Thursday, April 28, 2011

1998 Saturn SF – (tie) DARK CITY, ARMAGEDDON

As far as I’m concerned, 1998-2000 is the golden age of modern cinema. Yes, there are lots of other great periods in recent film history, but it’s not since the ‘70s that you had so much innovation and so many directors (and studios, amazingly enough) embracing a spirit of independence and the idea of the auteur. There were at least a dozen great films each of these three years, as we got to see the emergence of the likes of Spike Jonez, P.T. Anderson, Wes Anderson, David O. Russell, Sam Mendes (once upon a time, I could have put Shymalan and the Wachowskis on this list without irony!), plus brilliant films from the Coen Brothers, Terrence Mallick, and other greats. The biggest component of this renaissance was the financial success of Miramax and the studios’ subsequent willingness to let directors go wild (until they produced enough oddball bombs that the studios reined most of then in). A lesser, but still important, component was the increasing use of new effects techniques for subtler character points or atmosphere rather than just to make things go ‘splodey. I'd say the latter plays a big role here.

I have a very vivid memory of seeing Dark City in the theaters in 1998; it’s not often that a film takes you completely by surprise, but Dark City had been poorly publicized, and I had no idea what it was about. I convinced some friends to see it based off of a glowing Ebert review, and I was completely blown away by the films’ visuals, and its willingness to take the sci-fi elements up to 11. Alex Proyas has done nothing before or since this film to really distinguish himself, but this film does belong on my “Great Films of the Late 90s” list.

In the city, it’s always nighttime, and at midnight, the clocks stop and everyone goes to sleep. John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up during one of these episodes with no memory in a hotel room containing a dead girl. He soon finds out that he’s suspected as a serial killer by a detective (William Hurt), and that he’s separated from his wife Emma after she cheated on him (the always-gorgeous Jennifer Connelly, looking even better than usual), but he’s pretty sure he’s never met Emma and that he’s never killed anyone. He’d also like to see Shell Beach, the oceanside community where he grew up, but no one can tell him how to get out of the city. Soon, strange-looking men are chasing him, and he discovers his own telekinetic powers. It gets weirder from there. I didn’t even mention Kiefer Sutherland’s rather bizarre performance.

This film pays a lot of tribute German expressionism, and rather started a fad for the style’s revival (see The Matrix, which also shares many plot elements). It’s a beautiful film, and yet it’s not shy about its pulpy roots. Dark City is not perfect – the characters are flat, more or less by necessity, but the dialogue is even flatter But, it is unique, and a really great experience if you haven’t seen it. I’m not sure it’s aged all that well, and I think The Matrix stole a lot of its thunder, but it’s still worth a look.

It says on all the sites I checked that Dark City tied with Michael Bay's Armageddon for this award. I’m just going to go ahead and assume that’s some sort of mistake, or perhaps an elaborate April Fool's joke, because Armageddon is an all-around terrible film.

Grade: A-

Sunday, April 24, 2011

1998 Locus SF – RISE OF ENDYMION by Dan Simmons

Hyperion is one of the best space opera novels of all time, but its resolution, The Fall of Hyperion, is a rushed-feeling mess of a book. I wasn’t really sure I wanted to continue with the final two books of the series after that, but I do have a solid streak going with the Locus awards, and since the final book won I felt obliged to continue.

This second pair of books does manage to recapture some of what made Hyperion so special, though they also manage to repeat some of the messy mistakes of Fall. In the third book, Endymion, we return to Simmons’ universe a quarter-of-a-millenium later and see that much has changed. The Catholic Church has taken over from the old Hegemony and created an empire called the Pax. A young man from the planet of Hyperion named Raul Endymion (enough with the Keats references already!) meets up with some survivors of the first series and becomes the escort for a twelve year old girl with a capital “D” Destiny named Aenea. The novel unfolds as a chase across several worlds as church officials pursue Raul and the girl (and their robot pal). Unlike Fall of Hyperion, the story is simple, the cast limited, and the sum total engaging and fun.

In this volume, Rise of Endymion, we return the epic and manic universe-bending mess of Fall of Hyperion. The fate of the whole universe is on the line, the rules can and will change at any moment, and the power of love will somehow save everyone. Raul continues to hop from planet to planet, and Aenea continues to slide toward her Destiny. Even though only the second novel won the Locus, the pair of novels make a single whole, and I wouldn’t recommend reading either separate from the other.

