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Matthew Keeley

Limitless Imagination: Karel Zeman’s The Fabulous Baron Munchausen

In 1968, the late Brian Aldiss published Farewell, Fantastic Venus! This anthology, which reprinted writers as diverse as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Carl Sagan, C.S. Lewis, and Olaf Stapledon, celebrates the image of Venus that had once dominated science fiction stories—a planet full of jungles, swamps, adventure, and mystery—and would soon be forever eclipsed by the lifeless inferno the first space probes discovered.

I admit that this description of a British science fiction anthology from 1968 may seem an odd way to open an article on a film made seven years earlier behind the Iron Curtain, yet Aldiss’s anthology kept coming to mind as I watched Czech director Karel Zeman’s 1961 Baron Prášil, better known to Western audiences as The Fabulous Baron Munchausen. Zeman’s film opens with Tony, a stolid astronaut (or cosmonaut—we never do learn his nationality), sensibly clad in a bulky spacesuit, exiting his space capsule to plant his flag and make his giant leap for mankind. He is, of course, perturbed when he sees a whole path of footprints stretching away from his capsule.

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Gloriana: Michael Moorcock’s Would-Be Farewell to Fantasy

There are several clichés at hand to tempt any critic who learns that a book was written in six weeks. If the book is earnest, angry, and topical, we might speak of the “rush of inspiration” that “propelled” the author’s pen or made his keyboard clatter. If it’s a first novel, we may express wonder at the “sudden” and “mysterious” “flowering” of the author’s imagination. If the book is a paperback original published under a pseudonym, we might sneer at “hackwork,” or, in a more generous mood, acclaim the “workmanship” of its “journeyman” author. Alas for the reviewer who comes to Michael Moorcock’s Gloriana, or, the Unfulfill’d Queen: Although Moorcock completed the book in just over a month, none of these standard remarks applies.

Gloriana was very far from being Moorcock’s first published book; although his bibliography is notoriously byzantine, full of revisions, retitling, and pseudonyms, a little research shows that he had published over forty individual works by the time Gloriana appeared in bookshops, a year before the end of his thirties. If anything, the book’s composition was remarkable for its relative slowness: he once completed a four-volume series in two weeks. It says a great deal of his talent that many of these books, rushed and uneven as some might be, remain in print.

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Exploring Elizabeth Hand’s Many Voices

Some authors have a very distinct brand; their individual works, whether major or minor, are all of a type. If they publish enough, readers tend to make an adjective of their name—so “Ballardian” evokes crashed cars, empty swimming pools, and accelerating entropy, all clinically described, while “Vancean” writers evince a fondness for abstruse vocabulary, ponderous elegance, and gloriously improbable societies. An “Asimovian” story might sacrifice prose and characterization to the rational working out of a Big Idea, while a “Phildickian” tale proceeds by way of shattered realities and paranoid revelations.

Other writers, though, seem almost to begin anew with each new book; so restless are their subjects, styles, and preoccupations that readers never feel entirely settled or comfortable with them. Elizabeth Hand is one such author. She is far too mutable a writer for “Handian” to ever become science fiction shorthand.

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Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker: Tracking the Unknowable

After the trailers ended and the lights went down, the first image that greeted the moviegoers who caught Stalker in 1979 was the logo of the USSR’s Mosfilm studio., which shows the famous socialist realist statue Worker and Kolkhoz Woman. Sculptor Vera Mukhina intended the two figures, who reach towards the sky and the future bearing hammer and sickle, to inspire pride in the present and hope for the future, and perhaps they are beautiful when viewed without context, but it’s hard not read them as icons of totalitarian kitsch and state-enforced taste. Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, however, provides none of the comforts of kitsch or the assurances of dogma.

Stalker was the first adaptation of Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s influential novel Roadside Picnic, one of the very few Soviet science fiction novels to make it over to the West during the Cold War. Both film and novel tell the story of the Zone, the barred and blockaded site of a mysterious alien visitation, a once-inhabited area as inscrutable and dangerous as it is alluring. Barbed wire and machine guns guard the Zone, yet still treasure seekers, true believers, and obsessives continue to seek entry. Nature thrives in the Zone, but nothing human can live there for long. There are no monsters, no ghosts, no eruptions of blood and horror, but the land itself has become hostile. The ruined tanks, collapsing buildings, and desiccated corpses that litter the Zone should be ample warning, but they are not.

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Predicting the Future and Remembering the Past with John Crowley

At Readercon a few years ago, I attended a panel on favorite science fiction and fantasy books. One author, one of the best working today, talked about the near-impossibility of writing a book so perfect as John Crowley’s Little, Big. There were wistful sighs from writers in the audience and nodded agreements from other panelists. Everyone in the room at that most bookish convention recognized that competing with Crowley was impossible.

