Wednesday, March 30, 2011

1996 Saturn – Independence Day (ID4)

I'm posting today rather than Friday for personal scheduling reasons, but also to clearly avoid the many-tentacled hellbeast that April Fools on the internet has become. I mean, this is a review of ID4! I have to give it the proper reverence that it deserves!

With our second Emmerich movie, a smash summer hit, I think we’ve officially entered the second generation of the blockbuster. We’ve seen many of the best entries from the first, dominated by Lucas and especially Steven Spielberg. Emmerich and Producer Jerry Bruckheimer dominate the second: the films are bigger, even more special-effects-driven, more jingoistic, and, well, stupider.* That doesn’t mean they can’t be fun though….they just usually aren’t.

ID4, most of all, walks the tightrope between stupid and fun. Even watching it again for this blog, for the first time in at least a decade, I couldn’t quite decide if it was too stupid to be fun or too fun to worry about its stupidity. I kept swinging between those two options.

Basically, this is a rewriting of War of the Worlds to give it more patriotic Fourth-of-July action. Alien ships come down from the sky, and everyone is happy to see them. But, eccentric scientist Jeff Goldblum thinks the aliens plan an attack, and he rushes to tell President Bill Pullman (if the characters have names, I sure don’t remember them – that kind of character detail isn’t important… explosions!). The aliens promptly do shoot green beams that annihilate the White House, the Empire State Building, Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, etc., and the film’s characters take to wandering around Area 51, looking for a dues ex machina, which they promptly find and use, after the requisite number of UFO vs. jets dogfights. Even the President gets to fly a fighter after a fairly lame inspirational speech. Along the way we get lots of homages to that first generation of blockbusters, especially Close Encounters and Star Wars.

I should also add that this begins the era of Will Smith. Around this time, Congress passed a law requiring that all dominant summer blockbusters contain the Fresh Prince. This act was eventually repealed in one of the most controversial provisions of the Patriot Act, and everyone who had to sit through Smith’s various failed Oscar-bids, like 27 Pounds, laments the law’s end. How much better would Transformers have been with Will Smith’s unflappable charisma? I’m only partially kidding, as it is the easy charm of Smith, Pullman, and Goldblum that helps make the film bearable. On the other hand, Randy Quaid’s groan-inducing turn as an alcoholic Vietnam vet who pulls-it-together to save-the-day does not help. No wonder the star whackers are after him.

In the end, I’d say that the fun won out over the stupidity, but I’d add the caveat that the film (by which I mean the effects that the film leans so heavily on) has not aged well, and watching it today, the stupidity is even more evident.

*I’ll take any Emmerich film over almost any Bruckheimer film…except maybe Pirates of the Caribbean and The Rock.

Grade: C+

Sunday, March 27, 2011

1996 BSFA – EXCESSION by Iain M. Banks

British author “Iain M. Banks” (the mysterious pen name of literary author Iain Banks) is best known in science fiction circles for his space opera universe focusing on a post-scarcity, AI-controlled interplanetary utopia called The Culture. The Culture is very highly regarded, though I’ll admit to not really knowing about it before taking on this project; perhaps that’s a reflection of how long the series took to make an impact “across the pond,” or it’s just more evidence of how clueless I was as a teenage science fiction fan around this time. I did manage to get some familiarity with the series before reading this novel though, which I’d say is necessary, considering how much goes on here.

The Culture, as I mentioned, is a utopia made up of genetically engineered people from various races, mostly called “human” (though apparently not from Earth). There’s no real government, no want, violence is rare, people have astounding control over their bodies to the extent that they can change sex at will, and hyper-intelligent (and snarky) computers called Minds do most of the work with ease. Few other species can compete with The Culture, and a wing of their society called Contact (and it’s secretive intelligence service Special Circumstances) manipulates alien races to make sure that this remains the case. The people of The Culture can be a bit hedonistic – what else is there to do? – and most of The Culture stories seem to revolve around members of The Culture trying to find something meaningful to do with their perfect lives.

