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INTERVIEW: James Gunn Talks About TRANSCENDENTAL, The History of Science Fiction, and How It Can Save The World

James Gunn is a Grand Master of Science Fiction, one of its best historians and proponents, and is a gentleman and a scholar. He’s been writing science fiction for 64 years, and has been a science fiction scholar for 54 years. I only spoke with him a couple of times briefly at Worldcon, but he was gracious and very forthcoming. At 90 years of age, Jim was energetic, articulate, polite and had time for everyone. And his memory and clarity of mind rivals the sharpest.

Jim started reading pulps like Doc Savage magazine (who doesn’t like Doc?), and a set of Tarzan novels found in the back of his parents’ closet. He absorbed all the magazines he could at Andy’s used magazine store. He has memories of his Uncle John taking him (at 14 years old) and his brother to see H.G. Wells speak; Jim doesn’t recall what Wells talked about, but recalls that he was “short and dumpy, and spoke in a high voice.” He and his brother tried to get close enough to touch and talk to his hero, but were unable to.

His first science fiction story was called “Paradox” – it was rejected by Astounding (John Campbell) and Amazing but eventually sold to Thrilling Wonder Stories for $80. The late Frederik Pohl was Gunn’s agent; they first met in person at the 10th Worldcon in Chicago in 1952. Gunn sold nine of his first ten stories, but he took two years. With his wartime savings running out, he turned to Kansas University.

As a science fiction scholar, Professor Gunn founded the Center for the Study of Science Fiction as Kansas University. His scholarly works include the series of six Road to Science Fiction anthologies and Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction (for which he won the Hugo for Best Non-Fiction Book in 1983). He also wrote a book of science fiction criticism, Alternate Worlds: The Illustrated History Of Science Fiction, which won a special award from the 1976 World SF Convention (there were no Hugos for non-fiction at that time). He is the only person to be president of both the Science Fiction Writers Association (1971-1972) and the Science Fiction Research Association.

James Gunn was recognized with the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement in 2007.

His latest novel, Transcendental, is as ambitious and optimistic as his novels from decades ago. In this interview (partially in person, mostly via email), Professor Gunn discusses his past, science fiction’s past, his new novel, and how Science Fiction can save the world.

(There is a link below to also skip over the parts about Transcendental, for those who wish to read the interview but want to avoid any spoilers.)

Science Fiction’s Past, James Gunn’s Past

LARRY KETCHERSID for SF Signal: You were in the Navy during World War II. Where were you stationed? The United States was a very optimistic and unified place post WWII; did your experiences in World War II and/or that feeling of unity and optimism influence your writing?

JAMES GUNN: Actually, my wartime service was mostly a continuation of my college experience, only learning different subjects. I volunteered for the Navy Air Corps in the summer of 1942 before my junior year of college, feeling that I was likely to be drafted and preferring to pick my branch of service. The Navy Air Corps pipeline was filled up, and they deferred my service for a year while I studied journalism at the University of Kansas (where I ended up spending most of my later career). I got called up in June of 1943, sent to Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, for preparatory flight training, then to Highlands University in Las Vegas, NM, for beginning flight training, to the University of Georgia for preflight training, then, finally, to the Naval Air Station in Memphis for flight training, where, after a month, the Navy decided I was pilot material and sent to Great Lakes for reassignment. Then I went to pre-midshipman school in Asbury Park, NJ, midshipman’s school at Notre Dame, and finally got my commission and was assigned to Japanese Language School at the University of Colorado, then shifted to Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State University), before I asked for reassignment, was sent to advanced line officer’s training in Miami, and was there when the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I finally got sent to Guam and then to Truk Island in the Pacific where I ended as adjutant to the commanding general.

So my wartime experience was pretty pacific. But it was a part of something larger and grander (to answer your question), the only time, in my memory, when there was so much unity of goal and effort, and mutual sacrifice, and a feeling that we were all in this great enterprise together. Maybe that’s why they called this “the great generation,” but I think it was the times that made it seem that way. Maybe what the world needs is a similar feeling of shared purpose. At one time we thought the space program could supply that function, but our space odyssey was largely abandoned. Much science fiction is devoted to considering what might bring us back together as a species. TRANSCENDENTAL is part of that discussion.