Actually, I’m not sure I’d recommend that either. On the one hand, Simmons’s prose, character work, world-building and action scenes are all pretty great. Much of the novel moves from world to world, and Simmons uses his extensive knowledge of history and literature and a respect for the genre’s history to build a series of really interesting places for the protagonists to visit. For instance, the planet of T’ien Shan, featured on the cover, features colonists from Buddhist monasteries, who built a new home high in the mountains of a planet with a noxious atmosphere near the surface. These sections come the closest to matching the greatness of Hyperion. But, there is quite a bit of chaff in that wheat. Far too much of the book is taken up with the machinations of the church antagonists, which don’t serve much purpose and really start to drag. And, the rules do go out the window late in Rise, just as they did in Fall. We get a series of infodumps about evolution and theology and Buddhism and love, which allow for Simmons to chat about what are surely some pet interests before employing a series of deus ex machinas to quickly wrap everything up. As I’ve said before, it’s great when a speculative fiction author uses the full scope of his or her imagination to push the boundaries of reality…but, when characters can come back from the dead, teleport across the universe, or collapse an interstellar civilization with a thought, the stakes of the conflict really aren’t clear.

Simmons is a fine writer, and a lot of this is interesting, but none of it reaches the quality of the first book. I’d say, read Hyperion, then go skim or read some synopses of the rest if you just have to know where it all goes.

Grade: C+

2011 Hugo Nominations

And, the nominees are...


Cryoburn, Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen)
Feed, Mira Grant (Orbit)
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)
The Dervish House, Ian McDonald (Pyr; Gollancz)
Blackout/All Clear, Connie Willis (Spectra)


The Lifecycle of Software Objects, Ted Chiang (Subterranean)
‘‘The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon'', Elizabeth Hand (Stories)
‘‘The Sultan of the Clouds'', Geoffrey A. Landis (Asimov's 9/10)
‘‘Troika'', Alastair Reynolds (Godlike Machines)
‘‘The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen's Window'', Rachel Swirsky (Subterranean Summer 2010)


‘‘The Jaguar House, in Shadow'', Aliette de Bodard (Asimov's 7/10)
‘‘Plus or Minus'', James Patrick Kelly (Asimov's 12/10)
‘‘Eight Miles'', Sean McMullen (Analog 9/10)
‘‘The Emperor of Mars'', Allen M. Steele (Asimov's 6/10)
‘‘That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made'', Eric James Stone (Analog 9/10)


‘‘Ponies'', Kij Johnson ( 11/17/10)
‘‘For Want of a Nail'', Mary Robinette Kowal (Asimov's 12/10)
‘‘Amaryllis'', Carrie Vaughn (Lightspeed 6/10)
‘‘The Things'', Peter Watts (Clarkesworld 1/10)


Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1 (1907-1948): Learning Curve, William H. Patterson, Jr. (Tor)
The Business of Science Fiction: Two Insiders Discuss Writing and Publishing, Mike Resnick & Barry N. Malzberg (McFarland)
Writing Excuses, Season 4, Brandon Sanderson, Jordan Sanderson, Howard Tayler, Dan Wells
Chicks Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the Women Who Love It, Lynne M. Thomas & Tara O'Shea, eds. (Mad Norwegian)
Bearings: Reviews 1997-2001, Gary K. Wolfe (Beccon)


The Unwritten, Vol. 2: Inside Man, Mike Carey; art by Peter Gross (Vertigo)
Girl Genius, Volume 10: Agatha Heterodyne and the Guardian Muse, Phil & Kaja Foglio; art by Phil Foglio (Airship Entertainment)
Grandville Mon Amour, Bryan Talbot (Dark Horse)
Schlock Mercenary: Massively Parallel, Howard Tayler (Hypernode)
Fables: Witches, Bill Willingham; art by Mark Buckingham (Vertigo)


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
How to Train Your Dragon
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Toy Story 3


Doctor Who: ‘‘A Christmas Carol''
Doctor Who: ‘‘The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang''
Doctor Who: ‘‘Vincent and the Doctor''
F%$& Me, Ray Bradbury
The Lost Thing


Lou Anders
Ginjer Buchanan
Moshe Feder
Liz Gorinsky
Nick Mamatas
Beth Meacham
Juliet Ulman


