Novacon 50


Novacon 45 GoH: Stan  Nicholls

Stan Nicholls

“We should be grateful that a lifetime reading science fiction’s prepared us for finding ourselves living in a dystopian novel. Goodness knows what it feels like for people who’ve never read any sf.”

I’ve heard that a lot lately. Only it hasn’t really primed us, has it? If we think it has, we’re kidding ourselves. Nothing could have equipped us for the bizarre state the world’s in at the moment, which maybe proves that prediction was never science fiction’s primary function. It might have occasionally lucked out in the prophecy stakes, but even then it tended to be more about advances in some aspects of technology, not so much the effects technology would have on us.

The concept of personal communicators might have inspired mobile phones, but who guessed that the cameras they contain would radically transform societal norms - birthing “citizen journalism”, exposing police brutality, ushering in the narcissism of selfies. (It was estimated that by 2014 more photos were taken annually on mobile phones than all the pictures shot in the entire history of photography.) Having achieved the amazing feat of landing on the moon in the late 60s, who assumed that fifty years later we still wouldn’t have been back, and ventured even further? And who would have thought that the microchip would bring about a worldwide communications network that led to the dissemination of crackpot theories that denied the truth of those moon landings, and questioned the validity of the very science that made the Internet possible? Actual events almost always defy our expectations of the future. Yesterday’s tomorrow has changed, you might say.

I’ll tell you something else that’s changed, though I’m sure you don’t need telling. Back in the days before social media, not as long ago as it seems, a kind of protocol applied in the science fiction community. Despite any differences you might have had with someone - political, religious, favourite author, whatever - your shared interest overruled it. (I was going to say trumped it but ... you know.) Consequently it was possible to have a civilised discourse, and even agree to disagree. I’m not saying that things didn’t get heated, that there weren’t feuds and schisms, but exchanges were generally more respectful. Not now. So much as breathe a mildly controversial opinion online and the dogs of war are unleashed.

SF isn’t insulated from the rest of society, of course, and conflict rages in practically every special interest group you can think of - I’ve seen people issuing death threats on a Lego forum. (There could be a case made that social media literally drives some people mad.) The irony is that the worldwide web’s promise of universal freedom of speech, unfettered by gatekeepers, has actually achieved the opposite. How often do we say nothing rather than negotiate the mine field? Self-censorship seems the wisest option. Who saw that coming?

The thing about Novacon (yes, we’re finally getting to it) is that, at least in my experience, the old civilities still hold sway. It’s a convivial gathering, and science is respected. I like that it’s about science fiction literature. Not that I don’t enjoy film and TV sf, it’s just that I’m more into the writings that inspired them. Novacon’s single-stream, so you’re unlikely to miss a programme item that interests you, and not so crowded that you feel like you’re on Riverworld.

On a personal level, I met my wife, Anne, at 1993’s Novacon, when I was on a book promotion tour with Dave Gemmell and Chris Baker. That alone endears the event to me. Having the privilege of being 2015’s joint guest of honour with Anne, and being treated royally, was another big plus.

I guess that if science fiction taught us one thing it was, in Heraclitus’ words, that “The only constant in life is change”. As far as Novacon’s concerned I’d be happy if that didn’t apply.