Instead, those few science fiction novels to make the countdown are fuddy-ishly familiar. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams is more smug comic caper than a sci-fi classic. And though Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a powerful warning cry against toxic misogyny it hardly requires championing.
Atwood’s presence also exposes the muddled logic of those behind the list. Explaining JK Rowling’s absence, Susheila Nasta, emeritus professor of modern literature at Queen Mary and Westfield University, said: “A space was cleared for someone equally as good but whose work was not as well known.” But if that was true for Rowling, why not for Atwood and The Handmaid’s Tale?
It is ironic that Britain should have gone so far towards creating fantasy by giving the world The Lord of the Rings, Narnia and Harry Potter yet remains so leery of it. The Big Jubilee Read was surely an opportunity to both celebrate the UK’s contribution to fantasy and sci-fi and the renaissance in genre writing from non-Western voices, particularly from around the Commonwealth.
Instead, we’ve ended up with the literary equivalent of being forced to eat our greens. The are many great novels on the list – nobody could deny the likes of Midnight’s Children or Small Island a place – but these are undeniably books our betters think we should be reading. And they ignore the wonderful gift bestowed by fantasy and sci-fi – to fire our sense of wonder and set our imaginations free.