Friday, July 30, 2010
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Monday, July 26, 2010
Friday, July 23, 2010
2010 Hugo nominee, Dramatic Pres., Long Form: District 9 Screenplay by Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell; Directed by Neill Blomkamp (TriStar Pictures)
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
2010 Hugo nominee, Dramatic Pres. Short: Doctor Who: "Planet of the Dead" Written by Russell T Davies & Gareth Roberts; Directed by James Strong
Monday, July 19, 2010
It’s easy to forget sometimes just how weird Jim Henson could be. Even the Muppets, who – though still funny – have become a very safe Disney property, used to be pretty weird. Henson’s weirdness really came out in his two non-Muppet ‘80s fantasy films, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth.
One thousand years ago on another world, the Crystal of Truth splintered and became the Dark Crystal. The evil Skeksis worship the Darl Crystal and rule the land as tyrants. They have wreaked havoc on gentler races, enslaving the Podlings and wiping out the Gelflings. Two Gelflings survive: a girl named Kira and a boy named Jen. Jen is given a shard of the Crystal by the ancient Mystic who raised him and tasked with making the Crystal whole again before a rare celestial alignment. The Skeksis try to kill him and Kira on their quest.The story isn’t the main attraction here though. It’s really all about the art direction. The muppet creatures certainly aren’t as fluid or detailed as what computer animation could produce today, but there is an added realism to their…um…being real. And, overall, the designs are magnificent. As for the plot, on rewatching I have to admit that it felt rather slight. There’s not a lot to it, and what we do get is fantasy-by-numbers questing. I did always like the ending though. Maybe I’m just seeing the film through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia, but I think this is an enjoyable work, and one of the better fantasy movies out there (especially pre-Peter Jackson).
Friday, July 16, 2010
Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
Little, Big is a lot of things, some of which are contradictory: dreamlike fantasy, family saga, metaphor for the twentieth century, quirky, epic, mysterious, complicated, simple, and on and on. The title is quite fitting: on one level it’s an intimate story of a family growing and changing over time; on another level it is an epic story of changes in American life told through the metaphor of a faeirie war. Whatever it is, it’s gorgeously written. Crowley’s prose and his metaphors are rich, evocative, and enthralling.
The plot involves a young man from The City (clearly New York, though never named) named Smoky Barnable walking to meet his fiancée, Daily Alice Drinkwater at a strange rural home in Edgewood. Of course, this home is at the “edge” of a mystical wood, populated by different breeds of faerie and old, fading magic. For the rest of the novel, we follow Smoky and Alice through their lives and flash back to Alice’s eccentric family. We learn about her strangely spiritual architect great-grandfather who sought to replicate the geography of a magical multiverse in the construction of his own home, and her grandfather who cursed himself to be loved by all young women. We also spend a great deal of time with her son, Auberon, who also works to understand the strange world at Edgewood and find his own Destiny, and love, in The City, now changed much for the worse (New York in the 1980s was not a pleasant place). In the background we have The Tale, the epic confrontation between old magic and the new modern world that plays out through the lives of the Drinkwater-Barnable family.
I’d heard a lot about how great this novel was…and perhaps it was a bit overhyped to me, as it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. On the one hand, Crowley's merging of the intimate and the epic is brilliantly accomplished – on the other, it left me a bit disconnected from the characters. Their overshadowing Destinies took away from their reality and relatability. For instance, when Smoky is led somewhat astray from Alice several years after their marriage, it seemed more the workings of magic than a true reflection of Smoky’s feelings and being.
But, saying that I didn’t like the novel as much as I expected too is not too harsh a review – considering I had been told that this was one of the greatest American novels of the twentieth century by several sources. I still enjoyed the novel very much, and I had to admire Crowley’s amazing craft, from the gorgeous and illuminating metaphors that litter almost every page and the folksy but precise prose to the bigger truths that Crowley sought to uncover. I’d certainly recommend this book, especially to fans of urban fantasy (eg Neil Gaiman), as this is one of the founding texts.
2010 Hugo nominee, graphic fiction: Girl Genius, Volume 9: "Agatha Heterodyne and the Heirs of the Storm" by Kaja and Phil Foglio
As I mentioned before, the Hugo voters seem to differ somewhat in their views from the voters of the big comics awards like the Eisners. This is only the second year that the graphic fiction category has existed, but based on these two sets of nominees, it looks like the Hugo pool leans heavily on high profile Vertigo series (Fables), properties from creators already well-known in the sf community (Cornell and Gaiman), and webcomics. I think the high profile of the latter category actually speaks in favor of Hugo nominators, as webcomics have huge circulation but often seem to be undervalued by comics tastemakers.
Phil Foglio has a couple of fan-art Hugos under his belt from way back in the ‘70s, and Girl Genius, by he and his wife Kaja, was one of the first self-published comics to embrace the webcomics model with great success. So, it’s not a surprise that Girl Genius is a mainstay in this category (it won the first year). It’s also very easy to see why Girl Genius has a huge following and active sf fanbase from the content itself: the character cartooning is lively and expressive with strong storytelling, the designs are fantastic, and the setting is very interesting. Girl Genius is set in an alternate nineteenth-century Europe where certain people have a “spark” that enables them to become mad scientists and create giant destructive machines. This has turned the Europe of this super-industrial revolution into a shattered war-zone full of giant robots. The titular “girl genius,” Agatha Heterodyne eventually discovers that she has a hidden “spark” and a special destiny. It’s all very steampunk, though the Foglios prefer the much cooler term “Gaslamp fantasy.”
