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Saturday, July 17, 2010

Irrelevant Debates About Science Fiction: The Academy

One of the oldest debates in the science fiction community is that surrounding the academy--i.e. the university and its literary academia. We've heard the arguments before: some institution somewhere views science fiction literature as a pointless literary endeavor, so much so that to discuss it or apply its features to more acceptable forms of literature is tantamount to literary blasphemy. But is pointing this out relevant anymore, or has the "academics hate science fiction" debate mostly over with?

Being an academic with a focus in science fiction, I have often had the feeling that I am the outsider. There were few courses on science fiction at my undergraduate institution (University of California, Santa Cruz) and my first year was spent trying to figure out where I could go to study what I cared about most--which led me primarily to institutions in England, such as the University of Liverpool. During my time at UC Santa Cruz (and some of my time at the University of Florida, where I'm still located), I made several arguments about the literary academia's prejudice against science fiction (or things related to it), many of them rehashes of arguments that had already occurred months and even decades before by others with considerably more clout. But when I moved to Florida to acquire my M.A. at the University of Florida, my opinion on this subject changed.

In the last year I have attended three academic conferences, two specifically on popular culture (broadly defined) and one on a more rigid subject (21st century writing in English). Science fiction has played a prominent role in each of these conferences. But, even more important, these conferences and my schooling at the University of Florida have made it clearer than ever that science fiction is not only becoming acceptable publicly, but also acceptable for study. Universities are quickly opening up their curriculum to science fiction, if not explicitly via the introduction of science fiction classes, then at least silently by more frequently introducing science fiction texts into academic discourse (both in the classroom and in academic journals). In fact, I think the last year or so have proven that the divide between the "literary people" and the "science fiction people" is so fuzzy as to be almost meaningless.

And the more this becomes clear (and it will as more and more academics and "literary" writers delve into the depths of science fiction), the more the discussion of the evil Academy and their anti-science fiction ways will become utterly irrelevant--if it isn't already. We're at a point now where the dialogue between these two worlds is becoming increasingly detailed and cordial. Look at people like Adam Roberts, Paul Kincaid, Samuel R. Delany, Fredric Jameson, and, dare I say, even Farah Mendelsohn, all of whom have been active in the critical scholarship on science fiction and who have successfully driven mainstream SF into the hands of those who, at some magical point in the past, had refused to consider popular literary forms as worthy of discussion. Or, look at the kinds of authors getting attention from "literary" folks: Iain Banks (with or without the M), Kazuo Ishiguro, China Mieville, Haruki Murikami, Salman Rushdie, all the major classic SF authors, and dozens of others who are now receiving the attention they damn well deserve.

The fact of the matter is: we've won. Will institutions still exist that are anti-science fiction? Of course, just as there are still institutions that don't have comparative literature programs or Marxist tracks. But they'll become increasingly less relevant to the discussion of literature and, possibly, disappear from the literary map. but that means that there really isn't much point in crying about feeling left out of the academic discussion, because we're not. The past is now over. We can move on and press the literary academia to become more invested in our science fiction world, and, in the process, take some cues from them (because, hey, they do know what they're talking about...sometimes). For now, let's take solace in the fact that we've won the war that we thought would wage on and on forever.

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  1. Actually, the University of Sydney has a course on science fiction. It's not being lectured by 'proper' English academics but by academics in Languages, but all the same it's a start! They cover the classics like Metropolis, Star Wars, Philip K. Dick and so on. Likewise, there's a course on fantasy which IS covered in the English department. I haven't heard reports from anyone who's done the course, but the lecturer for the scifi one is quite respected. Just a heads up.

  2. Basil: Oh, that's awesome! Just more evidence that supports my point that the argument about the evil literary academia is old hat :)