Friday, January 29, 2010

1976 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation - A BOY AND HIS DOG

Based on a Hugo Award winning novella by Harlan Ellison, A Boy and His Dog follows a young man (a very young Don Johnson) who has a telepathic link with a super-intelligent dog as they wander across a hellish post-apocalyptic landscape in 2024. Since Mad Max, this kind of “every man for himself/world of barbarians” post-apocalyptic film has become almost cliché. But, I’ll give A Boy and His Dog the benefit of the doubt and say that I don’t know of anything like this made earlier.

There’s not much to the plot. “the boy” wants to get laid, the dog wants to find a utopia called “Over the Hill,” and various savages with rifles try to enslave or kill them. Later, we get a sequence in “Downunder,” a community of more organized underground survivors who live in a parody of conformist, small-town America. Ellison hates conformism!

There’s a very low-budget, early-independent-film feeling to the proceedings, and I can see how this would become a cult classic. It is very dark. And, as I said, it’s short on plot. Blood, the dog, actually gets some great character moments; he’s the best thing about this film. And, the black comedy surprise ending is certainly worth a chuckle. The rest of the movie… well, let’s just say that I’m getting sick of these dystopias. And the next Hugo-winning movie is also about some evil totalitarian Empire. It never ends.

The film has been accused of misogyny in the past, and I think the argument has merit. You could say that the film is simply portraying a brutal and misogynistic world, but it's still disturbing how little of the perspective of the few female characters we get here. Women are either playthings, victims, or manipulators.

It also annoys me that the original trailer shamelessly rips off the original A Clockwork Orange trailer. This is no Kubrick film.

Grade: C+

Monday, January 25, 2010

1976 Hugo, Campbell, and Locus, 1975 Nebula - THE FOREVER WAR by Joe Haldeman

Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War is probably the most highly regarded military sf novel. It begins a lot like Starship Troopers. A young man from Earth, William Mandella, is drafted to fight an alien menace. He goes off to boot camp, which is highly dangerous, and, as in Heinlein’s novel, includes powered armor. Then, he and his unit deploy to a distant planet to fight the strange aliens.

There are a couple of twists after this opening sequence that do differentiate the novel from Heinlein’s, however. First of all, it’s pretty clear that not all is as it seems. Rather than the simplistic aggressive force that Heinlein’s “bugs” represented, Haldeman’s aliens are more complex and mysterious. In fact, it’s not entirely clear why Earth is at war with them. And, rather than the heroic patriotism of the space marines, Mandella and his fellow soldiers are miserable, occasionally cowardly, fight amongst themselves, and regret killing. In other words, it’s an anti-war military sf novel. It’s not surprising that this novel was written in the wake of the Vietnam War, or that Haldeman served in Vietnam.

From what I’d heard of this novel, I thought the anti-war message was really the novel’s focus. It’s actually subtler than I expected, and there are times when this does read like a typical military adventure story. The main twist and the real focus of the plot is the fact that Earth’s fighting forces are subject to relativity. As established by Albert Einstein, if you travel near the speed of light, time moves much more slowly to you relative to the stationary position you left. Thus, when the infantry deploys to their first alien planet (aided by shortcuts through space called “stargates”), the mission takes several months for them, but twenty years pass on Earth. As a result, a lot of the novel involves Mandella and his fellow soldiers adjusting to massive changes in society every time they make it back from a mission.

The first mission begins in 1997 (The Forever War may be the champion of bad futurism, placing interstellar travel and power-armored space infantry just years away from his mid-70s vantage point). Then we get the standard-70s dystopia in 2007: overpopulation, starvation, pollution, etc. From there, we learn of big changes in world governance, population, and, most dramatically, human sexuality, as the centuries fly quickly by.

I’m not a fan of military sf, so the long training and combat scenes, which make up more than half of the novel, could be a bit of a slog, and I’m not quite sure that this book lived up to the hype. But it was an enjoyable read with some entertaining ideas thrown around.

Grade: A-

Friday, January 22, 2010

1975 World Fantasy Award – THE FORGOTTEN BEASTS OF ELD by Patricia McKillip

The first novel to win the World Fantasy Award was Patricia McKillip’s The Forgotten Beasts of Eld. It tells the story of Sybel, a beautiful young female wizard who has inherited a collection of magical animals and the power to summon and control them. She lives in the wilderness between two rival kingdoms and is drawn into the contest between them while their leaders try to woo her for her love and the power that her bestiary would add to their kingdoms.

