Wednesday, June 30, 2010

2010 Hugo nominee, novelette: "It Takes Two" by Nicola Griffith (Eclipse Three)

This is another story that it’ll be hard to discuss without spoilers, as a lot of the narrative depends on a late twist.

Cody is a successful young businesswoman working on a big deal. She also happens to have an erotic fantasy based around a female stripper that she made the mistake of revealing to some of her colleagues during a drunken night in Texas. To close out the deal, she has to survive a night of carousing with a bunch of men at a strip club in Texas. From there, the story takes a few interesting turns, including the eventual twist that puts this story in the realm of speculative fiction (though it remains very grounded throughout). The basic question that her story asks is “what is love?” Where does a scientific understanding of love leave us? How much free will do we have in love? As one cynical character states near the end of the story, “Love’s just biochemical craziness designed to make us take a leap in the dark.”

It’s an interesting question, I guess, though it seems to trip up the characters a lot more than it would me. And, the story does seem to stack the deck in a lot of different ways to increase the conflicts raised by the question. For instance, I liked the prose in general, but there are a few descriptive passages that feel like generic erotica (i.e., the sex has to be super-awesome and mind blowing). I’m not sure this sort of idealized fantasy sexuality has any place in a story that wants to examine human relationships in a serious way. There are a lot of character motivations that remain obscure as well.

This was an enjoyable read, but I don’t think it’s nearly as interesting as it could have been.

Grade: B

Monday, June 28, 2010

1982 Saturn - E.T.

E.T. is probably the most terrifying horror film ever made. The first time I saw it, I had to be carried from the theatre, screaming from fright. I may also have peed myself. Of course, I was barely three years old, but I still worried that to watch the entire film might be to stumble down the path to a sort of Lovecraftian madness.

Surprisingly, it turns out that this Steven Spielberg film is fairly sweet and not actually that scary. In a coming-of-age tale for the Reagan era, three siblings dealing with their parents’ divorce find an abandoned alien. The middle child, Eliot, forms an empathic bond with this “E.T.,” who quickly learns some English, shows off various psychic powers by making bicycles fly, and plays dress up. Eventually, the government butts in and messes everything up (things actually do get a little scary at that point). From a speculative fiction standpoint…well, we never learn much about E.T.’s species (their DNA has six base pairs! They like mushrooms!), but that’s not really what the film is about.

Spielberg’s visual style is very evident; he does a great job of evoking both quotidian suburban America and a real sense of wonder. The E.T. puppet is pretty fantastic, though the movie has been remastered with a digital alien in parts, and the original is hard to come by (they also replaced guns with walkie talkies for some reason; I guess because people like me found the film so terrifying). Six-year-old Drew Barrymore gives the performance of her career, despite being drunk and stoned through the whole production. Having said all this…I think Saturn made a huge mistake with this award. Two other films that came out in 1982 are obviously superior science fiction classics….

I’ve seen critics complain that Spielberg is a “manipulative” filmmaker, but I’m pretty sure that a filmmaker’s job is to evoke emotions. I think they’re just mad that a commercial director made them cry. Then again, speaking of "commercial" the use of Reese's Pieces is the pinnacle of early product placement.

Grade: B+

Friday, June 25, 2010

2010 Hugo nominee, novel: PALIMPSEST by Catherynne M. Valente (Bantam Spectra)

After the first couple of pages of Palimpsest, I said to myself “I think Ms Valente must be a poet writing a novel.” Flip back to the “about the author” and there it says that she has published five books of poetry.* Lots of writers do both, but I’ve always felt like there are poets who write novels, and novelists who write poetry. Based on something a lit professor once said to me, I’ve always thought of William Faulkner as a “[failed] poet who wrote [really good] novels.” Anyway, the attention to the flow and musicality of the prose that you get here is a clear sign that Valente is the former.

Valente follows four different characters in four cities. Sei rides the trains around and through Kyoto; the beekeeper November returns to San Francisco; Oleg is a locksmith in New York haunted by the ghost of his sister Lyudmilla; Ludovico is a bookbinder in Rome. Each has a sexual encounter that transports them to the dreamlike city of Palmimpsest. They then find part of the city tattooed on their bodies and learn that they can return to the city with further sexual experiences. The city itself is so addictive that the characters go out of their way to return.

