Volume 43 | Number 2 | Fall 2013

Idaho State University's Fantastical Sci-Fi Guru

Fall 2013 Issue | By Andrew Taylor

Time travel, Luke Skywalker, Frankenstein, Bilbo Baggins, Mary Poppins and jazz.

How does jazz fit in the list above? In Brian Attebery's opinion, jazz describes the way the creators of science fiction books, films and computer games build off one another and their genres. Like a jazz bassist influenced by Mingus then Stanley Clark and adding his own licks, these writers re-interpret their genres and improvise to create their own unique angles.

"I like to make the comparison to jazz, about the collaborative nature of science fiction," said Attebery, an ISU professor of English and philosophy since 1982. "Science fiction (and fantasy) develops by writers using the ideas of others and then developing them."

For example, Russian scientists proposed the idea of multi-generational interstellar vessels that travel close to the speed of light in the 1920s. By the 1930s stories were appearing that included generation starships.

"Other writers come along such as Robert Heinlein, and provide different angles, new subplots and new developments," Attebery said. "More recent writers such as Molly Gloss and Gene Wolfe have taken up the generation ship idea and there are still newer novels and short stories being written with different themes and different ways of imagining the setting. The advantage for the writer is that he doesn't have to make up stuff from scratch and the reader can recognize the story and see what's new and different."

Travel to the stars is just one of the staples of science fiction.

"Another example is the Frankenstein story of making an artificial life form, first invented by Mary Shelley back in 1820. Now you have a new one (story about artificial life) every month."

These improvisations and collaborative works become music to our minds. Thousands of college students nationwide enroll in college courses to get a grip on the richness of science fiction or fantasy literature, and many of those read an anthology that Attebery helped create. Attebery teamed with renowned fantasy/science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin and consultant Karen Joy Fowler to edit the Norton Book of Science Fiction, used in many college science fiction classes since it was created in 1993.

More recently, in 2012, Attebery was a contributor to the Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature and the forthcoming Oxford Companion to Science Fiction and his collection of scholarly articles Parabolas of Science Fiction, co-edited with Veronica Hollinger of Trent University, was released this year. He has published widely on his passions of sci-fi and fantasy in a variety of other publications. Since fall of 2006, he has been editor of the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, with graduate students in the ISU English department serving as editorial assistants.

He's also been lauded. Awards he has received include the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts and the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award in Myth and Fantasy Studies. He was honored as ISU's Distinguished Researcher in 1997 and was given an award for Outstanding Achievement in the Humanities by the Idaho Humanities Council in 2004. The Science Fiction Research Association honored him with its Pilgrim Award for lifetime achievement in science fiction and fantasy criticism in 2009.

Attebery, who got hooked on these genres in about first grade after reading the Oz books, gave some hints on what fuels his interest and accomplishments.

"The most engaging stories have always been fantastic myths, fairytales, legends and the like," he said. "I think people are interested in fantasy because it takes us out of ourselves and allows us to look back and see real life in a new way.

"There are so many new story lines with the same basic outline, but once you've put in characters, setting and images all drawn from experience, the old storyline becomes something new in each generation," he added. " I also think in disturbing times we want the coherence of a fairytale."

As for science fiction, Attebery said its influence is easily recognized.

"I think the world we live in has been partly imagined by science fiction writers," he said, while pointing at a laptop computer and gesturing to someone talking on a cell phone. "People often say we live in a science fiction world now. Just look around and you can see the implications of that."


Brian Attebery, a fourth-generation Idahoan who was raised in Caldwell, earned his bachelor's degree from The College of Idaho and his doctorate from Brown University. He married Jennifer Attebery, another ISU English and philosophy professor, on New Year's Eve of 1975 while in graduate school. The couple moved to Pocatello in 1982 when Brian was offered a job. Between the two of them, the Atteberys have earned three Fulbright Awards, two for Jennifer and one for Brian. Brian is also an adjunct instructor in the music department and teaches cello, an instrument he plays in the Idaho State Civic Symphony.

Brian's Recommendations

When pressed by ISU Magazine, ISU English Professor Brian Attebery offered this reading list of his Top 5 classic and contemporary books in both the fantasy and science fiction genres. His separation point between classic and contemporary is about 1980. It is worth noting, too, that Attebery said he thinks some of the most creative and compelling work in fantasy and science fiction is now on display in computer games and other forms of new media.

Classic Fantasy

J. R. R. Tolkien, "The Lord of the Rings"
C. S. Lewis, "Till We Have Faces"
Hope Mirrlees, "Lud-in-the-Mist"
George MacDonald, "Lilith"
Ursula K. Le Guin, "A Wizard of Earthsea"

Contemporary Fantasy

John Crowley, "Little, Big"
Diana Wynne Jones, "Fire and Hemlock"
Terry Pratchett, "Small Gods"
Jo Walton, "Tooth and Claw"

Classic Science Fiction

H. G. Wells, "The Time Machine"
Arthur C. Clarke, "Childhood's End"
Ray Bradbury, "The Martian Chronicles"
Catherine L. Moore, "The Best of C. L. Moore" (short fiction)
Ursula K. Le Guin, "The Left Hand of Darkness"

Contemporary Science Fiction

Geoff Ryman, "Air"
Eleanor Arnason, "Ring of Swords"
Kim Stanley Robinson, "Galileo's Dream"
Octavia Butler, "Blood Child" (short fiction)
David Mitchell, "Cloud Atlas"