Sunday, November 27, 2011

2005 Nebula – CAMOUFLAGE by Joe Haldeman

An extremely resilient, shapeshifting, immortal alien evolves in a harsh interstellar environment then travels to Earth.  30,000 years ago, it landed and began to observe local life, living for thousands of years as a shark.  Finally, in 1931 it comes ashore and takes human form.  We follow this “changeling” over the following decades, as it takes many different human forms and comes to understand human emotions.  The great cornball sci-fi question, “what is love?” is actually uttered several times in the novel, though at least Haldeman has the good sense to couch it in literary allusions.  While we follow the changeling's history through the years, we also see the excavation of its ship in 2020, led by Russell Sutton, the man who raised the Titanic.

I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy this book.  Maybe it’s my love of history, but I’m a sucker for the “immortal experiences key events beyond a single lifespan” gimmick.  Haldeman is as good as anyone at depicting war from the soldier’s point of view, and there’s a very effective section on the Bataan Death March in the Phillippines during WWII.  That said, we’ve seen this before.  In fact, in this age of vampire dominance, we’ve seen it a lot.  I’m also a sucker for the “team of scientists try to understand unfathomable alien artifact” gimmick, which takes up most of the rest of the novel.  Again, we’ve seen it before, and we’ve seen it done better, but combining two basic plots I enjoy is probably not the recipe for a novel I’m going to hate.

It’s not necessarily the recipe for a novel that I’m going to love though.  The novel starts by combing some tried-and-true formulas, but it does go off on some tangents towards the end.  There’s an odd, and rather forced, love story.  Haldeman introduces another, unrelated, alien called the “Chameleon,” and I know he’s trying to draw a contrast between different views of humanity, but it really just feels like the Chameleon is just there so that there can be a fight at the novel’s climax.  There are extended descriptions of the elaborate lengths the Changeling has to go through to establish identities in the modern world. And, there’s a big twist that is so obvious that I was sure Haldeman was going for a fake out.

It’s a mildly entertaining, but flawed, novel.  It certainly doesn’t feel like an award-winner.  I think it’s fair to hold all of these award-winners up to a high standard, and to expect them to have high quality writing and bring new ideas or themes to the table; this one does not measure up.  This is Haldeman’s third Nebula.  Forever War is a classic in the core sf canon.  Forever Peace has some major issues, but it’s asking big questions and has some new ideas.  Camouflage is a workmanlike, derivative sf thriller.  Once again, I have no idea where the SFWA is coming from.

Grade: C+

Saturday, November 26, 2011

2005 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation, Long Form – THE INCREDIBLES

The Incredibles is the first Pixar movie (and the first Disney movie) to win the Hugo (through three of their five previous had been nominated), the first fully animated film, and the first superhero film. The rise of computer animation over the past decade is so obvious that it’s hardly worth mentioning, and we’ve already discussed superheroic domination of the summer blockbuster. The Hugos have sort of resisted these trends in their winners, but I guess the combination proved undeniable.

Mr. Incredible, one of America’s greatest superheroes, has a series of misadventures on his way to a wedding with another superhero, Elastigirl. He saves the day, but along the way he alienates the president of his fan club by denying him a sidekick role, and he wracks up a couple of lawsuits from a prevented suicide and a train crash. This opens a pandora’s box of superhero liability, and eventually the government steps in to pay legal fees in exchange for the superhero community going into collective retirement. Years later, Incredible and Elastigirl have settled into typical suburban lives. Their daughter can turn invisible and their son is superfast, but they try to prevent their children from using their powers in order to keep their cover. Mr. Incredible is restless though, and he jumps at a chance to do a special job fighting a robot on an isolated island. He gets back into the game, commissioning a new costume, but then uncovers a supervillain’s plot that draws his whole super-family into action.

