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Reading Ahead

by: Kris Lovekin   (April 2000)

Science fiction is the literary genre that describes how we get to where we are going.
"It is as if the wheel were the first and seminal technological invention of the Western world," said George Slusser, professor of comparative literature at UCR. "It provides the means, reinvented over and over, of going on that journey to the place no one has gone before."

Sometimes the focus is on mechanical vehicles: Jules Verne's balloons, Albert Robida's flying coaches, Robert A. Heinlein's rolling roads.

Other times, the focus is the metaphorical journey we all blindly make into the future.

"Where no one has gone before" has a familiar ring, thanks to Star Trek. But at UCR, that ring fits. The campus has arrived, like passengers on H.G. Wells' famous time machine, in the year 2000. And there, in the Special Collections Library, sits the world's largest catalogued collection of science fiction, fantasy, horror, dystopian and utopian fiction.

The J. Lloyd Eaton Collection includes 80,000 books, comics, pulp magazines and fanzines published between 1675 and the present. That amazing collection could be the heart of a new sentient entity on campus, a Center for the Study of Science and the Humanities.

"Science fiction is the natural bridge between things scientific and things artistic," said Slusser, curator of this vast collection and a fiery-eyed evangelist on the subject. "On these shelves are treasures for scholars in the ancient sciences, art history, religious mythology."

"Everyone in Hollywood owes a debt to science fiction," Slusser said. "This is an iconology collection that is just waiting to be digitized."

He squeezes his lithe frame past a ladder that gives him access to the books with otherworldly covers, pulling them down one by one.

"This is a first edition of Frankenstein," he said. "I just saw it listed in a rare book catalog for 58,000 British pounds." Snobbery, however, is not a problem for Slusser. He stores a first edition H. G. Wells' "War of the Worlds, " cheek by jowl with the Ace paperback edition.

Genetic engineering, virtual reality and tiny gadgets that keep us plugged into the universal electronic net, all modern realities, have been explored for years in the pages of the books and magazines stacked on floor-to-ceiling shelves in a building on the science side of the campus. The location pleases Slusser because scientists are frequently fans of science fiction.

Slusser himself yearned to be a mathematician before switching his undergraduate major to English literature and philosophy. His current expertise ranges over classical literature in five languages, music, art and philosophy of science. In his 20 years as curator of the Eaton Collection, he has written extensively about science fiction as the nexus between two disciplines.

"It is the one real international literary form we have today, and as such has branched out to visual media, interactive media and on to whatever new media the world will invent in the 21st century," he said. "Crossover issues between the sciences and the humanities are crucial for the century to come."

Already, Slusser has provided year-round access to the Eaton collection to scholars from around the globe, taught a variety of classes related to science fiction and organized the annual J. Lloyd Eaton Conference of Science Fiction that draws scholars from all over the world and results in academic books of the collected essays. The next Eaton Conference is scheduled in the spring of 2001.

Slusser can name potential faculty members, on and off campus, who might affiliate with the center. He also delights in naming graduate students who flock to UCR, sometimes from other countries, to research topics such as how religious mythology turns up in pop culture, or the progression of utopian fiction.

Gregory Benford, an award-winning science fiction author and a professor of physics at UC Irvine, has agreed to serve on the proposed center's advisory board.

"As an author and a scientist, he gets invited to consult for high-tech companies and think tanks," Slusser said. "A new graduate program could train people for the think tanks of the future."
One of Slusser's strongest faculty allies is Robert Heath, a professor of plant physiology at UCR and a lifelong fan of science fiction. Both men are noticing that their combined expertise is a valuable asset in the class they teach together, a small undergraduate "Honors Seminar" in science fiction that focuses on both the scientific and literary aspects of time travel, aliens and robotics.

"We'll be reading a short story in class and he'll say, 'This is very much like a Greek tragedy,'" said Heath, who has spent 31 years at UCR in a career that has ranged over biology, biochemistry, botany, and biophysics. "I'll bring in a whole slew of electronic equipment dating from the 1940s and pass it around to show them where we've been; vacuum tubes and other things the students have never seen before."

Their decade of collaboration is a model for what they want the center to accomplish. "For a long time there has been almost no interaction between the sciences and the humanities," said Heath. "More and more I read about cooperation between the two sides of the fence and I think it's important. We can't allow the humanists and the scientists not to react to each other and appreciate each other."

Emory Elliott, director of the Center for Ideas and Society, endorses the proposed center and has offered funding for planning. Another important supporter is Patricia O'Brien, new dean of the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. She has authorized funds from the Hewlett Foundation to support an expanded series of courses and a graduate seminar titled "Science and the Humanities through Science Fiction."

Meanwhile, Slusser continues to add to the Eaton Collection, the vehicle that drives it all. He buys, begs or trades for the new sciencefiction published annually in English, French, German and Russian. He is not tra ding off any of his precious collection, but barters with other commodities. For instance, after determining that it was impossible to work with Russian publishing houses, he convinced a librarian to trade an annual shipment of Russian science fiction for a subscription to Canada's Maclean's magazine, a general interest publication rarely found in Russian libraries.

Slusser is as gleeful as a child at his black market bargain.

He never stops planning and dreaming about where the Eaton Collection will take UCR, inspired by imagery from the collection itself, from short range moon rockets and hyperdrive vessels to time machines and suspended animation that allows sleepers to wake in the future.

Despite his interest in the literary future, Slusser said he prefers to stay here in the present so that he can continue to raise money and allies for the 21st-century debut of a center that recognizes a long-delayed dream.

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