Sir Roger Moore (1927 – 2017)

Sir Roger Moore (1927 – 2017)

Sir Roger Moore passed away today at the age of 89. Born on October 14th 1927, he was one of that generation of actors who seemed to have come to the profession from humble origins. Often, they had prior careers before going onstage. They also worked hard and took on many, many roles. Moore spent most of his working career as an actor, but also served in the Royal Army Service Corps, having been conscripted shortly after the end of World War 2. In later life he worked as a voice actor, UNICEF ambassador and an animal rights activist. Of course, like so many others, when I heard the news of his death I immediately thought of James Bond and Moore’s portrayal in many of the films.

I don’t remember ever seeing a Bond film on the big screen that didn’t feature Roger Moore. In the 1970s the Bond films did not have as much access to television as they do today. If you wanted to see one you checked the newspaper listings for show-times and went to a theater. I’m sure (as sure as I can be without data, at least) that somewhere today a Bond film is occupying a given 2 ½ hour slot on one of ten thousand cable channels. If not, then within the next 24 to 48 hours that will likely happen. I first saw the report that Sir Roger Moore passed away today on the BBC web page. I did a double-take. He was as much a touchstone of my 70s childhood as Star Trek re-runs, high polyester disco collars from Sears, and the Chevy Vega.

I enjoyed his suave portrayal of Ian Fleming’s most famous creation. The movies were fun and like previous features in the series set the tone and pace for what is fairly common in cinema today. It was a controlled spectacle, of course, especially by today’s standards. Even when Moore was outrageously romancing a femme fatale or desperately fighting the baddies to save the world you might squirm but you were still safe within the darkness of the theater. And the one liners were durable yet potently silly.

Moore was the Bond of the 70s. The guy who was your Dad’s age. Somewhere beyond the safety of your home or school he was holding back the darkness. Yet there was something metacultural going on in the Moore films. It was as if Sir Roger, in his own modest and wry way, was out there helping civilization sort through the jumbled attic boxes of the late Cold War and Vietnam. The backgrounds of these movies, even places as exotic as far-off Asia, suggested a creeping globalization and trend toward universal marketing. Bond could hop a plane and effect change pretty much anywhere. The people in these far-off societies were always relatable: a mix of old friends or new rivals. Moore, with an almost trademark élan, could handle them all.

The locales were always a big draw for me. The places were new yet somehow familiar. And if Roger Moore as Bond could do it you knew that sometime in the near future you could hop that plane and go to those places as well, even if your adventure was as mundane as seeking work or merely sight-seeing. I would argue that anyone growing up in the 70s put together their “future travel list” based on his films.

The first Bond film I saw was The Man with the Golden Gun. My cousins in Boston took me and the sheer overwhelming spectacle of this over-the-top feature felt like a Paragon Park roller coaster ride. The film had everything, including a cool villain named Scaramanga. Say it again: Scaramanga. Anyone with a name like that was trouble. I knew it, and Roger Moore agreed with me. We were in this together.

During that first outing I was 12 and had not really seen spy fiction beyond television’s The Avengers or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. At the time I had trouble following those plots. I had recently read a few Flandry novels, by a guy named Poul Anderson. And as dashing and brooding as Flandry was, he seemed a mere fop compared to the daring insanity that was Laumer’s Jaime Retief. Seeing The Man with the Golden Gun, I couldn’t help compare it to Laumer’s and Anderson’s novels. Indeed, sitting in the theater I became certain that Moore must have been a big fan of those writers.

I realize that the inevitable comparisons will be made to Sean Connery’s Bond. I’ve made those myself. Love Connery. Love his Bond. But I often feel that when those comparisons are made they are very unfair. They have little to do with the actors but more so to do with the times when the productions were made. We’re talking two distinct eras here. Connery’s films were made during an era of certainty. Certainty of path, certainty of role and gender, certainty, even, of moral justification in protesting those assumptions and then digging deeper to declare that it was all bad. In the Connery films this can be seen in the tone, production quality, and yes, even the certitude of Bond’s approach to the world.