At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon or a contrarian, I don’t like this movie as much as everyone else I know. Let me be clear, I like it. I like it a lot. I just don’t love it. It’s closer to the bottom of my personal Pixar rankings…which still puts it above most movies out there. I have two big problems of varying degrees of nitpickiness. Nitpickiest first: there’s a big part of me that wishes this were a Fantastic Four movie. The powers, and a lot of the set up, are straight out of the epic, genius sixties superhero-family comics of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The similarities are numerous enough to bother me (and the FF movies are awful – so unfair), but I know I should just get over this. My second problem, which I think is a more legitimate issue, is that the political message is really weird. Writer/director Brad Bird is claiming that society forces exceptional people to hide their talents, which feels a lot like a straw man to me. I don’t really see this problem in the world. The villain’s grudge is that he doesn’t have powers, and one of his threats is that he’ll distribute his magnificent inventions to the people to put them on par with people with superpowers. The inventions themselves seem to negate his grudge and keeping technology from the masses just so powered people can feel their full specialness just seems petty. I really don’t get it. I’m probably thinking about it a lot harder than I’m supposed to.

While I’m complaining about a universally beloved film, I’ll go all in and add that the animation is showing its age a bit. It looks fantastic, but the limits if the character animation and the static nature of some of the backgrounds go a long way to showing how quickly computer animation advances. It’s still dazzling and gorgeous, but more recent Pixar pics are even moreso.

Okay, now that I’ve got all that off my chest, I will say this is a very fun movie, and one of the best superhero films of all time. It does look great, despite being long-in-the-tooth in computer animation terms, and the character dynamics are interesting and rich. I would say that Eternal Sunshine should have won, and I also prefer Prisoner of Azkaban and Spider-Man 2. But these are four great films (the fifth nominee Sky Captain…not so much), so I’m not really complaining.

Grade: B+

Sunday, November 20, 2011

2005 Hugo and WFA – JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL by Susanna Clarke

Every now and then we get interesting little micro-trends popping up on this blog.  I wouldn’t have seen this one coming, but between the Baroque Cycle and this entry, it looks like English history mega-epics are all the rage in science fiction.

I’ve complained about historical fantasy before; it’s a great idea, but many authors give us the trappings (costumes, sets, a few cameos by famous historic personages) without capturing the feel of the period or bothering to contend with the era’s culture.  Clarke does not make that mistake.  This novel takes place in early nineteenth-century England, and it is steeped in the literature and history of the period.  The facts are accurate, even with the fantasy overlay, and the prose is light, modern, and fun while still paying tribute to the works of Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and other contemporary authors.  The Duke of Wellington, Lord Byron, and Mad King George III all pop by, but they don’t overshadow the book or spout their greatest hits; they’re entertaining guest stars on the same level as much of the rest of the novel’s vast cast.

England was once a nation full of magic.  For three centuries, the Raven King ruled the north with the help of arcane alliances, fairies, and his own vast powers.  This golden age passed into a silver age by the fifteenth century, and by the beginning of the nineteenth century, magicians are overstuffed academics who argue about magical history while avoiding anything as ungentlemanly as spells themselves.  In Yorkshire, one of these scholars deigns to ask the question “why is no real magic practiced in England anymore?”  He soon discovers that there is one practicing magician nearby, a grumpy recluse named Mr. Norrell.  Norrell demonstrates his power in Yorkshire, than rises to fame in London with a successful resurrection and some weather manipulation to help the cause of the English Navy in the Napoleonic Wars.  Mr. Norrell is paranoid that other practicing magicians might rise and steal his thunder, but one young gentleman, Jonathan Strange, is so powerful that Norrell must take him on as a student.  The novel follows their rocky relationship as they argue over the dangers of dealing with fairies and reviving England’s rich magical background.

The novel covers a decade of this relationship, takes us to the battlefields of Spain and Waterloo (and briefly to a famous holiday on Lake Geneva, where many would argue science fiction was born), and to Venice.  It begins as a small comedy of manners, follows a few sub-plots that appear to be tangents, then pulls everything together for an awesome, epic conclusion in the third part.  I also found Clarke’s portrayal of magic (which is the fantasy equivalent of sf’s exploration of technology) particularly exciting; it’s rich in history (one of the main attractions here is the novel’s wonderful and consistent footnotes), and the mechanisms are slowly unveiled as the plot begins to coalesce. All the while, Clarke’s prose sparkles, her characters are multi-dimensional, entertaining, and compelling, and she hints at deeper issues of class, gender, race, and the philosophy of knowledge.  I’ve complained about the growing page-counts of novels a couple of times this decade; well, this is the longest book yet, and I wouldn’t give up a word of it.  It is a fantastic work that I’d recommend to pretty much anyone.

