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A Conversation With James Gunn
An interview with Trent Walters
January 2002

© James Gunn
James Gunn
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 Road To SF 5: The British Way

The Science of Science-Fiction Writing
The Listeners
The Millennium Blues

The majority of your novels have followed the Golden Age tradition (though present in later major works of SF like Gene Wolfe's The Fifth Head of Cerberus and Maureen McHugh's China Mountain Zhang) of stringing stories together into novels ("fix-ups"). What attracts you to this form?
What you call "the Golden Age tradition" of stringing stories together into novels was not so much a tradition as a consequence of the fact that almost no genre SF novels were published between 1926 and 1946. Classic SF existed in the magazines, as short stories, novelettes, short novels, and serials. The first materials reprinted by the fan publishers after World War II were the serials, then collections of short stories, and finally series of stories placed within the same framework, cobbled together as novels, like Heinlein's The Man Who Sold The Moon, van Vogt's The Voyage Of The Space Beagle, Asimov's Foundation Trilogy, and Simak's City: classic stories given new life. A.E. van Vogt gave such work the unfortunate name of "fix-ups," which makes it seem as if these were like old houses repaired. But it's always been my belief that science fiction is at its best in the shorter forms -- although there are some great SF novels, there are far more great SF novelettes, which embody the substance of a novel without taking on its burden to solve the problem it lays out. It also is true that some ideas naturally work themselves out over a longer period of time than a single human life can encompass. There are even some great SF short-story writers who seldom, if ever, were successful writing novels.

Ted Sturgeon, perhaps SF's greatest short-story writer, honored the tradition with More Than Human, as have a number of others.

I believed in the superiority of the SF short form philosophically, but turned to the novelette method of writing novels out of more practical considerations. In 1953, when I returned to full-time writing on the strength of a contract to write the novel I had partially finished, I earned $500 (more came from later editions, domestic and foreign, but not in time to help me make a living) for the three months of work it took me to write This Fortress World, and half of that for the three months it took me to write (from Jack Williamson's materials and opening chapters) Star Bridge. I couldn't support my writing habit with that kind of income, so I made two resolutions: 1) to work on materials placed close to the present; and 2) to break up novel-length ideas into publishable novelettes and short novels that I could sell to the magazines and then bring together as novels. That is the way I wrote Station in Space, The Joy Makers, The Immortals, The Listeners, The Burning, The Dreamers, and Crisis!. The Magicians was expanded from a short novel, and even Kampus, though published as a novel, was episodic. For that reason, I think, the word "fix-up" is inappropriate. Many such novels are planned that way from the beginning.

How have such traditions behind SF influenced your work? Do you feel contemporary SF has lost touch with its roots? If so, what aspects? What aspects of SF could benefit from literary influences?
I remember a conversation in London with Christopher Priest, who said, as I remember, that he had loved SF as a youngster but thought it was time to put aside childish feelings and write mature fiction. That certainly is one approach to take. My own is to acknowledge the inner child and try to work with my first fascination with science fiction. I have tried to build on its idea content and narrative drive rather than to discard them.

At the same time, writing maturity reveals greater narrative potentials in character and language. I prefer to bring these to the service of story rather than to let them replace narrative. So, to sum it up, my approach has been to write good SF stories more skillfully.

In a addition to teaching other Writers of the Future contest winners, the last Gold winner of the Writers of the Future contest was a student of yours at your annual summer workshop. What other students of yours might people recognize? What are most beginning writers missing that they should be working towards?
Merry Simmons was the first alumnus to win the grand prize, but, one year, two other Workshop alumni won quarterly prizes. Well-known writers who have studied with me (but not in the summer Workshop) have been John Kessel, Pat Cadigan, and Brad Denton. Summer workshop students include Chris McKitterick, John Ordover, Kij Johnson (though her success began long before she participated), Richard Garfinkle (though his first novel came some years later), and many others, some still waiting to be discovered. I could give you some names of Workshop participants who are as good as many who are being published but haven't had the right editor recognize their merit or have not been adequately published.

I don't know if there is any one secret to successful writing, but one important step is to move beyond imitation and discover what you can write that no one else can -- that is, find out who you are and write that in an appropriate narrative and style.

The stories give the reader a sense that humanity is not striving toward the stars as much as it could -- a common assumption in hard SF. Is this a necessary goal? If so, why? What more could be done? Could the shrinking SF magazine subscriptions be indicative of a flagging interest in science or a flagging interest in reading?
I think shrinking SF magazine circulation is due to competition from television -- which spelled the demise of the other magazines, the slicks as well as the pulps, though the slicks were killed by a switch in advertising and the pulps by the easier and cheaper availability of undemanding narratives. The SF magazines, though, may survive on the economies of publishing and circulation and the hard core readership that finds in the magazines a quality of speculation and idea that TV does not even aspire to.

