I met with Peter Nicholls at his comfortable home in Surrey Hills. It differs from the suburban houses around it in many ways, the most notable being that it boasts a large, modern stained-glass window depicting galaxies. He lives there with his wife, Clare Coney, and their two sons. We sat on cane chairs in the sun and he smoked a cigar, which he shouldn’t have, because his health is poor. In between talking about his professional life and our shared passion for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, we discussed the swarm of a thousand bees that had that day, in horror-movie style, invaded the family bathroom.
I am a science fiction fan, which is one reason I am interviewing Peter. But the other, more compelling reason, is that he is my father. My mother, my brother and I went with him to the USA in 1968 when he received a Harkness fellowship, but we returned to Australia without him, when I was not quite five years old. So while it could be said that, despite the breadth of his scholarship, Peter is not well known in Australia, it could also be said that there were many years when he was not well known to me. This interview is an attempt to rectify both these things.
Peter Nicholls was a tutor in English literature at Melbourne University from 1962 to 1964 and a senior tutor at Sydney University from 1965 to 1968. During that time he also wrote and presented occasional documentary films for ABC television. He then took up his Harkness, which he used to study film in the USA. From there he moved to London in 1970, where after a year doing odd jobs he worked as a lecturer and soon senior lecturer—at a working-class polytechnic in London’s Essex fringes—and later as a broadcaster, anthologist, reviewer, and author and/or editor of books on science fiction. (He also edited four books on popular science.) He was editor of the critical journal Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction in 1974-78. He conceived, wrote many of the entries in and was general editor of the first edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1979). It is the definitive reference book on science fiction, and won a Hugo Award in 1980.
After twenty years away, Nicholls returned to Melbourne in 1988. He was co-editor and co-author with his friend John Clute of the vastly revised second edition of the Encyclopedia (1993), which was 1.5 million words in length. It also won a Hugo Award. An Australian documentary about Peter’s life and his critical contribution to science fiction, The What If Man, screened at last year’s Melbourne Film Festival, and will soon be shown on SBS.
SC: When did you first become interested in science fiction?
PN: I found science fiction when I was a kid. I was about eight and I was very much the sort of boy that read science fiction. In the 1940s it was very much a boys’ literature, but there is more to it than that. It was also to do with what sort of boys. Lonely boys. A young science fiction fan was usually an only child or the oldest child—which I was: I had two younger sisters. So I was the sort of boy you’d expect to read science fiction.
The first ‘modern’ science fiction book I read was I, Robot by Isaac Asimov, which Dad brought home one day as a review book when he was doing a weekly review column for the Age. And then I discovered McGill’s bookshop in the city where the fellow on the front counter—Merv Binns, who’s still around, getting on a bit—used to sell SF imported from America, which was rather difficult to find in Australia.
I was already familiar with older, classic SF, because Dad was a great H.G. Wells fan. He had been to see Wells lecture. The story I remember him telling was that he heard him lecturing at the Working Man’s Association at Ballarat when he was a boy, but recently I researched that and discovered that Wells never went to Ballarat. Wells did give a lecture in Melbourne in the 1930s, when Dad was a student at Melbourne University, and it must have been this that he attended.
SC: So is your tendency to embroider an inherited thing?
PN: Oh, yes. So’s yours.
SC: At what point did you attempt to connect your personal interest in science fiction with your professional life?
PN: I had a teacher called Jock Tomlinson at Melbourne University. He was very keen on a literary exercise called ‘dating’. You prepare a quote, type it out on a sheet, hand it around to students and say, ‘What do you make of this? When do you think it was written, and why? Can you hazard a guess as to who might have written it?’ I can remember one that came up and I said, ‘that’s Dashiell Hammett from the 1940s’, and then another one came up by the western writer, Zane Grey. Jock was sneaking genre fiction into the dating exercises, even thrillers. Pulp fiction really. I thought, well fuck me, I’m very keen on science fiction and I am going to start writing about it. Jock Tomlinson was a really respectable academic, whose field of expertise was Jacobean tragedy (a kind of seventeenth-century drama I now regard as a sort of ur-science fiction). If he thought the genres were okay, why shouldn’t I? And I began writing articles. The first one I wrote was a snotty-nosed piece about a sensitive but over-gothic pulp-writer called Theodore Sturgeon. I was somewhat influenced by the puritanism of the critic F.R. Leavis in those days.
SC: How does the science fiction tie in with Leavis?
