Thursday, May 20, 2010

2010 Hugo nominee, Dramatic Pres., Long Form: Star Trek Screenplay by Robert Orci & Alex Kurtzman; Directed by J.J. Abrams (Paramount)

I'm going abroad for the rest of the month (to a country that's likely to have dodgy internet), so this is the last post of May. I'll be back in early June, and I'll post quite frequently to catch up (I'm on summer break now!)

J. J. Abrams' reboot of the Star Trek franchise was a fun crowd-pleaser. As long as you don't think too hard about the plot, there's a lot to enjoy.

Abrams had a tough choice here. Stay within the 43 years of continuity and possibly alienate new fans (who are certainly needed for a film this big to make a profit), or throw out the continuity and anger the fanbase (also essential to the film's success). Somehow, Abrams managed to do both. He uses a little time travel to create a new, branching continuity. The characters can go in new directions, and anything can happen, but there are plenty of Easter eggs for the old fans. Surprisingly, this approach actually seems to have worked. The film was a critical and financial success and most Trekkies (Trekkers, whatever) seem to have really liked it.

A Romulan miner named Nero manages to bring a ship from the 24th century to James Kirk's 23rd. Kirk's father is killed in the first contact between the Federation and the future ship, and the young Kirk takes a different path to Starfleet Academy. While still at the Academy, the students are scrambled to combat an attack by Nero on the planet Vulcan. In the battles that follow, the familiar crew make their way up the ranks of the Enterprise.

In a lot of ways, the film is patently ridiculous. It has cadets taking command of a starship. The villain's motivations are strange and his plot incomprehensibly convoluted. There are a few over-the-top slapstick humor sequences. And, there are a series of horribly contrived meetings between characters. It is, on a lot of levels, a stupid film, and I don't think that should be surprising since the writers, Orci and Kurtzman, were responsible for the very stupid Transformer films.

And yet, the film does work and was deserving of a lot of its success. The production values are so high that it manages to transcend so major story flaws. The acting is great, and Chris Pine especially does a great job filling the shoes of Shatner's iconic Kirk performance. And the film looks and sounds incredible. J. J. Abrams did a great job, even if he could have dialed back the lens flare a bit.

While critics were raving about it, the Onion had this hilarious news story. It's funny, but at the same time, I did want more boring alien diplomacy scenes. Or at least a story that made sense and had some real resonance. I'm looking forward to seeing more Trek in the years to come, but as long as Orci and Kurtzman are running things, I'm not too confident. The film had a lot of good will when it first came out, but I think that enough people have come to see the film's flaws that I don't see it winning the Hugo.

Grade: B

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

2010 Hugo nominee, novel: WAKE by Robert J. Sawyer

I think the title is technically www:Wake.

Since I’ve started this project I’ve been reading more sf book reviews, and there does seem to be a very strong contingent of Sawyer haters out there. And yet, he’s won a Hugo and a Nebula and he keeps popping up as a nominee. This is the first Sawyer novel I’ve read, and I’m not really sure how it compares to his other work, but I do think I can see why some fans would love him and others would hate him.

I’ll go ahead and get this out of the way: my feelings on the book were mixed, but no matter what, it does not seem deserving of a Hugo nomination for the simple fact that it is the first novel in a planned trilogy, and is pure set-up. The plot is short and simple, and sub-plots go absolutely nowhere (I assume that they’ll pay-off in future novels). For most of the novel, we follow Caitlin Decter, a blind teenager who has recently moved from Texas to Canada. A Japanese scientist invents a device that may help her gain sight, but instead, it allows her to visualize the world wide web. This connection to the global network, along with a massive interruption in Chinese internet service, causes the Web to gain sentience (the web appears to be the narrator of the novel…or at least portions of it). There’s also a subplot about a painting chimp.

Caitlin is a likable character, and Sawyer includes a lot of rich details about the life of a modern blind person that I found fascinating. The basic idea also has potential, and I liked some of Sawyer’s musings on consciousness through Helen Keller, chimpanzees, and the awakening internet (though he also leans a bit too heavily on Julian Jaynes’ rather weak hypothesis that human consciousness emerged in historical time). On the other hand, the prose is flat and dull. Caitlin and her family can be too precious (and they usually are), and the novel is drowning in pop culture references. Do I really need to know that one of the minor characters likes to edit together fan videos of the new Doctor Who series? Sawyer seems to be announcing that this is a novel by an internet geek for internet geeks – let the internet navel-gazing begin!

