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He can save the future…
If only he could remember the past.
Bill Johnson is a man with a future… well, with many futures. But now he's in the present, and he has absolutely no memory of who he is, where he comes from, or what he's done. All he knows is what he's just read in the letter he apparently wrote to himself: that he was instrumental in saving the world, again. And that's his job: to save the world, ...
He can save the future…
If only he could remember the past.
Bill Johnson is a man with a future… well, with many futures. But now he's in the present, and he has absolutely no memory of who he is, where he comes from, or what he's done. All he knows is what he's just read in the letter he apparently wrote to himself: that he was instrumental in saving the world, again. And that's his job: to save the world, and then to lose all memory of having done so.
Plagued by this lack of memory, and by the strange dreams of horrific futures that will come to pass if he doesn't act, Johnson moves from nightmare to nightmare, helping to fix what will go wrong. He doesn't know if he can keep it up, but he knows that he has to. It's his job, his mission in time, to avert the impending Crisis!
In 2007, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America honored James Gunn with its Grand Master Award. Gunn began his writing career in 1948 and has since published 26 novels and almost 100 short stories. His work ("The Cave of Night" among several others) has been adapted for radio, an ABC made-for-TV movie based on his novel The Immortals (The Immortal, 1969), and a television series based on the same work (1970-71). His critically acclaimed multi-volume series The Road to Science Fiction is used in science fiction courses across the country, and his mammoth landmark 1975 work Alternate Worlds: the Illustrated History of Science Fiction, was honored with the Science Fiction Research Association's Pilgrim Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1976. A retired professor at the University of Kansas—Lawrence, he has for many years served as the Director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction. He has lectured in China, Japan, Poland, Romania, the Soviet Union, and many other countries for the US Information Agency. In 1983 he was awarded science fiction's prestigious Hugo award for his non-fiction book Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction.
The novel Crisis! started out to be a television series. Back in the mid-1970s a television series called The Six-Million-Dollar Man was ranked in the top half-dozen most popular shows on American television. It was broadcast on NBC, and CBS wanted a science-fiction television series that might compete for the same audience. Since I was going to be in Los Angeles, my Hollywood agent asked if I had any ideas that could be developed into such a series. "Sure," I said, agent and I had a meeting with CBS executives in which I described my idea for a television program in which a man from the future is sent back to deal with problems of our times that are going to turn the future into an unlivable hell. But each time the man from the future intervenes to solve a problem, or, more accurately, help others solve the problem, he forgets who he is and what he has done. He has to leave messages for himself. And I outlined the plot of "Child of the Sun."
The CBS executives seemed to like the idea, but I never heard any more from them about it. After a couple of months I decided that since I had done all the work of planning the episode, I might as well turn it into a story. I wrote "Child of the Sun," and Analog published it in March of 1977. The following year it was reprinted in Donald A. Wollheim's The 1978 Annual World's Best SF and I got a letter from a production company at Universal Studios asking if the television and motion-picture rights were available. The production company bought a year's option. I exchanged several letters with the producer about developing the idea into a possible television series, includingoutlining some twenty other pressing problems that could be turned into series episodes.
As it happened, the production company at Universal was disbanded before the year was over, and the option was allowed to lapse. Several years later, after I had written and published half a dozen other books, I decided to return to the situation behind "Child of the Sun," with the thought that its television potential might have been handicapped by the inability of producers to believe that other dramatic episodes were possible. I turned to the crisis mentioned in the note read by Bill Johnson in "Child of the Sun" -- "You have just saved the world from World War III, and you don't remember...." Now, it was easy enough to write that kind of one-sentence statement for "Child of the Sun," but I didn't have the least idea how to save the world from World War III. One of the principles of writing I have learned, however, is that the most difficlt problems make the best stories. So I wrote "End of the World," saved the world from World War III, and it was published in Analog.
I followed that up in fairly short order with "Man of the Hour," "Touch of the Match," "Woman of the Year," and "Will of the Wisp," all of them published in Analog. Along the way I set myself other problems. One of the first, as early as "Child of the Sun," was to write everything as if it had been filmed by a camera: nothing was to be subjective. That way, I thought, potential producers could not fail to perceive its cinematic qualities, and, in any case, doing it this way represented a technical challenge. I also included a dramatic opening situation, that in televisin terminology is called a "teaser," and an identifying series scene for each story. In this book those became "Prelude: Man in the Cage."
The second challenge I posed to myself was a minor one, to make all the titles match; all the titles have the same pattern ("blank of the blank") and that took some thought, particularly for the last one: challenges get increasingly difficult as they stack up. Then I looked at Bill Johnson's predicament and asked myself why he believes those messages he finds, and in one episode he questions the messages and his own sanity, and decides to seek psychological help and get cured.
I also took up what I considered to be the major problems facing humanity today. Nothing easy. After world war came the energy shortage, political leadership, terrorism, over-population, and pollution. I had to come up with reasonable solutions for all of these, not that Bill Johnson could solve by himself but that he could persuade others to solve because it was in their best interests, and the interests of all humanity, to address. I had mentioned to CBS when we discussed a possible series that there had been too many television shows in which the world had been saved for the rest of us by heroes like the Six-Million-Dollar Man or James Bond or Superman; what I wanted to create was a series in which there were no heroes, just someone so obscure he bears the most common two names in many telephone books, who would act as a catalyst to initiate reactions and show others (including readers and, I hoped, viewers) that it was everybody's responsibility to do what was right for humanity and a livable future.
I don't know whether I succeeded, either in the solution of the problems or the message to the readers. Crisis! was published as a novel by Tor Books in 1986. It may say something about the state of science-fiction criticism that no review mentioned the camera's eye viewpoint or the titles or the narrative strategy.
And no producer called to ask about the television rights, even though the contents page clearly labels the parts of the novel "episodes."
That's another problem to solve, though not one, I think, for Bill Johnson.
Copyright © 2001 by James Gunn