Friday, July 29, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominee: Novel - FEED by Mira Grant

Another year, another nominee with zombies.

I’m beginning to think that every year of nominees is going to produce a novel that’s completely unexpected (by me, at least). Palimpsest was unknown to me before its nomination, and it was a very pleasant surprise. Feed also came out of the blue for me, but this time it seems to fit more into the Boneshaker slot of pleasant-but-not-spectacular books that seem to work too hard to cash in on current sf fads. It’s even the same damn fad…and I was tired of zombies before I even realized they were a fad.

In 2014 genetically engineered viruses to cure cancer and the common cold are released, and they recombine to create a syndrome called Kellis-Amberlee. When the viruses build up in someone’s system enough, usually through further infection (like a bite), or when the death halts the immune system, the victim will become a mindless animated corpse. It’s as good a sciency explanation for the walking dead that I’ve seen, and Grant (the secret identity of writer Seanan McGuire) deserves credit for it. She also deserves credit for writing a very readable, fast-paced book with some thrilling scenes.

The rest of the world, however, I found somewhat unconvincing. The central characters are action blogger twins Georgia and Shaun Mason, and their goth poet partner Buffy. After the “Rising,” blogs became the dominant form of media. The book takes place over twenty years after zombies began their rampage and George and Shaun are young enough that that’s the only world they’ve known. So, they go out into zombie danger zones, and then write/post video about zombie taunting and maybe some news. Near the novel’s beginning, they’re tapped to cover the presidential campaign of a Senator Ryman (R-WI), who is hip like that. There are various zombie-aided assassination attempts on the campaign trail, and while the Masons like Ryman, they do see hints of a vaster political conspiracy in their coverage.

I guess the idea that a bunch of punk bloggers are going to dominate the news media in a generation is plausible, but I had a lot of problems with how it was presented here. Their content certainly didn’t read as mature or particularly thoughtful for a start. The bigger issue is why Grant posits that bloggers would dominate in this apocalyptic society. The central theme seems to be about the truth, and we learn that the traditional media falls because it’s too skeptical. That’s right, the media questions reports of zombie attacks, while crazy conspiracy blogs do not – when they turn out to be right, people abandon the traditional media.

I’d be the first to argue that there are a lot of problems with the media, but their incredulity is certainly not one of them. I tend to think that we need a media that does more journalistic digging on iffy stories (*cough*WMD in Iraq*cough*) AND more dismissing of crazy internet theories (*cough*birthers*cough*). And yet, Grant (through Georgia) is quite sanctimonious about the idea that traditional journalism’s commitment to skepticism is a major failing.

The rest of the story felt somewhat generic. There is a surprising twist near the end, and some of the details of the blog world are well though-out, even if I did find them ultimately unconvincing, but the rest of the story felt very by the numbers. I won’t spoil the bad guy for you, but I will hint that it’s the really obvious character, who is also a giant walking cliché (his villainy was so obvious, I assumed it was a red-herring for most of the book). There are also a lot of pop culture references that took me out of the book – the four most important characters are named George, Shaun, Rick, and Buffy. Any modern zombie fan should be able to get those references immediately, and the book even explains two of them.

All of these issues just left me with the sense that, like Boneshaker, there just wasn’t a lot of serious sf content here. I might recommend it to people looking for a fun zombie book, but I don’t think it’s Hugo-worthy. And then, my personal blah feelings about zombies probably knock the grade down another notch.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominee: Dramatic Presentation, Long Form Wrap

Last year Avatar was the huge blockbuster Oscar-nominated Hugo nominee. This year it’s Inception. Again, I have seen some backlash against the successful film, but I don’t think Inception will share Avatar’s fate for three reasons. 1) It’s just a far better film. I don’t think you’ll find a serious film watcher who won’t acknowledge that Avatar was seriously flawed, even among its fans. 2) The knock on Inception is that it’s cold and overly-intellectual, that it lacks heart. I don’t agree with those statements, but I see where they come from. Still, I think those are easier criticisms to overcome than the more clearly justified claim against Avatar: that it’s hackneyed. 3) The competition just isn’t as strong as last year. I had minor issues with Moon, and big issues with District 9, but they both looked like solid, potential Hugo winners. This year, Harry Potter was half a film, Scott Pilgrim’s whole was less than the sum of its great director and fun source material parts, and Toy Story 3 just didn’t tickle the Hugo part of my brain. I think How to Train Your Dragon may be a dark horse, but it doesn’t really transcend being a kid’s film like most Pixar films do.

