Interview with James Gunn, Grand Master of Science Fiction
My interview with James Gunn, recipient of the Damon Knight Grand Master of Science Fiction award, was posted on the Hugo award winning SFSignal. It was also picked up by io9 where a nice discussion has ensued.
LARRY: Your novelÂ THE LISTENERSÂ (1972) is an excellent example of that feeling you describe as â€œunity of goal and effort, and mutual sacrifice, and a feeling that we were all in this great enterprise together.â€ Robert MacDonald, theÂ protagonist, keeps the band of searchers together for several decades in spite of political and religious opposition to their â€œgreat enterpriseâ€, with the goal of finding evidence of alien life. The SETI Institute parallels (and was no doubt inspired by) your novel; founded in 1984, nearly three decades later they are still searching, and others have been searching longer. There have been scientists modifying the Drake equation to make it more optimistic (includingÂ this interesting oneÂ from Sara Seager at MITÂ that revamps it from radio aware life to focusing on the presence of alien life), and some that make it more pessimistic (asÂ IÂ was getting a Physics degree one of my professors was Dr. Michael Hart, who co-editedÂ Extra-Terrestrials, Where Are They?Â In 1982). That is a long-winded way of asking: are you optimistic?Â Pessimistic? Are they out there? Or are we alone?
JAMES GUNN: Story premises require different states of mind.Â When I read Walter Sullivanâ€™sÂ WE ARE NOT ALONEÂ in the last 1960s (I think I got it from the Science Book Club), the thought that inspiredÂ THE LISTENERSÂ was how humanity could sustain an effort for a century without results, and for that purpose it was necessary to assume that the only contact with aliens that was possible was through messages propagated by something like radio waves.Â But I do believeâ€and have been convinced by powerful voices like Carl Saganâ€™sâ€that there are intelligent aliens out there and maybe even intelligent aliens with technology, but that the difficulties and costs and lack of compensation for interstellar travel are such that we are unlikely to ever come into contact.Â But we can still share the intelligent beings burden of understanding the universe and our place in it by means of some such means as I describe inTHE LISTENERS, and that would be a shattering accomplishment that would change us and our world-view, and would be quite enough.
But that doesnâ€™t keep me from writing about interstellar travel as I have inÂ GIFT FROM THE STARSÂ andÂ TRANSCENDENTAL, in the furtherance of larger goals.
So, in spite of everything, Iâ€™m an optimist.Â I believe in what William Faulkner said in his Nobel acceptance speech, that humanity not only will survive but will prevail.
And I hope science fiction will be a tool in that.
LARRY: It would be interesting to see a timeline of waves of optimism, pessimism and other historical movements, juxtaposed with science fiction novels from those timesâ€¦a project for another day.
JAMES GUNN: It was hard for optimism to survive the brutality of two world wars.