Thursday, December 22, 2011

2006 Hugo for Dramatic Pres., Short Form – “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances,” DOCTOR WHO


The original Doctor Who ran on BBC from 1963-1989. The premise, if you’re somehow unfamiliar with it, is that an alien Time Lord steals a time machine, called the TARDIS (forever stuck in its camouflage as a 1960s London police box) and travels randomly through space and time with various companions.  When an actor wants to retire, the Doctor “regenerates” into a new body with a slightly different personality.  It was originally conceived as an educational children’s show with alternating history lessons (travels to the past) and science lessons (sf stories), but the producers quickly dropped that premise when campy adventure stories (usually involving the alien-mutant-cyborg Daleks) garnered big ratings. The show ran forever, and became iconic in the UK. As I understand it, Doctor Who in the UK is a lot like Star Trek in the US – pretty much everyone watched it at some point as a kid and gets the basic references, but fandom is considered a sure sign of extreme geekiness.  From my internet experiences, I’d say that Trekkies have nothing on hardcore British Who fans.

Also, camp.  The show operated on cheap BBC budgets, and us full of campy effects and overacting.  This is what many people love about the show, but it’s a real challenge to any modern version. A 1996 revival coproduced by Fox tried to decampify the show and failed miserably.  Their only success was hiring Paul McGann to play the Doctor.  Russell T. Davies produced this 2005 revival, now past its sixth season, and he does a decent job making the show modern, integrating some of the season arc and character arc formats of Buffy for instance, while keeping some classic elements (even, occasionally, veering into embarrassing camp).

This is the first time ever that Doctor Who received a Hugo nomination.  I guess that’s not all that surprising – classic Who was shown too inconsistently on PBS for the show to gain a solid US fan base, even among WorldCon types – but I’m still surprised the likes of "City of Death," a classic episode written by Douglas Adams, didn’t get a nod. Even if WorldCon hadn’t created a Short Form category, I think some episodes of the revival would have won the Dramatic Pres. Hugo.  The first season of the revival, starring Christopher Eccleston, got three episodes nominated and beat out the hugely popular Battlestar Galactica.

First, the other nominated episodes: “Dalek” is the last good episode starring the Doctor’s most arch-nemesii fascist cyborgs. The premise of the new series is that the Time Lords and Daleks have wiped each other out in a massive “Time War.” In this episode, the Doctor meets the “last surviving Dalek” (so far…) in the collection of an eccentric American billionaire in 2012 (the distant future!), which makes for a fairly tense confrontation. It nicely avoids all of the excesses of many Dalek episodes and actually manages to ask some decent moral questions about how the Doctor should deal with a terrible foe that’s been laid low.

“Father’s Day” was written by Paul Cornell, a fan favorite, and it deals with the consequences of wanton timestream altering. The Doctor changes history in almost every episode, but this time his companion tries to alter her own past by saving her father in front of her own eyes and creates a wound in time. Everyone around ends up hunted by creatures in a weird time loop.  The soundtrack sounds ridiculously cheap, and the monsters are some pretty bad cgi (though the design is interesting), but it’s still a very strong episode.  The key is that it’s character-centered – most of the episode is taken up by characters chatting while holed up in a cathedral. It also adds a great deal of depth to the family of the Doctor’s new companion, Rose – something that the classic series never bothered with.

Finally, the two-part winner: “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances.” Of course, Steven Moffat’s first Doctor Who episode wins a Hugo. As usual with Moffat, there’s a lot going on here; the episode introduces rogue time agent Captain Jack Harkness from the 31st century, who leads the Doctor and Rose to London during the Blitz. Once there, they meet a group of street urchins who take advantage of the blitz to find food, and they discover a weird alien plague that possesses people then makes them grow a gas mask over their face and wander around saying “are you my Mommy?”  Yes, creepy. It ends with a surprisingly redemptive moment that is a nice change of pace in what’s a fairly bleak season and really pushes the episode to the best of the season.

