Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Two Doctors

I've been a Dr. Who fan for a long time and I can't get enough of the current revival. It's been fun and carried the spirit of the original series very well. For a special treat BBC showed this for its Children In Need marathon:

Nothing like a crossover between a classic series and its modern descendant to make any nerd happy.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Thank you, Dr. Asimov

I finally started looking into what it would take to collect the short stories, novellas, and novelettes that have won the Hugo award since I can't stand having a collection that feels so incomplete. And so I said to myself "In for a penny, in for a pound," and specifically checked for the Hugo winning short fiction in hardbound collections. I was aware that Isaac Asimov "edited" a few collections of winners since I have two paperbacks of these anthologies in my collection (in this case I suspect that there wasn't much editing to do and Asimov acted more as a red tape cutter through his reputation). What I wasn't aware of is how many collections he made and the fact there had been hardcover editions of most of them.

Starting from the beginning, his The Hugo Winners Volume 1 and 2 (yes, that's one title) were released as paperbacks for ten years before they were collected into an omnibus by the Science Fiction Book Club. Starting with volume three which contained winners up to 1975 this changed. The hardcover was available at the same time as two paperbacks which broke the anthology in half. Volumes 4 and 5 were only released in hardbound editions and took the series up to the winners in 1982. At this point the title of the series changes to The New Hugo Winners, Asimov picks up Martin Greenfield as co-editor, and Baen starts publishing the collections in paperback. The hardcovers continue through The New Hugo Winners Volume 2 which is the last one Asimov did; volumes 3 and 4 end the series with only paperback releases.

So thanks to the efforts of Isaac Asimov every single letter of Hugo winning fiction from its founding through 1988 has been available in a hardbound edition with the sole exception of "...And Call Me Conrad". The two paperback volumes make sure that the fiction up to 1994 is easily available. Until 1997 the short fiction winners can all be found in two anthologies not related the Hugo awards (The Year's Best Science Fiction series is another handy collection but not one I'm looking into getting... yet). In 1997 both George R. R. Martin and Connie Willis decided to be cruel and have their winner collected in anthologies that are much less available (I'm in trouble when the only copies that I can find on the Internet are autographed; this happened with one of Bujold's winning novels as well). Finally in 1998 you'll find the first short fiction winner to never be collected at all: Alan Steele's "...Where Angels Fear to Tread".

For the sake of collecting all of the winners I ordered the first six hardbound volumes. The total base cost on getting these six volumes was just under $14, though there was an additional $20 in shipping since I had trouble locating decent copies from a single source (so many used book dealers had one volume in good shape and another sounding like it had been hit by a truck). That's thirty solid years of history there for $35 dollars and you can't beat that with a stick. The Nebula anthologies and The Year's Best... anthologies will have to pick up much of the slack to finish off this collection but ten years worth of winners to collect is a much less daunting idea than fifty. It leaves me with most of the related non-fiction winners and about half of the dramatic presentation left in order to have a full set of winners. And I have Isaac Asimov to thank for making this so easy.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Review - This Immortal

This Immortal
by Roger Zelazny

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that 1966 is the single most complicated year in Hugo history. Besides being the first tie there's a lot of oddities surrounding the awards that year (and consequently 1967 as well). Let me spell out the nominees in 1966 for you:

Dune by Frank Herbert (winner)
"...And Call Me Conrad" by Roger Zelazny (winner)
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein
The Squares of the City by John Brunner
Skylark DuQuesne by Doc E. E. Smith

You might spot three things wrong with this list. First, Dune has already been nominated in 1964 as "Dune World" when it was originally published. It was on the ballot because the novella and additional material which was published the following year had been collected into one volume. If you think it isn't fair that Dune got two shots at the prize you'll note that The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress lost in 1966 but was on the ballot again in 1967 when it won. The final, and perhaps most obvious for this review, is that the award winner is not This Immortal which I'm reviewing but is instead "...And Call Me Conrad".

