Tuesday, January 31, 2012

2008 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation, Short Form – “Blink,” DOCTOR WHO

Another year, another Steven Moffat Doctor Who script win in this category.  That’s three in a row.
With each season the cast and crew seem to get more confident and self-assured, and Tennant has settled into the role wonderfully; he’s the favorite of many Who fans, both new and old. The Doctor also has a new companion, a young medical doctor named Martha Jones, who I prefer to Rose in almost every way. She has a crush on the Doctor, which maybe isn’t quite as interesting as the mutual attraction with Rose, but it seems to suit the dynamic of the show better and the actress who plays Martha, Freema Agyeman, is far more charismatic and talented (and attractive, for that matter) than Billie Piper. She’s great. In my opinion, the two nominated storylines of season three are two of the best Doctor Who stories ever.

So, things keep getting better all around. *Most* of this season is darn near perfect. The Doctor and Martha meet-cute with alien rhinos on the Moon in “Smith and Jones,” there’s a fun spaceship hurtling towards the sun suspense story in near-real time called “42,” and I have an unreasonable affection for the first Doctor Who episode I ever saw, “Gridlock,” which is about a decades-long flying-car traffic jam on a distant future colony of Earth. Even some of the throw-away stories like “Lazarus Man” and “The Shakespeare Code” are miles ahead of some of the lame season two episodes, though a Dalek two-parter in Depression-era Manhattan is appallingly bad. And then there’s the “whonimees,” which appeared back-to-back in the second half of the seasons:

“Suddenly Human”/”The Family of Blood” – Another Paul Cornell story with good focus on character, this time the Doctor, though Martha gets several good moments as well. To hide from evil aliens called the Family of Blood, the Doctor disguises himself as a human at a British boarding school in 1913. Even the Doctor can’t know his real identity, but his pseudonymous John Smith personality falls in love with the school’s matron, making for a tough decision when the Family attacks and Martha feels that she needs to return the Doctor’s true identity. The Doctor’s love story is interesting, the show plays with some issues of class, gender, and race with the disguised Martha, World War I hangs in the background of the story in some brilliant ways, and the last few moments are brilliant.

“Blink” – Steven Moffat knocks it out of the park with one of the greatest hours in science fiction television history. Maybe I’m overhyping it, but it is universally beloved. The villain is creepy (though it doesn’t always entirely make sense), and there’s a fun "timey-wimey" plot. The Doctor isn’t actually in the episode all that much, but Academy Award-nominated guest star Carey Mulligan carries the show fantastically.

Following these episodes, the Doctor and Martha go trillions of years to the future in “Utopia,” a creepy episode with a great cliffhanger reveal.  Then…we go into a not-so-great finale where Russell T. Davies’ one-upsmanship gets out of control and things get pretty rough.  But, take out that Dalek two-parter and replace the finale two-parter with something that makes more sense and hangs less on clapping for Tinkerbell, and it would’ve been a perfect season.

Season 4, by the way, is even more consistent in that it has even fewer dud episodes, but also fewer truly great ones. Of course, the Steven Moffat two-parter “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead” is great. It’s nominated next year, but it did lose (for once).

Grades: “Suddenly Human”/”The Family of Blood”  A
“Blink”   A
Season  A-

Sunday, January 29, 2012

2008 Hugo and Locus, 2007 Nebula – THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN’S UNION by Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon is a talented writer, and perhaps the literary establishment's greatest defender of genre fiction.  As a result of a few brilliant essays on the subject, serious-minded sf fans, like myself, have a lot of goodwill for the guy.  His Kavalier and Clay reimagined the creation of Superman by Jewish immigrants in the 1930s with a little bit of magical realism added in for good measure, and won him the Pullitzer Prize.  Thus, when Chabon returned with a novel with some mild speculative fiction elements (an alternate history), the sf awards took notice in a big way. It was a regular occurrence in the ‘70s, but this is the first award since the early ‘90s to get the Hugo, Nebula, and the Locus.

In the world of The Yiddish Policemen's Union, the Roosevelt administration followed through with a plan (just briefly considered in our world) to resettle Jewish refugees from the Nazis in an Alaskan colony.  Israel, no longer the sole refuge, was destroyed in the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, which of course created more refugees.  The Jewish-Alaskan colony of Sitka is semi-automous, but is on the verge of reverting back to U.S. control as a conservative President plans to reassert authority (and possibly expel the Jews).  Like Dick in The Man in the High Castle, Chabon never clearly explains his alternate world.  The reader has to gather clues throughout the book (there are other tantalizing hints: JFK married to Marilyn Monroe?).

