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On becoming a science fiction expert

UND Provost Eric Link lectures on what science fiction is and what defines it as a literary genre

Eric Link lecture
Eric Link presents his lecture on science fiction as part of the Randy Rasmussen Memorial Lecture Series earlier this month at the Chester Fritz Library.. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

How does a person with an interest, a drive and a passion for a subject that is often thought about as just “aliens, spaceships and ray guns” become a teacher and scholar of the field?

When it comes to the genre of science fiction, Eric Link, UND’s provost and vice president for academic affairs, is a living answer to that question. Last week during his Randy Rasmussen Memorial Lecture at the Chester Fritz Library, Link outlined how he turned his interest in science fiction into an area of expertise on which he now teaches, writes and lectures.

“In some ways, I owe my career in literature to science fiction,” Link explained. “I was not a big literature fan growing up. I was not an English major as an undergraduate, but I was always that guy in junior high school who had the science fiction or fantasy novel and always read it in study hall.”

Eric Link lecture
The provost’s Leonard Nimoy socks.

The main topic of Link’s lecture was on how science fiction film and literature are impacted by contemporary techno-philosophical ideas, such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality and the technological singularity hypothesis. But the 50 people attending the lecture and dozens participating online also learned about the path he took to turn a childhood interest into an important aspect of his academic career.

Link is not only a scholar of science fiction (SF), but also a self-professed fan with a fondness for SF-related art, movies and SF and fantasy computer games, such as “Skyrim” and “Fallout”. Growing up, he was also a weekend player of the fantasy role-playing game, “Dungeons and Dragons.”

As evidence of his self-proclaimed “nerd” status, Link gave attendees a glimpse of his “Live long and prosper” socks featuring the likeness of the late Leonard Nimoy, the actor who played Spock on the TV series “Star Trek.”

Teaching science fiction

However, Link discovered early on that turning his interest into a key part of his academic career wouldn’t be easy.

“During my graduate program, I had not worked on science fiction, and I was never encouraged to work on science fiction,” Link said.

“I was told I would not get a job if I worked on science fiction, and that was fine,” he continued. “I accepted it. I actually worked in 19th century American literary naturalism, and I love that, too.”

Eric Link lecture
First Lady Kathy Armacost (left) and Randi Tanglen, vice provost for faculty affairs, laugh during Eric Link’s lecture on science fiction. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

After earning his doctorate in American literature from Purdue University, Link took his first tenure-track position at a university where he proposed teaching a course on science fiction, which had never been taught there. He recalled how the proposal was received by the department’s faculty.

He was told, “We don’t do that here.”

While Link accepted the defeat, he remained “annoyingly persistent” about teaching a science fiction course.

“I kept bringing it back, semester after semester,” he said. “Eventually, they caved, more just to make me go away. By about my third or fourth year, I finally had a science fiction course to teach. The course filled, and I’ve been teaching it ever since. The students love it.”

SF as its own genre

Much of Link’s talk was devoted to explaining how science fiction uniquely differs from other genres of literature. For example, someone reading the phrase “her world exploded” in a Jane Austen novel would know it was a metaphor related to a traumatic event and the ensuing catastrophe it caused.

But in the movie “Star Wars,” Princess Leia’s home planet, Alderaan, did literally explode when blasted by the Empire’s Death Star.

“When you’re reading a science fiction novel, you cannot immediately jump to the metaphorical interpretation,” Link explained.

Link discussed the idea of “subjunctivity” as described by the science fiction author and theorist Samuel Delany, who explained how the experience of reading SF is different from reading journalism, naturalistic fiction or fantasy . Delany said journalism speaks to things that happened; naturalistic fiction depicts things that could have happened; and fantasy shows things that could never happen.

“Fantasy could never be, was not, will not be,” Link noted. “It can be entertaining; it can be great literature, but it’s completely unfamiliar.”

In contrast, Link said Delany saw science fiction as leaning in the direction of extrapolating a future condition.

“Here’s what we know about current science and what would happen if we extrapolated future conditions based on what we know,” he explained. “That’s an interesting distinction, and it’s been quite influential in the (science fiction) field.”

Eric Link lecture
Link’s lecture on science fiction was hosted by the Chester Fritz Library and attended by about 50 people, as well as dozens of others participating online. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

According to Link, Delany is suggesting that there’s something about reading science fiction that forces us into a condition of estrangement.

“We are de-familiarized from the world we’re reading about, whether in a small degree or a large degree,” he said. “We are asked, as a reader, to make sense of the rules of that estranged world.

“There’s some intellectual work that is triggered by this confrontation with the strange that causes the interesting and dynamic reading of a science fiction tale.”

Categorizing science fiction

While many might loosely identify science fiction as being about “ray guns, aliens and spaceships,” Link said there are eight categories into which most works can be placed in terms of their narrative, structure and convention. They are:

  • Alien contact and close encounter stories
  • Colonization narratives
  • Alternative histories, parallel worlds and time-travel narratives
  • Dying earth scenarios
  • Lost world scenarios
  • Discovery and invention narratives
  • Evolutionary and genetic engineering scenarios
  • Fantastic voyage scenarios

Link shared the idea of “Sturgeon’s Law,” the notion that – as with almost any form of art – perhaps 90 percent of what’s produced in the realm of science fiction isn’t necessarily masterful or timeless. However, there are authors who could be considered geniuses in the field, such as Gene Wolfe, author of “The Book of the New Sun” and Ursula Le Guin, who wrote “The Left Hand of Darkness.”

Link compared Wolfe to Herman Melville, the author of “Moby Dick,” describing Wolfe’s work as “long and very challenging,” but also as “a brilliant masterpiece” that explores a future world in which the sun is dying.

As Link concluded his lecture, it was clear he’d come a long way from being the high school student “forced” to read ”A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens.

“It was nearly the death of me,” he joked. “I just couldn’t take it. I had no intention at all of going into literature as a career.”

But here he is.