Review by C.J. Bunce
James Cameron has plenty to say about science fiction and he pulls in some sci-fi directors and dozens of sci-fi actors and creators to lay it all out in his new AMC series James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction. Many series have wrestled with the subject of defining science fiction, most recently Ridley Scott’s Prophets of Science Fiction, where the Alien and Blade Runner director honored George Lucas, Robert Heinlein, Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, H.G. Wells, and Mary Shelley. Not known for his interviewing, Cameron opted to record more informal chats with a small circle of his contemporaries, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan, and Arnold Schwarzenegger (plus an interview by friend/science fiction writer Randall Frakes of Cameron himself), attempting to guide them down his framework of analysis, sometimes gaining agreement and other times sparking interesting tangent questions. The interviews are divided up and sprinkled across six episodes of the AMC television series, and the blanks are filled in with sound bites from creators, professors, writers, and popular names from modern science fiction. But the companion book, also titled James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction, is far more insightful, showing the broader unedited interview text for each of Cameron’s six key contributors, plus great color artwork to illustrate his history of the genre. Ultimately the book is a more useful, informative, and interesting overview of science fiction than what the series provides, and recommended for fans wanting to dig deeper into the history of the genre.
For those that haven’t encountered a review of the genre, Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction, available now from Insight Editions, will provide the appropriate highlights. The combined narrative is at its best when attempting to find the reasons for the importance of science fiction as literature and art, as influence to society, and as a reflection on mankind’s discovery of self, but it’s also fun for any diehard genre fan to follow along, agree or disagree, and ponder the myriad alternatives to the examples given to illustrate the topics covered. The book is better than the TV series at analyzing and presenting the coverage, tying each key contributor to a sub-genre or major sci-fi concept: alien life, outer space, time travel, monsters, dark futures, and intelligent machines. Cameron has done his homework and claims to have read nearly anything and everything since he was a kid on the subject. His own significant science fiction contributions, namely Terminator, Terminator 2, and Aliens, and developing the two biggest women film roles of the genre–Sarah Connor in Terminator 2 and Ellen Ripley in Aliens–are only slightly overshadowed by more than required attention to his film Avatar as frequent centerpiece topic. He also spends more time on modern science fiction films, sometimes leaving behind classic films that had done it all before. So surprisingly great influences like Star Trek, Rod Serling, and John Carpenter get far less attention proportionately than you’d find in another science fiction overview, and the vast body of science fiction television series is barely tapped at all.
The most insight comes from George Lucas and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Lucas provides rare reactions to fan criticism of Jar Jar Binks, his Star Wars prequels generally, and his concept of midichlorians manipulating the Force, which he states would have been key to the third trilogy had he kept control of the franchise. Immersed in an interview about science fiction his responses seem to reflect regret in selling Star Wars to Disney, as if he had far more Star Wars stories to tell. The rest of the book’s seriousness is counterbalanced nicely by Schwarzenegger, who Cameron repeatedly attempts to get introspective about playing science fiction’s greatest villain and hero cyborg as the Terminator. Not a method actor, Schwarzenegger reveals himself as fanboy and entertainer when it comes to science fiction, drawn more to the spectacle and excitement of science fiction roles and how the characters appear on the screen more than any life-changing meaning from the stories that Cameron is searching for.
As with past interviews, Spielberg marvels at the wonders of science fiction, del Toro revels in the monsters and creations of science fiction, and Ridley Scott is more heady about the depths and darkness of his visions of the future. And Cameron conveys his clear passion for the role of science fiction culturally and politically. Younger director Christopher Nolan, included for Interstellar and Inception, probably could have been swapped out for sci-fi legends John Carpenter (The Thing, They Live, Escape from New York, Starman, Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Ghosts of Mars), Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Total Recall, Starship Troopers), Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, Lucy, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets), or others, but the selections seem to stick to Cameron’s circle of friends. The older directors give a nod to Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey, while also acknowledging it was a film where drug culture was part of its appeal, but point to the Star Wars use of worn and weathered-appearing sets as the turning point for science fiction movies.
Seattle Museum of Pop Culture curator Brooks Peck, science fiction professor Lisa Yaszek, scientist Sidney Perkowitz, and writers on science fiction Gary K. Wolfe and Matt Singer, in a series of essays interspersed with the interviews in the book, provide better context and background for science fiction’s past and future than is scattered throughout the AMC television series. Apart from the text, the hardcover book includes thick pages and vibrant reproductions of significant movie posters, science fiction artwork, and film stills, that make for a great coffee table book that readers will return to.
Here are a few pages from James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction:
Recommended for any science fiction fan, James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction is available now here at Amazon.