Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Category Archives: fantasy series

Top 100 SF/F books…sort of

Via many people, NPR’s list of the top 100 SF/F books is out.

My thoughts on it:

  • There are far too many books on this list I haven’t read. But several of them are on my list (thanks, Ryan! thanks, Josh! thanks Annie!), so that’s good.
  • Hard to argue too much with the top two as the most popular fantasy and SF books, respectively. A little surprised to see “Ender’s Game” at #3, but I guess when you’re famous for one book/idea rather than a body of work (as Bradbury and Asimov are), it biases the results on a poll like this. Bradbury and Asimov make it into the top ten, anyway.
  • Why are most series listed as series, but Dragonflight listed by itself? Have the “Dragonriders” books become so diluted that the original three are no longer thought of as a trilogy?
  • 8% of the list books were authored by someone whose first name is a homophone for “kneel.”
  • As other people have said, why mix SF and fantasy? Perhaps because then you could include spec-fic like “Watership Down” and “Flowers for Algernon,” which aren’t properly fantasy nor SF, respectively. Though honestly, as much as I love “Watership Down,” I don’t think of it as a genre book. I mean, why not “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” if we’re going that route? This is probably part of a longer meandering about how some more mainstream spec-fic is getting genre-y, and some genre books are getting more literary, and there are lots of people who have put a lot more thought into that than I have (though in my case it is perhaps informed by a confusion over what the hell to call much of what I gravitate toward writing–what are the New Tibet books? SF, sort of? But there’s no hard science element. Fantasy? Well, it’s too real-world grounded for that. Furry? Yeah, but…).
  • Congrats to Clarion instructor Scalzi for the inclusion of “Old Man’s War.”
  • Thomas Covenant (the first series): still popular at #58. That series was a topic of much discussion at Clarion, and most of the discussions went something like this: “<list of horrible things that happened in those books>” “Why would anyone read them?” <pause> “The worldbuilding was really pretty spectacular.”

Anyway, lists like this aren’t supposed to be definite. They’re supposed to be discussion points. I have been so far away from the genre that I can’t even properly think of books that should have been on there and weren’t except for “Cloud Atlas” and “Never Let Me Go,” and people are tired of hearing me talk about Mitchell and Isiguro already. Also interesting was that the last book on the list got just over 1,500 votes (I think). Toward the end, it looks like there are definitely a few books whose authors pushed fans to vote, because there are great books left off in favor of books I’ve never heard of. I do think it’s a crime that Kim Stanley Robinson and Connie Willis and China Mieville only appear in the 90s, but that’s better than not appearing at all.

Books Into Movies

There are a couple movies hoping to ride the success of “Harry Potter,” “Lord of the Rings,” and “Chronicles of Narnia” coming out this fall: “The Seeker” (formerly “The Dark Is Rising: The Seeker”) and “The Golden Compass.” I read both those series and have seen neither movie, but they offer interesting contrasts in how to bring a fantasy book to the screen.

The Dark Is Rising” is the name of the book and the series by Susan Cooper, one of my favorites of all time. Will Stanton, born as the last of a magical race known as the Old Ones, is fated to fulfill a quest that will help the Light defeat the Dark in the upcoming battle that will determine the course of the world. “The Golden Compass,” by Philip Pullman, is a more recent book, the first (and best) in the “His Dark Materials” trilogy. In it, young Lyra Belacqua must travel to the far north to unravel the mystery of Dust, a magical substance much studied and coveted by the people in the college where she grew up–including her mother and father.

In both books, a young protagonist undertakes an adventure (Will is eleven, Lyra thirteen). Neither kid has a particular talent, although Lyra is able to read the alethiometer, a kind of fortune-telling machine that gives the first volume its (U.S. edition) title, and Will has the powers common to all the Old Ones. Their quests are more a product of their situation than of any particular skill. I think this is a big part of the appeal of the books, because it allows the reader to place himself or herself into the role of hero of the quest. If I’d been born into the Old Ones … if I’d grown up around Jordan College in Oxford… (Harry Potter and the Narnia books also have this “everykid” protagonist.)

The trailers for “The Golden Compass” do center on Lyra, but they are much more about the world and the setting and the adventure. She is portrayed as arrayed against a fearsome set of obstacles, with fantastical creatures and machines and people. It looks great.

The trailers for “The Seeker” mainly focused on Will, and showed it as an adventure about what a special kid he was. There were fantastical elements, but the trailer made it clear that the movie was all about this sassy, American kid. It drew interest, but of the wrong sort, and eventually the studio removed the “Dark is Rising” appellation from the movie title. It was already released (did you know that?) and was gone from theaters in weeks.

I don’t know if there’s a lesson to be drawn from that or not. I just think that if you’re going to adapt a book, you should make sure that the elements of that book that really appealed to its readership are preserved in the movie. Will is a great character, and he does go through some issues in “The Dark Is Rising” (growing up and being accepted in his family), but the adventure of the book and the setting are the main draw. The movie replaced the English setting with America and decided to give Will a strong, overpowering personality.

How about this as a trailer, focusing on the adventure and the quest:

FADE IN

MERRIMAN: Throughout history, the Light and the Dark have fought for men’s souls.

CUT SCENES: Howling noises, flaring blue candles, the Walker’s twisted face.

MERRIMAN: All of these battles are but prelude to the final conflict.

CUT SCENES: The Lady fighting back the Dark, light flaring, the Rider.

MERRIMAN: For the Light to prevail, we Old Ones must have the Six Signs. That is your task. As your birth completed the Circle of the Light, so you must complete the Circle of Signs.

First view of Will

WILL: Me?

MERRIMAN: Wood. Bronze. Iron. Water. Fire. Stone.

SCENES OF EACH SIGN AS HE NAMES THEM, SOME WITH WILL FINDING THEM.

MERRIMAN: They were fashioned for the Light throughout history, and we need them, Will. Some have been lost, some hidden. They must be found and reunited.

WILL: But I’m just a kid.

MERRIMAN: You are that, and more. You will have help, Will.

SCENES OF MERRIMAN, MISS GREYTHORNE, THE LADY, JOHN SMITH, FARMER DAWSON.

MERRIMAN: You will need them. For the Dark will try to stop you, however they can.

SCENES OF THE RIDER, WILL STRUGGLING WITH THE WALKER.

MERRIMAN: But in the end, you must prevail.

WILL LOOKING UNHAPPY.

MERRIMAN (smiling): Happy Birthday, Will.

TITLE, CREDITS.

Hey, that’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure Hollywood could do better.