Review: Saving the World Through Science Fiction: James Gunn, Writer, Teacher and Scholar, Michael R. Page, 2017.
Before I move on to the inevitable quibbles, let me say that anyone who is a James Gunn fan should buy this book. People who are curious about Gunn and his work should buy this.
Actually, since it’s the first and only book about Gunn, there’s not a lot of choice in the matter anyway.
I’ve long thought, even before starting this blog, that Gunn was an author unjustly neglected and that I should write a series on him. However, while I’ve done some posts on Gunn and read all his novels and most of his shorter works, I didn’t make notes on a lot of them. I’d have to do a lot of rereading and make careful notes.
Page has largely saved me the trouble. He says many of the things I noticed about Gunn. He also says many things I didn’t notice.
He says it clearly, in detail, and mostly – which we’ll come back to later – stays on topic.
The director of the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction, Christopher McKitterick, provides a warm and personal appreciation of Gunn the man: always gentlemanly and patient and generous with his time. And, of course, competent. “Science Fiction’s Dad” in other words.
The book’s title comes from Gunn’s sign off on his emails and letters: “Let’s save the world through science fiction.” Gunn knows this is hyperbole and the world may not need saving, but he thinks the genre can instill some needed mental perspectives in facing the future. Personally, I’m not entirely convinced of this, but I’ll agree that science fiction can reduce unpleasant surprises in the future if not the actual unpleasantness.
The first part of the book is biography of Gunn taken not only from Page’s personal acquaintance with Gunn but from Gunn’s autobiography Star-Begotten (forthcoming at the time this book was published). Page skillfully condensed enough of Gunn’s book that you could skip it if you’re just interested in the facts of Gunn’s science fiction career sans his voice in telling them. Still, I’m going to save a discussion of that life for the review of Star-Begotten in the next post.
Gunn started writing science fiction in 1948, “at the cusp of the expansion of the science fiction magazine market.” Most of those early stories were published under the name Edwin James.
When I first paged through my kindle edition, I thought I’d just bought a book of mostly plot synopses. Not that plot descriptions are to be disparaged. They’re tedious to write yet sometimes necessary. But plot synopses by themselves do not constitute criticism. (Otherwise, the once famed Amazon reviewer Harriet Klausner would be a noted critic.)
While actually reading the book, I was thankful for Page doing those plot summaries. They were helpful not only in refreshing my memory about works I’d read years ago, but they also cover works of Gunn’s that are hard to find. (Though I have not prowled the online archives of science fiction magazines to see if they can be seen in their original form.)
According to the ISFDB, Gunn’s first eight stories were never put in collections of his work. (Though I am working on finding three collections of Gunn’s “uncollected works” which I’ll review at a future date.) Some were comic. Others were political intrigues set, possibly under the influence of John W. Campbell’s Astounding and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, in galactic empires or their aftermath. (Gunn eventually wrote a whole critical examination of Asimov.) Gunn’s early fascination with communication with aliens also showed up in these early works.
Asimov was not the only inspiration. Gunn’s “Communication” starts out with the premise of two early science fiction classics, Frederic Brown’s “Arena” and Murray Leinster “First Contact”, and Page notes it effectively uses Gunn’s experience in the United States Navy.
Page sees these early works as developing the theme of loneliness in Gunn and
the idea of something being a “dream,” intangible, ungraspable. In this case, dreams are tied with loneliness; the possibility that psychological trauma can cause illusion; that the rational world can be distorted through loneliness. Gunn also examines the nature of administration that would feature in his later work and in his career as a university administrator.
Page is no gushing scholar about his subject. He sees some of these stories as clunky or nothing special.
But he does spend some time with “The Misogynist” and its sequel, “The Last Word” which he says are two stories mixing 1950s paranoia and battle-of-the-sexes plots and yet also good-natured satires. The first is newly married Gunn’s speculation that women are aliens and told from a male perspective. The second reveals, from a female perspective, that women are human – and men are alien pets.
