By Michael R. Page
I’d first like to thank James Gunn for coming to the conference this year, my good friend
Nate Williams for working with me in organizing this panel, and my good friend Chris McKitterick from the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas for joining us. It’s been my great pleasure to have become acquainted with all three of you over the last several years. I’d also like the Eaton Conference for their interest in this panel and for coordinating Jim’s travel assistance and Pawel Frelik and the executive board of the SFRA for extending a special invitation to Jim on short notice.
I’m first going to tell you a bit of the story of my personal connections with James Gunn as a segue into a discussion of Jim’s scholarly contributions to science fiction and then I’ll finish with some brief remarks about Jim’s satiric academic SF novel Kampus.
I first met James Gunn not long ago in 2007, while I was working on my edition of the stories of Dr. Miles J. Breuer. I had known James Gunn was an English Professor at the University of Kansas, which is only a three hour drive from Lincoln, Nebraska, where I’m from, since my high school days; and as an undergraduate I had vaguely considered looking into the summer programs that Jim was offering that I heard about through one of Jay Kay Klein’s BioLog profiles in Analog. But at that time I was a pretty vague young man, and it never occurred to me that I could study science fiction with a well-known writer and scholar, let alone actually speak with or write to him. This was long before the internet simplified communication. It wasn’t until I started working toward a PhD. in English and on the Breuer project some 20 years later, that it occurred to me that I could actually contact a science fiction writer or scholar directly. My first attempt in the summer of 2006 felt like a long shot when I emailed Jack Williamson, who had collaborated with Breuer on the story “The Girl from Mars” and the novel The Birth of a New Republic back in 1929 and 1931. This was only a few months before Williamson died at age 98, but I was delightfully surprised one day to receive a reply directly from Jack himself. By the time I was ready to embark on a research trip to the Williamson Library at Eastern New Mexico University to read through Williamson’s correspondence files on matters pertaining to Breuer, I realized my trip back home from Portales to Dallas to see my brother and then back home, could include Lawrence, Kansas if I skirted a little east of my usual route. I’d read Alternate Worlds a few years before when I first started returning heavily to SF and integrating it into my academic interests (my “official” training is in 19th century Brit Lit) and only a few days before while I was working on the Breuer texts in our computer lab, I had discovered the website for the Center for the Study of Science Fiction, saw that James Gunn was still actively working and teaching his summer institutes, that he had an assistant by the name of Chris McKitterick who looked to be about my age (it turns out that I am only 3 months older than Chris) and a graduate student by the name of Nate Williams working on an outreach project called AboutSF, and that the University of Kansas had a large collection of archived SF materials. Most importantly, there was an email address for James Gunn. So, only a few days before I left for Portales, I was in our university library and sent James Gunn an email inquiring whether he might have any insight about Miles J. Breuer and whether I could stop by at KU on my way home. Within minutes, Jim sent a reply that yes, he would likely be in the office, and yes I could stop by for a chat. A few minutes later, Jim sent another email saying I might want to consider signing up for his Summer Teaching Institute. To make a long story short, I visited with Jim and we had lunch with Chris, I participated in the summer institutes, and now regularly make the trip to Lawrence for the Campbell Conference. Does anyone recall the H. Beam Piper story “Time and Time Again,” where a man living in a future on the brink of global annihilation awakes to find himself thrust back to his 13 year-old-self, with all the memories and knowledge of his adult self? It’s a memorable variation on the “what if”/”road not taken” theme. Sometimes I wonder what if I would have gone down to KU and studied with James Gunn when I was that vague undergraduate? How would the path of my adult life have been different?—not that I regret what it was and is. And then I look at Chris and see an image of my own “what if” self. So, you see, in some ways the dreams of science fiction are very real!
