Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Hugo Nomination Speculation Time: Dramas and Graphic

Hugo nominations are due a week from this Sunday, and I'm trying to put together a nomination ballot, so here (and Friday) are some of my favorite works and some of the usual semi-informed speculation. Today we'll cover the two Dramatic Presentation categories with a word or two about the Graphic Story category.

2011 was the year of the science fiction movie. Exactly 32.9 bajillion movies came out with some sort of science fiction or fantasy aspects. These include Season of the Witch, The Green Hornet, The Rite, Gnomeo and Juliet, The Adjustment Bureau, Beastly, Rango, Battle Los Angeles, Mars Needs Moms, Little Red Riding Hood, Limitless, Paul, Sucker Punch, Hop, Insidious, Source Code, Your Highness, Dylan Dog, Thor, Priest, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Midnight in Paris, Kung Fu Panda 2, X-Men: First Class, Super 8, Green Lantern, Cars 2, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Zookeeper, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2, Captain America, Another Earth, Cowboys & Aliens, The Smurfs, Attack the Block, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Final Destination 5, Conan the Barbarian, Fright Night, Spy Kids: All the Time in the World, In Time, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Apollo 18, Real Steel, The Thing, Paranormal Activity 3, Immortals, Melancholia, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1, Hugo, and The Darkest Hour. The latest Big Momma's House sequel probably had an alien invasion and/or vampire romance.

That’s over fifty.

I saw about a dozen of these, all before September (when my amazing daughter came along to make sure my wife and I would never go out for fun again). So, to some extent, I have to narrow the list down on word of mouth. Of the films I didn't see, Hugo looks great (though it has made googling the Hugo Awards more difficult...grrr). Attack the Block looks fun, and I've heard surprisingly good things about Real Steel, which looks thoroughly cheesy. I have a hard time believing that In Time wasn't good, considering it has such an interesting speculative concept and a strong sf pedigree (written, directed, and produced by Andrew Niccol or Gattaca), but there seems to be a pretty strong consensus against that one.

Of the movies I have seen:
I'd imagine Rise of the Apes is a shoe-in, though I don't quite see what everyone else sees in it. It's not the usual Hollywood bombast, I guess. Super 8 was very fun and pleasantly nostalgic, and it should be in the mix as well. Duncan Jones won with his last film, and Source Code was pretty good too. Woody Allen could be a dark horse with cutesy time travel film Midnight in Paris (believe it or not, the highest grossing Woody Allen picture of all time). I really enjoyed the somewhat-cheesy films Captain America and X-Men: First Class, which both got some extra mileage out of the superhero genre by using historical settings. I don't expect to see either of them on the list in such a crowded year. Harry Potter VII-B was not as good as Harry Potter VII-A in my opinion, and it's hard to guess whether it would receive a nom like its predecessor. I know Paul has a lot of geek fans, though I really disliked that one. And, I'm sure I'm not alone in my dislike of Cowboys & Aliens; combining a generic western with a generic alien invasion story does not magically create something original.

It's such a big class of films, it's hard to narrow down the nominees. To add to the dilemma, my vote will probably go to a televisions series. I plan to nominate the entire season of Game of Thrones in the Long Form category, and I'll probably be rooting for it to win.

There are a lot of different ways this could go, but I guess I'll predict Rise of the Apes, Super 8, Source Code, Hugo and Game of Thrones. 

In Short Form, we might as well just give the award to Neil Gaiman for "The Doctor's Wife" in the sixth series of Doctor Who. Who and Gaiman are Hugo perennials - put them together, and it's game over, especially since the episode has garnered a lot of rave reviews (I thought it was a middling episode, full of Gaiman and Moffat tics. Can Gaiman just not stop himself from putting a gothy Victorian girl front and center? Is there a goth equivalent to "manic pixie dream girl"?)

If Gaiman hadn't written that episode, Doctor Who would be looking very beatable after a fairly disappointing season. I did enjoy the mid-season finale "A Good Man Goes to War," which had a fantastic opening sequence and some new insights on the Doctor. I wouldn't be surprised if a few other Who episodes made the list.

There was a lot more sf tv in 2011, but it was mostly awful. Terra Nova, Once Upon a Time, Grimm, blah. The Cape? I don't think so. I did like Falling Skies, which had a fun, 80s-sf vibe. It was more V than the V revival. And it does correctly predict that history professors will be the saviors of humanity. That said, I don't think it's Hugo-worthy.

I rather hope that some short films, like last year's The Lost Thing, get nominated. Time Freak and The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore were Oscar-nominees that looked promising.

