By Christopher McKitterick
H.G. Wells once 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. James Gunn has always seen science fiction as a major part of that education, and has devoted his career to not only writing it, but also propagating his understanding of how to write as well as understand it. He has profoundly influenced the field through his humanistic approach, emphasizing in his writing and teaching how humanity responds to change rather than about technology or science itself. Sixty years of nonstop effort have made Gunn one of the most influential figures in SF.
First, a quick overview of Gunn’s teaching:
- In 1969, he taught his first science fiction course at the University of Kansas, “Science Fiction and the Popular Media”—one of the very first SF courses in academia.
- In 1975, Jim offered the summer Intensive English Institute on the Teaching of Science Fiction at KU, which then became an annual event.
- In 1979, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best science fiction novel was presented for the first time at the new Campbell Conference, an event devoted to the teaching and writing of SF—a kickoff event for the Institute.
- He added the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for best short SF in 1987, and in cooperation with the Kansas City Science Fiction and Fantasy Society, added the SF Hall of Fame inductions in 1996.
- In 1982, Gunn founded the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at KU as a focus for the SF programs he was creating.
- In 1985, he offered his first Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop, now also an annual event.
- In 1991, Dr. Richard W. Gunn, a retired physician in Kansas City and Professor Gunn’s brother, created an endowment to support the Center, and another to bring such celebrated speakers as Aldiss, Bova, Dickson, Delany, Doctorow, Miéville, Pohl, and many others.
- The Center’s activities and offerings have only grown as Gunn’s former students have extended the reach of the organization he created.
Gunn’s career represents the main thread of SF’s development since the Golden Age. As a boy, he shook hands with Wells. In the 1940s, he sold fiction to Campbell. Throughout the 1950s, Gunn regularly appeared in Gold’s Galaxy, becoming a mainstay of the movement toward sociological SF. He was one of the first to pursue science fiction in the academy, writing an M.A. thesis on the genre, portions of which were published in Dynamic Science Fiction in 1953. He co-authored his first novel, Star Bridge, with Jack Williamson, which the New York Times said read “like a collaboration between Asimov and Heinlein.” In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he filmed a series of interviews with and lectures by such greats as Asimov, Ellison, Knight, Brunner, Pohl, Sturgeon, Campbell, Dickson, Harrison, and others for his Teaching Institute—and recently ensured that these are available on DVD. In 1976, his Alternate Worlds won the Pilgrim Award and the special Hugo. In 1983, he received the Hugo for his Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of SF. In 1992, SFRA gave him the Eaton Award for lifetime achievement; and in 2007, SFWA named him Damon Knight Grand Master. He is the only person to have served as President of both organizations.
Gunn’s historically based anthology series, The Road to Science Fiction, has enormously influenced the shape and development of the field. His instructional book The Science of Science Fiction Writing is the result of a career’s worth of experience in the classroom as well as the world of publishing. He has also co-edited two essay collections, Speculations on Speculation and Inside Science Fiction.
But these are only facts.
Officially retired since 1993, Gunn still regularly works on campus, where his office door is always open. He mentored such notable writers such as Pat Cadigan, Bradley Denton, Kij Johnson, and John Kessel, who often interrupted his work by stopping by for advice. He patiently offers whatever time is needed, then calmly returns to work. He has always managed to be a full-time academic, yet, seemingly effortlessly, still be a prolific writer.
Last year, some regular attendees of the Center’s summer program suggested we dedicate this year’s Campbell Conference to honoring James Gunn. It made sense, with his being Guest of Honor at WorldCon and special guest here this year, and because his former students hold him in such high regard and affection.
When Kij Johnson and I approached Jim with the plan, he smiled, glanced down at his coffee, and changed the topic to something practical that we needed to get to work on in order to best serve the field of SF. Shortly thereafter, we were approached by the Lifeboat Foundation, which wanted to offer a new prize for SF writing. Jim saw this as an opportunity for collaboration that could help both organizations, and promptly suggested we make this year’s Conference topic, “To the Stars,” translating the Kansas State motto from the Latin.
