Thursday, June 30, 2011

2011 Not-a-Hugo Nominee: Dram. Pres., Short Form CAPRICA

Caprica was a fascinating show. Its ideas and themes were fascinating, how it presented them was fascinating, and its utter failure was perhaps most fascinating of all.

Let me start out by saying: I like Caprica. I wasn’t always sure that I did, but, in the final analysis, I liked it a great deal. Here’s the shocker: I liked it better than Battlestar Gallactica, and I’m more likely to revisit it in the future.

Caprica takes place some seventy years before the Battlestar reboot, and it tracks the creation of the robotic cylons. The series follows three families connected by terrorism. Daniel Greystone (Eric Stoltz) runs the massive corporation that makes highly popular virtual reality goggles. His daughter Zoe (Alessandra Torressni) is a genius who designs an artificial copy of herself. His wife, Amanda (Paula Macolmson), gets into some zany hijinks over the course of the series. The Adama family are immigrants to Caprica from Tauron. Joseph (Esai Morales) tries to assimilate while his brother Sam remains involves in Tauron crime family activities. Joseph has a son named William, a name that should be familiar to BSG fans. Zoe, and Joseph’s wife and daughter Tamara, are killed in a terrorist attack on a shuttle orchestrated by monotheists. Clarice Willow (Polly Walker) is the local monotheistic mastermind; she’s part of a large polygamous family. Zoe was a devotee of Clarice, and her surviving friend, Lacy (Magda Aponowicz), ends up getting drawn into Clarice’s plans as well.

That was probably hard to follow if you haven't seen the show - basically, it's an exploration of robotics and VR in a society riven with decadence and religious conflict. It’s also sprawling family drama with a meandering plot. It doesn’t have the clear-cut character and plot hooks of BSG, where humankind is running for its life and most of the characters are obsessed, crazy, and/or take-no-prisoners badasses. Caprica is more complex, which is why I liked it better, and probably why it failed. On top of that, you have BSG fatigue (that last half season was weird), and the overall change from an action show to a highly speculative family drama. Prequelitis shouldn’t really be a factor – we know so little about the start of the cylon war that there’s plenty of surprises possible, and the character you’re least likely to think can die actually does. Still, the show has so many strikes against it, it’s failure seems like a foregone conclusion in hindsight.

Not to mention the fact that the show is far from perfect. The first half can move extremely slowly, while the second half (with cancellation looming) zooms at an insane pace. The plots, as I mentioned, seem to wander around randomly. Amanda’s story is especially indicative of this – she’s with Daniel, then she’s not, then she is again. She hates Zoe, she loves Zoe, she has to expose Zoe, she has to save Zoe. She’s suicidal. She’s dead? She’s an undercover agent? Paula Macolmson is a trooper through it all, but the character really is a trainwreck. There’s a similar stop and start/back and forth with Joseph Adama and the avatar of his dead daughter Tamara. And, they can’t seem to decide if Daniel is pure evil or misguided and overconfident.

So, it does go off the rails on occasion, but the show has a lot to offer. The VR culture is interesting and compelling, and this may be the finest realization of cyberpunk themes on television ever. The show also does much more to establish the twelve colonies setting in one season than BSG did in four. One of my biggest complaints about BSG is that it never felt like a coherent universe. The twelve colonies on Caprica are still a bit too similar to our own Earth, but at least we get some more details about the different ethnicities and their traditions. The look of the show is fantastic as well.

Recommended episodes:

“Pilot” – The show is heavily serialized, so you have to start at the beginning. I also think that this is where the show went wrong with the audience, who were expecting something different. If you go in with an open mind, I think the show’s potential is clearer. Grade: A-

“There is Another Sky” – My favorite episode of the series explores the virtual version of Caprica City for some cyberpunk action. Grade: A

“Dirtearters” – An exploration of Tauron history through Sam and Joseph’s childhoods. This episode really offers that grounded exploration of ethnicity that I found lacking in BSG, which was more likely to bring up characters ethnicities out of the blue to serve melodramatic one-off plots late in later seasons. Grade: B+

“Here There Be Dragons”/“Apotheosis” – The premature conclusion of the series does its best to tie up loose ends and bridge the gap with BSG. It works surprisingly well, and the ending montage is especially effective. Grade: B+

Overall series grade: B

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominees: Dram. Pres., Short Form - “The Lost Thing,” written by Shaun Tan and “F*** Me, Ray Bradbury,” written by Rachel Bloom

Let’s begin with the sexually-charged paean to the ninety-year-old science fiction writer by a young parodist of Britney Spears…….