Another story that gets some attention, because it’s pretty unique in being a futuristic golf story (Gunn avidly pursued the game), is “Open Warfare”.
Page and, for that matter, Gunn think “Breaking Point” is his first major story. Galaxy editor Horace Gold didn’t like the story and hired Theodore Sturgeon to rewrite it. (Of Gold, Gunn said in Alternate Worlds: “He wrote long, savage rejection slips, and his acceptances sometimes were little better.”) Page speculates that some of Gunn’s story may have seeped into Sturgeon’s classic “Baby Is Three”, written about the same time as his rewrite of Gunn. “Breaking Point” is Piers Anthony’s favorite science fiction story.
After that point in Gunn’s career, Page’s coverage of Gunn’s fiction is more in-depth.
There’s “The Reluctant Witch”,
a darkly ironic story of hillbilly humor (an oddly common trope in SF of the period) mixed with telepathic powers.
Page considers it one of the best psi stories of the 1950s and notes it was the first work where Gunn used the environs around Lawrence and Kansas City for his stories. When I first read the bulk of Gunn’s work, I hadn’t been to the area, and it was nice to be reminded of Gunn’s specific uses of it. Page also says it was the first of many Gunn stories where the University of Kansas appears as some sort of citadel.
“Every Day Is Christmas”, from 1953, is another notable story, a satire on 1950s’ consumerism probably inspired by Frederik Pohl’s and C. M. Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants. It was also the first of Gunn’s future dystopias carefully extrapolated from his own time.
This Fortress World is still a relatively well-thought of space opera, a story of a decadent galactic empire that is a bridge in the treatment of the theme between Asimov’s earlier Foundation series and the later works in Frank Herbert’s Dune series, Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series, and Gordon R. Dickson’s Dorsai series. Page sees it as combining the cultural pessimism embodied in science fiction works postulating a new dark age, Cold War anxieties of nuclear annihilation, and 1950s sf psi powers.
Now it’s generally well thought of as a naturalistic space opera with gritty touches. However, the persnickety Damon Knight thought it reeked of “Spillanism—sadistic violence for its own sake.”
Page extensively covers Gunn’s collaboration with Jack Williamson’s Star Bridge from its stall out after 50 pages under the latter’s hand and then Gunn being brought in to finish it since the two were friends by then.
The novel is still enjoyable and highly thought of. Ed Bryant considered it the equal of Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, and Samuel R. Delany acknowledged its influence on his The Fall of the Towers.
A loose follow up to Williamson’s 1942 “Breakdown”, Page summarizes Star Bridge’s many twists and turns. It adds dialogue to several long running science fiction conversations.
Its network of faster-than-light transportation, the Tubes, was picked up by other writers looking to get around cosmic-cop Einstein and his speed limit. Page lists Dan Simmons and Frank Herbert as later adopters. To those, I would add Peter F. Hamilton to the list with the interstellar trains of his Commonwealth Saga.
Williamson and Gunn also built their galactic empire on the basis of a multinational corporation unlike the monarchies, bureaucracies, and religious basis other authors used for theirs.
Page also commends the depiction of Eron, the novel’s massive, enclosed city, and its realism and evocation that exceeds Asimov’s Trantor or the city of his The Caves of Steel. However, at times, Page – I think in a possible effort to convince younger readers this guy Gunn is cool — brings in other, less interesting and more speculative examples of Gunn’s influence like the prison planetoid Vantee looking like the prison in the movie Guardians of the Galaxy
Page justifiably spends a lot of time summarizing The Joy Makers and its constituent stories. And I had forgotten the prevalence of medieval imagery and urban decay in The Immortals, and Page details all the settings in it that intersect with Gunn’s life. The history of its development as a tv movie and tv series is also covered. I regard these two novels, along with The Listeners, as Gunn’s best, and Page’s coverage is evocative and informative.