Moore’s Bond is of a very different world than the Bond of Sean Connery. The 70s I grew up in seemed downright exhausted. Yet it was also a society that was choosing to honestly examine itself while trying to cling to a comforting insularity. The smoke of the 60s had become a ground fog. As it lifted the landscape was quite literally altered. It was also the time of disco, big glasses, Watergate, emerging access to the shining promise of very personal technologies, Three Mile Island, crazy hair, and silly trends like trolls and pet rocks. The economy was troubled and the world was pushing back on the West. The assumption of absolute certitude was questioned daily.

This tone surfaces amid the exotic locales and hectic pace of the Moore films. Certitude is on the decline. We see this immediately in Moore’s interactions with Lois Maxwell’s Miss Moneypenny. They tease one another, but there is no doubt in the viewer’s mind that the relationship is friendly yet platonic. Moneypenny is the boss’s assistant, not a plaything. Her job in the network of spies is perhaps just as important as Bond’s. Connery might have gotten a date with her, but Moore would need to find love elsewhere. Then in The Spy Who Loved Me the West needs help from the Soviets to stop a madman named Stromberg who wants to build an underwater empire. It’s a sign of the times when the emerging notion of détente enters a Bond film.

The last Bond film of the 70s is Moonraker. Hugo Drax, as if unwilling to be outdone by prior villain Stromberg, wants to create a perfect society of perfect people that he has hand-picked to live aboard a space station before re-populating the world. It will be a new world of like-minded demigods. Not the first utopian vision, surely. But there are echoes here of the baby boomers versus their parents. Indeed, the movie asks what is the formula for the perfect society? As was so often seen during the 1970s perhaps there isn’t one.

Moonraker’s final battle sequence is very similar to that in The Spy Who Loved Me and other Bond films. Yet the good-guys who assault Drax’s space station are US Marines. Enlisted men. Dogfaces. Unlike prior films these are not elite agents or ninjas. Watching it you get the impression they are a hodgepodge mix of working joes, doing a day’s job, albeit in Earth orbit. What I like about this is you get several platoons of everyday guys bringing down the perfect humans. It seems a very democratic end to the certainty of the 60’s superman.

The series features mis-steps of course. It may have been very lucky for Connery’s career that he didn’t star in Live and Let Die. That is as near to a blaxploitation film as I ever want to see. Of course, if Moore had Live and Let Die then Connery had Zardoz. Also, there’s a few occasions where the one-liners are a bit over-used and extremely groan-worthy. Yet to Moore’s credit he seems to realize this and in his later outings as Bond he went for a tone of self-parody before that was a thing. He was not the first actor to suffer through bad writing, I am sure.

And so the decade came and went and Roger Moore was very much a part of that. Sir Roger Moore’s Bond was a product of the 1970s. Moore carried the mantle of 007 through a decade that was a long and at times confusing metamorphosis.

And just like the song said, nobody did it better.

 

 

 

 

Hold The Line: A Review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s “New York 2140”

Hold The Line: A Review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s “New York 2140”

New York City is history.

Not in the sense that the great metropolis is somehow over, ended, kaput. No, New York City is history. It is a family album of hope, work, dedication, good times and ambition. That album is also interleaved with mysteries, unspoken but well-known secrets, discouragement, and loss.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 captures this sense of past, present, and future. I’ve been a fan of Robinson since reading his Mars Trilogy a number of years ago. As an author, Robinson has big ideas based in hard science and he lays these out not as framed portraitures but as large tapestries. He shows this ability again in New York 2140.

The 600-page novel is set in a New York that has been inundated by a sea-level rise caused by global warming. Manhattan and environs experience a 50-foot increase in water level. New York has become a sort of super-Venice, with familiar streets serving as canals. The population goes about life and we see scenes of surprisingly familiar tasks involving work and daily living. Many of the buildings of the Manhattan we know have been saved using technologies developed as preservatives against the detrimental effects of floodwater. This includes advanced composite sky-bridges, a sort of diamond-based sealant that keeps salt water out of structures, and Syd Mead-like hydrofoils and streamlined, energy efficient watercraft. The city still hums with vibrancy, despite the wrath tossed down upon it due to worst-case climate change.