This volume and the previous Hugo-winning volume both take place in a sentient castle that Agatha has inherited. Both volumes involve a lot of traipsing around the huge building while disarming of boobytraps, discovering secrets, and repelling invasions. The innovation of this volume in particular is that it puts both of Agatha’s love interests in the castle with her, which creates lots of comic and character opportunities, and, when a chromatic illness is introduced, adds a race-against-time element with some added drama. For these reasons, I liked this volume better than the previous one.
That said, I don’t think volume 8 should have won last year (I probably would have voted for Fables), and I’m not sure this superior volume should win this year either. The plot has stalled out a bit in the castle, after a series of very fast-paced entries through the first seven volumes. Also, as much as I can see why the series is so beloved, I’ve never been as big a fan. There’s a lot to admire here, and Phil and Kaja Foglio have great ideas and a lot of experience. It’s purely a matter of personal taste, but the mix of comedy and drama has never quite worked for me. I want the series to either be sillier or more serious. Still, I don’t think there’s any question that it’s the best “gaslamp fantasy” comic that America has produced in the past few years, and, in a year when Steampunk reigns supreme, that counts for a lot.
This is quite a different story from Stross’s “Palimpsest,” and he deserves credit for his versatility. “Overtime” focuses on a poor schlub who has to cover at work over the Christmas holiday. The twist is that he works at a secret supernatural watchdog agency run by the British government. So, it’s basically “The Office” meets Torchwood.
There’s a fair amount of magical hijinks and supernatural horror here, but Stross plays it all pretty light. It’s a Lovecratian Christmas Comedy Special. The story is at its best when it captures the full absurdity of that juxtaposition. Rather than a jolly old man, Santa Clause is “the hideous threat of the Filler of Stockings, who oozes through chimneys and ventilation ducts every Dead God’s Birthday-eve to perform unspeakable acts against items of hosiery.” The wry takes on Christmas rituals, government bureaucracy, and office politics that take up the first half of the story are very fun. And, I enjoyed Stross’s depiction of magic (much easier in the Information Age, appartently). When the story bothers to try to have a plot in the second half, I did check out a bit. It’s not that it’s bad, but as well as horror and comedy can mesh, suspense and comedy don’t work as well for me. I just didn’t feel involved. And Stross does wander back into his world of paradoxes and causality loops. The last line was worth a chuckle though, and the whole was an enjoyable read (actually, listen, as Tor.com has it available as a podcast – again, I wholeheartedly endorse the audio short-fiction format).
Monday, July 5, 2010
As I said a couple of weeks ago, prehistoric settings were a hot commodity in the early ‘80s. Julian May sends her cast of characters to the Pliocene rather than the Pleistocene (a few extra million years in the past), but I was still hoping that she’d redeem the concept. I can’t say that I think she did, though Many Colored Land seems to fail in the exact opposite manner as No Enemy But Time. Bishop’s book was a simple narrative that tried to tackle ambitious and provocative themes; May’s novel uses an overly complicated setting and overloaded cast of characters to tell a very straightforward adventure story.
In the twenty-first century, a French scientist opens a window to the Pliocene epoch, but it turns out to be a one-way gate for living tissue. Still, people are attracted, especially those alienated from the world around them, and tens of thousands choose to go into exile in the ancient time period. This is an amazingly promising concept, and I looked forward to a tale of exploration full of fascinating factoids about a little-known era in geological history that could also explore some interesting, alienated characters.
May was not content to stop there, however. In the opening chapters we’re introduced to the characters in question, but we learn that they live in a space opera setting called the Galactic Milieu. That means we get lots of info dump on strange alien cultures, psychic powers, and even weird galactic sports – all of which is destined to be relatively unimportant in the novel’s latter sections (except for the psychic stuff). The characters themselves are mildly interesting, but a lot of them are pretty stereotypical – like the super tough girl athlete or the space-pilot scoundrel.
When we finally do get to the Pliocene, May continues to pile on extra concepts. I won’t spoil it too much, but suffice it to say that it’s more like a mythical quest in Narnia or Oz (both of which are name-checked) than prehistoric exploration and society-building. I just don’t understand why May wanted to smash all of these concepts together. Why not just write a fantasy novel? It seems that May had a fantasy concept and a sci-fi universe all fleshed out in her head, and she decided to throw it all into one novel.
As with No Enemy But Time, this could all be forgiven if it was a well-written novel, but it’s not. The prose is less offensively bad than Bishop’s, but it’s not particularly thrilling, and the dialog often tends toward the cheesy. This is part of a larger series, but I don’t feel the need to revisit the Pliocene Exile after this entry.
Friday, July 2, 2010
Adele lives in a New York City that, through some unexplained event or intervention, has become a center of improbable events. For some people, this means the spontaneous remission of their cancer, or a big lottery win. For others, this means horrible accidents and deadly duck attacks. People react by turning to religion or superstition.
In this short story, we get a pretty thorough exploration of Adele’s troubled faith and her uncertainness in relationships. In fact, these uncertainties seem to be the point. Adele has a lot of the same questions about love and life that we all have, but an odd and original speculative fiction setting brings these issues into stark relief.
I really enjoyed this story, but I do have my usual short fiction complaint: I wanted more. There are so many great possibilities with this setting, that I wanted to see more bizarre events and learn more about Adele, a very relatable character, and her background.