Science Fiction Studies

#70 = Volume 23, Part 3 = November 1996

Veronica Hollinger

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 vitality.

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 field.

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 ("") or current vice-president Milton T. Wolf, University Library/322, University of Nevada-Reno, Reno, NV 89557-0044 (""). 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 Atlantic University.

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 ("") or conference chairman Donald Morse, Dept. of English, Oakland University, Rochester, MI 48309 ("").

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 "". 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 ("").

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.

moonbut.gif (4466 bytes)Back to Home