As for the season overall, it has its ups and downs, but it’s generally pretty strong. As I mentioned, some of the cgi is dodgy, and the music can be quite awful (recorded with a lone Casio?), but the scripts are solid, and the increased character focus and inter-episode continuity are welcome improvements on the original series. As for Christopher Eccleston, I think fan consensus is that he’s not as good as his successor, but he did a great job at the time. I, on the other hand, actively dislike him. He’s probably one of my least favorite Doctors. Eccleston plays the Doctor as manic, cranky, and he wears a broad grin at odd times. Overall, these choices make the Doctor a bit edgier and more alien, which I appreciate on an intellectual level, but find off-putting in practice. I can’t say that Eccleston played the part wrong; I just didn’t particularly like it personally. And that drags the season down a bit for me.

Grades: Dalek: B+
          Father’s Day: A-
     Empty Child/Doctor Dances: A-

             Season 1 Overall: B

And now...I'm on a break for a week or two.
Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

2006 Locus SF – ACCELERANDO by Charles Stross


Am I really supposed to take this singularity thing seriously?  Really?  Advanced AIs and a proposal to Von Neumann factory the moon out of existence, set in the 2010s? Like theology, the sort of techno-optimism that proponents of singularity back is fun to talk about, but it can quickly and effortlessly segue into the ridiculous. Stross’s saving grace is that he doesn’t seem to take the singularity seriously either. I get the impression that he is a believer, but this novel is about 30% serious speculation and 70% running wild with speculative concepts. I do like that Accelerando embraces the ridiculous. I just wish it had embraced plot and character with equal fervor.

This is especially true in the first part, where we have at least some contemporary reference points to ground us. The novel begins with Manfred Macx, a man filled to the brim with tech ideas, but, due to a general dislike of wealth, he usually gives them away to make other people rich. He also has a lot of conflicts with his dominatrix/wife Pamela. He helps to kick off the rapid push towards singularity by sending software copies of lobster brains that have collectively achieved intelligence into space. From there, we get this accelerating technology developing through singularity. Stross occasionally interjects with a summation of the latest changes; by the 2030s, the solar system and the human lifecycle begin to become unrecognizable. From there we get a generational epic. Manfred’s daughter Amber explores an alien wormhole network, his grandson Sirhan works with other family members to try to find an independent niche in the new solar system, copies of the original generation pop up, and the family robocat, Aineko, has a fairly big role to play in everything.

Where does all this wacky speculation leave character and plot? Nowhere to be found, really, as might be fairly obvious from that vain stab at summarizing them. Manfred has some presence (though even he’s straight out of a Warren Ellis comic). Everyone is either so dull, on the one hand, or so wild unpredictable, on the other, that I couldn’t really tell you anything about them. The fact that there’s no plot is underlined by the fact that there’s no end. Maybe the sequel Glasshouse carries things to a more satisfying conclusion, but this novel just peters out.

Also, going back to our old accessibility discussion, this book . . . no. Not at all. Stross throws out concepts at a dizzying speed, and he rarely stops to explain them. Do you know what a Von Neumann machine is? A Matrioshka brain? I did, but I barely kept up. I don’t really see the reason to not define terms like these. One of the great things about sf is the “sense of wonder,” and I guess that’s what Stross is shooting for with this assault of Big Ideas. However, Big Ideas have dimishing returns, as far as I’m concerned, and the Idea-per-page highwire act in this book got boring for me by the mid-point. When the characters spend all of their time discussing how much computing power there is in the solar system and how very impressive that is, it’s hard to care about anything.

A whole lot of writers in this decade, and, from what I’ve seen, Stross may be the worst offender, are working to make science fiction a more insular conversation. If you don’t have a solid grounding in foundational texts and you don’t follow the right science news sites, don’t bother showing up. And people wonder why readers are turning to fantasy and steampunk?

So, if you are the type of reader who’s up-to-date on sf terms and concepts, especially relating to the singularity, and you’re more interested in Big Ideas and being amused than plot and character, I think you’ll have a great time with this book. Obviously, lots of readers have. Otherwise, go nowhere near it.

Grade: C+

Monday, December 19, 2011

2006 Clarke and 2005 BSFA – AIR by Geoff Ryman


The last time I read Ryman (1989’s The Child Garden), I enjoyed the work quite a bit, but I was somewhat put off by his combination of a very sincere and warm humanism with bleak subject matter. Well, I have much the same to say about Air.

