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Professor's sci-fi stories translated for international audience

Thursday, December 10, 2015

LAWRENCE — An award-winning science fiction writer and University of Kansas professor is seeing her short-story work translated into Japanese, German and now Turkish.

For Kij Johnson, the international interest in her work is indicative of the broadening appeal of science fiction and success of KU's Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction, of which she is associate director.

"Globally, publishers still translate all of this American work because they see American science fiction as the heart of the field," said Johnson, who also serves as an assistant professor of creative writing in the Department of English.

When the Tokyo Sogensha publisher earlier this year released a Japanese version of her collection of stories, which includes "The Man Who Bridged the Mist," Johnson said it reinforced for her the amount of international interest in science fiction. Then a deal she reached with a prominent Turkish publisher recently cemented her view about the increasing globalization of the genre.

"One argument is that we live in a science-fiction world now, and that operates on two levels. We have replacement hearts. We have cars that drive themselves. These are real things that were science fiction before they became real," she said. "But also we live in a world where most of our media, seemingly more than half of our movies, are science fiction or fantasy."

Johnson said for decades most people looked at science fiction in the United States and England as the dominant sites for the genre, though Mexican, Filipino, Japanese and other cultures have their own traditions.

An opening up and translation of science-fiction works in different languages has led to a "cross-pollination" that likely would shape the sci-fi tradition in the future, she said.

As an experimental writer, she seeks to never write the same type of story twice, which fits sci-fi well, Johnson said. In "At the Mouth of the River of Bees," a woman travels cross-country with her dying dog to Montana, where she discovers the natural phenomenon of thousands of bees literally forming a river that closes a freeway.

"The Man Who Bridged the Mist" focuses on a civil engineer who is building a bridge with rod-iron suspension to cross a bottomless chasm on a strange planet.

"The segregation of sci-fi as its own basement full of egg-heads and robots and things has changed. It’s become a way of looking at the world and saying, 'What possibilities are there?'" Johnson said.

She credits the Gunn Center's recent work to form an international consortium for helping foster globalized interest in the genre. The center, named for James Gunn, KU emeritus professor of English and one of the first sci-fi scholars in the world, has one of the largest and most diverse sci-fi programs in the world, including an annual summer program of workshops on campus for writers and educators.

Johnson and Chris McKitterick, the center's director, have been working on the international program with scholars at University of California at Riverside, the University of Glasgow, Arizona State University, a college in India and many other schools.

Johnson is hopeful the globalization of science fiction continues and can help bridge gaps among countries and cultures through continued partnerships or translation of her stories.

"It is strange to see my name on something when I can't read any of it," she said. "But I'm very excited to have friends around the world who can."