Sybel is a really interesting character – a very powerful but aloof woman. She’s certainly more assertive and stronger than any female character I’ve seen so far in these readings. The center of the story seems to be her gradually developing feelings for others. Early in the novel, she is given a baby to raise, and she quickly comes to love it. Then, she must decide which man she shall marry, and if she really can love either. It’s a very well-realized and organic growth in a very lonely character.

The novel’s biggest drawback (to me, at least). is the prose. It's not bad, but it is rather stilted in imitation of the folkloric texts that it wants to mimic (and also in imitation of fantasy pioneer Tolkein). This is my biggest pet peeve in fantasy, though I do understand the intended effect, and it is done well here. Still, if you actually read medieval tales, the writing is much warmer, humorous, and more inventive than the affected wooden prose of the modern fantasy author.

Grade: B

Thursday, January 21, 2010


Okay, so I started with the Hugo, added the Nebula, then the Locus, and now a couple of other awards have popped up in my post titles. This is thanks mainly to the great nomination layout of the site Worlds Without End, which uses a very fun interface to show the history of ten major speculative fiction awards. Looking through that history, a few more books popped up that I want to read/talk about. My goal here is, after all, to get a chronological sense of the development of speculative fiction.

So here's my policy: I will always review the winning Hugo Award, and I think I am committed to the Nebula as well. I’ve already mentioned that I’ll check in on Locus at times. In 1970, the British Science Fiction Association Award started giving out awards for best novel from across the pond. In 1973, a jury began to award the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. I’ll look at these award winners when I’m interested as well as the eventual Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick Awards.

I do want to take a second to justify my addition of the major fantasy awards as well. Running parallel to the Hugo awards and WorldCon, the WFA is given by the World Fantasy Convention. Unlike Hugo, the WFAs are decided by a jury of top fantasy writers (a different group every year) and convention goers only get to choose a few of the nominees. The freaky-looking statuette is modeled on H. P. Lovecraft. I'll be covering the first WFA winner tomorrow.

So, why fantasy awards? Fantasy and science fiction have an odd relationship – most people would probably group them together, and most fans of one of the genres has at least read a sampling of the other. At the same time, there are a lot of purists who adore one and have no time for the other.

I personally think they have a lot in common. Not only do the readers overlap, so do the writers, and every piece of science fiction, no matter how “hard,” has an element of the fantastic in it. Most importantly, I think science fiction is at its best when it is doing at least one of two things: 1) Evoking a sense of wonder by describing something truly amazing and original, and 2) Reflecting something about contemporary society of the human condition through metaphor. Good fantasy has the same characteristics. And, frankly some works are hard to categorize. You will find more than a few science fiction fans who will tell you that Star Wars belongs in the fantasy genre.

The most important reason that I am including the WFAs is that they will eventually compare more directly with the Hugos. Fantasy books are eligible for the Hugo and have always been so. Fantasy books were occasionally nominated, but none won before the year 2000. Since the year 2000, however, fantasy books have won the majority of Hugo awards. I think this is the function of a variety of factors including the rising popularity of fantasy and the growth of urban fantasy as a new subgenre that echoes trends in sci-fi. Whatever the reasons, it’s clear that you can’t talk about the Hugos and ignore the fantasy genre.

My one reservation about adding a fantasy category is that sword and sorcery stories can get a bit old. The biggest problem with fantasy as I see it, is that so many authors simply recapitulate the seminal fantasy work: J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings (which I will get to talk about when we get to the films). Looking at the winners of the WFA though, it seems that they don’t award Tolkein’s imitators too often. I don’t see any David Eddings, Terry Brooks, or Robert Jordan books in the mix.

In the late 70s, the Locus award breaks its novel awards into separate fantasy and science fiction categories, so that will give us one other award to compare. We also have the August Derleth Award from the British Fantasy Society (an offshoot of the BSFA).

