Friday, April 30, 2010

2010 Hugo (and Nebula) nominee, novel: BONESHAKER by Cherie Priest

There’s a one word description for this novel that I think is very appropriate, and I hope people don’t think it too cruel: cute. Boneshaker is cute.

Boneshaker takes place in an alternate 1880, in an apocalyptic Seattle. Fifteen years earlier, a mad scientist named Leviticus Blue created a massive mining machine called the Boneshaker (in our reality, the name of a bicycle from about the same time). A test of the machine went horribly wrong and caused earthquakes that devastated the city and unleashed a horrible gas that citizens call “blight.” When the blight gas gets into people’s bloodstreams, through inhalation or other means, they turn into rampaging zombies. As a result, a massive wall was built around the city of Seattle to contain the zombie menace.

The novel focuses on Leviticus Blue’s surviving wife, Briar, and their son Zeke. The rebellious teenage Zeke decides to sneak into the city to learn about the fate of his father, and Briar goes to look for him on an airship run by pirates/drug-traffickers.

As a historian who works in this period, I do have a love/hate relationship with steampunk. I love that the novels tend to capture the sprawling and busy multiculturism of the nineteenth century in ways that most historical fiction ignores (after the first 50 pages, I was afraid Priest was using a lily-white cast, which would be pretty ridiculous in 1880 Seattle, but she soon introduced the diversity I expected). I also love the industrial aesthetic. On the other hand, steampunk really is more of an aesthetic than a subgenre; I often feel that everything is in service to the visuals. For instance, Priest takes time to explain that people need to wear goggles with polarized lenses to see the blight gas. Does this lead to a dramatic scene where a character loses their goggles, and finds them only to learn that they’re surrounded by blight? No. Is there some alternate history to explain why polarized lenses were invented 60 years early in this world? No. In fact, it never really comes up again, but it does mean that all of the characters are always wearing cool goggles. I’m probably nitpicking here, but it does bother me that steampunk scenarios so often miss the obvious opportunities to explore the real history in their settings while getting distracted by the scenery.

The novel also feels a bit too trendy. Steampunk is hot now with it airships and mad scientists. Zombies are also hot now, with hit films and their invasion of the western canon (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). This steampunk versus zombies scenario is capturing something in the zeitgeist…but I’m not sure it will be as well-regarded when popular geek-taste moves along.

It is a well-told tale though. Briar and Zeke are likable, compelling characters, and the world was fun. There’s plenty of violence and darkness, but it’s really all in service of the steampunk/zombie aesthetic and the loving mother-son relationship at the center. It’s cute. And, a cute book certainly can win the Hugo award; it happened last year with Gaiman’s Graveyard Book. Do I think a cute novel should win the Hugo Award? I guess it depends on the competition.

Grade: B

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

2010 Hugo nominee: Graphic Fiction: Batman: "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?" Written by Neil Gaiman; Pencilled by Andy Kubert (DC Comics)

I hope you’re sitting down for this. Ready? In 2009, Batman died. He bit the big one. No more Bruce Wayne.

You okay?

Well, this being superhero comics, he didn’t actually, really, die. He just kind of died. Last I checked, Bruce Wayne was trapped in prehistoric time, and Dick Grayson, the original Robin, was Batman. And he’s coming back soon. So, Batman didn’t really die, but DC let Neil Gaiman write a send-off for him anyway, following in the footsteps of Alan Moore’s farewell to the Silver Age Superman, "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" (a classic from the late ‘80s). These comics are great because they get to do the one thing that superhero comics almost never get to do: end.

Gaiman sets the story at a surreal back alley funeral for Batman, attended by his allies and enemies. Different characters tell widely different versions of his life and death. The best, by far, comes from his trusted butler Alfred. As we know, Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed, and he started to dress up as a bat and beat up criminals. Alfred’s twist is that the colorful supervillains that Batman fights are Alfred’s friends, who commit kooky crimes to keep Batman busy and out of real trouble. Alfred himself plays Batman’s arch-enemy, the Joker. It’s such a perfect little twist on the mythos.

In the second half of the story (it was originally published as two issues – Batman #686 and Detective Comics #853), we learn exactly what is going on, and it does actually make some sense before Gaiman speeds us to a very appropriate and actually somewhat moving finale. This is a very thoughtful meditation on the nature of Batman’s mythology of the sort you would expect from Neil Gaiman. It is, however, short and rather abstract. It’s really a meditation to the exclusion of telling a single story. Also, the artist, Adam Kubert, is not my favorite.

So, it's a mixed bag, but I'd say it's worthwhile for Gaiman fans and essential for Batman fans.

Monday, April 26, 2010

1981 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation, 1980 Saturn - THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK

The Empire Strikes Back has no business being as good as it is. Star Wars may have been great fun, but replicating great fun is not always easy. Replicating great fun while deepening your fictional universe and taking your characters in surprising and thrilling new directions is even harder. Making a bridging second film in a trilogy better than the introducing or concluding films ain’t easy either. When you further consider the fact that Lucas later got into the business of consistently running his franchises into the ground with appallingly bad sequels, it’s even more unbelievable. Yet, here it is, the best Star Wars film, and arguably the best science fiction film of all time.

I’ve always thought that a big part of the film’s success was the inclusion of a couple of veteran filmmakers: screenwriter Leigh Brackett, who wrote pulp sci-fi stories in the ‘40s and ‘50s but also wrote classic scripts for films like The Big Sleep and Rio Bravo,* and director Irvin Kershner. Add in young writer Lawrence Kasdan, who went on the write and direct films like The Big Chill, and you have the promise of witty dialogue and complex characters, certainly more than we ever saw in Star Wars before and after.

