I was watching the first episode of BBC4's documentary series about British science fiction, which I rather enjoyed - not least because a documentary about British science fiction finally gave due credit to Olaf Stapledon - and a couple of things struck me. First was the mention that The Midwich Cuckoos was one of the most successful novels of the 1950s. And second - and I think it was Kim Newman who mentioned this - was that Quatermass was so successful because the BBC didn't plug it as science fiction but as a thriller. That reminded me of a friend, who hates science fiction, telling me a few years ago how much he liked Star Wars. I congratulated him, saying something along the lines of "We're finally breaking down your resistance," and he just shook his head and said, "But Star Wars isn't science fiction - it's adventure, innit?"
Which makes me wonder. Are we losing readers not because there's something wrong with science fiction, but because of the way it's perceived and marketed? Judging by the novels I've read in the last year or so, I can't personally see anything wrong with the fiction. In any sane world a novel like - say - Accelerando would be on the general best-seller lists for at least a week. Maybe more - I liked Accelerando a lot, and I liked The Atrocity Archive even more, but I don't remember either of them troubling the Times bestseller lists too much.
Which leads me to my second wonder - where is the modern equivalent of The Midwich Cuckoos? Where is science fiction's Harry Potter? Where is science fiction's Da Vinci Code? It's not as if this is beyond us. Are we too concerned about satisfying science fiction readers, who already have the grammar and vocabulary to appreciate us, and not concerned enough about satisfying the general reader? Has the general reader been educated away from science fiction because `it's all those aliens and long words and stuff and it hasn't anything to do with us'?
Looking across the various boards and blogs, it seems that the argument has died down. Which is kind of annoying, because I think we need to have this conversation, not fight our individual corners for a few days and then shut up until the next time. I know this is not a department of some multinational where we can all get together and have a team-building exercise and work out how we can improve our market share, but it seems to me there is a problem to be addressed, and we ought to be addressing it.
On a personal note, we're just back from Novacon, where we had the usual wonderful time, and the noise you can hear in the background is me applauding the Novacon committee and the Birmingham science fiction folks for organising, once again, what I think is an exemplary con. Also much thanks to the Quality Hotel. Happy days.