Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Almost-Classics

Here’s an interesting post from James Davis Nicoll at tor.com: Almost-Classics: SF Concepts and Settings That Deserve Better Execution

Now, Nicoll is undoubtedly more into golden-age SF than I am, but let’s just see how he defines almost-classics and which works he picks out as belonging to the category:

Something I was reminded of while watching the third, most famous movie version of The Maltese Falcon: the works to remake in one’s own image aren’t the classics but the almost-classics, the works whose central conceit was much better than the final product. Singular, perfect works are hard to improve on but there are lots of books and films sabotaged by their creator’s shortcomings and the commercial realities of the day. If anyone wants an essay on “books I wish someone would use as a springboard for executions that are actually good,” just ask.

That’s worth bringing up these days in particular, when Hollywood seems perfectly willing to re-do absolutely everything, no matter how stupid. (I’m thinking here of George of the Jungle.) If Hollywood doesn’t plan to invest in actually new works, what ought it be revising and revisiting?

Here’s what Nicoll suggests:

1. Fred Pohl and Jack Williamson’s The Starchild Trilogy — Nicholl feels that the setting was fantastic, but all its potential lost in the telling of “perfectly conventional tales about heavy-handed dictatorships with ambitions of total rule” and so on. I don’t know; maybe I would like these perfectly conventional tales? Following conventional storylines can be fine if the story is well told. Granted, I have never been crazy about the pulp style.

2. Poul Anderson’s The Makeshift Rocket — I am interested in Nicholl’s comments here which at first I thought clarified his criteria for this list, so I’ll pull this one out:

The Makeshift Rocket may have had its roots in Anderson’s desire to sell something to John W. Campbell …. Anderson may also have been thinking of Jack Williamson’s SeeTee novels when he created a world in which the gyrogravitic generator gave anyone with enough money the ability to reach and terraform an asteroid. What a setting! There are almost a million asteroids more than a kilometre in diameter in the asteroid belt (twenty five million if all you want is a Little Prince-sized estate). All of them could be home to a pocket nation. That would be more worlds than many galactic empires.

Anderson touches on the potential of his setting, but the story he tells is a rather tiresome comic retelling of the Fenian Raids, one based on the notion that ethnic stereotypes are funny, as are the daffy girls who insist on tagging along with the guys’ adventure. There is so much potential here. Anderson leaves most of it on the table.

Well, I’m not familiar with the Fenian Raids. Anticipating that some of his readers might not be, Nicoll’s adds a footnote: The Fenian Raids were a 19th century attempt by Irish nationalists to steal Canada so they could then blackmail Britain into granting Irish independence. That may seem an excessively audacious proposal but to quote my review of The Makeshift Rocket, “it failed by a lot less than you would expect from ‘rag-tag rebels attempt to heist an entire god-damned country.’”

Interesting! Indeed, doesn’t sound like the “comic retelling” of Anderson’s story would have worked for me, but certainly this basic plot seems clever. The setting is great, the plot is excellent, I see why Nicholl was disappointed in Anderson’s actual rendition. I really thought this one showed how Nicholl waspicking his ripe-for-a-do-over list.

Then I hit this next entry.

3. Jerry Pournelle’s “Those Pesky Belters and Their Torchships”, which is an essay, not a story. Here Nicholl is not objecting to the essay, but to the lack of influence it’s had on science fiction. As far as I’m concerned, that sort of complaint belongs on an entirely different list. It’s totally unrelated to the idea of a great idea that’s poorly executed.

4. Asimov’s Foundation series. Here again Nicholl shifts his criteria. He declares the series was good, but feels Asimov failed to take advantage of the setting’s potential. I can’t say that seems to fall into the same category as (2), and certainly not (3), so now the cohesion of the list seems not just lost, but completely blown to smithereens.

