Thursday, December 22, 2011

2006 Hugo for Dramatic Pres., Short Form – “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances,” DOCTOR WHO

The original Doctor Who ran on BBC from 1963-1989. The premise, if you’re somehow unfamiliar with it, is that an alien Time Lord steals a time machine, called the TARDIS (forever stuck in its camouflage as a 1960s London police box) and travels randomly through space and time with various companions.  When an actor wants to retire, the Doctor “regenerates” into a new body with a slightly different personality.  It was originally conceived as an educational children’s show with alternating history lessons (travels to the past) and science lessons (sf stories), but the producers quickly dropped that premise when campy adventure stories (usually involving the alien-mutant-cyborg Daleks) garnered big ratings. The show ran forever, and became iconic in the UK. As I understand it, Doctor Who in the UK is a lot like Star Trek in the US – pretty much everyone watched it at some point as a kid and gets the basic references, but fandom is considered a sure sign of extreme geekiness.  From my internet experiences, I’d say that Trekkies have nothing on hardcore British Who fans.

Also, camp.  The show operated on cheap BBC budgets, and us full of campy effects and overacting.  This is what many people love about the show, but it’s a real challenge to any modern version. A 1996 revival coproduced by Fox tried to decampify the show and failed miserably.  Their only success was hiring Paul McGann to play the Doctor.  Russell T. Davies produced this 2005 revival, now past its sixth season, and he does a decent job making the show modern, integrating some of the season arc and character arc formats of Buffy for instance, while keeping some classic elements (even, occasionally, veering into embarrassing camp).

This is the first time ever that Doctor Who received a Hugo nomination.  I guess that’s not all that surprising – classic Who was shown too inconsistently on PBS for the show to gain a solid US fan base, even among WorldCon types – but I’m still surprised the likes of "City of Death," a classic episode written by Douglas Adams, didn’t get a nod. Even if WorldCon hadn’t created a Short Form category, I think some episodes of the revival would have won the Dramatic Pres. Hugo.  The first season of the revival, starring Christopher Eccleston, got three episodes nominated and beat out the hugely popular Battlestar Galactica.

First, the other nominated episodes: “Dalek” is the last good episode starring the Doctor’s most arch-nemesii fascist cyborgs. The premise of the new series is that the Time Lords and Daleks have wiped each other out in a massive “Time War.” In this episode, the Doctor meets the “last surviving Dalek” (so far…) in the collection of an eccentric American billionaire in 2012 (the distant future!), which makes for a fairly tense confrontation. It nicely avoids all of the excesses of many Dalek episodes and actually manages to ask some decent moral questions about how the Doctor should deal with a terrible foe that’s been laid low.

“Father’s Day” was written by Paul Cornell, a fan favorite, and it deals with the consequences of wanton timestream altering. The Doctor changes history in almost every episode, but this time his companion tries to alter her own past by saving her father in front of her own eyes and creates a wound in time. Everyone around ends up hunted by creatures in a weird time loop.  The soundtrack sounds ridiculously cheap, and the monsters are some pretty bad cgi (though the design is interesting), but it’s still a very strong episode.  The key is that it’s character-centered – most of the episode is taken up by characters chatting while holed up in a cathedral. It also adds a great deal of depth to the family of the Doctor’s new companion, Rose – something that the classic series never bothered with.

Finally, the two-part winner: “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances.” Of course, Steven Moffat’s first Doctor Who episode wins a Hugo. As usual with Moffat, there’s a lot going on here; the episode introduces rogue time agent Captain Jack Harkness from the 31st century, who leads the Doctor and Rose to London during the Blitz. Once there, they meet a group of street urchins who take advantage of the blitz to find food, and they discover a weird alien plague that possesses people then makes them grow a gas mask over their face and wander around saying “are you my Mommy?”  Yes, creepy. It ends with a surprisingly redemptive moment that is a nice change of pace in what’s a fairly bleak season and really pushes the episode to the best of the season.

As for the season overall, it has its ups and downs, but it’s generally pretty strong. As I mentioned, some of the cgi is dodgy, and the music can be quite awful (recorded with a lone Casio?), but the scripts are solid, and the increased character focus and inter-episode continuity are welcome improvements on the original series. As for Christopher Eccleston, I think fan consensus is that he’s not as good as his successor, but he did a great job at the time. I, on the other hand, actively dislike him. He’s probably one of my least favorite Doctors. Eccleston plays the Doctor as manic, cranky, and he wears a broad grin at odd times. Overall, these choices make the Doctor a bit edgier and more alien, which I appreciate on an intellectual level, but find off-putting in practice. I can’t say that Eccleston played the part wrong; I just didn’t particularly like it personally. And that drags the season down a bit for me.

Grades: Dalek: B+
          Father’s Day: A-
     Empty Child/Doctor Dances: A-

             Season 1 Overall: B

And now...I'm on a break for a week or two.
Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

2006 Locus SF – ACCELERANDO by Charles Stross

Am I really supposed to take this singularity thing seriously?  Really?  Advanced AIs and a proposal to Von Neumann factory the moon out of existence, set in the 2010s? Like theology, the sort of techno-optimism that proponents of singularity back is fun to talk about, but it can quickly and effortlessly segue into the ridiculous. Stross’s saving grace is that he doesn’t seem to take the singularity seriously either. I get the impression that he is a believer, but this novel is about 30% serious speculation and 70% running wild with speculative concepts. I do like that Accelerando embraces the ridiculous. I just wish it had embraced plot and character with equal fervor.

This is especially true in the first part, where we have at least some contemporary reference points to ground us. The novel begins with Manfred Macx, a man filled to the brim with tech ideas, but, due to a general dislike of wealth, he usually gives them away to make other people rich. He also has a lot of conflicts with his dominatrix/wife Pamela. He helps to kick off the rapid push towards singularity by sending software copies of lobster brains that have collectively achieved intelligence into space. From there, we get this accelerating technology developing through singularity. Stross occasionally interjects with a summation of the latest changes; by the 2030s, the solar system and the human lifecycle begin to become unrecognizable. From there we get a generational epic. Manfred’s daughter Amber explores an alien wormhole network, his grandson Sirhan works with other family members to try to find an independent niche in the new solar system, copies of the original generation pop up, and the family robocat, Aineko, has a fairly big role to play in everything.

Where does all this wacky speculation leave character and plot? Nowhere to be found, really, as might be fairly obvious from that vain stab at summarizing them. Manfred has some presence (though even he’s straight out of a Warren Ellis comic). Everyone is either so dull, on the one hand, or so wild unpredictable, on the other, that I couldn’t really tell you anything about them. The fact that there’s no plot is underlined by the fact that there’s no end. Maybe the sequel Glasshouse carries things to a more satisfying conclusion, but this novel just peters out.

Also, going back to our old accessibility discussion, this book . . . no. Not at all. Stross throws out concepts at a dizzying speed, and he rarely stops to explain them. Do you know what a Von Neumann machine is? A Matrioshka brain? I did, but I barely kept up. I don’t really see the reason to not define terms like these. One of the great things about sf is the “sense of wonder,” and I guess that’s what Stross is shooting for with this assault of Big Ideas. However, Big Ideas have dimishing returns, as far as I’m concerned, and the Idea-per-page highwire act in this book got boring for me by the mid-point. When the characters spend all of their time discussing how much computing power there is in the solar system and how very impressive that is, it’s hard to care about anything.

A whole lot of writers in this decade, and, from what I’ve seen, Stross may be the worst offender, are working to make science fiction a more insular conversation. If you don’t have a solid grounding in foundational texts and you don’t follow the right science news sites, don’t bother showing up. And people wonder why readers are turning to fantasy and steampunk?

So, if you are the type of reader who’s up-to-date on sf terms and concepts, especially relating to the singularity, and you’re more interested in Big Ideas and being amused than plot and character, I think you’ll have a great time with this book. Obviously, lots of readers have. Otherwise, go nowhere near it.

Grade: C+

Monday, December 19, 2011

2006 Clarke and 2005 BSFA – AIR by Geoff Ryman

The last time I read Ryman (1989’s The Child Garden), I enjoyed the work quite a bit, but I was somewhat put off by his combination of a very sincere and warm humanism with bleak subject matter. Well, I have much the same to say about Air.

In 2020, the world is prepared to install a global wireless system that links directly into people’s minds, called “Air.” It sounds like a pretty great technological development, but when it comes to some of the more isolated areas in the world, areas like Ryman’s fictional central Asian republic of Karzistan, where villagers have little exposure to tv, let alone the internet-in-the-brain, the people are not ready. The first test is disastrous, leading to many deaths throughout rural Karzistan, including two in Kizuldah, the village that Ryman focuses on. Chung Mae is a middle aged fashion consultant in the village, and she gets trapped in Air during the test and has one of the test’s victims fused into her brain. But, she comes out of the experience determined to prepare her fellow villagers for the changes to come. A variety of forces within the village oppose her at different turns, due to petty jealousies and some controversial behavior on her part, but she continues to succeed with big heapings of peasant pluck.