After an action-packed first act on the ice planet of Hoth, the film splits in two. Luke gets to explore the nature of being a Jedi with a muppet named Yoda in scenes that nicely balance slapstick humor with spiritual explorations. Han and Leia try to run from the Empire in a malfunctioning Millenium Falcon in a series of sequences that nicely recall the action-comedy of the escape from the Death Star in the first film while deepening the two characters’ relationship. Finally, we get much more on Darth Vader, possibly the most compelling villain in film history, as he searches for Luke. All three plot threads come together wonderfully in the final act at the stunning Cloud City of Bespin,** and the film ends with some great cliffhangers.
So good…

*though apparently some claim that nothing from Brackett’s script survives in the final film
**Empire is also, by the way, the least annoying of the Special Editions, and some of the settings, like Bespin, do actually look better.

Grade: A

Friday, April 23, 2010

2010 Hugo Nominee Dramatic Presentation, Long Form: Moon Screenplay by Nathan Parker; Story by Duncan Jones; Directed by Duncan Jones

I mentioned in my Hugo preview that this film reminded me of a ‘50s sf story, and I stand by that. Maybe Theodore Sturgeon or Heinlein in a dark mood. The director and co-writer, Duncan Jones, is supposed to be a sincere, old-school sf fan, and he cites the likes of 2001 as his influences.

Moon was an independent film that stands out quite starkly in a field of blockbusters. Lots of people are championing District 9 as the low budget alternative to the bloated likes of Avatar and Star Trek…District 9’s budget was about 6 times the size of Moon’s. Sam Rockwell plays a stressed worker who took on a lonely three-year job monitoring mining operations on the lunar surface. We meet him near the end of his tour of duty, and he’s quite clearly at his wit’s end. His only company is GERTY, a robotic arm with a snooty Kevin Spacey-voiced AI who’s more than a little reminiscent of HAL 9000. It’s a solid set-up, but the film really takes off with a big twist; it comes early in the film, but I really don’t want to spoil it. Suffice it to say that all is not as it seems, and Sam Rockwell gets to play a wide range of emotions.

This really is, in the end, a vehicle for Rockwell, and he does a great job with it. It’s a very well-acted film with a clever sf plot, sincere human emotion, and solid science despite the budget constraints on effects (though they don’t do great with low gravity, but no one ever does). It’s very effective in its portrayal of claustrophobic loneliness. However, a lot of people, myself included, may not entirely enjoy two hours of claustrophobic loneliness. The film does drag in places, and it’s a bit one note.

There’s a real swell of support behind this film, and I wouldn’t be shocked at all to see it win the category. It won’t be my choice though. I feel like there’s a contrarian urge at the heart of the film’s support – “I hope Moon wins because it’s an independent film.” I just don’t buy that. Let the best film win. Moon is a good film, and an impressive accomplishment, but, it’s not the best film.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

2010 Hugo Nominee Dramatic Presentation, Short Form: Dollhouse: "Epitaph 1" Story by Joss Whedon; Written by Maurissa Tancharoen & Jed Whedon

I’m a big fan of Joss Whedon’s work, and I’m looking forward to my opportunities to talk about Serenity and Buffy down the line. Every time Whedon starts a new television show, it’s a geek event, and many were anticipating Dollhouse for months, even years, before it debuted on Fox in January ’09. Then the waves of disappointment echoed through the internet. Rather than another smart ensemble show with a real focus on characterization amid a unique sf setting, we got a showcase for actress/executive producer Eliza Dushku. It's amazing how thoroughly the show redeemed itself.

The sf high concept is that the technology exists to reprogram human brains and imprint personalities. This technology is used, quite illicitly, to program people as "dolls," mostly to be used as sex-toys. Dushku plays one of these "dolls," named Echo. Throughout the first season (and the first half of the second season), Echo is put on different jobs requiring different personality implants. One week she’s a hostage negotiator, next week she’s a back-up dancer for a pop-star, next week she’s a hunter, and then she’s a blind cultist, etc. Then, hijinks ensue. It’s all disconnected and formulaic (something always goes wrong). And, since it’s basically an actress showcase, it’s worth mentioning that Eliza Dushku is just not a great actress. The show was often painful to watch.

“Epitaph One” was produced as the final episode when the producers were almost certain of cancellation, and it took the show in a dramatic new direction. The episode shows us to a world where the Dollhouse technology has spread into the main population and created a sort of Zombie apocalypse. A band of survivors (led by Felicia Day) finds their way to the old Dollhouse in Los Angeles and uncovers some of the mysteries that led to the apocalypse. The formula is avoided, the implications of the technology are fully explored, and Dushku is pushed aside (she features briefly in the flashbacks). The result: a really great episode.

Improbably, the show did get renewed, and “Epitaph One” was consigned to the DVD (it never aired on television, though it is available through a couple of instant viewing avenues). The second season returned to the old, bad formula, got worse ratings than ever, and was promptly cancelled. Then, as a lame duck, it produced some of the strongest television that aired last year as we got a series of intriguing episodes that abandoned the formula, developed the characters, and finally created the great ensemble-driven original stories that Whedon’s famous for (though it should be noted that Joss’s brother Jed did more of the writing for the series).

I don’t mind that it was cancelled – I’m not sure how they could have kept the series going any longer, but this show is a real gem, destined by some horrible episodes to fly under the geek radar a bit.

Grade: B+

Monday, April 19, 2010

1981 Hugo and Locus - THE SNOW QUEEN by Joan D. Vinge

Joan Vinge’s The Snow Queen is loosely based on the Hans Christian Anderson tale of the same name (they’d use “inspired by” if this were a movie trailer), and the novel does nicely balance the creation of a rich and detailed science fiction universe with a faerie tale feel.

