In Spring 2006, I was lucky enough to get into the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame's on-line science fiction class taught by James E. Gunn. It was a tough class, but a very rewarding experience as we learned such things as the anatomy of a short story, and the importance of character, setting and dialogue from an expert. In November 2006 I was delighted to learn Jim won a well-deserved and prestigious award (see below). Jim was gracious enough to agree to be interviewed for the first 2007 issue of Electric Spec. Thanks, Jim!
University of Kansas English Professor Emeritus James E. Gunn, author of such books as The Joy Makers, The Listeners, Alternate Worlds: The Illustrated History of Science Fiction, Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction (1983 Hugo Award),The Science of Science-Fiction Writing, and Gift from the Stars, was chosen to be the 2007 Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for a lifetime's achievement in science fiction and/or fantasy. He's a past president of the Science Fiction Writers of America and of the Science Fiction Research Association. He's won many awards, for a variety of accomplishments including literary achievement and excellence in teaching. He founded the J. Wayne and Elsie M. Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction, and helped found AboutSF.
Why do people read fiction?
I've written an entire essay about this question (and no doubt a book
could be written). In short, though, I think fiction is a way in which
we can experience other people's lives in a way that makes sense of
them, and the universe in which they live. Fiction is just; life isn't.
We learn our sense of right and wrong from stories. Fiction also gives
us emotional release. It leads us to care about what happens to people
we can identify with and then releases that caring in a way that we
interpret as pleasure. It makes us feel, and the end of all fiction is
to arouse and satisfy emotions in the reader; in science fiction,
sometimes that is done through intellectual insights but no less an
How is reading like sex?
I'll address fiction rather than all reading. The release we feel when
the characters we have been led to care about finally achieve their
resolution is akin to the release we feel from sex.
How did you first get interested in science fiction (SF)?
I started with fairy tales, Hugh Lofting's Dr. Doolittle books, and some
juvenile historical novels in the school library while in second grade,
graduated to Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan novels that I found in my
grandmother's back closet, moved from there to the hero pulp magazines
(beginning with Doc Savage) that my father brought home during the early
1930s, and then discovered SF magazines (Amazing Stories, Wonder
Stories, Astounding Stories of Super Science) in a used magazine store
in downtown Kansas City. I was hooked, and ransacked the public library
for stories like these. Later I got hooked again when, beginning in
1939, Famous Fantastic Mysteries began reprinting the Munsey fantasies.
You started writing SF in 1948. How has SF changed over the years?
There are a lot more SF writers and fewer magazines, more opportunity to
get published in books but more difficulty in getting a short story or a
novel accepted. A couple of decades ago I was on a panel at a Kansas
City convention discussing the problems of getting published, and I
looked around at the half-dozen writers on the panel and said, "You're
the problem." When I began writing in 1948, I was the only writer (and
as far as I knew, the only SF reader) in Kansas City. I didn't meet
another writer until I attended my first convention, the SF WorldCon in
Chicago in 1952. Standards have climbed; opportunities have multiplied;
new writers with new and better skills have emerged. But the genre
experience when everybody had read everything is gone, and the
brotherhood I felt in 1952 has diminished as individual writers and
readers splinter into various sub-divisions of literature, film, gaming,
etc. So we can celebrate opportunity while we miss togetherness.
How has the SF market changed over the years?
When I started writing, the magazines were dominant, and this gave the
field its center. Now the books are dominant, and the center cannot
hold. Maybe a dozen writers could make a living (a limited living
though it may have been) writing SF in the late 1940s; most writers did
it in their spare time. Now there may be hundreds of writers working
full-time. That's good. But it also means that they sometimes must
write books from need rather than from desire.
With 26 books and approximately 100 stories published, what's your
personal favorite book or story among those you've written?
It's hard to choose one among many. I could cite a handful that I'm
particularly fond of, often for different reasons: The Joy Makers, The
Immortals, The Listeners, Kampus, The Dreamers, and The Millennium
What's your favorite book or story written by someone else?
