Monday, August 26, 2013
(Pictured at the James Gunn panel are (from left to right) Nathaniel Williams, Michael Page, James Gunn, Chris McKitterick.)
What's so incredible about James Gunn? For starters, he's ninety years old this year, but could easily pass for twenty years younger. More importantly, though, he is what one conference speaker called "a triple threat": not only a successful author of science fiction, but a successful teacher of SF and creative writing, and a successful critic and historian of SF.
While other significant genre figures were associated with the Eaton Conference because they were to receive awards - Ray Harryhausen, Stan Lee and Ursula Le Guin all received Eaton Awards this year - Gunn was present because there was going to be a panel discussing the three strands of his career. The panel was part academic study, part reminiscence from those who have worked with Jim , and all celebration of his life and work. (The panel organisers told me they were inspired to do this by the Ray Bradbury tribute events I organised for last year's SFRA conference in Detroit.)
Apart from my ongoing interest in Bradbury and Harlan Ellison, who in any case I see as master fantasists rather than science fiction writers, I have been quite distant from the science fiction field for a number of years. But there was a time when I was fascinated by the genre, and particularly by its history as a literary genre that seemed to emerge alongside the industrial revolution. Around 1980, when I was a student (for the first time; I still am a student!) I discovered Gunn's book The Road to Science Fiction: From Gilgamesh to Wells. This was a remarkable book, which suddenly gave me that historical insight, where previously I just had a fractional and fractured knowledge of what SF was. Gunn wrote a clear history, in plain English and short chapters, and then gave the reader substantial excerpts from key texts to illustrate the points he was making about the emergence of the genre. It was, and remained, and excellent way of learning about how and why the genre came into existence. I would later learn that there are other interpretations of the emergence of the genre, but that doesn't matter.
Shortly after, I discovered there was a second volume to The Road to Science Fiction, subtitled From Wells to Heinlein; and a third, From Heinlein to Here. (And a fourth, and some time later there were yet more.) For anyone looking for a history of the genre, I still recommend this series, and they have remained in print.
One additional stroke of genius in the first volumes of the series was Gunn's inclusion of lists of recommended SF works and SF writers for further reading. I worked through these lists systematically over the next couple of years, a far more difficult task in those pre-internet days than it would be today.
I don't recall whether Gunn included any of his own works in the suggested reading category, but for some reason I was prompted to also sample his fiction. The Listeners appealed to me from its plot description as an account of scientists engaged in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and when I read it I was blown away by both the ease and artistry of the book, particularly its first chapter. Later I would track down as many other Gunn books as I could, and have fond memories of The Joy Makers, The Immortal, Crisis, and This Fortess World (which I was fortunate to find in a hardcover first edition from 1955).
At the Eaton Conference, Gunn explained that his career wasn't planned, but he just took opportunities as they arose. His response to each offer that came his way was, "Why not?" Thus it was that he came to be working at Kansas University by the mid-1960s, and later set up the first academic courses in SF, and the first research centre for SF (take a look at About SF for the present incarnation of what he developed at KU).
I took the opportunity of asking Jim Gunn how he came to collaborate with the legendary Jack Williamson, on the 1954 novel Starbridge. Jim explained that he attended a convention and, somewhat starstruck, recognised Williamson from a photograph on the back of a book. He pointed at Williamson and blurted, "You're Jack Williamson!" Later, he learned that Williamson was suffering a bout of writer's block, and Williamson turned over a partially complete version of Starbridge, which Gunn then completed. It was published by Gnome Press, and became Gunn's first published novel.
I couldn't resist mentioning to Jim that I had recognised him in the lift (elevator!) the day before - and that part of me had wanted to blurt, "You're James Gunn!", but I was too starstruck to say anything.
As it turns out, Jim Gunn is a charming, modest fellow, and it was exciting to meet him. It prompted me to take a look again at his books - and I still find The Listeners to be a remarkable work. Although it is fantastical, it has one of the best portrayals of scientists and scientific discovery I've ever seen in a work of fiction. Speakers on the Gunn panel also commended this as one of his best works - and both they and the audience members echoed my experience regarding The Road to Science Fiction. It seems James Gunn has been the gateway to SF not just to me, but to a couple of generations of SF fans and scholars. Jim talks about his own involvement with the genre in this recent interview in the Kansas City Star.
And now, in his 90th year, James Gunn has produced a new novel, Transcendental, and he's a Guest of Honour at the World Science Fiction Convention in San Antonio, Texas. Is this what they call a third act?