Title Menu: 8 Sci-Fi/Fantasy Classics Hollywood Should Ignore
As fall’s senses-sharpening chill arrives, Hollywood is no doubt pillaging the sci-fi/fantasy bookshelves for the next Winter’s Tale or The Giver—iconic works that need a thorough gutting of their complexity before fitting on screen. Here, meanwhile, are eight gems that are safe from the studios’ clutches because they have no champion—be it the author or a super fan—who’s likely to perform the gutting (or in the case of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, the stuffing). Many of these books are lyrical as well as literary. A few seem ripe for television adaptation, if only their intense magical elements could be translated into affordable CGI.
The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924) by Lord Dunsany
Easily one of the most influential yet forgotten fantasy novels ever, Dunsany’s dreamy masterpiece is about a heroic young prince (Alveric) who must, sword in hand, woo a princess of mythical lineage (Lirazel). We can see the still-bright fingerprints of this adult fairy-tale on everything from Lord of the Rings to the Zelda video games. Horror master H.P. Lovecraft worshiped Dunsany who, before being a world traveler and prolific writer, was an Irish Lord in possession of a castle and rolling emerald hills; adoration for nature brings stately magic to his prose:
Know then that in Elfland are colours more deep than are in our fields, and the very air there glows with so deep a lunency that all things seen there have something of the look of our trees and flowers in June reflected in water. And the colour of Elfland, of which I despaired to tell, may yet be told, for we have hints of it here; the deep blue of the nights in Summer just as the gloaming has gone, the pale blue of Venus flooding the evening with light…
When a Sherlock Holmes story is ninety percent dialogue, it’s because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wants to sharpen his busy world of facts, nailing down the who, where, what; Dunsany does the opposite, using sparse dialogue to better maintain Elfland’s drowsily conjured landscape. It’s the birthplace of adult magical tales, which thrives without rules, artifacts, or special phrases because the air itself is enchanted.
Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976) by Kate Wilhelm
This list’s most terrifyingly sober narrative is about the wealthy Sumner clan, who decide to clone themselves while a post-nuclear-holocaust humanity circles the drain. It begins when the family’s patriarch lectures the imaginative and capable David about the world’s imminent demise thanks to plague, environmental despoliation, and sterility creeping its way up the food chain:
“And [the world governments] don’t know what to do about any of it,” his grandfather went on. “No more than the dinosaurs knew how to stop their own extinction. We’ve changed the photochemical reactions of our own atmosphere, and we can’t adapt to the new radiations fast enough to survive! There have been hints here and there that this is a major concern, but who listens? The damn fools will lay each and every catastrophe at the foot of a local condition and turn their backs on the fact that this is global, until it’s too late to do anything.”
You can hear Wilhelm’s teeth grinding, nearly forty years later. But aside from the dreary fact that this book and its many non-fiction descendants—The End of Nature, An Inconvenient Truth, etc.—didn’t actually stop us from destroying the environment, there’s an even keener message to be found. The clones, once they arrive in batches of six, prove eerily dependent on each other. And the next generation clones are even lower fidelity recordings of what a human animal should be: imaginative, adventurous, and drawn to the sensual in nature.
A Storm of Wings (1980) by M. John Harrison
My favorite entry on the list, not only for its baroque tale of giant locusts attacking a crumbling future reality, but also for being the best example here of lyric fantasy. The details, very much secondary to Harrison’s consistently stunning prose, are as follows: Viriconium, the Pastel City, isn’t meant to be the same place twice; eighty years have passed since the poet/warrior tegeus-Cromis defeated the evil Canna Moidart and her soldier zombies; Lord Galen Hornwrack, Reborn Man Alstath Fulthor, and Tomb the Iron Dwarf (among others) must halt an insidious takeover of their world that starts with a chemical altering of the air itself. Here’s a typically hallucinogenic passage, in which the exiled machinist Cellur describes the giant locusts approaching:
I could hear it only when the moon was in the sky. It came as a hollow whisper, filling the stony subestuarine chambers. It was a strange, unreliable, inhuman voice, speaking a dozen made-up languages. Had it not so obviously belonged to a man I might have taken it for the monologue of some stranded alien demiurge, leaking accidentally into the void between Earth and her wan satellite. I cannot tell you how it excited me, that voice! Feverishly, I interrogated my machines. They knew nothing, they could not advise me.
