The following is the text of Paul J. McAuley's guest of honour speech at ConFuse 98 (kindly provided on disk). Where the spoken speech diverted significantly from the text, what was spoken has been used. Especially a segment of four pages was not available in the material on disk.
I stand before you intimidated by the speeches of preceding guests: I do not feel that I can match Brian Stableford's erudition, Nancy Kress's fierce polemic, Peter Hamilton's level-headed sensibility, or Ian McDonald'sá... well, Ian McDonaldness. However, I hope you'll be patient as I do my best to expound on the shape and direction of British science fiction.
It may not be the best of times to be an science fiction writer in Britain, but it is not the worst of times either. It is an 'interesting' time -- in the sense of the old Chinese curse. Interesting because not since the end of the space age (which began in 1969) have there been so many science-fictional headlines in the newspapers -- Life on Mars, planet-busting asteroids, worlds around other stars, and cloning (my favourite headline generated by the cloning of Dolly the sheep was ''Soon we will be able to raise the dead''). And it is interesting because never before has there been such a diversity of written science fiction (sf) -- there are more sf titles than ever, even if they are outnumbered by fantasy titles, and more space for them in the bookshops.
For an sf reader in Britain, it is a great time. But for British sf writers, this abundance presents two practical problems.
The first is that while more titles are being published in Britain, the number of books bought has remained fairly static. As a result, the average number of copies sold of each title has gone down, so it is more difficult for a particular title to earn out its advance -- that is, pay back the money which the publisher gave the author before the publication. Naturally, this leads to lower advances, and the temptation for authors to write more books -- again driving down sales per title and decreasing advancesá...
The second is that of application of technology which in the past ten years has dragged publishing from the Victorian age (handwritten ledgers) into the new millennium (computerised spreadsheets). Sales of each book title are closely tracked not only by publishers but also by booksellers, using the EPOS system. If an author does not sell well on one book, then fewer copies of the next will be ordered by booksellers -- inevitably driving down sales. In the United States, where this has been happening for some years, there are rumours that some authors have actually changed their names to beat the system and begin again.
However, the British sf scene is still much better than it was. In some respects, we have come through a small boom in sf publishing in Britain. I want to illustrate it by a brief personal history. First because I believe that my experience is not unusual. Second because I happen to know something to it.
When I was starting out as an sf writer, or rather, the first time I was starting out as an sf writer, in the mid 1970's, it was not the best of times. There were no short story markets in Britain. And in the United States most of the markets were vanishing, their shoestring budgets having finally frayed away to nothing. But when I was 19 I sold a story to Galaxy, a magazine which most of you will only know of by report if at all.
Galaxy was the best American sf magazine in the 1950's and 60's. And even in its final days, it was still publishing most of the established authors, as well as early work by Greg Bear, Joe Haldeman, Christopher Priest, Lisa Tuttle and Gene Wolfe. Anyhow, it bought a story of mine, and promptly went out of business, and I took it as a Sign and stopped writing sf for half a dozen years. I did science instead, studying for a Ph.D. and going on into research, and those of you who know anything about that will know that research takes almost all your waking hours.
But when I was living in the USA in the early 1980's, as a resident alien research scientist, I started writing again. Perhaps it was the shock of moving from Oxford to Los Angeles. I took a while to sell anything -- the markets had changed and I didn't know much about those changes at first, for I had stopped reading sf as well, you see. But I found what I hope is my own voice, and found a steady market in the British sf magazine Interzone, and the rest is history.
In sf, unlike mainstream literature (and fantasy), short stories are where the new talent gets a chance. Short stories are a good way to learn how to be a writer, to kick start a career and get your name noticed by editors. Interzone has been a prominent forum for new talent for since 1982. It has been responsible, at least in part, for boosting the careers of Stephen Baxter, Eric Brown, Molly Brown, Richard Calder, Greg Egan, Nicola Griffiths, Ian Lee, Ian R. McLeod, Kim Newman, Geoff Ryman, and myself.