5. A Canadian television show, “The Starlost.” Here we are more back to the failure mode of (1) and (2) — a failure of execution that destroys a perfectly workable plot. Here Nicholl’s comments are particularly funny, so let me quote:

If you are lucky, you are either too young or too not-Canadian to have been exposed to my next candidate, the venerable television show The Starlost. Based on a premise by Harlan Ellison, The Starlost was set on a generation ship whose inhabitants had forgotten they were on a ship and who certainly didn’t know it was headed for a star. The program should have been entertaining. What it was, in actuality, was the sort of poorly written, ineptly produced, badly acted sci-fi hackwork that really highlights the potential benefits of macular degeneration.

I’m going to have to remember that line about the potential benefits of macular degeneration.

5. Finally, Nicholl slams Armstrong’s Otherworld series for the typical werewolf tropes, complains that her werewolves don’t act like real wolves — they do, actually, when they’re in wolf form — and highlights Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty Norville series as the “remake” that gets it right. I haven’t read any of Vaughn’s books, but I admit I am now somewhat interested.

Now . . . I don’t feel this is a workable list. In fact, since it fails to keep its criteria even remotely consistent, I think it falls into its own category (or one of its categories): a nice concept that fails in execution and deserves a makeover.

Thus, five works with great ideas for the plot and great settings, or otherwise great potential, that then fail in execution and ought to be re-made. Can I come up with five? I can try.

1.Teckla by Brust. The whole idea for this book was terrible, so I guess that is stretching the idea for this list. Nevertheless, it springs to mind as a series book that ought to have been good if only the author had dealt with it in a completely different way. To write Teckla, Brust had to shoehorn all kinds of foreign ideas about economics into a society that should never have given rise to them — remember how clear it is later that the Dragaerans were created to be stable, how much it takes to change their society, and also that the nature of each house is biologically set. Also, Brust totally altered Cawti in order to force her into this plot. Also, the reaction of the Empress to the events in the book was just not believable. PLUS IT WAS AN AWFUL READING EXPERIENCE.

2. Dragonshadow and Night of the Demon Queen by Hambly. This is similar to Teckla — a series book that goes to bad, bad places. I realize Hambly was having personal issues in her life and that turned the DARK GRIM MOOD knob to eleven, but these are absolutely awful after the excellent Dragonsbane. The fourth book was the recovery after the torture, but skipping the whole demon posession thing and writing a completely different sequel to Dragonsbane would have been a way better idea.

3. Xenocide by OSC. This one would probably have worked better as a standalone. As it was, Card forced all kinds of weird plot developments into the Ender universe, threw in some completely unbelievable science-ish handwaving magic, inserted a Deus Ex solution to the problem, and the whole thing was just painful.

4. The Gospel of the Knife by Will Shetterly, which was the putative sequel to Dogland. The first book, Dogland, was excellent despite the totally repulsive idea of keeping dogs on display in a kind of zoo. The child’s pov was beautifully handled, the mythological elements elegantly subtle, the cultural backdrop deep. Even the dog zoo is not too awful even though the concept is never going to work for me. Given all that, I had high hopes for The Gospel of the Knife. Alas, it was dreadful, like two disconnected and even antagonistic short novels stitched together by Dr. Frankenstein. The pov is nothing special, the setting uninteresting, the weird second person narrative style obtrusive, the plotting that forces the Chosen One trope into place ridiculous. Also, nothing actually connects the first book with the putative sequel except the name of the protagonist. It’s practically impossible to believe the author felt Gospel could function as any kind of sequel. A sequel to Dogland would have been fine. This is not actually that book.

5. Highlander 2, Alien 3, Terminator 3. Anybody could have done a better job with any of these, and I wish somebody had.

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2 Comments Almost-Classics

  1. SarahZ

    Kitty Norville starts pretty well, but I don’t think I’d put it above Otherworld.

    Orson Scott Card’s personal hangups and religious agendas can sometimes sabotage his books, so I think he might have some other candidates for this list, but I agree regarding Xenocide.

    John Scalzi’s books tend to disappoint me, since they never quite do what I was hoping with the initial premise (except Redshirts).

  2. Rachel

    I think that several others of OSC’s books have failed in more or less interesting ways, though his books can also be tremendously good. He definitely shows a wide range of quality in his work, more than almost any other author I can think of. As far as I’m concerned, though, Xenocide stands out for really turning into a hot mess toward the end.

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