In 2020, the world is prepared to install a global wireless system that links directly into people’s minds, called “Air.” It sounds like a pretty great technological development, but when it comes to some of the more isolated areas in the world, areas like Ryman’s fictional central Asian republic of Karzistan, where villagers have little exposure to tv, let alone the internet-in-the-brain, the people are not ready. The first test is disastrous, leading to many deaths throughout rural Karzistan, including two in Kizuldah, the village that Ryman focuses on. Chung Mae is a middle aged fashion consultant in the village, and she gets trapped in Air during the test and has one of the test’s victims fused into her brain. But, she comes out of the experience determined to prepare her fellow villagers for the changes to come. A variety of forces within the village oppose her at different turns, due to petty jealousies and some controversial behavior on her part, but she continues to succeed with big heapings of peasant pluck.

In this era of expanding internet and globalization, it’s certainly a timely story, and Ryman has a lot of fascinating ideas on the subject. It’s a great topic for a book, and Ryman’s heroic humanism is well-suited to the setting – we see each of the villagers' hidden strengths and flaws, and even when they seem to be acting incredibly stupidly or viciously, Ryman gives us believable and even relatable motives for their actions. On that level, the novel works quite well.

The village does feel a little too perfect perhaps, and I do suspect that Ryman oversells central Asian isolation, if only by a little. I don’t think I’d call the book patronizing, but it can get…cutesy. Ryman also can’t help but get into some surrealistic and absurd imagery. It’s dialed way back from The Child Garden, but it’s still there (especially in one very bizarre plotline that I won’t give away), and it clashed with the social realism of the setting and its problems. Maybe Ryman’s shooting for magical realism, but the balance just doesn’t seem right, even if that’s case.

Still, it’s a well-written book with intriguing and relevant themes, and Chung Mae is a fascinating character. There’s a lot to recommend the book, I just felt like there was some clutter (and a pretty slow beginning to boot).

Grade: B

Thursday, December 15, 2011

2006 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation, Long Form – SERENITY


Firefly ended with a whimper in December 2002 when Fox finally broadcast the pilot.  Yippee.  Just in time.  The last episode produced was a very well-made, tense episode written and directed by Joss Whedon and full of existentialist philosophy.  It’s good, but not much of an ending, especially since a guest star steals most of the scenes from the regular cast.  Luckily, Firefly did well enough on DVD that Universal gave Whedon the chance to make a feature length film that wraps things up quite nicely.

The differences from the regular series are rather dramatic.  The lighting is better, the effects are superior, and the stakes are higher.  Generally, all of these changes are for the better…though there’s now sound in space battles.  The film dives into the central unresolved plotline of the series: what exactly has the Alliance government done to the girl River, and what will be her and her brother’s fates as runaways from the powerful interplanetary government.  The government hires an assassin (the excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor) to track River down, and he draws her out by triggering her to beat up a bar full of people.  Mal and the Serenity crew go on the run, and stumble upon a secret colony and hints about the origins of the brutal, mindless Reavers that plague space.  It’s fast-paced and full of action.  On its own, the fact that character moments tend to be overwhelmed by the fighting and the chasing and the shooting and the stabbing would be a problem.  But, as the pay-off of an entire season of a character-focused show, it’s perfect.

So, it’s a great capstone.  I know a lot of people who have watched the film without the show and enjoyed it find, but I think it comes off best as an over-sized, bigger-than-television series finale for a show that clearly deserved one.  It’s not perfect – there are a few clichéd absurdities (people always live long enough to give a dying speech; an impossible to reach piece of equipment straight out of Galaxy Quest), but I found them pretty easy to overlook.  My only real problem with Serenity is that there’s no more material with these characters (well, except for some comics).

Grade: A

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

2006 Nebula - SEEKER by Jack McDevitt


It says a lot that I often feel obligated to explore the motives of the SFWA committee that chooses the Nebula winner. In this case, we have a novel that’s about as standard as could be, and I’m tempted to say that the SFWA is rewarding an older author for being a good member of the community…

Seeker is the third novel following the adventures of daring space archaeologist Alex Benedict.  It's narrated by his assistant, interstellar pilot Chase Kopath (I'm not sure if she narrates the other novels or not).  Alex and Chase are space archaeologists and artifact dealers.  They discover a plastic cup that may be a relic of a 9000 year old lost colony, and Chase has to follow a number of leads to track the cup back to its origin - the colony ship Seeker.  If Alex and Chase can find the colony, they'll make a fortune, but along the way they must contend with rival archaeologists, the family of the survey team that found the cup and hid it existence, the brutish robber who last possessed the cup, and the telepathic alien "mutes" who unwittingly have a important clue.