PN: Leavis never touched science fiction, but I was never a hard-core Leavisite. Very few of us were. We used to wear Leavisite jerseys to footy, so to speak, in so far as teaching literature is like football, which at Sydney University in the sixties I tell you it was. We had cut-throat teams led by two rival professors. Professor Wilkes’ old-fashioned conservatives, mostly from Sydney, and there was Professor Goldberg and his clever, sneering bullyboys, coming from England, from Melbourne, from all sorts of foreign parts. And our team was always called the Leavisites. That is how we were painted. We were evil. We were the Evil Empire.
Leavis’s fundamental axiom is that books are important. He was an idealist. He liked authors like George Eliot and Jane Austen, not just because they were witty and insightful and wrote well, but because they engage with, and enact, moral issues that were and still remain very important to us. They wanted a society that was a good society. I think he was a working-class lad, Leavis, but for whatever reason he was attracted to various expressions, sometimes very indirect, of the utopian impulse. Here there is a link with science fiction, whose utopian yearnings are just as important as its well-known dystopian scepticisms. There is, by the way, a strong working-class element in science fiction, which may be another reason, of course, why the academics don’t like it.
The books set in English courses were in those days—and to a degree still are— in the mainstream elitist tradition, books as fine art. It’s true, they were mostly lots of fun to read, but they tended to be patrician, part of a fine, minority culture. Hooligan writers like Charles Dickens, himself a pulp writer in his day, were the exceptions not the rule in English courses. But the books ordinary people actually read in the real world, then as now, were seldom glanced at in English literature courses, let alone analysed. It’s popular fiction, both good and bad, that influences the great mass of people, and when such books are turned into movies, they influence even more people. We do need literature as conscious art, but we also need literature as commerce—which much science fiction is. You said something arguably nice to me the other day, that I could be seen as a pioneer in looking at popular literature in a postmodernist sort of way. I think it is absolutely true.
SC: When you were working as a tutor was your interest in science fiction coming through?
PN: No, no. I put some of my students onto it. In an informal sort of way. But no, except that just occasionally a science fiction book would get on the list quite by accident. The ones I remember being on the syllabus are the ones you’d expect. Animal Farm and 1984 by George Orwell. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Lord of the Flies by William Golding. These are books in the canon that are SF, but often not recognised as such. If a book is set in the future, then, at least to that degree, it is a science fiction book. It is imagining a society that does not, in our world, yet exist. And may never exist. You do tend to give brownie points to writers, Huxley in 1932 was one, who make successful predictions like treating mental states with pills. And in the novel 1984—which was written in 1948— Orwell saw very clearly how the communications media would be controlled in totalitarian societies and he used the image of omnipresent television (TV barely existed in 1948) to represent what Big Brother sees, hears and says. But there’s more to science fiction than the occasional successful prediction.
SC: At what point did you start trying to make a living as a critic?
PN: I wrote quite a few reviews in the Age under the name of my dad, Alan Nicholls, while I was still a teenager. I did not have a regular review column of my own till the later 1960s. I reviewed a lot of SF for the Australian. One of my earlier reviews for the Australian was of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, the 1966 edition, by Philip K. Dick, and a couple of years later Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, also by Dick. Androids, of course, became the film Blade Runner. In fact they have now turned at least five Dick stories into films. The most recent one was Minority Report.
SC: By the time you got your Harkness, you knew you wanted to work more in science fiction, didn’t you?
PN: No, I didn’t. I knew I wanted to do film-making. I had already got a bit of a rep for doing documentary films here, over a five-year period. The one that was replayed on TV by far the most was called The Board Riders and it was the first documentary in Australia to take a sociological look at surfie culture. So when I got the Harkness fellowship I decided I would use it to study film-making. I thought it would be more exciting than being an academic, and perhaps foolishly I turned down a lectureship I was offered in Western Australia, which would have given me tenure, in order to become a Harkness Fellow.
SC: Again, that’s another move to popular culture.
PN: It was. But I went to Boston University to do the course, and it was a bit less than stimulating. I tell the story in The What If Man of my wrong-headed avoidance of studying in California, which I thought would be too much like Australia. After Boston University moved the goal posts by making their course four semesters rather than three, I realised that I couldn’t finish the course anyway, because the Harkness tenure wasn’t long enough. So I thought, bugger it, why not go to Hollywood and see how the real people make films? I got a flat in Hollywood. Rang around all the studios, which were really quite helpful; there are nice people in the film business, though normally you only hear about the shits.
