Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Not Too Distant Future is Now

One of my earlier nerdy obsessions was Mystery Science Theater 3000 where they took some pretty awful old movies and added their own joking commentary over it. The series ran for ten seasons and covered the worst of the worst but due to movie rights and length of episodes it wasn't easy to maintain reruns or fit it into a schedule. Even a reprieve by switching networks couldn't overcome the difficulty of the format so despite its popularity you won't find it in reruns and even the DVD releases are sporatic and based mainly on which movies they can get the rights to distribute.

A year ago Mike Nelson, the head writer and star of half of the episodes, revived the format through Rifftrax. He produced commentary tracks for movies which the viewer could run concurrently with their own movie. Without the restrictions of movie rights he was free to use any movie he wanted: Battlefield Earth, Daredevil, and the entire Star Wars prequel trilogy have been subjects. He's even wrangled much of the cast of the show to join him at various points. Rifftrax lacks the characters that Mystery Science Theater had but it does have the humor and the guys are just as sharp as ever.

You do have to get the movie DVD and purchase the Rifftrax separately and it does require that you have some method for playing MP3's in the same room as your television. The first time you do it getting it right can be tricky though as you view more it does get easier. I think the effort is worth it and they have done many popular films that are likely to be in the average person's collection to get people interested (The Fellowship of the Ring, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and this week's release of Spider-Man).

So what have they done? Let me hit the high points:

Roadhouse - The start for Rifftrax was a movie that Nelson had waited a long, long time to do and the quality shines through. He must have had years of jokes stored up for this. My personal favorite is his hilariously recap over the end credits of what each cast member's life was like after the movie.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier - William Shatner's directing debut was infamous for being the worst Star Trek could get. These days the last few movies give it a good fight for that title, but a chain of Star Trek venting started with it and Mike Nelson welcomed Kevin Murphy (the voice of Tom Servo) and Murphy goes on to be the most common riffing partner.

Star Wars: Episode 1: The Phantom Menace - If you, like all right thinking people, hated Star Wars prequels then your ship has come in. All three of the prequels have been done and at this moment you can even get all three at the same time for a slight discount.

Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring - This was my first and I love it to death but I can't recommend it as the first Rifftrax to listen to. Because of the movie length the recording is split in half and it is difficult to synchronize. Also you must have the theatrical release of the movie, not the extended edition and that confusion has led to a bad experience for many first timers. Try something else first.

Troll 2 - If you're an old Mystery Science Theater fan looking for much of the same experience then this is the Rifftrax for you. Troll 2 is put forward by many people as the worst movie ever made; I've seen many worse but it is a stinker of epic proportions. This is the kind of movie that could have easily been on the old show and it's treated just as well with Rifftrax.

The Wicker Man - I'm only bringing up this Rifftrax of the Nicholas Cage remake of one of the greatest horror films of all time to both recommend it since it is particularly awful and beg you to watch the original before you see this. You owe it to yourself to see the original one with no knowledge going in and your rage about the Cage version will help you enjoy the Rifftrax even more.

Lost: Pilot Episode - The format has even been expanded to include the first few episodes of television series. So far only Lost, Grey's Anatomy, and Heroes have been done. Personally I don't like these as much since I like to own the DVD's for the source material for the Rifftrax and television shows makes that a bit expensive.

Glitter - It's not all rubber monster and laser battles. This movie is 22 on the IMDB's bottom 100 list and earned its spot (it has been lower... higher... well let's just say closer to the bottom in the past). Stretching the format a bit really worked and you can't go wrong making fun of people with dead singing careers.

300 - This Rifftrax was available on the same day as the DVD release so now movies can be riffed of day and date with their release rather than thirty years on like on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Isn't progress grand?

Friday, October 12, 2007

Blasphemy or Faithful?

There are stages that nerds go through when a film adaptation of something they love is announced.

