I had a rather disturbing day yesterday. I have always thought that I liked sci-fi. Some of my favourite films are from the genre as are a couple of books that I have really enjoyed. It was for this reason that I went to see Alan Moore discuss his work with Stewart Lee yesterday at the British Library (as much for Lee as for Moore really, I had to digest V for Vendetta quickly before going, having otherwise only encountered his work through film adaptations, adaptations he despises). However, I no longer think I like sci-fi. Let me explain.
The British Library have launched a new exhibit about science fiction literature called ‘Out of this World’. The Moore/Lee discussion session is one of many excellent events that they have put on to accompany the exhibit. I spent an hour or so there before heading over for the evenings entertainment. It was here that my unease began. They did a truly excellent job of spanning the history and breadth of the genre. Surprises for me included that Bertrand Russell had written some science fiction and that the Mighty Boosh moon first features in a 1902 French film ‘La Voyage dans la Lune‘. However I found my interest in the materials wavered, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. This as I say was odd because I have always thought I liked sci-fi, though admittedly I had never really tested this. Some things that I enjoy very much are science fiction, cogito ergo sum, I like sci-fi. I was for instance very happy to find that a gentleman by the name of John Christopher had written about Earth’s crops failing in ‘The Death of Grass’ (1956) as I love pursuing such themes in my own research. On the other hand, I wasn’t that interested in the sections on robots, the future etc. Anyway, I tried to put it all down to hormones and started to get re-excited for Moore/Lee.
There they are!
They began by discussing why science fiction was to many still the pursuit of geeks, losers or spotty peeping toms and why Moore had always clung to the term despite its unpopular image. He explained that it was for the same reason he called his strip ‘Lost Girls’ pornography rather than erotica, and never called his comic books ‘graphic novels’. It would be pretentious to dress them up as anything else, they are what they are and to attempt to avoid that would be paying a disservice to all those who have influenced him from these respective fields. This was all very interesting, and they are both great speakers, but then Moore shifted to explaining the kind of science fiction he writes. He drew a parallel between works primarily driven by new scientific developments or contemporary social concerns about science, and works that use a basis in science in order to transcend the human perception of the natural world, considering this second approach akin to dreams and visions etc. He placed himself in the later category and people like Arthur C. Clarke in the former, labeling this a more ‘nuts and bolts’ style. This is when I started to realise what I did and didn’t like about the exhibit, there wasn’t any science! Indeed from most of the questions and answers it seems that science itself was of very little interest to these people. Moore seemed to be under the impression that the content of science was free from human hands and therefore couldn’t be used to explore humans and their societies (at least that is the reason he gave for not really liking the Arthur C. Clarke approach, ‘yeah things like weather stations are cool and interesting, but what do they really mean to humans?’ kind of argument). This, needless to say, was a little disappointing.
Even people like Clarke don’t live up to what I want. The ‘nuts and bolts’ element has a human hand all the way down, as any first year student of HPS could tell you. So why bother scraping the surface and then going mental? I appreciate good fantasy as much as anyone, for instance I bloody love Star Wars, but the separation of sci-fi from fantasy is starting to look pretty illegitimate to me. I suppose what I have been valuing all along was a marriage of ‘science’ and ‘fiction’ rather than their bastard offspring. This marriage can take many forms, counter-factual stories (which can include the nearish future), fictional tales about real scientists/real tales with fictional scientist substitutes, or fictions which take scientific ideas/events to their core. In this respect I would like to direct everyones attention to Rebecca Stott’s novels, which are bloody brilliant! I can well imagine that she would have a thing or two to say about being lumped in with science fiction, but they are perfect examples of the kind of thing I want from the genre; science in fictional settings. Certainly in this case the settings are lovingly recreated from the historical record, but they are fictions nonetheless.
Ultimately I suppose what I am saying is that I want to do HPS, which is handy really.