Americans seemed obsessed with science fiction and fantasy as forms of entertainment. The screens they watch and the pages they hold are filled with space ships, superheroes and wand-waving wizards.
Puget Sound seems to be a center of fandom for what’s often called speculative fiction. For one thing, Tacoma was the home of Frank Herbert, author of the 1965 science fiction classic “Dune.”
In 2015, the calendar is filled with fan functions devoted to science fiction and fantasy from Emerald City Comicon, in Seattle from Friday through Sunday, to Tacoma’s Jet City Comic Show in October (see list).
Brett Rogers researches both the Greek and the geek.
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An assistant professor of classics at University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, he pursues a wide range of subjects that include Homer and classical drama, superhero narratives and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
Rogers and fellow faculty member Ben Stevens recently published a book of essays that examine the links between the ancient classics and present day science fiction and fantasy.
Friday and Saturday, they will host a conference at UPS that will feature speakers presenting on all things related to speculative fiction.
Seattle-born fiction author Catherynne M. Valente will be a featured speaker at the free event. Rogers, one of more than a dozen presenters, will deliver a paper on the 1975 musical film, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
“We want to build a better geek,” Rogers said of the conference.
Q. Why does the Northwest seem to be a hotbed of science fiction?
A. Part of it, I would imagine, has to do with Frank Herbert being from Tacoma. He was born in Gig Harbor. His family immigrated here because they were in a socialist commune.
It makes sense to me that if you are going west to dream of new ways to organize the world, that at least your fiction might show that.
Another part of it is the tech presence, the creative energy. Paul Allen is part of that. EMP is a big part. When you go see one of those exhibits a lot of those things are his.
Q. How do you define science fiction?
A. That is a hot topic. A lot of people want to talk about science fiction in terms of robots and space travel. We’re more interested in how science fiction is not product oriented, cyborgs (for example), but process oriented — the way it gets people to think differently and imaginatively about their interaction with the world.
Q. When did the genre of science fiction literature begin?
A. Some people would say Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” in 1818.
Some people argue it might be as early as Lucian’s “True History” in the second century. He has this story about a character who goes to the moon and meets all the people there and gets involved in a war between the moon and the sun.
Q. Sci-fi, fantasy, speculative fiction — the boundaries of these genres can overlap. Does that help or hinder the consumer?
A. People have a gut sense of what is science fiction or fantasy. You can go in to a bookstore and see how the different sections are organized. When you start getting into different media it becomes more complicated, like comic books. When the definitions are too rigidly set, I think people start to miss a lot of the opportunities there.
Q. What do science fiction and fantasy allow us to do that regular fiction does not?
A. Some people would say it allows us to run thought experiments: If you had different conditions as a starting premise, how things might turn out differently?
Ursula K. Le Guin, a Portland resident, wrote “The Left Hand of Darkness” in 1969. What is the precondition you need to have a society without war? Her solution is no sexual difference (regarding gender).
Another (aspect) is mystery and wonder, which is why Stanley Kubrick wanted to call (his movie) “2001: A Space Odyssey.” This sense of exploring the unknown, moving into spaces, you don’t know how to conceptualize yet and challenging boundaries of self. And how the unknown can go horribly wrong.
Q. Back to Herbert. This is the 50th anniversary of “Dune,” one of the best-selling science fiction novels of all time. How influential was it?
A. Part of it is world-building in the same way that Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” novels give you such a complete and complex world.
What Tolkien does with elves and dwarves and dragons, Herbert does with prophetic powers and spice that is mined from the desert planet of Arrakis. It’s part Roman Empire, part Byzantine Empire, part Middle East Bedouin culture.
It’s so complete and well thought out. It has its own index so you know what the words mean. The complexity and depth of the world he imagined was pretty startling for its time.
It also is the way it’s told. It looks like someone has written a history of the future and the past. It does interesting things with different characters’ perspectives. It’s a third person narrative but you see a lot of different vignettes. So, you are constantly trying to put it all together. It challenges the way you think about a story.
Q. Do we not acknowledge Herbert enough locally?
A: I love J.K. Rowling. There is a Harry Potter World (at Universal Orlando.) It’s amazing to me that Frank Herbert doesn’t have the same cache. Though there are some people talking about “Dune” related events (in Tacoma.)
Q. Maybe it’s easier for people to imagine being a boy wizard than riding sandworms on Arrakis.
A: Part of it is timing. In 1965, science fiction was low culture. It was pulp fiction. And B-movies you paid very little to see on a Saturday afternoon and your parents are upset with you for going to see.
(By contrast) J. K. Rowling is publishing these novels in a completely different time in which geek culture, fantasy and science fiction has found a completely different foothold. It’s not a coincidence that comic book films, another form of science fiction and fantasy, explode after the late ’90’s.
Q. How so?
A. Think about “X-Men,” “Spider-Man.” That’s when (screenwriter/director) Joss Whedon’s career takes off. People bankroll Marvel films, DC Comics films.
Q. It shows no signs of abating. “Guardians of the Galaxy” pulled in $774 million.
A. Hollywood had to figure out that they could make money off of it. You put enough things on screen and people will get excited about it. And then you can keep building on the momentum.
Q. Your book, “The Once and Future Antiquity: Classical Traditions in Science Fiction and Fantasy,” is about what?
A. The book is a collection of 14 essays that run the gamut from astronomy in the 16th century to Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” to “The Hunger Games.” We each wrote a chapter and then we had scholars from around the world who contributed.
As much as we were interested in science fiction and the way it uses classical antiquity … we’re also interested in how people grab on to things from the classical past in decontextualized, apolitical and sometimes reckless ways.
We’re creating our own new monsters, our own new Frankensteins. Some of them exciting possibilities and some terrifying horrors.
Q. Give me some examples.
A. “Dune” uses the myth of the House of Atreus. “The Hunger Games” uses a lot of images of the Roman Empire that comes from particular sources like the poet Juvenal. Several episodes of “Star Trek” use classical antiquity as a source and mixes it with science fiction.
The planet in “Alien” is Acheron LV-426. Acheron is one of the rivers of the underworld (in Greek mythology). That tells you what’s going to happen. Everyone is going to go through hell.