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April/May, 2006 : Interview:

An Interview with James Gunn

Roots to Branches in Speculative Fiction

Writer. Scholar. Teacher. The work of James Gunn encompasses all of these things. His roots reach deep into the formative years of American Speculative Fiction, he penned a number of classics during the Golden Age, and his branches bear some of the genre's finest future fruit. From his beginnings as a writer in the 1950s to the establishment of the first science fiction studies center and the first program to prepare teachers, to his work with the Science Fiction Hall of Fame and cultivating the talents of new writers—some people would be consider it enough to make a career in any of these three areas, and he's managed them all at the same time!

I was lucky enough to score an interview and will try to summarize a lifetime of work.

Dotar Sojat: What is the future of speculative fiction from your vantage point? You know where it has been; can you guess where it is going?

James Gunn: If I knew the answer to that I'd be a lot smarter than I am. In 1975, in Alternate Worlds, I wrote that I expected SF and the mainstream to become much closer and even, at some point, indistinguishable, and I think that has happened. I expect it to continue, with more mainstream writers venturing into science fiction and more SF writers writing mainstream or SF as mainstream.

What I didn't predict is that SF itself would become fragmented, with various kinds of SF, from media tie-ins through combat SF and gay SF to literary SF at the other end. Nor did I predict the rise in popularity of fantasy, especially secondary universe-type fantasy like Tolkien, rising to equal and even surpass SF in popularity. I think that may be evidence of a culture change in which fantasy worlds are more comforting than rational ones. That trend may not last, but SF's fragmentation may be a natural consequence of the vast numbers of books being published.

When the mid-list book was expunged by the major publishers, I predicted that smaller specialized publishers would arise to fill in the gap, and that has happened. I expect that trend to continue, although smaller publishers will come and go along with their financial resources. What I am really waiting for is the emergence of something new and unexpected. Until the last couple of decades something new has come along in SF about every dozen years. Now that the magazines are no longer the arbiters of what is SF, that may no longer happen. But I wish some book publisher would foster a movement that would surpass cyberpunk in universality and effectiveness in shifting paradigms.

DS: You mention that fantasy may have surpassed SF in popularity due to a culture change in which fantasy worlds are more comforting than rational ones. Why do you think that is? Doesn't it seem that so many of the problems in the world are due to people clinging to their own personal fantasy worlds and not the rational one?

JG: I think that lots of people have given up on finding rational answers to the world's problems and have retreated into fantasy worlds that are much more comforting. Of course that's what I thought a couple of decades ago with all the mysticism, crystal power, reincarnation, alternate medicine, gurus, medicine men, etc.

DS: Your first exposure to speculative fiction was what and when?

JG: I started reading fairy tales in the second grade and graduated to historical novels and Hugh Lofting's Dr. Dolittle books. It may have been Dr. Dolittle's flying to the moon (on a bumblebee? Or maybe it was a giant moth) that may have been my first exposure to space fiction. It was a major disappointment that the school library didn't have the sequel, when Dr. Dolittle explores the moon, and I've never read it. I started reading Tarzan novels about the same time; I found a stack on them in my grandmother's back closet and took them home one at a time.

In 1933, when I was ten, my father started bringing home hero pulp magazines, first Doc Savage and then The Shadow, The Spider, Operator #5, G-8 and His Battle Aces.... The following year I discovered a used-magazine store (Andy's) in downtown Kansas City and there found my first SF magazines in dusty stacks at the back of the store and traded two of my hero pulp magazines for one of Amazing Stories, Astounding Stories of Super Science, and Wonder Stories, and I was hooked.

DS: Did your first desire to write SF come shortly after, or was there a gap?

JG: Almost every reader of SF wants to become a writer, and I remember writing a story when I was sixteen and I think I sent it off to Astounding. But I didn't write another SF story until 1948, when I was living in a garret (literally) with my wife and decided I had to write something I could sell. What I knew best, and liked best, was SF.

