And Janzen, the Capuchin monk from Germany, compared "Star Trek" story lines with modern history and the Bible. The United Federation of Planets, Janzen said, represented an idealized U.S.
"I'm not going to Star Trek conventions and I don't have a Star Trek uniform in my closet, but I'm very interested in concepts of scientific progress and how that affects our day-to-day life and how that changes our notions of being human," said Janzen, 45, who earned his doctorate at UC Riverside in June 2006. "I think science fiction is that genre that deals with those questions."
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.
As word spread about the conferences and the research being done by Slusser's students, more people showed up. Some years, the conferences drew 200 scholars. Slusser's legion of faithful followers were mostly closeted sci-fi fans.
One was Paul Alkon, 71, who bottled up a secret passion for science fiction as a graduate student in Chicago in 1960. He became an expert on 18th-century British writers Samuel Johnson and Daniel Defoe. But once Alkon earned tenure at USC, he started work on a long-anticipated project: a treatise on the origins of futuristic fiction. His book required several research trips to the Eaton collection.
"It's a high-quality collection," Alkon said. "It covers so completely what was written -- the bad stuff and the good stuff. You get a picture of what America was like in the 20th century in books."
Slusser dreamed of opening a science fiction studies center and graduate program at the university. In 1982, he sold the idea to then-Chancellor Tomas Rivera, who pledged money and his support. But when Rivera died of a heart attack, plans for the center fizzled. One after the other, Rivera's successors all said the same thing: There wasn't enough money.
Ten years passed, and a battle-weary Slusser grew bitter and depressed. Even Slusser's original ally, the library, eventually turned its back on him, he said. New leadership grew tired of being the sole sponsor behind Slusser's science fiction conferences and cut his funding in 1999. Only the community of sci-fi fans kept them going, cobbling together the $5,000 Slusser needed for the conference.
To scholars like Alkon and others who had led academic double lives for so long, Slusser was their hero.
"All those years, George was the one-man show that kept the whole thing going -- the conferences and the collection," Alkon said.
Even UC Riverside astrophysicists and biologists reached out to Slusser to lend moral support. Many owed their interest in science to futuristic stories they read as children.
Meanwhile, outside the university, something bigger was happening. The entertainment industry began cashing in on science fiction, which had struck a chord with the moviegoing public.
Many of the highest-grossing films of the last 30 years featured science fiction themes: "The Terminator," "Star Wars," "The Matrix."
Recent high-profile Hollywood films, such as "Deja Vu" and "I, Robot," lifted their story lines from Philip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov, respectively. The "Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter" movies spawned cult followings.
The same academicians who thumbed their noses at science fiction began designing classes with titles such as "The Philosophy of The Matrix" or the "The Science of Superheroes."
Within the literary establishment, professional organizations dedicated to the academic study of scientific and fantastic literature sprung to life, while a handful of critical literary journals discussed major works and trends. Scholars now convene regularly at academic conferences -- gatherings far more serious than the often satirized fan conventions that attract costume-garbed aficionados.
"It's come of age," said Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Assn. of America, a professional group for language and literature scholars.
In 2004, the association's flagship journal and one of the most prestigious publications in literary studies, PLMA, published an issue that discussed science fiction exclusively.
Science fiction "is sort of at the edge of being canonized," said Georg Gugelberger, 66, UC Riverside professor emeritus of comparative literature. "I'm not the biggest fan. But it's significant. There are people who want to study it, and they should be allowed to."
There's been a change at UC Riverside, too. Six years ago the school hired a new director of special collections, Melissa Conway, who started spending more than half her $40,000 budget on science fiction acquisitions.
The English department succumbed to "Harry Potter" mania, holding a symposium in 2005. Fans garbed in pointy hats and capes munched on chocolate frogs while listening to professors debate disability and discrimination between non-magical muggles and wizards.
STILL, nearly 30 years of fighting with administrators as well as his own department took its toll on Slusser. He'd done double duty as Eaton collection curator and professor, teaching a full schedule of comparative literature classes and advising doctoral theses.
He retired in 2005 to work on several long-anticipated books about science fiction.
"I just ran out of steam," he said.
The library is still searching for a new curator.
But there's talk about starting the nation's first doctoral program in science fiction studies -- and bringing Slusser, now 67, out of retirement to help build it.
He still can't quite believe the change in attitude at the university. When the library invited Slusser back in February to give a lecture about utopian societies in science fiction, they welcomed him with a big cake.
Finally, he said, his colleagues know they have a treasure in the Eaton collection, "and they're going to do something with it."