“The great man is he who does not lose his child’s heart.” Mencius
In 2003, the BBC did a public poll searching for the UK’s best loved novel. Number 1? The Lord of the Rings. The nation’s favourite fiction is the epitome of fantasy. The top 10 also featured Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a Harry Potter, a Chronicle of Narnia and 1984. And thinking about of sales, Tolkien’s opus is one of the bestselling books of all time. In terms of fiction, only Charles Dickens sells more.
Ask someone in the street to name a BBC TV programme, and I imagine Dr Who would be high on the list. Name a TV show that is culturally significant? Star Trek? I think so. Battlestar Galactica is a recent critic favourite across the board. Buffy is regarded as one of the most influential and progressive shows of recent times, and its heroine is a cultural icon.
Check out this list of films: Titanic and Forrest Gump. Not a long list. These are the only 2 films in the top 50 all time grossing cinema films that are not Science Fiction, Fantasy, Superhero or Horror. That’s right. 48 of the top 50 films might be described as geek-friendly. We’re talking Avatar, Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, Alice in Wonderland, Toy Story, Dark Knight, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Spider-Man, Jurassic Park, Transformers, Inception, Independence Day, ET, Indiana Jones, Sixth Sense and a whole bunch of others.
Here is another list. Just a bunch of random fiction that I know are very popular from working in the library (ignoring novels already mentioned): Brave New World (1932), The Lovely Bones (2002), A Clockwork Orange (1962), The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003), Dracula (1897), The Metamorphosis (1915), Never Let Me Go (2005), Frankenstein: or, the modern Prometheus (1818), Don Quixote (1605), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), The Children of Men (1992), Naked Lunch (1959), Life of Pi (2001). Highly influential texts, and highly enjoyable genre fiction. And look at the dates of these books. Some things never change?
Now, another list (hey, I like lists): Midnight’s Children, The Famished Road, The Life of Pi. Since 1969, these three magic realism novels have won the Booker Prize for fiction. No genre work has ever won the Orange Prize. The Road is the only genre piece to win a Pulitzer. I could apply that kind of analysis to most none-genre specific fiction prizes.
In 2011, the BBC covered World Book Night with a series of programmes about books. As a result, 85 authors have attacked the BBC for its “sneering coverage” of genre fiction. The petition was organised by fantasy author Stephen Hunt. The list of authors included Kevin J Anderson, Neal Asher, Iain M Banks, Greg Bear, Ramsey Campbell, Gary Gibson, Stephen Hunt, Jasper Kent Jonathan Maberry, Juliet Marillier, Ian McDonald, Karen Miller, L E. Modesitt, Jr, Elizabeth Moon, Michael Moorcock, Larry Niven, Adam Roberts, Michael Marshall Smith, S M Stirling, Charlie Stross, Harry Turtledove, and others. See http://bit.ly/fr9jrk for the full list. In the wake of this criticism, the BBC’s Culture Show is featuring Science Fiction in a hastily arranged item. Leading publishers Querus and HarperCollins have recently commented on mainstream media in particular dismissing genre fiction and its general disregard by the major literary prizes.
Now, enough of lists. What is going on? Why is the media against us? Why are geeks seen as sad or pathetic. Why do the cool comedians make jokes about us sitting in alone on a Friday night or wearing Klingon costumes at conventions? Why does the public go to see Avatar in hordes and rush home for Dr Who but dismiss fiction by Greg Bear or Trudi Canavan? Why do critics fawn over Bladerunner and Exorcist, but not Independence Day or Candyman? David Tennant wears a brown pin-striped suit and converse and is the epitome of cool. If I wore them, people would probably laugh at me. Doesn’t stop me mind.
To be honest, I think there is no simple answer, but this is my opinion. Everyone loves to escape. Everyone wants that small release when they can forget about the real world. However, those of us who love these genres, who embrace geekdom, who live and breathe escapism, scare the majority. As well as finding an escape, we also explore our world. We ask questions about what it means to be a human. What happens to the world if we continue down this path. What would happen if we weren’t alone in the universe? The public and the critics who dip their toes in the warm waters of genre fiction, film and TV are casual viewers. True, they want to escape for a few hours, but they can’t live in that world. I suspect many of these people are scared to examine the world around them. They don’t want to ask the questions that Science Fiction asks because they don’t want the answers. They aren’t interested in the relationships between characters in fantasy because then they might have to think about the nature of their own relationships. They would rather watch one-dimension characters murder each other in soap operas than address issues of race or belief. They need to get back to their real lives and not think too hard about life. They are scared of the examination of their existence.
I think another reason why geekdom is not cool is because there is not enough of us. The human animal is extremely social and adheres to a basic herd instinct. It weeds out the week and the vulnerable. It needs to remain hidden in the plain sight of homogeny. I walk down the street in my The Thing t-shirt, or dress up as Picard for a convention, and then I stand out. I nail my colours to the mast of who I am and stand up shoulder’s broad, and I become a target. Both psychological and economical studies have shown herding behaviour is prevalent in humans, and thus it is ingrained in the masses to not want to stand out and to not want to be seen as different. After all, no-one wants to be alone?
I think that genre fiction is dismissed by critics not because they don’t like, but because they don’t understand it. They are as scared as the general public. They see aliens and elves, laser guns and magic swords. They don’t see satire, allegory, social discussion, political speculation and cautionary tales. But they fear one thing above all. Loss of credibility. They think that if they give the Orange Prize to Gwynth Jones or Tricia Sullivan or Marian Zimmer Bradley it would damage their reputation. If the Man Booker was awarded to Brian Aldiss, Stephen Baxter or even Terry Pratchett they think it would devalue the prize in the eyes of the literary establishment. Again, they are victims of the herd mentality. They are, along with the public at large, victims of fear.
People, the public and critics alike, clearly enjoy and appreciate good quality Science Fiction and Fantasy in most formats; film, TV and fiction (although there is a huge barrier against graphic novels that I simply don’t understand – hence the lack of analysis here). Box office, ratings and best seller lists prove this. But geeks, us, aren’t cool. And despite all I have said, I quite like that. Because we’re geeks.
“Collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd.” Bertrand Russell