In addition to Interzone, there have been a plethora of British sf magazines with differing longevities, and there have also been original anthologies -- Christopher Evans's and Robert Holdstock's Other Edens, David Garnett's Zenith, New Worlds, revived by David Garnett and published first by Gollancz and latterly by White Wolf, the anthology I edited with Kim Newman, In Dreams, and a dozen others.
In the last ten years we have seen more new British sf writers emerging than at any time since the trippy days of New Worlds back in the sixties. In addition to Interzone and other local markets in Britain, British sf book editors have grown sympathetic to British voices. There is once again a highly active population of British sf writers, and there are now several British writers as successful in the US as in Britain (such as Peter Hamilton and Stephen Baxter), and there are at least twenty British writers who have made a fulltime career as sf or fantasy writers. Interzone has won a Hugo, published its 100th issue some time back, and is still publishing new writers. I looked through the issues of 1997 and counted stories by four previously unpublished writers (although not all of them British) out of a total of 60 odd stories, or more than 5% of new fiction by brand new writers. In addition, there were stories by rising new writers such as Dominic Green and Alastair Reynolds. Surely a sign of health.
In short there was a kind of phase change in the British sf market sometime in the 1980s from which British sf writers are still benefitting. In the 1970s there were few British editors interested in science fiction. Publishing consisted of reprinting US novels and, with a few honourable exceptions, putting out more or less unreadable and probably unread hackwork by British authors whose names I will not mention here. Sf was not an important part of any of the British publishing house -- perhaps with the exception of Gollancz, and briefly, Faber & Faber. It was known that none of the sf books would ever be bestsellers, but that they would sell at a consistent low but profitable level even if they consisted entirely of misprints. It was against that bottom-feeding quality that the New Worlds cabal was in part rebelling.
British sf of the 1990s is very unlike the last burst of activity associated with the New Wave, where a bunch of radicals in a basement, mostly named Michael Moorcock, plotted to change the face of science fiction -- and succeeded, kind of, but not in the way they had hoped. For unlike the New Wave or the cyberpunks, the new British writers do not have a central philosophy or zeitgeist. With that in mind, I would like now to address two questions. First, is there such a thing as British science fiction anymore, as distinct from the American variety? And second, if we're so rich in talent now, what direction is British sf taking?
But before I try and answer those questions, I need to set them in the wider context of the history of sf, because I believe that British and European science fiction has a different perception of that history than does American sf.
British writers do not, alas, dominate sf: modern sf is driven by trends in the United States, for it was in the United States that modern sf was invented. It is true that the New Wave was briefly centred upon New Worlds, a British magazine, but the very term was invented by an American, Judith Merril, and many of the core writers of New Worlds -- Delany, Disch and Spinrad, were Americans. By sheer numbers of books sold, the United States is the major sf market in the world, and there is no sign that that will change in the future.
One can, of course, imagine an alternative history in which European sf dominated, but for it to have happened, the history of the early twentieth century would have had to have changed radically. The chief difference between European and American sf is that Americans believe that sf started in 1920's, but Europeans know that it began far earlier, in a rented villa by the shore of Lake Geneva, in the summer of 1816. I refer of course to the first novel by a young British writer named Mary Shelley. As pointed out by Brian Aldiss, Frankenstein, or, The New Prometheus, was the first proper modern sf novel which concentrated upon the moral, philosophical and political implications of scientific enquiry and experimentation. While the films of James Whale and others have appropriated the story of Frankenstein and his creation as a gothic romance or straightforward horror, Mary Shelley, like all good sf writers, built her story around extrapolations from contemporary scientific investigations -- specifically, the experiments of the Italian scientist Galvini, who showed that electricity and life were intertwined. In contemporary hospital dramas this trope is very much still current, for scarcely an episode passes without a patient being jolted back to life with electrical paddles.
