Monday, June 20, 2005


Jupiter is high in the night sky. Down here on earth we saw the gathering of a group of people with cosmic minds. A gathering called THYLACON.

This was the 44th Australian national science fiction convention. When I used to go to conventions in the 1960s and early 1970s I don't think they were even into double digits.

Science fiction fans from around the country gathered at Wrest Point hotel in Hobart for the usual round of speeches, panels, masquerades and award presentations.

I haven't been to many conventions in the last twenty years and didn't feel immediately at ease when I wandered into the venue. Everything had a familiar feel and a few people even recognised me -- I went over to say hello to Melbourne bookseller Justin Ackroyd and he looked more shocked than surprised ("Mike?!") when he saw me.

International Guest Of Honour was fantasy novelist Anne Bishop; not only was this her first trip outside America, it was the first time she'd been on a plane for more than two hours. Australian GoH was novelist Marianne de Pierres.

Fan GoH was Mervyn Binns, whose involvement with Australian science fiction goes back to the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth. I first met him at the 1968 Melbourne Convention, up that long staircase to the old Melbourne SF Clubrooms over a warehouse in Somerset Place.

After the official opening, there was a skit based on the television show The Glass House which even included as one of the guests Hobart's Lord Mayor Rob Valentine. Brooklyn-born Tasmanian Steve Lazaroff hosted the skit.

Kay, a local fan, had never seen the show they were sending up and was sitting in the front row. When they asked during one routine were there any questions, she spoke out in a loud voice "Yes -- what does any of this have to do with science fiction?"

You may criticise Kay's sense of humour but you can't fault her dedication. Partly disabled and lacking any form of transport, she was willing to shuffle 10km there and 10km home every day. Fortunately she was able to get a lift with someone a couple of times.

It didn't help my sense of alienation that other obligations kept me away on the second day of the proceedings. Returning on day 3, I stayed for a while and suddenly felt very uncomfortable and out of place. I got in my car and drove straight home, leaving a few people wondering why I'd vanished so abruptly.

That wasn't the first time I'd had that feeling, though I hadn't thought about it for many years. Going back, oh 35 years it's be now, I sometimes felt uncomfortable during conventions and I'd shut myself in my hotel room, lie down and stare at the ceiling for half an hour.

I never told anyone about it because it seemed so strange. You would have expected me to be in an elevated rather than depressed state, surrounded by friends and all my favourite interests.

But people aren't always logical.

I didn't really feel comfortable until the fourth and final day. I wandered about chatting with people, looked at a couple of displays and listened to a panel discussion about recent developments in Australian publishing [I didn't recognise the names of the authors mentioned but the problems didn't seem to have changed since my day].

As the convention wound down, I was aware that I should have made more of an effort to overcome my lack of emotional involvement. Being out of the circuit for so many years I simply felt detached from everything that was going on and it took me a long time to warm to the event.

Maybe next time I'll be better.

A friend e-mails me to point out that I haven't yet mentioned the new series of Doctor Who which has been on for a month now.

It's certainly a lot of fun. I remember seeing the first episode of the show 40 years ago and have been watching ever since, so I'm probably in a better position than most to judge how the new series works. And for my money, it works well.

Christopher Eccleston makes a good Doctor, full of vitality and yet capable of expressing the sorrow of being the last of the Time Lords. Billie Piper is great as his companion Rose, a girl from modern London who does well at expressing the initial incomprehension common to all new travellers in the Tardis.

The first three episodes neatly take us to past, present and future. "Rose" introduces us to the new protagonist and shows us some old enemies The Autons at large in present-day London.

"The End of the World" has echoes of Douglas Adams' creation The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe and shows how well the update of the show works -- the same plot in the 1970s would have involved some dodgy-looking sets and a gaggle of aliens in rubber suits. This is unmistakably a modern big-budget production.

And "The Unquiet Dead" takes us back to the 19th century where a skeptical Charles Dickens becomes involved when zombies turn up in Cardiff of all places. This one was criticised for its violence and horror elements when it was aired in Britain and I suspect it may have been lightly edited for its early-evening slot here in Australia.

Episode 4 "Aliens of London" was delightful. Returning to the present day, the Doctor is obviously pleased to be on the spot when an alien spacecraft crashes into the Thames in full view of the media. The key line: "This is all a diversion... no, not a diversion, a trap!" I also enjoyed the second half of this story, which takes place almost completely inside 10 Downing Street.

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