From top to bottom, this novel just screams genre.  There's the simple, propulsive prose with some noir stylings.  There's the formulaic, linear plot, in which each encounter yields a clue that advances the investigation.  There are the required action scenes, that exist for no particular plot reasons.  There are mysterious sub-plots, and even over-the-top villains, whose violent tendencies clash a bit with their staid occupations and idealistic aims.  The setting is simple but rich with possibilities for action and mystery stories; just take an interstellar republic 10,000 years or so in the future, add simple faster-the-light travel, and stir in an alien race and lots of artifacts. It's really right out of the golden age.  And, you've seen all of the plot elements before too.  It's genre fiction through and through.

And, there's nothing wrong with that.  The plot is interesting enough (though maybe a bit too predictable), and who doesn’t enjoy the archaeologist-adventurer character?  And, it’s got a great structure, where each episode in the plot moves the mystery forward and adds a new hook. On the other hand, the characters are dull as bricks.  Alex is a cipher here, Chase is generic, the villains are awful and inexplicable, and the ancillary characters are straight out of the stock genre file. There isn’t much in the way of ideas either.  We get some discussion of Earth’s dicey political fate over the millennia to come, and the utopianism of the lost colony adds a little spice.  Meanwhile, we also get some simplistic demonization of cultural protection movements in the artifact trade…which seems like a big fight to pick in an adventure novel.  

All in all, I was entertained, but I’ve come to expect more from these award winners.  This might have felt newer sometime before Gateway…but that was thirty years earlier.  I had some issues with Spin, but it’s operating on a whole other level.  The Nebula slate this year (which is, unusually, completely different from the Hugo slate) looks pretty thin anyway, so I guess I'm glad McDevitt got the recognition.

Grade: B-

Sunday, December 11, 2011

2006 Hugo – SPIN by Robert Charles Wilson


There’s a recent trend in science fiction to push further and to go bigger that goes along with Big Ideas like singularity.  Why worry about life in a thousand years, when we can imagine a billion years in the future?  I have mixed feelings about this trend, but I think it’s fair to say that it’s not an approach that tends to spotlight character, which was never sf’s strong suit anyway.  In Spin, however, Wilson’s come up with a very ingenious way to tell a personal story that spans three billion years.

Our narrator is Tyler Dupree.  He grows up on the estate of an aerospace entrepreneur named E. D. Lawton, and hangs out with E. D.’s twin prodigies, Jason and Diane.  One evening in the early twentieth century, when they’re all adolescents, the stars go out.  It soon becomes clear that the Earth has been enveloped in a bubble by mysterious “hypothetical” forces.  The bubble protects the Earth and slows the passage of time within, so that millions, then billions, of years begin to fly by on the outside, in a phenomenon people call “spin.”  Unfortunately, this means that the sun’s death throes will destroy the Earth in decades rather than billions of years, and humanity has to contemplate its doom within a human lifespan.  Jason becomes a brilliant scientist and develops plans to understand and even fight the hypotheticals.  Diane joins a new strain of Christianity that devolves from neo-hippies to a millennium cult.  Tyler tries to live a quiet life as a doctor, but he loves Jason, he’s in love with Diane, and he keeps being drawn into their struggles with the spin.  This is my second Wilson novel…and the second one with a narrator slavishly devoted to a smarter, better, yet aloof hero.  I don’t know if this is a device Wilson is overly fond of, or a personal issue for him.

There are obviously big sf ideas here.  Besides the spin itself, Jason’s plans usually involve using the time differential to jumpstart technology.  His coolest plan involves seeding Mars with life and seeing what a few million years of evolution can pull off.  Nevertheless, it is really a character-focused story, as we spend all of our time with Jason, and we hear as much about the Lawtons’ familial disputes as we do about Martian super-technology.  The problem is that I didn’t like the characters all that much.  Tyler is defined almost entirely by his relationship to the Lawtons, Jason is obsessed with solving the spin to the exclusion of all else, and Diane is so damn frustrating.  I have sympathy for people who are victimized by cults, but I think I’d find it a bit of a turn off.  Cult-Diane treats Tyler terribly and herself even worse, and there’s nothing here to give any indication as to why the narrator is so in love with her.