As for going to the stars, The Listeners concluded that it was inherently impossible and the only contact would be through radio. I believe that this may be true; on the other hand, I still nurse my youthful aspirations to go to the stars, and I think that humanity should pursue it -- after all, we have not reached the pinnacle of science and technology. Every generation thinks so, and has been proven wrong. I was sorry when we got to the moon and retreated. I hope I'm still alive to see an expedition set off for Mars.

Your latest novel/novellette collection, Gift from the Stars, which could conceivably become the magnum opus of a long and distinguished career, flies in the face of the old fan's wives' tale that writers worsen with age. What do you make of this tale: is it justifiable and how have you circumvented the trap?
I hope it is true that Gift from the Stars is a magnum opus. I had selected The Millennium Blues for that role, but it took too long in the writing (more than 30 years) and, by the time it got done, it was too far from what SF publishers thought their readers wanted. A non-traditional publisher contracted to publish it and then decided to get out of the business of publishing original novels. So it got published as a collector's edition by Easton Press and electronically (and print-on-demand) by E-reads. Gift from the Stars was a reaction to that: I wanted something that was a bit more light-hearted and less stressful to write, and I was inspired by Carl Sagan's Contact -- or rather the film that was made from it. Sagan had sent me a copy of his novel inscribed to me and the inspiration of The Listeners, and I thought, as I saw the film, that this isn't the way we would encounter aliens, and that it would be fun to respond to Contact (as Sagan had responded to The Listeners) by writing a series of stories dealing with the way it would REALLY happen. That is, instead of an exchange of messages (the way it happens in The Listeners and Contact), the message would be smuggled out of a SETI project in a cult book about UFOs, and only accidentally discovered by someone who could make sense of the diagrams. And rather than the government assisting a project to build a spaceship, it would try to suppress anything that would upset the fragile balance of the world, and only let the space enthusiasts proceed as a means of getting rid of malcontents. Even the ranks of the space enthusiasts would contain people with different motives and ambivalence (as well as unanswered questions) about the project. In other words, the working principle of the series would be: nothing is what it seems, and nothing works out the way you expect. That's the way life is, right?

Scientists do their best work when they are in their early years. Writers' skills don't necessarily decay; if they can keep their interests and hopes alive (like Jack Williamson), their experience allows them greater depths to explore. The trick, maybe, is to keep writing different things, not get stuck writing in the same universe or with the same basic ideas. A few years ago, a fellow professor stopped at my door and said, "You're here in your office more than my full-time colleagues," and I replied, "Writers don't retire, they just go out of print." With electronic publication, even that doesn't have to happen.

What originally inspired you latest novel? Was it one idea that unraveled logically into others or a series of ideas?
When I considered what to work on next, I couldn't anticipate having the time for the steady, focused work that a novel requires; I was busy with a dozen other projects. And then, too, I looked at my bibliography and discovered that I was a few stories short of an even hundred, and although such numbers have only the significance we give them, it seemed like writing a hundred stories would be an attractive carrot.

In your online workshops, you have writers work through an idea's validity, processing it to the conclusion before writing. Why is this important? Is this only important for beginning writers or did you use the method yourself in the case of the new novel? How did you come up with this method?
As for the process of working through an idea before writing it, with experience in writing one can short-circuit this process because the experience writer becomes aware of need to clarify his idea before he begins to dramatize it. But beginning writers think they should sit down and write the first thing that comes into their head; one of my writing principles is that ideas are cheap but time is precious (when I was young I thought the opposite, but experience, and the aging process, taught me otherwise). One should be willing to throw away a dozen ideas to come up with a good one, just as one should throw away a dozen words to come up with the right one. After a while a writer can do this automatically, but at the beginning it helps to work it through. At the beginning I used to outline; now I do it with, at most, a series of phrases, although I sometimes think through concepts at the computer and write short bios of characters.

In The Science of Science Fiction Writing, you write "I begin a new work by writing at least a few paragraphs about each major character -- not only to describe the qualities they must possess to play their proper roles in the story, but also to determine what brought them to this narrative nexus and made them people for whom these particular roles were meant." How did you decide when you had written character paragraphs long enough to evoke round characters? Why must "the characters [in science fiction]... be subordinated to the idea if the idea is to be considered rationally?" Did any of your round characters beg to be flat or flat characters beg to be round? If so, what did you do? If not, how would you have handled such a problem?
I feel a bit like Ellen Glasgow (I think it was) who said that she was the master and characters did what she said. I'm envious of authors whose characters become so real to them that they take off in their own directions, but my philosophy of teaching, as well as writing, is to demystify the process. It's a craft, not magic, and it can be learned (though perhaps not perfected) like any other craft. It takes a bit of native talent, but then other crafts do as well. There isn't any magic formula, and there isn't a magic wand -- there are no muses and no reason to wait for inspiration or the right moment. Just hard work.

In hard-core science fiction in which characters are responding to a change in environment, caused by nature or the universe or technology, what readers want to see is how people cope, and so the character are present to cope, or fail to cope. So the characters are less important individually than the situation in which they find themselves. In fact, individuality tends to undermine narrative -- as C.S. Lewis wrote, Gulliver and Alice are very ordinary people, and the stories wouldn't work unless they were.