LARRY: That “the great generation” feeling, the sense of optimism and hope and that anything can be accomplished, seems to permeate a lot of your novels, and of those novels of many other authors that experienced that post-World War II “euphoria” (if any feeling after any war can be described that way). With your study and writing on the history and evolution of science fiction, do you find pockets of influence like that? There seemed to be a wave of dystopian “the world will end” authors most likely influenced by the feeling around the Vietnam era…though the Space Race era (which overlapped a bit) influenced a huge segment of optimistic space opera and space exploration authors, particularly in the states.

JAMES GUNN: Science fiction always has had strains of pessimism and optimism weaving through its historical development, sometimes one dominating and then the other, usually depending on the state of the world. Optimism was powerful after the emergency of the Scientific Enlightenment of the 19th century, but then what Damon Knight called Wells’s “pessimistic irony” responded to the difficult 1890s to be followed by the “propaganda novels” of the early twentieth century, with their hopes for some revolutionary transformation of humanity and the human condition. Two world wars made optimism a difficult position to maintain, but the Allies’ victory in World War II, the dominant role of weapons created in the laboratory and U.S. power in the world raised spirits again, accentuated for a while by the space program and the moon landing, only to be depressed again by the Vietnam War.

Currently the popularity of fantasy surpassing science fiction and the popularity of apocalyptic fiction, particularly for young adults, may indicate a desire to escape a more difficult and confusing reality, even in astrophysics and particle physics. I’ve always believed in the power of rational thinking and behavior as the savior of the world, and science fiction as a powerful medium to encourage that, which explains my signature line, “let’s save the world through science fiction.”

LARRY: Your novel THE LISTENERS (1972) is an excellent example of that feeling you describe as “unity of goal and effort, and mutual sacrifice, and a feeling that we were all in this great enterprise together.” Robert MacDonald, the protagonist, keeps the band of searchers together for several decades in spite of political and religious opposition to their “great enterprise”, with the goal of finding evidence of alien life. The SETI Institute parallels (and was no doubt inspired by) your novel; founded in 1984, nearly three decades later they are still searching, and others have been searching longer. There have been scientists modifying the Drake equation to make it more optimistic (including this interesting one from Sara Seager at MIT that revamps it from radio aware life to focusing on the presence of alien life), and some that make it more pessimistic (as I was getting a Physics degree one of my professors was Dr. Michael Hart, who co-edited Extra-Terrestrials, Where Are They? In 1982). That is a long-winded way of asking: are you optimistic? Pessimistic? Are they out there? Or are we alone?

JAMES GUNN: Story premises require different states of mind. When I read Walter Sullivan’s WE ARE NOT ALONE in the last 1960s (I think I got it from the Science Book Club), the thought that inspired THE LISTENERS was how humanity could sustain an effort for a century without results, and for that purpose it was necessary to assume that the only contact with aliens that was possible was through messages propagated by something like radio waves. But I do believe–and have been convinced by powerful voices like Carl Sagan’s–that there are intelligent aliens out there and maybe even intelligent aliens with technology, but that the difficulties and costs and lack of compensation for interstellar travel are such that we are unlikely to ever come into contact. But we can still share the intelligent beings burden of understanding the universe and our place in it by means of some such means as I describe in THE LISTENERS, and that would be a shattering accomplishment that would change us and our world-view, and would be quite enough.

But that doesn’t keep me from writing about interstellar travel as I have in GIFT FROM THE STARS and TRANSCENDENTAL, in the furtherance of larger goals.

So, in spite of everything, I’m an optimist. I believe in what William Faulkner said in his Nobel acceptance speech, that humanity not only will survive but will prevail.

And I hope science fiction will be a tool in that.

LARRY: It would be interesting to see a timeline of waves of optimism, pessimism and other historical movements, juxtaposed with science fiction novels from those times…a project for another day.

JAMES GUNN: It was hard for optimism to survive the brutality of two world wars.

Science Fiction’s Future: Saving the World

LARRY: “Saving the world through Science Fiction” is not only your signature tag line; it is a topic you put a lot of work into. You were running a five-hour workshop on “Teaching Science Fiction” the Monday of WorldCon, and hold those workshops on a regular basis. At one of the WorldCon panels, you mentioned not teaching specific books, but working to get the understanding of the genre, to train the reader to be like a co-author, to train the mind to focus and think clearly. How do you do this? How can science fiction save the world?

JAMES GUNN: I do think science fiction has the power to change the world, maybe to save it. I’ll quote a paragraph or two from my Grand Master acceptance remarks in that regard.

