A Conversation Larger Than the Universe: Science Fiction and the Literature of the Fantastic from the Collection of Henry Wessells
Exhibit at The Grolier Club, 47 East 60th Street, New York, 25 Jan. 2018-10 Mar. 2018
Reviewed by Jason W. Ellis
Henry Wessells, a writer, critic, bookseller, and collector, curated and exhibited a selection of science fiction and fantasy books and artifacts from his personal library at The Grolier Club, a group devoted to book culture with its own library of 100,000 volumes. This review is a brief sketch of the impressive exhibit based on my 5 March 2017 visit there.
Leaving the construction-laden street, entering the club’s old, large doors, and walking up the grand stairs to the second floor, a plain wooden door partially covered with a poster for the exhibition opens to a brightly lit hallway flanked with wall-mounted, glass exhibit cases. There is a typewritten, signed letter dated 24 November 1972 from Philip K. Dick to David G. Hartwell and Paul Williams, asking them to include his dedication for Tessa Dick, ‘the dark-haired girl’, in Confessions of a Crap Artist (1975). Nearby is a photocopy of a fax dated 31 March 1996, later signed by William Gibson, detailing his first experience browsing the web, which began with a visit to the Paul Smith website and later a perusal of ‘life-size high-rez close-up color photos of every possible kind of female genital piercing, having searched “Bondage & Submission” and chosen a site in Tokyo’. Gibson’s first steps online seem like a different world than what appears in the signed copy of the first American hardcover edition of Neuromancer (West Bloomfield, MI: Phantasia Press, 1986), also on display.
The next case contains several personal letters from Joanna Russ. The first is a handwritten letter to Thomas M. Disch dated 28 September 1980 lauding Disch’s On Wings of Song (1979): ‘I also approached your work feeling that I couldn’t do it justice in the space limits of F&SF. It’s a marvelous book’. In a typewritten letter dated 1 December 2008 addressed to Wessells, she writes: ‘What I read: little. I watch (and love) RED DWARF, Buffy, Are You Being Served . . .’. Then, in a letter dated 13 April 2010—about a year before her death, Russ comments on Wessells’s review of her non-fiction collection The Country You Have Never Seen (2007) in The New York Review of Science Fiction (October 2008). Wessells asserts in his review that, ‘Her criticism, like her fiction, defines the period when science fiction became a Klein bottle that has swallowed “mainstream” literature and the entire universe’. Russ approvingly writes in reply, ‘A Klein bottle indeed! What a fascinatint [sic] object a Klein bottle is and how apposite to s.f. and your argument’.
Nearby, there is a signed copy of Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17 (New York: Ace, 1966) and an inscribed copy of Delany’s “Racism and Science Fiction” cover essay in The New York Review of Science Fiction (August 1998). On the opposite wall, Foundation no. 3 (1973) is open to James Tiptree, Jr.’s ‘A Day Like Any Other’. It is incorrectly identified as Tiptree’s first British publication, which I believe is ‘Happiness is a Warm Spaceship’ in the UK edition of If (December 1969).
There are also music-related artifacts that strike sf at a tangent. Brian Eno’s Another Green World LP adorns a significant place near the exhibit’s entrance. Wessells explains: ‘Science fiction, like rock ’n’ roll, is a form capable of integrating all influences while still remaining unmistakably itself. Rock ’n’ roll, like science fiction, is open to newcomers, the vocabulary can be learned and is an endlessly resilient process of discovery. Both forms are very slippery of definition but are instantly recognizable’. Opposite, there is a copy of the multimedia album adaptation of Robert Sheckley’s ‘In a Land of Clear Colors’ (Santa Eulalio del Rio, Ibiza, 1979). Brian Eno crafted the album’s music, and Peter Sinfield, an early member of King Crimson, narrated. Further on in the exhibit is an autographed and hand-numbered 55 of 500 printing of Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies (London, January, 1975).
The hallway leads through double doors into a subdued, large sitting room with couches and chairs encircled by lit glass display cases arranged against the walls. There is a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (New York: Harmony Books, 1980) by Douglas Adams, inscribed to David G. Hartwell; a signed copy of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (London: Jonathan Cape, 1980); an copy of The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (New York: Harper & Row, 1974) by Ursula K. Le Guin, inscribed to Wessells; a signed copy of Peter Dickinson’s The Green Gene (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1973); a signed, mock-up dust jacket of Thomas M. Disch’s Camp Concentration (New York, 1969); a signed copy of James Blish’s Doctor Mirabilis (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1971); an inscribed copy to Wessells of Peter Straub’s Shadowland (New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1980); and an inscribed copy to David Hartwell of James Tiptree, Jr./Alice B. Sheldon’s Ten Thousand Light-Years from Home (Boston: Gregg Press, 1976).
Mary Shelley’s work is also represented by copies of the first American edition of Frankenstein (2 vol., Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1833), and The Last Man (London: Henry Colburn, 1826). Nearby is a copy of H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau (London: William Heinemann, 1896) with Larry McMurtry’s bookplate (author of Lonesome Dove who notably sold off 300,000 books from his inventory at Booked Up in Archer City, TX).
A display counter highlights John Crowley’s Little, Big (New York: Bantam, 1981), which Wessells characterizes as ‘my favorite work of fiction, a book I have read and reread many times’. In addition to a proof copy inscribed to Thomas M. Disch in fine calligraphic handwriting by Crowley, there’s a typescript review of the novel by Disch with another example of Crowley’s excellent penmanship in a reply note.
A very special item in the collection is Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter (London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1924). This book is one of 250 signed by the author and artist Sidney H. Sime, who illustrated its dust jacket and frontispiece. The exhibition’s posters use Sime’s illustration of Orion’s hounds bringing down a unicorn beneath a sky of gleaming stars. Other artifacts related to Lord Dunsany include a handwritten letter from India dated 13 January 1930, and a copy of Selections from the Writing of Lord Dunsany (Churchtown: Cuala Press, 1912) that belonged to Lily Yeats, sister of William Butler Yeats.
Finally, Wessells reveals his name scrawled in an awkward, perhaps childish hand on the first page of Lester Dent’s The Man of Bronze: A Doc Savage Adventure (New York: Bantam Books, October 1964). He notes, ‘One of the books read in childhood that led me to science fiction and the fantastic’. A large print of the cover signed by its artist James Bama and model Steve Holland hangs above the main exhibit room’s marble fireplace, and other Doc Savage books appear throughout the exhibit, strengthening its demonstrated importance to the collector.
Personal collections tend to say more about their collectors than anything else. While the totality of the items in the collection (with the exhibit being a curated selection from the larger collection) provides one kind of map and history of the fantastic, it ultimately expresses the logic and lived experience of its collector. Wessells explains: ‘I collect by synecdoche, meiosis, and metonymy, as well as by inclination, and by ties of friendship’, and ‘My interests as a reader have often led me away from the canonical to the uncertain edges of the fantastic. Along the boundaries is often where distinctions are sharpest, where science fiction is not so much a place you get to as it is the way you went’. Wessells’s exhibited collection is as admirable as it is interesting to experience, a path off the busy Manhattan streets and into other, imagined worlds.