BOOK REVIEW / Out of the ghetto: Rowland Morgan talks to Douglas Coupland and William Gibson about science fiction

The death of the British film, confirmed recently by the British Film Institute, is officially blamed on Thatcherite deregulation and 'increasingly elitist' film-makers. No mention is made of the elitism of Britain's novel publishers, even though many science fiction novels are optioned for films at the typescript stage, and this alone helps to make the novels successful in their own right.

A glance at the most sought-after motion pictures shows a British public hungry for science fiction, yet this is the very genre most ghettoised by London's fiction editors. In the latest year reported, a science fiction film (Terminator 2) came top in overall video rentals (BFI Handbook 1994). Lawnmower Man came second in rentals of European titles, and was the second-highest UK-made earner in the United States market. Of the top non-English language films, a science fiction hybrid (Delicatessen) was number one. Only a couple of the Top 20 cinema releases were made in Britain - but one of them (Alien 3) was science fiction.

What do we see happening in the bookshops? Publication of science fiction novels plunged from 130 in 1989 to 84 in 1992, a drop of nearly 40 per cent (Locus magazine, April 1993). There was a similar 40 per cent nosedive in science fiction titles aimed at young adults.

Although some of the classic works of 20th-century English literature have been science fiction (War of the Worlds, Brave New World, 1984), no overtly sci-fi novel seems ever to have been submitted by a publisher for the Booker Prize. Faber & Faber recently quoted P D James on the cover of her futuristic new novel (Children of Men) anxiously denying that it was science fiction, because it portrayed real characters.

Two best-selling Vancouver authors personify different aspects of this redoubtable prejudice against giving the public what it wants. 'I don't write science fiction,' Douglas Coupland squawks, flapping his hands in horror only hours after jetting in from New York, upsetting his 'extremely delicate' circadian clock. 'That's been the nerd ghetto.'

Every week someone sends Coupland - the smash-hit author of Generation X - an aspiring interactive hypertext novel designed for multi-level access on the Macintosh home computer at his chic apartment overlooking Stanley Park. His own success, a Decameron of the Pacific-rim shopping malls, subtitled 'For An Accelerating Culture', has at its centre the radioactive pollution of a motel room by shattered trinitite pebbles scraped from the first N-test site at Almogordo.

Science fiction come true? Coupland, 31, bard of the cynical, techno-cultured, post-babyboom generation is changing. He and his post-modern characters may live science fiction, but they don't read it. Science fiction stands for a city where Coupland's favourite magazine, Wired, is published: a journal that sells a CD-ROM disk called The Rockettes, in which cyberspace 'readers' pick dancers, design sets and choreograph routines. 'It's virtual Lego, you stage your own show.'

Coupland's third novel, Life After God (to be published by Simon & Schuster next year) is set in a spiritual California desert that could easily accommodate science fiction props, jargon and aliens, but the first-person hero's quest does not lead through video screens or down timewarps. Instead it leads inward into the soul - alien territory for 'the first generation raised without religion', to whom the book is formally addressed.

This is convergence country, warily walked by British publishers (and Doug Coupland) lest they stray on to the dreaded science fiction shelf. But many ghettoised writers long to be released. 'Most writers I know delight in blurring the borders,' says William Gibson, a lanky, short-sighted ex-nerd who keyboards in a windowless Vancouver basement surrounded by the blur of invading Japanese restaurants and shops that typifies his world hit Neuromancer series. 'Look at London Fields (by Martin Amis), which isn't really set in the London you or I can take a plane to: there's a war on, the weather is going crazy, it's a science fiction scenario that never makes itself overt. And you have J G Ballard, too, the great saint of blurring boundaries. In the US there's Steve Ericson, or Don Delillo, who for my taste is as good as we have.

'If you're trying to write a contemporary mimetic novel in a naturalistic sense, you're going to be dealing with some areas that have the stamp of science fiction, a world where the sky is rotting, a world that not only has computers but is becoming computers in some quite unthinkable way. To give people the equivalent of one of those CNN moments when you turn on the TV and you're just lost for a minute with the dread and ecstasy of what you're seeing. I think that happens to all of us occasionally, and in order to do it you have to go to the science fiction tool-kit.'

Reality may present us with what Gibson calls 'a large semiotic cauldron of raw science fiction imagery', yet Coupland emphatically does not write science fiction, and Gibson does - although both authors unmistakably inhabit the same literary dimension of distance from the centres of power and lonely, displaced questing for a soul. To put it another way, Coupland could feasibly win the Booker prize with Life After God (assuming his London publishers remember that he is a Commonwealth writer) but it is a virtual certainty that Virtual Light by Gibson (Viking) never would.

Why? John Clute, a science fiction critic and co-author of Little, Brown's 1993 Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, says that he can't help associating the hierarchical structuring of literature in Britain (science fiction ranks low) with 'an absolutely invidious class system' in which the heirs of Richard Hoggart lost the battle to those of F R Leavis.

To protect their social status (and presumably to discourage movie options), even the British writers (and publishers) who do invent science fiction have to deny it. Clute says: 'P D James's latest novel is set in 2020 AD, everybody's starving, and so on, but she denies it's science fiction. It's intellectually bankrupt to be so prejudiced about genres of fiction. It's aesthetic feebleness. P D James as a genre writer (crime) should know the strengths and weaknesses of writing within a web of expectations that can be explored and tested.

'The mimetic novel is as much a genre as any other sort of novel, only much less aware of it.

'There's no way the press is prepared to assume even on a dare that books listed for the Arthur C Clarke Award ( pounds 1,000 paid by Clarke, founded in 1986) have equal merit to the Booker finalists, even though they outrank them in several cases.'

Gibson agrees: 'Making distinctions between genres is very inelegant. When classification does come up, it gives me the creeps, like mentioning the class system. As for the Booker Prize, I suppose it's the upside of America's lack of literacy that writers can have viable careers without being nominated for prizes. I doubt if one out of 10,000 Americans has the faintest idea who votes for the Hugo Award (the US science fiction prize won by Neuromancer)'.

According to the phenomenally successful Coupland: 'Prizes are a British thing. I think academia has to reinvent itself really quickly if it is not to become irrelevant within 10 to 15 years. Academia is sort of trying with awards like the Booker to remain relevant to the mass media, but it seems to be a house built on very bad foundations.'

Indeed. The nation's film industry is already buried in the cellar, and Hollywood is hanging its shingle outside.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own