Monday, October 31, 2011

2004 Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Fantasy – PALADIN OF SOULS by Lois McMaster Bujold

Bujold wins her fourth Hugo in fourteen years (only Heinlein has exceeded this feat), and her second Nebula with this fantasy novel.  I tend to have nigh-impossible standards for High Fantasy (it took awhile for Song of Ice and Fire to win me over, after all)…but I liked this book, and its predecessor, 2001’s Curse of Chalion.  Bujold doesn’t exactly overcome the problems I’ve come to have with most high fantasy novels.  She still focuses on Byzantine political conflicts, leaving the central social issues of her faux-medieval society unexamined, and her prose is still stilted.  But she sidesteps these issues with a more personal focus on a smaller cast and setting, and with the general charm that all of her books seem to exude.

These books introduce the small nation of Chalion, which I imagined along the lines of medieval Spain, I think because of the consonants she uses in names and the many political similarities.  In this world, people believe in a nuclear family of gods – the Father, Mother, Daughter, and Son.  Some people, including most of Chalion, also worship “the Bastard” as a fifth god of social deviance and magic, while Chalion’s enemies see the Bastard as a demonic force outside of the pantheon.  The Curse of Chalion follows former general, and former slave Lupe dy Cazilar as he dabbles in death magic to redeem himself and Chalion’s royal family, who are literally cursed by dark magic, and figuratively cursed with corrupt officials.  I actually liked Curse a bit more than this novel; the plot seemed more focused and the characters more interesting.  It was also nominated for a Hugo, but lost in a much tougher field (that included American Gods, Passage, and Perdido Street Station).

Paladin follows a minor character from the first book, the former queen Ista.  Ista had been inflicted with the curse, and had communicated with the gods.  She also did some rather horrible things to try to remove the curse, and most people considered her mad in her grief.  Now, she’s trying to regain some freedom by going on a pilgrimage, but on her way, she encounters an epidemic of demonic possession and raids from Chalion’s enemies, the Roknari.  She comes to a castle that has its own share of curses and conflicts, and she has to deal with new powers from the gods.

Bujold plays some interesting games with magic and religion here, and it is a well-told story with compelling characters, which I’ve come to expect from her.  We do get a few of the plot contrivances that bothered me in the Vorkosigan series, but they make a lot more sense when divine intervention is in play. I still want more out of fantasy novels than this, but there’s no question that this is a very solid entry in the canon.  The phrase “guilty pleasure” seems unfair to Bujold, because she does offer more depth and better writing than most sf, and yet her novels do bring that phrase to mind, because they are so enjoyable, and so focused on simply telling a clear, entertaining story.

I should note that David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was nominated for a Nebula this year.  It’s one of my favorite novels, so I’m kind of bummed that the SFWA panel didn’t go out on a limb and give it the award.  The Hugo nominee line-up is quite a bit weaker, and, though I've only read one other nominee, I imagine that Bujold would've been my choice.

Grade: B

(I’d give Curse of Chalion a B+)

Friday, October 28, 2011

2003 Hugo Dramatic Presentation Short Form – “Conversations with Dead People,” BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER

Hey, I managed to wrangle a relatively Halloween-appropriate post out of this blog for once.

I think it’s fair to suggest that this brand new Hugo category (my first since dramatic presentation debuted in 1958) wouldn’t exist without this show.  For better or for worse, most of the vampire/monster-centric trends in the last decade of sf probably wouldn’t exist either.  Buffy started in 1997, and offered a grab-bag of monsters, demons, superhero and fantasy elements in a groundbreaking, serialized, hilarious hour-long television show.  The show offered brilliant culminations of long-running storylines in episodes like “The Becoming,” “Graduation Day,” and “The Gift,” as well as brilliant one-off episodes like the dream-centered “Restless,” the silent “Hush,” the flashback-heavy “Fool for Love,” and “The Body,” the best examination of death in the history of television.  I don’t know exactly why the “short form” category was created, but I have to think that everyone watching the excellent musical episode “Once More with Feeling” inevitably lose to The Fellowship of the Ring in Dramatic Presentation had to have something to do with it. The proliferation of sf tv (in part inspired by Buffy) also played a significant role, although the great age of the space opera tv show (the ‘90s) had already passed for the most part (though I'm sure no one realized that at the time).

I think pretty much everyone knows about the show’s quality and influence now, though I also know that many people avoided it for years because of the silly title, or due to a general, irrational fear of gothic fiction, vampire fiction, and/or "girl cooties."  If you did miss it a) shame on you.  It’s on Netflix streaming.  Go watch it now, and bear with it through that rough first season and a half, and b) it’s the story of a teenage girl granted superhuman powers to fight vampires and demons.  She gets a Watcher, who has access to knowledge of the supernatural world, and she enlists various friends, who, over the series’ seven season, get their own superpowers.

