#70 = Volume 23, Part 3 = November 1996
Impressions from the Conference Circuit
In this special issue of SFS we've listed over 400 courses which introduce
science fiction and utopian fiction into college and university classrooms. In
other words, an awful lot of people are talking about sf and utopian fiction
with their students. I wonder how many of us, however, are talking about this
material to other teachers and other researchers, not to mention talking to and
listening to the writers, film-makers, and artists who produce the material
we're reading and watching with our students. This, of course, is one of the raisons
d'être of professional associations like the Science Fiction Research
Association and the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, the
two bodies which are my focus here and with which I am most familiar.
Over 400 courses is certainly a lot of courses, but, in the context of all
university and college courses being offered in the US and Canada in any one
year, these 400 courses are only a drop in the academic bucket. What I mean is
that there aren't so many of us, after all, working with this material in the
classroom; and the likelihood that we all have colleagues who also love
fantastic literature in general, or science fiction in particular, and that
these colleagues are both knowledgeable and eager to share their ideas and
enthusiasms with us is pretty slim. That's where the professional associations
come in and that's why I'm writing about them here, because their importance to
those of us who love fantastic literature, who study it, who teach it, and who
write about it cannot be overstated. While many of our readers will already be
familiar with these organizations, as well as with some of the others I will
also mention here, it's worth reminding ourselves that they're out there,
available to us, and dependent upon people like us for much of their ongoing
The Science Fiction Research Association is the longest-lived of these
organizations. As stated in the most recent of its membership directories, SFRA
is "the oldest professional organization for the study of science fiction
and fantasy. The SFRA was organized to improve classroom teaching; to encourage
and assist scholarship; and to evaluate and publicize new books, teaching
methods and materials, and allied media performances." The SFRA has mounted
an annual conference every year since 1970. These days it's always held near the
end of June, and its location depends upon the location of its annual
organizers. While it remains based, for the most part, in the continental US, it
has occasionally moved up to Canada as well. The 1996 conference was held in Eau
Claire, WI, for instance, and next year it will move to Long Beach, California.
The SFRA's founding president was Thomas D. Clareson, who was also involved
in starting up science fiction's first academic journal, Extrapolation.
Currently edited by Donald M. Hassler, Extrapolation produces four issues
of criticism and reviews per year, focused for the most part on science fiction,
but occasionally spilling over into various areas of fantasy literature and
media as well. Over the decades, this journal has generated a goldmine of
information and analysis for anyone teaching in these areas. In addition, the SFRA
Review, which appears 10 times a year, provides an invaluable overview of
publications, both fiction and non-fiction, of interest to anyone working in the
SFRA conferences tend to be small and friendly, involving anywhere from 80 to
150 active participants, including, of course, guest writers and artists. This
ensures that anyone attending has a good opportunity to take in a large portion
of the events on offer. In addition, and more importantly perhaps, it ensures an
opportunity to meet and talk with almost everyone who's there, something which
is all too rare at most academic conferences. In recent years the SFRA executive
has made arrangements to publish conference proceedings and, of special interest
to teachers, has begun making videotaped records of various sessions and events.
This means that a lot of good material is becoming available for anyone
interested in getting their hands on it. Classroom methodologies, availability
of materials, and issues about teaching sf have been long-time concerns of the
SFRA and its annual conferences usually reflect these concerns.
The annual SFRA conferences are also occasions for the presentation of some
important scholarly awards, most notable of which is the Pilgrim, an award
presented to scholars and researchers for longtime commitment to and production
in the area of science fiction. Over the years, Pilgrim winners have included
J.O. Bailey (1970), Brian W. Aldiss (1978), H. Bruce Franklin (1983), Joanna
Russ (1988), and John Clute (1994). The most recent Pilgrim Award winner is
David Ketterer, a long-time member of our SFS editorial board.
The SFRA will live long and prosper as long as it continues to attract new
scholarly and writerly participation. In return, it provides a friendly,
contentious, supportive environment for the study of science fiction. 1997 will
be a particularly interesting and rewarding year for SFRA, since it will be
meeting jointly with the Eaton Conference, an annual science-fiction conference
sponsored by the University of California, Riverside, and centered around the J.
Lloyd Eaton Collection of science fiction and fantasy. This joint conference is
scheduled to take place in Long Beach, California (rumors abound about the
conference site, but, since nothing is confirmed yet, I can only suggest that
you keep your eyes and ears open over the next few months).
Anyone interested in more information about the 1997 SFRA Conference should
contact current president Joe Sanders, 6354 Brooks Blvd., Mentor, OH 44060
("firstname.lastname@example.org") or current vice-president Milton T. Wolf,
University Library/322, University of Nevada-Reno, Reno, NV 89557-0044 ("email@example.com").
You can get information about the Eaton Collection and/or the Eaton Conference
by contacting George E. Slusser, Eaton Collection-University Library, University
of California-Riverside, Riverside, CA 92521.
Attending the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts is a
very different kind of experience. For one thing, ICFA sprawls over 5 days and
attracts hundreds of participants. It offers an array of panel discussions,
paper sessions, and readings which cover any and all aspects of that huge area
loosely known as the fantastic. It includes artists' exhibits, film screenings,
and various impromptu events—musical, dramatic, cinematic—which are
guaranteed to entertain.
