(Heart)Breaking News

I’ve stopped watching the 24 hour news channels. I’ve contemplated switching off Twitter. In the face of a developing drama like the one that is engulfing Japan, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s very little information coming out of rolling news sources, and a whole lot of conjecture, speculation and plain old stirring the pot.

We have no way of knowing what’s going on at Fukushima. Really, we don’t. Until Japanese authorities give us updates, we’re in the dark. But because the 24 hour stations have to say something, and because the nuclear emergency on the north-eastern coast of this beleaguered nation seems to be the only news story worth telling, (regardless of the awful ongoing crisis through the rest of the country) we get guesswork. An endless stream of experts, rolled on to give worst-case scenarios based on the tiny scraps of information they’ve been able to glean. We get what ifs and deadlines. If I hear the phrase “The next [vague time period] is crucial”, I’m going to scream.

And of course, it’s an ideal time for both pro and anti nuclear lobbies to pitch up a tent and start proselytising. You get scare stories and I told you so’s banging up against safety records and unforeseeable circumstance. I think I know less about nuclear power now than I did when I started.

Facebook and Twitter have always been home for the sudden appearance of rumour and conjecture dressed up as fact. I’ll make myself clear right now. Anyone on my feed that starts talking about how this is payback or divine retribution gets an instant unfollow and a report. I’ve already had to refute the outrageous map doing the rounds that claims to be from the Australian Nuclear Authority, stating radiation levels that the Fukushima plant will never come close to coming across the Pacific in a plume of death. This is the sort of environment in which pranksters thrive, and I think we all should all know not to feed the trolls by now.

Look, I don’t want to make light of the horrible situation that’s going on at the moment. Part of the reason for closing off the news feeds is because the images coming out of Japan are so unbearable. But I think it’s best to at least take a step back away from the torrent. You’ll never be able to slake your thirst if you try to drink from a full-on hosepipe. Developing news is just that. I’m allowing myself a daily update from a trusted source, and that’s it.

The best that we can do is to donate, keep Japan in our thoughts and prayers, and not, however inadvertently, spread harmful rumours and outright lies.

The best place I’ve found for donations and contact information is Google’s centre: http://www.google.com/crisisresponse/japanquake2011.html

Let’s keep our fingers crossed, and don’t believe the hype. Stay strong, Japan. We’re with you.

The Invisible Genre: How The BBC ignored SF on World Book Day

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World Book Day is a celebration of all things literary, a chance to put your hand up and say, “Hell yes, I’m a reader. Give me a book and I’ll read the living stuff right out of it!” It’s an important event that brings together writers and readers worldwide and unites them under a common, quarto-shaped banner.

But there’s a problem. Author Stephen Hunt watched the BBC’s coverage of the day, and noticed that there was something missing. Something big.

Apart from a brief mention of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights as a YA crossover, SF, fantasy and horror were not represented. No Pratchett. No Rankin. No Tolkein or Lewis. No Iain M. Banks, no JK Rowling. No China Mieville or Joe Abercrombie. No Clive Barker, no Christopher Priest. Genres that between them take between 20 and 30% of the UK book market were roundly ignored.

I wish I could say I was shocked or surprised. The publishing world is more than happy to make money from the fantastic end of the market, but they’re not so keen on promoting it. You’ll hardly ever see SF or fantasy on the front-of-house deals at your local Waterstones unless your name happens to be Rowling or Meyer. As Hunt points out, it’s pure and simple snobbery. What’s more, it’s damaging.

The publishing industry always depicts the book as a gateway to a world of imagination, to a place of limitless possibility, of endless adventure. At the same time, the act of picking up and reading a novel is considered to be an act that is good for you, in the same way as running twice a week or eating a high-fibre cereal for breakfast. It’s an educational action, a pathway to moral improvement and good citizenship. In some ways, you can be defined by what, and how much, you read.

The perception amongst most mainstream critics is reading SF, fantasy and horror is not an improving activity. That these books are of low character, of dubious morality. That somehow you will put the book down, and not gain the insights into the world and it’s people that you would if you’d only pick up something by Margaret Atwood. Or Jeanette Winterson. Or Kazuo Ishigura. Something without spaceships or aliens, clones or creatures grown from genetic experiments gone wrong.

You can see where I’m going with this, can’t you? All the above authors have written SF. They simply choose not to identify the books as such for fear of hurting their profits.

It’s the same skewed thinking that forces Iain Banks to flag his Culture novels as written by Iain M. Banks. As if they were somehow written by a different person. He at least is pushing the envelope, however gently. His latest “mainstream” novel, Transition, was an SF book in all but name, and contains references to a culture that may be … well, The Culture. But the book is packaged and marketed in a very different way to his SF excursions. The back cover blurb calls it a “fable”.

Stephen describes SF, fantasy and horror as a “gateway drug” to the world of literature. I agree. What’s more, that’s proven to be true by one of the growth markets in the publishing sector – the young adult or YA book. This new stream is stuffed full of fantastik stories – and I’m not just talking about Potter or Twilight knockoffs. Cory Doctorow’s agit-punk books such as Little Brother and For The Win are politically driven and yet still filled with action and drama. Scott Westerfield’s Uglies postulates a world where it’s a crime to be ugly – a pointed and direct comment at the sort of world in which kids struggle with their self-image every day. YA is where a lot of the interesting stuff is happening right now.

Should I be bothered by the fact that the BBC ignored the fantastik? It’s fair to say that a lot of people do buy, read and enjoy genre fiction, and it seems to tick along quite happily without mainstream critical attention.

But a lot of truly great books, head and shoulders above the latest “contemporary” efforts in terms of literary merit, plot, character and inventiveness are marginalised purely because of their subject matter. It’s a stigma that prevents deserving authors from reaching their full potential readership. This is simply not on, and needs to be addressed.

It”s a real shame that genres need to be compartmentalised, but it’s a fact of the industry. However, the playing field should be fair. A good book is a good book regardless of where or when it’s set, irrespective of the species of the main character.

What next? Well, Stephen’s set up a Facebook page, and there’s a petition to sign. If you love SF, fantasy and horror and feel that it didn’t get a fair chance in the BBC’s coverage of World Book Day, you know what to do.