Guest of Honor - James Gunn

Photo: University of Kansas

James Gunn has worked as an editor of paperback reprints, as managing editor of K.U. alumni publications, as director of K.U. public relations, as a professor of English and now is emeritus professor of English and founding director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction. Prof Gunn was awarded the Byron Caldwell Smith Award in recognition of literary achievement and the Edward Grier Award for excellence in teaching, and was a K.U. Mellon Fellow. He was presented the Pilgrim Award of SFRA, a special award from the World SF Convention for Alternate Worlds, a Hugo for Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction, and the Eaton Award for lifetime achievement. He was president of the Science Fiction Writers of America and president of the Science Fiction Research Association from. For over 25 years, he has served as chairman of the Campbell Award jury to select the best SF novel of the year, and for the last 15 years as chairman of the Sturgeon Award jury to select the best short SF of the year. He was named the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and received a University of Kansas College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Alumni Distinguished Service Award. He has written plays, screenplays, radio scripts, articles, verse, and criticism, but most of his publications have been science fiction. He started writing SF in 1948 and has had more than 100 stories published in magazines and books. He is the author of 29 books and the editor of 13; his Master's thesis was serialized in a pulp magazine.

James Gunn on the web:

James Gunn: Inspiring the Future

By Christopher McKitterick (originally published in Progress Report 4)

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 and 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. More than 60 years of nonstop efforts have made Gunn one of the most influential authors, scholars, and educators in SF.

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, Gunn sold fiction to John W. Campbell. Throughout the 1950s, Gunn regularly appeared in Horace 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 Isaac Asimov, Harlan Ellison, Damon Knight, John Brunner, Theodore Sturgeon, John W. Campbell, Gordon Dickson, Harry Harrison, and others - which are now available on DVD. In 1976, his Alternate Worlds won the Pilgrim Award and the special Hugo. In 1983, he received the Hugo Award 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 a Damon Knight Grand Master. He is the only person to have served as President of both organizations.

Over the last sixty years, Gunn has edited 13 books and authored more than 100 short stories and 29 books, among them such field-expanding works as The Joy Makers, The Dreamers, and Kampus. Five of his stories were dramatized on the X Minus One radio show and TV's Desilu Playhouse. The Immortals, adapted into a movie and then TV series, is more relevant today than ever, exploring how fairly medical care might be distributed if we can cure death. In his fiction, Gunn brings a humanistic sensibility to traditional SF materials. The Listeners parallels a search for extraterrestrial intelligence with the difficulty of communication between human beings, movingly realized in the crumbling relationship between a scientist in charge of a project listening for messages from space, and his wife, waiting for some contact with a husband so caught up in his work that they are unable to understand one another. Carl Sagan credits this book for inspiring his own acclaimed Contact, and the SETI Institute credits it as the seed that grew into their organization. Gunn is still an active writer; his newest novel, Transcendental, and collection of essays, Paratext, are both due out next year, along with other reprints - a total of five books in 2013.

Among his academic publications, Gunn's 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 and in the world of publishing. He has also co-edited two essay collections, Speculations on Speculation and Inside Science Fiction.

Since 1970, when he began to teach "Science Fiction and the Popular Media" - one of the first SF courses offered anywhere - Gunn has attracted writers and scholars from all around the world to Kansas. At that time, aside from Williamson, he was the only SF writer who was also a teacher and scholar at a major university. In the 1970s at KU, Gunn established and ran the Intensive Summer Institute on the Teaching of SF. Under his leadership, his teaching grew into the Center for the Study of Science Fiction, an umbrella organization which now offers a diversity of courses in the writing and scholarship of SF; annually administers the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for short SF and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for SF novel; runs the annual Campbell Conference; and hosts such celebrated figures as Brian Aldiss, Ben Bova, Gordon Dickson, Samuel Delany, Cory Doctorow, China Miéville, and Frederik Pohl.

Officially retired since 1993, Gunn still works on campus just about every day, where his office door is always open. Notable writers such as Pat Cadigan, Bradley Denton, Kij Johnson, and John Kessel were his students, often interrupting 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.

In recent years, Gunn has been signing his emails and letters with the sentence, "Let's save the world through science fiction." About this, he says:

"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 his colleagues at the KU founded AboutSF, an educational outreach mission to empower educators, librarians, and everyone else in not only understanding SF, but also how to teach it. Now, countless people around the world are touched by James Gunn, even if they are unaware of it.

This, more than anything, is the measure of Gunn's influence: he has taught so many teachers, scholars, and educators that his reach is immeasurable. 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.