The novel features almost a dozen main characters. All have very different lives and they all interact via the central locale of the MetLife Tower near Madison Square. As New York is a character in this novel so is the MetLife Tower and it serves as a sort of anchor for characters and events. Here and there, Robinson discusses a sampling of its history, including its intersection with the lives of such New Yorkers as Melville and Teddy Roosevelt, all in the light of the goings-on within the narrative. Like the city, the building has a past that goes down to the bedrock. When we first gather at the entrance of its bacino the old structure has been preserved and reinvented to meet the needs of its residents within the 50-foot intertidal zone of the inundated city. The irony that the survivors of climate change might find a habitat within an old insurance company building is not lost upon us.

Most of the characters work best in pairs. There is the spritely Amelia Black who is a sort of internet star. Literally travelling on the four winds within a high-tech dirigible she provides a narrative for the world outside the city, giving us a big picture view of the forces that have changed the planet. Meanwhile, a more grounded character is Vlade, the superintendent of the MetLife building. Vlade is emblematic of the dyed-in-the-wool pragmatist who sees the bigger picture but is always willing to roll up his sleeves to do the dirty work. Vlade is dedicated, hard-headed, yet never unwilling to help his building or its occupants. This extends to a pair of street (canal?) urchins named Stefan and Roberto who go upriver and even under it in a manner that reminded me a bit of a futuristic Huck and Tom. The two boys are a key to the novel and represented both youth and the city’s future. They pair nicely with Mr. Hexter, an elderly denizen of a dangerously washed-out section of town who can remember the day New York was permanently flooded. Mr. Hexter is also a keeper of maps and old records and instigates a treasure hunt for a ship lost near the Bronx in the 1770s. This leads to a surprising find.

Other paired characters include finance trader Franklin whose specialty is inter-coastal property and Charlotte who is a social worker and activist. These two opposites find some mutual advantage despite their tensions. The reader comes to understand that like all government and free-market forces these polar opposites are, in a sense, symbiotic. This is a key theme in the novel.

Police officer Gen Octaviasdottir comes from a long line of NYPD cops and her personal motto, like her ancestors who kept the city running during its worst years, is Hold The Line. Gen is part of the glue that holds societies together and ultimately her partner is the City itself. And that flooded, urban landscape knows many a secret, including the whereabouts of two programmers with the handles of Mutt and Jeff, who attempted to hack the planet. They released a virus designed to interrupt computerized market trading and thereby disrupt entire economies. This didn’t work out for the pair of quants, and their disappearance is a key driver of the story.

And to me, this is where the story gets interesting. Years ago I read the works of Ayn Rand. Those novels and that philosophy have always left me very uncomfortable. I won’t go so far as to say that Rand’s novels left a stain on my soul, although I did have a friend express it this way to me once. The basic issue I have with the philosophy of the selfish ego is that unlike Rand I am the product of a democratic (little d) society, in which the common man can do great things while also recognizing that we are all in this thing together. Hence the winning of the American Revolution and the Constitutional Convention, exploration, scientific advancement, the struggle for social progress, and the ending of slavery and the defeat of fascism in the 1940s are emblematic of what can happen when every-day people work together for a joint purpose. Hell, we even had the audacity to create rock-n-roll and build an amazing interstate highway system that is a veritable touchstone of our culture.

Since the Recession of 2008 there has been a great deal of debate as to whether or not a taxpayer funded bailout of Wall Street was appropriate. I won’t go into that here, but such economic cycles, and even the ability to make a buck during a grievous disaster, are the paired blessing and curse of capitalism. These issues are confronted directly in Robinson’s novel, and his solution was something of an antidote to the things I read in those Rand novels many years ago. A bloodless coup for the common men and women over the powers of Wall Street? Maybe…this is a science fiction novel after all. But I cheered at how Robinson laid it out and I found his everybody-wins (including to a certain extent the financiers) scenario both hopeful and heartening.