"...And Call Me Conrad" has the unique distinction of being the only best novel Hugo winner never published as a book. The original Roger Zelazny story was published in the 1965 October and November issues of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (the year is not a discrepancy; Hugo nominees are selected from material published the previous year) and has never been printed anywhere else. After winning Zelazny increased the size of the novella by a third so it could be published alone but changed the title to This Immortal which is the only version you will find available. So This Immortal is built on the novella that won the Hugo but it is not the actual Hugo winning work.

1966 was the last year where this could happen since starting next year more categories for short fiction were introduced including novellas. Thanks to the efforts of Isaac Asimov none of those works including the novellas are that difficult to obtain; after "...And Call Me Conrad" you have to go to 1995 before reaching a Hugo winning work that has not been collected at least once (more on that tomorrow).

So that's the background, let's get to the book.

My favorite Roger Zelazny book is the one with the immortal, sardonic first-person narrator who sweats machismo and goes on an adventure. The best part is when he starts fighting with the guy who's kind of like him but the fight gets interrupted and then they work out their differences over a snappy conversation.

Zelazny wrote those plot elements very well but he did wear that rut fairly deeply into the ground. This Immortal was his first long work and it was done while this was still fresh. It's not the best time that he wrote this book (we'll get to that in a few weeks) but it is still a fine example of it.

The immortal in This Immortal is a mutant born on an earth after a nuclear war. Shortly after the war broke out an alien species swept in to save humanity from itself and now the Earth is almost completely depopulated. A few million humans remain and the planet has become a tourist resort for the aliens. The remaining humans bristle under the alien guardianship while expatriotated humans wish to leave the Earth behind forever. Our immortal first-person narrator Conrad is the guardian of Earth's cultural ruins and he is given the unwelcome task of giving a guided tour of them to an alien VIP who has great influence over the final fate of the planet.

Curiously the narrative thread of the novel stalls out quickly. There's a quick visit to Egypt with the hint of a conspiracy before the whole thing moves to Greece where the tours of Earth's ruins just seems to be forgotten. Once in Greece the focus shifts to the Greek myths being reborn as a result of the nuclear war. Satyrs roam the hills, worse things dwell in the dark forests, and Conrad might as well be a Greek demigod. It's an interesting idea but I don't think Zelazny pushes far enough with this idea. On the other hand, given his preference for certain themes it's probably for the best that he didn't rerun this too deeply as well; Zelazny may have studied mythology but with one exception I don't think it meshes well with his beat-poet writing style.

One odd thing that struck me in This Immortal is that Conrad doesn't hide the fact that he's immortal. He's been doing his job for decades without aging at the start of the novel and while he's older than most people realize they do know that he doesn't age. It's quite a difference from the traditional science fiction immortal who are paranoid about revealing their unaging status.

Something that may drive away some readers from This Immortal is the fact that a major character is a semi-reformed terrorist. Not just a vandal but an actual "Let's blow up a cafe full of civilians!" terrorist. When those methods didn't instigate changes this character switched to more peaceful tactics. Zelazny does do some examination of what is needed to drive political change through this but current readers may find it distasteful.

Zelazny strikes me as a kind of science fiction Hemingway; his stories are packed with macho men working in that kind of manly code of honor that only exists in fiction. They might be fighting to death one minute but once they've sat down and had a few drinks together they gain a mutual respect. They're supermen but it's their wits that usually carry the day rather than how they fight (though that inevitably comes in handy as well). He also carries off these macho themes with style and prose that prevented his works from sinking into a self-parody. He had a gift for dialog rarely seen in science fiction even if he stuck to only writing the same handful of characters.

If you like Roger Zelazny at all then I'd have to say that This Immortal is worth reading. It's a slight work but it is entertaining. On the other hand if you have not encountered Zelazny's style before then this isn't the place to start; the rough edges are still there and his best work is so similar in theme and style to This Immortal that I think it loses impact as a result.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Reviews - Science Fiction: An Illustrated Encyclopedia and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy

Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia
Edited by John Clute
1996 Hugo Winner for Best Non-Fiction Book

The Encyclopedia of Fantasy
Edited by John Clute and John Grant
1998 Hugo Winner for Best Non-Fiction Book

If we old folks had a question before there was the Internet and Google and Wikipedia then we needed to try to find the answer in books. Now I hear some of you young people shouting, "How is this possible? You can't put in words to search a book?" And that's true but for the more general questions we could look those words up in an encyclopedia (it's like Wikipedia, but with less random editing).

