Fanorama by Walt Willis

WALTER WILLIS writes for you

For many years it has been the dream of science fiction fans that one day the people would take our favourite literature to their hearts: instead of being a ridiculed minority, we should be looked up to as pioneers, like a resistance movement after an unexpected liberation. Well, don't look now, but it's just all happened. The only difference was that the populace wasn't reading science fiction in magazines. It was watching it on television.

The impact of the Quatermass serial on fans was predictable enough. Take prominent fan and Nebula artist Arthur Thomson. On the night of the last instalment there he was poised quivering in space between the edge of his armchair and the end of his fifth cigarette, when a terrible disaster struck, one second only in horror to the TV set breaking down—a knock at the door. Backing through his bijou flat, Arthur opened the door and wrested his eyes away from the screen to find a tall, dark man with a sheaf of papers moving forward and saying (the man, that is, not the papers: the papers kept quiet, or at least remained stationary), "Good evening, Sir; I am from—" That was as far as he got, because the distraught Arthur instinctively made a warding-off gesture and whispered: "I'm sorry. Quatermass is on." The stranger said understandingly, "Oh," and Arthur gently closed the door.

After the world had duly been saved by the palaeontologist and his piece of chain, Arthur was free to turn his mind to less vital matters and wondered who or what the man had been from, but alas at the moment of writing this question looks like ousting the Marie Celeste from the first rank of famous mysteries. (I hate to suggest to Arthur that he may have been from Littlewood's.) However the most interesting thing about this little episode, it seems to me, is that he seemed to see the utter reasonableness of Arthur's explanation for not being At Home to casual callers. The fact is that for half an hour on six consecutive Mondays a new social convention entered the British way of life: Bateman could certainly have published a cartoon captioned The Man Who Interrupted Quatermass. In fact the most mystifying thing about Arthur's visitor is why he wasn't watching it himself. All I can suggest is that if the B.B.C. say twelve million people were watching the programme, they must have had people out counting them. In which case of course Arthur's behaviour was impeccably correct.

There have been many attempts in the press to explain the success of the Quatermass serial, but they've all been written by non-fans and to us they leave the major mystery unexplained. What they say is true enough, but we fans know that the qualities they ascribe to it are common to all good science fiction, quite a lot of which has appeared in magazines from time to time. Yet the hard fact remains that the total readership of all the science fiction magazines in the English speaking world is not and never has been more than one tenth of one per cent. of the population. This has remained so obstinately true through A-bombs, H-bombs, sputniks and luniks that some fans have reluctantly been driven to the conclusion that the ability to appreciate science fiction is a sort of rare mutation, and that the few occasions on which a science fiction novel or film has enjoyed popular success have been due to extraneous factors like sex or horror. I think the success of Quatermass finally disposes of that pessimistic hypothesis. Quatermass was true science fiction: tense, but not horrific. There seems therefore no reason at all why the mass audience shouldn't appreciate other science fiction, if properly presented. It's up to us to find out what the Quatermass serial had that some authors haven't got.

One quality might be sincerity. In press interviews afterwards Nigel Kneale confessed that he identified himself with the hero and wrote the story for love not money, but I think this was obvious enough from the script itself. Kneale had a story to tell, a story no better than dozens we have read, but he told it as he felt and believed it, without either talking down to his audience or trying to impress it with high-sounding phoniness. It's obvious for instance that he's personally concerned about the H-bomb, current NATO strategy, the perversion of science by politicians and racial intolerance, and all these came into the story. Not as elements in the plot, but as background. And since these are real things that concern us, they helped to make the story real to us in the same way as did the documentary realism of Cartier's production. The story seemed founded in fact, if not on it. And since the public have sometimes an uncanny ability to recognise and appreciate honesty, I think they appreciated that Kneale/Quatermass loved humanity and believed in science. I wish more of our authors and characters did.

from Nebula No. 41, June 1959

Last revised: 1 October, 2006

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