By Michael R. Page
Science fiction became a subject for academic study and a regular part of the college curriculum in the early 1970s. Writers Jack Williamson and James Gunn were at the center of this blossoming of SF into academia and they helped shape the future of science fiction scholarship and teaching. This article examines the legacies and impacts Williamson and Gunn have had on academe.
References for this article.
In the early seventies, as the Apollo missions to the moon enthralled the nation, science fiction exploded into the college curriculum. Prior to this explosion only a few courses had been offered throughout the country, notably that of Mark Hillegas at Colgate and Thomas Clareson at Wooster. Science fiction greats Jack Williamson and James Gunn, both then teaching at universities, began offering SF courses: Williamson at Eastern New Mexico starting in 1964 and Gunn at the University of Kansas starting in 1969. By 1970, SF courses were cropping up all over the country, prompting Williamson to gather a list of SF courses, Science Fiction Comes to College. The rationale behind the list was that it would provide evidence to college administrators of science fiction’s viability as a college-level course subject in hopes that it “will help others secure such courses” (Williamson, May, 1971, p. 63). When the list appeared in Extrapolation, the first journal to focus on SF and the fantastic, in May 1971, Williamson indicated that he had been getting an increasing number of inquiries for it as “Most teachers and students are motivated by a sense that science fiction has a special relevance to life in our transitional times” (p. 68). That same issue of Extrapolation announced the formation of the Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA) in Thomas Clareson’s “Launching Pad” column. The two chief aims of SFRA were to encourage and develop scholarship and “the teaching of science fiction at all levels of instruction” (Clareson, May 1971, 63). Jack Williamson served as the first chair of the Committee on Teaching (p. 63).
Extrapolation, founded by Clareson in 1959, was soon joined by the other major critical journals, Foundation in 1972 and Science Fiction Studies in 1973. Numerous teaching guides appeared, including Teaching Tomorrow (Calkins and McGhan, 1972), Grokking the Future (Hollister and Thompson, 1973) and L. David Allen’s Cliffs Notes, Science Fiction: An Introduction (1973). Several anthologies geared toward scholarship and teaching appeared, including Robert Silverberg’s The Mirror of Infinity (1970), Dick Allen’s Science Fiction: The Future (1971), Leo P. Kelley’s Themes in Science Fiction (1972), and Robin Scott Wilson’s Those Who Can (1973). Some thirteen volumes of Martin H. Greenberg’s “Through Science Fiction” anthologies, that included such titles as Introductory Psychology Through Science Fiction (1974), American Government Through Science Fiction (1974), and Anthropology Through Science Fiction (1974), appeared over the next five years.
This explosion of interest in science fiction by scholars and teachers in higher education sparked debate in the science fiction magazines. The May 1972 issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction ran a special section on “Science Fiction and the University,” which included articles by William Tenn (aka. Philip Klass, who was teaching at Penn State) and Thomas Clareson, reviews of critical books and anthologies by Darko Suvin, an Isaac Asimov column on his own academic experience as a biochemist at Boston University in the 1950s, and Jack Williamson’s list of college courses. FSF’s editor Edward Ferman led off the report by asking “Why all the academic attention to science fiction? What shape is it taking? Where will it lead?” (Ferman, May 1972, p. 106). Asimov wrote: “It so happens that the college crowd has discovered science fiction—I don’t mean the students; I mean the faculty” (Asimov, May, 1972, p. 134). Tenn’s article is notable for triggering a series of articles and editorials by prominent SF writers that appeared across the magazines—FSF, Analog, and Galaxy—arguing the pros and cons of teaching science fiction. At the time, Tenn was serving on the Executive Committee of the newly formed SFRA. In “Jazz Then, Musicology Now,” Tenn compared science fiction to jazz music, lamenting that jazz lost something once it became respectable: “And the thing I wonder about friends, neighbors, fans, students, wise men—can you take the jazz out of the cat-house? It may survive in the speakeasy, but how about the concert hall? What happens to jazz…when its audience is no longer three drunken whores and their cigar-thumping boyfriends but a bunch of thoughtful, soft-spoken scholars and earnest, ladylike critics who are trying to raise it to What It Should Be?” (Tenn, May 1972, p. 112). Unlike jazz, however, Tenn concedes that SF indeed belongs in the classroom: “This boom is different: it is significant in terms other than numbers. It’s occurring in one place essentially—the university. And the university is where it’s always belonged. Science fiction, after all, is nothing but dramatized concept, ideation made into flesh of character and line of narrative. It’s come home at last, to its origins, to the one place where the hard sciences become abstract, where the social sciences build reality, where the new frontiers of esthetics and metaphysics are measured off” (p. 112-13). And inevitably Tenn sees science fiction as the only literary site where important ideas about cultural and scientific change are negotiated: “The cry of relevance, heard from campuses over the last six years, is thus about to intersect with an accumulation of developments which will turn our society inside out” (p. 114).
