Thursday, September 30, 2010

Sci-Fi excursion to College Station

On Monday, a small crew of Austin writers made the two-hour drive out to College Station to visit the science fiction archives at Texas A&M Cushing Library. In attendance, Nicky Drayden (a Space Squid contributor who supplied some of these photos), some random awesome guy (a Space Squid co-editor), Elle Van Hensbergen (Space Squid Assistant editor), and myself.

Last month my zine, Space Squid, spawned a modestly viral meme when we published an issue on a clay tablet. Since then I've been trying to find an archive that would take it, because in theory it can survive forever, and I'm just self-centered enough to stash it somewhere where it might. Two podunk archives in Austin turned me down flat. A third archivist said she could slip it into the back stacks, but she couldn't catalog it or tell any of her co-workers about it.

On a tip from the inestimable Lawrence Person, I asked Catherine Coker, the new curator of the Cushing Library's Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Collection. Not only was she interested in the clay tablet and the Space Squid back issues, but she also offered a behind the scenes tour of the archive.

Does it make me a nerd that I really enjoyed looking behind the scenes of an archive?

The archive itself is behind a locked door that has cold, dust-free air whistling through the cracks. The archive's environment system is similar to the ones used in nuclear submarines, Ms. Coker tells us.

To maximize space, the shelves slide on motorized tracks. It's the sort of library that Katsuhiro Ôtomo would have designed.

First we see the periodicals, a category that contains virtually complete runs of all the major pulps running back to the 1920s. It's here that Coker shows us a sight even more chilling than the Navy-grade AC vents. The floor is covered with tiny scraps of paper. It's the rotting detritus of low-grade paper, dissolving in its own chemical stew. Irreplaceable magazines from the classic age of Science Fiction flake off to the ground to be vacuumed up every couple of months.

Coker takes us deeper into the motorized stacks to see the rare books, early copies of Dracula, a signed first-edition of Fahrenheit 451 (the European edition is called Celsius 233).

The personal manuscripts and papers of notable authors fill several aisles. George R.R. Martin, Michael Moorcock, and Joe Lansdale making up the bulk of the space. At random we pulled down a box of Michael Moorcock's old things. It was a fascinating selection of effects that will no doubt be relevant to coming centuries of historians. There were multiple drafts of his fiction work and an anti-Klan pamphlet.

I didn't touch Joe Lansdale's stuff because I figured he would kick my ass if he found out.

Upstairs there's a temporary exhibit dedicated to Science Fiction titled "One Hundred Years Hence."

It's only open until next January, so you will want to hurry out there to catch it. There's an early edition of Frankenstein with an illustration of the monster (he looks brooding, muscular, and slightly American Indian). Hand-written letters by J.R.R. Tolkien are standouts. I liked the timeline posters, which were as thorough and concise a record of the genre as anything I've seen. The fan art figurines were also particularly inciteful.

Catherine Coker anticipated my desire to see the library's clay tablets (not part of the science fiction collection, technically speaking). They were much smaller than I had imagined. One of them was apparently a receipt for a sheep carcass, and it was just about the right size for a receipt. I can imagine some Mesopotamian putting the lozenge-sized clay receipt in his pocket and accidentally leaving it in his tunic as he beat his laundry on some creek stones.

And if that weren't enough, we got to see a working replica of an early printing press.

At the end of the extensive and informative tour, we experienced the height of College Station graciousness when Catherine Coker posed for the official handover of the Space Squid clay tablet. During the tour I found out that once a state agency accepts a gift, it is illegal to dispose of it.

Oh. Whoops.

There's more photos at Nicky Drayden's blog and at my other blog, Zombie Lapdance.


Spacebeer said...

I really can't tell you how happy this makes me, or how jealous I am of the compact shelving at Cushing. And if you ever need anything secretly archived, just give me a call.

Jayme Lynn Blaschke said...

I dearly love the Cushing Archive. Too bad Hal recently retired--he made it his mission to collect and archive as many genre fanzines as possible. He'd have been positively giddy over the Squid tablet!

Cait Coker said...

Ha, this is awesome!! I'm revitalizing the old Scifi blog (it's very much a work and progress) and Hal sent me a link to your posts. A re-blog round-up of you guys' posts is among the first new entries. Thanks for the write-ups--these are great!!

Bobinator said...

Qeustion: but the chilling decay of the old zines... given that this is an archive with (if I understand it correctly) environment control capabilities, isn't there ANYTHING they can do to stop that process, especially with the more precious first run zines, etc?

Matthew Bey said...

Cait, send us a link when you have the blog up and running. I don't want to miss out on that!