The background may be a speculative fiction alternate history, but the plot is pure noir.  Alchoholic homicide detective Meyer Landsman stumbles across the murder of one of his neighbors, an odd chess-obsessed drug addict.  Landsman and his half-Jewish, half-Tlingit partner Berko Shemets investigate, against the best wishes of the new police chief, who also happens to be Landsman's ex-wife, Bina Gelbfish.  The department has higher priorities than a drug addict's murder, as she is trying to close out all open cases in the few months before Reversion to the United States.  The investigation soon brings them into conflict with a Hassidic mafia, and eventually leads to a larger conspiracy that links the dead man with Landsman's recently deceased sister, Jerusalem, and the United States government.

Chabon is a fantastic writer, and I thoroughly enjoyed the novel.  My one complaint is that the plot is a bit byzantine and sometimes feels a little contrived.  There were moments when it felt more like James Bond than Sam Spade, what with the giant conspiracy and secret military training facilities.  The novel is at its best in the quieter moments between Landsman, Shemets and their families, or when its revealing little everyday facets of Chabon's intriguing alternate history.  The action set-pieces and the big mystery reveals felt more like distractions than thrilling plot-movers.  Also, I think the more you know about Jewish culture, the more fun you'll have with the novel.  I probably know a little bit more than the average goy, but I felt like I was still missing some subtle "easter eggs."

Grade: A-

Friday, January 27, 2012

2007 Saturn – CLOVERFIELD

This is the first movie I’ve covered here in a long time (since Alien Nation, I think) that I’d never seen before. I wasn’t actively avoiding it; I just never got around to it. The film was most famous for its mysterious marketing and the involvement of geek-God J. J. Abrams. I’m not a big Abrams guy, and the mystery thing didn’t hook me, so I stayed home.  But, I was intrigued, and I liked screenwriter Drew Goddard from his Buffy work…so I was kind of surprised to discover just how much I hated this.

The film is presented as found footage of a giant monster attack (that’s a kaiju attack, for my many Japanese readers). Some dudes are filming their friend Rob’s going away party when Manhattan is attacked by a big slimy thing from the sea. It throws the Statue of Liberty’s head at them, and eats people with its spider babies. You know, the usual. Eventually, douchebag-dude Rob, camereman-dude Hud, his crush Marlena, and hot-chick Lily, go into the heart of the attack to look for Rob’s friend-with-benefits-chick Beth. I wish I didn’t have to reduce all the characters to such simple descriptions, but that’s about as deep as the film gets, despite spending a fair amount of time on them. Maybe they’re just really shallow people?

The core problem here is that the film tries to have it both ways, as cinema verite AND Hollywood blockbuster. Unlike, say, the Blair Witch Project, there’s a slickness to the production that belies its conceit. The most obvious manifestation of this is the unrealistic hotness of all of the characters. Look around the early party scenes; it’s quite clearly a room full of young actors and actresses. The performances aren’t particularly naturalistic either. I never bought the “realness” of the footage, which meant that shaky cam, jump cuts, and the lengthy early party scenes accomplished nothing more than annoying me. I do wonder if it might have been better in the theater, but I don’t think that’s much of an excuse (although, I should note that, in a weird bit of synchronicity, my Netflix Blu-Ray disc got kind of jumpy in the last ten minutes or so as the camera was malfunctioning. I guess that just enhanced the effect, right?)

There’s a good idea here: a small, character focused film about a very big natural disaster.  If the characters had been more interesting, and the production had committed more to making the film seem “real,” it could have been amazing. As it is, I’d call it an annoying waste of time.

Grade: D

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

2007 Clarke and PKD Winner - NOVA SWING by M. John Harrison

In the year 2444, in the city of Suadade, Vic Seratonin is a tour-guide. He takes clients into The Anomaly, an impossible place of weird, reality-warping physics that spews out black and white cats. A new client, a femme fatale named Elizabeth Kielar, leads Vic to a new artifact spewing malignant "code" that can infect people like a virus. This begins a chain reaction, spilling out to the other characters in the novel and changing their lives. We spend much time with detective Aschemann, who wears the body of an older Einstein and mourns his dead wife in an age when death is a thing of the past. We learn about Vic's mentor Emil, and his daughter Edith who's trapped taking care of the dying man. We meet former space pilot and current bar-keep Liv Hula, a crime boss named Paulie, his minion Fat Antoyne, and a prostitute (Mona) named Irene. We get evocative descriptions, in noir style, of all of their exploits on the fringes of the Anomaly.