Some of the studios said thanks but no thanks. We’ve got no films where we want Australian kids hanging around. I wasn’t a kid, by the way, I was, in fact, close to thirty.
I wanted simply to play a role. No matter how minor. The main thing was to be there throughout the filming and have open access to the director. The studios were familiar with this. It’s like an apprenticeship scheme really. And Robert Wise was directing a picture called The Andromeda Strain at Universal Pictures. So I went down to Universal and he picked me after an interview because I seemed like the sort of person he might get on with. I was given no official status, but these days I would have been called a second or third assistant director.
SC: Because of the visa situation, was that the only film you got a chance to work on?
PN: That’s right, it was just the one, but it was a science fiction film. So, first I’m reviewing science fiction for the Age then the Australian; I’m an academic but change careers and I’m into film, then I find myself working on a science fiction film. A pattern was forming. Science fiction was beginning to look like destiny. Or maybe hubris or nemesis.
After trying and failing to get film work in Australia—this was a few years before the boom—I went to England. After I was in England for a year doing odd jobs I saw an advertisement in The Times saying ‘Wanted: Administrator of Science Fiction Foundation’. At that point if I believed in God I’d have had to see that he was pointing me in a certain direction.
It was in England that I discovered fandom. I didn’t know fandom existed. Have you heard of fandom? A collective noun for fans, in this case SF fans. I was by inclination an actifan (active fan), a fan who does something. Traditionally and most famously this consists of writing or editing a fanzine. Quite often though the fanzine would be as much about people’s daily lives as it was about science fiction. The whole fanzine thing grew up in science fiction. One of my proudest awards in England was winning the Checkpoint Fan Writer of the Year. This proved I was a trufan, not a fakefan. Later I was a BNF (big name fan) and even approached the condition of being a SMOF (secret master of fandom).
Anyway there was a group of particularly loony and interesting fans (of both sexes) in London who were known to themselves as Ratfandom. And I was a Ratfan. People in Ratfandom, without exception, were dangerously feral and 90 per cent of them became science fiction professionals.
SC: Why do you think science fiction triggers that level of obsession?
PN: Science fiction makes you think. It actually has ideas in it. If you read the science fiction magazines of, say, the fifties and sixties, you’ll find planets belonging to alien stars forever being colonised. The Americans always had a frontier mentality for historical reasons. Remember that Kennedy was assassinated around this time, and Kennedy’s motto for America was ‘the new frontier’. It was a very American thing to think of the stars as the next frontier. And for very good reason, because the space race was beginning. So it was no longer entirely imaginary. But the shape these new societies might take is another thing, and it is there that some of the most interesting ideas are found.
SC: You talked in the film about science fiction creating the notion of the future—the abstract concept of the future. When did it start doing that?
PN: We cannot speak of there being a real idea of the future until we recognise that first we require tools for understanding that tomorrow might be different from yesterday. Science fiction provided such a tool, and arguably this was and is its most important function. Science fiction is a register of change. And to understand change, you must be introduced to the idea of the novum, the new thing. And while the idea of the future is really a nineteenth-century concept, the novum goes much further back. It is intellectually gripping, though perhaps red-herringish, to explore the ways in which earlier fictions displayed the novum.
Science fiction critics try and colonise previously existing genres and say ‘This is ours. Utopia by Sir Thomas More is ours.’ And it is too. The novum here is an imaginary alternative society, quite different from our own as it then existed.
Even if you look at much earlier key moments in the history of the genre’s prototypes … in an essay I once pushed the history of proto science fiction as far back as the Babylonian poem the Epic of Gilgamesh, which probably dates back to the second millennium BC. Of course it’s not science fiction, it’s a fiction about the gods. But the gods are beings who though not quite human take human shape, and the story does have such SF ‘novums’ (nova?) as building new societies, or the destruction of mankind by a great flood. So the progenitors of science fiction go way back.
Modern science fiction, well, you could argue that it starts with Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in 1726, but there are many plausible candidates. I’m inclined to agree with Brian Aldiss that the single best candidate for first modern SF is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818.
SC: Fantasy has very obvious roots in Greek myths.
PN: It does, and further back than that. The difference between fantasy and science fiction interests me a great deal but to put it very cryptically: fantasy is static and science fiction is kinetic. I love fantasy very much. But I love it because it is deeply familiar.
It’s very formulaic, and yet within that formula you can play wonderful riffs, just like a jazz composer can take a really bland song like ‘Tea for Two’. I’m thinking of Charlie Parker and his highly recognisable riffs on pop songs, which are so exciting, so jagged. Fantasy can be jagged. But mostly it’s not.
