Friday, October 29, 2010

1986 Philip K. Dick Award - HOMUNCULUS by James Blaylock

I don't plan on reviewing a lot of Philip K. Dick award winners - to their credit, they tend to nominate very different books from the general pool of a half-dozen-or-so books that all of the other awards seem to draw from (Neuromancer being an obvious exception). This fits in very nicely with Dick's avant garde writing, but many of the winners are not the widely-read, acknowledged classics that I'm focusing on for the moment. Blaylock, however, is a writer that has been on my to read list for a few years now. As I've mentioned before, I'm very interested in the steampunk aesthetic, and Blaylock, with this novel in particular, is among the subgenre's founding fathers (along with Moorcock, K. W. Jeter, and Tim Powers*).

Homunculus takes place in London in 1870 and follows a series of mad scientists led by Langdon St. Ives called the Trismigestus Club who hang out in a tobacco shop and contend with, well, even madder scientists like Dr Ignancio Narbono, who can revive the dead. An alchemist named Birdlove mastered perpetual motion and incorporated it into the engine of a blimp, which has circled the world for years since. The blimp's orbit has been slowly decaying, and since it contains all sorts of curiosities, including a small alien who may or may not be the father of an evangelist named Shiloh, the scientists attempt to unravel its mysteries and intercept it's landing.

Well, that's part of the plot. There are many more characters and there's quite a bit more going on. Too much, to be honest. As I've said before, steampunk is more an aesthetic than anything else, and many of the steampunk novels I've read are more interested in throwing out weird devices and comic anachronisms than developing plot or character. That's certainly the case here. The plot consists of a lot of scientists and their henchmen running around, spying on and stealing important items from each other. The characters are all very interchangeable - they have mechanistic motivations ("I need to get item x" or "speak with character y"), but no real emotions. Honestly, I had a hard time keeping track of them. I enjoyed a lot of the ideas here, but most of the novel left me cold, and I was glad it was a short one.

*I considered reviewing the first PKD winner, Powers' Anubis Gates. I read the novel in high school. I remember it, but not well enough to review it, and I enjoyed it, but not enough to reread it, so I'm skipped it in favor of Blaylock.

Grade: B-

Monday, October 25, 2010

1986 World Fantasy Award - SONG OF KALI by Dan Simmons

I get the feeling that Dan Simmons took a vacation to India in the late '70s/early '80s and did not enjoy himself. There's a school of thought in horror (I think I got this from a Stephen King essay) that you take a rather mundane fear and magnify it. In this case, Simmons considers a vacation to a foreign country and makes it go about as poorly as possible. He does this effectively, though I'm not entirely thrilled with the results.

Bobby Luczac has a pretty great life at the beginning of the novel He has a beautiful and wealthy wife (who was born in India) and a baby girl, and he's a poet who is actually employed - he works for both Harper's and a small literary magazine. He grabs an assignment to track down an elusive Indian poet thought dead for almost a decade. He packs his family off to Calcutta for what he believes will be a quick and enjoyable vacation, but he immediately hates the dirty, poverty-stricken Indian city. He is also ensnared in a web of intrigues concerning the possibly-dead poet that includes the snooty Indian Writers' Union and a group of cultists to the goddess of destruction, Kali. Because this is a horror novel, these intrigues are bound to take a nightmarish turn.

Simmons has a clear but strong narrative voice, and this novel made me look forward to the upcoming Hugo winner, Hyperion, but this novel never quite grabbed my attention. There are clear mysteries at the novel's beginning, but none of them quite hooked me - the spookiness level remains relatively low until the final quarter of the novel, and then it ramps up a little too quickly. It was only in the epilogue, where Simmons begins to hint strongly about the wider implications of what has happened to the Luczacs, that I really had any emotional response to the book, which is a problem for a horror novel; it's too subtle for the first two-thirds and too much in the final third.

I also had a problem with the novel's slight (unintentional, I think) xenophobia. As I said, Simmons makes exotic travel scary, but he offers little redemption for India. The message seems to be "you think travel to a poverty-stricken foreign country might be frightening? Well, it could be even worse among the poor, dirty, superstitious pagans of Calcutta!" I'm not saying that I think Simmons is in any way racist, but I do think it's unfortunate that a side-effect of this sort of horror set-up is that Calcutta and India come off as so inherently flawed - there's no historical context, just deep, ancient, and foreign evils.

