Monday, December 20, 2010

1980s Wrap

In the 1980s, 8 out of 10 of the Hugo winning novels were from multi-book space operas. That compares to 1 (arguably 2) out of 11 in the ‘60s; 4 or 5 in the ‘70s; 5 in the ‘90s; 1 in the 00s. In other words, this is the peak of the space opera. Shall we call this "the Star Wars effect"? In the '80s, even as the Cold War flared up again in the early '80s, President Reagan spent more time evoking Luke and Vader than he did nuclear Armageddon. They’re generally pretty good space operas at that, with Hyperion and the Uplift books (and The Snow Queen, for that matter) especially trying to do some different things with unfathomable technologies and aliens to create a fantastic feel.

The Nebula award seemed to go out of its way *not* to give wins to this new wave of space opera classics. They recognized Ender and Startide Rising, and gave an early nod to Bujold, but they also made some odd choices. No Enemy But Time, Falling Woman, and Healer’s War are all of a piece: they’re personal character-driven stories, more fantasy than science fiction, that deal with topical or controversial issues. I’d also say they’re all, to varying degrees, failures that have not aged particularly well.

I always thought of the ‘80s as the era of cyberpunk, but the awards didn’t seem to take much notice. Neuromancer deserved its wide recognition, but other than some glancing references in Hyperion, I didn’t see nearly as much cyberpunk as I expected.

I don’t have a lot of other trends to point to. The awards I’m covering are diverse enough that they’re harder to spot, and there are no clear movements like the New Wave or the ‘70s retrenchment. It was interesting to watch the development of gender in sf over the decade. For several books in a row I noted the lack of strong female characters. It actually started to get ridiculous by ’87 or so. Then, suddenly, there was a wave of sf self-consciously focused on gender, and specifically feminist issues. I don’t know if this is coincidence or the latter is a reaction to the former. Either way, it will be interesting to see where things go moving forward.

Top 5 novels:
Book of the New Sun (kind of cheating, I know – I’d choose Claw of the Conciliator if I had to pick one)

Again, in my opinion, the Hugos do a pretty solid job of capturing the best sf compared to the other awards, though they missed the boat on Gene Wolfe.

Bottom 3 novels:
None are as bad as The Wanderer or the novel that shall be named, but they’re close.

Top 5 movies:
Sorry, sf world, no Blade Runner. It’s up there though.

I actually enjoyed all of the ‘80s films to some extent, so no bottom this time.

I'll probably be back first Monday of the New Year with the beginning of the '90s, unless I find some time after Christmas.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

1990 Clarke and Campbell – THE CHILD GARDEN by Geoff Ryman

In The Child Garden, Ryman brings a welcome quirkiness to the usually bleak genre of the post-apocalyptic dystopia. The novel has a dreamlike quality, and it’s heavy on metaphor. I hate to sound like a literary lightweight, buy I do generally prefer a more narrative-oriented approach; ambiguity can get old for me. But, this novel was effective nonetheless.

In the future, humanity discovers a cure for cancer and spreads it through viruses that prevent the disease among all people. Unfortunately, they later realize that they have shortened everyone’s lives by half or more as an unintended consequence, so that few people live past the age of 35. This is the sort of irony that Ryman builds the entire novel around.

Viruses are the great technology of Ryman’s future world. Viruses have been designed to convey different skills, information, and even opinions, and they propagate through the population, so that babies can be infected with a high school education. At adulthood (10 years), people’s personalities are integrated into a Consensus group mind, which rules their Communist society. Due to the side effects like the above mentioned shortened lifespan, and also apparently due to global warming, most technology has broken down. At the beginning of the novel, London is without electricity and messages are conveyed via runners.

In this world, we meet Milena, a girl who has a resistance to the viruses. She doesn’t have the knowledge or instant-learning skills of the others, but she is better equipped to learn things that are not part of the standard battery of virus-conveyed material. She also better appreciates things that are novel and different. She meets a musically talented, genetically engineered polar bear woman named Rolfa and begins to work on a massive artistic project – a holographic opera based on Dante’s Divine Comedy. Society seems both fearful and hopeful of the new ideas that Milena plans to provide.

The book fails quite spectacularly as a dystopia. To do a humorous dystopia right, I think a writer would have to lean on wry satire, but Ryman prefers sincerity and quirk. In fact, it seems at times that he’s just thrown all of the quirkiness he can think of against the wall to see what sticks – some of it works, but far from all of it. The novel seems to contradict itself at a fundamental level: the horror of this society is that everyone knows and thinks the same things due to the viruses, and we’re often told how conformist this future world is. But, the characters are all so wildly idiosyncratic that we never see that conformity. The dullest character is Milena, even though she is the one resistant to the viruses.

So, as biting social satire, The Child Garden doesn’t cut it. But I still enjoyed it quite a bit. It is fun and, at times, quite beautiful. Ryman is a skilled writer, and there are wonderful, lyrical passages describing childhood , art, love, and death. Ryman repeatedly refers to the work as a comedy, in the dramatic sense, and the transcendent and hope-filled finale was quite poetic as well.

Grade: B+

Friday, December 17, 2010

1990 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation – INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE

I haven’t taken a formal poll or anything, but I’m pretty sure this is the most controversial entry in the Indiana Jones trilogy. As mentioned before, Raiders is almost universally beloved. While I’ve met people who adore The Temple of Doom and consider it their favorite, I think the vast majority of fans and critics agree that the film is thinly plotted and rushed and/or too screaming-Kate-Capshaw-heavy and/or ethnically insensitive. The third film, on the gripping hand, seems to have dedicated fans and detractors.
I’m firmly in the fan category. I can understand the critique that the film goes too far down the road of self-parody, but I think, due to the character’s pulpy roots, the self-parody has already begun early in Raiders, and The Last Crusade nicely continues the tradition without getting too silly. I mean, it’s not like Harrison Ford survives a plane crash with an inflatable raft or a nuclear explosion in a refrigerator. No one swings through trees on a vine while yodeling like Tarzan in this one.

The film begins with a young Indiana Jones (River Phoenix), and we get to see an early adventure and his neglectful, Holy Grail-obsessed father. Then, we flit back to the 1930s, where Harrison Ford’s Indiana learns that his father has gone missing while on the trail of the Grail. Indiana must journey to Italy to follow the same clues, then rescue his father from the Nazis while discovering even more clues. Most of the film is actually a chase full of humor and action. In the end, the Joneses must compete with the Nazis through an excellent set of booby traps in an old Crusader fort (which looks suspiciously like a famous Jordanian archaeological site).

The main reason this film is so great comes down to two words: Sean Connery. Connery plays the older Henry Jones with his usual charm and derring-do, but he also adds a less common academic awkwardness. It probably wouldn’t be much of a stretch for most actors, but Connery had been cool personified for so much of his career that it really is a noticeable shift. I think this is his greatest performance, and that’s saying quite a bit.

This is the third and final Indiana Jones film (don’t let anyone tell you different), and the series ends on a high note.