The novel centers around the world of Tiamat, which has inhabitants divided into two clans: the Summer clan live simple lives in the forest without knowledge of technology; the Winter clan live mostly in the vast city of Carbuncle and have a steady trade with an interplanetary confederation called the Hegemony, which has been built on the husk of the fallen Old Empire. Tiamat is important to the Hegemony, because it is the only source of a chemical that grants immortality, which is harvested (brutally) from sea-creatures called Mers.

Tiamat is part of a binary star system, and every century or so, its interstellar gate (a converted black hole) is closed down for a hundred years by the alignment of the two stars. So, when the gate is open, the Winters rule the planet, when the gate is closed, the Summers rule. The transition includes an elaborate ceremony climaxing in human sacrifice. The titular Snow Queen is the Winter ruler of Tiamat, and at the beginning of the novel, she attempts to clone herself as a Summer so that she won’t have to give up all her power in the coming transition. The most successful result is a girl named Moon, the novel’s protagonist. Moon is in love with a boy named Sparks but also has a spiritual calling that separates them. The rest of the novel follows her winding quest to find Sparks as he faces the corrupting power of the Snow Queen and all of them run afoul of the Hegemony and its police force.

It’s a very elaborate setting, and one that recalls Dune in several ways: monarchical corruption and imperial decay in space, immortality drugs with mysterious origins, mystics guiding faster-than-light travel. It’s not, in the end, as fascinating a world as Dune, but Vinge, unlike Herbert, does manage to create some very complex characters. Moon may have some of the same messianic qualities as Paul Atreides, but she’s also more grounded and likable, as is the Snow Queen herself, despite being the villain of the piece. And, a pair of police officers, who manage to get an increasing amount of coverage as the novel goes on, are also compelling characters (probably my favorites). Vinge has created a fine set of characters and learning their fates really propelled me through the novel, especially after the first hundred pages or so, when I really knew them.

Where the novel falls down, and it certainly does stumble a bit, is in the plot and pacing. The novel depends on contrived meetings. The same ten characters keep running into each other at opportune times, and you begin to wonder if there are only ten people on Tiamat. When Moon happens to get kidnapped by the same bandits who have kidnapped one of the police officers who had saved Sparks and tried to arrest her and been teased by the queen five years earlier, I had to roll my eyes. The pacing is also an issue. At one point, five years pass within a few pages with little activity, while a couple of impossibly busy days make up the bulk of the novel. Finally, the book could have used some trimming. Much of the novel is actually taken up by characters explaining the plot to each other – sometimes its nice to see characters’ reactions to developments, but that’s not usually the case here. Rather, it’s just redundant material that should have been skipped through.

So, I’d have to call The Snow Queen a mixed bag. The characters are great, the setting is fascinating but sometimes feels derivative, and the plot has problems. In the end, I did enjoy it quite a bit, but there were some rough patches along the way.

Grade: B+

Friday, April 16, 2010

Hugo nominee, novella: "Palimpsest" by Charles Stross

Palimpsest is a popular word this year for some reason, as we have a novella and a novel sharing the same name. The term refers to a parchment that has been used, scraped clean and reused (as often happened) so that multiple layers of documents exist. Both of the present works seem to use it as a metaphor for parallel universes or timelines, though Stross's novella takes a science fiction approach and Valente's is fantasy.

I'd not read any Charles Stross yet, though I have one or two of his novels on the agenda for when my review gets to the '00s (probably next year). I do know that he's known for big ideas and high concepts, often using the concept of "singularity" that's dominated science fiction through the last decade and which we'll get to eventually. At it's most basic, the idea of the singularity extrapolates rapid improvements in computer processors to postulate a new technological development that leads to a massive acceleration in human capabilities, and, quite literally, changes everything. In this story, Stross sticks with the Big Ideas. In "Palimpsest" we have time travel technology, which allows a group of time displaced "Agents" to control history to maximize the survival of the human race for the Stasis. The problem, and the interesting innovation, is the recognition that history is finite - gates can only be opened to a specific moment once, and in the long run, the Agents risk using up all of time.

The story opens with a bit about killing your own grandfather. It's an attention-grabber, but it felt gimmicky to me, especially with the use of second-person (which always rubs me the wrong way). From there, it settles down to a relatively straightforward narrative, despite the non-linear action. Agent Pierce trains, meets a couple of love interests, gets involved in some action sequences, and uncovers a conspiracy that may or may not involve future versions of himself and/or the women in his life (lives?). Stross includes interludes that depict the ruthless and paradoxical training of the time agents (eg, killing your own grandfather) and broad sweeping histories of the Earth that proceed down dramatically different paths in timescales of billions of years. It’s all incredible grand, and we’re often reassured that Pierce has some agency in all of this.

That’s a hard pill to swallow though. The settings are so broad and the nature of this universe so flexible, that it’s hard to care. I can see why authors enjoy carrying technologies to the point that anything, no matter how mind blowing, goes, but I don’t particularly enjoy reading about it. If there are no rules, there are no stakes. Therefore, the challenge of the sf writer who wants to write about these kinds of Big Ideas is to convey an internally consistent logic that clearly relates the challenges and pitfalls that the main characters face. We don’t get that at all here, and I can’t say that I would care about the generic Pierce anyway.

This is a dense mess without a strong character at its center. There were ideas here that piqued my interest, but generally I didn’t care. After complaining on Wednesday that “short fiction is too short,” I found this story too long.

Stross has posted the story here for the duration of the Hugo voting. I wasn’t too fond of it, but I can see why others would be. There are certainly intriguing ideas in this story.

Next Wednesday and Friday: some dramatic presentations!

