Science Fiction, Canonization, Marginalization, and the Academy

By Gary Wastfahl; George Slusser | Go to book overview
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Chapter 6
The Arthur C. Clarke Award
and Its Reception in Britain

Edward James

The ultimate authority is the one who decides what language means, as George Orwell saw. In many cases, that authority is not the minority whose interests are wedded to a particular usage of language, but the general public who adopt that usage in daily discourse, or a socially or politically dominant group who are able to impose their own ideology upon the language. I am talking about the phrase “science fiction,” of course, and how its meaning has been determined in the British context. To dramatize it, one might say that this chapter is about the struggle within the science fiction community, and between the science fiction community and the literary or intellectual community, for the right to define “science fiction” as it wishes. I will look in particular at the early stages of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, which was deliberately designed to give a higher profile to the genre of science fiction and to change public perception of it. But I shall begin with some thoughts on the way in which one might test the public usage of a phrase like “science fiction,” and, more importantly, check the ways in which that usage changes over time.

A series of opinion polls spread over a number of years might, at great expense, achieve this result; so would a laborious trawl through the press, popular or otherwise. But a new tool is now at our disposal for investigating matters such as this: the CD-ROM. I used the CD-ROMs containing the entire content of four upmarket British newspapers (the Times, Sunday Times, Independent, and Independent on Sunday) to look up all references to “science fiction,” “sf” and “sci-fi” in the years 1992 and 1993. An initial impression, and hardly a surprising one, is that “science fiction” is much more likely to be used with positive connotations on the science or computer pages of a newspaper than it is on the book or film review pages, or in general news and editorial sections. In an article on mobile telecommunications in the Independent, for instance, Steve Homer wrote that “Science fiction should become science fact before the end of this decade.”1 That remark, or variations of it, is common enough on the science pages (as it has been ever since World War II, if not earlier): science fiction is viewed, in

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