Monday, March 29, 2010

1980 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation, 1979 Saturn – ALIEN

Science fiction movies made a giant leap in the late 70s, and it seems that every year from ’77 to the early nineties produces at least one incontrovertible classic. Alien, Ridley Scott’s blending of space travel and horror, is about as incontrovertible as it gets.

The world of Alien is basically the opposite of Star Trek’s. Our heroes are deep space prospectors – blue collar miners who work for a giant, amoral corporation. There is no faster-than-light travel, and instead, the crew of the ship Nostromo goes into stasis for the long journeys they must undertake in the hopes of a decent profit. They are awakened by a strange transmission and dispatched by the corporation to investigate. They land and find a large alien spaceship, its giant crewmen apparently violently killed. There are other odd signs, and eventually a parasitic organism latches onto the face one of the miners. If you’ve somehow managed to avoid spoilers for this film, I won’t say much more. Suffice it to say, we get one of the most shocking scenes in film history, and before long, the crew of the Nostromo find themselves being knocked off one by one while the titular being chases them around the ship, slasher-movie style.

There are some fantastic performances here – this was, of course, a breakout role for Sigourney Weaver, but Ian Holm, John Hurt, and Tom Skerritt are also fantastic, as is Homicide’s Yaphet Kotto. The real appeal of this film, however, is the mood. The sets are wonderfully gritty and run-down, and the scenes exploring the crashed alien ship, designed by H. R. Giger, are awe-inspiring. For the first hour, this may be the greatest science fiction film ever made. From there, at least for me, the film loses a lot of its appeal. I’m not a big fan of the slasher formula, and Scott stretches the tension well beyond the breaking point. If you are a horror fan though, as well as a science fiction fan, and you have somehow missed this film, I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll love it.

Grade: A

Friday, March 26, 2010

1980 Hugo, 1979 Nebula - THE FOUNTAINS OF PARADISE by Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke’s second Hugo and Nebula winning novel focuses on the building of a space elevator on the semi-fictional island-nation of Taprobane (a stand in for Clarke’s adopted home of Sri Lanka). The idea, for those unfamiliar with the concept of a space elevator, is that if you could string some sort of line between Earth and a satellite in geosynchronous orbit, you could avoid the high-energy costs of rockets and simply ship things into space with a quick elevator trip up the wire. It’s technically feasible with more advanced materials than we currently possess, but would be a monumental undertaking.

Clarke sets this massive engineering project in the 22nd century (the novel spans several decades from conception to near completion). Most of the novel follows engineer Vannevar Morgan and a diplomat living in Taprobane named Rajasinghe. The early novel deals with their attempts to negotiate for some prime mountaintop real estate with a Buddhist monastery; the later novel deals with a harrowing construction accident on the space elevator. Along the way, Clarke also makes time for historical scenes with a 5th century king who built a fine garden complex near the proposed construction site. There’s also a section on an alien probe that arrives in the solar system (somewhat Rama-like) in the 22nd century. In other words, the construction project is really just a canvas on which Clarke can throw cool engineering ideas, a fast-paced action sequence, and various thoughts on religion, alien intelligence, family, and history.

I’m a bit divided on whether this is a complete mess or just brilliantly eclectic. The main plot appears, disappears, and then reemerges before shifting into something completely different. Clarke juggles several subplots, and drops more than a few. And, not every idea here feels fully-developed. For instance, Clarke throws out a theory that only mammals would develop religion due to their family structure. He never entirely explains this hypothesis, but from what I gathered, it seemed far too simplistic, both biologically and psychologically.

Still, it hardly seems to matter when the proceedings manage to remain consistently fun and thought-provoking at a level that few science fiction novels can match. Though not as good as Rendevous with Rama, this was one of my favorite novels so far. I’m sorry that there are no more Clarke novels on the agenda.

Grade: A-

Sunday, March 21, 2010

1979 World Fantasy Award and Campbell - GLORIANA by Michael Moorcock

Michael Moorcock is a big name in sci/fantasy literary history. He was most well-known for his Elric series, which focused on an albino anti-hero satire of Conan the Barbarian. Lately, he’s more well-know for his alternate universe tales of airships and other mechanical oddities. These stories helped inspire the increasingly popular steampunk subgenre and authors from Alan Moore to Thomas Pynchon have paid homage to them.

