"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Do I Like Science Fiction?

Thanks to the Oxfam Bookshop in Hereford for this 1963 Penguin edition of John Christopher's 1956 novel, The Death of Grass. I remembered I had been looking for it ever since it was mentioned on a Channel 4 series about science fiction last year in which I took part (very, very briefly to say something, mostly edited out, on Huxley's Brave New World). Christopher's novel was said to be one of the classier examples of the genre which I'm not normally a fan of, except that if you start to include Huxley, Orwell etc then I suppose I am. This chilling novel is about the effect of a plant virus that kills off grass, wheat etc etc and results in millions dying of starvation in Asia before it reaches Europe. Britain's Government makes arrangements to atom bomb the cities to get rid of hungry mouths and the citizens overnight take up arms and start looting and killing each other. One family and friends get through the road blocks thrown up around London and head for a stoutly defended Lake District valley, murdering all sorts of innocent folk along the way without compunction, in order to reach the haven of their brother's secluded Westmorland farm. That summary makes it sound garish but actually the USP of this fiction is its quiet, intimate realism, the way it shows horrifying things happening in a familar English landscape with familiar English characters. It's at the opposite pole of the flashy techno-fantasy of Hollywood scary movies and somehow more disturbing and terrifying as a result. Overnight, it suggests, civilisation can mutate into barbarism. Very effective.

3 comments:

Max Cairnduff said...

I'm probably generalising horribly, but I believe there was a trend in the 50's and perhaps early 60's for British SF novels which captured a certain quiet desperation, perhaps reflecting the concerns of the time.

I grew up with SF (as many people do) and this is a very famous novel in the field (partly for the film based on it, to be fair), but quite rare. I've never personally seen a copy.

Most SF is fiction of big ideas, often scientific big ideas, or is pure escapism. If your interests run more to novels about place, character, mood or use of language then much SF will I suspect leave you cold, except that strand of social SF which wrote about people and tried to evoke a particular sense of mood or to reflect social concerns of its day. Most SF isn't of that sort, so most I suspect will continue not to interest you.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, I don't think anyone is particularly obliged to enjoy any particular type of fiction, certainly there are types I don't read without a very strong recommendation from someone I trust.

Other than that, your Schopenhauer quote seems possibly relevant...

Nicholas Murray said...

That's a really interesting comment. In my ignorance I didn't know about the film which I must try and track down. I suppose "science fiction" is a bit like "literary fiction", a term we think is helpful but which falls apart the more it subjected to scrutiny and in the end may not actually be useful at all.

Very interesting also what you say about the times in which it was written. I kept thinking of this as I read and wondering what was the impulse behind it.

Max Cairnduff said...

I read recently Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, a book I highly recommend actually, which was written in the late 50's. It contains frequent references to the threat of war and nuclear annihilation, and I suspect the spectre of that still being relatively new was the impulse behind many works of the time.

Then again, there's always a danger with comments like that of being over-reductionist, Arthur Seaton's (the SN&SM protagonist)thoughts of nuclear annihilation may be nothing more than justification for the hedonism he would pursue in any event. Still, I think the fear of the bomb casts a shadow over some of the works of that period.

I think all fictional classifications have some use, they just don't bear up to much robust scrutiny. They're often most useful negatively I suspect, if I say I like literary fiction that doesn't much help you recommend a novel to me, if I say I don't like science fiction that at least helps you know what to avoid.