When Frederik Pohl had his first science-fiction work a poem published in 1937, the Internet was as much a fantasy as little green men.
Now, 64 years and about 100 novels later, Pohl says the Internet is the future of science-fiction publishing even though he has no plans to join in on the technological wave.
Pohl is one of about 40 science-fiction and fantasy writers, scholars and students at Kansas University to discuss "Science Fiction in the Electronic Era" at the annual two-day Campbell Conference, named for a former science-fiction magazine editor. Topics include "e-book" software, publishing books on the Internet and copyright laws.
The conference, an opportunity for discussion between authors and science-fiction fans, is sandwiched between the two-week Writers Workshop in Science Fiction and the two-week Intensive English Institute on the Teaching of Science Fiction. The conference ends Sunday. The events are hosted by KU's J. Wayne and Elsie M. Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction.
"It's an ongoing discussion on the state of science fiction," said Kij Johnson, an author from Seattle. "It's a constantly changing field. You get a chance to see both the old talent and the new wave talking."
Johnson, who previously worked for Microsoft on e-book software, said she didn't think computers would replace books. Rather, she said, the Internet will supplement traditional books.
"The paper publishing industry has been collapsing, depending on who you ask, for the last 10 to 50 years," she said. "There are a lot of issues with paper publishing, from the destruction of the environment to little kids destroying their spines when they carry the books around."
James Gunn, director of the center that bears his parents' names, said technology could help writers reach a larger audience.
"Paper publishing is in a state of transition," he said. "One option is to publish our science fiction electronically on the Internet. What I'm really concerned with is using it to increase readership and accessibility."
Technology isn't the only thing that's changed science fiction in Pohl's 64 years of publishing. The content and amount of writing has changed, too.
"It's different in many ways," Pohl said. "There's a lot more of it around, and it was mostly in science fiction magazines. Now, there's a lot more in TVs, movies and books.
"I think the average quality has gone down. There was less in the '30s and '40s, but it was better stuff.
"Now," he added, "A lot of it is mediocre, and a lot of it is tied in to Star Wars and Star Trek."
Gunn said he expected biological topics such as evolution, diseases and cloning to replace the chemistry- and physics-related topics authors have written about in the past.
"This is the era of biology," he said. "All sorts of issues are going to come up, as they will in the real world."
But Johnson, who specializes in Japanese historical fantasies, said some things will never change like a science fiction writer's quest to place readers in a make-believe place.
"I want to be taken away, and that has to happen on the first page and consistently," she said. "What I want to be is drugged by the book. It should be like a hallucination."