To summarize: I'll always review the Hugo film/tv winners and Saturn (sf) film winners, and I'll occasionally do Saturn fantasy film winners too. I'll also always review Hugo and Nebula novel winners. From there, I'll play it by ear with the other big eight novel awards, though there is a rough hierarchy - I'm probably most likely to cover Locus winners, and least likely to cover Philip K. Dick award winners. If anyone out there sees an award-winning book that you want me to include, let me know.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

1975 Hugo Dramatic Presentation - YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN

As I said last week, Hugo voters were quite fond of comedies in the mid-70s. Young Frankenstein, filmed in black and white, is a parody of Frankenstein (the classic 1930 film moreso than Mary Shelley’s novel). It was directed by Mel Brooks and scripted by Gene Wilder, who also gives a great performance as the infamous mad scientist’s grandson. Dr. Frankenstein inherits his grandfather’s Transylvania estate (and his manservant Igor), and eventually begins to work at replicating his dark research in reanimation. The doctor manages to create his own monster (played brilliantly by Peter Boyle) and debuts the creature with an elaborate broadway number that goes horribly wrong.

It’s a hilarious movie, and one that’s always been a favorite of mine. Wilder's script avoids some of the typical Mel Brooks groaners, and Brooks direction, in homage to James Whale's work on the original, is probably the best of his career. It’s maybe a bit short on the science fiction; there aren’t any big ideas here (even less so than in Sleeper), but it’s fun. The cast really makes the film. This may be Wilder’s best performance, and Boyle’s monster is legendary; Terri Garr is gorgeous as Frankenstein’s young assistant, and Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman are hilarious as the doctor’s fiancée and Igor, respectively. Highly recommended.

Grade: A-

Monday, January 18, 2010

1975 Hugo and Locus, 1974 Nebula Award – THE DISPOSSESED by Ursula K. LeGuin

Yet another Leguin, and yet another triple crown winning novel. As in The Left Hand of Darkness, LeGuin uses science fiction to explore themes and ideas about human culture. This time, her central question is about government, and specifically, the practicality of anarcho-synidcalism.

The Dispossessed takes place in the same universe as The Left Hand of Darkness. Humans throughout the galaxy descend from an ancient people called the Hainish. In the future, these people, including Earthlings, reconnect and form a large and peaceful coalition of human worlds. "Terrans" make a brief guest appearance near the end, but most of the action takes place on the world of Anarres and its habitable moon Urras. We learn that 160 years ago a wave of socialist revolution swept through Anarres inspired by a philosopher named Odo. Anarres eventually solved the problem by exiling the revolutionaries to the harsh moon Urras, where they formed a utopian society based around their anti-state and anti-property principles. The main character is a brilliant physicist from Urras named Shevek. In order to pursue and spread his research, Shevek becomes the first Urrastian to return to Anarres. The novel follows two alternating narrative paths. The first traces Shevek’s progress in the capitalist society of Annares. The second follows Shevek’s previous life on utopian Urras, from his childhood up to his decision to leave. Throughout, we get his thoughts on the two societies and their views on free expression, labor, class, art, gender, etc.

As always with LeGuin, The Dispossessed is amazingly well-written, and the characters are the richest, most complex, and most lifelike of anything I’ve read. The ideas and conflicts are fascinating. Still, I did not enjoy this novel as much as the previous two. There isn’t much plot to speak of, and utopias, even more than dystopias, can easily fall into preachiness. LeGuin mostly avoids the soapbox, but just barely. Urras may be a utopia, but she does add some complexity: it’s highly conformist and emotions like jealousy have not been completely eliminated. Even without property, people still envy Shevek’s talents as a physicist. In fact, this is the central plot of the Urras story, and it echoes a lot of the ideas about the sociology of science in Asimov’s The Gods Themselves (must’ve been in the air in the mid-70s).

Overall, it’s a really intriguing novel with rich characters, and it’s as good a utopia as I’ve read. But, utopias are hard to write, and this book did not hold me in as rapt attention as her previous novels.

Grade: B+

Friday, January 15, 2010

1974/1975 Saturn - ROLLERBALL

The Saturn Awards skipped 1974, and their third annual ceremony combined films from ’74 and ’75. The winner was Rollerball, which is an odd mishmash of sports film and dystopian science fiction. The main plot is pure sports film; James Caan plays an aging superstar in the violent sport of rollerball. He has fame, a nice house, and women (provided for him by his corporate sponsors), but his life is beginning to feel a bit hollow, and he’s feeling pressure to retire.

Rollerball the sport is basically a hyper-violent version of Roller Derby. Players skate around a circular track and try to put a ball in a goal. Along the way they beat the crap out of each other. One of the film’s biggest issues is that we’re told this sport is ridiculously violent (apparently nine players once died in one game), but it actually looks significantly less violent than the NHL or NFL, though people tend to get run over by motocycles a lot.

