When professor Jim Funaro introduced a class to Cabrillo in 1979 that used both science and science fiction to teach anthropology, he had no idea it would lead him to building whole new worlds.
But that’s just what he was doing four years later, when he organized the first Contact conference in Santa Cruz. An academic gathering that brought together some of the best minds in science, science fiction writing, and art to imagine possibilities for humanity’s future, it was centered around a main event Funaro called “COTI: Cultures of the Imagination,” a simulation that had conference participants designing human colonies and alien civilizations.
Larry Niven, the iconic science fiction author whose career stretches over five decades and includes 1970’s groundbreaking Ringworld, was at that first Contact in 1983, and remembers that not everything went smoothly with that first world-building experiment.
“We made mistakes,” Niven tells GT. “We broke up participants into two groups who would design alien worlds. On Sunday afternoon they would meet. We didn’t consider that humanities people would be hopeless at creating worlds. At later gatherings, we hard science writers would build the worlds first, and let the humanities play there.”
Niven, who returned to Contact as keynote speaker in 1995, is back at this year’s conference—which will be held at the Domain Hotel in Sunnyvale April 1-3—to return to the matter of world-building with a presentation on “The Legacy of Heorot,” explaining the backstory of a series he co-authored with consultation from Dr. Jack Cohen, one of the foremost researchers in fertility among all life forms. This year’s conference will also feature author Kim Stanley Robinson speaking about the “eccentric orbit” of science and science fiction, Funaro himself discussing “The Evolution of Star Trek as an American Mythos,” and more than two dozen other talks from science-fiction writers and NASA scientists, with titles like “Alien Civilizations: What Lies Beyond Our Imagination?” “What Will Commercial Spaceflight Cost in the Future?” and “Mars: Science and Science Fiction on the Red Planet.”