By Nathaniel Williams
The title of this panel lists three things after James Gunn’s name: writer, scholar, and teacher. To do each of those areas justice, I’m going to say two things about him that will sound contradictory, but aren’t.
First, James Gunn is special because he is that rare breed—science fiction’s equivalent to a “triple threat” football player. He excels in all aspects of the field. As a writer, he is recognized as a prolific author of short stories and novels and a former President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). As a scholar, he has written and edited numerous scholarly works, including Alternate Worlds and the multi-volume Road to Science Fiction, and he served as president of the Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA).* As a teacher, he helped develop higher education’s standard for SF genre instruction, birthing the Intensive English Institute for the Teaching of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas and teaching courses on SF writing as well.
Second, James Gunn is special because he represents SF’s trend to produce individuals who do many things well. The field is filled with writers who also became genre historians, and teachers who began successfully crafting novels or short stories, and others who engaged in such intellectual cross-pollination. SF seems to inspire its fans, writers, and scholars to broaden their horizons and try their hand at other, related endeavors. If we acknowledge this, James Gunn’s status as an icon of that tradition becomes clear.
Impossibly enough, James Gunn manages to be both exceptional and emblematic in science fiction. He is important because he’s unique and because he embodies a standard. Looking at his multi-faceted career should help us reflect more broadly on the place of writers, scholars, and teachers in the SF community and consider the permeable boundaries between those roles.
* As such, James Gunn is the only person to have been president of both professional SF organizations (SFWA and SFRA), a fact John Kessel prominently mentioned during Jim’s induction as a Damon Knight Grand Master by SFWA in 2007.