Grade: A

Sunday, December 12, 2010

1990 Hugo and Locus - HYPERION by Dan Simmons

Of all the wide range of sub-genres that you can fit under the broad rubric of speculative fiction, I have the softest spot for the space opera. I’m not really sure why – too much Star Wars and Star Trek, I guess – and in some ways it’s the most staid and trope-ridden of them all. In the ‘80s, Brin made some innovations with some really alien aliens and some really bizarre technologies, but otherwise, I’m not sure there’s that wide a gap from Lensman and Foundation to Vorkosigan and Star Trek: The Next Generation. In Hyperion, however, Dan Simmons manages to shake the genre up by melding it with literary history to create a unique space opera setting.

The novel takes place in the 28th century. Earth has been destroyed, but colonists have fanned out to other worlds. Farcasters provide almost instantaneous travel between them and have forged a Web of worlds, ruled by the Hegemony. There’s also a hostile group of earlier, breakaway human colonists called Ousters, and then there are a few other worlds that remain rough frontiers outside the Web. One of these planets is the mysterious Hyperion, home to strange alien artifacts like an ancient Labyrinth and the Time Tombs. It is also inhabited by the Shrike, a murderous and god-like being, covered in metal spikes.

The novel unfolds through the stories of a group of pilgrims who go to visit the Shrike and ask him for favors on the eve of a massive war. These stories span genres and styles – the soldier’s story is military sf (told in 3rd person); the priest’s tale begins exploring the challenges of faith in an alien encounter (a bit like Case of Conscience), is told through journal entries, and ends as Lovecraftian horror; the detective’s tale is pure noir cyberpunk, narrated in first person; the scholar’s tale is family melodrama with horror elements (not so far from Song of Kali’s best features, really). Some of the stories are stronger than others, though the only one I didn’t like was the final story, which is a reprint of an older Simmons’ short “Remembering Siri.” I’m not sure I would cast this novel as literary sf, as some do, but it’s certainly literate in ways that many sf books are not. The structure follows the middle English classic, The Canterbury Tales and the title comes from English Romantic poet John Keats, who we see more of throughout the novel.

Each of the stories is exciting and skillfully told, and they each reveal further details about the Web and more mysteries about Hyperion while providing rich character development for the pilgrims. Again, it’s the setting that most captivated me here, and I look forward to reading more novels in the quartet. In fact, my biggest complaint is that there’s not much forward motion in the plot in this entry, and it ends, more or less, on a cliffhanger.

Grade: A

Thursday, December 9, 2010

1989 BSFA - PYRAMIDS by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels are satirical fantasy stories set in a flat world balanced on the backs of four elephants standing on a turtle that is floating through space. The first, The Colour of Magic, was published in 1983, and there have been more than 30 published since. They are immensely popular in England (Pratchett was the highest selling English author of the ‘90s) and have a cult following in the US. The brands of humor vary: there is some Xanth-like punning, but there’s also some very dry British humor, wordplay and some satire of bureaucracy, organized religion, etc. – there’s a little something for everyone, and it is quite a bit smarter than Xanth.

As I understand it, there are several different storyarcs focusing on different charactes; Pyramids is actually a standalone novel that focuses on the ancient Egypt-like kingdom of Djelibeybe (pronounced like the British candy “jelly baby” – not Pratchett’s smartest joke). The kingdom has spent so much money on pyramids that its going broke, so the king sends the prince Pteppic to learn a marketable trade. Pteppic heads off to the great, crime-infested city of Ankh-Morpork to go to assassin school, and there’s a long sequence early on that’s highly reminiscent of Harry Potter, where Pteppic adjusts to boarding school while attending poison classes.

When Pteppic’s father dies, the manipulative high priest Dios prevents Pteppic from enacting necessary reforms, and Pteppic ends up commissioning the largest pyramid in history for his father. Unfortunately, a pyramid so large bends space and time in some ways that put Djelibeybe in great danger.
It’s a…complicated plot. It meanders in a lot of different directions. In the end, I was left wondering what the assassins school was all about. There are many more subplots that I haven’t even touched on: the Greek-like Ephebe, a condemned handmaiden, the camel who is also the world’s smartest mathematician, time-looped architects, and a visitation by Djelibeybe’s pantheon of gods.

This is my second Discworld book, and while I can certainly see the appeal, I haven’t quite fallen in love with them myself. Pratchett’s funny, but not nearly as hilarious or inventive as Douglas Adams, in my opinion. And, I’m just not that into wacky novels as an adult; I like a good laugh, but I want more in terms of plot and character than I got here. I would have adored these novels in high school though. I wish I’d spend all that time I’d spent on Xanth books on Discworld instead.

Grade: B

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Steampunk Wars

I've been following, and enjoying, this debate for the past six weeks or so.

Charles Stross got the ball rolling with an attack on steampunk in October:

But there's a dark side as well. We know about the real world of the era steampunk is riffing off. And the picture is not good. If the past is another country, you really wouldn't want to emigrate there. Life was mostly unpleasant, brutish, and short; the legal status of women in the UK or US was lower than it is in Iran today: politics was by any modern standard horribly corrupt and dominated by authoritarian psychopaths and inbred hereditary aristocrats: it was a priest-ridden era that had barely climbed out of the age of witch-burning, and bigotry and discrimination were ever popular sports: for most of the population starvation was an ever-present threat. I could continue at length. It's the world that bequeathed us the adjective "Dickensian", that gave us a fully worked example of the evils of a libertarian minarchist state, and that provoked Marx to write his great consolatory fantasy epic, The Communist Manifesto. It's the world that gave birth to the horrors of the Modern, and to the mass movements that built pyramids of skulls to mark the triumph of the will. It was a vile, oppressive, poverty-stricken and debased world and we should shed no tears for its passing (or the passing of that which came next).
I think Stross is maybe a tad harsh and probably misses a few very good counterexamples, but his argument did resonate with a lot of what I thought after reading Boneshaker:

Steampunk really is more of an aesthetic than a subgenre . . . everything is in service to the visuals . . . . Steampunk scenarios so often miss the obvious opportunities to explore the real history in their settings while getting distracted by the scenery.

I also think Stross overstates the differences between the Victorian world and our own, however. There's no question that there are major differences, and that billions of people have greater access to the rights and stuff of the modern world, but I do think we're still living in that modern world that the Victorians made. My favorite counter to Stross (I haven't read them all), is by Jean-Christophe Valtat, and he makes much the same point:

It is very naive to think that we are through with the 19th century: it is, in many respects, a nightmare we haven't quite woken up from. Most of what we experience today - in urban life that is - has its origins in the 19th century. I always find it fascinating to think of a time where the things we are used to, and pretend to be adapted to, were felt for the first time: huge capitalist production and commodification, enormous cities and crowds, speed, networking, mass media, the rise of a visual culture, unprecedented destruction in warfare etc... And what makes it more interesting is that it all fell on dazzled, unprepared brains. The impact of this mode of life on the nervous system and the way that people tried to shield themselves from it (self-mechanization, neuroses, alcool, drugs etc...) were analyzed and debated instead of simply regarded as normal. It could be one of the ambitions to steampunk to go back to the source of the life we live and, by exploring those "first times," try to make our times a bit clearer for ourselves.
Finally, I wanted to post this today after reading the finest summation of the debate yet, by Henry Farrell. Farrell discusses Cosma Shalizi's notion that the Industrial Revolution was a singularity, and points out a couple of excellent steampunk works that Stross missed:

The two books which really brought steampunk to a wider audience – William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’sThe Difference Engine and Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. Both of these are unabashed exercises in sociological speculation, which use nineteenth century forms to explore modern anxieties. Gibson and Sterling’s book is indeed arguably a Singularity novel as well as steampunk – but the singularity is the emergence of an unusually baroque form of the ‘vast, inhuman distributed systems of information-processing, communication and control, “the coldest of all cold monsters.”
Check it out for yourselves.