Grade: B-

Friday, October 22, 2010

1986 Locus Fantasy – THE TRUMPS OF DOOM by Roger Zelazny

The Trumps of Doom is the sixth novel in Zelazny’s beloved Amber series of fantasy novels. The first quintet of short books is narrated by Corwyn, a man who wakes up with amnesia in 20th century America. As Corwyn begins to explore his lost past, he discovers that he is from the royal family of Amber, a majestic city that is the true world – Earth is only a shadow. The series begins with a noir feel – Corwyn is tough, street smart, and morally flexible and he moves through a world of femme fatales and seedy lowlifes. By the end, it’s sword and sorcery, as Corwyn gathers armies, clobbers demons, and goes on spirit quests to fight mystical plots and contest the throne of Amber. The genre shifts dramatically, but Corwyn is always hyper-macho.

This novel starts a new quintet, and resets the table with a new narrator: Merlin. Merlin has his own connections to Amber (which I won’t get into too much, so as not to spoil the earlier books), but at the novel’s beginning he’s living on our Earth, working for an IT company, and someone is trying to kill him. As he attempts to find the would-be assassin, he uncovers an underground of sorcery based on the magic of Amber, and learns that many of his friends know more about his origins than seems possible. Eventually, he journeys back to Amber to learn more about what’s happening, and ends up in the same colossal and cosmic conflicts that always occur at the climax of these novels.

Zelazny’s hitting on a lot of the same themes here that we’ve seen him take on before: tough guy anti-heroes with connections to mythical figures (Earth mythology is an echo of the “real” princes and princesses of Amber) fighting brutal-but-cosmic battles. The female characters are marginal (the princesses of Amber scheme, but the princes are the true center of the conflicts). The ever-escalating stakes and fuzzy nature of “reality” get old after a while, and the series as a whole felt a bit repetitive to me. They are fun though, and I especially like these first books that spend a lot of time on Earth and introduce a lot of mysteries. After six books, however, I think I’m finished with the series, despite this entry ending on a cliffhanger.

Grade: B

Monday, October 18, 2010

1986 Locus and Campbell – THE POSTMAN by David Brin

I recently read Cormac McCarthy’s lyrical post-apocalyptic masterpiece The Road for a book club. I think it’s going to be hard for me to read other post-apocalyptic novels after that one. I have read many of them before, including about half-a-dozen so far for this blog. As the Cold War winds down, however, they get fewer and farther between.

The novel takes place in the far-off year 2011, after waves of warfare and social destruction have wrapped around the globe following a world war that began in 1995. There were nuclear weapons, plagues, and fascistic militias. Gordon Krantz has spent much of the last sixteen years wandering across the mountain west, playing scenes from Shakespeare for food. When he discovers an old postal truck, complete with a uniform-wearing postal worker corpse, he decides that he can earn his room and board easier by delivering mail. This starts out as a cynical ploy, but he soon begins to weave a fantasy of a restored United States with a working Post Office in an attempt to unite the survivors of Oregon against a new militia attack. The messages are clear and simplistic – fascistic militias are bad, small town democracy (and America!) is good. It’s not that I disagree with these messages, but I don’t think they’re particularly interesting (though the view that a central state with strong institutions might be a good thing seems to get rarer every day). There are some more interesting ideas about the ethics of propagandistic lies, but this thread gets lost in a mélange of subplots and a manufactured action sequence that takes up the last quarter of the novel.

Actually, there are a lot of subplots here, and the novel’s biggest problem is probably how poorly they mesh. The first half is a merging of multiple novellas, and the plot does jerk through different episodes. The sub-plots also tend to really stretch the old suspension of disbelief. One involves a supercomputer* and the other a group of crazy neo-feminists. I’ve complained a lot lately about the lack of good female characters, and this novel is not an improvement: we have a comely and willing young married woman who sleeps with Gordon, and another comely-but-crazy, young neo-feminist who loves Gordon. That’s about the sum total of their characters.

I haven’t seen the Kevin Costner-starring film adaptation, which was a box office and critical failure (though I have some friends who like it), but I can see why the film might not work. The novel is a bit too transparent and sentimental in its patriotism and political messages, and it doesn't have the most cohesive plot.

