Friday, September 30, 2011
I feel silly recounting the plot. What sf fan hasn’t read the books, or at least seen the films, probably several hundred times apiece? There’s a powerful, evil magic ring. Some peaceful little people have to take it to a volcano and throw it in, and various wizards, dwarves, elves, and knights try to escort them, while really ugly things try to kill them. It starts as an epic, takes a few quiet moments in the shire, then gets even epic-ier.
Lord of the Rings and Peter Jackson is such a perfect pairing of director and subject – it elevates both. Peter Jackson’s other films just don’t measure up to this one (don’t get me started on his King Kong), and, I’m sure this is some sort of heresy, I prefer this version of Tolkien’s masterpiece to the original. Tolkien, like all of the fantasy writers who’ve followed him, can be a bit dry and effected. Jackson is bombastic, over-the-top, and painfully sincere (the last is an odd trait for someone with roots in low-budget horror). Put the two together, and you get movie magic.
Jackson’s most important trait is his love of the material. I’m not sure any other director would have lobbied so hard to film The Lord of the Rings simultaneously then release it as three big budget films; he got New Line to put a lot on the line for these films (though it more than paid off for them). I don’t know if any other director would have micromanaged the effects house WETA to create such a rich and detailed world for these characters to inhabit. It's a nice parallel to Tolkien's obsession with creating languages and mythologies for Middle Earth. Furthermore, Jackson does, especially in this film, remain amazingly close to the material. Sorry Tom Bambadil fans, those scenes weren’t necessary and wouldn’t have played well. Pretty much everything else is in here.
The result is amazing. It manages to capture everything that makes fantasy a beloved genre: the sense of scale, the creation of a foreign, yet familiar, world with its own sense of a deep history, the action, the morality. And there's that extra fine touch, that not enough of Tolkien's many copycats have followed, of centering his story around very humble protagonists. Everything looks great and the movie moves quickly through a lot of exposition. The sequence in the Mines of Moria is one of the most exciting in sf movie history. And, with focuses on male friendship, the film manages to be fun, AND be about something. Jackson really gets the series off on the right foot.
Monday, September 26, 2011
Neil Gaiman made his name writing the Sandman series for Vertigo comics through most of the '90s. That series followed the adventures of Morpheus, the god of dreams, and wove together a wide variety of myths and legends to create a really fascinating setting for some innovative-yet-archetypal storytelling. Gaiman continued along the same lines with his novels, and he really broke through with this, his fifth, which dominated the major sf awards (and helped start the trend of fantasy's dominance in the '00s).
Gaiman usually comes off as the quintessential Brit in his writing, but he moved to the US (actually to my current neck of the woods) before this novel. Perhaps as a result, American Gods actually feels a lot like good Stephen King to me. Gaiman's works are usually about normal people thrust into magical worlds and given a destiny (In King's works, the people are a bit more blue collar, and they're less likely to get a destiny and more likely just to be trying to survive). In American Gods, the central character is a Minnesotan named Shadow, who begins the novel in prison. His wife dies, leading to a slightly early release, and Shadow ends up employed as the bodyguard of a strange man named Wednesday. From Wednesday, Shadow learns that gods are real, but they are created by human beliefs - America is overcrowded with gods because of its immigrant past, and the gods from the Norse, Greek, Hindu, and Egyptian pantheons (among others) must compete with modern technology for their survival. Shadow has all sorts of surreal encounters with these beings (both friend and foe) and most of them are extremely interesting. There are also a few very nice twists along the way (the best twists are the sort that make you exclaim "of course!" but that you still never see coming - the identity of the central villain here fits that description perfectly).
Gaiman does dodge Christianity for the most part, which seems odd considering the book's conceit and the nature of faith in the United States. I don't particularly blame him for dodging that can of worms, but it could have added another layer to the novel.
So, it's a fun novel, and just enough of a departure from his previous work to explain (and, I'd say, to warrant) his sudden wide recognition and mainstream success. Neverwhere is my personal favorite, but I'd still recommend American Gods first, especially to a fellow American. Great stuff, and a worthy winner from the fantasy side of the tracks.