Damon Knight Grand Master award

Damon Knight Grand Master award
Photo by LK

It is that brotherhood I want to talk about this evening. Some of you are aware that in recent years I have signed my e-mails and letters with the phrase, “Let’s save the world through science fiction.” 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 tribes or nations, 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, and called for an “open conspiracy” of people of good will to create a better world. 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.
At the same time that we have seen the world become more dangerous and our genre more acceptable, we have also seen its readership decline among younger readers as our older readers fade away-the more audiences attend SF films and watch SF television shows, the less SF they seem to read. They read less of everything, of course. But it has seemed to many of us who are involved in teaching and writing that SF has the potential to create readers where there are few and to strengthen the bonds between readers and magazines and books–because we tell good stories at the same time that we address the issues that trouble our world.
Science fiction turned us on, each of us, all of us. It transformed us from people focused on mundane realities into people who realized that each of us is responsible for everything, including the future, and even the survival of the human species, and that we can make a difference. Because science fiction deals with the process by which we became human and the process by which we can leave ancient and limiting forms of behavior behind and become more than human, because science fiction is Darwinian in tracing our behavior to the evolutionary struggles and the environmental circumstances that brought us to this moment and more than Darwinian in allowing us to transcend our environmental conditioning and choose to do otherwise, to do the right thing, science fiction has the power to enlighten and to inspire.
Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
I think we all have the responsibility to care and to act upon our caring, because of what science fiction has done for us and because of the power science fiction shares with us, to give back to the culture that gave us birth, to share what we have with others, particularly the young who are most capable of being transformed, to save the world if we can. Not to pay back, but to pay forward, as Heinlein urged. I’m not sure we can do it. I’m not sure the world is capable of being saved, and I’m not sure we are the ones to save it. But I think we should try.
To paraphrase our first Grand Master in Have Spacesuit-Will Travel, I don’t think we can do it, but we should die trying. And Kip Russell, Heinlein’s young hero, continued, “Die trying is the proudest human thing.”

As to “not teaching specific works,” I meant that I didn’t teach my course as a “great books course,” in which it focuses on what makes the works great. That’s a perfectly legitimate way to teach a course, just as it is legitimate for SF to serve other purposes such as teaching science or history or philosophy or social issues. Every teacher wants to pass along his or her personal insights (we call it “wisdom”) and mine was the genre itself. My experience in reading science fiction since childhood had shaped my ability to read science fiction as it appeared and fit it into the pattern of evolving science fiction that I had experienced, and that is what I wanted to share and felt most capable of sharing–that is the experience of the entire genre: what it is and how it came to be that way. So rather than looking at science fiction as individual works in isolation, I looked at them as examples of a larger truth. Brian Attebery wrote that a genre is like a vast single work and the more you have read in it, the better you understand it. I’ve compared it to a continuing dialogue among writers (and sometime readers) on the larger issues of the human species.

LARRY: You’ve done some online distance learning writing seminars, I believe. Has the proliferation of this type of technology helped spread the word about science fiction? Have eBooks made the goal of getting science fiction into classrooms easier, or has the proliferation of tons of titles diluted that?

JAMES GUNN: I do think that online distance learning, as well as digital media in general, has distributed the impact of science fiction more broadly, made it more mainstream, and increased its potential for “saving the world.” When I became involved in the science-fiction world it was small but intense. There were advantages in that everybody had read everything and were able to discuss their ideas and accomplishments with the confidence of shared experience. But how much they could accomplish was limited by their insularity. Now the community is far larger, far more diverse, and far less well informed. What it needs is a magnetic, unifying force, personality, or author to harness their enthusiasm and energy. And that is my hope, as I have suggested to some of my writing workshop students, that a charismatic person will emerge who will do for science what the leading evangelists do for religion.

As for online distance learning, I have done maybe a dozen online writers workshops, which have advantages in reach and the opportunities to work at one’s own pace and circumstances, and some community in e-mailing comments and suggestions at leisure rather than in spontaneous face-to-face gatherings (though they also lack the discipline of regular meetings and deadlines for accomplishments, and the crises of everyday life are more likely to intervene).

LARRY: In some of your responses, you’ve differentiated between Science Fiction and Fantasy. There are several definitions, most commonly Science Fiction are those stories that have a scientific path toward coming true. What is your definition? And, can Fantasy ever save the world?