….it’s cute. And somewhat clever. That’s about all I have to say about it. It’s nothing particularly meaningful and important, and it’s not trying to be. I wouldn’t have nominated it for this award, and it certainly shouldn’t win, but I did chuckle the first time I saw it. I’m tempted to launch into a discussion of third-wave feminism, but that seems silly, and I’m saving my long-winded, over-analyzing tangent for the next nominee.

Shaun Tan’s “The Lost Thing” already won the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film, but I’m sure Tan would rather have this Hugo. It’s pretty clear that this category was designed for tv, but it is ideal for short films, and I’m surprised they haven’t done better here, especially with the profusion of animated short films in the past decade plus.

This sixteen-minute computer animated feature follows a narrator in a dystopic world. He finds a strange creature on the beach; it’s a ceramic-steampunky-tentacled-crab thingie that can’t really be categorized. He tries to find it a home, but no one really wants anything to do with it. The soulless bureaucratic world just wants to bury it.

The message of this film is a bit amorphous. Over the course of this blog, I’ve decided that there are two main types of dystopia: let’s call them social dystopias and cultural dystopias. Social dystopias look at what could go wrong with the societal issues we face: ecological limits, overpopulation, totalitarianism, economic divides, etc. Cultural dystopias look at worlds destroyed by reality tv or people not reading novels as much as they used to. Every dystopia is a little bit of both, but the origins tend to lie in one or the other. 1984 give us the culture of doublespeak, but it all springs from political trends that Orwell absorbed from his contemporary world. Meanwhile, Fahrenheit 451 (speaking of the oh-so-*bleep*able Mr. Bradbury) shows us a totalitarian world that springs from addiction to daytime soaps. I really prefer the former examination of societal issues than the complaints about cultural trends. I mean, I really hate those Real Housewife shows, but I don’t think they spell the end of civilization as we know it. And, once upon a time, people thought novels were low culture.

What’s my point? I don’t know. I guess I’m trying to say that the film’s condemnation of conformity, bureaucracy, and consumerism felt trite and pointless, as such things usually do to me. That’s not to say that I didn’t like it though. The designs are fantastic; the bland dystopia is wonderfully conveyed in the art direction, and we see all sorts of great, oddball creatures, especially the titular Thing. It is a very cute film, and I’m glad it was nominated. I hope more short films get nominated in the future, and I’m a little worried that this only made the cut because the previous Wondercon was held in its originating nation of Australia.

Grades: “Bleep Me, Ray Bradbury” B-
“The Lost Thing” A-

Monday, June 27, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominee: Best Dram. Pres., Short - Doctor Who: "Christmas Carol"; "Pandorica/Big Bang," Steven Moffat; "Vincent & Doctor" by Richard Curtis

After a disappointing set of specials dominated this category last year, it was to be expected that the strong fifth season would do well. I’m actually a bit disappointed that season opener “The Eleventh Hour” and the Angel two-parter didn’t get nods…not that I was rooting for a category sweep. Lots has changed since those specials. The Doctor has regenerated into a new body with a slightly different personality, meaning that young actor Matt Smith is playing him rather than David Tennant. Smith’s Doctor is more awkward, eccentric, and all around geekier, though my wife swears he’s cuter than Tennant’s. I’m not sure I like Smith as much as Tennant, but that in itself is quite a compliment, as Tennant has probably done more to define the role than anyone since Tom Baker. We also have a new showrunner in Steven Moffat. Moffat wrote most of the best episodes of the previous Russell T. Davies (and picked up four Hugo nominations and three wins for his four stories). People expected Moffat to do great things, and he more or less delivered (though for some people, expectations may have been too high). Finally, and not to be underestimated, we have a new companion in plucky Amelia Pond (Karen Gillan), who is engaged, but also manages to sexually harass the Doctor a few times.