Grade: A

Thursday, November 17, 2011


Charlie Kaufman is back with another surrealist exploration of universal themes – this time love and memory.  Kaufman also shoes his genius at choosing his collaborators again. Being John Malkovich was the feature debut of one of the greatest music video directors of all time: Spike Jonze.  This is the second feature by another of the greatest music video directors of all time: Michel Gondry.

The science fiction conceit is that Lacuna, Inc. has developed a
technology which can erase people’s memories.  It’s often used to deal with heartbreak.  The film seems very non-linear, but the structure is actually a lot simpler than it appears: other than a framing device in the “present,” most of the film takes place linearly while Joel (Jim Carrey) has his memories of ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) erased.  Much of the movie takes place in Joel’s memories, and Gondry gets to use a variety of exciting visual techniques (mostly just lighting, though there’s also some play with the sets and some cgi) to portray the scenes as memories and to represent their erasing.  Along the way, we see the memory erasing technicians and their own messy lives.  The cast is incredibly deep with Tom Wilkinson as the head of Lacuna and a sf trifecta of Bruce Banner, Mary Jane Watson, and Frodo Baggins (Mark Ruffalo, Kirtsen Dunst, and Elijah Wood) as his employees.

The visuals are great, and the film’s structure is a puzzle that’s fun and intriguing without ever becoming frustrating.  The performances are wonderful.  Kate Winslet is one of the greatest working actresses, and she effortlessly slips into a quirky character.  Clementine is bursting with spontaneity (including ever-changing hair colors), but she’s not the typical Manic Pixie Dream Girl.  She has very real and serious problems.  Carrey has garnered acclaim for a lot of his performances, starting with The Truman Show, but this is the first movie where I’ve really loved him as an actor.  Most importantly, the relationship feels as real as any I’ve ever seen in a movie.  The film manages to capture the feeling of falling in love, and the feeling of a relationship falling apart…and the odd structure makes this strangely redemptive without ever coming close to cheese.

This is one of the greatest and most innovative sf films out there.  It uses a speculative device to get at core, universal emotions.  The Incredibles is good fun, but I think the WorldCon voters blew it on this one, and again, Saturn’s eclecticism keeps things interesting.

Grade: A

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


This one takes some explaining.  The Baroque Cycle is a massive work by Neal Stephenson – a sort of prequel to his information-opus Cyptonomicon that focuses on several of the characters’ ancestors in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.  Together, The Baroque Cycle forms one 2600 page story, though it was published as three separate novels at six-month intervals (and then later as eight smaller novels).  The first entry, Quicksilver, won the Clarke.  It finished third in the Locus voting in 2004, but the final two-thirds were both eligible in the next year, and they won as a single unit.  The first novel, Quicksilver, does start slow, so I can see why the Locus voters passed it by, though it does get quite good after 300 pages or so.  The second novel, The Confusion, is a work of genius.  The third novel overstays its welcome (after reading for thousands of pages, I found myself yelling “get on with it already!” during the home stretch).  Really, The Baroque Cycle should be seen as one work, so it is fitting that Locus grouped them together (and I’m doing the same).

So, 2600 pages, huh?  The Baroque Cycle is daunting, and at the end, it’s a fairly uneven work.  Fundamentally, it’s about the dispute between Leibniz and Newton over who invented Calculus.  This was a real fight between two genius men who were also crucial political figures in British history – part of the dispute is about science and the politics of science, but it also involves questions of scientific professionalization, struggles over the British crown, the birth of high finance, the prehistory of information technology, and the nature of God and the cosmos. 

If you groaned or gave a weary sigh during any part of that description, run away now.  Run as fast and as far from these novels as you can.  However, if you’re at least mildly intrigued by a 2600 page novel of scientific disputes and political intrigue, there’s a decent chance that you will enjoy yourself here.  Stephenson livens things up with the picaresque hero Jack Shaftoe.  In contrast to the Stephenson’s invented scientist character, Daniel Waterhouse, Jack is an uneducated clown who has wild, swashbuckling adventures across the globe.  He starts out as a mercenary and vagabond in Quicksilver, then spends most of The Confusion as a pirate.  Bridging the two stories is Eliza, a beautiful young woman who goes from harem slave to aristocrat over the decades-long story, and sponsors schemes in the criminal, political, scientific and financial world that the Cycle so masterfully jumps between (and often combines!)
We follow these three characters for most of the novel from their youths in the 1660s to 1714 (the Hannoverian succession for those keeping score at home).  Waterhouse lets Stephenson explore the scientific revolution and England’s burgeoning Royal Society, and especially its superstars, Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton.  He uses Jack Shaftoe to delve into the underworld and to tell a series of comic adventure stories.  Eliza takes us into the worlds of royal courts and early modern trade and finance.

