|SFX magazine column by David Langford: issue #57, November 1999|
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There's been another stampede of people who find themselves involved with uncool science fiction, and try hard to pretend they aren't. Interviewed on Radio 4 by the dread Jeremy Paxman, Douglas Adams nervously denied being an sf writer. According to a recent edition of BBC Radio's Open Book, alternative-history stories have stopped being sf and are now poshly known as Counterfactuals. 'This sort of thing might seem to be science fiction,' said the presenter sternly, 'but now it is the subject of mainstream literature.' So it's bye-bye to sf classics like Keith Roberts's Pavane and Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. They have been taken away from us untouchables.
Another intellectual radio programme, Woman's Hour, saw Liam Neeson (who I believe appeared in some movie or other) back-pedalling in the same way. 'Of course, it's not science fiction, because science fiction is set in the future and this film is set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away ...' What an exciting definition of the genre! Space: 1999 stopped being sf this year. 2001 hasn't long to go. Thousands of stories about time travel into the far past were never sf at all ...
More gerrymandering with sf's boundaries came from the upmarket detective novelist P.D. James a few years back. She reckoned that her 1992 novel The Children of Men – using the whiskery old sf theme of future civilization collapsing thanks to worldwide sterility – couldn't be sf because it didn't contain spaceships or robots. Of course there's heaps of sf that doesn't rely on gadgets, an example being Brian Aldiss's Greybeard ... which covered the exact same ground as The Children of Men and did it a damn sight better in 1964.
(As a crime writer, P.D. James should be worrying that the Literary Purity Police may be coming for her next. That BBC spot on 'Counterfactuals' also put the boot into Robert Harris's bestselling alternate-history thriller Fatherland, for tainting the pure mainstream flow of counterfactuality with nasty, debased detective-genre elements. No one is safe.)
Mass-market media have the oddest ideas about sf and the people who read it. TV & Satellite Week did a feature this year on Event Horizon star Laurence Fishburne, quoting him as being delighted at playing a brave, competent black space captain in the movie, since he's much concerned about positive portrayals of African-Americans. After listing his further virtuous efforts as a UNICEF ambassador, the magazine delivered its below-the-belt punchline: 'With serious views like these, it is perhaps surprising to discover that Fishburne is a sci-fi fan.' God forbid that he should be interested in the genre of the film he acted in.
Down in Australia, the 1999 World SF Convention hoped to get local premieres of sf movies. But movie distributors mysteriously claimed that eXistenZ was 'more futuristic than science fiction', whatever that means. Plugging the event on Melbourne local radio, the Worldcon chairman bragged that several people who'd worked on The Matrix would be attending. Interviewer, suspiciously: 'So you consider The Matrix to be science fiction?' 'Err, yes ...' General bogglement. Maybe he'd thought it was a western?
It's not only sf that's kept at arm's length in strange ways. J.K. Rowling's fantastically successful Harry Potter fantasies are excluded from some UK bestseller lists as mere, lowly children's books – never mind that they're gobbled up by hordes of adults. In the real bestseller list, the new release Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban instantly knocked Thomas Harris's Hannibal from the #1 spot, and (if you count paperbacks) the earlier Potter books moved in at #2 and #3. But several newspapers still listed Hannibal as the top seller, with no Potter visible at all.
Admittedly the borderline between kids' and adults' books is as fuzzy and confusing as between sf and 'mainstream'. The Mythopoeic Awards are renowned in fantasy as being the world's hardest to spell, and this year's childrens'-fiction category was won by Diana Wynne Jones's adult fantasy comedy The Dark Lord of Derkholm – while the adult prize went to Neil Gaiman & Charles Vess for their illustrated fairytale Stardust. Go figure.
Getting back to Harry Potter, I liked The Spectator magazine's efforts to grapple with this super-successful phenomenon by giving it a sinister political spin. According to their chap, Old Labour and Tory parents should be wary of exposing hapless kids to these tainted fantasies, because they absolutely reek of Blairite 'New Labour' values. In contrast, I suppose, to the more traditional Thatcherite philosophy of Hannibal Lecter.
David Langford refuses to wimp out by reading Harry Potter books in those respectable 'adult' editions provided for the faint-hearted.
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