Robin Johnson was born in Tasmania, but his father rejoined the British Army in 1939, just in time for WW2. As an army brat, he moved homes frequently, but was fortunate enough to discover boys’ adventure books in the homes of English relatives at a young age. The postwar paper shortages meant BRE’s (British editions) of Astounding Science Fiction were his first introduction to anything more modern than H.G.Wells. His first employer was a now extinct airline, which fostered his love of travel and his ability to attend SF conventions as soon as he found out about them, starting with the 1957 London Worldcon, where he worshipped at the feet of John W. Campbell Jr. Moving to Australia in 1969, he soon got involved in convention fandom, first in Sydney, with Syncon ’70, then Melbourne with the first Australian Worldcon in 1975, and later Hobart, starting the Thylacons in 1999.
You have an intimate connection with Australian Worldcons, including—but not limited to— being the chair of Australia’s first Worldcon in 1975 and the Fan Guest of Honour at the most recent Aussiecon in 2011. What are some of your fondest memories from Aussiecons? Are there things that Australian conventions bring to the table that other nations do not?
When I settled in Australia in 1969, I had already been to several Worldcons. The first con here I had anything to do with, Syncon in January 1970, had a theme around getting up interest in bidding for a Worldcon, and one result was the decision at the following Eastercon in Melbourne, to form a bidding committee. It was here that John Foyster started the Down Under Fan Fund, which over the years has fostered trans-Pacific travel and friendship. Several people at that Natcon were planning attending the 1970 Worldcon in Germany (incidentally the first held in a non-English-speaking country), and as a new Australian this was exciting for me.
By this time Australia was getting a name in the fanzine world for critical and serious writing, and several of the heavy-hitters were becoming more widely known outside Australia. The reverse was also happening: by 1972 DUFF had brought a popular fanzine writer, Lesleigh Luttrell to an Australian Natcon.
John Litchen’s Antifan film was screened at LACon, the 1972 Worldcon, and many US regional conventions, to promote the 1975 Worldcon bid, thanks to tireless efforts by US fan and pro friends, particularly the late Jack Chalker. I consider the film won us the right, in Toronto in 1973, to hold the 1975 Worldcon, Aussiecon, in Melbourne.
By Australian standards, this was a huge enterprise: at least three times the size of the previous largest convention in this country, held in a prestigious (and expensive) hotel, whose staff were not used to anything of the sort, and with a satisfyingly-large proportion of foreign visitors. The ancillary events were also large, complicated and involved a huge amount of unpaid worj: a writer’s workshop over three weeks in Sydney, a large Art Show, with work by many major artists in the field from other parts of the world, as well as a huge display in Melbourne Town Hall, and of course the Hugo Awards, resulting very satisfactorily in out Guest of Honour Ursula LeGuin, winning the Novel Hugo.
I have had little to do with the subsequent Aussiecons, apart from being honoured as Fan Guest of Honour in 2010. Each has been larger and needed more volunteers to run than the previous one, but I think each has been a great experience for the attendees (and guests). The support and attendance from international fandom has been enormous, and the exposure of aspiring Australian writers to potential markets has been inspiring.
I think the long-term effects have been the improved visibility of Australia as a nurturing ground for writers and artists, and this is very encouraging. I’m not sure that this outcome was foreseen, but it is certainly evident now that podcasts are helping the image.
For those of us newer to the scene, there is a rich heritage of Aussie speculative fiction stretching back decades that we might not be aware of. Are there any seminal works, from fiction to fanzines, that you would recommend every Aussie fan should seek out?
The fanzines that impressed me when I moved to Australia in 1969 were John Bangsund’s Australian Science Fiction Review, and Bruce Gillespie’s SF Commentary. Both were well in the sercon category (serious and constructive) and over time developed large international readership.
As for writers, I had been a fan of A. Bertram Chandler and of his Rim Worlds universe since I started reading science fiction, and discovered he was a neighbour after I moved to Sydney. A merchant mariner, his characters and situations often were reminiscent of Australia and of his profession. I was also a fan of Cordwainer Smith and his Instrumentality books, set in a future that has enabled some features of Australia to be perpetuated. Smith was the nom-de-plume of the distinguished US diplomat Paul Linebarger, who had lived in Australia for a time.
I was also later a neighbour of George Turner in Melbourne, and enjoyed his work both as critic and novelist. His future Melbourne dystopias were fascinatingly detailed.
In 2009 you were awarded the Big Heart Award. Could you tell us a little about the award and its significance, and what it meant to you?
The Big Heart award, There are 469 pages in the on-line Fancyclopedia about this award, described as “fandom’s highest service award”. I cannot possibly describe my feelings on being given this accolade in 2007: apparently at the time I said I was gobsmacked. Looking down the list of recipients since it was initiated in 1959 by Forry Ackerman in memory of E. Everett Evans is a humbling process for me.
Dave Kyle, a friend of mine since before I moved to Australia, and an attendee at the first Worldcon in 1939, currently administers it as the Forrest J Ackerman Big Heart Award: the recipient is traditionally unaware until called up to the stage at the current Worldcon.
What Australian works have you loved recently?
In no particular order, I have recently enjoyed the works of Sean McMullen, Terry Dowling, Sean Williams, John Birmingham, Cat Sparks and Stephen Dedman. If the definition of Australian is extended to residents, I would include Dave Freer, whose rich variety of subject matter I enjoy.
Have recent changes in the publishing industry influenced the way you work? What do you think you will be publishing/writing/reading in five years from now?
Undoubtedly the ready availability of self-publishing, and the pervasive reach of e-readers, podcasts and blogs has changed my access to the now vast array of science fiction material published. I am getting even less energetic as I age: I expect to be downsizing, and moving my somewhat bulky collection to a more compact home before long, which will cause me a lot of angst!