Mary Shelley's bestselling first novel was an early example of a scientific romance, and scientific romances achieved in late Edwardian Britain their finest flowering with writers such as M.P. Shiel, William Hope Hodgson and Arthur Conan Doyle. But two Europeans were to dominate the scientific romance market with their very different visions -- Wells and Verne. The two men represented two very different strands of sf still current. Oddly, Wells, the Englishman, was the more romantic, and Verne, the Frenchman, the more practical. It was Wells who populated the Moon with Selenites, while Verne played within the rules of what was known -- many of his voyages across fantastic landscapes are hard sf -- tennis played with the net up, to use Gregory Benford's widely quoted phrase. Wells delivered wild visions of mysterious regions -- Verne's machines tamed them.
Wells foresaw the horrors of mechanised warfare -- war in air, the ironclads -- and after the First World War, scientific romances dwindled. Indeed some of the writers of scientific romances, including William Hope Hodgson, were killed in the trenches. What remained of the scientific romances took on a sombre note -- in particular, the scientific romances of C.S. Lewis were actually antiscience, culminating with a vicious portrait of H.G. Wells in That Hideous Strength. In general, there was a fear or loss of faith in technology. It no longer automatically implied utopias. It is interesting that the director who changed the public perception of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, James Whale, was an Englishman who fought in the trenches in the First World War.
But in the United States, technology was celebrated for the consumerist cornucopia it promised rather than the horrors of trench warfare it delivered. And in the United States a new form of sf, as crude and vigorous as Russian Vine, grew up. One man -- Hugo Gernsback, coined the term science fiction after trying on and discarding scientifiction. Sf was merely one part of Gernsback's vigorous championing of new technology, such as TV (which ironically may have much to do with demise of written sf, although it is possible that Gernsback might have approved of this turn -- he would certainly approve of cyberspace).
Gernsback invented the magazine form of science fiction and John W. Campbell perfected it, and because of that the short story still flourishes in sf as nowhere else, and the American form of optimistic, forward-looking and generally technophilic sf became dominant. We would have to posit a Europe in which the First World War never happened for it to be otherwise. By the middle of the century, British science fiction languished in the shade of this young giant, existing only because shared common language -- indeed, some British writers such as Eric Frank Russell adopted the American idiom to survive. Pulp sf was not native to Britain, but was available as imports -- often as ballast in ships sailing empty from USA to Britain. It infiltrated British culture rather like jazz or rock and roll, and was regarded with the same disdain by mainstream culture.
With writers such as Arthur C. Clarke, who is the most famous inheritor of Wells's tradition, a peculiarly British strand of science fiction did survive. Clarke's stories were often published in American magazines, but his astronauts returned alien artifacts to British Museum, not Smithsonian, fried up sausages in the cabin of their moon rover, and escorted the Prince of Wales into space. Even so, writers such as Clarke and John Wyndham, relied upon American anglophilia for survival. American sf was the primary form.
To sum up: It's all down to breeding. If you trace back the lineage of American sf, you end up with Hugo Gernsback and scientifiction. Amazing Stories. The Pulps. A weird hybrid endowed with hybrid vigor. As for purely British sf, it began with Mary Shelley and reached its finest hour with H.G. Wells and the Edwardian scientific romances, which, while they were given a place in mainstream literature, withered as a literary form after the first world war.
In the late twentieth century, sf in Britain became a fugitive organism, surviving precariously in unstable niches. An example of this is New Worlds, which up to a few years ago was constantly held up as an evolutionary cul-de-sac from which British science fiction was still trying to extricate itself. The New Wave had a simple agenda. It was to infuse science fiction with the contemporary literary values. It was to reject the notion that sf was simply a literature of ideas, but to try and make it true literature, using every available technique. It was distinguished by its concern with literary experiment as much as with science, which was often exiguous or non-existent.
It failed, of course, on its own terms.
But I think that it also won.