JAMES GUNN: I’ve always distinguished between science fiction and fantasy (although Damon Knight, in a classic encounter in front of my first SF class, debated that with me). I’ve felt that they existed on a single spectrum, ranging on one end to hard SF to the other end of pure fantasy, with different levels of explanation along the way fitting the story into some place in the real world. I list a dozen or so differentiations in my ALTERNATE WORLDS: THE ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF SCIENCE FICTION, and they continue to proliferate. One of my distinctions is that science fiction happens in the world outside and fantasy happens inside the head. To illustrate their difference, I sometimes cite my own “let’s save the world through science fiction” as credible (though perhaps hyperbole), while “let’s save the world through fantasy” is not. Fantasy is not about saving the world; fantasy is about saving the individual, the mind, the imagination.

LARRY: Who would you site as an under-read, under-appreciated author who embodies the concepts of “science fiction can save the world” in the writing?

JAMES GUNN: There are a lot of writers embodying the concept–I think that’s what science fiction engenders in writers; what I call in ALTERNATE WORLDS, the soapbox syndrome–but if they’re under-read and under-appreciated, then I don’t now them either.


LARRY: Now for the good questions: If an alien radio listener heard “Rock Chalk Jayhawk”, what would he/she/they think? How would he respond? :)

JAMES GUNN: Just about as puzzled as much of the world that isn’t interested in basketball :-) .

LARRY: Your new novel, TRANSCENDENTAL, traces a group of pilgrims from multiple species (including humans Riley, Asha and the captain and crew), on their way outside of the known reaches of space to a rumored place of Transcendence or a Transcendence machine. Multiple forces are at work, with some species worried that others will be able to transcend and gain an advantage while some species will not. It’s been seven or eight years since your last novel. I read in other articles and interviews from you that state the basic concern of science fiction is transcendence. Including that point, what influenced you to write this book, at this time?

JAMES GUNN: The notion that the basic concern of science fiction being transcendence I got from Cory and Alexei Panshin’s book about Golden Age science fiction, THE WORLD BEYOND THE HILL. I forget whether that preceded or coincided with my idea of a Transcendental Machine that could achieve in practical, immediate terms what was ordinarily conceived as spiritual. It also fit in with my idea that the world needed more rationality, more analytic ability, more consideration of actions and consequences down the line into the future, and that science fiction encourages those things. So, maybe, in a way, I thought of science fiction as our transcendental machine.

NOTE: Spoilers after this quote from the book.

“…We are all pilgrims here, all looking for transcendence, venturing our lives and our dreams, our everything, on a fable that has captured our imaginations because it represents the goal of all existence: to evolve, to achieve our ideal forms, to transcend our limitations.” (pg. 56)

LARRY: Each of the species tells a tale, with the goal of keeping the group morale up and together during their voyage across the empty void. The species run the gamut from man, machine, animal and plant. All of their tales start with how their species evolved, and then include their own individual reason for being on the pilgrimage (as long as they are telling the truth). How did you pick the particular species and origin planets to include as part of the pilgrimage group?

JAMES GUNN: I created my aliens partly through thinking about different environments and different responses to them, partly through producing a variety of physical and psychological characteristics that would emphasize the universality of sapience and aspiration, and the ability of sapient creatures to converse and share and maybe find ways of coexisting.

“So much for the pursuit of the transcendental,” Riley said…

“It propels us all,” Tordor said, “from the earliest classes of cells surrendering their comfortable individual existences in order to sample the untested potential of cooperation.”

“Evolution equals transcendence?” Riley asked.

“Except evolution has become too slow,” Asha said. “Technology has accelerated everything. The environmental change that once took long cycles now takes short cycles and sometimes even days. Such time-spans magnify dangers, and change transforms conditions as we watch….For a time sapient creatures such as ourselves substituted social evolution, an attempt to direct natural transcendental forces into safe channels. But we were fools.

“We didn’t understand that technology is the new evolution,” Asha said. “Like robots, like computers, technology reaches a point where it grows and changes and evolves into something new and strong and unimaginable.” (pg 114)

LARRY: I enjoyed the portrayal of each species evolving, taking over their world and then finding out there is an entire set of Galactic species, already out there and advanced…and then the pilgrims find that there are civilizations even more advanced in the outer reaches. Shades of THE LISTENERS! Transcendence is portrayed as a short-cut, a machine enabled short-cut. This is in contrast to the mostly Eastern practice of Enlightenment that is a long-term, lifetime process (master the body and breathing, master the mind, master the spirit) with sometimes no success of obtaining that transcendence. All of the species portrayed in your novel have been through the hard work of evolution. Some of the species voice minor objections (Tordor mainly) to this short-cut, but most welcome it as a way to solve problems that evolution has not. I’m curious as to why there was no species portrayed that would find this highly objectionable, would see this as not the right path, and would fight it?