As this novel progressed, I found myself repeatedly asking "what's the point?" That probably sounds ruder and more dismissive than I want it to; I asked it sincerely. There's enough material about trampled dreams, being down and out, sex, and loss to point to the idea that Harrison wants to say something, but it's all presented in noir cliches within an amorphous, dead-ending plot. If it's supposed to be a character study, why present the characters as recycled tropes from old movies? There are interesting moments with each of the characters, but they tend to get overshadowed by the familiarity of everything. In some ways, most of the book reads like an epilogue, as Harrison is constantly summing up their thoughts and the directions of their lives, without letting them breathe as people or act for themselves. If it's not a character study...well, there's not much plot to speak of. The world-building mixes elements of space opera, cyberpunk, and Weird in interesting ways but leaves a lot of questions as well (since I finished, I learned this was a sequel.  Maybe reading Light would have helped me?)  Even the surrealism was dull. The prose is very strong, and Harrison does a very good job of establishing the mood, but there just wasn't anything new about the story, characters, or world to engage me. In a lot of ways, this novel seemed to hearken back to all the worst features of the New Wave - shallow, trite observations about the human condition and a focus on style over substance.

Grade: C-

Sunday, January 22, 2012

2007 BSFA – BRASYL by Ian McDonald

McDonald returns to the same formula he used in River of Gods (and later in The Dervish House) and places interesting speculative concepts in the context of a developing country. I think I’ve already made it clear that I’m a fan of this formula: it forces sf writers to confront issues of historical and cultural context that I’ve complained can be absent from the genre. A book like Rainbow’s End isn’t really that different from McDonald’s work, but McDonald’s settings give his novels a liveliness that is absent from Vinge’s familiar SoCal. That said, whenever an author employs a formula like this, they have to be wary of using it as a gimmick. In Brasyl, McDonald is a lot closer to falling into that trap than in his other works.

McDonald tracks three different stories throughout the novel. One takes place in roughly the present day (2006) and involves a reality show producer in Rio de Janeiro named Marcelina Hoffman. Reality programming is a weird phenomenon that feels like something out of sf satire from the ‘70s, so it fits in rather well. Hoffman is the purveyor of the especially dangerous, edgy and salacious type of reality show, and as she works to get a show on the air that would humiliate a geriatric footballer, she begins to notice that someone with her likeness is sabotaging her. In 2032, we meet a young cyberpunk named Edson, who works out of the favelas (slums) of Sao Paulo, and trades different identities to commit petty crimes. He falls in love with quantum computing anime girl and also notices a weird doubling that throws his life into chaos. Finally, we swashbuckle into the early-eighteenth-century Amazon with a Jesuit priest named Luis Quinn and a French scientist named Robert Falcon. Quinn is on a mission to find another missionary who has gone Kurtz with some of the Indians upriver, and he encounters an Amazonian plant that seems to allow people to see into other realities. The stories do eventually interconnect (via some quantum theories that McDonald seems to be found of) into a vast conspiracy that hints at something every bit as vast and epic as River of Gods.

It’s a fun story, and, if you’ve read my Stephenson reviews, you know I’m a sucker for the cyberpunk meets history angle. In fact, this does feel at times like a Stephenson knock off – a blend of Snow Crash and the Baroque Cycle – but a really good one. McDonald even shares Stephenson’s frenetic and irreverent prose style. If you’re a Stephenson fan who’s looking for more, go read this novel right away.
Still, because it felt a little derivative (albeit, of something daringly original…this book still feels very different from 99% of the sf out there), and because I never quite engaged with the characters (I’m just never going to be able to sympathize with a reality show producer, no matter how well-drawn she is as a character), I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as River of Gods.

Most importantly, I feel like the setting is wasted a little bit. Brazil has taken knocks in the past for not living up to its vast resources and geopolitical advantages; McDonald often quotes the saying that “Brazil is the country of the future and always will be.” So, as a failed “country of the future” there should be a lot to say about the country’s future. We never get much of a sense of that. There are vivid details of the beautiful settings from Rio’s dramatic hills to the big cities’ gang-controlled slums (the great film City of God is referenced heavily) to the majesty of the Amazon. It’s all there, as is capoeira, and samba, and football. But, you could still rewrite it into the US without any significant alterations to the plot. It all feels a bit like window-dressing. I guess I wanted something epic on a world politics level in the same way that River of Gods was.

