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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

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Trent Walters

The Immortals

The Immortals Despite the passage of over forty years, The Immortals is not much dated in its core ideas. A detail or two may have expired: hocking penicillin today would be nearly as fruitful as pushing whiskey panaceas. But James Gunn must have been far ahead of his time in recognizing the future failing of antibiotics and their eventual futility if misused. The central idea still feels amazingly fresh in its sense of wonder: A virus causes old age; and a young man, Marshall Cartwright, donates blood that has the gamma globulin to combat it. This idea is mind-bogglingly original because of its very possibility. When bacteria was originally proposed to have caused ulcers, the medical community scoffed. Gunn's idea contains that same brain-leap of insight.

Unfortunately for Cartwright, the blood is donated to a dying, ruthlessly rich old man, Leroy Weaver. As his condition slowly improves far beyond a simple recovery, having regained the body of a young man, Weaver realizes something unusual must have happened to his body of which modern medical science is not yet capable, so he decides to find out how and will stop at nothing to maintain his new youth. Dr. Russell Pearce, the doctor who knows of Weaver's ill intentions toward Cartwright, tries to protect the young man so that his genes might eventually spread to all of humanity.

Soon, it is not just Weaver who seeks Cartwright but an entire league of powerful old gentlemen who want their lives extended indefinitely by founding the National Research Institute.

In his essay "Real Science, Imaginary Worlds" for Ascent of Wonder, Gregory Benford describes James Gunn's The Listeners as one of those books that achieves the attitude of real scientists: "The most important voice to get right is the style of the scientists themselves. This demands considerable craft." Benford goes on to say that scientists are inherently dull, however (I continually run across non-scientists who think lab work is a thrill-a-minute), intimating that the high craft of an SF writer is to make the work of science both dramatically dynamic yet realistic. This seems to have been what Gunn has always strived for in his best works. He may take a paragraph or so to center the reader in the real world of science when that science is most needed, describing in layman's terms in The Immortals the process of extracting blood, of amplifying DNA, and so forth.

But this craft of scientific realism would account for little if he didn't make the plot dynamic enough to follow. And he does. The plot whisks the reader off on chases across America as characters connive and get connived by the National Research Institute, the Cartwright children and Dr. Russell Pearce with sufficient satisfying twists along the way. (This reader loves gimmicks, especially a good science one, his favorite being one that begins on page 121 -- way cool. The coolest gimmick you probably won't realize until the end.)

Gunn's other strength of craft is his careful sociological examinations. His description of the major and sometimes conflicting approaches to medicine is spot-on. He takes a look at what age, medicine and class are doing to our society. Sometimes the insights are fresh, sometimes not, but even when they're not, the language gets refreshed (here with humor unhinged by sadness) so that readers can reassess their own values from time to time:

[Dr. Pearce has been taken on a wild motorcycle ride through the city, by a peculiar old man whom Pearce isn't sure if he can trust.] "After his terror subsided to a constant fear punctuated by panic, Pearce began to feel the inner city as a place where people lived rather than a jungle to be flown over or passed through."
The greatest pleasure of this novel is that Gunn seems to have planned the finale from the beginning, tying loose strings and telescoping the best sense-of-wonder idea for last. It invalidates one grumble of an reader who didn't read the novel too carefully.

The Immortals contrasts with The Gift of the Stars in that the theme is primary in the latter while the former showcases this built-up extraordinary revelation that may actually complicate immortality in both its genre and theme, leading this reader to his one complaint that it probably wouldn't happen this way. It's a thrilling ride all the same and worth dipping into, if you're looking for a philosophical adventure on the road to immortality.

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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