Author Interview: James Gunn

Today I am interviewing James Gunn, author of the new urban fantasy novel, Transformation, final book in the Transcendental trilogy.

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DJ: Hey James! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview! 

What were some of your influences for the Transcendental trilogy

James Gunn: I am an emeritus professor of English at the University of Kansas, after holding several other positions at the University, including director of University Relations during the turbulent 1960s (which inspired my novel Kampus).  I started writing science fiction in 1948 and had my first stories published in I949, which makes me (barely) at 94 in a month, the oldest living Golden Age writer.  Throughout my academic career I continued to write, publishing more than 100 short stories and 45 books, a good number of them non-fiction books about science fiction, including Alternate Worlds: The Illustrated History of Science Fiction, the six-volume anthology The Road to Science Fiction, Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction, The Science of Science-Fiction Writing, Inside Science Fiction, and others.  My novels include The Immortals (which became a TV movie and series as “The Immortal,”) The Joy Makers, The Listeners, The Millennium Blues, and some dozen or so others.  My most recent publications are the Transcendental trilogy and a series of stories that I call “Tales from the Transcendental” being published in Asimov’s Science Fiction.

DJ: Could you briefly tell us a little about your main characters? Do they have any cool quirks or habits, or any reason why readers with sympathize with them? 

James: The main characters in the Transcendental trilogy are Riley, a battered and despondent former navigator and gunner in the human/Federation war and now a disillusioned emissary of an unknown master with an impossible directive; and Asha, a woman of mystery with unusual abilities and self-control.  I’ve always preferred flawed characters, not heroes, and the challenge is to see if they can surpass their limitations when the need arises.

DJ: What is the world and setting of the Transcendental trilogy like? 

James: This is the future 1,000 years from now when humanity sends out its first interstellar generation ships and finds that the galaxy is already owned by a varied group of alien species who have organized themselves, millennia before, into a Federation, ostensibly benign but fiercely defensive about threats to its sovereignity and rigorous about potential new members.  It results in a ten-year war that has just fought itself, after great destruction, into a treaty, and the Federation, which values stability and stasis above all else, has been threatened by rumors of a new religion called Transcendentalism based around a machine, somewhere in the galaxy, that has the potential to bring transcendence to any creature.  And that threatens the stability and future of the Federation.  Hidden forces have dispatched Riley and possibly other emissaries to a spaceship of pilgrims composed of many species seeking the Transcendental Machine to seize it for their own use or destroy it and the unknown Prophet who has announced the new religion.

DJ: How have the reviews been from readers, bloggers, and reviewers for the first two books of the Transcendental trilogy? Is there anything that your audience seems to be particularly enjoying or is eager to find out more about?

James: Reviews have ranged from the enthusiasm of professional reviewers to a mixture of responses from everyday readers.  One of the features of Transcendental is the chapters that allow the pilgrims to tell their own stories.  Some readers thought that was the best part of the novel; others thought it slowed down the action.  One of the problems of every author is to let the reader know how to read a text and what to expect from it.  Sometimes readers get the wrong expectation anyway.  Because the novel was billed as a “space opera”—like my first two novels, This Fortress World and Star Bridge (with Jack Williamson), both published in 1955—readers who were expecting rousing battles in space may have been disappointed.  One clue to something different: I quoted Geoffrey Chaucer and T. S. Eliot on the first page.  Tor Books, which published the trilogy, advertised the final volume, Transformation, as “high-minded space opera.”  Not everybody likes “high-minded” space opera with a difference.  But it has never been my intention to fit my writing into convenient categories and even my first novel, This Fortress World, tried to show the dirt and violence that other space operas overlooked. 

DJ: What was your favorite part about writing Transformation and completing the final book in the Transcendental trilogy

James:  The favorite part was when I wrote the last sentence and I knew I had wound everything up.  One of the challenges of writing a novel that is particularly enhanced when writing a trilogy is accounting for all the questions that the narrative has raised during the lengthy development of ideas, characters, and events.  When it all comes together into an emotionally satisfying and intellectually pleasing conclusion, the author feels a sense of completion and willingness to let go, feeling that the job is done.  I got that.  I hope readers do as well.