Clareson’s article concentrates on the importance of archiving the history of the field, getting important records and documents into libraries, assuring the fans, writers, and collectors that a serious and well-informed academic contingent exists and would do justice to the field. According to Clareson, the SFRA was intended to function as a clearinghouse and a meeting ground of resources and ideas, “If science fiction is to receive a full and just evaluation as a medium of ideas and a literary form” (Clareson, May, 1972, p. 121). Clareson called for cooperation between fandom and academe.
Like Tenn, Jack Williamson was a prominent science fiction writer who also became an academic. After thirty years as one of the leading writers in the science fiction field, Williamson returned to school, earning a PhD. in English from the University of Colorado in 1964. He returned to his hometown of Portales, New Mexico and took a faculty position at Eastern New Mexico University, where, among other courses, he taught SF. In a 1971 Publisher’s Weekly article, “Emerging from Its Exile in Limbo,” Williamson declared that “Science Fiction is coming to college. After a long exile to the comic strips and the pulp magazines and the late, late movies, it is suddenly winning recognition as a more or less respectable academic subject” (Williamson, July 5, 1971, p. 17). Within a few years SF criticism and teaching were in full bloom. Williamson summarized the situation in the article, “Science Fiction, Teaching, and Criticism,” in Reginald Bretnor’s 1974 critical anthology, Science Fiction: Today and Tomorrow, where he called on the teacher and critic of SF not only to have an understanding of the history and conventions of science fiction but also a broader understanding of other literature and the traditions of criticism. The SF teacher and critic should straddle C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” (Williamson, 1974, p. 319).
Later in the decade, Williamson again reported on the state of science fiction in academia in two articles that appeared in the magazines. The rhetorical posture he takes in these articles indicates his uneasiness with how the academic interest was unfolding. In “Will Academe Kill Science Fiction,” which appeared in Asimov’s in March 1978, Williamson wondered “how much good this scholarly dissection is going to do us,” grumbled that “the teachers of science fiction are probably earning more out of it than the writers do,” and feared that “the critical tail has begun to wag the creative dog” (Williamson, March, 1978, p. 64). Despite voicing a number of criticisms, Williamson still felt that academia would ultimately “enrich
In his autobiography Wonder’s Child, Williamson reflected on those early years of SF teaching and stressed his continued mixed feelings about SF criticism:
Yet I can’t help a certain wariness toward criticism in general, an attitude more emotional than rational and hard to clarify… I like the kind of criticism that can help the reader find and read new work. The criticism I suspect is the sort that takes the work apart in search of items the critic wants to use in some new construction of his own, with no intention to illuminate it, though his purpose may be consistent with the ideas of Freud or Marx or some other high authority (Williamson, 2005, p. 232).