Friday, September 23, 2011
I have been looking forward to rewatching this film since I added the Saturns to my reviews – not because I enjoyed it so much the first time…in fact, I hated it. I just really wanted to make sure that I hated it.
This film has as good a science fiction pedigree as you can get. It began as a project by Stanley Kubrick, and Steven Spielberg decided to complete it himself after Kubrick’s death; it’s based on a short story by British sf legend Brian Aldiss called “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long;” and, it concerns the very Asimovian question of whether a robot artificial intelligence can love, and, more importantly in this case, would he be loved back?
In a catastrophic future caused by global warming, there are strict population controls. Some people choose to fill the gap left by not having children with robotic “mecha” children. David (Haley Joel Osment) is a prototype with the aforementioned lovin’ upgrade. He is placed with a couple whose real son is on deep freeze, and they come to like him. They allow David to imprint on them, but when their real son comes back, David is a fourth wheel (cars in this future have three wheels, get it?), and the mother leaves him in the woods with his robotic teddy bear. Inspired by his mother’s dramatic readings of Pinocchio, David goes off to find the Blue Fairy and become a real boy. He meets sex-bot Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), who joins him on his quest.
The visuals are pretty fantastic, and there’s a few human-face-on-robotic-chassis effects that were pretty cutting edge ten years ago. That’s really the nicest thing I can say about the film. Yep, I still didn’t like it.
I have several problems with it. Haley Joel Osment’s performance is impressive, but in a creepy way. Watching him in this film is just plain unsettling, as you suspect he may actually be a robot (the Child-Actortron 3000). An even bigger problem is the pacing. Kubrick hadn’t gotten past the story stage, so this is mostly Spielberg, but he tried hard to do a Kubrick impression. That’s where the film starts to fail, I think. He begins with a much more deliberate pace and imbues every scene with a weighty sense of suspense or dread. These are old Kubrickian tricks, but I think only Kubrick can pull them off.
The movie suffocates under this weightiness, it’s slow, depressing, and dull, and it doesn’t have nearly as much to say as it seems to think it does. What is the message? What do we learn? People are mean to robots? Spielberg is good at sentimentality? People will wear glow sticks in the future? The future will look like Las Vegas meets a State Fair? I don’t know. The movie actually feels very New Wavey, which makes sense with the Brian Aldiss roots, but it’s the worst of New Wave misanthropy and pretension.
After meandering for two hours, the film does take a crazy left turn in the last half hour, that’s…well, at least it’s interesting. There are a lot of contrivances to get the film to an awkward sense of closure that only barely mitigates the slow-burn creepiness that bogs down most of its running time.
Monday, September 19, 2011
There’s no denying that expectations play a big role in how I see these books. Here we have a book by an author whose work I've liked, who has the sort of social science perspective that I love in my sf, and it’s one of the foundational works of the intriguing “New Weird” sub-genre. I really wanted to love this novel, and I’m pretty bummed that I didn’t.
It gets off to a great start. The main attraction here is the world-building, and the opening chapters are chock full of it. The setting is the city of New Crobuzon on the fantasy world of Bas-Lag. There’s magic, steampunk technology, and a variety of weird, hybrid sentient species, taken from different world myths. The khepri have insect heads like an Egyptian god, the vodyanoi are frog people from Russian folklore, the garuda have wings and bird heads and are inspired by Hindi stories, the cactacae are cactus people based on the venerable folk story Final Fantasy. There are also odd-looking people called Remade, deformed in imaginative ways by magic (er… “thaumaturgy”). The infrastructure of the city is wonderfully described – part of it is in the massive skeletal ribcage of a long-dead giant beast, it’s full of zepellins and trains, and there's a rich sense of the geography from the gritty streets to the high spire in the center. Mieville’s descriptions not only evoke a fully-formed urban aesthetic, but also a whole host of accompanying suggestions of class and race, which are missing from most nobility-obsessed high fantasy.
