’s 100 Greatest SF or Fantasy novels

Over on a post at last month (to which I was drawn by this Nashua Library’s “From the Reference Desk” posting) there’s a list of a “Greatest Science Fiction or Fantasy Novels of all time, along with a few words of commentary about each item. Now, such lists are often fodder for dissent or criticism: one could say, for instance, “Wow, that’s a lot of LeGuin or Vance or Wolfe,” or, “How does The Fountainhead fit this category?,” or, “Where’s Verne or Gibson or etc.,” but more to my point they are fodder for making a blog post. They also get me to thinking about how few books I’ve really read, or even heard of, especially anything SF since 1970 or so.

So without much ado, here’s the list. If the entry is bold it means I’ve read it. If it’s italicized it means I haven’t even heard of it (i.e., italics for ignorance). Others are just others. BTW, this list is just for my markup — do go to the original site and have a look at the list, with its cover photos and brief comments on each entry.

100. The Word For World Is Forest by Ursula K. LeGuin
99. Sorcerer’s Son by Phyllis Eisenstein
98. Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress
97. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick
96. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
95. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
94. The Company by K.J. Parker
93. An Evil Guest by Gene Wolfe
92. Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
91. Danny, The Champion of the World by RoaldDahl
90. Camp Concentration by Thomas Disch
89. Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner
88. Song of Kali by Dan Simmons
87. Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card
86. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller
85. Sphere by Michael Crichton
84. Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin
83. The Alteration by Kingsley Amis
82. The Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey
81. The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers
80. Watership Down by Richard Adams
79. Griffin’s Egg by Michael Swanwick
78. Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan
77. Free Live Free by Gene Wolfe
76. Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
75. Ringworld by Larry Niven
74. Schismatrix by Bruce Sterling
73. Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
72. Maske: Thaery by Jack Vance
71. The Mists of Avalon by Marion ZimmerBradley
70. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
69. Flow My Tears The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick
68. The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov
67. The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
66. The High Crusade by Poul Anderson
65. A Song for Lya by George R.R. Martin
64. At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft
63. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
62. Wildlife by James Patrick Kelly
61. The Book of Knights by Yves Maynard
60. The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan
59. Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman
58. Nightwings by Robert Silverberg
57. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
56. Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
55. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
54. The Book of the Short Sun by Gene Wolfe
53. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
52. Foundation by Isaac Asimov
51. The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin
50. The Wizard Knight by Gene Wolfe
49. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
48. The Demon Princes by Jack Vance
47. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
46. The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson
45. Alastor by Jack Vance
44. The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
43. Flatland by Edwin Abbott
42. Farmer in the Sky by Robert Heinlein
41. A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick
40. Animal Farm by George Orwell
39. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
38. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
37. Lyonesse by Jack Vance
36. Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein
35. True Names by Vernor Vinge
34. Ubik by Philip K. Dick
33. The Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons
32. Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert Heinlein
31. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
30. A Fire Upon The Deep by Vernor Vinge
29. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
28. More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon
27. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
26. 1984 by George Orwell
25. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
24. The Cadwal Chronicles by Jack Vance
23. Lost Horizon by James Hilton
22. Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
21. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
20. The Fifth Head of Cerebus by Gene Wolfe
19. A Song of Ice And Fire by George R.R. Martin
18. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein
17. The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay
16. The Master and the Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
15. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
14. All My Sins Remembered by Joe Haldeman
13. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
12. Planet of Adventure by Jack Vance
11. Dune by Frank Herbert
10. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
9. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin
8. The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe
7. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
6. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
5. Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay
4. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin
3. The Dying Earth by Jack Vance
2. The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein
1. The Book of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe

So many titles I’ve never even heard of — authors too (Wolfe, for example, who comes it at #1 on this list and appears 7 times in total — somebody must really like him.)

movie log: movie bag

Another batch.

