Disturbing the Universe

David L Clements, science and science fiction

Me and Jonathan Ross


A week ago I was involved with what has been called a twitterstorm concerning the appointment of the UK media personality Jonathan Ross as tosatmaster – ie. master of ceremonies – for the Hugo Awards at the 2014 World SF Convention taking place in London in August this year. A lot was said both for and against him as toastmaster, and for and against the process that led to him being asked. After a rather fraught day (and longer for members of the convention committee – I am not one), Jonathan Ross stood down.

I am not going to rehearse most of the arguments for and against him, and I am certainly not going to delve into the ad hominem and, at times, hurtful comments made by both sides. That has been discussed far too much already. But, in thinking about this paroxysm, and about some of the reasons advanced for and against, I’ve come to realise that I’m viewing SF and fannish activities rather differently to some people in the publishing industry and elsewhere.

Specifically, a number of writers and publishers, including Sarah Pinborough and Danie Ware, saw Ross’ withdrawal as a missed  opportunity for ‘a huge boost for the whole community in terms of publicity and credibility, reputation and sales’. Oddly, except perhaps for the sales side in the short term, I think Ross would have represented a step backwards in all of those areas.

What are Danie, Sarah and others seeing in Ross as being a boost for SF? Ignoring the specific arguments for and against Ross as an individual, he is a major UK celebrity (though largely unknown outside the country). Having such a celebrity handing out the Hugos might have drawn in the press, which would have led to greater visibility, credibility in mainstream media circles and, maybe, increased sales.

But what kind of celebrity is Jonathan Ross? He’s a media figure, famous, at some level, for being famous. He is a product of UK celebrity culture which, at its root, is interested in fame only, not content. Yes, Ross is a comics writer and his wife is a Hugo winning scriptwriter, but neither of those are what will come to the mind of the press when they think of him. He would just be another celebrity adding media glitz.

The thing is, I think SF is far more than just another media phenomenon, and that measuring success in terms of media credibility and short term sales figures is, frankly, missing the whole point.

Science Fiction is different. It is not like other fictional genres, such as crime, fantasy and genre literature. It can have similarities to them, and has to play by similar rules if it is to tell workable and saleable stories. But it also has other concerns. At its best, SF not only tells stories about engaging and realistic characters, it also builds new worlds for those characters to live in, and poses realistic challenges about the future of the reader (or viewer of a movie etc.). This is not universal in SF, and this is not unique to SF – there are works in other genres that can do the same thing (though I would classify many of these, such as 1984 and The Handmaids Tale, as works of science fiction even if the authors might not have done that at the time of writing).

This gives SF a more important role than it being a simple media classification, as something where a short term sales boost at the cost of portraying it as just another celebrity-obsessed community, might actually bring long term damage.

This is why I spend much of my time working to build and promote the science programme at SF conventions. SF at its best goes beyond the world, beyond the simple medium and its content, and offers glimpses at other possibilities, at how science works and what its results are, at the threats and potentials of the future and in the world around us. Jonathan Ross has nothing whatsoever to do with any of that, and yet that is what I see as being the core of what SF is, and what SF does. The Hugo toastmaster should be part of that, someone who represents that broader context. It shouldn’t just be another media figure promoting just another media bunfight.

The credibility I seek for SF is not among arts correspondents on newspapers and TV, the kind of people Jonathan Ross would pull in. Thanks to the persistent gulf between the Two Cultures in much of the UK, these are issues they will not examine and cannot, in the short term at least, understand. Indeed, they might misunderstand SF and the Hugos completely, accidentally or otherwise.

A different kind of credibility is needed, one that goes beyond the usual silos of the media business because SF goes beyond those silos, allowing us to imagine different futures and, on that basis, change the present. This is why organisations like the Global Business Network hire SF writers to build ‘what if’ scenarios for the future, that help solve real problems today. One of GBNs greatest successes was the peaceful end of apartheid in South Africa (and discussed in Wired many years ago).

What other kind of fiction can do that?

And if the public face of that fiction just another media celebrity, will the chances of SF doing that again be increased or decreased? I think the latter is far more likely.

That is why, even without the reputational baggage that follows Jonathan Ross around, deservedly or otherwise, I think he was a very poor choice as Hugo toastmaster.


Author: davecl

Astronomy, science, science fiction

17 thoughts on “Me and Jonathan Ross

  1. Dave,

    You say: “SF at its best goes beyond the world, beyond the simple medium and its content, and offers glimpses at other possibilities, at how science works and what its results are, at the threats and potentials of the future and in the world around us. Jonathan Ross has nothing whatsoever to do with any of that…”

    Doesn’t Ross do those things with his comics?

    • I have no idea what he does in his comics – I didn’t know he wrote them until last Saturday.

      But that is immaterial. It is not why he was invited, or why the media would have come. He’s a celebrity first and a comics writer a distant last. The narrative would have been all about celebrity, even if Ross didn’t want it that way, and SF would have come out looking celebrity obsessed and content free.