The very people who decried New Worlds during the revolution now calmly accept the revitalised work of -- say Fred Pohl -- without realising that Pohl is using those very techniques that the New Worlds crew tried to mainline into the science fiction corpus. Mainstream American sf writers like Greg Benford or Greg Bear are also using those very same techniques. It isn't considered strange to compare Lucius Shepard with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In that sense, New Worlds has won.
But did it leave British sf in a cul-de-sac? By concentrating on literary technique and experimentation, did it strip out the peculiar mutant vigor which gives sf its compulsive narrative drive? Is British sf all technique and no substance?
Certainly, if a writer concentrates on mainstream values at the expense of science fictional content, then she will end up writing mainstream literature. But this is not a peculiarly British symptom. If Michael Moorcock went on to write novels more mainstream than sf, so did American writers Thomas M. Disch and Samuel R. Delany. The fact is that, as I mentioned earlier, half the writers involved with the so called New Wave were American. And any accusation levelled against a particular British sf writer can also be levelled (without changing a word) against at least one American writer.
This brings us back to the new British writers of the 1980's and beyond. How did the New Wave affect them?
As for me, I was in school during the heyday of New Worlds, roughly 1966-69. When I started reading modern sf I was reading (amongst others) Larry Niven, Samuel R. Delany, Thomas Disch, Brian Aldiss, Poul Anderson, Arthur C. Clarke, Alfred Bester, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Jack Vance, Theodore Sturgeoná... not New Worlds.
Only two of those writers are British. Only three were associated with the New Wave, and two of them are American.
I believe that this experience is typical of new British writers -- for instance, Stephen Baxter admits an early influence of H.G. Wells modified by later reading of American hard sf writers such as Larry Niven. It was a happy coincidence that the change in attitude in British science fiction publishing toward British writers occurred at the time when this generation of new writers were trying out their voices. In fact, the two events are so closely interlinked that I find it impossible to say which came first. However, my first two novels were both published in the United States before they were published over here. The year before my first novel was published, Bantam published British writer Ian McDonald's first novel and a collection of his short stories -- in the US. It is possible that there were plenty of writers waiting for the right conditions to burst forth -- writers ready to take American science fiction on its own terms.
For despite the blip of the New Wave, where along with other aspects of popular culture, sf was briefly focused on swinging London, American sf remains the dominant form. It is as impossible for British writers to ignore it as it is to ignore Ionescu's Rhinoceros. In many cases, new British sf writers since 1980's have not turned their backs on the American variety, but embraced it and tried to make it over into their own -- to inform the tropes of hard sf with a literary post-modern sensibility, to quote Norman Spinrad.
British culture has in fact a fear of and a distaste for technology which is rather unusual in Europe. For instance, in France Louis Pasteur's achievements are rightly celebrated, there is an institute of high international reputation that bears his name. In Sweden Carl LinnÚ's garden is scrupulously maintained, I happen to know. I have seen photographs. On the other hand, the greatest British biologist was Darwin, arguably the greatest biologist in the last 200 years and arguably the most important scientist in the last 200 years with the exception for Einstein and the guy that invented bottled lager. But the place where Darwin wrote all his influential works, Down House, was until recently falling down. It has actually now been restored but for many years it was completely falling apart. The British government has just discovered the Internet. In fact Geoff Ryman, a British science fiction writer, is also in charge of the British government's web site. If you ever go and access the Buckingham Palace web site Geoff designed it. Meanwhile the French government supplied its citizens with minitel long before the Internet was anything but a system for a lone scientist to play Star Trek games, I mean to communicate scientific results. Anybody who has used the channel tunnel from Britain to France or to Belgium will have noticed that there is a certain difference in speed between the British side and the French and the Belgian side. On the British side we can actually watch the cows overtake us as the train ambles along on the very old Victorian tracks and suddenly the engineer puts the pedal to metal as we say when he gets over to France. In Germany engineers put brass name plates on their houses with their qualifications. In Britain people who retune TVs or fix washing machines are called engineers. Sweden has its own space program. Britain used to have a rocket program which it cancelled along with an other sad roll call of British invention not followed up, the jet engine for example, the hover craft, the digital computer, even bucky balls, partly invented on the side by a British astronomer who had no money whatsoever who went to Texas to play around. So there is all kind of shoestring British science being done, very good science, but it is very difficult then to get money to develop it. This problem has recently been recognised by the brand new Labour government. Unless they do something very quickly even Britain's former colonies are going to overtake us. India for instance has turned away from Britain and are looking towards the west coast in California. There are now direct flights linking the software firms in California with the hordes of computer programmers that work in India. The British journalist Ian Jack recently told a revealing story about his return to India twenty years after he worked there in the ninety-seventies. His ex-brother in law Rahol had a line in rubber toys as well as doing other things. And Jack recognized most of the rubber toys, Noddy, mister Plod the Policeman. But he didn't recognize this one character in rubber suit with large spectacles. That is Bill, Rahol said. Old Bill Billy boy, he held the doll fondly to his cheek, I am quoting the story now, don't you know Bill Gates? Bill Gates is famous in India for having said that after the Chinese the southern Indians are the most intelligent people on Earth. Britain has yet to embrace old Bill. We have the Spice Girls instead.
Just as science is regarded with fear and suspicion in Britain so science fiction is regarded as the piraya of the literary world. Worse, even many scientists dislike or distrust it in Britain. Last year, I was on a live radio discussion with several astronomers, I won't go into why, but it was after twelve o'clock at night, which of course is when astronomers come awake, they sleep during the day upside down hung from their telescopes. These astronomers did not regard space travel as <untranscribable word> as one British astronomer Roy <incredibly fast spoken surname> in one infamous speech proclaimed. This was about 1960. But one astronomer in the program with me did say that he thought interstellar travel was physically impossible. I had rather inform him that various American physicists would take umbrage at that but he hadn't read the books so it was a waste of time really. They all hated the idea of science fiction, although only one of them had actually read any science fiction at all and that was thirty years ago. So long ago that he couldn't actually remember the name of the book. I think it was The Day of the Triffids but I was never quite sure. So the low status of the science in Britain is reflected in the status of sf in Britain. And even worse, the low-status scientists despise science fiction even more.
This contrasts with the United States which is another reason for British writers for turning to the United states. Science fiction writers in the United States are not made to feel like loathsome pirayas on radio program and on TV. In the United States our books are even reviewed in news papers. Hurrah, who doesn't want to be liked after all? In Britain this is sadly not exactly the case. Indeed, again about a year ago, James Wood the senior literary critic in The Guardian newspaper started his review of Russel Hoban, you know the writer Russel Hoban here, some people do, he has written a lot of children novels but also some very good adult novels, some of which are science fiction I believe. His last novel Friendo was science fiction, it has space travel and the rest of it. James would start his review of Friendo by stating that science fiction novels are historical novels in reverse and both are properly despised. Ouch! Wood wasn't distinguishing between writers like the popular Catherine Cook and Tolstoy, but I think he was thinking of popular historical novels rather than serious historical novels. His thesis was that science fiction and historical fiction are literature for people who are too involved with details rather than characters. They are too concerned with blueprints of imagined worlds to pay any attention at all with the strange richness of the real world. Therefore science fiction is not relevant to our own lives and therefore it is worthless. Hmmm.
Leaving aside Wood's mistaken assumption that the arrow of time is symmetrical which we all know it's not, but how would he know, one can actually find an uncomfortable grain of truth in his accusation. It is usually this big triple-decker fantasies that people have mentioned that are overly concerned with texture and unimportant details of the everyday life of characters. But in many science fiction works it is true that there is a very superficial treatment of characters. In the worst case this does render them as ill-manipulated puppets in a very badly lit set which is obviously made of cardboard. It does tend to lead in my opinion to problems when novelty is priced above insight. You know stories about aliens where the aliens are octopuses, no they are upside down octopuses, no they are octopuses with ten tentacles, wait a minute that is not octopuses, that is something else and so on and so forth. These continuous refinements of very unimportant details rather than real insights. Of course that is not true for most of the field. Luckily, because otherwise science fiction written in the 1930s would be indistinguishable from that written today. Good science fiction writers I believe like all good writers everywhere inhabits this world. Except perhaps for Greg Egan. They do not, unlike God or Greg Egan, create from a vacuum. I think the best science fiction is a heightened and selected account of the present and you can tell when you look back at the science fiction of the 1950s what most concerned the 1950s. And when you look back at the 1960s what concerned the 1960s and so on.