The highlight of “Vincent and the Doctor” is first time Doctor Who writer Richard Curtis. Curtis is more famous for his very British film comedies like Four Weddings and A Funeral, Notting Hill, and Love Actually (Hugh Grant is not in this episode for some reason). The Doctor and Amy are viewing a Van Gogh exposition when they notice a monster’s head portrayed in the window of a cathedral in one of his paintings. So, being time travelers, they zip back to 1890 and ask him about it. They learn that Vincent is tormented by an invisible chicken monster that only he can see, and they spring into action. It’s very unusually paced for a Doctor Who episode; the monster fighting is a small part of the episode and is resolved early. Most of the episode is given over to quieter, reflective scenes and some light comedy, and that fits nicely into the overall arc of the season, considering that something tragic happens in the episode before. And, the invisible monster is an effective metaphor for Vincent’s mental illness (he committed suicide in 1890). This is not mind-bending speculative fiction…there’s not much new in here at all in fact, but it is very well executed.

The next two nominees are both Moffat-written, and I think they illustrate both his strengths, and some of his tics, which have become clearer as he writes more episodes. “The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang” is the big season finale that ties together several running plotlines. We’ve seen cracks running through space and time in several episodes – in this one, the Doctor’s enemies believe that he is responsible, so they attempt to imprison him, but the universe explodes anyway. Oh well. So, tic #1: Moffat is great at coming up with cool images and catch-phrases (“don’t blink,” “cracks in the universe,” gas mask kid, etc.) and he seems to build episodes around them. For me, “The Pandorica Opens” is a giant exercise in this. We get a flashy beginning that runs through several guest characters and across space and time to get a simple message to the Doctor, then we get aliens versus Romans at Stonehenge, the greatest prison in the universe, the Doctor threatening a horde of circling spacecraft, and the universe exploding. Yeah. A lot of big, impressive stuff happens…but I’m not sure there’s enough story there to hold it all together. Then, “The Big Bang” has the unenviable task of dealing with the fact that the Doctor was defeated and the universe exploded in the previous episode. There’s no way fixing all this isn’t going to feel like a cheat, and it more or less does, but it’s a good, exciting cheat. Previous showrunner, RTD, was often derided for his “clap you hands if you believe Doctor” deus ex machine season enders. We get much the same thing here, without all the complaints. Maybe people just aren’t as sick of Moffat yet…or maybe Moffat just does it better. I tend to favor the latter theory. Moffat keeps things small and character focused (it looks like most of the budget went into the “Pandorica” half, as we spend most of this episode in one location, and there’s really only one physical villain). “Pandorica” is exciting, but it feels dangerously over-the-top; “The Big Bang” is quieter, and gets progressively calmer. The two episodes balance each other out nicely, though they also leave behind a lot of big questions that are still unresolved, half-a-season later.

Finally, at the end of 2010 we got the usual Doctor Who post-season Christmas special. I liked “A Christmas Carol” very much, but I got the feeling that general reception was not so positive. It does fall prey to Moffat tic #2, he does repeat himself sometimes. There are motifs he likes – shadowy figures in space suits ("Silence in the Library," "The Impossible Astronaut"), monsters talking in crackly radio voices of dead friends ("Forest of the Dead," "The Time of Angels"), and the Doctor meeting someone several times throughout their life in rapid succession ("Girl in the Fireplace," "Eleventh Hour"). “A Christmas Carol” does the latter, and the set-up to get there is pretty contrived as well. But, those two flaws aside, I think this may have been the finest hour of Doctor Who in a very strong year. The Doctor’s companions and thousands of others are in a crashing space liner, but the Scrooge-like plutocrat Karzan Sardick (the great Michael Gambon) that runs the planet below refuses to save them. The Doctor decides to make Sardick a better man by time travelling to every Christmas of his youth and giving him a better childhood. Young Sardick finds a tragic love along the way. Yes, we see some repetition of themes, and yes, the plotting can be a bit ham-fisted, but the fine performances and the sweet holiday story made this a favorite of mine.
It was an excellent year for the Doctor. I don’t know how long this show can dominate this category without some sort of backlash developing. I also haven’t been as fond of season 6 as I was of season 5 so far. I guess we’ll see what happens next year.

