Archive for Sunday, July 15, 1990


July 15, 1990


Armor, horses and magic may replace spacesuits, rayguns and hard science in the hearts of readers at least that's the fear of several science ficiton writers meeting this weekend in Lawrence.

"In 1989, the number of fantasy books published exceeded the number of science fiction books for the first time," said James Gunn, a Kansas University professor and science fiction author. "In fantasy, the emphasis is on wish fulfillment in a world that's opposed to the rules of cause and effect. Science fiction has always been rooted in cause and effect."

Gunn met with 24 science fiction writers, teachers and guests Saturday during the 1990 Campell Conference at the Adams Alumni Center. The conference ends today.

Among those in attendance was Frederik Pohl, a longtime science fiction writer and editor, and Elizabeth Hull, the president of the Science Fiction Research Assn.

SOME CONFERENCE participants suggested science fiction is the literature of change: Books by authors such as Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Silverberg explore the shifting nature of human society in the face of an exploding technology.

Fantasy, on the other hand, represents a mythology for a static, escapist society.

"Science fiction is the product of a culture of change," Gunn said. "Fantasy is a product of a stagnant culture."

But others said they doubted the overall popularity of fantasy as opposed to science fiction.

"Although the number of fantasy books may be overtaking science fiction, there aren't any magazines that can survive solely by printing fantasy stories," Pohl said.

SCIENCE fiction readers also tend to be a pretty loyal lot, Hull said.

"When I taught science fiction last semester, the fantasy readers in the class were disappointed there weren't any fantasy titles on the syllabus," she said. "But they were very taken by the books that we did read. The science fiction readers don't want to read fantasy at all."

The ostensible topic for the conference is science fiction as contemporary mythology. But the conversation of the participants wandered to feminism, writing as a career and debate over individual titles.

During the discussion, Gunn and Pohl suggested science fiction works off a new mythology of the scientific method, a mythology that takes the power over fate out of the hands of the gods and into the box of a rational system.

"The difference between science fiction and what we call mythology is the extent of control you have over the forces that govern your life," Pohl said. "Science fiction turns these forces into things we try to shape."

THE PARTICIPANTS also said science fiction helps to create mythologies for people entering the "brave new world" of the future.

"Science fiction does deal with the powers of fate, and it also deals with how individuals adjust to the world that's been made over," said Ann Zeddies, a Lawrence science fiction writer.

But along with high-minded science fiction with literary pretensions, as represented by Pohl's works, pulp science fiction written by hacks still rolls along as well. The group attacked such science fiction series as the paperback "Star Trek" and "Robot World" novels because they sap the creativity of writers and add nothing to the field.

"All the people who buy into hackwork eventually are robbed of their creativity," said Michael Swanwick, a Philadelphia writer who won this year's Sturgeon Award for best short science fiction story. "They're lost."

POHL LAMENTED those science fiction series because they turned a medium prized for its originality into something akin to the cookie-cutter world of romance novels.

"The one saving grace about those books is you don't have to read them," Pohl said.

But as Swanwick points out, hackwork may be the only way for many authors to make writing pay.

"I'm the only writer I know who still has all his own teeth," he said. "And that's because my wife has a great dental plan. Most of the writers I know can't afford root canal work. They go to the free clinic and have the tooth pulled."

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