Seen April 25, 2009: Dark Passage, a 1947 movie directed by Delmer Daves, starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Bruce Bennett, and Agnes Moorehead. Here’s a story of escaped convict Vincent Parry (Bogart) who was probably wrongly convicted of murdering his wife. He’s taken in by Irene Jansen (Bacall) who is familiar with Parry’s case and had her own reasons for being drawn to him. Through some random circumstances, Parry undergoes plastic surgery to gain a new identity and escape from the law. The initial gimmick of this movie is that until this happens, the camera view is from Parry’s eye; we never see him until he turns into Bogart. This film has a good reputation and a high standing, but I’m afraid I just couldn’t ignore the far-fetchedness, implausibility, and downright impossibility of so many things in it. I’m happy to suspend disbelief to a point, but you can only go so far before you have to start laughing at it or picking it apart. The photography was great, the acting was fine, the introductory gimmick was fun. Maybe when I’m older I’ll like it better. There’s not much time for that, though.

Next was another “Dark” movie, seen May 2, 2009: Dark Star, 1974 movie directed by John Carpenter, starring Dan O’Bannon (who also co-wrote with Carpenter) among others. This movie is also preposterous and full of implausibilities and impossibilities, but that’s exactly what makes it fun. Based on a student film, this is about the crew of the Dark Star who have spent 20 years on their mission, which is to prepare star systems for colonization by destroying unstable planets. In this movie you have your hippie, you have your surfer, you have your grudges and insanity, you have your alien pet that looks like a beach ball, you have your intelligent bombs that have to be convinced with a bit of existential philosophy not to explode. You have your cheesy effects, low budget, and camp. But mostly you have a lot of fun.

Seen May 2, 2009: Forgetting Sarah Marshall, 2008 movie directed by Nicholas Stoller, starring Jason Segel (who wrote the film), Kristen Bell, Mila Kunis, and Russell Brand. Peter Bretter (Segel) is dumped by his girlfriend Sarah Marshall (Bell) who is a famous actress. He takes a trip to Hawaii to get over her but guess who’s there? Sarah Marshall, of course, along with her new boyfriend Aldous (Brand). I had high hopes for this movie; it was well-hyped, was produced by Judd Apatow whose films and TV series I’m a big fan of, has actors that I like. Maybe I should try not to have high expectations before seeing a movie, I dunno, but this just didn’t excite me. It had some funny moments (the naked break-up scene among them), very good acting from all, including Mila Kunis, and Russell Brand can be pretty funny. But not enough grabbed me or stuck with me. I imagine I’ll see parts or all of it again at some point and maybe I’ll see what everybody else seemed to see.

movie log: The Wind (1928)

Seen April 23, 2009: The Wind, a silent movie from 1928 directed by Victor Sjöström, starring Lillian Gish, Lars Hanson, Edward Earle, Dorothy Cumming, Montague Love.

Gish plays Letty, a woman who is moving from her home in the green eastern US to live with her cousin Beverly (Edward Earle) in dry, windy, dusty Texas. On the train she meets a man Wirt Roddy (Love) who flirts with her and warns her that the wind will drive her crazy. She arrives to find cousin Beverly’s wife Cora (Cumming) most unwelcoming. Cora is perhaps a bit touched in the head, and at any rate is hostile towards and jealous of Letty. She insists that she won’t share her house or her husband, and Letty is forced into marriage with Lige (Lars Hanson), a decent man but a man that she doesn’t love.

The main character is, as the title suggests, the wind, which blows and shifts the dry sand around through the starkness of the territory and the hard-living people trying to survive it. Into this setting Roddy shows up again, his evil lust for Letty pushing him to her as she is being driven mad by the weather and her situation.

This is a wonderful movie. I’ve seen it before, but in this instance I saw it in the theater, as part of a silent movie program of monthly showings in Manchester NH and in Wilton NH. This one was at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, with (as with all in this series) live music composed and performed by Jeff Rapsis. The film was preceded by a short interview with Gish done some decades later (as it was the other time I saw it; probably drawn from the same source DVD). Gish talked about how the production used an array of aircraft engines and propellers to generate the wind when needed, and about how the weather was so hot that at one point she burned the skin off of a hand while opening a door. Unfortunately she also talked about the ending – this featurette should be seen after watching the movie, not before.

