On Saturday 3rd and Sunday 4th March, The Phoenix Convention (P-CON for short), a Science Fiction and Fantasy convention takes place at the Irish Writers’ Centre. Admission is €20. With a literary focus, Guests of Honour include writer Robert Rankin and comics creator Bryan Talbot, as well as Irish authors John Connolly and Kevin Barry. The convention features a Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, and likely topics of discussion include tyhe dangers of writing Science Fiction by mistake, how Sherlock Holmes invented fan culture, why eBooks aren’t the end of literature, and the difficulty of translating Harry Potter books into Irish, and much else besides, both serious and light-hearted. We decided to ask Pádraig Ó Méalóid about the conceptions and misconcpetions of the genre.
IrishWriters’ Centre: Most non-sci-fi folk think the typical ‘fan’ of the genre is a lonely murky soul who spent too much time reading comics in a box room before venturing out into the monotonous world… how far away is this from the truth?
Pádraig Ó Méalóid: Does anyone really take that kind of image seriously? I know that journalists, for instance, always like to have a handy pigeonhole for pretty much anything they see as being opposed to the norm – for instance, if we had two hundred people turn up to this event, and *one* of them happened to be wearing a Star Trek uniform, you can be guaranteed that he’s the one whose photograph would be in the paper, along with a caption saying ‘Trekkies Beam Down to Parnell Square.’ Because, as we all know, papers are more interested in having something faintly derogatory to say, rather than telling the duller truth, which is that people of all kinds, and of all walks of life, of all ages, are the kind of people who enjoy the kind of genre fiction we’re looking at re: the convention. Or, let me put it another way: some of the most successful films and TV series of all time are SF*, and *somebody* must be watching them, and they can’t *all* be living in box rooms and their parents’ back room, can they? (*which we prefer to use, rather than sci-fi…)
IWC: Where/how did Science Fiction, as a genre, originate? It’s often been described as a ‘literature of change’…
PÓM: A good question! There are all sorts of earlier precedents, but I’m going to say that the real flowering of what we’d understand as Science Fiction was in Victorian times, along with a lot of other literary forms. There was a huge amount of scientific and social change in those years, and what was at the time called Scientific Romance grew out of an attempt to understand what some of those changes might mean. The work of HG Wells and Jules Verne – books like The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, and A Journey to the Centre of the Earth – are still touchstones for the genre today, well over a hundred years after they were written, and quite rightly so.
IWC: Would you consider George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four a sci-fi tale or merely a book about inventions, technology and ideas?
PÓM: Another good question! First of all, let me admonish you for suggesting that it’s ‘merely a book about inventions, technology and ideas.’ *All* books are about ideas, surely, aren’t they? There’s actually very little hard science in Nineteen Eighty-Four, as it’s simply not that sort of book. There’s lots of Science Fiction that isn’t about technology, but about social change, and this sits very firmly in that tradition. There is of course the argument that Nineteen Eighty-Four isn’t SF because it’s a ‘proper book,’ which of course works of SF couldn’t be, now could they?
IWC: What is the unique contribution that an Irish convention offers to sci-fi debates?
PÓM: Well, we’re in the city of the likes of Dean Swift, Bram Stoker, Lord Dunsany, and Flann O’Brien. I’ve even going to invoke James Joyce as a fellow traveller- he was the manager of the Volta Cinematograph in Mary Street, Ireland’s first cinema, right at the cutting edge of technology at the time, which makes him sound like a techy geek to me!
IWC: What trends in sci-fi do you see appearing, and what are they looking to explore in the future?
PÓM: Right at the moment there seems to be a lot of dystopian fiction – reflecting the uncertain times we’re in. SF is far more likely to be a reflection of the times it’s written in, rather than being about the future. By its very nature, it allows writers to explore what the future might hold, and how that might change society, and ourselves. Science Fiction, like all literature, is about people, not robots or rocket ships.
IWC: Women in sci-fi: have they played a strong(er) role in this genre compared to others?
PÓM: As it happens, there’s a very lively debate going on in SF circles about this very thing at the moment. Questions about gender balance, or the lack of it, in short story anthologies and at comics conventions are quite hot topics right now, and we’re actually going to be attempting to address these issues at one of the panels on Saturday. At the risk of generalising wildly, there seems to be a greater prevalence of women in fantasy fiction than in Science Fiction -and of course if you look back a number of years, you’ll see that some of thegreatest crime writers in the mid-20th Century were women. Whetherany of this has any deeper significance, or that it shows that women are drawn more to one form of literature than another, is obviously more that I could say, but it might be interesting to find out why this happens, or appears to happen.
IWC: Do you think that ‘digital natives’ (i.e. kids born into the internet/teccie age) find sci-fi less intriguing or far-fetched than the ‘on the ground’ analogue generation?
PÓM: I certainly think that people like myself – I’m 52 years old – would have had a very different idea of SF than the youth of today. When I was ten years old, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Science Fiction seemed as much a roadmap of the future as it was escapist literature. I don’t think that’s the case anymore. But SF reflects its times, and what written today is relevant to what’s happening today. I’m still wondering where my jet pack is, though…
IWC: Sci-fi romance! How do explorations of other romantic traditions compare to contemporary trends for paranormal romance?
PÓM: As I mentioned above, I’m 52 years old, and male to boot, so I don’t think I’m exactly the target demographic for this! But, I do know that romantic fiction in general seems to be growing in popularity, and that a lot of the traditional romance publishers – Mills & Boon, most famously – have branched out quite a bit, including into genre fiction of all kinds. And people who might not have wished to be seen buying romance fiction can now do so with perfect anonymity on the internet, or have them piped directly onto their e-reader. Again, this is something we’d like to explore at future P-CONs and we’re intending to relax our genre guidelines a little to allow us to address relevant issues with the likes of romantic fiction, and crime fiction, for example.
IWC: Star Trek is loaded with social commentary, some would say, how does the genre capacitate this?
PÓM: Star Trek is interesting – it was first broadcast 46 years ago, and still casts a long shadow. On the other hand, it has become easy shorthand for dismissing all people interested in SF – I cannot count the amount of times I’ve been asked, when telling people I’m interested in Science Fiction, ‘Does that mean you’re a Trekkie?’ And, to be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever understood the relevance of the question. But I digress. Yes, there was a lot of sometimes very heavy-handed social commentary in Star Trek, but its heart was very definitely in the right place. The inclusion of Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura, for instance, was about the first time a black woman had a role as a non-menial on the television. It also included the first inter-racial kiss on the TV – hugely controversial at the time, of course – between Lieutenant Uhura and Captain Kirk. Star Trek has another interesting first associated with it: it was probably the origin of what’s known as Slash Fiction. If you don’t know what that is, you can look it up on the Internet!
IWC: What will P-CON IX have to offer people, both fans and strangers to the genre?
PÓM: What we’ll have is: writers, from all genres under our fairly broad umbrella, including Science Fiction, fantasy, and horror; comics creators; and at least one film director. There’ll be talk on all sorts of things, both serious and frivolous, and an opportunity to meet and talk with these people in a relaxed setting. There’ll also be a writing workshop on Sunday morning, something we’ve been running to great acclaim for quite a number of years now. And, most of all, there’ll be good company, and kindred souls.