Gloriana is another alternative universe tale, though there are no airships to be seen (a few clockwork devices manage to show up though). Instead, we get a different take on the reign of Elizabeth I in England, though here she is Gloriana of Albion. The biggest difference between this world and ours seems to be that the big monotheistic religions don’t exist – instead of God and Allah, people worship Roman and Norse gods. Instead of Henry VIII, sixteenth-century Albion was ruled by the brutal dictator Hern. His daughter, Gloriana, has restored peace to the burgeoning empire, but one of her advisors, Montfallcon, still uses spies to manipulate events. These spies include an especially devious rogue named Captain Quire, who soon develops his own agenda and eventually seduces the queen. All of these intrigues are made easier by the fact that the royal palace is the size of an entire town, and a hidden society manages to survive within the palaces walls.

As I’ve mentioned before, I am a professional historian, so it’s probably not surprising that I enjoy historical fiction. This does extend to alternate history (another growing subgenre) as well. However, most alternate history serves to explore the machinery of fate, or the vagaries of cause and effect. If we change one event, how does that ripple outwards to alter the broader story? How much does one person matter in the scheme of things? Kim Stanley Robinson explores some of these questions in depth in The Years of Rice and Salt. Moorcock does not do the same here. Gloriana hues much more towards historical fantasy, a genre that I love on paper, but always feel disappointed by in practice. The alternate universe here exists solely for aesthetic reasons. It’s as if Moorcock wanted to tell a fairly standard Tudor tale (popular stuff for the last decade or so), but he didn’t want to have to worry about getting the historical details right. In this world, he can make up all the characters, create his own standards of morality and international politics, and generally play around as much as he likes. That’s all fine with me, but he loses much of the appeal to the alternate reality setting for me in the process.

Maybe “standard Tudor tale” is too harsh though. There are some intriguing allegories here. Furthermore, this is a well-written novel, and Moorcock manages to create a broad sense of Elizabethan language in the dialogue-heavy novel while still keeping the prose easy and fast-paced (basically, it’s Shakespeare light). There’s a lot to like here, but, in the end, I felt that the “truth” of our world’s Tudor England was more interesting than Moorcock’s fictional Albion.

Grade: B

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

1979 BFS – LORD FOUL’S BANE by Stephen Donaldson

No post Friday this week, so here's a Wednesday post instead.

Lord Foul’s Bane is the first volume of Donaldson’s "Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever." The series has become a fantasy classic, so I thought I’d take the opportunity of its Derleth win to review it. You see it in a lot of “top fantasy series of all time” lists, though I think you’re about as likely to see it in “most overrated fantasy series of all time” lists. After finally reading the first volume, I can safely say that I side with the latter camp.

Thomas Covenant, like Dorothy, John Carter of Mars, or the various kids from the Narnia books, gets transported from our world to a wonderful fantasy world where he is a mystic hero with special powers. However, Donaldson twists the trope in two dramatic ways: 1) Thomas Convenant has contracted leprosy, his wife has left him as a result, and the whole situation has made his extremely bitter and surly, and 2) Covenant absolutely refuses to buy into or go along with the fantasy world. He feels free to abuse the people therein and ignore their needs. If she’s not real, why not rape the teenage maiden?

So, Thomas Covenant is an unlikable bastard. Really, really unlikable. Donaldson has an obvious agenda here – he wants to create the ultimate anti-hero in order to tell a darker fantasy story. To make sure that you get this point, he shoves it down your throat again and again. The chapters become formulaic: Thomas meets a mystical challenge, his companions say “save us!”, Thomas screams “I have leprosy!” and runs away, people suffer needlessly, Thomas unconsciously does something magical, his companions say “we oughta kill you,” Thomas screams “I have leprosy!”, they don’t kill him, rinse and repeat.

I can see the potential in creating a character as pathetic and despicable as Covenant, and I can imagine a couple of ways in which this could actually work. You could make Covenant somewhat relatable or likable, for one. I suspect that Donaldson thought he accomplished this by giving Covenant the leprosy as an excuse – but it’s not an excuse for his actions, and Covenant is never relatable or likable on any level. He always does the most annoying and cowardly thing in every situation. When there’s danger, he treats the world as real and hides. When there’s no danger, he treats the world as imaginary and abuses it.