Grades: “Vincent and the Doctor” A-
“The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang” B+
“A Christmas Carol” A-

Saturday, June 25, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominee: Novelette Wrap

What really jumps out at me in this category is how much it leans towards old-fashioned, straight-laced sf. It’s like we’ve gone back to before the New Wave. Hell, “Eight Miles” is back with Jules Verne. The one exception is probably “The Jaguar House, in Shadow.” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it also hangs behind a set of stories that I otherwise really liked. To be fair to de Bodard, it was also the story that I had the highest expectations for, and that may have played a role. I was pleasantly surprised by everything else, but I wanted more from an Aztec-themed alternate history.

As we get into the next decade’s worth of Hugo winners, I’ll have some things to say about the state of science fiction. Certainly, hard sf and space opera have looked kind of sickly from both a sales and an awards perspective. I think that perhaps what those genres need are more straightforward stories like these, which focus on character, plot, and relevance, rather than a parade of showy ideas stacked precariously on top of each other.

Anyway, other than “Jaguar House,” this is virtually a four way tie. I think, my vote will go like this (but I might change it at the last minute):

"Emperor of Mars"

"That Leviathan..."

"Plus or Minus"

then, "Eight Miles"

Friday, June 24, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominee: Novelette - "That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made" by Eric James Stone (Analog, September 2010)

This is another sort of old-fashioned space opera story. We even get exposition describing simple elements of the world from a first person narrator, which most authors seem to bend over backwards to avoid these days. I’m fine with this; I’ve always found being forced to puzzle out the ground rules more distracting than the illogic of a person describing what should be a familiar environment.

Harry Malan leads a branch of the Church of Latter Day Saints on the sun. Most of his congregation is made up of “swales,” alien beings that live in stars and build star gates between them. Malan has conflicts with local scientists studying the swales, especially Juanita Merced, whom he also happens to have a crush on. He comes into conflict with the swale elders when the mores of the church begin to conflict with swale culture. The story raises some interesting ethical issues, and it presents a simple but fun space opera world, something that I feel has been missing of late.

This is clearly from Malan’s perspective, and Stone is also LDS, but I (decidedly not a Mormon) usually found the presentation balanced. A lot of the reaction from other reviewers whose blogs I follow has been intensely negative. I think you could view this story as a manipulative justification of missionary work. As a historian, I’ve done a great deal of work on the Franciscan missions of California and the Protestant mission in Hawai’i, and both cases are fraught with violence, sexual repression, and appalling death rates. I’d be one of the last people to defend missionary work as a general principle, but I do think the story gets more complex when you bring it up to the present. In the modern world, there are clear points of conflict between universal humanist values and respect for cultural diversity. Religion, of course, complicates these conflicts, and in this story, so does the fact that the other culture is non-human. All of this makes for a fascinating read. What’s really missing here, and what undermines the metaphor to a large extent, are the power dynamics that are usually present in missionary work. Malan is often in danger from powerful alien beings. Historically, missionaries were also often in danger, and many were killed, but missionaries were almost always backed by some sort of imperial power, and disproportionately violent retribution often followed martyrdom. It's almost always been more dangerous to be the object of missionary work than to be a missionary. If Stone really wanted to explore these dynamics, his swales should have been more vulnerable.

Still, I really enjoyed this story. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, and it’s not shooting for a PEN/Faulkner award, it just presents an interesting concept in a simple, entertaining way. I see why some people were offended, but I did think it had a lot more nuance and evenhandedness than, say, Speaker for the Dead (which makes me a little bit angrier every time I think about it).

Grade: B+

Thursday, June 23, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominee: Novelette - "Plus or Minus" by James Patrick Kelly (Asimov's, December 2010)

This story follows the crew of a grungy 22nd-century asteroid-mining ship ironically called the Shining Legend. We spend about half the story meeting the crew, especially the point-of-view character, a teenage girl named Mariska Volochkova. In the second half, something goes wrong with over a hundred days left in their trawl through the solar system, and the crew has to come up with a way to conserve oxygen.