That's even tougher. I liked different books at different times in my
life: I read a lot of historical novels when I was young (I liked Neil
Swanson); detective novels (I liked Raymond Chandler); literary novels
(I liked Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe). Among fantasy writers, I was fond
of A. Merritt's novels--any of them. Among SF writers, Heinlein, of
course--particularly The Puppet Masters, which I still teach; anything
by Fred Pohl or Clifford Simak; Alfred Bester. Lots of others.
The Listeners has met with critical and commercial success over the
years. To what do you attribute that?
Critical success, maybe; commercial success, modestly at best.
Certainly I was happy that Scribner's published it, and published it as
a novel, not a science-fiction novel. Maybe it gained some traditional
readers because of that and because it incorporated some literary
virtues, and SF readers recognized it, so it got them as well. It also
sold well through the Science Fiction Book Club. Some critics and other
writers may have liked it because it focused on characters dealing with
inter-human communication as well as alien-human communication.
If I had to guess, I'd say because it was based on other people's
research and ideas, including the book We Are Not Alone by Walter
Sullivan, and the work of Carl Sagan and many others. So it appealed to
scientists. It also tried to tell a good story, though through
unconventional means, including description of a project that might have
to endure for 100 years without results, so it appealed to SF readers.
And it developed through strong characters and literary allusions, so it
appealed to mainstream readers. Paul Shuch, president of the SETI
League, told me once that The Listeners had done more for SETI than any
other book, so maybe it was influential as well.
Your new book, Gift from the Stars, also deals with first contact; what
is it about the human psyche that is so drawn to the idea of
Some of us hate the idea that we may be all alone in the universe, that
the entire future of rationality in the universe depends on us. Others
think it's unlikely that rational life could have happened just once in
the vast universe filled with galaxies on this little backwater planet.
Others are looking for help from the stars or fearing destruction. Of
course there are just as many who think humanity represents the only rational
creatures in the universe and prefer it that way. Certainly the contact
with other intelligences would be as exhilarating (or as traumatic) as
anything imaginable, and how we respond to that will determine
humanity's fate and maybe its transcendence. So it represents a
critical moment (maybe THE critical moment) in humanity's long history,
and it behooves us to contemplate it before it happens (if it happens).
What makes The Joy Makers a modern SF classic?
Because George Zebrowski called it that when he edited a series for
Crown Publishers. More seriously, I have no business calling anything
of mine a classic of any kind. But I've always liked The Joy Makers and
a few film makers have thought it would make good film, because it deals
with a philosophical question (what would happen if we had a science of
happiness?) in a dramatic narrative that seems appropriate.
What did you try to achieve with Alternate Worlds: The Illustrated
History of Science Fiction?
Alternate Worlds started out as a series of lectures for my first formal
SF class in 1970. An editor for Prentice-Hall came by my office and
asked if I'd be interested in writing a book about fiction writing. I
said no, but I have these lectures that might make a good book about SF.
He wrote back a couple of months later and said he'd tried them on some
SF teachers and they said they wouldn't use such a book, but what would
I think about a "lavishly illustrated coffee-table book" about SF. The
editor-in-chief decided it was time for a coffee-table book, and I was
in the right place to provide it. As for what I was trying to do, it
was to convey my love for SF, my experience in reading it, and my sense
of its historicity.
Where do you think ezines stand in relation to the fanzines and prozines
I think the implication of the question, that ezines occupy a position
between fanzines and prozines seems accurate. Historically fanzines
offered an opportunity for fans to try out their writing, both critical
and creative, before it was ready for the prozines, and the ezines serve
that function today. But the prozines are declining in number, in
circulation, and in influence (when I started writing, the prozines were
almost all there was, and they shaped SF and SF writers), ezines provide
a broader opportunity to get published and sometimes get paid for it.
Writing for pay is a critical step in a writer's evolution. Some
ezines--largely newszines or reviewzines--are becoming influential, and
some fiction published in ezines is now being considered for awards; but
it is difficult to contemplate the development of ezines into the
gatekeeper role of the 1930s-1960s prozines.
