The Greatest Creations of Fantastical Fiction Part 2

(In which we look at warrior bears, the most secret of secret bases, a wizard that makes Gandalf look like a lightweight, an anthropomorphized aspect of nightmare, and quite possibly the most awesome adversaries of all time…)

If you haven’t already you can read Part 1 here.

 

Panserbjorn – Armoured Bears

Type: Race * From: His Dark Materials * Creator: Philip Pullman

The notion of armoured bears is probably enough to warrant inclusion in its own right, but what Philip Pullman does with his creation ensures they’re in without question.

So you’ve created an alternate world which you can populate with exciting creations. No holds barred. Anything goes as long as it’s cool. Anthropomorphised animals were hardly new of course: the Ninja Turtles were well established in the public consciousness by then, and talking animals of varying degrees of humanization are a staple of stories for younger children. But it had never been done like this.

This was a fantastical world that was inherently linked to our own, an alternate reality where physical evolution took non-hominid species on their own journey to consciousness (evolution and consciousness being essential themes of the series), bipedal locomotion, and manual dexterity. Anyway, thematic rationale in place, Pullman goes to town on it. Panserbjorn

Bears – warrior bears. Sounds good. Bears have claws and teeth and are damn strong – but these guys ought to have something more. Okay so they have their own craft expertise, that of metalwork. So let’s give them armour.

But not just any armour. This armour is representative of an aspect of their very soul, the ursine equivalent of a human’s daemon in Pullman’s alternate universe. And it’s made of meteoric iron.

220px-Northern_Lights_(novel)_cover So you’ve got sentient warrior bears with sky-fallen armour from a tribal society based on honour, tradition and duelling. And you top the whole thing off by locating them in a non-English speaking country in order to give them a cool sounding name.Panserbjorn – yeah, very nice.Oh there are other stunning creations in Pullman’s other world, Lyja’s other key allies, the Witches, also being especially memorable.

But they’re not armoured bears.

 

Control / Star One

Type: Secret Base  (most secret of secret!) * From: Blake’s 7 * Creator: Terry Nation

Early 1979 – but ahead some 700 years through the power of your TV set to a world and galaxy run by the corrupt and fascistic Federation.

Blake, wonderfully portrayed as somewhere between hero and extremist, has had enough. He decides it’s time for his crew to deal a shocking blow to the evil Federation’s power: by destroying its computer nerve centre ‘Control’, the system that, amongst other things, controls the weather across the many planets the Federation has colonised or subjugated. Roj Blake

And this is big stuff, not some one-off adventure to fill out the series or even a small arc but, more or less, the focus of the whole season.

Pressure Point They track Control to its location on Earth, the first of numerous deterrents being the self-repairing nanotech disintegration net laced everywhere around the entrance. Overcoming each obstacle in turn it looks like Blake is going to get the win we’re all rooting for: only to find himself faced with an empty room. Control was moved three decades ago and – on top of the crushing disappointment – Blake loses his most upbeat crew member in the escape.

There’s no easy reconciliation but the crew resolve to pursue the objective regardless. And yet how can Control’s new location – the essentially mythical ‘Star One’ – be found? Because it was moved there with the specific intention that it would never be found.

It’s operated by a crew who went through the most rigorous psychological evaluations to ensure they are equipped to exile themselves to the planet in question to tend the system for the rest of their natural lives. Its location has been expunged from all records, and virtually anyone who knew its location have submitted to mind wiping or been done away with.

The remaining trail is almost impossibly faint – but ultimately they discover the co-ordinates and find Star One, an isolated planet on the furthest edge of the galaxy – oh and its protected by an anti-matter minefield.

Star One

There are secret bases, there are really secret bases, and then there’s a secret base conceived of by Terry Nation.

Maybe he missed a calling in MI6 – but it would be a tough call to choose between a more secure nation if it meant we’d never have had Blake’s 7 on our screens.