The titular Excession in this novel is a mysterious visitor from a parallel dimension. The Culture sends Minds to investigate as does a group called the Elench, former members of the Culture who like to incorporate more alien ideas, as well as a violent, war-obsessed and tentacled race called the Affront. For most of the novel, Minds from these three groups chatter with each other around the Excession. Another Culture ship called the Sleeper Service has had previous experience with the Excession and seems to have gone “Eccentric” as a result. It offers to store members of the Culture in suspended animation as long as they pose their frozen bodies for tableaux based on famous works of art. One of the people stored is a woman named Dajeil Gelian, who has a romantic history with a Contact diplomat named Byr Genar-Hofoen. The Sleeper-Service’s Mind decides to use the Excession as an excuse to get the couple to resolve their decades-old issues.

Did that make sense? This is a fairly complex novel, and much of it is taken up in odd blocks of code-like text that conveys the Minds’ conversations. Banks’ Minds can be pretty amusing, but I did tire of them a bit in this novel. The plot itself involves conspiracies within conspiracies within conspiracies, all set in motion by the Excession, which doesn’t do all that much else. – it’s not that hard to figure out in the end, but it’s hard to keep track of at the time. And, I had a hell of a time keeping all of the ships’ names straight.

There are lots of great ideas here, and I like The Culture overall (I’m definitely reading more when I finish this project), but there were stretches of this novel that didn’t entirely keep my attention. Banks is a great writer though, and there are nice bits of prose throughout. And, I thought the material with Dajeil and Genar-Hofoen, though its connection to the main plot is tenuous, was fantastic. Their relationship is simultaneously relatable and unique to The Culture, takes some fun twists and turns, and provides a nice distraction when the Minds’ hijinks wear thin.

This novel has its strong points, but it is not a good introduction to The Culture, and I certainly liked the human elements better than the AI elements, even while I can admire the fact that Banks is willing to focus so on the latter.

Grade: B+

Friday, March 25, 2011

2011 Hugo Speculation

Once more into the breach, dear friends!

The Hugo nomination voting closes in about 24 hours, and I figure now is as good a time as any to post my second annual "uniformed speculations." I'm a little earlier than last year, but life is crazier this year, so I'm gonna post when I can.

As last year, I don't have much to say about the short fiction categories. I'll probably never have anything to say about the short fiction categories; I like letting the awards act as a filter for me, and I'm perfectly happy reading only 15 stories a year. It is worth noting that Ted Chiang published something, so I'm sure that will be nominated (and will probably win). I'm not complaining. I've read some Chiang, and I think he deserves his stranglehold on short sf awards. I'd also love to see Paulo Bacigalupi's The Alchemist and Tobias S. Buckell's The Executioness nominated. The two authors collaborated on a fantasy world, wrote a novella each, and released it as an audiobook on audible. I like the experimentation there, especially in the format, and I've heard good things.

So, onto the categories I can speak to a bit a more:

Dramatic Presentation, Long Form, isn't nearly as cut and dried as last year (when I went 5 for 5 in my predictions). Inception is obvious, and probably has the Hugo in the bag. I imagine Toy Story 3 will make an appearance, perhaps alongside How to Train Your Dragon. Tron: Legacy seemed to have enough geek buzz to be a factor, even if it didn't get much mainstream respect. I'm going to go out on a limb and pick Splice as my fifth, as it also had some geek buzz, and has that "not Hollywood" factor that Hugo voters seem to like (see the massive support for Moon and District 9 last year).

Those are my five predictions, but Predator, Harry Potter and Iron Man sequels have a shot. I'd like to see Scott Pilgrim, and I'd especially like to see Never Let Me Go get a nod (instead of Tron, please).

In 2010, Doctor Who produced a handful of disappointing specials and still managed three of five short form nods. In 2011, Who had a spectacular year with a new showrunner and a new Doctor, and it produced a dozen eligible stories. Every episode Steven Moffat has written for Doctor Who has received a nomination (and all but one won). Moffat wrote five eligible stories this year, and there were two widely-acclaimed non-Moffat stories ("Amy's Choice" & "Vincent and the Doctor"). Put all of this together, and it seems plausible that Who would sweep the nominations in this category. However, I'm going to predict that this is the year that Fringe gets at least one nomination to prevent the sweep. I don't know which episode, because I don't watch Fringe (yet! - I've been meaning to!). So, I predict something along the lines of Doctor Who: Angels two-parter, finale two-parter, "Amy's Choice," and "Vincent and the Doctor," and a Fringe episode, probably spotlighting lovable mad-scientist guy.