In this era of expanding internet and globalization, it’s certainly a timely story, and Ryman has a lot of fascinating ideas on the subject. It’s a great topic for a book, and Ryman’s heroic humanism is well-suited to the setting – we see each of the villagers' hidden strengths and flaws, and even when they seem to be acting incredibly stupidly or viciously, Ryman gives us believable and even relatable motives for their actions. On that level, the novel works quite well.

The village does feel a little too perfect perhaps, and I do suspect that Ryman oversells central Asian isolation, if only by a little. I don’t think I’d call the book patronizing, but it can get…cutesy. Ryman also can’t help but get into some surrealistic and absurd imagery. It’s dialed way back from The Child Garden, but it’s still there (especially in one very bizarre plotline that I won’t give away), and it clashed with the social realism of the setting and its problems. Maybe Ryman’s shooting for magical realism, but the balance just doesn’t seem right, even if that’s case.

Still, it’s a well-written book with intriguing and relevant themes, and Chung Mae is a fascinating character. There’s a lot to recommend the book, I just felt like there was some clutter (and a pretty slow beginning to boot).

Grade: B

Thursday, December 15, 2011

2006 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation, Long Form – SERENITY

Firefly ended with a whimper in December 2002 when Fox finally broadcast the pilot.  Yippee.  Just in time.  The last episode produced was a very well-made, tense episode written and directed by Joss Whedon and full of existentialist philosophy.  It’s good, but not much of an ending, especially since a guest star steals most of the scenes from the regular cast.  Luckily, Firefly did well enough on DVD that Universal gave Whedon the chance to make a feature length film that wraps things up quite nicely.

The differences from the regular series are rather dramatic.  The lighting is better, the effects are superior, and the stakes are higher.  Generally, all of these changes are for the better…though there’s now sound in space battles.  The film dives into the central unresolved plotline of the series: what exactly has the Alliance government done to the girl River, and what will be her and her brother’s fates as runaways from the powerful interplanetary government.  The government hires an assassin (the excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor) to track River down, and he draws her out by triggering her to beat up a bar full of people.  Mal and the Serenity crew go on the run, and stumble upon a secret colony and hints about the origins of the brutal, mindless Reavers that plague space.  It’s fast-paced and full of action.  On its own, the fact that character moments tend to be overwhelmed by the fighting and the chasing and the shooting and the stabbing would be a problem.  But, as the pay-off of an entire season of a character-focused show, it’s perfect.

So, it’s a great capstone.  I know a lot of people who have watched the film without the show and enjoyed it find, but I think it comes off best as an over-sized, bigger-than-television series finale for a show that clearly deserved one.  It’s not perfect – there are a few clichéd absurdities (people always live long enough to give a dying speech; an impossible to reach piece of equipment straight out of Galaxy Quest), but I found them pretty easy to overlook.  My only real problem with Serenity is that there’s no more material with these characters (well, except for some comics).

Grade: A

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

2006 Nebula - SEEKER by Jack McDevitt

It says a lot that I often feel obligated to explore the motives of the SFWA committee that chooses the Nebula winner. In this case, we have a novel that’s about as standard as could be, and I’m tempted to say that the SFWA is rewarding an older author for being a good member of the community…

Seeker is the third novel following the adventures of daring space archaeologist Alex Benedict.  It's narrated by his assistant, interstellar pilot Chase Kopath (I'm not sure if she narrates the other novels or not).  Alex and Chase are space archaeologists and artifact dealers.  They discover a plastic cup that may be a relic of a 9000 year old lost colony, and Chase has to follow a number of leads to track the cup back to its origin - the colony ship Seeker.  If Alex and Chase can find the colony, they'll make a fortune, but along the way they must contend with rival archaeologists, the family of the survey team that found the cup and hid it existence, the brutish robber who last possessed the cup, and the telepathic alien "mutes" who unwittingly have a important clue.

From top to bottom, this novel just screams genre.  There's the simple, propulsive prose with some noir stylings.  There's the formulaic, linear plot, in which each encounter yields a clue that advances the investigation.  There are the required action scenes, that exist for no particular plot reasons.  There are mysterious sub-plots, and even over-the-top villains, whose violent tendencies clash a bit with their staid occupations and idealistic aims.  The setting is simple but rich with possibilities for action and mystery stories; just take an interstellar republic 10,000 years or so in the future, add simple faster-the-light travel, and stir in an alien race and lots of artifacts. It's really right out of the golden age.  And, you've seen all of the plot elements before too.  It's genre fiction through and through.

And, there's nothing wrong with that.  The plot is interesting enough (though maybe a bit too predictable), and who doesn’t enjoy the archaeologist-adventurer character?  And, it’s got a great structure, where each episode in the plot moves the mystery forward and adds a new hook. On the other hand, the characters are dull as bricks.  Alex is a cipher here, Chase is generic, the villains are awful and inexplicable, and the ancillary characters are straight out of the stock genre file. There isn’t much in the way of ideas either.  We get some discussion of Earth’s dicey political fate over the millennia to come, and the utopianism of the lost colony adds a little spice.  Meanwhile, we also get some simplistic demonization of cultural protection movements in the artifact trade…which seems like a big fight to pick in an adventure novel.  

All in all, I was entertained, but I’ve come to expect more from these award winners.  This might have felt newer sometime before Gateway…but that was thirty years earlier.  I had some issues with Spin, but it’s operating on a whole other level.  The Nebula slate this year (which is, unusually, completely different from the Hugo slate) looks pretty thin anyway, so I guess I'm glad McDevitt got the recognition.

Grade: B-

Sunday, December 11, 2011

2006 Hugo – SPIN by Robert Charles Wilson

There’s a recent trend in science fiction to push further and to go bigger that goes along with Big Ideas like singularity.  Why worry about life in a thousand years, when we can imagine a billion years in the future?  I have mixed feelings about this trend, but I think it’s fair to say that it’s not an approach that tends to spotlight character, which was never sf’s strong suit anyway.  In Spin, however, Wilson’s come up with a very ingenious way to tell a personal story that spans three billion years.

Our narrator is Tyler Dupree.  He grows up on the estate of an aerospace entrepreneur named E. D. Lawton, and hangs out with E. D.’s twin prodigies, Jason and Diane.  One evening in the early twentieth century, when they’re all adolescents, the stars go out.  It soon becomes clear that the Earth has been enveloped in a bubble by mysterious “hypothetical” forces.  The bubble protects the Earth and slows the passage of time within, so that millions, then billions, of years begin to fly by on the outside, in a phenomenon people call “spin.”  Unfortunately, this means that the sun’s death throes will destroy the Earth in decades rather than billions of years, and humanity has to contemplate its doom within a human lifespan.  Jason becomes a brilliant scientist and develops plans to understand and even fight the hypotheticals.  Diane joins a new strain of Christianity that devolves from neo-hippies to a millennium cult.  Tyler tries to live a quiet life as a doctor, but he loves Jason, he’s in love with Diane, and he keeps being drawn into their struggles with the spin.  This is my second Wilson novel…and the second one with a narrator slavishly devoted to a smarter, better, yet aloof hero.  I don’t know if this is a device Wilson is overly fond of, or a personal issue for him.

There are obviously big sf ideas here.  Besides the spin itself, Jason’s plans usually involve using the time differential to jumpstart technology.  His coolest plan involves seeding Mars with life and seeing what a few million years of evolution can pull off.  Nevertheless, it is really a character-focused story, as we spend all of our time with Jason, and we hear as much about the Lawtons’ familial disputes as we do about Martian super-technology.  The problem is that I didn’t like the characters all that much.  Tyler is defined almost entirely by his relationship to the Lawtons, Jason is obsessed with solving the spin to the exclusion of all else, and Diane is so damn frustrating.  I have sympathy for people who are victimized by cults, but I think I’d find it a bit of a turn off.  Cult-Diane treats Tyler terribly and herself even worse, and there’s nothing here to give any indication as to why the narrator is so in love with her.

So, kudos to Wilson for spotlighting character drama over Big Ideas, but, unfortunately, I enjoyed the Big Ideas a lot more than the character drama in this specific novel.  I still liked it overall though.

Grade: B+

Thursday, December 8, 2011


Let me start by making three points: 1) I’m glad that the Saturn Awards gave me this opportunity to discuss the Star Wars prequels, and thus round out my Star Wars coverage.  As much as I complain in the following review, I am well aware that I inflicted this upon myself.  2)  Lots of people, including rambling, misanthropic serial killers, have already covered what’s wrong with these movies, in incredible depth, so you might as well skip my thoughts.  3) Before you skip this, however, you should know that I got quite buzzed before rewatching/blogging this movie.  I’ve had four beers, and I’m sipping brandy from here on out (“beer before liquor, you’re in the clear”!  Right?)  I’m not claiming that I’m blogging Sith drunk….but I kind of am.  I’m “semi-live-blogging it buzzed,” at least.  Also, note that I’m too drunk to care about spoilers for once.