So, kudos to Wilson for spotlighting character drama over Big Ideas, but, unfortunately, I enjoyed the Big Ideas a lot more than the character drama in this specific novel.  I still liked it overall though.

Grade: B+

Thursday, December 8, 2011

2005 Saturn – STAR WARS III: REVENGE OF THE SITH


Let me start by making three points: 1) I’m glad that the Saturn Awards gave me this opportunity to discuss the Star Wars prequels, and thus round out my Star Wars coverage.  As much as I complain in the following review, I am well aware that I inflicted this upon myself.  2)  Lots of people, including rambling, misanthropic serial killers, have already covered what’s wrong with these movies, in incredible depth, so you might as well skip my thoughts.  3) Before you skip this, however, you should know that I got quite buzzed before rewatching/blogging this movie.  I’ve had four beers, and I’m sipping brandy from here on out (“beer before liquor, you’re in the clear”!  Right?)  I’m not claiming that I’m blogging Sith drunk….but I kind of am.  I’m “semi-live-blogging it buzzed,” at least.  Also, note that I’m too drunk to care about spoilers for once.

These opening space battle shots above Coruscant are pretty darn cool…

So, yes, I think I’ve made it clear that I like the original trilogy (episodes 4-6), a not-so-controversial opinion, at least until the Ewoks show up.  The prequel trilogy, which George Lucas gave us in 1999, 2002, and 2005, on the other hand, is utter crap.  Again, this is not a controversial opinion.  When Episode I: The Phantom Menace came out in 1999, everyone felt obliged to love it for a couple of months, then collectively realized that it was awful.  To this day, I’d say it still stands as one of the worst science fiction films ever made.  Three things, in particular, made it awful: 1) Comedy slapstick racist-against-Jamaicans cgi alien Jar-Jar Binks, 2) crappy child actor Darth Vader saves the day, and 3) midi-chlorians, a pseudo-sciency explanation for Jedi manipulation of the formerly-New-Age concept of the Force.  There was a really cool light-sabre battle in there, and someone tried to save it with the so-called “Phantom Edit;” my personal “Phantom Edit” would probably be about 15 minutes long and would be all Qui-Gon/Darth Maul/Natalie Portman-looking-pretty.   All three of the original trilogy won Hugos and Saturns; the prequel trilogy received this one Saturn and nary a Hugo nomination.

Ugh, Hayden Christensen acting is really ruining this opening space battle.

2002’s Episode II, the awesomely-named-if-it-had-been-ironic-but-it-wasn’t-so-it’s-terriblly-named Attack of the Clones was a fair sight better, and had some genuinely cool action sequences.  Unfortunately, the whole thing leans rather heavily on the love story between Anakin Skywalker (Christensen) and Padme Amidala (Natalie “super-awesome-Oscar-winning-actress-clearly-slumming-it” Portman).  At least one of these two is an amazing actor, but both of them come off as more wooden than a duck decoy [I’ve lived in Minnesota too long].  I blame George Lucas, who directs actors about as well as he writes dialogue (ie, not very well).  After all of this, we’ve barely started on the path to episode IV.  Anakin still needs to knock up his girl with twins, turn into Darth Vader, fight his teacher Obi-wan, and betray the Jedi order….which leaves a lot of ground for Episode III.

Which brings us to this film, Episode III, released in 2005.  Padme is pregnant, Anakin is nervous about said pregnancy, and is being manipulated by Senator Palpatine, whom we all know to be the main villain of the whole series.  Meanwhile, Anakin and his teacher, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan MacGregor, the one actor able to come out of these movies looking halfway decent) are knee-deep in the clone wars, in which a separatist alliance using slapstick-loving droids fights the Republic’s clone army, which came from some complicated and conspicuously-unresolved plot-point in the second movie.  This film begins with a major battle between Anakin and Obi-Wan and separatist generals Grevious (cgi) and Dooku (Hammer Horror/LoTR alum Christopher Lee).  Then, Anakin worries that his secret wife Natalie Portman will die birthing Mark Hammill and Carrie Fisher, which allows Palpatine to manipulate him.