I'm fine with this. There was more sf tv last year than in the past (and more to come this fall!), but it all looked pretty awful. V, No Ordinary Family, and The Event...blah. I would like to see a nomination for ill-fated Battlestar Galactica spin-off Caprica though. I especially liked the New Caprica episode "There is Another Sky."

I'm a comic book reader, but I might cut the graphic story category from my coverage this year. Frankly, it's been a trainwreck. Based on the trends, the nominees will be:

1. Latest Girl Genius
2. Latest Schock Mercenary
3. Latest Fables
4. Something by a Dr Who writer
5. A soiled, crumpled napkin discarded by Neil Gaiman at a bar during San Diego Comic-Con

It'd be nice if Urasawa's neo-Astro Boy manga Pluto or Mike Carey's Unwritten get nominations, and I'll be angry if Scott Pilgrim doesn't get any love, but I'm not getting my hopes up for this category.

Okay, the main event.

I obviously spend most of my fiction time these days reading old sf winners, so I haven't had time to read many 2010 books. Looking around several different reviews though, it seems that the consensus top books are:

The Dervish House Ian McDonald
Kraken China Mieville
Blackout/All Clear Connie Willis
How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe Charles Yu
Who Fears Death Nnedi Okorafor
Zoo City Lauren Beukes

If I had to put money on the nominees, I'd take the top four and ('cuz we know the people love him) Robert Sawyer's www:Watch. I'd like to see something a little more like this list though. It's also worth noting that 4 of 6 of last year's nominees were men, and a woman has not won this award for six years. That doesn't seem right, and yet, I get the feeling its a race between Mieville, McDonald, and Yu from what I've heard so far. We're on the verge of tying the mid-80s for the longest stretch of male Hugo winners since LeGuin broke the gender barrier in 1970.

That said, I rather hope that Willis's Oxford time travel duology doesn't get a nomination. I like her a lot (very positive To Say Nothing... review forthcoming), but that's a lot of reading for a premise I've already seen multiple times from her. Nevertheless, I really do expect these books to be on the nominee list. Maybe she'll surprise me with a new angle.

A couple of wildcards I wouldn't mind seeing:

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart - I like the literary crossovers.

Mockingbird Suzanne Collins - this YA dystopia was probably the bestselling and most talked about sf book of the year, but I've heard very little Hugo buzz about it. Is there a backlash against YA after 2009's YA domination of the Hugos? It's the one novel I have read, and it's good - not necessarily Hugo-worthy, but maybe Hugo-nominee-worthy.

1996 Nebula – SLOW RIVER by Nicola Griffith

The world of Griffith’s Slow River reminded me a lot of some of the work of Paulo Bacigalupi. Its world is not entirely unlike ours, but corporations are more powerful, exploitation of the Third World has continued unabated, pollution is rampant, fossil fuels are rare, individual freedoms are circumscribed, and there’s an overall sense of decay. We see all of this in Windup Girl, although the focus on a water treatment plant also made me think of Bacigalupi’s great story, “Pump Six.” Slow River obviously predates these works by more than a decade, so I wonder if it was an influence on Bacigalupi.

Despite this very interesting take on the future, Griffith’s real focus here is on character. The novel unfolds in three different timelines, which all tell the story of a young woman named Lore. We get a brief biography that chronicles her youth in the very wealthy, but very troubled, van de Oest family, which has a monopoly on genomes crucial to the polluted, post-fossil fuel world economy. The central story tells of her separation from this family and her relationship with Spanner, who has many issues of her own; she's a small-time criminal and an an addict. In the first-person-narrated “present” storyline, Lore works undercover in a water treatment plant and experiences firsthand the plight of the working class. Griffith skillfully interweaves these stories so that they comment on and inform each other, and they give us a full picture of Lore, including some pretty dramatic low-points.