It begins with the glee. All it takes is rumors of a script being shopped around to send some people running to their favorite website to shout "They're making a ________ movie!!" (Inevitably they feel the need to use multiple exclamation points.) Rumors fly that some nerd favored director or actor is attached, IMDB entries are added, and fan sites are set up before anything is even known. Then 98% of these vanish without a trace since someone is always looking to make a movie with a built in fan base but that's a long, long way from actually making a movie.

Once a movie is actually being made the attitude changes. The realities of film making are settling in on the nerd dreams. The director is either a hack who has made some big but not particularly good movies or some nobody who's getting their first directing job having moved up from doing special effects. Whispers of things being changed are coming out of the set. And god forbid that the star doesn't look exactly like their favored depiction of the main character. There's grumbling now, fragmented statements of people declaring how much the film will suck and those demanding that regardless of how black the news that judgment should be withheld until the final result is released.

Then the big day arrives and there are inevitably two reactions. The best any adaptation can hope for from the fans of the original is a grudging acceptance. Some may say, "They changed some stuff but it isn't bad," but there's always a core that declares the changes as blasphemy of the highest order.

Personally I'm well aware of the complications involved in adapting something for another medium and make an effort to judge the final result on its own merits, but where's the fun in that? The question for any adaptation is "Blasphemy or faithful?"

Since comic book adaptations are popular these days I'm going to be looking at those more than any other. I mean who can complain that Transformers isn't faithful to a toy line that was built out of a random collection of licensed Japanese toy lines? (Please don't point them out to me; I'm sure they exist somewhere...)

Frank Miller's comic book about the Spartan's famous last stand at Thermopyle was turned into one of the most over quoted movies of 2007. I'm not going to use that line. You're welcome.

Pro: The art design looked almost identical to Frank Miller's original artwork at many points. The script used much of the same dialog (though a lot of that was borrowed from other sources too; I noticed Herodotus didn't get a credit).
Con: The subplot for the politics in Sparta isn't in the original and it added nothing to the movie. Spartans in the movie wore about twice as much clothes as they did in the comic (and I'll leave that mental image for you).
Result: Faithful. In fact it's about as faithful as you could possibly hope to get in a comic book adaptation.

House of the Dead
Uwe Boll, infamous as the worst living director, created this movie based on the Sega video games where the player shoots zombies.

Pro: There are zombies, they get shot. Was there anything else to do in an adaptation? Oh, and instead of actually making a movie they used in game footage for an extended period.
Con: Directed by Uwe Boll.
Result: Blasphemy, but one against god, nature, humanity, and film making rather than just against the game it was based on. With source material that thin it's hard to be anything other than faithful to it.

Bruce Timm compressed a full year's worth of four comic books regarding the death and return of Superman to one 80 minute movie.

Pro: The Doomsday half has a lot of Superman and Doomsday punching each other. Everyone thinks Superman dies, but he gets better. He comes back to life with a bad haircut and wearing a black suit. Superman has been enjoying a sexual relationship with Lois Lane without actually telling her anything about himself which makes him a bit of a dick.
Con: There's a... well it's not a homoerotic "subtext" if they come out and say it. Lex Luthor has a certain attraction for Superman in the movie (presumably something for Smallville fans). Everything after the death, which is about two thirds of the movie, is completely different. Superman's method for dealing with the villain at the end is extremely un-Superman like (dancing around spoilers there).
Result: Blasphemy, but well animated blasphemy.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Philosophy in Action!

If you're like me then you might say to yourself, "Self, I want to learn about a wide variety of schools of thoughts but I don't want to get a college degree that's only useful for being snooty to book store patrons." You could read lots of philosophy books but who wants to read three hundred pages of arguments only to decide that it was pointless, and the Wikipedia articles are constantly being defaced by rival thinkers and can't be trusted (Immanuel Kant did not kill Alexander Hamilton in a duel, for example). There are shorter books that cover a wide range of subjects but they're just not funny. The solution to all of this is Action Philosophers!