The science fiction element comes from the background. It’s 2018, and the world is no longer dominated by nation-states but by evil, soul-destroying corporations. The corporations sponsor Rollerball to distract a bloodthirsty public from their own manipulations. So, we have here yet another ‘70s dystopia.

It’s not a particularly nuanced or complex one. I just happened to read a Michael Chabon essay recently in which he called Rollerball "the first movie depiction of a future not merely ruled but styled by evil corporations." There may be some truth to that, but, in the end, the film certainly doesn’t poise the difficult questions that A Clockwork Orange does, and it’s really not even as insightful as Soylent Green. This is more a montage of dystopian tropes in a sports film. The society doesn't really feel that well thought through - why would a corporate run state look so much like a socialist state? Condemning violence in the media is about as thoughtful and challenging as condemning television. It’s too facile. As a result, I was disappointed, and frankly, more than a little bored, watching this film.

James Caan gives a nice performance though.

Grade: C-

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

1974 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation - SLEEPER

The WorldCon voters were really into comedies in the mid-70s apparently. Sleeper is a Woody Allen film (writer, director and star, as is often the case with his films), and it is from the earlier slapstick era of his career. He clearly wants to be Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, and there are long sequences of physical comedy.

Allen plays health-food store owner and jazz afficianado (there’s a wonderfully inappropriate ragtime soundtrack throughout the film) Miles Monroe. Miles goes to the hospital in the 1970s for treatment of an ulcer and wakes up two-hundred years later in a dystopian future. Society is ruled by a totalitarian “Supreme Leader,” everyone has robot butlers, and people who disagree with the are brainwashed. Oh, and people just spend a few seconds in the “orgasmatron” rather than having sex.

Allen is revived by revolutionaries and then forced into hiding. He eventually disguises himself as Diane Keaton’s butler, and when she discovers him, he exhorts her to join him in rebellion.

The film is funny, though some of the slapstick material gets a bit tired (Allen is not Chaplin or Keaton). As science fiction, there’s nothing too original here (there is a parody of HAL9000), but it’s certainly amusing.

Grade: B

Monday, January 11, 2010

1974 Hugo, John W. Campbell and Locus, and 1973 Nebula and BSFA Award – RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA by Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke is often credited as one of the “Big Three” fathers of modern science fiction along with Asimov and Heinlein, so it’s a bit surprising that it took him until the '70s to win a best novel Hugo. Rendezvous with Rama is a great first winner for him though. This is probably his best novel, and it's science fiction at its purest.

In the 22nd century, astronomers on Earth sight a large object moving through the solar system with some odd characteristics. A probe soon shows that the object is a perfect cylinder over 50 km long – obviously artificial, and thus the first alien ship that humanity has ever seen. A ship from Earth is redirected to rendezvous with the vessel, and the bulk of the novel consists of the exploration that follows. A crew of astronauts enter the ship, which is apparently uninhabited by sentient life, and explore it, while governments throughout the colonized solar system debate what to do with this new discovery. The exploration is particularly fun, as the astronauts use the odd characteristics of a cylindrical world that generates all of its gravity by centripetal force to do some interesting things.

I’m not going to get to into the specific mysteries or conflicts – suffice it to say that it’s the mood that matters. Rarely do you get a book that’s both thoughtful and exciting as this one. It’s a fairly simple story, and the characters can be a bit interchangeable, but Clarke really shines at portraying the wonder and mystery of a great discovery. The novel is absolutely thrilling. It’s definitely a page-turner. I highly recommend it, and it was very deserving in its sweep of the major sci-fi awards.

I will add that I’ve actually read the sequels. Unfortunately, the law of diminishing returns definitely applies with the Rama series, which were mostly written by Gentry Lee, not Clarke. Rama II recreates some of the mysteries and discoveries of the first novel, but the series soon focuses on the conflicts that emerge among the human explorers (and eventually settlers) of another Rama probe. There’s more exploration of social issues, which I usually enjoy, but there’s an overwhelming pessimism and misanthropy that really cuts into the original novel's sense of wonder.

Grade: A

Friday, January 8, 2010

1973 Saturn Award – SOYLENT GREEN

Soylent Green is a lot like a Twilight Zone episode. It has an odd, sci-fi setting and revolves around a twist ending (what I call the punchline ending). It also has a lot of the same problems that I complained about when I covered the Twilight Zone: the characters are a little flat, the concept is stretched very thin to fill the time, and your enjoyment probably depends a whole lot on how surprised you are by the revelation at the film’s end. Unfortunately, Soylent Green has one of those shock endings that have entered popular culture. If you’ve heard of Soylent Green, I’m sure you know how it ends, but I’ll avoid the spoilers just in case.