The writing is strong, and Lore is a very compelling character. The novel also has a lot to say about power dynamics – Lore is often manipulated and controlled by her parents, her siblings, and Spanner. A pair of kidnappers brutalize and control her. With Spanner, Lore finds herself victimizing others. The class dynamics in the water treatment facility mirror these relationships as Lore meets a workforce that also feels powerless. The novel’s multiple “rivers” symbolize these power dynamics in the inexorable driving of their currents. In other words, it’s a richly drawn novel that does have something to say. In some ways it’s actually quite similar to its big competitor of the year, The Diamond Age, which also uses its vision of the future to explore issues of class and power but focuses more on the technology and the world, while Slow River focuses on character. I like good, character driven work, but, in this case, The Diamond Age is so rich that I’d have to give the Hugo winner my vote for this year. But, it is nice to get two different entries out of the biggest sf awards that are both strong and share some thematic links.

Grade: B+

Sunday, March 20, 2011

1996 WFA – THE PRESTIGE by Christopher Priest

Christopher Nolan’s film version of this novel is one of my favorite films of the past five years. I also liked the novel quite a bit, but it is unfortunate that each version ruins the other a bit. The story is a puzzle, and a very entertaining one; it’s too bad that you can’t come to both versions fresh and spoiler-free.

The novel follows the careers of two turn-of-the-(20th)century stage magicians: Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier. Both take their craft very seriously, but a series of confrontations at the beginnings of their respective careers lead to a vicious and sometimes violent rivalry between the two. Both develop innovative acts involving “transportation” of the magician across the stage that challenge explanation (and possibly violate the laws of physics – this book does qualify as speculative fiction). The story is told from the point of view of their descendents, and we get the story through journals from Borden and Angier, presented in turn. We get multiple perspectives on the same events that illuminate each other.

It’s very well-written, and Priest gives us convincing Victorian narrators. It’s also a very fun and engrossing experience overall, and Priest plays with some interesting and subtle metaphors about identity and “otherness.” I do have some reservations at the ending, which goes for a horror-style scare rather than a further meditation on family, career, or any of the other themes that Priest has established, but that’s really my only complaint.

Normally, I recommend reading the book before seeing the movie, but I think I would say see the movie first here. There are a few subtle changes, and the film is tighter with a clear evocation of the themes (and a different ending). Either version will slightly dilute the experience of the other, and I have to say the film is a little better and thus the one that should be seen fresh. But, it’s a great story either way, and I’ll definitely be seeking out more Christopher Priest.

Grade: B+

Thursday, March 17, 2011

1996 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation – “The Coming of Shadows,” Babylon 5

My teenage sf-nerdom didn’t really tail off until ’97, so it’s a bit of a surprise that I didn’t give more attention to this critical darling of sf fandom. To this day, there’s a fairly significant group who consider this the best science fiction show of all time. Back in the day, I watched the tv movie and the pilot, and maybe one or two other episodes…and I really didn’t enjoy what I saw. Now, I’m working my way through the whole series (thanks Netflix Instant Viewing!) and I can see exactly why I didn’t like it. However, just maybe, with this episode, I’m starting to see why it’s so beloved.

The overall series takes place in a space opera setting dominated by races which are often at each others’ throats. The plume-haired Centauri are the old colonial overlords of the spot-headed Narn, and humans have recently fought a long, losing war with the mystical bald-headed Minbari. And then there are the mysterious Vorlons, whom few have ever seen because they wear bulky atmosphere suits. In an attempt to establish galactic peace, these five races have created a sort of League of Nations dispute-resolving body that meets on a human-controlled space station called Babylon 5. However, this Alliance is highly controversial, and the first four Babylon stations came to bad ends.

The show is the brainchild of J. Michael Straczynski , who wrote an overwhelming number of the series’ episodes himself and came in with a detailed plan of its overall arcs. The heavy foreshadowing and intricate maneuvers that JMS’s plan made possible are what really sets the show apart from others. “The Coming of Shadows,” an episode from the second season, is one of several turning points that progresses the multi-season arc in some major ways. A mysterious force known as the Shadows has been manipulating some of the characters since season one, and here it provokes an all out war between two Alliance members – the Narn and the Centauri – as the Centauri emperor dies. In a sub-plot, B5’s former Commander (from season one) sends a message that he is preparing a resistance to fight in the dark times that are to come. The fact that the show would change its lead for the second season (Bruce Boxleitner comes in and does a decent job) is another example of its boldness.

