Georgia Tech and science fiction are a natural fit, with the campus being a center for cutting-edge research in science and technology. No surprise then that Tech is a perfect setting for Lisa Yaszek, an associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in the School of Literature, Communication and Culture. Yaszek has devoted her career to speculative fiction — literature that examines the frontier of science and society. She has authored three books on the subject, served as president of the Science Fiction Research Association and is an editor of the science fiction studies journal Extrapolation. She shares some of her favorite sci-fi works and her vision of building a science fiction center at the Institute.
To boldly go: I’ve always been interested in science fiction. My first memory ever is of watching Star Trek with my parents. I grew up in Detroit, which is a science fiction-type city. RoboCop had it right.
Early influence: William Gibson’s Neuromancer was the book that defined cyberpunk as a genre. It captured the feeling of growing up in a place like Detroit. My husband and I have a little boy, and we named him after the protagonist of the book. Only our nerdy friends get the connection.
Studying sci-fi: My background is in very traditional literary criticism. Even when I was doing that I was interested in how literature helps us think through our relationship with science and technology. It’s the premier voice of modernity. Only science fiction can help us think through the future.
Nonsensical covers: The book covers are great. There’s a tradition of sci-fi cover artists not actually reading the books before painting the covers. There was one famous incident of an artist painting a cover with a white protagonist, but the protagonist was actually black.
Origins of sci-fi: Science fiction in America began in pulp magazines. Everyone got subjected to mail code laws, and they were classified with pornography. So retailers had to put them under glass.
Joining Georgia Tech: A postdoc position opened up at Tech, and it seemed like a good fit. Right after that, two longtime faculty members [including the late professor emeritus Bud Foote] who specialized in science fiction retired. That worked out well for me. It’s great teaching it at Georgia Tech. You can always have great conversations.
Favorites: For American authors, I like Paolo Bacigalupi. He’s an environmental writer, mostly post-peak oil sci-fi. For global writers, a lot of my current work is on Afrofuturism. Nalo Hopkinson and Minister Faust — obviously, that’s not his real name — are both good. Global writers, when they look at technology we share, they approach it and use it in different ways.
Tech festival: Monstrous Bodies was an arts and literature festival to capture all of the things we had going on. We brought in a collection of local authors including the editors of Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Students submitted fiction as well, and that was compiled in a book that’s also available online.
New science: I do think nanotech stories are really cutting edge. We think about the revolutionary function as opposed to more subtle impacts. We had a grant to look at nanotechnology and public perception. We thought it would be a simple line of influence, from science to public policy to science fiction. What we found was much more complex. A lot of the first generation of nanoscience and public policy was specifically drawing on and rejecting sci-fi that had come before.
Public influence: It really depends on the medium. A big budget film is going to do something different than something published in a journal or a blog.
Sci-fi cinema: Southland Tales is a brilliant mess. Some of the best science fiction films tend to be independent. Avatar, the story is what it is, but I like the idea of people literally plugging into their environment.
Sci-fi on TV: The original Star Trek and subsequent series really presented a vision of a better world, that rational people can get along and work together. Maybe that sounds utopian, but it’s a good goal. There’s lots of good sci-fi on TV right now. But [my husband and I are] mostly stuck with Thomas the Tank Engine. That’s kind of sci-fi in a way, though, with a talking train.
Weaknesses of sci-fi: It’s easy to have these amazing, fantastic innovations that have no impact on society. One or two technologies can radically change the world. I like to see writers think through the social implications.
Bud Foote Collection: We’ve just renamed it the Science Fiction Collection. It started in 1999 when Bud retired and donated us 8,000 items from his personal library. Now we’re up to 12 or 14,000 items. The Atlanta Science Fiction Society has been very generous. And authors David Brin, Paul di Filippo, Kathleen Ann Goonan and Kim Stanley Robinson have donated us copies of their books.
Movie posters: Most came from a sci-fi movie fest in Rome, Georgia. For $100 they framed all the posters and sent them to me. People tend to think the South is an anti-technological place. But that’s not true. The posters help remind us of that.
New developments: We’re opening a new science fiction reading room at the library and building an online sci-fi encyclopedia and research portal. We’re in the top 20 collections in the world and certainly the biggest in the Southeast. Our goal has always been to build on our resources and create a center for sci-fi.
Bounty of books: I am a print scholar. My husband is a sci-fi scholar too. About half our collection [is in the office]. Someday I’ll contribute it all to the library. I can’t wait to switch over to e-books. But there’s something cool about looking through old magazines and books. It gives us a real window into history.