Finally, there is Graphic Story. The category is in its fourth year, and, as I understand it, could expire.This might be for the best, considering how narrowly Hugo nominators' tastes seem to cluster around a couple of web comics, some popular Vertigo properties, and works from writers known for their prose or tv work. Girl Genius has won this award every year, but the Foglios have pulled it from contention this year, guaranteeing that something new will win...probably Fables. I can imagine that Schlock Mercenary and Unwritten will also show up on the ballot.

I doubt I'll cover this category this year, but I do really hope that Craig Thompson's Habibi gets a nod. It's a gorgeous graphic novel that takes place in a post-apocalyptic middle east that resembles the world of The Arabian Nights. Yes, there's a fair amount of Orientalism, but there's also clearly a love of he source material, a respect for the Koran and the Arabic language, and some of the most beautiful art you'll ever see that also plays with the sequential medium in some really interesting ways. 

Monday, February 27, 2012

‘00s Wrap

What a wacky decade, eh?  As in the ‘90s, the awards are very diverse, and there’s a lot going on, but I did notice some clear trends.

The blindingly obvious trend in the Hugos is the rise of fantasy and the fall of the most traditional forms of science fiction. We went three-and-a-half decades without a fantasy winner, and then we have more than half of the Hugo awards for best novel going to fantasy books. That’s quite a sea change. As I’ve said many times before, I don’t know if this is an issue of gender, a rise in the quality of fantasy, or a decline in sf, but I’m not going to fret over it, even though I do lean more towards the science fiction end of the speculative spectrum. Hooray for variety!

SF is clearly in some kind of decline though. The most obvious change is the fall of space opera, which had dominated the genre in its golden age, and had a long and powerful resurgence through the post-Star Wars era. Space operas or books about alien visitors won 2/3rds of the ‘50s Hugos, more than half of the ‘60s, 70% of the ‘70s Hugos, 90% of the ‘80s Hugos, and more than half of the ‘90s Hugos.  And then, in the ‘00s, one. And even that one focuses more on contemporary characters responding to big changes with the aliens distant and mysterious. So, something has clearly happened. The limited reading I’ve done on latter day space opera writers like Alistair Reynolds tells me that space opera has become far less accessible to the average reader. I’m not sure about cause and effect though. Were space operas abandoned because they got too far out and self-referential, or have they moved off to their own little corner to play with Big Ideas because no one pays attention any more? Big Ideas did abound in this decade though.

Other trends? Everyone loves history all of the sudden, which makes me happy. The Baroque Cycle takes science fiction to a new frontier, Jonathan Strange does the same with fantasy, and lots of other books follow suit, like Brasyl, or, deeper into the past, Lavinia. Also, globalization is clearly on sf&f writers' minds. Bacigalupi and Ian McDonald (and Air) provide obvious examples, but detailed and respectful explorations of exotic settings became the norm in these (mostly) English-language books. This is another trend I welcome, and I hope both stay alive. The Years of Rice and Salt nicely combines both trends.

Favorite books:
1. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
2. Kafka on the Shore
3. The Baroque Cycle
4. The Years of Rice and Salt
5. River of Gods
6. A Storm of Swords
7. American Gods
8. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union
9. Anathem
10. The Windup-Girl

Least Favorite:
1. Ilium
2. Nova Swing
3. www.Wake (not Hominids! Take that Sawyer h8ers!)

Favorite films:
1. Wall-E
2. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
3. Children of Men
4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
5. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
6. Serenity

Least favorite films:
1. Cloverfield
2. AI
3. Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith

And, my recap of the awards is done!

The rest of this week, I'm going to look forward to this year's Hugo nominations as I try to fill out my ballot. I'm also going to take on Worlds Without End's Grand Master Reading Challenge, because WWE is awesome and has been the fuel of this blog.

And then…something. I don’t know…

Where are you 2012 Hugo nominations???  I need you now!

So lost….

Friday, February 24, 2012

2009 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation, Long Form – WALL-E

Normally, I’d cover this category in the first week of covering a year, but this is actually my last “catch-up” review (at least, unless I start tackling short fiction Hugo winners somewhere down the line), and I wanted to end on a high note. And it doesn’t get much higher than this.

I adore this movie; that’s about the only way to describe my reaction to it. It’s my favorite Pixar film, and that’s saying a lot. It’s a masterpiece of animation, of science fiction, just of film in general. It takes place in the 28th century, on an Earth so polluted that it has become inhospitable to life. Robots have been given the task of collecting the mountains of trash that litter (pun!) the planet and condense and stack them, but most of the robots (called “Wall-E” units) have worn out, except for one resourceful little guy who replaces his own worn out parts. He manages to find some pleasure in his dreary work, collecting little pieces that amuse him to decorate a little lair. He also loves “Hello Dolly!” One day, a more advanced, feminine robot shows up to look for plant life, and Wall-E falls in love. When they do discover a sprout, a spaceship picks them up, and they end up running around on a space cruiseship amidst a decadent consumer culture of the surviving humans as they try to trigger a recolonization and renewed clean-up of Earth.