DS: "Almost every reader of SF wants to be a writer." I've been wondering lately if there ever was a big base of SF readers who were just readers, and if that base has been shrinking and being replaced by reader/writer types. It seems that everybody I meet at conventions or at sites (even IROSF) are writers. Do you think anybody just reads SF anymore?

JG: I'm sure there are readers who don't want to be writers (a graduate student of mine only wanted to do scholarly studies, but she finally succumbed to the writing temptation). I think SF writing is so common among readers because reading SF involves a collaborative process in putting together the world the author lays out. And SF, because it values world building and plot, seems less intimidating. And there are markets where SF can be published—not as many as there used to be, but more when you consider the Internet. And so many SF writers have emerged from fandom that a fan may ask himself/herself, "Why not me?"

DS: What's a garret? An unfinished room?

JG: A garret is what the British once called (and still may) an attic.

DS: Such humble beginnings! And then you were teaching and writing and able to get your science fiction writing and editing work to count as your scholarly work on your tenure track? What a sweet deal!

JG: I had more publications than almost anyone when I returned to the department full time and published almost two books a year for the first few years. And I got promoted from lecturer to full professor four years after. But yes, I did feel that I had the best of both worlds and I have always held up the department as especially supportive.

DS: And your first success in the field (first story you were really proud of, first sale—whatever you look back on and view as a strong, early success)?

JG: Actually I felt pretty good about my first story, "Paradox" which Sam Merwin, Jr., bought for Thrilling Wonder Stories. It proved to me that someone would pay me to sit in front of my typewriter and turn my ideas into stories. The first story I sold to John Campbell (my third, "Private Enterprise") was pretty special. The first story I put my own name on, though, was "The Misogynist," which Galaxy published. "Wherever You May Be" ("The Reluctant Witch") was the first novella I had published in a major magazine (Galaxy) and launched a career of writing stories in novelette or novella length. Perhaps my most artistic early story was "The Cave of Night" (Galaxy) which became the opening chapter in my novel Station In Space, although the most productive story probably was "New Blood" (Astounding), which was the first chapter of The Immortals.

DS: Was it smooth sailing from there, or were there struggles?

JG: Writing is always a struggle, and as you get older it gets harder rather than easier—I think it's because your standards go up and you realize that your youthful glibness concealed artistic difficulties. I sold nine of the first ten stories I wrote (and all but seven or eight of the more than 100 stories), but not at first. On some of them I had to keep trying for years. The same with novels. I've had some good luck (like Bantam publishing books three through six) and some not so good luck (like the editors who like your work moving somewhere else—like Dick Roberts at Bantam or Norbert Slepyan at Scribner's).

DS: And when did you realize that you wanted to pursue speculative fiction as a scholarly pursuit?

JG: Actually, it was when I first started writing SF. That's why I used a pseudonym (Edwin James) for my first ten stories; because I wanted to save my real name for scholarship. But then I realized that was foolish. I began teaching SF in 1959, when my son and some of his friends organized an SF class and asked me to sponsor it. I ended up teaching it. The following year I began teaching SF (and fiction writing) full time; it coincided with my leaving university relations to go back to teaching. I also began working on Alternate Worlds the same year.

DS: How hard was it to swing that?

JG: I was fortunate. Some teachers have to fight to get one class approved. When the chair of the English Department told me the department would welcome me full-time, he added: "Some younger members of the faculty hope you will be willing to teach a course in SF." It was like that during my full-time tenure, teaching pretty much as many SF classes as I wished, including being asked to teach some graduate seminars. And my scholarly writing and editing in the field, as well as my stories and novels, counted as scholarly work.

DS: Was that the first program of its kind at the time?