As you can almost guess from the characters’ occupations, the novel is rife with symbolism. I think it’s ultimately a book about relationships, and the longing and loss that attend them. We also see sex/love (Valente does a great job showing how muddled those two things can be in relation to each other) as an addiction itself. There are several evocative passages, especially the alternating scenes set in Palimpsest itself, though I can’t say that I ever grew too close to any of the characters. I don’t know if this was because I simply don’t have an affinity for the lost dreamers that Valente focuses on here, or if the lush, poetic prose created a barrier between me and the characters. I did feel at times that I was too occupied by the words themselves to care about what they described.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with a poet writing a novel. And I could certainly see this being many people’s favorite Hugo nominee. Personally, while I found the prose very enjoyable from page to page and greatly appreciated the larger tapestry, I missed the plot and character hooks that propel a great novel forward. I enjoyed the journey more than the destination.

*She’s also super-prolific. According to her Wikipedia page, she’s three days older than me, but she’s published about fourteen more books than I have.

Grade: B

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

2010 Hugo nominee, Dramatic Pres. Short: Doctor Who: "The Next Doctor" Written by Russell T Davies; Directed by Andy Goddard (BBC Wales)

I’m a rather late convert to the Doctor Who revival, and the franchise in general, but I have been voraciously devouring new and classic episodes for the past year or so. After four seasons of Hugo-dominating, high quality television, the new series took a year to say goodbye to star David Tennant with a series of five holiday specials – two years of Christmas specials, an Easter special, a New Year’s Special, and….um…Guy Fawkes Day? Three of them were eligible for this round of Hugos, and, despite being fairly poorly received by a lot of fans, all three received nominations.

There are two big things going on in this special. First, it’s a very steampunk story that has the Doctor fighting Cybermen in Victorian London at Christmas. We get giant robots with gears, powered by Dickensian child labor! At the same time, we have an odd twist on the old “mulit-doctor story.” If you’re not all that familiar with the show, the Doctor has been played by eleven different actors (and that’s just canon!). Since he is a time traveler, it’s not too hard to do a story where he hangs out with different versions of himself. This has happened three different times on the show proper (but not for twenty-five years), and some more in telethon specials and in audio plays. In this special, we’re teased with the twist that Tennant’s Doctor is meeting a future version of himself played by David Morissey. It doesn’t quite work out that way, but it’s a fun idea.

So, steampunk, multiple doctors, bigger budget special – it all sounds good. Why the disappointment? I actually don’t have a great answer for this one, other than, it’s just not as crisp and exciting as the best Doctor Who always is. There are a couple of chase scenes, a big setpiece with the aforementioned giant robot, and lots of scenes of Morissey and Tennant chatting, but there’s not much going on underneath. Writer Russell T. Davies tries to do something with the villain being a woman of ill-repute, motivated by oppressive Victorian society…but there’s not much depth to that either. And, it’s a bit twee at times – instead of the Doctor’s usual TARDIS, a time travelling police box, the Victorian Doctor has the Tethered Aerial Release Developed In Style, a hot air balloon TARDIS. It’s not horrible, but it’s not up to the high standards of the show at its best, and it’s not Hugo-worthy either.

Grade: B-

Monday, June 21, 2010

1982 Nebula - NO ENEMY BUT TIME by Michael Bishop

I’m starting to notice some patterns in the non-Hugo winning Nebula novels. 1) They tend to have oddball plots, 2) They usually have distinct (eccentric?) authorial voices and/or utilize writing gimmicks, and 3) They don’t seem to age very well. No Enemy But Time fits this description perfectly. It may have looked daring and provocative to the Writers Association at the time, but now, to me, it looks like a trainwreck.

We’ll start with point three: The main character is a sarcastic, angry, stereotype-bustin’ black man – which would be fine, if it didn’t feel so distinctly like Bishop had already cast Richard Pryor in the film version. In other words, it’s a slightly modified ‘80s stereotype rather than a real path-breaking portrayal. Also, Clan of the Cave Bear became a smash hit in the early ‘80s, and now we get a few faddish sf books with prehistoric settings.

