Why science fiction? Well, why not?
It’s actually not very much more complicated than that. I like science fiction because I find – or at least found when I was growing up – that it’s more interesting to me than a lot of other fiction.
My family weren’t, in general, big readers. When it turned out that I was, my mother started buying me books. The children’s ‘classics,’ mostly. Swiss Family Robinson, The Call Of The Wild, Tom Sawyer. And they were okay, they filled a space, but they lacked something, and I didn’t know that they lacked it until I read The First Men In The Moon.
That was my first science fiction, my gateway drug. I can’t remember how old I was; I was in junior school so I was maybe seven or eight, and I was knocked out, a sense of, ‘My god, how long has this been going on and why hasn’t anyone told me about it?’ It wasn’t necessarily that it was better than all those other books I’d been reading, it was just that it was more interesting. I had, though I didn’t know it at the time, discovered sensawunda.
The War of the Worlds followed, and several John Wyndhams, and by then I was hoovering the stuff down. I started spending my pocket money on science fiction books. Those old paperback Asimov editions with the fabulous Chris Foss covers, EE ‘Doc’ Smith, Heinlein, Larry Niven. For more than a decade I only read science fiction.
The second revelation arrived when I bought a copy of Keith Roberts’ collection Machines and Men. And the revelation was that Brits did this stuff too. Up till then the only science fiction – the only fiction at all – that I’d read had been American. It was, to quite a large extent, about Americans in space in extraordinary situations. And here was Roberts writing about people running cinemas in English provincial towns, or investigating paranormal phenomena in ruined abbeys. It was the first time it occurred to me that science fiction could happen to ordinary people, and that revelation runs through a lot of my stuff, all the way to Europe In Autumn, where the central character is a chef who finds himself drawn into something which could change the world.
So Roberts led me to Ballard, and Ballard led me to M John Harrison, and so on and so on. By that time I was writing – or at least scribbling things in notebooks. And I wrote science fiction because it was the only thing I was interested in. My first attempt at a novel was a shameless rip-off of the Lensman books, but my second was set in a Britain under martial law. I wrote stories about people who ran country pubs, or who found themselves trapped by unexplained phenomena while out walking in the Peak District, or who discovered they really did have fairies at the bottom of their garden. Pavane woke in me a deep love for the English landscape, although I didn’t actually visit the Isle of Purbeck until many years later.
I still read science fiction, of course. Not so much these days – I’ve since discovered the joys of spy fiction and detective fiction and there’s only so much time for reading – but I still love that moment of opening a book for the first time and stepping into a new world and meeting new characters and rediscovering that sensawunda anew.