Fantastic voyage of discovery

November 24, 1995

The study of science fiction is becoming established firmly as a respectable form of scholarship after 25 years of struggle. However, a new tension is arising among its proponents, many of whom gather at Hull University this weekend .

The Fantastic Conference has been organised by the department of English. Yet some enthusiasts are cross that the study of science fiction is being treated as part of English or literary studies and not as cultural history. An editorial in the journal Foundation, dedicated to science fiction research, says: "Surely the future is not to be found in continuing the fruitless battle to force unsympathetic colleagues in departments of English to accept the addition of a few extra names in the canon of great literature".

Would it not make more sense, the editorial asks, to demonstrate how significant science fiction has been in the 20th century, in shaping our perception of the world and indeed, in influencing the decisions that we make and thus "shaping the world itself".

Andy Butler, founder member of the Academic Fantastic Fiction Network and a member of Hull's English faculty, has found his colleagues sympathetic but this may be the exception. After all, Hull offers modern science fiction as part of its English BA and has specialists on Philip K. Dick, author of the book which inspired Bladerunner, Robert Heinlein and J. G. Ballard.

Mr Butler interprets the fantastic as not only science fiction but also fantasy, horror, cyberpunk, fairy stories, fantastic voyages, utopia, quest fantasy and gothic fiction. It is a serious genre and Mr Butler is weary of the media's portrayal of its followers as anorak-wearing nerds.

"This genre asks big philosophical questions about what it is to be a human being in the late 20th century," he says. "It asks what is real, what is human, where are we going. It asks questions which most fiction writers can't ask. It can be deeply intellectual."

Andy Sawyer, librarian at Liverpool University in charge of the Science Fiction Foundation Collection, agrees that ideas of fundamental significance are the core of science fiction. "There is a certain amount of ignorance which assumes that Star Trek and Dr Who define science fiction," he says. "Although these are a kind of science fiction they are not the heart of it."

The Foundation Collection is the UK's largest publicly available grouping of material relating to science fiction. Liverpool University is now into its second year of an MA in science fiction studies. Brian Aldiss recently deposited a large collection of his papers with the foundation and now the Higher Education Funding Council has awarded a special cataloguing grant to prepare on-line access tools.

Tomorrow's conference should be unreal. Mr Butler says: "From before Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to Jeff Noon's Vurt, the fantastic has always been a hybrid - the familiar and the uncanny, the scientific and the nonsensical, the human and the machine, the known and the unknown, the mundane and the amazing, the next five minutes and the next five million years, the real and the unreal."

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