DJ: What do you think readers will be talking about most once they finish it?

James: I hope they’re talking about how surprising the ending was but how satisfying it turned out to be.  Poul Anderson told me once that what readers want are the twin pleasures of surprise and rightness.  They can’t know how it’s going to turn out, but once it happens they have to be able to say to themselves, “Of course!  Why didn’t I see it coming?”

DJ: Did you have a particular goal when you began writing the Transcendental trilogy? Was there a particular message or meaning you are hoping to get across when readers finish it? Or is there perhaps a certain theme to the story?

James:  I’ve never written a trilogy before, or even a sequel, but when I got the idea for Transcendental, I saw immediately that it had three parts to it.  The first part was the discovery of the Transcendental Machine and what it meant.  The second part was the discovery of the political forces that had shaped the Federation and those that sought to capture or destroy the Machine and its Prophet.  The third part was the reshaping of the Federation by transcendent beings of many species into a better place for thinking creatures to live and work and aspire.  It didn’t work out quite that way, which probably is true of any trilogy.

The theme of the trilogy, which I haven’t seen discussed in any review, is what transcendence would amount to and what thinking creatures need to be truly creative and responsible.  There are other features and other concepts, but this lies at the heart of the trilogy—and really at the heart of science fiction, the human condition encountering meaningful change.

DJ: I’m always curious when authors finish a series, how close to the original course they stayed when it is finally completed or if it ended up evolving and changing. Did the plot stay the same as you had first imagined it? How about the ending? The evolution of your characters?

James: I’ve written novels in a variety of ways.  When I started, I took a linear approach from beginning to end discovering what would happen next as I went along.  Later I would know what the ending would be and plan how to get there.  Sometimes, as in The Millennium Blues, I have written the last chapter first (“The End of the World Ball”) and then went back and wrote about how my characters got there.  In the case of Transcendental I wrote the first chapter and the last chapter, so I then filled in what went between,

A trilogy is more often to change in mid-series.  In the Transcendental trilogy, I did follow through in my plan to explore the workings of the Federation and to track down the forces that impelled the pilgrims on their desctructive path, but it got complicated by the fact that Riley and Asha had been scattered to distant parts of the galaxy and the central issue of Transgalactic became how they were going to get back together over the vast and unknown spaces.  When I got to Transformation I realized that reforming the Federation was a long-term project and I could only suggest how that might be done while I was tackling a threat to the existence of intelligent life in the galaxy, an alien invasion.

DJ: When I read, I love to collect quotes – whether it be because they’re funny, foodie, or have a personal meaning to me. Do you have any favorite quotes from Transformation that you can share with us?

James: Here are a few that Paul di Flippo liked: “‘Rational beings are the same everywhere,’ said Tordor, ‘adrift in an enigmatic universe. Otherwise they could not communicate.’”

“Life started small and without meaning, as it always does.” 

“The lies we tell about ourselves may be more revealing than the truths we incautiously reveal.”

DJ: Now that Transformation is released, what is next for you?

James: My memoir, Star Begotten, will be published in the fall by McFarland and Company.  My 1951 thesis, Modern Science Fiction, annotated by Michael Page of the University of Nebraska, will be published after these many years, also by McFarland, probably next spring, and we are negotiating about an updated edition of Alternate Worlds (a Chinese edition is due out in August).  So I’m keeping busy.

DJ: Where can readers find out more about you?  

Website: My short bio is on the Center for the Study of Science Fiction website, as well as a dozen essays about science fiction from my various books.

DJ: Before we go, what is that one thing you’d like readers to know about Transformation and the Transcendental trilogy that we haven’t talked about yet?

James: One of the aspects of the trilogy is that it attempts to reflect a lifetime of engagement with science fiction and what I have learned about it, and I have paid tribute to my reading and the great authors who have inspired me.  Very few readers have noticed how tributes to them are planted throughout the narratives.  The concept of an alien invasion, for instance, is a tribute to my friend Isaac Asimov, whose final Foundation/robot novel ends with the robot Daneel Olivaw revealing that everything he has done is to prepare for an invasion from another galaxy.  One example from Transcendental is Asha’s name, which I read somewhere is the pronunciation of H. Rider Haggard Ayesha from the immortal She.  I chose that name because the ending of Transcendental reminded me of the ending ofShe.  Lots of these—not that they are essential to the understanding of the story; just individual tidbits, so to speak, and more important to me than the reader.