The other possibility is that you create a rich and fascinating world to put your unlikable bastard into. If we can’t stand our protagonist, at least we can enjoy the scenery. Again, I think Donaldson believes he has accomplished this, as he melds some Sanskrit names with some Ring Cycle material and seems to say “aha! Folklore and hero’s journey and whatnot, my world must be important and weighty.” Of course, the Ring Cycle is heavily mined material, and this world is as cold and generic as any fantasy world I’ve ever read. There are various good, simple (boring and stupid) folk living joyless, generic fantasy-world lives, and there is a dark evil on the horizon. Yawn. The world is called “The Land,” and it’s almost as interesting as its name.

I pretty much checked out when Covenant committed rape, and it was a struggle to finish the remaining four hundred pages of this bloated novel. This is the worst book I’ve read for this project in a long time.

On the brightside, it did take me to a very odd, early 2000s local access tv show out of San Francisco called "Fantasy Bedtime Hour," in which two girls (playing up their ditziness) read a portion of Lord Foul's Bane every night and pair their reading with a hilarious super-low-budget reenactments. It's a fun and inventive show, sort of Wayne's World doing Masterpiece Theater, though the Donaldson interview in the final episode was slightly creepy.

Grade: F

Monday, March 15, 2010

1979 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation, 1978 Saturn - SUPERMAN

For some reason, after 1977, big budget sci-fi epics with soaring John Williams’ soundtracks became all the rage. It’s important to remember that Superman had already been around for decades when these movie came out. The comic was (famously) created by a couple of struggling Jewish sons-of-immigrants in the midst of the Great Depression in the 1930s. It caught on and quickly became a successful radio show, a series of pathbreaking Max Fleischer cartoons, and eventually a major television series.

In the ‘70s, Richard Donner decided to class up the franchise with a major motion picture. Mario Puzo, the author of The Godfather, wrote the screenplay (and Marlon Brando plays Superman’s father). I think Puzo shows through – in many ways, this is a family epic about a son trying to live up to the ideals of his two fathers. At the same time, it’s the most science fiction take on superheroes to date (outside of the silver age comics themselves). The film begins with a credit sequence speeding through space and then zooms in on a giant crystalline city on the planet of Krypton. I think it’s a fantastic set-up – as we move from glowing alien culture to a very grounded Earth-bound film (there are no science fiction elements not originating on Krypton in this first film – no superpowered baddies, as in the fourth film, or futuristic technology, like the ridiculous computer in film three*).

If you can’t tell, I’m really fond of this movie. I grew up on superhero comic books, and this film sets the stage for the serious, and sometimes incredibly good**, superhero films of the 2000s. For that alone, it’s worthy of attention. But, it’s also a very compelling story with strong and rich characters. Christopher Reeve is magnificent, and his growth into his role as Earth’s protector strikes all the right notes.

As Superman switches gears to accommodate more conflict with the villain, the second half of the film does not work as well. I’m not crazy about the idea of playing Lex Luthor for comic relief, though Gene Hackman’s performance is great. Luthor’s plot is ridiculous and overly-complex, and I have always hated the infamous deus ex machina near the end of the film. Still, this is a fun, groundbreaking superhero film that has aged relatively well. The effects have not, unfortunately, aged well at all; they suffer from being far too ambitious for their time, but I actually thought they added to the film’s immense charms.

*Okay, maybe artificially stimulating earthquakes in California should count, but really, that’s too stupid to take seriously as a science fiction concept.

**well, and sometimes incredibly bad.

Grade: B+

Friday, March 12, 2010

1979 Hugo and Locus, 1978 Nebula - DREAMSNAKE by Vonda McIntyre

Another sweep of the sf awards, and yet this is one of the books on this list that I was not familiar with. It’s been awhile since we had an old-fashioned nuclear apocalypse rather than a pollution/over-population apocalypse (other than A Boy and His Dog). It’s not entirely clear where this novel is set – there are nuclear wastelands, a desert and a mountain. There are some small villages and desert settlements, and also impenetrable, high-tech domed cities. We also hear of off-planet visitors, who may be aliens or returning colonists. It’s not entirely clear, as we never really get inside the cities (though there are indications that they’re not pleasant places). Which is all fine, I guess, since the focus really seems to be on character.