However, science fiction imagines the future in a way that fantasy can’t. Fantasy reimagines the past, and treads the patterns of a predestined dance. Science fiction believes in free will, it’s kinetic because it’s preoccupied with change. Twiddle that and what would happen? Twiddle this. Invent a spaceship or a time machine or a matter transmitter or any of the famous SF tropes.
Those literary tropes in many cases didn’t exist in the real world as inventions until after they were written about, and in many more cases don’t yet exist at all, but the scientific principles authors used to justify them quite often did exist. Books about atom bombs being used in warfare started really quite early, around 1900. H.G. Wells did a particularly well-known one, yes, The World Set Free in 1914. Wells did not invent the idea of atomic weapons, but he took existing rather arcane theories and extrapolated from them. Good SF writers have responsive senses. They sometimes feel the zeitgeist’s new things like sunlight on the skin, or smell change in the air long before the storm has reached us.
SC: When did science fiction get called science fiction?
PN: In 1926. There was a particular magazine in America, first issue June 1926, called Amazing Stories, edited by Hugo Gernsback. Its subtitle was ‘The Magazine of Scientifiction’. One word, ‘scientifiction’. But within two years the fans had simplified that cumbrous term to ‘science fiction’, two words that start to appear on magazine covers in the 1930s. The term itself wasn’t used in England until after the Second World War even though in the 1930s a lot of science fiction was being written there, in the H.G. Wells style of things. But it wasn’t called science fiction in England. It was called ‘the tale of wonder’ or ‘the scientific romance’, all sorts of names. So ‘science fiction’ is an American term, originally.
SC: Do you think science fiction is better at dealing with our current anxieties than novels set in the present?
PN: Yes absolutely, even in the early days. For example, a lot of worried English people in the 1880s and 1890s wrote about what it would be like if the Germans invaded England. The future-war story is one of the more important precursors of SF. Even in Australia there were future-war novels being written in the nineteenth century; my favourite example has the magnificently resonant title The Battle of Mordialloc. That book—in 1888—had the Russians and Chinese combining against us.
SC: So science fiction picks up on neuroses?
PN: It’s deeply contemporary fiction and not only enacts contemporary neuroses, it sometimes also activates them while they’re still dormant.
SC: Does science fiction prosper in times of high anxiety?
PN: Look at the heyday of the pulp magazines in America—it was the Great Depression at the end of the 1920s. For only ten cents you could get big value, 100 to 150 pages of pulp magazine. Millions of stories in them. Very popular. Or think of the monster movies of the 1950s, archetypal Cold War paranoia about us being attacked by alien things who in the worst cases look just like us.
SC: What forms did these stories and novels take?
PN: Before SF settled into its modern shape it took a variety of forms. They were really quite separate genres at first. We’ve talked about the Future War. Then there is the Utopia. The third one is the Fantastic Voyage, which often culminates in a Lost World. H. Rider Haggard was a good early example with books like King Solomon’s Mines, or later, Conan Doyle with The Lost World. Dinosaurs especially were very popular in the nineteenth century; contemporary dinosaurs turn up in stories located in various blank spaces of the map in Africa, South America, even Australia. Palaeontology was one of the earlier modern sciences to receive a lot of public attention. The Science Museum in London had these huge dinosaur skeletons when you walked in, and I think that might go back as early as the 1860s. Then there’s the techno tale. The techno tale was largely a Boy’s Own thing, modelled on inventors. Inventors were terribly popular in the nineteenth century and often appeared in dime novels. Especially Edison. Everyone loved Edison, even though he wasn’t at all lovable in real life.
SC: As future shock increases, as things come to a head, is science fiction floundering to find a place for itself?
PN: What happened I think to SF is perfectly simple. It was too successful. The most exciting if not the most literate days for science fiction were, without a doubt, the forties through to the sixties, an era ushered in by Heinlein and Asimov, and closing with Philip K. Dick and his mind-warped colleagues. This was when you as a reader could feel special. Most people didn’t know about SF. It was your secret. I think science fiction thrives on being a ghetto literature. But during these years it gradually did become more widely popular, moving from pulp magazines to paperback books and finally hardcover books. And as you know, book editors are fussier than magazine editors, so the progression was from lurid raw excitement to a more demure, literate and yes, more thoughtful genre. But certain losses came with widespread acceptance.
