Allen Hammack 7 of the Best

Allen Hammack’s 7 of the Best

Written by Allen Hammack

Only seven? Really?!? That’s the biggest challenge in these sorts of articles, narrowing down a love of literature, television, and movies to choose only seven. So I’m going to cheat—I mean, I’m going to minmax the rules…

The Downfall of the Lord of the Rings and the Return of the King, by J. R. R. Tolkien
Original source material FTW, baby! Also known as the Red Book of Westmarch, written and compiled by Bilbo Baggins, Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee, and Elanor Fairbairn. The first book that convinced me fantasy could be fun. Suggested to me by a girlfriend from theater who said it wasn’t her cup of tea but that I might enjoy it—she changed my life! Getting into LotR meant I knew what was going on when our game group played Chainmail, which meant that I was ready for D&D, which led to me working for TSR, which led to all sorts of things… J    The more early English literature and mythology I studied, the more I appreciated how LotR not only told a great story but mimicked the early sagas in so many ways—structure, pacing, even the cadence of dialogue. A masterpiece. Then I got to enjoy the Bakshi movie and the Rankin/Bass shows for doing what they could do at the time with it, and BBC Radio did a long-form audio broadcast that took up most of one holiday. Much later I enjoyed the Peter Jackson versions for coming closest to really bringing Middle Earth to life. I later went on a Ringers cruise to New Zealand that took us to a lot of the great filming locations on day trips—it’s a magical place, to quote some SHIELD agent…

“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”

Tunnel in the Sky, by Robert A. Heinlein
Again, I mean all of Heinlein, but Tunnel in the Sky was the first book of his that I discovered in my high school library. I was an Eagle Scout, and the practical survival course appealed to me. The competent older sister character was the strongest female I had read until then. The brief description of the final exam stuck with me: “Any planet; any climate; any terrain.” Wow!

Heinlein wasn’t my first science fiction, but he was the first to emphasize the science over the fiction, while still telling great stories with relateable characters. As a budding scientist, this was crucial with me. I later discovered that along with the fantastic stories, Heinlein had been breaking stereotypes of gender, class, and race (although the last was sometimes temporarily defeated by publishers’ instructions to artists). None of these affected the Heinleinian view of a person—as long as you were competent, you were all right in RAH’s book.

Later I came to enjoy Friday, Job, and especially the Lazarus Long stories like the  epic “Time Enough for Love.” My philosophy was shaped by a combination of Heinlein and Star Trek’s Spock.

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

Created: The Destroyer, by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir
I came upon the series known for Sinanju masters Remo Williams and Chiun in an unusual way. After TSR we returned to Birmingham and we ran a game, book, and comic store. While we specialized in science fiction and fantasy, we had a lot of walk-in traffic that crossed all the genres. I noted a small but very steady number of people bought what the publishers called “Men’s Adventure” books typified by the Executioner—War against the Mafia series. Soon this other series—The Destroyer—was leading the pack, and women were buying them as well! I decided I needed to read what such a steady segment of customers was buying (a new one came out every couple of months). (Side note—it is a pleasant fiction that bookstore owners have more time to read than customers. The one benefit was being made aware of upcoming books that might pique my interest!) When I started reading about the martial artists who disdained all weapons yet managed to kill in violent enough ways to explain why they were in this category, I was puzzled. Then I started laughing—the books were slyly satirizing corruption and inadequacy in government, media, religion. Anything was a target, and they reflected current events. After a while, the warm family relationship between the “pale piece of pig’s ear” Remo and the “Little Father” Chiun became my primary interest in the books; at least the movie got that part right. Chiun is also the funniest racist you’ll ever read—EVERYONE is inferior to him, and it is the degree of inferiority that defines you.

Trust anyone you want—but make sure you get paid.”

Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey
Only because it was the first in the original sequence; I really like the later Harper tales better. The Dragonriders of Pern series was a nice conceit that used science fiction (interstellar colonization and genetic engineering) to set up a fantasy world with telepathic-empathic dragons. Through a combination of colonists’ choice and disastrous unforeseen circumstances (deadly falls of the voracious organism known as Thread), the world stays low-tech through most of the series. The low-tech setting allows it to play out as fantasy.