 

The Blackstaff

Type: Anti-hero / Supporting Character * From: The Dresden Files * Creator: Jim Butcher

So as not to spoil the revelation in Jim Butcher’s excellent Dresden Files series I’ll keep a little schtum on this. A few books in and we’ve explored the world of modern day wizard Harry Dresden and his conflicts (and alliances) with the staples of the supernatural world – wizards, warlocks, vampires, werewolves, spirits et al. Harry Dresden Calling Card
Harry Dresden Throughout his adventures we’ve been introduced to the Seven Laws of Magic as laid out by the world’s magical authority the White Council, the first being “Thou shalt not kill by use of magic”. It’s a rule that Harry doesn’t disagree with despite having killed his evil mentor with fire magic (he was only spared execution given he was acting in self-defence – and that still means he’s got a sword-happy over-eager foil character called Morgan waiting for him to slip up so he can enact the ‘Doom of Damocles’ on him).

It turns out, however, that a cast member holds a secret position on the Council: that of Blackstaff. He’s their covert ops wetworker, their supernatural hitman who has the authority to ignore the Laws of Magic and has sufficient power to bring down a decommissioned Russian satellite from orbit to obliterate a base of some troublesome Red Court vampires.

The discussion of whether the ‘heroic assassin’ is truly an antihero is one for elsewhere, and the individual in question feels much more the regular heroic support, just with high levels of added badassery. But it occurs to me – particularly with the Blackstaff in mind – that there are distinct strands that make up our love of antiheroes.

There’s that sense of unfettered freedom as, for a time, we live vicariously through them: they who give the middle finger to conventional morality and the laws we live by, to do what they want to, which usually has some greater good within it by result if not necessarily intent. On top of that they bring surprise if not mystery to the narrative; you just don’t know what some of these guys will do. They’re also a tonic for the black-and-white two-dimensional squeaky-clean moral simplicity of child heroes of yesteryear, Superman being perhaps the best example. They feel more relevant and so more real in the ambiguous world we come to live in as we grow up.

On the other hand they play on our greater sense of justice, able to bring a resolution to the truly villainous that the over-principled and law-abiding are too hamstrung by their better natures to deliver. And that plays on two distinct threads we all share regardless of where our moral convictions lie on the political spectrum.

They quell that conservative outrage we feel when the bad guys get away with it; they also, I’d venture, bring a greater sense of safety, emotionally equipped and motivated to tackle things that lie in ambiguous territory – they’re easier to believe perhaps, and certainly, as noted, feel more relevant.

And that’s irrespective of whether they’re using guns or gravitational magic to smite their enemies with soviet space stations (!).

 

Mind, Harry Dresden feels a degree of outrage and betrayal at the revelation that his friend is an authorized paranormal hitman; but we love it.

Blood Rites - Dresden Files 6

 

The Corinthian

Type: Entity * From: The Sandman * Creator: Neil Gaiman

We’re back to Neil Gaiman again, this time on the mature readers comic book sequence that made his name: The Sandman.

Time to be brief because this is one of those visceral creations whose history can be explored online elsewhere if it’s not known already; besides which it’s a character whose grisly splendour shines brightly in its own right.The Corinthian is created by the Lord of Dreams as his masterpiece: “A nightmare created to be the darkness, and the fear of darkness in every human heart. A black mirror, made to reflect everything about itself that humanity will not confront.”It looks comparatively normal – a young chap in a white T, though with white hair, wearing mirrored Lennon shades; until it takes them off.Yes we’re back to Neil Gaiman and we’re back to eyes… The Corinthian
Corinthian withour glasses …and the Corinthian’s eyes are teeth.

Yep, freaky eyes make for freaky characters, but mouths / teeth are freaky too – especially in the wrong place. This is like playing scrabble in a language where ‘freaky’ is a word of eight letters composed of x’s and z’s which you lay down over two triple word squares.

Mind there’s a ‘fifteen letter’ word made purely of z’s that begins with ‘V’ and ends with ‘dentata’…

But still and again: You really had to Neil?

