Peter Nicholls obituary

Other lives: Academic whose encyclopedia of science fiction became the definitive reference work

My father, Peter Nicholls, has died aged 78. He was an academic and literary critic, whose 1979 work The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction mapped the landscape of the field and remains the definitive reference work.

The encyclopedia quixotically aimed at detailing every film, author and theme in the western tradition of science fiction. The entries were accessible and witty. More than a collation of facts, the encyclopedia passed judgments and advanced an argument: that science fiction was the literature of change, making it the truest literary response to the 20th century.

Peter was born in Melbourne, the eldest of three children; his sisters were Margaret and Helen. His mother, Shirley (nee Campbell), was a teacher of Latin and French. His father, Alan Nicholls, was well-known for his socialist leanings, and was a feature writer for the Melbourne newspaper the Age. After studying arts at the University of Melbourne, Peter married Sari Wawn in 1961. They had two children, Sophie and Saul, and Peter made ends meet as a lecturer in English literature. He also moonlighted as a documentary film-maker, and in 1968 Peter won a Harkness fellowship to study film at Boston University.

His marriage ended in divorce, and after a stint in Hollywood, serving as an assistant to Robert Wise on The Andromeda Strain (1971), Peter came to rest in London. When the North-East London Polytechnic opened its Science Fiction Foundation, the booming academic with the eclectic CV was recruited as its administrator.

Peter became a spokesperson for science fiction, appearing regularly on BBC Radio 4’s Kaleidoscope arts programme. Interviewers asked him to recommend a comprehensive, academic overview of the genre. He realised there wasn’t one, and resolved to do the job himself. The encyclopedia was the result.

The book won a Hugo award, the highest honour in the science fiction world, and for 10 years Peter was an ebullient presence on the British scene. He was boisterously knowledgable, opinionated but generous in his enthusiasms. During this period he wrote The Science in Science Fiction (1982) and Fantastic Cinema (1984), continuing his central thesis: that the stories we tell for pleasure are important.

In London he had a son, Tom, with his partner Janet Pollak. He later married Clare Coney, with whom he had two sons, Luke and me. In 1988 he returned to Melbourne with his family, believing it would be a better city in which to raise children. From Australia, he collaborated with a London co-editor, John Clute, to update the encyclopedia in 1993 and then served as editor emeritus for an online edition in 2011. Both updates earned Hugos.

My father had an expansive humour, a roaring laugh. His favourite place to be was in a spa on a summer’s day, glass of wine in one hand and cigar in the other.

He is survived by Clare; and by his children, Sophie, Saul, Tom, Luke and me, his sister, Margaret, and three granddaughters.

Jack Nicholls

The GuardianTramp

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