At the same time, we need to make characters believable, so the purpose of the character-history exercise is to imagine the characters in detail, discover their backgrounds, personal histories, character traits. We can have rounded characters in SF if they are, when push comes to shove, representative when it comes to responding to their situations -- thus Lije Baley in Asimov's The Caves of Steel is a representative of his enclosed metropolis, but he learns to rise above it, to understand his agoraphobia and cope with it.

Could it be that the difference in your definition between science fiction and literary characters is simply a difference of color? For instance, Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her place on the bus might have inspired Flannery O'Connor's "Everything That Rises Must Converge," sparking the idea of equality, which gave way to three-dimensional characters that conveyed such an idea. Likewise, the idea that sparked Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations" raised such a compassionate furor, leaving few unmoved one way or another, that to raise such emotions it must have three-dimensional characters. Could, unbeknownst to the genres, SF and literary fiction be different colors wearing the same hats, riding the same bus?
Certainly mainstream fiction has ideas, though these must be derived rather than discussed. In fact, a story or novel of "ideas," in which the ideas are what motivate the action rather than character, resemble science fiction. Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations" is a good example to prove my point. The characters are portrayed in the most effective manner to dramatize the concept -- Marilyn Lee Cross is a stereotypical innocent teenage "who didn't do anything to die for," and the pilot is compassionate rather than bureaucratic so that he can demonstrate to the reader that there is no logical choice other than Marilyn's death. Everything in the story, including the characters and their characteristics, are chosen to make the situation more poignant, and the reason it raised a compassionate furor is because Godwin (with Campbell's help) did it so effectively. The compassion is instigated by the situation, and Godwin, a bit ham-handedly, belabors the situation so that there can be no doubt in the reader's mind, makes Marilyn sweet, young, and innocent (rather than a cold-blooded murderer or serial killer) so that reader will want to save her -- and then the realization of "the cold equations" will be more effective. The recent controversy about the story focused on what some critics thought was Godwin's (and SF's) misogyny, delighting in Marilyn's agony and death, but I think that is contemporary revisionism. The story's theme is that good intentions and innocence are no protection against the universe, which punishes only ignorance, BECAUSE IT DOESN'T CARE.

Unlike most "fix-ups," (for lack of a better term) your novel gains complexity from story to story in almost every aspect: human relationships, mysterious xeno-relationships, technology, time, reality and imaginative flights of paranoia, of espionage, etc. Was this complexity laid out from the start? Or have the cards fallen out that way? Why do most fix-ups miss out on this complexity?
In the case of the Gift from the Stars series, I thought it would be best to start with a premise ("nothing is what it seems") and see how it played out. Like the Foundation stories, that were built one on another like tinker toys. I knew, in general, the progression of the stories from discovery to permission to build, to construction -- but what would happen in each and what would lead to the next I left unresolved. As in the Crisis! stories I wanted to tackle each problem in turn and sometimes it required some months to work out the concepts and their dramatic development. Most of the complexity of the stories has developed as the stories came along (and may be a product of the principle that "nothing is what it seems"). I did start with some essential ambiguousness in the aliens' motivation and the questions this raises in human minds, which I consider to have been disregarded in Contact (novel and film). That, in part, may be what has delayed the writing of the fifth and sixth novelettes in the series. If you allow complexity and ambiguity to creep in, you must eventually pay the price by coming up with some kind of satisfactory explanation. I had confidence that I could do this, but its difficulty still is daunting.

How can you, in good conscience, torture fans with the long wait between stories? Can you give readers a taste of what is to come?
As for the "torture" of fans waiting for the other shoe(s) to drop, I hope that it is true -- that there are readers out there panting to know what is going to happen to Adrian and Frances and Jessica, and who can't wait to find out who the aliens are and why they sent spaceship plans and what they want with humans. I must admit that I am curious, too. I've been thinking about the matter for six months, and discussing several possibilities with the physicists who are my consultants. I've got some ideas, but the problem is that what happens in the sixth (and, I think, final episode) will influence what happens in the fifth; I have to solve both problems before I can proceed the upside of that may be that I can write #6 immediately after #5). And I have been slowed by work on revising and updating The Road to Science Fiction for reprinting by Scarecrow Press (#3 is scheduled for publication this spring, and I have just completed #1 and #2, which will be reprinted in a single volume; next, but maybe after the next Gift from the Stars novelette, #4); putting together a collection of stories (Human Voices) for Thorndike Press; reading proof on several e-reads reprints; and writing several essays. I also hope to revise Alternate Worlds: The Illustrated History of Science Fiction. But, as for a taste of what is to come in #5 and #6 of the Gift from the Stars series, Adrian, Frances, and Jessica and their crew have just emerged into the alien system where they will find... some kind of aliens who will not be what they seem... and they will eventually be faced with a job to do, which will not be what they expected.

But, as the Trafamadorians signaled Salo, "Be patient! We have not forgotten about you!"

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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