*Brin wins an award for bad futurism here. He puts humans on Mars and gives them sentient AIs before the collapse…in 1995. Normally, I just let bad futurism pass with, at most, a sarcastic remark, but considering that one of the themes of the book is the problem-solving wonder of technology, it’s a tad more significant here.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

1986 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation, 1985 Saturn Award – BACK TO THE FUTURE

No post Friday, as I journey to the frozen wastelands of Canada for a conference this weekend. In the meantime, here's another halfhearted review of an '80s SF classic of which everything worth saying has already been said. Is it just nostalgia that makes the '80s the SF movie golden age for me?

Back to the Future is the quintessential '80s film. It's really the quintessence of the 80s, period. Take the adventure movie prototype of Lucas and Spielberg (the director, Robert Zemeckis, was a protoge of Spielberg, who also executive produced this film), add in Iranian terrorists, Reagan jokes, nostalgia for a "simpler time," Huey Lewis, yuppies and punks, and you've got the whole decade nicely summed up in under two hours. It's also incredibly fun.

If you've somehow missed the film, the film begins with Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), a cool, guitar-playing high schooler with an unhappy homelife. In the evenings, he works for mad scientist Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd, in the performance of a lifetime). When Doc Brown tries to show off his time machine (the Delorean, a futuristic-looking '80s novelty car). Muslim terrorists show up (of course!) and Marty ends up in 1955, where he meets his Mom and Dad in high school and things get weird.

The movie is fast-paced, funny, and exciting. Michael J. Fox is fantastic, as this week's surfaced footage of Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly has made me realize. I'm not sure that version would have worked, even though I like Stoltz.

I also enjoyed the film's two sequels, whose reputations are not quite as solid. For me, this is part of the holy trinity of '80s trilogies alongside Indiana Jones and Star Wars.

Grade: A

Monday, October 11, 2010

1986 Hugo, 1985 Nebula - ENDER’S GAME by Orson Scott Card

There comes a time in every adolescent boy’s life when he must read Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. Unfortunately, I did not read it until I was an adolescent boy of 30, which is far too late, I think, to appreciate it. Instead, to my too-mature sensibilities, it came off as a lame adolescent power-fantasy, and one with somewhat disturbing political implications to boot.

We’re back in the world of military sf, though rather than the shifting society and questionable war of the Vietnam-era Forever War, we’re back to distinct villains of Starship Troopers. In fact, there’s a lot of Heinlein here, including the villainous “bugs” (called "buggers" here) as enemies (lots of ambiguity comes in at the end, but it really comes very suddenly out of nowhere). Card even clarifies Heinlein’s metaphor by having both the “bugs” and the Soviets they were meant to represent as villains. The big difference is that rather than everyman marine Rico as our hero, we have super-genius, future commander, six-year-old Ender – the smartest, wisest, toughest, best-at-everythingest six-year-old you’ll ever see.

Most of the novel involves Ender’s training to become the perfect bug-killing machine as Earth prepares for a counter-attack against the invading pests. The Earth’s military commanders repeatedly throw increasingly ridiculous challenges at Ender while various bullies threaten his life (I wonder if the repetition here is the result of the fact that this novel started out as an acclaimed novella – it certainly reeks of padding). Ender, being the awesomest boy to ever live, overcomes it all. I understand now why the poor kids who got bullied the most in middle school would obsessively read this novel again and again. As a grown-up, it all comes off as morally simplistic, and I couldn’t see Ender’s amazingness as anything other than a shallow, ridiculous power-fantasy. You could argue that Card makes an effort to temper the power fantasy by making Ender regret much of what he does. He has to hurt and kill, and he has the ability to do both amazingly well, but he always regrets it. This really just adds to the power fantasy though – not only is Ender physically and mentally perfect, he’s also morally perfect! Oh, and since he’s morally perfect, if he commits genocide, it was surely justified, right? Scary.

I know this is a beloved classic. The final two chapters take some very interesting turns, and I’ll give Card credit for predicting the blogosphere (though all of the material with Enders’ siblings is even more ridiculous than Enders' own unblemished perfection). It’s certainly an easy read, and, as I said before, I understand the appeal to alienated and bullied young adults. But, to me, a not-so-alienated-or-bullied, over-thirty man who believes that no one is perfectly good or perfectly evil, this novel was both incredibly dull and somewhat disturbing in its single-mindedness and simplicity.

