Respect At Last

Remember how the world ended on 21 May, starting with an earthquake and (by Hollywood tradition) working up to a climax? Neither do I – another dud prophecy. But if science fiction fans watched for signs of the End Times, we'd have felt a superstitious thrill when the ultra-respectable British Library launched its 'Out of This World' SF exhibition on the 20th. Like the Pope giving equal time to Scientology.

Hordes of familiar faces thronged the St Pancras library for the 19 May launch party. I'd never had my company requested by a Baroness before: Baroness Blackstone, British Library Chair. Her introduction and China Miéville's thematic pep-talk reverberated through the vast echoing foyer, while free wine evaporated with magical speed and experts on alien biosystems tried to analyse the strange nibbles. Mike Ashley, author of the official exhibition book, stared nervously at a gob of Godzilla snot – delicious purée of wild asparagus, allegedly. I selected a tiny 2001 monolith that proved to consist of solid fish gristle. We front-line SF correspondents take many risks.

The unexpected star of the launch was Charles Chilton MBE, who kick-started British radio SF with his 1950s Journey into Space series for the BBC and was cheerily looking forward to his 94th birthday. Wide-eyed youths like Brian Aldiss (85), and a range of even younger writers who remembered the repeats, were deeply awed.

The exhibition itself, guest-curated by Andy Sawyer of the SF Foundation Library, is loosely themed for SF "worlds" – Alien, Time and Parallel, Virtual, Future, End Of and Perfect. Despite arty set-pieces like a flying saucer crashed into a wall of library shelves, it focuses unashamedly on actual books. One reviewer seemed dismayed by this unexpected emphasis on old-fashioned print media from, as it happens, the British Library. Surprises include a fantastically obscure Spanish volume from 1887 featuring SF's first time machine, a year before the earliest version of Wells's masterpiece appeared as "The Chronic Argonauts" ... a title Wells wisely abandoned.

It's good to see what famous SF novels looked like in their first editions. As I gaped at unaffordable (by me) treasures behind glass, eminent critic John Clute grumbled about the BL's old bad habit of removing dustjackets and sending them to the Victoria & Albert Museum to be stored – uncatalogued and unfindable. Which is why the exhibition had to borrow many Clute and Foundation copies.

But there are all sorts of visual thrills; not just book illustrations, garish magazine covers, comics artwork, the first typescript page of The Day of the Triffids with unworthy opening paragraphs crossed out ... The literal high point is a War of the Worlds Martian tripod, looming over the gallery and missed by all those who failed to look up. Gestures to bibliophobes and kids include a "design your own alien" computer setup that projects the current repertoire of badly drawn aliens on the wall. Also a traditional dark-blue police box has crept in, possibly under its own power. None of us could get the door open.

Several party-goers looked properly smug at being part of the exhibition, like Christopher Priest with his novel The Affirmation or David Pringle with many issues of Interzone magazine from his editorial reign. I never expected to make the cut, and indeed went home without noticing that the doom-and-gloom section includes a copy of the greatest disaster novel (or literary disaster) of all time: Earthdoom by myself and John Grant. Fame and official respect at last! I must visit again, just to gloat.

David Langford insists it's not too late: the (free) exhibition runs until 25 September at the British Library, London.

Later: But this column didn't make it to the website until it was too late. Sorry.