I feel like I’m doing the thing again where I spend my whole review complaining about a book I really liked. There’s a ton of fun action here, the setting is cool, and there’s some high-level existentialist quantum-physical sf stuff before it’s all said and done. I enjoyed this book a lot, and it’s my clear favorite of the three books I read published in 2006 (the others being Rainbow’s End and Nova Swing). It’s just overshadowed by some of the other landmark novels of the decade, including McDonald’s own.

Grade: B+

Friday, January 20, 2012

2007 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation, Long Form – PAN’S LABYRINTH

The 2007 Long Form nominees are probably the finest class the Hugos ever had.  This is the first time I’d take the Hugo film nominees over the Oscar nominees.  It’s great that Scorcese finally got an Oscar, but The Departed is not his best film, and if you want a brilliant and twisty tale about identity, I’d go with The Prestige first. The best foreign language film about conflict in the ‘40s might have been Letters from Iwo Jima…but Pan’s Labyrinth is a lot more original.  I didn’t see Babel, but I’ve heard it’s a ridiculously depressing tale by a Mexican director, and I doubt it’s as good as Children of Men..also a depressing film by a Mexican director. Little Miss Sunshine may be quirky and fun, but it can’t be as quirky A Scanner Darkly, though drug-induced paranoia isn’t half as freaky as child beauty pageants. And, who needs a meditation on the ambiguous duties of the modern British monarchy like The Queen, when you can just cheer for blowing up the British government in V for Vendetta?  It’s an across-the-board sweep!

It’s also interesting that we had three dystopias and a fantasy set in the real-world dystopia of fascist-controlled Spain.  It’s a dark set of movies, and Pan’s Labyrinth is a real contender for darkest of all. In 1944, a young girl named Ofelia moves in with her new stepfather at an isolated estate in Spain. Ofelia’s mother is pregnant, and her new stepfather is a monstrous captain in the fascist military that has seized control of the country in a long Civil War. The Captain is rooting out one of the last bands of resistance fighters, and much of the movie is concerned with this fight.  Ofelia’s best friend in the household, a servant woman named Mercedes, is in love with one of the resistance fighters and secretly aiding them.

Ofelia, horrified by her stepfather and neglected by her mother, discovers/retreats into a fantasy world that she reaches through a labyrinth on the estate.  She meets an ancient faun who tells her that she is a lost princess from a fantasy kingdom, and after she completes three tasks, she can return there. The tasks pit Ofelia against funky cgi creatures. At first, her adventures cause some slight friction with her family as she disappears and returns covered in muck, but they seem far removed from the violent conflicts of the region.  Slowly, however, they force Ofelia to respond to and confront her stepfather’s cruelties.

I can’t say that I liked this film better than Children of Men or The Prestige, but I do think it’s a fitting winner because it’s essentially about the politics and ethics of fantasy.  The film is the brainchild or director/writer Guillermo del Toro, who made some mainstream genre films for the US, including the Hellboy movies.  Del Toro grew up steeped in comics and fantasy, and his works are all very much in that world.  He’s kind of a fanboy. He also has an incredible imagination, and his designs for some of the creatures are what first captured attention for this film (see the trailer for how).

Guillermo del Toro is as familiar as anyone with old accusations that genre fiction is escapist, and somehow, therefore, less worthy than realistic fiction. Pan’s Labyrinth is a powerful statement on this subject (mush like Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which came out a few months later), as we see the importance of escapism in Ofelia’s life, as well as the role that fantasy eventually plays in undermining the captain.  It’s a sharp and personal testimonial from del Toro, wrapped up in a beautiful and affecting package. The Hugos could hardly go wrong with this set of nominees, but I’m especially happy with this result.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

2007 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation, Short Form – “The Girl in the Fireplace,” DOCTOR WHO

The Doctor Who reboot wins this category for the second year straight in what’s becoming something of a tradition. For its second season, most of the cast stays in place, but the Doctor “regenerates” from Christopher Eccleston to David Tennant. I mentioned before that I wasn’t a fan of Eccleston’s performance. Well, I think Tennant is brilliant in the role, and that alone makes this season a significant step up.

