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July 2003
© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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James Gunn Interview
with Edward Carmien


The Road To Science Fiction:
Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to Wells
Volume 2: From Wells to Heinlein
Volume 3: From Heinlein to Here
Volume 4: From Here to Forever

Last fall volume one of James Gunnís The Road To Science Fiction showed up in my mailbox. I was to review it for SFRevu, a web-based science fiction publication you may be familiar with. I was impressed.

More recently, volumes three and four arrived. After much heavy lifting, I reviewed them as well, and in the process learned much more about the fascinating and accomplished James Gunn. (I will review volume two, as soon as it find its way to my mailbox.) I also learned a LOT about science fiction, and being that Iím a member of the SFWA, write science fiction, and have been reading science fiction since about five seconds after learning to read as a child, saying I learned a lot really means something.

James Gunn has both the skill and the perspective to serve ably as a guide to science fiction. How did The Road To Science Fiction come about? Funny you should ask. I interviewed the man himself with that very question (and others!) in mind.

Edward Carmien: What was the genesis of The Road to Science Fiction? What prompted you to begin a work of such epic sweep?

James Gunn: Like all such projects, it started more modestly. When I left a position as administrative assistant to the Chancellor for University Relations to teach full time in the English Department, I was asked if I would be willing to teach a course in science fiction. I had already taught a course and decided that what students needed was perspective, mainly historical, and I sat down to write a dozen lectures covering the origins and evolution of early myth and fanciful tales into what we now know as science fiction. That year the English literature editor for Prentice-Hall showed up in my office and asked me if I would be interested in writing a text about fiction writing, and I said no but "I have this book about science fiction." He took it back to New Jersey with him and later reported to me that the science-fiction teachers to whom he showed it said that they wouldn't use it, but what would I think about a lavishly-illustrated coffee-table book.

That sounded even better, and four years later (after some delays caused by losing an editor), ALTERNATE WORLDS: THE ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF SCIENCE FICTION was published in 1975. That elicited a telephone call one day from Barry Lippman, who was editing English literature books for Mentor, who said he'd really liked ALTERNATE WORLDS and asked if I had a book in mind I could do for Mentor. I suggested a book about science fiction theory, but his board turned it down, so I suggested an anthology covering the early fantastic stories that developed into science fiction when the time was right. I called it THE ROAD TO SCIENCE FICTION, and it was published in 1977. Most books never quite live up to their rosy promise, but this one surpassed it. I wanted to go ahead with volume 2, but the editor said let's wait to see how this one does. It sold well, and a new editor (I went through five during THE ROAD's experience there) let me do #2 and #3, bringing the road to SF up to the present. Each one sold better than the one before.

EJC: I see volume four appeared in 1982, three years after volumes two and three. What prompted you to continue the series?

JEG: #2 and #3 came out together because they were more like one book divided into two volumes. It took a while for a new editor at Mentor to ask if I had another volume in mind, and I said that I didn't think I had done justice to SF's capacity to be literature and suggested #4. One question I had to answer was the subtitle: #3 had been subtitled: From Heinlein to Here--where does one go from here? I decided to call it: From Here to Forever. I had a new editor, and she asked me to cut 100 pages from the manuscript at the end. All that took time.

EJC: In 1998, White Wolf published volumes five and six of your series. How did that come about? Will they be reissued by Scarecrow Press?

JEG: Still another editor at Mentor asked if I had any ideas for volumes of THE ROAD to cover SF in other countries than the U.S. (I had quite a few British stories and a few from France and Poland in the first four volumes.) I mentioned that I thought I hadn't done justice to British SF, and I'd like to do a volume about that and then a volume of international SF. The editor wanted a formal proposal, and I prepared one. We also discussed the fact that New American Library had a rule that books had to sell 5,000 copies a year (they were selling about 2,500) to remain in print in mass-market editions, but only 1,000 for trade paperbacks. Let's put them into trade paperback format, I suggested, but NAL decided to revert the rights instead.

Meanwhile, Wolfgang Jeschke, SF editor at Germany's Heyne Books, had been reprinting the volumes in German, and had asked if I had any other books in mind. I mentioned the book of British SF and international SF, and he said that Heyne would pay for them even if Mentor wasn't interested. I started work on them and began looking for a U.S. publisher. A publisher just breaking into the SF business came along and was persuaded it needed a good anthology series as a foundation, and agreed to reprint an updated version of the first four volumes and then the two additional volumes I was preparing for Heyne. White Wolf published #3, #4, #5, and #6, but when #3 was going out of print, it decided not to reprint that or the other volumes (even though the publisher reported that it was its best seller in college stores), including #1 or #2. So I proposed them to Scarecrow Press, which already had published a couple of my books (ISAAC ASIMOV: THE FOUNDATIONS OF SCIENCE FICTION, and THE SCIENCE OF SCIENCE-FICTION WRITING), and the first four volumes by Scarecrow are the result--all updated and some volumes expanded, with two of the stories cut from #4 restored). I don't know whether Scarecrow will reprint #5 and #6. These are not yet out of print at White Wolf and haven't been reverted; #6 was an expensive volume in terms of permissions, with so many mainstream authors, that the expense might be prohibitive.