Well, that’s enough of my science fictional daydreams! And please forgive me for now relating to you how I discovered the work of James Gunn. I first encountered James Gunn’s work in my small-town Nebraska high school English classroom during my sophomore year, thirty years ago. The only science fiction book in the paperback rack at the back of the class was a copy of The Road to Science Fiction: From Gilgamesh to Wells. Wells I knew, but this was my first introduction to the broader history and the emerging scholarly discourse of science fiction, although I must confess that the erudition of the scholarly introduction was too much for me at the time, and although I tried to make sense out of Lucian of Samosata’s “True Story” and the excerpts from Sir John Mandeville, Thomas More, Campanella, and Bacon, I never got much further into the volume than that. But this did lead me to further encounters while in high school with SF scholarship that became part of my regular diet of SF reading—tucked away somewhere in my files is my junior-year research paper where I tried to come to a definition of science fiction. I tried to dig it up while writing this paper, but couldn’t find it in my house (it’ll have to wait for some future intensive spring cleaning), but I’m sure I drew from The Road to Science Fiction and likely quoted directly Jim’s classic opening sentences of the introduction: “Science fiction is the branch of literature that deals with the effects of change on people in the real world as it can be projected, into the past, the future, or to distant places” (Gunn, 1977a, p. 1). And I believe I made a fumbling attempt to say something about Lucian before launching into a discussion of my favorite stories and novels.
When Jim’s story “End of the World” and the sequels began appearing in Analog in 1984 and 1985 I discovered that the scholar of The Road to Science Fiction was also a science fiction writer in his own right. About that time, I also read the first novella from The Immortals in Fred Pohl’s Star 4 anthology and the story “The Cave of Night” in Asimov’s Where Do We Go From Here? anthology. I think I picked up a copy of Robin Scott Wilson’s anthology Those Who Can about that time too, which contains “The Listeners,” but I don’t recall reading the story until much later. Nonetheless, the Wilson anthology, which pairs stories with essays by the writers on the technique of writing, was my first encounter with the notion that writers like Gunn were actually teaching courses in science fiction writing. Again, another one of those personal “what ifs”…
Skip ahead some twenty-years and I find myself having lunch with the James Gunn and a fellow about my age who’s talking about sef-waa and SFRA (which has now been coined as sef-raa by Eaton librarian Melissa Conway) and other things science fiction in an academic setting. Heavenly! I departed with a promise that I would see them again at the Summer Teaching Institute, which I promptly registered for once I got home, a DVD copy of Jim’s Literature of Science Fiction film series, shot in the 60s and 70s, a John W. Campbell documentary, and a copy of one of The Road to SF volumes from the KU bookstore. Ever since, I look forward to my trips to Lawrence every summer.
Jim’s scholarly work on science fiction began to appear long before Alternate Worlds, his seminal genre history, and The Road to Science Fiction. His master’s thesis was published serially in the short-lived Dynamic Science Fiction—one of the last magazines in the pulp format—during the magazine boom in the early 1950s. The magazine intended to publish more of Jim’s work, but unfortunately folded. At that time, aside from J.O. Bailey’s Pilgrims Through Space and Time and a few studies that skirted the periphery of science fiction, academic attention to SF and science fictional themes was almost non-existent. Of course SF had already been building a strong tradition of criticism in the magazines and fanzines, but the appearance of James Gunn’s thesis marked the first crossover between science fiction and the formal methodologies of academic scholarly research.
The first installment in the March 1953 Dynamic is the first part of an article titled “The Philosophy of Science Fiction.” In the foreword, Jim discusses how science fiction is becoming more recognized because of the “reverberations from the dropping of the atomic bomb” (Gunn, March 1953, 104). SF has become “the fair-haired mutant of the popular entertainment world” and that, “Science fiction has expanded with the mushrooming speed of the atomic cloud” (p.104). Jim shows how SF is booming—the increase in hardcover and paperback books, the expansion of the magazines. But this recognition also “presents a very real problem for the development of science fiction. To those who know very little of the genre… science fiction is merely a type of fantasy peculiarly interesting to the modern public. Ignoring, or unaware of, the development of science fiction’s history, tradition, and philosophy, they represent the unfortunate possibility…that science fiction, under the influence of a mass-audience, may have to retrace its steps to a much less significant position than it occupies today, or might occupy tomorrow. That position is integrally connected with the philosophy science fiction has developed over the years” (p.105). Jim shows that there are two common misconceptions about science fiction: that SF is pure “escapism” and “that it differs but little from that written twenty, two hundred, or two thousand years ago” (p.105).
