Several of my favorites works of science fiction are currently making their way to movie and television screens. I can't recall another time this was true of so many SF novels I love. In an earlier version of this post, I gushed about Andy Weir's The Martian and James S. A. Corey's The Expanse series. Both are now big hits, so I've deleted those portions of this post. I'm still looking forward to adaptations of Dan Simmons' Hyperion, Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, Neil Gaiman's American Gods, Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy, Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, and John Scalzi's Redshirts. In my opinion, all are well worth reading before (or after) seeing the screen versions. There's always something more on the page. And why not enjoy excellent stories twice?
Fans of Stephen King's The Stand, Hugh Howie's Wool, Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, John Scalzi's Old Man's War, and Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice will be glad to know they've been optioned, too, with some already in production. The print versions remain on my to-be-read pile.
The first book (and possibly also the second) of the four-book Hyperion Cantos series is being adapted into a SyFy miniseries by actor Bradley Cooper and director Todd Philips. Hyperion won Hugo and Locus Awards in 1990, and The Fall of Hyperion won the Locus Award and a British SF Award the next year. These two novels, the first of which sets up the plot while the second plays it out, are hands-down the most literary space operas I've ever read. If I could recommend only one series to someone who disdains SF as "mere" genre fiction, it would certainly be Hyperion Cantos.
Hyperion is structured like The Canterbury Tales or The Decameron, with several self-contained stories told by travelers to explain their connection to the planet Hyperion (named for a John Keats poem). The previous adventures of a consul, a priest, a scholar, a detective, a general, and a poet are haunting but seem at first to offer few clues about why these characters have been brought together or how they might survive their petrifying journey. One way or another, it's likely to be their last: Hyperion is in the crosshairs of the Ousters, planet-destroying enemies of colonized space. Their destination is the Time Tombs, an archaeological wonder that's been off limits for years, in part because it is protected by the Shrike, a creature of unknown origin. It is three meters tall, with a spiked metal carapace and four arms ending in scalpels. Its only interaction with the planet's humans has been to suddenly appear—it travels through time, so it's literally there in a blink and gone the next—to kill them or worse, to carry them off and impale them on the rapier thorns of a metal tree. (In my opinion, the Shrike is the best SF monster ever.) The Time Tombs have another disturbing aspect. Time there runs backward. This affects one character by causing her to awaken each morning a day younger and with no memory of what happened before she was that age.
There are many exquisite space opera details in Hyperion's 28th century universe, including the means of travel (Hawking drives and tree ships and Farcasters), the types of artificial intelligence, the futuristic super internet and voting machine called the All Thing. What's special about the books though is how brilliantly its classical and literary allusions complement and clarify its new ideas.
There's no word yet on when Hyperion will air, but I can't wait.
Every once in a while, a book is so exciting and big-screen ready that it's optioned for film before the first copy is ever printed. This was true of Ready Player One, which is being developed by Steven Spielberg. Readers don't know yet when production will begin, but it's a story that definitely requires a huge budget and a director who knows how to use computer graphics to excellent effect. Spielberg seems an excellent choice, so I have high hopes.
"Ready Player One" is a phrase computer gamers will recognize as a common prompt to begin playing. The book tells the story of a broke lonely teenager in 2045. He spends most of his time in his secret shanty, avoiding the sadness and dangers of life in a harsh dystopia. His skills and determination allow him to cobble together the hardware necessary to take on the challenge described here, in the book's opening chapters. The eccentric creator of OASIS, an ubiquitous computer game with thousands of virtual worlds, has died after designing the most potentially profitable Easter egg hunt ever: The control and profits of OASIS—worth billions—will go to the first gamer to find the virtual keys to it. The clues require a knowledge of 1980s gaming and computing as extensive and arcane as the developer's. Though millions attempt it, for five years the solution eludes even the most determined, including very well-funded teams of virtuoso players. The closer the protagonist gets to winning, the more peril he faces from ruthless competitors and those within OASIS who are determined to keep control.