Once again, the season received three of the five nominations in this category (it’s received two or three of five in every year of its existence). So, on to the Whominees!   ….sorry….

“School Reunion”: In the present day, the Doctor goes undercover at a school that is brainwashing British children into supercomputers to control the universe. As weird as that sentence sounds, this is a very generic Who plot, and Anthony Stewart Head is somewhat wasted as the alien headmaster. The real attraction here is the return of (the late *sob*) Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith, a long-running and popular companion of the Doctor from the ‘70s incarnation of the show. This causes all sorts of jealousy between current companion Rose and Sarah Jane and prompts several conversations about exactly why the Doctor abandons his companions every couple of years and never mentions them again. The obvious answer is that actresses/producers want to move on, but this episode manages to use the old conceit to enrich the characters. There really is some good development there, and the reunion is very welcome. It’s too bad the damn monster-of-the-week plot has to get in the way.

“Army of Ghosts”/“Doomsday”: The two-part season finale takes us back to contemporary England, where ghosts start wandering around the planet on a set schedule. The Doctor spends most of the first episode trying to puzzle this out, and runs across a secret government organization called Torchwood. Turns out the ghosts are harbingers of an invasion from another dimension.  Meanwhile, Rose and her mum have some mother/daughter class tension that feels real enough to be a bit annoying.  Then things get really crazy in the second episode. Torchwood comes off as comically evil (and the episode should lose points for inspiring the mediocre-to-bad spin-off as well), and the ending is pretty melodramatic (and it cheats!), but the episodes are pretty fun. Russell T. Davies goes right up to the edge of ridiculousness with his action finale one-upsmanship, but he doesn’t quite go over that edge until season three’s finale.

“The Girl in the Fireplace”: And, once again, the Steven Moffat script for the year wins the big prize. The Doctor finds himself on a brokedown spaceship that is using all of its energies to open a variety of windows into the life of Madame de Pompadour, the intelligent and beautiful mistress of King Louis XV of eighteenth-century France. The ship has clockwork robots that dress as creepy French aristocrats and harass Madame de Pompadour, hiding under her bed and generally acting scary and planning to harvest organs. The Doctor jumps into various parts of her life to save her from them, and she falls in love with him. I thought it might dilute the episode somewhat that Moffat has gone back to the “Doctor meets someone as a child then adult” well a couple of times in his own run on the show, but this episode isn’t about that aspect nearly as much as it is about the Doctor’s loneliness, and the bizarre temporal maze of the spaceship. It’s quirky, fun, and mindbending like all the best Who, but it also manages some character development for the Doctor and some real poignancy.

So, overall, it’s a significant improvement over season one. The production is much more self-assured, and Tennant brings a ton of charisma to the roll, without losing any of the nuances (like the hints of sadness and fury) that Eccleston brought to the character. There are a couple of really terrible episodes: the deadly dull “Idiot’s Lantern” and “Fear Her,” as well as the much-hated “Love and Monsters” (I kind of like it, but it really does have some bizarre/awful moments). These episodes bring it down some, but the rest of the season is quite strong, and having a finale that’s only mostly insane rather than completely bonkers (like seasons three and four) helps to compensate somewhat.

Grades: “School Reunion”  B+
“The Girl in the Fireplace” A
“Army of Ghosts/Doomsday” A-

         Season 2 Overall  B+

Sunday, January 15, 2012

2007 Hugo and Locus SF – RAINBOWS END by Vernor Vinge

Near-future sf is tricky business.  It’s hard to spot the right trends, and it’s easy to over-estimate the pace of technological change.  My past encounters with Vinge have been space operas tens of thousands of years in the future.  In this entry, he switches gears and gives us a 2025 wherein pretty much every bit of preliminary research circa 2006 pays off to make a very different world.  Today, if you watch your average thirty-something try to text, then watch your average twenty-something do the same, you’ll notice a pretty dramatic difference.  That is a testimony to how quickly younger generations can adapt to new technological trends.  On the other hand, we’re talking about texting here.  I know there are people who think twitter solely responsible for the downfall of autocracies across the globe, but, in many ways, incredible advances in computing power and connectivity have led to only superficial changes in society.  However, I come here not to judge Vinge as a futurist (I’m pretty sure he blows it, but I think that's been my verdict on every near-future novel after Stand on Zanzibar), but as a thrice-winner of the Hugo for best novel.

