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The Cthulhu Mythos

26 Oct

The Cthulhu Mythos was a term coined by August Derleth to describe the collective work of several writers, among them Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E Howard (creator of Conan the Barbarian) and, most famously, H P Lovecraft. Architect of a universe without symmetry or sanity, Lovecraft challenged the preconceptions of his readers through his tales, in which mankind is alone and helpless in a reality as cruel and mysterious as it is vast. Lovecraft and his circle remade the horror genre in the early 20th century, discarding ghosts and witches and instead writing about malignant entities from beyond the stars. A number of plot devices were utilized by those writing about the Cthulhu Mythos in order to convey the essentials of Lovecraft’s cosmic philosophy. These devices included a wide array of extraterrestrial creatures (deemed ‘gods’ by their human followers), such as the cosmic entity in The Call of Cthulhu, the fungi from Yuggoth in The Whisperer in Darkness, and the Old Ones of At the Mountains of Madness. Then there is the veritable library of mythical books containing the forbidden truth about these ‘gods’, such as the Necronomicon, a blasphemous grimoire containing all manner of satanic rituals, apocalyptic prophecies and black magic spells, written circa 700 AD by the mad Arab Abdul al-Hazred. Most memorable of all, perhaps, is the fictionalized New England landscape which was to be such an influence on later horror writers. As Stephen King once said, when as a child he found in his attic a dusty copy of Lovecraft’s The Lurker in the Shadows that once belonged to his father, “I knew that I’d found home”.

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Manga: The Enigma of Anime

16 May

‘Manga’ is now officially defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as a ‘Japanese genre of cartoons, comic books and science fiction films, typically with a science fiction or fantasy theme (the Japanese definition is slightly different, but more on that anon). Since the days of Akira, quality Japanese animation has been delivered to the West by a company that liked the medium so much it named itself after it. Manga Entertainment saw the future in Akira, snapped up the cinema and video rights to the film, tried it out on Western audiences, and in the process brought a whole new world to the English lexicon. Since then, Manga Entertainment has brought many of Japan’s best cartoons to the rest of the world: as well as Akira, other seminal manga films included Ghost in the Shell and Ninja Scroll. If you’re yet to take the plunge into manga, think big – big robots, big explosions and big future cities. In terms of mood and atmosphere, films like The Matrix, Blade Runner, Kill Bill and Sin City probably best capture the tone of manga on the big screen – typically anything where the old-fashioned themes of westerns and gangster movies are transplanted into a futuristic or ultra-modern setting. As these films illustrate, the impact of manga on global SF and fantasy in recent years has been humungous – Japanese animation now seems almost to be the medium of choice for auteur directors and fantasy/SF fans all over the world.

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A Flight of Dragons

13 Jul

Fantasy lost one of its leading lights with the death last year of Anne McCaffrey. Over the course of her 46 year career she won both the Hugo and  Nebula Awards, her book The White Dragon became one of the first science fiction novels ever to land on the New York Times Best Seller List and she was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2006. To readers all over the world, however, her greatest achievement remains the creation of one of the most beloved sci-fi/fantasy series of all time, The Dragonriders of Pern. As of June 2011 the series comprises 22 novels and several short stories, although it is by no means over in spite of McCaffrey’s death. Beginning in 2003, her son Todd has also written Pern novels, both solo and jointly with Anne, and aims to continue to do so. Two of the novellas included in the first novel, Dragonflight, made McCaffrey the first woman to win either a Hugo or Nebula Award. Original, inspirational and universal in its appeal, the Pern series has itself straddled boundaries that have not conventionally been crossed and broken all sorts of new ground in fiction. Pern is one of those rare fantasy worlds which almost seems to have a life of its own outside the novels – it has inspired board and computer games, music, art and graphic novels as well as, perhaps inevitably, constant rumours of a Pern film or television series. Let’s take a look at what made McCaffrey such a popular author and her world of Pern, its dragons and their riders such enduring creations.

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The Unifying Force

28 Jun

It’s rare to find a film as famous, yet universally hated, as 1999’s The Phantom Menace. Even now, the mere mention of the film is enough to attract derision from critics and something akin to pure hate from fans of the original Star Wars trilogy. Why has it attracted so much criticism, and is this justified? Can anything good be said about Star Wars: Episode One? Well, since I always like to at least start my posts by saying something positive, let’s look at ‘The Light Side’. First off there was the trailer, which seemed to promise everything that we ever craved from a new Star Wars film (it’s a shame they had to blow it by adding 132 minutes of padding!). Then there are the backdrops – the grandeur of Theed and the Art Deco wonder of Coruscant. There is the CGI in the first journey to the underwater city – a fine fantasy moment that is truly breathtaking. On a girly note, there is Queen Amidala’s geisha get-up and a range of nice frocks. Lastly, two words: Darth Maul. Unfortunately, we now have to look at ‘The Dark Side’.