In other words, it’s an episode that plays to the show’s two biggest strengths – intricate long-term plotting and the aliens’ diplomatic intrigues. At a time when serialized television was virtually non-existent, Babylon 5 rewarded careful viewing in ways that influenced Buffy, Lost and the Battlestar reboot. The second season also shows some significant improvement on the show’s weakness – those problems that kept me from watching it when I was in high school. Frankly, the production values in the first season are terrible, even for a low-budget syndicated show. The show was one of the first to eschew model effects in favor of cgi, which doesn’t look much better than some of the stuff kids younger than me were doing on their home PCs around the same time.* The make-up is okay (you can tell from my description of the aliens that it’s fairly simple). Worst of all are the acting, directing, and editing – you don’t really appreciate how well these things are typically done on television until you see them done really badly, as on the first season of B5. We come into shots too early, the camera-work can be lazy, and the actors are so wooden that it can be painful to watch. Things do get much better in the second season, but problems still abound. So, the question is: is an intriguing sf story worth wading through a terrible production? I guess I’ll check back on how I feel about that when we cover a season three episode for the next Dramatic Presentation Hugo…

I feel like I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in here somewhere. The show ran concurrently with Babylon 5, and shares a lot of the same themes: set on a space station, war with a shadowy alien force, focus on long-term alien diplomacy with religious overtones, and a whole host of smaller similarities. JMS had pitched his space opera to Paramount, so it’s certainly possible that something sketchy happened here. There’s enough circumstantial evidence to arouse suspicions. On the other hand, JMS’s indebtedness to Star Trek is very clear, and B5 is really a synthesis of ideas from the first two Trek tv series anyway. And, the shows are very different once you get past some of the basics. DS9 has far better production values and much more interesting characters, and for my money, it’s the best sf show tv has ever seen. It didn’t win any Hugos and was beaten head-on by B5 twice. DS9’s “The Visitor” is much better than “The Coming of Shadows,” in my view, as is Twelve Monkeys, but I won’t deny that Babylon 5 is beginning to look like a show deserving of Hugo recognition. Maybe I’ll take an opportunity to talk about DS9 in depth down the road sometime.

*to be fair, some of these kids work at Pixar and Disney now.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

1996 Campbell and Philip K Dick, 1995 BSFA –THE TIME SHIPS by Stephen Baxter

This novel racked up lots of awards and even more nominations, and it heralded a new wave of hard sf writers consisting of mostly British authors, like Baxter. The novel was authorized by the H. G. Wells estate as a sequel to The Time Machine to celebrate that landmark work’s centennial.

It does pick up right where The Time Machine left off; in fact, I had to put the book down after the first couple of chapters, read The Time Machine, and then start over with The Time Ships. This was fine, since a) it’s pathetic that I hadn’t read The Time Machine earlier, and b) The Time Machine is a very short work, under a hundred pages. Anyway, the unnamed Time Traveler sets off on another trip almost immediately after the events of Wells novel. He moves hundreds of thousands of years into the future, but quickly finds that something is wrong, and he is now in a different future populated by super-smart Morlocks with astounding technology. Working from the multiple universes of quantum theory, Baxter posits that the Traveler’s jaunts through time take him into different histories. He takes a New Morlock companion named Nebogipfel and continues his travels through a wide array of pasts and futures, many of them references to H. G. Wells books (including an alternate World War II with giants tanks like his “Land Ironclads”).

It’s a wild ride and a very fast-paced read. Baxter managed to explain some very big ideas and complicated scientific concepts without ever losing me for a second. His prose is straightforward and unadorned, and thus unlikely to get a lot of notice, but I do think this kind of communication skill deserves more appreciation. I’ve read enough bad non-fiction science writing to know that understandable explanations aren’t as easy as they look.

