Science Fiction Classics (Graphic Classics, Volume 17)Written by Hans Christian Andersen, Ben Avery, Antonella Caputo, Arthur Conan Doyle, Lord Dunsany, Hunt Emerson, EM Forster. Rod Lott, Tom Pomplun, Rich Rainey, Jules Verne, Stanley G Weinbaum, and HG Wells
Illustrated by Hunt Emerson, Micah Farritor, Roger Langridge, Ellen L Lindner, Johnny Ryan, George Sellas, and Brad Teare
Edited by Tom PomplunEureka Productions; $17.95
You might think that a book full of classic science fiction would be a natural subject to talk about in a column concerning adventure fiction, but I actually reconsidered it a couple of times. While I love robots, aliens, spaceships, and laser guns, I’m not someone that real science fiction fans would want to let into their club. Gimme Star Wars and Flash Gordon; you can keep your Asimov and Clarke over there. An anthology of the "classics" of scifi is likely going to need some serious spicing up to keep me interested. Fortunately, Science Fiction Classics has a full rack.
There are a couple of reasons that the anthology is appropriate for this space. First, it’s Volume 17 in Eureka’s Graphic Classics series. That means that there’s no way it’s going to be anything less than excellent in terms of how stories are selected and presented. Editor Tom Pomplun’s got the selection formula figured out and he’s great at executing it. He always has at least one, hugely popular story that everyone knows (War of the Worlds, for instance), but then he fills the rest of the book with lesser known material by a mixture of authors. The result is always surprising. Hans Christian Andersen and EM Forster aren’t exactly renowned for their scifi work, for example. And even writers who are – like Jules Verne – are represented by interesting picks (Verne’s “In the Year 2889,” for instance, instead of, say, From the Earth to the Moon).
The second reason that Science Fiction Classics rules is the way in which the stories are adapted. Pomplun’s always had an eye for interesting artists and the ability to marry them to the right story.
Take Verne’s “In the Year 2889” again. I’m not a big fan of Jules Verne at all. He always has great ideas, but a serious problem crafting proper stories out of them. “2889” is no exception. As with all the Verne stories I’ve read, there’s no plot to it; Verne’s just stringing together various scenes to create a day in the life of Fritz Napolean Smith, the wealthiest, most powerful man in the twenty-ninth century. But what Pomplun does is he turns it into a script that emphasizes the action and then hires Johnny Ryan to make it funny and charming. Smith looks like a really smart version of George Jetson and his world is full of awesome robots and flying cars and little machines that go bleep bloop beep! I’d normally have to struggle through a Verne essay on – well, on anything really. Pomplun and Ryan make it not just bearable, but fun.
Stanley G Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey” is another story that’s done an immeasurable service by the art. I’ve never read anything else by Weinbaum, but “Martian Odyssey” is an episodic tale about an astronaut who’s separated from the rest of his Martian expedition and crash lands. As he makes his way back across the planet to his team he encounters a variety of odd creatures with even stranger cultures. Weinbaum’s bio in the back of the book lets us know that it was a highly influential story (Asimov apparently listed it as one of the top three), but like Verne’s work, there’s no real plot stringing the events together. Enter Ben Avery with some modern slang and George Sellas with his animated, pulp-inspired visuals. The adaptation looks and sounds like a Flash Gordon cartoon and it’s just as exciting, pulling you through the astronaut's adventures in constant wonder about what kind of awesomely absurd creature you’re going to meet next.
Another example of Pomplun’s match-making skills is putting Micah Farritor on War of the Worlds. Farritor’s got an expressive style and a lively imagination that have served him well on the nostalgic scifi series White Picket Fences. They’re perfect for Wells’ story too: emphasizing the human drama while creating some fantastically unique visuals for the Martians and their machines. Rich Rainey’s script does a great job of picking out the best, most exciting bits of the tale. It’s unfortunate that Wells’ allegory about imperialism is somewhat lost in the translation (I guess I do like some meaningful scifi), but it’s a great, moving adventure story and has some fairly profound things to say about how people handle each other in a crisis.
My favorite story of the book though is Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Disintegration Machine.” Outside of other volumes of Graphic Classics I’ve only ever read Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stuff, but I’ve seen enough movie and TV adaptations of The Lost World to know who Professor Challenger is. I had no idea that Doyle used the half-insane adventurer outside of his dinosaur novel though, so I was pleasantly surprised to see him and newspaper reporter Edward Malone matching wits with a mad scientist. Rod Lott adapted the story and if you’re a reader of his book review site, Bookgasm, you know he’s got great taste in big adventure stories. Match that with The Muppet Show’s Roger Langridge and you’ve got a thrilling tale that’ll make you wish Doyle had spent as much time on Challenger and Malone as he did Holmes and Watson. As it is, I’ve now got to track down the two other Challenger novels and a second short story that I’ve only just now discovered the existence of.
I’m not sure what to say about Lord Dunsany’s “The Bureau d’Echange de Maux” except that I liked it very much. I’m not exactly sure how it’s a science fiction story since it involves more magic than technology, but it’s a great, spooky story that’s atmospherically illustrated by Brad Teare.
The most surprising entry though is EM Forster’s “The Machine Stops.” I’m a huge fan of movies based on Forster’s novels, but I had no idea that he’d written a science fiction story, not to mention such a prophetic one. He talks about a world in which people’s lives are so served (and possibly controlled) by an omnipresent Machine that they no longer have to leave their rooms. They communicate with each other and experience the world solely through their monitor screens.
It’s gotten to the point that on the rare occasions that they need to leave their quarters, they find looking directly at things distasteful and touching each other is rude. In this world, we meet a mother who is reluctantly forced to travel and visit her son who’s begged her for a face-to-face meeting about something vitally important. Forster knew how to include a plot with his world-building.
Add in a humorously illustrated essay by Hans Christian Andersen and Hunt Emerson about life "In a Thousand Years," and as with all the Graphic Classics volumes, Science Fiction Classics is as entertaining as it is enlightening. My only frustration with it is that I now know what I’m missing in a world without an ongoing Professor Challenger series by Rod Lott and Roger Langridge.
Four out of five cranky, probably nuts professors.