So, yeah, I voted for Inception, and I’m pretty confident that it will win. I know there is a dedicated group of Scott Pilgrim fans, and maybe others’ won’t agree with my views on Toy Story 3, which really was a great movie. If Inception doesn’t win, I think it will say a lot about how contrarian Hugo voters can be. Much more than Avatar’s last place finish did.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

2011 Not a Hugo Nominee - MONSTERS

Monsters didn’t get much of a theatrical release, but it did garner some strong reviews and comparisons to other recent “indie” sci-fi movies like Moon, and especially District 9. Like the latter movie, Monsters maps an alien encounter onto familiar political issues. Because of solid character work, I found it a lot more engaging than District 9, or the other big cinéma-vérité-monster-movie Cloverfield.

Mexico has been infected with alien lifeforms that can poison organisms on Earth and grow into giant monsters. The US has attempted to contain the creatures in Mexico, fencing off a giant “infected zone” in northern Mexico and conduction air raids throughout the country, making it into an alien warzone. Samantha (Whitney Able) is the daughter of a big-time newspaper magnate, and she has somehow washed up in Central Mexico. Her father charges a photographer named Kaulder (Scott McNairy) with getting her back to the safety of the United States. He’s unenthusiastic, though he does have the hots for Samantha; he also botches the transport, which forces them to take a dangerous path through the infected zone.

Most of the film consists of understated interactions between Kaulder and Samantha, but these scenes work really well. Writer/director Gareth Edwards* does great work with the dialogue, and the acting from the two unknown leads is quite good. They don’t fall into instantaneous Hollywood love, but they are drawn to each other, and into danger, by a mutual dislike of the lives they’re living. The film is focused entirely on these two characters, and their relationship, and it works. We’re not stuck with the yuppie douchebags of Cloverfield or the human walking disaster that is Wickus in Dictrict 9, but the characters aren’t perfect either. Edwards also makes great use of his Latin American locations, and he frames his characters in some really beautiful shots, though the geography is screwy (where exactly is that tropical Mayan temple on the US border? I’d love to visit it). The people of war torn Mexico also get a voice in several small roles that round off the world quite nicely and subtly.

The monsters don’t do much. They help to set the scene, that’s for certain, and I actually like the way they’re used as background material for almost the entire movie. You know that they have to make some climactic appearance though, and the scene where they do feels tacked on and unnecessary. Also, while I give the movie credit for being subtler (and far less misanthropic) than District 9, I’m not sure that the metaphor does come through clearly. Does the monstrous alien infection represent the drug wars that are ripping though northern Mexico and threatening to spill into the United States? I think so, though the movie doesn’t seem to have much to say about them other than they’re really bad. Maybe we’re supposed to focus on the callous way the American military operates across the border? Maybe. This movie should be all about the border, the line that shapes the two nations’ relationship and the lives of the people that live along it – it’s the characters main objective, but not much else is said about it. Also, a Mexican character with a bigger role sure would have been nice.

Still, it’s solid, character-driven filmmaking. It was quite good at being what it was, even if it could have done more with its sf metaphor. I'm not too sorry to see the nominators skip it, but it might have been a nice addition to the field if, say, we'd waited to nominate the complete Deathly Hallows next year.

Grade: B+

*maybe I should mention that this is a British production, but, I’ve never met an American named Gareth so maybe it’s obvious

Monday, July 25, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominee: Dramatic Presentation, Long Form - HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 1, directed by David Yates (Warner)

I don't want to spend a whole lot of time on this one because a) there's more Harry Potter discussion coming as soon as I resume my crawl through past winners, and I'm going to post most of my thoughts on the series then, and b) it's only half a movie.

