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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


Calgary Distinguished Writers Program 2016-17 Distinguished Visiting Writer Michael Chabon visits the Gibson Archives in the University of Calgary's Special Collections. Chabon called the visit a highlight of his trip. Photo by Dave Brown, Libraries and Cultural Resources

By Heath McCoy
May 15, 2017

Just as treasures buried in an ancient tomb hold the key to the mysteries of lost civilizations, so, too, might the riches of the Bob Gibson Collection of Speculative Fiction unlock the untold origins of the science fiction genre.

Literary historians typically agree that the seeds of sci-fi were planted in the 1800s by the pioneering likes of Jules Verne (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea), Mary Shelley (Frankenstein) and H.G. Wells (War of the Worlds). But our understanding of that history could be in for a radical revision thanks to a SSHRC- funded University of Calgary-based research project spearheaded by Stefania Forlini — an associate professor in the Department of English — that seeks to digitally explore the depths of the Gibson Collection.

The late Bob Gibson was a Calgary science fiction fan who amassed an incredible collection of more than 35,000 genre-related items over the course of his adult life. The collection included books, pulp magazines and 888 anthologies, handcrafted by Gibson himself, with stories culled from rare popular periodicals published from the mid-1800s to the 1990s.

When Gibson died in 2001 at the age of 92, his son, Andrew Gibson, BSc’88, MSc’93, a University of Calgary alumnus, donated his father’s collection to the university’s Libraries and Cultural Resources department, where it is housed in Archives and Special Collections. It is considered to be one of the largest science fiction research collections in the world and is an invaluable source for scholars. It’s no wonder that such literary greats as Neil Gaiman and Michael Chabon — each of whom have given talks at the university as part of the Calgary Distinguished Writers Program (CDWP) — marvelled at the collection when they were here.

“When I came to Calgary in 2008 and discovered the Gibson Collection, I was in awe,” says Forlini, who teaches classes in science fiction literature. “It’s so vast.

“I’m interested in the popularization of science fiction and how it evolved within these 19th-century periodicals that Gibson collected in his anthologies.”

Because the collection is so massive, however — there are about 13,000 stories within Gibson’s anthologies — efficiently exploring it was a near-impossible task for one researcher.

“As an English scholar, my background didn’t train me to deal with thousands of stories at a time,” Forlini explains. “But the history I want to uncover needed to be based on thousands of stories. I knew I needed computer-assisted textual analysis.”

This led to Forlini’s collaboration with Uta Hinrichs, PhD’13, an alumna from Calgary who is now a computer science professor at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. With SSHRC funding, the pair developed the Speculative W@nderverse, an online visual search interface that allows both researchers and casual science fiction fans to explore the stories included in the collection. (Found at http://stuffofsciencefiction.ca/vis/Wonderverse, the site works best with Firefox and Google Chrome).

The Gibson Collection

At present, in collaboration with Libraries and Cultural Resources and Bridget Moynihan, BA(Hon)’13, BA(Hon)’13, MA’15 (now a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh), they have so far scanned and digitized 50 Gibson anthologies containing about 1,500 stories. Key search words on the Speculative W@nderverse website provide a multitude of entry points to the anthologized stories.

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 speccoll@ucalgary.ca.