Next, Jim sketches a history of science fiction: “Science Fiction as a distinct literary type probably began…about the time of the industrial revolution, although it would be difficult to pin down one story initiating the genre. It is not surprising that science fiction and the industrial revolution should be linked; it was about this time that it was forced on the attention of all thinking men that the world…could be changed radically, for the better or worse, by the efforts of their hands and minds” (p. 107). These observations are largely consistent with the historical trajectory that Jim presents more thoroughly in Alternate Worlds and The Road to Science Fiction. It’s interesting to note that even this early, Jim identifies Lucian’s “True Story” but is unwilling to qualify it as a kind of proto-science fiction.
For Jim, and most of the SF critical discourse of the time, Campbell’s Astounding, “has set the tone and established much of the philosophy of science fiction” (p.110). SF’s philosophical position is the scientific method; “science as a means, instead of science as a goal” (p.111). Jim sets science fiction up against the world-weary skepticism of Modernism, stating that while Modernism and mainstream fiction longs for a return to a static order or wrings its hands to return to a static value system, “science fiction authors were searching for new viewpoints, for new values, for new answers to new problems. They found their basis—appropriately enough—in science” (p.111). Consequently, SF “became a literary medium with a mission, a tool in the hands of investigators into the possibilities of the human race. Instead of an attempted justification of science, it became the long-needed, and still not completely realized, conscience of science. Instead of descriptions of wonderful machines, it became a study of the complex relationship between man and the creations of his mind and hands…It became a flexible device for the analysis of manifold aspects—past, present, and future—of the human spirit in contact with something new and vital” (p. 111-12).
In the second installment, Jim further explains how the scientific method is the central technical device and a philosophic basis of SF. Jim claims that SF posits: 1. That change is inevitable and 2. Change is a necessity (Gunn, June 1953, p. 85). This emphasis on change becomes central to Jim’s later critical writing on SF. Showing an awareness of the philosophical trends of the time, Jim shows that SF has “much in common” with existentialism, particularly with regard to “human responsibility”—“that the human race is responsible for itself.” The philosophy of SF is an “optimistic existentialism” (p. 86). Like existentialism, Jim argues that SF is “a very serious business. It treats serious topics in a serious manner. It is written by writers who take themselves seriously and readers who are more serious than those who study the editorial columns of the New York Times” (p. 89).
Readers must have responded favorably, because in the October 1953 issue appeared the next chapter, “The Plot-Forms of Science Fiction,” headed with the editorial blurb, “Here is the first in a series of articles, which add up to one of the most significant essays written about science fiction—published by your request” (Gunn, October 1953, p. 44). In the two installments of “The Plot Forms of Science Fiction” Jim applies the formal methodologies of academic criticism to examine different types of science fiction, different plot devices, analyzes stories from early anthologies such as The Big Book of Science Fiction and Adventures in Time and Space, a first attempt to develop a critical method that shows how SF works. This would become the foundations for Jim’s later teaching.
These articles appeared during the same years that Jim was establishing himself as a significant writer and just before he burst on the scene as a novelist. His first novels Star Bridge (in collaboration with Jack Williamson) and This Fortress World appeared in 1955, as did the stories that make up The Joy Makers and the first stories of the highly realistic, near-future Station in Space that convincingly anticipate humanity’s first steps into space. All told, Jim published 45 stories from 1949 to 1959.
Although Jim’s fiction appeared less frequently during the 1960s while he worked in public relations at the University of Kansas, Jim continued to develop his ideas about the history of science fiction, the development of a formal criticism of science fiction, and the teaching of science fiction. In the late sixties, as he worked on the stories that make up what many consider his masterwork, The Listeners, Jim began teaching SF and created a valuable series of films. To see Jim’s classroom in action, I recommend the Harlan Ellison class visit, filmed in 1969. (Oh, if I could have only been there!—but I was only 2 years old!). This was the time that science fiction “came to college” as Jack Williamson put it in an early article. The first boom of critical books, teaching anthologies, and SF histories were starting to appear. The Science Fiction Research Association was formed. And Jim shaped his lectures on the history of SF into Alternate Worlds for Prentice-Hall, which after delays in publication appeared a few years after Brian Aldiss’s Billion Year Spree.