While some of this movie is quite over the top (especially the bits about the wind having an alter ego as a wild stallion), it is highly enjoyable, one of the best silent films I know of. To some degree you have to have some experience with and get a feeling for silent movies before you can appreciate and enjoy them, especially the longer dramatic ones. But I’ve often felt that this is one that can be enjoyed without any such background.

movie log: movie bag

Another bag o’ movies

Viewed April 8, 2009: Symbol of the Unconquered, a silent movie from 1920 directed by Oscar Micheaux. This is an odd duck of a silent film, as it (unlike most movies of its time) was directed by a black man and featured black people – it’s usually striking how one-toned most of these old silent films are, with non-whites often shown as caricatures or worse. Unfortunately some of the film (mainly a significant section towards the end) is missing and is replaced by title cards. The story concerns an African American woman who is light skinned and, posing as white, moves to an inherited plot of land somewhere in the wilderness. There’s a lot of nefarious action: land grabbing, race hatred, mother-hating, self-hating, and (in the missing section) fighting the Ku Klux Klan. With or without the missing piece, the whole thing is pretty awful, and it’s been augmented with a clangy, almost beatnik score, to boot.

Viewed April 8, 2009: N.Y., N.Y., a 1957 movie directed by Francis Thompson. TCM showed this as a companion piece to “Manhatta” which I wrote about here. In this short film, Thompson shows distorted images of NYC scenes. There’s a lot of kaleidoscopic, folded, and distorted imagery, most of which is pretty fascinating.

Next up that same night (April 8, 2009): Sherlock Jr., Buster Keaton’s masterpiece from 1924 directed by Keaton, starring Keaton and an able cast. Buster plays a film projectionist who dreams of being a detective like Sherlock Holmes. He is studying a “how to be a detective” book when he himself is accused of a crime – a rival for the hand of the woman he is attempting to woo has stolen the woman’s father’s watch partly in order to make Buster’s character look bad. He (Keaton) spends some hilarious time pursuing suspects, and then while at work dozes off and imagines that the people in his case are characters in the film he’s showing, and that he himself walks into the movie to help them out. There are many great gags, wonderful pieces of cinematic trickery, and perhaps some commentary about Keaton’s involvement in his own films. I could see this many times – and in fact have.

Viewed April 18, 2009, and filling up this bag: Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman’s 2008 film which I’ve already gushed about at length and so will just point there.

movie log: movie bag

It’s been a while, not to mention that I don’t need to say much about most of these (whether because I’ve seen them before or some other reason), so here’s a bag ‘o movies seen.

Viewed March 23, 2009: The Blackbird, a silent film from 1926 directed by Tod Browning, starring Lon Chaney and Renée Adorée. I’m a big fan of both Browning and Chaney; this one is a prime example of why. Chaney, the master of disguises, plays a man who himself is playing two people – a crippled bishop who is highly respected in his small city community, and his alter-ego “brother,” the bishop’s evil side who is a minor thug and liver of the high life in the underworld. Conflicts with West End Bertie (nicely played by Owen Moore) over territory and over Fifi Lorraine (Adorée) come to a head. Some of this film is over the top (what, Tod Browning?) including the portrayal of the bishop’s affliction (what, Tod Browning?), but the result is still great fun.

Watched March 26, 2009: Be Kind Rewind, a 2008 movie directed by Michel Gondry, starring Jack Black, Mos Def, and a bunch of other people who probably thought this was a good sounding story (kind of like I did when I decided to watch it). A couple of ne’er-do-wells minding a video rental store accidentally, through a freak occurence, erase every tape in the store. When forced to rent a film to a local hood, they decide to remake the movie with cheap equipment, a condensed story, and themselves as stars. Soon the community, most of which is not at all fooled, clamors for these imitations. The story is wrapped inside of a pretense at a tribute to a musician, perhaps to add some kind of serious air to it, but all it does is make it a bit schizoid. This movie is pretty much a waste of time, although perhaps it might improve with a crowd and some chemical additives, which might have been the intended viewing scenario.

Viewed March 31, 2009: Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events from 2004, directed by Brad Silberling, starring Jim Carrey and a full cast of well-known actors who probably were easily convinced to appear in this film based on a popular book series. The story concerns a pair of children who find themselves orphaned and who have adventures trying to avoid the clutches of an evil relative to whom they have been entrusted. It was fun and well done; I watched this with my grandchildren. Though I had not read the books, their parents had – their opinion (if I recall it correctly) was disappointment that the source material had been jumbled up, i.e. multiple books mixed together and perhaps other liberties taken. I, ignorant of the books, thought it was enjoyable on its own. And the kids liked it.