Which is where I am in the film right now.  Blah blah blah; talkie talkie.  “I wanna be on the Jedi Council, wah!” whines the future Darth Vader.  I guess we know where Luke “I was gonna go to Tashi Station to get some power converters, wah!” Skywalker gets it, at least.

I need more brandy.

At the time, the  commentary on the Bush administration (fear leads to totalitarianism!) felt rather significant.  In hindsight…not so much.  Bush’s approval ratings were already in steep decline in mid-2005, and they never recovered.  The one aspect of this film that made it seem more relevant than the others sort of faded away in hindsight.

 I still think this is the best of the three prequels, but it does have four clear problems.  None is as prevalent as the many crippling issues of Episode One or the one fatal flaw (love story fail) of Episode Two, but they add up to another failure.

There are angry drunks.  There are sad drunks.  Apparently, I’m a list-making drunk.  On a side note, a special thanks to spell-checker for making me seem more sober.

Problem #1: Continuity.  This is the nerdiest complaint, but I think it says a lot about Lucas’s lack of planning and general pandering. Why are R2-D2 and C3PO in these movies?  Why is Chewbacca in this one?  Their presence seems to contradict some of what we see in the original films, so why include them at all?  Hint: it’s not because they further plot or character in any way.

Problem #2: Pacing:  Taken individually, beyond its contribution to the Star Wars mythos, the film’s greatest sin is that it just sort of plods along.  Most of what we get is foreordained by the original trilogy, so a lot of this is just filler, especially Obi-Wan’s entire second-act-dominating battle with Grevious.  And then there’s that really long third-act battle between Yoda and Palpatine, which would’ve been pretty unimaginable in 1982, but looks mostly like cgi-dreck today.

Okay, switching to wine so that I don’t pass out.

Problem #3: Sad, pathetic Vader: Darth Vader is probably the most fascinating character of the original trilogy.  His origin should have been very interesting, but Chistensen gives a very whiny performance that undermines the whole character.  Even the dark moments – the previous movie’s Sand-Person genocide and this movie’s Jedi-child-killing – come off as moments of weakness rather than moments of rage or evil.  And his journey here is all over the place as he bounces aimlessly between Palpatine and Master Samuel L. Jackson.  In no way does this version of the character live up to what we saw in the original trilogy.
Of course, the worst moment has nothing to do with Christensen:
NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Problem #4: Women are sad, sad, emotional trainwrecks: The original trilogy gave us one of the great female characters in sf in Princess Leia.  When she’s “rescued” by Han and Luke, she immediately grabs a gun, kills a bunch of storm-troopers, and takes control of the situation.  Sure, she ends up in a metal bikini in Jedi, but even then, she gets to kill Jabba and play a key role in the final mission on Endor.  Meanwhile, Padme dies of… heartbreak?!  Over Hayden Christensen’s Anakin???? Pathetic and insulting.  This bothers me most of all.

Let me end on a positive note.  The plots of the prequel trilogy are astonishingly lame, but the world that Lucas creates is pretty rich.  I think it’s unintentional, but the lush, colorful, slapstciky world of the prequels ends up being a rather nice contrast to the stark authoritarian world of the original trilogy (especially if you can manage to get the non-adulterated-special-edition versions).  It used to be a world of silly cgi Jar-Jars, and became a world of dirty space-bars and crappy-spaceships.  In other words, the colorful, silly, kid-friendly world of the prequels can actually make the original trilogy better in contrast.  Also, if you look at Genndy Tartakovsky’s prequel era cartoons, which are actually really great, mostly dialogue-free takes on the era from the creator of Samurai Jack and Powerpuff Girls, I think you really get an idea of the potential here.  The world Lucas creates is a lot better than the films themselves, and it still adds to a rich mythos.

So tired….