The robots all have limited speech, yet they get most of the screentime, so the film is short on dialog, and yet it moves briskly and manages to entertain and keep forward momentum. I haven’t seen physical storytelling this funny, effective and powerful outside of Charlie Chaplin. And, Wall-E does a great job balancing a bleak vision of future Earth, right out of those ‘70s eco-dystopias, with the beauty in the trash. Nothing hits my aesthetic sweet-spot quite like a sense of wonder, hope or love in the midst of ruin and despair, and few movies hit that sweet-spot as perfectly as this. It’s also a rich sf film full of references to the sf canon: 2001, Star Wars, and, hey, Sigourney Weaver even makes an appearance. There are lots of cool rockets and robots to boot. I can’t say that the film asks probing speculative questions about robot emotions – Wall-E and EVE are in love; deal with it.

The film isn’t particularly nuanced or detailed in the environmental questions it raises either. There’s a satire of consumerism with the brand Buy N’ Large (fronted by the almost-always welcome Fred Willard), but it’s pretty broad. Also, of all the environmental problems we face, burying ourselves in trash really isn’t one of them – landfills may be an eyesore that no one wants in their backyard, but there is ample space for our trash. But, mountains of trash and yellow noxious sky serve as a strong enough metaphor. People may have found the critiques here heavy-handed, but, considering the state of climate change legislation in the US, maybe people do need to be smacked in the head with broad metaphors. Again and again. And then some more. And the film, for all of the dirty, trashy, hopeless world it depicts, still gives us that sprout, and still has its bloated consumerist humans stand up for hope in the end. And I love it for that.

Grade: A

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

2009 Clarke and Campbell – SONG OF TIME by Ian MacLeod

Ian MacLeod is yet another innovative Brit to break in at the start of the twenty-first century. This novel made a very good first impression on me. The prose is stunning; this is easily one of the best-written novels I’ve read for this project. I’m just not sure that the story lives up to MacLeod’s crisp and elegant language.

The novel is narrated by a British woman of part-Indian descent named Roushana Maitland. Most of it is a sort of memoir of her life through the twenty-first century, which turns out to be a rough one. As environmental disasters, war, refugee crises, and increased religious and racial strife take their toll on the world, Roushana deals with personal tragedies and becomes a violin virtuoso. This sort of dystopia pile-on isn’t especially new – I was reminded a lot of Butler’s Earthseed at times – but the perspective of a wealthy and successful artist is more original. Some of the sub-plots add some new wrinkles as well – like post-human “ghosts” and a Frankenstein’s-monster messiah figure who sells bottled water and takes Paris by storm. There’s also a framing story wherein we follow the elderly Roushana in Cornwall as she encounters and befriends a mysterious naked man who washed up on the beach.

The writing and Roushana’s story were strong enough to keep me turning the pages, but some of my initial enthusiasm wore off as the novel went on. It’s just so damned bleak. MacLeod piles hate upon disaster upon disease upon destruction. Again, this isn’t unlike Butler’s Earthseed, but there are two big differences: Roushana isn’t as strong or compelling as Olamina. She’s often lost and confused, and she ends up playing second fiddle (pun alert!) to her composer husband Claude for much of the novel. Also Earthseed was a struggle for survival, while Roushana’s privileged position precludes that exciting element. When MacLeod unleashed his final U.S.-destroying disaster, I responded with an “Oh come on!” rather than getting further absorbed in the story. MacLeod also piled on a series of “surpise” melodramatic scenes from Roushana’s personal life in some late twists that also had me rolling my eyes a bit.

So, the darkness overwhelms a well-written story about the arts, but it’s not quite dark enough to be a compelling story of survival. And all of this rather overwhelms MacLeod’s exploration of his central themes of memory and mortality. But, it was an engaging read, and I’d like to check out some more MacLeod.

Grade: B

Monday, February 20, 2012

2009 Locus Fantasy – LAVINIA by Ursula K. LeGuin

This is the seventh LeGuin book I’ve covered for this blog (not counting the original Earthsea trilogy, which I also read during this project).  That sets the record, beating out Heinlein and the more recent Neal Stephenson (who easily takes the page-count award) at six.  LeGuin did a lot to push the limits of sf, and I certainly think she deserves the honor, but it’s still rather surprising that she achieved the feat with wins for two separate books published in April 2009, months before her 80th birthday.

