Author interview with James Gunn

Author interview with James Gunn

When I read the synopsis of Transcendental, I immediately wanted to read. But I didn't know that it was written by one of the Grand Masters of Science Fiction: James Gunn. I had a certain thought of how Transcendental could work out, but I was in for a surprise. Transcendental isn't you military Science Fiction what you more often see now a days, instead James Gunn has created an intriguing and immaculate story of self-discovery and ulterior motives. Transcendental is an incredible journey!

Author Bio:
JAMES GUNN is the Hugo Award-winning science fiction author of The Joy Makers, The Immortals, and The Listeners, and the coauthor, with Jack Williamson, of the classic epic SF novel Star Bridge. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas.


Hi James, Welcome to The Book Plank and for taking you time to answer these few questions

BP: First off, could you give us a short introduction of who James is? What are your likes/dislikes and hobbies/spare time activities?
JG: I’ve been a student, a veteran of World War II, a freelance writer, an editor, a university director of public relations, and a university professor in that order.  Now I’m an emeritus professor of English at the University of Kansas and fortunate to be still reasonably healthy and able to continue to write.  I’ve always been engrossed in narrative—the stories we tell each other to make sense of life and the human condition—and I like those kinds of stories, in whatever form I find them, that involve me with the characters and their problems, that make me care about them, and even better when they tell me something about the human condition.

I used to play a  lot of golf, but aches and pains and diminishing skills made me give that up a decade ago, about the time I returned to playing tournament bridge and, with my partner, another retired professor, won the North American pairs championship of the ACBL. 

BP: You have been awarded the title: Grand Master of Science Fiction and Transcendental is your first book in years, did you feel any pressure when you were writing Transcendental?
JG: I’m always writing something (if I’m not I don’t feel as if I’m earning my time on Earth).  TRANSCENDENTAL took a long time (seven years) because other tasks needed tending to, and, as one gets older, two things happen—your energy and invention lag and your desire to make it as good as possible increases, so every chapter of TRANSCENDENTAL got revised many times.  TRANSCENDENTAL was different in that I wrote the first and last chapters first, but getting my characters between those places took a lot of focus, and writing the individual stories of the pilgrims was like writing a new novel each time.

Actually, it didn’t seem  like a long time.  I started it soon after GIFT FROM THE STARS was published.

BP: Your first book was published in 1955, if you would compare getting your books published then with now, have you experienced a change?
JG: Publishers were eager for novels back in 1955, and my agent (who at that time was Fred Pohl) had no problems finding a publisher.  On the other hand, getting money from a publisher was difficult J.   Those were the days when there were few more than a hundred science-fiction novels published every year.   Today, counting fantasy and horror and reprints, there are more than 3,000 such novels published, and getting a novel accepted is far more difficult as the nature of publishing and selling books faces serious issues.

BP: Having already published over 20 books, how did you come across the idea behind Transcendental?
JG: At my age (90) you want to write something that has meaning and (hopefully) significance.  I remembered Cory and Alexei Panshin saying in their work on Golden Age science fiction, THE WORLD BEYOND THE HILL, that the chief concern was transcendence, and the idea of a transcendental machine came to me—that is, something that could produce transcendence (or the fulfillment of creature’s potential) physically rather than spiritually.   From there, the possibilities emerged of how this would affect a galaxy and the imagination of such a galaxy and from that a quest to find such a machine and from that the kind of characters who would engage in such a pilgrimage.

BP: If you would look back on your earlier Science Fiction works and compared it to the Science Fiction nowadays do you think the genre has evolved into new ways? What is your view on the genre?
JG: I’ve always been fond of Golden Age science fiction and its 1950s competitors, the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Galaxy Science Fiction, and the novels I taught in my science-fiction classes had a significant cluster around the early 1950s.  Now the situation of a strong center of science-fiction magazines has changed.  Analog, Asimov’s, and F&SF are the only print magazines left, and their circulation, though essential, has dropped along with their ability to shape the field.  Thousands of books are being published, but their influence is individual rather than central.  So the field, while dynamic and capable of supporting and encouraging hundreds of authors and hundreds of thousands of readers, is heading off in many directions.  That has many implications whose consequences are difficult to predict.

