Book buyers head for space

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BOOK BUYERS are turning away from television drama themes this Christmas and heading for the escapism of science fiction.

In a serious challenge to the perennial success of soap opera spin-offs, sci-fi titles have climbed to the top of the bestseller charts during what is usually the most important month for book sales.

Among the top 50 television and film-related publications on sale this month, there are more than 10 sci-fi titles, supporting the author J G Ballard's claim that the genre has become "the true literature of the 20th century". He told the The Independent on Sunday: "It is to science fiction's credit that it exercises such a hold on the popular imagination."

Whether you believe that sci-fi marks the final frontier of human imaginative endeavour or, alternatively, it is just the opium of the literate lumpen, this year an unprecedented number of Star Trek and Star Wars annuals have been sold.

All in all, almost 10,000 sci-fi themed books were shifted from the shelves in the second week of December alone, and many beat the books brought out to accompany TV soaps. The two Star Wars companions published by Dorling Kindersley are placed at numbers five and six on the national sales list compiled by Whitaker Booktrack.

Star Trek is, of course, the other huge, inter-planetary contender. Simon and Schuster's three related titles are performing well, while Pocket Books' Star Trek titles also account for two entries in the top 50. Interest has been heightened this Christmas because the latest Star Trek film, Insurrection, opens in Britain on New Year's Day and is already number one in the US.

While the self-contained and simplistic worlds created in these fictions might be considered escapist by some, Ballard, an acknowledged master of the form, strongly disagrees.

"No one should ever think that it is not a serious form," he said. "It is about life on our planet and even an ordinary episode of Star Trek always contains a very serious point that you would not get in an episode of something like, say, Neighbours."

The writer said he regarded the Star Wars trilogy as essentially children's films. Star Trek, on the other hand, was a "remarkable series in its way", even though it often seemed "a little like an opera taking place in a broom cupboard".