Similarly, the basic structures of the novels are taken from classic literature (like Kampus  takes its structure from Voltaire’s Candide), Transcendental from The Canterbury TalesTransgalactic from The Odyssey, and Transformation from the Argonauts in the mythological “Jason and the Golden Fleece.”

DJ: Is there anything else you would like add?

James:  My motto, “Let’s save the world through science fiction” will be the subject of the Campbell Conference here at K.U. the middle of June.  I not only think there is something special about science fiction reading that focuses readers’ minds on a better future and how to get there, I suspect that reading science fiction also actually changes the nature of readers’ minds, enhancing the rational portions of the brain, so we need to encourage more of it (rather like Riley and Asha are transformed by the Transcendental Machine).  

DJ: Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to answer my questions! ​

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*** Transformation is published by Tor Books and is available TODAY!!! ***

Buy the Book: 

Amazon | Barnes & NobelGoodreads | Kobo

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About the Book:

Transformation continues the high-minded space opera by science fiction grandmaster James Gunn which began with Transcendental.

Riley and Asha have traveled across the galaxy, found the Transcendental Machine, and been translated into something more than human. They’ve returned to Earth and won over the artificial intelligence which once tried to destroy the Transcendental Machine.

Now they must save the fringes of the Federation.

Planets at the edge of the Federation have fallen silent. The arrogant Federation bureaucracy grudgingly send Riley and Asha to investigate. They join forces with a planetary A.I., a paranoid Federation watchdog, and a member of a splinter group who vows to destroy the A.I. No one trusts anyone or their motives.

They need to find common ground and the answer in order to confront an enemy more ancient and powerful than the Transcendentals.

About the Author:

James Gunn was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1923. He received his B.S. degree in journalism in 1947 after three years in the U.S. Navy during World War II, and his M.A. in English in 1951, both from the University of Kansas. He also did graduate work in theater at KU and Northwestern. In 1969 at the University of Kansas, he taught one of the first university courses in science fiction.

In 2015, Gunn was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Gunn joins the elite company of Theodore Sturgeon, H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, and other SF greats.

In 2007, he was named “Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master.” Read the story – and see lots of photos – here.

He was Guest of Honor at the 2013 WorldCon in San Antonio, Texas; Special Guest at the same year’s Eaton/SFRA Conference in Riverside, California; and of course permanent Special Guest at the Campbell Conference in Lawrence, Kansas. He also makes occasional appearances, especially in the Lawrence area.

Gunn has worked as an editor of paperback reprints, as managing editor of KU alumni publications, as director of KU public relations, as a professor of English, and now is professor emeritus of English and director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction. He won national awards for his work as an editor and a director of public relations. He was awarded the Byron Caldwell Smith Award in recognition of literary achievement and the Edward Grier Award for excellence in teaching, was President of the Science Fiction Writers of America for 1971-72 and President of the Science Fiction Research Association from 1980-82, was guest of honor at many regional SF conventions, including SFeracon in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, and Polcon, the Polish National SF convention, in Katowice; was presented the Pilgrim Award of SFRA in 1976, a special award from the 1976 World SF Convention for Alternate Worlds, a Science Fiction Achievement Award (Hugo) by the 1983 World SF Convention for Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction, the Eaton Award in 1992 for lifetime achievement, and named Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America in 2007; was a KU Mellon Fellow in 1981 and 1984; and served from 1978-80 and 1985-present as chairman of the Campbell Award jury to select the best science-fiction novel of the year. He has lectured in Denmark, China, Iceland, Japan, Poland, Romania, Singapore, Sweden, Taiwan, Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union for the U.S. Information Agency.

At 93, Gunn is about to release the the final volume of the trilogy that began with Transcendental and Transgalactic, entitled Transformation!


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