Q&A with James Gunn

Prolific author James Gunn has been a regular in our Tables of Contents this past year—he discusses this serial project in our latest editor/author Q&A! Two tales from this universe are in the March/April issue on sale now.


Asimov’s Editors: Jim, our readers have seen a lot of you in our pages over this past year (for which we are grateful!), can you give an overview of this project? What was it like revisiting these characters?

James Gunn: When I finished the Transcendental trilogy, I discovered that I wasn’t finished with the universe (or, to be more precise, the arm of the galaxy) that I had created and the characters who inhabited it. That is how novels turn into trilogies. Authors can’t let go. Even a trilogy is restricted by the requirements of the overall narrative in what its characters can do and say. In Transcendental, eight of my characters tell their stories about how they came to join this pilgrimage to find the Transcendental Machine, but first-person narrative is limited to what that character has experienced and remembers, filtered through the uncertain and unreliable memories and needs of the narrator. I thought of telling their stories more completely, through the perception of an unbiased third-person narrator, and sharing these stories with a larger audience. I discussed the project with Sheila, and she encouraged me to tackle the project over dinner in the Drum Room of the President Hotel at MidAmeriCon. And so it was done, with the addition of a narrative from the viewpoint of Riley’s pedia and an essay about space opera and the Transcendental trilogy’s place in it.


AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in these stories?

JG: An author gets attached to his characters: It’s like living with someone, or a group of someones, sharing their lives, their thoughts, their desires and fears, and most of all, in Transcendental the events that brought them together. Because these characters were cooped up in a spaceship for months, they got to know each other better than most people have the chance to do, and they became real to me. I liked them all, but I was particularly fond of Asha and Tordor, and so, as the trilogy developed, I couldn’t let Tordor be destroyed in the deadly city of the Transcendental Machine.

AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for these stories? What is your history with Asimov’s?

JG: These seemed like Asimov’s kind of stories—far-reaching but intimate and different, something Asimov’s has always been good at—and I’ve always enjoyed working with Sheila. I enjoyed working with George Scithers, the first editor of Asimov’s. too. I was there sort of at the beginning, and George even published the chapters of my book about Isaac—Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction—and I even had the pleasure of reading an Asimov editorial in which he wrote that he was overwhelmed, after so many years away from the Foundation universe, by the challenge of writing Foundation’s Edge until he came across a passage in my book.

AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?

JG: One of the persistent themes I have found in my work is philosophy. Science fiction allows theoretical philosophical concepts to be worked out in terms of everyday experience, and a number of writers, such as Philip K. Dick, have pointed this out. More than most, perhaps, I have taken philosophical ideas and turned them into stories. One obvious example is The Joy Makers, which was inspired by an article in the Encyclopedia Britannica on “Feeling,” which went into a discussion of happiness and how we feel happy and what we do to feel that way. It ended with the sentence “But the true science of applied hedonics is not yet born,” and The Joy Makers speculated about what a true science of happiness would produce.

AE: What is your process?

JG: I keep turning a story idea over in my head until I think of a way to tell it—characters who have a reason to be affected by it and to react to it and a way to get involved. And then a way in which the story can be told and finally a way in which the issues can be resolved satisfactorily. I’ve written novels all sorts of ways, from getting it started and disvoering where it takes me to writing the ending first and going back to describe how the characters got there.

AE: How did you break into writing?

JG: I always knew I would be a writer and got a bachelor’s degree in journalism because it was the only writing job I knew that people got paid to do. I took a playwriting class and my play got produced in the University’s theater program, and I thought I was going to be a playwright. I went on to graduate school at Northwestern, but found the only interesting course was in radio writing. I returned to Kansas City with the idea of writing a series of radio dramas about Kansas City history, and when none of the radio stations were interested, I decided to write something I had always loved, science fiction. It turned out to be a story called “Paradox.” Two magazines rejected it and the third, Thrilling Wonder Stories whose editor was Sam Merwin, Jr., sent me a letter saying “I like your story “Paradox,” and I’ll pay you $90 for it.” It changed my life.

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

JG: I’ve been write a series of essays about science fiction for a Chinese website, Future Affairs Administration, with whom the Center for the Study of Science Fiction has a relationship. We also have an affiliated Gunn Center in India, at St. Teresa College. I also have been participating in a colloquium here at the University on the post-human, and an article about this, “Science Fiction Considers the Post-Human” is almost ready. And I have an idea for a story about quantum computers that I’ve been turning over in my hear.

AE: What SFnal prediction would you like to see come true?

JG: Colonizing other worlds would be up there among the greatest dreams of SF; Immortality would be another. The maturity of the still juvenile human species would be a third.

AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?

JG: Over my years of teaching fiction writing, I’ve come up with a litany of advice. I wrote a book about it—The Science of Science-Fiction Writing—but here are a couple: The only thing worth writing is what only you can write. Write in scenes and see the story play out in real time and real places as you observe. And finally: write one good sentence; then write another.

AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?

JG: I’ve been an editor, a university administrator (I was the head of University Relations at K.U. for ten years), and a teacher, and each of them have contributed to my writing. The experience writing plays, for instance, resulted in my visualizing the scenes of stories as a stage that must be imagined and described. But the most immediate example is my experience in public relations during the difficult days of student unrest in the 1960s. It became the subject of my novel Kampus.

AE: Have you had the opportunity to do much traveling, and has this affected your writing?

JG: Science fiction travels far, and not only in the imagination. I have visited dozens of places to attend conventions and conferences, including Ireland and China, and I served as an spokesman for science fiction as a representative of the U.S. Information Agency, which sent me to Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, Denmark, Romania, Sweden, Poland, Iceland, Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore. For a child of the Midwest that was a remarkable opportunity to see the world.

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?

JG: I wish I had the knowledge and patience (and time) to participate in this remarkable development in human interaction, but the hours seem to go past too swiftly to spend on these social interactions. I remember one Astounding Science Fiction author who wrote John Campbell that he could either write stories or write letters but he couldn’t do both. So look for me on the pages of Asimov’s or Analog or on the FAA website (if you can read Chinese) or write me an email. I do answer.

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