It's fascinating to watch pundits discuss SF and fantasy. Thanks to major sales and success, the genre is newsworthy – but then there's the terrible drawback of its major sales and success. Admitting that you like the stuff means associating yourself with uncool, anorak-swathed masses. Dread thought!
My collection of recent distancing strategies keeps growing. One wheeze is to praise SF for not being SF, like Ceefax TV Choice plugging Battlestar Galactica: "Take it on trust and watch anyway – Galactica is genuinely exceptional and the less you like science fiction, the more you'll love this new US drama." Can this be true?
Battlestar Galactica's executive producer Ronald D. Moore agrees: "It's just fleshed-out reality ... it's not in the science-fiction genre. Sci-fi doesn't usually treat adult men and women as adult men and women, and we wanted to treat them as adults." (Washington Post) Which, decoded, seems to mean it has more sex than most TV SF.
Similarly, since the Sydney Morning Herald critic enjoyed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it needs repositioning: "Kaufman writes with an imaginative freedom that only sci-fi writers usually have, but his stories are not strictly sci-fi. He doesn't so much transform the natural world into something bizarre or futuristic, as make a bizarre world of his creation seem natural." Which is very different.
Here's Alfonso Cuaron, director of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Wossname, on his planned SF film, Children of Men – presumably based on P.D. James's dire novel: "It's not really science-fiction. It's the world 30 years from now, in which for 18 years no human child has been born, for unknown reasons. Civilisations are falling apart. England is the last remaining civilisation as we know it, because it's an island that's insulated itself from Europe, which is in civil wars and complete pandemonium." Just ordinary daily life, not SF at all.
The Newsweek review of Philip Roth's alternative history The Plot Against America dealt gingerly with the horror of a respectable novelist dabbling in that icky stuff: "Literary novelists generally leave alternative history (take a big what if and go from there) to writers of pop fiction and sci-fi. This is either because of its fundamental unseriousness – at bottom, who cares about an if that never happened – or because of the sheer drudgery involved in elaborating some counterfactual premise." Notice how that "who cares?" throws all imaginative fiction out with the bathwater: who gives a toss about Austen's or Dickens's or Tolstoy's characters, since they never existed?
Though giving Guy Gavriel Kay's fantasy The Last Light of the Sun a positive review, the Toronto Globe & Mail critic carefully maintains his cultural street-cred: "Most fantasy writing is aimed at airheads with little, if any, knowledge of the past."
Sufficiently respectable writers may be forgiven for past SF crimes, but readers never. When Ian Sansom in The London Review of Books argues that J.G. Ballard should not "be blamed for the flakiness" of his fans, I think we know which lowlife readers he has in mind.
Conventions usually make newspaper hacks set their phasers to "snide" – like Alison Rowat of Glasgow's The Herald, who can "confidently predict that come next August, when the 83rd [actually it's the 63rd] World Science-Fiction Convention opens its doors in Glasgow, there will not be an anorak, a roll of tin foil or an anal probe to be had this side of the Cairngorms." She warns the local tourist board of "the risk involved in rolling out the red carpet to people who are, to a man – and they are all men – wired directly to Mars." And so on: "... what's the betting bin Laden has a well-worn DVD of Plan Nine From Outer Space in his cave or a natty pair of mail order Vulcan ears?" I wouldn't dream of retorting that Hitler was an avid Herald reader.
Meanwhile The Daily Record writes off our sex lives: "Penguin books quizzed 1000 females about the holiday reads they would look for in a mate. / They found fantasy fiction like JK Rowling's series, JRR Tolkien's Lord Of The Rings and Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels put girls off." According to the Record's rent-a-doomsayer, "men escaping into alternative realities appear to have less grip on the real world." Oh dearie me.
Even SF sympathisers may sniff at our awards, like this Teletext reviewer: "This column's favourite novel of 2003, William Gibson's Pattern Recognition, has been shortlisted for two big awards – only Sci Fi awards but better than a poke in the eye."
And a certain Harry Potter novel's 2001 Hugo award win was totally invisible to The Guardian when it reported the 2004 W.H. Smith award shortlist: "JK Rowling seems set to win the only literary success which has so far eluded her – her first adult book prize."
At least Louis Barfe in The Oldie magazine makes some cautious distinctions: "There is snobbery among anoraks, believe it or not. A philatelist may sneer at a train-spotter, and the consensus seems to be that Dr Who fans are beneath everybody." Write to him, not to me.
After that, David Langford is going into hiding.