Still, I’m not quite sure that this is a worthy successor to The Time Machine. Wells managed to use his adventure tale to comment on the growing class divide he saw in industrial Britain. Baxter doesn’t make the same sort of comment on contemporary society, though there is some discussion about human nature, war, etc., none of it that deep, specific or revaltory. Also, even though it’s narrated in first person (and over five times as long), we don’t learn all that much more about the protagonist, and the rest of the characters are even slighter. The focus is on Big Ideas and action, but at least it’s very fun. The Time Ships could have said a bit more and delved a bit deeper, but it is a very entertaining and worthwhile read.

Grade: B

Monday, March 14, 2011

1996 Hugo and Locus – THE DIAMOND AGE by Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson is one of my favorite authors. His 1992 novel Snow Crash, a hyperbolic, hyperactive cyberpunk novel set in a future where the state has crumbled, is probably his most famous work, but it didn’t win any of the awards I’m covering. This is probably for the best, since I don’t think it’s a great novel. It’s funny, exciting, fun, and interesting, but it’s also silly, ridiculous and swerves erratically between over-the-top action scenes and infodumps about Sumerian religion. Every novel since has won an award though (apparently, Locus readers adore Neal Stephenson), so I get to talk about him a lot.

The Diamond Age is Stephenson’s one Hugo win. The novel is an homage to Charles Dickens’ class-oriented Victorian fiction, but it takes place in a future world dominated by nanotechnology. Matter compilers can create just about anything a person could need or want, but it’s an expensive and potentially deadly technology – sentinels have to protect people from deadly nano-viruses and the majority of the world’s population still have to toil to afford their basic necessities. Meanwhile, a select few live with immense wealth, but to protect that wealth they congregate in “tribes” that enforce social order. The action in this novel takes place in Hong Kong where the Han tribe dominate, though there is also an enclave of Neo-Victorians. The Neo-Victorians have retreated to the strict social mores and class deference of 19th century Britain to bring order to the modern world.

The leader of the Neo-Victorians, Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw, commissions an amazing educational text that combines nano-technology, sophisticated interactive software, and live remote actors to give his granddaughter a well-rounded understanding of the world, morality, and her own emotions. When its creator is mugged, the book accidentally ends up in the hands of a very young, abused working-class girl named Nell. The rest of the novel follows Nell’s education and mimics the style of enlightenment novels (which obsessed over the idea of education and what we would call “nature or nurture”). As always with Stephenson, there’s a variety of entertaining side stories, including my favorite involving a Neo-Confucian judge. There’s also a secret society of hackers trying to bring down the hierarchical social order that has evolved.

The ending is the one point where the novel seems to fall down a bit (a common problem for Stephenson), but this is a fantastic and original novel, especially the portions involving Nell or Judge Dee. Highly recommended.

Grade: A

Thursday, March 10, 2011

1995 Saturn SF – 12 MONKEYS

I’m surprised that this is my first and only chance to talk about Terry Gilliam in this awards round-up. He has one of the best sf film resumes of any director this side of Spielberg and Cameron, and his body of work is far more diverse and surprising than theirs. He received Hugo nominations for Monty Python and the Holy Grail in 1978, Time Bandits in 1982, Brazil in 1986, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen in 1990, and 12 Monkeys in 1996. That’s one hell of a list of great sf movies, but none of them managed to win. At least 12 Monkeys picked up a Saturn, and this is one of those instances where Saturn’s pick is more exciting and original than Hugo’s (more on that in a week). Gilliam likes surrealist stories about mentally unstable people which he augments with unsteady, drunken camera-work. This film, alongside The Fisher King, probably represents his most commercial work, but it’s also perhaps his best.

12 Monkeys is based on an experimental French film called La Jetee, which is a surrealistic romance involving a time traveler from a post-apocalyptic world. Here, James Cole (Bruce Willis) is the post-apocalyptic survivor of a horrific plague in the year 1997. He’s part of a gritty underground society that sends expeditions to the surface (where we see New York City overrun by zoo animals) and back in time to understand the plague. But, we’re warned again and again that the past cannot be changed. Cole travels back to the 1990s where he meets a mental patient named Jeffery (Brad Pitt) who spouts revolutionary rhetoric and a sympathetic psychiatrist named Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe). Cole and Railly are drawn to each other due to some mysterious memories, and they eventually begin to explore the origins of the virus, which they link back to Jeffrey and his 12 Monkeys group.

