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)

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