There we have the first problem facing British science fiction writers that is inhabiting a culture that fear science, and dislike science, and is deeply suspicious of science and anything that flows from science.
The second problem is one which may be conduced from James Wood's condescending remark. It is a kind of class system in British publishing. The famous class system permeates everything also permeates publishing. In fact no more so in publishing than anywhere else. In fiction the literary novel, the kind of novel that can be nominated for the Nobel prize, is regarded as number one. In British publishing it is somewhere below the true blue aristocrat of the British publishing, preferably the political biography. Crime novels in Britain are regarded as amusing light reading that Oxbridge dons can read in their common rooms as a respite from the hard brain work they do. Block-busting novels which sell million of copies and earn huge advances and are made into very bad television movies are regarded with disdain but tempered with respect for the money that they earn. In many literary columns in newspapers and elsewhere science fiction is not regarded at all. It is invisible because it is not mentioned. Or if it is mentioned there is no attempt at all to distinguish good novels from bad novels because the listings are so brief. All they can do is more or less mention the title and that the book exists for which of course we are very grateful but we like more.
Although literary writers in Britain may if they are clever enough, and many are, recognize that science is of course the most powerful shaper of contemporary culture and therefore they may write novels which may seem to be science fiction novels they are often quick to say that although it is set in the future these novels are not actually sf. Of course they are not written by sf writers. So this is a big problem and this is one of the things James Wood was trying to prove. Although Russel Hoban had written a novel that is set in the future, had space ships and where space travel was actually the central motor of the plot, because it was written by Russel Hoban and it was being reviewed by James Wood who after all doesn't read science fiction it wasn't a science fiction novel. It is a variation of if it is bad it is sf and if it is good sf it can't be sf. Naturally this breeds a certain resentment as you might imagine in British science fiction writers. They feel despised by the reviews and they resent the praise heaped onto a writer from outside the genre when she tries her hand at it. And many sf writers, not many British sf writers but American sf writers will have nothing to do with the wider literary world. They ignore us so we are going to ignore them. So they call for the genre walls to be strengthened into a big castle to keep out the slings and arrows of people like James Wood. They want writers like Russel Hoban to be somehow prevented from writing sf. You have to join the club, if you do not join the club you cannot write science fiction. It is rather unclear how this may be done. I have this idea of Science Fiction Writers of America ninja assassins going around. Not very good really.
I do not actually agree with this ghettoisation or these ninja assassins idea, fun that it might be, patrolling the genre boundaries. It is true that on occasion those unfamiliar with the body of science fiction will write a novel which uses ideas which has long been current in science fiction, they use those ideas in a very naive and careless way, but so what, a lot of science fiction writers do exactly the same thing. I think ghettoisation has lead to ossification of core American science fiction. That is certain science fiction novels in America are now regarded as being pure or being at the heart of science fiction but they are novels which only refer to early science fiction novels. This is a big problem and I think there is a number of signs by which we can recognize this ossification and I am now going to give you a list and let's see if we can recognize them all. So these are the signs of the American pure sf novels which I think should be weeded out:
Some of the things that do not occur in these novels are things like man-machine intimacies as in cyberpunk, no nano-technology, no bio-technology, no recognition of culture and arts as powerful forces in the society and no cultural diversity. Certainly you can get non-Caucasian ethnic groups in these novels but they are only allowed to be there as a decorative function and the must all conform to the higher ethos which is dictated by the author. This kind of sf is full of used furniture that is deployed without thought. Like a photocopy of a photocopy it blurs into the values of the original image without really contributing anything new at all. I think it is a very worrying trend especially as several novels of its type have recently won the Hugos and Nebulas but I am not going to mention them. Having given you the clues perhaps you can recognize them. These novels would have been regarded as perfectly descent juveniles in the 1940s or the 1950s. But now in a process of dumbing down the juveniles have moved to occupy the center of sf. The claim they're at the summit and they are going to defend science fiction from everything else. Oh, dear.
