Eye of the Beholder

Some people still perform incredible contortions to avoid the SF/fantasy label. Published examples keep flooding in ...

Here's Stephen Fry, explaining that Douglas Adams never wrote that icky SF stuff: "I'm not a fan of science-fiction but neither was Douglas. He just happened to write a book about space and time ... I wouldn't want to mention names but I do think science-fiction writers take themselves far too seriously." Mr Fry, who unashamedly used time travel in his novel Making History, has of course never been a science fiction writer. Nor taken himself seriously.

Andrew Motion, Poet Laureate, wriggled similarly when waffling about "Landscapes of the Mind" on Radio 4: "I don't mean science fiction poems. I mean poems which establish a manifestly invented world in order to advance recognisable truths about human nature.' Not like SF at all, then.

When Iain Banks achieved the ultimate accolade of a mention on Round Britain Quiz (Radio 4), the usual careful distinction was made: "Iain Banks [...] who writes novels and also sci-fi."

Suneel Ratan of Wired likes the new Battlestar Galactica, but (like so many journos) daren't say so without denigrating SF: "While most sci-fi – whether on TV, in movies or books – remains aimed toward science geeks or overgrown adolescents, producer Ronald Moore and the Sci-Fi Channel have essentially reinvented the genre by giving it an edgy, current, broad-based appeal." Whatever that means exactly.

Even devoted fans use this trick, as quoted in a Boston Globe article on (again) Battlestar Galactica: "I thought the mini-series was fantastic ... It was incredibly written. The characters were really fully developed. It wasn't traditional science fiction."

Hal Hartley, whose new film The Girl from Monday features a near-future USA run by a totalitarian corporation, plus a visit from an alien, won't admit the obvious: "... I don't think of "The Girl from Monday" as sci-fi. Not for real. It's more like a song about life now told AS IF it were sci-fi. Sometime copping the postures of a genre can allow you to address a broader range of topics and allow you to be a little more poetic without being too heavy." Er, no doubt.

Even Dan Brown outranks us geeks, according to on-line sexual advice at Nerve.com: "What do the following books say about a person's sexual characteristics: A man currently reading The Da Vinci Code?" "This guy is going to be awful in bed. This is just one step up from a sci-fi reader, someone who thinks sex can't measure up to masturbation."

Fantasy also gets a bad press, as in that mighty organ the Weekend Australian Financial Review: "Book sales of fiction, particularly literary fiction, are down. By fiction I don't mean fantasy, as in Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, I mean a story about our lives created from an author's imagination."

The Guardian's Mark Lawson loves to knock Tolkien, even when the subject is entirely different – like Ian McKellen in Coronation Street: "The explanation for Sir Ian's soap debut may simply be that he wanted to speak some proper dialogue after appearing in all that Tolkein [sic] trog tosh ..."

Howard Jacobson of the Independent is another pundit who loves to put down fantasy. John Stuart Mill's mental health makes a convenient springboard: "In his dejection, Mill turns to poetry; not Virgil or Ovid, but the English Romantics, Wordsworth in particular, who he believed helped to re-educate him into common feelings. Wordsworth, notice, not Tolkien." In just the same way,19th-century folk looking for an entertaining newspaper columnist turned to Dickens, notice, not Howard Jacobson.

No one would expect such a poisonous rag as the Daily Mail to relish Philip Pullman's views on organized religion, and its review of His Dark Materials at the National Theatre was duly splenetic: "Intellectual teenage girls swear by Philip Pullman. His novels sell by the ton and his science fictions are exotic and pseudo-portentous. Harry Potter for Oxbridge eggheads."

Occasionally the lowly nerds of genre fiction hit back, like Terry Pratchett in The Times: "I think about the literary world like I think about Tibet. It's quite interesting, it's a long way away from me and it's sure as hell they're never going to make me Dalai Lama." Nice one, Terry, but far too polite.

David Langford's files are overflowing with mainstream critics insisting that Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel about human clones is not, not, not science fiction.