Over the course of nine issues Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey painted the broad strokes of the philosophies of over thirty of the world's great thinkers and they gave each of them a humorous twist:

The issues are available in three collections with the third is due out next month. There are four sample stories on the Action Philospher's website (one and a third issue's worth!) and even if you're familiar with most of the subjects it's worth checking out.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Review - They'd Rather Be Right

They'd Rather Be Right
by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley
1955 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

So the first Hugo award went to one of the all-time classics of science fiction. So naturally it was followed up by a book that is widely considered to be the worst novel to ever win the prize.

They'd Rather Be Right isn't my pick for the worst; I have a hard time picking a single book as the worst. It is in the list of books that I can't even conceive of why people voted for them. It has been out of print for years and new printings are particularly sporadic mainly because the novel is only notable for the Hugo award.

In They'd Rather Be Right Joe Carter is a psychic who is on the run from the law with two college professors. Together they created a computer that...

I'm finding it difficult to go on because it is so incredibly stupid. The big problem with They'd Rather Be Right mainly comes down to philosophy. It combines two rather disliked schools of thought that were forming in the early fifties with a bit of Nietzsche to make for one rather disturbing whole. The fundimental premise is that Scientology and objectivism will turn you into an immortal, psychic Nietzschian Übermench.


Okay, it wasn't "Scientology" at that point so I guess it was "Dianetics and objectivism will turn you into an immortal, psychic Nietzschian Übermench," but the principle is the same.

The computer they made was programmed with only objectively provable facts. I'm going to be generous to the plot and take "computer" in this context to mean more of an "electronic brain" than a calculating device. So this computer, nicknamed Bossy for its resemblance to a cow's head, has only facts and the establishment is scared of it and are chasing our heroes because of those fears. Apparently having only objectively provable facts means that it makes perfect moral judgments.


Personally I'd be terrified of that too if a bunch of people said that such a thing would completely replace all decision making because it was perfect. Not so much that I'd want to hunt down and kill the people who made it but that's the world we're dealing with in They'd Rather Be Right.

So our heroes are in hiding and Joe decides to test an idea he's had on the elderly ex-prostitute they're staying with. By hooking her up to Bossy the computer is able to remove her subjective viewpoints and the book presents this as a good thing.


She becomes young again and gains psychic powers as well as a self-righteous attitude. She decides that societal nudity taboos have no purpose and so goes wandering off without her clothes on. When she is promptly arrested the fact that Bossy can grant immortality gets out out and everyone wants to use it regardless of the fact that it scrambles your brain. It doesn't work on the bad hearted people, though, because they want to hold on to their ideals. They'd rather be right (hence the title).

Subscribing particular attitudes to authors based on their writing can be a fool's game. Try to put every idea Heinlein advanced in his novels together and you'd swear he had multiple personalities. Still, the characterization in the novel makes me believe that the philosophy presented in the novel is something close to what the authors actually believed. There is no consideration of other viewpoints on the hero's part, no discussion of alternatives. They're the shining beacons of righteousness while their enemies perform very petty evils. The whole result reads like Left Behind for Randian Scientoligists. (Are there such people these days? Maybe that's the reason why the book doesn't stay in print.)

I can't recommend They'd Rather Be Right for the quality of the writing or the ideas; both are among the worst I've encountered in science fiction (most licensed novels have worse writing but it's a near thing). Unless you want to check out the bottom of the barrel or read all of the Hugo winning novels stay away.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

A Mind Game

I started thinking about depictions of telepathy in other mediums and I quickly came to the conclusion that no one comes even close to Bester's work in The Demolished Man. The vast majority of depictions of telepathy are effectively just voice overs; just overheard lines of dialog.

There was one recent example of taking telepathy to a more visual form in the video game Psychonauts. The player is a child at a summer camp for psychics who has to unravel a plot to steal the brains of his fellow campers by wandering the inner landscapes of people's minds. Each level is built around a visual style that reflects its owner's thoughts and chalk drawings of aspects of their psyche clutter the landscape to be collected. It's not the first time that this technique has been used but it works really well in this game.