Like Williamson, James Gunn was a major SF writer who also taught at the University of Kansas. Unlike Williamson, Gunn’s writing and scholarship developed simultaneously. Parts of Gunn’s master’s thesis, Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis, appeared in four issues of the short-lived Dynamic Science Fiction in 1953. He went on to work in various capacities at the University of Kansas and returned to teaching in 1969, offering an SF class, which at its peak enrolled as many as 165 students. At this time, he also produced The Literature of Science Fiction Film Series, which was intended as an aid to teachers. Each film is unquestionably an important historical documentation of many of the field’s founders. The film series includes: Forrest J. Ackerman on SF film, Poul Anderson on plot in science fiction, Isaac Asimov on the history of SF after 1938, John Brunner on SF and the mainstream, Gordon R. Dickson on themes in science fiction, Damon Knight on the early history of SF, Frederik Pohl on ideas in SF, Harlan Ellison on new directions in SF, Clifford D. Simak on the profession of science fiction writing, and Jack Williamson on the early days of SF magazines. Many of these are now available on YouTube. Gunn’s satiric SF novel Kampus emerged from this period when he served as KU’s public relations director during the era of campus unrest. Addressing an academic audience in 1973 at Texas A & M University to dedicate the Science Fiction Research collection, Gunn posed the question, “What does science fiction have to offer?” (Gunn, 1975, p. 13). He answers this question by stating that science fiction is a “literature of alternatives” and possibilities: “Science fiction is one of the few things in life, it seems to me, that spills over with ideas that nobody has ever entertained before, which tells us about possibilities that nobody ever entertained before, and it tends to keep the mind open, receptive, flexible” (p. 14). For Gunn, this opening the reader up to alternatives and possibilities is the important function of SF, which other forms of literature and art can seldom achieve: “the thing that science fiction does, it seems to me, that other media do only with great difficulty, if at all, is to provide a different perspective on ourselves, new viewpoints that allow us to do what some critics call distancing. It allows us to stand outside ourselves, our families, our beliefs, our systems, even our own species and see ourselves from the outside” (p. 15). Throughout this period, Gunn was putting together his history of the field, Alternate Worlds, which was to rival Brian Aldiss’s Billion Year Spree as the definitive history of the field.
In response to these incursions of SF into academia (or academia into SF), Analog’s editor Ben Bova wrote the editorial “Teaching Science Fiction” for the April 1974 issue, where he remarked on the rise of SF teaching since 1970 and noted that “this could be very wonderful. It also could be disastrous” (Bova, June, 1974, p. 5). Bova’s primary concern was that college teachers were not well enough qualified—assuming that they were not life-long readers of SF as in many cases they weren’t– and would therefore do a poor job of teaching SF. About half the editorial is devoted to his experiences in Hollywood, where he and Harlan Ellison had recently been given the runaround on the disastrous series The Starlost. Bova’s concern was that the same ineptitude and disregard perpetrated on SF by Hollywood would happen in Academe. He argues “no English department would let someone teach an English course unless he or she had some demonstrable qualifications in the field” (p. 176). He charges the SFRA with “doing nothing about setting and demanding professional qualifications among SF teachers” (p. 176). He fears that ill-informed teachers will do harm to the field “if these classes result in disillusionment, then these hard-won gains will evaporate, and it will take another generation before anyone can mention science fiction in ‘respectable’ company again” (p. 177).
Gunn responded later that year in the November issue in a guest editorial entitled, “Teaching Science Fiction Revisited.” Gunn rightly began his rebuttal by calling Bova’s remarks part of a ghetto mentality: “The science fiction ghetto may be breaking up, but signs of the ghetto mentality still lurk among us: those who have possessed science fiction for so long that they consider her their own look upon any glance at a larger audience as proof of infidelity” (Gunn, November, 1974, p. 5). Gunn considers two points: the qualifications of science fiction teachers and the effect of the teaching of science fiction upon potential new readers (p. 6). He first states what the goals of the humanities curriculum are: to increase sensitivity, to improve the ability to read with understanding, to provide breadth and depth of intellectual experience which will encourage the making of wise choices; and he believes science fiction has a place there. He then engages the question of academic criticism, bemoaned by many writers and editors who fear it will negatively affect the field, and argues, “if science fiction has any vitality, criticism won’t kill it” (p. 175). Then Gunn stands up for the teachers, asserting that “Generally the teachers of SF courses are not the bad teachers. The ones who volunteer to teach such courses may not be as knowledgeable as we would like them but they are, I suspect, enthusiastic, open, and experimental” (p. 176). He ends by making the case for students, that the science fiction teacher can open a door for young minds who otherwise may not take up the genre. Like Williamson, Gunn sees SF teaching as an invitation, an illumination.
