Goodbye, Jim
James E. Gunn, 1923 - 2020

  LAWRENCE, KS - December 23, 2020
  by Chris McKitterick
  for immediate release

After calling to be taken to Lawrence Memorial Hospital with trouble breathing on Friday night, James Gunn was tested for (and found clear of) COVID, instead diagnosed with congestive heart failure. 

Over the next few days, doctors couldn't get his heartbeat under control, though oxygen assisted his breathing to keep him comfortable. 

This morning at around 11am Central Time, SF Grand Master, SF Hall of Fame inductee, Founder of the world's first science fiction research center, and "Science Fiction's Dad" died.

The center's associate director, Kij Johnson, and I offer our deepest condolences to everyone who cared about Jim, whose lives he touched - and there were many - and whose careers he influenced, which amounts to almost everyone in our field today, whether they're aware of his intellectual parentage or not.

I wrote for Michael Page's biography (Saving the World Through Science Fiction: James Gunn, Writer, Teacher, and Scholar):

"He has taught so many teachers, scholars, and educators that his reach is immeasurable. Jim's mentoring has shaped the genre into what we enjoy today, making him one of the most influential figures in SF. His is a life devoted to science fiction, and without him, the field would not be the same, nor the world as aware of both the peril and potential of human endeavor."

Just eleven days ago, Kij Johnson submitted his final short story to Sheila Williams at Asimov's SF Magazine. Of course he kept writing, and publishing, until his final days. Of course he kept coming up with new things he wanted Kij and me to work on for his Center for the Study of SF, and new writing projects on which to collaborate with him, and on and on. 

He's survived by his son Kevin, with whom we've remained in close contact (especially over these last months), and his cat Annie. And by so many of us, for whom he served as mentor and friend. I've written so much about Jim that I don't know what I can say that I haven't already. This sort of sums it up (also from my intro to Michael Page's book): 

"He's a gentleman, endlessly courteous to even the most difficult human beings; polite, thoughtful, and generous with his time, energy, intelligence, gentle wisdom, and money. In order to help 'Save the World Through Science Fiction,' he helped found AboutSF, our educational-outreach mission to make the human future a better place through helping others teach SF. He's leaving most of his savings to found a Professor of Science Fiction at KU, some two million dollars in trust with KU Endowment. And a thousand other such generosities. Most of us will never get to meet a true gentleman, and I suspect they were nearly as rare in the past.

"He's a good friend to many, always warm and welcoming and ready to apply his deep understanding in whatever way he can to help others. When you first meet Jim, you could ask him to come speak at your school or library half way across the country, health allowing. On his request, dozens of science fiction's luminaries have made the trek to Kansas to do interviews or talks for his Literature of Science Fiction series, our annual conference, or his classes. Fred Pohl and Betty Anne Hull came down for our SF workshops and SF teaching institute and then - like so many of us - continued to do so for more than 20 years.

"He's a full-time mentor. When he was teaching - and for at least a decade after retiring - Jim would go to his office each day and write there, door open to passers-by. If anyone had a question, he'd pause in his work and welcome their questions. I once asked him if I had what it takes to become a writer, because it's a difficult and painful calling. He asked me why I keep doing it if I felt that way. I said that if I don't write, I get grumpy and unhappy, and then went on to excitedly explain what I was trying to say in my newest story. As I spoke, he smiled, then nodded and said, 'Anyone who can be discouraged from becoming a writer should be. The rewards are small and delayed, few people will ever care about your work, and there are no guarantees. Only those who cannot be discouraged find success. You have what it takes.'

"His advice was never solely scholarly in nature: In response to a question about how he, a handsome, best-selling author who attended conventions without his wife (who suffered social anxiety), avoided unwanted advances from fans, he chuckled and said, 'A gentleman doesn't notice unwanted attention.' He's patiently offered advice on relationships, work, and a thousand other things, then calmly returned to what he was doing before.

"Mentoring is his approach to life. Everything Jim does is to help others, and he expects others to do the same, and helps guide those who listen into becoming better people through service to the greater good. His rationality and intellectualism stem from deep emotional investment in the betterment of the human species. His devotion to the field inspires the SF community to reach higher, grow deeper, and become ever-more humane.

"Tireless dedication to not only to writing or teaching, but to mentoring and building community, defines him. This form of mentorship - his warm, open helpfulness - is, I believe, the essence of James Gunn, and why so many of us think of him as Dad."

I'll write a proper obit later, the feelings are just too raw right now. Jim was like a father to me - the most Dad-like person I ever met - and I'm having difficulty imagining the world without him.

Ad Astra, dear friend

Hugs to everyone who cared about Jim.

A few recent photos:


Portrait from October 2018 by Andy White for a Scientific American piece.


Selfie of Jim, Kij, and me having social-distanced July 4 breakfast in Jim's screened patio, summer 2020.
(Kij was unmasked because she was in Jim's bubble, often helping Jim with daily needs)


Selfie with alum Karen Hellekson and Jim in November 2018.


Portrait of James Gunn by John C. Tibbetts, from Nickelodeon Magazine, No. 1, 1975.


Photo Kij took of a June 2018 watercolor portrait by two fans from India, Srinivas Mouni and his younger brother Gandhi.

In years that weren't such a dumpster-fire, Kij and I (and sometimes other friends) saw Jim weekly for Saturday breakfast.

To say I miss him is an understatement. The world feels so much less... complete, less full of SF's long living history, than it did yesterday.

And I guess that's true: Jim was, perhaps, the last of Those who Were There at the start of SF as a genre and field. And family.

Goodbye, James Gunn, Grand Master and mind-father of science fiction.

- Chris McKitterick    

A few news stories:

"James Gunn, Prizewinning Science Fiction Author, Dies at 97," The New York Times

"James Gunn (1923-2020)," Locus Magazine. Locus also ran a series of tributes in their print magazine, including a few they've also published on Locus.com including by the editors, "James Gunn," by Andy Duncan, and "Goodbye Dad," by Chris McKitterick.

"In Memoriam - James Gunn," SFWA

"James E. Gunn, Science Fiction Author and Scholar, Dies at 97," the Hollywood Reporter

"Letter From the Editor Gunnisms," James Gunn's Ad Astra

"James E. Gunn Dies: Prolific Science Fiction Author and Editor Was 97," Deadline

"James Gunn, the 'Dad of Science Fiction,' dies at age 97," the Lawrence Journal-World

"SF Grandmaster & Hugo Winner James Gunn Dead at 97," SciFi Fandom Radio

"Science fiction author James Gunn, KU professor emeritus, dies Wednesday at age 97," the Kansas City Star 

"RIP James E. Gunn (1923-2020)," Bradbury Media


KU's SF libraries

A Basic Science Fiction Library, by James Gunn and Chris McKitterick

back to essays page