This episode is from the final season, which is the weakest since the first, but, hey, the series is innovative, hugely influential, and deserves some recognition before it ends.  This is probably the most experimental in the generally-restrained season seven (though the previous episode “Him” does some fun comedic stuff).  It follows four separate storylines, told more-or-less in real time, of the main characters encountering dead people.  Buffy (Sarah Michelle Geller) meets a vampiric version of a high school acquaintance and chats with him.  Buffy’s sister, Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg), is haunted by what appears to be the ghost of her mother.  Buffy’s witch friend Willow (Allyson Hannigan), communicates with her dead girlfriend through a ghost.  And, two of Buffy’s enemies from the previous season are lured into demonic acts by a manifestation of their dead friend.  All of this leads to some great character moments – we get to see how other high schoolers saw the Buffy of the first few seasons, and we get to mourn some of the major character deaths of the previous two seasons – while also advancing the plot and forwarding the “Big Bad” of this season.
It’s also a nice actor’s spotlight.  Geller always made a tough role look easy, and both she and Hannigan are very underrated.  Trachtenberg is the only one who struggles, but she was only sixteen, and the writers always had her screaming about something, which has to be tough.  The episode was written by Jane Espensen, the series’ most consistent scribe besides creator/geek icon Joss Whedon, and this script displays her customary wit and grasp of character.

The episode represents the great blend of action, fantasy, horror, comedy, and character that made the series so great, and it probably is the best episode of the final season.

Grade: A-

Grade for the series: A

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

2003 Philip K. Dick Award – ALTERED CARBON by Richard Morgan

It’s several hundred years from now and widespread technology allows people to record and transfer their brains onto “cortical stacks” that can be switched between bodies or transmitted interstellar distances.  Takeshi Kovacs is a badass mercenary from a colonized planet called Harlan’s World with special training that has made him into an “envoy” skilled at kicking ass in any body. After he and his girl are hunted down and killed, he wakes up on Earth. He’s been put into a new “sleeve,” or body, by an incredibly old and rich man (called a "Methuselah") named Laurens Bancroft to investigate the apparent suicide of his previous sleeve. As Kovacs delves into seedy, hypocritical Earth society in Bay City (formerly San Francisco) he meets rough characters, multiple dames, hookers with hearts of gold, femmes fatale, crooked cops, less-crooked cops, and pretty much every other hardboiled cliché you can imagine. Working with a female cop, who has an interest in his current sleeve, named Ortega, he uncovers a massive criminal conspiracy.

As an sf fan, I’m very familiar with the battle to get decent respect for genre fiction. There are certain critics in certain venues that aren’t going to give many speculative works a chance, and I do resent that a bit. However, there are works that just grab you by the lapels, knee you in the privates, and yell “I am genre trash! Whatever you do, DO NOT take me seriously.” I’m not saying that Morgan’s book fits that bill…but there are certainly times that it does. It’s a fascinating mixture of old and new. Morgan plays some interesting game with the “altered carbon” technology that allows people to resurrect their minds and switch bodies. He covers a lot of the bases – multiple copies, virtual worlds, and some fairly depraved applications. He’s thought out the implications of his ideas, and scattered the book with hints of a rich futuristic culture (not to mention tantalizing bits about alien ruins on Mars that are never really explored).

And, Morgan’s grafted it all onto a very traditional tough-guy private eye crime story. The book is thick with tropes, and it’s hard to say whether Morgan is playing with them or just leaning on them. I usually felt the latter. Frankly, I could’ve done without many of them, especially the gruesome torture, casual violence, over-sexualized women, and the running updates on Takeshi’s current level of tumescence. Even when Morgan is discussing new tech, it still feels a bit familiar. There are as many familiar cyberpunk tropes as there are noir tropes.

I never quite got a handle on Kovacs.  We’re continually told he’s an amoral killing machine, and he does rack up quite a body count, but they’re all really awful people, and he spends a lot of time helping the helpless and fighting for justice.  I guess this is another noir trope, but it did feel like the characters have very wobbly moralities that seem to fit the needs of the plot at the time more than anything else. There are also some basic existential issues that are barely touched on. Is a copy of your mind surviving the same as your mind surviving? Doesn’t seem like it. We’re told that Catholics resist resleeving because they believe the soul dies with the original body. I would’ve liked a little more discussion in this direction.