Grades:

Phantom Menace: F

Attack of the Clones: C-

Revenge of the Sith: C-

Sunday, December 4, 2011

2005 Arthur C. Clarke and Locus Fantasy РIRON COUNCIL by China Mi̩ville


I’m going to warn readers in advance that this review might dance the edge of spoilers. I’m not going to say much that you can’t get from reading the front and back cover, but Mieville writes this novel as if everything is a giant mystery.  The entire first part involves a group of characters searching for a mysterious someone.  Who is it?  Mieville won’t say!  It’s mysterious.  And then, you finally discover that it’s…Judah Low, a new character.  There’s a similar tease and reveal with the “Iron Council.” I think these sorts of mysteries for mystery’s sake are good examples of what’s annoyed me about Mieville’s earlier works.  That said, as a whole, I liked this novel much better than the two previous novels set on the Weird world of Bas-Lag.

As I said, a group of adventurers from New Crobuzon are off in the wilderness looking for Judah Low. Among them is Judah’s lover Cutter, who exhibits some of the greatest character depth I’ve seen from Mieville so far. There’s not much more to him than his obsession with Judah, but Mieville handles that with a defter touch than I’ve seen in the previous works.  Judah, in turn, is looking for the Iron Council, a revolutionary collective of former rail workers who stole the entire railroad (it’s sort of a stretch, but a fun one, and this is Bas-Lag we’re talking about). Judah can create magical golems, and he was one of the heroes of the revolution that created the Iron Council, which is narrated in the novel’s driving, exciting centerpiece. Judah left the Iron Council to connect with protest movements in New Crobuzon, but he now wants to return. Meanwhile, we also get the story of a brewing revolution in the city itself that parallels some of the history of the Paris Commune. We follow one of the revolutionaries named Ori, who has to navigate some conflicting motives from some of the movements’ leaders. Disenchanted with an ongoing war with the Tesh, and sick of the city government’s brutal oppression, the people rise up, and look to the fabled Iron Council’s return as their best hope of victory.

This is the first time that the story of a Bas-Lag novel felt big enough to match the majesty of the setting and epic enough to befit the significant page-length. Mieville is no longer dancing around the themes he cares about with obfuscated mutant bug metaphors; he’s a Marxist, and this book is about revolution.  It can be heavy-handed at times, and I’m not sure I’d agree with all of Mieville’s politics, but it really does feel like THE story he’s been trying to tell. The word “history” echoes through the book, replete with all of the teleological connotations of Mieville’s beliefs – is it the inexorable expansion of industrial capitalism, represented by the octopus-like tentacles of rail, or is it the march to a workers’ utopia? Mieville uses these question as a backdrop that, most importantly, heightens the character drama, something that I felt was missing from The Scar and Perdido Street Station.

That’s not to say that this novel solves all of the problems of its predecessors.  I’m not positive that Cutter and Jonah and their laconic love story, are that much richer than Bellis or Isaac.  Maybe they just felt that way to me because I enjoyed the plot more. And, I did not connect to Ori, who did feel as passive and immaterial as the characters of the earlier books. The worst offender is Drogon, a susurrating vaquero.  He has magical powers based on whispers, which is pretty cool, and his ranch-hand get-up adds to the vaguely western feel of portions of the book, but he doesn’t contribute much else.  He arrives, makes a big splash with his power and aesthetic, and then disappears until he has a role to play at the end. It seems that Mieville has to force every bit of weirdness into Bas-Lag that he can; no need to develop the ideas into a coherent world/plot/character.  I’m starting to suspect that I preferred The City & The City because the clarity and focus of the central concept forced Mieville to develop things a bit more, and maybe the same can be said about this book as well. The Revolution at the book’s core gives it a stronger structure and message than the bug hunt of Perdido Street Station or the vague unfinished quest of The Scar.  I’m certainly not one to complain about a new twist on fantasy, but I have to declare Bas-Lag a slight disappointment.  There’s a lot of new, but still not as much of the depth I’m looking for in fantasy world-building.

Grade: B+

Friday, December 2, 2011

2005 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation, Short Form – “33,” BATTLESTAR GALACTICA


Following a successful SciFi Channel miniseries, this is the first episode of the ongoing remake of an early ‘80s Star Wars rip-off/cult classic.  Most fans think the series went off the rail in the last season, though a vocal minority liked it from start to finish.  I think I represent an even smaller minority that was never entirely smitten with a show that most would consider the decade’s finest sf on television. Whatever side of this debate you’re on, I don’t think there’s any question that “33” is a fantastic hour of television.