Do you think the unity of SF has disintegrated yet?
Certainly SF fandom and the publishing of SF itself are far different
than they were when I started in the late 1940s, or even into the 1950s
and the 1960s. Then everyone had read everything, and the extended
conversation that is SF could be informed and influential. Today it is
impossible to read even a small portion of what is published or viewed
or gamed, and SF consumers have splintered into interest groups, even
with the published literature itself (which has been invaded by aliens
from the viewing part until what is written specifically for publication
is difficult to locate). Similarly what is being written is created by
authors more in tune with other aspects of the field and aimed at those
differing audiences, a situation complicated by the merging of SF into
adjacent fields, fantasy, for instance, and the mainstream, as well as
writers from those areas adopting SF concepts for their own purposes.
But a core constituency and a core body of work still remains, and I
hope it survives, because that is where the peculiar SF virtues reside.
Your six-volume series, The Road to Science Fiction, is an impressive
overview of the SF genre; how did it come about?
After Alternate Worlds was published, Barry Lippman, then an editor for
NAL's Mentor Books, called me, complimented me on the book, and asked if
I had an idea for a book I might do for Mentor. I suggested a volume of
SF theory and when that didn't appeal to the editorial board suggested a
historical anthology that would trace the origins of SF up to H. G.
Wells. When that book sold well, the new editor at Mentor agreed to let
me do two more volumes, which turned into #2 and #3 (#3: From Heinlein
to Here, covering the period from 1940 to about 1980, has always been
the most popular), and when those sold well, the new editor (I had
almost half a dozen over the history of the project) agreed to let me do
#4, which considered the literary uses of SF.
I had discussed with the
editor the possibility of doing a fifth volume covering British SF (a
number of British stories had been included in the first four volumes,
but I still felt that another entire volume could be devoted to the
particular characteristics of British SF) and a sixth volume covering
international SF. We were approaching agreement when New American
Library took a look at sales and discovered they were running only about
2,000 copies or so a year. NAL had a standard of 5,000 copies for mass
market paperbacks to continue keeping books in stock, though only 2,000
for trade paperbacks. NAL considered reprinting the books as trade
paperbacks but instead decided to drop the series. My German publisher
had already approached me asking if I had any other volumes in mind, and
I agreed to do #5 and #6 for Heyne. By that time I had been approached
by White Wolf, which agreed to publish #5 and #6 in the U.S. White Wolf
decided to drop #3 and #4 even though they were selling well (it never
got around to reprinting #1 and #2) and Scarecrow Press (which has
published a number of my books) reprinted #1-4 in updated and expanded
form, and that is the current situation (White Wolf still has copies of
#5 and #6, at last accounting).
Are you still the only person to be a past president of SFWA and the
Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA), and what is the
significance of SFRA?
My career has seemed to span the creative and the critical areas of SF,
and the fact that I was president of both associations provides a kind
of validation of that. Both organizations were created within a few
years of each other--SFWA to deal with writerly issues, SFRA, with
teaching and scholarship. Often the creative and critical functions are
at odds, but a few teachers and scholars have always belonged to SFWA
and a number of writers have belonged to SFRA. In addition, writers
often have been involved in writing criticism and reviews as well as
short stories and novels (for example: Damon Knight, James Blish, A. J.
Budrys, and others, who made significant critical contributions
beginning in the 1940s and into the 1950s and beyond), so the
distinction between creating and critiquing is not as foreign nor as
divisive as in other fields. I'm still the only person who has been
president of both organizations (and won both of their career awards;
Damon Knight also won both career awards).
How did speculative fiction become an accepted area of academic study?
