In 1986 science-fiction author Frank Herbert wrote the sixth and last novel in his award-winning “Dune” series before his untimely death.  I read “Dune” probably fifteen years ago in France, and soon finished its remarkable sequels.  The sixth, “Dune: Chapterhouse”, ends on a cliff-hanger of sorts.

For twenty years fans have wondered whether Herbert’s son, Brian, would continue the saga.  A few years ago, he did.

It is with this seventh book, “Hunters of Dune” that I sit in the kitchen where I work.  I’m on my lunch break, I have a whole hour to read, and I’ve just started it.  Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson wrote some pretty average prequels to the original series, which was full of adventure and politics, but this it the first true sequel.  It continues the story I’ve been reading about for over a decade, and admittedly it’s not bad.

Frank Herbert's "Dune"

The office gossip wanders into the kitchen.  She’s harmless but pretty nosy.  Straight away, she’s up to my book where I’ve left it on the table while I get a(nother) cup of tea.

‘What are you reading now, then?’

‘Science fiction’, I say, because it’s the easiest way to end the kind of conversation that the other person isn’t really interested in.

‘Oh,’ she says.  She has already turned away. ‘Oh, I see.’

And I want to scream.

‘”Dune” is the best sci-fi book ever written!’ I want to yell. ‘The writer was a genius!  There are writers out there who aren’t fit to check his ‘scripts for typos, let alone have their books on the same shelf as his!’

I feel this way about only very few writers.  Probably Isaac Asimov, if we’re going to stick with sci-fi for a moment.  Other names that come to mind are Clive Barker, China Mieville, Steph Swainston, Stanislaw Lem.  People whose level of talent you aspire towards, as a writer yourself, but never expect to achieve.

And it galls me when people dismiss a novel – or film, or television – because it is science-fiction.
People who “don’t like sci-fi or fantasy” are, you’ll find on most occasions, people who never read it.  They don’t really know what it is.

They might have dipped into it once – probably the popular Rowling/Meyer trash – and assumed it was indicative of the entire genre.  i.e., unchallenging, insipid, uninvolving.

They have never heard of cyberpunk, or Victoriana, or slipstream, or speculative fiction.  To them, all sci-fi is Star Trek and all fantasy is The Lord of the Rings.

I asked my mother once why she never read fantasy, back when she was a reader.

She said, “I couldn’t pronounce any of the names”.

Way to jump in at the deep end, Mum – Tolkien.  My mischievous big brother probably leant her ‘The Silmarillion’ as a joke.

And Tolkien was a great writer, but is probably the reason why my mother will never ‘get round’ to reading my own novel.

There is a stigma fixed to genre fiction and there doesn’t seem to be any way around it.  People don’t like to try genre fiction because of the notion they have of what it contains: dragons and goblins or, in the case of sci-fi, stiff-backed men in uniform discussing interplanetary politics on a ship’s bridge.

Star Trek has a lot to answer for.

In fact, it has probably damaged science-fiction irreparably.

Sing the song again.  You know you want to.  "Theeeeeere's Klingons on the starboard bow, starboard bow, starboard bow ..."

The 2009 film, which gave the franchise a much-needed reboot, went some way to convincing people that sci-fi isn’t all boring and preachy.  It can be just as exciting and guiltily-satisfying as any action film.  TV’s Futurama brought sci-fi to the living room again, but people don’t think this is ‘real’ sci-fi.  It’s something pretending to be sci-fi.

Sci-fi can’t be funny, like Red Dwarf.  It can’t be an adventure, like Star Wars.  It can’t be beautiful, like Solaris.  These aren’t ‘proper’ sci-fi at all.

But people don’t buy it.  They think these are exceptions to the rule.

The rule is that science-fiction must be rigid and preachy.  It must have, in some form, a federation of military types.  There must be spaceships and, ideally, robots.  One of the most irritating defining characteristics I hear of sci-fi is that it has aliens in it.  As though, without the greys, it’s not sci-fi at all, or else, not ‘proper’ sci-fi.

The same goes for literature.  People hear you’re a writer, it’s the most interesting thing they’ve ever heard.  They’re hear you’re a genre writer, they switch off.

That or it’s, ‘Oh, you’re going to write the next Harry Potter, then?’

Yes.  I’m going to write the next Harry Potter.

In fact, I’m writing it now.

“Harry Potter and the Death of Integrity”.

Yes, I read the books.  I have a right to slag them with my burning contempt.  I deeply, truly regret wasting all those hours, which is why I consider myself free to despise “Twilight” despite the fact that I couldn’t even choke down the whole of the first novel.

‘Never again,’ I promised myself.

Remember Harry Potter.

Re-read Michael Crichton instead.  Re-read “Hitchhikers”.  See if the Foundation books are as good as you remember.

I suppose it’s up to us to repair the reputation of these tarnished genres.  We should try to get some intelligent, spectacular and above all original genre fiction out there.  More steampunk fiction.  More new weird fiction.  Enticing, entrancing, entertaining.

But it’s already out there.  A lot of us know it.  Films are more likely to wake people up than literature.  After all, a film takes up a lot less of your time than a 500-page novel.  It requires less brain-power, even if it has subtitles in places.  But the most original ideas, the ones that aren’t tried and tested, don’t get the budget.  They don’t get the stars.  And they therefore don’t get the marketing or the national releases or the audiences.  A film without an audience might as well not exist.

Some decent stuff gets through.  The Donnie Darkos and the Eden Logs and the Sky Blues.  A few people, outside of their main target audience, gets to see them.  And the love them.  They realise that there’s another side to fantasy and horror and science-fiction.

A new breed.

There might be hope.  Although the paper fiction industry has taken its knock these last two or three years, genre fiction in particular is suffering no worse than the ever-popular mainstream titles.  Granted, it’s supported by the franchise bilge like Dr Who and endless hack’n’slash fantasy.

But the new stuff is there.  Even if it’s Neal Asher or Charlaine Harris.

Just try it.

You might even like it.

— db

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