John Joseph Adams
Stanley Schmidt
Jonathan Strahan
Gordon Van Gelder
Sheila Williams


Daniel Dos Santos
Bob Eggleton
Stephan Martiniere
John Picacio
Shaun Tan


Weird Tales


Banana Wings
The Drink Tank
File 770


James Bacon
Claire Brialey
Christopher J Garcia
James Nicoll
Steven H Silver


Brad W. Foster
Randall Munroe
Maurine Starkey
Steve Stiles
Taral Wayne


Saladin Ahmed
Lauren Beukes
Larry Correia
Lev Grossman
Dan Wells

Well, I've long put off the decision of whether or not this blog would be profanity free, but I think the Hugos have forced my hand with their nomination of "Make Sweet Love to Me, Ray Bradbury." I know the video, but I'll save my feelings on it for my review. I am glad that short film "The Lost Thing" made the cut and helped prevent an embarrassing category sweep by The Doctor. Long Form doesn't really have any surprises, though I am glad to see some love for Scott Pilgrim.

It looks like my best guess was on Graphic Fiction, which is depressing. It's clear that Hugo nominators either don't know comics or don't know how to appropriately vote for longer running serialized stories. I may give this category a glance, mostly to check out Grandville, but don't expect a detailed disquisition on the latest volume of Schlock Mercenary.

In the novel category, Feed came out of nowhere as far as I'm concerned, and I didn't think Cryoburn had gone over that well. Between catching up on the adventures of Miles Vorkosigan and Willis's blitz magnum opus, I have my work cut out for me reading wise. The nomination of Blackout/All Clear kind of ruined the announcements for me. Honestly, I would've much preferred www:Watch. At least Sawyer's novels are breezy. But, hey, we did get four female nominees, potentially ending the drought in female winners that I pointed to before. On the other hand, the one male nominee has to be counted as the favorite at this point.

On top of a couple of lengthy nominated works, I'm going to review five additional novels from 2010, because of attention they've received (or because I've already read them). They are

The Half Made World, Felix Gilman

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu

Mockingbird, Suzanne Collins

Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart

Zoo City, Lauren Beukes

So, the plan going forward:

I'm going to be a bit more focused and rational in my reviewing schedule this time, rather than the rotating reviews with interspersed '80s winners that I confused everyone (including myself) with last year. I'm on schedule to finish the '90s by the end of May (the reading is done and the reviews are written!). Then, starting in the first or second week of June, I'll attack the 2011 Hugo nominees, one award at a time, a week or two on each category, probably in the following order:

Short Story
Dramatic Short
Dramatic Long

I'll try to wrap it up by August 19th (the awards are announced August 20th), and then we'll dive into the winners of the '00s by September and finish the whole giant review in early 2012, well before the end of the world as predicted by History Channel specials about the Mayan calendar.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

1998 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation – CONTACT

Contact has such a fine pedigree, that it was pretty much inevitable it would win this award. Based on a novel written by the great scientist/writer/first-contact-enthusiast Carl Sagan, the film was directed by Spielberg-protégé and Back to the Future co-creator Robert Zemeckis. It’s a first contact story, but one that focuses on science and (by Hollywood standards) plausibility.

Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) developed a love of astronomy and a curiosity about the existence of extra-terrestrial life from her caring father, who died while she was still a young girl. As an adult, she sacrifices her career to this obsession and spends much of time listening to the noise from radio-telescopes at the Very Large Array in New Mexico. She’s generally derided, though New Agey Christian guru Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey, at the point in his film career when we were still supposed to take him somewhat seriosuly) has a thing for her. On the verge of losing her funding, she hears a signal from the star Vega. The signal is full of information, including the plans to build a mysterious machine. James Woods, as Evil Government Man, and Tom Skerritt, as Evil Competitive Sell-Out Former-Teacher Man, try to co-opt the project to forward their own careers, but Ellie manages to hang on, thanks in part to the most ridiculous part of the film, the patronage of an extremely mysterious super-rich super-genius named Hadden. Jake Busey plays a Busey, i.e. a madman who screams incoherent nonsense. Ellie eventually gets to use the machine, and….maybe….communicate with the aliens.