In the end, I still wasn’t sold on the trilogy’s basic concept; I imagine were heading towards some sort of wish fulfillment fantasy where the sentient internet brings "freedom" (as defined by a certain segment of bloggers) to the world! I hope I’m wrong and there’s more conflict and insight to come, but nothing about Sawyer’s plain vanilla writing and philosophy presented here seems to suggest that.

I see Sawyer’s appeal to a certain group of Hugo voters – lots of them will probably see themselves in his characters - but I found this novel boring and pedantic. I really hope I don’t have to read the rest of the trilogy.

Grade: C-

Sunday, May 16, 2010

1981 Nebula and 1982 Locus Fantasy – CLAW OF THE CONCILIATOR by Gene Wolfe

Claw of the Conciliator continues The Book of the New Sun. Most of what I said about the series last Monday still applies. It’s a very well-written work with an intriguing narrator and a rich and fascinating world. Though Wolfe’s Urth owes a lot to the whole body of post-apocalyptic literature, there’s a level of detail here rivaled by few outside of Tolkein.

The novel, somewhat disconcertingly, picks up a few months after the abrupt end of the previous book. Severian the torturer is still on a slow journey to a distant posting. He’s been temporarily separated from his companions, and has a new friend Jonas. Following plotlines set up in the first book, he is torn between fulfilling his duty as a loyal member of the torturer’s guild and an old attraction to a group of revolutionaries under a nobleman named Vodalus. Severian has also picked up a magical gem called the Claw of the Conciliator, which figures heavily in the plot at several instances. Severian is drawn to the gem’s power, but he also considers returning it one of his paramount goals. At one point, Jonas mocks Severian’s contradictory goals, and I took this as Wolfe acknowledging his own schizophrenic plotting.

Jonas, and the eventual reveal of his place in this world, is actually a fascinating and worthwhile addition that adds a new layer to Wolfe’s Urth. But, what really makes Claw superior to its predecessor are the new layers that Wolfe adds to the overall narrative. It’s increasingly clear that nothing on Wolfe’s Urth is as it appears, and Wolfe does a great job playing with questions of reality, metaphor and legend. These ideas are developed wonderfully in various plot twists and some very evocative and beautifully written symbolic passages, especially in the latter half of the novel. At the end of Shadow, I was worried that this series had been over-hyped and that I was bound for disappointment. By the end of this novel, Wolfe’s storytelling had really flourished, I had gotten accustomed to it, and it was clear that this series really is something special.

It’s certainly not conventional sci-fi/fantasy, but it’s not really conventional literary fiction either. It’s an odd but fascinating hybrid of gritty pulp adventure and postmodern fiction. And I like it.

Grade: A

Friday, May 14, 2010

2010 Hugo (and Nebula) nominee, novella: "Act One" by Nancy Kress (Asimov's 3/09)

It probably should not be surprising that a lot of current science fiction deals with genetic manipulation. Nancy Kress, who already has several Hugo and Nebula nominations and wins for short fiction, offers a fairly subtle version of the story in this novella that serves more as a character study than anything else.

The novella is set in the near future, and the narrator, Barry, is the manager of an out-of-work actress named Jane Snow. Jane is set to make a big come back with a film about someone genetically engineered to have something called Arlen's Syndrome, which grants a sort of hyper-empathy. To research the role, she lives with a pair of young twins with Arlen's, and she becomes somewhat embroiled in the machinations of a pro-genetic modification group (genetic modification is extremely unpopular in this future, so the group has to live underground and the twins face a future of discrimination). Most of the drama of the story actually comes from Barry, who is a dwarf, and thus has his own distinct, but ambivalent, views on genetics.

The result is a refreshingly complex take on the issue. While the twins initially seem a bit Stepford, we instead see the role of unintended consequences and nurture-over-nature in genetically modified people. The story is somewhat less than satisfying though. The title refers to the typical structure of scripts, and the story really does feel more like a beginning. A lot of the subplots, the twins especially, seem to go nowhere, and the novella has an intentionally ambiguous ending. And, while Barry's voice and perspective are the best part of the novella, his situation fits just a bit too perfectly, and it does feel a bit contrived. There's good material to chew on here, but setting up clever ethical and character dilemmas seems to overshadow simple storytelling.

Available to read for free at Asimov's.

