In the fall I was asked by my friend Aaron, the editor of Cosmic Conundrums Magazine, to put together a list of twelve SF/F movies or books that are uplifting in a traditional holiday sort of way. This was late August and I usually don’t start planning for Christmas until around December 21st.Yes, true confessions, I am a last minute gift buyer, with predictable and hilarious results over the years…but that is another essay.
So, I probably spent too much time thinking about this and almost missed the deadline. There are reasons for my hesitation. First, I hate these sorts of lists and wonder about those who compile them. Are they really subject matter experts? Second, my judgment and tastes may not appeal to everyone and I am no expert on movies. I just know what I enjoy. And third, as Conundrums is new in print they would expend precious paper and ink rather than bytes and hypertext in issuing a missal with my name on it. So I wanted it to be good. I thought about emailing in September and declining the assignment. Surely someone could do better? But this crisis of confidence passed. Especially when bearing in mind that there was a paycheck at the end of this (which made me wonder less about those who compile these lists).
I somehow muddled through.
Yet it was more challenging than I expected. When I think of the holidays I don’t just think of Christmas. The entire season is a festival of lights and hope and this, to me, includes Hanukkah and Solstice, and Kwanzaa. I have friends who celebrate those as well.
So, I kept it to things that uplift all of humanity. And in the end I found I could not leave out mention of works which might not be strictly science fiction or fantasy. It’s a little heavy on the movie side, but that is okay as these are all more or less accessible via Netflix or Amazon. Some of the written works may require an interested reader to do a little digging. Keeping it to twelve was also a struggle.
Yet in the end I think all of these have a fairly positive message and could be watched or read by family members of all ages and persuasions. I’ve added a few “traditional” movies that I’ve always enjoyed. These pieces stand on the bridge between “mainstream” and SF/F as they deliver a great holiday message but if you dig a little deeper could actually be considered part of the genre.
So without any further ado here are my top twelve movies & books as presented in Conundrums. These are uplifting but not strictly “cheesy” or merely “feel-good.” Some are presentable almost anytime, if not just the holidays. Books or short stories are in bold and films are in italics:
- A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (1843) ~Pardon me for placing this at the top but, really, it’s a no brainer. It is a fantasy with ghosts, time travel and alternative worlds based on Scrooge’s personal choices. How much more SF/F does anyone need?
- Scrooge (1951) ~If you prefer A Christmas Carol in movie form then the 1951 version with Alastair Sim is the truest film adaptation of the book. Note it may not be for little ones as there are some chills…we’re talking ghosts and the death of Tiny Tim here. If you want the pre-school set to watch, then the Muppet version from 1992 may be your best choice. That version is as light as helium yet sticks to the story and has several wonderful messages.
- It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) ~In this classic angels and alternative universes plague George Bailey of Bedford Falls, NY. I’ve sometimes wondered given the noir look of the calamitous Potterville if the film was not an inspiration for the future Twilight Zone? Speaking of which…
- Twilight Zone Episodes: Night of the Meek (1960) and The Changing of the Guard (1962) ~This is a cheat but as the combined running time on these two marvelous stories is less than an hour I’m going to squeeze them in.The Changing of the Guard is one of many Twilight Zone episodes written by the multi-talented and incomparable Rod Serling. In this story a professor facing forced retirement learns through example that he should never underestimate the impact one has on others. This is true in many professions and Serling offers a poignant tale that is very uplifting and may even make us think about our own influences on other lives.Switching back to a story written exclusively as a holiday episode, Night of the Meek features Art Carney as a down on his luck Santa. A tightly written teleplay and great performance by Carney keeps the story from falling into awful televised sentimentality. This was unusual for that time (or any time, really) in television history. A 1960 production that featured an alcoholic Santa took some courage on the part of cast and crew. Like most of the series the script was penned by Rod Serling who incidentally was born on Christmas Day, 1924.
- Hogfather by Terry Pratchett (1996) ~A rollicking entry in Pratchett’s Discworld universe and just in time for the holidays! In this novel Death, who looks remarkably like the cinematic version of the Ghost of Christmas Future, has to step in when the Discworld’s version of Santa Claus goes missing. Lots of fun ensues. A scene involving The Little Matchstick Girl is a treasure.
