Memoirs of a Geek remembering Science Fiction’s 2007 Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master James E. Gunn
by Bret Smith
I was saddened to learn of the passing of 97-year-old science fiction author James Gunn earlier this December 2020, and I was honored to get to meet him last year.
I was attending my first, and the 20th Anniversary Planet Comicon in March 2019. Since I would be in Kansas City, MO, I knew I was not too far from Lawrence, Kansas, the home of Science Fiction Grand Master James Gunn. He had taught some of the first science fiction classes at the University of Kansas and was professor emeritus of English before retiring in his hometown. Since I am a huge fan of science fiction, it has become a “bucket list” for me to meet as many Grand Masters as possible.
A few months before flying to Kansas City, I reached out to Mr. Gunn via facebook and was thrilled when he responded and invited me to his home, just to get some books signed! I arrived at his Orchard Lane home which was very close to campus on a chilly afternoon at the end of March 2019. On the way inside I noticed boxes of his latest hardcover in the entryway. He lived with his sweet cat Annie who purred for me and kneaded both of her paws on my leg. We sat in chairs in his living room which was filled with books in bookcases and old photos. And we had a great conversation. He insisted that I call him “Jim”. Highlights of our talk à
- His recent short story “The Escape of the Adastra: Asha’s Story” that I had just read is a prelude to his latest trilogy. He explained the main concept of his trilogy centered on humanity reaching out into space but ending up as the “low men” on the totem pole with regards to the “aliens” of the Federation.
- Jim told me he has been retired for 30 years from teaching at the University of Kansas. He writes one hour a day using a computer word processor.
- He said he suffers from macular degeneration so doesn’t write on paper anymore but needs a computer to display a larger font. His poor eyesight has ended his ability to read science fiction novels. He said he is also recovering from a recent fall in his driveway thanks to ice, and it completely knocked him out!
- He told me the story of writing his Star Trek: The Joy Machine book. He didn’t really want to write a media tie-in novel. But a student during one of his summer classes, took his advice about becoming an editor, and ended up becoming the editor for the Pocket Books Star Trek line! That student was John Ordover. John reached out to Jim because writer Theodore Sturgeon, who Jim said wrote two fantastic episodes of Star Trek-The Original Series, “Amok Time” and “Shore Leave”, had a third script “The Joy Machine” that got rejected. Ted had told Jim that it was loosely based on his The Joy Makers novel. Ted had passed, and Jim took the 15-page outline and converted it to the novel. Jim said it was mostly his own novel as there was not too much useable in the outline; for example, the outline described sending a subspace message on a guitar! He was paid $20K for the book, got royalties and it was one of his bestselling books at over 100K copies! He did say his first two books sold 100K and 80K copies.
- Jim noted his favorite scene in Star Trek: The Joy Machine was having Captain Kirk ride a glacier!
- We talked about Worldcons next. The last ones that he attended were San Antonio’s 2013 LoneStarCon 3 where he was a Guest of Honor and of course, the nearby 2016 Mid-AmeriCon II in Kansas City. I mentioned Dublin this year, and he said he’s just too old to travel anymore.
- Jim and I talked about the process by which Grand Masters are chosen. He himself was President of SFWA for one year 1971-2 and said that choosing the Grand Master is part of the honor of being president. Previous presidents all provide input, and he was happy with the most recent selection of William Gibson. He passed the reins to Poul Anderson, and he commented that the first Grand Master Robert Heinlein was selected in 1975.
- He said he has been President of SFWA, followed by World Science Fiction, but turned down a third organization’s offer.
- Jim talked a bit about Grand Master Robert Silverberg saying that he was very prolific early-on but then did a stint writing softcore pornography. It was lucrative and Jim said many science fiction writers did it. But Frederik Pohl convinced Robert to come back into the science fiction fold.
- Jim noted he hears from other Grand Masters periodically. Harlan Ellison called him to congratulate him in 2007.
I could tell Mr. Gunn was getting tired, and he said he does tire easily. So I thanked him profusely, and he signed Star Trek #80: The Joy Machine, The Immortals, The Listeners and Asimov’s Science Fiction Volume 41 #5-6 magazine. Then I asked him if it was possible to buy any of his latest trilogy books from him that I had noticed in his entryway. He took me to his garage to retrieve Transcendental (Volume 1) and then his entryway for Transgalactic (Volume 2) and Transformation (Volume 3). He signed and personalized them all for me and was happy to let me take a selfie with him! What a really, cool gentleman who let this stranger come visit him at his home. As I shook his hand farewell, he said, “Thanks for being a reader, Bret”!
RIP Mr. James E. Gunn