Book Review: The BFI's Sci-Fi: Days of Fear of Wonder Compendium

Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder is published on Tue 21 Oct
Buy from BFI Shop at BFI Southbank for £15 (RRP £16.99), or visit: bfi.org.uk/shop 


The BFI Compendium for the Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder Season, currently running at the BFI, joins the ranks of concise, nicely portable books launched to tie in with major seasons at the institute. The Hitchock, Gothic and China seasons from the last few years were accompanied by excellent books, and the Sci-Fi season has not lost out in this regard. This is 160 pages of diverse, readable, but thought provoking material, all with gorgeous full-colour illustrations.

What is the real strength of this book is that it manages to broad, but also deep, despite the fact that few of the chapters are more than five or six pages long. Everything gets a look in, from the early days of cinema to now: nightmarish visions of future dystopias, advanced artificial intelligences, biological mutations and alien lifeforms, women in scifi, and afrofuturism too. An impressive line-up of 28 contributors have been amassed here by the BFI, many of whom will be instantly recognisable to film buffs and those who regularly read BFI publications or film books; including Mark Salisbury, Kim Newman, even the BFI's events programmer Laura Adams gets in on the action with an essay on Space Operas.

The essays here don't really function just as potted histories of the sci-fi film and TV genre and the nooks and crannies within it, though you can certainly read them that way if you want; such as Mark Salisbury's history of visual effects broken down into a handy top ten milestones. But most essays push deeper into contextualising the way the genre has manifested on screens and what this says about our prejudices, fears, and hopes then and now. Roger Luckhurst for example, in his essay on the impact evolutionary theories on creature design, wonders if our current level of technological development, where the process of life are now manipulatable at the cellular level and we are surrounded by boundary-defying things, partly explains our new interest in abject goo and tentacles on screens. Do we enjoy seeing the strange fog in The Mist (2007), the tentacular creatures in Gareth Edward's Monsters (2010), and the mutating primordial substance in Ridely Scott's Prometheus (2012), as these visualised horrors taps into our fears that we can actually now create such substances that seem to blur the digital and organic, the malleability of the visual image seemingly matching the transformational possibilities of organic life?

Overall, a superb read that, apart from being a handy guide for those looking to learn more about the season and the wider sci-fi genre, could easily be the kickstarter a student looking for a thesis idea needs. You can see extracts and buy the book from the BFI here.

About the book:

The Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder Compendium delves into the other worlds, future visions and altered states of sci-fi film and television. With 160 pages of lavishly illustrated new essays written by many of the foremost authorities in the field, including Kim Newman; Stephen Baxter; Alastair Reynolds; Matthew Sweet; Helen Lewis; John Clute; Roger Luckhurst; Adam Roberts, Adam Rutherford and Simon Ings. It is the essential companion to our Days of Fear and Wonder season.

Full list of contributors:
Laura Adams (Space Operas) / Stephen Baxter (The Evolution of 2001:A Space Odyssey) / Josephine Botting (Fear and Fantasy: Women in sci-fi cinema) / Mark Bould (Inner Space) / Ashley Clark (Afrofuturism) / John Clute (The Cinema of Catastrophe) / Bryony Dixon (Silent Running: Early sci-fi cinema) / Mark Fisher (Future Shock) / William Fowler (Outer limits: Sci-fi and the Avant Garde) / Ken Hollings (Breathing the same air: Cold war sci-fi) / Simon Ings (Future Tech) / Helen Lewis (Visions of wonder) / Roger Luckhurst (Dancing with Darwin) / Kevin Lyons (Fandom) / Sophie Mayer (To the binary... and beyond) / Kim Newman (Unearthly strangers) / John Oliver (Alien nation: Aliens in British sci-fi cinema) / Vic Pratt (Cheap thrills: Sci-fi on a shoestring) / Jonathan Rigby (Springtime for Caliban?) / Adam Roberts (A brief history of Time Travel) / Alastair Roberts (To boldly go) / Adam Rutherford (Artificial Intelligences) / Mark Salisbury (Light and magic: the history of sci-fi special effects) / Graham Sleight (Between two worlds: Sci-fi literature and cinema) / Matthew Sweet (Home invasions: British TV Sci-fi) / Marketa Uhlirova (Clothes to come: Between sci-fi costume and fashion) / Sherryl Vint (Taking the blue pill: Virtual realities) / George Watson (The truth is out there) Edited by James Bell

Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder is the fourth BFI Compendium, following 39 Steps to the Genius of Hitchcock, Gothic: The Dar Heart of Film and Electric Shadows: A Century of Chinese Cinema.

Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder is published on Tue 21 Oct
Buy from the BFI Shop at BFI Southbank for £15 (RRP £16.99), or visit: bfi.org.uk/shop 


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Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.