EJC: Is there a volume seven in the works? If so, can you discuss what it will be about?

JEG: It is possible that Scarecrow might be more interested in a volume covering the last couple of decades of science fiction since the last stories in #3 and #4. That might be more worth the doing than to try to renew the permissions for #5 and #6.

EJC: Looking over the series as it has been recently reprinted, what is the most satisfactory element?

JEG: It's good to bring them all up to date (even though events will soon catch up with them again), and to expand them a bit to cover material I had to cut out. On the whole my feeling about the first volume extends to the rest: they came out even better than I envisioned. I hope everyone else agrees.

EJC: Is there an author, or a group of authors, you regret not having been able to include in one the series so far?

JEG: Lots. But pages are inflexible, and, as I noted, I had to cut 100 pages out of #4. For that, and reasons of modesty (maybe deserved), I never have included one of my own stories. Maybe #7, if there is a demand for it, would help remedy the fact that the series stops about 1980. One of my rationales for including a story, or an author, was whether that story or author either represented a new development or was representative of something important in the evolution of science fiction. Many fine writers may be more important as writers than as genre contributors.

EJC: One of the trends you observe in your series is the expansion in the number of science fiction titles, which goes hand in hand with an expansion in the presence of science fiction in our popular culture. Do you see a day when identifying science fiction as something separate and distinct will be a futile act? Is the day coming when the "average" reader and/or consumer of science fiction will not perceive a difference between it and what we now call "mainstream" literature?

JEG: The act of identifying science fiction may not be futile, but it is becoming increasingly more difficult, mainly because of the plethora of books that flood the marketplace (particularly media tie-in novels and interminable fantasy series) and make it hard to winnow out the real SF. We need better guides to authenticity and substance than the marketplace is able to provide; there is more good SF than ever being published, but it gets lost in the welter of books that only look like SF. Moreover, anyone who wants to write about the real world of today is going to have to write something like science fiction, because an unavoidable aspect of today's world is that it is changing. So mainstream fiction is going to look more and more like science fiction; and science fiction is under strong forces to look more and more like the mainstream in order to add non-genre readers to those who will search it out anyway. I say that as someone who loves SF but whose writing, in significant part, has been more social criticism than hard SF. But my feeling is that although the margins will become increasingly difficult to differentiate, stories and novels clearly identifiable as SF will continue to be available. That is particularly true if the magazines continue to be published, and for that reason I advise everyone who loves SF to subscribe to the magazines.

EJC: What do you believe is the most valuable thing a student of science fiction literature should take away from studying the genre?

JEG: I've always felt that the most important aspect of a genre was its history. You can't know what it is unless you know where it came from and how it got here. And you can't evaluate current publications unless you are aware of its past. So I've always believed in teaching the genre as a genre. Science fiction has other uses--ideas, controversy, other subject matters, literary--and they all are valid approaches. We all use science fiction for our own purposes. But my purpose is to prepare students to read SF better and to put it into context. That's why I wrote ALTERNATE WORLDS and edited THE ROAD TO SCIENCE FICTION.

Science fiction is an important literature because it deals with the world around us, a world changing as we try to understand it. Science fiction is the literature of change, a way of experiencing the future before we must cope with its reality.

EJC: What is ahead for you as a writer? Any projects in the pipeline that we should look forward to?

JEG: I am finishing up my Gift from the Stars series that is being published in ANALOG as I get the novelettes done, and when I have the final one done (this summer, I hope), I plan to submit it for publication as a novel (it already is contracted for in China!). Aside from that, I have three other book projects under consideration: a book about TEACHING SCIENCE FICTION (with Marleen Barr) for the Modern Language Association; an annotated collection of H. G. Wells's short fiction for Wesleyan University Press; and that one-time book about Theories of Science Fiction for Scarecrow Press (I tested it out in a couple of seminars). We'll see how many get approved. And I should mention that all of my out-of-print novels and collections once more are available by E-reads and other electronic outlets.

My novel THE LISTENERS will be reprinted next spring by BenBella Press; Pocket Books is going to reprint an expanded edition of THE IMMORTALS (possibly next spring); and THE IMMORTALS is under option for a possible feature film.

If, dear reader, you notice a lack of follow-up on some of these questions, it is because the interview was conducted by email. Learn more about James Gunn by visiting: http://www.ku.edu/~sfcenter/index.html. (Start with the ďabout James GunnĒ link on the left, and note there are many valuable sf-related resources available at this site.)

© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
columns - events - features - booksmedia                    home  /  subscribe