In Oxford, there is a very charming and tatty 17th century pub called The Eagle and Child.
When I worked in the city, I liked to park myself in one of its dusty corners with a book and a pint, and quietly people watch. This being Oxford, there was a conveyor belt of diverse eccentrics – every age, shape, size, colour, nationality and extravagant intellectual and sartorial affectation.
The main reason I was there, though, was the pub itself. Nicknamed the Bird and Baby, it had once been the haunt of a writers’ group called the Inklings, which included among its members JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis. It was here that they would read one another extracts from their works in progress. Once, Tolkien was midway through reciting a passage from a new novel he was writing, titled The Lord of the Rings, when one of his eminent friends erupted: “Not another f***ing elf!”
That quote magnificently sums up a common divide among readers when it comes to fantasy and its close cousin, science fiction. There are those who will toss a book across the room at the first smoulder of a dragon or groan in disbelief as a space cruiser carrying refugees from a newly abandoned Earth finds itself in the gunsights of a warship from the spider-run planet Arachna 9.
Then there are those who will purr with pleasure at the same, open their imagination to literary, literal otherworldliness, and hunker down for the intergalactic ride.
I am very much in this latter group. As a child I hoovered up fantasy novels, every Tolkien and Raymond E Feist, Terry Brooks and Michael Moorcock I could get my hands on. Each disenfranchised prince would elicit my sympathy and support as he and his band of misfits – which would almost always include a dwarf, an elf, a wizard and a hot, curvaceous, scantily garbed girl who could seriously kick ass – sought to regain his rightful kingdom from the grip of an evil usurper. If I was a dweeb, I was a happy one.
Sci-fi helps us to broaden our minds
I largely lost my fantasy habit somewhere around my late teens, but my love of science fiction has endured. Over the long purdah of lockdown I read a huge amount of sci-fi, and it doesn’t take a Vulcan mind reader to figure out why. While physically confined to quarters, I was able to soar across galaxies, time and dimensions, and lose myself in the worldbuilding, the philosophies and moral codes, the alarums and excursions, that had been hothoused in the brilliant minds of their creators. The bigger the book, the more involved the plot, the more outlandish the proposition, the better.
As society and culture have changed, so has sci-fi. The 21st century has seen a glorious flowering of diversity
Sci-fi and fantasy, commonly known as SFF, was for many years sniffed at by the literati as a sort of childish byway of genre fiction. No longer. Today, many of its smartest practitioners are venerated and have been elevated to the pantheon, among them JG Ballard, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Philip K Dick, Douglas Adams and William Gibson.
You might have noticed that every author I’ve mentioned so far has been a white male. And without doubt that has been an issue – the HG Wells stereotype, the tweedy, portly, snowy-haired egghead, dominated for most of the 20th century. Ursula K Le Guin’s feminist take on the genre stood out for its distinctiveness, as did the work of the revered African American writer Octavia Butler.
There’s always room for more elves
But as society and culture have changed, so has sci-fi. The 21st century has seen a glorious flowering of diversity. The increased availability of translated fiction, the rise of mainstream Asian and African novelists, of LGBTQ authors, and the publishing industry’s search for fresh talent and audiences, has electrified the genre and begun to move the centre of gravity away from a white Western narrative.
Perhaps the most celebrated modern sci-fi writer is NK Jemisin, an African American woman whose brilliant novels weave in the experience of black oppression and who has deservedly been garlanded with every prize going. Similarly, it is worth checking out the books of Tade Thompson, Tochi Onyebuchi, Fernando Flores, K Chess, Ken Liu, Cixin Liu and Yan Lianke.
This is about more than the old “stale, male and pale” criticism, relevant though that is. It’s also about bringing new life and perspectives to fictional tropes that might otherwise have withered through overuse and familiarity. The best modern SFF is relevant to broader debates in society about power, discrimination, opportunity and change. Think of the global impact Black Panther had, and the good it did in the seemingly endless battle against racism.
For many of these writers, the stuffy traditions of Oxford are literally a world away. There will be plenty more f***ing elves, and that’s no bad thing.
Chris Deerin is a leading journalist and commentator who heads independent, non-party think tank Reform Scotland