Grand Master Award Remarks
by James Gunn

Note: Delivered during the 2007 Nebula Awards ceremony in New York City, May 12, 2007.

Thank you, Robin, the members of the SFWA Board, and the former SFWA presidents for this recognition that all of us aspire to and few dare imagine, and those friends and colleagues who may have thought more highly of my efforts than I did myself: Pamela Sargent, George Zebrowski, Chris McKitterick, Kij Johnson, and others I may not be aware of. I wish I could thank my parents, who never went to high school but loved books and sent one son to become a physician and another to become a university professor and writer. I can thank my wife, Jane, who has been beside me and has shared my aspirations and my tribulations these past sixty years, and my sons, Christopher and Kevin, who put up with a father who spent too much time with his typewriter.

When Robert Heinlein accepted the very first Grand Master award, he recalled his brother, Major General Lawrence Heinlein, telling him that there are only two promotions in a mans life that mean a damn: from buck private to corporal and from colonel to general officer. Heinlein went on to say that he had made corporal decades ago, but now at long last I know what he meant about the other. And now I know what Heinlein meant.

I remember when Heinlein got his award. I went up to him afterwards in the SFWA suite in the Warwick Hotel, congratulated him, and told him how much his stories and novels had meant to me. I addressed him, of course, as Mr. Heinlein, and he said, Call me Robert. But I dont think I ever did.

When Isaac Asimov got his award, I shook his hand, looked at his award, and said, Isaac, they misspelled your name Issac Asmimov. Are you going to give it back? And he said, Not on your life. I know now what Isaac meant.

My only regret is that Jack Williamson didnt get a chance to add his approval. As a Grand Master himself, he knew how much it meant, and I have the feeling that the knowledge might have brought him joy in his final days. He was that kind of friend.

Grand Masters come in all shapes and sizes and genders, with different ways of looking at the world and different ways of embodying it in their fiction. But they share one belief: in the power of science fiction to transform lives and minds and maybe even the world. We all have experienced the awakening that comes from the recognition of our common humanity, our shared dreams, our vision of a better life, and our awareness that the future depends upon the choices we make today. That is why were gathered here this evening.

In my case it started with books of fairy tales and Hugh Loftings Dr. Doolittle books in the second grade, a stash of Edgar Rice Burroughss Tarzan novels discovered in my grandmothers back closet, the hero pulp magazines that my father began bringing home in 1933, in the depths of the Depression, and then the discovery, in downtown Kansas City, of a used magazine story named Andys that had dusty stacks of magazines called Amazing Stories, Wonder Stories, and Astounding Stories of Super Science; and later, when I was 16, a magazine called Famous Fantastic Mysteries that reprinted the marvelous stories from the old Munsey Magazines. Thats where I discovered A. Merritt.

So it was natural that when I gave up the idea of becoming a world-famous playwright and a writer of radio shows, I sat down to write a science-fiction story. My first was called Paradox. I sent it to John Campbell at Astounding and then to Amazing Stories and finally to Sam Merwin, Jr., at Thrilling Wonder Stories, and a couple of weeks later got a letter that changed my life. Merwin wrote: I like your story Paradox, and Ill pay you $80 for it.

Many years later, at the WorldCon in Anaheim, Merwin was a member of a panel. I walked up to him afterwards and thanked him for buying my first story. He said, I can tell you why I bought it, and I thought, how wonderful that he remembered the story, until he went on, Anything at all literate jumped up out of the slush pile. That was comparable to the time in 1952 when I was going back to full-time writing on the strength of having sold four stories, and decided to visit editors in New York. I walked into John Campbells office, introduced myself, and said hed just bought a story of mine called Survival Policy, and he replied, I viewed that mainly as space filler. But he talked to me for an hour and gave me an idea for a story that turned out to be The Reluctant Witch. But Fred Pohl, who was my agent, sent it to Horace Gold at Galaxy, because Horace needed a lead novella, and Horace published it as Wherever You May Be.

Fred became my agent in 1951, on Horaces recommendation, and I met him for the first time in Chicago, at the 1952 WorldCon. I was working in Racine, Wisconsin, as an editor for Western Printing & Lithographing Company, which published the Dell line of mass-market paperbacks, and I persuaded the editor-in-chief to send me to the convention to meet authors. I had never met a science-fiction author before, or as far as I was aware another science-fiction reader, and I met authors there: Clifford Simak, Mack Reynolds, Bob Bloch, Richard Matheson, Fred Pohl of course, Willy Ley; and editors: John Campbell, Tony Boucher, Raymond Palmer, Horace Golds surrogate, Evelyn Gold, even Hugo Gernsback. But mostly Jack Williamson.

We were standing in line to register and I turned around and found myself looking at a face I recognized from the backs of beloved novels. Youre Jack Williamson, I said (it probably sounded like an accusation), and he confessed that he was. It was the start of a long friendship that transcended age and distance, and launched the novel that I finished from Jacks materials, Star Bridge, a friendship ended only a few months ago by Jacks death after a long and satisfying life achieved by believing in the power of science fiction and the strength of the science-fiction family.

I went to a number of conventions after that because I had discovered something there that I had been looking for all my life: brotherhood, the brotherhood of the mind, the brotherhood of the spirit. I always left a convention feeling exhilarated and humbled, vowing to return home to Kansas City or to Lawrence, Kansas, and my Smith-Corona typewriter, where I would work even harder to prove myself worthy of such company.

It is that brotherhood I want to talk about this evening. Some of you are aware that in recent years I have signed my e-mails and letters with the phrase, Lets save the world through science fiction. 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 qualities that I did not find in other kinds of fiction: 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. H. G. Wells 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. I think SF is a major part of that education, and we all can help by introducing more people into its charms and values, particularly young people.

At the same time that we have seen the world become more dangerous and our genre more acceptable, we have also seen its readership decline among younger readers as our older readers fade awaythe more audiences attend SF films and watch SF television shows, the less SF they seem to read. They read less of everything, of course. But it has seemed to many of us who are involved in teaching and writing that SF has the potential to create readers where there are few and to strengthen the bonds between readers and magazines and books--because we tell good stories at the same time that we address the issues that trouble our world.

Science fiction turned us on, each of us, all of us. It transformed us from people focused on mundane realities into people who realized that each of us is responsible for everything, including the future, and even the survival of the human species, and that we can make a difference. Because science fiction deals with the process by which we became human and the process by which we can leave ancient and limiting forms of behavior behind and become more than human, because science fiction is Darwinian in tracing our behavior to the evolutionary struggles and the environmental circumstances that brought us to this moment and more than Darwinian in allowing us to transcend our environmental conditioning and choose to do otherwise, to do the right thing, science fiction has the power to enlighten and to inspire.

Margaret Mead once said, Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

I think we all have the responsibility to care and to act upon our caring, because of what science fiction has done for us and because of the power science fiction shares with us, to give back to the culture that gave us birth, to share what we have with others, particularly the young who are most capable of being transformed, to save the world if we can. Not to pay back, but to pay forward, as Heinlein urged. Im not sure we can do it. Im not sure the world is capable of being saved, and Im not sure we are the ones to save it. But I think we should try.

To paraphrase our first Grand Master in Have SpacesuitWill Travel, I dont think we can do it, but we should die trying. And Kip Russell, Heinleins young hero, continued, Die trying is the proudest human thing.

Thank you once more. Tomorrow I will return to Lawrence and try to be worthy of your company.


updated 5/23/2007

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