 

The Daleks

Type: Antagonist * From: Dr Who * Creator: Terry Nation

The final inclusion of Part Two – too obvious? Too ensconced in the living room of shared imagination (on the other side of the sofa) as to seem more than a inclusion that’s passe? But being obvious is no reason for exclusion – and if they seem passe, well it’s time to dig a little deeper and educate ourselves as to quite why that is and why these sociopathic pepper pots took such hold in the first place and continue to do so.

Daleks (original)

It’s worth noting – and I hadn’t realised this until very recently – that they debuted in the very second storyline of the then new science-fictional TV series Dr Who. The viewers at the time in 1963 had had their initiation into the world of the Doctor, the opening storyline having introduced the human characters and the enigmatic alien(s) who lived in a police box that was bigger on the inside… That first adventure, somewhat poignantly for an origin story taking place in the age of early man, was rather grounded, the only element of science fiction beyond humanoid aliens being the cast’s displacement through time.

Then: enter the genius of Terry Nation.

I note elsewhere how fiction – art of any variety in fact – works in the interplay between the familiar and the exotic. This is perhaps especially true of science fiction and fantasy. And the thing about the Daleks is that they’re somewhere on the very borders. They were once humanoid and now mutated beyond recognition into human-scale lovecraftian horrors; but that comes later.

Because what you first and mostly see is something robotic, an alien shell that approximates human-shape in only the vaguest sense. They have locomotion, but through unseen technology rather than legs. They have two external upper limbs – a plunger for manipulation and a gun arm. The slatted section distinguishes itself from the blistered ‘torso’ to identify itself visually as a ‘head’, presumably through which the Dalek’s voices come. The cyclopean eye-stalk completes the picture, clearly their means of vision and in approximately the right place but likewise utterly alien.

There are no humanoid features, only their loose representation.

Dalek solo

The  freakishness of their outward appearance is augmented by their voices, grotesque metallic gratings, every one sounding like a retarded robotic Nazi commandant on PCP. And that goes double with their clarion catch-phrase of ‘Exterminate!’

Nation has his cake and eats it four times over: he’s got aliens who are also robots, horrors externally and internally as well.

Genesis of the Daleks

Of course the back story and nightmare setting of their planet helps, the evocatively named Skaro being a fossilized husk of a living planet, environment brutalised by the fallout of nuclear war, an all-too-poignant backdrop for the early 60’s. And, while the Nazi imagery is only properly jackboot-stamped onto the fascistic self-proclaimed ‘supreme beings’ in the Tom Baker era (in the fantastic Genesis of the Daleks) it’s there, however ephemerally, from the start.

So, by accident or design, Nation has tied in the not-too-distant threat of yesteryear – the Nazi’s – along with the then-present fear of Cold War nuclear apocalypse.

The science fictional cake of horror is multiplying further.

Anyway the Daleks were an overnight sensation. Their debut spawns a success story of merchandise. In under two years, they’re taken to the big screen, a sanitised and luridly colourful version of their debut storyline, with a sequel doing the same for their return in the TV-verse. And they’ve been with us ever since.

I can’t help but comment though that, while their return in 2005 along with the Doctor himself was nothing short of a blinding success, it seemed that something fundamental of their original nature has been misunderstood and lost.

For one, beyond the hackneyed advice of needing only to run up the stairs to escape them, there was never a need for flying Daleks or the other modern gimmicks for that matter. The slow hovering introduced before the demise of the show’s original quarter-century outing was perfectly sufficient to put that obstacle to bed while being faithful to what they were. And that’s this:

Daleks (Relaunch)

They are unrelenting, nigh-indestructible and lethal ranged killing machines. Their relative lack of speed and mobility did nothing to undermine the drama – it sets it up. Because wherever you go, however fast you run, unless you’ve got the help of the Doctor the chances are they’ll get you in the end.

They’re like zombies with death rays.

So Cold War Nazi lovecraftian alien mutant robot gun-zombie’s – the Dalek’s have it all and are certainly amongst the supreme beings of fantastical creation.

 

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