How’s this for credentials: sci-fi writer James Gunn was inducted into the Science Fiction And Fantasy Hall Of Fame in 2015, made a Grand Master by The Science Fiction And Fantasy Writers Of America in 2007, and won the Hugo Award for Best Non-Fiction Book for his 1982 biography Isaac Asimov: The Foundations Of Science Fiction. With his new novel, Transformation, just released in hardcover and digital — thus concluding the saga he started with 2013’s Transcendental and continued with 2016’s Transgalactic — I spoke to this iconic science fiction writer about how this trilogy came together, how it relates to his impressive body of work, and that other James Gunn running around these days.
I always like to start with the basics. So, basically, what is Transformation about, and how does it connect, both narratively and chronologically, with the other two books in this trilogy, Transcendental and Transgalactic?
Transformation continues the saga of Riley and Asha that began when they met as fellow pilgrims to seek the rumored Transcendental Machine. That encounter continued in Transgalactic, where as transcendents, scattered to different parts of the galaxy, they seek a reunion when neither of them knows where they should meet. In Transformation, they complete the mission for which they have been prepared, to save the galaxy from an invasion from another galaxy.
Where did the idea for Transformation originate, and when in the process of writing the trilogy did you finalize the idea?
I was looking for an inspiration when I happened to glance at a book on my shelf, Cory and Alexi Panshin’s The World Beyond The Hill: Science Fiction And The Quest For Transcendence. I moved from that to consider whether the quest for transcendence might proceed through some kind of machine that would allow people to achieve transcendence immediately, and from that to a quest to seek a rumored Transcendental Machine, whose discovery would upset a fragile truce between humans and the other alien species in this spiral arm of the galaxy, who have a long-existent federation and resent human hubris.
I wrote the first chapter of Transcendental first and then the last chapter before I wrote a proposal. I recognized almost immediately that the concept was too big to cover in a single novel and envisaged a trilogy, which I had never written before, in the proposal I submitted to publishers. As I finished the first volume, I recognized that the story of Riley and Asha finding their way back together would dominate Transgalactic and my plans changed a bit. Then, when I reached the end of that novel, I realized that my plans for a third volume — in which transcendents would remake The Federation into a saner, sounder, more rational galactic government — would have to be implied rather than revealed, and I shifted my plans a bit with the afterword to Transgalactic.
There are, of course, many subgenres within science fiction. Where do you see Transformation and the rest of this series fitting in?
The Transcendental Trilogy is best described as space opera like my first two novels, [1955’s] This Fortress World and Star Bridge [which he wrote with Jack Williamson, also from 1955], to which I returned some sixty years later, but with a different vision of what it could accomplish and involve. The trilogy also involves other models: the quest story, the pilgrimage — from which Transgalactic takes as its structural model Geoffrey Chaucer’s’ The Canterbury Tales — the post-human, and probably others. The trilogy brings together many of the concerns and issues that science fiction addresses and I have experienced, as reader and writer, over those many years.
I know writers hate being asked about their influences, but are there any writers, or specific books, that you feel were a big influence on Transformation or on this trilogy as a whole, but ones that were not an inspiration on your other books?
Readers may find, if they look for them, tributes to many of the authors, inside and outside science fiction, who have influenced me, from ancient Greek mythology, Homer, and Chaucer to Heinlein, van Vogt, Asimov, Murray Leinster, H. Rider Haggard, Delany, and almost endless list of others. Including Jack Williamson, Frederik Pohl, Theodore Sturgeon, John Campbell and others who have not only influenced my work but my life. There are clues, some obvious, some obscure, if readers care of look for them. It was my way of paying tribute to the masters of the genre to which I have devoted my life. Without their example and inspiration I would have spent my time in this world in far less satisfying ways.
What about non-literary influences. Are there any movies, TV shows, or even video games that inspired some aspect of the Transcendental, Transgalactic, Transformation trilogy?