So, that’s a lot of complaining, but, I was entertained most of the time. There are some fun characters, interesting mysteries, intriguing speculative concepts, and exciting action scenes. The hardboiled format is oft-imitated because it works, and this is a perfectly fine entry in the genre. It’s the same mix of interesting ideas and super-violence that I complained about/begrudgingly endorsed in the two Verhoeven films I covered.

Grade: B

Monday, October 24, 2011

2003 Nebula – THE SPEED OF DARK by Elizabeth Moon

It seems like one way to get the SFWA’s attention is to be an established sf writer (Moon had long-running sf and fantasy series under her belt), and then to step out of your comfort zone (this book is much more grounded in the present and tackles a serious issue of mental disability)

There are some books that I have a hard time writing a less-than-positive review for.  In this case, we have a daring novel that dives into some intriguing issues of bioethics, has a character with autism as a first person narrator, and is based in part on the author’s own experiences with an autistic child.  There’s hardly a sentiment here that I disagree with, and I’m very intrigued by the subject matter, but, unfortunately, those qualities alone don’t make for a great book.

We don’t get a lot of the details about the world, but it’s a few decades in the future.  There are mentions of global warming and economic disaster (though not until the latter half of the book) as well as biological advances that have brought about old sf canards like personality modification for dangerous criminals, therapies for serious medical conditions, and life extension treatments.  Our narrator, Lou Arrendale, was born autistic at the turn of the twentieth century before treatments were developed for the condition, though he is very high-functioning.  He analyzes data for a corporation with a team of other autistics, and he manages a social life with fencing classes and church.  He faces two major conflicts in the novel: 1) his dastardly boss, Mr. Crenshaw, wants to coerce all of the autistic employees into serving as guinea pigs for a new, highly invasive, autism therapy, and 2) he’s fallen in love with one of his fencing buddies, Marjorie, but another fencer, Don, resents this, and resents Lou in general.  They are fairly simple plotlines, but we get a lot of Lou’s different perspective on things.  This ranges from fascinating, as in the descriptions of how he sees and seeks patterns in his life, to mind-numbingly tedious, as every line of dialogue has to be analyzed by Lou to uncover the emotional content and decode non-literal speech (like metaphors).

This is the most basic problem with the novel.  It’s not long, but it became a trudge through the middle third for me as we go through the same elaborate routines again and again.  Hearing how fixed Lou’s environment has to be is really interesting the first time, but it gets old after a few dozen descriptions.  Wathcing Lou decode dialogue is intriguing the first time, but do we need it for EVERY. SINGLE. LINE?  In other words, the narration didn’t work for me.  Which is not to say it couldn’t have worked.  I hate to review by comparison, but another novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon, came out at about the same time and explored similar ideas.  In both novels, there is a narrator on the autism spectrum investigating a mystery.  Haddon’s book is brisk and the prose is elegant and quick-moving while still putting you inside the narrator’s head.  He also manages to show us how wrong the narrator is about the mystery of the dead dog without ever breaking format.  Moon’s book, on the other hand, can be plodding.  The mystery of who is sabotaging Lou’s car is painfully obvious to everyone – including Lou! – but then he is too nice and reserved to solve it.  And, she breaks format and slips into third-person omniscient at times for no internally consistent reason.  She blows a great chance to challenge the reader with a limited, unreliable narrator and dumbs the prose down in the process.

There are other issues as well.  The best characters are Lou’s autistic coworkers, but they don’t get nearly enough pagetime.  The other characters are two dimensional – Lou’s “normal” friends are truly good people with infinite patience and intelligence.  Lou’s enemies…well, I called them dastardly before, and that pretty much sums them up.  I’m sure that disabled people deal with antagonists on a day-to-day basis, but I think antagonism out of ignorance would be a lot more real, and interesting, then these diabolical nutjobs who really hate autistics to the point of doing very illegal things and risking everything to mess with one.  This also goes hand in hand with a lot of moralizing.  There are some interesting bioethics questions here, including the fundamental question of should we “cure” someone of a “disorder” that is the basis of their personality and identity?  Lou’s attempt to answer this question for himself is the best part of the book by far, though even that gets a bit repetitive.  But, it seems like we spend even more time on obvious issues of respect and understanding.  I agree with everything Moon is saying here…but I sure got tired of hearing about it.

The book has its moments, and the premise is strong, but the characters are too black and white, the prose is too repetitive, the pace is too slow (though the final two chapters move far too quickly through major events), and Moon fails her narrator by spelling things out too clearly.  I will say that it made me appreciate Flowers of Algernon even more.

