When I was asked to provide a guest post on British Sci Fi, I immediately called upon The Speculators, Leicester’s foremost group of short sci-fi writers, each of whom is a font of bizarre, random and extensive knowledge on the subject. At short notice I was joined by Catherine Digman, Will Ellwood and Daniel Ribot, so with huge thanks to them, I offer you some thoughts on British Sci Fi.
I wanted to know what defines British Sci fi and makes it different from the US in content and tone.
While any given work has its own style and mood, what general distinctions do people perceive between the UK & US?
American SF heads into space with wide-eyed optimism and no-expense-spared military hardware, while here in the UK we are shaking our heads, convinced we are bringing about our own destruction on minimum wage. Even the science fiction magazines in the States demonstrated this sense of wonder, with titles like Amazing Stories & Astounding Science Fiction.
It is perhaps telling of wider national attitudes, the Americans are often first to into any fray or exploration, with Britain pulled along in their wake (often tutting loudly). Not such a surprise then that our SF tends to be empire driven or inwards facing while the US is dashing off into outer space for shoot outs and show downs. Are the new imperialists now Britain’s empire has crumbled, or are they simply following on with that frontier spirit?
Of course British SF isn’t all about gloom, it’s merely the side effect of stories that seek to provide social or political commentary without the shackles of real world situations. There is a subversive tension rarely found in the more apolitical American writing. Amongst those cited for this are HG Wells (socialist), Michael Moorcock (described as a radical anarchist) and Iain Banks who was part of a movement to have Tony Blair impeached for his part in the Iraq war.
This is not just a British phenomenon, European writers take a similar approach. Polish author Stanislaw Lem (Solaris, His Master’s Voice, The Cyberiad), explored such themes as “speculation on technology, the nature of intelligence, the impossibility of mutual communication and understanding, despair about human limitations and humankind’s place in the universe” (wikipedia)
There is a lighter side to British Sci Fi. This is thanks to likes of Douglas Adams. Toby Frost’s excellent Space Captain Smith series is not only only gleefully camp and silly, but also continues a grand tradition of the British sending themselves up. Certainly it should be included in our fiction legacy, offsetting the political gloom with a sense of humour. The difference is that rather than focussing on the larger scale issues of alien invasion and dying worlds, the lighter British SF tends to focus on the people, the relationships, while everything else simply forms an entertaining back drop.
This suggests two strains of British SF. One reflects on large scale events, using characters to guide us through them, the second focusses on the personal melodrama of characters that could be anyone, anywhere… It’s just more fun to do it in space.
A quick tweet asking ‘what do you think of when I say British SF?’ prompted more people to reply with TV shows – Red Dwarf, Blakes 7, Quartermass – alongside novelists such as Wyndham,. British SF in the worldwide twitter consciousness is largely visual. I had to specify books to get a few more suggestions. This is particularly interesting given my twitter stream is made up largely of authors, reviewers and avid readers, many of them in genre fiction.
I would suggest this is because TV series and films are so immediately identifiable by their nation of origin, while books are selected and enjoyed and a casual reader is often not aware of the nationality of the writer. It’s not something I consider about a book. I may buy a book because I’ve come across the author on twitter and am entertained by them, or because I like the shiny cover, or the back blurb sounds interesting, but I do not enter a shop with the thought ‘today I want to buy dystopian sci fi by a british writer’ or ‘I absolutely must have American space opera’.
It was only when I started considering this post I realised how few authors, particularly in sci fi, I could attribute a nationality to. I enjoy the tropes and a mix of approaches in my reading, so I read a mixture of styles, authors and nationalities, (Japan has produced some superb Sci Fi with it’s own distinctive style). I am more conscious of it now and will be looking for the patterns, for the tells in British writing that indicate the political and social concerns of the day, the passion for exploration from the US. Of course above all, what I shall be looking for is a good story. When all is said and done that’s what brings us all to the shelves in the end.