Fantastic Worlds: Science and Fiction, 1780–1910

A Conversation with Kirsten van der Veen

Kirsten van der Veen, technical information specialist at the Smithsonian Libraries, talks with Choice about Fantastic Worlds, a digital collection that depicts the influence of scientific discovery on the imagination of the public from 1780 to 1910. Kirsten co-curated the collection with Doug Dunlop, metadata and digital image librarian at the Smithsonian Libraries.

How would you describe the collection to a perfect stranger?

Kirsten van der Veen is the Special Collections Technical Information Specialist at The Dibner Library of the History of Science & Technology, part of the Smithsonian Libraries. Since 2001, she has been working to meet the needs of both the Dibner Library’s varied researchers and its rare book and manuscript collections in the history of science, which date from the thirteenth through the nineteenth centuries. This is the second Smithsonian Libraries exhibition she has curated.

Fantastic Worlds tells the story of Western science between 1780 and 1910 through the lens of literature and the popular press. It is the digital recreation of an exhibition featuring Smithsonian Libraries’ special collections materials but with added enhancements, including a library of all the works exhibited that we were able to digitize. (Its counterpart in the material world runs through February 2017 in Washington, DC). This curated digital collection offers a broad but nuanced picture of the imaginative influence of the era’s scientific discovery and invention on fiction and on an increasingly engaged public readership. Told through a series of seven distinct chapters focusing on different scientific disciplines and frontiers of discovery, these stories cut across genres, offering a fuller picture of the impact of these ideas and innovations on the wider world.

We wanted to explore the scientific backstories of motifs that came into their own in the nineteenth century (give or take) that have had a lasting role in science-inspired speculative fictions: lost worlds, fantastic airships, alien life on other worlds, mechanical beings, and adventures both undersea and underground. The stories are told through our historic print collections, and include landmarks of science, novels, newspaper hoaxes, satires, dime novels, and works of popular science, displayed alongside selected objects from the Smithsonian’s museum collections.

These materials were chosen to highlight certain significant moments in the history of science and technology, and convey how the public in general and writers in particular responded to those ideas and inventions.Fantastic Worlds is an introduction to a century rich with scientific and technological developments, to the phenomenon of science growing into the public sphere, and to the wealth of imaginative literary responses that emerged from this remarkable shift.

Science fiction started to get its footing as a popular genre in the nineteenth century. How and why did this, and the growing interest in science, come about?

Underpinning this picture of nineteenth century science and the impact it had is the story of reading, and of printing. It was in the nineteenth century that the mechanization of printing and paper manufacture took over in earnest. Print grew more plentiful, affordable, and accessible. At the same time, scientific fields began to specialize, universities were developing into research centers, and scientific study and practice became a possibility for more than just upper class gentlemen. Women, still largely kept from scientific professions, could find ways to participate and educate themselves through print. The growth of the popular press and, with it, popularizers of science met the needs of an increasingly literate middle class with leisure time and a fascination with new ideas and inventions. Authors of science-inspired speculative fictions had a wealth of inspiring raw material, an invested audience, and the means to reach them. The books in this collection are some of the very ones that communicated discoveries in the scientific community, portrayed them to interested laypeople, and exposed readers to the thought-provoking fictional worlds those discoveries inspired.

As new technologies are changing yet again of how we consume and share information, it’s interesting to think about the wider impact of such transformations. The books in this collection are much more than a format for conveying content—a format that some feel is facing obsolescence. These books have historical significance and content beyond what can be captured in a scan. I hope that by sharing and situating these books in this digital format we’re helping to build a bridge back to the originals.

What is the intended audience of Fantastic Worlds? How do you envision undergraduates using the collection?

Wood engraved title page of Jules Verne’s classic undersea adventure tale “Vingt mille lieues sous les mers,” “Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas.”