Grade: C+

Thursday, April 15, 2010

2010 Hugo (and Nebula) nominee, novelette: "Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast" by Eugie Foster (Interzone 2/09)

The novelette category covers stories from 7500 to 17500 words. It seems odd to me to have an intermediate short fiction category, but what do I know?

This story (I’m not going to repeat that title, even with the benefit of cut and paste), depicts a world where people wear special masks every day that confer different roles and personalities to them through some unspecified technology. One day you may be a lover, another you’re shopping, and another you’re a sacrificial victim of people’s tortuous need for blood and gore. Then you wake up again healed from your awful wounds, and you take on another role. There are clear channels for everyone’s passions, and no one has to think too hard. We get a few “days in the life” of our narrator, then we watch as he begins to question this harsh and rigid world. There are strict taboos involving the masks, and secret police to enforce them, which make this questioning more challenging and dangerous.

On one level, it’s formulaic dystopia. We see someone move through a world that is horrific to us, but natural to them. Said character learns there is another way and rebels. Then we get the typical ambiguous ending. The technology of the masks add a new flavor to the proceedings, but it’s not that new. Clearly, it’s a metaphor, but I can’t say for what. If it’s a satire of modern society and the “masks” we all wear in social settings, it’s not one that I related to. I can’t help but think that Foster was shooting for “alien but familiar” but really just came out with “alien.” It is delightfully alien though, and very well-written.

This story was also available as a free audio, this time via the Escape Pod podcast. I think this has become my favorite format for short fiction. I have to read the rest the old-fashioned way though.

Grade: B

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

2010 Hugo (and Nebula) nominee, short story: "Bridesicle" by Will McIntosh (Asimov’s 1/09)

I've taken a few opportunities on this blog to declare my dislike for the short story as a literary format. I will eventually cover short stories in greater depth - they're too important to the history of the genre to ignore - and I've decided to cover the short fiction Hugo nominees here as well. I enjoyed this first entry quite a bit, though it still demonstrates why the format bothers me.

Mira was cryogenically frozen after dying in a horrible accident. Decades later, the technology exists to revive frozen corpses like Mira, but the procedure is expensive, so many bodies simply sit in cold storage. Mira awakes, however, to learn that some company has taken an ingenious approach to the situation by creating a dating service. Wealthy men looking for brides can shop the cryogenic storage facility and pay to revive any women they like. For decades, Mira awakes only briefly and only in the context of awkward dates with prowling men. The fact that Mira was a lesbian only makes the situation more complicated.

It's a rich and inventive set-up, and McIntosh portrays Mira quite well as a desperate and sympathetic character. It's also a plot that, by itself, probably would not carry a novel. And yet there's so much implicit drama here that McIntosh doesn't have space to develop. There are questions of coercion and sexuality, and a clear metaphor for mail-order brides, and, perhaps, other more common non-romantic reasons for marriage. There are big questions about the future of gender relationships - why do only men shop for women? Why, hundreds of years in the future, would everyone assume Mira is straight? There's even a whole subplot about transferred consciences - called "hitchers" - that has further implications, but we really only see an over-the-top nagging mother portrayed. In other words, I wanted more. Maybe not a full novel, but more than the evocative sketch we get here.

By the way, I started with this story because it was conveniently available in audio format thanks to the StarShipSofa podcast. It's a very nice weekly collection of short stories by great authors and a few editorials on the sf world - highly recommended for fans of science fiction. It's also the first podcast to be nominated for a Hugo (Best Fanzine category).

Grade: B+

Monday, April 12, 2010

1980 World Fantasy Award - WATCHTOWER by Elizabeth Lynn

Elizabeth Lynn’s Watchtower is the first novel in a trilogy called The Chronicles of Tornor. Tornor is a fortress city that forms part of a line of such independent fortress city states along the northern edge of…well, I guess of the known world. At the beginning of the novel, Tornor is taken in battle by the evil Col Istor. Col kills the wise and benevolent king of Tornor and turns the prince, Errel, into his court jester. Ryke eventually manages to escape with Errel thanks to the aid of two mysterious (and somewhat androgynous) women, Norres and Sorren.

Norres and Sorren take Ryke and Errel to a sort of Shangri-La in the south called Vanima. Vanima is a warm valley and a refuge from the war-torn north. The people of Vanima also practice a communal “dance,” which is actually a powerful form of unarmed martial arts (Lynn notes that she based it on aikido in a brief introduction). So, Ryke learns the new martial art, Errel reads some tarot cards, and they prepare to take back Tornor.

I actually enjoyed this novel quite a bit more than I thought it would. The plot might feel a little slight (the above is actually a fairly detailed description of the entire first two acts of the novel) compared to the big epics that seem to dominant the fantasy genre, and especially fantasy series. It’s a small world – we basically get Vanima, Tornor, and two other Tornor-like fortresses as the entire fantasy world – but at least it feels manageable. And I liked the idea of having a nicely focused character piece instead. It’s not a must-read overlooked classic, and, for such a character-focused work, the characters can feel a bit flat. The high concept of martial arts meets medieval fantasy didn’t quite work for me either. But, it is well-written, relatable, and readable, which was a welcome change after the over-wrought Riddle-master books.

Apparently, according to Wikipedia, Lynn’s novels are most famous as the earliest fantasy novels to present homosexual relationships in a positive light. I think it’s a welcome sign of the changes in our society that I hardly even noticed the gay couple in the novel (it was done fairly subtly as well).

Grade: B-

Friday, April 9, 2010

1980 Nebula, Campbell, and BSFA - TIMESCAPE by Gregory Benford

I've always associated Gregory Benford's name with the hardest of hard sf - science fiction with real rigor in its physics. This is mainly because Benford is himself a working astrophysicist. This is the first Benford novel I've read, and I was surprised to find a very grounded piece that is much more about the lives of scientists and the culture of science than highwire applied astrophysics as the basis of a fictional world.