Point number two? Well, there’s non-linear storytelling, which makes sense in a time travel book I guess, but this is no Slaughterhouse-five. The main character, Joshua Kampa, has “spirit visions” that allow him to travel through time. This will eventually enable him to visit early hominids in Africa, but it also allows him to revisit his life…which is full of picaresque details including a mute Spanish prostitute and the sort of adoption story that Orly Taitz fantasizes about in her most demented dreams. The writing style as a whole is full of awkward references. Again, it’s as if Bishop is trying to do his version of a Richard Pryor character, but all of his slang comes from watching too many World War II movies. We get choice metaphor-mixing sentences like “a randy young male might well find a nubile femme fetale among the unattached ingĂ©nues of the other band.” On one page the main character ponders if H. habilis females are “love slaves of an estrous cycle” and gives us a description of chimpanzee females who “flaunt such gaudy carnal corsages.” I wouldn’t call this prose unimaginative or boring. But, I wouldn’t call it pleasant either.

Oddball plot? Check and double check. Joshua travels back to the Pleistocene (a million or so years ago, and falls in love with a Homo habilis he calls Helen. Yeah, one of these:

Okay, that's a little weird. However, we are told though that Helen is an evolutionary step forward. So, I imagined her more like this:

Yep, it’s still weird. And, while this book has some interesting things to say about race, in the end, it’s a novel about a black man who has sex with something that looks like an ape. I found this somewhat disturbing on several levels.

And, the plot only gets weirder as the story goes on. You know you’re in trouble when the author admits to using a ridiculously improbably dues ex machina in the text (Bishop tries to play this off as postmodernism . . . but I don’t think he succeeds).

I’m okay with weird, and maybe even a little disturbing, but there just wasn’t much here to grab my attention. Add in a dated, over-written prose style, and I found reading this a fairly miserable experience.

Also, it’s odd that Bishop gets so many simple facts wrong. At one point, he challenges Richard Leakey on the size of a gorilla’s manhood (which, in itself, gives you a pretty good sense of the novel’s tone). It’s pretty clear that Leakey was right about this easily observable fact. It’s a dumb thing for Bishop to get wrong and an even dumber thing to bring up, but it nicely illustrates Bishop’s misguided, self-congratulatory, and pointless irreverence.

This is The Wanderer bad. It might even be as bad as the novel whose name shall not be spoken.

Grade: D-

Friday, June 18, 2010

2010 Hugo nominee, Dramatic Pres., Long Form: Up Screenplay and Directed by Bob Peterson & Pete Docter (Disney/Pixar)

I’m not ashamed to admit that this film made me cry. Twice. There’s a reveal in the last act that I saw coming from a million miles away, and it still made me tear up. There’s no question in my mind that this is the best of the five nominated films. But, is it the best sf film of the lot? I can’t quite decide whether that’s a different question or not.

The computer animated film from Pixar (who won last year’s Hugo in this category with Wall-E) tells the story of an elderly widower who refuses to move from his home to make way for a real estate development. Finally, he decides to go on a South American adventure that he’s dreamed of for his entire life, and he decides to take his home with him (with the aid of a lot of helium). He takes flight and finds a strange world of amazing landscapes, giant birds, and crazed explorers with talking dogs. It’s a fun romp that still manages to get some emotional resonance out of its themes of aging, loss, and adventure. It’s a Pixar film; it’s pretty much guaranteed to be great.

So, what’s not “sf” about the film? It’s a definition that sf-fans like to argue about, and I usually find these discussions pretty pointless. Everyone has their own arbitrary definition, and they really all come down to the Potter Stewart line (“I know it when I see it.”) Up should qualify fairly easily: flying a house to South America with helium balloons is in the realm of pure fantasy, and voice boxes for dogs are pretty clearly in the realm of science fiction. If Raiders of the Lost Ark can win a Hugo, so can this. Still, next to films that use traditional science fiction conceits (aliens, clones, colonization of moons, Star Trek) to explore serious issues (race, imperialism, destiny, labor exploitation), Up does feel a little different. I highly recommend it, and enjoyed it more than any of these films, but I’m not sure it’ll get my vote. It's certainly in the running though.