      • The comics are material to his SF credentials.

        You didn’t know about the comics and made the comment “Jonathan Ross has nothing whatsoever to do with any of that…” which I’m pointing out is inaccurate.

      • “It is not why he was invited, or why the media would have come.”

        According to Neil Gaiman:

        “Jonathan said yes because he’s a huge SF and Comics fan — in many ways, one of the most fannish people I know: he also writes SF comics.”

        In other words, the fact that he is a SF fan, and author, is exactly why he would have come (and why he had agreed to do it for free).

  2. Reply to BlackAmber:

    The comics work is not why he was invited, that is why it was immaterial.

    If he’s been doing astoundingly different and innovative things with comics SF that’s great, and maybe, once that reputation is the biggest part of him, he might be an appropriate toastmaster. But that isn’t where he is now. If it was, I’m sure I would have learnt more about it last weekend rather than just ‘and he is a comics writer too’.

    • The only point I was taking issue with was your assertion that “Jonathan Ross has nothing whatsoever to do with any of that” which is wrong. I chose not to argue with you on any other point as there are plenty of other blogs exploring the issues surrounding his appointment and subsequent withdrawal. I have no problem with you expressing your views provided the facts are right. Jonathan Ross has genre credentials so your statement makes no sense.

      • I remain to be convinced that Ross’ comics do the things I listed, nor that they are pertinent to him being invited. The comics were, when I discussed it with a Co-chair last weekend, mentioned more in passing than anything else. If they had said ‘he’s a marvellous comics writer with all these awards behind him’ I would have been more impressed but, as far as I’m aware, the closest he’s been to a comics award was when presenting them.

  3. Reply to Chris: [apologies – this WordPress theme doesn’t seem to do proper comment embedding]

    There are many huge SF and comics fans who write, but not all of them are invited to be Hugo toastmaster. It may have been the reason he said yes, but it isn’t why the convention asked him, thought he would be a good choice, or that others thought he would be a ‘huge boost for the whole community in terms of publicity and credibility, reputation and sales’.

    Much has been said about Ross as an individual in this case, and I don’t want to address that side of things as it’s been done (rather unpleasantly for all concerned) to death elsewhere. I’m trying to explore here why I felt he was the wrong *kind* of toastmaster and why the convention had made a mistake in asking him.

    • If you want a different sort of host for the Hugo’s, that’s fine. But don’t try and paint Ross as some sort of FakeGeekCelebrity when he is, according to people who actually know him, a dedicated SF fan.

      • [Weird – now it seems to be doing threading right! Apologies if this is getting confusing]

        I think we may be using the term fan rather differently.

        To me, and in the context of Worldcon and the Hugo Toastmaster, a fan is someone who, as well as reading and liking SF, is also someone who goes to conventions, takes part in, to use Carline Mullen’s term, the fannish conversation, and who is part of the SF fan community. This was true of people like Iain Banks, Terry Pratchett and Arthur C Clarke.

        This is not to invalidate the contribution of people who are writers or otherwise working in the field who do not contribute to fandom, but they are coming to it form a very different place. Some of them join fandom after they visit for the first time – Paul Cornell is a good recent example – others do not, but continue to make perfectly valid creative contributions.

        The role of Worldcon Toastmaster though, to my mind, is far more appropriate for someone who is part of the SF fan community, no matter whatever their other contributions or qualifications might be.

        Ross might be part of the comics fan community, and on that basis he may have been a good choice for presenting their awards. I can say Ross is not part of the SF fan community as I’ve never seen him doing anything in it at all. He wasn’t invited to the con because he was a fan or part of the community, but because he was a media celebrity first, and because he might enjoy it, as Gaiman put it, second. his motivations in accepting I can’t speak to.

  4. Regarding the comment threading, WP will only nest comments 2-levels deep.

    As far as I’m concerned, all one needs to be a fan of anything is a genuine love for and interest in the subject. Ross certainly qualifies.

    • Like I said, in this context the term fan to me, and many regular worldcon attendees, means something else. This misunderstanding is probably not helping.

  5. “his wife is a Hugo winning scriptwriter” One question this raises for me is: if his wife is the one who’s won a Hugo, then, um, why not invite…his wife?


    I thought I ought to confirm, since people have been asking offline, that I also think Ross was a bad choice because of his reputational baggage, and because I have seen no evidence that the unpleasantly bullying nature of his TV persona has changed in response to the various, highly publicised incidents of the past. In fact there is evidence quite to the contrary.

  7. I am not a massive Jonathan Ross fan, most of the time I find him irritating. But I do find myself watching his chat show despite his hosting it if there’s a guest who interests me. Anyway, I don’t agree that he’s just famous for being famous. He’s a TV presenter. Like him or not, he does have a certain talent and is evidently quite intelligent. What I’m trying to say is that he should not be put in the same category as e.g. Rylan or Jedward. Ross does have interviewing skills, presentation skills, comedic skills and film critic skills. But, I still don’t like him 😛

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