These opening space battle shots above Coruscant are pretty darn cool…

So, yes, I think I’ve made it clear that I like the original trilogy (episodes 4-6), a not-so-controversial opinion, at least until the Ewoks show up.  The prequel trilogy, which George Lucas gave us in 1999, 2002, and 2005, on the other hand, is utter crap.  Again, this is not a controversial opinion.  When Episode I: The Phantom Menace came out in 1999, everyone felt obliged to love it for a couple of months, then collectively realized that it was awful.  To this day, I’d say it still stands as one of the worst science fiction films ever made.  Three things, in particular, made it awful: 1) Comedy slapstick racist-against-Jamaicans cgi alien Jar-Jar Binks, 2) crappy child actor Darth Vader saves the day, and 3) midi-chlorians, a pseudo-sciency explanation for Jedi manipulation of the formerly-New-Age concept of the Force.  There was a really cool light-sabre battle in there, and someone tried to save it with the so-called “Phantom Edit;” my personal “Phantom Edit” would probably be about 15 minutes long and would be all Qui-Gon/Darth Maul/Natalie Portman-looking-pretty.   All three of the original trilogy won Hugos and Saturns; the prequel trilogy received this one Saturn and nary a Hugo nomination.

Ugh, Hayden Christensen acting is really ruining this opening space battle.

2002’s Episode II, the awesomely-named-if-it-had-been-ironic-but-it-wasn’t-so-it’s-terriblly-named Attack of the Clones was a fair sight better, and had some genuinely cool action sequences.  Unfortunately, the whole thing leans rather heavily on the love story between Anakin Skywalker (Christensen) and Padme Amidala (Natalie “super-awesome-Oscar-winning-actress-clearly-slumming-it” Portman).  At least one of these two is an amazing actor, but both of them come off as more wooden than a duck decoy [I’ve lived in Minnesota too long].  I blame George Lucas, who directs actors about as well as he writes dialogue (ie, not very well).  After all of this, we’ve barely started on the path to episode IV.  Anakin still needs to knock up his girl with twins, turn into Darth Vader, fight his teacher Obi-wan, and betray the Jedi order….which leaves a lot of ground for Episode III.

Which brings us to this film, Episode III, released in 2005.  Padme is pregnant, Anakin is nervous about said pregnancy, and is being manipulated by Senator Palpatine, whom we all know to be the main villain of the whole series.  Meanwhile, Anakin and his teacher, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan MacGregor, the one actor able to come out of these movies looking halfway decent) are knee-deep in the clone wars, in which a separatist alliance using slapstick-loving droids fights the Republic’s clone army, which came from some complicated and conspicuously-unresolved plot-point in the second movie.  This film begins with a major battle between Anakin and Obi-Wan and separatist generals Grevious (cgi) and Dooku (Hammer Horror/LoTR alum Christopher Lee).  Then, Anakin worries that his secret wife Natalie Portman will die birthing Mark Hammill and Carrie Fisher, which allows Palpatine to manipulate him.

Which is where I am in the film right now.  Blah blah blah; talkie talkie.  “I wanna be on the Jedi Council, wah!” whines the future Darth Vader.  I guess we know where Luke “I was gonna go to Tashi Station to get some power converters, wah!” Skywalker gets it, at least.

I need more brandy.

At the time, the  commentary on the Bush administration (fear leads to totalitarianism!) felt rather significant.  In hindsight…not so much.  Bush’s approval ratings were already in steep decline in mid-2005, and they never recovered.  The one aspect of this film that made it seem more relevant than the others sort of faded away in hindsight.

 I still think this is the best of the three prequels, but it does have four clear problems.  None is as prevalent as the many crippling issues of Episode One or the one fatal flaw (love story fail) of Episode Two, but they add up to another failure.

There are angry drunks.  There are sad drunks.  Apparently, I’m a list-making drunk.  On a side note, a special thanks to spell-checker for making me seem more sober.

Problem #1: Continuity.  This is the nerdiest complaint, but I think it says a lot about Lucas’s lack of planning and general pandering. Why are R2-D2 and C3PO in these movies?  Why is Chewbacca in this one?  Their presence seems to contradict some of what we see in the original films, so why include them at all?  Hint: it’s not because they further plot or character in any way.

Problem #2: Pacing:  Taken individually, beyond its contribution to the Star Wars mythos, the film’s greatest sin is that it just sort of plods along.  Most of what we get is foreordained by the original trilogy, so a lot of this is just filler, especially Obi-Wan’s entire second-act-dominating battle with Grevious.  And then there’s that really long third-act battle between Yoda and Palpatine, which would’ve been pretty unimaginable in 1982, but looks mostly like cgi-dreck today.

Okay, switching to wine so that I don’t pass out.

Problem #3: Sad, pathetic Vader: Darth Vader is probably the most fascinating character of the original trilogy.  His origin should have been very interesting, but Chistensen gives a very whiny performance that undermines the whole character.  Even the dark moments – the previous movie’s Sand-Person genocide and this movie’s Jedi-child-killing – come off as moments of weakness rather than moments of rage or evil.  And his journey here is all over the place as he bounces aimlessly between Palpatine and Master Samuel L. Jackson.  In no way does this version of the character live up to what we saw in the original trilogy.
Of course, the worst moment has nothing to do with Christensen:

Problem #4: Women are sad, sad, emotional trainwrecks: The original trilogy gave us one of the great female characters in sf in Princess Leia.  When she’s “rescued” by Han and Luke, she immediately grabs a gun, kills a bunch of storm-troopers, and takes control of the situation.  Sure, she ends up in a metal bikini in Jedi, but even then, she gets to kill Jabba and play a key role in the final mission on Endor.  Meanwhile, Padme dies of… heartbreak?!  Over Hayden Christensen’s Anakin???? Pathetic and insulting.  This bothers me most of all.

Let me end on a positive note.  The plots of the prequel trilogy are astonishingly lame, but the world that Lucas creates is pretty rich.  I think it’s unintentional, but the lush, colorful, slapstciky world of the prequels ends up being a rather nice contrast to the stark authoritarian world of the original trilogy (especially if you can manage to get the non-adulterated-special-edition versions).  It used to be a world of silly cgi Jar-Jars, and became a world of dirty space-bars and crappy-spaceships.  In other words, the colorful, silly, kid-friendly world of the prequels can actually make the original trilogy better in contrast.  Also, if you look at Genndy Tartakovsky’s prequel era cartoons, which are actually really great, mostly dialogue-free takes on the era from the creator of Samurai Jack and Powerpuff Girls, I think you really get an idea of the potential here.  The world Lucas creates is a lot better than the films themselves, and it still adds to a rich mythos.

So tired….


Phantom Menace: F

Attack of the Clones: C-

Revenge of the Sith: C-

Sunday, December 4, 2011

2005 Arthur C. Clarke and Locus Fantasy – IRON COUNCIL by China Miéville

I’m going to warn readers in advance that this review might dance the edge of spoilers. I’m not going to say much that you can’t get from reading the front and back cover, but Mieville writes this novel as if everything is a giant mystery.  The entire first part involves a group of characters searching for a mysterious someone.  Who is it?  Mieville won’t say!  It’s mysterious.  And then, you finally discover that it’s…Judah Low, a new character.  There’s a similar tease and reveal with the “Iron Council.” I think these sorts of mysteries for mystery’s sake are good examples of what’s annoyed me about Mieville’s earlier works.  That said, as a whole, I liked this novel much better than the two previous novels set on the Weird world of Bas-Lag.

As I said, a group of adventurers from New Crobuzon are off in the wilderness looking for Judah Low. Among them is Judah’s lover Cutter, who exhibits some of the greatest character depth I’ve seen from Mieville so far. There’s not much more to him than his obsession with Judah, but Mieville handles that with a defter touch than I’ve seen in the previous works.  Judah, in turn, is looking for the Iron Council, a revolutionary collective of former rail workers who stole the entire railroad (it’s sort of a stretch, but a fun one, and this is Bas-Lag we’re talking about). Judah can create magical golems, and he was one of the heroes of the revolution that created the Iron Council, which is narrated in the novel’s driving, exciting centerpiece. Judah left the Iron Council to connect with protest movements in New Crobuzon, but he now wants to return. Meanwhile, we also get the story of a brewing revolution in the city itself that parallels some of the history of the Paris Commune. We follow one of the revolutionaries named Ori, who has to navigate some conflicting motives from some of the movements’ leaders. Disenchanted with an ongoing war with the Tesh, and sick of the city government’s brutal oppression, the people rise up, and look to the fabled Iron Council’s return as their best hope of victory.

This is the first time that the story of a Bas-Lag novel felt big enough to match the majesty of the setting and epic enough to befit the significant page-length. Mieville is no longer dancing around the themes he cares about with obfuscated mutant bug metaphors; he’s a Marxist, and this book is about revolution.  It can be heavy-handed at times, and I’m not sure I’d agree with all of Mieville’s politics, but it really does feel like THE story he’s been trying to tell. The word “history” echoes through the book, replete with all of the teleological connotations of Mieville’s beliefs – is it the inexorable expansion of industrial capitalism, represented by the octopus-like tentacles of rail, or is it the march to a workers’ utopia? Mieville uses these question as a backdrop that, most importantly, heightens the character drama, something that I felt was missing from The Scar and Perdido Street Station.