This is the first half of the adaptation of the final Harry Potter movie. It eschews the usual school-year format, as the series has come down to the magicians in a world at war with the protagonists on the run for most of the movie. To defeat the evil Lord Voldemort, they need to destroy a series of items called "horcruxes" in which the Dark Lord has preserved and protected pieces of his soul in a quest for immortality. Unfortunately, Potter and his pals don't know what most of these horcruxes are, where they are, or how to destroy them. This makes for an odd film, in which the protagonists are aimless and directionless for a solid chunk of the run time. When the Deathly Hallows novel came out, almost everyone complained about the lengthy wandering through the wilderness and arguing scenes. Well, after a few exciting scenes in the first half, that's basically what this movie is.

I think those potentially boring scenes play better on screen though. Screenwriter Steve Kloves (who adapted most of the Potter franchise) and director Yates use this as an opportunity to focus on the characters, especially Harry and Hermione (Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson, respectively, who give their best performances of any of the films). There's a telling scene in the film where the two dance to a song on the radio that some found cheesy, but I think is a nice reminder that we're dealing with teenagers who have the weight of a world on their shoulders. Scenes like these led to me liking this film quite a bit. In fact, I just watched the climactic, action-packed Part II over the weekend, and I preferred Part I. As a result, I can kind of see why this was nominated even though the solid sixth entry was skipped.

Still, it's just half a movie. It ends rather abruptly, and it's certainly not a complete story. As I understand it, the nominating rules have clear guidelines for serialized works (Blackout and All Clear is an almost identical situation). I think the nominators should have held out for the rest of this one. I'm not sure that the full two-part film is any greater than the sum of its parts (I don't think it is, honestly), but that does seem like a fairer assessment.

Grade: B

Friday, July 22, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominee: Dramatic Presentation, Long Form - SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD, directed by Edgar Wright (Universal)

Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a Canadian slacker who plays in a garage band named Sex Bob-omb (it's a Super Mario Bros. joke). He’s unemployed, and he has to share a mattress with his gay roommate in a one-room apartment across the street from his parents’ house. He’s recovering from a devastating break-up with a girl named Envy who has gone on to date a super-powered Vegan. He’s dating a high school girl for a simpler relationship, but then he falls in love with a delivery girl with brightly-colored hair named Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who literally stepped out of his dreams (she uses a sub-space passage that goes through his dreams as a short-cut for her deliveries. It’s an American thing.) If Scott wants to date Ramona, however, he must defeat her seven evil exes. It’s a big ol’ metaphor for modern life in your twenties – everyone has to figure out who they are, what they want to do, and they have to learn how to have mature relationships and deal with the baggage that people have started to accumulate through middle school, high school, and thereafter.

I’m not really sure how to rate this film. I love the source material, a series of six graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley that begin as rather typical slacker-romantic-comedy material (which is not uncommon on the comics scene), but then reveal a world that works according to the rules of various 8-bit Nintendo games. Disagreements lead to explosive physical combat, and when enemies are defeated, they leave behind coins. The whole series plays a lot like the manga of Rumiko Takahashi which tend to mix romantic comedy with heavy genre content (UFOs in Urusei Yatsura and martial arts in Ranma ½), but with greater emotional depth. They’re immensely charming, hilarious, and the relationship story does manage to resonate with me (and lots of other people) despite the over-the-top characters.

I also love director Edgar Wright’s approach to the material. It’s incredibly faithful to the comic series, and Wright fills the film with comic visuals. Little sound effects pop up at times, and there are manga action lines all over the place. The action-movie parody Hot Fuzz suggested that Wright could be one of the greatest action movie directors of all time if he’d played it straight, and this film is every bit as expertly made, energy-filled, and visually lush as that one.

So, it’s a great-looking, incredibly faithful adaptation of material I love. And yet…I’m not sure this works as a movie. I think the central problem is pacing. The movie packs six graphic novels worth of material into two hours of film. That means that a lot of the quieter moments that build the characters get lost. Scott and Ramona’s relationship unfolds over a year in the books; here, everything takes place in about three days, and it’s hard to buy the emotional weight that’s supposed to be behind the fights. I’m also not sure that the casting entirely works. I loved Arrested Development, so I’ll always have a soft spot for George Michael…I mean, Michael Cera, but I don’t really buy him as Scott. The supporting cast is pretty solid though, with superheroes Chris Evans and Brandon Routh especially stealing scenes as ex-boyfriends.

