JOHN W. CAMPBELL'S GOLDEN AGE OF SCIENCE FICTION
by DMZ & Eric Solstein
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In 1971, James Gunn created a short film entitled “Lunch with John W. Campbell.” Eric Solstein and DMZ have taken this short film of Campbell tossing ideas back and forth with Gordon Dickson and Harry Harrison and built it into a complete look at Campbell’s career. Gunn’s film provides insight into Campbell’s method of working with authors, as has been described numerous times in print and discussed in the interview portions of the documentary, but it doesn’t really give a firm understanding of who Campbell was or his influence on the genre. The remainder of “John W. Campbell’s Golden Age of Science Fiction,” however, serves to correct that lack.
Using new interviews with several authors, as well as archival footage of Isaac Asimov, “John W. Campbell’s Golden Age of Science Fiction” examines Campbell’s influence on science fiction. Although the interviews focus almost entirely on Campbell’s professional career, details of his personal life are rarely addressed, the interviews create a complex image of the man and frequently include ambiguities as different people present opposing viewpoints of Campbell’s beliefs. Some of the commentators state that Campbell believed the positions he espoused in his editorials, while others give him the benefit of the doubt, especially regarding less mainstream views, of simply trying to be provocative. The text of one such editorial, about a galactic government published in 1943 is included on the DVD for the perusal of the viewers.
Campbell’s personal life does not appear anywhere in the documentary, although several of the authors who are interviewed discuss their own views of Campbell’s perceived opinions. While some of these perceptions may not be accurate, they do demonstrate how Campbell was viewed by a variety of people and result in a stronger documentary which exposes different, and not always pleasant , aspects of his personality. One of the more interesting features are the variety of authors who either accuse Campbell of anti-Semitism or defend against it, with perhaps William Tenn (Philip Klass) providing the most revealing look at Campbell, society and racism.
Because Gunn’s film which provides the centerpiece for the film is more than thirty years old, Solstein is able to include a variety of reactions to it. These reactions include Harrison, as one of the participants, as well as Klass, who comes away with a more negative view of Campbell than Harrison. In fact, the two men contradict what each other sees of the lunch, which is not to say that either is entirely right or wrong, but it informs the viewers impressions of Campbell as an editor and why he was able to work with some authors, but not with others, many of whom, such as Barry Malzberg and Michael Moorcock, weigh in with their opinions of Campbell throughout the film.
The DVD is set up to allow the viewer to watch either a short, 20 minute version of the documentary, or the complete 100 minute documentary. In addition, although it doesn’t incoude the more traditional chapter breakdowns, the film can be watched as a series of “modules,” which are made up of portions of the longer film covering different aspects of Campbell’s work and are designed to be watched in isolation from the rest of the modules, which means they have a certain amount of redundancy.
The special features include texts of a letter from Campbell to Asimov, as well as the aforementioned editorial. There are also cinematic extras, like a short piece about the Dean Drive, one of the pseudoscience technologies Campbell espoused, and a slide show narrated by Malzberg of his favorite issues of Astounding/Analog. Unfortunately, the interface which moves the cursor among the different menu options is a little on the balky side, and frequently results in a module or feature being played which was not the desired one.
Of course, the main reason to view “John W. Campbell’s Golden Age of Science Fiction” is for the light it sheds on this seminal figure in science fiction, and Solstein and his crew manage to do this exceptionally well. This documentary is of interest to anyone who wants to learn more about the thirty years Campbell edited Astounding. Supplemental material includes study questions, which further aid in making this film attractive for educational purposes as well as for informative ones.