It’s a very well-made and well-acted film, and despite some Hollywood-style melodrama, it manages to feel more grounded and relevant than most sf films. The second act drags a bit, but it’s pretty compelling nonetheless. Most importantly, Sagan, Zemeckis et al manage to make this a film about science, and they convey the stimulations, challenges, and overall excitement of scientific discovery. I’m a strong believer in the idea that the world needs more positive depictions of science as a method and as an occupation.

The real theme of the film is science versus faith, and I think the movie manages to pull it off while still doing justice to each side. The theme plays out through a debate between Ellie and Palmer, and both characters manage to present their case and see the other’s point of view without really compromising their firmly held beliefs. It’s a difficult balance to strike, but this movie manages to navigate it nonetheless.

Solid script, solid acting, solid directing, clear themes...throw in some good special effects, and you have a film that really is Hugo-worthy….though 1997 was a great year for sf films. I obviously liked this better than Men in Black. Starship Troopers is a truly stupid movie that many people enjoy; I didn’t like it at the time, but maybe I need to rewatch it to see if there really is some great satire that I missed. The Fifth Element is as different from Contact as you can get, but I think it’s fun and interesting. Gattaca is the real under-appreciated gem of this year; it would have gotten my vote over Contact. I can’t complain though.

Grade: B+

2011 Hugo nomination announcements this weekend (finally).

My guesses are here.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

1998 Clarke and 1997 BSFA – THE SPARROW by Mary Doria Russell

There’s an oft-heard cry among fans of science fiction novels – “when will mainstream literature accept us?” I think there’s a legitimate beef there, but I also think it’s interesting that the science fiction establishment is quick to reject a science fiction novel from an sf-outsider that *is* quickly accepted by much of the literary mainstream. This book, a first novel, is a good example – since its release it’s been a mainstay of “literature” shelves in bookstores and it’s made the circuit of mainstream book clubs. And, it’s quite good. Yet, it did not get as much attention from sf circles. Russell won a Hugo for best new writer, and she got the BSFA, but this novel didn’t receive a Hugo or Nebula nomination. Its biggest win was the Clarke, which already had a reputation for favoring mainstream writers since its first presentation to Margaret Atwood. Maybe I’m exaggerating, but sometimes I do feel like the lack of communication goes both ways.

The novel follows a Jesuit priest named Emilio Sandoz who returns from a church-sponsored first contact mission in disgrace in 2059. We then flash back to the discovery of the aliens in 2019 (who broadcast beautiful songs over radio waves from just a few light years away), and the assembly of Sandoz’s first contact team, which comes to include other priests, an elderly couple who are close friends of Sandoz, and a beautiful AI programmer with whom Sandoz is smitten, despite his vow of chastity. They travel in a retrofitted asteroid to the planet of Rakhat and meet the planet’s two sentient species, the pastoral Runa and the more sophisticated Jana’ata. Meanwhile, in “present day” sections we see Sandoz on trial, and we learn just how horribly wrong everything went on Rakhat.

The Sparrow’s sf credentials should not be in doubt. In fact, the proceedings feel pretty retro. The religious themes are clearly reminiscent of Blish’s A Case of Conscious, the first contact scenario and space travel have a few elements of Clarke, and the attention to the ethnographic detail of the aliens is straight out of LeGuin. Russell handles all of this elements with great skill, and overall, her prose is pleasant and readable. And she shines with her handling of the characters, especially Sandoz and the considerable development of his faith throughout the novel. I’m not a religious person, but I found the priest’s religious struggles moving and intellectually satisfying.

I’d say the novel’s one major flaw is in its pacing. The early chapters unfold very slowly, and it takes more than half of the novel to get Sandoz to Rakhat. Russell lays down some important character groundwork in these chapters, but she also treads some water. The final chapters unfold very quickly, and some very important events get only brief overviews during the trial.

SF fans might complain, and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong, that this novel doesn’t really cover any new ground, but I don’t think every novel needs to have a Vingean “New Idea.” In fact, I’m beginning to think that obsession with Ideas is the central problem with modern sf. I prefer the sort of grounded character work presented here. Forever Peace has more flashes of brilliance, but this is a better novel, taken as a whole.