Of course, the real appeal of Pern is the dragons. When a clutch of dragon eggs near hatching, human children are gathered on the grounds. When a dragon hatches, it quickly impresses telepathically with a child, setting up a lifelong relationship of love more intimate than we non-telepathic humans could hope to achieve. A huge “Awww!” factor in these books.

“Drummer, beat, and piper, blow,
Harper, strike, and soldier, go.
Free the flame and sear the grasses
Till the dawning Red Star passes.”

Doc Savage #1, “The Man of Bronze”, by Lester Dent (as Kenneth Robeson)
Starting in the early 1930’s, the Doc Savage pulps predated Superman and may have been one of the inspirations for Siegel & Schuster; the word is explicitly used in some stories. Doc appeals to me because he is not powered or invulnerable or able to fly, but a mere mortal who through intelligence, discipline, exercise, hard work, and yes, great genes and parental wealth J  , becomes an amazing human being capable of astounding feats. Champion of the downtrodden, he defends the world and the common man from fantastic enemies and conspiracies. He’s also smart enough to surround himself with incredible gadgets and five geniuses, all veterans (along with Doc) of WWI who share a love of adventure. It turns out Doc has a female cousin Pat who rivals him in intelligence and resourcefulness, and who is as beautiful as Doc is handsome. What’s not to like?…

There was death afoot in the darkness. It crept furtively along a steel girder…”

The Avengers, television, 1961-1969
Not the  Marvel comics series (though I like them as well). Although slightly predating the first Bond movie, after the success of Dr. No the British series shifted from rather normal crimes to a whimsical satire of espionage adventure. The Avengers hit its stride from 1962-1968 when dapper agent John Steed (Patrick Macnee) of the bowler hat and sword umbrella was teamed with a strong female partner. First was Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman, later to play the gloriously-named Pussy Galore in Goldfinger), followed by Emma Peel (Diana Rigg). In one sly scene, Mrs. Peel and Steed are looking at a Christmas card he got from Mrs. Gale; he looks puzzled and wonders whatever is she could be doing in Fort Knox—again, see Goldfinger. Both Peel and Gale are forceful, liberated women who knew some martial arts, could handle a gun, and would often wear leather catsuits. Great character dialogue and witticisms, opponents including killer robots (The Cybernauts), telepaths, and giant alien carnivorous plants mixed in with the typical espionage opponents (generally Soviet). A jaunty, bouncy jazz theme song by Laurie Johnson made the openings and closings must-watch. All of Rigg’s episodes are worth watching, and in our enlightened times we can now watch the episode that was banned in the U.S. (A Touch of Brimstone) because of Rigg’s self-designed kinky costume and the inferences of BDSM.

Emma Peel: “I suppose Mother warned you about women like me?”
John Steed:  “Until now, I didn’t know there were women like you.”

The Prisoner, television, 1967-1968
Patrick McGoohan wore a lot of hats for this show—creator, writer, executive producer, and director—as well as being the lead actor. He starred as an unnamed man who abruptly and angrily resigns from his job (later we find he was a secret agent). As he is packing to leave we see gas flooding his apartment; when he wakes up he is in “The Village”, where no one has a name—he is Number Six. The Village is isolated by sea and mountains, there are surveillance cameras everywhere, and despite the cheerful music and ambiance, he is a prisoner. Number Six makes numerous escape attempts, often thwarted by Rover, a giant balloon device that tracks and suffocates escapees. The Village is apparently ruled by Number One, although we never see him; instead we have a sequence of Number Twos, who are replaced with Darth Vader-like efficiency if they fail their task.

Number Six is promised his freedom if he will answer one question: why did he resign? Our hero stubbornly refuses to divulge this, despite interrogation using including hallucinogenic drug experiences, identity theft, mind control, dream manipulation, and various forms of social indoctrination and physical coercion. The series is a masterpiece contrasting individualism versus collectivism, arguing that a balance (although not necessarily an equal balance) is desirable. A more existential interpretation is that the prisoner was going to leave the Village and have adventures in many parts of the world, but ultimately he would always be a prisoner. He would always be a prisoner of his circumstances, his situation, his secret, his background … and ‘they’ would always be there to ensure that his captivity continues. The Village will always be with (and within) him.

“I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered! My life is my own!”

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