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Golden Age of Science Fiction, The
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by Jay Seaver

"A well-constructed film about a great editor."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2012 BOSTON SCI-FI FILM FESTIVAL: Though it may seem odd to some that this movie should focus on one man when title references a period of roughly fifteen years when many great authors wrote their classic works, science fiction fans probably won't have too much of an issue with it. Seventy-five years after becoming editor of "Astounding", John W. Campbell Jr. is likely still the most important figure in the genre, even if his own personal great works were few.

Campbell, we learn, had a science background but never actually worked in the field, taking other jobs and writing stories (including "Who Goes There?", later adapted as The Thing) before being tapped as the new editor of Astounding in 1937. He worked alongside the previous editor for several months, but in 1938 the first issues under his sole stewardship came out, and his stamp was immediately clear: More emphasis on quality writing while still insisting on a good understanding of science, editorials meant to challenge and stimulate the readership, and a tendency to feed writers ideas and help them shape stories early, rather than make changes later. He would frequently claim to have read more lousy sf than anybody, because he personally went through every submission that came in. He made Astounding the premiere magazine for science fiction, but the properties that made him excellent at his job would cripple him in other areas, and eventually hurt his work.

Director Eric Solstein didn't set out to make a movie about Campbell per se; he started out by interviewing the surviving writers from that era in the late 1990s and early 2000s for a project called "The Possible Future", mainly aimed at academic institutions. "The Editor" was a topic included in many of these conversations, generating enough material without repetition to make up a documentary of its own. Working mainly with this footage, he constructs what is essentially an oral history: Nearly the entire film is his interview footage, and the exceptions don't stray too far from that.

The main exception is "Lunch with John W. Campbell Jr.", a documentary short where writers Harry Harrison and Gordon R. Dickson pitch a science-fictional spin on Lifeboat to Campbell, with the intent being to capture how he works with his writers. It is, as Harrison notes when introducing it, so flawed in presentation as to be unintentionally hilarious - one of the two cameras meant to be used broke down just before shooting began, and the student operating the other has a special knack for having the wrong person in frame and doesn't have a great angle on Campbell to begin with. That's kind of unimportant, though; the viewer can close his or her eyes and just listen to get a feel for Campbell's method and what he values in a story.

And maybe it's appropriate that we never get a clear, head-on view of Campbell in that segment - the rest of the movie is testimonials from those who either worked with him, followed him as editor, or were influenced by him. It's an impressive set of interviews that includes several authors (such as Jack Williamson and Samuel Delaney) who have passed away since the filming, and because the vast majority are/were such good storytellers, the fact that the entire movie is "talking heads" is not much of a problem.. Sadly, many of the writers who worked most closely with Campbell were gone even before Solstein started his original project, although a few archive clips of Isaac Asimov fit in well (aside from the obviously different media), with his easy way of communicating showing why he was known as "The Great Explainer".

Some of the most compelling come from those who clearly have the most mixed emotions: Phil Klaas (who was given a pen name by Campbell, and is credited as "Phil Klaas and/or William Tenn" as a result) describes how Campbell's method was to "edit [his] brain" rather than his manuscript while also describing how certain social skills seemed to elude the man. Barry Malzberg's thoughts on Campbell seem almost painfully conflicted; he describes Campbell as "the best editor in this country in this century" but can barely contain his bitterness about the sort of man Campbell either became or was revealed to be later in life. His anger is an outlier, though; even those most disappointed with Campbell still seem almost reverent most of the time.

That is, perhaps, a flaw with the picture; assembled as it is from a project meant to touch on Campbell rather than focus on him, there are inevitably gaps that Solstein might have more closely explored had this been the original goal or followed up on had there not been so much time between the filming and re-use of the footage. It's still an interesting look at the man who made science fiction what it is today as related by some of its finest voices.

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originally posted: 02/22/12 12:28:30
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Boston SciFi Film Festival For more in the 2012 Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival series, click here.

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