The film takes place in 2022. Like a lot of visions of the near future that we’ve seen recently in the course of these readings and viewings, it’s over-crowded and polluted, and the government is corrupt and uncaring. The Greenhouse effect has run wild, so it’s always hot, people are starving, and an odd fuzz (representing air pollution) hangs over all of the film’s outdoor scenes. When people protest the horrible conditions of their world, riot police scoop them up with bulldozers. It’s not unlike the world presented by LeGuin at the beginning of The Lathe of Heaven, but there’s no magical dreaming to escape it.

Charlton Heston plays the lead role: a hard-boiled cop who is investigating the murder of a big food magnate. Along the way, he discovers a disturbing secret.

The film is brief, and there’s not much there beyond that shock ending. The film sort of meanders along; the world-building scenes are somewhat interesting, the investigatory scenes not so much. Even the climactic chase and shoot-out drags. There are also some big-time 70s clichés at work here: the tough-as-nails cop, the beautiful half-naked women who exist solely as sex objects, etc.

There are two sequences that I did find very effective: the opening scene that uses real photographs to suggest the declension of society and rapid population growth, and a really powerful euthanasia scene towards the film’s end. These two bits alone almost make the film worth watching, and if you don’t know the final twist, I’d definitely check this out.

By the way, the film includes some great performances by some film legends in supporting roles. Joseph Cotton (of Citizen Kane fame) has a smaller role, and character actor Edward G. Robinson is fantastic Heston’s mentor in his 101st and last role (he died shortly after filming ended).

Grade: B+

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

1973 Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation and 1972 Saturn Award – SLAUGHTERHOSUE-FIVE (Kurt Vonnegut)

Slaughterhouse-five is the film adaptation of one of my favorite books by Kurt Vonnegut. It’s not an easy book to film – Vonnegut wrote Slaughterhouse-five as a memoir of his time in Dresden as a POW during World War II. He was held prisoner by the Nazis at the time Allied forces carpet bombed the city, killing tens of thousands of civilians (Vonnegut liked to use a more controversial figure of over one hundred thousand to argue that the bombing was worse than Hiroshima). It’s only half memoir though. Vonnegut figures into the story, but it’s really about Billy Pilgrim, a fictional fellow POW who eventually spends several years in a zoo run by aliens called Tralfamadorians. Pilgrim also happens to be “unstuck in time;” he does not experience time in a linear fashion. One moment he’s in Dresden after the bombing, the next he’s getting married, the next he’s dying, and then he may find himself in the alien zoo before popping back to Dresden before the bombing. The novel, by the way, was nominated for a Hugo in 1970.

Vonnegut received to other Hugo nominations for his novels. In 1960, another weird romp, The Sirens of Titan, was up for the prize. In 1964, my favorite Vonnegut novel, Cat’s Cradle was nominated. Cat’s Cradle discusses the invention of a potentially world-ending new form of ice discovered by scientists. This ice-9 ends up on a Caribbean island ruled by a cruel dictator (an analogue of Haiti under Papa Doc Duvalier) and influenced by an odd religion called Bokononism. It’s chock full of Vonnegut’s cynical and absurd humor.

Vonnegut also created a brilliant lampoon of the hard-luck science fiction short story writer, Kilgore Trout. Science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon was apparently the main inspiration (thus the fishy last name). Trout appeared in several of Vonnegut’s novels, including Slaughterhouse-five, and a lot of past Hugo winners and nominees probably would have sympathized with him.

So, this film has a lot to overcome – Vonnegut’s dark sense of humor, non-linearity, and an oddball plot. It does an admirable job, for the most part. The film manages to recreate Vonnegut’s brilliant use of time-skipping to advance the story with thematic linkages in Pilgrim’s life rather than your typical plot development. It also takes Vonnegut out of the story, which does simplify things. Still, it left me kind of cold. I’m just not sure this novel was meant to be filmed.

In the end, I would not recommend it. The novel is a book that everyone should read; the film, not so much. I would highly recommend any of Vonnegut's Hugo nominated fiction though, and several of his novels (Bluebeard and Breakfast of Champions are particularly good, though I wouldn't start with them). In high school, I read through all of his novels chronologically, and had a great time with almost all of them.