The “technical problem in space” is a classic hard sf plotline. So much so that I get a little nostalgic whenever I read a story in this mode (come to think of it, “For Want of a Nail” qualifies as well). There are some new things here – most of the crew are clones genetically engineered for space travel, and everyone can link their thoughts, or “mindfeed” (I’m assuming through some sort of wireless implants).

Still, the technical details are all pretty boilerplate, so the story’s success or failure rests on characters and atmosphere. Luckily, both are pretty darn good. Mariska is solid enough, and her relationship with her boss, mother, and flirtatious coworker all worked for me. And, the ending worked quite well to boot. A very solid story that's familiar in a good way.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominee: Novelette - "The Jaguar House, in Shadow" by Aliette de Bodard (Asimov's, July 2010)

I’m a sucker for Mesoamerican stuff, and I like the idea of mashing that intriguing material into speculative tales. It makes for a cool aesthetic at the very least. So, this was one of the more highly anticipated reads for me this year, but I’m not sure the story fulfilled its promise.

The plot is fairly simple, though its telling is more complicated. The Mexica Empire of an alternate reality Earth has become corrupted due to a despotic, demagogic figure called the Revered Speaker. The titular Jaguar House consists of elite Mexica special forces. One of these Jaguar Knights, a woman named Onalli, attempts a rescue mission for her friend Xochitl. That missions serves as a framing story for Onalli remembering her history with Xochitl and the corruption of the Jaguar House that jumps backward in time, first months, then years.

I don't see, in the end, what the backwards chronology brings to the story. I didn’t really learn enough about the characters or the world to be stunned by any of the revelations that come from slowly unveiling the backstory. I’m not sure that much is done with the setting either. Considering that the setting was my favorite part of the story, this was problematic. I learned more about it in the one sentence introduction from Asimov’s than from the rest of the story, though there was some strong material on the cultural relevance of sacrifice.

In other words, I had the same problem that I had with Paul Cornell’s story last year – this is part of a series of stories that I’m unfamiliar with, and I’m not convinced it works on its own. Maybe that suggests that I might enjoy a novel or short story collection set in this world, but I think Hugo-winning stories should stand as independent pieces.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominee: Novelette - "The Emperor of Mars" by Allen M. Steele (Asimov's, June 2010)

I’m pretty sure this story is based on the life of real-life historical figure Emperor Norton, a mentally ill immigrant to San Francisco who declared himself Emperor of the United States in 1859. San Francisco, being San Francisco, obliged and unofficially recognized him as such until his death in 1880. We get a similar case in this story, though it’s transported to a blue-collar 21st century Martian colony.

Steele uses the new setting to ring some added poignancy to the situation. It’s not just the position that troubled worker Jeff Halbert invents, but a whole lost Mars of canals, ancient civilizations, and heroic Martians; it's a Mars lost not only to science’s understanding of the planet’s lifeless nature, but also to fiction, as sf writers abandoned Martian fantasies with probes’ explorations of its surface.

Steele also uses the setting to reference a lot of the past fiction about the red planet, as he uses the real-life Phoenix DVD, a collection of science fiction stories landed with a probe there in 2008. A lot of this just amounts to name-checking, but it does add to the overarching sense of Martian nostalgia that he evokes.

This story felt old-fashioned in several ways. A productive, blue-collar Martian colony by 2048 seems pretty optimistic in the current atmosphere, but the setting feels pretty familiar to readers of ‘50s sf. The portrayal of mental illness feels a bit old-fashioned as well, but Steele's obviously going for drama over realism. I can’t say there’s anything groundbreaking or revolutionary about this story, but I did thoroughly enjoy it. And I guess that’s what matters most.

Grade: B+

Monday, June 20, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominee: Novelette - "Eight Miles" by Sean McMullen (Analog, September 2010)

Look, if you had one shot, one opportunity to have everything you ever wanted…one moment, would you let it slip?