That sort of focus is typical of Gunn: The work, the classes, the awards, the speaker series, our research collection, the conference—everything we do—is to serve the larger field of SF, which in turn serves the world.
In preparing for a talk about Gunn at the 2013 SFRA/Eaton Conference, I contacted several of his alums, asking for memories of our teacher, James Gunn. The responses were immediate and heart-felt. I asked myself why: Why do so many people love this Midwestern-German gentleman as we do? I concluded that the best way to understand this is to share some words of tribute from the “Young Gunns”—what his former students have begun calling ourselves—to our mentor, James Gunn.
I first knocked on Professor Gunn’s office door when I was an undergraduate at the University of Kansas. The door was open. He was at his desk, typing on a Selectric. I hesitated before knocking, because the man was obviously working. But these were his office hours…
He stopped typing and invited me to sit in the chair beside his desk. Then he extracted a manuscript from a pile on the far side of the desktop—a story I had submitted in hopes of being admitted to his advanced fiction writing class—and he proceeded to go through it line by line, paragraph by paragraph, explaining everything that was wrong with it.
As it turned out, there was a lot wrong with it.
I sat there in despair. How could I have submitted something so wretched? How was it that I hadn’t even realized how wretched it was until now?
Not that Professor Gunn was using words like “wretched.” No, he was patiently explaining where I had failed to clarify my protagonist’s conflict, where I had failed to show rather than tell, where I had failed to respect my reader’s expectations and intelligence. Every missed opportunity.
I remember thinking that I wished he were using words like “wretched.” I wished he were raising his voice in indignation that I had wasted his time.
After all, James Gunn wasn’t just any university instructor. He was a major science fiction author whose work I had read and admired. He had been publishing great stories and novels for thirty years. He was somebody who knew what he was talking about. For crying out loud, this was the man who had written The Listeners, a novel of scientific determination that’s one of the finest first contact stories ever told. And here I had shown him an utter mess and called it a story.
And then, when he had gone through the entire story with me, and I saw, for the first time, everything that was wrong with it … Professor Gunn said something like, “I’ll see you in class.”
As I left his office, I looked down at my manuscript and at the notes written on it. Yeah. The next one would be better. I was astonished that Professor Gunn had admitted me to his class.
And then I realized that the class had already begun.
I first met James Gunn when I showed up in 1972, a newly minted graduate student fresh from an 1100-mile drive from upstate New York. On that first afternoon I foisted off on him my quite awful undergraduate honors thesis on Samuel Delany. He was gracious and patient.
I had driven that 1100 miles because of James Gunn. I wanted to write science fiction, and study literature. At that time, aside from Jack Williamson, he was just about the only working SF writer who also was a working teacher, and scholar in a major university. His class in Science Fiction and the Popular Media drew huge numbers of students, sometimes more than 100 a semester.
Jim Gunn has worked tirelessly for the acceptance of SF as a legitimate academic field of study. I know today how hard it is to get writing done and be a full time academic. He did it, seemingly effortlessly.
It is as a writing teacher and a mentor that Jim Gunn means the most to me. No one knows more about how science fiction is and has been done, and I count it as one of my great honors to have sat in his classrooms. I don’t write a word today that is not influenced by his teaching.
Through all this, he never blew his own horn. He became, and is still, my role model. I wanted his job, and in some ways, I got it. I only hope that I treat the students who come into my office at North Carolina State with the respect that he gave me, long before anyone could ever have known that I might earn it.
Jim’s has been a life devoted to science fiction. He may not tell you what it has meant to him, but I just needed to tell you what he has meant to me.
Ann Tonsor Zeddies
The one quote of his that sticks in my mind and that I’ve used a hundred times to explain to people why I care about this genre is, “Science fiction is the literature of change.” I think that’s so important.
When I recall the seminars and Campbell Conferences, I realize Jim has a genius for building community in science fiction—a notoriously difficult endeavor, since getting us to work together is like herding cats. I think of him team-teaching with Steve, Fred, Betty, Kij or you [me], and how he brought in award nominees as guests and put them together with students in an environment where they could really interact. This is unique in my experience. He creates a vision of a world where we aren’t solitary strangers, but team-mates working on a really big endeavor together. He makes me feel as if we are creating the future, and it is exciting.