Lavinia expands the story of a minor character from The Aeneid, the epic poem by first century Roman poet Virgil.  Well, she shouldn’t really be a minor character, as she’s the main character’s wife, she’s the reason for the central conflict of the last act, and she’s presented as the mother of the Roman nation, but Virgil only gives her a few lines.  So, LeGuin comes to her rescue. The Aeneid aped Homeric style to tell a story that linked the founding of Rome to the fall of Troy, which allowed the new Roman Empire to link itself to the dominant Hellenic tradition of the Mediterranean while also claiming a moral superiority over the Greeks.  It’s a foundational text of western literature – remember, it’s Virgil, not Homer, that guides Dante through Hell – but it doesn’t seem to be as widely read or referenced in the last couple of decades.  I read it as a freshman in college.  I can’t say I absorbed it all, but having a passing familiarity with the text probably helped my enjoyment of this novel.

The final sections of the epic recount the arrival of a group of Trojan refugees, led by Aeneas, to Italy.  They immediately fall into conflict with the local Latin tribes, especially after Aeneas tries to wed a Latin princess named Lavinia, in accordance with various prophecies.  LeGuin gives us Lavinia’s perspective with a first-person narration that begins in her youth.  She has a loving father, and a crazy mother, and she’s not too keen on the local Latin suitors.  She believes her destiny is to marry a foreigner, but her mother and finest suitor start a war with the Trojans to keep her. The novel continues beyond Virgil’s poem to describe Lavinia’s loving marriage to Aeneas and her efforts to raise their son to be a fine king of the Latins.

There’s not much of the fantastic here.  Actually, the novel is more grounded in archaeology and actual history than The Aeneid, with its glittering kingdoms and divine interventions.  LeGuin’s Thirteenth-century B.C. Italy is poor and pastoral, and she works to keep the religious practices and ethnographic details fairly accurate (though she does admit to some artistic license in the afterword).  The main elements come through prophesy-infused narrative devices, including appearances by Virgil’s ghost (hey, if he can lead Dante through Hell, he can have a chat with one of his characters), and a lavishly described bas-relief shield that somehow depicts most of the major events of the Roman history to come. LeGuin manages to keep the story grounded, but give it these hints of magic.

The real attraction, as is usually the case with LeGuin, is not the speculative elements or the plot, but prose and character. If you’ve ever read Virgil or Homer, you know the heroes are larger-than-life, but LeGuin makes them feel real, and Lavinia is a wonderful heroine. The world-building is especially spectacular. LeGuin brings a very foreign place and time to life.

My one disappointment is that LeGuin seems to have lost interest in the complex analysis of gender that characterized her early work.  Since Tehanu, she seems to spend more time focusing on essential differences of sex…though maybe it just feels that way because most of her recent works have been set in explicitly sexist fantasy worlds. In this novel, men are quite literally from Mars (the god); they stupidly fight and ignore women. Lavinia’s mother, meanwhile, is quite the shrew.

Still, this is the best LeGuin novel I’ve read since at least The Dispossessed…maybe since The Lathe of Heaven.  Powers was nice, but I think the Nebulas would’ve been better served with this as their choice.

Grade: B+

Friday, February 17, 2012

2009 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation, Short Form – DR HORRIBLE’S SING-A-LONG BLOG

Two genres that have a long tradition of busting budgets are superhero movies and musicals. Leave it to Joss Whedon to make a low budget, DIY superhero musical for web broadcast. There are a lot of firsts here. You don’t see superhero musicals every day, and this style of superhero comedy hasn’t really been seen in live action (outside of Ben Edlund’s The Tick, at least). This is the first musical to win a Hugo, for that matter. Super-villain protagonists are fairly rare, though I can think of a few comic and cartoon examples. And, of course, there’s the whole web-series thing. Whedon (and his brothers) went with the format during the 2008 writer’s strike. By all reports, the show made back its budget (and the crew could be paid!) and then some. At the time I saw this as something of a harbinger of things to come, but three+ years later, the division between tv and webshows seems to be more solid than ever, though Netflix and Hulu are up to some interesting things.

Dr. Horrible (Neil Patrick Harris) is a supervillain auditioning to join the Evil League of Evil, a team of baddies led by Bad Horse, the Thoroughbred of Sin. At the beginning of each of three fifteen minute episodes, Horrible updates us in videoblog format. He explains that cheesy hero Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion) is his arch-nemesis, and he has a crush on a girl he sees at the laundrymat named Penny (web-series maven, Felicia Day). And he tells us in verse. When a heist goes wrong, Horrible inadvertently introduces Hammer and Penny, and they hit it off, increasing his alienation and anger, and leading him to raise the stakes of his audition villainy.

