by DMZ & Eric Solstein

June 2002

The Literature of Science Fiction Film Series

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

James Gunn provides a brief introduction to each short film in which he explains who the author is and why they are qualified to speak on the topic Gunn has selected for them.  Gunn also features in many of the interviews having a discussion with the authors, most notably with Gordon Dickson, but with others as well.

Poul Anderson begins his discussion on “Plot in Science Fiction” with the observation that whatever he has to say about plot refers to non-genre fiction as well as science fiction.  To drive this point home, he refers to the works of Robert Louis Stevenson and Homer as well as his own works and those of Heinlein to discuss the use of plot.  Eventually, he begins using his own stories as examples of how to work out a plot and how the plot ties into setting and character.

Isaac Asimov spends much of “The History of Science Fiction After 1938” talking specifically about the importance of the titular year as the year that John W. Campbell began influencing what was published in Astounding, and the following year as the year that he, Theodore Sturgeon, A.E. van Vogt and Robert Heinlein entered the field.  He does vaguely trace the remainder of the time from 1938 to 1971 by discussing how Galaxy and Fantasy and Magazine were a response to Astounding and have their own slants, although he ignored many all of the minor magazines during the period.  New Worlds and the type of fiction it published is mentioned only as an afterthought and not by name.  Asimov also talks about the rise of science fiction in film, but to him, the Campbellian version of science fiction remains the apex of science fiction.

The premise of John Brunner’s “Science Fiction and the Mainstream” is that the term “science fiction” is merely a marketing device to let sales clerks know where to shelve a particular book.  He points out that many authors, such as Burgess or Orwell, write science fiction but are not ghettoized.  In his opinion, using science fiction in a story is really no more than a way of using the world which is around him and extrapolating to tell a story.

 “Theme in Science Fiction” has Gordon Dickson discussing why science fiction is so popular among a certain type of person who is willing to allow himself to be challenged by strangeness in their literature.  He goes on to discuss a variety of themes which are used time and again in science fiction.  Of course, many of these themes also make their appearance in non-science fiction stories also, which is one indication that these themes are powerful and universal in scope and not exclusive to science fiction.  On the other hand, Dickson sees science fiction providing a forum in which an author can break many of the requirements of mainstream literature to present new points of view in ways which will surprise the reader and make him think.

One of science fiction’s oldest authors, Jack Williamson, discusses his early career in science fiction in “The Early Days of the SF Magazines.”  Much of this interview has Gunn focusing on Williamson’s interactions with the various editors such as Farnsworth Wright and Hugo Gernsback.  Williamson offers some personal insights into working with these editors as well as their likes and dislikes, but in many cases, he points out, he only met them briefly and has only rudimentary personal knowledge of their quirks.  Where he really shines is talking about the editors he worked most closely with and actually got a chance to know on both a personal and professional level.

Forrest Ackerman presents a chronological lecture on “Science Fiction Films” from the earliest film versions of “Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” through “2001:  A Space Odyssey.”  While filled with facts and discussion of trends, Ackerman’s presentation, reading carefully from a script while surrounded by the memorabilia of his home.  This stilted presentation is made ironic by Ackerman’s own comment that he has been known to lecture extemporaneously on the merits of “Metropolis” alone.  Ackerman is happy, however, discussing the films and is not shy about offering his personal opinions of the films, thereby making this section one of the more interesting films on the DVD.  Furthermore, While other speakers are able to show some of the books they are discussing or pictures of the people they are describing, Ackerman is able to show the props used in a variety of films.  While most of the authors who talk make a clear distinction between SF, fantasy and horror, Ackerman has more leeway to blur the lines between the three genres.

Harlan Ellison is interviewed by several people to give his ideas on the “New Directions in Science Fiction.”  Given the topic, it is not surprising that this interview has not dated well, as many of the changes which occurred in the mid-seventies are clichéd by today's standards.  At the same time, Ellison's talk allows the viewer to make a direct study of what Ellison predicted and what actually came to pass.  Ellison opens with a discussion of the various taboos which were in place and being dismantled and segues, understandably, into a discussion of his recent anthology Dangerous Visions and the forthcoming Again, Dangerous Visions.  This piece, however, leaves the viewer wishing that Solstein could have included a more recent interview in which Ellison addressed the same issues twenty-five years later.

In “The Early History of Science Fiction,” Damon Knight spend much of the time talking about the pre-magazine roots of science fiction, not only Verne and Wells, but numerous authors whose works are not necessarily considered science fiction.  Eventually, he does begin to talk about the importance of Hugo Gernsback's contributions to science fiction, not only as a literature, but also as a culture.  Although Asimov covered the period after 1938 in his film, Knight is happy to talk about the influence early science fiction authors and stories had on later works, notably the Lord of the Rings and Dune.  Knight's lecture leaves the viewer wanting more, perhaps because Knight's erudition and academic interest in the field comes across better than most of the film subjects.

Frederik Pohl plays around with a lot of the same topics covered by Gordon Dickson and Poul Anderson in “The Ideas of Science Fiction.”  In this film, Pohl talks about the way the same ideas crop up time and again in science fiction writing, each time building on the previous ideas.  He also talks about the origin of ideas, notably focusing on authors who introduced concepts into the science fiction genre.  In the copy reviewed, there were some bit rate problems which resulted in the picture stuttering and pixalating during this film, although that may have been an issue only with this disc, however it did appear on two separate DVD players.

The final interview, with Clifford Simak, “A Life in Science Fiction,” is basically a look at making a career of writing science fiction and how it meshes with the author's life outside of publishing SF.  Simak not only discusses his reasons for writing science fiction, but he also talks about specific books he has written and how changes in his life, not just changes in his writing ability, mean that he could not have written certain books, for instance, City, at a different point in his career.

If the DVD lacks in anything it is that DMZ did not include any special features, as they did with the "Lunch with John W. Campbell" DVD they have also released.  Furthermore, they did not provide any subtitles to the series of lectures, which would have been a nice touch (although the transcripts are available as a .pdf files from DMZ's website).  Because DMZ has been working with films thirty years old, there are times, for instance during the Brunner lecture, that there are skips in the sound or action.  This can be annoying, especially when an author is saying something of interest and there is a stutter which removes part of his point, but it only detracts from the films in a minor manner.

Overall, DMZ has done a wonderful job in preserving the films Gunn made in the 1970s and making them available to another generation of scholars and fans.  Although DMZ's distribution is relatively limited, it is well worth seeking out this set of DVDs as well as the other DVDs that DMZ is coming out with.

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