There’s no question that Alternate Worlds was an important text for making inroads for SF in collegiate education. An attractive coffee table book, Alternate Worlds brought a formal academic sensibility while still maintaining the autobiographical reader response of a science fiction insider, as Jim wrote in the preface, “this book recapitulates my own experience, my discovery of science fiction; my excitement and insights and growing sophistication; this is my way of saying, as Isaac Asimov says more directly in his introduction, ‘Science fiction, I love you” (Gunn, 1975a, p. 7). Before the internet made the covers of the science fiction magazines readily visible (and before Ebay and Amazon made them easily obtainable) the several pages of cover illustration accompanying Jim’s historical analysis give the reader a clear visual sense of the variety and nature of the SF marketplace during the magazine period. Like Aldiss (and Robert Philmus in a more specifically academic way), Jim importantly established the historical context of SF, providing SF with a genealogy that we now take for granted.
The intent of Alternate Worlds was to attempt to trace “what science fiction is, how it got to be what it is, and what it may become—as well as how the world got to be what it is” (p. 13). Jim argues that science fiction and the modern world are inseparable: “Science fiction and the world. They have created each other, and that process of mutual creation is what this book is about” (p. 13). Concurring with Isaac Asimov (and many others since) that “we live, indisputably, in a science fiction world” (p. 13).
Many other SF histories have come out in the 38 years since the appearance of Alternate Worlds, which have brought forth additional layers of historical research and advanced modes of historical and critical inquiry. But Alternate Worlds still stands as a foundational text of SF scholarship and will continue to offer insights and inspire scholars in years to come.
The first volume of The Road to Science Fiction appeared just a few years later in 1977. This was followed by volume 2, “From Wells to Heinlein” and volume 3, “From Heinlein to Here” both in 1979, and volume 4, “From Here to Forever” in 1982. Additional volumes on British and International SF appeared in the 90s. In The Road to Science Fiction, Jim traces how science fiction developed and how it emerged simultaneously with the development of modern science and the general zeitgeist of change, exemplified by the industrial revolution. Jim states that “Science fiction was the artistic response to the human experience of change” (Gunn, 1977a, p. 4). Jim adds to this in the introduction to volume 2: “If humanity’s future was in its own hands and not subject to whims of cruel gods or to the grand design of some beneficent deity, humanity should devote some thought to the factors in the present that were shaping the future. That was science fiction…The view of humanity as a species was not only characteristic of science fiction but essential to it” (Gunn, 1979, p. x) and further expands his definition of science fiction: in addition to being the literature of change, SF “could also be defined as the literature that concerns itself with the condition and fate of the human species” (p. xi). In a later piece, “The Worldview of Science Fiction,” published in Extrapolation in 1995, Jim adds that science fiction draws from Darwinism and “views humanity as a species that has evolved as a result of environment but as a species upon whom the evolutionary process is still at work … The first premise of science fiction is that humanity is adaptable” (Gunn, 2006, p. 73) Change. Condition. Fate. Adaptability. Keywords. Touchstones, to use one of Jim’s central critical terms.
I’ve called this talk “James Gunn and the Foundations of Academic Science Fiction Criticism” not only because of the foundational critical texts I’ve discussed so far, but because of Jim’s groundbreaking study on Isaac Asimov, Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction, one of three studies published by Oxford University Press in the early 80s, just around the time that I discovered The Road to Science Fiction in my high school English class. This study, along with Bruce Franklin’s study of Heinlein, were important for making inroads for academic studies of SF being taken seriously by major academic presses. So here again, Jim established a foundation for the rich and vibrant field of academic science fiction scholarship. And once again, Jim’s scholarship crossed-over to reach a broader audience in the science fiction magazines. Versions of several of the chapters appeared, appropriately, in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. And I can here remind myself that this was another of my early encounters with the work of James Gunn: at some point in those early days, I stumbled across the April 1980 issue of the magazine in a used bookstore, which features Jim’s chapter on Foundation, “On the Foundations of Science Fiction,” as the cover story.