SC: Are you saying that it’s not good for science fiction to be respectable?
PN: In America people only started teaching science fiction in university courses, in substantial numbers, during the 1960s, though some pioneers had begun back in the fifties. In England it took longer, and even now SF isn’t much taught there. I was one of the first in England, in 1972. Someone quite early on in this period, so the story goes, pencilled on the blackboard before the lecturer came in, ‘Kick science fiction out of the classroom and back in the gutter where it belongs.’ And you know, that was one of the great truths. SF had survived and even thrived in the gutter.
Of course in quite recent years, courses in popular culture, especially in America and Australia, have become fashionable. It may seem contrary of me, as a once-semi-official SF spokesperson, to resent this, but I sometimes feel that the choice of texts is arbitrary, if not too accepting by half.
Universities aside, you can say science fiction was becoming widely accepted from the seventies and eighties on. There are two ways you could tell. The most obvious way was that science fiction movies stopped being cheap B-grade movies as they were in the fifties with films like Them! and I Married a Monster From Outer Space. Then suddenly, in the same year we had big-budget movies like Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The year was 1968. Also, but not shown in America till 1968, there was the 1967 French SF satire Barbarella, directed by Roger Vadim. So 1968 was the great turning-point year. It seemed a false dawn for a while, but after a pause we got in quick succession Star Wars (1977), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), the Ridley Scott movies Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982), The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and E.T. (1982). Smash hits one and all. Suddenly science fiction meant big bucks in Hollywood, and the number of SF fans quadrupled practically overnight. You wouldn’t call them sophisticated fans, because these movies were a lot more simplistic than the stories they drew their ideas from. But every fan has to start somewhere, and why not with really entertaining movies? Hollywood invariably simplified its sources, and wildly so. So that Star Wars, though a wonderful film, is really a fairytale. It even has an old-fashioned magician (played by Alec Guinness) whose pretence of being a science fiction character is pretty thin.
The second thing was advertising. We suddenly got advertisements full of robots, computers and spaceships, all those science fiction icons, they were suddenly appearing on billboards and television screens. By the nineties they were everywhere. And science fiction received prestige because it apparently had invented things like the computer, which it wasn’t actually very clever about at all. SF backed the robot, so far something of a dead end, and did not adequately foresee—not until the cyberpunks in the eighties—the degree to which the computer would revolutionise our global culture in just a couple of years. But there were a lot of things that SF did get right. So SF had left the ghetto for good, and with the help of Hollywood and opportunistic ad-men had successfully permeated the whole world. These days people have forgotten that SF was for its first one hundred years for the most part a literary form, as opposed to a media phenomenon.
SC: It did invent antidepressants.
PN: It did invent antidepressants. It invented the waterbed, for Christ’s sake. It invented, most famously of all, the space race. And when I address audiences, I usually remind them about two of the main influences of science fiction in the real world, modernist architecture and the space race. All those dreadful tower blocks built in the fifties are really designs plundered from the science fiction magazine covers of the thirties, which entered the popular consciousness and paved the way for their construction in real life. That’s where they came from. And I don’t for a moment believe that the US Congress would have passed all those massive NASA budgets if the politicians had not been brainwashed by the images of spacecraft they were infiltrated by in childhood.
SC: Is there still energy in the science fiction scene? Now it’s out of the gutter?
PN: Not a lot, I feel in my darker moments, but how can you tell? Is it just because I’m getting old and cynical that I’m not enjoying it as much? I suspect there are young science fiction writers in Australia and elsewhere who think there’s lots of terrific stuff still happening in science fiction. But if so, I’m not especially conscious of it. My feeling is that there’s a bit of blandness creeping in. There’s also the millennial thing. Science fiction was building up to the millennium and the millennium fizzled. And there is something of a loss of publishing enthusiasm, or is it readership enthusiasm? It’s much easier today for a bad fantasy writer to be published than a bad SF writer. Or even, I sometimes think, than a good one. It’s ironic that fantasy, which is obsessed with medievalism, should seemingly have replaced science fiction as the wave of the future.
SC: I wanted to ask you about the process of writing the Encyclopedia. Who commissioned it?
