6 Books That Explore Hollywood’s SF/F Backlot


Maybe it’s because Los Angeles is filled with characters of all kinds, or maybe it’s because Hollywood is place where events that stretch the boundaries of disbelief seem plausible, but it’s undeniable that movie-making has a storied place in science fiction and fantasy.

The latest entrant to that canon, Mishell Baker’s urban fantasy Borderline, stars Millie Roper, an aspiring filmmaker recovering from a suicide attempt that cost her both legs, and her sudden involvement with the Arcadia Project, a covert operation that monitors the comings and goings between the human and faerie worlds. L.A. is crawling with this kind of inter-world transport, because as it turns out, fey, when paired with the right person, can enhance creativity to a mind-blowing, award-winning degree. (Except for Spielberg. He’s a wizard.) We loved Baker’s debut (most of all, we loved Millie), which got us in the mood to explore the stranger, more fantastical, science fictional side of Hollywood in these five star-studded novels.

Medusa’s Web, by Tim Powers
Powers most recent novel is a speculative fiction tour de force, supplying gothic overtones, time travel, and occultism in early Hollywood. Two siblings are summoned to their childhood home, the kind of moldering mansion where creaky old aunts go to die. It’s an envelope bequeathed by that very aunt that sparks the mysterious time- and body-hopping, with silver screen legends like Rudolf Valentino making appearances in a caper that uncovers the secret history behind that nascent cinematic town.

Radiance, by Catherynne M. Valente
Radiance weaves so many subgenres into its delicate web, it’s almost literally head-spinning. To briefly sum up its appeal, however, let us say it’s a decopunk space opera noir that glorifies an alternate Golden Age of Hollywood, maintains a complicated mystery, and does it all in epistolary format. The enigma at the heart of this celestial narrative is the disappearance of upstart docu-director Severin Unck, darling daughter of a legendary filmmaker, while shooting her latest film near Venus. While what happened to Severin is the core of this story, it is by no means the most interesting element. You unwrap the mystery layer by layer, as you learn just how life led her to that distant planet to begin with, exploring decades of wildly alternate cinema history along the way.

Moving Pictures, by Terry Pratchett
Eventually, all roads lead to Discworld. You can’t swing a cat in Ankh-Morpork without hitting a trope Pratchett has skewered, and that includes the Hollywood fantasy. (You also can’t swing a cat in Ankh-Morpork, because there likely is a cat-throwers guild, and it requires a license.) As you might expect, Discworld movie-making works a little differently than our own, as does “Holy Wood,” where the motion picture has just been invented. This invention is either a miracle or a harbinger of doom; it’s usually a toss up. But there will be definitely be chaos, and perhaps a star-making turn for Gaspode the Wonder Dog.

Made to Kill, by Adam Christopher
Raymond Chandler meets robots, because it’s 2016 and the world is full of wonders. Raymond Electromatic is the last robot on the planet. He’s also a hitman fronting as a detective, with a super-computer front office gal who feeds him jobs. Like I said, full of wonders. When his latest client waltzes through the door, he gets enveloped not only in actress-on-actor violence, but also some high-level Cold War chicanery. Unraveling these threads becomes all the more difficult given Ray’s 24-hour memory-tape limits.

Replay, by Ken Grimwood
To reveal too much about Replay’s filmmaking connections would be to rob you of some of its tenderness, but the basic premise will sound familiar to anyone who enjoyed Groundhog Day and Back to the Future, which is everyone. Jeff Winston died at 43, unhappy in a dead-end job and listless marriage. He then awoke, 18 years old and back in college. He’s got his whole life ahead of him, again. And then he dies once more at 43 years old, and everything starts anew. No matter how Jeff chooses to live his life, he dies at 43. What ensues is an examination of what makes life meaningful and a realization that regret can never be erased.

Borderline is available March 1

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