Grade: A-

Sunday, April 17, 2011

1998 Hugo and Nebula – FOREVER PEACE by Joe Haldeman

1977’s Forever War won both the Hugo and Nebula and is one of the most influential science fiction novels of all time. I wasn’t sure it lived up to the hype, but I did like it, and it’s stayed with me since I read it. This novel is not a sequel to that earlier book – it takes place in an entirely different world; in keeping with the times, it’s much less space opera and much more cyberpunk – but it’s at its best when it evokes the same sense of war and world weariness that seems to have come from Haldeman’s experiences in the Vietnam War.

It’s 2043 and nanotechnology provides everyone in developed countries with all of their basic needs…though not always particularly well. Another common technology is mental ”jacking” which allows people to link their minds to others’ or to machines. The novel’s narrator, Julian Class, is an African-American man who uses his jack to remotely control a “soldierboy” fighting robot, deployed in an intractable war with most of the southern hemisphere (Julian spends most of his time fighting in Central America and Colombia). A linked group of rebels under the banner of “Ngumi” provide the ubiquitous enemy there, and they have also managed a nuclear attack on Atlanta (though there are suggestions that elements within the US government have worked to continue the war). Between missions, Julian is able to fly back to his home in Texas and observe the media coverage of the war, which most Americans follow like a sport. You could say that the Ngumi War is a kind of “War on Terror,” and Forever Peace shows excellent foresight on this front.

Piloting a soliderboy, and fighting the Ngumi terrorists, causes a great deal of mental stress, and Julian is especially tormented by the experience. He’s often on the verge of suicide. The first half of the novel allows us to see Julian in military actions, effectively portrays his own unhappiness, and establishes a richly drawn future America. In the second half, his older girlfriend Amelia Harding takes on a larger role as her own scientific research raises the stakes of ongoing war. The titular “forever peace” refers to a sort of pacifist revolution that Julian joins, as well as the possibility of death or even the end of the world, which Amelia’s research shows to be a real possibility. I found this second half much weaker. Actually, it’s flat-out bad. There are a lot of contrivances in how the bigger threats and possible resistance emerge; Julian knows exactly the right people to move the plot along. And, as the plot gets bigger and crazier, it simultaneously becomes a by-the-numbers thriller with some rather generic villains (a sexy fundamentalist-Christian super-assassin, in particular, is very over-the-top, and she takes over the novel in the last hundred pages).

The novel does fall down because of these second-half problems. It’s certainly no Forever War. It is very well-written though, and there’s an interesting trick with the narration, which occasionally switches to third person-omniscient rather suddenly (though I did think this kind of gave away the ending). More importantly, just like Forever War, it’s a very wise cautionary tale that relates closely to the world of today. Haldeman knows war, and he knows how to convey its horrors. Throw in an excellent first half and a host of interesting ideas, and I would recommend this novel, despite its weaknesses. Maybe quit around page 150…

Grade: B-

Friday, April 15, 2011

1997 Locus Fantasy – A GAME OF THRONES by George R. R. Martin

Ah, we come to the end of 1997, and we just happen to come upon a novel with a high profile televisions adaptation debuting on HBO over the weekend. Okay, I shuffled the schedule a little bit to get this in here, but not much!

George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series is one of the biggest sensations in fantasy from the past fifteen years not named Harry Potter. It certainly built up quite a cache within the geek community. At six or seven books, averaging about a thousand pages each, it’s not the longest high fantasy series of all time, but it’s up there. It certainly gives Martin room to stretch out and tell a very epic story, to the extent that this first volume feels like 800 pages of prologue.

Martin has created a relatively gritty world, where many of the fantasy elements, like dragons, mages, legendary warriors, and “children of the forest,” are pushed to the fringes. The novel’s little person, rather than coming from some separate race of dwarves or hobbits, is a human with a genetic condition. Most of the novel focuses on the political maneuverings of a few of the world’s noble families. We especially focus on the noble Starks from the north, and the scheming Lannisters. Eddard Stark is a close friend of the King, and becomes his Hand (sort of a Chief of Staff), while Cersei Lannister is the King’s wife. Eddard’s five legitimate children find themselves caught up in this contest, as do Cersei’s brothers, including Tyrion, the aforementioned little person. Meanwhile, Eddard’s bastard son Jon Snow takes a position on the northern Wall, a frontier beyond which mystical forces are perhaps marshalling for an invasion as a decades-long winter threatens to descend on the world. We also see Daenerys, the daughter of the previous domineering king, whom the Starks and Lannisters had overthrown. She marries into a grounp of Mongol-like nomads in an attempt to marshal an army to retake the throne for her family. Each chapter follows one of the eight or so main characters as the political situation slowly falls apart within and the threats grow from without.