Anyway, I think the upshot of all of this is that I must read Felix Gilman's Half-Made World, posthaste!

I'm on a posting frenzy this week. There must be grading I'm trying to avoid...

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

1989 Nebula – THE HEALER’S WAR by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough

As I started to write this review, I realized that I had a lot more to say about the Vietnam War and presentations of that conflict than I did about this novel itself. At one point, I had an entire essay composed in my head about Full Metal Jacket vs. Platoon, The Deer Hunter vs. Apocalypse Now, and all-of-the-above vs. Forrest Gump. Then I realized that said essay had almost nothing to do with The Healer’s War. In the end, I think this nicely illustrates my general feelings about the novel: I wanted to like it due to it’s challenging subject matter, but I think the final presentation failed on several fronts: the fantasy aspects are unnecessary and uncomfortable and the final product is far duller than a novel on Vietnam by an actual female veteran has any right to be.

The novel focuses on an Army nurse in Vietnam named Kitty McCulley. During the first half, we follow Kitty around her ward, where she sees the horrible injuries suffered by American troops and Vietnamese civilians and encounters the poverty of the latter and the casual racism and sexism of the former. Scarborough was an Army nurse, and this section is close to memoir. However, Scarborough introduces a fantasy element. One of Kitty’s patients is a Vietnamese village elder with a mystical healing amulet, which falls into Kitty’s hands. With it, she can see people’s auras and focus her healing energies to help (very slightly) the sick and injured. In the second half of the novel, through a series of events that I won’t spoil, Kitty journeys through the Vietnamese countryside with a berserk American soldier and a one-legged Vietnamese boy.

There are interesting observations here, especially in the first half based closely on Scarborough’s own experiences. The attitudes of the various officers, doctors, enlisted men and patients were illuminating, and, I assume, based to a large extent on reality. The fantasy element clashes though. Scarborough seems to have realized this, as she writes a five page afterward called “Why I Don’t Tell It Like It Is, Exactly.” I think the lady doth protest too much. She admits that the amulet was an invention to allow Kitty to move into areas of the country that she herself could not have gone. I’m all for the idea of illuminating historical or contemporary issues with sf metaphors, but I’m much less interested in inventing fantasy elements to fix plotholes. This very simple role for the amulet really cripples the book – it doesn’t have any thematic resonance, nor does it tell us more about the characters or world. It simply pops up occasionally to help Kitty survive in a few situations. As a result, The Healer’s War works neither as a memoir nor as a fantasy – it’s a few intriguing reminiscences buried in a bad Vietnam adventure story.

I think I learned more about the Vietnam War and an author’s experiences therein from The Forever War…a novel with no ostensible connection to the historical war itself.

Grade: C+

Monday, December 6, 2010

1989 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation, 1988 Saturn Fantasy – WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?

I remember how highly this film’s technical achievements were lauded when it first came out. The melding of live action and animation got lots of attention at the time. Now, it looks pretty pedestrian, and I wouldn’t quite call it seamless. The saving grace is that the filmmakers (once again, a Spielberg-backed Zemeckis directs) didn’t pass on story and simply rely on special effects. The film is actually a moderately successful neo-film noir.

Another latter-day film noir, Chinatown, is considered by many to have the best-written screenplay in movie history. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? borrows liberally from it. A troubled detective in 1930s Los Angeles investigates a seemingly simple adultery case and uncovers a massive conspiracy to reshape the developing city itself. The twist here is that, in this world, the stars of the popular cartoons of the era are real, and humans can interact with them. The detective in question, Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) has descended into alcoholism after the crushing death of his brother at the hands of a violent cartoon. He hates cartoons, but he takes a job concerning the wacky Roger Rabbit out of financial need. Roger’s wife Jessica plays a risqué game of pattycake with the head of the Acme corporation, who ends up dead the next day. Roger is the obvious suspect, and the dreaded Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) is ready to erase him from existence. Roger takes refuge with Eddie, who must now clear the silly cartoon’s name by delving deeper into the Toon community.

As I suggested before, the effects have not aged well into the era of digital effects. And, I can’t help but feel like the movie could be a lot funnier. Roger Rabbit is just downright annoying and cameos by the likes of Daffy and Donald Duck provide most of the cartoon laughs. Still, the plot and script are pretty effective, even if they are knock-offs of a much better film (Chinatown is about as good as it gets – if you haven’t seen it, rent that first), and I actually liked the juxtaposition of some fairly dark material, and lots of sexual innuendo, with silly cartoons. There are even a few musings about the legal and social status of cartoons that make this halfway interesting as speculative fiction. It's worth a look, even if it probably won for the wrong reasons.

Grade: B+

1989 Hugo and Locus - CYTEEN by C. J. Cherryh

Cyteen takes place in Cherryh’s expansive Alliance-Union universe, the same universe that was home to the 1982 winner, Downbelow Station. It focuses on Cyteen, an important Union planet and the home of radical genetic and psychological engineering. As I said with the earlier Alliance-Union novel, I have a lot of respect for Cherryh, but again, I was disappointed.
Cyteen is the longest winner I’ve covered so far (my edition was 680 dense pages), and it took me, by far, the longest to read. Frankly, this was a trudge.

Cyteen focuses on Ariane Emory, a supergenius “Special” who had steered Cyteen society through political and scientific challenges for almost a century at the novel's beginning (circa 2400 AD). Cyteen consists mostly of clones divided into two castes – CITs are citizens while the azi are closer to proprietary people, almost slaves. Both groups learn through an artificial programming method called “tape,” though the azi are much more heavily programmed and therefore have a hard time with free will. The elderly Ari (though not that outwardly elderly due to rejuvenation treatments) has overseen this system’s development, and she has grand plans for keeping her society stable. These plans happen to involve molesting the teenage son of one of her chief rivals, Jordan Warwick. Shortly thereafter, Ari is killed. The rest of the novel follows the attempts of Ari’s allies to raise her clone and to guide her development so that she is just as brilliant and ruthless. So, it’s sort of a twisted bildungsroman.

It’s also fascinating world, and the characters are very rich and complicated. The themes are certainly intriguing as well, as the book uses the technology of cloning to examine the concept of free will. Will Ariane II end up as cold and ruthless as the original? How immoral is it to control the pre-programmed azi? These are fascinating questions, though Cherryh doesn’t offer much in the way of answers. There are also some big problems here. First, there’s a lot of dense exposition, and Cherryh throws way too many concepts and characters at the reader in the first chapter. I also had this problem with Downbelow Station, but I did manage to catch up with the myriad characters and factions more quickly here. Nonetheless, I think it would have helped to have more familiarity with the Alliance-Union universe. The Chanur stories come up a few times, and another novel, 40,000 in Gehenna, is quite heavily referenced and becomes a central plot point.

