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Gift from the Stars
      The Immortals
      The Listeners
James Gunn
      James Gunn
      James Gunn
BenBella Books, 154 pages
      Pocket Books, 300 pages
      BenBella Books, 195 pages

James Gunn
Born in 1923 in Kansas City, MO, James Gunn received a degree in journalism and an M.A. in English following three years in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He is now professor emeritus of English at the University of Kansas, specializing in the teaching of fiction writing and SF and director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction. In 1971-72, James Gunn was president of the Science Fiction Writers of America. He won a Hugo Award in 1983 for Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction. He is the author of at least 19 books and the editor of seven more.

James Gunn Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Gift from the Stars
SF Site Review: The Immortals
SF Site Review: Gift from the Stars
SF Site Interview: James Gunn
SF Site Review: The Road To SF 5: The British Way

Gift from the Stars
The Immortals
The Listeners
Past Feature Reviews
A review by Trent Walters

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One Reason To Be Named Grandmaster

A few months ago, James Gunn was named as the latest Grandmaster of Science Fiction. Since the majority of science fiction fans have probably never heard of him, they may wonder why, in light of the fact that Gunn has never won a major award for his fiction, although he has come close.

As all literary award systems are flawed, it should come as no surprise that the most important novels are not always selected. Hindsight is 20/20. As will be discussed below, The Listeners not only influenced SETI, but many genre novelists as well. Gunn's main concern is how it might really happen. He opens the reader to the process of an idea. How might it unfold in real life?

This attitude was appreciated in its time, garnering runner-up positions for the Nebula and John W. Campbell Memorial awards -- which you might suppose would be the kiss of death: a miss that might as well have been a mile. Instead, writers and scientists spread the word of its achievement. Perhaps that's why it took a writer-scientist to bring Gunn's attitude to fruition a decade later: Gregory Benford's Timescape. From the ground Gunn fertilized, Benford reaped, taking both the Nebula and Campbell awards that Gunn had missed. Writers who came of age in the 80s -- Gwyneth Jones, Geoff Ryman to name a few that I've heard extol the work -- looked to Timescape as one the of the genre's more phenomenal achievements in realistic science and character portrayals. Ryman -- whose Air looks to have achieved a similar high literary mark -- in his turn, coined the phrase, Mundane SF, or Real World SF (see Wiki definition), to encompass Gunn's attitude yet honing it toward an even more probable science fiction. 2007 will see the publication of two novels in the Mundane SF vein by Charles Stross and Anil Menon (at least according to their authors; I will try to review them later to ascertain how much realistim they were able to get across).

In other words, one man's attitude has had a snowball effect on succeeding generations of writers. Not only is he a preeminent scholar and teacher -- most famously Pat Cadigan, Bradley Denton, and John Kessel -- but he's also achieved what most writers only dream of: influence. That alone should merit a writer the Grandmaster title.

Overview of Three Novels

In addition to The Science of Science Fiction Writing, the essay collection Speculations on Speculation, and the six-volume historical genre overview, The Road to Science Fiction -- all available from Scarecrow Press, James Gunn has three novels still available. Benbella recently published Gift from the Stars, which was serialized in Analog, and his classic The Listeners.

Earlier, Pocket Books reissued the newly expanded and updated version of The Immortals, whose slightly out-of-focus cover catches the eye. The Immortals includes an introduction by Greg Bear and a new preface by Gunn detailing where he was when he wrote it, how it came to be a television series, and how the promising movie options never quite panned out (he characterizes the experience as "hysterical enthusiasm followed by total silence," a quote borrowed from Vonda McIntyre).

In A.E. Van Vogt's Slan, it's one man against the world. Gunn realizes that characters will have to work together for a common, larger cause. John Clute's claim in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction that Gunn's "forte seems to lie in the narrative analysis of stress-ridden administrations and their administrators" sounds rather tedious. It's best to reframe this forte to say that groups of men and women go off adventuring, rather than some lone super-hero. The adventure comes in three different forms in each of these novels: Gift from the Stars' adventure lies in the accelerated accretion of mysterious science-fictional dreams; The Immortals' adventure lies in actively surfing upon these dreams; and The Listeners' adventure lies more in how its characters tackle the goal of listening to the heavens for signs of life.

Another of Clute's assessments (while often astute, they are sometimes so necessarily brief as to be misleading) concerns the minor roles of women in Gunn's fiction. First, it should be noted that the Encyclopedia has no mention of first and notable positive roles in the genre. Surely, one of the earlier, positive and key roles for people of color is Andrew White, the African-American President, of The Listeners -- one of the more complex characters of any Gunn novel. While before Gift of the Stars (two of the three main protagonists are strong-willed women) females did not always take the leading roles, they were major protagonists who did not faint at the sight of danger but rather represented a more worldly and bold counterpart to the major male protagonists (see The Immortals). Moreover, while men may represent greed or evil, women are almost always positively portrayed as long-suffering and intelligent who -- also in The Immortals -- guide men to put aside their formerly selfish ways and steer for the narrow path.

If a reader is concerned about the novels originally appearing as stories, he shouldn't be. The stories span a large breadth of time and space, but they are more like chapters that end leaving the feeling that more must come -- a novel technique which John Clute describes as "cumulatively impressive." In fact, Stanley Schmidt merged two of Gunn's stories into the final novella of The Gift to the Stars. Perhaps Gunn was writing novels all along.

Matthew Hughes had a good review of The Immortals, but my one disagreement would be classifying Gunn with the Golden Age writers. Gunn does develop ideas, but he seems more interested, again, in processing ideas with realism and a somewhat stylized manner more reminiscent of the Silver Age ushered in by Fantasy & Science Fiction and Galaxy. In this Gunn straddles the two ages. However, it does seem that today the Golden and Silver ages -- that is, anything before the New Wave (1960s) -- are more often lumped into one category, in which group Gunn fits comfortably.

One Reason To Be Named Grandmaster | Gift from the Stars | The Immortals | The Listeners | Closure

Copyright © 2007 Trent Walters

Trent Walters has unwittingly incited bloody-knuckled riots at conventions with a sweet and innocent concept like Mundane SF (blog, article printed in BSFA's Vector). His work has appeared in such villainous publications as The Golden Age SF anthology, Electric Velocipede, Full Unit Hookup, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, among others. Examples of his poetry, fiction, and nonfiction can be found online at 3am Magazine, The Angler, EOTU, Lamination Colony, Pindledyboz, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Vacancy, and Zone-SF. Forthcoming are a short fiction piece in Grendelsong and, from Morpo Press, a poetry chapbook called Learning the Ropes. Starting in the second issue of 2007, he will be the poetry editor of Abyss and Apex.


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