That’s not to say that this novel solves all of the problems of its predecessors.  I’m not positive that Cutter and Jonah and their laconic love story, are that much richer than Bellis or Isaac.  Maybe they just felt that way to me because I enjoyed the plot more. And, I did not connect to Ori, who did feel as passive and immaterial as the characters of the earlier books. The worst offender is Drogon, a susurrating vaquero.  He has magical powers based on whispers, which is pretty cool, and his ranch-hand get-up adds to the vaguely western feel of portions of the book, but he doesn’t contribute much else.  He arrives, makes a big splash with his power and aesthetic, and then disappears until he has a role to play at the end. It seems that Mieville has to force every bit of weirdness into Bas-Lag that he can; no need to develop the ideas into a coherent world/plot/character.  I’m starting to suspect that I preferred The City & The City because the clarity and focus of the central concept forced Mieville to develop things a bit more, and maybe the same can be said about this book as well. The Revolution at the book’s core gives it a stronger structure and message than the bug hunt of Perdido Street Station or the vague unfinished quest of The Scar.  I’m certainly not one to complain about a new twist on fantasy, but I have to declare Bas-Lag a slight disappointment.  There’s a lot of new, but still not as much of the depth I’m looking for in fantasy world-building.

Grade: B+

Friday, December 2, 2011

2005 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation, Short Form – “33,” BATTLESTAR GALACTICA

Following a successful SciFi Channel miniseries, this is the first episode of the ongoing remake of an early ‘80s Star Wars rip-off/cult classic.  Most fans think the series went off the rail in the last season, though a vocal minority liked it from start to finish.  I think I represent an even smaller minority that was never entirely smitten with a show that most would consider the decade’s finest sf on television. Whatever side of this debate you’re on, I don’t think there’s any question that “33” is a fantastic hour of television.

The Twelve Colonies (distant relatives of we humans) are recovering from a long war they fought with rebelling robot servants called cylons.  Then, the cylons launch a massive sneak attack, annihilating all of the twelve homeworlds.  Only about 50,000 humans survive in a small fleet of ships huddled around the titular space battleship (er, Battlestar) Galactica.

In this episode, the cylons pursue the fleet of survivors.  Every time the fleet makes a faster-than-light jump, it takes the cylons exactly 33 minutes to catch up.  It takes the fleet about that long to get ready between jumps…which means that everyone is pushed to their absolute limits just to tread water.  Ship crews have to scramble to get the jumps ready, and fighter pilots have to fight regular rear-guard actions to help them get away.  Everyone is pushed to edge of exhaustion (and sanity), which is just where this show likes to have its characters.  In order to buy themselves some breathing room, the characters have to make a terrible choice (as usual).  It’s an excellent introduction to the show’s themes and moods, even moreso than the preceding miniseries.

It’s easy to see why people loved the show.  First of all, it looks amazing, especially considering it has only a basic cable budget.  It borrows a few of the docu-style tricks from Firefly and benefits greatly from advances in computer graphics that make full cgi space battles and cylons look good.  This may be the best-looking sf tv show ever.  The show is full of fast-paced action, but also takes time for character moments.  Mary McDonnell, Edward James Olmos, and Katee Sackhoff all deliver wonderful performances as major characters President Roslyn, Admiral Adama, and Starbuck (though after that, the cast is a lot more uneven). There are big twists, dramatic character deaths, and compelling mysteries. And, Star Trek TNG and DS9 Ronald Moore veteran brings his signature exploration of social issues (especially religion and war) to the series.

Of course, for most viewers, things went awry in the end.  It’s fairly clear that the writers didn’t know all of the answers to the questions they raised, a problem that has been the downfall of great shows like The X-Files and Lost.*  The big mysteries get more complicated and more bizarre over time, and the writers lean on a massive deus ex machina to not only rescue the characters, but to explain what the hell is going on.  It’s amazing how many questions God and some hand-waiving can answer, but, boy, is it a lame answer.

Why was I down on the show even before it went off the rail?  There’s a lot about the show I did like;  the aforementioned effects, action, and plot twists kept me involved, but sometimes my netflixed DVDs would sit around for a few months unwatched.  I watched the entire series…eventually.  I have two issues with the series.  The first is maybe a little pedantic, but I think the Zodiac mythology is a needless holdover from first series.  This world is so like ours, and yet its prevented from referencing the rich history of our own world.  As a result, it always feels detached, unmoored, and yet overly familiar.  I would’ve preferred either a future setting or more development of this alien setting.  Plus, the “search for Earth” plotline opens up a Pandora’s Box of bs in the final run of episodes.  But, at least we learned that Bob Dylan songs transcend time and space.

A more serious problem with the series is the melodrama.  Oh, the melodrama!  There’s a fine line between high stakes character development and ridiculous highwire soap opera, and BSG dances over the line about once per episode.  Everyone’s a moody raging alcoholic, primed to rebel/go into a rage/have dirty, inappropriate sex/change religions/become suicidal/betray everyone/etc at a moment’s notice.  I enjoy the excitement that all this brings to the table, but there’s something to be said for subtlety.  And, as the overwrought moments piled up, it’s easy to lose track of who the characters really are.  The show was famous for amped up multi-part extravaganzas that CHANGED EVERYTHING a couple of times per season.  These were really fun, and delivered the vast majority of the show’s best moments.  But it became harder and harder to believe the eventual resets to the status quo at their conclusion.  It was all kind of exhausting.

So, it was never a contender for my favorite sf tv show, but I’ll give it credit for being often entertaining, and drawing a broader audience than most space operas.  It’s unfortunate that a golden age of space opera tv from the early ‘90s seemed to come to an end with BSG in 2009.

*I haven’t seen Lost, so I’m not personally attesting to that show’s downfall.  I do get a general sense of dissatisfaction from the fans though.  I don’t think anyone can argue that the overarching plot of The X-Files was in any way satisfying though.

Episode Grade: A

Series Grade: B

Sunday, November 27, 2011

2005 Nebula – CAMOUFLAGE by Joe Haldeman

An extremely resilient, shapeshifting, immortal alien evolves in a harsh interstellar environment then travels to Earth.  30,000 years ago, it landed and began to observe local life, living for thousands of years as a shark.  Finally, in 1931 it comes ashore and takes human form.  We follow this “changeling” over the following decades, as it takes many different human forms and comes to understand human emotions.  The great cornball sci-fi question, “what is love?” is actually uttered several times in the novel, though at least Haldeman has the good sense to couch it in literary allusions.  While we follow the changeling's history through the years, we also see the excavation of its ship in 2020, led by Russell Sutton, the man who raised the Titanic.

I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy this book.  Maybe it’s my love of history, but I’m a sucker for the “immortal experiences key events beyond a single lifespan” gimmick.  Haldeman is as good as anyone at depicting war from the soldier’s point of view, and there’s a very effective section on the Bataan Death March in the Phillippines during WWII.  That said, we’ve seen this before.  In fact, in this age of vampire dominance, we’ve seen it a lot.  I’m also a sucker for the “team of scientists try to understand unfathomable alien artifact” gimmick, which takes up most of the rest of the novel.  Again, we’ve seen it before, and we’ve seen it done better, but combining two basic plots I enjoy is probably not the recipe for a novel I’m going to hate.

It’s not necessarily the recipe for a novel that I’m going to love though.  The novel starts by combing some tried-and-true formulas, but it does go off on some tangents towards the end.  There’s an odd, and rather forced, love story.  Haldeman introduces another, unrelated, alien called the “Chameleon,” and I know he’s trying to draw a contrast between different views of humanity, but it really just feels like the Chameleon is just there so that there can be a fight at the novel’s climax.  There are extended descriptions of the elaborate lengths the Changeling has to go through to establish identities in the modern world. And, there’s a big twist that is so obvious that I was sure Haldeman was going for a fake out.

It’s a mildly entertaining, but flawed, novel.  It certainly doesn’t feel like an award-winner.  I think it’s fair to hold all of these award-winners up to a high standard, and to expect them to have high quality writing and bring new ideas or themes to the table; this one does not measure up.  This is Haldeman’s third Nebula.  Forever War is a classic in the core sf canon.  Forever Peace has some major issues, but it’s asking big questions and has some new ideas.  Camouflage is a workmanlike, derivative sf thriller.  Once again, I have no idea where the SFWA is coming from.

Grade: C+

Saturday, November 26, 2011

2005 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation, Long Form – THE INCREDIBLES

The Incredibles is the first Pixar movie (and the first Disney movie) to win the Hugo (through three of their five previous had been nominated), the first fully animated film, and the first superhero film. The rise of computer animation over the past decade is so obvious that it’s hardly worth mentioning, and we’ve already discussed superheroic domination of the summer blockbuster. The Hugos have sort of resisted these trends in their winners, but I guess the combination proved undeniable.