The music and singing probably aren’t going to win any Tonys, but they’re strong enough, and Whedon can be quite clever with the lyrics, as he showed in his excellent musical episode of Buffy. In fact, I’m rather fond of the naturalistic, strong-but-not-quite-professional vocal performances that Whedon gets from his actors in these two musical projects, and I almost expect it to be a trend in musicals to come. It’d be preferable to the over-polished generic pop that you get out of most of the cast of Glee, at least. Its Whedon, so of course the dialog is funny, and we quickly see depth out of the main characters. The best thing about the series is Dr. Horrible’s villainous motivation – he’s clearly a confused, disenchanted person lashing out rather than a maniac (telling lyrics: Horrible boasts that he’ll have “all the cash all the fame and social change” and calls for “anarchy that I run”). A lot of mixed-up kids share his weird utopian/dystopian politics, and I think almost every American can sympathize with his odd efforts to justify his work financially and socially. Even though this is a brief comic piece, Dr. Horrible is one of the most fully realized villains I can think of.

So, it’s great fun. If you’re a Whedon fan, you’ve already seen it a million times. If you don’t like Whedon, I doubt this will win you over. If you’re on the fence though, I’d give it a shot. Also, Commentary: The Musical takes DVD-commentary tracks to a new level and probably deserves some kind of award itself.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

2009 Locus SF – ANATHEM by Neal Stephenson

Anathem is an ambitious, epic novel that deals with central questions in the philosophy of science.  This is the only novel I can think of that directly addresses the central episitemological and ontological questions: what is the nature of physical existence and how do we know what we know?  In many ways, the novel picks up Stephenson’s standard themes about information, science and spirituality, and it also picks up on his more recent obsession with great thinkers, but it’s also a fairly big departure, as Stephenson creates his own world.

Anathem takes place on a world not unlike our own called Arbre, where science is a sort of religion, and there has been a longstanding conflict between scientists and laypeople.  The scientists have retreated to monasteries called concents, and they only interact with the outside world at certain intervals (every year, decade, century, or millennium, depending on their level).  They’ve also been forced to renounce most technology, so the “avout” intellectuals spend all of their time on abstract and theoretical inquiries rather than applications.  At the novel’s beginning, the narrator, Fraa Erasmus, is in his late teens and tasked with personal dilemmas like his choice of order (which are divided around the aforementioned philosophical questions), but he soon becomes involved in a situation with global implications.

It’s hard to say much more about the novel without spoilers.  The plot doesn’t get going until over 300 pages in, and there are facets of the world itself that are major reveals fairly late in the book.  I will say that we’re told early that the titular “anathem” is a ceremony in which avout are expelled into the “saeculur” world, so it’s fairly obvious that these two worlds will eventually collide.

I think Stephenson is probably the most exciting sf writer out there right now, and this novel does deliver big ideas and (eventually) an exhilarating story.  The world building contains some nice ideas, and the monasteries are well-developed with their own politics and mysteries (and, hey, since they’re monks, they have to have cool martial arts as well!)  Stephenson spends a lot of time inventing etymologies for new words.  “Anathem” for instance, merges “anthem” and “anathema.”  Sometimes it’s entertaining; sometimes it can feel a bit precious and self-indulgent (and, are we supposed to assume that the novel’s language, Orthic, is identical to modern English?).  Also, the world’s history is very similar to Earth’s.  This is largely intentional, but some of the similarities go too far.  Thelenes, this world’s Socrates, makes all of the same discoveries, and uses the same techniques, and apparently lives the same life. Again, I can imagine arguments for why this might be, but it's mostly because Stephenson wanted to talk about Socrates in the context of this world. In other words, he skips some great opportunities for some Rice and Salt-esque alternate-history-building.

It’s also, like Stephenson’s last novel, too long.  I, for one, enjoy Stephenson’s long digressions.  He’s quite good at making a lecture into something that can illuminate the plot, world, or characters at the same time it gives you something to think about.  In this novel, however, the lectures seem to be far more repetitive than usual.  Almost every one has the exact same point, which thus gets hammered into the ground (I hope I never see the phrase Hylaean Theoric World again).  I preferred the more eclectic tangents of his previous works.  Anathem does feel like a chore sometimes.  If three or four hundred pages had been cut, this would have been a much stronger work.

These complaints aside, it’s an exciting novel that really pays off in the last few hundred pages.  Each act is more exciting than the last, and the climax is fantastic.  I’d have to say it would have been my Hugo pick.  I’d certainly recommend The Graveyard Book to more people, and it does seem like a more polished, and finished work, but I think the ambition and scope of Anathem more fully realizes the promise of speculative fiction.

