Sunday, November 15, 2009

Alison Rowat and the Licensed Imagination

This post is possibly ever so slightly out of date, being a letter to the Glasgow Herald which I posted on the Intrepid forum three years ago but never quite polished to the extent that I was happy sending it to the herald itself.  Prompting this, and other rejoinders by Intrepid members, was an article by Alison Rowat about the then [Glasgow Science Fiction convention] which some of us considered tantamount to bigotry, had it been said against one of the traditional minority groups.  I've rewritten my rebuttal so that it flows better.  At the time of writing the original, I was very, very angry.  Perhaps it could function as an open letter to other media types – and there are many – who see us poor SF types as an easy and not altogether human target.

Dear Sir,
    It's long been a truism that to gauge the accuracy of a newspaper, you should simply read a column about a subject with with you are closely familiar. So it is rather disappointing to be presented with Alison Rowat's article 'You wouldn't believe the warp factor' which contains nary a shred of anything approaching a keen observation, let alone a solid fact.
A little research surely couldn't have gone amiss?

Such as this odd obsession with tin-foil. It's a nice little hook to hang the rest of the article from, so it's a shame that tin-foil hats are synonymous with 1950s paranoia about communist 'mind-control'. Not exactly Star Trek or Star Wars, which are precisely two entries in the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction out of some four and a half thousand. Perhaps it's a surprise that there can be such a thing as an Encyclopaedia, but sure enough it turns out that SF is even a literary genre stretching back hundreds of years. Surely the people described in her article couldn't be... atypical?

Of course, says Alison, why would anyone wish to dress up as their favourite character at all? It's not like anyone dresses as characters from soaps, after all, although the remarkable upsurge in little girls named 'Kylie' at the height of Neighbours should give pause for thought as to exactly who is 'sad'.   I'm sure that a few of us have waved a lightsabre, imagined or otherwise, in anger. But so far as I know, no SF fan has ever sent a real cheque for 5000 pounds to help free a fictional character from a fictional prison, as happened with Coronation Street.
    I'll save myself time by blithely assuming that all non-SF fans have a blurred line with reality.

Of course I myself cannot 'fathom the insanity' that makes grown men dress in football tops. After all, on the basis of the last few years, you're seemingly more likely to be killed or seriously injured by a footballer than a terrorist. What kind of aspiration is that?

But I'm not a football fan, I'm an SF fan and as such I'm generally fair game to be mocked in the press and on television.  Somehow I'm now a stereotype, not an individual, but of now part of a group whom you can malign with impunity.

How well do I measure up to this image that you have in your head?  Spandex?  Don't own any.  Social skills?  Got some.  Women? Some close friends.  Relationships?  Had them too.  In one now.  Beer belly?  I'm a man in my mid-thirties, what do you expect I'm going to look like?  Would you like to call me a fat bastard, or is that not politically correct?  I wear glasses too, so I expect you'd like to call me four eyes or speccy or something.  You know, make fun of my appearance in the absence of anything with any thought behind it.

Or don't we do things like that in the 21st Century?  Such niceties don't apply to SF fans it would seem.  I like SF and so I'm some kind of freak and to hell with how it makes me feel when I hear you say that.

How appropriately ironic, then,  that one of the central themes of Star Trek, which you deride, is that in the future we all have respect for one another.  Imagine that.

I did, however, manage to retain my imagination.

Not, admittedly, a valuable commodity in these cynical days, cynicism being a theme often reflected in... oh... modern SF. Just as the subtext of some of those old novels about aliens was about what's it's like for a society to look upon anyone, anything, point and laugh for being something different that we don't understand.
Hmm, now where have I heard that before...

But soft SF is OK apparently – I can imagine Alison campaigning for tolerance zones where one may have an imagination with an appropriate license – but anything more that is implicitly 'hard' and to be discouraged.

Well this is where research comes in handy (you were once columnist of the year weren't you, Alison? Do you remember what “research” is?) since there really is a term called 'hard SF' which deals stories more closely coupled to real, solid, actually existing science and logic. About as far away from dressing up as your favourite character as it's possible to get.
Enjoying a story where you have to think? Preposterous and dangerous!

At this point I do have to apologise for attempting to use a 'philosophical' and 'intellectual' defence of my 'art' without exploring believers in flying saucers, on the grounds that the two groups are not the same.  Is this a surprise to you?
Oh sure there are UFOs in Science Fiction, but only in the same way that Eastenders is a police drama.

Without getting deep about it, I simply like Science Fiction. I'm in a minority, and don't I know it when there are so many pejorative terms for me. To deny that there really are people – people, not just men – with a more than everyday interest would be plain wrong. But to say that all of them are like the colourful minority is equally wrong. I was at a convention just recently and almost an entire half of the attendees were woman. One of them was dressed as Lara Croft and nobody there or in the press, oddly, felt the need to complain about that...

I'll anticipate the defence that the article was humour. Not a gentle humour by any means, not well observed humour, definitely not original and with an obvious lack of contact with, or understanding of, anyone being talked about. Just mean-spirited barbs thrown at crudely sketched caricatures.

Alison, it's obvious that you don't even know who your target is and would it be churlish of me to point out the logical flaw of writing 'they want to stay in their safe little worlds, not connect with others' in an article about SF fans gathering together in the world's largest convention?

Seriously, did you really write that?  I must have just imagined it.

But the final word must surely go to one of my SF loving friends who saw the article, read the part about sad single men and exclaimed: “That's hilarious, I'll have to show my wife.”

     Steve Hammond

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