As history, it’s generally accurate and rather ingenuous.  Several historical characters make cameos or play large roles, including several kings, queens, and scientists (a young Ben Franklin even pops in early on).  Stephenson has his facts straight and more than once I would look up a particularly unlikely-seeming event or meeting and find that it really did happen more or less as Stephenson described.   There is some artistic license taken – Stephenson puts a witch execution in New England a few decades after they had stopped, for instance – but that’s really where Stephenson’s genius comes in.  Yes, the main characters are his creations, and yes, there are several improbably (and impossible scenes).  At one point, Stephenson even stages a Disneyesque musical number in a Jack Shaftoe scene.  But all of these moments only serve to bring the history even more vibrantly alive.

What exactly does this all have to do with science fiction then?  Well, there are some moments that are pure fantasy (an immortal sorceror appears, and much of the plot turns on some alchemical gold – both are elements carried over from Cryptonomicon).  But, more fundamentally, these are novels about science.  They explore the implications of science by taking real discoveries and exaggerating them or carrying them to extreme ends.  Leibniz really did consider building a mechanical calculator, and is thus one of the prehistoric pioneers of the computer.  In Stephenson’s world, he gets to build his calculator.  This is science fiction at its most pure.

This is my third Stephenson review, and it should be clear by now that I’m a fan of his work, and especially his irreverent, witty, and discursive writing style.  I’m also a fan of historical settings and richly drawn worlds, so, it’s not a surprise that I loved these novels.  Stephenson’s tics are all still here – especially his tendency to run off on long tangents that can turn into academic lectures.  You either love it or hate it, and if the latter, you’re going to have a hard time with Stephenson and the hardest time of all here.

I did say that this is an uneven work.  Quicksilver takes a while to get going.  The Confusion is probably the best thing that Stephenson has ever written and one of my favorite novels.  System of the World was painful to get through at times.  It’s a nice two or three hundred page epilogue to the first two parts…stretched out to nine hundred pages (for symmetry’s sake?).  In System, for once, Stephenson’s diversions aren’t all that interesting, there’s a great deal of repetition (you will grow sick of the phrase “Trial of the Pyx”), and the characteristic long-winded descriptions just aren’t that interesting.  I’d suggest skimming the final volume if you can bring yourself to do so.  It also wouldn’t hurt to bone up on history before delving in – I gave up on Quicksilver when it first came our, but I found it a much breezier read after reading up on seventeenth-century English history for a class I was teaching. 

In summary, it’s a highly rewarding set of novels that I can’t recommend highly enough…so long as you’re interested in history, can tolerate Stephenson’s quirks, and you can hold your nose and make your way through some slow portions.  The Confusion alone is worth these obstacles though. 

Grade: A

Sunday, November 13, 2011

2004 BSFA – RIVER OF GODS by Ian McDonald

I reviewed McDonald’s novella “Vishnu at the Cat’s Circus” for the 2010 Hugos and speculated that I might like it better once I was introduced to the wider world. The answer is “yes.” McDonald’s India of 2047, it’s centennial celebration (the novel has the unusual subtitle Happy Birthday India), is a fascinating setting, and it allows him to explore familiar post-cyberpunk themes in a way that few authors I’ve read have matched.

As I mentioned in my “Vishnu” review, McDonald’s futurism tends towards the optimistic (there’s a bit of my old foe, the singularity, at play here). Artificial Intelligences, called “aeais,” are common, but their sophistication is capped by international law pushed by the U.S. Still, they have wide applications in warfare, administration, science, and entertainment (a virtual soap opera called Town and Country plays a key role). There have also been genetic advances, including the slowly aging but long-lived and brilliant Brahmin (covered more in “Vishnu”). Meanwhile, India still suffers from old ethnic conflicts and the environmental problems of climate change and its own diverse geography. The novel centers around Varanasi, an ancient city and Hindu religious center. The region is in a three year drought and a water war looms while fundamentalist Hindus are on the verge of rioting.