I’m afraid that this is one of the weaker nominees this year. We get lots of funny lines and moments from the comic, great visuals from Edgar Wright, but I’d really recommend reading the graphic novels first (and I would've preferred a Graphic Story nom).

Grade: B

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominee: Dramatic Presentation, Long Form - INCEPTION, written and directed by Christopher Nolan (Warner)

I think I fell in love with Inception right around the ten minute mark, and I never looked back. I tend not to rewatch movies a lot (there’s so many great films I haven’t seen yet, after all), but I’ve seen this one a few times. It’s a film about levels of dreaming that has quite a few levels itself, and yet it still works on the most basic surface level as a fast-paced heist/action film.

Technology exists to shape and share dreams. This is most often used for industrial espionage - it’s a rather elaborate way to steal secrets. Dom Cobb (Leonardo Dicaprio) and his partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are experts dream thieves, but when a scheme to steal plans from a Mr. Saito (Ken Watanabe) goes awry, they agree to try to plant an idea into the heir to an energy conglomerate’s mind – a process called Inception. They recruit a talented young architect named Ariadne (Ellen Page) to build their dream worlds, and thus set up some brilliant exposition scenes that establish the rules of the universe while showing off some spectacular visuals. Then they descend through several layers of dreams, lots of stuff goes wrong, and we get lots of action and suspenseful intercutting between the different layers.

The rules can be a bit contrived. A major aspect of the film is that you can get lost in the dream if you fail to time your awakening correctly. This adds some tension and ambiguity to a situation where no one can really die, but it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (I don’t see how you can dream forever if you’re asleep for a finite amount of time…no matter the time dilation). I don’t care. The movie has its rules, and it sticks to them, and it’s better than the old “if you die in a dream you die in real life" canard.

It also establishes the existential dilemma that hangs out in the background (and *spoiler* comes to the fore in the final shot). At any moment, the film can pull the rug out and declare a scene a dream, but it does this sparingly, while leaving the question open to a large extent. I know this annoyed some people, but I liked this aspect of the film, and I don’t care that much one way or another. Applying one interpretation or another makes this a whole different film. It’s an interactive experience!

For the record, I tend to prefer to think that the whole thing is a dream. The fact that the “awake” world is full of shadowy corporations, mazelike cities, happy shiny children, and people with no surnames and/or names as on the nose as Ariadne, all screams dream to me. Plus, he’s using the wrong damn totem the whole movie! But, I’ve heard convincing arguments in other directions, so I don’t get too wrapped up in it. I’m also very fond of the interpretation that the entire film is a metaphor for the filmmaking process – all of the members of the heist gang have roles analogous to the film world (Cobb director, Satoshi producer, conman Eames is the actor), and they’re putting together a production to change the way their audience thinks.

I have heard people complain as well that the characters fell flat for them. I’ll admit that it’s a challenge to create relatable characters when they spend so much time explaining the rules of the movie in long scenes of exposition…but I did anyway. I was drawn into the characters. I did care about their fates at the end. Of course, I think Cobb’s dreamed them all, so maybe I hold them to lower standards.

Nolan is one of the most skilled filmmakers working today, and he’s at the height of his powers here. This is a wonderfully constructed film that takes some high-flying effects and concepts and slips them into a heart-pounding actioner. This was my favorite film of 2010, so it’s a no-brainer for the Hugo as far as I’m concerned.

Grade: A

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

2011 Not A Hugo Nominee – TRON: LEGACY

I was so sure this was going to get nominated, that I already wrote the review. I think the Hugo nominators made the right call in this case, but here you go.

Tron: Legacy is what I call a “requel.” Requels attempt to revitalize franchises by remaking older films while simultaneously attempting to serve as sequels that honor and advance the original continuity. It’s an awkward set of goals to straddle, and it usually doesn’t make for great filmmaking. The best example before this film is probably Superman: Returns, a film that manages to reproduce some of the dumbest parts of Donner’s 1979 film (Luthor’s stupid subordinates and lame real estate profit via earth-shattering natural disaster scheme) while awkwardly attempting to pay homage to Superman II with an awful “son-of-Superman" sub-plot. You get a lot of the same here, and the first Tron isn’t even as strong a model to work from.