Grade: A-

Sunday, February 12, 2012

2009 Hugo - THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman

The first thing that sticks out about the 2009 Hugo nominations for best novel was that the majority of nominees were young adult books.  John Scalzi's Zoe's Tale from his "Old Man's War" series and internet darling Cory Doctorow's "kids fight the power" novel Little Brother both targeted younger audiences, as did Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, which actually won the prestigious Newberry for children's fiction as well.  This is more a reflection of the current publishing market than anything else - the huge publishing successes of the past ten years have been young adult works like the Harry Potter series (excellent) and the Twilight series (blech).  The other big success story in fiction were the Dan Brown books, which have some adult themes but are still written at a five-year-old level.  So, young adult books sell more and make more money as intellectual properties, ergo, more big authors write YA books (which isn't inherently a bad thing).

This win also continues the dominance of fantasy, and particularly the kind of urban fantasy that Gaiman helped to pioneer (and which seems to have surpassed most other speculative fiction in the market).  In other words, there's a lot about the nominations and win in the novel category to give old school sci-fi fans reason to worry and wring their hands.  At the end of the day, however, you have to admit that this is a well-written, fun little novel that ranks among Gaiman's best.

They plot is a play on the Jungle Book, only here the orphaned baby isn't raised by animals in the jungle.  Instead, he wanders into a quiet old graveyard where he is adopted by ghosts (and a few other supernatural creatures of the night) who named him Nobody Owens, or Bod for short.  Bod communes with the spirits (who are all rather sweet and harmless), learns important life lessons, and discovers the ways of his adopted parents - including the abilities to escape perception and walk through walls.  He also encounters some of the hazards of life with the dead - ancient spirit guardians and gruesome ghouls.  It's all very episodic, but Gaiman weaves this strands together quite well in the penultimate chapter, when Bod must confront the supernatural killer of his parents.

So, it's light, but very good, Gaiman reading.  And it is a nice reversal of his usual formula in that Bod's biggest challenge is always moving from a supernatural milieu into everyday normal human life, instead of the typical vice cersa.  Like a lot of good YA literature, there are some universal themes about growing up that can appeal to adults as well.

Grade: B+

By the way, that's all the Hugo novels! Click the Hugo novel tag, and all the winners are there! I dare you to!

That's the end of my original plan, but I've added so much that I still have a couple of weeks to go.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

2009 Saturn Fantasy – WATCHMEN

Before Before Watchmen, there was....Watchmen!

Amazingly, this is the first review of an adaptation of a work I’ve previously reviewed. Many of the award-winning novels here have been adapted into films, including a fair number of Hugo and Saturn nominees, and many of the films have come from acclaimed sf&f novels, but this is the first time the twain have met. It’s fitting then that it’s a work that’s status as an adaptation has always been the main story.

As I said, Watchmen is the consensus pick for greatest superhero comic of all time. That alone made its adaptation controversial, and it took over a decade and a few lawsuits to get this film made. Then, writer Alan Moore asked to have his name removed from the film, more due to previous wrongs than this film in particular, but still. Finally, there’s the fact that the sprawling multimedia multigenerational superhero epic that pushed the boundaries of sequential art as a medium doesn’t particular lend itself to the feature film format… Well, add it all up, and it’s a recipe for disaster.

It’s not quite that, though I wouldn’t call it a rousing success either. It received mixed critical reviews and disappointing box office revenues. Is it any good? I’d say it depends on what you’re looking for. It you love the graphic novel and you want to see Alan Moore's and Dave Gibbons's vision realized with first class special effects, you’re in luck! If you’ve never read the book, I imagine this won’t make much sense. If you’re looking for a movie that can stand on its own as a solid piece of filmmaking, I don’t think this qualifies.

The first problem is that it’s just too damn literal as a remake. For all the hubbub about whether the film would do service to the classic graphic novel – it does, to a fault. Director Zack Snyder made a name for himself with a very literal adaptation of Frank Miller’s Battle of Thermopylae graphic novel, 300, and he brings the same ethic to this work, directly borrowing almost all of his visuals from Dave Gibbons’ panels and almost all of his dialogue from Alan Moore’s word balloons. The mid-1980s setting, contemporary when the book originally came out, must have been fairly alienating for a lot of the young people who’d make up the majority of the potential audience for a superhero blockbuster. I’m not saying that I want to replace fifth term Nixon with third term Dubya and the USSR with China or Al Qaeda, but the book is very much of its time; the film is not. More importantly, the book is paced brilliantly as a twelve part monthly series, not as a three hour film, but that’s the pacing that Snyder ends up with by default. The film does manage to convey some of the rich history of the comics, but it never builds any momentum. The film’s pacing would better fit a tv mini-series.

The second problem is the acting. Jackie Earle Haley is fantastic as Rorschach, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan is perfect as the Comedian. It’s all downhill from there. Patrick Wilson and Malin Ackerman are likable performers, and they do fine as Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, though they don’t seem as damaged as the characters in the comic. Billy Crudup isn’t particularly convincing as Dr. Manhattan, and Matthew Goode is just plain terrible as Adrian Veidt. Those two characters play a crucial role in the story, and the actors’ wooden performances really damage the climax. Watchmen is a character-driven story, and this mixed bag of acting undermines it in some significant ways.