Another plus to this novel was the fact that the characters offered virtually no hand-wringing and I-told-you-so’s regarding global warming. Indeed, the politicians and industries that are leading us into the world of New York 2140 are not even mentioned. The reader is left with a sense that the good people of this world are so busy surviving and getting by and at times enjoying their lives that the self-proclaimed masters of our age are not even remembered. Which, in a sense, is very fitting. The heroes of the past are engineers, doctors, police officers, scientists, construction workers, seafarers, and no few men and women of goodwill who manage to rescue both life and society.

I finished the 600 page novel with a sigh and a feeling of hope. It pleased me that Robinson opted to end his novel with several of the characters enjoying a very proverbial night on the town. Things may get bad, but we don’t have to lie down and accept dystopia.

Whatever comes, we’ll Hold The Line.

Together.

 

(New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson, h/c 613 pages is available from Orbit Books)

 

 

 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (my brief review)

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (my brief review)

We saw Rogue One: A Star Wars Story last weekend at our local recliner-equipped cinema. The theater was packed and there was quite mix of movie-goers: families with little kids, middle-aged fans there for the fun, and groups of people, usually in twos or threes, that seemed taut with an intensity that might only be called fan-pensive; they came to enjoy but were ready to critique. I’m not a die-hard Star Wars fan, I enjoy most of the films for what they are: heavy space opera that offer many thrills, good laughs, and the occasional forays into pop-philosophy all set against a marvelous tapestry. Outside of two Star Wars novels I read in 1977 I know very little of the Expanded Universe, details about the Rebellion, or the inner life of one Darth Vader.

So I’m coming at this as someone who loves science fiction but has a limited depth of knowledge about the Star Wars Universe. Sure, I can name ship types and planets. I know what the Book of the Whills is and what a Khyber crystal does. But for other areas beyond the stories encapsulated in the films and those two books I read long ago I will always yield to more knowledgeable fans. So, consider this my approach to this little film review: benign reflection.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was a good film. It was directed by Gareth Edwards with screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy. The details and storyline were well done. The level of work involved on even the minutiae like languages or backgrounds is very impressive. I enjoyed the actors’ performances and I felt Diego Luna did a fabulous job as Cassian Andor. An opening scene set the tone for his character. He and the actor who played an informant worked the scene like the start of a Shakespeare play, with narration replacing on-stage action. It was tense, gritty, and superbly done. It also established Captain Andor as a rather tragic figure. His climb up a ladder at the scene’s end suggested a possible ascent toward redemption. Indeed, I don’t think I give too much away if I say that this was how the film eventually played out.

Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso had to maintain an almost frantic pace throughout the film as her character migrated from one physical or personal skirmish to the next. Like Cassian Andor, Jyn Erso is a troubled but tough character and Ms. Jones plays this exceptionally well. I liked how she established the character in her opening scenes: quite resilient if not world-weary. She had seen ample difficulties but always forged ahead, keeping up hope that she might one day find closure with the losses of her past life.

The supporting cast was quite good. Riz Ahmed as Bodhi Rook was my personal favorite. I liked how his character was developed through the film and I found his performance quite believable. He balanced the complexities of Bodhi as an Imperial traitor against the fact that Bodhi was, at the core, just an everyman with a conscience caught up in events that were far bigger than the worlds that served as backdrops in this movie. In addition, Alan Tudyk and Donnie Yen pretty much owned their roles. They were intriguing characters unto themselves, and not just sidekicks.

This being a Star Wars film I found the personal interplay between some of the characters a bit stiff. I found a real low point in the interactions of Jyn Erso and the unfortunately named Saw Gerrera, played by Forest Whitaker. Mr. Whitaker’s immense talents seemed lost in this film, either through the writing or directing or some combination of both. Although Gerrera rescued Jyn as a child and subsequently raised her, I had the impression the two had only just met. It was a road bump in the film and I was glad when the story just moved along. That being said Jimmy Smits as the senator named Bail Organa offered a line of dialogue about his adopted daughter Leia. One line, one moment, but the way it was delivered actually brought tears to my eyes.

