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.