A response to Bova’s editorial by Thomas Clareson also appeared in that issue in the Brass Tacks letters section. Clareson agreed that teachers needed to have a real commitment to the field, “Stories (old or new) thrown together on some pretext, in order to grab a share of the mushrooming market, can be of little worth if the teacher does not have the perspective from which to handle them” (Clareson, November, 1974, p. 166). Clareson was also concerned about the overall alienating perspective of academic literary criticism, “the field of literary scholarship has to a large extent alienated much of its audience from the rich and varied traditions of Western literature” (p. 166) and this process of alienation could infect science fiction. At the same time acknowledging Bova’s points, Clareson, however, believed that Bova’s remarks were unhelpful in that it was important that scholars, writers, and fans who were genuinely committed to science fiction could “cooperate in the assessment of the important place that it has in the body of Western literature” (p. 167).
Lester Del Rey chimed in a March 1975 essay in Galaxy entitled, “The Siren Songs of Academe,” where he takes Gunn and Ursula Le Guin, who had written an article on teaching SF that appeared in the December 1974 Galaxy, to task and concludes in bold letters: “Stay Out of My Ghetto!” Del Rey began rather scurrilously: “Quite a while ago some idiot came up with the idea that science fiction is a ghetto” (Del Rey, March, 1975, p. 69). He rants on: “Most of the so-called criticism consists of trying to impose some far-fetched theory onto science fiction, trying to force it into some more familiar mold, or simple attempts at sticking some label or other onto it to replace ‘science fiction’” (p. 74). He suggests that Gunn and Le Guin are misguided in that “both the articles under discussion seem to take it for granted that the criticism we will have from the world of academe will enable us to improve science fiction” (p. 79). For Del Rey, SF and academe simply don’t mix.
Gunn edited the Nebula Award Stories 10 volume in 1975, where he included an article by Robert Scholes, a widely respected mainstream academic critic. Scholes pointed out “the major moral problems of our age are centered in the future.” The great questions are how we shall leave the earth for future generations, how we shall shape our environment, our genetic heritage, and our intellectual imperatives, so that our descendants may live decent lives” (Scholes, 1975, 109). By asking these great questions, Scholes sees this as a consciousness raising exercise and science fiction is the literary mode that best accomplishes this:
For the past half-century or more, the single group of people who have done the most to achieve this beautiful and perhaps impossible goal have been the writers of science fiction. Only they, of all men and women of letters, have made a real and consistent effort to give us living images of the future consequences of present actions. Only they, by conceiving parallel and alternate universes, have helped sharpen our perception of our own world as a thing not necessary and inevitable but brought into being by the actions of innumerable men and women. ‘Things might be otherwise!’ That is one of the great messages of science fiction (p. 109).
Interestingly, Scholes too showed concern that academic criticism could wrongly infect science fiction and deaden its power: “On the other side of the question, we may well ask whether the academic and critical discovery of SF may have any bad side effects…it may…lead writers to greater solemnity, so that their writing begins to resemble more closely those mainstream fictions that it has been defined against…when fiction gets too analytical, too introspective, too big and heavy, it goes the way of the dinosaur” (p. 111). Yet Scholes sees the “discovery” of SF by the academic and critical community as ultimately a good thing as it will bring better rewards and recognition to the writers.
