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Is Science Fiction the only truly relevant literary genre today?

By ucyow3c, on 10 November 2011

Emily Everett, UCL Alumna (English Language and Literature 2008) reports on The Gower Street Lecture Series and New Scientist event at UCL.

I came to science fiction by a strange route. At first, a £2 paperback of short stories from the Oxfam shop might not seem so very strange. But when the author of those stories is a known and revered writer of realist novels, and those stories are as far from realism as a Celestial Omnibus can take you, the once tame paperback has now become a lurking threat to your respectability as a reader. If it hadn’t had EM Forster’s name printed largely across the front, I doubt I ever would have found the nerve to read it in public.

Unlike me, the full audience of science fiction aficionados that assembled in the Darwin Lecture Theatre seemed not at all sheepish to be seen there. Discussion of the “scorn” that science fiction has long inspired in literary circles kicked off Monday’s panel discussion, the latest event in Waterstone’s Gower Street Lecture Series. The panel, chaired by author Simon Ings, included Tom Hunter, director of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, science fiction writer Adam Roberts, and UCL Emeritus Professor of Modern English Literature John Sutherland.

Ings seemed to answer the question of the night almost immediately: would the New Scientist be planning to unveil an exclusive science fiction magazine if the genre didn’t matter today? With infectious enthusiasm, Ings revealed the plans to launch this journal, Arc early next year, as a medium for both short stories and longer works that explore a world just outside the scope of most literary journals.

Both Sutherland and Roberts discussed the role of science fiction in the larger literary tradition. Science fiction is, according to Roberts, “the default genre of human writing”, a pure form of storytelling with a longer history than the modern trend of realism.

The panel soon moved to the literary world’s inability to define the boundaries around science fiction, and what is and isn’t ‘real’ science fiction. Hunter discussed the fanbase criticism that the Clarke award inspires each year by nominating books that some science fiction readers deem outside the core genre.

He also mentioned Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go, nominated in 2006, as a favourite novel of people who profess to hate science fiction – even though there are some very distinct elements of science fiction in the alternative world that Ishiguro imagined for his characters. The panellists all agreed that, beyond the stereotypical scope of the genre (it’s not all alien abductions and flying cars), a great deal of mainstream fiction incorporates aspects of science fiction and imagination well beyond the realist tradition.

It may never be the only genre that really matters; science fiction is still, according to Sutherland, the ‘outlaw’ of the literary world. But after an in-depth Q&A, the night’s clear consensus was that, far from becoming obsolete, science fiction is instead growing only more relevant to modern life.

The Gower Street Lecture Series 2011 is organised by Waterstones and hosted at UCL.
See here for further details http://waterstoneslectureseries.eventbrite.com/
For all UCL public events, please check our events calendar here: http://events.ucl.ac.uk/highlights/

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