Ah, the golden age of television. Complex plots, multiple characters, prestige TV that looks and feels like . . . books! Many great shows are based on science fiction and fantasy novels, from old classics like “The Tripods” and “Buck Rogers” to today’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and N.K. Jemisin’s upcoming “Inheritance” trilogy adaptation. Join us as we look at some titles that we think would also make for great TV.
Lavie: No science fiction writer was ever as weird, as brilliant and as unjustly neglected, perhaps, as Cordwainer Smith. It was the pen name of Paul Linebarger, a godson of Sun Yat-sen, an expert on psychological warfare and a self-described “visitor to small wars” — come to think of it, his life would make a good show! When Smith turned to science fiction, he created the most vivid, strange and fascinating far-future world — a world where the planet Norstrilia grows the immortality drug stroon from giant, diseased sheep. Where the underpeople — animals given human shape and intelligence and living as servants — are fomenting revolution against the Lords of the Instrumentality. It’s a world where cats pilot spaceships, ancient computers tell fortunes and a dog called D’joan can become the messiah. There was nothing like it in the 1960s. There is nothing like it now. You can pick up the collected stories in volumes such as “The Best of Cordwainer Smith” (1975) or “The Instrumentality of Mankind” (1979), or read “Norstrilia” (1975), Smith’s single novel in that world. With 10,000 years of history, distinct planets, worlds and cultures, and characters that are grotesque, cruel, kind, loving and whimsical, you have everything you’ll need to make a winning show. Forget “Dune” and bring on “The Dead Lady of Clown Town.”
Moving to the present, French author Aliette de Bodard’s “Xuya” universe has a similar heft to it. Thoroughly 21st century in outlook, and inspired by de Bodard’s Vietnamese heritage, the books conjure an immersive vision of a far future with AI, planets, habitats and people who often worry more about their families than about saving the galaxy. Start with Hugo and Nebula awards finalist “On a Red Station, Drifting” (2012) and work your way through the series to “Seven of Infinities” (2020). You won’t be disappointed.
And one more book on my wish list: Bangladeshi author Saad Z. Hossain’s “Escape From Baghdad!” (2015) might be the best treatment of the American invasion of Iraq — and certainly the weirdest. Two men attempt to escape Baghdad, only to find themselves in the midst of a centuries-old magical conspiracy. It is thrilling, laugh-out-loud in parts and thoroughly cinematic, a “Catch-22” for our time, with heroes that remain thoroughly human through the horrors of war.
Silvia: Considering the huge success of “Game of Thrones,” I haven’t figured out why someone hasn’t attempted an adaptation of Anne McCaffrey’s sprawling Dragonriders of Pern series, which began in 1968 with “Dragonflight.” C.J. Cherryh’s Chanur series also begs the TV treatment. It begins with “The Pride of Chanur” (1981). A hapless human is saved by a species of catlike space-faring aliens and lands right in the middle of a galaxy-wide conflict full of twists, turns and betrayals. It has the delicious, complex politics that will make a viewer salivate, plus it comes chock full of cool-looking aliens (step aside, “Avatar”).
P. Djèlí Clark is another author whose work evokes great sets and vistas. “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” (2016) and “The Haunting of Tram Car 015” (2019) have an urban fantasy vibe but are located in an alternate Egypt in the early 20th century. Clark’s stories come loaded with an investigative angle that harks back to old-style gumshoes — another cool twist.
Finally, Clark Ashton Smith is probably one of the lesser-known Weird writers of the classic era. While H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard have been adapted for the big screen or for TV shows such as “Night Gallery” and “Conan the Adventurer,” Smith hasn’t received the same attention. His wonderful collection of fantasy stories, “Hyperborea” (1971), about a mythical continent full of magic and adventure, written with a hint of wryness, would make the perfect background for a large-scale series. For anyone who is curious, my favorite story is “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros,” about a thief who gets more than he bargained for during a heist.
Lavie: So many Smiths! But let me add one more: Michael Marshall Smith. While his early Weird fiction books got big Hollywood deals, they didn’t get made. “Only Forward” (1994) starts as science fiction and takes a 90-degree turn into weird fantasy/horror, and “Spares” (1996) is the Weird noir take on clones harvested for their organs that is frankly better than “Never Let Me Go” — and I say this as a huge Kazuo Ishiguro fan.
What about you, reader? What did we miss, and what book would you like to see coming to the screen next?
Silvia Moreno-Garcia‘s latest novel, “Velvet Was the Night,” publishes this month. She is also the author of “Mexican Gothic,” “Gods of Jade and Shadow” and “Signal to Noise.” Lavie Tidhar is the author of several novels, including “The Violent Century,” “A Man Lies Dreaming,” “Central Station” and, most recently, “By Force Alone.”
Science Fiction and Fantasy
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