The novel tells two parallel stories. In 1998, the world is in a state of ecological crisis - the Green Revolution (which saved us from the fate of overpopulation that everyone in the '70s was so upset about) has turned into a disaster as genetically identical crops fail all at once at. At the same time, untested polymers have released toxic chemicals into the oceans, air, and food supply. Most of the novel takes place around Cambridge in England, where a group of physicists try to contact the past with tachyons in order warn them of what will happen and save the world. Meanwhile, the world begins to fall apart around them. We spend most of our time with John Renfrew, the head of the experiment, as he struggles to juggle his efforts to save the world while still spending time with his uber-housewife Marjorie. Slowly, the program's government liason, Ian Peterson, begins to dominate the 1998 sections - Benford apparently found him too compelling. Peterson is a privileged aristocrat and a ladies man, and it is fascinating to watch his uncomfortable reactions to the sudden deprivations and his efforts to get every women he meets into bed.

In 1962, physicist Gordon Bernstein at the fledgling San Diego campus of the University of California begins to notice the strange noise in his date. He soon discovers that it is a Morse code transmission with a great deal of biochemical data in it (the message from the future, you see). Many of his colleagues, however, refuse to believe that Bernstein is receiving strange messages from an unknown source, and Bernstein's career begins to suffer. Meanwhile, he has to deal with personal issues as his relationship with his girlfriend goes through a very rough patch, and his Jewish mother harangues him.

Despite the Big Ideas in here of ecological armageddon and communication through time, the novel is mostly a quotidian portrayal of scientists' lives, which is fine for most of the novel. The characters are richly drawn and Benford obviously has plenty of personal experience in the matter - his portrayal is certainly deeper and more balanced than the selfish and closed-minded cartoons of Flowers for Alrgenon...or even Asimov's The Gods Themselves. Still, after a few hundred pages of Ian's flirting, Marjorie's house parties, and Gordon's rotating fights with his department chair, girlfriend, and mother, it does start to get a bit old.

Actually, the novel's biggest flaw is how much the tachyon communication is neglected. Benford presents the communication like it's Sagan preparing a message for unknown aliens, but it's actually English-speaking researchers communicating in Morse code just a few decades back. And yet, the senders can't manage to find out how effective their messages are and can barely confirm that they are being received. Here's an idea: call up UCSD in 1998 and ask the physicists there if they got the message! And, if not....ask what would convince them! There's a lot of discussion in the novel about paradox, but no attempt is made to take the easy steps necessary to test any of the hypotheses.

By the end, it's clear that Benford has dodged the question so that he can make a big Twilight Zonesque reveal about the nature of time (I saw it coming from almost the beginning of the novel, but I've probably seen too much Star Trek time travel). It's an interesting conclusion, but it doesn't excuse or explain why the scientists were so damn dense.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

1970s Wrap

I’ve always thought of the ‘70s as a hangover after the wild party of the ‘60s. All that positive social change, wild-eyed optimism and experimentation came home to roost or led to extreme reactions. We go from mind-opening drugs to addiction and violence, from civil rights to urban violence and persisting poverty, from Camelot to Watergate. Nuclear war had been the overriding fear, now it was environmental catastrophes, overpopulation, race war, or just the general disintegration of society.

It’s not surprising that the dystopia became the dominant genre, especially in film. I was generally pretty bored with the parade of interchangeable dystopian films that dominated the genre. At least A Clockwork Orange had Kubrick’s vision behind it; Soylent Green and Rollerball pale in comparison. I think novels tended to execute these ideas better: The Forever War managed to place these crises in historical context by stretching out its timeline, and The Lathe of Heaven, especially, uses these fears as a background for exploring ideas about dreams, escapism, and the dangers inherent in seemingly easy solutions.

It’s also not surprising that fantasy began to take off as a genre in this period. The future no longer seemed like the ideal place for escapist fiction. As the future got scarier, suddenly the past…or a mythical world, seemed like a better locale for escapism. Not only did fantasy begin to take off in the ‘70s, it would soon rival (and surpass) sf in popularity. I don’t think fear of the future is the only reason for this (fantasy stories tend to be more universal, and I think fantasy writers have a better record with female audiences), but I do think it’s a significant factor. Film takes the same turn – it’s a great big leap from the parade of dystopias to the (light)sword and (jedi)sorcery adventures of Luke Skywalker or the capable-of-defeating-even-death power fantasy of Superman.

Finally, we do also have the return to classic sf elements over the ‘60s New Wave. LeGuin is often associated with the New Wave, but I think next to the likes of Brunner, her stories were always more conventional in form, even as they contained very original content. Silverberg’s Time of Changes was the last novel that really felt like New Wave sf to me (though Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is closer to a New Wave tone). Instead we have the rise of Larry Niven, who has always seemed like the secret love-child of Clarke and Heinlein to me. You also get two big wins for Clarke and one for Heinlein. Overall, we have a lot more old fashioned swashbuckling space adventures and/or engineering challenges and triumphs – the stuff is ‘40s and ‘50s sf. It was also a decade for clear-cut sf classics, as more books than any other decade swept the awards.

Top 3 novels of the ‘70s:

Rendezvous with Rama

Lathe of Heaven


Honorable mentions for Gateway, Fountains of Paradise, and Forever War (great decade for sf!). I had problems with all three, but found them memorable and exciting in the end.

Bottom 3 novels of the ‘70s:

Lord Foul's Bane

A Time of Changes

Dr Rat

Top film:

Star Wars: The unheralded cult classic.