Speaking of plot, there isn’t much of one. Characters have a lot of tense, manipulative conversations, and that’s about it. There are two or three major turning points, and a quick action sequence in the final chapter (which, ironically considering the novel’s length and general interminability, feels rushed), but most of the time, people are talking - usually about the same couple of political issues (azi and foreign relations). The novel is short on plot and long on words. Things are just getting moving when the book finally ends; a year or two ago, Cherryh actually published a sequel, Regenesis, that sounds more interesting, though I think I’ll skip it. As I said, it’s a richly developed world, but perhaps Cherryh is too wrapped up in it. She seems to think that every word her characters speak to each other is important. Instead, most of their discussions are redundant and concerned with cultural subtleties and minutiae. And the prose is dry as a bone. There’s a lot to like here, and at three-hundred pages this could have been a dense, thematically rich and relevant thriller. Instead, it’s mostly bloat.

Grade: C+

Sunday, December 5, 2010

On Grading

The end of the semester approaches, and I find myself buried in papers and (soon) final exams. I say this not as an excuse for a coming slowdown in posting (I actually think I'll finish the '80s before Christmas), but to explain a new policy here: I've got grades on the brain, and I'm going to start assigning letter grades to the works I review.

I originally decided not to include any sort of rating because I considered these posts to be more off-the-cuff responses or brief musing than formal reviews. I still think that's the case, but, considering that a lot of my day job consists of assigning arbitrary-seeming ratings to other people's hard work, it comes pretty naturally to me now. And, I think it will resolve two minor issues going forward: 1) as the number of works I review builds and builds, it will help to encapsulate and record my initial responses to everything for my own future reference. 2) It might clear up my views of works. I do think I have a tendency to write negative-sounding reviews of works that I thoroughly enjoyed because I want to focus on a minor, but interesting, flaw, or because I expected more.

So, future reviews will conclude with a letter grade, and I'm going to go back and edit in grades for previous reviews.

The scale is:
A = excellent, a classic
B = good, interesting but somehow flawed
C = average, a mixed bag
D = poor work with a few redeeming qualities
F = an absolute failure, all around

I expect that grades lower than a B- will be rare among these award winners. Let me know if you hate what I'm doing (or how I'm doing it).

Thursday, December 2, 2010

1988 Saturn – ALIEN NATION

District 9 received a lot of praise for the originality and social relevance of its premise. A few people noted, however, that the film Alien Nation had already used the concept of a small number of enslaved alien refugees facing racism from humans. I complained a bit that District 9 didn’t actually live up to its humanist metaphor because of action and horror tropes. Alien Nation, unfortunately, fares even worse, as the premise is largely ignored in favor of presenting an ‘80s buddy cop movie.

Buddy cop films seemed to dominate the 1980s. They’re extremely formulaic. You start with too miss-matched guys who are partnered up: tough guy/smart guy, about-to-retire guy/suicidal young guy, black cop/white cop, American cop/Asian cop, human cop/dog cop, Whoopi Goldberg cop/dinosaur cop, etc. Then, you put them against powerful gangsters who are about to introduce a new superdrug to the streets. Their boss yells at them for their unorthodox methods, and they get taken off the case, but they solve it anyway in a bloody action sequence. Sometimes it’s really dumb; sometimes it’s quite fun. Alien Nation, despite the unusual set-up, follows the formula so closely that you can forget you’re watching a science fiction film at times.

Matthew Sykes (James Caan) loses his best friend to a criminal Newcomer, one of the alien refugees that have recently settled among the general human population. He wants to find the killer Newcomer and decides that he should take on another Newcomer, recently promoted to detective due to alien affirmative action, as his partner to get on the case. At first he hates his new partner, Sam Francisco (Mandy Patankin, at the height of his career), but they grow closer as the case goes on. They discover, of course, that a whole series of Newcomer slaying are related to…wait for it….a powerful new superdrug that they must stop!

It’s a perfectly fun film, and Caan and Patankin are great actors who build some pretty decent chemistry. It seems a shame to waste such a good concept though. The film never delves into the social issues sitting just beneath the surface. I was hoping for In the Heat of the Night with aliens, but instead I got Lethal Weapon with aliens. And I'm getting too old for that shit.

Grade: B

Sunday, November 28, 2010

1988 World Fantasy Award - REPLAY by Keri Grimwood

I imagine this is a very common fantasy: you wake up in high school or at the beginning of college. You know everything you know now – you have your adult wisdom and confidence, plus you know details about the future that can help you avoid disaster and make some very wise investments – and you can apply it all to living a better, more successful life. I’m a pretty happy guy, but I think we all have things in our youth that we’d like to do over. Despite the universality of this feeling, I can’t think of any other works of fiction that tackle this idea. But, Grimwood does it quite brilliantly in Replay, so who needs ‘em?

In 1988, at the age of 43, Jeff Winston dies of a heart attack. He wakes up minutes later a freshman in college in 1963 with all the memories of the life he just lived and lost. Once he overcomes his initial confusion, he strikes it rich via sports gambling and builds a financial empire. Over the next twenty-five years, he amasses great wealth and starts a different family. Then, in 1988, he dies and wakes up in college yet again.

None of Jeff’s various lives are that surprising. He explores different avenues from getting rich, to finding love with a college girlfriend, to living a life of reading and quiet contemplation on a secluded ranch. Grimwood does throw in a few interesting twists that do add some suspense. I won’t give anything away, but every time the premise felt like it might be starting to feel worn, Grimwood added a new element to keep me intrigued. He also quite comprehensively covers the implications of the replays, including the financial, romantic, artistic, and philosophical.

I really enjoyed this novel. Grimwood starts with an intriguing idea, but he doesn’t lose sight of character. Jeff is compelling and sympathetic, and his adventures and musings on his odd situation are unlikely page-turners.

Grade: A

Monday, November 22, 2010

1988 Locus Fantasy - SEVENTH SON by Orson Scott Card

I haven’t been too impressed with Orson Scott Card’s work so far, but I was intrigued by the Alvin Maker series. I am a historian, and I actually specialize in frontiers during the Early Republic, an era that gets short shrift in a lot of fiction. The idea of a historical fantasy that eschews the typical medieval or Renaissance European settings is refreshing and full of potential. Card also does a nice job grounding much of the magic of his world in the actual folk beliefs of nineteenth century America. In this alternate history, the English Commonwealth survived the death of James Cromwell, and the American revolutionaries seem to have been mostly defeated by this Puritan Empire, though there are hints of Thomas Jefferson still active in the South and a United States has formed in the Middle Colonies and the west.

Unfortunately, none of this really figures into this novel, and the main difference from recorded history is that all the place names are spelled differently, often in annoyingly cutesy ways: the Mississippi is the Mizzipy, the Ohio is the Hio, the Wabash is the Wobbish, the Illinois is the Noisy, and so on. Instead of dealing with the big differences of this world, the novel follows the frontier childhood of Alvin Miller, the seventh son of a seventh son, imbued with great power and a greater destiny. We start with Alvin’s difficult birth in a storm, and see him almost killed several time by strange accidents. Then, a wandering mystic named Taleswapper shows up to tell Alvin of his power and help him survive one last disaster. And, that’s all there is to this entry in the series.