It’s a tightly plotted story with incredible visuals from Gilliam and some brilliant acting. This is the first film where Brad Pitt showed his range. Stowe is wonderful, and every time I see this film, I wish she’d had a more extensive career. Willis does pretty good for Bruce Willis. Its eerie atmosphere, great story, and exploration of destiny and apocalypse make it one of the best time travel films ever made.

Grade: A

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

1995 WFA – TOWING JEHOVA by James Morrow

God is dead. Even more surprising, he was a two-mile tall bearded Caucasian dude, and his body has fallen from Heaven into the Atlantic Ocean. The archangels, dying of grief, contract with the Vatican to hire disgraced oil tanker captain Anthony Van Horne to tow the Holy corpse to a burial site. However, the Church wants to disobey the angels’ orders and cryo-freeze Yahweh, Walt-Disney’s-head-style. At the same time, a team of rogue atheists want to destroy the corpse before anyone catches wind of it.

Yeah, it’s a plot so intriguing/weird that I had to lead with it. It’s in the irreverent, cynical-yet-insightful tradition of Kurt Vonnegut, but wacky blasphemy only takes you so far. Morrow won the 1991 World Fantasy Award as well, for Only Begotten Daughter, a book about Jesus’s little sister who is born into the modern world, becomes a lesbian and writes a tabloid advice column. Other stuff probably happens in that novel, but I put it down halfway through. It’s not that I was offended…in fact, I think the problem was that I was in no way offended. The story’s humor and narrative hooks depend on the reader caring about Morrow’s twisting of religious ideals…and I didn’t. I feel much the same about this work, though I did finish this one.

Both novels were actually well-written and full of well-rounded characters. I really liked the female Messiah’s adopted father in Only Begotten Daughter, for instance, and Van Horne and his Vatican counterpart, a Jesuit physicist named Thomas Ockham are quite nice here. There’s also a decent set of themes – faith and forgiveness, parents and children, and a discussion of the source of ethics similar to The Terminal Experiment’s but infinitely more logical, erudite, and funny. There’s plenty of good here, I just never felt like there was enough story to float the novel. I really liked Morrow’s recent novella, Shambling Towards Hiroshima, and there are many similarities; to destroy God’s body, the atheists hire a bunch of World War II-obsessed special effects gurus that would have fit right into Shambling’s oddball origin-of-Godzilla story. Towing Jehovah has the same play of slapstick and morality tale, cynicism and humanism, and absurdity and metaphor as Shambling…the only real difference is the additional two hundred pages of length. But, I think that is the crucial difference. It’s a good conceit, and well-told, it’s just too long for that conceit to carry. This could’ve been a great novella, but, for me, it’s merely an okay novel.

Grade: B-

History of science fiction

This is an incredible infographic of the history of science fiction by artist Ward Shelley.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

1995 Nebula – THE TERMINAL EXPERIMENT by Robert J. Sawyer

There are lots of little things that annoy me about The Terminal Experiment. 1). The humor is awful (an actual punchline to a real joke in the book: “Vulcan mind melt”). 2). The novel takes place in the distant future year of 2011, and yeah, people watch TV on DVRs and use eReaders, but they also use video phones, have voice-controlled houses, and they have special sleep monitors so they know how much noise they can make when their partner seems to be asleep, possibly the dumbest invention I’ve seen in a sf book. 3). Sawyer also gives us his typical barrage of pop culture references, which would be fine if they weren’t so damn…surfacey. We learn that the main character likes Star Trek and Robert Parker novels, not because they illuminate his character all that much, but because Sawyer likes those things. 4). There’s some petty moralizing as the main character looks down his nose at people drinking alcohol during Friday night happy hour. And then there’s 5). the misguided crusading against organ donation (?!), or 6). the meticulously researched but ridiculous and overwrought “assassination by food-drug interaction” scene. Not to mention 7). the general sense you get from Sawyer novels that Canada is the center of the universe.