Grade: A

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

2010 Hugo nominee, novella: SHAMBLING TOWARDS HIROSHIMA by James Morrow (Tachyon)

This book is the perfect companion to Adam Roberts’ Yellow Blue Tibia, reviewed here last week. That novel saw Soviet sf writers brought together in the wake of World War II to create a story that would pay off in the 1980s. This novel, also narrated from the perspective of the 1980s, is about the US government bringing together Hollywood horror legends in 1945 to create a monster movie that would frighten Japan into surrender. It’s really a mirror-image of Roberts’ book, and I’m trying to figure out why this idea of blending fiction and reality in the wake of World War II/Cold War is in the zeitgeist all of the sudden. Or is it just pure coincidence?

The narrator is a fictional (to my knowledge) Hollywood actor named Syms Thorley who has starred in a series of monster films in ‘40s Hollywood. He’s tasked to play a fire-breathing lizard and wreck a scale-model of a Japanese city (the set-up to get to that point is pretty ridiculous, but believability is not Morrow’s central objective here). Thorley is joined in this plot by a host of real Hollywood legends like director James Whale (Frankenstein) and early special effects wizard Willis O’Brien (King Kong). There are plenty of hints in the framing narration that this plot has something to do with the popularity of kaiju (giant monster) films like Godzilla in Japan.

The plot is fairly rudimentary – there are a few obstacles along the way, but Morrow's focus here is more on conveying the atmosphere of B-movies during Hollywood’s golden age. Morrow does a great job of it, and the novella is worthwhile for the setting and prose alone. But, as the title hints, the novel is really about the atom bomb, and the way it haunts – or maybe how it should haunt – America as well as Japan. Just like Yellow Blue Tibia, Shambling point out that the horrors of the atomic age can be stranger and more terrible than anything the science fiction of the era produced.

This was a well-written and engaging book that was both funny and haunting. Very nice stuff, and I’m looking forward to more Morrow coming up when I get to the ‘90s.

Grade: A-

Monday, June 14, 2010

1982 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation, 1981 Saturn Fantasy - RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK

Welcome to the age of Spielberg and Lucas. They made two very different but very successful science fiction movies in 1977 – Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. These two films basically catapulted science fiction into a dominant film genre for the ‘80s and beyond. Both of them continued to make sf films that racked up Hugos and Saturns and influenced most of the science fiction films that we see today. In 1981, they got together and made Raiders of the Lost Ark, an homage to the pulp adventure serials they grew up on.

I don’t really know what to say about this film, except that it really is fantastic. I’m hard-pressed to come up with critiques. Um…the pacing isn’t perfect in the second half…but it’s still pretty solid. There are a lot of stereotypes deployed in the portrayal of non-Western peoples – the movie has its fair share of savage Indians and “worthy Orientals,” but I’m inclined to give Lucas and Spielberg a pass because they’re just replicating the imperialist tropes of adventure serials and the H. Rider Haggard-type novels from which they descended.

I guess I should summarize the plot. Indiana Jones is an adventure-loving, artifact smuggling archaeologist….oh, who am I kidding? Everyone knows the plot. If you somehow haven’t seen this film, and you have any sense of adventure, drop what you’re doing and go see it.

Grade: A

Friday, June 11, 2010

2010 Hugo nominee, novella: THE GOD ENGINES by John Scalzi (Subterranean)

John Scalzi is one of the hottest sf writers out there. His first novel was published in 2005, but he had already racked up three novel nominations by 2008. He’s also the President-elect of the SFWA. As with most of the writers who hit in the 00s, I hadn’t read any of his work until now.

The premise of this novella is original and a bit odd, but it’s also quite straightforward: starships are powered by imprisoned deities. The gods are of the Lovecraftian variety – they’re immensely powerful and arcane beings who don’t necessarily fit into our ideas about conventional reality, but they’re not necessarily divine. People worship and fear them, but, as far as we know, they’re just mind-blowing aliens. At some point, humanity encountered these gods and became involved in a war between them. One of the gods vanquished and enslaved the others – humanity became servants of this god, and bound the others in iron chains, forcing them to transport human ships about the universe so they could prosthelytize for their Lord.

