James Gunn was first published in Startling Stories magazine in September 1949, and since become the author of many important novels, including: “The Joy Makers, (1961) about the science of hedonics, “The Immortals,” (1962) which became a network television series, and “The Listeners,” (1972) about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. He has recently penned the highly praised “Giftie” series of stories, appearing in Analog.

Surely one of science fiction’s foremost academics, he is the founder of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas, and editor of the genre’s most authoritative anthology, the six volumes of “The Road to Science Fiction".

Creating the Literature of Science Fiction Film Series

by James Gunn

The idea of filming the people who had helped shape science fiction originated at the 1969 World Science Fiction Convention in St. Louis. Gordon Dickson was the president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, and he was trying to persuade me to run as his successor (I later succumbed). One of the matters we talked about was what we could do to promote science fiction. We came up with ideas for a speakers bureau and a review column and news releases (I was still in charge of the University of Kansas public relations, and full of information about how such things worked). Then I mentioned the possibility of a film series that might be used in public gatherings and college classrooms.

The series would never have gotten off the drawing board had it not been for the contributions of many people. Alex Lazzarino was the key figure. He was the director of a division of the University’s Continuing Education program that was called “The Extramural Independent Study Center”; he saw the potential of the series and agreed to fund it. Prof. Peter Dart, a faculty member in the School of Journalism, directed the first few films and Bob Gardner, a cameraman for the University’s Children’s Research Center, did the filming; later directing and camera work was done by personnel at the EISC.

Mostly the credit goes to the science-fiction people who agreed to participate. I went to New York in the fall of 1969 for SFWA’s editor-publisher reception and asked people if they would participate. Isaac Asimov said “of course,” and so did Fred Pohl and many others. We made the first films on the West Coast. We took our crew to the Nebula Awards held that year in Oakland, California, and filmed Poul Anderson talking about “Plot,” then went down the coast to Los Angeles to film Forry Ackerman who had turned his home into a science-fiction library/museum. That year I had agreed to help teach a class in science fiction that my son and a friend had organized, and I used the class to film Harlan Ellison, who was on campus to give a lecture. He talked about “New Directions,” now thirty years in the past.

In 1971 we took a crew to New York and filmed “Lunch with John Campbell” (and discovered, when the camera we rented in New York didn’t work, the virtues of “cinema vérité”) arranged by Harry Harrison. Campbell didn’t want to discuss the recent history of science fiction (he had been too busy editing a magazine, he said) and we filmed Isaac Asimov describing science fiction from 1938 to the “present” (as science-fiction writers, we should have had more sensitivity to the passage of time). We also tried to film Damon Knight on the street across from the United Nations building (guards wouldn’t let us film on the grounds) and later discovered that street noise obscured his voice; we brought Damon to Lawrence to film the “Early History of SF” in Alex Lazzarino’s home. Then we went up to Boston for the World Science Fiction Convention called Noreascon and filmed John Brunner talking about “Science Fiction and the Mainstream” and an interview with the WorldCon guest of honor, Clifford Simak, and got some WorldCon atmosphere. One student in my three-week Intensive English Institute on the Teaching of Science Fiction, Barbara O’Dell, was a film major at San Diego State University, and as her class project organized all the class members to produce an interview with Theodore Sturgeon. Some (Fred Pohl, Jack Williamson, Gordon Dickson) we filmed in a studio in the EISC building.

So it went. I made plans to produce 18 or so of the films and use them as part of a course in science fiction that could be offered to high schools and colleges. But Alex got hired by the Menninger Clinic in Topeka to become a fund raiser and project manager, the Extramural Independent Study Center slowly got re-absorbed into Continuing Education and funding disappeared. I had plans to add some films about other key figures—Robert A. Heinlein, for instance, and Ray Bradbury, and a number of others—but we never were able to complete arrangements. The series got shown, in part, at the Los Angeles World Science Fiction Convention of 1972, and at a Science Fiction Research Association meeting or two. I used all of them in my large science-fiction classes. Continuing Education rented out the films (and sold a few) for a decade or so—they were shown in various places around the world, but mostly in the U.S.—and I am pleased to report that Continuing Education eventually earned back the $50,000 or so that it put into the series. Then Continuing Education went out of the film rental business and turned ownership of the series, then mostly available on VHS tapes, over to the Center for the Study of Science Fiction.

For a couple of decades the Center has been trying to get a grant to update the films and add some new ones, and that still may happen. Times have changed (I remember asking whether we couldn’t tape the pieces rather than film them and was told it would take a truck full of equipment). Science fiction has changed too since the 1970s: these accounts of those times record the people (too many of them gone) who helped create and shape it. Now the time machine passes to other hands. One of those pairs of hands belongs to Eric Solstein, through whose vision and expertise these glimpses of a storied past are being made available and who is compiling a new and more comprehensive record.

James Gunn

Top of Page
Contact Info
© 2001, 2002 Digital Media Zone