World War II was won, in some measure, in the laboratory and its prime
innovations, the rocket and the atom bomb, were identified with science
fiction (Ted Sturgeon commented that SF was dismissed as "that Buck
Rogers stuff"). That validation created a boom in SF publication--first
magazines, then books, finally films and TV--that continues through this
day. Teaching also was validated, and first fans such as Sam Moskowitz
and then long-time fans turned teachers, such as Mark Hillegas at
Colgate, Tom Clareson at Wooster, and Jack Williamson at Eastern New
Mexico, created courses. By the time I returned to full-time teaching
in 1970, the chairman of the department commented, "Some younger members
of the Department hope you will be willing to teach a course in science
fiction." The 1960s, it might be noted, also was a decade of students
making their voices heard, first in terms of race relations, then of
campus governance, and then in opposition to the war in Vietnam. They
found the notion of taking a course in science fiction rebellious and
exciting. Enrollments were overwhelming; I had 165 students in my first
class. Gradually the novelty wore off, but enrollments continued around
50 as long as I was teaching the course during the regular semester.
Why did you establish The J. Wayne and Elsie M. Gunn Center for the
Study of Science Fiction (CSSF) at KU?
I created the Center for the Study of Science Fiction in 1982 as a focus
for our various efforts in SF at the university--the courses I was
teaching (including the Intensive English Institute on the Teaching of
Science Fiction in the summer), the collections the University Library
was putting together, our film series, and our other outreach efforts.
When my father died, my brother decided to honor him and my mother by
endowing the Center and the Regents agreed to name the Center in their
What do you mean by "Let's save the world through SF?"
It's hyperbole, of course: I'm not sure the world is in danger of
destruction, though it may be, and if it is I'm not sure anyone or
anything can save it. But I think we need to try, not in any specific
way but in the spreading of SF's capabilities as far as we can. From my
earliest contacts with SF I recognized qualities that I did not find in
other kinds of fiction: a realization of the continuity of existence
from the remote past to the distant future, the relationship of present
decisions and actions to the futures we and our descendants will
inhabit, a recognition of mutual humanity that emphasizes species
concerns above those of individuals or tribal or national groups, a
willingness to work together for a better world, and general good will.
H. G. Wells said that the world was in a race between education and
catastrophe. I think SF is a major part of that education, and we all
can help by introducing more people into its charms and values,
particularly young people. David Brin and I, with help from SFWA, SFRA,
and Tor Books, have created a website to help out, primarily through
coordinating volunteer activities. It's www.aboutSF.com. Look it up.
See if there is some way you, too, can help save the world through SF.
One of your many claims to fame is your definition of SF. Can you
remind our readers what it is?
Everyone has a favorite definition, and I'm not sure mine is any better
than any else's (except that I have more experience in thinking about
it). In fact it have a lot of definitions, some long, some short. I
prefer the shorter ones that I used to use for the final exam in my SF
class (choose one and defend it!): Science fiction is the literature of
change; science fiction is the literature of the human species; science
fiction is a (note not "the") literature of ideas. If I had to choose
one, slightly longer, it would be: Science fiction is the literature of
the human condition experiencing meaningful change.
How would you differentiate between SF and fantasy?
In the same vein, while SF is the literature of change, fantasy is the
literature of difference. But there are lots of distinctions, not all
of which hold for all examples. The major distinction I make is in the
way we read them: we read SF skeptically, asking hard questions about
how we got to the SF world and how things work there; but we read
fantasy naively--that is, if we ask hard questions the fantasy becomes
unreadable. Of course the more common occurrence is to read SF as if it
were fantasy, that is, without asking hard questions, and then it
becomes adventure SF, even when the work responds best to the skepticism
that makes the most of the author's research, imagination, and
How is SF writing a science?
I presume you refer to the title of my book The Science Of
Science-Fiction Writing. I took that title from an essay by John W.
Campbell, Jr., in the 1947 collection Of Worlds Beyond, edited by Lloyd
Eshbach. Campbell was discussing the principles of science-fiction
writing that he had evolved during the Golden Age. I was putting
together what I had learned from teaching fiction writing, science
fiction, and SF writing since 1958. SF writing still may be more of an
art than a science, but I think it can be taught, and in my mind that
makes it a science.
What unique challenges does the SF writer face?