We focus on one ship, the Righteous, and its captain Tephe. Tephe must navigate the tensions with the priestly class that shares power aboard ship, and he’s in love with one of the Rooks (priestesses/harem girls) that “comfort” the ship’s crew.

It’s a fairly fantastic set-up, but, and maybe this is the result of its length, it’s all set-up. The characters tend to speak in exposition, and spend all of their time telling explaining their world and roles to each other (though they should obviously already know these things). The characters fall a bit flat as well, and they tend to slot into generic roles (heroic officers, incompetent priests, hooker with a heart of gold). The ideas are great though, and I’d consider reading more novels set in this world (though the horror ending doesn’t seem to leave a lot of room open for sequels).

Grade: B

Thursday, June 10, 2010

2010 Not-a-Hugo Nominee YELLOW BLUE TIBIA by Adam Roberts

I’m going to review a couple of 2009 novels that did not receive Hugo nominations this year, just to give a little more context (and because I have read or planned to read these novels already). The first I want to discuss is Adam Roberts Yellow Blue Tibia, which made the shortlist as a nominee for the Clarke and British Science Fiction Awards (and made some waves when Kim Stanley Robinson suggested that it should win Britain’s prestigious Man Booker Prize for literary fiction).

It’s an odd one. The novel takes place in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, and it’s Roberts’ rendering of Soviet society on the brink of its collapse that is probably the most fascinating part of the book. The narrator, Konstantin Skvorecky, is part of a group of science fiction writers called together by Josef Stalin after World War II to design an alien invasion scenario that the USSR can use to distract the West. Forty years later, Skvorecky is a recovering alcoholic who hasn’t written in years. He picks up a job translating for Scientologists visiting from the United States, but he soon discovers that much of the scenario he helped create decades earlier is beginning to come true (beginning with the Challenger disaster). The next part of the scenario involves a nuclear reactor in Ukraine called Chernobyl.

As I said, the setting is brilliantly rendered, and Roberts gets a lot of mileage out of the science fictiony realities of the ‘80s (UFO religions, exploding spaceships, reactor meltdowns, etc.) I liked the characters, but there is a Coen Brothersesque cartoonishness to them: everyone has to be comically dimwitted, obese, or deluded. Skvorecky himself is supposed to be an elderly and broken man, and he is even further damaged as the novel progresses, but he still manages to make it through several action scenes and have a romance. The plot is also terribly convoluted and prone to seemingly random digressions like a Coen Brothers film. Overall, I do think the novel wavers too much on the line between straight sf and literary surrealism. I usually enjoy genre-bending, but, in this case, I was slightly bothered that the novel couldn’t establish a consistent tone.

Still, it’s fun and stimulating stuff. I’m not going to moan that it was robbed of a Hugo nomination, but I would recommend it, especially to fans of the Coen Bros., and I’d easily rate it above www.Wake.

Also, that’s one of the best covers I’ve ever seen.

Grade: B

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

2010 Hugo nominee, novelette: "Eros, Philia, Agape" by Rachel Swirsky ( 3/09)

I thought this was one of the most successful short stories I’ve read from the nominees so far this year. The title refers to three of the Greek words for “love;” they distinguished between romantic love, familial love, and a sort of deeper love (important to know when you’re, say, translating the Bible, most of the original of which was in Greek). The distinctions are pretty clear even to we modern non-Greeks, though the lines also blur in interesting ways, and this story really focuses on when and where those blurrings take place.

So, it’s a love story, and the focus switches between the two lovers at various points in their relationship. Adriana is a young woman overshadowed by an abusive father who decides to buy herself a robotic lover, Lucian. Lucian is, of course, programmed to love and serve Adriana, but eventually, a genuine relationship develops between the two, and they adopt a child. However, Lucian is unsure who he really is; he was literally born to love Adriana, and he has never lived without her. So, he embarks on a quest to find his true self. The strength of this story is Swirsky's amazing character work. It’s a brief series of vignettes, but I really felt like I got to know Lucian and Adriana (and their young daughter Rose…and a bird who plays a fairly important role). I wanted to read more about them. The sf elements are used to perfection, as Lucian can represent and highlight a lot about human emotions through his articficial situation.