Mr. Incredible, one of America’s greatest superheroes, has a series of misadventures on his way to a wedding with another superhero, Elastigirl. He saves the day, but along the way he alienates the president of his fan club by denying him a sidekick role, and he wracks up a couple of lawsuits from a prevented suicide and a train crash. This opens a pandora’s box of superhero liability, and eventually the government steps in to pay legal fees in exchange for the superhero community going into collective retirement. Years later, Incredible and Elastigirl have settled into typical suburban lives. Their daughter can turn invisible and their son is superfast, but they try to prevent their children from using their powers in order to keep their cover. Mr. Incredible is restless though, and he jumps at a chance to do a special job fighting a robot on an isolated island. He gets back into the game, commissioning a new costume, but then uncovers a supervillain’s plot that draws his whole super-family into action.

At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon or a contrarian, I don’t like this movie as much as everyone else I know. Let me be clear, I like it. I like it a lot. I just don’t love it. It’s closer to the bottom of my personal Pixar rankings…which still puts it above most movies out there. I have two big problems of varying degrees of nitpickiness. Nitpickiest first: there’s a big part of me that wishes this were a Fantastic Four movie. The powers, and a lot of the set up, are straight out of the epic, genius sixties superhero-family comics of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The similarities are numerous enough to bother me (and the FF movies are awful – so unfair), but I know I should just get over this. My second problem, which I think is a more legitimate issue, is that the political message is really weird. Writer/director Brad Bird is claiming that society forces exceptional people to hide their talents, which feels a lot like a straw man to me. I don’t really see this problem in the world. The villain’s grudge is that he doesn’t have powers, and one of his threats is that he’ll distribute his magnificent inventions to the people to put them on par with people with superpowers. The inventions themselves seem to negate his grudge and keeping technology from the masses just so powered people can feel their full specialness just seems petty. I really don’t get it. I’m probably thinking about it a lot harder than I’m supposed to.

While I’m complaining about a universally beloved film, I’ll go all in and add that the animation is showing its age a bit. It looks fantastic, but the limits if the character animation and the static nature of some of the backgrounds go a long way to showing how quickly computer animation advances. It’s still dazzling and gorgeous, but more recent Pixar pics are even moreso.

Okay, now that I’ve got all that off my chest, I will say this is a very fun movie, and one of the best superhero films of all time. It does look great, despite being long-in-the-tooth in computer animation terms, and the character dynamics are interesting and rich. I would say that Eternal Sunshine should have won, and I also prefer Prisoner of Azkaban and Spider-Man 2. But these are four great films (the fifth nominee Sky Captain…not so much), so I’m not really complaining.

Grade: B+

Sunday, November 20, 2011

2005 Hugo and WFA – JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL by Susanna Clarke

Every now and then we get interesting little micro-trends popping up on this blog.  I wouldn’t have seen this one coming, but between the Baroque Cycle and this entry, it looks like English history mega-epics are all the rage in science fiction.

I’ve complained about historical fantasy before; it’s a great idea, but many authors give us the trappings (costumes, sets, a few cameos by famous historic personages) without capturing the feel of the period or bothering to contend with the era’s culture.  Clarke does not make that mistake.  This novel takes place in early nineteenth-century England, and it is steeped in the literature and history of the period.  The facts are accurate, even with the fantasy overlay, and the prose is light, modern, and fun while still paying tribute to the works of Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and other contemporary authors.  The Duke of Wellington, Lord Byron, and Mad King George III all pop by, but they don’t overshadow the book or spout their greatest hits; they’re entertaining guest stars on the same level as much of the rest of the novel’s vast cast.

England was once a nation full of magic.  For three centuries, the Raven King ruled the north with the help of arcane alliances, fairies, and his own vast powers.  This golden age passed into a silver age by the fifteenth century, and by the beginning of the nineteenth century, magicians are overstuffed academics who argue about magical history while avoiding anything as ungentlemanly as spells themselves.  In Yorkshire, one of these scholars deigns to ask the question “why is no real magic practiced in England anymore?”  He soon discovers that there is one practicing magician nearby, a grumpy recluse named Mr. Norrell.  Norrell demonstrates his power in Yorkshire, than rises to fame in London with a successful resurrection and some weather manipulation to help the cause of the English Navy in the Napoleonic Wars.  Mr. Norrell is paranoid that other practicing magicians might rise and steal his thunder, but one young gentleman, Jonathan Strange, is so powerful that Norrell must take him on as a student.  The novel follows their rocky relationship as they argue over the dangers of dealing with fairies and reviving England’s rich magical background.

The novel covers a decade of this relationship, takes us to the battlefields of Spain and Waterloo (and briefly to a famous holiday on Lake Geneva, where many would argue science fiction was born), and to Venice.  It begins as a small comedy of manners, follows a few sub-plots that appear to be tangents, then pulls everything together for an awesome, epic conclusion in the third part.  I also found Clarke’s portrayal of magic (which is the fantasy equivalent of sf’s exploration of technology) particularly exciting; it’s rich in history (one of the main attractions here is the novel’s wonderful and consistent footnotes), and the mechanisms are slowly unveiled as the plot begins to coalesce. All the while, Clarke’s prose sparkles, her characters are multi-dimensional, entertaining, and compelling, and she hints at deeper issues of class, gender, race, and the philosophy of knowledge.  I’ve complained about the growing page-counts of novels a couple of times this decade; well, this is the longest book yet, and I wouldn’t give up a word of it.  It is a fantastic work that I’d recommend to pretty much anyone.

Grade: A

Thursday, November 17, 2011


Charlie Kaufman is back with another surrealist exploration of universal themes – this time love and memory.  Kaufman also shoes his genius at choosing his collaborators again. Being John Malkovich was the feature debut of one of the greatest music video directors of all time: Spike Jonze.  This is the second feature by another of the greatest music video directors of all time: Michel Gondry.

The science fiction conceit is that Lacuna, Inc. has developed a
technology which can erase people’s memories.  It’s often used to deal with heartbreak.  The film seems very non-linear, but the structure is actually a lot simpler than it appears: other than a framing device in the “present,” most of the film takes place linearly while Joel (Jim Carrey) has his memories of ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) erased.  Much of the movie takes place in Joel’s memories, and Gondry gets to use a variety of exciting visual techniques (mostly just lighting, though there’s also some play with the sets and some cgi) to portray the scenes as memories and to represent their erasing.  Along the way, we see the memory erasing technicians and their own messy lives.  The cast is incredibly deep with Tom Wilkinson as the head of Lacuna and a sf trifecta of Bruce Banner, Mary Jane Watson, and Frodo Baggins (Mark Ruffalo, Kirtsen Dunst, and Elijah Wood) as his employees.

The visuals are great, and the film’s structure is a puzzle that’s fun and intriguing without ever becoming frustrating.  The performances are wonderful.  Kate Winslet is one of the greatest working actresses, and she effortlessly slips into a quirky character.  Clementine is bursting with spontaneity (including ever-changing hair colors), but she’s not the typical Manic Pixie Dream Girl.  She has very real and serious problems.  Carrey has garnered acclaim for a lot of his performances, starting with The Truman Show, but this is the first movie where I’ve really loved him as an actor.  Most importantly, the relationship feels as real as any I’ve ever seen in a movie.  The film manages to capture the feeling of falling in love, and the feeling of a relationship falling apart…and the odd structure makes this strangely redemptive without ever coming close to cheese.

This is one of the greatest and most innovative sf films out there.  It uses a speculative device to get at core, universal emotions.  The Incredibles is good fun, but I think the WorldCon voters blew it on this one, and again, Saturn’s eclecticism keeps things interesting.

Grade: A

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


This one takes some explaining.  The Baroque Cycle is a massive work by Neal Stephenson – a sort of prequel to his information-opus Cyptonomicon that focuses on several of the characters’ ancestors in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.  Together, The Baroque Cycle forms one 2600 page story, though it was published as three separate novels at six-month intervals (and then later as eight smaller novels).  The first entry, Quicksilver, won the Clarke.  It finished third in the Locus voting in 2004, but the final two-thirds were both eligible in the next year, and they won as a single unit.  The first novel, Quicksilver, does start slow, so I can see why the Locus voters passed it by, though it does get quite good after 300 pages or so.  The second novel, The Confusion, is a work of genius.  The third novel overstays its welcome (after reading for thousands of pages, I found myself yelling “get on with it already!” during the home stretch).  Really, The Baroque Cycle should be seen as one work, so it is fitting that Locus grouped them together (and I’m doing the same).

So, 2600 pages, huh?  The Baroque Cycle is daunting, and at the end, it’s a fairly uneven work.  Fundamentally, it’s about the dispute between Leibniz and Newton over who invented Calculus.  This was a real fight between two genius men who were also crucial political figures in British history – part of the dispute is about science and the politics of science, but it also involves questions of scientific professionalization, struggles over the British crown, the birth of high finance, the prehistory of information technology, and the nature of God and the cosmos. 