Grade: B-

Friday, October 21, 2011

2003 Saturn – X2

Singer’s X-Men managed to make superhero films a legitimate blockbuster sub-genre for the ‘00s.  His sequel, called X2 because X-Men 2 is just too damned long apparently, raises the stakes in a number of ways.  The budget is clearly larger, meaning that we get more big mutant power action sequences (and a much stronger third act as a result).  This includes a fantastic opening bit in which the blue, acrobatic, tail-possessing teleporter Nightcrawler assaults the White House, and a fun dogfight.  The movie also delves deeper into the central metaphor of mutants.  The first film gave us mutant-on-mutant violence, but in this one, humanity is the real threat.  There’s the clear possibility, only hinted at in the first film, that Magneto is right, and that mutants might be the victims of genocide.

The villain is a mutant-hating general named William Stryker.  He has the ability to control mutants, and he uses some, like Nightcrawler, to manufacture mutant incidents that he can use as justification to round up American mutants.  He kidnaps Xavier, and, in a very well-executed sequence, raids the School to round up the mutant children.  The X-Men have to rally around Magneto (who escapes from a plastic prison in another great scene) to fight back against Stryker.  There are some nice little character moments along the way: we see Nightcrawler as a mutant unable to hide his differences who leans on Christian faith, we get more of Wolverine’s origin (really all we need, despite a whole terrible movie about the topic in 2010), and we see Jean Grey’s problems dealing with the escalation of her powers (a very important storyline from the comics that will be mangled in the next movie installment).  A new character, Pyro, was clearly created for the sole purpose of switching sides, but his arc is still a nice addition to a series that takes much of its strength from an antagonist with a credible philosophy.  The best of these character moments is when Bobby “Iceman” Drake comes out as a mutant to his family.  Sir Ian McKellen, meanwhile, chews through the scenery with abandon, and I think he even manages to steal scenes that he’s not even in.  It’s like he’s taking a victory lap for the Oscar that he should have won for Fellowship of the Ring, and it’s very fun to watch.

The film’s storyline draws heavily from a Chris Claremont graphic novel called God Loves, Man Kills.  Published as a standalone graphic novel in 1982, it was aimed at a more adult audience, and it’s probably more mature than this film.  It’s a decent starting point for anyone interested in the comics, though Claremont’s narration-heavy style hasn’t aged all that well.  Again, he is one of the most underrated influences of modern sf.

Compared to X-Men, the action scenes are better, the effects more impressive, the dialogue is more clever (even the jokes are funnier), and the thematic issues more apparent and interesting.  It’s a far better film than the first, and one of the best superhero films all around.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

2003 BSFA and Clarke – THE SEPARATION by Christopher Priest

Speaking of alternate histories, this one begins in 1999 in a world where Britain made a separate peace with Germany in 1941, preventing US entry into the war and pitting them against Japan, Mao, and the USSR in a series of economically crippling wars. The Jews have a refuge in Madagascar, and Nazi Germany faded away after its own grinding fight against the Russians. This is merely the setting for a framing story in which a popular historian collects documentation about twin brother Olympians from Britain and their role in forging this peace. So, we’re very much in the same territory as Priest’s The Prestige with historical mysteries, paired journals relating the story from different perspectives, and the pervading theme of doubling.

Also like The Prestige, this novel is a puzzle box. The reader gets to see the pieces and put them together themselves. Unlike The Prestige, however, there’s not much of a solution to the puzzle. It raises a lot of questions, and it comes up with some evocative scenes, but it doesn’t provide a lot of answers. The heart of the novel is the two brothers, Joe and Jack Sawyer, though both use the initials J. L., which causes a lot of bureaucratic confusion. Joe is a committed pacifist in “the Good War.” The very basis of his philosophy is challenged by the war, and the violence he sees while working as an ambulance driver during the blitz. Jack captains bombers for the RAF, and he sees the toll of the war on civilians…inflicts it in fact. They’re both in love with the same woman, they both admire and feel hated by the other, and they both have severe doubts about their roles in the war. I can’t say that I connected with either of these characters, but they were well drawn.

Winston Churchill and Deputy Fuhrer Rudolph Hess also both loom large in the book, both have their own doubles (and then some?) and both are quite interesting. Though I did quibble with some points, especially Joe’s push for peace having any chance of persuading Churchill, the research was meticulous. But, after Robinson’s opus, which is not just a historical novel, but a novel about history, the “alternate history” aspect of this novel seemed very thin. Priest’s prose is interesting. It’s incredibly pleasant to read, but it is on the dry and formal side. This is a bit of an issue in a novel written in several different voices. All come off the same, for the most part, especially in their interest in technical details, which, again, make for very readable, rich descriptions, but didn’t convince. That’s true of the novel as a whole as well – it drew me in, but as it became clearer we were headed somewhere ambiguous, I lost interest in the work.