The Fantastic Worlds exhibition is in Smithsonian Libraries’ gallery in the National Museum of American History, which receives about four million visitors annually, so we aim to create exhibitions which engage a variety of visitors. In its iteration online, it carries much the same mission, but with an expanded narrative text and the accompanying digital library it is more solidly geared toward secondary school and undergraduate students than its real-world sibling.

Scholarly interest in the intersection of science and literature has been growing for some time, and this era is a rich and exciting one. Much of modern science as we know it has its roots in the nineteenth century, a time of rapid change (the word “scientist” was coined only in 1834). Many of the discoveries made during this period had a seismic impact, challenging prevailing conceptions and changing how we understood the world around us and our place in it.

Being able to dig into the texts can be illuminating. The sciences had yet to develop technical vocabularies, so familiar language and literary devices were used to convey startling new scientific concepts. It made for accessible and even riveting reading. Matthew Fontaine Maury’s The Physical Geography of the Sea, the first effort at a comprehensive scientific portrait of the world’s oceans, developed in large part by compiling shipboard observations, has beautiful and even rhapsodic passages. Geologist Charles Lyell quoted well-known poets in his Principles of Geology to elucidate his theories. And, interestingly, Jules Verne, penning fantastic fictional adventures, was so invested in conveying scientific detail that there are paragraphs that read like inventories.

As it crosses genres and subject areas to offer a picture of scientific developments and trace their imaginative impact, Fantastic Worlds touches on and contextualizes varied topics, among them literary utopias and dystopias, satire as social commentary, the emerging genre of science fiction, issues of empire and imperialism, scientific entertainments and pastimes, and more. It offers an overview of the age that homes in on specific compelling stories and issues, and provides a gateway to more in-depth research.

Depiction of Giovanni Aldini’s electrical experiments on executed criminals. Drawing of four naked male bodies connected to electrical machines.
Depiction of Giovanni Aldini’s electrical experiments on executed criminals, performed before audiences in anatomical theaters throughout Europe in the early 1800s.

How did the collection come to be? What was the process of acquiring and selecting materials like?

We develop an online presence for all our physical exhibitions; if the material allows, this includes scanning books cover-to-cover to create companion digital libraries for further exploration. Fantastic Worlds is our most thorough effort to date.

As a largely faithful version of the physical exhibition, the materials selected reflect the constraints we encountered while curating it, which would normally not apply to an exhibition born and raised solely in the digital world. We quickly found we’d given ourselves a challenging assignment with the subject matter alone. The collections themselves informed the paths we would take, but as we were covering so many subject areas, and within them a variety of genres, it was an elaborate project to determine what those paths would be. There were stories to tell which our collections simply couldn’t support. The long duration of the exhibition required five four-month rotations, each with a different page opening or different book. There were space limitations and conservation issues common to nineteenth-century collections. That being said, the digital platform freed us to include some topics and images that had to be abandoned in the physical exhibition. We were happy to welcome them back.

While we have no expectation to add to Fantastic Worlds, there is a blog component on the website, and for the duration of the exhibition’s run we will be contributing additional material that expands on the themes.

Do you feel that the collection benefits from being digitized? Are there any organizational differences between the digital and physical exhibitions? Are there any parallels to be drawn between the project’s overall design and subject matter?

Cover of Frank Reade weekly magazine published. Men onboard a ship look at floating ship in the air.
Frank Reade, Jr. and His Engine of the Clouds; or, Chased Around the World in the Sky. Frank Reade weekly magazine published by Frank Tousey, New York, NY between 1902-1904.

While the Libraries’ exhibition program enables us to move our uncommon holdings out of the relative confines of scholarly study and share them more widely, the digital version of Fantastic Worlds increases this reach exponentially, giving the collection mobility and reach, and enabling new kinds of interaction one can’t get from books on display, static under glass. While some of the rich historic resonance of the physical book may be lost in the online version, the reading public gains enhanced content, shareable images, and fully digitized, readable, searchable digital surrogates of the works on display.