The story is available for free (and as an audio podcast, which I like for shorts) from I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a good character piece.

Grade: A-

Monday, June 7, 2010

1982 Hugo - DOWNBELOW STATION by C. J. Cherryh

I really wanted to like this novel. I’ve heard nothing but good things about C. J. Cherryh, and this was one of the novels I’ve been most looking forward to. Unfortunately, this novel felt a bit “by the numbers.” The ‘80s are the peak of the space opera subgenre, and this may be the most traditional space opera I’ve ever read.

Downbelow Station portrays a pivotal event in the history of Cherryh’s Alliance-Union universe. In that universe, the cultural differences between Earth (the Alliance) and its numerous interstellar colonies (the Union) have become so vast by the 24th century that a civil war has broken out. The planet of Pell, also known as Downbelow, and its orbiting space station have attempted to remain neutral, but as the war comes to its climax and refugees begin to pour in, neutrality becomes harder and harder to maintain.

Cherryh juggles a lot of plots and characters here very well. There’s the war itself, and we learn about Signy Mallory, the female captain of the Alliance ship Norway. She’s a stern disciplinarian, but also a pragmatist with a strong code of honor. On the station, there’s a rivalry between the Konstantin family who have long run the station and the Lukas family, who have long assisted. There’s a level of dislike and betrayal and as clear a division between good and evil between the two families as there was between the Atreides and Harkonnens in Dune. There are also a few Union spies working in the background. Finally, there’s a sentient (though not especially intelligent) species from Pell called the Hisa. We get some hints of a fairly compelling culture for the Hisa, but they can also be a bit cutesy – they’re small, furry, and like to say “I love you.” Should we blame Cherryh for the Ewoks?

All of these plotlines run in parallel throughout the book and come together quite neatly at the climax. The plotting is fantastic. The characters are very clearly drawn, though maybe just a tad too clearly, as they tend towards cartoonishly good or evil (the one big exception is Mallory, but even she has a very clear and consistent moral stance – just one that can lead to some fairly awful things). That was my biggest problem with the novel – everything was a little too clean and clear. Even the prose, which is perfectly readable, came off as very dry to me. Maybe it’s just that I’ve been reading so much Gene Wolfe lately. Claw of the Conciliator was nominated against Downbelow Station, and I have to say that it was the better novel (and I think this is the first time I’ve taken a Nebula winner over a Hugo winner). Either way, Downbelow Station is a well-executed novel that still left me cold. I’m still looking forward to Cyteen though.

By the way, C. J. Cherryh is really Carolyn Cherry. Like J. K. Rowling, she used her initials to disguise her gender, which further illustrates that the James Tiptree effect hasn’t entirely left us. Unfortunately, I can see why a female writer of this sort of hard science fiction with military sf elements might not want to advertise that they were a woman.

Grade: B-

Friday, June 4, 2010

2010 Hugo nominee, graphic fiction: Fables Vol 12: The Dark Ages Written by Bill Willingham; Pencilled by Mark Buckingham (Vertigo)

Fables has been the hot comic out of DC’s Vertigo press for the past ten years. It is to the 00s what Sandman was to the 90s in many ways. Still, I got kind of sick of it and dropped it around issue #40. It’s still going though; it’s nearing issue #100, and this volume collects #76-82.

The basic concept of Fables is that all of the characters from various literary/folklore traditions are real: Snow White, the Big Bad Wolf, Sinbad, Pinocchio, Mr. Toad, Boy Blue, etc. They once lived in different fairy tale worlds, but they were pushed out by a massive invasion by a force they call The Adversary. For most of the twentieth century they’ve lived incognito as refugees in Manhattan. Writer Bill Willingham comes up with some fun twists here: Prince Charming is a bit of a philanderer (having had relationships with Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty). Non-human characters have to be kept on a special farm. The Big Bad Wolf is trying to reform. etc. The set-up really is great, and I was quite taken with it at first. However, I dropped the series as it became more and more involved in the over-arching story of war with the Adversary (I also found the reveal of the Adversary’s identity, which I won’t spoil here, rather disappointing). This volume takes place in the aftermath of said war, but things haven’t changed all that much from when I dropped off.