JG: The first courses in SF were evening classes taught by Sam Moskowitz at City College of New York in 1953 and 1954. The first regular college class was taught by Mark Hillegas at Colgate in 1962. Jack Williamson taught his first class at Eastern New Mexico University in 1964, and that year or shortly after Thomas Clareson started his class at Wooster. I taught my first class at K.U. in 1969. Of course they all were different, and there wasn't much exchange of information about classes until SFRA got founded in 1970 and Jack started doing a survey of college teaching in 1974. My summer short-course that I called the Intensive English Institute on the Teaching of Science Fiction got started in 1974 as a response to the questions I got from teachers when I was president of SFWA: "I've been assigned to teach a course in science fiction. What do I teach?" And that course was the first of its kind and maybe still the only one.

DS: I never knew that there was such a long history of teaching speculative fiction. Have you run into any anti-speculative fiction bias in the academic world?

JG: I'm sure there's some that consider it (as one of the English faculty said in 1950 when I told him I was going to do my thesis on science fiction) "at best sub-literary." But popular culture and American Studies have made a good many subjects worthy of academic concern, and SF is one of them—maybe not as worthy as Native American studies or African American or feminist literature, but generally acceptable. There still is some prejudice about allowing fiction-writing students to do genre writing, mostly because of formulaic genre stories; that's still a battle to be won.

DS: Formulaic genre stories. Do you think that formulaic stories are just a part of the development of new writers, a kind of phase they have to go through? Or is it more of a matter of ignorance—not realizing that a particular idea has already been done (a lot)?

JG: My theory is that the first thing readers want to do when they start writing is to recapture their reading pleasures (or sometimes media pleasures). That leads to imitative and often formulaic writing. No one wants to read second- or third-hand Edgar Rice Burroughs or Star Trek or even Heinlein or Asimov. The only thing writers have to sell is their unique view of the universe, and if they can capture that uniqueness in appropriate narrative, appealing characters, and suitable language, they will be successful—at least in getting publication. Becoming rich and famous depends on one's uniqueness fitting into an undiscovered popular niche.

DS: You filmed a series of interviews in the '60s and '70s with prominent speculative fiction writers of the day (and from earlier)—how hard was that to put together?

JG: I proposed it to Gordon Dickson in 1958, when he was president of SFWA, and then to a group of SF writers at the Nebula Award ceremony in NY, and everyone, including Isaac Asimov, said they'd be glad to be part of it. What was difficult was getting the resources to do it. I was fortunate to find a friend in Alex Lazzarino, who was in charge of Extramural Independent Study for Continuing Education, and he was willing to put up the financing—about $50,000 by the time we filmed and edited eleven of them. But I was pleased that Continuing Education made all its money back before turning the rights to the films over to the Center for the Study of Science Fiction. A New York filmmaker named Eric Solstein, who was launched into a project of making a documentary about SF, cleaned up the films and made them available as DVDs. The only people I wanted to film but couldn't were Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein. We couldn't get together with Bradbury, and Heinlein was notoriously private. Ginnie (Virginia Heinlein) told me once that he might be willing to be filmed if we agreed not to release the film until after his death, but by that time Lazzarino had moved on to the Menninger Clinic and we were out of the film business.

DS: Have you ever thought of doing another set of interviews like that again?

JG: I've tried a couple of times to get a grant to extend the films I have and make some new ones, but without success. Eric Solstein now has a number of interviews some of which he has used parts of but not the great body of work. He's not working in the same direction however.

DS: Who, if you could, would you choose to interview?

JG: I'm sure I'll forget someone, but I'd do Aldiss, Silverberg, Le Guin, Card, and Haldeman, Vinge, Benford, Brin, and Bear, Gibson, Sterling, Swanwick, Kress, Tepper, Butler, Sargent, Zebrowski, Bisson, and Lethem. But one thing to remember is that the films were more subject- oriented than people-oriented, and in most cases I chose people because I thought they could speak effectively about the subject, such as Poul Anderson on Plot and Fred Pohl on Ideas.

DS: The Science Fiction Hall of Fame—can you tell us a little about your involvement with that?

