Peter enlisted in Goldberg’s Leavisite wing, and carried with him the life-long belief in the importance of value judgments to meaningful criticism. He believed in Good Art and Bad Art, he had opinions, and for the next 50 years he made them known.
During this period, Peter directed several documentary films, including an early study of Rupert Murdoch, with whom he lived for a week. After winning a Harkness Fellowship in 1968, he moved to the United States to study film formally at Boston University, gravitating to Hollywood the next year where he worked as an assistant director to Robert Wise on The Andromeda Strain.
After the collapse of his marriage, Peter settled in London, where in 1971 his eclectic experience made him an obvious choice to serve as the first Administrator of the North-East London Polytechnic’s newly created Science Fiction Foundation. From this position Peter forcefully made the case for science fiction as a serious literature of ideas, his resonant voice becoming a familiar presence on BBC Radio as well as the lecture hall.
Peter co-founded and from 1974-78 served as the second editor for Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, an academic journal which continues to this day.
Peter persevered with his unusual role as science fiction’s ambassador to academe, and with an aggressive self-confidence that masked a self-professed colonial anxiety he launched himself into the bohemian world of the 1970s London literary scene. He became well-known in science fiction circles for his witty reports of the scandalous behaviour of authors at conventions, behaviour that he happily indulged in himself. He made friends and enemies, often combined in the same figures, and carried out colourful public feuds in the pages of the New Statesman.
Amid the fun, Peter took his role seriously. He commissioned and edited the essay collection Science Fiction at Large (1976), with original contributions from Ursula le Guin, Philip K Dick and others. Peter saw science fiction as a broad tent, and pitched its canvas over The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Tempest and Frankenstein – the last, in his opinion, the first modern science-fiction novel.
Imaginary worlds had always served as a commentary on our real one, and Peter argued that for millennia before the “realist” literary novel, fantastic literature was the mainstream.
He believed in Good Art and Bad Art, he had opinions, and for the next 50 years he made them known.
Frustrated at the difficulty of sourcing reliable, comprehensive information about science fiction’s history, he decided to do the job himself. The result was his groundbreaking 1979 work, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
Like a modern Diderot, Peter drew together the traditions of fantastic voyages, political utopias, scientific romances and modern science fiction, and presented them as a unified literature of ideas. With almost 3000 full entries, the encyclopedia was the first academically rigorous attempt to overview the entire field, and quixotically aimed to cover every proto- and modern author and film in the Western tradition.
Peter soon found that science fiction was “bigger on the inside”, but the encyclopedia’s theme entries, written largely by himself, helped codify the archetypes of the genre. In the words of his collaborator John Clute, Peter used narrative simplicity, a deceptively simple A-Z structure and an astonishing breadth of knowledge to create an “engine of weaponised thought” that has lasted until the present day.
The Encyclopedia won a Hugo award, the highest honour in the science fiction world, in the newly-created Best Non-Fiction category. It was the first time the Hugo had gone to an Australian. Peter followed it up with Fantastic Cinema and The Science in Science Fiction, before co-producing a second edition of the Encyclopedia in 1994 that brought the word count up to a million and a half, and garnered another Hugo for Peter and co-editor John Clute.
During his time in London, Peter had another child, Tom, with partner Janet Pollak. He later married second wife Clare Coney, with whom he had two more boys – Jack and Luke. Returning with Clare to his native Melbourne in 1988, Peter became a larger-than-life figure on the Australian science fiction scene.
His output slowed after the mid-90s, but as the subject of the 2002 documentary feature, The What-If Man: The Science Fictional Life of Peter Nicholls, he enjoyed a return to the limelight and the opportunity to restate his case for science fiction. In the film he said: “Science fiction is so entertaining and so silly on the one hand, and so deeply serious on the other, and you cannot separate the two.” He might well have been describing his own life.
He was a critic, a poet, a family man, and boisterous bon vivant. He made a court of his home in Surrey Hills, where the walls were lined with 8000 science fiction, fantasy and horror books. The house became a legendary venue for science-fiction booze-ups, and for more than 30 years hosted some of the biggest international names in science fiction.
Neil Gaiman, who held a party there for his engagement to Amanda Palmer, described the rambling house as “the inside of Peter’s mind made manifest”.
That mind took a blow at the turn of the millennium, with a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, but Peter remained a presence at conventions and served as editor emeritus for the third edition of the Encyclopedia, now an internet-based resource with 12,000 articles and counting. Peter’s theme entries and structural decisions remain at its core, and as part of the editorial team he won a third Hugo in 2012.
Peter Nicholls played out his final years in his library, re-reading the books whose colourful spines had faded over decades of Australian sun. He faded equally gently, in a haze of cigar smoke, until dying in March at the age of 78.
He is much missed by his wife Clare, his sister Margaret, his five children and three granddaughters, and his many friends around the world.