One thing I will say about Rogue One was that it presented the Rebel Alliance in a very different light. Without offering spoilers the Rebels in this movie were in it for the win and definitely played hard ball. Over and over again, through the actions of the supporting cast, I realized that these guys were in it for keeps. To that end I felt that Rogue One added a certain vitality to the franchise and made me appreciate this complex backstory as an important part of the combined films’ overall dramatic arc. Indeed, Rogue One owes its lineage to such movies as The Guns of Navarone and Seven Samurai as much as it does to the creativity of George Lucas and the team at Lucasfilm/Disney. The plot was tense, gritty, and offered the characters no do-overs via the magical use of The Force.

The Force was definitely with the creative team and I liked how the film had a certain look that was reminiscent of the first Star Wars film, A New Hope. The creators did not seem to go exclusively with green screens and CGI. Everything appeared tangible and alive. The one obvious exception was the use of CGI to animate Peter Cushing’s face over that of an actor named Guy Henry. This was exceptional and somewhat mind blowing, especially as Peter Cushing, who created the role of the despicable Grand Moff Tarkin, passed away in 1994. People who knew Cushing who have seen the film, including those who maintain his estate, were reportedly heavily involved with the development of this reanimated character. Many said it was quite “dazzling” to see Cushing back on screen.

I felt the effect was well done and Tarkin needed to appear in this story. Indeed, Tarkin’s  presence was critical to the plot. However, given what a great job Ben Mendelsohn did in creating the new character of the Imperial officer Krennic, I am left wondering why someone else couldn’t have stepped in as Tarkin. I know this is complicated, especially for “real” fans whose toes I wouldn’t step on, but after a while I did find the CGI Tarkin rather distracting. I kept thinking of his appearances in terms of levels of realism and not the performance itself.

Note that I did see this film shortly after Carrie Fisher’s recent death. So I’ll say that my next viewpoint was undoubtedly impacted by that event. That being said the arrival at the very end of the film by another famous but  CGI-rendered character was jarring. I really think it would have been best to take a different tack cinematically, especially with such an important character as Princess Leia. I can recognize a costume, voice, and persona without seeing a face. For me, this addition did not allow the film to end on a good note and actually stole something from the last scene with Luna and Jones.

So, overall, I found this film fun with some excellent moments, but it fell down in places so I would give it 4/5 stars.

Memories of Vanished Stars…

Memories of Vanished Stars…

 

As this is a SF/F blog (mostly) I would be remiss if I did not write something about the passing of Carrie Fisher and her mother Debbie Reynolds.

I’m old enough…but not so old…that both actresses are actually a part of that firmament of childhood memories that arches above me and so many of my friends. When I was a kid in the early 70s Ms. Reynolds danced and sang her way into our living room in TV network specials. Somehow CBS or NBC managed to edit and run pseudo-full-length versions of Singin’ In The Rain and The Unsinkable Molly Brown. These broadcasts always seemed to coincide with some major holiday. School was out and we were allowed to stay up late to see these now-legendary productions in their entirety. My mother was a big fan of Debbie Reynolds and, through some form of symbiotic convection, so was I and the rest of our family.

Watching these films now I never appreciated how young Ms. Reynolds was when she appeared in those movies. Dancing with the likes of Gene Kelly when she was 19 years old now seems to me like nothing less than some explosive phenomenon of nature. If you had some sort of instrument that could measure her special combination of talent-charm-chutzpah surely the meter would peg and her ability would register off the charts. We had the vinyl LP soundtrack for Unsinkable and my Mom would play it when cleaning house. I can still hear the ebullient Debbie Reynolds belting out “Belly Up to the Bar, Boys” while furniture was polished and rugs were vacuumed. And I still smile at this song and the sheer youthfulness embodied in that voice.

