Is it science fiction, or the future coming into focus?

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By Joan Kjaer for the Press-Citizen

Rod Serling once said, “Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science fiction is the improbable made possible.”

Is there anyone who doesn’t marvel as the next new technological phenomenon rolls off the production line? Whether you like the new gadget and desperately want one for yourself, or whether you think it may be the ruination of all that’s good and true in the world, you’re likely to gasp or shake your head with the realization that what was once beyond even the imagination of ordinary mortals is now a quotidian reality.

Sometimes it feels like we’re living in the world of science fiction.

Well, maybe we are.

It was nearly 200 years ago that Mary Shelley imagined the creation of new life from an aggregation of individual parts in “Frankenstein.” Jules Verne wrote about high-powered space, air and underwater travel long before such means of transportation were invented. And at the dawn of the 20th century, H. G. Wells imagined a “War of the Worlds” where Martians used advanced weaponry to invade Victorian England and “The Time Machine” that could travel to the fourth dimension.

While the path of human progress and technological development hasn’t replicated these imagined scenarios exactly, in some ways they weren’t too far off. Similarly, today’s science fiction writers and filmmakers, all around the globe, are creating cutting edge, futuristic works that grapple with fundamental social and political problems, from climate change to racism, sexism and the global economy.

The Iowa City area will have a chance to participate in robust discussions of science fiction literature and cinema during a number of public events this week on the University of Iowa campus.

The radio and television program WorldCanvass, produced by UI International Programs, will focus on global science fiction at 5 p.m. Friday in the Senate Chamber of the Old Capitol Museum. We’ll investigate science fiction from a global perspective and speak with some of the top scholars and specialists in the genre — including award-winning filmmaker Alex Rivera.

Rivera’s 2008 feature film, “Sleep Dealer” won awards at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals and has been hailed by the New York Times as “a dystopian fable disguised as sci-fi adventure. ... Exuberantly entertaining.”

“Sleep Dealer” will be shown at 9 p.m. Saturday in the Bijou Theatre as part of a three-day UI conference, “Visions of the Future: Global Science Fiction Cinema.” The conference runs from Thursday to Saturday and features two keynote lectures, six academic panels, four film screenings, as well as the WorldCanvass program.

Science fiction is about ideas. It’s about you and me and visions of the future. The conference organizers (UI faculty members Jennifer Feeley and Sarah Ann Wells) and I hope you can attend some of these events, even if you don’t think science fiction’s your thing.

After all, not so long ago most of us couldn’t have imagined sitting in a coffee shop, walking on a downtown street, or riding the bus and seeing intensely focused individuals, not making contact with one another but firmly glued to their tiny handheld screens, tapping at their miniature keyboards, or drinking in whatever’s being piped through their headphones with a level of concentration that blocks out most of the outside world.

What we consider normal today was once beyond imagining.

Joan Kjaer is the host of WorldCanvass (http://international.uiowa.edu), a television and radio program sponsored by the University of Iowa International Programs.

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