...Wait, this isn’t the Eminem movie, Eight Mile, but it is eerily similar. Instead of a struggling young man in Detroit who dreams of succeeding in rap battles, we get an obsessed scientist in the nineteenth century struggling to prove his theory of human evolution by taking a batwoman he bought from a circus to a high altitude in a hot air balloon. Plagiarize much, McMullen?

That’s actually not exactly the plot, as there are a few twists in this brief story. The story is narrated by balloonist Harold Parkes as he becomes obsessed with achieving higher and higher altitudes in helping mad scientist Lord Gainsley high enough that his oxygen deprived “werefox” “Angelica” will get her mental facilities back. There’s not a lot of action in the story, but it does manage to evoke a sense of high adventure, sweeping vistas, and old school science fiction in just a few pages. McMullen’s prose doesn’t have quite the vivid flare (or verbosity) of nineteenth-century prose, which always bothers me in Victoriana, and we really only get a sketch of the situation. But, this was a fun tale that captured my imagination.

Grade: B+

Friday, June 17, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominee: Graphic Story Wrap

Honestly, I don’t hate webcomics. Some of my best friends make webcomics. I’m just tired of the two webcomics in particular that seem to dominate this category to the exclusion of a very wide world of material. Manga, people! Manga! Let alone European comics, a vibrant indie scene in the US, and even decent work in the superhero world that mostly gets ignored if Neil Gaiman or Paul Cornell aren’t involved.

I’m obviously unhappy with the Hugo nominators yet again. I will say that Unwritten is great work, Grandville was decent, and I had fun with this volume of Fables, even though it’s monopolizing nominations just like Schlock and Girl Genius. But, I really want to use the “no award” option here.

I don’t vote “no award” all that often. The Hugo awards are symbolic recognitions of work. There’s not a lot at stake here, and I think it’s easy to make the mistake of taking them too seriously. Hey, I’ve devoted most of my free time for the past two years to reading and writing about them, and I don’t take them that seriously. To me, saying that something doesn’t deserve a fairly meaningless symbol of recognition is a pretty dramatic position to take, but that’s what voting for “no award” over a work is saying.

In this case, however, I’m sort of rooting for “no award” because this category’s nominators have failed so badly at their job. I may put Unwritten above it...but it’s going to be high on my ballot.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominees:Graphic- Girl Genius 10: Agatha Heterodyne & the Guardian Muse, by Foglios; Schlock Mercenary: Massively Parallel, by Howard Tayler

Did you know that Phil Foglio has won more Hugo awards than Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke combined? Okay, that’s a lie that I just made up, but if this category keeps going, it has a good shot of coming true. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that something dominate a category if there is annual work that consistently tops the field (Doctor Who has been the best science fiction on tv for most of the past six years, I’d say, and the awards back that up). But “graphic fiction” is so much broader than Hugo nominators seem to recognize, and I don’t think this is the best work done in the field. This is a strong, familiar, and welcoming series, that helped start the whole fad (extremely fun at first, though perhaps a bit tired by now) of the female mad scientist in the steampunk world, and it’s by the Foglios, longtime WorldCon fan favorites and all around super-nice people. That makes it hard to complain about, but, for the third volume in a row, we’re stuck in a castle, and the jokes and plot get increasingly insular. If you haven’t read volumes 1 through 9, don’t bother with this one. I understand why this comic has a rabid fanbase (that happens to have a very strong correlation with Hugo voters), but is it the finest graphic fiction produced last year? No.

I think I need to retire this rant.

Schlock Mercenary is an occasionally funny military sf comic strip that I didn’t like much when it was nominated last go around. More of it was published last year. I didn’t read much of this volume, but I didn’t see anything to sway my opinion from what I did see.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominee: Graphic Story - Grandville Mon Amour, by Bryan Talbot (Dark Horse)

Lots of people have tried to “fix” the Graphic Story category by suggesting nominees, and this graphic novel, the second in a series, was one of the most touted, especially from British quarters. It is the first graphic story nominated that’s not from the “Big Two” (American publishers Marvel and DC, representing multimedia conglomerates Disney and Time Warner, respectively), nor based on a licensed sf property from another medium, nor Girl Genius or Schlock Mercenary. Breakthrough? I guess.