McDonald introduces his world through a very broad cast of characters. There’s the comedian who inherits an Indian tech company, a mercenary, a cop who hunts rogue aeais, his beautiful and neglected young bride, a young reporter, a Muslim politician, a surgically created neuter, and a pair of western theoretical physicists, lured into the plot by a strange object found in space. As tensions in the region rise, these characters collide in various, often unexpected ways. Ultimately, hints point to the fact that all of the characters are caught up in the manipulations of powerful aeais.

It’s a very well-written and exciting novel with some incredible imagery, befitting the dramatic setting. There’s always the danger with a novel set in India that we get into some hardcore orientalism (see Song of Kali), but I think McDonald is pretty savvy in avoiding that here. It’s an honest portrayal of the place’s beauty, diversity, and rich history that doesn’t white wash its contradictions and violent history of religious strife. It also has a few sex scenes worthy of the kama sutra; it seems that I only mention sex scenes on this blog to criticize them, so I’ll give McDonald some credit for being…inventive.

It took a little time in the first section for me to get all of the characters straight, but once I did, the next several hundred pages blew me away. This novel was fantastic for most of its run. The end was a little shaky, and I’m beginning to realize that this is a trend in cyberpunk novels, or at least the ones based on AI/singularity. I think the problem is that these plots always run towards apotheosis, which is difficult to portray in a satisfying, or original, way. It’s not a bad ending by any stretch of the imagination, but it doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the incredible five-hundred pages that precede it.

Grade: A

Friday, November 11, 2011

2004 Hugo Drama Short Form Do Over – FIREFLY

Hey, it’s my blog, I get to rewrite Hugo history if I want to.

I was, apparently, one of the few people who watched Firefly when it was on Fox for a couple of weeks in 2002.  Since it was on the air, it’s become a cult classic, and it’s in the mix for pretty much any discussion of “best sf tv series of all time.”  It is really good, and it’s innovative in a lot of ways: it uses hand-held doc-style camera work, even for fx shots, it mashes space opera and western genre elements, it presents a dirtier future full of anti-heroes, and it gives us a multicultural future full of Chinese curse words.  Many of these elements have been picked up by subsequent sf tv shows.

If you’re assuming that the show failed because it was too science fictiony and couldn’t find a wider audience…well, you might be correct, but WorldCon’s treatment of the show rather demonstrates that it took sf fans some time to discover it as well.  The only episode nominated from the original broadcast run was the shown-out-of-order pilot, “Serenity,” which was solid, but not the show’s pinnacle.  Three episodes were produced but not broadcast on Fox.  When they came out on DVD, they became eligible and two were nominated, which suggests that the show was gaining momentum. But, then again, they were both beat by 90 seconds of bleeped Gollum profanity on MTV.  In fact, it looks like Gollum beat both nominated episodes combined (though the series finale of Buffy probably shaved some votes off Firefly as well).

Anyway, I think “The Message” should’ve won.  Captain Mal receives a crate in the mail that contains the body of an old war buddy, who got involved in the smuggling of some experimental biotech.  It has the typical sharp, funny dialogue and character drama that made the show great.  Jonathan Woodward plays the deceased war buddy in flashbacks – he was also the vampire in “Conversations with Dead People.”  I’m a bit surprised that he hasn’t been in much non-Whedon stuff.  He’s kind of a poor-man’s Paul Rudd (I consider that a compliment).  The other nominated episode, “Heart of Gold,” is not the show’s finest hour; it’s part Magnificent Seven with a little bit of Unforgiven (the crew defends a brothel from onslaught), but, all together, it’s pretty standard western material (with laser guns!).  I actually would’ve nominated the other eligible episode, “Trash,” instead.  It’s a caper episode, which the show probably overdid in its brief run, but it has the great Christina Hendricks reprising her role as sexy con-artist Saffron.

