Polymathic Academy hosts science fiction conference

It began with Star Trek. An intimate group of students had gathered in the Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study in the corner of Doheny Memorial Library’s second floor for the opening round of discussion of Science Fiction Los Angeles, a conference dedicated to exploring the relationship between the genre of science fiction and the city of Los Angeles.

The academy co-presented the event with the USC Dornsife College for Letters, Arts and Sciences and the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. As students began to file in, Academic Director of Programs Karin Huebner announced, “We need some sci-fi music,” pressing play on the intro to the Star Trek original series.

The first batch of attendees were all loosely affiliated with the Polymathic Academy. Many were students in the year-long course “Los Angeles: A Polymathic Inquiry,” co-taught by Huebner and professor William Deverell.

Others were members of a selective group of students who applied to be a part of this conference. They were selected not on the basis of their academic major’s relevance to the conference’s subject, but rather their willingness to engage in a polymathic (Greek for “interdisciplinary”) conversation about science fiction and Los Angeles.

Huebner started it off by sharing her introduction into the world of science fiction as a young girl, when her family made a weekly tradition of watching new Star Trek episodes as they came out. The student attendees nodded along as Huebner discussed how far ahead of its time Star Trek was: The 1960s original series staged the first interracial kiss on television and put female characters in prominent leadership positions.

As students spoke about their sci-fi obsessions, a consensus began to emerge — the value of science fiction is not that it can predict where society is headed, but rather that its fantastical elements let the audience reflect on contemporary social problems with some critical distance.

Star Trek could move its progressive ideas past the Hollywood gatekeepers because it was set in the future. Perhaps it deserves some of the credit for changing the way people thought about social issues for the past 50 years.

The discussion shifted toward another divisive topic in the sci-fi community: scientific accuracy. The starting point was Interstellar, a film for which California Institute of Technology professor Kip Thorne was hired as a science consultant to vet the theoretical plausibility of each scene.

But the conference’s second emphasis was never forgotten. Los Angeles’ importance to the sci-fi genre became clear as students listed their favorite sci-fi creators, such as Ridley Scott, whose film Blade Runner featured the city as an essential setting, as well as Angelenos Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein.

After pizza, students packed onto a USC bus headed for a screening of Her in the Linwood Dunn Theater at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Hollywood. Along the way, students shared what drew them to the conference.

“When I first came here, I had a really hard time understanding L.A.,” said Austin Rogers, a sophomore majoring in history.

He mentioned Jack Parsons,  one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, as an example of how he learned more about the city’s dynamic and creative culture.

“There’s so many things going on that you can create your own world,” he said.

Gabriela Gomes, an MFA student in interactive media, shared an even more direct interest in the conference.

“I’m always asking the question, ‘What if?’” she said. “I’m interested in how sci-fi makes us reflect on the direction we’re going right now.”

When asked about what she hoped to accomplish with Science Fiction Los Angeles, Huebner, who was sitting in the front of the bus, gestured to the talkative group of students behind her.

“When I’m sitting here and I hear this amazing chatter — this is what the academy is about,” Huebner said.

More important to her than addressing the conference’s title topic was developing a community of “braniacs” from different academic and personal backgrounds.

She said that students often leave Polymathic Academy events with the ability to “think more efficiently” because through talking to one another, they learn to see the world differently.

The Her screening was introduced by Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, who pointed out that despite the film’s gloomy portrayal of the technological future, it offered an optimistic and sophisticated prediction of the city’s future infrastructure.

“I always love the audience reactions when he pops up out of the subway and he’s at Venice Beach,” Hawthorne said.

The conference continued Saturday with panel discussions on the history of science fiction produced in, for and about Los Angeles. Among the speakers were tech website Boing Boing’s Mark Frauenfelder and game designer Tracy Fullerton.

The event concluded with a video presentation about author Ray Bradbury’s life in Los Angeles, a conversation between writers Steve Erickson and Scott Timberg and closing remarks from professors William Deverell and David Ulin.

With a successful turnout of over 160 students, Science Fiction Los Angeles sparked a major conversation about the role Los Angeles plays in producing famous sci-fi works in popular culture.

“Most students at USC inhabit L.A. as a space,” said Remaya Campbell, a junior majoring in law, history and culture. “But, this class lets you experience L.A. as a narrative.”