The mainstream author inherits the world of everyday experience; the
mainstream story deals with how the particular characters interpret and
interact with that world, and the reader generalizes from their special
circumstances. SF authors have to create new worlds built upon the
crucial change (the "novum," Darko Suvin calls it) that makes the story
SF. After creating the world--the overpowering presence in any
hard-core SF work--the author must work hard to make his characters seem
real, even when they are minimized by their environment, if readers are
to get the most from their reading experience.
As a teacher, do you have any writing tips for speculative fiction
I can't help a bit of realism. An old maxim for writing teachers is
that if you can discourage someone from going into writing you should,
because the only ones who should continue are those who can't be
discouraged. But if writing is the only thing that will make a person
happy, remember that it doesn't pay well (on average), it offers more
rejection (and consequent discouragement) than most, and it isolates the
writer from a good deal of normal human experience. So:
- Don't quit
your day job, even if you have sold a story or two, or even a novel.
Find out who you are and what makes you different from everybody else,
and find a way to put that into appropriate narrative and language that
communicates to other people, and you will get published and might even
be successful. Note that writers become writers because they like to
read, and their first impulse is to recreate their reading; but no one
wants second- or third-hand (insert your favorite author here)--they
want first-hand you.
- Write regularly and write with a purpose; the
prime purpose is to get published; and, as Heinlein suggested, send what
you have written out to someone who can publish it; and keep sending it
- Works get published because they fall into the hands
of an editor who knows how to publish them.
- In your writing, don't
give the editor an excuse to say "no"--see the article on the author's
strategy in The Science Of Science-Fiction Writing.
- Remember the
reader: always consider the reader's expectations and either fulfill
them or offend them, but never forget that everything in a work, even
the most insignificant word, creates an expectation in the reader's mind
that must be dealt with.
What three novels have had the most profound impact on SF in the last
twenty years and why?
I won't be able to tell what novels will have a profound impact until a
couple of decades have passed. So, I will pick a couple of older novels
and suggest where a third might be found: William Gibson's Neuromancer,
even though it was published in 1984; Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand
Of Darkness, which goes back to 1969; and one of several recent novels
dealing with the Singularity, typified by Charles Stross's Accelerando,
although it could be some other novel of this kind. The influential
works are going to have SF virtues (that is, originality of concept
executed with the craft that makes the most of those concepts), not
mainstream virtues, because SF tropes will always seem like interlopers
in the mainstream; they can invigorate the mainstream but they cannot
With the recent success of speculative fiction movies and TV shows, it's
been said that speculative fiction has become 'mainstream'. Have the
walls of the SF ghetto fallen?
I concluded Alternate Worlds, which was completed in 1972 though not
published until 1975, with the comments: "As the science fiction writer
becomes more concerned with character, with language, with technique, he
will be better accepted by non-science fiction readers and critics....
"Meanwhile, mainstream writers will continue their explorations of what
previously was the exclusive preserve of the science fiction writer--the
future and other lands unknown--and they will do so with increasing
"In the middle the two will meet and be virtually indistinguishable....
"A genre called science fiction will continue to exist....
"The unity of science fiction, however, will begin to disintegrate
without the magazines as a focus; the new wave is a portent. The
consensus future and the philosophical position on which it was built
will begin to fall apart as science fiction splinters into a hundred
markets, into a thousand disparate, individual visions.
"Beyond this the shape of things to come grows blurred, and the long
journey, the odyssey of science fiction, from Homer to Hamilton,
Heinlein, Herbert, and Harlan, has reached if not an end at least a
pause, a place to sit for a moment and contemplate the future. Tomorrow
the endless voyage begins again...."
I think those predictions have pretty much come to pass: there still is
science fiction, and I think there will continue to be something
uniquely SF; but mainstream writers increasingly pick up SF tropes, and
SF writers are passing in the mainstream.
What does 'the future isn't what it used to be' mean?
Arthur C. Clarke suggested the phrase as the motto for SFWA, comparable
to the Mystery Writers of America's slogan, "Crime does not
pay--enough." It means that the SF writer's task grows increasingly
more difficult as science and technology catch up to the SFal
imagination and as old tropes get worn out.
