Sci-fi writer attracts students, fans at two campus events

Alan Dean Foster visited ASU Wednesday when he made an appearance at the opening of Noble Science Library’s new exhibit, “End of the Golden Age: Science Fiction Before and After the Atomic Bomb.”

The exhibit, on display through Oct. 12, features copies of the magazine “Astounding Science-Fiction” from the 1930s and 1940s, science fiction works from the ASU Libraries’ Special Collections and a collection of Foster’s papers.

Foster has written novelizations for the “Star Trek,” “Star Wars,” “Alien” and “Transformers” franchises and over 100 science fiction novels. He also has story credits for 1979’s “Star Trek: the Motion Picture,” and a copy of the screenplay is displayed at the exhibit.

In his discussion, Foster described how he happened into a career writing science fiction. After applying on a whim, he was offered acceptance at UCLA’s film school, which he chose to attend, forgoing prior law school plans. He wrote the story for 1979’s “Star Trek: the Motion Picture”  — a copy of the script is part of the exhibit — and said that while he loved movies, he didn’t love the movie business. He moved from Los Angeles to Prescott with his wife 32 years ago and said “movies literally prompted our move to Arizona.”

In a second event that day, Foster appeared at the kick-off event of the Science Fiction TV Dinner series, hosted by ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination. The event featured a showing of the "Star Trek: The Original Series" episode, “Arena” followed by a discussion between Foster, Center for Science and the Imagination Director and assistant professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and Department of English, Ed Finn; and Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics and professor of civil and environmental engineering and professor of law, Braden R. Allenby.

Foster chose the episode because of its origins. Frederic Brown bases “Arena” on a short story of the same name and Foster said it was unusual at the time to see a show based on an already published story.  The magazine where the story first appeared is part of the “End of the Golden Age” exhibit.

In his remarks to the audience, Foster cited his love of travel as the inspiration for his writing and reason for his love of science fiction.

“A lot of the places I want to go don’t exist,” he said, likening himself to an “inter-galactic travel agent.”

When asked how he felt about the film “Avatar,” Foster smiled and said he wasn’t allowed to talk about it. There has been controversy as to what extent, if any, the James Cameron film borrowed from Foster’s 1975 novel, “MidWorld.”

The three discussed the use of “The Other” in science fiction, the influence the genre has on technology and how it has always been a subversive literature, noting its popularity in the USSR.

“Why is it people developed handheld diagnostic tools?” Allenby asked. “Because the science fiction guys imagined it.”

Foster urged the audience to keep in mind that there has always been science fiction written about the future of mankind, while Allenby said, “The thing to remember about science fiction is that it’s a lens, not a prediction,” echoing Foster’s earlier comparison to science fiction as a “mirror for humanity.”

In “Arena,” Captain Kirk spares the life of a Gorn and is congratulated by white-robed Metron for his display of mercy.

Some audience members were longtime fans while some came for other reasons.

Michael Arcaro, a freshman film student said he heard about the event through an email sent out by the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. A fan of Star Trek and familiar with Foster’s work, Arcaro said he thought it was a good discussion about how the episode showed that life changes over time.

However, not all who attended were “Trekkies.”  Sustainability masters student Nivi Rengarajan had never seen a Star Trek episode prior to Wednesday and attended because she is a student of Allenby’s.

“I find the bottom line behind it — that mercy is an evolved trait — really cool,” she said, and that she plans to check out the exhibit.

Both events were part of the Project Humanities fall kick-off. The Center for Science and the Imagination officially launches on Sept. 24.

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