Like Take Back Plenty, this is a novel that won the two big British sf awards but had very little impact in the United States (it’s not in print here). And again, the book is certainly worth checking out, but it’s exclusion from most of the US awards doesn’t strike me as a huge injustice. I liked The Prestige more.

Grade: B

Monday, October 17, 2011

2003 Locus – THE YEARS OF RICE AND SALT by Kim Stanley Robinson

Why Europe? By the beginning of the fourteenth century, the area was a backwater compared to China and the Islamic world. The Europeans discovered America, and, by the eighteenth century, they were on the path to world domination. Why this happened is the fundamental question in world history, and one that I think should interest science fiction authors as they often deal with issues of discovery, expansion, and technological and scientific advancement. In this epic novel, Kim Stanley Robinson digs into the science fiction writer’s toolbox to examine this and other questions of world history.

Robinson uses alternate history to get at these big questions, and he does so in a way that I think no other science fiction writer has. Philip K. Dick and writers of historical fantasy or steampunk usually focus on aesthetics, capturing the mood of a era or shocking the reader with a sense of dislocation from a world like and unlike our own. How many times have we seen the old “Nazi flag flapping in a modern city” trick? Harry Turtledove is a bit more focused on the historical questions, but he still spends more time wargaming alternate Americas than historical inquiry. Robinson, however, wants to know what made the modern world, and he does it by subtracting Europe.

This is an ambitious work of massive scope. Robinson starts with the Black Death, which killed as much as half the population of Europe in our own world. Robinson has it explode in virulence and wipe out more than 99% of the population. Then, he follows the rest of the world for the next seven hundred years to see what happens. Who discovers America? The Chinese, but they arrive among the hunter-gatherer societies of California rather than near the wealthy societies of Mesoamerica, and they don’t have as many competitors as the Spanish, so Indians have more time to maneuver. The Iroqouis (Hodenosaunee) form a pan-American movement of resistance. The Enlightenment is centered in Samarkand; the industrial revolution in India (giving us a bit of well thought out steampunk, for once). Rather than a post-Inquisition Jewish diaspora spreading capital and knowledge, there is a Japanese diaspora prompted by a Chinese invasion. The Great War is a six-decade affair that pits industrialized China against industrialized Islam, killing a billion people. San Francisco is a Chinese city called Fangzhang centered north of the “Gold Gate.” In other words, many things follow the same path – the processes of exploration, scientific discovery, technological transformation, and international conflict make certain developments inevitable, but the shape of these changes is different enough to make things interesting. Similarly, the same natural disasters occur (Japan’s Ansei earthquakes and the great California flood, both in our 1850s-1860s, get special attention), but the contexts change.

As a history geek, I’d be happy to read a dry fictional history in this mode for 600+ pages, but Robinson also manages to give us a consistent set of characters through an ingenious device. We begin with Mongol Bold Bardash and African Kyu, who are both enslaved and shipped to China. When they die, they come to the Bardo from the Tibetan book of the dead, and then they are reincarnated into the next age as Bihari and Kokila in India. They, and a small group of other characters, form a jati; they are destined to meet in each life and influence each other, and Robinson helps us keep track by using the same letters in their names. K is brash and rebellious while B is humble and steadfast.

I can’t say that The Years of Rice and Salt always works as a character-centered novel; sometimes time passes too quickly, and it is hard to get attached to storylines when we change scenery every sixty pages or so (on average). I’d almost rather have 10 short novels set in this world than this set of vignettes. But, I did think it worked extremely well, and the last two chapters slow things down a bit and offer a nice capstone to the whole novel, as K and B become scholars who can look back on everything that’s happened before.
It’s probably not for everyone, but I adore this novel; it’s one of my favorites from the past decade. I love that a book can create interesting, centuries-spanning characters, build a really fascinating counterfactual world, and be so unabashedly intellectual. This isn’t just a historical novel, this is a novel about history, and I think science fiction is at its best when it works as social science, and tries to dig into the workings of the world.

Hominids, pshaw.

Grade: A

Friday, October 14, 2011

2003 Hugo Drama Long Form and 2002 Saturn Fantasy – THE TWO TOWERS

It hasn’t been long since I last spoke about Peter Jackson’s excellent adaptation of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.  The quality remains just as high in this middle entry.  In fact, this used to be my favorite of the three.  We’re past the heavy exposition of the first film, and we don’t have to deal with lengthy epilogues like the final film.

As far as the plot is concerned, not all that much happens.  Frodo and Sam begin the film walking to Mordor, and they end the film still walking to Mordor.  The other characters get involved in a major battle with orcs, but it’s really just a dress rehearsal for the bigger fights to come in the next film.  It’s okay that the plot stalls out though, as it gives the characters some breathing room and allows for some nice world-building.  The more we see of the bonds between these characters and the impacts of the coming war on the people of Middle Earth, the higher the stakes feel in the end.