The protagonist is Isaac der Grimnebulin, a human scientist who’s dissatisfied with academic life. He lives in a bad part of town, and often visits an even worse part of town to hang out with his artist friends, including his khepri girlfriend Lin. Around the same time Lin and Isaac both get big commissions. Lin is to sculpt (out of khepri-mucous and berries) a statue of a horrifically self-Remade druglord named Mr. Motley. Isaac is to create a flying apparatus for a garuda who’s lost his wings, named Yagharek. Improbably, these plot lines come together when a super-drug producing Lovecraftian moth-thing escapes Isaac’s care and rampages throughout the city. Isaac must team up with Yagharek, sentient steampunk constructs, a demented giant spider called The Weaver, and others, to hunt down the moths.
Yes, it’s self-consciously weird. I like that about the novel, but I think there’s a fundamental schizophrenia here. Mieville wants to have crazy beasties, perpetual motion machines, magic, and steampunk, and he wants to tell a straightforward action tale. He’s not able to pull off both. Most of the book, including the entire second half, bogs down in endless fights, chases, and climbs, and Mieville seems committed to giving us a detailed play by play of every move. The hunt for the moth monsters comes to consume the book, pushing aside its weirdness and any deeper significance. Did Mieville really come up with all of these ingenious freaks just to have them team up for a super-battle?
Among the things that get lost in Mieville’s pursuit of Weird action is social commentary. As I said, there are rich suggestions of class and race as issues, and there’s a vague critique of the city’s authoritarian government, but Mieville never really develops these ideas. Mieville has a Ph.D. in International Relations (though I guess he was still finishing up when this came out), so I expected the novel to be about society on some level. It seems that Mieville is creating metaphors in New Crobuzon, but they’re not particularly well-developed or evocative. Again, action and self-conscious weirdness get in the way.
I can’t say I particularly cared about the characters either. Isaac is grumpy, consumed by work, and ambivalent about his feelings for Lin, which adds up to something that’s certainly not generic, but not particularly compelling either. Everyone else is pretty much a cipher, at least until the final chapter adds layers to Yagharek. Not being invested in the characters made those endless second-half action sequences even more interminable. Weird also gets in the way of the prose at times. Mieville shows flashes of his talent here, and the descriptions are far richer than your average sf, but he comes up with some off-putting metaphors (e.g. “his body wobbling like a bloated testicle”) and strange diction (“his body was thin…with a healthy emaciation”). I might applaud the originality of his language if I wasn’t so busy throwing up. Add in the aforementioned overwrought descriptions, and I wanted to yell at Mieville to put the thesaurus down and get on with it.
It was almost like I could see Mieville finding his voice as a writer throughout the novel. He immediately turns the fantasy genre on its head, but then he doesn’t do much with the new world he’s made. The ideas are there, but they need to be more developed in less space (I suspect I’m going to find many more books about a 1/3rd too long in this decade, as pagecounts continue to grow, more due to trends in publishing than to any actual artistic reason). I wanted this book to be so much more than it is, but I am still going to check out the other two Bas-Lag books.
Friday, September 16, 2011
I found A Game of Thrones somewhat disappointing. A Clash of Kings gave me much more confidence in Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, but I still struggled, slightly, with some aspects. This third volume (of a series originally intended to be a trilogy…) is damn near perfect, as far as I’m concerned.
Again, there’s not much I can say about the plot without spoilers for the first two novels, and this certainly shouldn’t be read without those. The continent of Westeros is ripped apart by political strife between several of its most powerful families. Meanwhile, supernatural threats gather in the frozen north and across the Narrow Sea. I’m not even going to get into specific characters, because this is a series where anyone can die, and just knowing who survived the first two books would be a little too revealing.
Martin was already a mature and accomplished writer (especially of short fiction) before he began this series in 1996, but I feel that his prose has matured significantly since A Game of Thrones. His dialogue is memorable, the characters are complex and fascinating (this volume is famous for making one of the most hated characters of the first novel into a fan favorite), and surprises abound. The world-building is amazing, and Martin clearly has a detailed history for this world and a thorough understanding of how its politics and economics work. The supernatural elements are especially fascinating, as magic is rare but immensely powerful.
My one complaint (I always have at least one) is that some of the characters' movements seem a little random. One character in particular has been bouncing back and forth through the middle of Westeros for nearly two-thousand pages. There have been some good sub-plots along the way for her, but it doesn’t feel like there’s a clear aim or purpose for her character.
