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June 2009 Archives
Gollancz have been doing some interesting things with book packaging over recent years. First was Future Classics, followed by Ultimate Fantasies and then Terror 8, all with well designed covers, some excellent choices and no duds. With their new set called Totally Space Opera they've got another interesting line-up, but I'm more enthused than normal because with the design of these books they've excelled themselves.
Designed by just 23-year-old Sanda Zahirovic I think these set of covers capture a fresh feel to genre books, allowing them more freedom to roam outside the genre sections of the bookshop. Thanks to recent space opera writers, those who works are often referred to as New Space Opera, particularly Iain M Banks and Alastair Reynolds, it has had a massive increase in mainstream appeal. So it is with good timing that Gollancz have released this set.
Olaf Stapledon is one of the very fathers of far future fiction and what is often referred to as Future History. Last and First Men is an astonishing work considering it first came out in 1930. As well as being an interesting novel that's ideas hold up for philosophical scrutiny, it is historically an important piece of work within science fiction as literature and as a vehicle for ideas. It's a true long-life classic and it will be around longer than some of the other books I will mention here.
Larry Niven's Ringworld is regularly in the top SF lists and is still the flagship novel for a sub-genre I'm particularly fond of called Big Dumb Objects. It rockets along and plays with a lot of the space opera motifs one becomes accustomed to through movies, aliens, weapons, slick space ships, etc, but Niven gives it the new wave edge and uses it to decorate some serious ideas of science and future technology.
Ringworld came out in 1970, same year as Poul Anderson's landmark novel Tau Zero. This novel is a great example of taking a complex idea, in this case traveling closer and closer to the speed of light, and exploring all it's scientific, mechanical philosophical and anthropological implications. It is a real hard science fiction novel. Compelling more for what is going through Anderson's mind than what's going on in the story.
Three years after Niven and Anderson, Arthur C Clarke, my SF hero, came out with what is still my favourite science fiction novel, Rendezvous With Rama. I did first read it when I was twelve so that probably has had a big influence for where I rate it. This is my personal vote for best Big Dumb Object novel. No one is better at presenting lofty ideas about the universe to a lay audience than Clarke. He portrays that sense of almost divine awe in the scope and breath of the cosmos, while still keeping a childlike curiosity.
I'm impressed that this set includes The Centauri Device by M John Harrison. He is an extraordinary writer who uses genre as a literary tool, often using the motifs in an ironic sense. Written in 1975, Centauri Device can almost be described as an anti-Space Opera novel. It comes across as an attack on what pulpy SF was doing during the last decade while writers like Philip K Dick and J G Ballard were typing away with less attention from the commercial markets. But irony can work both ways. Harrison's novel became an influence on future writers, a beacon to literary SF with space settings. So now it has a deserved place within significant Space Opera cannon. Harrison, still writing, genre bending work today, I'm sure is chuckling.
Continuing with Big Dumb Objects is Greg Bear's most important novel Eon. With this 1985 novel Bear became the next generation's A C Clarke. A novel of awe, wonder and theoretical physics, it feels inspired by Rama but Bear takes it all in a very different direction. A great idea, marvelous description, but bear with the slightly dragging middle, because it will get there and make it all worthwhile. Greg Bear is a versatile writer having written one of my other favourites, Blood Music, but it is novels like Eon he maintains science fiction as the genre of ideas.
I am a fan of Paul McAuley, an intelligent and entertaining writer who knows how to draw out tension and some groovy ideas. His Red Dust is on my fav shelf, but I admit to having not read his 1991 novel Eternal Light as yet. So I'm glad I picked this up now through the publication of this new edition. I'll also have to skip Adam Roberts' 2002 novel Stone, though I'm aware of its positive reviews as being a smart, exciting space adventure. And no direct comment about Alastair Reynolds' Century Rain, published five years ago. I greatly admire Reynolds, his debut novel Revelation Space was a great read and deserves to be a flag ship of this new far future fiction sensibility.