Yet in many fan circles Crowley remains unknown. This literary master of the hermetic, hidden, and esoteric has for too long been as hidden as the obscure histories, gnostic theorists, and addled visionaries that populate his work. Despite the many awards; despite the praise of luminaries both inside the genre community, like Ursula K. Le Guin and Thomas Disch, and outside it, like Harold Bloom; despite his inclusion in both Bloom’s Western Canon and Gollancz’s Fantasy Masterworks, most fantasy readers don’t read him. Perhaps this is the year that changes.

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Swords, Lances, and Innuendo: James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen

Prosecution for obscenity has historically been one of the best ways to ensure literary posterity. For decades, getting “banned in Boston” was a surefire way to boost sales everywhere else in the States; in the United Kingdom, 200,000 copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover sold in a single day when the uncensored version appeared. James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice went before a court in 1922 and became a bestseller, but today Cabell has met the fate of many “writers’ writers”: He is best remembered for being forgotten.

Though some writers go into and out of fashion, and into and out of print, every decade or so, Cabell seems to have settled into obscurity. When Lin Carter reissued several Cabell novels in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series in the sixties and seventies, his introductory remarks included the observation that some of these novels had gone forty-five years without a new edition. Since the Ballantine books have fallen out of print, most of Cabell’s works have gone without mass-market re-publication, though, since Cabell has entered the public domain, there have been print-on-demand editions. But perhaps that trial did help preserve Cabell: Jurgen has remained in print.

[So why was it banned?]

Series: Genre in the Mainstream

A Walk Around Inland: Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker

Russell Hoban said that he was a good speller before he wrote Riddley Walker and a bad speller after finishing it. The first sentence shows why: “On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the last wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadn’t ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen.” Two thousand or so years after an atomic catastrophe—“the 1 Big 1”—civilization and the English language hobble on, the language marginally healthier than the society.

Riddley Walker, just twelve during the story’s action, is supposed to be his tribe’s “connexion man,” a seer or shaman who interprets the world and its signs. Riddley gives his first connexion the day after his father’s death; its failure—Riddley falls into a trance, goes silent, and disappoints his audience—soon leads him out from the people he has known and into the wilds of “Inland.” He encounters mutants, vicious dogs, scheming politicians; he sneaks through enemy encampments, rifles dead men’s pockets, and witnesses old acquaintances die, but the action is more melancholy than exciting: Riddley senses that his adventures have a shape, but he can’t comprehend it. He knows that he is in a larger story, or perhaps repeating a past story, but he does not know the storyteller or their purpose.

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Series: Genre in the Mainstream

Essential Works By A Surrealist Master: The Complete Stories and Down Below by Leonora Carrington

“Her two feet are left over still, but if you have a little bag, I’ll eat them later in the day.” So speaks a hyena on page six of “The Debutante,” the opener to The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington. The hyena, a personal friend of the narrator, has just killed the narrator’s maid so that she can “nibble” off her face and take the narrator’s place at a truly tedious ball: “I certainly wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t hate having to go to a ball so much.”

“The Debutante,” remarkable even if you didn’t know Carrington wrote it in her very early twenties, is not an outlier: Every story in this collection is as surprising, as vicious, and as memorable.

Although she wrote short stories, novellas, a novel, a play, children’s stories, and a memoir, Leonora Carrington remains best known as a Surrealist painter. Her books have not always remained in print, but her paintings, drawings, and prints have hung for decades in the world’s great museums. April 2017 would have marked Carrington’s hundredth birthday; The Complete Stories publishes this month to celebrate her centennial, as does her memoir, Down Below.

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Don Juan in the Machine: Amanda Prantera’s Conversations with Lord Byron

I don’t think any reviewer of Amanda Prantera’s third novel, first published in 1987, could resist the chance to marvel at its full title: Conversations with Lord Byron on Perversion, 163 Years after His Lordship’s Death. It’s a mouthful, it’s hard to remember, it takes up half the cover real estate and three-quarters of the book’s slim spine, and it’s absolutely perfect.

I’d guess that most readers have encountered neither that incredible title nor the author’s name. Very few science fiction or fantasy fans have heard of Amanda Prantera, and it’s not difficult to see why. Many of her books, most of which are currently unavailable in the United States, have no fantastical elements, and those that do will still end up shelved in general fiction. She’ll follow a mildly satirical conspiracy story with a pseudonymous vampire novel, and then publish a book about a British family in China. Prantera, it seems to me, is like Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, or David Mitchell: a writer equally happy and adept at using domestic realism, hallucinatory fantasy, or technological speculation to share her unique vision.

[What are these conversations about?]

The Depths of Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean

These days, H.P. Lovecraft seems to appear in just as many works of fiction as Cthulhu. But I can’t imagine that Lovecraft, who held himself in such high regard, would be entirely happy with the new forms his literary immortality has taken. Paul La Farge’s new book The Night Ocean would appall its inspiration, and that’s one of the many reasons you should read it.