He also spends a lot of time on Station in Space which, to my mind, is really only of interest to Gunn completists or those looking at the history of fictional works of space travel striving for realism in the pre-Sputnik era. However, Page does point out that Gunn adopts the American ideal of the frontier for space and that a frontier is needed because it challenges and prevents racial stagnation. It is also the first of several Gunn works (including The Burning and Kampus) in which a scientific or technological elite engages in deception or concealment for the good of humanity.
Many of Gunn’s short stories from the 1950s were social science fiction centering on domestic life. “Little Orphan Android” treads some of the same thematic ground as E. M. Forester’s “When the Machine Stops” and Pohl’s “The Midas Plague”. “The Stilled Patter”, written on the occasion of Gunn’s second son being born, has a “Great Conspiracy” to sell baby books to fathers and steal their time. When a man finally develops oral contraceptives for men, the economy collapses. “Teddy Bear” is Philip K. Dick-style paranoia. The android women of “The Girls Who Were Really Built” anticipates Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. “Deadly Silence” prefigures Octavia Butler’s “Speech Sounds” and George Zebrowski’s “The Word Sweep” in showing human society rendered aphonic.
Page explains how the not entirely convincing opening third of the The Burning came to be – it’s ending was changed at the behest of John W. Campbell, and how it took over a decade for Gunn to figure out the plot for the remaining segments of the fix-up.
The examination of The Listeners is valuable not only for its history – originally, its second installment was to be in Harlan Ellison’s Again, Dangerous Visions – but also the observation that it is Gunn’s only utopic work in its society post-alien contact. It also is the epitome of Gunn’s depiction of the loneliness of the administrator in seeing a long-term project through.
Why Gunn wrote such an uncharacteristic, though moderately entertaining novel as The Magicians, an occult murder mystery, is explained. It’s one of those stories where magic is depicted as following scientific-like laws. Page again notes the locations’ relevance to Gunn’s life.
The Mind Master aka The Dreamers is Gunn’s most experimental novel, dense with illusion and dream and literary quotes and allusions. I found this, on the level of enlightening criticism, to be the book’s best section. A key point made is that Gunn’s novel, in a chemical form, addresses some of the same issues as the cyberpunks did just a few years later. If the underlying information regarding an experience can be put in discrete bits, it can be copied and modified, mixed and matched whether your theory comes from James V. McConnell or Claude Shannon.
The episodes of the “novel” Crisis! are covered as well as its origin in a tv proposal.
Page’s overview goes up to the Transcendental trilogy. Page covers a lot of Easter eggs in the trilogy. He does a thorough job covering Gunn’s recent fiction, much of it sort of “recursive science fiction”, including Gift from the Stars. He even covers Gunn’s Star Trek novel, The Joy Machine, based, in a nice bit of career symmetry, on an unproduced script by Theodore Sturgeon. (And I’ll be covering it too, two posts down the line.)
He also thinks more highly of Gunn’s The Millennium Blues, an attempt at a mainstream and realistic novel whose first part was published in 1989, than I do. By the time Gunn finished it, no one was interested. While the novel shows Gunn’s engagement with the world, the story is less than compelling for me.
Page concludes with a quick look at Gunn the science fiction scholar, something he is still involved with and began with the publishing of his master’s thesis on science fiction published in the pulp magazine Dynamic in 1953 and 1954.
I really have only two other unmentioned quibbles with the book.
The first is I’m surprised that Frederik Pohl’s Man Plus isn’t listed as inspiring parts of the Transcendental trilogy – especially since Page has also written a book on Pohl. Perhaps, given his personal acquaintance with Gunn, my theory is wrong.
My second quibble is that Page feels it necessary to apologize for the presumably retrograde cultural aspects of Gunn. Perhaps he wants to protect Gunn from making the badthink list when he assures us that the astronomer’s wife in “The Listeners” would be “an astronomer or administrator in her own right” and not a housewife if the story were written today instead of 1967.
But that is a very minor quibble. Page has done Gunn and science fiction scholarship as a whole a favor with this book.