The original Tron came out in 1982, and saw Jeff Bridges enter a video game world with exciting, years-ahead-of-their-time visuals. It had a fantastic Frisbee fight and light cycle chase, and no one remembers the awful, plodding, mythology-rich second half. No one, that is, except for the people behind Tron: Legacy. I give them credit for their devotion to a relatively obscure, nearly thirty-year-old sf film, but I have a hard time understanding why they’d work so hard to stay true to a film that, frankly, wasn’t all that good.

Jeff Bridges' character Flynn, has been missing since 1989. His son Sam (played by the intensely forgettable Garrett something) owns lots of stock in Flynn’s old company Encom, but he prefers to live in a shack on the waterfront and play elaborate pranks on his own corporation. After one of these pranks, he hears of a possible message from his father, visits his father’s secret arcade office, and, like his father decades before, gets sucked into “the grid,” a world inside a computer, which has been taken over by his father’s program Clu (Young “Uncanny Valley” Jeff Bridges). He’s forced to play the Frisbee and light-cycle games, then connects with his father (real Jeff Bridges) and a beautiful program Quorra (Olivia Wilde). They take a meandering journey through the grid, and, just like the first film, the movie becomes a plodding mess of nonsense mythology with a half-hearted climax.

I admire that the film takes its mythology seriously. A movie that simply mocked the first Tron could have been far worse. And yet, the film really needs to have more fun with the material. Perhaps the worst sin is that much of this is set up for sequels. It takes a lot of hubris to assume that this movie is going to be a big success, and that we can leave issues like the origins and fate of Olivia Wilde’s character, or even the fate of good old’ Tron himself, to a subsequent film. Sure, it’s probably a smart business move to leave these things unresolved – at the very least you get to milk the fans (though they may be few) with comic book or novel sequels, if not a full-fledged Tron: Legacy II. But, it doesn’t make for a particularly satisfying experience for the rest of us.

Even the visuals were somewhat disappointing. The 3D was pointless, and the gird is kind of boring to look at. Making it dull and scaled back in the original was a brilliant move – they could only render so much. But, after the super-detailed world of Avatar, this looks two-dimensional and bland. The thirty years of advances in computer technology don’t mean anything either. It’s the same concept, in the same world. Apparently, the only thing that the internet didn’t change is Tron. The only real addition seems to be a lot of anime influence…but this isn’t necessarily for the best. I like that Olivia Wilde is made up to look like she stepped out of an anime, but awkwardly timed power-ups and half-assed Zen are the more prevalent influences.

The one aspect of this movie I will give high marks to is the soundtrack. Daft Punk create a lively musical palate based on the original soundtrack that succeeds in making cheesy ‘80s material feel futuristic and exciting – which is exactly what the film as a whole fails to do.

Grade: C

Monday, July 18, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominee: Dramatic Presentation, Long Form - Toy Story 3, screenplay by Michael Arndt; directed by Lee Unkrich (Pixar/Disney)

I should just cut and paste my review of Up from last year. As with that film, this is another fantastic work of art from Pixar that moved me more than most of the films I saw last year. Yet, I’m hard-pressed to call this speculative fiction. Again, I don’t really know why. The fantasy element of talking toys is fairly obvious, and I don’t really have the same problem with the two Pixar movies that did win Hugos, The Incredibles and Wall-E. Oh, those fuzzy genre lines.

It always feels dumb to do the plot synopses for the films that I know everyone reading this has seen. Anyway, toys talk and go on adventures when you’re not looking. They live for the pleasure of their owners, and, as we learned in the first two films, they have abandonment issues when their owner plays with a new toy more, or when he or she grows out of playing with toys, as happened to cowgirl Jessie in Toy Story 2. Cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks) and space ranger Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) are the unofficial leaders of the toys of a boy named Andy who’s about to head off to college. The toys are preparing themselves for the limbo of the attic, but Andy’s Mom accidentally gives the toys to a daycare, where they are horribly mutilated by kids. A group of daycare-veteran toys, led by Lots-O’-Huggin-Bear (Ned Beatty), run the daycare as a fascist dictatorship, and soon Andy’s toys have to mount a daring escape. This is the film’s best sequence, and it culminates in some very dramatic scenes. Honestly, despite everything I know about Pixar and the target audience of this film, they still had me convinced, for a few seconds at least, that the toys were all going to die a horrible death. That’s how good they are as storytellers.