Martin’s prose isn’t fancy, but it’s quite effective. He can establish a scene with rich details, or he can move things along at a quick pace when necessary. He’s created a very rich world with some compelling characters, and it’s easy to see why these books are so popular. However, I have to say that I didn’t quite love this novel as much as I wanted to, but I’m not sure it’s Martin’s fault. As I’ve been realizing since I read the Riddlemaster trilogy, High Fantasy doesn’t do much for me these days. I’m not going to say I’ve grown out of High Fantasy, because that sounds more judgmental than I mean to be. I guess I’d say that High Fantasy and I have grown apart. For instance, even though I admired the detailed character work that Martin does here, which really does the most to set this fantasy series apart from others, I didn’t like many of the characters. The Starks’ high fallutin’ nobility, their obsession with honor and loyalty, were all somewhat alienating. The only characters I related to on any level were Tyrion, Jon Snow, and maybe Eddard’s proto-feminist daughter Arya. All of them are as alienated from this society by conditions of their birth as I would feel. Martin deserves a lot of credit for creating these outsider characters to question the values of his medieval society – values which are too often unexamined in other fantasy works. But, that doesn’t change the fact that this novel made me spend a solid 500 or more pages with characters I didn’t find particularly interesting. I will say that there were some very captivating bits near the end where they began to delve deeper into the world’s mythology that I really enjoyed, and the final chapter contained a pretty great twist.

It’s an impressive book, and I’m looking forward to the HBO adaptation. I also want to read more…eventually. The next two volumes also won the Locus Fantasy award, in ’99 and ’01, but I think I may wait a while longer before I dig back in…

Grade: B

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

1997 Saturn – MEN IN BLACK

The Saturn is far from the most prestigious award that I’m covering, but I wanted to include it for the sake of variety in my movie reviews. It has also awarded some very strong films that outshined their more prestigious Hugo competitors in the long-run (Soylent Green over Sleeper, Terminator over 2010, 12 Monkeys over Babylon 5). So, the Saturn has recognized its fair share of strong sf movies. This is not one of them.

Men in Black is a big-budget science fiction action comedy special effects extravaganza. There’s also some sort of story and characters in there, but they’re mostly overwhelmed by a combination of slime jokes and cg goo aliens. The film, adapted from an obscure Marvel comic book whose existence I cannot verify, taps into the alien conspiracy craze that the super-popular X-Files had rekindled at this point while adding lots of elements from the aesthetics of Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton (Spielberg executive produced, though director Barry Sonnenfeld seems more indebted to Burton on this one). The men in black are mysterious well-dressed government agents who cover up alien encounters. Tommy Lee Jones plays an uber-professional man in black, basically by reprising his role from The Fugitive. Will Smith plays the headstrong new recruit in a set up that is only slightly incredibly generic. Rip Torn is the bossy boss. Linda Fiorentino is underused as the love interest. Tony Shaloub and others play weird aliens, just barely passing as humans. I think I’m listing the cast because there’s so little plot to recount. Aliens threaten to blow up the world, and the Jones/Smith team must stop them. The film undercuts itself by repeatedly reiterating that the plot may seem exciting, but this is really just a normal, boring day at the office for the men in black.

If you haven’t noticed by now, I’m not a fan of this movie. It’s quite popular among lots of sf fans, but it rubbed me the wrong way the first time I saw it, and it rubbed me the wrong way again this time. Jones could pull this roll off in his sleep (and, he may actually be sleeping through most of the movie – what are those sunglass hiding?), and Will Smith is his usual, sickeningly charismatic self. They’re the best things about this mostly stupid film. There’s a fair amount of childish gross-out humor, which is generally not my favorite, and the rest of the jokes depend on the idea that anyone at all unusual must be an alien.* “New Yorkers sure are weirdos, they must be aliens!” Har…har? I don’t want to seem oversensitive; a smarter script could probably make these things work. This is not a smart script.

So, yeah, not funny. Not even a good riff on the alien conspiracy idea. The best thing I can say about this film is that it’s very short and quite inoffensive…and yet, I am offended by its inoffensiveness. Sorry, I think I have an irrational hatred for this film. The fact that it won in a good year for sf-on-film over the likes of Gattaca, Contact, and The Fifth Element just makes me even more annoyed.

