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Sci-Fi Experts Racing to Stay in the Future : Academics Cite Need for Research Network


PARIS — Prof. George Slusser of UC Riverside hunched over the dining table at the Chateau de Morigny, a 16th-Century castle built on the site of an 11th-Century abbey and talked science fiction.

"What concerns me is that the 20th Century is in danger of being lost. We chew up rapidly all that we produce," he said. "Collecting science fiction--it's a way of preserving 20th-Century artifacts."

Slusser's conversation accelerated like a cyclotron. "Science fiction is the most fundamental interdisciplinary study there is today.

"That's because it deals with the future. History gives you the past; science, the present. The library like I have at UC (the Eaton Collection--the largest science-fiction library in the world--with 50,000 volumes) is a research center for the future. It's a data base that provides the vision for the architecture of cities to be built and the business of predicting social and behavioral trends."

Slusser is the instigator and the American link to what he hopes will be an international science-fiction research network. Already there is the Eaton Collection in California, the Science Fiction Foundation at the University of London and now, if all goes right, an affiliation with le Centre franco-americain Universitaire de Paris, a nonprofit and independent adjunct to the Sorbonne. It is le Centre franco-americain that has access to this chateau.

And it was at this rather unlikely location about 30 miles south of Paris that Slusser and about 40 other European, Canadian and American academics gathered for a recent three-day colloquium on Philip K. Dick, jointly sponsored by the Sorbonne, the center and UC Riverside.

Writings of Philip Dick

Dick, an American who died in 1982 in Santa Ana at age 53, produced more than 40 novels and about 160 short stories. He received the Hugo Award in 1963 for "The Man in the High Castle," a fantasy about Hitler winning World War II, and, in 1974, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for "Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said." The film "Blade Runner" was based on his 1968 novel "Do Androids Dream Electric Sheep?"

In France, he was perceived as a major writer, a guru of prophesy whose works are the subject of intense academic scrutiny. In the United States, he's never been more than a middle-level science-fiction writer--science fiction itself being a minor genre.

In the United States, Slusser said, a colloquium on just one science-fiction writer would never succeed. And if it did, it could never be a colloquium on Dick. Maybe Robert A. Heinlein could draw a sustained intellectual interest, he said.

But in France, no doubt, it had to be Dick. During the three-day meeting, 28 papers were presented, most of them in French. Those in English were translated. There were panels, heated debates, dialogues and monologues, and as a purely American touch, an appearance by Anne Dick, the third of the late author's five wives.

It was, as UC Santa Barbara Prof. Frank McConnell observed, "like a marathon--each paper brilliant, but sometimes there's just so much caviar and champagne you can eat."

The colloquium was the inaugural event of le Centre franco-americain Universitaire, and as far as Slusser was concerned it was pivotal for a continued relationship. The center, established last year by Jeanne-Marie Santraud, dean of the American Studies Program at the University of Paris IV (also known as the Sorbonne), and Giliane Morell, a Sorbonne professor specializing in American author William Faulkner, was conceived as "a center for the arts where creative literary people will exchange ideas through seminars and classes."

Nevertheless, Slusser felt the need to impress the center with the validity of science fiction as an intellectual approach, to wow the center into establishing a science-fiction library and sponsoring more colloquiums and conferences. For that matter, said Slusser, how about visiting students and professors in residence at American and French universities? For if the United States is providing the bulk of contemporary science-fiction writers, France is providing the serious critical review.

"I like the international aspect," said Slusser, who has arranged for the Ohio University to publish the critical reviews from this colloquium. In addition, he is continuing to release the annual papers from the Eaton Conference at UC Riverside, is contributing to a special edition of science-fiction studies published by McGill University Press and with his French-born wife, Daniele Chatelain, is writing a book on French science fiction.

Kind of Intellectualism

"The French intellectuals study with more passion than anyone else," he said. "And like with Philip K. Dick, well, no one is a prophet in his own land. However, what you have to understand is that the French have a tradition of this kind of intellectualism. Take the conference in Nice, France, next year. It is going to be on Edgar Allan Poe in relation to science fiction. You'd never see anything like this in the United States."

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