Here's a shot of the inside of a paranoid mind used in the game:

It's fractured, running in every direction. Small pieces look like a normal suburbia but there's sinister undertones behind it. Other minds may feature a wargame between two sides of a split personality or a rampaging giant monster. The art direction really brings the concept to life and every mind is distinctive.

The game was not popular but it has gained a bit of a cult following. You can still find copies around for your XBox or Playstation 2 and it's well worth playing.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Review - The Demolished Man

The Demolished Man
by Alfred Bester
1953 Hugo Award for Best Novel

When the Worldcon voters started handing out Hugos they didn't kid around. They kicked off the Hugo awards with one of the greatest science fiction novels ever published.

The Demolished Man starts from a simple idea that wasn't rare even when it was first written: a world where telepathy exists. Ben Reich is a businessman who wants to get away with murder but the police have access to telepathy. Lincoln Powell is a telepath and a cop who is convinced that Reich is a murderer but needs to prove it. The heart of this book is the duel of wits; initially Reich plotting against society in general but the forces he was plotting against becomes personified through Powell.

This would have been a strong story in itself but Bester spends a lot of time in The Demolished Man with an examination of the telepathic society. When telepaths come together their thoughts run together which is represented by a kind of poetry with the words of their thoughts structured into patterns on the page. The thoughts run in threads that are interwoven and it conveys the telepathic viewpoint better than nearly any story I've ever read.

This style The other of text impressive allows part of the book is how to get into to fool the esper's telepaths. heads.

That's a rather simple example of the style of telepathic thoughts Bester uses. One of the better moments early on in the book is a party for telepaths where complex patterns of thoughts are formed out of many different viewpoints (it won't reproduce well for Blogger, unfortunately).

In addition to the unique viewpoint Bester really thought through the societal impacts of telepathy. Lincoln Powell may be a mind reader but he's not omnipotent. He can use his telepathy to guide him but what he gets from telepathy is not admissible as evidence due to problems of self-incrimination and hearsay. Telepaths are regimented and segregated away from normal people who are natually uneasy around them.

One of the more ingenious methods to avoid telepathic evesdropping that Reich uses (and has been copied many times since) is a song he can't get out of the head. Bester puts the ditty in the novel and it can be nearly effective on the reader as it is on Reich. At least we don't have music to make it stick even longer with us.
Eight, sir; seven sir; Six, sir; five, sir; Four, sir; three, sir; Two sir; one! Tenser, said the Tensor. Tenser, said the Tensor. Tension, apprehension, And dissension have begun.
Perhaps the worst thing that I can say about this novel is that it was so influential that it has been copied repeatedly and lost its impact. The most notable borrowing of Bester's concepts is the television series Babylon 5 where much of the structure of telepath society is very similar to Bester's work, a fact acknowledged by naming the show's reoccurring telepathic police officer after the author. The climax of the novel in particular has practically become a mainstay of science fiction though I can't recall another example of it being done from the same perspective.

If you're a fan of science fiction then this is a book you should read. The concepts used are just as strong today as they were fifty years ago and Bester paints some very strong characters at the center of his story.

The Hugo Award Winning Novels

My journey through these books began early this year when I came across a hardbound copy of the first Hugo award winning novel, Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, in a used book store. It occurred to me as I bought it that I had only read a handful of the winners (fifteen of the roughly fifty) and many of the award winners were on my list of books I had been intending to read. And so started a very lengthy journey to collect each of them in hard cover and read them all.

The Hugo awards are voted on yearly by the members of Worldcon, a traveling science fiction convention that is hosted by other science fiction conventions (the next to be held at Denvention on August 6 - 10, 2008). Along with the Nebula award which is handed out of the Science Fiction Writer's Association the Hugo is considered to be the most prestigious award for science fiction. While the award is not always the best book of the year or even the most memorable it does a fine job of conveying what the fans though was the best at that moment in time.

While I'm going to be concentrating on the novels there are also currently categories for novella, novelette, short story, long form dramatic presentation (mainly for movies), short form dramatic presentation (usually for television shows), and more. I'll be reviewing each of these novels in turn so the following list is a convenient guide to what I'm going to do as well as a handy chart for anyone else who wants to attempt this.

So without further ado, the list:

1953 - The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
1955 - They'd Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley
1956 - Double Star by Robert Heinlein
1958 - The Big Time by Fritz Leiber
1959 - A Case of Conscience by James Blish
1960 - Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein
1961 - A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
1962 - Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein
1963 - The Man in High Castle by Phillip K. Dick
1964 - Way Station by Clifford Simak
1965 - The Wanderer by Fritz Leiber
1966 - ...And Call Me Conrad by Roger Zelazny (tie)
1966 - Dune by Frank Herber (tie)
1967 - The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein
1968 - Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny
1969 - Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
1970 - The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursala K. Le Guin
1971 - Ringworld by Larry Niven
1972 - To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Phillip Jose Farmer
1973 - The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov
1974 - Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
1975 - The Dispossessed by Ursala K. Le Guin
1976 - The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
1977 - Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm
1978 - Gateway by Frederik Pohl
1979 - Dreamsnake by Vonda McIntyre
1980 - The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke
1981 - The Snow Queen by Joan Vinge
1982 - Downbelow Station by C. J. Cherryh
1983 - Foundation's Edge by Isaac Asimov
1984 - Startide Rising by David Brin
1985 - Neuromancer by William Gibson
1986 - Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
1987 - Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card
1988 - The Uplift War by David Brin
1989 - Cyteen by C. J. Cherryh
1990 - Hyperion by Dan Simmons
1991 - The Vor Game by Lois McMaster Bujold
1992 - Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold
1993 - Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (tie)
1993 - A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernon Vinge
1994 - Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
1995 - Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold
1996 - The Diamond Age by Neil Stephenson
1997 - Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
1998 - Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman
1999 - To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
2000 - A Deepness in the Sky by Vernon Vinge
2001 - Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling
2002 - American Gods by Neil Gaiman
2003 - Hominids by Robert J. Sawyer
2004 - Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold
2005 - Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norell by Susanna Clarke
2006 - Spin by Robert Charles Wilson
2007 - Rainbow's End by Vernon Vinge

Some of you may notice that there are some missing years at the beginning of the list. Worldcon skipped giving out an award in 1954 and did not hand out an award for any fiction in 1957. An effort was made a few years ago to fill in these gaps and awards were given for 1946, 1951, and 1954 but since they were awarded with fifty years of hindsight these "retro-Hugos" are not usually considered to be canonical winners. For novels they are:

1946 - The Mule by Isaac Asimov
1951 -
Farmer in the Sky by Robert Heinlein
1954 - Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

The Obligatory Introduction and Why I'm Doing This

I am a colossal nerd who's attention has touched on just about every single nerdy topic imaginable. My comic book collection is sitting below a rather hefty board game collection which is a few feet away from my computer game collection which is next to my game miniatures which are intermingled with an assortment of action figures some of which are over a refrigerator's worth of DVD's that are beside a hefty set of science fiction and fantasy novels across from a case of role-playing games that are near to a set of nearly a dozen video game consoles. Obviously I'm a collector of many things so this blog is going to be a bit eclectic.

At the moment I'm approaching the end of one of my major nerdy projects: collecting and reading every single Hugo award winning science fiction novel. I have been reading them in the order that they won and it has occurred to me that I have quite a bit to say about these winners but no one to really say them to. A century ago someone who had a lot to say but no one to say it to was limited to shouting from street corners but thanks to technological advances we now possess blogs to fill this cultural niche.

Initially my plan is to review these books and see where this takes me. At the very least I'll get the need to shout from the street corner out of my system.