JAMES GUNN: The problem with Transcendentalism as a spiritual philosophy is that it applies to individuals rather than society (and the species is what science fiction is about), even though the practice of Transcendentalism can result in social and cultural benefits; and there is no way to prove that it works for an afterlife. In the novel the Transcendental Machine has measurable individual and social implications that motivate the action (which is always good).

There is opposition to the possibilities of the Transcendental machine for creating destabilizing change in a galaxy just having emerged from a ten-year galactic war, and I wanted to show the conflict between the human (or sapient) desire for stasis and the evolutionary imperative for change and improvement (or perfection). Much of the novel is about that opposition and the hidden forces trying to stop or control the process and willing to kill and destroy to do it.

I did recognize that there might be some difference of opinion about transcendence, and the flower species was my example–4107 only wanted for his species to return to its previous state of pre-sapient bliss.

LARRY: Transhumanism is a “movement” that explores accelerating human evolution through the usage of technology. The technologies range from PEDs (Performance Enhancing Drugs) to Google Glasses. In some circles they are called “dangerous”, in others “daring and courageous.” Most of your characters in TRANSCENDENTAL have a “pedia” embedded in their brain. With the themes of transcendence, and “science fiction can save the world” permeating this interview, and given what you’ve seen in the changes technology has wrought, is Transhumanism the next wave in human evolution?

JAMES GUNN: Actually I conceived (though I did not make clear) that Riley is the only character with a biological computer (pedia, “for encyclopedia”) in his head. The others, except Asha, who doesn’t need one, have external pedias, like Ham’s add-ons. I do think we are being changed by our technologies (and that has been true through the long history of human development), and science fiction is mostly about that. I have pointed out in some of my essays that science fiction is primarily Darwinist–that is, unlike other fiction aside from naturalism, it assumes that humanity, like the rest of the animal kingdom, is subject to evolutionary change when its environment changes (my prime example is Isaac Asimov’s THE CAVES OF STEEL), but that humanity, unlike the rest of the animal kingdom, is able to recognize how it has been changed and can choose to behave otherwise (in THE CAVES OF STEEL and its sequels, humans fight their agoraphobia in order to go out to the stars).

I’m not sure I embrace Transhumanism, but I can look around and see how our behavior (and maybe our beliefs) are being changed by the collapsing of distance by the internet, the interconnections of the digital media, the constant interactions (and need for it) nurtured by smart phones and tablets, and the external memories that have made personal remembering a preference rather than a necessity. It was interesting that TIME magazine had a cover story a couple of months ago that analyzed the millennial generation, beginning with all the problems technology was creating in that generation and ending (like a science-fiction story) describing the possible benefits in individual and social change.

LARRY: I heard you answer this question at WorldCon, but will ask it again: the main character, Riley, is left in a precarious position at the end; will there be a sequel?

JAMES GUNN: A sequel depends upon Tor Books and a demand for it, and no doubt how well TRANSCENDENTAL is received. I’ve thought about it, and have even written the first chapter of a sequel in which Riley and Asha, scattered to different parts of the galaxy, must fight their way back together across a difficult and even hostile universe. But it also would reveal the benefits of transcendence in an untranscendent galaxy.

LARRY: Professor Gunn, thank you very much for your time and patience. I’ve quite enjoyed this, and wished I’d gotten to spend more time with you at WorldCon. Anything else that you would like to say that we haven’t covered? Otherwise I will end it with your signature tag line.

JAMES GUNN: Thanks, Larry. You asked good questions. I hope my answers were as good. Let me congratulate you and SF Signal on your Hugo Award! Let’s save the world through science fiction!

About Larry Ketchersid (55 Articles)
Author of two novels (Dusk Before the Dawn, Software by the Kilo) and one volume of non-fiction stories. CEO of a security software and services company; co-owner of JoSara MeDia, publisher of iPad apps, print and eBooks. Runner, traveler, Sharks fan, Rockets fan, Packers shareholder.
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