The comparatively tamer happenings in the first volume of Harrison’s Viriconium series, The Pastel City (1971), aren’t required reading to enjoy the sequel. There is a stylistic canyon between the two novels, however, that reveals a writer gaining heady control of his powers.
The Many-Colored Land (1981) by Julian May
This is the first in a four book series called The Saga of Pliocene Exile, which perfectly straddles the line between science fiction and fantasy. Serving fans of the former is the opening sequence involving the Galactic Milieu, a tranquil future epoch that humanity, now psychically enabled, shares with other space-faring races. Yet even the shiniest version of the 21st century will have its malcontents. Luckily, they can opt to time-travel through a one-way passage into the Pliocene, an era of comfortable weather and little trouble from our ramapithecus ancestors.
Except that domineering aliens called the Tanu have beaten them to it! Our misfits (including the muscular Stein Olsen, the determined Felice Landry, and many more) are immediately enslaved upon reaching the Pliocene. The lanky, elegant Tanu basically resemble elves, and their shape-changing Firvulag cousins stand in for dwarfs. But making the story truly indelible is May’s fabulous knowledge of ancient plants and animals; here she describes the herbivorous chalicothere:
Its body was massive and deep-chested, nearly three meters long and with a horselike neck and head that testified to perissodactyl affinities. Its front legs were somewhat longer than the hind ones and at least twice as stout as those of a draft horse. Instead of terminating in hoofs, the feet bore three toes ending in huge semiretractile claws. The inner ones on the front feet were nearly the size of a human hand, with the others only half as large.
May’s paragraph goes on for another twelve lines, the most exuberant appearance the poor beast will probably ever make in fiction.
The Book of Merlin (1977) by T.H. White
Hollywood has had a fitfully effective history with White’s masterpiece The Once and Future King; it was the template not only for the 1963 Disney cartoon The Sword in the Stone, but also for the 1967 movie Camelot, and the meeting between literature and cinema is understandable, since the story has everything: knights, sorcery, battles, a boy hero, a wizard. The Book of Merlyn, a draft of which White originally intended to form the fifth part of The Once and Future King, will defy Hollywood much more easily, since it’s full of surreal animal-dream sequences (King Arthur falls in love with a noble goose, something Pixar might be able to pull off) and its main action is a prolonged debate between Merlyn, a very old King Arthur, and a roomful of animals. And when the old king goes outside for a breath of air, he embarks on a short odyssey so sad and subtle that it could only exist in the reading imagination:
There is nothing so wonderful as to be out on a spring night in the country; but really in the latest part of the night, and, best of all, if you can be alone. Then, when you can hear the wild world scamper, and cows chewing just before you tumble over them, and the leaves living secretly, and the nibbling and grass pluckings and the blood’s tide in your own veins: when you can see the loom of the trees and hills in deeper darkness and the stars twirling in their oiled grooves for yourself: when there is one light in one cottage far away, marking a sickness or an early riser upon a mysterious errand: when the horse hoofs with squeaking cart behind plod to an unknown market, dragging their bundled man, in sacks, asleep: when the dogs’ chains rattle at the farms, and the vixen yelps once, and the owls have fallen silent: then is a grand time to be alive and vastly conscious, when all else human is unconscious, homebound, bed-sprawled, at the mercy of the midnight mind.
