Future imperfect for science fiction fans: Martin Wroe dons his Campaign for Surreal Ale badge and joins delegates at the Helicon convention in Jersey

AN American woman is selling snarling dragons sculpted in polished bronze, each holding an opal in its claws, for pounds 300 apiece. Near by, a German stallholder is offering authentic Sudanese dress swords, 3ft long and encased in leather scabbards. A snip at pounds 100.

All around, hundreds of people - mostly in beards, glasses, stone- washed jeans and black T-shirts with fluorescent heavy-metal designs - are buying sacred science fiction texts. Most wear large round badges with slogans like 'Whoever dies with the most books wins' or 'CAMSA - Campaign for Surreal Ale'.

Business at Helicon - the annual European Science Fiction Convention held in the Hotel de France, Jersey, over the Easter weekend - is booming. Not surprising, given that many of the 1,060 delegates, who have travelled from all over the world, have not been able to get hold of decent SF merchandise until recently.

Musca Adrian has travelled with a group of 45 from Romania, including members of the country's H G Wells Science Fiction Club. 'All the young people love SF even though it used to be censored,' he said.

Yuri Savchenko, from Moscow, is selling hand-painted Star Trek dolls, where you take Captain Kirk's head off and Mr Spock appears in his belly.

Helicon is a dream come true for Mr Savchenko, who still remembers when SF literature in Russia was used 'for hiding anti-totalitarian or anti-Communist ideas'. These days there are 200 SF clubs in Russia.

SF is the approved abbreviation of Science Fiction - aficionados go into hyperspace at the mere mention of the phrase 'Sci-Fi' which, like 'cyberpunk', 'hard SF' and 'space opera', is a category of the SF genre.

Mr Savchenko is into 'social SF', meaning that he is mainly interested in 'societies of the future, perhaps because of the problems in my society at present'. A poster in the hall announces: 'Available now - the Future'. But the look of the delegates promises the mid-Seventies. The future is not nearly as available as the literature for other SF 'cons' - fandom-speak for the regular conventions.

Vocon, a Douglas Adams convention, is coming up, as is Mexicon 5 in Scarborough, North Yorkshire; Wincon III in Winchester, Hampshire; and Conadian in Canada.

Delegates come to meet other believers for drinking and mutual in- joking about space-travel and nano- technology (micro-technology). Some, according to Sue Mason, a white witch dressed in black who carries a toy fox everywhere, come to find a partner.

Most saw the light and were converted to SF at university when they were reading science. Almost all work in computers. Most have brains the size of undiscovered planets.

Otherwise it is unclear who these people are. They could be someone's neighbour or relative; on the other hand, they may be time-travellers who have returned from the future to find out how close to the truth SF writers got just before the end of the world.

'Some people just go round from convention to convention,' said Phil Bradley, a librarian and computer teacher who was selling a range of Celtic T-shirt designs which, he said, everybody would be wearing in the future. 'You could go to an SF convention every weekend if you wanted to,' he added.

Some are deadly serious about the future. The man on the panel at the Sabotaging the Ecosphere seminar pleaded that 'we've got to make this spaceship liveable, we can't go back to being noble savages'.

Jack Cohen, a Fellow of the Institute of Biology and heavily into SF for 25 years, suggested that oil tankers from the Middle East should not go back empty but filled with Western sewage to spread on the desert.

But it was foolish to ask him if SF was charting the future. 'What's the future?' he snapped. 'There is no future. There's lots of futures, we will all inhabit the future differently.'

The future for SF, as the dragons and swords illustrate, is that fantasy and horror titles are eclipsing it in the shops.

The trouble is that the other SF - science fact - has been developing so rapidly that writers are steering away from the near-future in favour of the far-future. The present is too fantastic to believe. Unfortunately, as a delegate at the Fantasy seminar pointed out, the near future is easier to sell.

John Brunner, the British guest of honour at Helicon and an SF veteran of 40 years, wrote the first cyberpunk novel about 10 years before cyberpunk was invented, according to the Helicon chairman Tim Illingworth.

'We're all travelling to the future,' said Mr Brunner, 'and I'd rather go as a tourist, no matter how unreliable the guidebook, than go as a refugee.'

He said SF literature had increasing social relevance. Telepathy, for example, was actually a metaphor for total communication, while contact with aliens was a parable about the need to overcome intolerance and racial hatred.

Mr Illingworth, bearded, long- haired, bespectacled, 'got into fandom' at Cambridge University in 1976, about the time when readers of the books of the future started looking like the past. Mr Illingworth said that 'SF's task is not to predict the future but to prevent it'.

Iain Banks, the acclaimed mainstream novelist, who writes an SF title every other year (inserting an M between his first name and surname) was one of several authors at Helicon as a fan, not a speaker.

In the Nineties, he suggested, SF was increasingly about virtual reality and nano-technology as well as a big revival of interest in Mars. 'If science fiction ever did promise a new age then it has been postponed.'

As for the mid-Seventies factor, Mr Banks is unperturbed. 'Sure we have our standard quotient of nerds, but nerds in SF are of a much higher quality. Give me an SF nerd anyday.'

(Photographs omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
News
people
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
News
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Voices
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
Sport
football
News
i100
News
Perry says: 'Psychiatrists give help because they need help. You would not be working in mental health if you didn't have a curiosity about how the mind works.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?