For those who love a glittering intellectual display of erudition and repartee, there are dozens of TV quiz shows to avoid. Nevertheless my spies keep reporting SF highlights. On Eggheads in August, someone had to name the world's bestselling SF novel. To make this easy, they dropped a hint: it was by Frank Herbert. The contestant said with quiet confidence, "2001: A Space Odyssey."
Who researches these questions, I wonder? Wikipedia's page on all-time bestsellers shows an estimated 12 million copies for Dune. Less than The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy with 14 million, and far below the 25 million for Nineteen Eighty-Four. At a guess, they either forgot Hitcher altogether or ruled it out on the flimsy excuse that it's based on a radio series; while Orwell's masterpiece was all too likely excluded through the familiar snobby reasoning, "It's good so it can't be SF." Now read on if you dare ...
A £16,000 question on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire: "Who wrote the Discworld series of science fiction [sic] novels? (a) Frank Herbert; (b) Douglas Adams; (c) Isaac Asimov; (d) Terry Pratchett." The contestant toyed with Herbert before eventually giving up.
On Birmingham local radio: "Who wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?" Caller: "Was it H.G. Wells?"
In It To Win It: "Which fictional character was also called Lord Greystoke?" Contestant, who has never heard of Tarzan: "Lawrence of Arabia."
Radio Clyde: "Which famous detective features in the Agatha Christie [sic] novel The Hound of the Baskervilles?" Contestant: "Is it Harry Potter?"
Are You Smarter Than A Ten-Year-Old?: "Who wrote the story of Peter Pan? A.A. Milne, J.M. Barrie or T.S. Eliot?' Contestant, a teacher: "Okay. I've read the story. I've saw the films. I've not saw the panto. I'm pretty sure it's T.S. Eliot."
The Weakest Link is a rich source. "Who wrote the 1951 novel The Sands of Mars ...?" Not one of Arthur C. Clarke's best-known efforts, but the long-delayed answer caused general surprise: "John Betjeman?" More questions from the dread Anne Robinson follow.
"What is the name of the London club that marks the start/finish point in Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days?" Contestant, allegedly an English teacher: "Ronnie Scott's."
"The writer of the graphic novels Watchmen and V for Vendetta is Alan who?" Contestant: "Er ... Ginsberg."
"The 17th-century physician who discovered the true nature of the circulation of blood within the human body was William who?" Contestant: "Shatner."
"In which sci-fi sitcom did the computer, Holly, change sex when the actress Hattie Hayridge replaced Norman Lovett?" Contestant: "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."
"A lycanthrope traditionally turns from a human into what kind of animal?" Contestant: "Lion." Now that doesn't really deserve all-out mockery – "lycanthrope" is something of a specialist word. Speaking of big cats, though, hidden clues in character names are apparently no help: "In Winnie-the-Pooh, what type of animal is Tigger?" Contestant: "A rabbit." Suppose, as a daring thought experiment, they'd asked "What type of animal is Rabbit?"
More beastly fun on Century Radio Northeast: "In which book is Room 101 a place to be feared?" Caller: "The Hundred and One Dalmatians."
Years back, ITV Teletext ran a challenging Watership Down quiz including tough questions like "Who wrote Watership Down?" To which their own answer, as you may already have guessed, was Douglas Adams.
I live in fear of a Weekendest Link game at the next SFX Weekender convention. "The columnist who's written for every issue since #1 is David who?" Then an excruciating pause while our contender hesitates between Bowie, Cameron, Duchovny, or Tennant.
David Langford thanks Martyn P. Jackson, Peter Weston and other loyal goggle-box researchers – all unpaid, har har.