If you groaned or gave a weary sigh during any part of that description, run away now.  Run as fast and as far from these novels as you can.  However, if you’re at least mildly intrigued by a 2600 page novel of scientific disputes and political intrigue, there’s a decent chance that you will enjoy yourself here.  Stephenson livens things up with the picaresque hero Jack Shaftoe.  In contrast to the Stephenson’s invented scientist character, Daniel Waterhouse, Jack is an uneducated clown who has wild, swashbuckling adventures across the globe.  He starts out as a mercenary and vagabond in Quicksilver, then spends most of The Confusion as a pirate.  Bridging the two stories is Eliza, a beautiful young woman who goes from harem slave to aristocrat over the decades-long story, and sponsors schemes in the criminal, political, scientific and financial world that the Cycle so masterfully jumps between (and often combines!)
We follow these three characters for most of the novel from their youths in the 1660s to 1714 (the Hannoverian succession for those keeping score at home).  Waterhouse lets Stephenson explore the scientific revolution and England’s burgeoning Royal Society, and especially its superstars, Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton.  He uses Jack Shaftoe to delve into the underworld and to tell a series of comic adventure stories.  Eliza takes us into the worlds of royal courts and early modern trade and finance.

As history, it’s generally accurate and rather ingenuous.  Several historical characters make cameos or play large roles, including several kings, queens, and scientists (a young Ben Franklin even pops in early on).  Stephenson has his facts straight and more than once I would look up a particularly unlikely-seeming event or meeting and find that it really did happen more or less as Stephenson described.   There is some artistic license taken – Stephenson puts a witch execution in New England a few decades after they had stopped, for instance – but that’s really where Stephenson’s genius comes in.  Yes, the main characters are his creations, and yes, there are several improbably (and impossible scenes).  At one point, Stephenson even stages a Disneyesque musical number in a Jack Shaftoe scene.  But all of these moments only serve to bring the history even more vibrantly alive.

What exactly does this all have to do with science fiction then?  Well, there are some moments that are pure fantasy (an immortal sorceror appears, and much of the plot turns on some alchemical gold – both are elements carried over from Cryptonomicon).  But, more fundamentally, these are novels about science.  They explore the implications of science by taking real discoveries and exaggerating them or carrying them to extreme ends.  Leibniz really did consider building a mechanical calculator, and is thus one of the prehistoric pioneers of the computer.  In Stephenson’s world, he gets to build his calculator.  This is science fiction at its most pure.

This is my third Stephenson review, and it should be clear by now that I’m a fan of his work, and especially his irreverent, witty, and discursive writing style.  I’m also a fan of historical settings and richly drawn worlds, so, it’s not a surprise that I loved these novels.  Stephenson’s tics are all still here – especially his tendency to run off on long tangents that can turn into academic lectures.  You either love it or hate it, and if the latter, you’re going to have a hard time with Stephenson and the hardest time of all here.

I did say that this is an uneven work.  Quicksilver takes a while to get going.  The Confusion is probably the best thing that Stephenson has ever written and one of my favorite novels.  System of the World was painful to get through at times.  It’s a nice two or three hundred page epilogue to the first two parts…stretched out to nine hundred pages (for symmetry’s sake?).  In System, for once, Stephenson’s diversions aren’t all that interesting, there’s a great deal of repetition (you will grow sick of the phrase “Trial of the Pyx”), and the characteristic long-winded descriptions just aren’t that interesting.  I’d suggest skimming the final volume if you can bring yourself to do so.  It also wouldn’t hurt to bone up on history before delving in – I gave up on Quicksilver when it first came our, but I found it a much breezier read after reading up on seventeenth-century English history for a class I was teaching. 

In summary, it’s a highly rewarding set of novels that I can’t recommend highly enough…so long as you’re interested in history, can tolerate Stephenson’s quirks, and you can hold your nose and make your way through some slow portions.  The Confusion alone is worth these obstacles though. 

Grade: A

Sunday, November 13, 2011

2004 BSFA – RIVER OF GODS by Ian McDonald

I reviewed McDonald’s novella “Vishnu at the Cat’s Circus” for the 2010 Hugos and speculated that I might like it better once I was introduced to the wider world. The answer is “yes.” McDonald’s India of 2047, it’s centennial celebration (the novel has the unusual subtitle Happy Birthday India), is a fascinating setting, and it allows him to explore familiar post-cyberpunk themes in a way that few authors I’ve read have matched.

As I mentioned in my “Vishnu” review, McDonald’s futurism tends towards the optimistic (there’s a bit of my old foe, the singularity, at play here). Artificial Intelligences, called “aeais,” are common, but their sophistication is capped by international law pushed by the U.S. Still, they have wide applications in warfare, administration, science, and entertainment (a virtual soap opera called Town and Country plays a key role). There have also been genetic advances, including the slowly aging but long-lived and brilliant Brahmin (covered more in “Vishnu”). Meanwhile, India still suffers from old ethnic conflicts and the environmental problems of climate change and its own diverse geography. The novel centers around Varanasi, an ancient city and Hindu religious center. The region is in a three year drought and a water war looms while fundamentalist Hindus are on the verge of rioting.

McDonald introduces his world through a very broad cast of characters. There’s the comedian who inherits an Indian tech company, a mercenary, a cop who hunts rogue aeais, his beautiful and neglected young bride, a young reporter, a Muslim politician, a surgically created neuter, and a pair of western theoretical physicists, lured into the plot by a strange object found in space. As tensions in the region rise, these characters collide in various, often unexpected ways. Ultimately, hints point to the fact that all of the characters are caught up in the manipulations of powerful aeais.

It’s a very well-written and exciting novel with some incredible imagery, befitting the dramatic setting. There’s always the danger with a novel set in India that we get into some hardcore orientalism (see Song of Kali), but I think McDonald is pretty savvy in avoiding that here. It’s an honest portrayal of the place’s beauty, diversity, and rich history that doesn’t white wash its contradictions and violent history of religious strife. It also has a few sex scenes worthy of the kama sutra; it seems that I only mention sex scenes on this blog to criticize them, so I’ll give McDonald some credit for being…inventive.

It took a little time in the first section for me to get all of the characters straight, but once I did, the next several hundred pages blew me away. This novel was fantastic for most of its run. The end was a little shaky, and I’m beginning to realize that this is a trend in cyberpunk novels, or at least the ones based on AI/singularity. I think the problem is that these plots always run towards apotheosis, which is difficult to portray in a satisfying, or original, way. It’s not a bad ending by any stretch of the imagination, but it doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the incredible five-hundred pages that precede it.

Grade: A

Friday, November 11, 2011

2004 Hugo Drama Short Form Do Over – FIREFLY

Hey, it’s my blog, I get to rewrite Hugo history if I want to.

I was, apparently, one of the few people who watched Firefly when it was on Fox for a couple of weeks in 2002.  Since it was on the air, it’s become a cult classic, and it’s in the mix for pretty much any discussion of “best sf tv series of all time.”  It is really good, and it’s innovative in a lot of ways: it uses hand-held doc-style camera work, even for fx shots, it mashes space opera and western genre elements, it presents a dirtier future full of anti-heroes, and it gives us a multicultural future full of Chinese curse words.  Many of these elements have been picked up by subsequent sf tv shows.

If you’re assuming that the show failed because it was too science fictiony and couldn’t find a wider audience…well, you might be correct, but WorldCon’s treatment of the show rather demonstrates that it took sf fans some time to discover it as well.  The only episode nominated from the original broadcast run was the shown-out-of-order pilot, “Serenity,” which was solid, but not the show’s pinnacle.  Three episodes were produced but not broadcast on Fox.  When they came out on DVD, they became eligible and two were nominated, which suggests that the show was gaining momentum. But, then again, they were both beat by 90 seconds of bleeped Gollum profanity on MTV.  In fact, it looks like Gollum beat both nominated episodes combined (though the series finale of Buffy probably shaved some votes off Firefly as well).

Anyway, I think “The Message” should’ve won.  Captain Mal receives a crate in the mail that contains the body of an old war buddy, who got involved in the smuggling of some experimental biotech.  It has the typical sharp, funny dialogue and character drama that made the show great.  Jonathan Woodward plays the deceased war buddy in flashbacks – he was also the vampire in “Conversations with Dead People.”  I’m a bit surprised that he hasn’t been in much non-Whedon stuff.  He’s kind of a poor-man’s Paul Rudd (I consider that a compliment).  The other nominated episode, “Heart of Gold,” is not the show’s finest hour; it’s part Magnificent Seven with a little bit of Unforgiven (the crew defends a brothel from onslaught), but, all together, it’s pretty standard western material (with laser guns!).  I actually would’ve nominated the other eligible episode, “Trash,” instead.  It’s a caper episode, which the show probably overdid in its brief run, but it has the great Christina Hendricks reprising her role as sexy con-artist Saffron.