After a few more years of reflection, Gunn himself responded to Bova, Del Rey and others in the 1978 Nebula Award Stories 12 in the essay “The Academic Viewpoint.” Gunn again challenges the narrow parochialism of the science fiction fan and writer community, exemplified by Del Rey, who wanted to put SF “back in the gutter where it belongs” (Gunn, 2006a, p. 97). Ultimately, Gunn argues that the goal of the science fiction teacher is to teach the art of reading, the skills of criticism, and the ability to communicate (p. 99). Noble goals, and ones Bova and Del Rey would likely agree with, though it is often true that those goals are sometimes lost in the theoretical abstractions of academic discourse. In another article, “From the Pulps to the Classroom,” published in Algol, Gunn summed it up by noting that: “All of this movement of science fiction into the academic curriculum had its inevitable reactions: delight, sometimes mixed with disappointment, on the part of the students; consternation and bewilderment and sometimes a sigh of relief on the part of the teachers; and disapproval, in general, on the part of the science fiction community” (Gunn, 2006c, p. 21).
Gunn’s defense of academia and the teaching of science fiction in the science fiction magazines resulted in the establishment of the Intensive Summer Institute on the Teaching of Science Fiction, still going on today. Bova wrote about the Institute in his January 1976 Analog editorial. After their debate, Bova and Gunn met face to face in Minneapolis and discussed the prospects of forming a course for teachers. This led to Gunn proposing his summer teaching institute at the University of Kansas and it was launched in the summer of 1975, with Bova and other writers, including Gordon Dickson, John Brunner, Robert Bloch and Harlan Ellison, in attendance. Bova declared that first institute a success, “all who attended learned a good deal about the problems of teaching science fiction and their potential answers” (Bova, January, 1976, p. 6). These debates and the success of Alternate Worlds encouraged Gunn to develop his monumental Road to Science Fiction anthology series, the first volume appearing in 1977, which has remained an influential teaching text since its inception, and the model for subsequent teaching anthologies.
In a 1996 article in Science Fiction Studies (revised in 2006), Gunn summed up the teaching scene in those early years in the 1970s and reflected on where things were at in more recent times:
The validity of the courses is not in question, but their nature may say something about the situation of SF teaching in 1995 (or even 2005)… We may have lost our outsider edge, both with students and our colleagues and may even with ourselves. Moreover, I have the feeling that the number of courses taught in this country has dwindled over the past ten or twenty years…the loss of the cutting-edge, far-out reputation that attracted students to college courses in vast numbers during the same period has made the teaching and taking of science fiction courses seem less daring (Gunn, 2006b, p. 80).
Jack Williamson died in 2006 at the age of 98, but his teaching legacy (not to mention the legacy of his fiction) continues in the wonderful collections at the Williamson Library at Eastern New Mexico University, a major collection of SF materials that is ripe for scholarly mining. His correspondence files, in particular, are an invaluable source for the history of the genre. After his death in 2006, Patrice Caldwell, his longtime colleague at Eastern New Mexico University summed up Williamson’s impact as an educator in the memorial volume, In Memory of Wonder’s Child: “Above all, Jack Williamson taught us all that the mutual understanding of science and the humanities can build new worlds, can terraform planets, and can make us all better stewards of our humanity” (Caldwell, 2007, p. 62).
James Gunn’s importance to the academic study and teaching of SF is immeasurable, and continues to this day. In Palgrave Macmillan’s recent Teaching Science Fiction volume, edited by British scholars Andy Sawyer and Peter Wright, which they dedicate to Gunn, the editors acknowledge that Gunn is “certainly the person with the greatest experience of teaching SF” (Sawyer and Wright, 2011, p. 219), and that the influence of Gunn’s approaches to teaching SF are “readily observed in a number of the undergraduate SF courses delivered by contributors to this volume” (p. 221). In other words, James Gunn laid much of the groundwork and methodology for teaching SF that many teachers, either those who have studied directly with him or those who have learned from his writings, employ in the classroom. Gunn has established the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas and it remains an important and exciting fulcrum of scholarly and “writerly” activities in science fiction.
As Asimov’s editor Sheila Williams notes in a recent editorial, following her first attendance at the Campbell Conference, “Science fiction is richer for James Gunn’s guiding influence” (Williams, January, 2012, p. 6). Gunn’s efforts to amiably conjoin the sometimes dissonant practices of science fiction writing, scholarship, and teaching—as seen in the conflicts of the seventies—have left a lasting impact on the broader discourse of SF, which now more or less comfortably includes the academic viewpoint.