- Wolf Christmas by Daniel Pinkwater (2010) A pack of wolves gather on Christmas Eve. Good things follow as only Daniel Pinkwater can imagine.
- Santa Claus vs. S.P.I.D.E.R. by Harlan Ellison (1968) ~I can’t apply any more superlatives to Ellison’s career than those that have been stated by better writers and reviewers. All I can say is that you’ve got to love the guy in all his irascible glory. In this story Ellison’s Santa is a product of the psychedelic Sixties and James Bond films. Operating from his secret Arctic base this story features a gadget laden Santa saving the world from an alien invasion. Good, wacky fun.
- The Star by Arthur C. Clarke (1955) A Jesuit priest journeys into the cosmos to find the Christmas star and gets more than he bargained for. Clarke may have been an originator of what is now called flash fiction. Many of his short vignettes have images or endings that really stick with you. The same can be said for this tale.
- The Season of Forgiveness by Poul Anderson(1973) ~ Anderson was one of those writers back in the day who managed to support a family and modest lifestyle with his craft. Thus he turned up in a variety of markets. Published in the very mainstream Boy’s Life Magazine the story is true to the genre in that it is a classic Anderson tale with a mix of good characterization, hard science and philosophy. The interaction of faiths represented by the trader team reminds us that many celebrate the season in a variety of ways. The ending avoids being preachy while delivering a message that mercy and understanding of other cultures, no matter how alien, are the pathways to a better world.
- The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1892) ~Given how much today’s Steampunk community has embraced all things Victorian I’m including this on the list. Sir Arthur and his contemporaries Verne and Wells are the undeniable touchstone for the current wealth of Steampunk literature and culture. Carbuncle is a well-paced mystery short that features the Christmas Eve theft of a diamond with a cursed background. Conan Doyle hits all the seasonal tropes while moving the story along crisply. The 1983 Granada Television adaptation with the brightly intense and marvelously quirky Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes is also quite watchable and very true to the original story.
- The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) ~Certainly an allegory of the Christ story, this relatively short movie directed by Robert Wise is not strictly speaking a holiday film. However, Wise does a great job bringing out a subtle humanity in Michael Rennie’s Klaatu. The emphasis on choices and how we react as a society to something new or unknown is a continuous thread throughout the film. Wise’s message, like Klaatu’s, is that we should never allow fear to replace reason. The film ends on a note of hope and the promise of a better future.
- 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984) ~Not a holiday tale but this adaptation of a novel (or novelization…you decide) by Sir Arthur C. Clarke is very much a delivery of the seasonal message embraced in the Gospel of Luke (2:14): “Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will to men.” The fact that the story takes place near Jupiter and the intelligence behind the famous Monolith delivers the message of peace is of no consequence. It’s a darned good conclusion to the saga that began with 2001 A Space Odyssey. The message that our shared human future can be one of peace and progress is very uplifting. As a child of the erstwhile Apollo Moon Project days this is my personal feel-good movie.
Note that there are far more SF/F holiday tales than the ones listed here. There is also an increasing body of SF/F holiday anthology series. I think Connie Willis may be one of the most prolific of authors in terms of producing quality tales that keep me turning the pages. She has also written numerous holiday themed SF/F. Some of these short stories can be found in Miracle and Other Christmas Stories (1999). These feature a dozen or so yarns that are amusing, uplifting, and would form a perfect list all on their own.
Now it is time for you, dear reader, to come up with your own list of fun things to read or watch during the holiday. Any genre applies.
When it comes to finding that special thing which delivers hope and love in this season…as with so many things…it’s alright to apply what might best be described as the Gaiman Principle. The inherent joys of this season…like Santa Claus and all creatures of myth…rely on the general level of overall energy that human beings apply to the very existence and maintenance of such legends. Thus Santa is as real as we make him. And so it is with whatever light we choose to bring to this season.
Any scientist can tell you that you’ll never discover a molecule in the earth or a star in the sky called peace or love or good will. Yet those fragile gifts are as real as matter or gravity or light despite the fact that there is no instrument available to weigh or measure such human concepts. And so it is when it comes to Santa, or candles that remain lit through the darkest of nights, or the joy of the season.
Happy Holidays to All!
(note: the artwork featured is from the Jan 1956 Galaxy Magazine. Art by Ed Emshwiller)