The main character is a woman named Snake, who is a “healer.” Snake’s people use genetic manipulation of snakes to produce vaccines, antibiotics and other medicines rather than venom. Snake, who gets her name for her great promise as a beginning healer, starts the novel with three snakes: a cobra and a rattlesnake for her regular medicines, and a “dreamsnake,” an odd, possibly alien, reptile, whose venom induces calm, reduces pain, and provides the patient with a willing and peaceful acceptance of death. In other words, it has a euthanasia bite. When frightened villagers kill Snake’s rare dreamsnake early in the novel, she must set out on a journey across deserts and mountains to try to replace it.

Frankly, a lot of this is post-apocalyptic boilerplate. It’s very well-written, and there are some interesting ideas about genetic manipulation in play (though McIntyre never goes too deep). I do like that there are mysteries in this world that McIntyre only hints at, as in the domes and their off-world visitors, but the mysteries that do get solved all revolve around snakes, and they're not half as interesting or exciting as McIntyre seems to think they are. I was often wondering why these genetic engineers couldn’t come up with a safer delivery mechanism for their medicines.

It’s a nice change of pace to have a female protagonist in this setting, and it's not a bad book by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s not a particularly memorable one either. At this point, I feel like an author needs a really intriguing twist or truly excellent writing (Cormac McCarthy's The Road) to wring much more out of the post-apocalyptic setting.

Grade: B

Monday, March 8, 2010

1978 World Fantasy Award - OUR LADY OF DARKNESS by Fritz Leiber

One thing that worried me about the World Fantasy Award was that Fritz Leiber won one. He was not my favorite Hugo-winning novelist, but I know that his fantasy work was pioneering, genre-establishing stuff. Our Lady of Darkness isn’t really science fiction or fantasy though; it’s a horror novel. And it’s horror of the subtle, “there’s something dark and unsettling out there” style pioneered by Lovecraft (who warrants several mentions within the novel).

The main character is a genre writer named Franz Westen (which is similar enough to Leiber’s name to raise an eyebrow). Westen is living in San Francisco, and he’s become fascinated with a book called Megapolisomancy by a turn-of-the-century spiritualist named de Castries. Megapolisomancy turns out to be a form of magic that uses the reality distorting nature of big cities with their high (and, in San Francisco’s case, even sometimes pyramid-shaped) buildings to work. Most of the book actually reads like a love letter to San Francisco, which is my personal favorite city, so I enjoyed this quite a bit. The first third consists almost entirely of Westen hanging out with his quirky neighbors, and it almost feels like an Armistead Maupin knock-off. But, there are hints that something creepy is going on in Westen’s building, as he seems to witness a strange creature lurking in his room from a nearby hill. The next third of the novel consists entirely of a discussion of de Castries' life with a fellow connoisseur of the supernatural, and here we basically get Leiber’s love of Lovecraft and a discussion of Crowley and other figures of early twentieth-century mysticism.

It’s a bit creepy, but it’s not until the final third that any real sense of thrill, horror, or even suspense works its way into the book. The climax comes rather suddenly and ends even more quickly. In other words, the pacing is a little off. Still, compared to the other novels of his I’ve read, Leiber has reined in his reliance on stereotypes and his need for over-the-top, oddball characters (though neither is entirely gone). I didn’t mind the fact that this rather short book consists almost entirely of conversations or that the plot moved slowly, and I found megapolisomancy an interesting enough concept to make it all worthwhile. This was definitely my favorite Leiber book of the three I've now read.

Grade: B

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Science Fiction and the Oscars

The Academy Awards have never been all that fond of science fiction films. In 1956, Around the World in 80 Days, based on the Jules Verne novel, won Best Picture. And, of course, in 2003 The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King became the only film to win both a Hugo and an Oscar. Both films could easily fit into the broader family of speculative fiction, but neither is, strictly speaking, science fiction. More conventional sf films like Star Wars and ET were nominated and lost; 2001 wasn't even nominated.