JG: The SF Hall of Fame (originally the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame, but when the Science Fiction Museum took it over, they wanted just the science fiction part) was Robin Wayne Bailey's idea supported by the Kansas City Science Fiction and Fantasy Society. We (the Center for the Study of Science Fiction) agreed to help and provide a venue for the awards. KACSFS provided the funding. When the Science Fiction Museum in Seattle wanted a Hall of Fame as part of their offerings, we agreed that it would provide a better venue and surrendered our rights to it.

DS: Do they do justice to the written word?

JG: If you mean the writers in the Hall of Fame, we also included editors. We wanted to honor people, both living and dead, who had helped make SF what it is today, and the Grand Master award of SFWA was too slow and too limited to living people. The Science Fiction Museum has added filmmakers and other media people.

DS: Speaking of writing, what have you been up to lately, writing-wise?

JG: I've written several essays recently for inclusion in books and encyclopedia entries. A couple of other people and I have proposed a book on Reading Science Fiction. And I've started a new novel, a star-faring kind of Canterbury Tales called Transcendental.

DS: So when it comes to writing, you have been in the business for so long, I wonder how the writing process is for you. Have you gotten to where you can just take ideas and turn them into stories without much effort, or does it take something really BIG to get you back to the keyboard again?

JG: I think it gets harder as you get older and learn how difficult it is, and you lose some energy. Raymond Chandler once wrote that everything you learn about writing takes away from your need to do it. That isn't quite true for me. I still need to do it, but I set higher hurdles for myself. When you're younger you can throw away time on ideas that simply amuse you or seem okay if not great. As time becomes more precious you want to work on something you haven't done before and something meaningful. The Millennium Blues was a novel that I worked on for more than twenty years. I saw it as something I wanted to artistically and maybe as a capstone novel. Nobody else saw it in those terms. Transcendental is like that, too. But rather than being a work of art, I see it as a narrative challenge that might sum up what science fiction is all about—as the Panshins say in their book The World Beyond the Hill, transcendence, and in a form that blends space epic with the basic SF concept: why are we here? What does it mean? Where are we going?

DS: Just a quick aside—what, if any, non-SF writing have you done?

JG: Back in the Fifties I wrote some non-SF short stories aimed at the slick magazines, and got some kind rejections but no sales. Those stories were finally published in a couple of slender collections called The Unpublished Gunn. Somehow I never had the urge to write a non-SF novel. I like to have something to write about, around which to organize my characters and actions and meaning. Of course a good number of my novels have been as much mainstream as SF.Scribner's sold The Listeners as "a novel"—not an SF novel. And I have urged some of my editors to publish my books that way—particularly Kampus and The Millennium Blues. But if you know SF editors you get published the way they can publish. Of course I've also written a dozen or more books about SF, and edited a dozen more.

DS: The junction of fans and writers in speculative fiction is a subject that I find fascinating. How do you feel about it? Was it as influential back in the early years as people claim it was? What about now? Is there still that synergy there?

JG: It was a major influence on SF when I was getting ready to write. New editors and new writers came out of fandom, generally. I didn't encounter it until I attended the WorldCon in Chicago in 1952, and found the experience not only meaningful but exhilarating. I always went home from that and subsequent conventions resolved to earn my way in such company, and a new story often was enough to make me write a rebuttal story. In those days SF writers were in dialogue with each other and the editors and the readers. Today the field has become so larger, publications so numerous, and the readership so fragmented that much of this kind of interaction doesn't exist. When I was getting started, everybody had read everything; now it would be difficult to converse about anything but media events.

DS: Does fandom do more harm than good for speculative fiction, in the big picture?

JG: More good than harm. Some authors may be influenced by fan worship or dislike, but I don't know of any. I think the capability for harm is vastly overstated. Of course, I haven't been the object of much fan adulation. Nor enmity either.

DS: It seems that speculative fiction and fantasy are winning in our culture—Lord of the Rings, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, etc. Do you think that it is?

JG: I think fantasy is winning—so far. There's a great deal more of both fantasy and what passes for SF, but most of it is mining the field rather than building on it. Not that I don't find it interesting.