In Vinge’s future, there are “wearable” computers that plug people into global networks.  You can interface visually through special contact lenses, and even overlay visuals onto the real world to create “augmented realities.”  Vinge does a great job looking at some of the cultural implications of this.  Many people live in fantasy worlds, from Discworld to MiddleEarth to RowlingSpielberg (I'm not sure I get the connection there) to the fictional bibliophilic fantasy world of Jerzy Hacek to the Pokemon-like Scooch-a-mout.  Hackers can also control interfaces and hitchhike on users from worlds away.  For a point of view character, Vinge uses a great new twist on Rip Van Winkle.  Since 2010, famous poet Robert Gu has suffered from Alzheimers.  A cure is administered, and Gu returns to this new world.  He’s so far behind that he has to go back to high school, and there he hangs out with his granddaughter Miri, a boy named Juan Orozco, and a few fellow senior citizens.  They all get roped into a massive international conspiracy involving the Great Powers and experimental mind control.

Mind control is an odd choice for Vinge.  He used it in his last Hugo winner, and it’s also been popular in a few other sf entries (a lot of Whedon’s later material; hey, I just rewatched Serenity the same day I finished this novel).  I guess it’s a natural outgrowth of our greater understanding of the human brain, and another way to look at issues of free will.  I just think the timing is odd.  I’d think the lesson of the ‘00s is not “beware new technology and mind control,” but rather “mind control isn’t necessary because people will still do extreme violent things for the old motivators: nationalism and religion.”  Vinge does comment on this latter theme as well though – Vinge’s world is a place where weapons of mass destruction are far too easy to obtain, and even small extremist groups must be feared.  Actually, now that I think about it, mind control is less of a theme in this novel, and more of a MacGuffin.

The setting is genuinely fun and intriguing, even if it is a bit hard to buy for less than two decades (I’ll be sure to post a retraction of this review in 2025 if I’m proved wrong).  The characters are less exciting.  There’s a good start with Robert Gu – he was a cruel but talented man before alzheimers, buy now it’s no longer clear if he is as cruel or as talented.  That said, he’s still a cog in Vinge’s plot more than he’s an independent character – and he’s by far the most developed of them all.  The rest of the characters fall very flat, and Vinge’s teenagers feel like adolescents.  And there’s a particularly important character named Rabbit whose character is never really explained, and yet it’s also not as mysterious as it could have been as it seem to rely on an old cyberpunk trope (and the characters basically say as much).  Rabbit is supposed to be a trickster character, but he’s not quite convincing or interesting enough.  The plot is even worse than the characters.  There’s the MacGuffin, and characters are manipulated by omnipotent hackers into running around looking for it.  The entire second half of the book is a repetitive sequence in the UCSD library, that involves a lot of telling and not much showing.  We’re back to what annoyed me so much about A Deepness in the Sky.

At least the library setting looks cool and science fictiony:

There’s also something very farcical about the plot – this novel actually feels like Vinge trying to write a Neal Stephenson-style action-comedy, and the book is poorer for the comparison.  The humor is more forced than Stephenson’s, the action’s duller, and the ideas just aren’t as sharp or interesting.  I’ve also mentioned accessibility issues with the past two Vinge winners.  In the ‘00s as a whole, the Hugos have gone to books pitched at broader audiences than ever before…but this is the exception.  I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone not very well versed in sf ideas.

There’s a solid start here, especially with Gu and the wearables, but I wasn’t as engrossed by the final product as I could have been.

Grade: B

Friday, January 13, 2012

2006 Saturn SF – CHILDREN OF MEN

I discussed the ‘70s filmic obsession with environmental collapse and dystopia at length.  It kind of feels like it’s due for a comeback.  The Green Revolution made things look a lot better, but we’re still headed towards 10 billion people and we’re increasingly butting up against the limits of water, soil, and energy.  Children of Men is a great way to bring it back, as Alfonso Cuaron’s adaptation of a PD James’ novel is the finest entry in the genre yet made.

It’s 2027, and, for some unknown reason, no children have been born since 2009. In the meantime, the world has fallen apart due to warfare and terrorism. Britain is relatively stable, but immigrants have flooded in from the world’s warzones, and a fascist government has created brutal immigrant camps. Large numbers of refugees sit in cages on the streets with armed guards. As in Soylent Green, there are advertisements for commercial suicide-assistance (“Quietus: You Decide When”). Like all great sf, the film really is a commentary on our own world of terrorism and intolerance. The film opens with a bombing and then takes us on a tour of a dilapidated London with our point-of-view character, Theo Faron (Clive Owen).