Majipoor Chronicles (1981) by Robert Silverberg
Silverberg’s Majipoor novels and short stories seem realized further and further every morning, as science news announces the discovery of one after another giant “exo-planets,” Earth-like planets circling far-distant stars and having one quality in common: they’re all huge, far bigger than Earth. This is the main exotic detail Silverberg impresses on us, “the hugeness of Majipoor,” an Earth-like world of nearly unimaginable dimensions that would be daunting for even the most daring cinematographer to capture. In Silverberg’s The Majipoor Chronicles (follow-up to his Lord Valentine’s Castle), his young hero Hissune, while slaving in the archives, gets “the hugeness of Majipoor” drummed into him:
So many provinces! So many cities! The three giant continents are divided and subdivided and further divided into thousands of municipal units, each with its millions of people, and as he toils, Hissune’s mind overflows with names, the Fifty Cities of Castle Mount, the great urban districts of Zimroel, the mysterious desert settlements of Suvrael, a torrent of metropolises, a lunatic tribute to the fourteen thousand years of Majipoor’s unceasing fertility; Pidruid, Narabal, Ni-moya, Alaisor, Stoien, Piliplok, Pendiwane, Amblemorn, Minimool, Tolaghai, Kangheez, Natu Gorvinu – so much, so much, so much! A million names of places!
But although Silverberg is one of the greatest living science fiction authors in the world, his books are mostly forgotten even by genre junkies. Not much chance of one of them making an intelligent revival on film.
Up the Walls of the World (1978) by James Tiptree Jr.
Tiptree’s whirling, multi-colored masterpiece is one of the weirdest books on this list, a three-faceted story about a gigantic and self-rationalizingly evil “Star Destroyer,” a group of psychics at the Norfolk Naval Basis on Earth, and the enticingly exotic amorphous flying creatures who live in “the eternal gales of Tyree,” a Jupiter-style turbulent gas giant. One of those fliers is young, heroic Tivonel, Tiptree’s best creation, who rides the winds of her world with athletic skill:
Soon she begins to register a slight magnetic gradient along the trail. It’s coming from a long frail strand of gura-plant evidently anchored far upwind. Her new memory tells her that the Station people arranged it as a rustic marker for the trail. Very ingenious. She tacks effortlessly beside it, recalling her Father telling her that it was such natural interface guides that first led her people down to Deep.
But when she thinks of her daily duties (like the humans back on Earth, she has no idea the Star Destroyer is coming), she yearns for adventure: “How daring they’d been, those old ones! Braving hunger when they ventured below the life-rich food streams, braving darkness and silence. Above all, braving the terror of falling out of the Wind. many must have fallen, nameless bold ones lost forever in the Abyss.” It would make an eye-opening CGI spectacular, but who’d want to hear Tivonel speaking with Kristen Stewart’s voice?
The Shadow of the Torturer (1980) by Gene Wolfe
Similar in tone to Harrison’s poetically grisly Viriconium novels, this volume opens a quartet called Books of the New Sun, starring Severian, an apprentice torturer. The setting of Urth is so far in the future that the furthest gains in science have fragmented into what now must be called magic. Severian works for the Torturers Guild, killing the condemned with a sword called Terminus Est, which has a “channel in the spine of her blade, and in it runs a river of hydrargryrum—a metal heavier than iron, though it flows like water.” A great description of the narrative itself! Spiting the grimness of his trade, Severian travels the city of Nessus with mercy on his mind; far from a plot hinging on who might be cleaved next, Wolfe treats readers to one lush, stumbled-upon vista after another:
As is the fashion in some parts of the city, most of these buildings had shops in their lower levels, though they had not been built for the shops but as guildhalls, basilicas, arenas, conservatories, treasuries, oratories, artellos, asylums, manufacturies, conventicles… Their architecture reflected these functions, and a thousand conflicting tastes. Turrets and minarets bristled; lanterns, domes, and rotundas soothed; flights of steps as steep as ladders ascended sheer walls; and balconies wrapped facades and sheltered them in the par-terre privacies of citrons and pomegranates.
It’s a twisted, beautifully baroque landscape that seems ideally fitted for the mind’s eye rather than the big screen, like all these books. Unless some lucky visionaries come along.
Justin Hickey is a freelance writer, and editor here at Open Letters Monthly.