I’ve just received my author’s copy of the BSFA’s Twenty Years, Two Surveys – a book that compares SF and Fantasy writers responses to a questionnaire now and twenty years ago. It’s a fascinating read, if you’re interested in that sort of thing.
Here, for the record, are my responses. If you want to know what other writers are thinking, buy the book.
1. Do you consider yourself a writer of science fiction and/or fantasy?
Nearly exclusively SF.
2. What is it about your work that makes it fit into these categories?
My definition of SF
- It has a sense of wonder
- It extrapolates (unlike Fantasy, which reflects)
- It is cutting edge
The last probably needs some explanation. Consider a book such as The Time Travellers Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Whilst an entertaining read with many Sfnal elements in it, I don’t think there was anything genuinely new in her treatment of the idea of Time Travel. This is not a problem, the book works well as a romance with a touch of SF in the background. Granted, if you took away the Time Travel the story wouldn’t work, so by Pohl’s definition it’s a Science Fiction story, but I would argue that ideas such as Time Travel have expanded out of SF and into the mainstream (think about all those James Bond films with a Science Fiction weapon as the plot driver). This is why I think SF needs to be cutting edge. If we keep going around and around the same ideas and not adding anything new, then we are missing that indefinable part of the genre that we all recognise from when we first began to read SF aged 11 or 12.
I try to I bring something new or cutting edge in my writing (although I am sure there will be many who claim to have seen it all before) but I attempt to bring something new in my treatment of SF themes. Whether I succeed or not is down to others to decide.
3. Why have you chosen to write science fiction or fantasy?
I didn’t choose to write SF, it chose me. It’s the extrapolation thing: there is something in my nature that looks at a dragon, a ray gun or a love affair and thinks “Now how or why would that work?” (and if the answer is it wouldn’t, I write a story about something else.)
4. Do you consider there is anything distinctively British about your work, and if so what is it?
I’ve just spent ten minutes using Google to try and find a half remembered George Orwell quote where he said something along the lines of being English means you remember the smell of mutton cooking from your childhood. Maybe you know the quote. Getting to the point, I think that SF should be about getting away from the certainties of childhood. I think that those certainties and habits instilled at an early age are what makes us British or French or Japanese or whatever. They are fascinating, they should be examined, but they are not what SF is about.
Saying all that, my characters tend not to understand what is going on, they can’t explain how the world they inhabit works, and they respond to, rather than shape events. I think this is more a British trait than American.
5. Do British settings play a major part in your work, and if so, why
(or why not)?
I return to two settings in my work: South Street, a reflection of parts of the East End of London where I used to live, and Bridleworth, a reflection of the area of the North West where I now reside.
Much of my work is set on other worlds, so mostly the question does not apply, but two of my short story cycles are set in the near future, and I anchored them in the two locations above so as to lend them familiarity, to contrast the strangeness of the SF with normality of everyday life. As they were what I knew best, I set them where I lived. They were British settings, then, because I am British and they reflect my unspoken assumptions and my unconscious prejudices. They are not intended to be an examination of Britishness, rather a realistic backdrop against which the SF plays out.
6. What do you consider are the major influences on your work?
Diana Wynne Jones, for making me want to write
Chris Beckett, for his way of getting everything out of an idea,
J.L. Carr for giving me an appreciation of how every word can count
Larry Niven, for his logical, structured approach
The two Davids, Lodge and Nobbs for showing that character is not enough, it is the interactions between characters that make a story and
Pat Mills for his breadth of influence
7. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy between publishers in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?
Every time I think I’ve noted a different response, something comes along to change my mind. In my experience it is the individual editors’ responses, regardless of their nationality, that are very different .
8. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy
between the public in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?
The Americans are more vocal!
Apart from that, I really don’t know.
9. What effect should good science fiction or fantasy have upon the reader?
Good SF should make the reader realise the world is a much weirder place than they first thought, that their life so far has been very narrow and provincial, and, most importantly, it should make them want to get out there and understand our place in the Universe and not to accept anything but the truth for an answer.
10. What do you consider the most significant weakness in science fiction and fantasy as a genre?
Not a weakness as such, but there are some SF stories that have to be told in simple, straightforward style if the reader is to follow them. Stories told in such a prosaic way can be dismissed by those seeking a more literary style, however I feel they are missing the point. I feel we are failing as a genre for not successfully communicating our aims to the wider public. Worse, we fall into the trap of trying include elements or styles into our work that don’t need to be there.
An example would be the recent series of Dr Who. I heard episodes being praised for their treatment of character, relationships and romance. The Science Fictional element was mentioned rarely, if at all. Now, it could be argued that the programs were family entertainment, not Science Fiction, and this is fair enough, but good Science Fiction has additional elements to character and style. You can remove the latter two and still have good Science Fiction. We should give more recognition to that fact and not slavishly try to emulate the mainstream.
11. What do you think have been the most significant developments in
British science fiction and fantasy over the past twenty years?
The growing professionalism of the small press, and the quality of the product they produce. The internet may change things in the future, but the physical press is still the goal of most writers, and the medium of choice for readers. Two major prizes have been won this year by books published by small presses (Arthur C Clarke- Ian McLeod and Edge Hill Short Story- Chris Beckett) I think we are going to see more of this in the future.