Lessing and More

Another admired writer leaves the party: Doris Lessing died in November 2013 at the ripe age of 94. One tiny career point that wasn't much mentioned in the fulsome obituaries was her guest-of-honour appearance at the 1987 World SF Convention in Brighton. Everyone there was in awe of her. My own tiny fanboy mind had been blown by her SF-ish novel Briefing for a Descent into Hell, as I burbled incoherently when I found myself sitting next to the great lady at the Hugo ceremony. I still remember thinking, "Gosh wow, the first person to congratulate me on that Hugo was Doris Lessing!" But it's not all about me.

She'd written unashamed SF with her 1979 Shikasta – a literary reboot of the traditional "shaggy god story" approach – and its sequels. Moreover, she wasn't afraid to call it science fiction. As the BBC obituarist put it: "By the late 1970s Lessing abandoned social themes for science fiction with her Canopus in Argus series, which she describes as her best work. / In it she outlined a bleak vision of the future with tyranny and natural catastrophes becoming the norm." No realistic social themes there, then.

Doris Lessing's cantankerous attitude to her own biggest award is also legendary. Emerging from a taxi outside her London house one day in 2007, she was mobbed by reporters telling her she'd won the Nobel Prize for Literature and demanding a tasty soundbite. Lessing: "Oh Christ! ... I couldn't care less."

Naturally, writing SF has never been a fast track to Nobel acclaim. The SF Encyclopedia entry on Nobel winners is very short but lists Rudyard Kipling (who wrote a lot more SF than you think), George Bernard Shaw (Back to Methuselah), Herman Hesse (The Glass Bead Game aka Magister Ludi) and William Golding (Lord of the Flies has an implied background of future global war). Although the Nobel pantheon included one token spaceship (in Harry Martinson's epic Swedish poem Aniara, largely unread because it's so very epic and, indeed, Swedish), there were no aliens or galactic empires there until Doris Lessing joyously lowered the tone with her Canopus in Argos sequence. Good for her.

Traditional media dissing of genre fiction and its readers continues. Here, in memory of a lady who couldn't care less what the hacks wrote, are some recent examples.

"For those readers who did not get beaten up in high school, Doctor Who is a beloved British sci-fi series about a character called the Doctor ..." (New York Times)

On tales of catastrophic climate change: "Don't call it 'science fiction'. Cli-fi is literary fiction.' (Christian Science Monitor)

Dialogue from ITV's gay sitcom Vicious: "Will there be a lot of single men?" "It's a science fiction fan club event. They'll be single but they'll be disgusting."

Insider view of The Hunger Games: "I think my job as costume designer is really to create the vision that the director has, not necessarily the book. Gary (the director) wanted to make a movie that was real, that wasn't a science fiction film." (DVD extras)

On Game of Thrones and facial hair: "So it is strange that the programme ... is Sky Atlantic's most popular, and has drawn millions of unexpected fans: housewives and historians, as well as the expected men with beards." (Telegraph)

As always, if it's good it's not genre: "All the Pretty Horses is no more a western than 1984 is science fiction." (New Yorker)

Once in a while, though, even the horrible old Daily Mail can surprise us with a book review like this one from Ned Denny: "Great fun, thought-provoking, highly literate and beautifully written, this is a perfect example of the all-round superiority of 'genre' fiction over the dreary literary mainstream." That's telling them.

David Langford is struggling quite hard to feel superior to the dreary literary mainstream.