Born in Kansas City, Mo., at age 14 Gunn attended a talk given by H.G. Wells — a four-time Nobel Prize in Literature nominee known best for his science fiction novels The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898). That set him on his own path as a science fiction writer. He had early success in selling science fiction stories to the pulp magazines of the 1940s and 50s. In 1951, after serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he earned his Masters in English from Northwestern University. His thesis, a critical analysis of science fiction, “was the only one ever published in a professional science fiction magazine,” noted Worlds of If in its June 1958 issue. “Throughout his writing,” the editor continued, “his philosophy has been that every serious story should contain some element which makes the reader proud he belongs to the human race.”
Gunn went on to write many stories and novels. The Immortals was so successful as a 1962 short story he expanded it into a novel, which was then adapted into an ABC TV Movie of the Week in 1969, and then an hour-long TV series (1970-71). The Listeners (1972) was “one of the very best fictional portrayals of contact with extraterrestrial intelligence ever written,” gushed Carl Sagan. Its publisher says the book “predicted and inspired the creation of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).” It was the runner-up for the first annual John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. He served as President of the Science Fiction Writers of America (1971–72), which in 2007 named him a Grand Master of Science Fiction. He also served as president of the Science Fiction Research Association, and director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction, which awards the annual John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best science fiction novel. He was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in 2015. As his day job, Gunn was an English professor at the University of Kansas — teaching, of course, science fiction. The university established the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction in 1982, and a year later his study of Isaac Asimov’s work won him a Hugo award. In 2017 he finally wrote his memoirs — at 93 years old. He died in Kansas from congestive heart failure on December 23, at 97.