I read an essay by Michael Chabon recently where he condemned the first film for making a villain out of the kid who tortured and disassembled his toys. I’ve also read a review condemning the film for portraying the toys as happy slaves. These are actually pretty well-thought out essays (at least the Chabon one is), but they mostly just point to the silliness in taking the premise too seriously. I think maybe that’s where we can draw that genre line. There’s nothing speculative about sentient toys. It’s not a thought-experiment (though the daycare prison-camp mafia comes closer than anything else in the franchise before). It is a set of metaphors for friendship and aging. You can, and probably will, take the character relationships seriously, and if you’re anything like me, those will resonate with you on an emotional level, but you shouldn’t really pay much mind to the premise. That right there is how I justify my own gut reaction that this isn’t really in the Hugo wheelhouse. But, it still is a great film. Unlike last year, however, I do think that there is another Hugo-nominated film that I would take over the Pixar movie, with or without genre constraints.

Grade: A

Friday, July 15, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominee: Dramatic Presentation, Long Form - HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, directed by Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders (DreamWorks)

Pixar has pretty much cornered the market on making moving, brilliant, beautiful, all ages computer animated films. I’m pretty sure that this is the best non-Pixar, feature length computer animated film I’ve seen though. Yeah, that’s a lot of qualifiers, but it was certainly a pleasant surprise after some really inane commercials during the 2010 Winter Olympics convinced me not to see this in the theater.

The movie takes place in a Viking village under siege by dragon attacks. The dragons come in different breeds with different power sets, which feels a bit like a Pokemon-style toy-marketing ploy, but the film is at least fairly meta about it and gives us a character who’s memorized all the stats. The Vikings are big and bulky, especially the village chief, Stoick the Vast. Stoick’s son Hiccup is a big exception though. He’s a clumsy weakling, but he does try to compensate with his brain. He builds a contraption that manages to down the most dangerous dragon breed, the Night Fury. But, he can’t quite bring himself to finish the job, and instead begins to secretly befriend the injured Fury. The rest is plot-by-numbers: Hiccup gets success from his friendship, then hits a lowpoint when he’s discovered. He argues that the war with the dragons is a misunderstanding, but he’s ignored. There’s a girl involved. There is a slightly darker twist at the end that I liked, but most of the film is fairly predictable.

That’s not entirely a bad thing in a family film though, and everything is well-executed. The voice work doesn’t really distinguish itself, except maybe Jay Baruchel as Hiccup, but it gets the job done. My one other complaint is that the design for the Night Fury is a little too plain, and hits a little too hard on the cute. The main dragon isn’t very cool-looking, and cool-looking dragons should be the main point here, right? The rest of the dragons are great though, and some of them get quite creative. Some of the backgrounds are also pretty amazing, and the animation is excellent. This is a very solid, family-friendly film, and I think it fits the genre slot a little more comfortably than the other computer animated film in this category. Only two of my nominees made the short list, this is one of them.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominee: Novella Wrap

If you look back on my grades, you’ll see that this is a pretty easy category for me. I enjoyed all of the stories, as I have most of what I’ve read this year (I’d say the main dividing line between a B- and C+ is whether I enjoyed a story more than I disliked it), but most of this category is pretty flat. I’d say that the common theme of all of my B/B- stories is that they’re rather sketchy. All four either need more character development or more plot structure. Despite the extra wordcount, I think the novelettes were, on average, richer.