Grades: “The Message” – A-

“Heart of Gold” – B-

“Trash” – B+

Best episodes from the series as a whole:

“Jaynestown” – it’s odd to put a comedy episode in first place, but the concept, the script, and the actors’ timing are all excellent in this story of a poor colony that reveres the crew’s bad boy. A

“War Stories” – I really hate torture scenes, and this episode has a lot of them, but there are so many classic lines that I can’t help but love it.  It starts out by pairing the show’s two best comic actors and putting them in an awful situation, then it ends with an exciting action sequence. And then there are those great one-liners.  “I’ll be in my bunk.”  A

“The Train Job” – the second pilot created by Whedon and Minear.  I think it was harmed by Fox’s refusal to air the actual pilot…leaving a lot of the show’s premise unclear.  It holds up really well, and introduces the mood and themes of the show, even if it leaves some questions about plot points.  A-

“Out of Gas” – Great use of non-linear storytelling.  In the “present” life support is cut and Mal is wounded.  Throughout the episode we see how things got so bad, and how the crew got together. A-

“Ariel” – A caper story that gives us a different setting (a more urban planet), advances the overall plot, and involves some great character twists. A-

I don’t think the series is without problems.  The setting doesn’t entirely make sense – there’s no faster-than-light travel but they zip around to quite a few different planets.  There is some explanation about a very large solar system with many terraformed planets, but it still seems too crowded for one system.  The whole “freedom” theme with the Browncoats alludes to the Confederacy without really explaining or exploring the history, or the obvious problems with the analogy.  Some of the character beats are repetitive as well (River’s crazy, Jayne’s a little evil, Mal is good-hearted but ruthless, Book is mysterious, etc. I get it).  All that said, the show never really had time to get on its feet.  It was clearly destined for greatness when it ended prematurely, and what we did get was still very entertaining and influential.

Overall grade: A-

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

2004 Hugo Drama Short Form – “Gollum Acceptance Speech at the 2003 MTV Movie Awards”

Oh, how cute.  Gollum wins “Best Digital Character” at the MTV Movie Awards, and we cut to Andy Serkis accepting the award only to be interrupted by an obscenity-laden rant from Gollum himself in which he screams “MTV sucks” and calls Dobby a “f***ing f*****.”  I approve of Dobby-bashing, though I don’t approve of the second “f” word there so much.

I seem to remember everyone sharing this video on youtube…which is weird because youtube didn’t exist yet.  Maybe it was streaming somewhere though?  Or, maybe so many of my LOTR-obsessed friends spouted lines from it that it felt like a ubiquitous youtube clip before such a thing existed.  Either way, it shows that this new short form category is perfect for the age of new media.  It’s inane, short, and stupid, but it’s also mildly humorous and a sign of internet-humor-to-come, so I can’t really object.  I mean, it must have been a very weak year…

…it’s not like this 90 second one-note video clip won over some kind of short-lived science fiction television classic…

…let me check the other nominees real quick just to be sure…

Oh, f%#$ me...

$#%^&@# you, you &#%@ing Worldcon fanwankers and your stupid bull$%^@!

This has to be the worst Hugo result I’ve ever seen.  This makes They’d Rather Be Right look like &#%@ing Dune.

2004 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation Short Form, a Hugo award which will live in infamy.

Grade: F-

Monday, November 7, 2011

2004 Locus SF – ILIUM by Dan Simmons

Dan Simmons’ Ilium follows the misadventures of a group of war-re-enactors, as the egos of the organizers and the participants threaten to get in the way of historical accuracy.

Okay, the war is the Trojan War, the site is a terraformed Mars thousands of years in the future, and the organizers are godlike beings. But, it was reassuring for me to imagine the story on a smaller scale, since, as is the norm with Simmons’ space operas, the story has to go BIG: the nature of Earth and humanity are on the line, supertechnology and omnipotent beings abound, numerous references to great works of the western canon are thrown in to give the proceedings extra artificial weight, and one volume cannot contain the action. Honestly, if not for the fact that I’ve read or want to read every other Locus sf winner, I would have skipped this one, because it’s exactly what I’ve come to expect from Simmons after three disappointing books in a row (Fall of Hyperion and the Endymion duology). My eyes glazed over for a lot of my reading, and I’m afraid I won’t remember a thing about this book if I don’t write this review right now.

As I said, it’s the far future, most of humanity is extinct, but there are a few survivors bouncing around Earth, some missing-in-action “post-humans,” Greek gods on Mars (who may be said post-humans), and some sentient robots bouncing around the rest of the solar system. The Greek gods live on Olympus Mons and are recreating the Trojan War. They’ve brought a few twentieth-century scholars of the Iliad in to consult, including sometimes-narrator Thomas Hockenberry (who may as well just be PJF from Riverworld). Hockenberry is given the power to morph into different characters and teleport, but he’s also often given impossible, history-sabotaging tasks by the gods (“kill Athena!”), not that these lead the plot anywhere interesting in particular. There’s also some action with the few remaining humans on Earth where they hang with Oddyseus and fight Prospero and Caliban for some reason. There’s a good amount of Roger Zelazny here – the futuristic Greek gods, whatever their origin, reminded me of the futuristic Hindu gods of Lord of the Light, and Oddyseus adventuring on a destroyed future Earth took me right back to This Immortal.

My favorite portions of the novel involve to “moravecs” or sentient robots from the Gallilean moons of Jupiter. Mahnmut is a Shakespeare scholar from Europa, and Orphu is a Proust expert from Io. The scholars are tasked with a mission to check out Mars. Their scholarship doesn’t do much other than allow Simmons to remind us that he knows some things about literature, as he so often does. The Canterbury Tales format of Hyperion was original and fun; since then, the Keats, Shakespeare, Homer, and Proust references just seem like Simmons doing his shtick. Is it in his contract or something? At least Mahnmut and Orphu have personalities though, unlike the human characters.

I think Simmons is just not for me. His world-building doesn’t have the depth that I look for as it leans to heavily on shallow intertextuality, and he always ramps the stakes up to the point that nothing seems to matter.

Grade: C-

Friday, November 4, 2011

2004 Hugo Drama Long Form and 2003 Saturn Fantasy – RETURN OF THE KING

This is the first of the 40+ award-winning films I’ve covered here to also win an Academy Award for Best Picture.  It also won in all ten of the other Oscar categories that it was nominated for, including Best Director for Peter Jackson.  This was what we call a “phenomenon.”  The movie is impressive in a lot of ways: the battle scenes are bigger than ever, Minas Tirith looks fantastic, and there are many emotional moments between the characters.  There’s a lot of jesting about the homoeroticism of these films, but I think it is fair to say that there is some kind of love story between Sam and Frodo.  That’s clearest in this entry, as we see their ups and downs, Gollum and the Ring competing for their affections, their final triumph, and their bittersweet parting.  All of this gives the film more emotional weight than a lot of the fantasy fare out there.

So, this entry works very well, but I do consider the Academy’s recognition to be for the series as a whole, rather than just this one entry.  This particular film has some of the series’ highest highs, but I think is also has some of the biggest flaws.   The largest is the pacing: most of the first half is taken up with another giant battle; Frodo and Sam are all but forgotten, then the entire nature of the film changes at the halfway point as they take center stage.  It’s an odd flow of momentum.  And, of course, there’s the extra-long ending.

It’s as if Jackson, realizing what he had accomplished, decided to take a victory lap with the epilogue.  And then another one.  And then one more.  True, it’s shorter than the post-climax meanderings of the novel, which actually starts a whole ‘nother plot.  I’m sure Tolkeinistas could dissertate all night on how crucial the scouring of the Shire is to J.R.R.’s masterpiece, but I, and many others I know, think that cutting that plotline is one of the key areas where the films are better than the books.  Even with that gone, however, the movie still takes it sweet time ending after the big moment.  I do think that everyone fading off to the West is thematically crucial to the series, but it certainly could have been done more efficiently.

There’s also a pretty hefty cheesiness factor to all of these movies.  If you get caught up in the action, as most any fantasy fan would, it’s easy to miss some of this.  But, Peter Jackson has a lot of cornball maneuvers in his repertoire – jerky slo-mo, melodramatic slo-mo, characters gleaming in the sun, fake-out deaths, fake-out endings, to name a few.  And, he gets some of the mushiest performances that I’ve ever seen out of his actors.  As I said at the beginning of my Fellowship review though – it all works.  It’s the perfect pairing of director and material.  When adapting Tolkien, who self-consciously wrote a painfully sincere and old-fashioned story, this all works beautifully.  Remaking King Kong is another story altogether.

So, in summation (as if you didn't already know), these are excellent movies.

Grade: A

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Victorian Hugos

Over at io9, the great scholar of historic science fiction Jess Nevins (who has decoded a great many ultra-obscure references from Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentleman for the reading public) is running a series of imaginary WorldCons from 1885 to 1930.

This is pure awesomeness. It would be a great place to take this blog when I finish up with the real, modern Hugos (only five years left!). On the other hand, I'm getting kind of burnt out, so let's just read Nevins' thoughts...

