Article published on May 31, 2011.
When we are young, the world is a magical place. Anything can happen: new, frightening and inexplicable events pepper our infant days. Monsters, fairies, wizards and talking animals populate our earliest reading experiences, as if our still-plastic brains are not yet expected to discriminate between the exciting possibilities of the dreamlike subconscious and the boring mundanities of ‘real life.’ But this literary free-for-all has a limited shelf life. While authors such as J K Rowling, Philip Pullman, and my latest discovery Patrick Ness, are feted when they summon fantasy worlds rich in wonder and weirdness for teenage minds, writers of adult science and fantasy fiction get short shrift from critics more likely to lavish attention on ‘literary’ novels or even other ‘genre’ works such as romance or crime. The implication? It’s time to put away childish things.
It is a cultural cliché that readers who crave otherworldly fiction beyond ‘young adulthood’ are immature, socially stunted and all around ill-equipped for the ‘grown-up’ rigours of realism. Going to see IanMcEwan or Sebastian Faulks speak at Hay or Latitude is a badge of louche intellectual sophistication; catching Robin Hobb at a fantasy convention is akin to admitting you were bullied as a child.
Fear not, this is not going to be a rant against the injustice of genre snobs. It is undeniable that there is still stigma attached to being a sci-fi or fantasy fan, but there is little reason any more to believe that the same taint attaches to a sci-fi and fantasy reader. If you happen to read books about fantastical universes, without necessarily choosing to spend your weekends dressed as an elf in Epping Forest, you’re increasingly, well, like everyone else.
Take the past month alone. On 27th April South African novelist Lauren Beukes became the 25th winner of prestigious annual British sci-fi gong the Arthur C. Clarke Award, with her brilliant novel Zoo City – a memorable slice of fur-and-feathered crime-thriller cyberpunk – and the resulting buzz from press and public alike was impressively loud. Three weeks later saw the launch of Out of This World, the British Library’s first exhibition to focus solely on sci-fi in literature, film, illustration and sound. It’s a fascinating interactive tour of the ‘other worlds’ the human imagination creates, from Thomas More’s 1516 Utopia, to the Brontë children’s stories about their imaginary Glass Town Federation, to the latest book from last year’s Clarke Award winner China Miéville. On the afternoon I visited it was full of families, hipsters and, frankly, ordinary looking folk, with not a shuffling, spotty, Trek-T-shirted geek-stereotype in sight. In the cinema we have Attack the Block, on TV the new series of Doctor Who; and if you’re a gamer, you can barely put finger to joystick without stumbling into a MMOG that doesn’t feature aliens, goblins or medieval goblo-alien hybrids. This stuff isn’t just mainstream, it’s ubiquitous.
“Science fiction is a misnomer generally,” says Beukes. “It’s a broad church and only one small part of it is particularly focused on hard science. It’s about alternate worlds whether that’s on another planet or a different take on this one. At its best, it’s a lens for exploring where we are right now and who we are right now from a different, fantastical perspective. There’s a lot of “literary” literature that qualifies as science fiction from Haruki Murakami to Michael Chabon to David Mitchell and TC Boyle.” On the topic of the g-word, Beukes continues: “I find the whole genre war thing as tedious as atheists versus Christians. I think it’s a battle largely fabricated by loud fundamentalist voices on either side – or conservative booksellers who just need to know where to shelve things.”
I think most readers would agree. I have long been a consumer of both science fiction and fantasy. My favourite childhood authors were Alan Garner, Brian Jacques and Ursula Le Guin, and the novel I am currently working on is a fantasy starring a fourteen-year-old girl. But for me a Charles Dickens or a Jonathan Franzen or a Michel Faber creates alternative worlds as fantastical, or scientific, or futuristic as any of the above. Whether they come from the dark shelves on the third floor of the bookshop or the three-for-two tables at the front makes little difference to me except for the relative steeliness of my buns.
And yet, and yet. The genre debate will not die. Back in February, the BBC’s primetime broadcasting on World Book Night – ‘The Books We Really Read: a Culture Show Special’ and ‘New Novelists: 12 of the Best’ managed to, in the first instance, talk about ‘genre fiction’ without mentioning fantasy or sci-fi, and in the second feature solely ‘literary’ writers. Is it still so hard for ‘geek lit’ writers to be taken seriously? Are these really the genres that even genre fiction refuses to own? Cue breathless outrage.
I suspect that sci-fi and fantasy will continue to carry a whiff of stigma however mainstream they become (and I think the fans would be upset if they didn’t; if there’s one thing a ‘minority group’ hates more than being marginalised, it’s becoming one of the crowd). Because there is something about the extravagance of imagination found in these books that many people – especially we Brits – seem to find embarrassing or challenging. Maybe it is because the extreme fabrication these genres demand involves a vulnerability, an openness, a passionate sharing of vision and yes, sometimes a kind of wish-fulfilment, which has always been uncool in our cynical culture. Maybe it is because of their inherent and disruptive implication that our precious, solipsistic world really is only one in a plethora of possibilities. Either way, readers of sci-fi and fantasy get to enjoy the best of both worlds (excuse the pun) – the ease and availability of popularity teamed with the righteousness of the outcast.