Prompted by Dr S. C. of this parish I hied third to the Science Fiction Exhibition at the British Library (on until 25 September, admission free). I would have hied forth, but I pleaded the ‘eadaches, though as the Long Ago In A Galaxy Far Away Editor of Your Favourite Weekly Professional Science Magazine Beginning With N, responsible for palaeontology and the weekly Futures SF slot (this week’s creepy example here, available free, as it is every week, and be sure to follow the column on Facebook) it was my duty, really, to go along.
Dr S. C.’s summary is admirable, so I shan’t go over it here, except to say that SF is as old as literature itself, and continues to express the preoccupations of its times at least as effectively as any other literary form. If I had to summarise the modus operandi of SF in a phrase – it offers a vehicle for social commentary by examining the reactions of ordinary people to extraordinary situations.
Instead I shall just remark at the importance of the fact of an exhibition on SF in the British Library, which must be regarded as part of Britain’s literary ‘establishment’.
Important, because most literati mention SF if only to disparage it. So much so, that Ansible – David Langford’s long-running monthly newsletter of matters datively and indeed ablatively SF – has a section called ‘As Others See Us’ detailing the contempt in which SF is held by the wider literary community, which in expressing its disdain illustrates its hogwhimpering ignorance of the genre. Here are just a few examples from recent issues.
‘As shown by Battle: Los Angeles, and hordes of films before it, science fiction is nothing if not mockable. [...] Science fiction is so inherently close to the absurd that the toughest challenge is not to lampoon it.’ (Anthony Lane, New Yorker, 21 March 2011)
The BBC’s forthcoming Outcasts takes place on a far world colonized after Earth’s nuclear holocaust: ‘But don’t call it sci-fi, which is pretty much a banned word on set,’ warns the Daily Mail. Set designer James North of Doctor Who explains: ‘Sci-fi has its own dedicated TV channel, and the BBC doesn’t want to give the impression it’s putting out a sci-fi show on prime-time BBC1.’
Nicholas Barber reviews Tron: Legacy: ‘Just as often, though, it overshoots into the psychedelic campness of Barbarella. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. After all, isn’t science fiction supposed to be barmy? [...] Tron: Legacy is a Walt Disney sequel targeted at hippies whose shelves are piled with Isaac Asimov paperbacks.’ (Independent On Sunday, 19 December 2010)
Sarah Baskerville, the UK civil servant in trouble for uninhibited political comments on Twitter, became the subject of a typical Daily Mail witch-hunt that was surprisingly picked up by The Independent – where political hack Matt Chorley drove the knife home by calling her ‘The self-confessed Doctor Who fan …’ (14 November 2010)
We are, it seems, rabid. On US conservatives and climate change: ‘Some have embraced fantastical geo-engineering schemes – massive machines, for example, that suck carbon out of the sky – with the rabid certainty of a science-fiction nut.’ (New Republic, 30 December)
Well, you get the idea.
My question is – why? It’s hardly as though SF is a niche product. SF and fantasy movies take zillions of
Altairian dollars at the box office, and this popularity is nothing new. The BBC’s radio 1950s serialization Journey Into Space had eight million listeners at its peak (a fact I learned at the British Library expo). Orson Welles’ notorious radio dramatisation of H. G. Wells’ The War Of The Worlds sparked widespread panic. SF is enjoyed by millions. Yet the kinds of books appreciated by the literati, and which form the bases of university courses, generally have sales figures that barely scrape into the low thousands. To the literati, SF is a bugaboo that is somehow seen as a threat.
I remember watching the final show of The Big Read, the BBC’s campaign to find the most popular book in Britain, and watching how presenter Clive Anderson squirmed at the thought that The Lord Of The Rings was going to romp home, trouncing all opposition. Mark Lawson, a prominent BBC arts presenter, who should, as he is paid from the curious levy known as the Licence Fee, be expected to report on all arts matters dispassionately, whether he liked them or not, makes no secret of his dislike for the work of the gentle hobbitmonger, as this essay in the Grauniad shows. (Note: not for the first time, the Grauniad is the vehicle in which people can write for the BBC, even if they don’t actually broadcast for it).
I think that the reason SF is disparaged stems from snobbishness and elitism – if something is enjoyed by the masses, it can’t possibly be any good. Such sentiments are not new, of course: in Emma, Jane Austen emphasized the nice-but-dimness of Harriet Smith by having her lap up gothick novels; and wrote Northanger Abbey as a parody of what we’d nowadays call pulp fiction.
Well, poo to the elitists, we all cry, who are missing out on a lot of fun, much of which is crafted as well as anything from the contemporary literati. Sure, I enjoyed Ian McEwen’s Atonement - but I also thrilled to Iain M. Banks’ Surface Detail and Charles Stross’ Saturn’s Children and didn’t feel I was slumming it.
In any case, I really can’t see what’s wrong with a rollicking good tale, wherever and whenever it is set, provided it is well written. And as Tolkien once remarked – if you don’t like escapism, you must be one of the jailers.