Grade: B

Friday, October 8, 2010

1985 Saturn Fantasy Award – LADYHAWKE

I thought this film would be worth a look because it’s really the first time a "sword and sorcery" film has won this prize since the award;s 1975 inception (when The Golden Voyages of Sinbad won). Considering how much that genre dominates speculative fiction, I find it interesting that it has not fared as well in film, outside of The Lord of the Rings films.

Ladyhawke begins with a young thief named Mouse (Matthew Broderick), who escapes from a dungeon under the thumb of the cruel Bishop of Aquilla. He is saved from the Bishop’s guards by a strong knight named Navarre (Rutger Hauer). During the day, he journeys with Navarre and his hawk, but at night Navarre seems to disappear, and he meets Isabeau (Michelle Pfeiffer) who is shadowed by a large wolf. There’s a curse involved – figure it out.

Overall, it’s an interesting premise, and everything but the score has aged pretty well (but, wow, is it an awful score – cheesy, new wave-inflected synthesizer work by the Alan Parsons Project). Producer/Director Richard Donner of the first two Superman films had a solid budget to work with, and the production values are pretty high as a result; the twelfth century European setting feels gritty and real. The dialogue is wooden (I think that’s expected in fantasy films for whatever reason), and I don’t buy Rutger Hauer as a leading man. It’s not the greatest film I’ve ever seen, but it’s pleasantly diverting, and in the shallow field of sword and sorcery films, it looks solid.

Grade: B

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

1985 World Fantasy Award (tie) – BRIDGE OF BIRDS by Barry Hughart

Bridge of Birds tied with Mythago Wood for the World Fantasy Award in 1985. There are interesting comparisons, but they are two dramatically different novels. Hughart’s work actually addresses one of my pet peeves about fantasy novels – the fact that they draw so heavily on medieval European tropes – by setting his work in seventh century China and drawing heavily upon Chinese folktales to tell his fantasy adventure (with a heavy comedic element).

Tragedy strikes the small village of Ku-fu when all of its children accidentally ingest poison while cultivating silk worms; they are all completely paralyzed and doomed to a slow death unless an improbable cure can be found. The young Number Ten Ox is tasked with hiring a sage to help solve the problem, and he gets the century old Li Kao at a discount because the sage has a slight flaw in his character. Li Kao is extremely amusing and fun, as he concocts elaborate multi-stage plans to find a powerful ginseng root. These plans usually involve an elaborate con game to gain a small fortune followed by a confrontation with a cruel and powerful Chinese autocrat that leaves Number Ten Ox and Li Kao in an impossible bind that they somehow escape. Eventually, the novel turns into a very fast-paced and elaborate quest.

It can read a bit like China’s greatest hits from a very western point of view. It doesn’t feel of China. For instance, Ku-fu has a piece of the Great Wall next to it despite being hundreds of miles off course due to bureaucratic mistake. Why? Because it’s China (and because it’s a funny story). But even if it does not feel one-hundred percent authentic, it does seem solidly researched, and it captures the mood of Chinese folktales quite well.

Another slight complaint would be the lack of strong female characters - they do tend to be either beautiful and vapid or mean and shrewish. It’s not incredibly egregious, and I probably wouldn’t have even noticed that if I hadn’t just read Mythago Wood, not to mention the super-macho Amber books I’ve been working my way through for a future review. It’s been a while now since I’ve seen a strong female character in one of these novels. Overall, though, this novel was great fun.

Grade: B+

Monday, October 4, 2010

1985 World Fantasy Award (tie), 1984 BSFA - MYTHAGO WOOD by Robert Holdstock

Robert Holdstock passed away last November, and this novel’s success and influence within the fantasy genre garnered a lot of remarks on many of the sites I frequent at the time. Based on the cover to my addition, I sort of expected this to be a high fantasy/sword and sorcery novel. Instead, I was surprised to find a lot of precursors to the urban fantasy of the likes of Neil Gaiman.

The novel is narrated by Stephen Huxley, a British World War II veteran who returns to his family’s estate in the late 1940s after his father’s death. Huxley’s father was an Oxford professor who had spent most of Stephen’s youth exploring the nearby Ryhope Wood and spinning magnificent fantasies about the forest. Stephen finds that his brother Christian has become similarly obsessed, and he is drawn into the mystery of the wood himself when he finds a shallow grave with a woman’s corpse on the grounds and meets a beautiful young warrior woman named Guiwenneth. Ryhope Wood, it turns out, is a magical forest that warps space and time where embodiments of British myth – called Mythago – dwell. Eventually, Stephen enlists a Royal Air Force veteran named Harry Keeton to mount an expedition into the wood to find the warrior woman with whom he has fallen in love.

