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.