Science Fiction, And Why It Needs Secret Decoder Rings

the prestige

It does seem like the eternal war between SF and the mainstream just goes on and on and on, doesn’t it? One minute you think it’s dead and buried, the next it’s climbing back out of its grave, spitting out mouthfuls of dirt and gnashing its teeth.

The latest round started with a recent issue of New Scientist (September 19th:  they called it a ‘scifi’ special, but let’s just quietly skip over that) featuring a bunch of particularly fine flash fiction by various luminaries of the British SF  field. These were accompanied by a lengthy and erudite essay by Kim Stanley Robinson asking, amongst other things, why no science fiction novels had been long-listed or short-listed for this year’s Booker prize.

Amongst the responses to this witty and thoughtful essay was a snippy comment by John Mullan, a professor of English at University College London (and Booker Prize Judge, more’s the pity) who was quoted in The Guardian as saying:

“When I was 18 it (science fiction) was a genre as accepted as other genres,” he said, but now “it is in a special room in book shops, bought by a special kind of person who has special weird things they go to and meet each other.”

Which is a strange comment in so many ways. The notion that SF ‘was a genre as accepted as other genres’ runs counter to the experiences of many, particularly those who assure me that in my hometown of Glasgow, the only way at one time to find American SF magazines such as Analog and Galaxy was in adult porn shops, often – and feel the irony here – hidden under the counter. These magazines frequently reached the UK in those far-off days of the ’50’s and ’60’s only because they were used as ballast in visiting cargo ships. Hardly the picture of an ‘accepted’ genre.

When I think of the popular misconceptions surrounding our field, I invariably recall that a surprising number of otherwise perfectly intelligent people suffer from some fairly remarkable misconceptions about the way our universe works. A survey back in, I think, the ’90s found that a surprisingly high percentage of college students had such a lack of understanding concerning the force of gravity that they believed it to be restricted to the planet Earth, perhaps because, having seen images of people weightless in space, they assume that everything above the surface is also weightless.

At the time, I had trouble believing this could possibly be the case until I asked several people of my acquaintance – all intelligent, all otherwise educated people, but none of them readers of SF – the following question:  ‘If you’re standing on the surface of the moon with a golf ball in your hand, and you let go of the golf ball, where does it go?’

The answer, more times than I might have expected, was that the golf ball fell towards the Earth, rather than towards the surface of the Moon. I don’t believe the people I asked were stupid, simply ignorant of the facts. They had very likely never for a single moment had either cause or sufficient interest to think about their assumptions. They invariably saw the error of their ways once the flaw in their thinking was pointed out.

Which brings me (circuitously) to this thought:  if there are that many otherwise apparently entirely lucid and intelligent people labouring under the startling misapprehension that gravity functions solely to draw objects to the surface of the Earth and nowhere else in our vast and possibly infinite universe, is it any surprise that so many people apparently don’t ‘get’ SF?

For most people, what lies beyond our atmosphere isn’t so much a mystery as something they have never once thought about. This desperate misunderstanding of some of the most fundamental rules of how our universe works is one reason why we hear pew-pew noises in space in every one of the Star Wars movies, or get to see spaceships in Battlestar Galactica flip and zip about like gravity was just a dumb idea created for the sole purpose of testing the patience of TV executives.

As if Professor Mullan’s comments regarding the nature of SF fans weren’t bad enough, a week or two later the Times published a list of what it called the ‘fifty best paperbacks’ of 2009, a list which contains precisely one book that might be regarded as within the SF and fantasy field. That book is Stephenie Meyer’s The Host.

Having scanned the list for entries from my own field and finding them otherwise absent, my eyes returned to the title of the article, and wondered if it should instead have read ‘fifty bestselling paperbacks of 2009′, rather than ‘best’.  But then I had a bit of an epiphany. I realised that SF had, contrary to all appearances and the opinions of one Professor Mullan, long since won the battle for mainstream acceptance.

Ask most people who don’t read SF for a definition, you’ll get something dismissive like ‘spaceships and aliens’ or, if they’ve read Margaret Atwood, ‘talking squid’. This definition runs counter to the actual contents of an endless number of books, of course. Consider the following example: Christopher Priest’s The Prestige, a brilliant novel about two rival stage magicians, one of whom hires Nikola Tesla to build a matter transporter to allow him to perform an otherwise apparently impossible trick. It was made it into a pretty decent movie starring Hugh Jackson. It’s worth seeing (and the book is very worth reading).

I am still astounded when I encounter people who saw the very same movie, but don’t regard it as science fiction, at least not until challenged as to where – if the subject matter is therefore presumably ‘realistic’ – one may purchase a Tesla matter-transporter. Since it contains neither spaceships nor aliens, the argument frequently seems to be, it cannot therefore be science fiction.

If The Prestige can be seen as ‘non-SF’, what else might be? Rather a great deal, as it turns out. The new television series Flash Forward is based on an unabashedly science fiction novel by Robert J. Sawyer, and concerns a physics experiment that enables everyone in the world to have a vision of their future. But it isn’t SF, according to at least one of the stars of the show. Whether or not this claim pans out over the next several seasons remains to be seen, but the fact remains that this constant denial of the form has become an overly familiar litany to many within the SF/fantasy field, one that may have finally reached its nadir with the decision to rename the Sci Fi Channel ‘SyFy’.

But what all this really tells us is that SF is entirely acceptable – as long as you don’t call it by that name. Call it pretty much anything else you like, and you may suddenly find yourself free of the opprobrium usually ascribed to the field. It certainly seems to work for Margaret Atwood, George Orwell, Michael Crichton, Kurt Vonnegut, and an endless stream of novels, TV shows, and films, all featuring ideas and technologies which might otherwise appear canonical to the field.

Within the field, we know SF to be a vast ocean of limitless (im)possibilities. Outside the field, the public perception of the field we all know and love is infinitely narrower. It’s spaceships and aliens, spaceships and aliens, and nothing else. And if it doesn’t have spaceships and aliens, then, regardless  of how clearly fantastic the subject matter is, it can’t be science fiction.

This leads me to an inevitable and unavoidable conclusion:  if we know it’s SF, but people on the outside don’t, those of us at the heart of the genre, the writers, editors, and readers, are going to have to find a new way of codifying it so that when we refer to the stuff we like to read, write, and edit, it’s in a way that can’t be so easily dismissed.

But if we want to complete our infiltration of popular culture and overcome the last bastions of cold-hearted and unthinking prejudice, we’re going to have to be spectacularly sneaky.

What I’m saying is, we’re going to have to go undercover. We’ll need code words, naturally. A secret hand signal or two would be useful. We might even have to hold our conventions in secret, or disguise them as mere ‘literary’ conventions.

The next time somebody asks what we read or write, you’ll have to keep an eye out for the Super Secret SF Fan signal before responding. And maybe the next time the Booker comes around and an author finds him or herself shocked – shocked! – to be accused of committing acts of science fiction, they can put their hand on heart and reply oh no, this isn’t science fiction. This is merely history that hasn’t happened yet.

And if the next question is regarding the space battle between talking squid, which features as the climax of your latest novel, remind your interrogator that contrary to appearances it’s all about people. And if ever you find yourself tiring of your part in our great conspiracy, just console yourself that the person asking the questions, for all their apparent erudition, might be labouring under the mistaken but honest belief that the moon really is made of cheese.