Brief Encounters

I had that Doris Lessing in the back of the cab once ...

No, let's start again. I confess that I've met hardly any "mainstream" literary celebrities since my Oxford college days, when I bumped into a very wrinkly W H Auden. Our conversation in a bookshop doorway was brief but to the point. "Ow," said the great man in his later poetic manner. "Sorry," I mumbled, and got off his foot.

The page ripples and blurs to indicate the passage of time, and suddenly it's the 1987 World SF Convention in Brighton. Doris Lessing – as author of the Canopus in Argos novels and other weighty science fiction – was feted as a professional guest of honour, and SF pundits swooned at her awesome presence. I, conversely, was a fan guest and lurked in the bar, where SF lowlife kept passing out for reasons not directly connected with my own awesome stupor.

Eventually I met Ms Lessing at the Hugo ceremony, a weird event which opened with a sinister hiss of gas being pumped into the huge dark auditorium. Jim Burns and I, who'd arrived early, cowered in the front row. Were literary critics administering the Final Solution to us SF dregs? No, it was the mist generator for a not very good laser light-show. When at last the house lights came on, I found I was also sitting next to Doris Lessing. I burbled something incoherent about her novels, relieved that at least I wasn't standing on her foot.

Then the Hugo presentations began, and for the first time I collected the award in person (my one previous win had been in Australia and I couldn't get there). I've had a soft spot for Doris Lessing ever since the fatal name of Langford was announced and she said with some enthusiasm: "Why, that's you!"

So there was applause from this direction at her Nobel Prize victory, and still more when she refused to go into the usual spasms of denial that she'd written SF. On the contrary, the good lady bragged about it. "The critics didn't like my so-called 'Science Fiction'," she told a Channel 4 interviewer after the big news: "They'd never come across anything like it, they didn't know what to make of it.... I consider it to be some of my best work."

Later on Radio 4, Ms Lessing even acknowledged congratulations from that vile SF lot. "I had a wonderful letter from the science fiction people, which was absolutely charming of them, because I've always been just a little bit difficult for them. They said ... so glad your novels have won: we don't know if you're ahead of us or we're ahead of you, or words to this effect, and that was very sweet." Now which of the usual suspects sent that letter?

All this is in stunning contrast to the wrigglings and posturings of a much younger female author of high repute. Jeanette Winterson – for it is she – recently published a novel which is not SF. This seems to be mainly because, as she explained to New Scientist, "I hate science fiction." But on the other hand: "I'm not a Luddite; I'm fascinated by technology. There's not a single thing in The Stone Gods that's not plausible; it's not flights of fantasy or science fiction, but completely within our reach." (Quoted in Metro).

This novel is set in a remote future where Earth has been trashed by runaway pollution, genetic fixing has eliminated aging, an advanced AI robot can be one's soulmate and perfect sex partner, and humanity is starting afresh on the unspoilt "Planet Blue". You can see how inattentive readers might be lured into the wicked error of thinking this is SF. But somehow it isn't.

Even kindly Ursula Le Guin, who quite liked The Stone Gods and reviewed it for the Guardian, was bothered that those shrill protests crept their way into the book itself: "It's odd to find characters in a science-fiction novel repeatedly announcing that they hate science fiction."

Jeanette Winterson has already received acclaim for The Stone Gods, whose description of hot robot rumpy-pumpy won her an honourable mention in the Literary Review Bad Sex Awards. (The phrase that caught the judges' eyes was "silicon-lined vaginas".) But if she's worried that admitting to SF will bar you from the serious literary pinnacles, she should look at the sort of people who get the Nobel Prize these days.

David Langford is pondering Steve Aylett's advice (in LINT) that you can win a Nobel Prize by disguising your head as a giant eyeball.