I first saw Star Wars in May of 1977 when I was 14 years old. Up on the big screen that little blockade runner slides past our view just after the now-famous opening title scroll. Somewhere aboard that troubled ship are Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia and two very worried robots. She appears briefly and is very enigmatic in those opening scenes. Yet Ms. Fisher establishes the character’s very determined persona and overall verve by defying the first deadly storm-troopers that she encounters. We are hooked not so much by the dazzling special effects and first shoot-em-up sequences but by a need to know exactly what will happen next to this young woman.

Yet despite being enthralled, like so many others, by Star Wars I would say that my favorite Carrie Fisher role was as the Mystery Woman in The Blues Brothers. Sure, the need to get the band back together to hold a concert that will save the orphanage is the story’s great MacGuffin. But the Mystery Woman very much propels Jake and Elwood along, reminding them that life and fate and the Mission they are on are very tenuous things indeed. The movie’s director timed her appearances perfectly. Like Jake, you almost forget about her until things get slow and she suddenly shows up at the door.

Ms. Fisher had her difficulties. But a gift for communicating through her books and appearances helped many, many people. She changed the map for the better in terms of how society should view people who have mental health disorders. She was also a strong female role model and someone I don’t mind my own daughter looking up to.

I think my favorite memory of Ms. Fisher will be a recent one. She appeared early this month on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. She brought along her dog Gary. The diminutive and one-of-a-kind Gary sat next to her while Colbert conducted the interview. Carrie Fisher was equal parts adorable, mischievous, wise, and over-the-top funny. She gave me the first real and true laugh I had had in some time. The audience seemed to agree and was laughing as hard as I was at home. It takes real talent to lift the spirits of complete strangers who may be far or near.

And that is not a bad way to exit or be remembered.

 

(Note: The photo above was taken in 1963 by Lawrence Schiller. A story about this photo and Mr. Schiller is at: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/29/movies/debbie-reynolds-carrie-fisher-photo.html)

 

“Arrival” (my very brief review)

“Arrival” (my very brief review)

We went to the 10:40PM showing of “Arrival” tonight. I’ve been wanting to see this film and this showing was literally the last one in our area. If I hadn’t waited I probably would have seen this film 2 or 3 times. It was amazing! A hard science fiction film for grown-ups. The film was directed by Denis Villeneuve based on a screenplay by Eric Heisserer. It had a moody, thoughtful, and intelligent plot.

I went with my  daughter the budding linguist and she was excited by what a wonderful job Amy Adams did as the protagonist. It was impressive to watch as pieces of the alien language were put together. The performances were very good and the subtleties and nuances of discovery were quite well-directed.

This film really went against the grain in terms of current shoot-em-up SF/F films. It was very well thought out and optimistic. The puzzle of the alien language kept it interesting. There was a brief homage to another of my favorite films, “2001,” when Jeremy Renner’s character reached out to touch the mysterious ship’s hull. I had been told this movie was good but it was really in a category by itself. I don’t want to give anything away. I’ll just put it down as 5+ stars.

Binti: A new read with an old sense of wonder

Binti: A new read with an old sense of wonder

I read a great deal of SF/F (surprise) and just finished a novella called “Binti” by Nnedi Okorafor. The book was a Christmas gift from a friend. It was quite good with a very different protagonist from Namibia. This little story had a sense of wonder that was very reminiscent of older works in the genre. I liked the organic tech and the use of mathematics. Also, the alien Meduse were well thought through. If you like SF this would be something I’d recommend. A nice, uplifting story, with a few scares but a really interesting ending.

I note that Tor is publishing a new novella imprint (new to me anyway). I may look into more of these. Also, I’m told by a friend that Okorafor has a sequel to this story coming out soon. I will pick it up!

Cosmic Conundrums: Making a List and Checking it Twice, Thrice …

Cosmic Conundrums: Making a List and Checking it Twice, Thrice …

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:

  1. 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?
  1. 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.
  1. 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…
  2. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. Wolf Christmas by Daniel Pinkwater (2010) A pack of wolves gather on Christmas Eve. Good things follow as only Daniel Pinkwater can imagine.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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)