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Ben Picks Ten: Fantasy March 29, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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[First, the disclaimer: If you’ve seen the title of this post and wandered over looking for anything more X-rated than The Lord of the Rings, it’s time to go on home now. Besides, I hear your mother calling… ]

Now that we’ve cleared that up, our friend Ben would like to continue handing out One-Ben Awards, this time in the rich and rewarding realm of fantasy fiction and film. (What are One-Ben Awards, you ask? Check out “Ben Picks Ten: Music” to find out all about ’em.) Here at Hawk’s Haven, we love fantasy and reading, so please feel free to chime in with your own favorites—I’m sure there are many I’m missing, besides the ones I’m snubbing.

But let’s get back to the awards. Without more ado:

1. All-Time Favorite Fantasy: JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Our friend Ben first encountered The Hobbit in sixth grade, and read it pretty much in one sitting. Lighter, brighter, and a lot more fun than the subsequent Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit remains the beloved favorite to this day. I hear a movie version’s in the works, and hope to God it does the story and characters more justice than the “first there was this battle, then there was that battle, guess what happened next—you’re right! another battle” films that turned LotR into a wizard-ridden version of “Braveheart.” At least they had the decency to cast Christopher Lee and Sean Bean, two of our friend Ben’s favorites, but they forgot about the “fantasy” and “complexity” parts in their excitement over the computer-generated special effects.

2. Best Pseudo-Historical Fantasy: Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Song for Arbonne. Imagine that you’re in a parallel universe that looks a lot like mediaeval France. You’re in the sunny South, the land of the troubadours, but despite the cloudless skies, a storm of epic proportions is brewing that will pit force and intolerance against civilization and culture. Guy Gavriel Kay’s beautiful writing and sound historical background make A Song for Arbonne one of the greatest fantasy works of all time.

3. Best Anti-Hunting Fantasy Set on Another Planet: Sheri Tepper’s Grass. Tepper’s an excellent writer, but sometimes her pro-environment stance (a stance of which our friend Ben heartily approves) gets in the way of her stories. In Grass, it works with the plot to create a beautifully realized condemnation of upper-class rigidity and celebration of diversity and open-mindedness, both cultural and ecological. Plus, it’s a page-turning thriller—once the mystery starts, you can’t stop reading.

4. Best “Save the Whales” Fantasies Set on Another Planet: Joan D. Vinge’s The Snow Queen and The Summer Queen. Here’s a different and perhaps even more fabulous take on the “let’s stop exploiting our planet in the name of greed/extinction is inexcusable and really, really stupid” theme. On a distant planet in a galaxy far, far away, two rival clans, the Summers and Winters, alternate as planetary rulers. The Summers are peaceful agrarians who distrust technology and close the planet to offworlders during their rule; the Winters are tech and luxury lovers who welcome the offworlders and their high-tech conveniences when it’s their turn in power. Offworlders make the long trek to the unprepossessing planet because they want what it has: the secret of eternal youth. As The Snow Queen opens, Winter’s reign is about to give way to Summer’s, but this time, the ruling Snow Queen has other ideas…

5. Best “Oh, Geez! Now I’m on Another Planet” Fantasies: Mary Gentle’s Golden Witchbreed and Ancient Light. In these paired novels, Lynne DeLisle Christie is sent as Earth ambassador to the strange and hostile planet of Orthe, and not only has to figure out the elaborate, ancient, corrupt, and somehow menacing system of the court, but ends up having all kinds of interesting, terrifying, and revealing misadventures in the outback. It’s as though you and our friend Ben had found ourselves marooned in the courts of Pharaonic Egypt or Imperial China, with the uncomfortable feeling that no one was exactly pleased to see us. Beautifully realized, beautifully written.

6. Best Lizard King Fantasies: Steven Brust’s Jhereg series, featuring Vlad Taltos. What if humans weren’t the dominant species on Earth (or, well, a planet very much like Earth), but instead were under the thumbs of a ruling class of highly intelligent, ultra-strong, humanoid lizards with superpowers? Lizards who furthermore were living in a feudal society with all the trappings of chivalry and a rigid class structure where humans were the Untouchables? If you were an enterprising human with a lot of smarts, a cool witch for a grandpa, and an absolutely wicked sense of humor, could you break the mold and hold your own in the lizards’ world? This is the premise of Brust’s books, and I defy you to read them and not cheer their human hero, Vlad Taltos, on. Our friend Ben’s own sense of humor is unextinguishable (just ask Silence), and I really appreciate Brust’s strong infusion of wit into a genre that tends to take itself far too seriously.

7. Best Fantasies about King Arthur and All That: Mary Stewart’s quadrology about Merlin, beginning with The Crystal Cave and working its way through The Hollow Hills, The Wicked Day, and The Last Enchantment, remains for our friend Ben the best in the genre, and I’ve read most of ’em. Stewart’s wonderful writing skills serve her well in this series, and she had the good sense to realize that it was Merlin who was the truly romantic hero of the Camelot stories, not Arthur or Lancelot. I’ll never forgive her for tying Merlin’s powers to his virginity (Hey, Mary! Wizards just wanna have fun!), but apart from that, it’s still a great read. Somebody should be turning these books into a movie series!

8. Weird but Wonderful Fantasy Films. These post-apocalyptic fantasy films ironically star actors who would later make headlines by marrying, divorcing, and remarrying and divorcing: Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith. Do not, repeat, do not watch “A Boy and His Dog” unless you have a cast-iron sense of humor (and irony, for that matter); but if you can appreciate “The Far Side,” you’ll love it. And don’t watch “Cherry 2000” if you’re a chauvinist at heart. Otherwise, you’ll enjoy this feel-good film where a flawed, real-life woman wins out over a perfect “Stepford Wives”-type techno-doll.    

9. Favorite Character in a Fantasy Movie: Darth Vader, who else? Thank you, James Earl Jones! (Also starring as the immortal Thulsa Doom in “Conan the Barbarian;” see One-Ben Award #10.) “The Empire Strikes Back” showcases Vader and is definitely worth owning. Our friend Ben also enjoyed Harrison Ford’s performance in the series, but generally speaking, the wimpy Luke Skywalker wrecked the series for me. (That’s the savior of the Universe?! I don’t think so.)

10. Best Movie Fantasies: “Conan the Barbarian” and “Conan the Destroyer,” hands down (or thumbs up). Hugely entertaining, vividly realized, and generally a ton of fun, rising infinitely above both the generally ludicrous acting and the original books. Great music, too. Our friend Ben deeply regrets that John Milius and Arnold Schwarzenegger only made two of them. Watch them, and repeat after our friend Ben: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger!”

And the bonus:

11. Best Fantasy TV Series: “The Prisoner.” Our friend Ben really should watch this as an adult, since I never did figure out what it was about or what that weird beach-ball thingy was. But it was interesting and fun! For some reason, it brings to mind the novel Never Let Me Go, which was disturbing (and frustrating) in the same way. (Geez, why were they all so passive? Why didn’t they fight back?!!)