So, Robert Sawyer is an author with a few tics, and those tics are bound to get on the nerves of certain of his readers – something annoyed me in almost every chapter here. Still, I’d be willing to overlook these problems if the novel came even close to living up to its central premise(s).

The Big Idea here is that biomedical engineer Peter Hobson accidentally discovers the soul after he invents a super-sensitive nanotech EEG while trying to prove that life-saving organ donation procedures are immoral (?!?!). Oh, and someone else has used nanotech to make people immortal (remember, it is the far-future year of 2011!). We do get some interesting news-clippings about the cultural effects of these discoveries, but Hobson decides that his main goal should be to test their effects on individual personalities…by making three exact computer copies of every aspect of his mind (!!!!). Any of these biotech revolutions would be worthy of an epic science fiction novel, but in The Terminal Experiment, they play out in tandem through a small domestic drama and a generic murder mystery.

Hobson’s copies include an exact “control” copy, a copy that believes itself immortal, and a copy that thinks it is disembodied spirit. Sawyer glosses over the extremely important details of how Hobson and his partner program these differences. But, Peter has recently learned that his wife cheated on him, and one of the copies decides to seek vengeance! There are murders, an uncannily brilliant detective with implausible instincts, and there’s some sort of (dumb) philosophical point about marriage and morality in there. In the end, Sawyer’s writing is okay, but his tics grate. His future feels half-assed, delusionally optimistic, and contrived. And, the Big Ideas trample over each other – they’re jumbled, then buried in a mystery story. The end result is not good at all. I’d say this novel is significantly worse than www:Wake, and I’m again disappointed by the Nebula awards.

I needn’t bother have written all that – Ubernerd pegs this one perfectly in probably his longest review.

Grade: D

Thursday, March 3, 2011

1995 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation – STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION: “All Good Things…”

Ron Moore and Brannon Braga wrote this final episode of The Next Generation. They had become fairly integral to the show by this point, and I think their aesthetics added a lot to the show – it became less episodic, more serious and just a tinge darker under their watch.

Like, “Inner Light,” this is a fine example of what Star Trek: The Next Generation does well, and, again, it focuses on Patrick Stewart, by far the show’s strongest actor and biggest presence. It’s also an amazing model for how to do a series’ finale: it looks back to the show’s beginning and looks forward to see where the characters might go without losing sight of the present. The godlike entity Q (John DeLance) causes Picard to skip back and forth, Slaughterhouse-Five-style, through three periods in time – the show’s present, seven years earlier when the Enterpise-D launched (the show’s pilot episode, “Encounter at Farpoint,” which was nominated for a Hugo), and twenty-five years into the future. In all three time periods, Picard must investigate a cosmic MacGuffin – these leads to doubts from his fledgling crew in the past, and, in the future, Picard has to “get the band back together” while his old crew suspects that he is suffering the effects of a degenerative brain disease. The MacGuffin is rather pointless and nonsensical, but the writing and acting are excellent, and it’s a brilliant way to send off the show.

Star Trek has yet to pick up another Hugo, though there is some good material out there after this – at some point maybe I’ll take an opportunity to say a bit more about DS9. There’s also a lot of really bad Trek after this as well, including a few awful Next Generation films, including Generations, written by the same Braga-Moore team and filming almost immediately after this episode. You can’t win them all.

I wonder how many more Hugos TNG would have won if they had separated the dramatic presentation categories as they do now. There wasn’t much competition; I think The Next Generation prompted a lot of the sf shows that appeared in the 90s. These two Picard episodes are very deserving, especially “The Inner Light,” but it would have been nice for some of the Klingon episodes to get more attention – the show builds a fairly rich culture for these aliens that were just swarthy moustache-twirlers in the Original Series. “Sins of the Father” and “Reunion” are very good. The alternate timeline action episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise” is also worthy of attention, as are some of the Asimovian robot stories about Data, like “Measure of a Man.” Then there’s the more action-oriented battle with the Borg in “Best of Both Worlds.” I’m sure the show was bad as often as it was great, but those great episodes really are some of the finest science fiction television of all time.

Grade: A-