Asimov’s editor Sheila Williams
His work inspired me as a teenager. The fact that he was teaching SF at a university encouraged me to carve out a future for myself in SF. The historical collections that he has amassed and the people who he has taught and influenced have gone toward preserving the history of our field and creating its future. Studying with Jim was an unfulfilled dream of my youth. As I told him after I visited KU in 2011, I only wish I’d had enough spare time to pursue a graduate degree with him.
One of the most influential things that Jim Gunn taught me springs from the wisdom he offered about critiquing stories. His emphasis on understanding a story before judging it is simple but powerful. When you introduce this concept to a critique group, conversations immediately become more productive and civil.
Another is the notion of genre as conversation. This is a powerful technique for teaching literature and writing. New writers want to just imitate what’s already out there, but when you teach them about texts as conversation, people immediately see that it’s never sufficient to repeat what was already done.
Charles Von Nordheim
One of my favorite moments with Jim occurred during a workshop where the story in question contained some graphic language. I remember the relationship between the writer and Jim age-wise amounted to between a granddaughter and a grandfather. The writer in question panicked when she realized that Grandmaster Gunn would be viewing her earthy referents. Likewise, I remember that the other writers in the critique avoided discussing the writer’s language choices for similar reasons. When critique passed to Jim, he began with learned etymological discussion of words and a taxonomy of their use within SF. The writer gasped and said, “Jim, I didn’t think you knew that word.” Jim smiled and said, “Oh, I know all the words.”
Jim changed my life, my writing—everything. I met him in 1994, when I received the Sturgeon Award. I sat in on the second week of his fiction workshop, and it was absolutely eye-opening. I came back every year, and each time I learned more, and each time I tried to put on the page what I had just learned. Now I have come to KU as professor of creative writing, closing the circle.
There are so many things he taught me. A few years back, one of the students in his short-fiction workshop collected the important things he said, condensed to their essence. Gunnisms, we all call them now. I incorporate much of this advice into my own teaching. I feel sometimes as though every smart thing I have ever said is something I am quoting from Jim.
At the beginning of each workshop, he told us that there are three fundamental questions that should be asked of a story: What is the author trying to do? How well is she doing it? And—the hardest to face of the three—Is it worth doing? The last question isn’t asked often enough. It moved my writing from clever finger exercises to meaning something.
The most important thing he taught me was a surprise coming from a man who writes within a genre not best known for its heart. Each year, the night before the workshop began, he would talk a bit about what was going to happen in the next couple of weeks, and then in a few words, he would change the game for us all. All fiction, he would say, should be about the human condition. Whatever else is going on in a story, it should say something about what it means to be human. “If you’re not writing about this, why are you writing?” I ask this with every single story I write, and every story I critique.
I have studied writing with him for many years. From the earliest days, I was in love with style and the slow unveiling of character. He had an unsettling ability to put his finger on flaws that my elegant language had hidden from anyone else. I remember him saying, “This is a very polished piece of work, but it’s not a story. Nothing happens, no one changes. Nothing is being said here.” He was right. My next story was better.
I still write with Jim in mind. If he respects my work, then I know it is worthy of respect.
Gary K. Wolfe
The first piece of literary criticism I read came into my hands when I was 11 or 12, and it was by James Gunn. My brother and I had enthusiastically discovered SF paperbacks in the small town in Missouri where we grew up, and we eventually persuaded our dad to take us on a shopping trip to Kansas City, where we knew there would be better and bigger used bookstores.
A couple of the magazines we got were old issues of Dynamic Science Fiction from 1953 and 1954, which included actual academic-style essays called, “The Plot-forms of Science Fiction,” by James E. Gunn. They were by far the most fascinating things in the issues, and for the first time it occurred to me that you could write about this stuff, which I found encouraging since my own efforts at fiction were about what you would expect from a pre-teen geek with a big thesaurus and no narrative sense. I didn’t know who James Gunn was, but over the next few years I read a few novels and stories and the name stuck. One of the few SF stories that really haunted me from that period, and still does, was “The Cave of Night,” a tale of a doomed astronaut.