The other problem I have with this is that this kind of science fiction is self-enclosed . It is read only by the initiated and it is unreadable by anybody that hasn't read the history of science fiction. Hopefully of course this means that the young critical audience it has will slowly die away because they do not recruit any new people. But it is still an unhealthy trend and it doesn't help that some of its writers rather mistakenly campaigns for major prices in science fiction under the idea that everybody else does it. Of course they don't, do they? No, they don't, of course not. I hope not.
Then there is this kind of professional ladder whereby you get all these tick marks. Assume you go up the ladder being a professional science fiction writer, by a certain number of novels you should have got these prizes and by a certain number of novels you should have got this this prize and so on, I am sure you recognize the symptoms, I think this is rather worrying to be honest.
Of course another problem is that written science fiction is no longer the dominant form of science fiction in popular culture. The sales of the inheritors of the pulp magazines such as Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, Analog and Fantasy & Science Fiction are unfortunately more or less inexorably downward and their readership is also growing older usually one year for every year that passes which is again a rather worrying symptom.
Of course, in cinema and TV science fiction is flourishing as we know.
Whenever you mention science fiction to somebody who doesn't read
science fiction they say, of course, it is like Star Trek, like
Star Wars or like the X-Files, because that is the kind of
science fiction they are familiar with. And this kind of visual media
sf is almost entirely American. As well as being entirely American is
based on ideas and values that were contemporary around about if we
are lucky the 1940s but very often the 1920s. There are of course
honourable exceptions and most of them really come from Europe. For
instance the British TV dramatist Dennis Potter. His last two series
were intertwined. He did one for the BBC and one for Channel 4 and
one began where the other ended. One was set in the present, one was
set in the far future. They were clearly science fiction. The French
films Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, both
highly imaginative films and infused with very strange post-cyberpunk
garbage sensibility. And Russian director Tarkovsky's Solaris
and Stalker rivals 2001, the only serious science fiction
movie I believe from American studios in the last thirty years. And
it is odd that Kubrik chooses to live in Britain now. He is supposed
to be making another science fiction movie but he is at the moment
making something called Eyes Wide Shut or actually he is remaking
Eyes Wide Shut in that fantastic Kubric way he has of completely
disregarding budget, time or indeed actors' patience. But eventually
he is supposed to be making a movie called AI, artificial
intelligence, that has now gone through so many drafts that nobody
knows what it is about, not even Kubrik I think, which is probably a
good thing. Paradoxically TV series such as Star Trek and
X-Files dominate the perception of science fiction in America.
In Britain we have only very bad TV-series being generated now when
Dr. Who is finished. We have some really seriously bad TV stuff.
