The Torture Never Stops

Though one reader complains that it's like "steady water torture", I still obsessively collect the posturings of newspaper and other pundits who daren't say a good word about SF. Otherwise, you know, they'd be made to stand grimly to attention in a hollow square of literary critics and suffer the ritual snipping-off of their credentials. Jolly painful, no doubt.

Here for example is Tom Lubbock of the Independent, using the well-worn technique of guilt by association to mock artwork by "Angel of the North" sculptor Antony Gormley: "Well, look at the words I've been using, Vaporise, star-burst, humanoid, space station, beaming down. And look at those figures waiting on rooftops – it's like an opening shot from Doctor Who. What is the language this sculpture speaks? Isn't it obvious? Sci-fi. [...] Serious artists need not feel threatened by it, any more than serious film-makers need feel threatened by an android blockbuster." Take that, Gormley, you naive droid-hugger!

What really bothers "serious" film-makers, you can't help suspecting, is the big money made by lowbrow SF blockbusters. That kind of thing isn't real film-making, though, but a humiliating punishment – as inflicted on director Paul Verhoeven when his film Showgirls vanished in a shower of rotten tomatoes: "After that they would only let me direct science fiction, not normal films ..." (Guardian interview).

This tempts creators to move their work to the respectable side of the tracks by insisting, no matter how ludicrously, that it's not SF. When a newspaper suggested that Primeval was an obvious rip-off of Doctor Who, the cast and crew went into denial and special effects boss Christian Manz explained: "Dr Who is a fantasy show where they go to other planets. Primeval is based on science – what species might actually evolve and take over the planet." (Metro) So those were scientific dinosaurs and giant spiders menacing today's London, not SF ones ...

After that, it's no surprise that respectable SF blockbusters like Children of Men are even more emphatically not SF. The New York Times discussed P.D. James's book along with the film: "The Children of Men is not another of Ms. James's famed detective novels, and it is not, as it has sometimes sloppily been described, science fiction. It is a trenchant analysis of politics and power that speaks urgently to this social moment [...] In both forms Children of Men, which opened Monday, is a story of redemption, set in England just decades in the future (the film takes place in 2027), when women have inexplicably lost the ability to become pregnant.' No nasty future speculation there, you see. Just ordinary life.

The same goes for Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly, whose director says: "... it's not really about 'the future.' It's about Joe Everyman and his pals, worrying about money and sex and being frustrated. A lot of sci-fi deals with these amazing futuristic worlds where humans have suddenly lost all their humor and become emotionless automatons." (Richard Linklater, Philadelphia Inquirer)

The biggest weapons of mass snobbery are trained on fandom. Here Australia's The Age welcomes the local SF channel: "Sci-fi fans are strange animals. Their natural habitat is their parents' basement and their traditional pastime is watching their favourite shows on DVD. But on December 1 all this changed. [...] So grab your Klingon costume, put up an 'I believe' poster in your parents' basement and veg out. The truth is out there." Laugh? I nearly puked.

Simon Hoggart, covering a party conference, riffs more politely on this hoary old cliché: "... with the Lib Dems, we are dealing with a rather lonely boy in his bedroom. Some such have model railways, some invent new planets and go on to become bestselling science fiction writers. Others, like the Lib Dems, create masterplans for the management of an entire society and nation." (Guardian)

Finally, reviewing the biography of a one-time SF fan – The Life of Kingsley Amis by Zachary Leader – Christopher Hitchens exposes our darkest secret. "The great drawback of sci-fi is the dearth of sex from which it compels itself to suffer (I realized when reading Leader's book that this is why I have never bothered with the genre) ..." (Atlantic Monthly) If overly excited by those hunks and bimbos on successive front covers of this very magazine, just remember your compulsion to suffer – and take a cold shower.

David Langford wonders: did he mean a dearth of SFX?