Sci-Fi, poetry at Williams College's Science Fiction Symposium


WILLIAMSTOWN -- It's no surprise that some of the biggest names in science fiction writing today will gather at Williams College next week.

"We have a closer relationship than other kinds of writers," said Paul Park, a professor at Williams and accomplished science fiction writer. "It's a more cohesive community of readers and writers."

Williams will benefit from that closeness next week from Tuesday to Thursday, when it will host a series of public events as part of the David G. Hartwell ‘63 Science Fiction Sym posium. The first of its kind event will bring luminaries like Samuel R. Delany, Kim Stanley Robinson, Paolo Bacigalupi, Kit Reed, Terry Bisson, and John Crowley to campus for a series of panels, readings and lectures.

Park said that the English De partment had suggested the idea of putting together a conference dedicated to serious, literary science fiction earlier this year. Around July, he began calling his friends.

"They don't feel this is a huge imposition," he said. "In a way, it's easier to get eight of them than just one."

The symposium will include a series of readings and discussions at Griffin Hall. And one of the highlights comes next Wednesday night for a panel discussion on climate change in science fiction. Park said the idea for the event at the Paresky Center emerged simply from looking at recurring themes in many of the writers' recent work.

"Thinking about the future goes in cycles," Park said. Early science fiction featured optimist problem-solving stories about social and technical problems, but gave way to political dystopias and the possibility of nuclear annihilation.

"Environment catastrophe has taken the place of some more politically influenced, Cold War-type nuclear catastrophes," he said. "A lot of people are writing about this in different and interesting ways."

The event will include Elizabeth Kolbert, whose 2006 book "Field Notes from a Catastrophe" tracked the seriousness of the climate change issue, and has become a resource for thinking about the issue.

Another centerpiece will be a closer look a the work of Samuel R. Delany, a polymathic writer with nearly 40 books in print. As a gay, African-American writer who has struggled with dyslexia, he has touched on themes of sexuality, race, gender, and the use of language in his work, in ways not often associated with science fiction.

On Tuesday afternoon a "directed discussion" will consider a series of Delany's stories from his collections "Tales of Nevèryön" and "Return to Nevèryön." Park said they chose these particular stories because of how they "self-consciously connect with aspects of critical theory." These stories -- with their quotations from postmodern thinkers like Edward Said and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak -- are a unique way of getting into these complicated ideas in what is otherwise a "swords and sorcery story."

In addition to the public events, the writers will visit classes around campus to talk about writing, theatrical design, and the publishing industry.

Park, who teaches writing, said science fiction is a useful way to teach all sorts of critical writing.

"Sci-fi stories usually have an explicit and implicit thesis, and they have a larger burden of exposition than other forms of writing," he said.

Park knew early on that he wanted the symposium to honor esteemed science fiction editor David G. Hartwell, a Williams alumnus and editor at Tor Books who has worked with many of the best writers in the genre.

Hartwell helped organize the event, and only learned in late September that Park planned to name it after him.

"I'm more pleased that Wil liams College is putting on a symposium with science fiction in the title," he modestly said. "It is a subtle signal of a change in stature."

Hartwell has known and worked with Park since he bought his first novel in the mid-1980s. And he is currently working on Park's forthcoming novel, "All the Vanished En gines." Hartwell graduated from Williams in 1963, and remembers being the only one in his class who had read any science fiction beyond Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov.

He said he had known since he was 12 that he wanted to be a science fiction editor, not a writer. "In the old days, the editors were powerful public figures," he said. "The editors had enormous prestige and directed the evolution of the literature."

He realized at Williams that science fiction was the least paid part of publishing, and that the few editors in the powerful jobs tended to stay put. So after he left he went to graduate school, and earned a doctorate from Columbia University in comparative medieval literature. He wrote about rock music and reviewed science fiction for underground newspapers, but wasn't sure how to make a living in the field.

Eventually, through a friend who realized his interest, he got a job as a consulting editor with Signet in 1970. Today, in addition to his work with Tor Books, he edits anthologies and is an editor at the New York Review of Science Fiction.

"Once I became a science fiction editor there was no going back," he said, and that it has been better than he imagined as a kid.

Hartwell said event like the symposium are more than just special events.

"This is the old mainstream tradition in science fiction," he said. "This is one of the aspects of it that makes it more like a literary movement than a commercial genre."

And he stressed that for him, the literary elements come first.

"Science fiction is interesting and worthwhile for itself, and not merely because you can deal with science or problems like climate change," he said. "It is a literature that is particularly useful for considering ideas of all sorts."

The events could be an opportunity for people to learn more about this kind of science fiction, which is often clumped together with mass market entertainment or stigmatized by its cheesiest examples.

Park said students are im mersed in sci-fi movies and video games, but it hasn't translated into reading.

"They've seen tons and tons [of it] but they haven't read many of the classics," he said.

Hartwell said the best anyone can do is make people are exposed to it the right way.

"It's rather like falling in love," he said. "You can't get someone to fall in love -- it just has to happen."

"For a small number of people, this may free them to like it," he added.


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