Grandville seems to be from the “kitchen sink” tradition of throwing together a lot of varied tropes and hoping that something original comes out. The setting is alternate history/steampunk: Britain lost the Napoleonic Wars, and is just coming out of a near-two-century French occupation. This has somehow led to a late Victorian/art nouveau aesthetic and lots of clunky steam-powered machiney…and blimps! The story is political thriller/Sherlock Holmes/noir. And, most of the characters are anthropomorphic animals in the style of a nineteenth-century French cartoonist. Sometimes I felt like Bryan Talbot was trying to say something with these odd juxtapositions. Most of the time, I got the feeling that he just thought they were cool.

Scotland Yard Detective and Sherlockian badger Archie LeBrock is on the case when his arch-enemy, a former British resistance fighter and all around psycho, escapes on the way to the gallows. Archie descends into a gritty underworld to discover his whereabouts and how he escaped, and on the way, he uncovers a conspiracy that goes all the way to the top! Don’t they always?

I did find this story rather predictable, and the character designs rather pointless. The art is interesting – there’s a lot of richness in the backgrounds, and the storytelling is fantastic. That said, there was an angularity to the character designs that I found a bit off-putting. And, overall, I think it either needs to be prettier to hammer home the cartoonish quality of the characters, or it needs to be uglier to fit the gritty style of the story. Instead, it sits somewhere awkwardly in between.

This is a fine, but somewhat clich├ęd story with interesting, but flawed art. I liked it better than some of the perennial nominees, but I don’t think it’s the cure to what ails this category.

Grade: B-

Sunday, June 12, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominees: Graphic - Fables: Witches, Bill Willingham/Mark Buckingham; The Unwritten, Volume 2: Inside Man, Mike Carey/Peter Gross (Vertigo)

Unwritten is the one nominee in this category that I was really rooting to get nominated, though I worry that now that nominators have noticed it, it will just become another perennial. Mike Carey’s Vertigo (an imprint of the more famous DC Comics) series has a great hook: A man named William Taylor wrote a series of very successful Harry Potter-like novels starring a fictional version of his real-life son Tommy Taylor. William disappears before the last novel is published, and Tommy is left with the burden of having an obsessed fanbase. Then, one day, elements from the novels begin to interrupt his life as he discovers that magic is real. By this volume (slight **spoilers** here) we know that the real magic is in words and stories, and that there is a conspiracy that has shaped human history through managing narratives, both big and small. William was a part of this conspiracy, and he’s using Tommy as a weapon to unravel it. Most of this volume, “Inside Man,” involves Tommy escaping from prison following the events of the previous volume. A real high point is a chapter about Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, who appreciated as much as anyone the magic of controlling narratives. I think this is the weakest of the three volumes released so far (volume three has a “choose your own adventure” issue!), but it’s still a very strong series. Peter Gross’s art is quite good.

Grade: B+

Speaking of Verigo and perennial nominees. Fables again! This is one of the three titles to be nominated for this award all three years of its existence. It is widely beloved though, and probably the strongest of the three.

Everything I said for last year's volume still pertains to this one. The book is lacking a little direction due to the resolution of it's overall story arc around issue 75, but the character work and magical world-building remain strong. Buckingham's a great artist. All that said, I don't find this book as unmissable as most comics aficianados seem to.

I will say I liked this one better than last year's though. We're a bit more focused on a few magic-oriented plotlines, though there are plenty of sub-plots running in the background...maybe a few too many. What really made this volume for me though was the character of Bufkin, a bibliophile flying monkey who has to fight Russian folklore's Baba Yaga mostly with his wits. He's great fun.

Grade: B

Friday, June 10, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominated Short Story Verdict

Maybe this is just me being the short-fiction curmudgeon that I am, but I didn’t think this was a very strong year for this category. There are only the four entries, and they’re not real stand-outs at that. I think I’ll vote for Kowal’s “For Want of a Nail,” but it’s really for lack of much else to choose from. Only “Ponies” feels particularly fresh, but that brief vignette doesn’t quite have as much to connect with.

