To describe science fiction as a broad church is a little like saying Leigh Bowery had an eclectic wardrobe. How do you define it, exactly? By its name you’d imagine that all sci-fi had some inherent scientific element, but we know this isn’t true. Political allegories like 1984 and The Children Of Men are often thought of as “sci-fi”, though neither contains much in the way of science. Many consider Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Or The Modern Prometheus to be the earliest science fiction novel but, as the full title suggests, discussions of man’s relationship with the elements, and his scientific hubris, go as far back as classical antiquity.
Since then there has, of course, been an abundance of literary science fiction, from early pioneers H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, through to 20th Century greats such as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. Even authors we might not associate with the genre have been attracted to it, including Doris Lessing, Gore Vidal, Jorge Luis Borges, and in more recent years, Jeanette Winterson and Will Self.
As a self-confessed and unashamed geek, the sci-fi authors who have influenced me most are J.G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, and Kurt Vonnegut. Of the three, only Vonnegut disliked being thought of as a “science fiction author”, despite the fact that so many of his novels contain time travel, creatures from other worlds, and terrifying doomsday weapons.
Ballard, whose work is often set in a very recognisable, if glacial, near-future had no such qualms. Even a novel such as Crash, in which lost souls floating in the western commuter belts of London achieve sexual gratification via high speed, head-on collisions, was thought of as “science fiction” by its author, who called it “the first pornographic book based on technology”.
If anything, it is sci-fi’s ability to act as a literary Trojan Horse that I find so appealing. While, by definition, it can tend to focus on the scientific and the technological, this can also be its weakness. Sci-fi veers towards obscurity and, for the casual reader, tedium when it is bogged down in techno babble. In the best sci-fi the outlandish and the fantastical are vessels for discussing contemporary themes, not the technicalities of warp engines and artificial gravity.
I’m now in the position of having written four novels, one of which will be published later this year. Of the four, two are easily recognisable as sci-fi, being tie-in novels for the Torchwood and Doctor Who franchises, but I would argue that all of my work so far owes something to the genre.
My first novel, Eleven, is a black comedy set on September 11th, 2001. It’s written entirely in emails, and the plot is driven by misunderstandings generated mostly by the nature of the medium. All the emoticons in the world can’t match direct interaction with those around us, and so its ultimate theme is, perhaps, the way in which mass communications alter and perhaps damage our ability to communicate with others.
My second novel, Everything Is Sinister, written in 2007, is set in a dystopian 2010. Setting it in the very near future allowed for a certain degree of caricature and exaggeration, whilst still rooting the story in a world that closely resembles our own. That the book will be set in the past in less than two years time doesn’t bother me – after all, it hasn’t done 1984 and 2001: A Space Odyssey any harm!
Despite Everything Is Sinister’s future setting and Eleven’s themes, it’s only in the last two years that I’ve found myself working almost exclusively in sci-fi, writing the aforementioned Torchwood and Doctor Who books. I’m under no illusion that these novels are high art, or that they will make the Booker shortlist any time soon, but for me, the appeal of both series’ is in their ability, especially during the tenure of Russell T. Davies, to blend the fantastical and the ordinary. While characters like the Doctor, or Captain Jack, remain larger-than-life heroes they are often surrounded by Boy- and Girl-Next-Door types who are immediately recognisable to a contemporary audience. This is science fiction within arms reach, not grand Space Opera played out in a galaxy far, far away. Add to this the presence of a gay (or, more accurately, polysexual) action hero in a prime-time family show, and I’m sold.
It’s curious that while non-genre television still tip-toes around the subject of sexuality, sci-fi and fantasy programmes, from Buffy to Torchwood, have tackled it with aplomb. Perhaps this is the Trojan Horse principle in action, and audiences are more willing to accept gay and lesbian characters if they are surrounded by aliens and vampires. Who can say?
What I can say is that writing these books has allowed me to apply the Trojan Horse principle in ways I‘ve found both challenging and engaging. The device of time travel is useful if, as a writer, you wish to experiment with narrative structure, while setting a story in the distant future or on another planet can allow you to be cheeky and satirical, while telling a story that is ostensibly about a lot of nasty aliens doing beastly things to innocent people.
With the prevalence of science fiction in our cinemas, on our television screens, and in our bookshops and libraries, there has rarely been a better time to be a fan of sci-fi, but it’s hardly surprising that it should have enjoyed such a renaissance in recent years. In its history, science fiction has always flourished at times of uncertainty, whether during the Depression of the 1930s, the McCarthy era, or the post-Watergate 1970s. It seems when our horizons are at their most hazy, we most desperately need visions of our future, whether they are utopian or dystopian, to act as guidance, or as warning.