Tonight, there are two clear science fiction films up for the award in Avatar and District 9 (not to mention Pixar's Up, which has obvious fantasy elements, and Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds, which could maybe qualify for a Hugo as an alternate history). I imagine that I'll get to cover Avatar and District 9 for the 2010 Hugos (which I do plan on covering at length before the awards are handed out in early September), but I wanted to briefly say:

I want Avatar to break the science fiction Oscar drought.

Is it the greatest science fiction film ever? No, I'm not even sure its the best science fiction film of the year. It's certainly not my favorite film of the year (that was the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man, which also got a nomination thanks to five expansion slots for Best Picture). Of the 8 Best Picture nominees I've seen, I'd put Avatar at about 6th place. So, why do I want it to win? Well, first of all, most of the other films don't have a chance. The Hurt Locker seems to be the only other big contender with Basterds and Up in the Air as dark horses. I think all three films were better than Avatar, but I'd still be happy to see the blue aliens take home the gold statuette.

Thing is, I don't think Best Picture is really about the, er, best picture. The type of film that I like rarely wins Oscars. Avatar actually fits the Best Picture bill better than the other films - it's big, successful, technically revolutionary, and it has a message. It's also predictable and far from revolutionary when it comes to storytelling, plot, and character. The only thing that would make it better Oscar bait is if it were a biopic. If the Academy is not going to reward films for taking storytelling risks and asking existential questions (the kind of things I like in a film), then I might as well modify my expectations about winners.

As I often remind myself when working through this blog, awards are not the final arbiters of quality, but they do bring recognition and express appreciation. While James Cameron has gotten more than enough recognition and appreciation (many would say too much), science fiction has not. The genre is an important cornerstone in the film history that has only increased in influence in the past few decades. I think Avatar is good enough, interesting enough, and, perhaps most importantly, Oscar-pandering enough to bring that recognition.

But, my gut tells me that The Hurt Locker will win, and I won't really mind if it does. And, I'd be thrilled to see Basterds win as well. ;)

Friday, March 5, 2010

1978 Locus Fantasy - THE SILMARILLION by J. R. R. Tolkein

Locus magazine fittingly inaugurated a separate award for fantasy novels with this posthumous work from one of the modern founders of the field. The fantasy genre would not exist in the form it does today without Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. After Tolkien died in the early ‘70s, his son Christopher gathered together various writings on the history of Middle-Earth; the Simarillion is the result, and it’s basically the mythical texts of Tolkien’s world rather than any sort of coherent novel.

In fact, there are a lot of similarities and parallels with the Bible. We get five separate texts here. The first is a creation story. A powerful deity brings the universe to life with music. The second book briefly describes the several lesser deities around the creator, like gods or angels, who eventually come to dwell in Middle-Earth. One of them, Melkor or Morgoth, wants more power for himself (the parallels with Satan are pretty clear) and becomes the enemy of all that is good on Middle-Earth. The fourth book is a tale of human hubris which is basically Babel meets Atlantis, and the final book tells the familiar story of the Rings.

The third book makes up the bulk of the text and follows the great battles between Melkor and the rest of Middle Earth through the “first age.” Many of these battles revolve around a trio of cursed magic jewels called the Simaril that come to rest in the crown of Melkor. Basically, we get a series of names of gods and elves and kings (often the same figure has multiple names) and their heroic deeds. A few moments really stand out, the story of forbidden human-elf love “Of Beren and Luthien” above all, but most of the work requires very careful and studious reading to follow the minutiae of a foreign history.

I think that if you meet two requirements, you will probably love this book. You must a). love The Lord of the Rings novels and the world that Tolkein created in Middle-Earth, and b). you have to take your time with this work, learn the multiple names for all of the beings and creatures described within and carefully follow their interlocking histories. For my part, I a). really enjoyed the Lord of the Rings novels and had a great time with the films (to be discussed later), but “love” is a very strong word, and b). I am in the midst of a project requiring me to read about two hundred novels and have a day job that also requires an inordinate amount of reading, so I’m not going to stop everything for a month and drink in every rich detail of Middle Earth’s history.