The Twelve Colonies (distant relatives of we humans) are recovering from a long war they fought with rebelling robot servants called cylons.  Then, the cylons launch a massive sneak attack, annihilating all of the twelve homeworlds.  Only about 50,000 humans survive in a small fleet of ships huddled around the titular space battleship (er, Battlestar) Galactica.

In this episode, the cylons pursue the fleet of survivors.  Every time the fleet makes a faster-than-light jump, it takes the cylons exactly 33 minutes to catch up.  It takes the fleet about that long to get ready between jumps…which means that everyone is pushed to their absolute limits just to tread water.  Ship crews have to scramble to get the jumps ready, and fighter pilots have to fight regular rear-guard actions to help them get away.  Everyone is pushed to edge of exhaustion (and sanity), which is just where this show likes to have its characters.  In order to buy themselves some breathing room, the characters have to make a terrible choice (as usual).  It’s an excellent introduction to the show’s themes and moods, even moreso than the preceding miniseries.

It’s easy to see why people loved the show.  First of all, it looks amazing, especially considering it has only a basic cable budget.  It borrows a few of the docu-style tricks from Firefly and benefits greatly from advances in computer graphics that make full cgi space battles and cylons look good.  This may be the best-looking sf tv show ever.  The show is full of fast-paced action, but also takes time for character moments.  Mary McDonnell, Edward James Olmos, and Katee Sackhoff all deliver wonderful performances as major characters President Roslyn, Admiral Adama, and Starbuck (though after that, the cast is a lot more uneven). There are big twists, dramatic character deaths, and compelling mysteries. And, Star Trek TNG and DS9 Ronald Moore veteran brings his signature exploration of social issues (especially religion and war) to the series.

Of course, for most viewers, things went awry in the end.  It’s fairly clear that the writers didn’t know all of the answers to the questions they raised, a problem that has been the downfall of great shows like The X-Files and Lost.*  The big mysteries get more complicated and more bizarre over time, and the writers lean on a massive deus ex machina to not only rescue the characters, but to explain what the hell is going on.  It’s amazing how many questions God and some hand-waiving can answer, but, boy, is it a lame answer.

Why was I down on the show even before it went off the rail?  There’s a lot about the show I did like;  the aforementioned effects, action, and plot twists kept me involved, but sometimes my netflixed DVDs would sit around for a few months unwatched.  I watched the entire series…eventually.  I have two issues with the series.  The first is maybe a little pedantic, but I think the Zodiac mythology is a needless holdover from first series.  This world is so like ours, and yet its prevented from referencing the rich history of our own world.  As a result, it always feels detached, unmoored, and yet overly familiar.  I would’ve preferred either a future setting or more development of this alien setting.  Plus, the “search for Earth” plotline opens up a Pandora’s Box of bs in the final run of episodes.  But, at least we learned that Bob Dylan songs transcend time and space.

A more serious problem with the series is the melodrama.  Oh, the melodrama!  There’s a fine line between high stakes character development and ridiculous highwire soap opera, and BSG dances over the line about once per episode.  Everyone’s a moody raging alcoholic, primed to rebel/go into a rage/have dirty, inappropriate sex/change religions/become suicidal/betray everyone/etc at a moment’s notice.  I enjoy the excitement that all this brings to the table, but there’s something to be said for subtlety.  And, as the overwrought moments piled up, it’s easy to lose track of who the characters really are.  The show was famous for amped up multi-part extravaganzas that CHANGED EVERYTHING a couple of times per season.  These were really fun, and delivered the vast majority of the show’s best moments.  But it became harder and harder to believe the eventual resets to the status quo at their conclusion.  It was all kind of exhausting.

So, it was never a contender for my favorite sf tv show, but I’ll give it credit for being often entertaining, and drawing a broader audience than most space operas.  It’s unfortunate that a golden age of space opera tv from the early ‘90s seemed to come to an end with BSG in 2009.


*I haven’t seen Lost, so I’m not personally attesting to that show’s downfall.  I do get a general sense of dissatisfaction from the fans though.  I don’t think anyone can argue that the overarching plot of The X-Files was in any way satisfying though.

Episode Grade: A

Series Grade: B