The central focus in this volume is on the instability caused by the removal of the Adversary from power, and there are several parallel plotlines that deal with the war’s aftermath. There are threats of new warlords arising and a new powerful enemy appears from the Adversary’s former dominion, the amnesty of a former enemy is becoming a hot issue in Fabletown, and the fables must bury their war heroes while the war wounded are still struggling to survive (there are some major character deaths here and in the previous story). I saw some clear parallels to the aftermath of the Iraq War, though Willingham (a vocal conservative) avoids anything too pointed. There’s also a reference to our old friend Fritz Leiber in the form of Freddy and Mouse, analogues of his fantasy anti-heroes Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.

The art is fantastic here. Regular series artist Mark Buckingham is excellent. He works in the fairly straightforward Vertigo house style, but there’s just a touch of cartoonish whimsy in his characters, maybe even a bit of Disney. Indie legend Mike Allred also does a fine issue at the beginning of this collection. There’s a lot to like here, and I’d highly recommend this series to fantasy fans looking to dip their toes into a mature, but fun, urban fantasy comic. I don’t think I’ll be jumping back on; for me, the idea wore out its freshness for me long ago. But it wouldn’t surprise me to see this as a perennial nominee in this category.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

2010 Hugo nominee, short story: "The Bride of Frankenstein" by Mike Resnick (Asimov's 12/09)

When I said Boneshaker was "cute," I meant it in the best sense of the word. This story is cute in the worst sense. “Cutesy” might be more appropriate. Mike Resnick gets nominated for a Hugo pretty much every year, and I think this nomination may have been out of force of habit.

This version of the Frankenstein story is told from the perspective of Victor Frankenstein’s wife, who happens to be a shallow, vindictive nag. She begrudges her husband’s experiments, gives him the cold shoulder, and daydreams about marrying a wealthier man. Then she meets the monster as he works his way through the western canon in the library where she often hides from her husband. They discuss the nature of life, death, and romantic literature (though nothing particularly deep gets said in these discussions), and her views begin to change.

I guess it was supposed to be heartwarming, but I thought it was dreck. The central character is a ridiculous caricature. You used to see the nagging housewife a lot in tv, films, and novels, but I we kind of moved on from there about thirty or forty years ago. And, if we are supposed to take her seriously as a character, her transformation comes far too easily.

It’s very light. The right person, in the right mood, will probably have fun with it, but there’s not much to take away here. It’s probably not as offensive as I’ve maybe made it sound here, but it’s also not even remotely award-worthy.

Grade: C-

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

2010 Hugo nominee, Dramatic Pres. Short: FlashForward:"No More Good Days" Written by Brannon Braga & David Goyer; based on the novel by Robert Sawyer

More Hugo love for Robert Sawyer, this time in the form of a television series based on one of his novels (he also scripted a later episode). I actually watched this entire series; I just caught up with the finale on my DVR, which is why I waited until now to review it.

The premise is great. One day, everyone in the world passes out at the same instant and has a vision of two minutes of April 29, 2010, several months in the future. When people awaken, there is massive devastation from the various crashes that occurred when everyone passed out. There's also the emotional shock of seeing your future. Some people see happy reunions or (in the case of a terminal cancer patient, for instance) are happy simply to see themselves alive. Others see their marriages ruined. Most disturbing of all are the people who experience no vision at all, suggesting that they won't be alive when April 29 rolls around.

The show is at its best when it examines the philosophical, psychological, and sociological responses to this mass glimpse at destiny. It's able to look at questions of free will, and it does come up with some interesting ideas - like a wiki that tries to compile people's visions into a coherent picture of April 29 (I assume that this is straight out of the novel, since it feels very Robert Sawyerish, from what little I know about his work). The show also had a promising pair of co-creators in David Goyer (who, with Christopher Nolan, quite successfully rebooted the Batman films) and Brannon Braga (who wrote some very good time travel episodes for Star Trek, including a Hugo-winning episode of The Next Generation). And, the first episode was very promising. It was good enough for me to commit to watching the entire first season, despite its ups and (mostly) downs. And, I did suggest the pilot as a Hugo nominee, so I was not unhappy to see it on the list.

