This report was originally published on COSMOS Online.
The Australian speculative fiction (an umbrella term for science fiction, fantasy and related genres) community is small but perfectly formed. At Conflux 9, writers, artists, editors, publishers and fans mingled on largely equal footing. It’s Australia’s 52nd such convention, and the ninth in Canberra. Held from 25 to 28 April 2013 with some 270 attendees, it offered insights into the hearts of the genre and its people.
A window into humanity
According to Melbourne-based writer Claire McKenna, “science fiction is technology as a metaphor for the human condition”, and numerous panels explored such themes. ‘Am I not human?’ flitted between discussion of humanity’s biological basis, whether Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was more human than some of the ‘real’ people he encountered, and whether we’ll remain human as we continue to outsource our brains to Google. Here was literature as a window into the depths of psychology – relationships, body horror and fear of mortality.
Fear of death is a recurring theme, reappearing on a panel on ‘The ethics of immortality’. Panellists examined why people desire immortality and the costs of never dying. What might it mean for the planet – or even for science, with the suggestion that it might take one obsessive scientist a hundred years to cure cancer. The consequences of uploading yourself: How many copies should you make? Will you still be human? In place of answers, we had book suggestions; Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy and Iain Banks’s The Hydrogen Sonata were two of many.
The once and future genre
A panel on ‘What was great about SF when we were young?’ explored the genre’s future as well as its past. A recurring contention was the notion that science fiction is being displaced by fantasy because we are now living in the technological future of our past. But science fiction (in concert with science itself) is still our best guidebook for the future, and as such retains its value.
In later discussion, Perth-based librarian Grant Stone agreed, noting that Hugo Gernsback included science fiction in his science magazine in the early 20th century because he realised that it was a “nexus to keep the brain active and agile, and thinking about the potential for the future”, and was the only way prepare for the future and turn ideas to reality.
Optimism about the industry was obvious. “This is the most exciting time to be writing science fiction – or any speculative fiction – in Australia; it’s just booming here at the moment,” said Sean Williams, a writer based in Adelaide. “You can tell by walking around Conflux – the number of published authors has got to be at an all-time high.” Stone agreed, and pointed out that there’s quality as well as quantity. “I’ve never been to a con with so many book launches,” he exulted. “The literature is being raised to such a standard, and being praised by people who know. It’s a very healthy time.”
Publisher and editor Russell Farr, of Perth-based Ticonderoga Publications, noted that “people with good science knowledge can write amazing things”, but that Australian sci-fi writers tend to be snapped up by large publishers, mainly overseas, perhaps giving an impression that the nation produces less science fiction. He also pointed to a culture less likely to venerate science and its achievements: “We don’t put up statues of scientists, despite being proud of the things Australians invent. But our science fiction writers put us on the world stage first – people like Greg Egan, Damien Broderick, A. Bertram Chandler.”
We the people
Conflux 9 might have brimmed over with ideas, but the people expressing these thoughts and drinking them in were what made the event. Co-chairperson and writer Donna Maree Hanson noted that what struck her when she was new to conventions was the egalitarian feel; at these events, writers, publishers and fans mix freely at the bar and elsewhere, discussing big ideas and sharing knowledge as friends and colleagues. “Some of us only get to see each other once a year,” writer and COSMOS fiction editor Cat Sparks said. “It’s like a family reunion.”
- On the first evening, COSMOS fiction editor’s first short story collection, The Bride Price, was launched by Sean Williams to a packed-out room. By early accounts, it’s a dark collection of science fiction and some fantasy.
- The Ditmars award ceremony, which featured real-time Lego building, and cheeky hosting and live tweeting.
- The sense of home felt while in a panel where most panellists and audience members seemed to know every Doctor Who episode by heart.
- Some confusion about the difference between science and science fiction – from other hotel guests.
Old fella in the bar: Bloody busy in here. Me: Yeah, sorry. It’s the National Science Fiction Convention. Him: Bloody scientists! #Conflux9
— AlanBaxter (@AlanBaxter) April 27, 2013