In Britain perhaps it is a better chance of nurturing new voices in
actually written fiction. For one reason so far we have been spared
the commodification of sf that is driven by TV and movie tieins in
which writers enter into work for high contracts to till somebody
else's imaginative field rather than cultivate their own. I sometimes
play a game with my friend Kim Newman when we are in bookshops. We
call it the loser's game and we are trying to find the writers that
has won the most science fiction prizes and who is now writing a Star
Trek novel. It is rather a sad game but it is kind of amusing. But
as well as the established writers there are far to many new writers
in America that is being seduced into this kind of work because know
it is very difficult to get your novel published in America as a
mid-list writer. It is a big problem in America and they are worried
about it. We do not particularly have this in Britain because they
would not employ us because they think we are to clever. We would
like the money to be honest but we can't get published. These tieins
series are certainly published in Britain and they are present in the
bookshops, sometimes too prominently, but they don't yet dominate
British science fiction publishing, they're not originated in Britain
which means that
At its core, sf deals with the very twentieth century notion of unease. Its power is that it recognises that things aren't quite what they seem, that nothing is stable. That strange days are here. It deals with the kind of unease generated by Chernobyl, or the Challenger disaster, or genetic engineering, or aids, or the loss of the ozone layer. The kind of realisation that humans may not be innately good; that they are not the inheritors of the earth but just a shade different from the chimpanzees; that politicians aren't actually in control of history -- that in fact nothing is really in control, and a butterfly flapping its wings in Peking can cause a thunderstorm in Hong Kong.
This kind of frisson of unease, that anyone with any sensibility has experienced here in the last decade of the millennium, in these days of late-period capitalism, isn't only to be found in sf these days. The boundaries between sf and the wider reaches of literature are dissolving, just as the New Wavers hoped they would. Quietly, without fuss, the ghetto walls are dissolving, for the bigger the sf genre becomes, the more its edges seem to blur.
Some sf writers want nothing to do with the wider literary world, and call for genre walls to be strengthened into a High Castle which will defend the purity of sf. They want mainstream writers to be somehow prevented from writing sf (although they are unclear about how this is to be done) or for such attempts to be ignored because they muddy the purity of the sf gene pool. I don't agree with either ghettoisation or with eugenic police patrolling genre boundaries. It is true that on occasion those unfamiliar with the body of sf literature will write a novel that uses ideas long current in sf in a naive and careless way -- but so what? A lot of sf writers do the same thing: ghettoisation has led to ossification of core sf. That is, certain sf novels regarded as being at the heart of traditional sf refer only to earlier sf novels. This strain of sf is full of used furniture which is deployed without thought. Like a photocopy of a photocopy, it blurs and devalues the original without contributing anything new.
Luckily for the health of sf, many sf writers, especially the newer ones, are no longer content to write the same novel over and over, or to fill their genre slot for the rest of their careers. Some have kind of wandered in, and are wandering right back out again. Others aren't even aware of the Lilliputian threads with which the sf community has tried to bind them to itself.
The defenders of pure sf -- sf as pulp escapism, riddled with references to older forms of sf that those outside the community have difficulty understanding -- retreat deeper and deeper into their science fictional High Castle, leaving behind slogans which are fast fading. The most famous is ''Get sf out of the classroom and back into the gutter where it belongs.'' But gosh, who wants to live in the gutter? Besides, when we look at the Lords of the sf castle, with their million dollar contracts for rewrites of each other's old novels, we see precious little street level sensibility.
But out at the edge, some writers never a part of the genre have latched on to its central concerns or developed them in parallel, and are using them in startling ways the Lords of the sf castle never dreamed of. And writers who started off inside the ghetto walls are now writing about real things in the real world filtered through sf perceptions (Richard Calder in Dead Girls, Gwyneth Jones in her Aleutian trilogy, Geoff Ryman in The Unconquered Country).
In Britain, the latest trend is for new writers to use science fiction motifs within contemporary or near future novels which heighten the moral fractures of the present day. Often these are comic infernos which hark back to the sociological satires of Pohl and Kornbluth (though it is unlikely that these new writers have actually read Pohl and Kornbluth). The motifs are derived as much from science fiction as popular culture as much as written science fiction. For new British writers such as Toby Litt, Jeff Noon, Nicolas Royle, Michael Marshall Smith, sf is not hermetically sealed -- they write across boundaries, not within them.
I, who write from the core of sf outwards, can only approve of this new trend. Sf must engage with the world if it is to survive. It must not end up like some poor madman muttering at the edge of the road, shouting incomprehensibly at the traffic, ignored as the shiny expensive vehicles shoulder their way into the future.