The one new element here, which garnered much of the attention at the time, is the cg Gollum.  An effects team captures a brilliant, highly physical performance by actor Andy Serkis, and translates it to the bony, impossibly old, riddle-loving freak.  Gollum could be really annoying (he is in most adaptations), but he works pretty well here.

There’s also some nice walking trees.  And, it climaxes with an epic siege/battle at Helm’s Deep, which is probably the best action sequence of the series.  The focus on warfare in the second-half of the entry raises the stakes, and Jackson even manages to push an environmentalist theme (he argues that there is a favoring of pastoral hobbits and trees over Saurumon’s industrial orc-army in the books – I gather this comes out of Tolkien criticism, but I never really saw it in the books other than as a byproduct of Tolkien's anti-modernism. Either way, I like it here).  The filmmakers even try to include some women in one of literature’s greatest sausage fests by expanding the role of Eowyn (played by Miranda Otto).

I didn’t mention the acting last time.  Serkis, as already mentioned, is great. Ian McKellan is one of the best living actors, and his performance is truly amazing.  He has an incredibly expressive face.  Jonathan Rhys-Meyers steals a lot of scenes as the dwarf Boromir, and his comic banter with Orlando Bloom’s is a big ingredient in what makes Helm’s Deep so fun.  Bloom, Viggo Mortensen, and the hobbits all do fine jobs playing pretty dull, button-down characters.

As I said, it was my favorite in the theaters, but I don’t know if it stands up to repeat viewings as well as the others (especially Fellowship).  Maybe this is because I usually watch the extended versions these days, and the additional material is mostly unnecessary Merry and Pippen comedic bits.  Anyway, it’s still great.  I’ll probably be able to come up with a few things to complain about with the next movie.

Grade: A

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

2003 BFS and Locus Fantasy – THE SCAR by China Miéville

Bas-Lag round 2.  As in Perdido Street Station, I really want to love Mieville’s merging of different oddball concepts and his working to look at fantasy at new angles, and again, I didn’t feel like the novel delivered on the potential of Mieville’s world.

The Scar begins with a new character, Bellis Coldwine fleeing the city of New Crobuzon (due to the events of Perdido Street Station – I guess that’s a spoiler, but the eventual revelation is more fan service than plot service).  She joins an oceanic voyage to a distant colony, but her ship is overtaken, and she winds up in the floating pirate city of Armada instead.  She and her fellow travelers are impressed into serving in Armada, and she begins to build relationships with them.  She teaches cabin boy Shekel how to read, she learns of scholar Johannes Tearfly’s new research agenda, and she befriends a Remade prisoner from the ship named Tanner Sack.  A spy from New Crobuzon named Silas Fennec warns her that her home city might be in danger, but she also learns more about the leaders of Armada, including a scarred pair called the Lovers, a mercernary with a mystic sword named Uther Doul, and a shifty vampire called The Brucolac.

It kind of feels like I just listed characters there rather than describing the plot, but there’s not a whole lot of plot.  The leaders of the Armada do have an elaborate plan that involves some mystical exploration, but I don’t want to spoil it.  Most of the novel is just Bellis sitting around, pondering her allegiances or speculating on the Armada with her friends. It all feels a bit aimless.  In some ways, this novel has the opposite problem of Perdido Street Station’s transition to lengthy, single-minded bug hunt.  That novel became too focused, The Scar never quite gets focused enough.

I think the common denominator might be the characters.  Isaac der Grinebulin bounced between opportunistic bastard, bohemian romantic, absent-minded professor, and action hero without really developing a distinctive voice, other than a very funny foul mouth.  Bellis doesn’t even have the foul mouth going for her.  There’s a nice bit about her writing letters to an undetermined audience, but otherwise, she’s a very passive protagonist.  I suppose that’s her character arc, but since we spend most of the novel's 575 pages with her, she should at least be interesting.

There is plenty to like here.  Armada is another fun creation (though I wish it had done more), as are some of the magic monsters, items, and phenomena in the book (the “might sword” is one of the coolest ideas I've seen in fantasy in a long time).  The themes are more cohesive than Perdido, too. Every significant character ends up with mental and/or physical scars that nicely echo the mysterious Scar of the title, but Mieville keeps it from getting too heavy handed.  And there are nice allusions to the likes of Moby Dick (Melville, Mieville?). His prose is, well, a bit more restrained, which I think is mostly for the best (this novel is “wobbling testicle” free).

