I2: Ivory and Ivy January 2004:
Science Fiction and the Modern Language Association
by Edward Carmien
(Copyright 2004 Edward Carmien)
So there I was in San Diego, attending the 119th meeting of the Modern Language Association. Riff on that for a few seconds: how “modern” can that be, if the word was first used more than a hundred years ago?
Modern enough, apparently. Since I checked in during the evening hours, I had no idea what I would see when I opened up my curtains at the hotel. To my surprise, it was a couple of wee ocean going craft, one called Enterprise, the other called Stennis. Nice view!
Down at the convention, there were no people in costume—no vampires, no Conans, no Darth Vaders, not one sword, fake firearm, or magic wand, and not even one
Star Trek/Babylon 5/Highlander/Buffy/Lord of the Rings cast member signing autographs at the head of a line that would do Disney proud. Boys and girls, if you’ve been to a science fiction fan con, or a gaming-oriented con, or some other event prone to feature science fiction type stuff, you would see very little that is familiar at the MLA meeting.
In short, this was a gathering of folks from the college and university set, college professors, graduate students, and those in between. Lots of twenty-somethings wearing their finest, anxiously looking for the floor where various institutions from around the world were holding interviews, lots of thirty-and-forty somethings anxiously checking the time to be sure they won’t miss their sessions, lots of greyer folks looking serene and accomplished, old hands at the convention game.
And then there was me, not interviewing, not participating in a session, and brand new to MLA’s convention. Sure, I had a colleague to support as she hosted a special session about workplace writing, but that was one session out of my two-day stay. What else to do? Look up science fiction-related sessions, of course!
Of the many, many sessions only a small number touched on Things Fantastic—generally speaking, if it requires a leap of faith it is less likely to be addressed at MLA than at, say, the Popular Culture Association conference (want a conference at which one can showcase strange and wonderful pop-culture t-shirts? PCA’s conference is the one!).
One session in particular was fascinating. In one paper, a scholar described an obscure European work of science fiction that was so old the fact it espoused equal rights for women was unusual. Sure, one expects more modern science fiction to be ahead of the times, but this was 1800’s stuff. Another scholar gave his paper in a passionate oratorical manner. He delineated, in great and fascinating detail, American science fiction that employed the theme of “Pax Americana” (usually via some new technological and/or governing concept), Republican advisors to past Presidents who were familiar with this theme, and one advisor in particular who published a story of the same ilk. Was this scholar’s concern whether this science fiction was influencing our President’s foreign policy? Or whether our current policy was a reflection of a long-standing American attitude (as reflected in science fiction) about how to solve the world’s problems? No, this scholar was keen to show how ridiculous Bush’s policies are, and to highlight this fact by comparing ridiculously-plotted science fiction with said policies.
Well, I might have wished the point be made a slightly different way, but I don’t describe the latter paper in order to pick it apart, but rather to hold it up as an example of what’s important at the MLA annual conference. Literature, language, art, and politics are by definition entwined, and MLA members commonly see their contributions as having a role in the common public discourse.
There were other highlights, of course. A nice rib place across the street from the hotel. The fine view of the harbor, and the two aircraft carriers at dock. A session about plagiarism in which a presenter urged we all consider “embracing” plagiarism, to understand the emotional aspect of the problem. Meeting an interesting cross-section of fellow academics, I picked up useful material about teaching composition and literature, ideas and concepts that will influence future versions of courses I teach. San Diego’s fine trolley set-up, which is excellent—but beware days the Chargers play.
Conference: Call for Papers on Message, Medium, and Science Fiction.
In the end, even I was moved to propose a special session for next year’s MLA annual conference, to be held in Philadelphia, PA. For your amusement and edification, here it is. This call for papers, to be successful as a proposed session come April, must attract enough MLA members (by this April 7) with papers in-hand, and then manage to get by the MLA committee in charge of selecting MLA special sessions. Wish me luck. Interested readers who are or who are willing to become MLA members (see
www.mla.org) should come up with an abstract and drop me a line.
Message, Medium, and Science Fiction.
Print isn’t dead, but it is evolving. Do new forms of presentation (electronic?) alter the message of Science Fiction? How? Why? Analysis and speculation welcome.
250 word abstracts: 12 Mar.; Edward Carmien,
If you’re curious about what sort of changed message we might be getting via new media, check out
http://www.scifi.com/scifiction/periodictable.html, Michael Swanwick’s frequently hilarious periodic table. Then of course there was that book by William Gibson that came out in encrypted form on digital media, and dozens of other interesting wrinkles on the idea of print, not all of which take place in the world of ones and zeroes.
See you in Philadelphia?