James E. Gunn, 1923-2020
Science fiction literature lost one of its titans when James E. Gunn died on Dec. 23, 2020. For me, growing up in the ’90s, a lot of science fiction literature was already in the past by the time I started reading it. Asimov and Heinlein died before I read a word they wrote. Wells and Verne, though their stories still resonate, were voices from over a century ago. Imagine my surprise when about a year ago, I was able to interview a man who embodied the history of science fiction.
John Kessel said in 2007 when Gunn was named a Grandmaster, “As a boy, he shook hands with H.G. Wells. In the late 1940s he sold fiction to John W. Campbell and throughout the 1950s he was a regular in Horace Gold’s Galaxy.” (Kessel) And he had been involved in science fiction ever since.
In many ways, he was one of the last of the old guard. He knew all the science fiction writers of yesteryear and could tell you all about them—writers like Jack Williamson, Fred Pohl, Clifford Simak, Robert Bloch, Theodore Sturgeon, Harry Harrison, Brian Aldiss, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Ben Bova, Samuel Delany, John Brunner, Harlan Ellison, and many more.
As a historian, editor, and scholar, Gunn worked tirelessly for the acceptance of science fiction as a legitimate academic field of study. Gunn founded the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas in 1970. Over the years, it has grown into the best-known science fiction program in the country.
I asked Gunn if he preferred writing or teaching. He said, “Each of them has their rewards and their challenges. I used to hear that writers shouldn’t teach because they draw on the same sources of energy, but I found them a relief from each other: you can only write alone, which makes writing a lonely business, and you can only teach in the company of others. Unlike some writers, I found writing to be hard work. In fact, one of my remarks to students who told me how much they enjoyed writing was ‘You must be doing it wrong.’ Teaching was fun. There were term papers to read, exams to give, and grades to assign, but aside from that it was fun to stand in front of a class and tell them about the thing I loved and see them respond.” (2)
Of his own works, he said, “I am fond of different books for different reason. The Immortals was important because it was my first major novel and became a TV movie and series and made the most money. Kampus was the most personal novel, because it came out of my experience. The Millennium Blues was my most artistic novel. I worked on it for twenty years thinking of it as a mainstream novel, but it ended up too close to the millennium itself, and it was published only in a collector’s edition and print on demand. And Transcendental was my tribute novel to the genre.” (SF Book Club)
I was surprised Gunn didn’t mention The Listeners, which was an important novel that predicted and inspired the creation of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).
When I asked Gunn about his legacy, he said, “I’m not sure I’ll have one, except as my former students and colleagues who now are continuing some of the programs I got started here… I think I have brought a sense of meaning and value to the thinking about science fiction that may continue while I am forgotten.” (SF Book Club)
Teaching sci-fi fits Gunn’s famous motto, “As I have been suggesting with every e-mail signature for the past decade (with only a trace of hyperbole), ‘let’s save the world through science fiction.’ I really believe that science fiction has the power to shape young minds in behalf of a better future and to liberate imaginations from the bonds that keep us tied to traditions that no longer function in today’s changing world.” (Troughton)
The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America made James Gunn its 24th Grand Master in 2007; he was inducted by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in 2015. He is also the only person to have served as both President of the SFWA and the SFRA.
“James Gunn, Grandmaster” by John Kessel. Delivered during the 2007 Nebula Awards ceremony in New York City, May 12, 2007. http://www.sfcenter.ku.edu/Kessel-appreciation.htm
“Interview with James E. Gunn” Science Fiction Book Club. Nov. 2019 https://middletownpubliclib.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/James-E-Gunn-Interview-Nov-2019.pdf
“Interview with SFWA Grand Master James Gunn” Amazing Stories by R.K. Troughton. July 10, 2013 https://amazingstories.com/2013/07/interview-with-sfwa-grand-master-james-gunn/