Errrr, I don’t have much else to say on this one.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominee: Short Story - "The Things" by Peter Watts (Clarkesworld, January 2010)

So, we’re nominating fan-fiction now, huh?

I’m just kidding. Well, mostly. Watts’ “The Things” is a retelling of John Carpenter’s 1984 film The Thing, and it follows the film very closely (it’s on Netflix streaming, and I actually stopped reading and watched it as soon as I realized what Watts was up to). The twist is that Watts is telling the story from the perspective of the creature. It turns out that the titular Thing just wanted to talk, but its method of talking involves splattering Carpenteresque gore all over the place, a process it calls “communion.” It’s an interesting twist, and yet it felt somewhat familiar, even if I can’t pinpoint exactly from where. For most of the story, it felt like the old “the monster is us!” canard. The story does save itself towards the end by questioning the basic nature of life on Earth – what if all the things we take for granted about biology are unique to our planet? What if death and individuality are cosmic aberrations…even errors? I enjoyed those questions, but they came too late to save the story for me. I’ve also decided that I’m not a big fan of Watts’ dense, chewy prose. It’s certainly not bad, and I give him credit for having more of a voice than many sf writers, but it’s not really my cup of tea.

I know this is everyone else's story of the year, but it wasn't mine. I enjoyed the movie a lot though. I don't think I'd ever seen it before (though I had seen the also great Howard Hawkes version).

Grade: B-

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominee: Short Story - "Ponies" by Kij Johnson (, November 17, 2010)

Like last year, Kij Johnson's story is very short, dark and intriguing. With a story this short, I don't think I can really talk about it without spoiling it. I'll just say that it's a twisted combination of My Little Pony, Mean Girls, and "Harrison Bergeron." In other words, we have a violent depiction of conformity with a special emphasis on the social pressures that girls face to give up unique talents and interests in order to gain acceptance from their peers. It's sharp, stinging satire, and I imagine that most girls would sympathize. But, I think it lacks both the provocative grab and the emotional depth of "Spar."

Grade: B+

Monday, June 6, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominee: Short Story - "For Want of a Nail" by Mary Robinette Kowal (Asimov's, September 2010)

Most of this story involves an attempt to repair the damaged AI of a generational starship. The AI is named Cordelia, and one of the passengers named Rava dropped her and damaged her access to her memory. In the process of the repairs, Rava and her brother Ludovico discover that she has developed an emotional connection to another member of the crew and that she’s been covering for his health problems – health problems that would be a death sentence for him, as the ship’s limited resources must be conserved. There’s actually a fair amount going on in this brief and simple story. On top of all I mentioned, there’s the fact that the crew has become dependent on the AI for all of their history-keeping, and there are also reproductive politics (a theme this year?) concerning whether Ludovico can have a child. There’s even some random Victoriana because, hey, that’s pretty popular these days. The story doesn’t quite live up to the epic qualities of its title; there is a chain reaction, but no kingdoms fall in this fairly intimate short. However, it is well-constructed, interesting, and well-written.

Grade: B

Sunday, June 5, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominee: Short Story - "Amaryllis" by Carrie Vaughn (Lightspeed, June 2010)

I'm still on a work project in Kentucky, but I have an okay wireless connection, so let's see if we can get through some short short story reviews this week.

First up: Carrie Vaughn's story takes us to a world after environmental collapse in which reproduction and resource harvesting are both carefully managed. The narrator, Marie, captains a fishing boat called the Amaryllis and lives communally with her crew. A young member of the crew named Nina would like to have a baby, but the discrimination the crew faces due to Marie's own origins means that they're unlikely to ever get such permission. It's a solid depiction of a future recovering from plausible ecological scarcity, sort of a pricklier Pacific Edge, though it doesn't offer much unique other than the fishing boat setting. That depiction of labor is nicely rendered though, and the character relationships are sweet. There wasn't really much here to grab me though. This story is thoroughly pleasant, and I mean that as a compliment...but "pleasant" isn't necessarily enough to win a Hugo.

Grade: B-