The sequel, by the way, makes this movie look like The Godfather II.

Grade: C-

*By the logic of the film, shouldn’t Rip Torn be an alien rather than a man in black?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

1997 Nebula – THE MOON AND THE SUN by Vonda McIntyre

It’s been a while since Dreamsnake, but McIntyre becomes the sixth author to win a second Nebula for best novel (only LeGuin has more than two – she has four). This is a historical novel set in 1693 in the court of Louis XIV at Versailles, but with one major sf element.

I’ve gone off on historical fantasy before (Gloriana, Dragon Waiting); in short, I love it in theory, but usually dislike it in practice. This novel represents one of my greatest pet peeves about historical fiction in general – characters with a modern mindset who condemn the prejudices of the past. That’s not to say that the prejudices of the past shouldn’t be depicted in historical fiction, but exempting a pet character from said prejudices damages believability and precludes subtlety. Here we have the beautiful, young Marie-Josephe de la Croix, who hates the racism and sexism she sees at court, is sensitive to the idea that an animal may be sentient, openly questions the Pope and King, corresponds with Newton and van Leeuwenhoek, falls in love with an atheist dwarf, and frees her Turkish slave. Her one limitation is a prudishness instilled in her at a convent, which she overcomes fairly quickly and easily. She has a thoroughly late-twentieth-century mind and thus sticks out in McIntyre’s seventeenth-century setting like a sore thumb. I much prefer to see the author let the attitudes of the past speak for themselves – show us the unfairness of sexism and racism, don’t invent an implausible character to tell us about them.

I never really got over this aspect of the novel, and it didn’t help that I was never that drawn into the plot. Marie-Josephe’s brother Yves, a Jesuit priest, discovers a twin-tailed sea monster that seems to be part manatee, part mermaid. He brings it to Versailles in the hopes that the Sun King can gain immortality by eating its flesh. Marie-Josephe befriends the creature and learns to communicate with it through song. Then we get several extended scenes where she pleads that others accept the “sea woman” as an equal and free her. Nobody listens because she’s a girl. It’s all so unfair! But, she manages to convince the right people, and we get a very unlikely happy ending out of the whole affair. We get some fairly typical courtly intrigue (hint: everyone is a bastard, and everyone is related), and some fairly dull descriptions along the way. There were amazing, “Renaissance Women” in reality (Suor Maria Celeste, Sor Juana de la Cruz, Anne Bradstreet), but no man or woman of the time was as perfect and forward thinking as Marie-Josephe. We’ll see a much better-executed version of this concept with Eliza in Stephenson’s Baroque cycle towards the end of the year.

There’s potential here. I liked Dreamsnake well enough, and McIntyre is a decent writer with some good ideas. The “sea woman” is the one really compelling part of the book. But, her approach to the historical material and overly-perfect protagonist just turned me off. It’s not terrible, but it was not for me.

Grade: C

Friday, April 8, 2011

1997 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation – “Severed Dreams,” BABYLON 5

Back to B5 with its second, and final, Hugo win. I chronicled my B5 watching history last time: there’s no question that the long, intricately planned arcs are ground-breaking and influential. However, horrible production values marred the series’ first season. By season 3, the production values have improved quite a bit. It seems to be in the same range as a show like early Buffy (whose production values I have no problem ignoring). However, even in season 3, at the show’s creative peak, I’m still not entirely won over by the characters and plot.

In the last Hugo-winning episode, Babylon 5’s quest for peace was collapsing as the evil “Shadows” manipulated alien races into attacking each other. These problems continue, but the newest threat is from within. An alliance of Alfred Bester-inspired psi-cops, the Shadows, and an evil President have taken over Earth and declared martial law. Under Commander John Sheridan, Babylon 5 breaks with the new Earth government and becomes a beacon of resistance. A lot of fighting ensues, and the production team really does pull out all the stops to make the battles look relatively decent…and even better.

I’m still not entirely sold on this series though. I wish I knew more about the Shadows. I wish everything wasn’t framed as a titanic struggle between pure good and pure evil. I wish the characters weren’t cookie-cutter clichés. I wish JMS could dial back his love of melodrama and preaching from the soap box. I wish a lot of things. There’s so much to admire about this series, but there continue to be a lot of little things that bother me. I doubt I’ll be a convert in the end, but I really do appreciate the layered, continuity-heavy storytelling that the show represents.

