SF and fantasy may have conquered the media world, but they're still regarded as somehow tainted. The regular "As Others See Us" department in my newsletter Ansible makes painfully comic reading, with outsiders talking rot about SF while insiders struggle to distance themselves from the horrid fact. Let's name names ...
A typically thoughtful "outsider" comment cropped up in a recent Newsnight discussion of whether allowing designer babies could lead to a genetic underclass as in Gattaca. Summoning all his biological expertise, Professor Steve Jones explained that this was ridiculous, since "Gattaca is a science-fiction film – it's cowboys and Indians with rocketships." You remember all those rocketships in Gattaca?
Ann Widdecombe, on Radio 4, had the same general opinion: "... the whole purpose of the novel is fiction; it's to imagine and to try and retain some credibility – unless you're writing sci-fi or something."
The Daily Mail (June 2002) knows exactly which damning point about a convicted murderer needs to be mentioned first: "Science fiction fanatic Christopher Hunnisett drowned the Rev Ronald Glazebrook in his bath before dismembering his body with an axe and saw." It wouldn't have been newsworthy if he were a crime fiction fanatic, because reading about axe murderers is of course normal.
US film critic Chris Fujiwara explains how SF can be useful if not actually good: "And we've had proof that adding 'science fiction' to a whodunit (Minority Report) or a family-values heart tugger (Signs) is considered a valid option for filmmakers who seem mortally afraid that someone somewhere might regard a movie of theirs as well-crafted entertainment." (Boston Phoenix.) Imagine the script conferences: "This movie looks like well-crafted entertainment to me." "Oh my God! Let's put in some science fiction to fix that!"
But for really deep genre insight, here's the well-known American loon (or "fruitcake" as they call him over there) Lyndon LaRouche, warning the world about the evil SF Commie Monarchist conspiracy: "Science fiction is a part of the Communist plan to dominate Western culture. Queen Elizabeth herself has been known to pen 'sci-fi' under a pseudonym."
It's also fun watching people who have actually committed SF trying to fast-talk their way out of being convicted of it. Special marks for brevity to a certain film press pack which announced: "Minority Report is not Science Fiction, it's Future Reality!"
Another recent specimen comes from Greg Yaitanes, director of the Sci-Fi Channel miniseries Children of Dune: "I looked at this as a story of a family, not a science fiction film," he nervously explained in a Boston Globe interview. "What's great about the film is there are empowered women in it. Science fiction traditionally has had a male appeal to it." He obviously hasn't read all those old pulp SF epics with empowered empresses tyrannizing whole planets if not galaxies. What's more, "There are real human emotions, which is very, very rare in science fiction." Gosh! Perhaps Yaitaines hasn't read very much SF at all.
He conspiciously fails to say, perhaps because it's such a commonplace of family sagas, "And there's this great sequence where the feisty hero plasters himself all over with symbiotic sandtrout and turns into Superman!" It's almost the only bit of Frank Herbert's Children of Dune that I remember. That, and the fact that our hero spends the next 3,000 years turning into a railway-carriage-sized sandworm.
Similarly, when the BBC acquired Steven Spielberg's Taken (dealing with "extra-terrestrial experiences", i.e. good old alien abductions), their head of programme acquisition explained its staggering innovativeness, unheard-of in mere SF: "Taken is designed to have a wider appeal than just to fans of sci-fi, as it tells the stories of individuals and their interactions over many years." Well, I never.
Some of them don't even know their own genre. Explaining why The Core is "not just another science fiction movie," producer David Foster babbles: "We've seen sea adventures and space odysseys, but traveling into the core of the earth is largely unexplored terrority." Except, of course, for the well-known films of Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Burroughs's At the Earth's Core.
Here's how someone involved with the NYPD 2069 TV series pilot, Steven Bochco, manages to suggest a vast gap between those horrid SF stories of the future and this story of, er, the future: "It's an interesting notion to envision a major urban centre like New York 65 years down the road ... This is not science fiction. This is trying to conceptualise a relatively near-term future that's logically a function of the world we know today."
Lastly, George Clooney applies the familiar spin to that remake of Solaris which is so famous for including his bare bottom: "Believe me, Fox wasn't thrilled to do a $47 million sci-fi film that has nothing to do with sci-fi and everything to do with a man's belief system." (Time Out interview.)
In similar vein, this column has had nothing to do with nasty old sci-fi and everything to do with paying my bar bills ...
David Langford's latest SF venture lurks for the unwary at www.ae.ansible.co.uk (advt).