Alien a close second.

A Clockwork Orange third and winner of the illustrious Best ‘70s Dystopia award.

Bottom film:

Rollerball edges out Logan’s Run. Rollerball is probably the better film, but who thought sports clichés went together with sf?

Monday, April 5, 2010

1980 Locus Fantasy – HARPIST IN THE WIND by Patricia McKillip

The second novel to win in the Locus Fantasy category is Patricia McKillip’s Harpist in the Wind, the third novel in her Riddle-master trilogy. McKillip also won the first World Fantasy Award – she really is one of the founders of the genre in the second generation after Tolkien.

The Riddle-master trilogy takes place in a world of small kingdoms. Every king has an inherited power called the land-rule – a mystical ability to run the kingdom better. There is also a mysterious being/man named the High One – a sort of immortal uber-king that no one ever sees. In the first novel, The Riddle Master of Hed, we meet Morgon, the young king of a small, out-of-the-way kingdom of Hed. Morgon was born, Harry Potter-like, with the image of three stars on his forehead. When he wins a crown in a riddle-off, he learns from the harpist Deth that this crown gives him the right to marry a princess named Raederle. He goes to claim his prize but gets sidetracked when he is attacked by mysterious shape-shifters. He then takes up the new quest of finding the High-One to unravel why he has been targeted, and what this all has to do with the stars on his forehead. The second novel Heir of Sea and Fire, follows Raederle’s quest to find Morgon and deepens some of these mysteries.

Harpist in the Wind finally brings all of these storylines to a head. In the background, the kingdoms are now engulfed in war, as the shapeshifters, an evil wizard with the simple name of Ghistelwchlohm, and an army of undead are all plaguing the land. Meanwhile, Morgon and Raederle try to solve the various mysteries that McKillip keeps juggling. The story does get a fairly satisfying resolution, but one that I saw coming from very early on despite having only skimmed the first two books. Suffice it to say that Morgon’s quest to understand “the High One” and his various contests with the harpist Deth (get it…death?) are all a great big metaphor for humanity’s attempt to understand the meaning of life, the nature of God, etc.

It’s all well executed, McKillip is a good writer, and the characters are convincing enough (the relationship between Morgon and Raederle is nicely rendered early in the third novel…though it kind of falls away in the epic events that follow). Still, this left me cold. For me, fantasy is at its worst when it soars above all real world concerns and comes out as fairy tale, and this is something that McKillip has a penchant for. I'm attracted to the idea of world building, but the world has to feel real to me. That doesn't mean that there can't be wizards and magical creatures and mystic weapons, but they need to have an internal logic - the world needs a foundation in practical economy and realistic ecology, and these ideas need to be incorporated into that foundation and work within it.

A good fantasy world also has a rich sense of history - something that Tolkien achieved marvelously in The Lord of the Rings. McKillip tries for this in Riddle-master (in fact, the riddles are closer to interpretive questions about the past than actual riddles), but really we get a couple of big events, like the fall of wizards (though wizards manage to show up all the time in this series anyway). Otherwise, we seem to have a static world of small and simple kingdoms.

Other than a general obsession with livestock in the first two books (which is a very nice touch and very "real" feeling for this kind of medieval world), I never felt grounded in the world of Riddle-master. Yes, Morgon is from a quiet shire-like kingdom, but he's still a king. Pretty much everyone we meet is either a wizard or from a royal family, and they're all constantly sailing or riding around on a mythic quest. The first Dragon Warrior game for 8-bit Nintendo had a richer and more varied world. Land-rule - the idea that kings have a magical relationship and understanding of their land - is a very interesting idea, but it feels a whole lot like the Divine Right of Kings. Inherited power is a great concept for fantasy works to explore, but I always wince when they celebrate it.

Maybe these are just my issues, but I will say that I've enjoyed a lot of fantasy novels in the past, and McKillip's works, so far, seem to be especially guilty of these fairy tale failings.

Grade: C+

Sunday, April 4, 2010

2010 Hugo Nominees

BEST NOVEL* (699 nominating ballots)

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest (Tor)
The City & The City by China Miéville (Del Rey; Macmillan UK)
Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America by Robert Charles Wilson (Tor)
Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente (Bantam Spectra)
Wake by Robert J. Sawyer (Ace; Penguin; Gollancz; Analog)
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade)

BEST NOVELLA* (375 nominating ballots)

"Act One" by Nancy Kress (Asimov's 3/09)
The God Engines by John Scalzi (Subterranean)
"Palimpsest" by Charles Stross (Wireless)
Shambling Towards Hiroshima by James Morrow (Tachyon)
"Vishnu at the Cat Circus" by Ian McDonald (Cyberabad Days)
The Women of Nell Gwynne's by Kage Baker (Subterranean)

BEST NOVELETTE* (402 nominating ballots)

"Eros, Philia, Agape" by Rachel Swirsky ( 3/09)
"The Island" by Peter Watts (The New Space Opera 2)
"It Takes Two" by Nicola Griffith (Eclipse Three)
"One of Our Bastards is Missing" by Paul Cornell (The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction: Volume Three)
"Overtime" by Charles Stross ( 12/09)
"Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast" by Eugie Foster (Interzone 2/09)

BEST SHORT STORY* (432 nominating ballots)

"The Bride of Frankenstein" by Mike Resnick (Asimov's 12/09)
"Bridesicle" by Will McIntosh (Asimov’s 1/09)
"The Moment" by Lawrence M. Schoen (Footprints)
"Non-Zero Probabilities" by N.K. Jemisin (Clarkesworld 9/09)
"Spar" by Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld 10/09)

BEST RELATED WORK (259 nominating ballots)

