Science fiction as a genre is a notoriously difficult beast to pin down. Sometimes it seems as though everyone’s definition is different, as when a bookselling giant like Waterstone’s can find itself in trouble with the fan base for lumping sci-fi in with fantasy. No doubt the chimerical aspect of the genre is part of the reason it has frequently found itself ghettoised by self-appointed doormen of the literary portals; as is implicit even in the dichotomous label of “science fiction”, it is not only unruly, but positively self-contradictory. It embraces complex and densely-written series of the hardest SF, inaccessible to the average casual reader; it embraces slick and stylish presentation of genuine scientific theory in a way that can be understood by the relatively unschooled layman. Despite the reams of works which could without undue cruelty be lumped under Steve Aylett’s memorable summary heading of “‘fantasy’, ‘escapism’ and ‘shite’” there are myriad that effect a powerful satire on our existing society or which anticipate technological change with alarming precision. And despite the fact that sci-fi is universally disparaged as poorly written with shoddy characterisation and no workable dialogue, many SF creators insist on producing not only immensely polished material, but material that has a more sustained impact on the public consciousness than all but the most ubiquitous of non-genre practitioners.
Hydra-headed as SF is, it should come as no surprise that it is also the genre which provokes the most intense discussion and analysis amongst its fan base, not to mention the most affectionate imitation. Jeeves and Wooster may be loved and treasured by millions, but very few write them into slash fiction. SF also has the advantage in terms of ideas; “literary” fiction, no matter how piercingly observed, is by its nature shackled to the presentation and analysis of the mundane, and indeed the acclaim of some of its more successful practitioners – such as Will himSelf – is at least partially based in an apparent reviewers’ agreement that they will ignore the fact that the author’s work is, by any sensible definition, of a “soft SF” or, at the very least, slipstream nature. With big ideas on tap and a multitude of perspectives from which to analyse them, it should come as no surprise that the secondary industry of SF critique is a huge and thriving behemoth in its own right. Where the analysis and critique of the so-called canon of literary classics is the elitist preserve of a few self-appointed blowhards endlessly recycling their Classics degrees (and occasionally being taken to task by Clive James), debate on the nature of SF lives in the hearts and on the monitors of every sci-fi fan with a Facebook account.
Nowhere is the lively and multifarious nature of “fanalysis” more clearly on display than in You and Who Else, a substantial tome presented by JR Southall collecting the memories and impressions that British genre television has left on its generations of fans. Stretching right back to the 1950s and up-to-date as of last year, You and Who Else is an impressively broad church which is determinedly undogmatic about what counts as “science fiction” (yes, of course the Clangers count. Don’t be silly).
Naturally, the contributions in You and Who Else are choppy in quality. In an anthology of this sort it would be unrealistic to expect anything else. Some contributors are interested in the prevailing social context in which the shows were broadcast, while others are more interested in a nostalgic wallow in their days of happy childhood, as reimagined by an author old enough to know better. While this lends the book an uneven feel and can cause some jarring tonal shifts, it also leavens the deeper and drier articles with some human interest which helps to jolly the 800-odd pages along. In this respect the book actually produces an interesting double narrative effect; some articles can be linked together to produce a social history of the development of British SF, while others introduce (authors-as-) characters to show you what the consumer made of it without the advantage of knowing its wider significance.
JR Southall really has done an exceptional job in bringing together this quantity of participants, some of them noted genre contributors in their own right, and deserves congratulations for the range and extent of support he is obviously able to elicit from the wider SF fandom. Where he cannot be congratulated, unfortunately, is in his editorial diligence in producing this volume. No doubt looming deadlines played a part, as any endeavour reliant on volunteer contributions will inevitably run afoul of the stopwatch, but You and Who Else really does suffer from an overabundance of basic errors in English composition. Tautologies and the dreaded dangling participle abound on all sides and, yes, I know I’m being picky, but when the first two articles on Quatermass can’t agree on the name of series creator Nigel (K)Neale, one can’t help but wish that another pass through proofing had been possible.
Still, it is churlish to complain excessively about such matters. What is important is the impression left with the reader; and what this reader got from You and Who Else was a prevailing happy glow. Too often fans allow themselves to be fragmented along tribal lines and indulge in self-indulgent conflict. You and Who Else is a heartwarming reminder that more unites us than divides us. As a paean to some of the great successes of British science fiction history, and as a rhapsody on the benefits such fare has in bringing the intelligent child safely through the world, Y&WE is a valuable testament to the fact that while SF can generate disproportionate contumely from outside, from within it is defended by a plenitude of unregimented but devout disciples.
Proceeds from the sale of You and Who Else go to the Terrence Higgins Trust.