Theo is contacted by his ex-wife (Julianne Moore) to help escort a young refugee woman named Kee safely out of England. Things go wrong, and, when Theo learns that Kee is nine-months pregnant, he must try to protect her himself.

He doesn’t make a lot of films, but I think Cuaron might be the finest working director. He takes what could be a standard, depressing dystopia and brings it to life in a way that makes it impossible to look away. He works in several long tracking shots that put the viewer in this world.  Without cuts to distance the viewer, it feels like POV work.  You’re there, looking over Clive Owen’s shoulder. These shots are made all the more impressive by the fact that they tend to take place during action scenes or large crowd scenes.  There’s a near five minute shot filmed from inside a car as it’s ambushed and attacked by a group of thugs.  It’s technically amazing and completely gripping.

On top of all of this, the film is quite beautiful. The color palette is bleak and gorgeous at the same time, and Cuaron finds all sorts of odd juxtapositions. Theo’s cousin works for a government program attempting to save the world’s great artworks, and Cuaron stages a surreal dinner scene in front of Picasso’s Guernica. These flashes of bleak beauty suit the film’s message, which is hopeful, despite the horrors depicted.

This movie is just plain brilliant.  The only thing I can say against it, is that it’s so good, so real and dark, that it can be damn hard to watch. It ends with an extended battle in a refugee camp, and by the time it's over, I’m usually emotionally worn out.

Grade: A

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

2006 World Fantasy Award – KAFKA ON THE SHORE by Haruki Murakami

I was wavering a bit way back when I decided to include the WFA winners, and I'm pretty sure that the inclusion of this book on the list is what decided the matter in the end.  Haruki Murakami is a fantastic Japanese writer who creates metaphorical stories about lost souls in the modern world.   Some people might compare his work to magical realism, but Murakami's magic is less subtle and often feels more sinister.

Murakami tells two parallel and related stories.  The first is that of the fifteen year old Kafka, who runs away from his home and oppressive father in Tokyo and comes to live in a small private reserach library in Takamatsu.  He falls in love with the distant librarian Miss Saeki and also grows close to a hermaphrodite named Oshima.  In the other story, a mentally handicapped man named Nakata has the ability to talk to cats.  He helps people in his neighborhood find lost cats by asking around for them, but one such quest exposes him to a horrific ritual that leads to a murder.  Nakata then heads off on a mysterious quest with a curious but decidedly unintellectual truck driver named Hoshino.

There are some very surreal scenes along the way, including an extended sequence with Colonel Sanders as a spirit guide.  There are also several pairings and twinnings rich with metaphor (Kafka's lost sister, his father, and the connections between Nakata and Kafka, or Nakata and Miss Saeki) and it all leads to a timeless world on the edge of reality.  It's an evocative but highly readable novel that's also an exciting (but perhaps unsolvable) puzzle.

Grade: A

Sunday, January 8, 2012

2006 Locus Fantasy and BFS - ANANSI BOYS by Neil Gaiman

Oh man, is this blog still going? If you're still out there, we're in the home stretch folks.

Anansi Boys was actually withdrawn from Hugo competition by the author.  Based on the nominations it received, it might have given Spin a run for its money, and Gaiman might have racked up another novel Hugo.  It's nice of him to share the wealth, and, considering that this is a much lighter read than American Gods (and that Gaiman had another novel Hugo coming before the end of the decade), it was probably for the best.

In fact, Anansi Boys almost feels like a discarded subplot from American Gods; it shares a character in Mr. Nancy, who is actually the African trickster spider-god Anansi.  At the beginning of the novel, Anansi dies, and his son, Londoner "Fat Charlie" Nancy goes to the funeral.  As a result, he meets his brother, the current incarnation of Spider, and (remember, this is a Neil Gaiman novel) gets drawn into a mythical world of gods and mischief.

Gaiman goes for a much lighter mood in this novel than many of his others (outside of Good Omens), and it almost had the feel of Tom Robbins or Douglas Adams...without the virtues of their best novels.  In fact, this novel was a little *too* lightly comic.  Tricksters walk a fine line between clever and annoying, and Spider ends up on the wrong side of the line quite a bit.  So, not my favorite Gaiman book, though still fun.

Grade: B-