It’s the many strengths of The Scar and Perdido Street Station that make me so frustrated that I haven’t really connected with either. I’m still going to come back for The Iron Council.

Grade: B-

Monday, October 10, 2011

2003 Hugo – HOMINIDS by Robert Sawyer

I knew going in to this novel that fellow Hugo blogger Das Ubernerd declared this his least favorite Hugo-winning novel.  I also knew that sf review podcaster Luke Burrage hated this book, despite not listening to the episode in question, because he rants about it on a regular basis.  Combined with my own dislike of www:Wake and, especially, The Terminal Experiment, I was really afraid of this one.  And…maybe this is the low expectations speaking...but it wasn’t that bad.

Ponter Boddit and his male life-partner Adikor Huld hail from a dimension in which Neanderthals became the dominant hominid lifeform on Earth rather than our own competing Cro Magnon ancestors.  They’re running an experiment with a quantum computer in an abandoned mine when something goes wrong, causing Ponter to be transported to our Earth.  While Adikor goes on trial for Ponter’s disappearance, Ponter hangs out with a small group of Canadian scientists in a house somewhere, discusses his sub-species’ differences, science, and religion, and….falls in love?

Okay, it’s kind of silly.  The idea that a Neanderthal visitor from another dimension would be allowed to relax with a doctor, an anthropologist and a physicist in a Canadian country home is just ridiculous, and the conversations they have are pretty inane.  There’s a remarkable lack of intellectual curiosity out of these scientists and the world as a whole.   The main human character, Mary Vaughan, is raped just before she meets Ponter.  It’s a bold move at character-development on Sawyer’s part, but it's also executed with maximum awkwardness, and means that we spend a lot of time seeing if Mary can learn to love again.  The novel just isn’t strong enough to support this level of serious drama.

Meanwhile, on the flipside, the trial feels a lot like a bad episode of Ally McBeal, complete with bizarre legal procedures, melodramatic reveals of evidence, and even more melodramatic motives for the participants.  I got the impression that the Neanderthal world is supposed to be some sort of utopia.  We see harmonious economics and politics, a focus on sustainability, gender equality and universal bisexuality, advanced science, and almost no crime.  On the other hand, there is universal surveillance and eugenics programs, which Sawyer doesn’t do much to condemn.  He also presents Neanderthals as pure rationalists, and quickly dismisses a whole pile of evidence of Neanderthal religion (which I find fascinating) with some hand-waiving.  At the same time, he builds his whole society around Lewis Binford’s far more controversial and unlikely ideas that Neanderthals kept the genders completely segregated most of the time.  Sawyer seems to do this a lot – promoting himself as a pro-science rationalist while using very arbitrary, and very convenient, evidentiary standards to push his own favorite ideas.

On top of these flaws, we get the standard Sawyerisms that I’ve really come to dislike: obscure geek references dominating casual conversation (Kira Nerys?  Really?), corny dialogue (“par-tay!”), characters spending all of their time debating what are clearly Sawyer’s own pet ideas (quantum consciousness!), and Canada-centrism.   Sawyer even returns to a device he used in Terminal Experiment – a series of dumb headlines reacting to the book’s world-changing events that reveal more about Sawyer’s blinkered view of humanity than anything else.

Okay, so I complained a lot.  I didn’t say it was a great novel, it’s just not as bad as I thought it’d be. The central idea is kind of cool, and I thought the Neanderthal society was interesting enough, despite my problems with it.  I know this is the first volume in a trilogy, and I’m actually half-intrigued to see where it goes.  Maybe they won’t spend all of the next book barbecuing in a random Canadian home!

Then again, considering that one of my all-time favorite sf books was also on the ballot (I'll get to it shortly), I probably could get pretty steamed about this choice.

Grade: C

Friday, October 7, 2011


I rewatched this in a double feature with AI, Spielberg’s previous science fiction outing.  Both films disappointed me in the theater, and I’d avoided both ever since.  Despite these links, they’re actually very different films – almost mirror opposites.

Loosely based on a Philip K. Dick story, Minority Report follows the pre-crime unit, led by Tom Cruise (Cruise is not the kind of actor who disappears into a role, so his character’s name isn’t worth the time).  In 2054, a team of three pre-cognitives have visions of future murders which can be recorded and replayed by the police, who then have to figure out the crime’s location and rush to stop it.  This procedure has led to the end of homicides in the D.C. pilot program, but it is not without controversy, since it leads to people being convicted of crimes they don’t commit. When a Department of Justice representative (Colin Farrell) shows up to investigate, Cruise discovers some inconsistencies in a few of the precogs' visions.  Then, when he is himself accused of a future murder; he has to go on the run, and in the process of investigating the murder he is destined to commit, he puts himself into the position of fulfilling the prophesy.