When is your next online class through the Science Fiction Museum and
Hall of Fame?
I haven't had any requests to continue the online class in SF writing
since Leslie Howle left SFM. The staff is smaller and probably busier.
Maybe they don't have time to handle the arrangements. I know I'M
What's the Intensive English Institute on the Teaching of Science
Fiction and what's coming up in 2007?
In 1971-72, when I was president of SFWA, I got a lot of letters from
teachers saying, "I've been assigned to teach a course in science
fiction. What do I teach?" In 1974 I created the Intensive English
Institute on the Teaching of Science Fiction as a three-week (now
two-week) short course to offer a background in SF. Over the years a
couple of hundred teachers have taken the course, including some from
the Netherlands, Denmark, Argentina, Canada, Japan, China, New Zealand,
and Australia. Now teachers have more opportunity to study SF in
college, as courses have become more common, but I still offer the
three-credit-hour course for currently enrolled students and for the two
or three teachers who want to enroll.
The next Institute (available for graduate or undergraduate credit) will
be July 9-20, 2007
What's the CSSF Writer's Workshop and when is the next one?
I've been offering the Writer's Workshop in Science Fiction since 1978.
It's a two-week intensive Workshop for people who are about ready for
publication or want to publish more regularly. It operates by requiring
three stories to be submitted in advance for critiquing during the two
weeks plus the revision of one of them over the first weekend. The next
Workshop will be June 25-July 6. We're going to condense the last two
days into one to allow participants to attend the Heinlein Centennial,
SFRA annual conference, and Campbell Conference all meeting in the Crown
Center hotels July 6-8, 2007.
Kij Johnson is offering a novel-writing Workshop during the same period.
Check the Center's website www.ku.edu/~sfcenter for details.
What's the CSSF Novel Writer's Workshop and when is the next one?
What's the Campbell Conference and when is the next one?
See above for dates and places. Usually we offer several days of
events, including lectures by authors and editors on Thursday evening,
Campbell and Sturgeon Awards at a dinner on Friday evening, and a
round-table discussion about a single topic on Saturday, ending with a
session about writing with the writers present, particularly the winners
of the awards. Last summer we also filmed a series of interviews on
Saturday afternoon. This coming summer, we'll combine our awards with
SFRA's award ceremony on Friday evening, and will have a Saturday
morning roundtable on the topic of "Jack Williamson and Robert A.
Heinlein and 21st Century Science Fiction."
You will be the twenty fourth writer recognized by SFWA as a Grand
Master, a monumental and deserved honor. What is the purpose of the
Grand Master award, and what does this award mean to you?
When the award was created by Jerry Pournelle, then SFWA president, it
was intended to honor those writers who had made lifetime contributions
to SF, but may have come along too late to have their works recognized
by SFWA awards, and the first honoree was Robert A. Heinlein. Others
who were recognized, like Clifford Simak, Arthur C. Clarke, Jack
Williamson, and Isaac Asimov, did receive Nebula Awards, then or later,
but the principal of honoring a lifetime career continues. For me it
represents the culmination of an involvement with SF that began when I
was seven or eight, and a career in writing SF that began in 1948, and a
career in writing about SF that began in 1951. To join the company of
the other 23 grand masters is incredible. This is as good as it gets in
science fiction recognition, and I can't say I feel any more worthy of
it than many others. But as Isaac Asimov said when I looked at his
trophy and said, "They've misspelled your name Issac Asmimov. Are going
to give it back?" And Isaac said, "Not on your life."
What do you hope to accomplish with this award?
I hope the honor will enhance many of the other aspects of the things I
have been involved in--not only the writing of SF (and it would be good
to get many of my older novels and collections back into traditional
print--they're all available electronically and as print-on-demand) but
the writing about SF (including an updated Alternate Worlds), and
spreading the word about SF through the non-SF portions of the culture,
such as the website www.aboutSF.com set up to coordinate volunteer
activities in behalf of SF.
Is there anything else you'd like to tell our readers?
You too can help "save the world through science fiction."
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