The show has issues though, and I was not unhappy to see it cancelled either. I doubt I would have watched the second season if it had made it. The first problem is in the nature of the show itself. It requires a lot of intricate plotting to get a set of characters to a predestined position and still make things interesting. You know that most of the characters will end up in a situation similar to the one from their vision, otherwise, what's the point. Getting them there won't be easy though. The main character, recovering alcoholic and FBI agent Mark Benford (Joseph Fiennes - remember him?) saw himself drinking again while his office is attacked. Getting him to that point in the last couple of episodes required some laughable contrivances. Another pair of characters, Mark's babysitter and one of his wife's coworkers, have a meandering plotline that goes absolutely nowhere and gets suddenly dropped in the final episode. It's clear that the writers had a hard time playing out some of the visions, but that's not really an issue here in the pilot.

What is an issue in the pilot is the show's cheesy action tropes. This is American network television, so we can't just do a thoughtful show about destiny. Nope, Mark and his fellow FBI-agents have the kind of explosion-filled, shoot-em-up lives that only television FBI agents can have. Even here in the pilot, Mark and his partner (John Cho, aka Harold, aka Sulu), have their "blackouts" in the middle of chasing an SUV full of terrorists. I don't mind action, but the show tends to go over-the-top. There are scenes of people running from explosions in slow-motion. I'm not kidding. And, the violence is all very pointless. I think every lead Mark and his team ever follows turns out to be a red herring (not to mention they all come from his vision of the investigation, which is a causal loop). Nor do we ever learn anything about the evil conspiracy that caused the blackout, which feels more like writerly haplessness than anything else (though the best acting in the show comes from the character actors who play cogs in the conspiracy, like Ricky Jay and Michael Massee. Joseph Fiennes...not so much).

So, as often happens in these shows, the mysteries are better than the answers. The pilot has a great twist at the end. I won't give it away, but I will say that that the payoff is lame. I'd recommend watching the pilot, and just leaving the series there. Most of what you'll imagine to explain the turns that bring the characters to their futures, or to explain the cause of the odd phenomenon, will be at least as good as what the show-runners eventually gave us.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

1981 Saturn - SUPERMAN II

And, I'm back! I'll try to catch up with some Hugo nominee reviews this week, but to keep the 1980s going, we have Superman II.

Richard Donner’s Superman managed to present some crazy silver age comic book material in a grounded context. Superman II does the same….except without the grounded context part. I mean, they try for grounded – Superman gets beat up at a truckstop! – but on rewatching the film, I don’t think they pulled it off.

There are two major plotlines here: a group of Kryptonian prisoners are freed near Earth and try to conquer the planet with their Superman-like powers, and Superman tries to make a relationship with Lois work by revealing his identity to her and giving up his own powers. Any comic book fan will tell you that Superman vs. an equally matched opponent is the way to go with these films (it certainly makes more sense than reviving Lex Luthor’s bizarre real estate plans, as Superman Returns did in 2005), and this film is a consensus favorite among the fans for this very reason. I’ve never understood why you would depower Superman in the same film that you have reasonably strong opponents for him (other than that it gives him an excuse to take his powers back and give up Lois), and the result is that we barely get the epic battle the film’s premise suggests. And, of course, when we do get it, the effects aren’t quite there yet (and there are ridiculous slapstick elements added…more on that in a second).

There are good ideas here, but the execution doesn’t quite cut it, and the tone just feels wrong. Richard Donner began work on this film at the same time as the previous one, but left over creative differences before the film was finished. The film hangs together pretty well anyway, but I can’t help but feel that it would have been a bit better with Donner’s humanistic touch rather than replacement director Richard Lester’s slapstick humor. The lengths to which the film goes to reestablish the status quo at the film’s end rival the first film’s in ridiculousness.

At least it’s better than the next three Superman films.

Grade: B