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.)