Viewed April 4, 2009 for the umpteenth time: The Terminator from 2004, directed by James Cameron, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, and Linda Hamilton. A story of a future where intelligent machines have taken over the world from mankind, a human savior who has risen to defeat them, a robotic “terminator” who has been sent back in time to prevent that man from ever being born, and the man who follows to thwart that attempt and ensure the fulfillment of his own destiny. Thoroughly and ever enjoyable.

Also on that night, April 4, 2009, for the umpty-umpeenth time: Casablanca from 1942, directed by Michael Curtiz, starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Dooley Wilson, Paul Henreid, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Claude Rains. The classic wartime romantic triangle about love and loyalty that is simply one of the best movies ever made.

More baggage to follow.

movie log: Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Viewed March 21, 2009 and then again April 18, 2009: Synechdoche, New York written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, starring too many people in too many significant roles to list right here – notably among them Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Tom Noonan, Diane Wiest – but I’d better stop.

This movie stunned me, to the point where (kind of a silly measure, I suppose), I couldn’t even make an entry about it here until I saw it again, and then after that until I could figure out how to use words to describe it. I still haven’t arrived at that point, so I’ll just push on inadequately.

“Synecdoche” is a word that rhymes, more or less, with Schenectady, which is a city in New York where the movie opens. It (the word) is a grammatical term referring to the use of a word or phrase having a broad scope in place of one included in that scope, or vice versa; where, for example, “wheels” might refer to a car, or “Washington” to the government located in that city. And the movie is, in part, about substitution – not necessarily about that kind, but not excluding it either – and about reference and reflection and cause and effect.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard (a referential name in itself), a theater professional who, at the outset, is involved in directing a version of “Death of a Salesman.” He’s cast a young man as the aging Willy Loman, and at one point tells the actor that this casting will add to the pathos since the audience will know that the young actor can imagine himself getting old – a concept that has to be imagined by and reflected in the minds of simultaneous participants (director, actor, audience, playwright) in order to have any meaning. This is kind of a throw-away line but it’s a hint of things to come.

Cotard begins working on a grand piece of theater. He is going to recreate elements of life – or more particularly, of his life, although here again one is a substitute for the other – by staging them inside a huge theater. One assumes that he initially intends there to be an audience, but this performance can not possibly be viewed – it can only be experienced by the participants, and indeed since this becomes part of his life, those experiences modify and affect him, which means they have to be reflected in the performance. The project becomes a model of real life – his and others. More and more, what happens inside the model affects what happens outside. The project becomes self-referential, self-modifying, and recursive, to the point where there’s no hard lines between the model and the reality.

The theater project is a large part of Cotard’s life and of this movie, but not all. As the years pass (something like 60 of them) his life changes; he meets a number of people, mainly women (one wonders how much they are parts of himself or he of them). He goes through various family and personal relationships most of which are, of course, reflected in and affected by his project. Time does not always move clearly or at a sensible rate; characters’ thoughts are affected by their surroundings, but those surroundings are perplexingly affected by their thoughts in turn. Things stand in for each other. (It may or may not be intentional that in one scene where Cotard is talking to his therapist, played by Hope Davis, that he uses the word “hope” more than once – perhaps in a minor way carrying this theme one level out beyond the movie.)

The movies that Charlie Kaufman has written – at least the ones that I’ve seen – always seem to be about interactions between the mind and reality. I admit I haven’t always liked them, but it’s also true that I’ve liked each successive one more. Either he’s getting better at it or it’s getting through to me. Here, where he’s directed his own work, I think he’s gotten it just about perfect. The depth and complexity are, shall I say it again? stunning. Bear in mind that I’ve left out a lot; I’ve only got so much disk space for this entry.

See it. See it and repeat.

Odometer Day

Today I’m 20,000 days old. Woo hoo!

