||SF literature is Darwinistic
an interview with James E Gunn by Petru Iamandi
Born in 1923, James Gunn is the author of 38
books, including The Joy Makers, Kampus, The Dreamers, and The
Immortals. He has served as the president of the Science Fiction
Writers of America and the Science Fiction Research Association. He
has won Hugo, Pilgrim, and Eaton awards and has been a professor at
the University of Kansas for 40 years. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas.
1. What single characteristic do you possess which is most
responsible for your success as an SF writer?
I'm not sure one can reduce this to a single characteristic. An
imaginative turn of mind is essential, a love of and skill with
words, a sense for story, a determination to succeed and an
unwillingness to accept failure, a familiarity with literature, an
ability to keep learning--and, finally, and perhaps the most
important, an understanding of self and the ability to put that
unique view into fiction.
2. Which authors do you most admire (not necessarily in the
SF genre) or have influenced your writing or thinking?
I've had a number of literary heroes: Thomas Wolfe and Ernest
Hemingway In the general literary field, Thomas Costain, Kenneth
Roberts, and Neil Swanson among historical novelists, H. G. Wells in
the early SF period And Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, A. E. van
Vogt, Clifford Simak, and Theodore Sturgeon among authors of the
Golden Age, many others later.
3. Do you think that SF writers need some form of expertise
to write successfully?
See #1. Certainly a feeling for words and story, and an thorough
understanding and familiarity with the genre in which one chooses to
4. Despite the current vogue for SF movies and TVseries,
literature in the genre is not takenseriously. Do you agree with
this statement and if so,what do you think is the reason for this?
SF is taken more seriously than it was 50 or even 25 years ago,
partly because the pulp magazines no longer are identified with it
(not altogether a good thing) and more can be found in books of all
Nevertheless most SF is not valued as serious literature because
it is Darwinistic (see my essay, "The World View of Science Fiction"
on the Center website)--concerned with change and the effect of
change on people—and so-called "serious" fiction deals with the
fixed past and the ways in which character interacts with it. When
mainstream writers use SF themes (and critics and scholars consider
it "serious" literature) it is because the SF concept is used
metaphorically rather than as a possible change in human response.
5. Where is SF heading now that technology is
usually one step ahead of imagination?
I don't think the statement is true; imagination always
outdistances technology, even though technology sometimes surprises
us. However, I see SF heading more into the biological sciences in
the decade or two ahead.
6. How important is teaching SF in the States?
The Golden Age for teaching SF was the late 1960s and early
SF was just getting introduced into classrooms and still had a
Revolutionary reputation. Today it is more accepted and less
raffish, and I have the feeling that the number of classes has
declined a bit, particularly with the back-to-basics movement in
high schools. There may be a resurgence beginning.
7. What is the place of SF in American literature?
A minor but perhaps growing place as SF is recognized as being
Peculiarly American and peculiarly congenial to the American view of
life--that is, the future is more important than the past.
8. What are you working on now?
I'm revising the six-volume THE ROAD TO SCIENCE FICTION
anthologies for republication by Scarecrow Press; I'm also
considering a revised edition of ALTERNATE WORLDS: THE ILLUSTRATED
HISTORY OF SCIENCE FICTION; and I'm on the fifth novelette in a
series I'm doing for ANALOG called GIFT FROM THE STARS, that I hope
to publish as a novel when it is completed.
9. Are you familiar with the work of Romanian SF writers?
Only those with whom I came into contact when I visited Romania a
decade ago and those I included in THE ROAD TO SCIENCE FICTION #6.
10. What advice would you give to a writer starting out in
Do it in your spare time until you are sure you can make a living
at it. Learn all you can about science, particularly the most
speculative varieties, the cutting edges. Write regularly and don't
give yourself any excuses for not writing; rewrite; keep trying to
publish what you have written; don't be easily discouraged but don't
expect immediate rewards; keep trying to improve; never be