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Science Fiction Foundation

Entry updated 12 July 2021. Tagged: Community.

UK research unit set up in 1971 at the North East London Polytechnic (which became the University of East London in 1992), but semi-autonomous, being controlled by a council, partly academics and partly sf professionals, and including George Hay, whose enthusiasm had much to do with the SFF's inception. Peter Nicholls, the first administrator (1971-1977), was followed by Malcolm Edwards (1978-1980). The SFF was the first and only academic body in the UK set up to investigate sf: until 1980 it also supervised graduate research work in the field and investigated the usefulness of sf in education generally (see SF in the Classroom).

Severe restrictions on UK educational budgets in 1980 led to the freezing of the position of administrator when Edwards left in May of that year, though Colin Greenland, as an Arts-Council-funded Writing Fellow attached to the SFF, kept the flag flying for a period, and Charles Barren served as (unsalaried) acting administrator for some years, followed by Ian MacPherson, Ted Chapman and, most importantly, John Radford, all variously designated, none paid. During 1980-1991 the SFF was staffed only by a single part-time employee, Joyce Day, becoming primarily known for its journal, Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction, and its research library, housed at the Barking precinct of the Polytechnic, the largest publicly accessible Collection of sf in the UK outside the British Library, with circa 20,000 items (that figure has since grown to circa 35,000 items) including magazines and fanzines, plus significant archive and manuscript holdings.

In 1991 it seemed briefly that the Polytechnic – then about to be granted, as were other UK polytechnics, the more prestigious designation "University" – was prepared to refinance the SFF, and an additional clerical staff member was introduced. But the University soon declared itself unwilling to sustain the collection, or to house the academic journal, or to appoint an academic lecturer to the essential post of Administrator; and indeed proposed to charge commercial rental rates for the space occupied by the SFF. In October 1992, the Council of the SFF therefore agreed in principle to move in early 1993 to the University of Liverpool, which had expressed much interest in the chance to gain so substantial (and unique) a research resource. The University of Liverpool selected Andy Sawyer as Librarian/Administrator in 1993; an MA course in sf was announced; and a series of "SF Texts and Studies" (now with over thirty volumes) planned by the Liverpool University Press. The Collection was formally transferred by a Memorandum of Agreement into the University's keeping on 26 January 1995, signed on behalf of the "Trustees of the Friends of Foundation" by John Clute, who has served in various functions with the Foundation since before 1980. Ownership of SFF books, periodical and archive material remained temporarily with the Friends of Foundation, which had been formed in the late 1980s specifically in order to help sustain the SFF through the difficult period that was, even then, anticipated. The Friends subsequently applied for, and received, the status of educational charity, with the same objectives as the original Foundation; in 1998 the Friends were renamed "The Science Fiction Foundation", the term Friends fell out of use, and the Foundation was re-established as a registered charity under a Board of Trustees and a Committee responsible for its various activities. Membership of the Foundation, which includes a subscription to its journal, is open to all who support its aims and objectives.

In practice, the activity of the Foundation centres on its journal, edited since 1980 by David Pringle (1980-1986), Edward James (1986-2002), Farah Mendlesohn (2002-2007), Graham Sleight (2007-2013) and Paul March-Russell (current); on its Collection (see above); and on its support of academic conferences. In particular, two major conferences were held at Liverpool, in 2001 and 2004.In 2007 the SFF began the first of a series of Masterclasses in SF criticism, designed to allow those with a serious interest in the practice of sf criticism to work with major figures in the field. Recent masterclass tutors included Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Roz Kaveney, Adam Roberts, Liz Williams and Gary K Wolfe. The SFF has also offered small bursaries to support research in its library, and encouraged academic writing on sf by means of a regular essay prize; in 2011 it collaborated in and helped fund extensive research for The Journalism of H G Wells: An Annotated Bibliography (2012) by David C Smith, edited by Patrick Parrinder with a descriptive index of journals by Mike Ashley, under the auspices of the H G Wells Society.

The Science Fiction Foundation Collection, under the strong support of the University of Liverpool, has grown to become one of the most important archives in its field, enhancing archives previously held at Liverpool (such as that of Olaf Stapledon) and those subsequently acquired by the university (such as that of John Wyndham). Funding was obtained to catalogue the collection electronically in the context of both Liverpool University's own on-line catalogue, and as a "Science Fiction Hub" website linking to other scholarly resources. Several large donations of material enhanced the research value of the Collection. For the accession of new titles and funding for preservation/conservation, however, the Collection is entirely dependent on donations and fund-raising by the Science Fiction Foundation.

In 2001, the Foundation began a series of science lectures at the annual UK Eastercons in memory of George Hay. Recent George Hay lecturers have been Oliver Morton, David Southwood, Simon Conway Morris, and Alice Jenkins. The Foundation was also involved, as individuals and collectively, with the British Library sf exhibition "Out of This World: Science Fiction But Not As You Know It" (May-September 2011).

Arthur C Clarke was a patron of the SFF until his death in 2008. Current patrons are Neil Gaiman, Nalo Hopkinson and space scientist David Southwood. Council and ordinary members have included numerous UK sf writers as well as such distinguished US writers as James Blish. The SFF provides judges for the Arthur C Clarke Award, and remains an essential link between academic, professional, and fannish interests in sf. [PN/JC/AS]


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