Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Monday, June 28, 2010
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.
Friday, June 25, 2010
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.
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.
Monday, June 21, 2010
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 ingénues 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.
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.
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
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.
Monday, June 14, 2010
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.
Friday, June 11, 2010
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.
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).
Thursday, June 10, 2010
Wednesday, June 9, 2010
Monday, June 7, 2010
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.
Friday, June 4, 2010
2010 Hugo nominee, graphic fiction: Fables Vol 12: The Dark Ages Written by Bill Willingham; Pencilled by Mark Buckingham (Vertigo)
Thursday, June 3, 2010
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
Tuesday, June 1, 2010
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.