The ICFA takes place every year in March, and is always held in Fort
Lauderdale, FL (a blessing for those of us, like myself, who live through
northern winters). The International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts,
its parent organization, began life as an offshoot of the SFRA, and is devoted
to all areas of the fantastic, so that science fiction is a subset here,
rather than the main focus of attention. Founded by Robert A. Collins in 1979,
the first ICFA was held in Boca Raton in 1980; after moving around for several
years, it found its home base in Fort Lauderdale in 1988 and has remained there
ever since under the joint sponsorship of Broward Community College and Florida
In 1988, the IAFA also began publishing the Journal of the Fantastic in
the Arts, currently edited by Carl Yoke. JFA is less useful for
students of science fiction than is Extrapolation, for instance, but its
range is much broader and it provides a venue for articles and essays ranging as
broadly as the conference itself. More importantly, perhaps, the ICFA also
produces an annual conference volume, published by Greenwood Press as part of
its Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy series. Again,
like the conference itself, these volumes tend to be sprawling and wide-ranging;
they contain a wealth of material on a wide variety of topics, although their
high price pretty well guarantees that only academic libraries can afford to
carry the whole series. IAFA also publishes a quarterly newsletter containing
articles and reviews, although its coverage is not as comprehensive as that of
the SFRA Newsletter.
ICFA is currently divided into many different Divisions, including Fantastic
Literature in English, Horror Literature, International Fantastic Literatures,
Science Fiction Literature, Interdisciplinary Approaches, and Film, Fine Arts,
and Popular Culture; presentations range, at least potentially, through all
media, and all periods, and all cultures. Here's where you'll hear papers on
"The Discourse of Distance: Fritz Lang's Die Frau im Mond,"
"The Lancashire Witches: The Intersection of History and Fantasy,"
"Milestones in Fantastic Film Music: Composers Who Have Defined the
Genre," and "The Machine and Madness, or the Madness of the Machine:
David Cronenberg's Videodrome." In addition, here's where you'll
find the Lord Ruthven Assembly, IAFA's only official caucus, "devoted to
the study of the Revenant figure in literature, history, sociology, folklore,
psychology, cinema, and the arts." LRA produces its own newsletter, by the
way, The Ruthven Literary Bulletin. Thanks to the very active members of
this Assembly, there's a healthy revenant presence at every ICFA and 1997, the
centenary of the publication of Bram Stoker's Dracula, will be especially
rich in its focus on all things vampiric.
Like SFRA, IAFA also gives out some important annual awards, the most
relevant of which, in the present context, is its Distinguished Scholarship
Award. Winners include Brian Stableford (1987), Kathryn Hume (1988), Brian
Attebery (1991), and, most recently, Tom Shippey. Of equal significance is the
annual Graduate Student Award. Support for and encouragement of new scholars is,
I believe, one of the crucial guarantors of the continuing health of any
professional organization, and the growing presence of graduate students at ICFA
attests to the success of its efforts in this direction. For more information
about either the Association or the Conference, you can contact current
president William A. Senior, 361 W. Tropical Way, Plantation, FL 33317 ("firstname.lastname@example.org")
or conference chairman Donald Morse, Dept. of English, Oakland University,
Rochester, MI 48309 ("email@example.com").
There are other associations and conferences also worth your involvement, not
all of them academic. WisCon, for example, has just celebrated its twentieth
anniversary as the only feminist-oriented sf convention in existence. You can
contact WisCon at "firstname.lastname@example.org". And the University of
Liverpool, the new home of Europe's largest sf collection—the Science Fiction
Foundation—organized an important conference this past July to draw together
scholars and writers to celebrate both the Foundation and the new M.A. in
Science Fiction Studies now offered through Liverpool's English Department (for
more information about the Foundation, see the Addendum to the course listings
in this issue). Of even more relevance, given the focus of many of the courses
we've listed, is the Society of Utopian Studies, which both organizes an annual
conference and publishes its own Journal of the Society of Utopian Studies.
For more information about SUS, contact Lyman Tower Sargent, Department of
Political Science, College of Arts and Sciences, University of Missouri-St.
Louis, 8001 Natural Bridge Road, St. Louis, Missouri 63121-4499 ("email@example.com").
There are also, of course, various conferences and meetings outside of North
America—a major sf conference is taking place in Luton, England this coming
October, for example—and important events have been held over the past years
everywhere from Italy to Switzerland to Romania to Finland, to mention just a
few venues that come to mind. The list, in fact, is becoming nearly endless. And
a good thing too.
Rereading what I've written above, I realize that there are some very good
reasons for planning to attend the next SFRA and ICFA conferences. As far as I'm
concerned, however, the best thing about them, in any year, is the talk, the
constant and unremitting shop talk. The talk is committed, passionate, funny,
nonsensical, and a whole variety of other good things. Ideological lines are
drawn and demolished at the drop of a title; projects of the most unlikely
nature burst from foreheads in full bloom and, in some cases, actually come to
fruition (I can't believe I actually wrote that...); and science fiction and
fantasy, utopian literature and horror films, Star Trek episodes and
vampire erotica are all grist for the mills of intelligent enthusiasm.
I seem to be waxing sentimental here—if so, it's because I have so much to
thank SFRA and IAFA for: for friends, for ideas, for intellectual development,
and, most importantly, for providing spaces in which science fiction and other
forms of fantastic cultural production are the norm, and not, in fact, so
fantastical after all.