I think that’s one thing important about Jim’s critical writing: it appeared in formats where young SF readers in their formative years could stumble upon it in a magazine such as Asimov’s or in a paperback in their high school classroom. For Jim has always kept the students in mind in his scholarly work, and in his teaching, as Chris will soon tell us, and also in some of his fiction.
This brings me to his novel Kampus, a delightfully pungent satiric Extrapolation on the fate of higher education in the wake of the excesses of the sixties and early seventies. Interestingly, Kampus, which appeared in 1977, the same year as the first volume of The Road to Science Fiction, is a road novel, following its young protagonist, Tom Gavin, from his ill-fated college days at the University of Kansas through a series of bizarre encounters on a trek across the western United States, ending in an apocalyptic encounter on the campus of Cal-Berkeley.
The novel begins on registration day, which is called Karnival: “it was Karnival, the semi-annual festival held on the Friday before classes started on Monday…All Student groups offered their opportunities for service or for pleasure…New students could sample the attractions of student life; former students, who were not soliciting in booths themselves, could swap interests, switch lifestyles, pick up new mates, or enjoy casual experience…Even the faculty were on display, course-touting the upper corridors” (Gunn, 1977b, p. 7). Professors, like hucksters, try to sell their wares to apathetic, drugged-up students: “I can teach you new methods of multiplication and division which do not require laborious memorization. I have pills which are guaranteed to encapsulate the entire development of mathematical thought since the Arabs invented numerals, pills which need only be triggered by lecture and exercise. Sleep learning, of course. Free tutoring if necessary. Absolute guarantee. Success or your money back. Step right up…” (p. 9) At the next booth is a professor of anatomy: “‘Learn the marvels and delights of the human body,” the fat man shouted. ‘A requirement for students who wish to go into medicine, nursing, pharmacy, physical therapy, and physical education, as well as altered states of consciousness, and a pleasant diversion for those who wish to astonish their friends with a scientist’s knowledge of musculature, nerve stimulation, and amatory skill” (p. 9-10). On my campus we have an event the evening before classes begin called Big Red Welcome, and though professors don’t hawk their wares (indeed, I believe professors avoid the event), students flock to it to pick up, as they say, “free stuff.”
Gavin eventually finds himself before a professor of philosophy, who refuses to play the game of academic salesmanship and self-promotion. Instead the professor offers insight, critical thinking, knowledge, and wisdom: “I cannot teach you a skill with which you can amaze your friends and satisfy your baser needs. What I have will not give you power over others; it will not make you famous or well-liked or happy. What I have, if you want it and I decide to communicate it to you, may make you miserable, and certainly will make you discontented. As with the most habit-forming drug, you never will be able to get enough. It will ride your back from now until you die. If you do not get your daily fix, you will suffer withdrawal” (p. 19).
Soon Gavin becomes the professor’s student, longing to understand the elusive knowledge and wisdom he believes the professor embodies, a rare commodity in “this place where learning has fled” (p. 47). Along with some of his classmates, he kidnaps the professor in hope that he can directly access the professor’s knowledge. Unfortunately, the professor dies during the kidnapping. In a last act to secure the professor’s knowledge, Gavin and his friends remove his brain and puree it in a blender, then gather round and drink the warm, thick tissue through straws: “What Gavin drew through the straw was the consistency of malted milk, but not really like that, because it was lukewarm and salty. For a moment Gavin thought he would not be able to swallow, but he thought of the Professor and how wise he was, and wonderful, and he swallowed and swallowed again, and yet again” (p. 53).
Later, Gavin unwillingly gets drafted by a student terror group, led by a militant named Gregory, that plans to blow up the power grid that supplies half the state in their ongoing war with the Kampuskops and the adult world. The attempt fails: Gregory gets shot up in an artillery exchange with the Kops, Gavin’s girlfriend Jenny is missing, and Gavin is taken into custody. He first appears before the student government council at a bizarre, hallucinatory hearing, before finally having a face-to-face meeting with the Chancellor of the university.