It’s not all bad though. By sticking so closely to the original story, Snyder doesn’t lose any of Moore’s fascinating world-building, and the opening credits that track four decades of superhero history are a highpoint (though "the opening credits are a highpoint" really isn't a great sign). Most of the visuals are very well-realized. A direct translation of Gibbons's panels may not have been  the best choice, but that doesn’t make it easy, and I think Snyder has accomplished something very interesting here. Again, as a supplement to the book, it’s not bad at all. But that’s pretty faint praise for such an ambitious sf film.

Grade: C+

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

2008 Saturn SF – IRON MAN

Superhero films have dominated that Saturn fantasy awards for most of the decade, but Iron Man bounces back to sf, which makes sense.  This film is about as science fictiony as superhero movies get; not that it’s rigorous, hard sf, but it is much more interested in technology, and the implications thereof, than most entries in the genre. And, it wouldn’t be surprising if creators Stan Lee et al were heavily influenced by Starship Troopers, which came out just a couple of years before Iron Man’s first appearance.

Billionaire playboy Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) inherited his father’s arms-manufacturing corporation. He’s a mechanical genius himself, but he spends most of his time partying. His faithful personal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) struggles to keep his life together. After a weapons demonstration in Afghanistan, Stark is kidnapped by terrorists and asked to make them weapons, instead he makes a chest implant to protect him from a possibly-fatal wound and a suit of powered armor that he uses to escape. Upon his return, he refines the suit and uses it to fight some of the wrongs caused by his company’s weapons. His business associate, Obadiah Stane (an uncharacteristically evil Jeff Bridges), wants Stark Eterprises, and he builds his own suit it get rid of Tony.

Stan Lee made a few innovations to superhero comics in the 1960s that served to make Marvel the leading comic company. One of the most important was the idea that all of his heroes had to have a flaw. Iron Man was one of his weakest inventions, I think. Stark’s flaw was that he needed the suit to live due to injuries to his chest. There are some interesting implications there, but they never get explored, and it really just became a cheap device to keep the hero down for a bit, a la kryptonite. Later writers developed new flaws for Stark, womanizing and alcoholism, that made him much more interesting, and highlighted the contrast with his steel exterior. The film does a great job of capturing that take on the character.

I remember that before this film came out in the spring of 2008, there was a sense that the Renaissance in superhero movies was coming to an end. In the two previous summers, there’d been a string of failures, maybe even embarrassments like X-Men 3, Spider-man 3, Fantastic Four 2, Ghost Rider, and Superman Returns (though they were still making money). On top of that, Iron Man was not a big-name character, and it seemed to some like Marvel was scraping the bottom of their intellectual property barrel. But, this film made a surprising amount of money and garnered a lot of critical praise. Jeff Bridges later reported that director Jon Favreau shot most of the movie without a script, and that may be a big part of its success. The film rides on Downey’s charisma and charm, and his ad libs work brilliantly. It’s a fairly simple formula – take a charming and talented star, give him a fun character with some intriguing flaws to work with, and surround it all with some solid effects and action, and you get a very entertaining superhero flick. I think it’s a lesson that more superhero movies, and science fiction movies in general, might profit from following.

Of course, a couple of months later, another superhero movie came out that took the exact opposite approach, The Dark Knight Returns. It’s a better movie, and one of the most thrilling I’ve seen. It got a Saturn Action award (I’m not adding another category, and I don’t have much to say about it that hasn’t been said). Both it and Iron Man were nominated for the Hugo, but neither won (nor should they have, but more on that in a couple of weeks).

Grade: A-

Sunday, February 5, 2012

2008 Nebula – POWERS by Ursula K. LeGuin

Reflecting broader trends in the publishing world (mainly, that mostly only kids read books now), two completely different Young Adult books won both the Hugo and the Nebula in the same year.  Of course, this is also a record-breaking fourth Nebula win for LeGuin.  Powers is the third entry in her YA Annals of the Western Shore trilogy, which is very much in the vein of her fantasy classic Earthsea.

Gavir is a slave in the city-state of Etra.  He and his sister were captured from the Marsh people, who are rumored to have special powers.  Gavir, for example, has an incredible memory, and can even, on rare occasions, remember the future.  As he narrates his childhood, he explains his unquestioning loyalty to his owners, who give him an education, but the abuses of the system are apparent from early on.  His sister is given to one of his master’s sons as a concubine, while another of the sons murders another slave without punishment.

