Goodreads Facebook Twitter RSS Feed

British vs. American SF

Sunday, 24 October 2010

So, an interesting talk about SF at the Cheltenham Literary Festival last week. The panel members were Michael Moorcock, Iain M. Banks, Gwyneth Jones and China Miéville. I have to be honest and admit I mainly only went to see and hear Moorcock, who is a bit of a hero. But of course all the panel members were fascinating.

Moorcock played the avuncular elder-statesman role. Banks was as witty as ever; if the SF ever dries up I'm sure he could cut it as a stand-up. Jones frankly looked a bit mystified to be there and Miéville was a one-man lecture on the sociological aspects of SF. At various points, each of the other writers, stumped by some question, said "I'm sure China will be able to answer that." Smart guy. I've started reading his books ...

The main discussion centred on the differences between British and American SF. I must admit, I'd never really categorized science fiction into those terms but I could see what they meant. So, American SF tends to be both more militaristic and more individualistic. British SF ("chocolate biscuit SF") tends to be more about communities than individuals. Or does it? I keep thinking about exceptions to such simplistic rules. American SF has tended to be polarized between the social-democratic left and the individualist right. British SF is generally just of the liberal left. Again, I can see what they mean, but again, it's surely more complex than that. I don't know, what do you think?

Anyway, thought-provoking stuff and a good turn-out. I'm thinking about tackling a pure SF novel next and I could certainly see how it might fit into a conception of "British SF" ...


  1. "Jones frankly looked a bit mystified" - lol!! That was just funny! :-)

    I've never thought there was a difference between US SF and British (European?) SF but now that it's put this way (between ideologies) maybe there is. Then again you could say there is are differences between women/black/asian/male etc SF writers too?

    Gosh this is deep!! :-)

    Take care

  2. I haven't thought of it in that way either. While of course there has always been "rugged invidiualism" in American fiction, regardless of genre, it seems to have taken a backseat to "the good of the many" in more recent Sci-Fi.

  3. Old Kitty,

    Yes, I'm sure you could say that. There was some discussion of European vs. British vs. English vs. Scottish SF last week. I think these are broad generalizations - but, on the other hand, could you imagine, say, Dr. Who being made in the USA? It just is British SF isn't it?

  4. Milo,

    Fair point. To be honest, they were mainly singling out Heinlein on the "rugged individualist" wing. But yeah, the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few and all that ...

  5. I never really thought about SF that way, either. I can see how it would be different though; the cultures aren't the same, so that would be reflected in the writing.

  6. Golden Eagle,

    Fair point - although maybe there are more similarities than differences? Increasingly?

  7. I find it fascinating that they view US SF as "militaristic AND individualistic" --an insane paradox that reflects the US culture at large. Right now the screaming irrational rhetoric that promises "rugged individualism" in the US is really implementing a Militaristic neo-Fascist takeover. It's like living in a SF novel in the US right now. (As I watched a Dr. Who marathon last night, I kept seeing parallels between The Master and Karl Rove.)

    As goes our SciFi, so goes our culture...

    Give me Brit "chocolate biscuit" liberalism any day.

  8. Anne,

    As a Brit I didn't feel I was qualified to say all that : but yes, that's rather how it looks from across the Atlantic to me too. Scary.

  9. Fascinating stuff. I loved your description of each writer, lol.

  10. Simon, all your fears are justified, and then some. I have a terrible feeling that all Americans with IQs larger than their funny-hat size may soon be running screaming for the borders. Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale won't be SF anymore.

  11. Of course there are differences between Brit and U.S. SF. Two different cultures. I took a university course once that focused on the differences and how these differences affected the reader/audience. British comedy, for example, uses a lot more doors with characters in and out. Here, the comedic tends to be locale centered with limited motion.

    There's nothing wrong with these differenes. Just think how boring the world would be if we were all the same.

  12. That sounds like an interesting discussion. I never thought about the difference between american and british SF..or even if there was a difference. But it kinda makes sense.

    W.I.P. It: A Writer's Journey

  13. Anne,

    Well, let's just hope the intelligent and thoughtful prevail. I see the Tea Party look like they will do well in the mid-term elections? There are more like Sarah Palin?!

  14. Kittie,

    That does sound fascinating. Now I'm replaying scenes from my favourite US and UK comedies in my head!

    Of course, there are differences between our cultures, although I tend to think, because we are so immersed in our own cultures and so familiar with the subtleties and nuances, that we tend to focus on the (often quite small) differences rathr than the big, familiar similarities.

  15. I'm not into military stuff, so if it has that theme I generally don't read it. I guess it's time for you to shake things up Simon.
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author


I'd love to know what you think.