Grades: “The Message” – A-

“Heart of Gold” – B-

“Trash” – B+

Best episodes from the series as a whole:

“Jaynestown” – it’s odd to put a comedy episode in first place, but the concept, the script, and the actors’ timing are all excellent in this story of a poor colony that reveres the crew’s bad boy. A

“War Stories” – I really hate torture scenes, and this episode has a lot of them, but there are so many classic lines that I can’t help but love it.  It starts out by pairing the show’s two best comic actors and putting them in an awful situation, then it ends with an exciting action sequence. And then there are those great one-liners.  “I’ll be in my bunk.”  A

“The Train Job” – the second pilot created by Whedon and Minear.  I think it was harmed by Fox’s refusal to air the actual pilot…leaving a lot of the show’s premise unclear.  It holds up really well, and introduces the mood and themes of the show, even if it leaves some questions about plot points.  A-

“Out of Gas” – Great use of non-linear storytelling.  In the “present” life support is cut and Mal is wounded.  Throughout the episode we see how things got so bad, and how the crew got together. A-

“Ariel” – A caper story that gives us a different setting (a more urban planet), advances the overall plot, and involves some great character twists. A-

I don’t think the series is without problems.  The setting doesn’t entirely make sense – there’s no faster-than-light travel but they zip around to quite a few different planets.  There is some explanation about a very large solar system with many terraformed planets, but it still seems too crowded for one system.  The whole “freedom” theme with the Browncoats alludes to the Confederacy without really explaining or exploring the history, or the obvious problems with the analogy.  Some of the character beats are repetitive as well (River’s crazy, Jayne’s a little evil, Mal is good-hearted but ruthless, Book is mysterious, etc. I get it).  All that said, the show never really had time to get on its feet.  It was clearly destined for greatness when it ended prematurely, and what we did get was still very entertaining and influential.

Overall grade: A-

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

2004 Hugo Drama Short Form – “Gollum Acceptance Speech at the 2003 MTV Movie Awards”

Oh, how cute.  Gollum wins “Best Digital Character” at the MTV Movie Awards, and we cut to Andy Serkis accepting the award only to be interrupted by an obscenity-laden rant from Gollum himself in which he screams “MTV sucks” and calls Dobby a “f***ing f*****.”  I approve of Dobby-bashing, though I don’t approve of the second “f” word there so much.

I seem to remember everyone sharing this video on youtube…which is weird because youtube didn’t exist yet.  Maybe it was streaming somewhere though?  Or, maybe so many of my LOTR-obsessed friends spouted lines from it that it felt like a ubiquitous youtube clip before such a thing existed.  Either way, it shows that this new short form category is perfect for the age of new media.  It’s inane, short, and stupid, but it’s also mildly humorous and a sign of internet-humor-to-come, so I can’t really object.  I mean, it must have been a very weak year…

…it’s not like this 90 second one-note video clip won over some kind of short-lived science fiction television classic…

…let me check the other nominees real quick just to be sure…

Oh, f%#$ me...

$#%^&@# you, you &#%@ing Worldcon fanwankers and your stupid bull$%^@!

This has to be the worst Hugo result I’ve ever seen.  This makes They’d Rather Be Right look like &#%@ing Dune.

2004 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation Short Form, a Hugo award which will live in infamy.

Grade: F-

Monday, November 7, 2011

2004 Locus SF – ILIUM by Dan Simmons

Dan Simmons’ Ilium follows the misadventures of a group of war-re-enactors, as the egos of the organizers and the participants threaten to get in the way of historical accuracy.

Okay, the war is the Trojan War, the site is a terraformed Mars thousands of years in the future, and the organizers are godlike beings. But, it was reassuring for me to imagine the story on a smaller scale, since, as is the norm with Simmons’ space operas, the story has to go BIG: the nature of Earth and humanity are on the line, supertechnology and omnipotent beings abound, numerous references to great works of the western canon are thrown in to give the proceedings extra artificial weight, and one volume cannot contain the action. Honestly, if not for the fact that I’ve read or want to read every other Locus sf winner, I would have skipped this one, because it’s exactly what I’ve come to expect from Simmons after three disappointing books in a row (Fall of Hyperion and the Endymion duology). My eyes glazed over for a lot of my reading, and I’m afraid I won’t remember a thing about this book if I don’t write this review right now.

As I said, it’s the far future, most of humanity is extinct, but there are a few survivors bouncing around Earth, some missing-in-action “post-humans,” Greek gods on Mars (who may be said post-humans), and some sentient robots bouncing around the rest of the solar system. The Greek gods live on Olympus Mons and are recreating the Trojan War. They’ve brought a few twentieth-century scholars of the Iliad in to consult, including sometimes-narrator Thomas Hockenberry (who may as well just be PJF from Riverworld). Hockenberry is given the power to morph into different characters and teleport, but he’s also often given impossible, history-sabotaging tasks by the gods (“kill Athena!”), not that these lead the plot anywhere interesting in particular. There’s also some action with the few remaining humans on Earth where they hang with Oddyseus and fight Prospero and Caliban for some reason. There’s a good amount of Roger Zelazny here – the futuristic Greek gods, whatever their origin, reminded me of the futuristic Hindu gods of Lord of the Light, and Oddyseus adventuring on a destroyed future Earth took me right back to This Immortal.