Unlike last time, I don’t think this episode was up against extremely strong competition. DS9’s “Trials and Tribble-ations” was a fun, nostalgic romp, but it was also very gimmicky. First Contact is also fun but flawed – more in the JJ Abrams school of Trek movies than the Nicholas Meyer school. If I were to pick an alternate winner, it might be a previous B5 episode called “Messages from Earth,” wherein we learn that the evil Earth government has found Shadow ships on Mars and Ganymede. It’s got a great archaeological mystery and an action sequence that may not be as elaborate as this episode’s but is more exciting (and less inevitably headed toward dues ex machine).

Grade: B

Monday, April 4, 2011

1997 Hugo and Locus – BLUE MARS by Kim Stanley Robinson

Blue Mars wraps up Robinson’s monumental Mars trilogy, which tries to bring scientific and sociological realism to the colonization and terraforming of Mars. By this volume, we’ve entered the twenty-second century. Multiple revolutions have rocked Mars, and the surviving members of the original colonists, plus the succeeding generations of Martians, focus on forging new economic and political systems for the rapidly growing population and the changing climate of the red planet.

Again, Robinson spends a lot of time on these economic and political questions. Usually, he demonstrates an awareness of socio-economic complexities, but there are a few more straw man moments here and some rather embarrassing moments where characters inspire unanimous awe by espousing Robinson’s utopian views. Yes, his Martian society works a little too perfectly, and there are echoes of Pacific Edge throughout the trilogy. I do like that Robinson will go out on a limb with these issues though – constructing an entire Martian Constitution or imagining the future theoretical frameworks that guide various academic disciplines. For instance, he creates a whole new meta-theory of history here – it’s mostly just a modification of Marxist historiography, and it doesn’t really work for me, but I admire the guts and imagination it took for Robinson to posit it. He does the same thing with physics and neurology as well.

Alongside the academic theorizing, Robinson continues to offer detailed descriptions of Martian landscapes and a focus on character development, usually in tandem. The changes in Mars are dramatic and beautifully evoked by Robinson, as in wonderful passages where characters explore their memories while looking out on an icy Martian sea. I especially like the ways that Robinson draws on the work of Aldo Leopold to examine the aesthetics of “wild” nature and the human place therein.

And the characters have mellowed, a lot. Red Mars is probably a more dramatic and exciting entry in the series, but, boy, are the main characters horrible people. By the end of Blue Mars, I’d come to sympathize with all of the survivors, even the manipulative and melodramatic Maya. At the novel’s beginning, the “red” Ann Clayborne threatens most of Martian society with an obnoxious stubbornness, but the later sections following her were some of my favorite in the entire series. In one chapter, she spends time with new Martian fauna and the geneticist that designs them. In another, she takes a trip to Uranus with a fourth-generation Martian girl. She’s the one who least wants Mars to change, and Robinson’s rendering of her coming to terms with the terraforming can be quite moving.

From skimming a few online reviews, it seems that the consensus is that this is the worst of the trilogy, but I think it was actually my favorite of the three excellent books, mainly due to the characters’ mellowing. Plot-wise, it is perhaps an anti-climax. The most dramatic events take place in the early chapters, and the novel winds down with the musings of the aging First Hundred colonists as they accept their losses, contemplate senescence and death, and relate to the vastly different generations of the Martian-born. Honestly, if you’re a fan of tight plotting and the three act structure, avoid Kim Stanley Robinson like the plague. I love his prose, and I don’t mind the long descriptive passages and the time he spends on various ruminations. Even I’ll admit that this volume could have used a little trimming though.

I’m interested to see how much I see the influence of this widely-read trilogy in coming novels. I know one idea in the particular volume has been picked up by other writers. Robinson describes a period of the rapid settlement of the solar system, and he dubs it the “Accelerando,” which was later picked up by Charles Stross. I also hadn’t realized that the future of Galileo’s Dream may well have been in the same universe as the Mars trilogy (there are a few strong hints, including a fictional mathematician that appears in both). The Mars trilogy may not be for everyone, but I do think every sf fan should give Red Mars a shot. Robinson’s detailed world-building and rich prose are hard to match.

Grade: A