Mythago Wood is very well-written and the narrator has a compelling voice. The first half really drew me in with some intriguing mysteries and a well-established mood. Harry Keeton is a fantastic character – a stoic Brit who puts on a brave face as he challenges the unfathomable Wood. I really like Holdstock’s choice to set this so close to the war and populate it with veterans; the horrors of the war subtly hang over everything that happens here, and the escapism of the Wood contrasts with and parallels the conflict. However, as the characters unraveled the mysteries of Ryhope Wood, I found the place less and less interesting. The idea of embodied myths certainly has potential, but the metaphysical workings of the place killed a lot of the tension for me – once we learn that the Wood is shaped by human thoughts, its rules can shift dramatically, and the outcome is predestined…well, there’s not much suspense left at that point.

Also, I was left unsatisfied by the central romance with Guiwenneth. As a Mythago, she is the embodiment of fantasies…apparently male fantasies. She’s big, strong, beautiful, young…and that’s about all we get from her. She’s free of the encumbrances of personality or agency, which makes the characters’ obsession with her slightly disturbing. Since so much of the novel turns on Stephen’s quest for his love, the shallow physicality of that passion undercut the drama. It’s even more bothersome that Guiwenneth is really the only female character in the book. I know the sequel follows Keeton’s sister, so I could easily imagine Holdstock redeeming himself on the gender front, but I felt the lack of a real, believable female presence in this novel.

Grade: B

Friday, October 1, 2010

1985 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation - 2010

2001 was a masterpiece that transcended genre. 2010, on the other hand, is just a decent science fiction film. Kubrick’s film certainly didn’t need a sequel, and it has a perfectly ambiguous ending. But, Arthur C. Clarke had continued the story, so I guess you can’t blame MGM for commissioning this film. Someone decided, quite wisely, not to emulate the visual style of Kubrick’s film - Peter Hynes (future director of Timecop!) certainly should not have tried, so 2010 is much more conventional.

It is the distant future year of 2010 AD. I know it may be hard to imagine what life will be like in that far off time, but I’m sure this movie is quite close with its depiction of a manned Soviet mission to Jupiter. Okay, so this film fails pretty bad as futurism. It does feel a bit closer than 2001, as it lacks that movie’s super-clean space station and collarless future-suits. The computers look quite a bit worse though; a big step back from HAL, who looked like he could be an Apple product with his simple sleek design. It’s odd that they thought we would have a sophisticated AI by the start of the twenty-first century, but computer screens would only have a couple dozen pixels.

The plot connects a great deal to the first film. The Soviets and Americans are both launching missions to investigate the disappearance of Discovery (which obviously never reported back between HAL’s hijinks and Dave’s journey into the LSD-monolith). The Soviets have a head start with a mission commanded by Tanya Kirbuk (Helen Mirren), but they agree to take on three Americans: Heywood Floyd (Roy Shneider), an expert on the ship named Dr. Curnow (an oft-hyperventilating John Lithgow), and HAL’s programmer Dr. Chandra (who’s supposed to be Indian, but ‘80s films didn’t take Indians seriously – see Short Circuit – so they cast Bob Balaban instead). They make it out to Jupiter and begin to investigate the fate of Discovery’s crew, HAL’s malfunction, and some odd occurrences on the icy moon of Europa. We already know the answers to the first two mysteries, so things can feel a bit pointless at times. But, there are some good effects - a nice spacewalk scene over to Discovery, for instance, and there is a great ending that almost makes It all worthwhile.

I haven’t mentioned yet that all ‘80s science fiction movies have to have annoying synthesizers in the score (unless Spielberg or Lucas is involved – they can get John Williams). We get it in Blade Runner, Terminator, and now 2010. You can imagine the though-process that went into this: “ooh, synthesizers sound like the future!” No, they sound like the ‘80s.

Hard sf films about space travel are pretty rare when you think about it, so I see why Hugo voters went for this one. It’s a decent sequel to an amazing film with some nice moments of its own, especially in the final fifteen minutes. In hindsight though, it’s pretty obvious that Terminator was more important, influential, and just plain better.

Grade: B