Grade: B

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

2010 Hugo nominee, short story: "The Moment" by Lawrence M. Schoen (Footprints)

This is a very short story, and, honestly, I don’t have much to say about it. I like the image that Schoen creates here. The story takes place at what is presumably Neil Armstrong’s footprint on the moon. We get a series of vignettes across a cosmological timescale, most of which are long strings of nonsense words and ideas describing various exotic alien species (your typical broccoli-people, “proto-godlings,” etc.). There are also little bits of irony and satire about cosmic bureaucracy. There’s some sort of inspiring message about human courage at the end, but it rang a bit hollow for me and didn’t make a whole lot of sense in context.

It’s hard for me not to read this story in the context of the recent discussions of the cancellation of the Constellation project (NASA's attempt to return to the moon), especially since there’s some satire of audits and cost evaluations. It seems that Schoen is saying “damn the costs, it’s the fraking moon!” (though again, that’s me bringing to the table specific debates that probably hadn’t even happened yet when he wrote this story). It’s a nice sentiment, and one that I’m inclined towards, and yet…

I admire what Schoen did here, but I didn’t particularly like it.

Can be read for free here.

Grade: C-

Monday, May 10, 2010

1981 World Fantasy Award and BSFA – SHADOW OF THE TORTURER by Gene Wolfe

This is the first novel in The Book of the New Sun tetraology, which is arguable the most award-winning science fiction series of all time. The only series that comes close to racking up as many awards is Bujold’s Vorkagasian saga, which required several more novels to do so (though New Sun never won a Hugo, but Bujold’s series won three). My copy also has a cover blurb from Neil Gaiman declaring it “the greatest science fiction novel of the twentieth century.” Plenty of hype here.

I assume Gaiman meant the entire Book of the New Sun. It’s clear by the end of Shadow that the series is meant to be read as a single story unfolding over four novels. I, on the other hand, am reading and reviewing each in turn. Not surprisingly then, my biggest problem here is that the novel feels so incomplete.

The story takes place in the far distant future. The sun is dying, and society is pretty low tech (though there are several genetically engineered – or alien? – creatures running around). The main character, Severian, grows up in the Torturers Guild. Yes, he is raised to maim and execute for interrogation or as punishment, but he’s a torturer with a heart of gold. He falls in love with the first “client” with whom he interacts. As a result, he leaves the guild and begins a journey to a new assignment. He meets a few eccentric characters, attains some valuable items, and as he is preparing to move on….the novel ends abruptly with a promise of more to follow.

It’s an entertaining story, interesting world, and Severian is a fascinating character, even if he remains a bit of a cipher despite being the narrator. The plot and world felt a tad generic – actually, I wondered if this novel was huge in Japan, considering that 90% of the anime from the last quarter century have involved an anti-hero wandering across a dying world. I think it was:

The main attraction is the prose though. The details are rich and evocative, Severian’s thoughts range from the philosophical to the brutally frank, and yet the novel always propels the reader forward. I’m not ready to anoint Wolfe the Faulkner of sci-fi yet, and the book does wander along the edge of pretension every now and then (we can’t talk about “historians;” we have to talk about “historiographers” because it sounds better. Who cares if it has a different meaning?) But, it was a very nice read.

Also, best cover ever?

Grade: A-

Friday, May 7, 2010

2010 Hugo nominee, novelette: "One of Our Bastards is Missing" by Paul Cornell (The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction: Volume Three)

It’s Paul Cornell week here. In this story, Cornell brings the same manic energy to prose that he brought to comics in Captain Britain and MI:13.

The setting is a bit mysterious. It’s a parallel universe with futuristic technology, but nineteenth-century politics. The British, Prussian and Ottoman Empires, among others, span the solar system while their royal families intrigue. British soldier/secret agent Jonathan Hamilton is in the midst of it all, and in this story he investigates an attempt to kidnap the Princess Elizabeth.

There seems to be some sort of strange quantum mechanics going on (and in this universe, Newton seems to have been much more aware of quantum physics), but overall, the laws of this world remain a bit unclear, and I actually think that’s a problem with the story. I love the basic idea behind the setting, but I need to know more about it to really get into these stories. Especially considering that this is basically a standard adventure plot, I can’t see any story reason to obscure the world (other than an effort to avoid bulky exposition). Hamilton himself is a bit standard as well. He’s a tough and wily adventurer with a good heart but a ruthless disposition…we’ve seen the sort before. There’s also more of Cornell’s admitted obsession with British character (also seen extensively in Captain Britain).