This is one of the best fantasy novels I’ve read, and I’ve really come to love this series. I know that it gets more frustrating from here, with the waiting and the awkwardly split novels. There’s no way I can’t keep going after this entry though.
Monday, September 12, 2011
LeGuin wrote many of the finest novels of the New Wave in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s – really, some of the finest sf novels, period. She returned to her beloved fantasy series, Earthsea, in the early ‘90s with a novel that I found aimless and a clash with the original trilogy. Now, in the ‘00s, she returns to her Hainish social sf, which included classics like The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, and…well, it works.
Like The Left Hand of Darkness, The Telling takes a delegate of the interstellar Ekumen from Earth and puts them into a society of aliens (though humanoid and distantly related). Sutty was born in India and lived for a time in Vancouver, hiding from religious extremists who have taken the planet’s government. As an agent of the Ekumen she takes the very long trip to Aka, a planet where a new pro-technology Corporation government is attempting to wipe out all vestiges of an ancient folk religion. It’s quite a clash for Sutty, but she comes to see more parallels between theocratic Earth and the anti-religious extremists of Aka’s Corporation. Sutty settles in a secluded valley where many of the old religious traditions survive, including a powerful storytelling tradition, the titular Telling, led by paired priests called maz.
The book debates issues of rationalism and modernism versus religion with plenty of nuance – just when I thought LeGuin’s portrayal of the folk religion was two idealistic, she does pull in a few twists about how it played out in other regions on Aka. It is, perhaps, a tad too preachy, but I’ve seen worse. LeGuin also throws in a little mysticism, but she keeps it ambiguous. The real star, though, is the prose. It’s always been LeGuin’s strongest suit, and here she uses a loose, succinct style that feels almost like a prose poem at times. It’s grounded, but it also fits the folkoric world that most of the novel takes place in. It’s a similar airy and laid-back style as Tehanu, but it played much better here.
While The Telling certainly doesn’t top her earlier books, it is a worthy entry in the Hainish saga and LeGuin’s catalog. She has a few more wins coming towards the end of the decade, and I’m looking forward to them now.
Thursday, September 8, 2011
As I said back in my review for Hyperion, I have a soft spot for space opera. There’s something about vistas on different worlds, big lumbering spaceships, and people running around with blasters or ray-guns that lowers my reader defenses. I’ve readily admitted that I’m unduly hard on high fantasy; well, it’s the opposite for me and space opera. I’m not trying to jump into the “fantasy sucks” arguments that flare up now and then from sf fandom; it’s purely a personal preference thing. The ‘80s were a second golden age for the sub-genre, with several post-Star Wars winners culminating in the inspiring originality of Hyperion. Things fell off a bit in the ‘90s, but Vinge and Bujold kept things going. Since then, though…well, A Deepness in the Sky was the last space opera to win the Hugo, and even digging into the other awards, this will be one of the last space opera novels I cover. That said, Reynolds is representative of a group of authors, mostly British, carrying the genre forward in the twenty-first century.
This is my first Reynolds novel, so I can’t say a whole lot about the Revelation Space setting in which it, and the majority of his work, takes place. Humans have spread to other planets, they’ve run into signs of other intelligences, but not many living representatives, nano-machines and all sorts of transhuman augmentation exists, but faster-than-light travel doesn’t seem to. It seems that the mood is what most sets Reynolds apart though. Space isn’t a pleasant place, and human beings aren’t particularly pleasant either. Betrayal, violence, war, and societal collapse seem to overshadow humanity among the stars.
That’s certainly true of the two settings in Chasm City. It starts with Tanner Mirabel on the war-torn planet of Journey’s End. He’s a mercenary/veteran who’s involved in some old grudges that lead him to survive a massive, space-elevator-destroying attack in an early action set-piece. Tanner then awakes with partial amnesia near the thriving planet of Yellowstone, still pursuing the old grudge. Tanner thought Yellowstone was thriving, but a machine-infecting virus has laid the planet low. The virus causes machines to go crazy, and it’s killed many people, interfered with the life-extending treatments of many more, destroyed an orbital district around Yellowstone, and turned the capital of Chasm City into an anarchic, dystopian disaster. This doesn’t put Tanner off of his plans to execute his old enemy though, and he continues to Chasm City and gets himself into all sorts of tricky situations, including a most dangerous “Game,” some high-risk surgery, long falls from damaged cable cars, and lots and lots of firefights.
