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SF at the Cheltenham Literature Festival
Nelson Cunnington

As you may have heard, China Miéville was the guest director at the Cheltenham Literature Festival a couple of weeks ago. A brief report:

The "How to Read Science Fiction" event on Saturday 16 October had M. John Harrison, Toby Litt, and Nalo Hopkinson chatting about recommended reads. To be honest, I kind of blanked out on that part. I do recall that audience comments started drifting towards set texts in English at school; Brave New World and 1984 were mentioned as books that helped put people off SF. Toby Litt: "The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy is about being English in space."

The event with China Miéville and John Mullan was on the question of why SF never appears on the Booker shortlist, and started off quite well. Mullan is a critic and former Booker judge who had opined on this subject both last year and recently. Miéville spoke of the power and range of SF, and how certain "lit fic" authors would write SF but claim that it wasn't (a familiar story to us all). I believe Robert Conquest's ditty* was quoted.

Mullan seemed quite affable enough; he talked about how he read SF when he was a teenager, but how he then discovered literary fiction and left all that behind him. He spoke about the "special room" for sci-fi in the bookshop and its (imagined) denizens. There was a measure of back-and-forth about how perhaps lit fic is a genre with its own conventions and tropes, with the only difference being that it's got the eye of the critics.

Perhaps detecting that the audience weren't as with him as he'd expected at a literature festival, being largely neutral or slightly favourably disposed towards SF – it seemed we didn't resemble the characters he imagined inhabited that "special room" in the bookshop – Mullan gave signs of losing his affability towards the end of the event. Although he'd made plenty of noises about people liking what they like and there being nothing wrong with that, he started to bloviate a bit and admitted that he thought that the problem with SF was that it was "full of explanation!" SF writers just keep banging on explaining stuff, apparently; planets, aliens, science. On further questioning, he submitted that though a writer could be good at explanation, characterization was king, and only lit fic does characterization properly, therefore ...

Iain (M.) Banks was selling his new novel Surface Detail, with an interview and reading at the Festival. He was his usual brilliant but laid-back self. When asked if he'd read Niven & Pournelle's Inferno as part of his research on heaven and hell, he'd said that no, he hadn't: "However much I might like a writer, there's only so much being shouted at by Libertarians I can take." Another Banks quote, apropos of what I can't recall: "You don't write space opera in a vacuum!"

Banks faltered a bit at the start of his reading. Later he cautiously admitted that he didn't actually know how to pronounce such names as "Ledenje" and "Sulbazghi"; his method for making up names has more to do with the pattern of ascenders and descenders on the page than how they sound. His queue at the book-signing tent was respectably long, but was dwarfed by Gok Wan's ("A popular couturier, m'lud."), which extended out of the tent and around the corner, and grew when several fans realized they were in the wrong line and quit ours. When I got to the front of the queue with my newly-acquired Surface Detail in my hands, I said to Banks: "You look very different on the TV, Mr Wan!" But he signed it anyway.

On Sunday, Banks joined a panel of Miéville, Gwyneth Jones and Michael Moorcock to talk about the British SF tradition, and its differences from the US tradition. Jones proposed that British SF is "suffused with regret for the death of empire"; the others agreed and expanded on that, with Miéville saying that while US SF is about utopia, UK SF is about "fractured utopias". In an aside, Jones mentioned that the UK pulled a great trick on the US by borrowing money from them after the war to build a socialist utopia. Moorcock spoke about New Worlds attracting the more experimental works and authors from the US; he said that it had never been his intent to raise the literary level of British SF or SF in general, he'd just wanted to publish the stuff he liked to read, which was more pulpy than literary.

My notes – I was taking notes by this time – mention the "Chocolate Biscuit Catastrophe", but I've failed to explain to myself what this is. Miéville referred to it before sketching out the stereotypical British SF story: "We lose the peace, because we deserve to, because we're rubbish, so let's have some tea amongst the rubble."

Banks was asked if, as long as we're talking about British SF, there is such a thing as a Scottish SF sub-genre. He mentioned the current clustering of SF writers over the border, including MacLeod, Stross and others, but was sure that it was just a statistical cluster "like Sellafield". He said that though he'd identified himself as more British while a child, since the 70s he'd experienced a kind of erosion of his British identity, but he couldn't really identify himself as being more of a Scottish writer yet. (I think I got that right, apologies if I garbled it.)

Moorcock was asked if The Ice Schooner was a nostalgic callback to the Ice Age. He pointed out that he'd written it forty years ago, and could barely remember the motivations of his characters. Or the plot.

SF from other nations was also mentioned briefly at the end of the panel. In Eastern Europe, while the genre had been popular before 1990 – because it was a way of writing about things that they weren't allowed to write about – after that time it had fallen in popularity immensely. SF from further east was mentioned, but the panel didn't have much time to speak of it. Miéville: "We will see more Indian SF; we will get it wrong; we will appropriate it; and we will make something new from it." Because that's what everybody does.

Moorcock later had a reading from his latest, Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles**, but I missed it because I went to see Simon Pegg talking about his autobiography Nerd Do Well instead. He grew up in Gloucester, just down the road from Cheltenham, and recalled seeing Star Wars at the age of six, and later decided that he wasn't going to be a vet after all, but an actor. (This ambition was helped along by the usual anti-inspiring visit with the careers counsellor.)

During the question period, he was asked if he thought the film and TV industry was a "whorish" industry. At first Pegg didn't understand the question, then he started to explain that he has a mortgage and mouths to feed, then he stopped and asked, "Are you calling me a whore?" somewhat good-humouredly. The questioner rephrased the question but left the word "whorish" in. "You are calling me a whore!" said Pegg with a bit more of an edge, and went on to the next question.

Oddly, Pegg did not turn up at the book tent for his signing, and after a quarter of an hour of fruitless waiting, his pile of autobiographies was packed on a pallet and hauled away.

Nelson Cunnington

* "SF's no good!" they bellow till we're deaf.
"But this looks good." – "Well then, it's not SF."

** Featuring a Captain Cornelius and subtitled "or, Pirates of the Second Aether!" just to give John Clute a terrible headache about whether to list it in the Encyclopedia under the Jerry Cornelius or Second Ether series heading. [DRL]