The disparate items included in Fantastic Worlds were gathered from nine of the Smithsonian Libraries’ twenty-one branches, virtually pulled from their respective collection spaces and arranged to reveal new perspectives and connections. So, yes, there are vast organizational differences: we willfully disturbed the careful order of the print collections to meet our aims. The digitized books in Fantastic Worlds are part of Smithsonian Libraries’ more comprehensive Digital Collection and readily link to their catalog records, so they remain tethered to their original contexts and metadata.

We organized Fantastic Worlds into chapters, echoing the traditional structure and narrative style of the books telling these stories. It’s a structure that suited our organizational needs perfectly. We wanted the distinct subjects covered to stand alone and hang together, allowing us to delve into details, while illustrating the broader trend of nineteenth-century science in the public sphere.

People today are often disillusioned with the unfulfilled “prophecies” of science fiction, whether it’s engaging in contact with extraterrestrial life or bending the rules of the space-time continuum. How would you construe science fiction’s relationship with the future?

I grew up with the promise of imminent meetings with friendly alien life, thanks to the hopeful film fictions of the seventies and eighties. It has yet to happen, but I’m routinely awed by what has. It seems plans are underway to launch miniature laser-propelled robotic probes to search a neighboring star system for signs of life. In the 1830s the moon held the same fascination and possibility as Alpha Centauri now. Knowing some of the history and how far we’ve come can be good antidotes for disillusionment.

There is immense imagination in scientific discovery, of course: breakthroughs happen when someone has both the knowledge and the creativity to imagine truths we’ve simply not yet recognized. Scientists have at last detected gravitational waves, which Einstein predicted in 1916 based on his general theory of relativity. Sometimes it takes time to catch up with imaginative thought, whether fictional or not.

Science fiction pushes the boundaries of where science might take us not just technologically, but ethically, politically, socially, even psychologically. I see it as less about imagining futures than possibilities and alternatives, though it’s great when those predictive moments happen, and when a writer’s vision inspires innovation. Science fiction has long inspired scientists-to-be. Efforts to integrate the arts into scientific education are growing. Current collaborations between scientists and science fiction writers seek to ignite that visionary impulse in science. We hope Fantastic Worlds can play a small role in bringing together fields that are too often seen as distinct.

Lithograph of shells, coral, animals, and dinosaur-looking creatures.
One of several hand-colored Italian lithographs relating to the Great Moon Hoax of 1835 in The New York Sun, depicting man-bats and other invented lunar inhabitants.

What is the mission of the collection? Does the presence of Fantastic Worlds reflect a larger mission of the Smithsonian Libraries?

The Smithsonian Libraries supports the vital research done at the Smithsonian in a wide array of fields, as well as the work of scientists and scholars internationally. As a national collection, we also strive to benefit the public. We share with the Institution the mission to serve these constituencies, both to comprehensively support our research communities and to engage and educate a wider audience.

Digitization is an essential part of that mission, a critical priority not just of the Libraries but the Institution as a whole. Scanning in the service of our exhibitions is one part of our long-standing effort to make our public domain holdings freely available, but it affords us the opportunity to interpret them in interesting ways. The digital assets created for Fantastic Worlds, and all our exhibitions, are in turn available via records in the online catalog, added to the Smithsonian Libraries’ collections on the Internet Archive, and when appropriate included in the Biodiversity Heritage Library, expanding access to researchers and readers everywhere.

Not all institutions have the resources to enable students to work directly with historic collections and primary source materials. That experience can be transformative. Sharing collections through digital platforms helps democratize access to these remarkable resources. If we can elicit a sense of wonder by curating and sharing these intriguing examples of our material culture and spark an interest in the tales they tell, then we have achieved something worthwhile.

Explore Fantastic Worlds at:

This interview was conducted by Anna Denton. She is a publishing intern at Choice and a student at Wesleyan University.