The Future is Now

By Donald Powell

Posted February 3, 2011 in Feature Story

Science fiction has a weird relationship with popular and high culture as a whole. There remains a level of stigma and ghettoization towards its creators and fans, and while it is easy to dismiss science fiction as the purview of geeks, we very much live in a world where the geeks have won, as evidenced by the popularity of smart phones, Facebook, Google and 4G.

“I think the stigma grows less and less influential every day, both inside academia and without,” says Rob Latham, associate professor of English at UC Riverside. “I was hired as a scholar specifically of science fiction within an English Department; none of my colleagues saw this as problematic, and all have been very enthusiastic and supportive. Books on science fiction from major academic presses are now commonplace—I just got one called Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sheep?: A Science-Fictional Theory of Representation from Harvard University Press that basically argues that literature is a specialized version of science fiction rather than the other way around. Outside the academy, the numerous major authors who have written SF—Margaret Atwood, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, Michael Cunningham, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon—shows that literary writers no longer tend to see the genre as a ‘ghetto.’ I suspect this legitimization of SF will only gain pace in coming years.”

Well, the gentle, albeit scholarly, corrective to this perception has occurred. The annual J. Lloyd Eaton Science Fiction Conference, in place since 1979, will be taking place at Riverside’s iconic Mission Inn Feb. 11-12. This is not your usual get-together of the alienated folks who dress up like Darth Vader and quote lines from The Wrath of Khan at odd and inappropriate moments. These are some of the most intelligent and well-educated people you will ever run across and they do not regard SF as a minor pop cultural backwater but as one of the best and most effective ways of looking at life as it is currently lived in this tech-obsessed world. Sponsored by UCR, the conference has developed into one of the most prestigious scholarly events on the subject of SF, its cultural impact and study. Twenty-one of the previous conferences have been held in Riverside, and it speaks to how highly regarded the conference is seeing how host institutions have included London Polytechnic University, the Sorbonne and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Latham and Melissa Conway, head of UCR’s Special Collections & Archives, chair this year’s conference.

“It has grown larger in the last few years and there is more diversity among the presenters than there had been earlier,” says Conway.

The Biggest Sci-Fi Library That Ever Was

The heart of the conference centers on the Eaton Collection, a 7,500-hardback collection that once belonged to Oakland physician and book collector Dr. J. Lloyd Eaton and was later acquired by UCR librarian Donald Wilson in 1969. At the time, science fiction did not have as many academic defenders and was seen more as disposable junk than something of lasting worth. Harvard-educated George Slusser was hired as full-time curator, and he continued to develop the collection. Today, it spans over 100,000 volumes in multiple languages, as well spawning across diverse media as DVDs, comics, fanzines, film scripts and art. The conference came about as a natural extension of the collection’s increased influence and renown within the SF field, pulling scholars to it like the gravitational tug of a large planet.

“It has had an enormous impact since it’s the world’s premiere archive in the field,” says Latham. “The conference has been important in drawing attention to the Eaton Collection, bringing major scholars to UCR who can spread the word about the riches available in the library there.”

For the layperson unfamiliar with the sci-fi landscape beyond the latest cinema blockbuster, the collection provides something beyond what the ordinary Barnes & Noble or Borders could possibly entertain, a cultural gem that has evolved beyond the transporter beams, communicators and lightsabers that Gene Roddenberry or George Lucas imagined.

“We are open to anyone with a photo ID,” says Conway. “Our works cannot be checked out, but anyone can come to use them. Come visit us and see for yourselves what SF is all about.”

The Hunkiest Geek of Them All

The writers speaking at Eaton this year are some of the most renowned in the field and perfectly underscore its theme of global science fiction.

Two highlights include Jamaican writer Nalo Hopkinson and novelist Karen Tei Yamashita, who together with China Miéville will speak Saturday to the topic of “What is Global Science Fiction?” Hopkinson has used a mélange of Caribbean influences to create a weird, beautiful mix of story and implicit political commentary that takes on issues of race, identity and living in a post-colonial world all without ever losing the initial storytelling impulse. Yamashita writes books that address the Asian journey in places as diverse as Brazil and Los Angeles. Her latest, I Hotel, has been nominated for a National Book Award and is all set in The International Hotel in San Francisco, painting a portrait of what it meant to be Asian-American in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

“Nalo has of course brought a unique Afro-Caribbean sensibility to the genre, fusing SF with folktales and other vernacular traditions in compelling ways,” says Latham. “Karen Yamashita, a major Asian-American author, has written works of ‘slipstream’ that connect SF with strains of magic realism and postmodernism; here work, like Nalo’s and China’s, has consistently engaged with the permeability of borders and the pleasures and pitfalls of cultural hybridization. I think the panel they will speak at together will be a high point of the conference.”

Miéville, a charming, blue-eyed hunk of an Englishman who happens to be one of the hottest writers now working in science fiction, combines unsurpassed imagination, a fluid and inventive style (akin to Dickens on crack) and deep and compassionate social visions that are unique to the field. The City & The City is about an imagined eastern Europe where one city rests entwined with the other, but each must be suppressed, ignored and not noticed on pain of police arrest or worse. It is a startling portrayal of post-war austerities and our own capacity to ignore “the other” right in front of us and the one within us.

“As a committed Marxist and scholar of international law, as well as a brilliant writer, China has compelled the genre to attend to the implications of globalization and urban transformation,” says Latham.

The Eaton’s equivalent of the Lifetime Achievement Award will go to Harlan Ellison this year. Ellison has been one of the most influential American SF writers of the last 50 years, a short story writer of great range and depth of feeling and a media critic of prescience and wit whose 1970s columns “Ellison’s Watching” were some of the smartest ever written about the cultural abyss of bad television. Ellison is at the center of Latham’s current project, a book about the 1960s new wave.

“The anthologies he edited, such as Dangerous Visions, were in many ways as important as his own fiction in establishing the new breed of SF,” says Latham. “These roles [as media critic and social activist] influenced his SF writing and the nature of his presence within the filed during the 1960s and ‘70s. His work is very socially conscious, very committed to progressive values and the need for cultural change. He’s come to be seen as the major American writer of the era, rather than simply as an SF writer, and we’re honored he’s coming to the conference to receive this well-deserved award.”

The Joys of Living Sci-Fi

As gratifying as such an event must be to sci-fi, when asked whether the event is a logistical nightmare to pull together, both Latham and Conway yield to the bigger picture.

“Actually, it has been easier this year since the same group of us have done two before this, and because the Mission Inn Hotel and Spa is so accommodating,” says Conway.

“Plus, the reputation of the Eaton Conference and Collection is a magnet for scholars,” adds Latham. “If you build it, they will come.”

Latham touches on the appeal and importance of SF when he talks about an approach he takes with students at UCR.

“When I teach SF, I ask my students to take out of their pockets or backpacks and put on their desks all the technological instruments they’re carrying around: cell phones, iPods, laptops, etc. It makes them very aware of how plugged in they are, personally, to the forces of technological change.”

Latham, who believes that sci-fi emerged during the Industrial Revolution and grew enormously after World War II, has tracked the techno-scientific transformation of society, projecting the implications into the future in a way that no other form has fiction has attempted.

“So reading it isn’t at all ‘escapist’; instead, you’re reading about the forces that essentially govern our lives.”

UCR’s 2011 Eaton Science Fiction Conference at the Mission Inn Hotel & Spa, 3649 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside; Feb. 10-12 (conference begins 2PM Thurs, 8AM Fri and Sat).


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