This sounds like a book for computer gamers and lovers of '80s culture, but it's much more. It has plenty to say about poverty and resolve, the bright and dark sides of innovation, and the history of gaming, computing, and the internet. I've never played a computer game in my life, but that didn't spoil my enjoyment of the book at all. (I'm not a Luddite, I just get bored by games, including card games, board games, sports.) I found the story thrilling, and the author was deft and tactful about explaining pop culture and computer game references. What made the book the most fun for me, though, was the protagonist. He's a character of great charm and intelligence, and it was a pleasure to "work with" and root for him. And Wil Wheaton's narration of the audiobook was perfect.
This movie may be as much of a game-changer (so to speak) as Tron was in its day.
Fans were disappointed when, a year or so into the project, HBO abandoned American Gods as (so the rumor went) too big a story to fit on the small screen. But luckily, STARZ picked it up as a miniseries. It now has a pilot script from TV show Hannibal's showrunners, and STARZ has begun a casting search. I think this book could be dazzling on the small screen. It has great characters, many of them literally larger than life because they're gods or demigods, and the plot is unusual and exciting.
As the novel opens (the first chapter is here), a taciturn fellow named Shadow is released from prison after a 3-year sentence for aggravated assault and battery. Instead of returning to his beloved wife and the welcome party she promised, he finds that she's been killed in a car accident. On the plane home to her funeral, he meets a stranger named Mr. Wednesday, who offers him a job. Mr. Wednesday, it turns out, is actually the Norse God Odin, the first of several gods Shadow will encounter.
Shadow eventually learns that as immigrants came the U.S., they brought with them their beliefs in the dieties of their abandoned homelands. These translocated vestiges of devotion and memory gave the gods physical form, which they're able to retain as long as some believers continue to believe. As one might expect, their agendas are different and contradictory, and their relationships are fractious with petty emnities and shifting alliances. As some begin dying out with the last of the elderly immigrants who cherish them, upstart gods with a mastery of finance and technology become increasingly unwilling to share the new world with old gods. As the balance tips, there is much human collateral damage.
Given its themes, this book could easily have bogged down in philosophical musings about religions and philosophies. But those elements are handled with a very light touch, allowing the plot to find just the right level of strangeness while staying grounded in Shadow's often heart-breaking story. Gaiman has made the book's human characters as compelling as its god characters, and that's saying a lot.
The series showrunners have said they plan to expand on the events in <em>American Gods</em>, having gotten the okay from Gaiman to include some plot points from his book, Anansi Boys. I haven't yet read that one, but I don't see how adding more from Gaiman could be bad news.
THE FOUNDATION TRILOGY by Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov's classic trilogy, possibly the most influential series in the genre, is being adapted for HBO by Jonathan Nolan, cowriter with his brother Christopher of The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, and Interstellar, and author of the short story that was the basis for one of my all-time favorite movies, Memento.
I won't bother with plot details, as these are among the most widely read novels in the genre. But in broadest strokes, they deal with the mathematical science of psychohistory, a predictive tool allowing two Foundations, one of them secret, to shape strategies to shrink to 1,000 years the 30,000 years of barbarism expected to follow an impending collapse of the Galactic Empire. The books are a treasure trove of brilliant ideas, and the plot is exhilarating in its sweep. It features two of the most memorable characters in fiction, Hari Seldon, the developer of psychohistory, and the Mule, an aberration neither of Seldon's Foundations could anticipate.
REDSHIRTS by John Scalzi
This 2013 Hugo winner was picked up by FX for a series it hopes to air in early 2016. Redshirts begins as a hilarious musing on Star Trek's penchant for killing off certain minor characters, but it ends with deeper thoughts on the nature of reality. I loved this book, well-reviewed here. I hope FX does it justice.
FIVE OTHERS, FROM MY TO-BE-READ PILE
THE STAND by Stephen King is on its way to becoming two movies from Warner Brothers, to be directed by Josh Boone with Matthew McConaughey starring.
WOOL by Hugh Howey was picked up by 20th Century Fox for a movie to be directed by Ridley Scott.
THE FOREVER WAR, Joe Haldeman's 1975 classic, is at the center of a studio bidding war, with Channing Tatum committed as star and co-producer.
OLD MAN'S WAR by John Scalzi is coming to SyFy, to be directed by Wolfgang Peterson (The Perfect Storm).
ANCILLARY JUSTICE by Ann Leckie, 2014's Hugo winner, has been optioned by Fox.