As for the quality, my feeling is that science fiction is written more skillfully but I miss the enthusiasm and innovation of the Fifties.  The writers of this generation, with a few notable exceptions, seem to have mastered their craft so they have less to say but say it better..

BP: When writing Transcendental were you able to use any material of idea´s from your earlier works? And did you encounter any specific problem during the writing?
JG: TRANSCENDENTAL was a kind of return to the space epic of my first two novels, THIS FORTRESS WORLD and STAR BRIDGE, particularly STAR BRIDGE, which I wrote in collaboration with Jack Williamson.  After those two novels I turned to writing more near-future stories that I then brought together into novels. 

TRANSCENDENTAL, though, was more influenced by my predecessors and colleagues in science fiction, and there are tributes to their work and ideas scattered through my novel.

Writing a novel is always hard work, but TRANSCENDENTAL did not offer any special problems.  It’s always a problem of imagining in detail and setting it down in the right words.

BP: What was biggest challenge for you when writing Transcendental?
JG:  The stories that the pilgrims told each other were both the biggest challenge and the biggest reward.

BP: I have to admit that I was expecting a different story, with the current Science Fiction book having an emphasis on the military and space combat. But you introduced the reader to higher motives. How did you went about to execute these elements in Transcendental?
JG: It was always my intention to set down a novel of ideas rather than action.  Even in the first chapter, where some of my colleagues suggested that I show the battle with the Minals rather than describe its aftermath, I decided that placing the battle before the novel starts has greater impact than the battle itself.  The final battle to reach the Transcendental Machine, of course, is a promise that must be kept.

I always try to find a larger issue in my work than the fate of the characters themselves—the human condition experiencing change, for instance, which is one of my definitions of science fiction.  And another definition: science fiction is the literature of the human species.  What happens to humanity as a whole is more important than what happens to any individual.

BP: You give a unique spin to the different galactic pilgrims you use. How did you come up with the different species?
JG: I wanted variety and I wanted believability.  The variety was to illustrate the belief that sapience (intelligence and self-awareness) can exist in many forms, and believability was to illustrate the truth that our forms and our cultures emerge from our environments.  I have come to believe that science fiction is basically Darwinian—that is, it is based on the concept that humans, like other species, evolved through the survival of the fittest and that this evolutionary process continues, but humans, unlike other species, are able to recognize how they have been shaped by their environment and can choose to behave otherwise.

BP: If you would be given the chance to rewrite any chapter of Transcendental would you do so? And if yes, which chapter would it be?
JG: I don’t know that I would rewrite it, but the chapter about Trey, the coffin-shaped alien, has only three scenes instead of four, and it resisted being extended.  I finally accepted that.

BP: everybody enjoys fantasy and science fiction in it own way, what do you like most about writing it?
JG: I’ve written both—although my fantasy tends to be more like science fiction with fantasy elements (like that John Campbell published in UNKNOWN and Horace Gold in BEYOND, what I call “rationalized fantasy.”  But science fiction is my favourite, because it connects with the real world and has real world implications and, maybe, impact.  I like to make that difference by pointing out that we can say “let’s save the world through science fiction” and have some possibilities of relevance, but “let’s save the world through fantasy” doesn’t make much sense.  Fantasy is for the individual; science fiction is for the world we know.

BP: Transcendental has an open ending and does invites for a sequel. Do you have plans to make it into a series?
JG: I’ve proposed a sequel to my editor.  Now it depends on how much demand there is for it.

BP: What can we expect from you in the near future? Do you have any other projects that you would like to pursue?
JG:  I’ve proposed an updated edition of my 1975 coffee-table book ALTERNATE WORLDS: THE ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF SCIENCE FICTION, and I’ve written my memoirs, which I call “My Unlikely Life.”

BP: And just lastly, if you would have to recommend you top 5 favourite books, which would they be?
JG: I’m not sure I can limit it to five books, even five science-fiction books, but here goes: A. E. van Vogt’s THE WORLD OF NULL-A, Robert Heinlein’s THE PUPPET MASTERS, Hal Clement’s MISSION OF GRAVITY, Fred Pohl’s GATEWAY, and Robert Silverberg’s DYING INSIDE.  That’s overlooking a lot of non-science-fiction books and a lot of science-fiction books as well.  And fantasies like those of A. Merritt.

BP: Thank you for your time James and good luck with your future writing!

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