All the while, Tanner has flashbacks to the life of the venerated founder of his faction from Journey’s End, named Sky Hausmann. As these memories pop up through the book, we learn about the planet’s colonization, the origins of its conflicts, the results of mistakes while working with anti-matter fuel, a few facts about alien life, and the truth about Sky Hausmann.
I really wanted to like this rare, award-winning space opera of the last decade, and I thought I very much would early in the book. Reynolds does some pretty solid world-building, quickly establishing his dark take on humanity in space and painting the ruined Chasm City itself with rich, moody details. The novel did lose me at some point in the second half though. It’s a little too long, and a little too obsessed with dramatic twists over solid storytelling. There are just so many odd turns in the end, and some rely on big contrivances (without spoiling things too much: Tanner runs into a galactic rarity TWICE in two very different places). I stopped caring the third time someone was NOT WHO WE THOUGHT THERE WERE, and there were two or three such BIG REVELATIONS left (is this why it’s called “revelation” space?). Reynolds’ love of the grim and gritty didn’t help either - almost all of the surprises reveal that characters are actually terrible. I don’t mind a little darkness; I just got bored with its relentlessness here. The biggest twists have to do with Tanner’s lost memories (you know when a character acquires amnesia that there are some surprises on the way), but I wasn’t particularly interested in them. I wasn’t involved in Tanner, and I didn’t care about his true story.
There’s some solid world-building and fun action here, but I was not impressed overall. More varied character work, less misdirection, and more streamlined storytelling might have kept me in Reynolds’ world a little longer. Also, as with A Deepness in the Sky, I don’t think an sf novice would stand a chance here, and that, in my opinion, goes a long way towards explaining space opera's fade.
Monday, September 5, 2011
I often try to explain my frame of mind going into a novel. In this case, between the Nebula awards’ consistent inconsistency, the fact that this is an entry in a sprawling space opera epic that I’ve never heard of, let alone read, and the harlequin romance cover and cover description…well, I wasn’t looking forward to this one. But, it kind of surprised me. Emphasis on "kind of."
In Asaro’s Skolian Empire books, ancient humans, with some mysterious alien intervention, colonized large segments of the galaxy. This empire was ruled over by genetically engineered psychics. It eventually collapsed, and by the time Earth caught up to it, the whole thing was reeling in the midst of an interstellar war.
I’m sure that background is apparent in the other novels, but in The Quantum Rose we start on the backwards planet of Balumil, where no one is aware of any of this. Kamoj is the beautiful young ruler of Argali, and she is betrothed to the cruel, older Jax Ironbridge. However, the strange masked foreigner Vyrl Lionstar makes a better offer and wins her away (brides on Balumil are more or less bought by the highest bidder). Kamoj is initially horrified, but she soon learns that Vyrl is not merely a rude foreigner, but a heroic exile from another planet. His clashes with the local culture are misunderstandings, and he is kind, handsome, and wants to treat Kamoj as an equal. He introduces Kamoj to technologies from computers to advanced medicine to spaceships. He does have his own troubled background; he’s been caught up in a conflict with the Earth Alliance, and it’s left psychological scars that have driven him to alcoholism and a distrust of his Skolian allies. Meanwhile, Ironbridge still fights for Kamoj, and she has to balance her sense of duty to her planet with her love of Vyrl and complex interstellar politics.
It does have some of the trappings of romance novels that the cover and description imply; I don’t have any particular problem with a romantic storyline, but the genre does have a set of tropes, some of which I find somewhat offensive, and others are just worn out. Here we do get the beautiful, damaged man, and the initial fear and roughness in a relationship that quickly turns to abiding love. There’s all sorts of sexual coercion here, and Kamoj is often a victim. We’re told that her people have been genetically engineered as compliant slaves, but watching her allow herself to be trampled for duty or love for most of the novel can get annoying. Also, the characters are a little too perfect in their beauty, heroism, self-sacrifice, and love for each other, not to mention their superhuman abilities. Hey, Vyrl can even dance like a god among men! Is their a term for this sort of romance-novel, perfect mate Mary Sueism?