Of course, none of this holds true for the standout, Rachel Swirsky’s “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window.” I loved it more than any other nominee I’ve read/watched. I’d rank the others, but I think Swirsky will be the only thing I put on my ballot. Any of the other stories are better than “no award,” but if “Lady” doesn’t win, I don’t really care which one does.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominee: Novella - "Troika" by Alastair Reynolds

Speaking of old-fashioned, Reynolds’ novella takes us to one of the most classic of sf tropes: the Big Dumb Object. In this case, we have a mission of later-twenty-first-century neo-Soviets going to examine a massive satellite complex they call the Matroyshka (named after the nesting dolls because it’s composed of a series of shells). Most of the story is told in flashbacks by an escapee from a mental institution as we learn that the members of the expedition have not fared well upon their return to Earth. There are a few interesting twists along the way, including a nice one that serves as the source of the title. The biggest twist, however, doesn’t really seem to serve any narrative purpose other than to give the story something shocking for its last ten pages.

Alastair Reynolds is at the vanguard of space opera and hard sf today, and I have a review of one of his works coming up when we resume our march through awards history in the fall (did I just use the royal we?). I’m not sure if this is the best introduction to his work though. Whereas many of our stories this year have done new ideas in a clean, retro-style; this feels like an old cliché dressed up in a more contemporary, Big Ideas style. I find that combination less appealing myself. It’s not that there was anything I actively disliked about this story; it’s quite decent. It just didn’t really capture my imagination (and it didn’t come close to drawing an emotional reaction from me) like a good sf story should.

Grade: B-

Monday, July 11, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominee: Novella - "The Sultan of the Clouds" by Geoffrey A. Landis (Asimov's, September 2010)

We’re back to our theme from the novelette nominees. This is a rather old-fashioned story with a simple plot and plenty of exposition to help us get our bearings. A few centuries in the future, humans have colonized much of the solar system, and a group of oligarchs control much of the colonized territory. Our narrator, David Tinkerman, is the assistant of a specialist on the terraforming of Mars named Leah Hamakawa. He’s also helplessly in love with her. Leah is invited by the young sultan of Venus for a visit, and we spend most of the story in floating cities that bob on the immense air pressure of the second planet in a temperate layer of the upper atmosphere.

It’s a cool concept for a world, and Landis makes sure to lay out the workings and history clearly (he even sets up an info dump as the narrator reading a history text on his trip to Venus). It’s a very simple story though, especially for its length. We get the physical world building and a little cultural world building with Venus’s marital practices, we get to see the sultan and a plot he’s hatched, and then there are some sky pirates. The end. We spend enough time with the narrator that this should be something of a character piece, but Tinkerman is pretty generic and Hamakawa is basically a non-entity. We’re told she’s something of a mystery, and we never really get past that. What exactly is Tinkerman’s attraction?

Some science fiction devolves into a delivery mechanism for ideas, and that’s definitely what’s happened here. Reading about Landis’s Venus is really thrilling, the rest is unnecessary trimming.

Grade: B-

Friday, July 8, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominee: Novella - "The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon" by Elizabeth Hand (Stories: All New Tales, William Morrow)

Emery, Leonard, and Robbie became friends working at the Smithsonian aviation wing under a scholar named Maggie Blevin thirty years ago. Now, Maggie is dying of cancer, and Leonard comes up with a plan to give her the gift of re-creating lost footage of a strange experiment in early flight that she had been obsessed with. The re-creation involves a trip to a small, semi-abandoned island in North Carolina, and hints of mysterious alien forces…but most of the focus is on these characters and their fairly humble lives.

This novella reminded me a lot of that ‘80s Spielberg-produced anthology show Amazing Stories, a show that I’m kind of ambivalent about. It told some good, character-oriented stories, like this one, but it was also so steeped in a sense of nostalgia and over-reaching attempts to capture that Spielbergian sense of mystery and wonder that it sometimes overlooked more basic principles of storytelling. That pretty much sums up my feelings here. Hand creates some nice moments, and evokes some nice emotions (again, especially nostalgia), but the sum total only did so much for me.

Grade: B

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominee: Novella - The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang (Subterranean)

Does anyone remember Tamagotchis? I guess they still make them, in Japan at least. They were digital pets that you had to feed and take care of, and they would grow and change, and their behavior would vary based on how well they were cared for. Yeah, that’s what this story is about. These tamagotchis are called “digients,” and they are quite a bit more sophisticated in the AI department. They can talk, though they’re apparently limited to cutesy baby talk (this seems to be Chiang’s way of comparing them to communicating apes, but I’d think AIs would learn differently – grammar really shouldn’t be such a problem).

