Another great of the Golden Age has left us. James E. Gunn was not just a science fiction writer but was known as a scholar of the genre. While not as famous as the Big Three, he certainly made a significant contribution.
Who was James E. Gunn?
James E. Gunn was born in 1923 in Kansas City, Missouri. He decided to become a writer after hearing H.G. Wells talk at the age of 14…which seems unimaginable to us decades later.
However, his plans were interrupted by World War II, during which he served in the Navy. After the war he went back to school, got his bachelor’s in journalism then got a Master’s in English…and stayed at school. In fact, it would be 40 years before Gunn left the University of Kansas, during which time he became the first person to teach a class on science fiction (in 1969). The James E. and Jane F. Gunn Professorship in Science Fiction has played a major role in the development of science fiction as a serious academic subject.
Being a professor supported his career as not just a writer but an editor. He wrote a play for the university in 1947, and he published his first science fiction story in 1949.
His first novel, Star Bridge was a collaboration between Jack Williamson, but he went on to write over 30 novels. But he was perhaps just as well known, if not more, for his non-fiction writing. He won a Hugo for Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction, a seminal text on the life of the famous author.
He also edited a number of anthologies. He was president of SFWA and also of the Science Fiction Research Association.
In 2007, Gunn was named a Grand Master, very fitting given his massive contributions to the field.
Teaching Science Fiction
And his greatest contribution was as a professor. Gunn insisted that science fiction should be taught as literature, did so, and has supported others in doing so.
The professorship he endowed is part of the Department of English at the University of Kansas and supports the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction.
Now, there are a lot more schools that have programs and courses in science fiction.
You can even take science fiction classes online, and often audit them inexpensively (maybe one day I should do that).
Unfortunately, there are still teachers and professors who try to get kids to stop reading “that SF crap” (it happened to me in high school. Needless to say, I ignored her).
Other than the University of Kansas, six English-speaking universities now offer degrees in science fiction — University of Dundee, Florida Atlantic University, University of California, Riverside, University of Liverpool. Beijing Normal University also offers them. In California, you can even get your PhD with a Designated Emphasis in Science Fiction and Technoculture Studies.
Or you can just find places that offer random courses online and audit them.
And for that, you can thank James E. Gunn in no small part…and unlike some other writers who were also professors, he appears to have truly cared for his students.