All of this grated, but there was also plenty to like in the novel. Contact between advanced and primitive societies is old hat in sf, but Asaro handles it quite well here, slowly unveiling the Skolians to us at the same time she reveals them to Kamoj. The overall plot has a lot of momentum, and the scale of action gets bigger as the novel goes on, eventually moving to another planet. Despite their unrealistic perfection, the main characters are solid and interesting, and some of the side characters, especially the crew of the ship that brought Vyrl, are even more intriguing. Asaro has a PhD in math herself, and she keeps the technology interesting and familiar, while also drawing bigger metaphors from mathematical processes (“couple-channeled quantum-scattering”). I can’t say that I ever really grasped this aspect of the novel’s structure, but I do appreciate that Asaro tried something different.
All in all, I'd call this a mixed bag. When I wasn't rolling my eyes, annoyed by cliché, I was usually caught up in the book and enjoying myself. It gets a middling grade from me, but I'm rather glad that Nebula went with something different this year.
Friday, September 2, 2011
Whenever the topic of all-time favorite movie comes up, I'll give a different answer almost every time. There are a few films that keep popping up though: Citizen Kane, The Searchers, Dr Strangelove, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade… And, among that vaunted set of films is this one, a Kung-Fu masterpiece by the brilliant Taiwanese director Ang Lee.
The film, based on a Chinese novel from the 1930s, follows a set of legendary martial artists from the Giang Hu underworld during the Qing dynasty. Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) is contemplating retirement and can’t find peace due to his love for fellow wandering fighter Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh). On a visit to Beijing, Li Mu Bai’s ancient and powerful Green Dragon Sword is stolen by Jun Yu (Ziang Ziyi), a martial arts prodigy who is also an aristocratic girl soon to have an arranged marriage with a man she doesn’t love. The evil Jade Fox, who killed Li Mu Bai’s master to steal a secret training manual, has trained Jen. There are also a few subplots involving Jen’s true love and an undercover police officer who has vowed to find and kill Jade Fox.
It sounds complex when I write it out like that, but it’s actual a very straightforward story that never gets in the way of a series of stunning fight scenes while also managing to give those scenes importance and thematic resonance. The characters can fight like superhumans, but they have a much harder time declaring their feelings and navigating conflicts between freedom and duty. The film also explores gender issues in a way that few action films have. All of the best fighters, except for Li Mu Bai, are women. There’s a nice parallel between Jen, who fights to follow her heart, and Shu Lien, who represses her feelings. Even the villainess, Jade Fox, finds her initial motivation in the Wudang school’s refusal to train women.
There’s plenty of interesting character and story work here, and I think that’s what most sets this apart from most other films in the genre. But, the fight scenes, with amazing wire work by Yuen Woo-Ping (who also did The Matrix) are also fantastic. There’s a real emphasis on the grace of the often weightless-seeming characters, and Lee does an excellent job of capturing the precision of the moves without losing the action. It’s a mixture of clarity and speed that very few directors (especially in the West) manage to capture.
On top of all of that the scenery is gorgeous, the characters’ backstories are rich and efficiently conveyed, and their relationships and fates are genuinely moving. I can’t really judge the dialogue; the subtitles come across a bit wooden, but that’s as close as I can come to a genuine complaint. I think this film is damn near perfect.
I do think this is another instance where we can play one of my least favorite games: “is it sf?” The fantasy elements are pretty clear, what with the characters flying all over the screen, but I would object that those are established conventions of another genre: wuxia (martial arts). It’s like saying that Sin City must be sf because its Noir conventions are unrealistic. By that logic, it’s a short leap to calling soap operas like General Hospital speculative fiction, because, well, they’re certainly not realistic fiction. But, as I’ve said before, I try not to get too caught up in that debate. It only bothers me here because it seems to ignore the existence of a genre with its own long history. That said, I can’t blame Hugo voters for recognizing a film that I truly love, which also happens to be the first non-English language film to ever win this category. I love this choice, and I'm sure I would have voted with the majority.