Science Fiction and the Playing Fields of Eaton

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Note: this essay was originally written to serve as the afterword in a projected collection of essays from the first ten years of the Eaton Conference.

In its early years, I experienced the J. Lloyd Eaton Conferences on Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature, long held every year at the University of California, Riverside, only as an awestruck spectator, listening to distinguished scholars as they analyzed works of science fiction and fantasy at the podium and fielded stimulating questions from the audience. Later, I became a regular speaker and panelist at those conferences, and by the mid-1990s, I was serving as a conference coordinator, along with George Slusser and Eric S. Rabkin. In the course of two decades, then, I observed the Eaton Conferences from all possible angles, and while I did not attend every gathering or listen to every presentation, I grew very familiar with, and fond of, those annual conferences. Further, when I began to co-edit volumes of essays from the conferences in the 1990s, I came to appreciate the Eaton Conferences not only as stimulating experiences in themselves, but also as the invaluable first stages in a process that ultimately led to the publication of essays that were sharpened and improved by the numerous forces that acted upon them.

Since 1999, however, the Eaton Conferences, and my relationship to them, have significantly changed: they ceased to be annual events, I found that I was no longer considered part of the Eaton family, I could not attend the one additional Eaton Conference that occurred in May, 2005, at the Science Fiction Museum in Seattle, and I now have no knowledge about any future plans for the Eaton Conferences. Still, those twenty years of Eaton Conferences had a significant and lasting impact on my career as a science fiction scholar and commentator, and I have found it rewarding to recall a number of my experiences there and to relate those experiences to some general observations about the genre of science fiction.

To a large extent, the Eaton Conferences resembled other conferences devoted to literary criticism: most of the people attending were academically trained scholars in English literature, ranging from graduate students to senior professors, and most of the conference schedule was reserved for presentations of their papers. In these ways, the Eaton Conferences were similar to the other two longstanding annual gatherings of science fiction scholars, the Science Fiction Research Association Conferences and the International Conferences on the Fantastic in the Arts. However, unlike other forms of contemporary literature, science fiction attracts the attention of some very different sorts of people, and founding Eaton coordinator George Slusser always worked especially hard to include representatives of those other groups, making for the unusually diverse and lively sessions that regularly characterized the Eaton Conferences.

In a paper originally presented at the 1994 conference, "Who Governs Science Fiction?," which later appeared in Extrapolation, I attempted to survey and categorize the different forces that control the genre of science fiction. I discussed Hugo Gernsback, who originally introduced the term "science fiction" to the world and still influences its usage; the writers and fans of the science fiction community, who have a powerful collective impact on the evolution of the genre; the general public, which determines what "science fiction" means as it is described in dictionaries; the publishing industry, which decides to label and market certain books as "science fiction"; and academic scholars, who regularly study, anthologize, and teach science fiction. Were I expanding the scheme today, I might divide the writers and fans into separate groups--since, as suggested by the separate literary awards now given by writers (the Nebulas) and fans (the Hugos), their interests are not always congruent; and I might divide the academic scholars into traditional literary critics and scholars from other disciplines--because scholars not trained to examine literature, such as historians and experts in political science, happen to be unusually active and visible in the study of science fiction and bring a distinctive perspective to their work. …