Such influences are less easy to identify. Aside from the experience of seeing my work turned into visual media, such as “The Cave of Night,” which became “Man in Orbit” on Desilu Playhouse in 1959 and The Immortals, which became “The Immortal” as an ABC-TV movie of the week in 1969 and a one-season series the following year, the visual media has been an interest but more a disappointment that an inspiration or influence. I like to cite the science-fictional success, as opposed to the film success, of H.G. Wells’ 1936 Things To Come and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as well as Star Trek and Star Wars. I even wrote a Star Trek novel that Ted Sturgeon had proposed for the series but never got made. But these are hard to draw upon for influence.
Speaking of Star Trek, the governing body in Transcendental, Transgalactic, and Transformation is called The Federation. Which is what they called the government in Star Trek. Do you think these novels are Star Trek-esque?
Not consciously. Sometimes authors know where concepts come from, but often they arise from the subconscious. The way a galactic organization might function, with members of different species separated by light years seems to call for a federation rather than some more tightly knit and organized system.
One of my principles in writing science fiction — and particularly space opera — has been to consider the ways in which things might be if we actually experienced them. Much space opera and visual space epics of various kinds show their worlds as peculiarly clean and easy to get around in. I have focused in my work on the basic human difficulties: the long passages even between wormholes that make interstellar travel possible, the boredom, the routine, the terror, the dirt, the smells, the sounds. I try to give readers as much of the reality of the future as I can imagine. John Campbell once wrote that readers want two things of a writer: to imagine for them what they cannot imagine for themselves and to imagine for them in greater detail.
As you are undoubtedly aware, you share your name with the guy who directed the movies Guardians Of The Galaxy and Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2. Do you think that someone who enjoys the Guardians Of The Galaxy movies would enjoy your books, especially the Transcendental, Transgalactic, Transformation trilogy?
I like to think that he shares his name with me. Certainly, the world makes me aware of his existence and his fame. When I was guest of honor at the World Science Fiction Convention in San Antonio in 2013, a fan came up to me with a video of one of my namesake’s films, and wouldn’t believe that I wasn’t the film writer and director.
I saw the first on television — I don’t go to movie theaters anymore — and thought it was great. I haven’t seen Vol. 2 because it hasn’t been on television yet, but will watch it when it does. I find myself curiously pleased when any “James Gunn” does well. A slightly older James Gunn was a noted screenwriter and novelist, and another James Gunn is a famous astrophysicist at Princeton who once won a “genius grant.”
I would imagine, though, that readers would not get the same kind of spectacle from my books [as they do from the Guardians movies], or that kind of comics-inspired action. Not that these don’t have their place, but written science fiction is another kind of treatment — unless they are tie-in novels — of people meeting the challenges of difference and the future, and they offer more thoughtful, often deeper and more character-driven and language-conscious considerations of the kinds of basic concerns about the human condition facing significant change.
Speaking of the Guardians Of The Galaxy movies, has there been any interesting in adapting the Transcendental, Transgalactic, Transformation novels into films or a TV show?
There have been discussions but nothing is in the works at the present. That is par for the course. Vonda McIntyre once described the typical Hollywood action as “hysterical enthusiasm followed by total silence.”
So which do you think would work better, a TV show or a movie?
Because of the problems of getting a novel into a film scenario — the usual ratio is a novelette or novella to one film — particularly one with a broad scope and different agendas, I would imagine a TV series would work best. Maybe a limited series. I always think in terms of a limited series.
If this was going to happen, who would you like to see direct it and star in it? Bearing in mind that if the other James Gunn does it, you’ll need roles for Michael Rooker and his brother Seann. And a house plant.
The thought has crossed my mind that it would be interesting if James Gunn directed a movie based on a James Gunn novel, but he seems more attached to comic-book dramatizations, and I’m not sure he would be attracted to my imagining of more naturalistic concerns. Perhaps a director concerned more with characters’ inner lives as they are challenged by cosmic events.
Finally, if someone has enjoyed the Transcendental, Transgalactic, Transformation trilogy, which of your other books would you recommend they read next and why that?
My novels have been a varied lot. If they would like see how my concept of space opera has changed, they could look up my first two, This Fortress World and Star Bridge. My best-known novels are The Immortals, The Joy Makers, The Listeners, Kampus, The Dreamers, and The Millennium Blues. Each of them are different in topic and approach and even in style. I also have half a dozen collections of short stories. All of these are available in one form or another.