Monday, December 20, 2010
Sunday, December 19, 2010
Friday, December 17, 2010
Sunday, December 12, 2010
Thursday, December 9, 2010
Wednesday, December 8, 2010
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).
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.
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.
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.”
Tuesday, December 7, 2010
Monday, December 6, 2010
Sunday, December 5, 2010
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
Sunday, November 28, 2010
Monday, November 22, 2010
Friday, November 19, 2010
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Monday, November 15, 2010
Friday, November 12, 2010
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.
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
Monday, November 8, 2010
Friday, November 5, 2010
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.
Wednesday, November 3, 2010
Monday, November 1, 2010
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.
Friday, October 29, 2010
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.
Monday, October 25, 2010
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.
Friday, October 22, 2010
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.