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Gift from the Stars
      The Immortals
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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


In his introduction to the collection, Some Dreams Are Nightmares [the reader is urged to seek out this provocative piece], James Gunn boldly asserts that "the science fiction novel is often... a disappointment....

"A hard-core science fiction novel should take for its theme a major problem: pollution, [etc.]... To these problems or suggested problems there are no easy solutions and perhaps no solutions at all, but a novel, because of the promise of its scope and length, is under some compulsion to provide a solution.... Any attempt to resolve larger problems risks the ridiculous; if the larger problems were solvable, they would have been solved already.... The favorite [method of solving the insolvable] for many authors is to ignore the problem, or allow the problem to be solved by accident.

"Only two endings [to a plague that resolves itself in The Andromeda Strain] would have played fair with the premise...: either the scientists discover effective countermeasures or humanity is wiped out....

"Another [method] is to tell the reader that something is incomplete or untrue....

"Other solutions of the inherent problem of the science fiction novel are the conversion of the problem into a special case which can be solved, or the elimination of a problem in novels which stress adventure, romance, mystery, intrigue, or mere description."

Gunn chooses to resolve this problem, perceived to be inherent in the SF novel, through the novelette:
"The science fiction novelette, on the other hand, can reduce [the novel's] scale to the manageable. Length does not compel it to resolve its themes; the novelette -- and its reader -- is satisfied with the problem dramatized, not solved."
This is somewhat reminiscent of Matthew Cheney's claim that the purpose of literature is not to answer but to question. Cheney's idea is well-worn in the ideas of what-literature-is, so he hasn't yet developed his literary theory. But I must respectfully disagree. Readers read because it begins with a question that intrigues us. We want to find out what the answer is, or at least how the protagonist (human or not) attempts to solve it -- even if the answer leads us, as Theodore Sturgeon put it, to ask the next question: not unlike science itself, which answers questions, even if more questions await answers. Literary works tend to stress a character's change, which in itself suggests resolution. But sometimes the resolution isn't the best possible or is, as Gunn mentioned, incomplete. This is okay. We all accept that the world's problems might not be answered in a work of art. But we do read for the process of resolving and possible resolutions -- even if we readers come to the exact opposite resolution as the novel. Important literary works may point to new questions, but it is for the process of seeking answers and for the answers themselves (whether by degrees faulty or true) that we read. Any fool can ask a question or start a story, but can he end it? As Theodore Sturgeon said in a 1980 interview with Gunn, by asking the next question, you may arrive at "basic truths," but you have to keep going since the search never stops.

Robert Heinlein posed many "basic truths" in Starship Troopers that few accept, yet it stimulated much creativity in its wake. Joe Haldeman, Harry Harrison, and Orson Scott Card all wrote different responses to this seminal work, by asking the questions that Heinlein may have neglected. Heinlein may pose faulty conclusions (as may the responses to his work), but it satisfies while simultaneously leaving its readers thinking. Of course, some readers would prefer to censor Heinlein from being read, but someday those works favored by the self-appointed censors may themselves be censored. Isn't debate and thought preferable? If Heinlein didn't pose these answers, someone else might, and abiding by them may be compulsory.

Gunn may not believe in basic truths or answers, like Cheney, but he does believe in the process of getting at truth. In fact, his career may be summarized in one word (if any career can be): "process." Gunn continues on how he resolved the science fiction novel problem:

"[N]ot only was I convinced that the best length for science fiction was the novelette and that the way to obtain the greatest immediate return on my investment of time and thought was by writing the shorter form, but I felt that a novel-length idea treated in this way made possible artistic effects not available to the novel....

"I would not be forced, I thought, to provide any specious solutions to any eternal problems. I could deal with an idea over a considerable span of time and over the lifetimes of several characters. I could dramatize, show the impact of the idea on individual lives, show how it works out for them, and allow the idea itself to complete its destiny, clarified but unresolved, after the book has ended."

To debate Gunn, I would submit that process is itself an answer to a question that one of these novels asks. Another complicates and leaves unresolved the questions it presents, but speculatively satisfies in how the ideas culminate into answering its immediate (and, as it becomes apparent, abiding) story problem.

This has to be the most difficult form of a novel. Sure, it may be a bit more financially and visually rewarding to see your work in multiple forms, but it has to be far more intellectually challenging in its perfection as each story must satisfy as an individual and as a whole. This means presenting small arcs that are immediately "resolved" without leaving the reader feeling dissatisfied that the larger arc is left hanging. I submit that it's okay to resolve the larger arc at the end, even if the answer is partial or even wrong. It is the process that allows readers to examine errors of reasoning for themselves and debate the text, generating discussion about the implications during and following the events of a novel.

Even Prometheus, that great novelist of fire that illuminated mankind, gave little more than the small truth of rubbing two sticks together. It took some other novelist to come up with flint and yet another for the cigarette-lighter. Zeus, that cruelest of critics who insisted that humanity never understand itself, made Prometheus pay for his small truth. But as we know, Hercules, lover of enlightenment and a good dubie, freed Prometheus. So it pays writers to be liberal with truths, no matter how small.

As Gunn works on his next masterpiece, tentatively entitled, Transcendental, we may hope that he continues to delight with adventure and extrapolated thought, but also a closure uniting the best of these novels -- thematic and speculative closure. Mission impossible? Maybe, but longevity seems to reward not only entertainment and thought and art, but also ambition.

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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