As Tobias Carroll wrote recently, it’s become very difficult to talk about the purveyor of the weird and master of the unnamable without bringing up the crank, the racist, and the misogynist who shared his body. Horror readers may remember the pompous “old-purple-prose” of Charles Stross’s novella Equoid; comics fans may have met the prissily vicious racist in Warren Ellis’s Planetary or the more sympathetic figure in Alan Moore’s Providence. Michel Houellebecq, best known in this country for being French and perennially controversial, wrote a biographical essay praising Lovecraft for the courage to be Against the World, Against Life.

Lovecraft’s protagonists have a tendency to disappear, though they tend to leave their manuscripts behind so that we, the readers, can find out what has happened to them. Usually “what has happened” involves some combination of nameless ritual, unutterable horror, degenerate cultists, and inhuman monster. The Night Ocean begins with a disappearance, but never once hints at the supernatural. Charlie Willett, writer, Lovecraft obsessive, and psychiatric patient, has fled a mental hospital, hitched a ride to a forest, and vanished into a lake. His wife, Marina, isn’t sure Charlie’s really dead, but she has no illusions of supernatural intervention. Cthulhu sleeps beneath the Pacific in R’yleh; he wouldn’t deign to rest beneath Agawam Lake in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

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Knights and the 1960s: J.B. Priestley’s Comic Fantasy

J.B. Priestley’s semi-Arthurian fantasy The Thirty-First of June possesses little seriousness, less depth, and no plausibility. The book’s settings are sketchy, its plotting haphazard, its worldview dated, its reviews mixed, and its characters thinner than the paper they’re printed on. Fifty-five years after its publication, it enjoys few readers and little reputation.

Having said all that, I must admit I quite enjoyed the book. It is light in every way: light in pages, light in difficulty, and, most importantly, light of heart.

[Old-fashioned humor]

Irresistible Books: Small Presses in Science Fiction and Fantasy

Since you’re reading this post on Tor.com, I think it’s fair to guess you’re familiar with science fiction and fantasy publishers. Maybe you can even pick out the publishers’ logos on your book’s spines: You know that mountain there means Tor, that that little planet is Orbit, and that DAW’s logo almost looks like a bird. But the more you read, the more you’re likely to hear about exciting books from smaller presses—books that you may not always find in bookstores, but that you will want to read. So I’d like to tell you a little bit about small presses, their market, and their role in the science fiction and fantasy community.

I remember the moment I first discovered small press books. It was 2008, and I’d just started reading—and admiring—Tad Williams’s Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy. I was eager to see what he’d published since the end of that series, so I typed his name into Google. Eventually I found myself on the website of Subterranean Press, which I’d never heard of and which had just published a 400-page-plus collection of Williams’s short fiction. This collection was a limited edition—only a few hundred copies of the hardback were printed—and every online retailer was charging the full sticker price of $40 for it. I didn’t know if I could justify spending that much on a single book, but then I remembered that this limited edition was also signed.

[Buying the book and making a discovery]

Two Lives in Several Genres: Alasdair Gray’s Lanark

When he wrote his first novel, Lanark: A Life in Four Books, Alasdair Gray had a great many things he wanted to accomplish. He wanted to write the great Scottish epic; he wanted to imitate Joyce’s Ulysses and Portrait of the Artist; he wanted to demonstrate his erudition, gain literary renown, and expound his view of the world. He wanted to make readers laugh, cry, and possibly put the book down in consternation. I am not sure that one of his goals was to utterly confound the reviewers assigned to explain his book, but if it was, he succeeded.

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The Weirdest Worlds: (Another) Introduction to R.A. Lafferty

If you look at the amount of words that have been written about him, it’s easy to conclude that R.A. Lafferty needs no introduction. There are, by now, probably as many introductions to and appreciations of R.A. Lafferty as there are books by the author. The introduction to Lafferty has almost become a genre in itself. Not only have major science fiction and fantasy writers like Neil Gaiman, Michael Swanwick, Gene Wolfe, Harlan Ellison, and Richard Lupoff all written about Lafferty, but Lafferty’s fans are some of the most active in the genre, publishing a biannual fanzine and organizing an annual Lafferty-themed con. The Guardian and the Washington Post have both covered him, and there are rumors of some forthcoming academic studies.

Why, then, have so few science fiction readers heard of Lafferty? Why am I writing another introduction?

[Three Reasons]

Lifting Up the Enchanter’s Robe: Robert Nye’s Merlin

Large Gothic letters on the front cover of Robert Nye’s 1978 novel Merlin announce the book as “A Very Adult Fantasy.” To underline the book’s adult credentials, the book’s designer has set the “Very” in “Very Adult” in scarlet. The prospective reader can be forgiven for imagining a tediously bawdy assault on Arthurian legend, a story where “swords” are rarely ever swords, where rescued damsels are always willing, and where the repeated jokes get old fast. I love Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but I have no desire to see the Castle Anthrax scene crammed between covers and stretched into a novel.

If all I knew of this book were what I saw on its front, I would have left it on the shelf.

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