My biggest problem with the book is that it moves so slowly and only covers Alvin through his adolescence. Card clearly knew that he was writing for a series, which is fine, but this novel did not work as a standalone book for me. It’s slow moving and inconsequential; we mostly just hear about how great Alvin will be. I also was more than a little bothered to see we have yet another perfect young man as our hero. Card is apparently only interested in messiah-like superbeings as his characters. Alvin is Ender all over again.

It’s been interesting to see Card’s prose develop very rapidly over the three novels I’ve read. Ender’s Game was very plain and unaffected, but both Speaker and Seventh Son employ a folksier style that feels like diluted Twain. It’s at least unique, but it can become cloying. It also lacks authenticity in this setting; Card’s idea of writing Early Republic characters is to have them use double (and triple) negatives and the contraction “ain’t.” He employs little of the period’s distinctive vocabulary, shaped by the King James Bible and regional colloquialisms.

If I wanted to continue on with the series, I would have plenty of opportunities. There have been six books so far, and four of them won the Locus Fantasy award. And, the next novel appears to deal with the Shawnee brothers Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa, two of the most fascinating characters in American history, who are often neglected in historical fiction. I don’t think I will continue though. Card clearly has a lot of fascinating ideas, but I’m just not interested in the deliberate multi-book pacing, flat characters, moralizing, and thinly-veiled references to his own religion and ideology that increasingly seem to characterize his work.

No review Friday in respect for post-Turkey Day shopping/food comas. I'll be back on Monday with 1988's WFA winner.

Grade: C+

1988 Nebula - FALLING FREE by Lois McMaster Bujold

Lois McMaster Bujold is going to become a very familiar name on this blog. She’s tied with Robert Heinlein for the most “best novel” Hugo wins ever (if you don’t count his retro-Hugo). Most of these wins are for the space opera Vorkosigan saga, which takes place in the same universe as Falling Free, but a couple of centuries later.
In Falling Free, engineer Leo Graf takes a job at a GalacTech space facility near the planet Rodeo. He quickly learns that the station is populated by genetic experiments called quaddies who have been designed to operate efficiently and effectively in a zero gravity environment (they have a second pair of arms instead of legs). Leo adjusts quickly to the strange and naïve quaddies, but grows concerned when he learns of the heavy restrictions placed on their freedoms by the experiment’s corporate sponsors, who view the quaddies as disposable assets rather than human beings.

It’s a fast-paced, short novel. I like the efficiency of what Bujold does here – she sets up the quaddies, introduces a loving quaddie couple, and in the same chapter shows how horrible GalacTech’s control over them can be. There’s also some fairly interesting commentary on reproductive rights going on – as genetic experiments, breeding is prioritized over love for the quaddies. It may be a little too simple and efficient though. The morality isn’t particularly challenging, and the villainous station manager is a cartoonishly callous baffoon. It’s entertaining though, and sometimes it’s fun to watch the good guys pull off a caper that humiliates the bad guys. I’m looking forward to getting deeper into Bujold’s world.

I’m kind of surprised that it won a Nebula, an award which I’ve come to associate with dense prose and risk-taking over straightforward narrative. This novel is quite the opposite.

Grade: B+

Friday, November 19, 2010

1988 Hugo Dramatic Presentation, 1987 Saturn Fantasy – THE PRINCESS BRIDE

Like Empire, Raiders, and Back to the Future, The Princess Bride is one of those universally beloved ‘80s classics that I find hard to talk about. There’s not much left to say beyond “it’s great!” Everyone I know in my generation can recite any number of the movie’s eminently quotable lines.

The brilliant conceit of the novel, The Princess Bride by William Goldman, is that he’s taken a fictional political satire by S. Morgernstern and edited it into the comic fantasy his father used to read to him by cutting out the dry political sections. The Rob Reiner film manages to replicate this with a framing story wherein a grandfather (Peter Falk) reads the novel to his grandson (Fred Savage). The story itself follows a young couple, Buttercup (Robin Wright) and Westley (Cary Elwes), who are separated by the latter’s apparent death. Buttercup becomes engaged to the scheming Prince of Florin, but she’s kidnapped by three rogues (Wallace Shawn, Mandy Patankin, and Andre the Giant, who collectively steal the movie). The kidnappers are pursued in a brilliant sequence by the Dread Pirate Roberts, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Westley. From there, lovers are reunited and separated again, alliance shift, and we get a couple of great swordfights and some of the most memorable dialogue in film history.

Yeah, it’s great. Maybe it's nostalgia, but I find it impossible to resist these '80s adventure films.

Grade: A

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

1988 "Other Forms" Hugo - Watchmen

I hesitated whether to review this one, not because it was a special one-off award (the fact that Hugo created such an award for this book says a lot), but because so much has already been said about Watchmen that I have little to add. It's the Star Wars/Raiders problem yet again (and it'll happen again on Friday too).

To summarize: Watchmen is a revolutionary 12-part comic with story by Alan Moore and art by Dave Gibbons that told a very dark superhero story in which good and evil, right and wrong, are all subjective and the issue of power is explored. Because these people are superior in certain ways, do they have the right to act as vigilantes? Are they above the law? What about their own flaws? It's the 1980s, Richard Nixon is still President (because he won Vietnam with the use of superheroes), superheroes are outlawed, and a violent vigilante named Rorshach is investigating a series of murders that involve superheroes. We also get a series of flashbacks to the '60s that show just how flawed the old "silver age" superheroes were in their private lives. It's all quite intricate and brilliant.

Still, the real genius of Watchmen is not the plot (which gets a bit too intricate - and weird - by the end), it's the use of the medium. For instance, check out this panel-by-panel analysis. There's also a great intercutting of a pirate/horror comic called the "Black Freighter" (In a world with superheroes, other genres dominate the comic racks), which comments on the main story. Most people seem to have missed this point, and the result has been a decades-long imitation of the wrong parts of Watchmen. The ill-advised film adapatation obviously didn't get the message, nor did the non-stop rush of "dark" superheroes that dominated the industry through the '90s and make almost all of the comics from that decade next to unreadable. Watchmen is actually a good example of how a great book can be a bad influence.

Finally, I don't think Watchmen is even close to being Alan Moore's best work. Many fans would cite his earlier run on Swamp Thing or his original work on V for Vendetta, both of which are great. My personal favorite Moore projects came in the late '90s early '00s in two ambitious projects: From Hell is a retelling of Jack the Ripper's murders that is wonderfully researched, features brilliant writing, and has the perfect artist in Eddie Campbell. On the other end, Moore's retro/neo-superhero comics from America's Best really capture his brilliance and what makes the medium of comics so great. Tom Strong was his take on pulp heroes like Doc Savage and the silver age Fantastic Four of Jack Kirby; Promethea is kind of a take on Wonder Woman with elements of Moore's own magical belief system and gorgeous art by J.H. Williams III; Top Ten is a hilarious comic about cops in a city of superheroes; Tomorrow Stories is Moore's take on the old anthology books and shows what a great chameleon he can be; and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a steampunk pastiche of Victorian fantasy and horror characters as a superhero team. It was an amazing line of books, all of which are worth a look.

Grade: A-

Monday, November 15, 2010

1988 Hugo and Locus - THE UPLIFT WAR by David Brin

A sequel of sorts to Startide Rising, The Uplift War continues the story of Earthlings under siege in a galaxy of ancient, hierarchical aliens.