The Chancellor wants to know what happened to the professor and explains the anarchic state of the university and how it got this way. Lamenting, “I am a figurehead, no better than a janitor—worse, really, because I serve no useful function. I neither govern nor direct. I do not admit, I do not grade, I do not dismiss or graduate” (p. 99). As the interview comes to a close, Gavin discovers that the Chancellor is a robot: “You may think it ridiculous to have a mechanical Chancellor. But it is no more ridiculous than having mechanical students. And that is what you are, responding mechanically to stimuli like so many robots” (p. 105).
Gavin is then dismissed from school. He determines to trek to California to find Jenny, whom he believes has returned home to the Bay Area. First going home to his parents place in a Kansas City suburb, Gavin finds a young woman named Elaine boarding in his bedroom (reminiscent of Alex’s plight in A Clockwork Orange). After Gavin leaves in a huff, Elaine stops him on the road outside of town and offers him a ride, and her companionship, on his trek across the country. They face many brutal and bizarre experiences while on a Kerouacian road trip, in chapters titled ‘The Organization Man,” “The Cybernated Psyche,” and “Deflowered Children,” before arriving at a secret, scientific utopian enclave in the southern Rockies, “a haven for scientists and scholars of all kinds…This is one of the few places in the world where they can do their thing. No question of expense or social utility” (p. 262). The utopians monitor what is happening throughout the world through a master computer, sort of anticipating the internet: “this computer is in constant contact with virtually every other computer in the world through the satellite relay system” (p. 270). Elaine realizes they are preparing for an impending cataclysm, the complete breakdown of civil order. The director explains what’s been happening:
The same events that turned the campuses over to the students drove the scientists and scholars from the universities. For centuries, teaching and research had reinforced each other, but when hiring and firing of teachers became a student game, teaching became student-pleasing, a con game in which practical men and women sold students tricks and flattery…The rest of those interested in the creation of new knowledge, in the exploration of the unknown, were neither welcome or useful (p. 278).
Elaine decides to stay at the “enchanted mountain,” but Gavin is determined to leave to finish his quest to find Jenny.
In the final chapter titled, “Thus I Refute Berkeley,” Gavin arrives in Berkeley to find the campus apparently empty, almost like a deserted fairground in the off season, even though it’s at the height of the semester. An audio kiosk announces that a ritual “book burning will be held at the Doe library in honor of the wedding of…” (p. 288). Gavin realizes that he no longer belongs here; is no longer a student. He’s grown up. Nevertheless, he is swept into the ceremony about to take place, to unite students and administration. On a stage erected in the campus center, to his horror, Gavin sees Jenny in the arms of Gregory, who after the disaster of the power plant has been rejuvenated into a cyborg, his enhancements include a cybernetic penis. The cybernetic Gregory has ascended to the university’s Chancellorship and before Gavin’s eyes Jenny is impaled on the stage by Gregory’s electric cock: “It was the rape of humanity by the machine” (p. 305). An explosion rocks the stage, “It was Ragnarok, the campus Armageddon toward which events had moved for twenty years, storing up rage and frustration and violence toward the final explosion” (p. 306). Gavin makes his way to the crater where the stage had been, and sees the bodies of Jenny and Gregory entwined in death: “Gregory’s plastic arm had pulled so tight around her that her ribs were broken, and perhaps her back as well. Gregory’s plastic leg kept them upright through some mechanical miracle” (p. 307). The novel concludes with Gavin returning to the enchanted mountain and to Elaine.
In a letter dated September 18, 1977, Jack Williamson wrote Jim thanking him for sending a signed copy. Williamson wrote: “It’s rather difficult, I think, to write a successful satire that is also a successful narrative, but Kampus makes the grade on both points. I hope the book gets the wide recognition it deserves. I think it should be read by everybody interested in education—which of course is everybody, period. But there is always the question of how much truth people want to face.”
Read in light of how university education has developed since the novel’s publication, though Kampus is extreme in its biting extrapolative satire, it still resonates with some of the follies we as educators face. And in the context of the work James Gunn was doing as scholar and educator at the same time, Kampus can be read as a fictional counterpoint or companion piece to the foundational scholarship and the foundational teaching that Jim has contributed to our field. Today, the novel is worth a look by anyone who wishes to reflect on the state of higher education.
I’ll now turn things over to Chris who will talk about Jim’s legacy of teaching.