The Saturn awards, by the way, are a set of genre awards (science fiction, fantasy and horror) for television and film. I’ll probably review some of the sci-fi films as a counterpoint to the Hugo Dramatic Presentation winners (when they differ).

Grade: B-
(the novel's an easy A)

Monday, January 4, 2010

1973 Hugo and Locus, and 1972 Nebula - THE GODS THEMSELVES by Isaac Asimov

Decades into his career, Asimov won his first real Hugo with The Gods Themselves (“The Mule” later won a retro Hugo and I arbitrarily handed a Fake Hugo to The Naked Sun). I grew up obsessed with Asimov, so I was excited to read this, his most highly recognized novel (awards-wise, that is), and his own personal favorite. And…boy, was I disappointed.

There are some interesting concepts here. In the late twenty-first century, beings from another dimension, where the laws of physics differ significantly, contact our planet and tell us how to build a Pump between the universes that will give us an endless supply of energy. The lucky scientist who makes contact, Frederick Hallam, turns out to be a jealous jackass who uses his notoriety to control the scientific community, and one of the main themes seems to be the sociological perils of science. The novel is divided into three parts. The first tells of a young upstart scientist Lamont who fears that the Pump might change the laws of our universe and cause the sun to explode within a few years. Lamont tries to contact and communicate with the interdimensional aliens, but he must also face the wrath of Hallam. The second takes us to the other side of the Pump, where a group of odd, abstract aliens work to grow up and form a family (and also consider the potential dangers of the Pump). The final third moves the action to the moon, as a group of scientists continue to work on the Pump problem (and we get a “Lunie” society that’s not quite as exciting as Heinlein’s).

There are a lot of intriguing ideas and concerns here. I think Asimov is at his best when he introduces a plausible technology (robots) and then explores the ethical and practical limitations of that technology (his three laws). The Pump almost qualifies, but it’s a bit too far out (and the eventual solution to the problem, while clever, is far too easy). Not much happens here. We learn that Hallam is an incredible jerk, aliens are really weird, and sex on the moon is fun (for some reason, reading sex scenes in Asimov is like listening to your grandparents talk about sex). I just wasn’t as enthralled. The pitfalls of scientific personality clashes is an interesting topic, but that section drags on too long. But, I found the alien section to be far worse. Yes, they’re appropriately weird (tri-sexual blobs with wildly different levels of intelligence and rationality), but that doesn’t necessarily make them interesting. And, as weird as they are, their problems are all too human. Family drama and wild sex with amorphous blobs just didn’t interest me.

I certainly don’t mind that Asimov is trying to stretch his horizons, but I still prefer his classic robot and Foundation stories. There’s nothing wrong with being good at what you do. I’d chalk The Gods Themselves up more as an interesting and fun experiment than an award-sweeping masterpiece.

Grade: B-

Friday, January 1, 2010

1972 Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation – A CLOCKWORK ORANGE

Ah, no better way to celebrate New Year's than with a bit of the old ultra-violence.

Kubrick directed three of the first four films to win Hugos, and three of his films in a row have racked up wins.

This is shocking and disturbing film. The first third follows a mod gang as they fight, rob, rape, and murder their way through a dystopian future. Kubrick doesn’t shy away from showing us some fairly extreme sexual violence (the film was rated X in the US and banned in Britain for decades). The film is narrated by one of the thugs, Alex (Malcolm McDowell), who is bloodthirsty and nihilistic. Alex is arrested and sentenced to a long prison sentence. He eventually signs up for a Pavlovian experiment that will make him averse to violence. He is forced to watch hours of ultraviolence while he’s given drugs to make him ill.

It’s a bit hard to sympathize with Alex, which I’d say is the biggest stumbling block of the film (though certainly an intentional and well-executed one). Alex's awfulness provides the viewer with an interesting ethical dilemma. Is it right to basically neuter Alex with aversion therapy? Is Alex good if he only behaves because he has to? These are interesting and challenging questions.

The film’s biggest achievement is probably visual, which is not surprising for a Kubrick film. There are some amazing shots, and Kubrick creates a vibrant stylized world. It does look a bit like a futuristic vision from the sixties (which it basically is) – everything is colorful, sexualized, and very mod. But it is a compelling and believable vision.

A Clockwork Orange is not for the weak-stomached, but it’s certainly a filmmaking achievement. I do like that the WorldCon voters were willing to opt for something like this.

Grade: A-