Monday, October 31, 2011

2004 Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Fantasy – PALADIN OF SOULS by Lois McMaster Bujold

Bujold wins her fourth Hugo in fourteen years (only Heinlein has exceeded this feat), and her second Nebula with this fantasy novel.  I tend to have nigh-impossible standards for High Fantasy (it took awhile for Song of Ice and Fire to win me over, after all)…but I liked this book, and its predecessor, 2001’s Curse of Chalion.  Bujold doesn’t exactly overcome the problems I’ve come to have with most high fantasy novels.  She still focuses on Byzantine political conflicts, leaving the central social issues of her faux-medieval society unexamined, and her prose is still stilted.  But she sidesteps these issues with a more personal focus on a smaller cast and setting, and with the general charm that all of her books seem to exude.

These books introduce the small nation of Chalion, which I imagined along the lines of medieval Spain, I think because of the consonants she uses in names and the many political similarities.  In this world, people believe in a nuclear family of gods – the Father, Mother, Daughter, and Son.  Some people, including most of Chalion, also worship “the Bastard” as a fifth god of social deviance and magic, while Chalion’s enemies see the Bastard as a demonic force outside of the pantheon.  The Curse of Chalion follows former general, and former slave Lupe dy Cazilar as he dabbles in death magic to redeem himself and Chalion’s royal family, who are literally cursed by dark magic, and figuratively cursed with corrupt officials.  I actually liked Curse a bit more than this novel; the plot seemed more focused and the characters more interesting.  It was also nominated for a Hugo, but lost in a much tougher field (that included American Gods, Passage, and Perdido Street Station).

Paladin follows a minor character from the first book, the former queen Ista.  Ista had been inflicted with the curse, and had communicated with the gods.  She also did some rather horrible things to try to remove the curse, and most people considered her mad in her grief.  Now, she’s trying to regain some freedom by going on a pilgrimage, but on her way, she encounters an epidemic of demonic possession and raids from Chalion’s enemies, the Roknari.  She comes to a castle that has its own share of curses and conflicts, and she has to deal with new powers from the gods.

Bujold plays some interesting games with magic and religion here, and it is a well-told story with compelling characters, which I’ve come to expect from her.  We do get a few of the plot contrivances that bothered me in the Vorkosigan series, but they make a lot more sense when divine intervention is in play. I still want more out of fantasy novels than this, but there’s no question that this is a very solid entry in the canon.  The phrase “guilty pleasure” seems unfair to Bujold, because she does offer more depth and better writing than most sf, and yet her novels do bring that phrase to mind, because they are so enjoyable, and so focused on simply telling a clear, entertaining story.

I should note that David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was nominated for a Nebula this year.  It’s one of my favorite novels, so I’m kind of bummed that the SFWA panel didn’t go out on a limb and give it the award.  The Hugo nominee line-up is quite a bit weaker, and, though I've only read one other nominee, I imagine that Bujold would've been my choice.

Grade: B

(I’d give Curse of Chalion a B+)

Friday, October 28, 2011

2003 Hugo Dramatic Presentation Short Form – “Conversations with Dead People,” BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER

Hey, I managed to wrangle a relatively Halloween-appropriate post out of this blog for once.

I think it’s fair to suggest that this brand new Hugo category (my first since dramatic presentation debuted in 1958) wouldn’t exist without this show.  For better or for worse, most of the vampire/monster-centric trends in the last decade of sf probably wouldn’t exist either.  Buffy started in 1997, and offered a grab-bag of monsters, demons, superhero and fantasy elements in a groundbreaking, serialized, hilarious hour-long television show.  The show offered brilliant culminations of long-running storylines in episodes like “The Becoming,” “Graduation Day,” and “The Gift,” as well as brilliant one-off episodes like the dream-centered “Restless,” the silent “Hush,” the flashback-heavy “Fool for Love,” and “The Body,” the best examination of death in the history of television.  I don’t know exactly why the “short form” category was created, but I have to think that everyone watching the excellent musical episode “Once More with Feeling” inevitably lose to The Fellowship of the Ring in Dramatic Presentation had to have something to do with it. The proliferation of sf tv (in part inspired by Buffy) also played a significant role, although the great age of the space opera tv show (the ‘90s) had already passed for the most part (though I'm sure no one realized that at the time).

I think pretty much everyone knows about the show’s quality and influence now, though I also know that many people avoided it for years because of the silly title, or due to a general, irrational fear of gothic fiction, vampire fiction, and/or "girl cooties."  If you did miss it a) shame on you.  It’s on Netflix streaming.  Go watch it now, and bear with it through that rough first season and a half, and b) it’s the story of a teenage girl granted superhuman powers to fight vampires and demons.  She gets a Watcher, who has access to knowledge of the supernatural world, and she enlists various friends, who, over the series’ seven season, get their own superpowers.

This episode is from the final season, which is the weakest since the first, but, hey, the series is innovative, hugely influential, and deserves some recognition before it ends.  This is probably the most experimental in the generally-restrained season seven (though the previous episode “Him” does some fun comedic stuff).  It follows four separate storylines, told more-or-less in real time, of the main characters encountering dead people.  Buffy (Sarah Michelle Geller) meets a vampiric version of a high school acquaintance and chats with him.  Buffy’s sister, Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg), is haunted by what appears to be the ghost of her mother.  Buffy’s witch friend Willow (Allyson Hannigan), communicates with her dead girlfriend through a ghost.  And, two of Buffy’s enemies from the previous season are lured into demonic acts by a manifestation of their dead friend.  All of this leads to some great character moments – we get to see how other high schoolers saw the Buffy of the first few seasons, and we get to mourn some of the major character deaths of the previous two seasons – while also advancing the plot and forwarding the “Big Bad” of this season.
It’s also a nice actor’s spotlight.  Geller always made a tough role look easy, and both she and Hannigan are very underrated.  Trachtenberg is the only one who struggles, but she was only sixteen, and the writers always had her screaming about something, which has to be tough.  The episode was written by Jane Espensen, the series’ most consistent scribe besides creator/geek icon Joss Whedon, and this script displays her customary wit and grasp of character.

The episode represents the great blend of action, fantasy, horror, comedy, and character that made the series so great, and it probably is the best episode of the final season.

Grade: A-

Grade for the series: A

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

2003 Philip K. Dick Award – ALTERED CARBON by Richard Morgan

It’s several hundred years from now and widespread technology allows people to record and transfer their brains onto “cortical stacks” that can be switched between bodies or transmitted interstellar distances.  Takeshi Kovacs is a badass mercenary from a colonized planet called Harlan’s World with special training that has made him into an “envoy” skilled at kicking ass in any body. After he and his girl are hunted down and killed, he wakes up on Earth. He’s been put into a new “sleeve,” or body, by an incredibly old and rich man (called a "Methuselah") named Laurens Bancroft to investigate the apparent suicide of his previous sleeve. As Kovacs delves into seedy, hypocritical Earth society in Bay City (formerly San Francisco) he meets rough characters, multiple dames, hookers with hearts of gold, femmes fatale, crooked cops, less-crooked cops, and pretty much every other hardboiled cliché you can imagine. Working with a female cop, who has an interest in his current sleeve, named Ortega, he uncovers a massive criminal conspiracy.

As an sf fan, I’m very familiar with the battle to get decent respect for genre fiction. There are certain critics in certain venues that aren’t going to give many speculative works a chance, and I do resent that a bit. However, there are works that just grab you by the lapels, knee you in the privates, and yell “I am genre trash! Whatever you do, DO NOT take me seriously.” I’m not saying that Morgan’s book fits that bill…but there are certainly times that it does. It’s a fascinating mixture of old and new. Morgan plays some interesting game with the “altered carbon” technology that allows people to resurrect their minds and switch bodies. He covers a lot of the bases – multiple copies, virtual worlds, and some fairly depraved applications. He’s thought out the implications of his ideas, and scattered the book with hints of a rich futuristic culture (not to mention tantalizing bits about alien ruins on Mars that are never really explored).

And, Morgan’s grafted it all onto a very traditional tough-guy private eye crime story. The book is thick with tropes, and it’s hard to say whether Morgan is playing with them or just leaning on them. I usually felt the latter. Frankly, I could’ve done without many of them, especially the gruesome torture, casual violence, over-sexualized women, and the running updates on Takeshi’s current level of tumescence. Even when Morgan is discussing new tech, it still feels a bit familiar. There are as many familiar cyberpunk tropes as there are noir tropes.

I never quite got a handle on Kovacs.  We’re continually told he’s an amoral killing machine, and he does rack up quite a body count, but they’re all really awful people, and he spends a lot of time helping the helpless and fighting for justice.  I guess this is another noir trope, but it did feel like the characters have very wobbly moralities that seem to fit the needs of the plot at the time more than anything else. There are also some basic existential issues that are barely touched on. Is a copy of your mind surviving the same as your mind surviving? Doesn’t seem like it. We’re told that Catholics resist resleeving because they believe the soul dies with the original body. I would’ve liked a little more discussion in this direction.

So, that’s a lot of complaining, but, I was entertained most of the time. There are some fun characters, interesting mysteries, intriguing speculative concepts, and exciting action scenes. The hardboiled format is oft-imitated because it works, and this is a perfectly fine entry in the genre. It’s the same mix of interesting ideas and super-violence that I complained about/begrudgingly endorsed in the two Verhoeven films I covered.

Grade: B