Internet, and it has done it with an excellent supplementary exhibit on its website. Can’t get to DC to check it out? You, and everyone else, can view the high-resolution images without leaving your couch.

Seeing first and second editions of books I love is a thrill. Seeing them set side by side in thematic context with other works is even better. But perhaps tiny rooms in museums are not the right venue for real literary analysis. Literature exists to reflect culture but also to critique it, and the lack of critique is the main flaw in this exhibit. There is a lot provided as illustration, i.e., “see the things writers wrote about the Arctic, and electricity, and robots!” But there is very little analysis on the ways in which writers doubted, criticized, and reflected fears about these adventures, projects, and boundaries that men were crossing physically and philosophically. This non-attention given to the drawbacks of science and exploration could be another side effect of the exhibit’s placement: one doesn’t want to be brought down from the high of technological wonder provided next door by Edison, Ford, Jobs, and Wosniak. However, the lack of critical analysis is actually made more noticeable because of the thorough approach of the adjoining innovation exhibit, which does a better job of discussing the many negative facets and downsides of innovation, including the exploited workers and the environmental damage. That said, the exhibit makes the most of what it has, and it is a delight.

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The “Infinite Worlds” segment is my favorite. It directly describes literary contributions to the field of science, for example how Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon used elements from both real science and other fiction to create a pseudoscientific narrative. The story of Richard Adams Locke’s moon hoax is very well told, revealing the zeal and gullibility of the public and hinting at the larger matter of how and why stories go viral. It was also a fantastic choice to have George Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la Lune playing on a loop (a movie that’s seen something of a resurgence in popularity lately, with the newly rediscovered/restored hand-colored print set to a soundtrack by the French band Air and released on Netflix and Vimeo. It gives me endless joy to imagine bringing Méliès to the year 2015 and showing him Vimeo).

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“The Body Electric” (a reference to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, published in 1855) provides a  brief lesson in the history of electricity and a glimpse at the controversy involving Galvani and Volta and their various electrical experiments. Of everything I learned about from this exhibit, my favorite is Thomas Fessenden’s satirical poem“Terrible tractoration!! A poetical petition against galvanising trumpery” (which can be viewed in its entirety here). The most poignant piece of literary commentary is included on the website but not the exhibit itself:“It is widely thought that Mary Shelley may have used Humphry Davy as a model for Victor Frankenstein. Certainly they shared a passion for chemistry. However Davy, along with most of his contemporaries, believed strongly that science, the new science of chemistry in particular, was unequivocally a power for the public good. Shelley’s novel upended that conceit, presenting perhaps for the first time, a vision of science – unchecked scientific ambition, in particular – with a dark side.” The web exhibit also acknowledges the damage a “reckless scientist” can do. This is a much better analysis of Frankenstein than the one presented in the physical exhibit, which is limited to passive wish-fulfillment on Shelley’s part:“Though not yet 20 when she began Frankenstein, Shelley was no stranger to the creation and loss of life. She bore two children, losing one in infancy, and she lost her half-sister to suicide, all before the book was published. ‘Perhaps a corpse would be reanimated,’ she wrote in the preface to the 1831 edition; ‘galvanism had given token of such things.’”

Athanasii Kircheri e Soc. Jesu Mundus subterraneus

“Underworlds” gives credit to the undercredited Athanasius Kircher for his Mundus Subterraneus (above). The images of the dinosaurs at Crystal Palace are excellent: Charles Dickens might feel a bit slighted that his homage to dinosaurs in Bleak House (1853) was excluded:“As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.”

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In“Terra Incognita,” much attention is given to the whirlwind of excitement surrounding global expeditions and the heights of celebrity achieved by explorers, though very little is said of the fears and criticism they engendered. Joseph Conrad is sadly misused: he is quoted on the matter of the men“sometimes swallowed up by the mystery their hearts were so persistently set on unveiling,” apparently to buoy the elements of fame touted here. But his own work Heart of Darkness (1899) is left out, probably because it depicts the darkest moral and physical aspects of these voyages. (Given more space, Robert Walton’s Arctic voyage, the frame tale of Shelley’s Frankenstein, could have been set up as a direct complement to Frankenstein’s moral quandaries with regard to experimentation and boundary-crossing: having heard Frankenstein’s tale and faced with mutiny among his crew, Walton decides to turn back.) John Franklin’s Arctic voyage is mentioned as being ill-fated and turning to cannibalism, but it’s the PG version that favors celebrity over disaster (for more on that, analysis on artifacts from this voyage was reported on in the Smithsonian’s magazine). Jules Verne’s prolific and passionate works on the excitement of traveling to unknown lands are rightfully given much attention here, though the worst aspects of the paths these voyagers take (Captain Nemo’s kidnapping of the main characters and monomaniacal tendencies, for instance) are glossed over.

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“Rise of the Machines,” about the public’s fascination with steam power and automatons, among other technologies such as Babbage’s Difference Engine, strains to be more than it is, taking on too much material with not enough space. Utopian/dystopian fiction has a place in this exhibit, but it seems wedged in here rather than properly given its own focus. Erewhon is an excellent and accessible example of social commentary, but there are certainly better technological ones. Why not E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman” (1817), an astoundingly early story of an automaton named Olimpia who is realistic enough to fool most humans and accompanies one man’s spiraling descent into madness?  Why not, on the subject of technology and dystopia, Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), Forster’s The Machine Stops (1909), Verne’s The Begum’s Fortune (1879) (or even Paris in the Twentieth Century, a technological dystopia if there ever was one, despite the fact that it wasn’t published until 1994, sixty years after the futuristic events in the novel)? A fascinating connection between people’s fears about reanimating the dead and the independent intelligence of automata could even be drawn. Instead, the exhibit focuses, curiously, on Tik-Tok in Ozma of Oz (1907) and The Steam Man of the Prairies (1868), defiantly accentuating the celebration of adventure and progress that robots and automatons embodied and implying that all machine-men were servants built to enhance our lives rather than corrupt or endanger them.

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Of course, not every relevant book can be displayed (or even obtained by one library), and not every story can be told. The exhibit really is great fun. It provides the pleasure of the books themselves, well-considered commentary on a vast array of fascinating artifacts, a strong narrative about the influence of science on society and literature, and a thousand different ideas to inspire and titillate the curious. But it could offer a more substantial glimpse at science’s seedy underbelly, and a lengthy “for more information” reading list by the door.

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