The digients are developed as a high tech toy/AI experiment, but they tend to be, like lots of living things, unpredictable. Well-raised digients can end up just as neurotic as poorly-raised versions. The project fails, leaving a small group of dedicated fans to try to see to the creations’ futures. There are really three main tracks here- 1). developments in AI and social technologies, including their dark sides. 2). Ethical questions about how fast and freely digients should be allowed to grow. 3) and, the relationship between two digient developers turned “parents” Ana Alvarado and Derek Brooks. The overall metaphor of child-raising is pretty clear, and it gets more obvious as the story goes along.

Ted Chiang isn’t the most prolific writer out there, but the handful of stories he’s written over the past couple of decades are more likely than not to win one or more major awards. I mentioned in the Swirsky review that I like his work, which tends to be thoughtful and emotionally powerful. I’m especially fond of his prose, which is clear and doesn’t shy away from exposition when necessary. I’ve read a few reviewers who seem to equate simple prose with bad prose, but I loved the straightforward style in most of this year’s novelette nominees (other reviewers not so much). Chiang’s previous stories are good examples of why this is a mistake. There can be elegance in simplicity and virtue in clarity. However, this story is a little too simple and clear. Chiang explains everything. We always know what the characters are thinking, and all the ethical issues are beaten into the ground. It all amounts to a lot more telling than showing, and a premise that gets over-stretched.

We spend a lot of time getting to what feels like the beginning of the story. I know that’s the point, as the digients reach a potential turning point in their maturity, but it takes a little too long to get there.

Grade: B

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominee: Novella - "The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen's Window" by Rachel Swirsky (Subterranean Magazine, Summer 2010)

Swirsky wrote one of my favorite things that I read for the last Hugos, and I think she's outdone herself this year.

The titular “Lady” lives in a brutal fantasy world. Her own Land of Flowered Hills is matriarchal with an underclass of women, the "brood," who serve as surrogates so that the female leaders aren’t exposed to the vulnerabilities of pregnancy. The Lady herself is a powerful sorceress and lover to the Queen, but she is felled by betrayal early in the story. This in itself would make an intriguing little short, but the story only picks up from there. The Lady becomes one of the "Sleepless Ones," powerful spirits that can be summoned for consultation through deadly magics. We see several summonings from her perspective over millenia, and we witness the evolution and changes in The Land of Flowered Hills and the kingdoms, increasingly patriarchal, that succeed it. There’s a very nice vignette along the way about a man who shares his body with the Lady in a summoning as he tries to save his people from a volcano, and a great extended portion where we see a more civilized and "modern" magical kingdom, before we get a fittingly epic ending to the millennia long story.

Each of these timeframes and the characters within them are wonderfully evoked by Swirsky, and each left me wanting more without feeling unfinished. There are lots of great little details, including the later society misrepresenting "sleepless ones" as "Insomniacs," that sparkle and add to the richness. And, there is a strong emotional core. The Lady is from a hard world, and she can be cruel, but she is also sympathetic, as are many of the people she helps and/or betrays. Swirsky is a true humanist, and she melds world-building, character, and emotion (all with simple, elegant prose) in a way that is everything I look for in short fiction. She reminds me a lot of Ted Chiang, who I think she outshined this year.

Grade: A

Friday, July 1, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominees: Dram. Pres., Short Form Wrap

Based on the grades I handed out, this is a pretty strong category, yet it somehow didn’t feel that way. The Doctor Who domination is getting a bit old…Then again, I nominated two episodes, so I’m a horrible person. I also nominated some Caprica, and the excellent pilot to the Walking Dead (short review: the pilot is damn near perfect, then the first season goes dramatically downhill; I hope the second season is better). "The Lost Thing" was a welcome nominee that I would recommend to people, “Ray Bradbury” feels more like a novelty.

In the end, I think my vote will go to “A Christmas Carol.” Yeah, some of its plot points are familiar, both from the ridiculously over-adapted Dickens’ source material and some of Moffat’s pet DW plots, but it had the best performances, some of the best visuals, it was the most fun, and it really captured that sense of wonder that I look for in my SF&F.

In summation: 1) Down with Doctor Who! 2) Hooray Doctor Who!