I’m still on the original set of tires, but there are some rattles and some swaying while cornering, the upholstery is frayed, it’s hard to start on cold mornings, and I frequently get stuck in a rut. I do try to change the fluids frequently, using an assortment of grades (Three Olives, Captain Morgan’s, Don Julio…), but unfortunately the warranty has long expired.

movie log: Transamerica (2005)

Watched March 16, 2009: Transamerica directed by Duncan Tucker, starring Felicity Huffman and Kevin Zegers.

Huffman plays Bree Osbourne – whose given name is Stanley – a man about to go through gender reassignment surgery (i.e. to become a woman). At about the last possible moment, she receives a phone call from a teenager named Toby (Zegers) who his looking for his father Stanley. It seems that Stanley had slept with a woman in college who had, unbeknownst to him, become pregnant and given birth to Toby. Bree’s counselor (played by Elizabeth Peña) will not give her required permission for the surgery until Bree resolves, or apparently at least investigates, this new conflict in her life. Bree travels from LA to New York to find that she has to bail Toby out of jail for prostitution. Through a series of minor events, both Bree and Toby end up driving an old dilapidated car across country to get to LA, with Toby having no idea that the woman he sees next to him in the car is really his father.

At this point it just becomes a road trip movie. As with any road trip movie, the characters encounter a number of odd characters, get into scrapes, have the inevitable misunderstandings, hatred, bonding, soul-searching, and truth-finding. The issues of Bree’s sexuality and her hatred of her male body versus Toby’s overactive exploitation of his do come up, but not, in general, with any deep social commentary, but most often are merely factors contributing to the road trip formula. Indeed, not overly obsessing on the social and moral issues can be seen as saying something: that these are just elements in these peoples’ lives, lives that have troubles and emotions and difficulties that we can relate to just as if they were caused by anything else. You can point, for example, to the fact that Bree’s issues of sexual identity alienate her from her parents. In another universe, or with other people, that alienation would come from other causes, and the story could play out much as it does here. Except, I think, for the acting. Felicity Huffman does a great job playing a man who is becoming a woman, and I would recommend seeing this movie just for that.

The always-enjoyable Graham Green makes an appearance as a man who helps the couple out while taking a shine to Bree; Burt Young and Fionnula Flanagan do a nice job as Bree’s parents.

movie log: The Trials of Ted Haggard (2009)

Viewed March 14, 2009: The Trials of Ted Haggard – a made-for-HBO documentary directed by Alexandra Pelosi.

Ted Haggard is the founder of the New Life Church in Colorado; director Pelosi had met him while making previous documentaries and had grown to like him. After Haggard had fallen from grace (he had admitted to a homosexual encounter in which there were drug-related overtones) and had been kicked out of the church that he founded, Pelosi ran into him again. Evidently she palled around with him for a while and, being a filmmaker, pretty much always had a camera trained on him. After some time she had enough decent material to make this documentary. One story says that she used that obnoxious old “it’s better to seek forgiveness than to ask permission” canard – and she may have said that, but from what I’ve read she actually showed the film to the Haggards and they OK’d it.

The film follows Haggard as he lives his life of banishment, moving himself and his family from one temporary living space to another, seeking work, trying (and evidently failing) his hand as a door-to-door insurance salesperson, going to school with hopes of becoming a counselor, all the while hoping for and looking forward to the time when he can move back to his big house in Colorado and perhaps find favor again with his church. This is the backdrop for the running reflections that he has on his life in conversation with Pelosi.

There is irony a-plenty – not just for Haggard, but for the viewer and perhaps even for Pelosi. Haggard comes across as a really likeable guy, honestly struggling to find answers in his life (some might say honestly struggling to be wrong). He’s so likeable that one looks for ways to rationalize his past hypocritical teachings against homosexuality. I think in anyone’s world there are things you can believe and do only in private- in his world you would be an outcast not to speak out against them. (Just to be clear: this is the sort of rationalization I’m referring to.) One hears him saying how much he personally gained from psychological counseling, which is why he talks of pursuing it, and yet he continues to pour over the Bible to find comfort (one sequence has him walking in the desert with his Bible – I suppose Pelosi couldn’t resist throwing that in.) When asked if he still finds meaning in the Bible, he says yes: but that the meaning is very different if you’re on top of the world than it is when you’re at the bottom.

A very watchable documentary, showing the human side of a guy that it’s easy to dislike from a distance but harder to up close. People are funny like that.