Along with science, Cornellians produce science fiction, too

By: Bill Steele,  Cornell Chronicle
June 5, 2015

Next time you’re in a cocktail party discussion about science fiction, you’ll have a lot to brag about. The university has produced more than its share of notables in the field, including several mainstream names.

If you want more details, of course, ask a librarian. Fred Muratori, reference and instruction services librarian, reviewed Cornell faculty and student contributions to the field in a Reunion Weekend talk June 5, “Cornell Luminaries of Science Fiction,” to an enthusiastic group of alumni – some of whom seemed to be aspiring writers.

Among the biggest names might be Kurt Vonnegut Jr. ’43, known for “Cat’s Cradle, “Slaughterhouse-Five” and “Breakfast of Champions.” Although officially “mainstream,” his novels included such science-fictional ideas as an unknown state of matter that could destroy life on Earth, and jumping around in time to tell a story from several points of view. Like most science fiction, it was more about the social and political consequences than the science itself.

Cover of Slaughterhouse Five

In “Contact,” Carl Sagan explored the relationship between science, society, politics and spirituality.

“Gravity’s Rainbow” by Thomas Pynchon ’59 was a hit within the genre, nominated for a Nebula Award from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, but also earned mainstream praise.

Joanna Russ ’57 was also an award-winning genre writer, publishing widely in science fiction magazines and helping to spearhead the breakthrough of women into what had been a male-dominated field.

Moving into new media, Muratori reviewed the work of Ronald D. Moore ’86, a government major who went on to write “Star Trek” scripts and became executive producer of “Battlestar Galactica,” for which he won Emmy and Peabody awards. He now works on the series "Helix" and "Outlander."

Vonnegut occasionally referred to a fictitious but very Cornell-like university located somewhere east of Binghamton (one of his characters had his degree revoked for failing to pass the swim test), but current physics professor Paul McEuen went all the way: His novel “Spiral” – variously described as science fiction or techno-thriller – is set at Cornell.

Cover of Spiral

Although he was not menioned in the Reumion Weekend talk, Narendra "Naren" Kanakaiah Shankar Ph.D. '90, is an avid Star Trek fan who started as a writing intern on the original series and went on to write scripts for several incarnations of the franchise and to serve as a script editor and "science consultant." Later he worked on "Seaquest DSV," "Farscape" and "Grimm," and he is a producer for the forthcoming series "The Expanse."

Somewhere today, strolling across the campus, thinking improbable thoughts, is Cornell’s next science fiction luminary.

 

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