In this week’s Science Fiction Fridays, we are honored to have an interview with Grand Master of Science Fiction, James Gunn. His stunning new novel, Transcendental, is a smart, complex and stirring novel that has echoes of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Mostly I invent the planet and then the alien that would evolve under those conditions. But this process is complicated by the issues raised by the stresses applied by environmental changes and the evolutionary process, which is the theme of the novel. One of the challenges was how to turn grazing animals into intelligent, civilized beings, or to turn flowers into intelligent creatures, and then imagine how they would react based on their origins and their change. Stanley Weinbaum in “A Martian Odyssey” gave us the first aliens who were a product of their environment, and I tried to do something similar. I also was subject to the truism of SF creation, that one can’t imagine something truly alien and that we’re limited to adaptations of things we have experienced.
What do you think makes a “good” alien in fiction?
Aliens serve two purposes, either to judge us from a different perspective or to provide examples of human behavior that we can judge without preconceptions. And maybe a third: to give us a sense of “the other” and a sense of wonder at the immense variety in which sentience might exist and thereby a feeling of humility about our own place in the universe, or maybe a determination to survive (and prevail, as Faulkner famously said). Aliens who perform those functions well, however they act, are “good” aliens in SF.
Chaucer’s shadow hangs heavy over this tale. How did you go about imagining The Canterbury Tales in space?
Transcendental started from an observation in Cory and Alexei Panshin’s THE WORLD BEYOND THE HILL, that the basic concern of Golden Age science fiction was transcendence. In imagining how to make transcendence realizable, I imagined a transcendental machine that would achieve transcendence physically rather than spiritually. From there I progressed to the idea of a pilgrimage in space to find the transcendental machine, and from there to the idea of the pilgrims telling each other their stories. It wasn’t quite Chaucerian: Chaucer’s pilgrims told stories; I needed to have my pilgrims tell stories about themselves–a way to provide readers a more intimate knowledge about the different aliens (and humans) but also to illustrate my thesis that the evolutionary process instills in sapient creatures a desire to improve, even to achieve whatever perfection is possible to the individual species.
There have been a lot of great science fiction that explores religion and spirituality from A Canticle for Leibowitz to Clifford Simak’s Project Pope and many, many more examples. What is the appeal about exploring religion in the far future?
Science fiction answers the questions that religion raises: who are we? where did we come from? how did we get here? where will it all end? The answers differ, of course, as possibilities are raised or eliminated by events or understandings. In that sense, SF serves a religious purpose, and I’ve noted, over the years, a near-religious commitment by SF and its readers to a better world produced by intelligent analysis and thoughtful action. I’ve sometimes described science fiction as the literature of the human species (as well as several other things).
What new science fiction writers do you find exciting?
Many of the exciting new science fiction writers are British: Charles Stross, China Mieville, the late Ian M. Banks, Paul McAuley, John Baxter, and a number of others, and some Canadians. But there also are some good new U.S. writers like John Scalzy and others.
As a related question, what is your current “nightstand read”?
I’m not very current on SF. I read an occasional nominee for the Campbell Award and the finalists for the Sturgeon Award, but it’s hard to find time to read when you’re writing. I read a few news and science magazines that I can browse while watching TV shows in the evening (it’s surprising how much you can get read during commercials), and a contract bridge magazine (duplicate bridge is a hobby that I hope keeps my mind exercised).
As a librarian, I’m always reading books from the perspective of who would I recommend this to: someone who reads for language, setting, character, ideas or plot. What kind of a reader would enjoy Transcendental?
I hope someone who reads for language, setting, character, ideas, and plot. Actually I’ve always intended to provide an enjoyable reading experience for everyone who comes to one of my books or stories: a good story with interesting characters doing something meaningful in terms of the human condition being tested by change, and to provide layers of philosophy, imagery, and metaphor for readers who want to delve deeper.
There’s a common theme in the book about humanity being drawn to war and conflict—at least to aliens from another culture. Do you think violence is endemic to our species and how do you think that would play out to an alien species?
I think violence is implicit in competition for limited resources, like land, for instance. Will Rogers said “Buy land. They ain’t making any more of it.” But of course we could make more of it. In one of my novels I suggested giving Palestinians their own space habitat. The answer to violence may be uncapping unlimited resources, but I suggest in GIFT FROM THE STARS that even this will meet opposition from those who profit from their control over limited resources. So yes, I think there always will be war until species begin to think clearly–and that is what the transcendental machine is supposed to achieve. I also think that maybe science fiction is that kind of transcendental machine and I’ve written a story suggesting how that might happen.
A fellow librarian, and sometimes guest reader for Science Fiction Fridays, Misha Stone, asked a panel of science fiction and fantasy authors at the LOCUS Awards what would be their required books if they were teaching a book on science fiction. What novels should make the list, in your opinion? What short stories should be on that curriculum?
Actually, I have taught a course for the past several decades on the science fiction novel and one of the science-fiction short story. I used twenty-five novels (they made a few changes half a dozen years ago) and you can find them on the Center for the Study of Science Fiction website; they were novels that have influenced the genre or illustrated its development. As for short stories, I edited six anthologies called THE ROAD TO SCIENCE FICTION, including my choices for those stories that either preceded SF (beginning with Lucian of Samosata) or helped shape it after SF became possible with the coming of the Industrial Revolution. They take SF from the early Greeks to about 1990. The last two volumes cover British SF and international SF.
Where do you see the genre going in the next few years?
At the end of ALTERNATE WORLDS: THE ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF SCIENCE FICTION, I commented (in 1975) that I saw science fiction and the mainstream blending together until they became indistinguishable in the middle, but there would always be something that was recognizably science fiction. I’ve seen that come to pass, and I think the trend will continue as it becomes more apparent that, as Isaac Asimov once said, “We’re living in a science-fiction world.” The one true thing you can say about our world today is that it will be different, and that is what science fiction is all about.