Canary Fever: Reviews by John Clute (Beccon)
Hope-In-The-Mist: The Extraordinary Career and Mysterious Life of Hope Mirrlees by Michael Swanwick (Temporary Culture)
The Inter-Galactic Playground: A Critical Study of Children's and Teens' Science Fiction by Farah Mendlesohn (McFarland)
On Joanna Russ edited by Farah Mendlesohn (Wesleyan)
The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of SF Feminisms by Helen Merrick (Aqueduct)
This is Me, Jack Vance! (Or, More Properly, This is "I") by Jack Vance (Subterranean)

BEST GRAPHIC STORY* (221 nominating ballots)

Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? Written by Neil Gaiman; Pencilled by Andy Kubert; Inked by Scott Williams (DC Comics)
Captain Britain And MI13. Volume 3: Vampire State Written by Paul Cornell; Pencilled by Leonard Kirk with Mike Collins, Adrian Alphona and Ardian Syaf (Marvel Comics)
Fables Vol 12: The Dark Ages Written by Bill Willingham; Pencilled by Mark Buckingham; Art by Peter Gross & Andrew Pepoy, Michael Allred, David Hahn; Colour by Lee Loughridge & Laura Allred; Letters by Todd Klein (Vertigo Comics)
Girl Genius, Volume 9: Agatha Heterodyne and the Heirs of the Storm Written by Kaja and Phil Foglio; Art by Phil Foglio; Colours by Cheyenne Wright (Airship Entertainment)
Schlock Mercenary: The Longshoreman of the Apocalypse Written and Illustrated by Howard Tayler

BEST DRAMATIC PRESENTATION - LONG FORM* (541 nominating ballots)

Avatar Screenplay and Directed by James Cameron (Twentieth Century Fox)
District 9 Screenplay by Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell; Directed by Neill Blomkamp (TriStar Pictures)
Moon Screenplay by Nathan Parker; Story by Duncan Jones; Directed by Duncan Jones (Liberty Films)
Star Trek Screenplay by Robert Orci & Alex Kurtzman; Directed by J.J. Abrams (Paramount)
Up Screenplay by Bob Peterson & Pete Docter; Story by Bob Peterson, Pete Docter, & Thomas McCarthy; Directed by Bob Peterson & Pete Docter (Disney/Pixar)


Doctor Who: "The Next Doctor" Written by Russell T Davies; Directed by Andy Goddard (BBC Wales)
Doctor Who: "Planet of the Dead" Written by Russell T Davies & Gareth Roberts; Directed by James Strong (BBC Wales)
Doctor Who: "The Waters of Mars" Written by Russell T Davies & Phil Ford; Directed by Graeme Harper (BBC Wales)
Dollhouse: "Epitaph 1" Story by Joss Whedon; Written by Maurissa Tancharoen & Jed Whedon; Directed by David Solomon (Mutant Enemy)
FlashForward: "No More Good Days" Written by Brannon Braga & David S. Goyer; Directed by David S. Goyer; based on the novel by Robert J. Sawyer (ABC)

BEST EDITOR, LONG FORM (289 nominating ballots)

Lou Anders
Ginjer Buchanan
Liz Gorinsky
Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Juliet Ulman

BEST EDITOR, SHORT FORM (419 nominating ballots)

Ellen Datlow
Stanley Schmidt
Jonathan Strahan
Gordon Van Gelder
Sheila Williams

BEST PROFESSIONAL ARTIST (327 nominating ballots)

Bob Eggleton
Stephan Martiniere
John Picacio
Daniel Dos Santos
Shaun Tan

BEST SEMIPROZINE (377 nominating ballots)

Ansible edited by David Langford
Clarkesworld edited by Neil Clarke, Sean Wallace, & Cheryl Morgan
Interzone edited by Andy Cox
Locus edited by Charles N. Brown, Kirsten Gong-Wong, & Liza Groen Trombi
Weird Tales edited by Ann VanderMeer & Stephen H. Segal

BEST FAN WRITER (319 nominating ballots)

Claire Brialey
Christopher J Garcia
James Nicoll
Lloyd Penney
Frederik Pohl

BEST FANZINE (298 nominating ballots)

Argentus edited by Steven H Silver
Banana Wings edited by Claire Brialey and Mark Plummer
CHALLENGER edited by Guy H. Lillian III
Drink Tank edited by Christopher J Garcia, with guest editor James Bacon
File 770 edited by Mike Glyer
StarShipSofa edited by Tony C. Smith

BEST FAN ARTIST (199 nominating ballots)

Brad W. Foster
Dave Howell
Sue Mason
Steve Stiles
Taral Wayne


Saladin Ahmed
Gail Carriger
Felix Gilman
Seanan McGuire
Lezli Robyn

As I said, I'll be covering all of the starred categories from April through August, probably on Fridays.

I called the Long Form, but I guess I was wrong about the weak reception of the Doctor Who specials in the short form. I had considered mentioning FlashForward, a show I do watch, but everyone seems to agree that it's taken a rough downward turn since its strong first two or three episodes. Apparently, Hugo voters decided to recognize one of those strong early episodes anyway. Thank God I don't have to cover Lost.

I was way off on the graphic category, other than Fables. I got three of my wishes in the novel category.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Wild, uninformed Hugo speculation

I plan on reviewing the 2010 Hugo nominees (in the pertinent categories) throughout the summer then making my own picks and predictions before the awards are announced in early September. The nominees - chosen by attendees of the previous and next WorldCon - come out Sunday evening, and I will post them when they're announced, but today I'll share some of my random speculation about what will be in there. Then, we can see how terribly wrong I am.

There are only four categories that I feel qualified to guess at. Let's start with Dramatic Presentation, Long Form, since I think that's the most obvious.