I can talk a bit about the final book in this awesome set. Published in 2003 Dan Simmons' Ilium just keeps building his reputation as a versatile, intelligent and all-round professional storyteller. This is a novel that has post-humans, now in machine bodies, departing the Jovian moons for an expedition to Mars to discover the Greek gods have returned and are replaying the Trojan Wars with resurrected twentieth century historians recording the events. That he pulls this all of so easily as a well constructed mainstream friendly novel is extraordinary. The research of gods, ancient wars, Martian terrain, and far future humanity is all smoothly combined. Just be warned, you'll need to pick up the follow-on novel Olympus. Really, it's a huge, huge epic novel sensibly split into two.
When Tim Burton was in his early twenties he worked as an animator. In 1982, During his time with Disney, he wrote and directed a short film called Vincent. It was put on the festival circuit and was the first time anybody got a taste of the Tim Burton we are so well accustomed to today. From this he did the short Frankenweenie which got Burton the job of directing Peewee's Big Adventure. That got him Beetlejuice and the rest went on from there.
Anyway, we're all aware of Burton and his gothic style best shown off in films like Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Sweeny Todd. I thought it was worth going back to '82 and seeing where Tim Burton began. And though it can be regarded as a little throwaway film Vincent is, in my mind, the work that most encapsulates Burton's unique style.
He first came to prominence as a stage actor, which led to his screen debut in Scorsese's Boxcar Bertha ('72). Soon after that he turned up as Kwai Chang Caine in what is still one of the most followed TV shows of all time. Between '72 and '75, David Carradine in Kung Fu did more to turn western audiences onto martial arts and eastern philosophy than any one else, including Bruce Lee. I have the theme running through my head as I write this and a clear image of Carradine walking across desert dunes playing his flute.
He followed that up with his most acclaimed mainstream role as legendary folksinger Woody Guthrie in Hal Ashby's Bound for Glory ('76) and then did top shelf arthouse in Ingmar Bergman's surreal thriller Serpent's Egg.
His next cult landmark wasn't far away when he did Circle of Iron ('78) in which Carradine plays a persona changing martial arts mystic in a film of eastern philosophies and metaphysical symbolism. It's still considered a kung-fu fight fan's pilgrimage film. One must make their way to Circle of Iron and bow before the screen where presides a cross-legged David Carradine charismatically giving out jewels of knowledge to excel in the kicking of butt.
Cult status aside Carradine was never out of
work in mainstream, alternative, film, TV or otherwise. He obviously enjoyed the work and as he was as willing to be a character actor as much as a leading man there were always roles for him in all manner of television and cinema. He was a dude performer in them all. Notable was Walter Hill's The Long Riders where he joined his brothers Keith and Robert as the Younger brothers in the Jesse James gang. He did a particularly fine character performance in that.
A remarkable trait of Carradine's was to transcend the material he was in, no matter how schlocky. His natural charisma in Larry Cohen's cult monster movie Q -The Winged Serpent ('82) moved that to a higher plain. Warrior and the Sorceress ('84) could have been one of the truly bad Conan the Barbarian rip-offs of that time but Carradine turns in a low budgeteer that rivals Arnie's own for entertainment. And what he did for barbarians he did for near future noir and the Blade Runner rip-offs, especially Crime Zone ('88) which was a surprise success almost entirely due to Carradine's likeability. And when vampire movies became trendy he turned up in the sleeper Sundown ('90).
As I said, he worked continually in all sorts of things in all different level of roles, from commercial villains to arthouse support characters. He even returned to the role of Caine for another successful series of Kung Fu in the mid-nineties. But it's thanks to the Kill Bill films that new generations of filmgoers and cult watchers came to be acquainted with the charms and skills of a great cult actor. And, like me, the old school became reacquainted.
David Carradine often played the role of a legend and there is little doubt that he himself will become one. He was a writer, artist, actor, musician, philosopher and martial arts instructor, but most of all he was an icon for his generation.
David Carradine 8th Dec 1936 - 3rd June 2009