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The Terrifying Present

Posted on 08/10/2014
By Commonwealth Foundation

HG Wells
HG Wells, PEN’s early president, and the starting point for the evening’s discussion.

Trying to decide between events at the London Literature Festival I finally chose a session about science fiction because I don’t often read science fiction. The discussion, presented by English PEN, featured writers Nick Harkaway, Gwyneth Jones, Sophie Mayer, James Smythe and editor, Ann C. Perry. The question it asked was: Science Fiction – Home of the Literary Activist? Here are some things they said in reply:

“There’s actually much more going on in the world that the slow dissolution of human emotional connection” – Nick Harkaway

“Even the most unlikely stories contain engagements with the really really important things. If they’re good enough, they’ll take you there” – Nick Harkaway

“…assuming that everyone in this room knows what you mean by progressive and agrees it’s a good thing” – Gwyneth Jones

“There is strand of neoliberalism that says the way we live now is the only way it could be” (and science fiction presents an alternative) – Nick Harkaway

“There’s a funny thing about ideology – you can’t see it unless you don’t like it” – Gwyneth Jones

“It becomes difficult to write science fiction because by the time you’ve finished the book, someone’s done it” – Nick Harkaway

They answered questions about our unwillingness to extrapolate from where we are now. They talked about historical fiction being as able as science fiction to foretell our futures. They asked why when they write books describing the present, reviewers hail them as terrifying visions of the future. Finding Nemo is terrifying they said; Watership Down is the most terrifying of all (Bleak House is irritating in places). Terrifying, they said, would be a reality in which summer ended on the 6th of October. They debated the virtues of youth until one of them announced a wish to quote Whitney Houston. Slowly he recited the lyrics: “I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way.  Show them all the beauty they possess inside. Give them a sense of pride”. Perhaps because it was a young science fiction writer reciting the lines, the audience fell about laughing.
Sunila Galappatti, Commonwealth Writers

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