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Gift from the Stars
James Gunn
Analog, September 1999, January 2000, July/August 2000, December 2001

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

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Trent Walters

If Philip K. Dick's paranoia puzzles pleased your pleasure center, if you've been thumbing dusty library stacks for a literary Asimov, if Carl Sagan's non-fiction speculations on extraterrestrial life tickled your fancy, if James Gunn's finalist for the Nebula and John W. Campbell Memorial awards, The Listeners, had you listening to the stars, if Carl Sagan's Contact left you wondering how the first contact would unfold, or if the connective sophistication behind Farscape's (if you'll pardon the hammy acting and slipshod science) slippery narrative and behind the small and larger arcs of Blake's 7 impressed you, you're in for a treat in James Gunn's latest, Gift from the Stars. The reader may ask, "How dare the reviewer compare inferior media forms to the superior written?" Easily.

The series has a meta-fictional and meta-celluloidal perspective, peppered throughout without hampering the story -- much as the first half of the film Scream successfully commented on horror while successfully living up to the status of a horror film. The similarities separate, however, when one compares audience expectations: where Scream plays up to expectations, Gift from the Stars plays off of them to do the unexpected, keeping the reader on his toes. The latter play may not always live up to the dramatic effects of the former but maintains reader fascination.

"The Giftie," (Analog, September 1999 -- not November 1999 as a few issues indicated) won that year's Analog Reader Award: the Anlab. Upon the first read-through in a camper under the perpetual twilight of an Alaskan summer night, this reviewer must have been distracted to miss what other Analog readers recognized immediately. It seemed like a spin-off of a spin-off of a spin-off (Sagan inspired Gunn inspired Sagan inspired Gunn). "Seemed" is the key phrase. Each inspiration distills, refines and reflects with new light the ideas of old. One must roll up the pant legs and wade deeper into Gunn's narrative. Each story shifts the narrative rays to greater imaginative depths. Somewhere buried beneath the waves, Gunn's golden Atlantis awaits discovery.

Adrian, an aerospace engineer, has been haunting bookstores to find the missing link for human flight through space. He hits upon a book, Gift from the Stars, which has what appears to be diagrams for building a ship, in the UFO and occult remainders table. Adrian has to meet the author to find out if more diagrams exist. He hits up the bookstore owner, Francis Farmstead, a feisty grandmotherly type, to help him locate the author; her attempt, however, gets her bookstore burned. Two characters in search of an author has begun.... A minor flaw, slipping the action that resolves the conflict in the climactic scene backstage, does not slow the pace or enjoyment (the reviewer failed to catch the flaw on the first read -- too caught up in the story to notice?).

Picking up ten years later, inexpensive "Pow'r" (Analog, January 2000) from alien technology on Earth has exploded and eased life to a point where people don't care about space travel and settling new habitations on other planets. Adrian is missing and all traces of his existence have been electronically wiped. The trail leads Francis to a secluded cabin in the woods and to the Kennedy Space Center. The Energy Board claims no responsibility for Adrian's disappearance, blaming resident aliens in hiding. Are they telling the truth? Whose troops then swoop in to surprise them when Adrian's trail grows warm?

In "The Abyss" (Analog, July/August 2000), someone has attempted to sabotage the new ship before its maiden voyage. Three suspects loom: Peter Cavendish, the slightly paranoid computer programmer who first found the alien designs; Jessica Buhler, a former agent for (the ironically and literarily named) Makepeace, a bureaucrat for the old U.S. government and later for the new Energy Board in opposition to Adrian's dreams of contacting the aliens; and a mysterious bearded man wandering the corridors.

Or is it some other entity entirely? The crew has to weigh the needs of making the trip against the risk of a second attempted sabotage -- and, undoubtedly, a second will occur.

This reviewer's present personal favorite, "The Rabbit Hole" (Analog, December 2001), is a psychedelic Alice in Wonderland with a Cheshire cat, a rabbit chase, a rabbit hole, Mad Hatter(s), hallucinations and a looking glass. Dozens of writers have tried to retread Lewis Carroll's gonzo territory, but only Gunn, in this reviewer's reading, has been able to give his narrative an extra dimension by paralleling the narratives without merely becoming a mouthpiece or an unintentional, droll parody of the other.

The ship courses down a worm hole to discover that not only has space been distorted but also time which bends to include a future that hasn't happened. The patter of children's feet echo down the corridors of a ship that holds only adults. Memory, cause and effect become slippery, and slipping out of the time trap proves difficult.

One might complain about the backstaged character development -- as opposed to characterization. All good SF has characterization, meaning realistic portrayals of humans and humanity; but far too little SF has even the amount of character development that Gunn has in his latest series. One can find development in the building love tension triangle between Jesse, Francis and Adrian as well as in Jesse's revelation that an idea greater than the cause she serves can transform her beliefs. Yet it is the broader development of humanity, as it grows and changes to cope with itself and a world of alien technologies that represents a science fictional character development, one expects from a narrative.

Now you must do your part. Hound him, cajole and regale upon Gunn to finish the series, so publishers can publish this potentially magnum opus, and we can all paw the pages of our very own copy and say we knew before he even finished how good it was going to be. Smother him with email at He says,

"I would welcome any suggestions as to the aliens Adrian and his friends discover in the 5th and 6th episodes, and what their motives are for sending the spaceship plans. I have my own ideas, but I'd be glad to improve them if I get any good proposals."

Copyright © 2002 Trent Walters

Trent Walters' work has appeared or will appear in The Distillery, Fantastical Visions, Full Unit Hookup, Futures, Glyph, Harpweaver, Nebo, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Speculon, Spires, Vacancy, The Zone and blah blah blah. He has interviewed for, Speculon and the Nebraska Center for Writers. More of his reviews can be found here. When he's not studying medicine, he can be seen coaching Notre Dame (formerly with the Minnesota Vikings as an assistant coach), or writing masterpieces of journalistic advertising, or making guest appearances in a novel by E. Lynn Harris. All other rumored Web appearances are lies.

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