James E. Gunn, 1923-2020

This Saturday, James E. Gunn, the last living Golden Age science fiction author (no, not the director), passed away of congestive heart failure at age 97.

I had the good fortune to take a couple of science fiction classes with Gunn at the University of Kansas a bit over a decade ago, and I can honestly say I wouldn’t be the author I am today without his influence. He introduced me to countless classic authors I wouldn’t have read otherwise, and exposed me to the fascinating history of science fiction and fantasy. In the first class I took with him, during the summer semester of my freshman year of college, I met the first girl I ever kissed (I was a late bloomer, don’t judge me), as well as one of my closest lifelong friends, who I actually served as a groomsman for at his wedding a few years ago. (The three of us actually led a discussion group for China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station and Iain M. Banks’ Consider Phlebas- students took turns in groups leading discussions for each of the 25 books read for the class.)

Gunn’s influence on my life was vastly disproportionate to the time I spent learning from him. I would be surprised if Gunn remembered me- it’s been years since we’ve spoken, and I was just one more among countless thousands of students that he taught. I do have friends who were close to him, and the impact his loss has had on them is immense- Gunn was deeply beloved by those around him.

He frequently had stories of interacting with Heinlein, Asimov, and countless other speculative fiction greats. One of my favorite anecdotes he told our class involved him sitting with Phillip K. Dick at an award show. When he asked Dick what he’d been up to lately, Dick’s response was “Graffiti, mostly.”

Without Gunn, there wouldn’t have been much of a study of science fiction and fantasy’s history. In 1968, he founded the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas, the first ever university program of its sort. It led to the establishment of science fiction courses and studies at universities around the world, many of which it directly helped establish. The Center for the Study of Science Fiction is still around today, and is also in charge of giving out the Campbell and Sturgeon Awards. Gunn also put together The Road to Science Fiction, a combination history of the genre/ anthology of representative short stories and excerpts for each era, dating all the way back to Gilgamesh. The Road to Science Fiction is absolutely a must-read for anyone studying the history of speculative fiction.

Gunn was a prolific science fiction writer over the years. He sold the first short story he ever wrote (which is kinda terrifying) in 1948, and continued putting out books and short stories for his entire life. He wrote 28 books and edited 18 during his career, and his most recent trilogy of novels came out over this last decade. His writing spans not only many decades, but many shifts in artistic tradition as well. Gunn didn’t just stick to Golden Age style science fiction, but attempted (and usually succeeded) in writing in many of the various literary trends and movements that passed through the genre over the 20th century, including the New Wave and hard SF. One of his most notable works is The Listeners, the novel widely credited with inspiring SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Life, as well as Carl Sagan’s Contact.

Fittingly enough, James Gunn sold his final short story on the day of his death.