James Gunn (1923-2020)

Grand Master James Gunn, 97, died December 23, 2020. Gunn was one of the field’s true polymaths, excelling as an SF author, editor, and scholar. Gunn served as President of Science Fiction Writers of America in 1971-1972 and the organization honored him with a Damon Knight Grand Master Award in 2006. He was inducted into the SF Hall of Fame in 2015.

James Edwin Gunn was born July 12, 1923 in Kansas City MO. He attended the University of Kansas, where he earned a BA in journalism and a master’s in English, though his education was interrupted by three years serving in the US Navy during WWII. He briefly worked at Western Printing in Racine WI on the Dell paperback line. After attending the 1952 Worldcon in Chicago, where he met Mack Reynolds, Clifford D. Simak, Jack Williamson, and his agent Frederik Pohl, among others, he began writing SF more seriously.

Gunn’s long association with the University of Kansas extended beyond his studies. He began teaching there in 1958, and his involvement continued until his retirement in 2010, when he was named Professor Emeritus. He was a professor of English and journalism, and director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction, now known as the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction. He was instrumental in running the annual Campbell Conference there, where the Campell and Sturgeon Awards are presented; the event was renamed as the Gunn Center Conference in 2019. He founded the Intensive Institute on the Teaching of Science Fiction in 1975 and the Speculative Fiction Writers Workshop in 1985, both of which continue under the direction of Christopher McKitterick and Kij Johnson.

He ran the Literature of Science Fiction film series from 1969-75, featuring talks by Forrest J Ackerman, Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, John Brunner, Harlan Ellison, Damon Knight, and Frederik Pohl, and conversations with Gordon R. Dickson, Simak, and Williamson. He made documentary short film Lunch with John W. Campbell in 1971, filmed just a few months before Campbell’s death.

Gunn began publishing SF with story “Paradox” in 1949, the first of ten stories under the pseudonym Edwin James. His debut under his own name, “The Misogynist”, appeared in Galaxy in 1952. Other notable stories include “Breaking Point” (1953), “Wherever You May Be” (1953), Nebula Award finalist “The Listeners” (1968), and Sturgeon Award finalist “The Giftie” (1999). Some of Gunn’s stories were collected in Future Imperfect (1964), The Witching Hour (1970), Breaking Point (1972), Some Dreams Are Nightmares (1974), The End of the Dreams: Three Short Novels About Space, Happiness, and Immortality (1975), The Unpublished Gunn, Part One (1992), The Unpublished Gunn, Part Two (1996), and Human Voices: Science Fiction Stories (2002).

His debut novel was This Fortress World (1955), followed by his classic collaboration with Jack Williamson, Star Bridge (1955). Many of his novels are story suites or fix-ups, including Station in Space (1958) and The Joy Makers (1961). His most famous work, The Immortals (1962), formed the basis for an eponymous TV series in 1969, and Gunn wrote a novelization of the series called The Immortal (1970). Other books include The Listeners (1972), The Magicians (1976), The Burning (1972), Kampus (1977), The Dreamers (1980), The Mind Master (1982), Crisis! (1986), and Gift from the Stars (2005). The Millennium Blues (2000) is literary fiction. His Riley and Asha series began with Transcendental (2013) and continued with Transgalactic (2016) and Transformation (2017). He also wrote Star Trek novel The Joy Machine (1996), based on a Theodore Sturgeon script.

Gunn was a celebrated scholar and critic. His non-fiction includes The Discovery of the Future: The Ways Science Fiction Developed (1975), Alternate Worlds: The Illustrated History of Science Fiction (1975), Hugo Award winner Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction (1982), Inside Science Fiction: Essays on Fantastic Literature (1992), Speculations on Speculation: Theories of Science Fiction (2005, with Matthew Candelaria), and Reading Science Fiction (2008, with Marleen S. Barr & Candelaria). He also edited The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1988). His honors for criticism include the Pilgrim Award (1976) and the Thomas D. Clareson Award (1997). He was president of the Science Fiction Research Association from 1980-1982.

As a fiction editor he’s best known for his anthology series The Road to Science Fiction, with six volumes from 1977-98. He also edited Man and the Future (1968), Nebula Awards Stories Ten (1975), and three volumes of Astounding Stories: The 60th Anniversary Collection (1990),

Gunn’s autobiography, Star-Begotten: A Life Lived in Science Fiction (2017), is a wide-ranging survey of his 70 years in the field. He was the subject of Michael R. Page’s Saving the World Through Science Fiction: James Gunn, Writer, Teacher and Scholar (2017).

Gunn kept writing until the end, submitting a final story just days before his death. He is survived by his son Kevin.

For more, see his entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

3 thoughts on “James Gunn (1923-2020)

  • December 24, 2020 at 11:37 am
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    Unfortunately, I never knew him personally, but, by all accounts, he was one of the finest people ever to grace the genre, as a spokesman and representative for the field and as a human being. For those who haven’t read it, his interview here a couple of years ago reflects these qualities in a modest but very poignant way.

    My acquaintance with his work began with “Star Bridge” and “This Fortress World,” two of the brightest memories of my Golden Age. “The Listeners” is also an all-time favorite, made especially memorable by the gracious reply I received to my fan letter about it.

    His overall body of work speaks for itself and is one of the most accomplished the field has yet seen. He did more than anyone before him to elevate science fiction both publicly and academically. We all owe him a debt of gratitude which is too large to have ever been repaid.

    RIP, Jim. We surely will not see your like again.

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  • December 25, 2020 at 5:50 pm
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    Thank you for writing and sharing this. We’re in deep mourning right now, so I’ve only had the emotional energy to say a few words on the Center’s site and social media. I appreciate it.

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  • December 26, 2020 at 1:59 pm
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    James Gunn was my father. I appreciate your kind words. He was a wonderful man who had many friends and no enemies. And he was one of the last of his generation. My only consolation is that I had him in my life so much longer than most people have their parents. His father died at 96 and his mother almost made it to 98, so I expected he didn’t have a lot longer to live. It was still sudden, though. He’d been living independently and not needing much care up until the end, which was his wish.

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