Cultural Notes: A woman, a polar bear, a love story

THIS SUMMER was quite the season for science fiction. We had the 30th anniversary of the Moon landing. The first GM crops in England were destroyed, both by farmers and by activists. The first female astronaut to command the Space Shuttle at last got her booking (if not her flight) on Columbia. Oh, and Star Wars made its long-awaited return to the cinema.

Along with so many action movies of the last few years and together with Star Trek on the television it was in fact the last of these events - the release of Star Wars - which caused the most publicity, the most money to change hands and the most spirited conversations. For Star Wars, like the "Trek Universe", is a culture within the culture. Its values - white, middle-class, ur-Christian - underpin its far-reaching ideas with a comfortable conformity that reflects the dominant culture, yet glosses its anxieties with a wild streak of colour.

Paradoxically, if you consider that science fiction is a literature of the future, the vast media sci-fi output rarely addresses the present day. Like westerns it is generally escapist, conformist and pacifying. Paranoiacs have even speculated that sci-fi is a tool of the Cryptocracy; a method of social manipulation that has been fiendishly devised by US Naval Intelligence, the CIA, L. Ron Hubbard, Gene Roddenberry and the same people who brought you the Roswell crash and the Kennedy assassination. Of course, the very nature of this organisation means that we can never know if this is true.

You probably already know many of SF's proteges - Iain Banks, Ian McEwan, J.G. Ballard, Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Gore Vidal, Joyce Carol Oates and Philip K. Dick. All of these authors write in, or have emerged from, the science-fiction zone. The often unreadable junk contents of several decades' worth of pulp were enough to have SF booted out of "respectable" literature and into a far-distant genre ghetto where it has stayed for more than 30 years. Since when the questions "Is SF literature?" and "Are the SF and mainstream fiction worlds about to collide?" recur on an annual basis in enlightened reader circles.

We are obviously living in a world that is so overtly science-fictional in itself that you might think our popular culture would reflect it, speculate with it, toy with it artistically as though it were a giant tub of intellectual Lego. Instead the mainstream literature continues to boldly ignore technological and scientific advances.

Meanwhile the popularity of philosophically bland cinema sci-fi and TV series has not had much of a filtering effect into a wider reading range beyond the tie-in books. Partly this is because the popular image of science fiction is defined by these film and TV mammoths which promise little in the way of a good read for the technologically allergic, the artistically discerning or the female.

But SF has done itself no favours either. Although it may claim victimisation by unfair marketing and the fact that critics tend to ignore it there is no way for the uninitiated reader to identify the world-class book from the hackwork. With a few modernised exceptions SF all looks the same - dire. But before you give up on it, first witness a statement written by an anonymous, unprompted reviewer on the Amazon books website, about one of SF's finest writers, Geoff Ryman, and his book, The Child Garden:

A woman, a polar bear, a love story. Reading this book is like hearing the King James Bible set to music, or being presented with a holographic rose as big as Brazil, or discovering that you are in fact the cure for cancer.

The best of science fiction explores all the big stuff - the self, society, the nature of memory, relationships, bioengineering, artificial intelligence, space exploration, the state of the universe . . . as well as the other stuff that can make you laugh, cry, marvel and, above all, think on what may be and what is. And it's here right now.

Justina Robson is the author of `Silver Screen' (Macmillan, pounds 9.99)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Have you been doing a brilliant job in an admi...

Surrey County Council: Senior Project Officer (Fixed Term to Feb 2019)

£26,498 - £31,556: Surrey County Council: We are looking for an outgoing, conf...

Recruitment Genius: Interim Head of HR

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an innovative, senior H...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources and Payroll Administrator

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client, a very well respect...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot