Monday, March 26, 2012

1948 – DIVIDE AND RULE by L. Sprague de Camp

Where has L. Sprague de Camp been all my life? I vaguely knew the name, but I’d never read a word he’d written. About a year ago, I head a description of this book and though it sounded worth checking out (which is why I’m starting here rather than the obvious Lest Darkness Fall).

“Divide and Rule” is a short novel/long novella from 1939 about a future in which humanity has been conquered by giant rabbit aliens that everyone calls “hoppers.” They landed in South America and waged a long war of conquest (aided by epidemic alien disease in a very nice historical touch). Once they were finished they took action to suppress humanity so that it could serve as their labor force; they outlawed industrial technology and forced schools to teach that they were gods in the natural order. Most importantly, they decided to divide humanity (we have a title!) by imposing a new feudal order.

A couple of centuries later, Sir Howard van Slyck, the Duke of Poughkeepsie, has spent most of his young life raiding castles and fighting duels across New York. He meets a chain-mailed, whip-wielding commoner from the west named Lyman Haas. Haas and van Slyck team up to rescue a damsel-in-distress named Sally Mitten but earn the enmity of the hoppers in the process. Sally leads them to the resistance in hiding, and they learn the truth about their world.

It’s a fast-moving, fun adventure story with good characters, snappy dialogue, a strong concept, and some interesting sf ideas. The only flaw is that the hoppers have some very convenient weaknesses that allow the story to wrap up quickly. I really wouldn’t mind more of this story.

The bigger flaw with this product is that “Divide and Rule” was paired with a much weaker story called “The Stolen Dormouse” to fill out the book’s length. It’s not a bad story, and there is a thematic link – it’s another feudal order. This time, corporations become so powerful that they evolve into feudal states with inherited ranks. It’s an interesting idea and one that’s been fairly persistent in sf, but de Camp uses this setting first to do a Romeo and Juliet pastiche, then adds some slapstick action. Hawaiians get to play a fun role though, and de Camp throws in some decent sf concepts that were probably fairly new in 1941 – the titular “dormouse” is a person in a hibernation chamber and a few bioengineering ideas get thrown around. It’s short, clever, and funny, but not nearly as strong as “Divide and Rule.”

I will definitely be revisiting de Camp in the future. He checks a lot of sf boxes for me – he likes history and uses it to inform his speculative fiction, he’s a rationalist, he likes to mix comedy and adventure, and he’s fairly progressive on gender and racial issues…at least for someone writing in the late ‘30s. This was a great surprise.

Grade: A- (though that ignores “The Stolen Dormouse”).

Friday, March 23, 2012


Much to my amazement, I did manage to get out to see Disney's John Carter. At this point, the film seems destined to become a cult classic. It is one of the largest box office flops in history, and Disney has taken a $200 million-dollar write-down as a result. Meanwhile, most science fiction fans seem to have really enjoyed the movie, and there's even a facebook page demanding a sequel (fat chance guys). By this point, I think almost every other relevant blog has already praised and/or buried this film, but here are my belated thoughts anyway.

The film is a fairly faithful adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars. Civil War veteran John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) gets chased into a cave by Apache and then gets teleported to Mars. On Mars, the lower gravity makes him incredibly strong, and he can jupo great distances. He hangs out with the tribal green Martians and befriends their leader Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe), then he gets involved in a war between the red Martian kingdoms of Helium  and Zodanga, and their respective princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) and "jeddak" Sab Than ( West). All of this is straight out of the novel, and many specific scenes from the book appear.

John Carter is the first live action film of Andrew Stanton, who directed a few Pixar films, including the masterful Wall-E. Considering that pulp fan Michael Chabon was also involved in writing the screenplay, I had high expectations for this movie, despite its poor box office performance and the general air of doom that clung to it. And, well, I did have fun. The cgi characters look great (and DaFoe steals the show as Tars Tarkas). Dejah Thoris was a bit more proactive than in the novel, and she's a scientist now; I thought Lynn Collins did an especially good job pulling off a mishmash of character tropes and finds the core of a fairly ridiculous character (also, Martians wear clothes in this version). There's a strong sense of adventure that pervades the whole film, and, in what I consider to be a very good sign, I like the film more today than when I walked out of the theater a few days ago.

That said, it's far from perfect. I think there are two major problems. First, Taylor Kitsch didn't really sell his role as the transplanetary swashbuckling warrior. If you look at the implausible-epic-fun adventure films that have worked and succeeded over the past few decades, it's clear that you need a very charismatic male lead to win larger audiences over by winking their way through the silly parts - someone like Johnny Depp or Harrison Ford. Kitsch, on the other hand, plays it straight and delivers his lines with a James Franco-esque woodenness that threatened to put me to sleep on the few occasions when the action slowed down. Which leads us to the second problem: the film is over-packed with concepts. Making a very faithful adaptation of a hundred-year-old pulp isn't necessarily a good idea, and the screenwriters probably could have streamlined things more. Not only do they keep most of the novel's clunky concepts, they actually add a few more wrinkles - Carter gets a more tragic past, for instance, and, in what I think was the film's biggest misstep, we get alien manipulators called  the Thern as the mastermind villains (I assume that this material is from the second book, The Gods of Mars). It's easy to see why these choices were made. The former gives Carter more of a character arc, and the latter allows the writers to raise the stakes (in perhaps a more plausible way than the possible loss of all Martian oxygen in the novel) and link Mars' fate more closely to Earth's. These ideas work on paper, but they cluttered things up in practice. Along the same lines, the framing story is far too long, though at least it did pay off nicely in the end. I also think the Martian landscape could have looked a little less like Utah.

I wouldn't be surprised to see this film on next year's Hugo short list. It seems to be well-liked, and it's failure has made it a lovable 250 million dollar underdog. And, I could even see myself nominating it. That said, I hope that this isn't the peak of sf film for the year, especially with films like Prometheus and The Hobbit on the horizon.

Grade: B

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


I haven’t had a lot of experience with Jules Verne, outside of some cartoons I watched as a kid and a DisneyWorld ride. He’s arguably the first writer of modern science fiction, and his influence is impossible to disregard. And yet, I avoided him for some reason; mostly, I think, because I didn’t know what to expect. Turns out I should’ve expected fun.

The plot is nice and simple: a German scientist named Otto Lidenbrock discovers a sixteenth-century runic manuscript by a famous alchemist that brags about a journey into the Earth. Our narrator is Lidenbrock’s young nephew Axel, who is in love with Lidenbrock’s goddaughter Grauben and doesn’t want to do much else other than marry her. Bullied by the monomaniacal professor, Axel manages to decode the scroll, and then Lidenbrock drags him off to Iceland to descend into the Earth’s interior through a crater. They also pick up a stoical Icelandic hunter named Hans as their muscle.

Within the Earth, they go through a series of misadventures: bouts with thirst, epic climbing, giant mushroom forests, massive underground bodies of water, mastodon herds and giant men. There’s also a fair amount of geology lecturing as they view the Earth’s strata during their descent. The science is obviously out of date – I’d give a pass to Lidenbrock’s theory that the center of the Earth is cool because the whole conceit rather depends on it, but other ideas, like a warmer outer space, jump out as pretty flawed even in the context of the time (there’s even a bit of racist phrenology). Still, overall it’s a fun way to learn about concepts and spotlight a relatively new science.

The characters are probably the best part of the novel. Not that they’re nuanced explorations of human psychology in any way; actually they’re quite the opposite, but they’re damned entertaining. Lidenbrock is an excellent early example of the eccentric scientist (in nineteenth-century literature, he fits the mold a lot better than Shelley's Frankenstein); I know that Doc Brown from Back to the Future has a lot of Lidenbrock in him. He’s excitable, obsessed, impatient, focused on his theories over anything else, but capable of some compassion and love for his wards Axel and Grauben. Hans is basically Brock from the Venture Brothers, and Axel’s reluctance to go on the adventure and efforts to get out of it make him relatable and funny.

The plot does lack structure though, especially in the second half. The characters get underground, encounter some weird stuff, then Verne seems to lose interest and quickly wrap things up. Maybe this is a product of serialization? The novel doesn’t quite fulfill its potential in this rushed ending. However, it does nicely embody the values of science fiction: take the wisdom of the day and put a twist on it to tell an entertaining or enlightening story. The focus is on “entertaining” with Verne, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

1949 – THE HUMANOIDS by Jack Williamson

In the 1943 story “With Folded Hands,” Jack Williamson first created the humanoids, sleek black robots whose “Prime Directive” is “to Serve and Obey, and guard men from harm” (it would’ve been great if this bit of gendered language had saved women from humanoid intervention, but that’s asking a lot from a 1940s story).  As the story unfolds, we see that the robots take their Directive a little too seriously, and they create a totalitarian state which carefully monitors everyone’s behavior and drugs or lobotomizes people who refuse to properly avoid potential harm. It’s a dark take on the trade-offs between security and freedom, and a relatively early take (maybe the first?) on what has become a well-worn technophobic trope. “With Folded Hands” may be Williamson’s signature work – it’s probably his most anthologized.

Rather than an expansion or reimagining of the novella, Williamson revisited the concept with a full-on novel-length sequel, The Humanoids, serialized in three parts in John Campbell’s Astounding in 1949. In the process he adds lots of new concepts and themes and comes up with a work that rapidly flits between ideas and never really finds a center.

We learn that the Humanoids were created over ten thousand years in the future, after humanity has spread across the stars and created scores of different planetary cultures (this background isn’t very apparent in the original story, though in both we do learn that the robots were created after a devastating war on the planet Wing IV). The planet Starmont is in a sort of cold war with the totalitarian Triplanet Powers. In his finest speculative moment, Williamson comments on the burgeoning Cold War by warning that “threatened with the inevitable fruit of its own exported know-how, the democratic republic was already sacrificing democracy as it armed itself desperately.” The technology in question is rhodomagnetics, which is like magnetism, but works on interstellar distances and allows Williamson to break Einsteinian laws of physics whenever necessary.

Our protagonist is Dr. Clay Forester*, the world’s foremost expert on rhodomagnetics. At the beginning of the novel, a group of powerful psychics, including a young girl who can teleport vast distances named Jane Carter, contact Forester and warn him that the humanoids are coming. Forester is skeptical of psychic phenomena and wary that these strangers know so much of his research. When the humanoids do land, Forester does little; they are around to help after all, and they promise to remove the threat of the Triplanet Alliance. Then, they begin forbidding science (which could be used to make weapons) and drugging people who are hostile or depressed, including Forester’s neglected wife. Forester’s only hope to defeat the humanoids is to turn to the team of psychics and attempt to unlock the powers within his own mind.

*Yes, for the entire novel I imagined him looking like this:

Yep, it’s psychics versus robots! And it gets weirder from there. I’m not sure if it’s just the everything-including-the-kitchen-sink nature of Golden Age sf (John Campbell’s fingerprints are all over this story – he was a big fan of “unleashing the psychic powers of the human mind” stories), or maybe it’s a case of a serialized story going off the tracks due to lack of planning, but this is a real mess. The pacing is bizarre, as Williamson zips by the key moments (like the humanoid takeover of Starmont society); characters disappear (the entire psychic team mostly fades away after an elaborate introduction – wherefore art thou, Graystone the Great?); and plotlines are foreshadowed without paying off (there are lots of hints about the mysterious origin of Forester’s friend Ironsmith, but he’s really just a robot-loving, wife-stealing jerk). The ending is also a bit of a mess – there’s some intentional ambiguity, but there also seems to be some confusion about the political message.

However, despite this messiness, I really enjoyed this book. It juggles interesting concepts and has some big sf set-piece moments. Overall, the book has a real “anything goes” Big Idea attitude that is both its greatest virtue and failure.

Grade: B+  

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

1917 – A PRINCESS OF MARS by Edgar Rice Burroughs

I don’t think these novels were even in print when I started this blog, but, thanks to Disney’s film adaptation (opening this Friday, though I probably won't manage to see it), this book is probably firmly reinstated in even the most mainstream and shallow versions of the science fiction canon. It’ll probably make the next NPR top 100 science fiction and fantasy novels, after missing the last version.

Not that its place in the canon was ever really in question. Started around the same time as his even-more-famous Tarzan novels, Burroughs' chronicles of John Carter’s adventures on Mars have had a long-lasting influence on the genre as a whole, and especially on the pulps, which is really where American science fiction begins (with a couple of notable exceptions). A whole subgenre of “planetary romance” owes its existence to Burroughs' works as well, and homages abound (one won a Hugo for novelette last year).

John Carter was a Confederate soldier in the Civil War (and he reminds us of his Virginia roots quite often). At the end of the war, he wanders into the Arizona desert, gets chased by some Apache, and ends up in a strange cave that teleports him to Mars. On Mars, he meets a variety of new peoples, including giant four-armed and betusked “green martians” and a bunch of humanoids with exotic skin colors (especially the beautiful “red martian” princess Dejah Thoris from the city of Helium). Carter, because of differences in gravity between Earth and Mars, and because he’s an all-American badass, can jump extremely high and pound multiple opponents into submission. He becomes a hero and a leader, and eventually he’s overthrowing savage warlords and leading Martian armies.

It’s fairly fun stuff, though there are plenty of problems. The book’s morality is based on western and male chauvinism. Dejah Thoris is a damsel in distress, seduced by Carter’s ability to brutally murder the alien culture that’s imprisoned her. All of the Martian cultures are inferior to Carter’s American values, and there’s even some racist material tossed at Indians in the beginning for good measure. A lot of this is to be expected from this timeframe, but it did seem a bit egregious to me. The prose is turgid and awkward. Burroughs isn’t adverb-happy like Lovecraft, but he does like the passive voice and run-on sentences.

Where Burroughs really shines is in his originality. He merges the detail-oriented world-building of contemporary fantasy writers with a few of the scientific details of Verne. As he reveals the details of the moss-covered, dying red planet (including a giant atmosphere machine that runs on the “ninth ray"), the uniqueness of this setting begins to emerge, and the lasting appeal along with it.

Pulps don’t age well. I don’t know if it’s the audience they’re trying to appeal to, the speed with which they were produced, or the differential aging process of genre work. Nevertheless, the escapist fun and the lasting influence of this work made it a worthwhile read as we approach the hundrenth anniversary of publication.

Grade: B

Monday, March 5, 2012

Political Bloggers Argue about Star Wars

I don't know how much overlap there is between people who have lots of sf review blogs on their feed and people who have lots of wonky political science blogs on their feed. In case, as I suspect, there aren't many out there besides me, I bring you the great political journalist/scientist Star Wars debate of 2012:

Kevin Drum kicks things off by making a solid case that Return of the Jedi is not only not-horrible but actually the greatest of Star Wars films.

Professor Seth Masket overreacts and makes the mad claim that Revenge of the Sith is better than that Ewok trash.

Professor Daniel Drezner plays the voice of reason and reminds us all that Empire is the best, but there's no way a prequel film is better than an original trilogy entry.

Professor Jonathan Bernstein pipes in briefly (point #5) to argue that the original Star Wars is the best.

I'm with Drezner, though I am a big Jedi apologist.

And, while I'm at it, the recent and immensely popular Machete order for watching the films for the first time. There are some good arguments in here, and if you read my prequel review you know that I generally agree, but I don't see the point in watching II and III at all unless you want to see what else is out there and get the "full story" which case, you might as well inflict Episode I upon yourself as well.

Much as I complain, I'll probably watch all 6 again when the kid old enough.

I'll have a real review up at some point this week (maybe even this afternoon).

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Hugo Nomination Speculation Time: Fiction

As usual, I haven't really checked out any short fiction. If I had more time, I could have dived into the Nebula list and gotten a sense of what's out there, but I didn't. I hope Rachel Swirsky gets nominated again, because she had the finest Hugo entry last year and a strong one the year before. Otherwise, Ken Liu seems to be the name to watch for.

I should mention that I also read a book that would fit nicely into the "Other Works" category: Grant Morrison's paean to superhero comic books, Supergods. Morrison is an imaginative writer of comic books like the X-Men, Batman, and Superman, alongside some weirder stuff (I'd suggest Seaguy as a good introduction to the oddball brilliance of his work). It was a fun read, with a good account of the rise of the genre and its redeeming qualities (it really does have some!), but all of that is intermingled with an off-putting autobiography that veers between self-congratulation (Morrison is certainly innovative, and he just can't stop reminding you about it) and painfully sincere psychedelia (higher beings revealed the nature of the universe to Morrison in the '90s. No really, they did). Anyway, I might nominate it anyway, for the good parts.

The main event - Novels!

I've actually read some this year, though Lev Grossman's The Magician Kings is the only one I feel strongly about nominating.

Mieville's Embassytown is an ambitious book that gives off a strong '60s New Wave vibe. It has to be the early favorite. I didn't love it, but I can't fault his ambition (don't I say that about all Mieville books?), and it's nice to see a hot young fantasy writer take at a stab at an older sf genre like space opera. Ernest Cline's first novel Ready Player One also seems to have a lot of support; it's a fun '80s nostalgia fest...and that's about it. It seems to have a struck a nerve with a lot of sf readers though.

I'm reading James Corey's Leviathan Wakes now. It has a nice, classic feel, and it's a very competent action story - maybe that sounds like faint praise, but I don't mean it to. I do mean, however, that it's probably lacking the sense of "importance" that I think many Hugo voters look for. I haven't decided my own take yet, but I will complain that this is unfair if Ready Player One gets nominated instead. I'm also reading A Dance with Dragons, but I've put that one down a few times. It's not bad, but it does feel like some momentum's been lost.

Reamde was my disappointment of the year. I love Stephenson; I really did not like this book. The first third had some nice Stephenson digressions about "how the world works," which were then neatly applied to world-building in a fictional MMORPG. Then the book bogs down in an interminable action scene that seems like it will never end. Then there's a brief break, and AN EVEN LONGER action scene. This final two-thirds of the book is lacking Stephenson's trademark speculative digressions (my favorite part of a Stephenson book), but full of his trademark macho b.s. (not my favorite part of a Stephenson book). It's not really speculative in any way, so I don't expect to see it on the short list.

Jo Walton's Among Others is next on my reading list, and I hear a lot of good things. I imagine Genevieve Valentine's Mechanique is a contender. I wouldn't mind seeing Ian Mcdonald's YA Planesrunner, which sounds fun.

I can't figure out if Hanna Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief is eligible this year...and that alone is probably a strike against it getting nominated. Okay, google.... and it is! But, really, most people read this one a long time ago.

And then, there's a host of sequels to nominated works. Mira Grant's zombies vs. bloggers story continued in Deadline. The second AND third volumes rounded out N. K. Jemisin's Inheritance Trilogy. Sawyer's www trilogy ended, though people don't seem to be talking about it. And, Vernor Vinge released a sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep called Children of the Sky.

If I had to guess, I'd go with a nominee list of (in order of certainty):

Ready Player One

Among Others

Kingdom of the Gods

Children of the Sky
Leviathan Wakes

I wouldn't be unhappy with this list. But, I'm likely wrong on half, and, of course, there will probably be a book I've never heard of on there.