In other words, I did not love the book. Really, I barely made it through. But, I still think others who do meet the requirements should check it out (though they probably already have), and someday I might like to read it again and really take my time with it.

Grade: C

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

1978 BFS - A SPELL FOR CHAMELEON by Piers Anthony

I'm more than a little ashamed to admit how much I loved Piers Anthony's Xanth novels in Junior High School. The Xanth novels are parodies of fantasy novels, like Terry Pratchett's Discworld books dumbed down a level. Or maybe Discworld is a more clever version of Xanth, since the latter came first (I will take an opportunity to talk about Discworld in the future). Xanth is a magical kingdom shaped like Florida that actually coexists with our world, which the Xanthians call Mundania. It occasionally replaces various peninsulas, like Florida, Korea, etc., so that people can travel between the worlds. Xanth has the usual assortment of magical creatures - centaurs, nymphs, ogres, dragons - but every human being has a "talent," which is basically a superpower. Some people can control time or fly, and others can only project a spot on a wall. So, you have a merging of superhero comics with sword and sorcery, but the main appeal is the humor, which is...somewhat less than mature. Most of the humor revolves around bad puns, and there's also a fair share of Flintstones-esque replacement of modern conveniences with fantasy versions. There's also a large share of sexual humor - though it's of a very tame and juvenile sort. There's no real sex (when it does finally appear in the later novel it's described as "rolling around together"), but, for instance, there is an entire plotline in a later novel about seeing a girl's panties, and there's gratuitous nudity throughout. It's all perfectly suited for the not-sexually-active but very sex-obsessed 'tween mind.

A Spell for Chameleon is the first Xanth novel, and among the better ones. It involves Bink, who appears not to have any special talent. As a result, he is exiled to Mundania, where he runs into some other exiles from Xanth. Hijinks ensue, and Bink eventually discovers his power, gets the girl, and his friend becomes king. The novel was very successful and there have been thirty-two sequels (another similarity to Discworld), and this is apparently how Piers Anthony makes his living now. The books at least skip forward in time quickly so that you get a new generations of characters every two or three novels. I read the first umpteen of them, but I remember that they began to go downhill after book five or so. But those first five books were good, clean fun for me as a thirteen/fourteen year old boy. Still, I'm not so sure that I'd recommend them to adults, and I have no real desire to revisit them. Xanth is, at least, an original and entertaining fantasy setting.

Grade: B

Monday, March 1, 2010

1978 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation, 1977 Saturn - STAR WARS

The little-known, pulpy 1977 gem, Star Wars, begins with the escape of two robots from a spectacular battle in space. The robots meet a whiny young dirt-farmer named Luke Skywalker, who soon learns that he has the potential to become mystical warrior known as a “Jedi Knight. Luke hires a spaceship and joins up with an old man, a princess, a raffish rogue, and a very hairy basketball player to fight the evil Jedi, Darth Vader and the “evil empire” (man, this movie rips off a lot of Ronald Reagan material from the ‘80s). There are lots of exciting starship dog-fights, laser-fights/chase scenes, and sword fights (with futuristic “lightsabers”) along the way.

This is a welcome return to space opera. The film awards have gone to dystopian futures six out of the last eight awards (and the other two were comedies with contemporary settings and a few fantastic elements). I’m probably the first person ever to observe this, but the plot resembles the fantasy genre more than science fiction in many ways. Sure, it has spaceships and laser-swords, but it also takes place in a mythical past and is full of princesses, knights and wizards. Either way, it's a call-back to an older style of sci-fi adventure that was already out of fashion in the early fifties (where we started with this blog). This film is about a 12 on the 10-point escapist-fun scale. I’m surprised it doesn’t have a bigger following.

The special effects look pretty amazing too, especially considering that this film is over thirty years old. It’s aged even better than 2001, and it makes the previous year's Logan's Run, which actually won an effects Oscar, look like crap. The original edition is hard to find, and you’re probably more likely to run across the cheap-looking ‘90s “Special edition” with totally unnecessary additions. It’s a good argument for why models look cooler that computer graphics (at least until this decade).

You probably haven’t seen this film, but, if you’re a sci-fi or fantasy fan to any degree, you should! See how great it looks:

Grade: A