In Startide Rising we learned about a dolphin-crewed ship under attack after a major discovery. Here, we see the Earth-leased colony of Garth under siege by a group of bird aliens called the Gubru who want to hold the planet hostage to exhange for the dolphins' information. The central story is more-or-less that simple, but there are several intertwining subplots that Brin juggles throughout. Garth is a planet with a large neo-chimpanzee population, and we learn about the intricacies of chimp uplift, including the controversial eugenics program enforced against them. We see the development of a guerilla resistance (or gorilla resistance - ha!). We watch the complex triumvirate marriage that leads the Gubru, and we finally get to meet the prankster Tymbini, humanity's closest allies. We also discover information about the mysterious Garthlings on the ecologically devastated world - and it's here that Brin presents his best twists, especially after I initially feared that he was repeating a subplot from the previous Uplift novel. Brin also works to add more romance this time around, and we get two love triangles: one chimp, and one human/alien.

It's a very fun novel that works on a lot of the same levels as Startide Rising (one of my favorite Hugo winners so far). It's well-written and thoughtful. There's some solid speculative science, nice details and highly likable characters. And, it's fast-paced and action-packed. It also shares a lot of the earlier novel's flaws - a reliance on contrivance and deus ex machina to resolve all plot issues being the worst - and those flaws felt magnified here for a few reasons. This is the third Uplift novel, and my willingness to ignore the issues diminishes each go around - not to mention that I found neo-chimp culture far less interesting than neo-doplhin culture. And, this novel is two hundred pages longer. It feels appropriately epic for it's 600+ page length, but it doesn't feel more epic than the shorter Startide Rising...

I'd still give the Uplift books a big thumbs up overall, but if you only want to read one (and I do think they would work okay independently), I'd recommend the second. When I finish this award-winning novel project, I think the second set of Uplift books (which struck out at the awards) will be high on my "to read" list.

Grade: A-

Friday, November 12, 2010

1987 Saturn – ROBOCOP

I could make a pretty long list of reasons why I should hate RoboCop. It has one of the stupidest names of any film in history. It’s ultra-violent. The effects leave something to be desired. It’s got a sort of cynical and shallow grittiness that I often find crass. The acting is less than stellar. It’s directed by Paul Verhoeven, known for making so-bad-they’re-good films like Showgirls and Starship Troopers. And yet, it’s somehow a likable film – not Citizen Kane, but really likable sf.

This is another science fiction film very much concerned with present-day concerns, especially the rising crime rate and Reagan-era privatization. RoboCop takes place in the near future Detroit, which is so overrun with crime that the mega-corporation Omni-Consumer Products (OCP) wants to tear it down and start over. OCP has also recently purchased the Detroit Police Department, and they want to mechanize it to increase its efficiency. Their police robot, ED-209, has a tendency to kill all offenders, so they decide to go with a cyborg instead. Meanwhile, a police officer named Murphy (Peter Weller) transfers into Detroit and gets horribly shot up by the Dad from That 70s Show (Kurtwood Smith, who steals every scene in a film with otherwise mediocre acting). He becomes the perfect subject for OCP and is built into RoboCop.

RoboCop manages to beat down a lot of criminals, but power games in OCP threaten his existence, and an executive hires the Dad from That 70s Show to kill RoboCop again. Meanwhile, Murphy is recognized by his old partner (played by a near future Maggie Gyllenhaal, who must have time travelled back to 1987 to star in this film), and she tries to help him regain his memories.

In many ways, RoboCop is one of the first successful superhero films, and it very much follows the superhero origin story template. You see RoboCop’s creation, you see him successfully fight crime, you see his fall and eventual triumph – it’s very by numbers, but it works. There’s some typical Verhoeven stuff here – there’s gratuitous nudity, most female characters are peripheral sex objects, and the violence is really over-the-top (there are lots of exploding gunshot wounds and one character takes an acid bath – I’m sort of horrified that I watched and loved this movie when I was eleven or twelve). But, it’s not his worst by far.

The best material is the satire, especially in the violent commercials and short news segments, during which chipper newscasters briefly discuss apocalyptic horrors from around the world. Much of it is dead on, and I wished there were more.

I’m not rushing out to buy the blu-ray, but I certainly didn’t mind rewatching it.

Grade: B

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

1987 BFS - IT by Stephen King

I wanted to discuss Stephen King at some point. I went through a Stephen King phase starting in Junior High, and I eventually read all of his novels (though I haven’t read any since 2000). It is one of his best, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity for a review, though the pronoun name is a pain.

It occurs in two time periods, as a group of seven people in the small town of Derry, Maine, must twice combat a shapeshifting supernatural creature. Every generation, the monster emerged to eat the town’s children. In the late 1950s, it appears as a clown to lure children in before devouring them. A group of adolescents who play in the Barrens outside of town begin to investigate the disappearances and form a strong bond, calling themselves the Losers Club. In the mid-80s, the creature returns and the Losers must reunite to fight it. Basically, the novel is Stand by Me (based on a Stephen King novella called “The Body”) but with the epilogue expanded to a story of its own (oh yeah, and also with an evil spider/clown monster).

It’s about 1200 pages, but it moves at a fast pace. It digresses a lot from the main plot (it’s more digression than plot really), but the point here is really to enrich the characters to create seven very believable children and follow them into their (somewhat damaged) adulthoods. The children, and King’s depiction of the mysteries and tragedies of adolescence as a whole, really are the greatest strength of it.

I haven’t read it for a decade, but it holds up very strongly in my memory. I didn’t have much trouble remembering it for this review, and I think that’s a testimony to the its simplicity and power.

Grade: A-

Monday, November 8, 2010

1987 Arthur C. Clarke – THE HANDMAID”S TALE by Margaret Atwood

The first Arthur C. Clarke award goes to a mainstream literary hit, Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopia. It’s always interesting to see what happens when a respected literary figure writes a piece of speculative fiction – usually book reviewers twist themselves into pretzels explaining why “it’s not really science fiction” and the science fiction establishment more or less looks the other way. Atwood did garner Locus and Nebula nominations (next to her Man Booker Prize nomination), but Hugo stuck with Orson Scott Card and L. Ron Hubbard. Her next sf work, Oryx and Crake, which I liked even more, got no recognition from sf awards.

In the near future, religious fundamentalists have seized control of the US government and turned it into a sexist and racist totalitarian state. Pollution has caused high levels of infertility, so women that can have children are highly valued and kept as slaves called handmaids. The narrator is known as Offred (we never learn her real name), and she tells a series of parallel stories – her life with her husband before the takeover, the difficulties and hardships of the takeover itself and her subsequent training as a handmaid, and her present position as a handmaid in the household of a powerful “Commander.” Her freedoms are constrained, she’s surrounded by violence, her intellectual life is completely closed off (she’s not allowed to read), and she must perform a ritualistic sex ceremony with the Commander every month in the hopes of reproduction.