Years later I entered the University of Kansas, where I was delighted to find that Gunn worked-not, at that time, as a professor, but as PR director and speechwriter for the university president. When it came time to write my English honors thesis, I had to get special permission to work with him. That’s when I learned that those old pulp magazine essays were a serialization of his master’s thesis, one of only a handful that had been written on SF at that time. He was an enthusiastic mentor, and even gave me Bradbury’s address in case I wanted to ask him questions directly. That honors thesis was my first unpublished effort at SF criticism and scholarship, and I later mined bits of it for essays which did get published.
So Jim Gunn represents a lot of firsts for me-first critical essay read, first critical essay written, first meeting with a live SF author. A few years later, after I’d published a handful of essays, I picked up a copy of the anthology, Science Fiction, Today and Tomorrow, and was astonished to find my name in the index. It was in an essay by Jim called “Science Fiction and the Mainstream,” and even though it was only a brief quotation from one of those published essays carved from the honors thesis, it was the first time I’d seen my name in print in a book. So another first gets credited to Jim. And another: when he invited me to contribute a short piece for his New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction in 1988, my first encyclopedia entry. And it was Jim who invited me to write an introduction to the Easton Press edition of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt, my first book introduction.
I guess you could say that the legendary part of Jim’s career began after I was gone. But just as he represented so many firsts for me, I like to think I was among the first of his students-even though I never took a classroom course from him-to actually try to make some sort of career out of SF criticism. An inexplicable ambition to be sure, one that still earns me odd looks to this day, and I blame Jim for it.
James Gunn’s Road to Science Fiction #3 anthology was the first book I ever bought new as a teen. It influenced me tremendously: Here was a collection not only of great stories, but also of insightful essays about each that placed the stories in context. I felt that I had been given an insider’s tour of science fiction!
Years later, I discovered his summer SF Writing Workshop. That workshop changed my life. After I was accepted, Professor Gunn asked what I was planning to do in the coming year. Heck, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life then at all, except that I wanted to write SF. Jim suggested I pursue graduate studies at KU, because after that year he would retire, so this was my last opportunity to do so. I didn’t need any convincing. I applied, got in, and spent the next two years immersed in SF studies. I worked my butt off, feeling that I must do my absolute best to become a real SF writer so I could deserve his attention. I later sold the novel I wrote for Jim as my thesis.
After graduation, I returned to KU every year, spending two weeks to a month each summer—my vacation—assisting Jim with the Workshop, Conference, and Institute, which he continued to offer for years after retiring. After eight years of that, KU hired me away from Seattle, where I had been working as a technical writer, and began a career working with Jim. Now we get together with Kij every Saturday for breakfast and continue to talk SF. I cannot express how pleased and humbled I am to be able to call James Gunn my friend and colleague. He taught me everything I know about SF, and I learn something new every time we meet. Jim makes me want to be the best writer, teacher, and person I can be.
In recent years, Jim has been signing his emails and letters with the sentence, “Let’s save the world through science fiction.” He clarifies:
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 important qualities: 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.
To help achieve what he sees as SF’s legacy to the world, Gunn and I founded AboutSF, the Center’s educational-outreach mission to empower educators, librarians, and so forth in not only understanding SF but also how to teach it, and how to spread the word.
Every day, I strive to be worthy of my association with James Gunn, and the common thread among those of his former students is the same: Jim inspires us to ever become better authors, scholars, and readers of SF, and the best human beings we can be. He inspires us to strive to make a difference in the world, to make real his belief that SF can, indeed, change the world. All we can do is hope to be worthy of the time and creative energy he put into educating us, to be associated with him, and consider ourselves worthy students.
This, more than anything, is the measure of Gunn’s influence: Having taught so many teachers, scholars, and educators, who then went on to teach others or share his perspective in their own ways, Jim has touched countless people around the world, even if they are unaware of it.
His is a life devoted to science fiction, and without him, the field would not be the same, nor the world as aware of both the peril and potential of human endeavor.
Thank you, Jim, for your tireless service, and for teaching us all science fiction. You have changed all our worlds.