PN: Things came together. The Science Fiction Foundation published a magazine, Foundation, and we were always saying to each other, ‘Isn’t there some easy way of looking this or that fact up?’ People had written lots of books about science fiction by the mid-seventies, but no more than ten or so were of interest, and they did not survey the field in detail. Reference works about SF were published rarely, and then only by small-press fan publishers. So I was keenly aware that a really good reference book, preferably mass-market, was needed. And just about that time, by happenstance, I was approached by a book-packaging company called Roxby Press. I decided that the author of the ultimate SF reference book should be me, and prepared an extremely detailed outline. Deals were done, I found an excellent associate editor, John Clute—by then I’d realised it was much more than a one-man job—and we went for it. The book was sold on to Granada in London and Doubleday in New York, and then it went on sale in 1979. In a small way it was, for a reference book, a bestseller. The main thing for me was that I wanted it to be an actual encyclopedia, that is to say alphabetical, also illustrated, and I wanted it to be utterly comprehensive: authors, books, films, magazines, TV shows, comics, themes, you name it. When the second edition came out fourteen years later, this time with John Clute promoted to full co-editor, but with no illustrations, it was very nearly twice the length. And it’s still incomplete, and it still contains some small errors, but satisfyingly for all concerned, there is now almost universal agreement that The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is the classic text. It even—and I’m proud of this—has an entry on science fiction in Bulgaria.
SC: The second edition was one million words?
PN: More like a million and a half. My colleagues and I wrote it in twenty-one months from 1990 to 1992. That was a nightmare. I didn’t enjoy doing the second edition. The main reason was that it’s difficult to work with zest and relish when you are separated by half a world from your publisher and your co-editor. I’d exiled myself by moving back to Australia in 1988, and now I was out of the loop. Also, I feared I was developing chronic fatigue syndrome. I now realise that the draining tiredness I felt—not surprising when I worked over much more than a year for upwards of seventy hours a week—may have been an early symptom of my Parkinson’s disease, which was diagnosed in the year 2000.
SC: That touches on another question I had: is part of your feeling less engaged with SF to do with being in Australia?
PN: Yes it is. I have never regretted coming back to Australia in most respects. I love this house. I am very happily married to Clare, as you know. All my children are delightful and four of the five live in Australia. The two I have with Clare are still kids and live at home. I’ve got good friends in Australia, too. But I really miss the zizz. You asked me at some point what was it like in London in the seventies and eighties. It was very exciting. I really miss it—I knew everybody. Not just in science fiction. I was part of the literary world in England. I’d have drinks with Kingsley Amis one week, chat with Antonia Byatt the next, interview Stephen King for the BBC, visit Roald Dahl. I was well known in America. I was certainly not a celebrity, but I wasn’t a nobody either. I was a part-time professional broadcaster too. I was on BBC Radio once or twice a week towards the end. By contrast, I am hardly known in Australia at all. There may also have been a bit of the tall poppy syndrome that often afflicts returning émigrés, though I was a middle- sized poppy at best. It was a shock to come back here.
There is a science fiction world in Australia, and I of course became a part of it. It’s small but quite lively, and while it has divisions and coteries, it’s mutually loyal on the whole, at least on the professional side as opposed to the fannish side. But Australian SF is a small pond. There’s twice as much SF action in a single American state, California (which I often visit), as there is in all Australia. It’s only quite recently that we’ve had an Australian science fiction writer—Greg Egan— who could compete with the best in the world. And he’s a recluse.
SC: Do you think of any of the resistance to your expertise was to do with your embracing of high and low culture?
PN: I think it’s to do with high and low culture. But it did hurt me. With only a few honourable exceptions, the academic world, in Australia at least, patronises me. If it notices me at all. Yet I have never seen a PhD thesis with a fraction of the research that went into my Encyclopedia, and to be blunt, I’ve seen few of them with my (intermittent) blend of critical sharpness and accessibility. I really am proud of the Encyclopedia. I want to be respected for what I’ve actually done. I was one of several pioneers from around the world, some from within science fiction and some from outside, who were among the very first to knock down the walls between high and low culture. Not that we said there was no difference, but we said that one was as important as the other.
You could sum up science fiction’s special qualities by observing Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. High culture or low? It is SF I think, the science being psychology. It was published as a pulp story in 1886, and some people find it disgustingly crude, though it’s remained a perennial favourite, on the big screen as well. Yet think of it as a novel of ideas, a thought experiment. All that disturbing stuff about reifying the subconscious and bringing it to life anticipates Freud by a big margin. Here’s a writer, effectively writing a novel about Freudian theory thirteen years before Freud published his first major work, The Interpretation of Dreams. It’s one of the great things about science fiction, it gets in early. Science fiction writers are the hounds of hell, they raise their shaggy black heads and sniff the wind, and feel the future coming. And then they howl.