The one problem I have with the novel is that it feels a bit over-the-top. Even the craziest of Christian Fundamentalists have never called for any society like this that I know of. You could argue that it’s a metaphor for the loss of basic choices for women that some political leaders advocate, but I think it’d be more interesting to see a more realistic portrayal of an anti-feminist society; show what’s really at stake. This story seems too easy to dismiss as paranoid fantasy. 1984 is a ridiculously intrusive and controlling society, but it’s still not too hard to imagine most of it coming true. It's not hard to imagine a repressive, reactionary society that destroys women's rights either; it's just wouldn't look much like this.

The real attraction, as is always the case with Atwood, is the writing. Atwood’s prose is smart, incisive and flows with ease and power. The non-linear narrative creates intriguing mysteries without ever losing the reader. All of the characters, even the Commander and his jealous and menacing wife, feel real and compelling, as does Offred’s sense of loss. Atwood is one of the greatest living authors, and it’s always wonderful when she works in science fiction, even if I did have a few suspension-of-disbelief problems with the world she created.

Grade: A-

Friday, November 5, 2010

1987 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation, 1986 Saturn – ALIENS

The return of James Cameron, as the future “king of the world” wins his first Hugo. I wish this happened more often with science fiction sequels: bring in a talented director with his own distinct vision who will take the franchise in a new direction while remaining faithful to the original material. We move from Ridley Scott’s claustrophobic horror film to a big action epic. This is also the best translation of military sf, and the mood or Starship Troopers, to the big screen.

Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) awakes from stasis following her horrific experiences in the first film into a world decades beyond her own time (Relativity!). Her employers, the greedy Company, debrief her but seem dubious of her claims. But, when they lose contact with a distant colony, they worry that the creature Ripley encountered may have struck again. A Company representative (a very slimy Paul Reiser) and Ripley join up with a tough group of space marines to check the situation out. The marines, both male and female, are tough and confidant, and Ripley warns them that they’re in over their heads. After a few encounters with a colony full of the aliens, they begin to get the point.

This is one of the great science fiction films: it’s well thought out, action packed, the effects are great and have aged well, and yet Cameron still takes time for character moments (and Weaver gives the performance of her career). It’s a completely different movie than its predecessor, but just as good. This is the last time I’ll be discussing the Alien franchise*: Alien 3 also garners a great director with David Fincher (Fight Club), but it’s early in Fincher’s career and he’s saddled with a weaker script that quickly jettisons the status quo established in this film – the results are much less satisfying. The fourth film is almost universally detested, though I don’t mind it as much as most – it’s a mediocre sf film that just looks really bad in comparison to the first two films.

*unless the prequel in development somehow actually manages to 1) get made, and 2) be good.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

1987 Nebula – THE FALLING WOMAN by Pat Murphy

Generally speaking, I don’t find the “is it really sf?” discussion particularly useful or interesting. I’m willing to admit a pretty broad spectrum of different imaginative fiction into the category. But, The Falling Woman really doesn’t feel like sf to me, despite clearly supernatural elements and the fact that the novel is subtitled “a fantasy.”

The Falling Woman is reall a story about a mother and daughter. The mother, Elizabeth Butler, is an archaeologist more in tune with the world of the Classic Maya than modern society (she fancies herself quite the iconoclast, which I found somewhat annoying, but, then again, I know lots of annoying academics who fancy themselves iconoclasts, so the character rang true). The daughter, Diane, reeling from the recent death of her father, heads off to rural Mexico to meet and learn about her estranged mother. Most of the novel concerns this rather mundane, character-based story. Diane learns about the Maya and her mother, and makes friends with some other dig participants and some of the locals. Elizabeth comes to terms with the loss of her daughter and her own anti-social behavior.

As a basic relationship drama between a mother and daughter, the novel is quite good. I’m very intrigued by the Classic Maya and archaeological digs in general (and I have some inkling of the kind of drama that occur therein), so I thought the setting was fascinating, and the writing was solid. The narration alternates between Elizabeth and Diane, and, while I think their voices could have been more different, it was one of the more pleasant reads I’ve encountered in a while. The melodrama runs high – any story that involves a character being committed to a mental institution against their will is pushing the boundaries – but the core relationship still seemed believable and progressed nicely. There’s also a feminist narrative implied by Elizabeth’s back story; she is controlled and damaged by her ex-husband, but Murphy doesn’t really develop this theme very explicitly – in fact, melodramatic as it was, I think this element would have benefitted from more focus.

So, the book is nice enough. But, an award winner? A better sf novel than The Uplift War? Or The Handmaid's Tale? I don’t know. An sf award winner? I’m even less sure about that. The supernatural elements are there, but are they particularly well developed? Are they integral to the story? Not really. If mother-daughter drama at a Mayan archaeological dig sounds interesting to you, I’d certainly recommend this novel. I did enjoy it on that level. Is it a fantasy classic? I really don’t think so.

Grade: B

Monday, November 1, 2010

1987 Hugo and Locus, 1986 Nebula – SPEAKER FOR THE DEAD by Orson Scott Card

A year after sweeping the big three US awards with Ender’s Game, Card did it again with a sequel, a very different book than its predecessor – the simplicity seems to be gone (or is it?), as is the repetitiveness. The result is a rather byzantine mystery story that managed to fascinate and infuriate me at the same time.

I usually avoid spoilers as much as possible, but it’s impossible to talk about this novel without mentioning a few facets of the conclusion of Ender’s Game, so readers beware.

Speaker for the Dead picks up 3000 years after Ender’s Game. Ender is regarded as a genocidal monstrosity, the worst human to ever live, but Andrew Wiggin is the sainted founder of the influential philosophy of Speaking for the Dead (which is pretty much what it sounds like). He and his sister Valentine are only in their thirties, thanks to relativity, and both generally conceal the fact that they are influential historical figures as they flit from colony planet to colony planet. Ender is called to speak for the dead at the Brazillian-Catholic colony of Lusitania, which also happens to be home to the first sentient lifeforms humanity has encountered since the buggers, called "piggies." Once on the colony, Ender must unravel several nested mysteries about the piggies and a family of xenologists who have studied them for generations. These mysteries have implications for Ender’s own past and for the future of all of humanity.

There was a lot of fascinating material in this book, and in many ways it held my attention better than the parade of school battles that was Ender’s Game. Card doesn’t shy away from using religion in his novels, and the piggies have some interesting biological and cultural characteristics. However, the novel also managed to get on my nerves, a lot, usually at the same time it was fascinating. For instance, Card sets up a family drama worthy of Tennessee Williams: two young xenologists are deeply in love, yet they cannot marry because of a dark secret. Instead, the woman marries another man, a steelworker, who she knows to be sterile, and bears six children with her xenologist lover. The children believe the steelworker to be their father, but he knows the truth, and beats his wife mercilessly, which she feels is fitting punishment for her infidelity with the man she truly loves. In the hands of a subtler, more skilled author this could make for a meaty, layered, family chronicle; however, here it’s just annoying. The dark secret is portrayed as a matter of life and death, but it turns out to be quite pointless. The reason for the lovers not marrying turns on a highly contrived, illogical, and unlikely set of future privacy laws. The characters, whose passions and traumas should be the center of this drama, all fall flat, and are simple stereotypes. Worst of all, Ender glosses over the crimes and heals the wounds of this sad situation in almost no time at all.