DS: Speaking of media and building on the field of SF, I've always thought that shows like The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits managed to do a lot toward exposing the general public to speculative fiction. It seems that now we have very strong character/plot driven stories in our TV and movies, but they are limited in the number of ideas they can explore. Would a new kind of Twilight Zone be a building block to the genre?

JG: I had an idea about a decade ago that TV was ready for a new SF anthology show to be called, maybe, Science Fiction Theater, and dedicated to dramatizing great SF stories, the way Rod Serling sometimes did (The Little Black Bag was a good example). I suggested it to a couple of producers but got no encouragement. That was about the time the New Twilight Zone was starting up.I suggested one of my stories to a TV writer who was associated with the show, but he said that the producers weren't interested in idea stories and quit shortly afterwards.

However, I have heard of the announcement of a new TV series called Masters of Science Fiction that may help in achieving the kind of SF television programming I was dreaming about with Science Fiction Theater.

DS: Masters of Science Fiction would be great, if it truly comes to pass. Speaking of TV and movies, they always seem to miss the mark, even when given great material to work with. Which ones do you think have really got it right?

JG: I'd list Things to Come, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dark City, the first Matrix, maybe The Thirteenth Floor. But my standards are pretty high. Of course I tell my SF students that if we accept what Hollywood gives us without criticism, we deserve what we get. We should hold film SF to the same standard of excellence that we hold written SF.

DS: I'm glad to hear that you liked Dark City. That movie didn't get nearly the proper respect it should have. Which book/story would you like to see brought properly to the big screen?

JG: There are so many it's hard to know where to start. I guess I can only speak for myself: I'd like to see a responsible version of The Immortals and then The Joy Makers and The Listeners, and maybe Crisis! which I conceived as a TV series.

DS: I once heard Fredrick Pohl comment that a lot of early SF writers were very attracted to Communism. What is the story behind that? Did it come back to haunt them during the late fifties with all the red-baiting and such?

JG: I don't know if any of the early Futurians ever got tainted by some of their early contacts. Fred said he went to some meetings of Young Communists to meet girls. Certainly it contributed to a break between the Futurians and the Sam Moskowitz Newark branch that put on the first WorldCon in 1939. Even earlier, SF fandom was debating whether SF's focus on the future and a better world was more important than its focus on science and science fiction itself. Young people often gravitate toward rebellion and rebellious ideas. Communism in the 1930s was one of them. But I don't think it did anyone in the field any harm then or later.

DS: You often sign your emails with the quote "Let's save the world through science fiction." Where does that quote come from? Is it yours? Do you feel that science fiction has had an impact on any "big issues"? For good or bad?

JG: "Let's save the world through science fiction" is my own mantra. For years I tried to get financial backing for a conference bringing together scientists and science fiction writers to discuss the ways in which they influence each other and together shape the world of the future. I called it, after H.G. Wells, who shared some of the same goals, "The Shape of Things to Come." A couple of years ago I brought off a mini-Things to Come conference that worked very well and I hoped would lead to the larger conference (unfortunately it hasn't happened). I felt then, and I feel now, that SF has a role to play in creating a better world, that SF readers and writers in general are better equipped to deal with a changing world and that they, as a group, are committed to a better future, and that we should work together to spread our influence among as many others as we can, particularly the young who need to read and need to read science fiction. Saving the world may be hyperbole, but it is good hyperbole. Maybe we can't save the world, but we can die trying. As Heinlein said in HAVE SPACESUIT—WILL TRAVEL, "Die trying is the proudest human thing."

Copyright © 2006, Dotar Sojat. All Rights Reserved.

About Dotar Sojat

Now it can be told! Dotar Sojat shot the deputy, and he let Bob Marley take the rap for it.


Apr 24, 17:02 by IROSF
Thread for the discussion of James Gunn or Dotar's interview

The interview itself is here.
Aug 30, 09:02 by Dotar Sojat
Also just found out that NPR did a broadcast on WorldCon. James Gunn gets a few words in. Check out:

...which is a huge link. Good luck!

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