Gavir eventually runs away, and we get a series of episodic adventures.  He joins a band of runaways, and, again, we begin to see the inequalities and sexual abuse within their social system. In the book’s most interesting section, Gavir returns to his people’s homelands in the Marshes. In Etra, we get the typical faux-medieval society, but in the Marshes, LeGuin gets to use her anthropological talents.  The Marsh people fish for subsistence and practice strict separation of the sexes.  LeGuin manages to make it seem fairly idyllic while also making it clear that it’s far from perfect and that Gavir does not belong.

A lot of the ethnographic details are nice, and LeGuin’s prose flows as nicely as ever. LeGuin never talks down to her YA audience; the proceedings are very dark and some of the material on gender is fairly subtle.  The novel eschews some of the expected dramatic resolutions.  We don’t get final confrontations between Gavir and many of his oppressors, or a touching reunion with his biological parents.  And, Gavir really uses his powers – the fact that he has a printed book makes more of a difference to the plot than the fact that he can occasionally see the future.  On one hand, I like that LeGuin avoids clich├ęs.  On the other hand, the novel can feel a little aimless, and some of the early characters don’t have much point in the long-run.

I feel like I’m becoming a broken record with these Nebula winners.  Once again, this was a decent book that I enjoyed, but I don’t think it would’ve been my choice for the best novel of the year.  That said, LeGuin’s talents are still clear, and I can’t think of a writer more deserving of the record for most novel Nebulas.

Grade: B

Thursday, February 2, 2012

2008 Hugo Dramatic Presentation, Long Form – STARDUST

Neil Gaiman’s had a pretty good decade at the Hugos. Something written by Gaiman (or adapted from something written by Gaiman, in this case) won in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2008, and 2009, he received nominations in 2000, 2007 and 2010, and he declined a nomination in 2006. I guess he took 2005 off. Anyway, there’s been some grumbling about this, and even a New Yorker profile of Gaiman spent most of its space mocking his rabid fanbase. So, when you see a movie like Stardust, which did mediocre box office then promptly disappeared from most of the world’s consciousness (my wife claimed to have never heard of it*), well, it’s easy to chalk this up to Gaiman’s fanbase tipping another Hugo vote. Thing is, it’s actually a very cute movie.

The English town of Wall lies next to a giant stone wall that divides our world and a magical land called Stormhold. Tristan Thorne (a relative unknown named Charlie Cox) is a teenager who works in a shop in Wall and loves a girl named Victoria (Sienna Miller), who prefers the wealthier Humphrey (Clark Kent). To prove his love, Tristan promises to recover a falling star from the other side of the wall, then learns from his father that his long lost mother may be on the other side as well. Tristan finds the star personified as a young woman named Yvan (Clare Danes) and leads her back to the wall. Meanwhile, an evil witch (Michelle Pfeiffer) hunts the star so she can consume its heart and regain her youth, and the surviving princes of Stormhold search for a necklace she wears so that they can ascend to the throne. Matthew Vaughn directs and manages to keep things light and make everything look good despite a moderate (though by no means small) budget.

When I saw the film in the theaters, I walked away with the impression that it was a bit of a mess. There are a couple of minor continuity errors and some awkward voice-overs that suggested a lot of late tinkering to me. There are also a couple of obnoxious celebrity cameos. I like Ricky Gervais, but he seems to be playing a parody of himself in a couple of brief scenes. Robert DeNiro has a bigger part with a few surprises, and I honestly didn’t know whether to laugh or look away in embarrassment for most of his screentime. It’s a good idea (that I won’t give away), but the humor's a little too broad, and DeNiro doesn’t entirely succeed. I’ve never liked him in a comedic role, and this film didn’t buck that trend, even if it’s not as bad as the Fokkers stuff.

Those are really minor issues though.  Everyone else does quite well, despite much of the main cast being a mix of unknowns and used-to-bes. Gaiman’s plot is charming as hell, Vaughn’s touch is light but effective, and, overall, it’s a very sweet, fun film. I hardly noticed the minor errors this time, and I think my impression from my first viewing was just off. The film flowed quite smoothly, as long as you’re not being hypercritical.

So, as I said, very cute movie. Normally, “very cute” doesn’t necessarily make for a worthy Hugo winner, but when you look at the rest of the field…yeah. Harry Potter 5 was decent, but Golden Compass was very disappointing, Enchanted doesn’t really rise above Disney kids fare (though I’ve only seen pieces of it on cable, and Heroes season one was fascinating, but flawed (and its reputation was sunk by the awful seasons to follow, so it’s good it didn’t win). This is actually the one year where I’d support Jo Walton’s contention that “no award” should win Hugos for Dramatic Presentation more often, but Stardust is the best film of the lot, and I don’t mind it being on the list of winners at all.

Grade: B+

*but she watched it with me this time and really enjoyed it.