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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

National Identity in British science fiction

When I was asked to provide a guest post on British Sci Fi, I immediately called upon The Speculators, Leicester's foremost group of short sci-fi writers, each of whom is a font of bizarre, random and extensive knowledge on the subject. At short notice I was joined by Catherine Digman, Will Ellwood and Daniel Ribot, so with huge thanks to them, I offer you some thoughts on British Sci Fi.

I wanted to know what defines British Sci fi and makes it different from the US in content and tone.
While any given work has its own style and mood, what general distinctions do people perceive between the UK & US?

American SF heads into space with wide-eyed optimism and no-expense-spared military hardware, while here in the UK we are shaking our heads, convinced we are bringing about our own destruction on minimum wage. Even the science fiction magazines in the States demonstrated this sense of wonder, with titles like Amazing Stories & Astounding Science Fiction.

It is perhaps telling of wider national attitudes, the Americans are often first to into any fray or exploration, with Britain pulled along in their wake (often tutting loudly). Not such a surprise then that our SF tends to be empire driven or inwards facing while the US is dashing off into outer space for shoot outs and show downs. Are the new imperialists now Britain's empire has crumbled, or are they simply following on with that frontier spirit?

Of course British SF isn’t all about gloom, it’s merely the side effect of stories that seek to provide social or political commentary without the shackles of real world situations. There is a subversive tension rarely found in the more apolitical American writing. Amongst those cited for this are HG Wells (socialist), Michael Moorcock (described as a radical anarchist) and Iain Banks who was part of a movement to have Tony Blair impeached for his part in the Iraq war.

This is not just a British phenomenon, European writers take a similar approach. Polish author Stanislaw Lem (Solaris, His Master's Voice, The Cyberiad), explored such themes as “speculation on technology, the nature of intelligence, the impossibility of mutual communication and understanding, despair about human limitations and humankind's place in the universe” (wikipedia)

There is a lighter side to British Sci Fi. This is thanks to likes of Douglas Adams. Toby Frost's excellent Space Captain Smith series is not only only gleefully camp and silly, but also continues a grand tradition of the British sending themselves up. Certainly it should be included in our fiction legacy, offsetting the political gloom with a sense of humour. The difference is that rather than focussing on the larger scale issues of alien invasion and dying worlds, the lighter British SF tends to focus on the people, the relationships, while everything else simply forms an entertaining back drop.

This suggests two strains of British SF. One reflects on large scale events, using characters to guide us through them, the second focusses on the personal melodrama of characters that could be anyone, anywhere… It’s just more fun to do it in space.

A quick tweet asking ‘what do you think of when I say British SF?’ prompted more people to reply with TV shows - Red Dwarf, Blakes 7, Quartermass – alongside novelists such as Wyndham,. British SF in the worldwide twitter consciousness is largely visual. I had to specify books to get a few more suggestions. This is particularly interesting given my twitter stream is made up largely of authors, reviewers and avid readers, many of them in genre fiction.

I would suggest this is because TV series and films are so immediately identifiable by their nation of origin, while books are selected and enjoyed and a casual reader is often not aware of the nationality of the writer. It’s not something I consider about a book. I may buy a book because I’ve come across the author on twitter and am entertained by them, or because I like the shiny cover, or the back blurb sounds interesting, but I do not enter a shop with the thought ‘today I want to buy dystopian sci fi by a british writer’ or ‘I absolutely must have American space opera’.

It was only when I started considering this post I realised how few authors, particularly in sci fi, I could attribute a nationality to. I enjoy the tropes and a mix of approaches in my reading, so I read a mixture of styles, authors and nationalities, (Japan has produced some superb Sci Fi with it’s own distinctive style). I am more conscious of it now and will be looking for the patterns, for the tells in British writing that indicate the political and social concerns of the day, the passion for exploration from the US. Of course above all, what I shall be looking for is a good story. When all is said and done that’s what brings us all to the shelves in the end.

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  1. Its easy to pick out Banks, or Ken MacLeod as political writers but many other British SFF authors are less obviously political, working on different levels, Chris Priest or Mary Gentle, or going back Bob Shaw are examples.
    On the other hand that depiction of American SF as apolitical hardly fits Kim Stanley Robinson, Orson Scott Card, Ursula LeGuin or dozens more.

  2. Hi Kev, completely acknowledge there were sweeping generalisations and thanks for some great examples and more to add to my TBR pile. :)

  3. In terms of really old-school sci-fi, I like Arthur Machen. He was writing at a time when there was genuinely a lot of paranoia about science, so there is a lot of realism as well as fear of the unknown in his work.

    This is a link to his fan page -

    He is a bit of a "cult" figure now, but his work is also very literary.

  4. Cool, thanks Catherine, sounds good. :)

  5. Yes it is a broad statement to say that British SF writers tend to be more political than American writers. It's an observation rather than a definite statement that the bias and focus of British SF tends to be towards more social fiction than pulp adventure.

    I think there's something to be said for the perspective held on the role of science in different countries fictions. Frankenstein, arguably in a very long and complex argument dependent on many conditions, is the first true SF novel, and that has a fairly easy to read anti-science message. Where as early American SF such as Tom Swift was far more of the view that science can solve anything.

    Godzilla also provides an interesting case study here. In the original film Godzilla was an atomic monster intent on mindlessly destroying Tokyo. In later films he becomes a protector of Japan from external threats.

    I do tend to be interested in the author's nationality and original culture. When reading both genre and non-genre fiction I often try and seek out new ways of thinking which can't be gained from my English speaking and Eurocentric upbringing.

  6. As I see it though, its not merely a generalisation to which I offered a few exceptions. I'd argue that those exceptions are more representative than the generalization, making the latter actually wrong.
    Post-Vietnam politics, civil rights issues, ecological issues and globalization are the core of most American SF for 40 years. The Cold War longer still.

  7. Ginja - I'm still primarily interested in an enjoyable read but I will be more aware I think, of where a book was written, as well as perhaps when.

    Kev - ok I would just say I did ask what the percieved differences are not what the hard facts are. It's quite difficult for a perception to be categorically wrong.

    For my own experience though I would still stand by my comments, there is a huge difference between writing a novel in awareness of the a war and drawing ideas from it for the back drop, against actually using a novel to address political moods directly. PKD regularly uses the apocolyptic mood of the cold war and the nuclear threat but his stories are still about a small number of people and still, largely positive about mankind. The gloomy side effect of a lot of British sci fi writing is in part down to the stories being embroiled in the political issues in some cases over the human ones, with a far less optimistic mood.

  8. I'm American. When I think of British sci-fi the first name that comes to mind is Neal Asher. His stories are violent and gross but lots of fun. One thing that struck me as being different is that in his Polity series, the AI's that govern the Polity are generally good guys. Typically, in American science fiction AI's taking over and running everything would be very bad.

    I confess to being a serious anglophile. I also love books by British fantasy author China Mieville and I'm now on the lookout for more British sci-fi. Until a few years ago I never even thought about authors' nationality but these two authors have changed that. Both of them are delightfully weird.