When we are young, the world is a magical place. Anything can happen: new, frightening and inexplicable events pepper our infant days. Monsters, fairies, wizards and talking animals populate our earliest reading experiences, as if our still-plastic brains are not yet expected to discriminate between the exciting possibilities of the dreamlike subconscious and the boring mundanities of ‘real life.’ But this literary free-for-all has a limited shelf life. While authors such as J K Rowling, Philip Pullman, and my latest discovery Patrick Ness, are feted when they summon fantasy worlds rich in wonder and weirdness for teenage minds, writers of adult science and fantasy fiction get short shrift from critics more likely to lavish attention on ‘literary’ novels or even other ‘genre’ works such as romance or crime. The implication? It’s time to put away childish things.
It is a cultural cliché that readers who crave otherworldly fiction beyond ‘young adulthood’ are immature, socially stunted and all around ill-equipped for the ‘grown-up’ rigours of realism. Going to see IanMcEwan or Sebastian Faulks speak at Hay or Latitude is a badge of louche intellectual sophistication; catching Robin Hobb at a fantasy convention is akin to admitting you were bullied as a child.
Fear not, this is not going to be a rant against the injustice of genre snobs. It is undeniable that there is still stigma attached to being a sci-fi or fantasy fan, but there is little reason any more to believe that the same taint attaches to a sci-fi and fantasy reader. If you happen to read books about fantastical universes, without necessarily choosing to spend your weekends dressed as an elf in Epping Forest, you’re increasingly, well, like everyone else.