There were five stand-out sf films this year: Avatar and District 9 both received Academy Award nominations for best picture - I think they're shoe-ins. Star Trek was a solid hit and comes from a current top contender for nerd king, JJ Abrams. Moon was an indie darling with an old-fashioned sf premise (it really felt like a '50s novella to me) and a great performance out of Sam Rockwell. Up was up to the typically high standards of Pixar, who have done well in this category of late.

There are a few possible surprises: Coraline was an excellent animated film that didn't get the attention it deserved, and it has the Gaiman factor on its side. I wouldn't be surprised to see it in the mix, though I couldn't predict which of those five it might replace.

2009 was a great year for film, and a lot of successful movies had fantastic elements. In most years, I'd throw Harry Potter, Fantastic Mr Fox, Where the Wild Things Are, and Inglorious Basterds into the mix, but the field is probably too crowded this time around.

Dramatic Presentation, Short Form is tougher.

I'd imagine an episode of Fringe could make the cut. The first season finale "There's More Than One of Everything" was quite good.

Overall, Dollhouse was a disappointment, at least coming from Whedon, but it got really great once it was cancelled. Any of the episodes from the series' final half-dozen could get a shot. I'd favor "Meet Jane Doe." The DVD-only season one finale "Epitaph One" might be an even stronger contender.

I think most were disappointed by last year's Doctor Who specials, but I thought "Waters of Mars" was a very strong one, and much darker than usual. The Children of Men season of Torchwood garnered great reviews, and I guess it could be nominated as a complete miniseries.

I'm still behind on Battlestar Galactica, but I wouldn't be surprised if the series' end did not get nominated. It was not well-received, and it came out a while ago. On the other hand, I'd like to see the pilot for its prequel, Caprica, get a nomination. It's a very different show and a nice change from the typical sf actioners.

Finally, Lost will probably get a nomination (or two). It had a lot of buzz going into its final season - at the same time people were making nominations. I don't watch Lost, so I have no idea which episodes will get the nod. It will be interesting if I have to cover this one.

Another show I don't watch, Stargate Universe, probably has a solid shot as well. I did watch the pilot, but it didn't grab me.

I'm probably missing something obvious from this category.

"Best Graphic Story" has its second year ever in 2010. I feel like I should be qualified to comment on this category, but I have a hard time remembering which trades came out when. I'd imagine we'll see the same mix of Vertigo books (the latest volume of Fables, for instance) and web comics as before, and the recent Marvel novel adaptations (the Enders series, Stephen King's Dark Tower and The Stand, Frank Baum's Oz) might get some attention.

I think Chew, from Image comics, is a shoe-in, and I'd also pick it to win the category in September. It's an inventive concept - a detective who has psychic taste powers in a world where chicken is illegal - with lots of sf quirks. In comic circles, it's gotten a lot of attention. It will be interesting to see how plugged into that world Hugo nominators are.

Mike Carey's The Unwritten might be an even better pick (I personally think it's a much better book), but I'm not sure it's eligible due to the later release of the first trade.

Finally, novel:

There are six books that came out in 2009 that I plan to read anyway:

The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Windup Girl by Paulo Bacigalupi
The City & The City by China Mieville
Galileo's Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson
Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts

I think all six are legit contenders for this category, and it would make my life more convenient if five of them were nominated. That's pretty unlikely to happen though. Windup Girl has a lot of buzz about it, so I expect it to show up Sunday. I hope Yellow Blue Tibia is in there as well; it just sounds like a great ride. Grossman's The Magicians received a lot of mainstream attention, but sf/fantasy readers seem less keen on it.

Finch by Jeff VanderMeer has also received lots of attention, and it sounds like a great read. My wild guess would be Finch, Windup Girl, The City & The City, Boneshaker, and another novel I haven't mentioned, probably a fantasy novel.

1980 Locus - TITAN by John Varley

Varley’s Titan is a nice capstone to the ‘70s because...well…because it rips off half the books and films of the past decade.

In the twenty-first century, a ship from Earth called the Ringmaster is exploring Saturn’s moons. The ship has a seven person crew – three men and four women (two of whom are incestuous female clones – we get a lot of details on the characters’ sex lives from the first few pages on). They discover a floating object that’s too perfect to be natural, and it attacks them suddenly when they approach. They awaken in underground isolation tanks but wake up, manage to reconnect (well, most of them), and begin to explore the strange world inside the satellite. They meet centaurs, angels, and flying gas bags while dealing with the strange psychological side effects of their captivity. Most of the novel focuses on the female captain, Cirocco Jones, and we get an exciting final act wherein she undertakes a harrowing quest to find the satellite's creator.

Titan can be a bit slow-going at times, but it also has some very exciting bits, and it really does pick up near the end. It’s well-written, and the characters are interesting enough. The real problem here is that it’s a bit of a pastiche of recent sf ideas. This becomes especially obvious when you’ve been plowing through these books in chronological order. The horny astronaut characters are straight out of Heinlein. The strange alien object in our solar system reminded me of Rama. It’s shaped like a small Ringworld. The characters have to explore after waking up in an alien environment as in Riverworld. Eventually, Varley starts to tip his hat by explicitly referencing his influences – we’re told that Ringmaster looks like the Discovery from 2001, The Wizard of Oz features prominently (and even gets a couple of musical shout-outs), and even Dune and the Death Star (from that one movie) are mentioned by name.

I get that Varley is having a conversation with his influences, but it took me out of the novel every time. And there’s just not enough original and exciting material here to hold the homages together – in the end, it just feels derivative. Maybe the sequels are better? I’d definitely take Fountains of Paradise over this one.

Grade: B-