My favorite portions of the novel involve to “moravecs” or sentient robots from the Gallilean moons of Jupiter. Mahnmut is a Shakespeare scholar from Europa, and Orphu is a Proust expert from Io. The scholars are tasked with a mission to check out Mars. Their scholarship doesn’t do much other than allow Simmons to remind us that he knows some things about literature, as he so often does. The Canterbury Tales format of Hyperion was original and fun; since then, the Keats, Shakespeare, Homer, and Proust references just seem like Simmons doing his shtick. Is it in his contract or something? At least Mahnmut and Orphu have personalities though, unlike the human characters.

I think Simmons is just not for me. His world-building doesn’t have the depth that I look for as it leans to heavily on shallow intertextuality, and he always ramps the stakes up to the point that nothing seems to matter.

Grade: C-

Friday, November 4, 2011

2004 Hugo Drama Long Form and 2003 Saturn Fantasy – RETURN OF THE KING

This is the first of the 40+ award-winning films I’ve covered here to also win an Academy Award for Best Picture.  It also won in all ten of the other Oscar categories that it was nominated for, including Best Director for Peter Jackson.  This was what we call a “phenomenon.”  The movie is impressive in a lot of ways: the battle scenes are bigger than ever, Minas Tirith looks fantastic, and there are many emotional moments between the characters.  There’s a lot of jesting about the homoeroticism of these films, but I think it is fair to say that there is some kind of love story between Sam and Frodo.  That’s clearest in this entry, as we see their ups and downs, Gollum and the Ring competing for their affections, their final triumph, and their bittersweet parting.  All of this gives the film more emotional weight than a lot of the fantasy fare out there.

So, this entry works very well, but I do consider the Academy’s recognition to be for the series as a whole, rather than just this one entry.  This particular film has some of the series’ highest highs, but I think is also has some of the biggest flaws.   The largest is the pacing: most of the first half is taken up with another giant battle; Frodo and Sam are all but forgotten, then the entire nature of the film changes at the halfway point as they take center stage.  It’s an odd flow of momentum.  And, of course, there’s the extra-long ending.

It’s as if Jackson, realizing what he had accomplished, decided to take a victory lap with the epilogue.  And then another one.  And then one more.  True, it’s shorter than the post-climax meanderings of the novel, which actually starts a whole ‘nother plot.  I’m sure Tolkeinistas could dissertate all night on how crucial the scouring of the Shire is to J.R.R.’s masterpiece, but I, and many others I know, think that cutting that plotline is one of the key areas where the films are better than the books.  Even with that gone, however, the movie still takes it sweet time ending after the big moment.  I do think that everyone fading off to the West is thematically crucial to the series, but it certainly could have been done more efficiently.

There’s also a pretty hefty cheesiness factor to all of these movies.  If you get caught up in the action, as most any fantasy fan would, it’s easy to miss some of this.  But, Peter Jackson has a lot of cornball maneuvers in his repertoire – jerky slo-mo, melodramatic slo-mo, characters gleaming in the sun, fake-out deaths, fake-out endings, to name a few.  And, he gets some of the mushiest performances that I’ve ever seen out of his actors.  As I said at the beginning of my Fellowship review though – it all works.  It’s the perfect pairing of director and material.  When adapting Tolkien, who self-consciously wrote a painfully sincere and old-fashioned story, this all works beautifully.  Remaking King Kong is another story altogether.

So, in summation (as if you didn't already know), these are excellent movies.

Grade: A

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Victorian Hugos

Over at io9, the great scholar of historic science fiction Jess Nevins (who has decoded a great many ultra-obscure references from Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentleman for the reading public) is running a series of imaginary WorldCons from 1885 to 1930.

This is pure awesomeness. It would be a great place to take this blog when I finish up with the real, modern Hugos (only five years left!). On the other hand, I'm getting kind of burnt out, so let's just read Nevins' thoughts...