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Sci-fi master still exploring new methods of working

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

LAWRENCE — At 93, after nearly 70 years as an author, Science Fiction Grand Master James E. Gunn, professor emeritus of English, has finally had to make some concession to his age.

He still writes every day but came up with a new way of outlining his latest novels, the final volumes of the trilogy that began with “Transcendental” (2013), continued with “Transgalactic” (2016) and concludes with the brand-new “Transformation,” published today. The trilogy has been published by Tor Books.

In a recent interview, Gunn said he has used various methods to write his two dozen-plus novels and novellas, starting in 1948.

“In the case of ‘Transcendental,’ I wrote the first chapter first and then the last chapter because I knew where it was going to end up and then filled it in,” Gunn said. “So I don’t outline them so much as I have a general idea of where things are going to come out.

“In the case of the sequels to ‘Transcendental’ — ‘Transgalactic’ and ‘Transformation’  I did adopt a strategy of helping me get through each chapter by writing a page of description of what each chapter would be about, so I did not have to think it up each time I sat down to write,” he said. “Pretty simple, really, to sit down for an hour or so and come up with the ideas and not have to worry about the words in which they were written and then use that as a guideline.

“In my younger days I was able to keep all this in my head. In certain stories, I have written down key words for each scene, and that alone was enough to keep me going and enable me to move ahead. But I have found as I have gotten older that the energy and thought processes that were a lot easier when I was young have become more difficult, and maybe I have become more critical of what I have written.

“Raymond Chandler wrote once that everything you learn about writing takes away from your need to do it. I would put it that the more you know about writing makes you more focused on doing it right, and that slows you down.”

Gunn has had an amazingly productive career as author, editor and critic, bridging what came to be known as the “Golden Age” of science fiction to today.

He has written more than 100 short stories, which have been published in such hallowed pulp fiction magazines as Thrilling Wonder Stories and Astounding Science Fiction, and a couple have made it onto television, first “The Cave of Night” as Desilu Playhouse’s “Man in Orbit” and then “The Immortals” as the ABC-TV movie of the week “The Immortal” and its subsequent TV series.

His 1975 nonfiction work, “Alternate Worlds: The Illustrated History of Science Fiction,” is considered the definitive work on the genre up to that date and will be published in an updated format in China in early autumn.

He received the Hugo Award at the 1983 World Science Fiction Convention for another work of historical scholarship, “Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction.”

The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, which he served as president in 1971-72, in 2007 named Gunn a Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master for lifetime achievement, and the Science Fiction Research Association, which he also served as president, presented him its Pilgrim Award for lifetime achievement.

In 2015, he was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, joining greats like Robert Heinlein, H.G. Wells and Asimov.

And those are just his greatest hits.

By now, of course, Gunn has well-defined ideas of what science fiction — or any work of fiction, for that matter – ought to do and be.

“What you need to do as a writer is to tell the reader how to read this particular text and what they can expect to get from it if they do read it,” he said. “One example is the way ‘Transcendental’ ends, which is the way I planned it to end and the way in which I think good science fiction works: it deals with unanticipated consequences.

“Most things that happen as a consequence of decisions that we make about the future occur unexpectedly. So at the end of ‘Transcendental,’ a lot of readers might expect, because it is a quest story, that there will be some magical occurrence, and the transcendental machine, which is billed as something that would provide transcendence technologically, would create a perfect realization of whatever it is that goes into it. But instead it’s something different that, to my mind, is unexpected and far more interesting and leads to the sequels to this book.

“So a writer has to realize that even with the best intentions, some readers are going to expect what the book is not going to offer. I try to prepare the reader for a kind of experience and ending that will be surprising but satisfying.”