Review: Star-Begotten: A Life Lived in Science Fiction, James Gunn, 2017.
Even James Gunn didn’t live all his life in science fiction, and the parts of his autobiography about his life outside that world are as entertaining and lengthy as the rest.
Of course, Gunn is a noted science fiction writer who first published in 1949 and has had new work published in 2018. He was the first to treat science fiction as an academic subject. He taught the craft of writing it for many years. He also was the man behind the Science Fiction Lecture Film series which filmed presentations of noted science fiction writers. You can find clips on YouTube and purchase the series from the Center for the Study of Science Fiction including one of Gunn interviewing Rod Serling.
But this autobiography gives you a sense of the man and something of his times.
It was a life, he acknowledges, governed by chance. One was meeting the woman he was married to for 65 years, Jane Anderson. It might not have happened if he hadn’t left college after his junior year in 1943 when we was finally called up for the Navy Air Force which he volunteered for shortly after World War Two started. Another chance event altered the trajectory of that Navy career when an unusually calm day, a condition in which Cadet Gunn was unused to, caused him fail to slow a plane while landing it solo for the first time. He became a washed-out aviator trainee.
Gunn lives up to his reputation as a gentleman. There’s little by way of a disparaging word of the many people Gunn has worked and lived with whether neighbors, students, or academic and literary colleagues. Even editors get off easy. The most critical words are reserved for his Uncle Edwin, Gunn’s least favorite uncle but source of his middle name.
Granted, the names of Gunn’s classmates at Kansas University who went on to notable lives aren’t very familiar and have limited appeal as do the two chapters about Gunn’s career as a writer of speeches for the university’s chancellor and doing public relations work. There is some about the turbulence of the late 1960s which lead to Gunn’s Kampus.
Gunn mentions that novel and others, but it is mostly to put things into the context of his life and to briefly describe the works and, less often, their inspirations. Gunn’s Law, sell it twice, came out of his realization of writing This Fortress World and co-authoring, with Jack Williamson, Star Bridge, that writing near future science fiction novels, composed of shorter pieces of fiction, was more economically remunerative than his first burst of work written between 1948 and 1953.
He jokingly notes he killed a lot of magazines and the stories he sold, but were never published, were put out in three collections in the 1980s and 1990s: Tiger! Tiger!, and The Unpublished Gunn parts one and two.
And, following the principle of his law, which says “Sell it twice”, some of this autobiography reprints his Locus comments on the passing of old friends: Williamson, Frederik Pohl, Damon Knight, John Brunner, Theodore Sturgeon, Clifford D. Simak, and (surprising to me) Harry Harrison.
But there are also reprints on pieces he did for his college alumni magazine, his 50th high school reunion, and more Locus pieces on his speaking engagements through the United States Information Agency where he spread the gospel of American science fiction to foreign lands.
The warmth he shows his old literary friends is there in the appreciations of his deceased family members, son Kit and wife Jane.
The autobiography surprises in mentioning some of Gunn’s non-science fiction literary endeavors: song lyrics, pieces of journalism, public relations work, Dick Tracy scenarios, radio and theater drama, and even editing a joke book.
Gunn, when he wasn’t sitting in front of the typewriter or lecturing students, was an expert bridge player like his father, golfer, and general sports fan.
As befitting a science fiction professional, there is a concern with history and continuity.
From an opening brush with greatness, an attempt by the 14-year old James Gunn to shake H. G. Wells’ hand in Kansas City in 1937 and an opening picture of his grandparents to a concluding picture of a 93-year old Gunn contemplating the gravestone of his great-grandfather, Gunn presents his life as part of the stream of modern life and the history of science fiction.
There’s a warmness towards his childhood. It wasn’t rich, but his father, a printer, was never without a job in the Depression. Both Gunn’s father and mother never discouraged Gunn’s and his older brother Richard’s career aspirations. Gunn got to be a writer. Richard got to be a doctor.
Writing wound through Gunn’s family. His parents were great readers though not possessing a high school diploma – perhaps, suggests Gunn, because primary school education was much more rigorous than today. His grandfather, Benjamin Gunn, made a fair amount of money with 1,000 line verse biographies of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. His Uncle John Gunn was a noted writer for the social newspaper The Appeal to Reason and edited The Little Blue Book series of which reprinted excerpts from classic works and original stories. Gunn remembers John as frequently drunk when he showed up at his parents’ house but fondly remembers their discussions about literature in later years when John was mostly sober. It was their Uncle John who took his nephews James and Richard to see H. G. Wells in 1937.
The college environment of the early 1940s seems more rigorous than that today, and Gunn notes that many beneficiaries of the G.I. Bill, like him, entered college (or returned, in his case) with a new sense of discipline and impatience to learn and get on with things. Gunn himself married and started a family while pursuing a freelance writing career and a master’s degree, “rash confidence … nurtured by … post-war euphoria” he calls it.
The book would be improved by more frequent markers of chronology. Sometimes I had trouble figuring out what year we were in.
Gunn’s recall isn’t there at times you wish it were and present in trivial matters. My younger self would be more critical of that, but, even at my age, I can say my memory is blurry for some important events in my life and in focus on some trivial matters.
One thing that struck me is that Gunn’s punctiliousness about describing the layout of rooms in his fiction carries over to his biography.
All in all, though I’m not much for writers’ autobiographies, I thought my time well spent with this one. I especially enjoyed learning how the locations of Gunn’s life, mostly lived around Lawrence, Kansas, show up in his fiction even if transmuted into some dystopia visited on that land in the near future.
I ordered STAR-BEGOTTEN after reading your fine review. The last autobiography of a writer that I read (and enjoyed) was THIS IS ME, JACK VANCE!
The only sf autobiography I’ve read is Clarke’s Astounding Days. I’ve got Wells’ autobiography in the house, and I definitely would like to read Pohl’s and Williamson’s autobiographies. I’m even interested in J. G. Ballard’s autobiography — which I suspect I’ll like more than his fiction.
I wasn’t aware Vance had done one. I’ve only read shorter works by Vance.