It’s a very exciting film with fantastic effects.  There’s all sorts of fun near-future tech from Apple-influenced/influencing touch interfaces (RIP Steve Jobs) to vertical highways to jetpacks to eye-scanning spider robots.  The chase scenes are fast-paced and well-filmed.  And, there are some interesting questions about destiny and justice in play as well. A fun, fast-paced film with believable future tech and interesting speculative questions? I told you it was the anti-AI.

So, why did I have a problem with this film?  A lot of my issues concern the film’s conclusion, so I can’t really get into them without spoilers, but I will say that I wanted this film to be about the ethics of precrime and/or the question of causality.  However, a twist late in the film takes it in a different direction, and it becomes a more conventional mystery/thriller.  There are a few efforts made to return to the central themes, but they’re buried, I think, by efforts to give the film a simpler conclusion.

In the theater, this bothered me a lot.  It really ruined the whole film for me.  This time, perhaps because I knew it was coming, I wasn’t bothered nearly as much.  I was able to enjoy the ride, and have fun with one of the richest and most compelling future visuals since Blade Runner.

Grade: B+

Monday, October 3, 2011

2002 Locus SF - PASSAGE by Connie Willis

This is the first Willis I've read not set in her time-travelling historians of Oxford world, though there are a lot of similarities. It's clear to me by now that Willis has a shtick. Take some annoying characters, have the protagonists go to comical lengths to avoid said annoying characters, have the whole plot hinge on failures of communication, and add in some meticulous historical research, and you've got a Willis novel. And there's nothing wrong with that. Most writers have shticks; the question is whether they can engage a reader enough with plot, character, and prose to keep them coming back anyway.

The setting this time in a hospital in contemporary Colorado (Willis's home). Joanna Lander is a psychologist studying Near-Death Experiences, the whole light-at-the-end-of-a-tunnel phenomenon. She works in close quarters with a true believer named Mandrake, who is convinced that these NDEs prove the existence of an afterlife (and psychic powers). Mandrake and his star subject Mrs. Davenport are the prime annoying characters that the protagonists must avoid at all costs this go round. When a neurologist named Richard Wright shows up at the hospital with a plan to study the biochemistry of NDEs, Joanna jumps on board against Mandrake's objections. Wright has found a drug that can simulate the effects of Near-Death Experience on the brain, and, eventually, Joanna agrees to become a subject. As each simulated NDE brings her further into what feels like a real experience of an actual historical event, Joanna struggles to maintain her objectivity and frantically dodges through the corridors of the hospital to try to understand exactly what her experience means.

Why does she move frantically through the hospital? Because Connie Willis thinks it's funner that way, I guess. There's a lot of manufactured drama here. At first, it makes a fairly mundane science thriller into more of a page turner - the fact that Joanna has to sneak, run, and dodge her way through the hospital for tiny tidbits of information makes things a bit more exciting.  After a few hundred pages, however, I really wanted to yell, "Good God everybody!  Get some $%#@*^ing cellphones and have a $%#@*^ing direct conversation for once!"  Joanna, you don't have to take a taxi to the parking lot to avoid Mandrake. You can say "I'm not interested in your work, and I have other things to do."  It's easy! The novel sort of exhausted me, and I started to get the feeling that everything was spinning in place as Willis goes to great lengths to keep her mysteries going. The last part is especially frustrating, as it involves characters reconstructing information that we already know. We have to see the same hundred-page investigation twice!

That said, I couldn't stay mad at Willis for long. Her dialog, as always, is naturalistic yet clever, and genuinely funny and charming, and her core characters are typically lovable (does she make the ancillary characters so petty and awful just to make the main characters more attractive in contrast?). A dying young girl named Maisie, who is obsessed with disasters, is particularly smart and funny. And, as I've said, writing awful people is a real writer's skill, even if it's not one that I always enjoy reading. The core mysteries are interesting, and there are a couple of bold choices here. I knew in a book about Near-Death Experiences that someone important is going to face death themselves, and Willis heavily foreshadows how this is likely to happen in the hospital. But who faces death, how it happens, and the outcome took me completely by surprise. This novel managed to shock me. I also thought it was bold of Willis to write a direct, secular confrontation with the meaning of death. She has a lot of opportunities to give herself an out, but she remains a committed skeptic to the very end.

In the end, I liked the novel, though I was often frustrated by it. I think it could have been a lot better at about 2/3rds the length.  I'd recommend it to Willis fans, but I'd guide Willis newcomers to To Say Nothing of the Dog instead.

Grade: B