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COLUMN ONE

Center of the sci-fi universe

At a UC library not so far, far away, scholars can debate God, Spock and wookiees, thanks to the efforts of a once-maligned professor.

June 21, 2007|Sara Lin | Times Staff Writer

FOR the German monk searching for signs of God in "Star Trek," the obscure storeroom on the fourth floor of UC Riverside's main library was worth the trans-Atlantic pilgrimage.

Bernhard Janzen pored over television scripts and a video clip from "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," and noticed how an African American space station captain had found a religious stone tablet and, much like Moses, smashed it on the ground as he shepherded an oppressed people toward freedom.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 22, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Science fiction: An article on Thursday's front page about UC Riverside's science fiction library incorrectly stated that the 2006 movie "Deja Vu" was based on a novel by Philip K. Dick. "Deja Vu" was an original screenplay.

The scene was central to Janzen's dissertation about religious symbolism in the space-age television series.

The monk is among a new breed of scholars flocking to UC Riverside for otherworldly research.

UC Berkeley has the world's premiere collection on Mark Twain -- and Yale an unmatched trove of rare medieval manuscripts. But for research on Capt. Kirk, Frankenstein or Harry Potter, nothing tops the 110,000-volume Eaton collection at UC Riverside, the world's largest library of science fiction, fantasy and horror books.

"It's like going to Graceland if you're an Elvis fan," said Drew Morse, a creative writing professor who made the pilgrimage to Riverside from Ohio last summer to study rare poetry by "Fahrenheit 451" author Ray Bradbury.

As appreciation for the literary qualities of science fiction has grown in recent years, the UC Riverside collection has emerged from an academic ghetto. No institution had ever stockpiled science fiction like this, or subjected itself to such an internal clash over the worth of the genre.

Even public libraries had considered the books disposable literature, mainly because early science fiction was published almost exclusively in paperback. But a handful of professors and a librarian at UC Riverside saw something else, and started building.

IN 1969, English professor Robert Gleckner helped the school acquire 7,500 rare science fiction, fantasy and horror novels from an eccentric Bay Area physician, J. Lloyd Eaton. Among them was a first edition of Bram Stoker's "Dracula." Eaton had scribbled plot summaries and succinct criticisms of nearly every book on faded sheets of letterhead.

But Gleckner's colleagues mocked the collection, and he banished the volumes to a storeroom and never touched them again.

And for 10 years, no one paid the books any attention -- until UC Riverside's head librarian, Eleanor Montague, found them and cracked open a few. She and comparative literature scholar George Slusser began cooking up an improbable scheme: Science fiction, for all its talk of wormholes and galaxies far, far away was a form of 20th-century American literature that someone ought to keep as a cultural archive.

So in 1979, Montague dubbed Slusser the Eaton collection's first curator.

When he broke the news to friends, they shook their heads and warned him it would be career suicide.

"They told me 'You'd better not touch that, you'll never get tenured,' " Slusser said. "I said 'Hell, I'm going to do it anyway.' "

Slusser went by instinct and started scooping up every new science fiction novel that came out. With less than $10,000 to work with, he handed hundred-dollar bills to foreign graduate students so they could cart back sci-fi from Russia, Brazil, China and other worldly locales.

Slusser haunted used-book stores and estate sales on his own time. His best finds came from reclusive packrats who had refused to toss their paperbacks. One collector had drained his pool and turned it into underground storage for thousands of science fiction magazines and fan newsletters, including issues of "Amazing Stories," a 1920s-era pamphlet regarded as the world's first science fiction magazine.

All the while, fellow faculty tried to torpedo Slusser's efforts.

English professors went after his funding, arguing to library administrators and English department heads that hoarding collectible James Joyce titles was more important than any featuring Frodo Baggins, Slusser said.

Other professors snickered at him in campus hallways. They even grilled his students during departmental exams: Why not study something more meaningful like feminism or multiculturalism?

"It was guerrilla warfare," Slusser said.

Slusser did win a faculty ally, Jean-Pierre Barricelli, who helped him put on an academic conference in 1979 about science fiction. But their dealings had to be done in secret -- "under the counter," Slusser said. About 70 scholars showed up.

Years later, Barricelli became one of Slusser's greatest supporters during his bid for tenure. Barricelli, a scholar on Dante and Leopardi who taught comparative literature, died in 1997.

The conference became an annual event. Attending academics published their papers and helped graduate students win fellowships to pay for their studies at the Eaton collection.

They sponsored a Finnish cosmologist who charted visions of the universe from Dante to the 21st century. An MIT scholar pondered whether comic-book architecture inspired the look of modern cities.

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