So, it’s a fun story for what it is, but, both the world and the central character are lacking in details.

You can read it for yourself for free here.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

2010 Hugo nominee: Graphic Fiction: Captain Britain And MI13. Volume 3: Vampire State Written by Paul Cornell; Pencilled by Leonard Kirk (Marvel)

British writer Paul Cornell is probably best known for his work on the revived Dr. Who. He wrote three episodes, and all received Hugo nominations. Cornell has also done a lot of work at the fringes of the Marvel Universe. He's done several miniseries, but his best received work dealt with Marvel's British superheroes. He started with a miniseries on mutant Pete Wisdom from Marvel's adult imprint that emphasized the British Isles as a place of magic and fairies. He placed the mutant paranormal investigator in MI:13, a fiction British agency that deals with the weird. He then returned to MI:13 and the same themes with a new series starring Captain Britain (a superhero defined by comics legends Alan Moore and Chris Claremont). Joining Wisdom and Moore were the Black Knight, World War II heroine Spitfire, vampire hunter Blade, and a new character, Dr. Faiza Hussain. The series was an immense hit with critics and had many vocal fans, but sales were abysmally low throughout its run, and the book was cancelled after 15 issues and an annual.

This volume contains the third and final story: "Vampire State." Dracula (yes, he's a character in the Marvel Universe) decides to invade Britain to capture its magical resources, and he prepares a massive vampire army on the moon to do so. The MI: 13 team is ambushed, but they quickly put together a series of elaborate counter-measures. The battle involves a lot of twists and turns, betrayals and double crosses, and magical one-upmanship.

It's a very fun story, though it's not without its problems. Cornell seems willing to sacrifice the overall flow of the story in favor of dramatic issue-ending cliffhangers. One fake-out in particular seems just a bit too elaborate, and won't make any sense if you haven't read the previous storyline. Cornell's not afraid to delve into obscure continuity, and I'm not really sure if that's a flaw or a virtue. A lot of the story hangs on the obscure 1970s villain Baron Blood. My biggest complaint is with the art. Regular artist Leonard Kirk is fantastic, but he seems to have been running behind. Much of this volume is drawn by other artists, and these clearly inferior fill-in pages appear randomly.

The story begins with Dracula and Dr Doom meeting on the moon to discuss a possible alliance. If that sounds cool to you, you will probably enjoy this series. If not, it may not be for you, as it really relies on an understanding of superhero tropes and Marvel continuity. Personally, I don't think the series ever had time to hit its stride, so I'm not sure this is Hugo-worthy. I really do hope to see a lot more comics work from Paul Cornell though.

Monday, May 3, 2010

1981 Locus Fantasy – LORD VALENTINE’S CASTLE by Robert Silverberg

Lord Valentine’s Castle introduced the world of Majipoor, a very large planet with magical elements. Basically, while there are a few aliens in the picture and even references to occasional starships, it’s really a place where Silverberg can write a straight fantasy adventure. It’s also a much more typical, and conventional, adventure novel than the “drugs will set you free” psycehdelia of a A Time of Changes.

The main character, Valentine, appears near a city in Majipoor with no real memory of who he was or where he came from. This is actually a nice device for Silverberg to introduce his setting, as the main character is largely unfamiliar with the world around him. Valentine does have a lot of cash and a few talents – he’s smart, agile, and good at winning people’s confidence. Having nothing else to do, he signs on with a crew of travelling jugglers (he can’t juggle to begin with, but he picks up the skill with uncanny ease).

From here, two of Majipoor’s main features kick in. First, dreams are incredibly important in the culture of Majipoor, and most magic on Majipoor seems to involve psychic dream manipulation. Valentine begins to “receive” dreams that hint at his true identity, and lead him on a quest to uncover and recover it. Second, we’re told the planet is extremely large, with twenty billion inhabitants, so this is a long quest, and we get the grand tour of Silverberg’s new creation along the way.

This novel is really the opposite of A Time of Changes . It’s decently written and fast-paced. It’s extremely conventional; without spoiling it, I’ll just say that the plot is one of the most basic plot formats for a fantasy story. In the end, Silverberg delivers a novel that is more entertaining but even less interesting. Even his combination of sf and fantasy seems rather pointless. Putting a fantasy world in a science fiction universe is a great idea, but it has no bearing on this story (perhaps it means more in the sequels?)

Grade: B-