James Gunn, Grandmaster
by John Kessel

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

In the history of science fiction, only one person has served as both President of SFWA, the international organization of professional science fiction and fantasy writers, and of SFRA, the organization of professional scholars and critics of science fiction. That person is James Gunn.

I first met James Gunn when I showed up in his office at the University of Kansas in August 1972, a newly minted graduate student fresh from an eleven hundred 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 was to come into his office a lot of times over the next nine years as I, at a glacial pace, pursued both a PhD in English and a career as an SF writer. He was always gracious and patient.

I had driven that eleven hundred 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. He taught one of the few U.S. university courses on the genre: his class in Science Fiction and the Popular Media drew huge numbers of students, sometimes more than 100 a semester. Much of the structure of the class shows up in Gunn's Pilgrim Award winning history of the field, Alternate Worlds. Eventually I became Gunn's graduate assistant in that course.

It was only over the time I was at KU that I came to realize how his career represented, in some ways, the main thread of the development of science fiction. As a boy, he shook hands with H.G. Wells. In the late 1940s he sold fiction to John W. Campbell and throughout the 1950s he was a regular in Horace Gold's Galaxy, becoming a mainstay of the movement toward sociological science fiction. He was one of the first people ever to study science fiction in the academy, writing an M.A. thesis on SF, portions of which were published in Dynamic Science Fiction in 1953. His first novel was a collaboration with Jack Williamson that the New York Times said read like a collaboration between Asimov and Heinlein.

Over the last sixty years he has published over 100 short stories and 26 books, among them The Joy Makers, The Immortals, The Listeners, and Kampus. The Immortals was adapted into a movie and served as the basis of a TV series. In his fiction Gunn brings a literary sensibility to traditional SF materials. The Listeners parallels a search for extra-terrestrial intelligence with the difficulty of communication between human beings, realized movingly in the breaking relationship between a scientist in charge of a project listening for messages from space, and his wife, waiting at home for some contact with a husband who is so caught up in the pressures of his work, and his desire for contact with aliens who may or may not exist, that he is unable to touch her, or let her touch him.

In his career as historian, editor and scholar Jim Gunn has worked tirelessly for the acceptance of SF as a legitimate academic field of study. In the late 1960s and early 1970s he filmed interviews with and lectures by Isaac Asimov, Harlan Ellison, Damon Knight, John Brunner, Theodore Sturgeon, John W. Campbell, Gordon Dickson, and Harry Harrison. In 1983 he received the Hugo Award for his non-fiction book Isaac Asimov: The Foundation of Science Fiction. In 1992 the Eaton Award in for lifetime achievement as an SF scholar and critic. At Kansas in the 1970s he started and ran the Summer Institute for the Teaching of SF. This grew into the Center for the Study of Science Fiction, which annually administers and awards the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for short fiction, and the John W. Campbell Award for best SF novel.

His five-volume anthology The Road to Science Fiction is the best historical anthology of SF ever put together. His instructional book The Science of Science-Fiction Writing is the result of a careers worth of experience in the classroom and in the practical world of publishing. It is a significant addition to the small shelf of works about SF writing from the inside, and Gunn's knowledge and craftsmanship shines in every page.

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. Writers as notable as Pat Cadigan and Bradley Denton have been his students, and I count it as one of my great honors to have sat in his classrooms at the University of Kansas back in the 1970s. I don't write a word today that is not influenced by his teaching.

While I worked for and with him he brought many writers to campus, giving me the opportunity to meet Ben and Barbara Bova, Gordon Dickson, Brian Aldiss, Samuel Delany, John Brunner, Fred Pohl, Theodore Sturgeon, and more than once, Harlan Ellison. He directed my M.A. thesis, a collection of SF short stories. He served on the committee for my Ph.D. dissertation, another collection of SF stories.

Ours was not always an easy relationship. Jim pushed me to think more and emote less. He told me that stories are not written, they are rewritten. Coming out of the 60s and the New Wave, I wanted to reduce the differences between SF and mainstream writing. Jim insisted that the differences were vital, that to give them up was to sell out SFs birthright. Strangely, I was to hear the same arguments, almost word for word, from Bruce Sterling in 1985, and I have come to understand and appreciate them - though I'm afraid, Jim, we are never going to come to a meeting of the minds over the virtues of Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations."

His office door was always open. When I came by, I would often interrupt him writing on his red IBM Selectric typewriter. He would turn around and give me, patiently, whatever time I needed, then calmly go back to work. We would argue about the nature of plotting, about character identification, about the triumphant Campbellian vision of the future of the human race. Looking back on it, I cringe to think of how much trivia I brought to him, when he had so much work to do. I know today how hard it is to get writing done and be a full time academic. He did it, seemingly effortlessly.

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.

On a number of occasions he invited me into his home, on the west side of Lawrence, at that time very much the edge of town. Outside his back door was a prairie with horses wandering around it. Sometimes they would come to the wire fence and stick their heads over into his back yard.

I imagine those horses are long gone.

Lots of things are gone. Barry Malzberg once commented on a photo that appears on page 193 of Gunn's Alternate Worlds, of a banquet table at the 1955 Worldcon in Cleveland. Seated at the table are Mildred Clingerman, Mark Clifton, Judith Merril, Frank Riley and family, and Jim Gunn, looking as young, dapper and handsome as Kevin McCarthy from Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

All gone now, but Jim. His 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.

Congratulations, Jim, and thanks.


updated 5/23/2007

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