This last issue is symptomatic of the most infuriating thing about the book: Ender’s complete and total perfection, including his moral infallibility, which I complained about in my review for Ender’s Game. It’s much worse in Speaker for the Dead. Ender is clearly an analogue for Jesus – wise beyond human limits and carrying the weight of all human sin (through his guilt about the buggers). Again I say, “barf.”

The central complication of the novel is what Star Trek fans would recognize as a “prime directive” problem: how much should humans interfere with piggy culture? Should the piggies be allowed to evolve in their own direction, or should humans give them advanced technology? What if they’re starving? What if they earnestly want the technology? These are interesting questions with no simple answers…. Except that Ender has the simple answers, and he is always right, even though he’s completely inconsistent. Along the way, the xenologists come off as idiots, so that Ender can correct them on all sorts of factual and ethical issues. In other words, no character is allowed to breathe, think, or love except to forward perfect Ender (Don’t even get me started on the Ender-loving sentient computer, Jane). As a result, all of the characters, especially Ender himself, are completely dull and pointless.

Grade: C+

Friday, October 29, 2010

1986 Philip K. Dick Award - HOMUNCULUS by James Blaylock

I don't plan on reviewing a lot of Philip K. Dick award winners - to their credit, they tend to nominate very different books from the general pool of a half-dozen-or-so books that all of the other awards seem to draw from (Neuromancer being an obvious exception). This fits in very nicely with Dick's avant garde writing, but many of the winners are not the widely-read, acknowledged classics that I'm focusing on for the moment. Blaylock, however, is a writer that has been on my to read list for a few years now. As I've mentioned before, I'm very interested in the steampunk aesthetic, and Blaylock, with this novel in particular, is among the subgenre's founding fathers (along with Moorcock, K. W. Jeter, and Tim Powers*).

Homunculus takes place in London in 1870 and follows a series of mad scientists led by Langdon St. Ives called the Trismigestus Club who hang out in a tobacco shop and contend with, well, even madder scientists like Dr Ignancio Narbono, who can revive the dead. An alchemist named Birdlove mastered perpetual motion and incorporated it into the engine of a blimp, which has circled the world for years since. The blimp's orbit has been slowly decaying, and since it contains all sorts of curiosities, including a small alien who may or may not be the father of an evangelist named Shiloh, the scientists attempt to unravel its mysteries and intercept it's landing.

Well, that's part of the plot. There are many more characters and there's quite a bit more going on. Too much, to be honest. As I've said before, steampunk is more an aesthetic than anything else, and many of the steampunk novels I've read are more interested in throwing out weird devices and comic anachronisms than developing plot or character. That's certainly the case here. The plot consists of a lot of scientists and their henchmen running around, spying on and stealing important items from each other. The characters are all very interchangeable - they have mechanistic motivations ("I need to get item x" or "speak with character y"), but no real emotions. Honestly, I had a hard time keeping track of them. I enjoyed a lot of the ideas here, but most of the novel left me cold, and I was glad it was a short one.

*I considered reviewing the first PKD winner, Powers' Anubis Gates. I read the novel in high school. I remember it, but not well enough to review it, and I enjoyed it, but not enough to reread it, so I'm skipped it in favor of Blaylock.

Grade: B-

Monday, October 25, 2010

1986 World Fantasy Award - SONG OF KALI by Dan Simmons

I get the feeling that Dan Simmons took a vacation to India in the late '70s/early '80s and did not enjoy himself. There's a school of thought in horror (I think I got this from a Stephen King essay) that you take a rather mundane fear and magnify it. In this case, Simmons considers a vacation to a foreign country and makes it go about as poorly as possible. He does this effectively, though I'm not entirely thrilled with the results.

Bobby Luczac has a pretty great life at the beginning of the novel He has a beautiful and wealthy wife (who was born in India) and a baby girl, and he's a poet who is actually employed - he works for both Harper's and a small literary magazine. He grabs an assignment to track down an elusive Indian poet thought dead for almost a decade. He packs his family off to Calcutta for what he believes will be a quick and enjoyable vacation, but he immediately hates the dirty, poverty-stricken Indian city. He is also ensnared in a web of intrigues concerning the possibly-dead poet that includes the snooty Indian Writers' Union and a group of cultists to the goddess of destruction, Kali. Because this is a horror novel, these intrigues are bound to take a nightmarish turn.

Simmons has a clear but strong narrative voice, and this novel made me look forward to the upcoming Hugo winner, Hyperion, but this novel never quite grabbed my attention. There are clear mysteries at the novel's beginning, but none of them quite hooked me - the spookiness level remains relatively low until the final quarter of the novel, and then it ramps up a little too quickly. It was only in the epilogue, where Simmons begins to hint strongly about the wider implications of what has happened to the Luczacs, that I really had any emotional response to the book, which is a problem for a horror novel; it's too subtle for the first two-thirds and too much in the final third.

I also had a problem with the novel's slight (unintentional, I think) xenophobia. As I said, Simmons makes exotic travel scary, but he offers little redemption for India. The message seems to be "you think travel to a poverty-stricken foreign country might be frightening? Well, it could be even worse among the poor, dirty, superstitious pagans of Calcutta!" I'm not saying that I think Simmons is in any way racist, but I do think it's unfortunate that a side-effect of this sort of horror set-up is that Calcutta and India come off as so inherently flawed - there's no historical context, just deep, ancient, and foreign evils.

Grade: B-

Friday, October 22, 2010

1986 Locus Fantasy – THE TRUMPS OF DOOM by Roger Zelazny

The Trumps of Doom is the sixth novel in Zelazny’s beloved Amber series of fantasy novels. The first quintet of short books is narrated by Corwyn, a man who wakes up with amnesia in 20th century America. As Corwyn begins to explore his lost past, he discovers that he is from the royal family of Amber, a majestic city that is the true world – Earth is only a shadow. The series begins with a noir feel – Corwyn is tough, street smart, and morally flexible and he moves through a world of femme fatales and seedy lowlifes. By the end, it’s sword and sorcery, as Corwyn gathers armies, clobbers demons, and goes on spirit quests to fight mystical plots and contest the throne of Amber. The genre shifts dramatically, but Corwyn is always hyper-macho.

This novel starts a new quintet, and resets the table with a new narrator: Merlin. Merlin has his own connections to Amber (which I won’t get into too much, so as not to spoil the earlier books), but at the novel’s beginning he’s living on our Earth, working for an IT company, and someone is trying to kill him. As he attempts to find the would-be assassin, he uncovers an underground of sorcery based on the magic of Amber, and learns that many of his friends know more about his origins than seems possible. Eventually, he journeys back to Amber to learn more about what’s happening, and ends up in the same colossal and cosmic conflicts that always occur at the climax of these novels.

Zelazny’s hitting on a lot of the same themes here that we’ve seen him take on before: tough guy anti-heroes with connections to mythical figures (Earth mythology is an echo of the “real” princes and princesses of Amber) fighting brutal-but-cosmic battles. The female characters are marginal (the princesses of Amber scheme, but the princes are the true center of the conflicts). The ever-escalating stakes and fuzzy nature of “reality” get old after a while, and the series as a whole felt a bit repetitive to me. They are fun though, and I especially like these first books that spend a lot of time on Earth and introduce a lot of mysteries. After six books, however, I think I’m finished with the series, despite this entry ending on a cliffhanger.

Grade: B