KU program blasting off to save sci-fi

Since the 1950s, James Gunn has lived in the future.

Beginning in science fiction's "Golden Age," Gunn has written or edited almost 40 novels, short story collections and histories of the genre and is considered one of its "grand masters," a title he shares with such pioneers as Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and Theodore Sturgeon.

"Science fiction is the literature of change," says Gunn, 81. "Occasionally, it's predictive, but that's not its purpose. (Editor) John Campbell used to say, 'Science fiction is practice in a no-practice zone."'

Gunn is director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction, an academic program at Kansas University that he started in 1982 as an extension of the writers' workshops he conducted and courses he taught for teachers looking to add science fiction to their lesson plans.

He still looks to tomorrow, but he's not just considering hypothetical worlds and theoretical technology - he's contemplating the future of science fiction itself.

It's hard to tap into any form of pop culture these days without seeing the influence of science fiction. But books are another matter. Science fiction captures less than 8 percent of the $6.5 billion consumer book market, according to publishing research organization R.R. Bowker.

The odds are even worse for young readers who either are too busy to read or, if they do get into science fiction, focus on something they know, such as books spun off from "Star Wars," "Star Trek" or other well-known franchises, says Chris McKitterick, the center's associate director.


Charlie Riedel/AP Photo

James Gunn, director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at Kansas University, holds one his own books as he stands among a small portion of the center's holdings on the Lawrence campus.

"We think it's important to society for science fiction to be read by children because if science fiction has any message, it's that change is inevitable," McKitterick says. "'Star Wars' is not good science fiction because its message actually is 'change is bad."'

Driving the genre forward

Gunn worries that the barrage of distractions could keep many youngsters from ever getting interested in science fiction, endangering the genre as it moves into future generations.

"There's a saying that the 'golden age' of science fiction is 12," he says. "That's a time in children's lives when their imaginations get a chance to catch fire and get stimulated, and if you miss that time, you may never get them to think about ... issues, concepts, ideas, possibilities, in a way that enhances their understanding of the world we live in."

Gunn and McKitterick, at the urging of science fiction scholars and authors, are going on the offensive to make science fiction more attractive to young readers and, most importantly, make it a force in schools.

A center coordinator will pull together lists of authors willing to speak at, or even teach classes on, the genre; databases of books and magazines included in library collections and at other university science fiction programs; and dozens of fan-based symposiums, conventions and discussion boards for use by teachers wanting to add science fiction to their reading lists.

"This could become a wonderful service tool for people," said Dave Mead, president of the Science Fiction Research Assn., which has pledged its support. "It's a very informal network now, and frequently you have to say, 'Gosh, I don't know anyone who has that."'

Gunn also hopes that some of these efforts will help science fiction in general, because the genre suffers from the same "best seller" mentality that affects the rest of the publishing industry.

Science fiction must change to remain relevant, he says. "That's harder to do today because the best seller needs to have broad appeal, so they're less likely to be on the cutting edge. You need that to drive the genre forward."

Finding an audience

The combined science fiction/fantasy category published 3,197 new titles last year and sold $484.8 million, its highest total in three years, said Andrew Grabois, director of publisher relations for Bowker. That's still dwarfed by romance novels, which sold $1.6 billion last year, and is even behind the production of mystery writers, who cranked out 4,181 new titles in 2004.

Looking ahead to this year, Grabois said Bowker expects science fiction/fantasy to sell $510 million, although that largely will be because of the latest "Harry Potter" book, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," which will be released July 16, and the novelization of "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith."

Shelly Shapiro, editorial director for Del Rey Books, a subsidiary of Random House that specializes in science fiction/fantasy, said publishers are interested in good writing from exciting new authors. However, Shapiro, who edits the "Star Wars" titles through Del Rey's partnership with LucasBooks, said tie-in novels are less risky because they have a built-in audience.

In general, she says science fiction shares the publishing industry's current malaise. She added that many best sellers, such as "The Time Traveler's Wife" by Audrey Niffenegger, deal with science fiction themes but aren't sold to the public as science fiction.

"I think the more 'classic' science fiction has a bit of a challenge: How to identify and reach its core market now that it is overlapping the general market," she said.


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