Sci-Fi symposium challenges Ephs to explore unexpected

Visiting Paul Park, lecturer in English, in his office, with a coffee cup in hand and oriental carpets draped over almost every couch, I feel at home. My mind drifts to the moment when I discovered the lines that, for me, will always be some of the greatest phrases of all literature: “It came on great oiled resilient, striding legs … each lower leg was a piston, a thousand pounds of white bone.” Reading Ray Bradbury in high school, my first encounter with science fiction, both terrified and engrossed me beyond belief. Now, when I think about books like The Host by Stephenie Meyer, I become nostalgic for a time when science fiction was methodical, cerebral. When I express my thoughts to the professor, he smiles. For Park, science fiction is a type of literature that, when picked apart, represents an invaluable form of academia capable of expanding the mind in all subject areas.

Park’s love for the genre shows in his body of work. He has written a collection of sci-fi books and short stories, and has amassed multiple awards for his work. Among other accomplishments, Park’s novel All Those Vanished Engines was the basis for an art exhibit at MASS MoCA of the same name.

Enriching the College’s various departments was the mission behind Park’s most recent achievement – the organization of the David G. Hartwell ’63 Science Fiction Symposium held at the College from Oct. 22 to 24. Park contacted his editor, Hartwell, as well as numerous other writer friends, and invited all for a three-day event of science fiction dissertation. The first two days featured readings, with the last day culminating with a panel discussion on climate change.

According to Park, his friends in the Science Fiction community were more than willing to reveal to students the value of science fiction. “A science fiction convention is typically held for three days, and in those days writers do about 10 different things. When I contacted my friends, the response was, ‘Book me up,’” Park said.

Among the writers that contributed to the symposium were laureates Samuel R. Delany, a critical theorist and writer, and Elizabeth Kolbert, an expert on climate change for The New York Times and the “goddess and guide,” in the words of Park, of all science fiction writers.

Prior to the symposium, Park reached out to various departments for collaboration. He wanted to bring science fiction to theatre, English and even American studies. As a result, the skills taught by the visiting science fiction writers, according to Park, were translated – and successfully so – into a wide variety of classroom curricula. “We had writers go into a theatrical design class and talk about ‘world building,’ which is a technique of writing that allows a fantasy world to become real. Theatrical designers do this all the time,” Park said. The panel on climate change also tied in nicely with the science department, particularly the environmental science department. The panel encouraged students to think progressively and envision solutions for current environmental problems.

While higher institutions often eschew science fiction in favor of more traditional literature, Park argued that science fiction has undergone an extensive evolution that makes it unworthy of this criticism, and he believes it is this evolution which allows the genre to speak to our current age.

“In the 1960s, everyone was talking about the ‘death of the novel,’ and indeed, they were right,” Park said. “The kind of literature that existed before was the realistic novel in which ordinary life was documented as art. With the 1970s, all of a sudden, we had feminists, African Americans, Latin Americans, all kinds of people writing science fiction. The literature was immediately enriched from these different perspectives.”

According to Park, science fiction has also become an important literary presence, as it encourages imagination. “Science fiction is largely an escapist type of literature, but it’s exceptional in the way in which it can mirror what the world is like through this magical realism,” Park said. “Suddenly what cannot be real is transferred into a level of realism. Science fiction thus enables us to imagine what the world would be like if it were a different way.” Science fiction is, in many ways simultaneously a picture of reality and an escape from it; in this, it asks readers to question the bounds of so called “reality.” The result? Ideas and innovation. “When used conscientiously, science fiction can get people to start thinking about problems and consequently, the solutions to these problems,” Park concluded.

Innovative imagination, Park noted, is exactly what the world currently needs – and, coincidentally, is something that can be fostered by such modes of literature as science fiction.

“Economists, for example, are trying to figure out all of these models to fix economic problems, but the problem is that market capitalism is unsustainable,” Park said. “It depends on unlimited resources, but that’s […] not a reasonable expectation. It’s not enough to tweak the fundamentals of capitalism so what are we to do?” For Park, the answer to this question is clear: “The only thing left is to start envisioning new solutions. Science fiction allows for extreme innovative thinking that can then be adjusted for the real world,” Park said.

For the ambitious college student who wishes to take on the world and it’s many ails, perhaps it is best to brush up on your Bradbury.


Lecturer in English Paul Park’s science fiction book ‘All Those Vanished Engines’ was the basis for a MASS MoCA exhibit. - IMAGE courtesy of  Staffer’s book review
Lecturer in English Paul Park’s science fiction book ‘All Those Vanished Engines’ was the basis for a MASS MoCA exhibit. – IMAGE courtesy of Staffer’s book review

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