15 Aug 2014

Watch out London: the geeks are coming

This year’s Worldcon is the biggest ever, with 10,000 sci-fi fans coming to London. But with shows like Game of Thrones getting cult status (and investment to match) geeks are coming in from the cold.

Over 100 years after Martians landed on the outskirts of London in HG Wells’s famous novel War of the Worlds, the capital is playing host to an interplanetary gathering like no other at the World Science Fiction Convention – or Worldcon.

Fans of everything from vintage X Men and epic fantasy, to Japanese Manga and space travel, have come from all over the world for a chance to dress up and geek out at a range of talks, games, workshops and socials. Tributes to the late sci-fi writer Iain Banks are planned, along with a keynote address from Audrey Niggenegger, author of the hit novel The Time Traveler’s Wife.

WorldCon – this year named Loncon – is in its 72nd year, and science-fiction and fantasy have come a long way since it began. It’s hard to make aliens look convincing at the best of times, and the low budgets and limited technology of previous decades didn’t help.

“If you look at fantasy films and TV series from the 80s, they were always a bit shoddy, a bit low budget, and so now I think they’re getting the treatment they deserve,” said Owen Humphreys, a 25-year-old fan of “steampunk”, or Victorian futurism, from Reading.

“People can see how good the books are, without having to read them, and then it’s a gateway for people to find out more.”

‘Harassment of any kind is not tolerated’

One hangover from the days when science fiction was frowned upon, is a lingering feeling of persecution among the community. Every World Con hires “listeners” who are there to support members who feel they need it.

Since the 1950s, there has even been a special swear word for those outside the margins of the sci-fi world: “mundanes”. A code of conduct is scattered around the Excel Centre and states in black and white that Loncon should be “a place where everyone feels welcomed and comfortable”.

As the world gets nastier, the escapism that fantasy and sci-fi represent, becomes appealing. Sarah Goddard

“Harassment of any kind is not tolerated,” it reads. “If someone tells you ‘no’ or asks you to leave them alone, your interaction with them is over”.

But there’s no denying it – epic fantasy has become cool. And that is in a huge part down to one man: George RR Martin. His Game of Thrones book, of the series, A Song of Ice and Fire, already had a huge following, but they also spawned a hit TV series that has become the most popular ever on HBO.

He has been coming to WorldCons for 30 years, and his readings and talks are one of the highlights of this year’s convention.

‘Everyone wants the books finished’

Mr Martin told Channel 4 News that while epic fantasy and science fiction have had peaks of popularity in the world of fiction and film, the breakthrough to television had been significant.

“In television, the studios and networks seemed reluctant to tackle it, and when they did, they treated it as kids’ fare,” he said. “(But) a lot of modern epic fantasy is very much oriented towards an adult audience… we’ve proved with Game of Thrones that there’s a big audience out there.”

Game of Thrones fans are a dedicated bunch. And they want their next Game of Thrones fix. Many have written to Mr Martin asking when he’s going to stop travelling around and get on with writing the next book, as well as suggesting endings, or character twists.

“I feel pressure all the time. I always have,” he told Channel 4 News. “Everyone wants the books finished – no-one as much as me. But wanting it, doesn’t get them written. They’re big, complicated books.”

But the growing fan base can only be a good thing for the wider genre, says award-winning author Paul Cornell, who has written for the Doctor Who series. “I don’t think we have a ghetto anymore,” he told Channel 4 News.

“Game of Thrones and Doctor Who – they have been enormous charge leaders. Not only that but there’s the way sci-fi has infiltrated literature now. It’s very hard to see where fantasy ends and literature begins these days. And that can only be a good thing.”

And according to some at this year’s LonCon, the world could do with a good dose of fantasy. Sarah Goddard, 26, said we could all do with getting our geek on once in a while:

“As the world gets nastier, the escapism that fantasy and sci-fi represent, becomes appealing.”