Heads We Lose

As long ago as SFX #3 in 1995 (has it really been nineteen years?), I grumbled about the strange belief that science fiction authors are in the business of predicting the future. No, not really, not any more than thriller writers habitually track down serial killers or romance writers are lured by their own irresistible tales of true love into hapless serial bigamy. SF isn't about the future but a future, convincingly argued (we like to hope) but only one of billions of possible routes through Jorge Luis Borges's famous Garden of Forking Paths...

The traditional canard that SF is all about prediction usually heralds a two-pronged attack from genrephobes. Heads they win: book X didn't get the future right, so it's no good. Tails we lose: book Y pinpointed a coming trend, but has now served its purpose like a discarded booster rocket and now (a worthless husk) need no longer be read.

This grubby gambit was trotted out again in the recent "Which Books Should We Stop Calling Classics?" online symposium at Flavorwire, where literary pundits were encouraged to lead their barbarian hordes into the Library of Fame for some exhilarating ethnic cleansing. The novelist Katherine Bucknell immediately put the boot into SF: "For me, science fiction classic is an oxymoron. What could possibly go out of date more rapidly than a book imagining what will happen in a future time or place?"

Her idea of what SF readers like and talk about is even stranger: "The discussions I hear about science fiction 'classics' usually focus on how amazing it is that the author was so close to imagining how things really turned out." I see. The War of the Worlds is highly rated, not because it timelessly shows the complacent British Empire getting a taste of its own gunboat diplomacy ("Whatever happens, we have got / The Maxim gun, and they have not") but because so many Martian tripods have since devastated the London suburbs with their irresistible Heat Rays. It happens all the time.

Oops, no: in fact it turns out that Bucknell hurls H.G. Wells into the dustbin of history, along with satirists and adventure writers: "I'm afraid Brave New World is the last of Huxley's many interesting books that I would recommend. And I would ditch Jules Verne, HG Wells, and the like." End of bizarre polemic.

Of course turnabout is fair play. Using Katherine Bucknell's own ruthless logic, we can sneer at Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, James Joyce and the rest because they failed in the much easier task of predicting the present day or recent past. Historians and genealogists have sadly confirmed that the characters in their books are all made up. Conversely, it would seem that H.G. Wells's The Time Machine can still be a classic because its "predicted" far future hasn't yet failed to happen. That's logic for you.

Since fantasy is so often about impossible worlds and never-never lands, you can't dismiss the genre out of hand by playing the failed-prediction card. Another approach is required, and "literary fiction" author Russell Banks filled the much-needed gap with his brilliant ploy of Making Stuff Up. Writing in the New York Times, he pinpointed the kind of fiction he took care to avoid: "Anything described by the author or publisher as fantasy, which to me says, 'Don't worry, Reader, Death will be absent here.'" Gorblimey.

It is of course notorious that no one ever dies in the wishy-washy Harry Potter saga. Sociologists have proved that rumours of a bony Discworld character who ALWAYS SPEAKS IN DOOM-LADEN CAPITALS are entirely baseless. Only Barbara Cartland rivals George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones for sentimental niceness, especially in wedding scenes. I need to lie down now.

David Langford luckily ran out of space before getting into the debate about whether some film called Gravity is SF.