Space Lab

When most readers think of science fiction, they’re probably thinking about spaceships, lasers or wookies. Years of sloppy application have turned the genre into a catchall for anything that takes place in space or involves robots, despite major authors’ insistence to the contrary.

“It’s the literature of change, brought about by the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment, with a significant dash of Darwinism,” argues sci-fi writer and editor James Gunn, director of the University of Kansas’ Center for the Study of Science Fiction. “It came about when scientific insights and technological innovation began to change the way people lived and thought about the world and themselves.” When Gunn explains it, this weekend’s Campbell Conference sounds more like a think tank than like a stereotypical Trekkie confab.

Starting with tonight’s casual discussion between authors and audience, the conference is more about understanding the impact and use of sci-fi than about comparing Battlestar Galactica memories. “This year’s subject is the interrelationship of scientists and science-fiction writers and their mutual influence on the future,” Gunn says. “Science today is more difficult to understand but more important. It’s a challenge to stay ahead of it.”

On Saturday morning, KU’s Alderson Auditorium is the site for talks by a large panel of guests, including Gregory Benford, a sci-fi author and astrophysicist, and Greg Bear, whose books about Mars and ghosts are really about civilization and humanity. After breaks for meals and book signings, the day concludes with talks and films in Room 100 of Smith Hall.

Though this marks the Sci-Fi Hall of Fame’s last year at KU before it moves to Seattle, Gunn says the annual event, which also includes a writer’s workshop and a two-week intensive teaching course, will probably continue to grow — especially considering that the world keeps feeding writers new ideas. “John Campbell once said that science fiction exists between the laboratory and the marketplace,” Gunn says. “That gap is growing shorter these days.”