by Paul Kincaid & Niall Harrison




British Science Fiction & Fantasy
Cover by Martin McGrath

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

In 1989, Paul Kincaid conducted a survey of forty-four British authors following Mexicon III to get a feel for the state of science fiction and how the authors perceived their own work.  Twenty years later, the British Science Fiction Association conducted a follow-up survey, using essentially the same questions and conducted by Niall Harrison.  Eighty-four authors responded, including some who had responded to the earlier survey. Kincaid and Harrison have compiled the results and discuss them in British Science Fiction & Fantasy: Twenty Years, Two Surveys.

The surveys start by asking the most basic question of the author, whether or not they consider themselves a writer of science fiction and/or fantasy.  It would seem that only authors who did consider themselves to be genre authors would participate in the survey, but the editors note that the extent to which the authors embrace the labels vary, with some authors whole-heartedly accepting the label and others expressing some reluctance, almost pointing out that SF and fantasy are only some of the things they write and that they are not primarily within the genre. In some cases, such as Susanna Clarke, her acceptance of the label comes with an explanation that the accept the label is, to some degree, to bestow legitimacy on the genre which non-genre critics might otherwise find lacking.

Once the definition of a science fiction or fantasy author has been achieved, the questions can drill down to get at more detailed information, asking about the strengths and weaknesses of the genre, how British science fiction and fantasy may differ from the genres as written elsewhere, reasons for writing in the genre and so forth. Kincaid and Harrison do an excellent job of summarizing the arguments put forth by the various authors while included lengthy excerpts from some of their responses, allowing the authors speak in their own words about their experiences, influences, and perceptions of the field.

The final question, asked only in the second survey, seeks to form a vision of how science fiction and fantasy has changed in the twenty years between the surveys.  What is most interesting here is that the forms that existed twenty years ago are still very much alive, although often with new life breathed into them.  A major point is the rebirth of space opera under the auspices of a new generation of authors.  Another point often brought up is the influx of new readers brought about by the advent of the Harry Potter phenomenon and the reincarnation of Doctor Who, which had just been cancelled around the time of the first survey.

British Science Fiction & Fantasy: Twenty Years, Two Surveys is not the first time a survey of this sort has been attempted, but the fact that it is comprised of two surveys, conducted twenty years apart with the second survey very much aware of the first, gives the volume a value that earlier surveys, such as Earl Kemp's Who Killed Science Fiction? from 1960 (with its own follow-up by Kemp in 1980) does not have.  What will be interesting is to see if the BSFA elects to follow up with a third survey in 2029 to continue to track the changes in science fiction and the perception of the genre as it, possibly, becomes even more mainstream and accepted.

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