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In the grim darkness of the far future…

13 Apr

…there is only war. So goes the famous strapline to Games Workshop’s futuristic fantasy role-playing game universe of Warhammer 40,000. I totally fell in love with Warhammer 4oK (as it is also affectionately known) as soon as I came across it. My only real experience of science fiction prior to 40K was watching Star Wars at the movies and Doctor Who on the small screen, both of which I liked but for some reason they both also fell short in some way. By that stage I was far more of a fan of fantasy – proper, big, epic fantasy, with wars, character conflict, large scale storytelling and immersive, fully developed worlds to explore. By contrast science fiction seemed either too shallow and childish, at the Star Wars end of the spectrum, or too esoteric and complicated at the Arthur C Clarke/H G Wells end. I had yet to discover the intricacy and imagination of books like the Dune, Pern and Majipoor series and to have my horizons expanded in weird yet wonderful ways by watching films like Alien, Blade Runner and Terminator. My first exposure to how good science fiction could be came when a friend bought me Space Hulk as a birthday present. I won’t lie, at first I was a little bit miffed – I mean, board games (as opposed to computer games) were already old hat even when I was a youngster. With its little carved figures and board sections I genuinely at first glance saw little difference between Space Hulk and chess. Then I read the rule book. These were just a few of the things that I came across: centuries-old superhuman soldiers who were organised into chapters like futuristic knights; aliens who were elves in all but name, roaming the stars in gigantic spaceships in an attempt to stave off the extinction of their race; a shadow universe inhabited by beings of unimaginable evil who constantly tried to corrupt and destroy humanity with their foul touch; hive fleets of nightmarish creatures floating in space, waiting for a chance to devour starships, planets and peoples to satisfy their unspeakable hunger; and a billion other worlds and races locked in a dark future whose only certainty was war. I was hooked.

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Did Philip K Dick Dream of Electric Sheep?

15 Feb

By the time of his death in March 1982, Philip K Dick had become perhaps the most respected of modern science fiction writers. He was also, with the possible exception of H P Lovecraft, the most neurotic of major science fiction writers, obsessed by the notion that human beings were trapped in a ‘web of unreality’. His persecution mania developed to a point where he could undoubtedly have been described as a paranoid schizophrenic. Yet, towards the end of his life, Dick became convinced that he had been ‘possessed’ by a kind of super-alien or angel, who went on to reorganize his life. Whilst a number of people have cast doubts on some of Dick’s more bizarre claims, his case is perhaps too complex to be dismissed as simple self-delusion.

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The Sorcerer of Majipoor

18 Jan

Robert Silverberg’s creation of the giant world of Majipoor ranks almost alongside Frank Herbert’s Dune as one of the most iconic settings in all of science fiction. Majipoor, which has a diameter at least ten times as great as that of Earth, was settled in its distant past by colonists from our own planet, who made a place for themselves amid the Plurivars, the intelligent indigenous beings, known to the new arrivals from Earth as ‘Metamorphs’ because of their ability to alter their bodily forms. Majipoor is an extraordinarily beautiful planet, with a largely benign climate, and is a place of astonishing zoological, botanical and geographical wonders. Everything on Majipoor is large-scale, fantastic and marvellous. The Majipoor series has been both successful and ground-breaking but Silverberg might never have written it following the collapse of the market for science fiction stories at the end of the 1950s. Silverberg was a voracious reader and writer from childhood and made his start contributing science fiction short stories to pulp magazines almost as soon as he graduated from Columbia University, where he studied English Literature in the mid-1950s. It was only in the mid-1960s that science fiction writers were allowed to become more literarily ambitious and Frederik Pohl, then editing three science fiction magazines, offered Silverberg carte blanche in writing for them. Thus inspired, Silverberg returned to the field that gave him his start, paying far more attention to depth of character development and social background than he had in the past and mixing in elements of the modernist literature he had studied at Columbia.

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Frank Herbert’s Dune Saga

9 Dec

Dune has always been one of my favourite novels because, quite simply, there is nothing else like it. No less an authority than Arthur C Clarke once said that Dune was ‘Unique among SF novels… I know nothing comparable to it except The Lord of the Rings‘ and I think that this is perhaps the best comparison that can be made. Like Tolkien’s work, Herbert’s Dune universe is vast in scope and depth, spanning millenia and galaxies and having a truly epic, almost mythic feel. It is clear from reading Dune that Herbert spent considerable time building this world and the complex history behind it, which helps to give it a very real, authentic feel. Although Herbert makes use of real world cultures and legends – in particular of the Middle East – his Dune saga never feels derivative and his characters are archetypes rather than stereotypes. The effort that went into creating the Dune books is, I am sure, part of the reason why this towering saga has lived on in the imagination of generations of readers since it was first published in the 1960s and is generally acknowledged to be the finest, most widely acclaimed and beloved science fiction novel of the 20th century.

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Kristine Kathryn Rusch

2 Dec

Kristine Kathryn Rusch is an award-winning author who has written fiction in many genres – including science fiction, horror, romance and mystery as well as what she is best known for, fantasy. As if that weren’t enough, she has also found time to edit a number of genre magazines. With all of this on her plate, it constantly surprises me to see that she is able to produce original, inventive and thought-provoking short stories and novels. Take one of her most famous efforts, Hitler’s Angel, which tells the story of Annie, a young American student in the 1970s investigating the death of Hitler’s niece Geli Raubal, who was famously found dead of a gunshot wound in 1931. Although at the time Geli’s death was ruled suicide, the suspicion of murder has always remained and Annie finds and interviews the retired detective in Munich who led the original investigation in the 1930s. Slowly but surely, in a tale often told in flashback by the detective, layer upon layer of mystery surrounding Geli’s death is lifted and the horrifying truth is revealed. I’ve often thought that Hitler’s Angel might make a terrific film, not least because of Rusch’s startling ability to create pictures with her prose and this is a common feature of much of her writing. Continue reading

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