There's actually four encyclopedias that have won the Related Non-Fiction Book Hugo over the years (one French encyclopedia also won an honorary Hugo) and for my first reviews of non-novel winners I thought I'd pick a matched set. It turns out I was wrong. Even though both were compiled in part by John Clute these books couldn't be more different and the result is one that's nice to pick up an have even if it's a little out of date and one would be of dubious value when it was current.

The descriptions I read of Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia had it as a slight reworking of Clute's The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction which won in 1994 only with some illustrations and updates added. Since it was the "updated" version of the Encyclopedia I chose it and I received not an encyclopedia like I thought I was getting but a very nice coffee table book that hits the high points of science fiction up to 1994 when the book was published.

(This is really making me wonder what book the descriptions I was reading was about. It claimed that the text was the same only with occasionally magazine and book covers added in.)

This is a coffee table with all of the benefits and detriments that come with that. The book is lavishly illustrated with huge images of covers, frames from movies and television, and illustrations filling each page. The text is very sparse outside of the author biographies but there are nice touches like the illustrated time lines that bring together science fiction publishing, popular culture, and world history. There is a fairly large listing of short "TV Guide" style reviews of science fiction films as well.

By far the best section of the book are the authors. The biggest names get a full two large pages (the book measures about 10 inches by 11 inches) while the rest get a full page or half page. Everyone has fairly complete bibliographies (some authors being so prolific that this takes up the bulk of their space). A fun touch is that each biography feature's the author's autograph. There's roughly one hundred of these profiles and they occupy over a third of book's space.

The organization and focus leave something to be desired. The book is divided into short chapters for major themes and history. Magazines receive a scant eight pages which are far from encyclopedic. Illustrators in general only get two pages. Since the book only covers "major" authors and titles you may have some trouble finding them and they are divided up by what decade their major works are in. Quick questions: is Vonnegut in the 50's or 60's? Niven in the 60's or 70's? At least there is an index so you can find someone quickly.

Still, even with these shortcomings Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia looks nice and it has a good overview of the entire genre. You can find inexpensive copies so I'd recommend grabbing one; it's a fun addition to a fan's library.

The Encyclopedia of Fantasy I have to judge more harshly. Unlike Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia it actually attempts to be an encyclopedia. It claims that it contains more than 1,000,000 words spread across 4000 entries and it does contain an awful lot of information. Still I found that this massive tome just wasn't that useful.

One factor is its age. In the 13 years since Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia was compiled not an awful lot has happened with science fiction. We've gotten a few more movies and television series along with the usual new authors and releases but there hasn't been a major upheaval. Fantasy on the other hand has exploded. I suspect that a revised edition of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy would have to double in size to cover the last ten years. To use an obvious example, the year after it was compiled an obscure British book called Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was released and absolutely nothing happened. No wait, I have that backward: everything changed. It wasn't J.K. Rowling changing fantasy on her own, of course; the success of Harry Potter and everything that followed was a symptom rather than a cause of the greater interest. The fantasy genre is everywhere now and a lot of the material in The Encyclopedia is hopelessly out date.

There's a real problem with editorial voice in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy also. Sections about authors are often accompanied by judgments on their writing. I am not turning to an encyclopedia for reviews, I'm looking for information. It's one thing to mention that an author has major themes that are controversial, had their stories strongly influenced by another author, or has done the majority of their fantasy in licensed works. It's another to say that they're "disgusting", wrote "a weak copy of" something, or "set their sights low". A very good example of this editorial confusion is the entry on for "goddess" which appears to be an attempt to compromise one author's absolute belief in new age mysticism and another's referencing actual anthropology and archeology. It makes for a very odd entry.

Finally the organization of the encyclopedia makes things very difficult. There are entries for authors, movies, television series, and major fantasy themes but no entries for individual books. If you can remember the title of that book you liked but not the author then you're out of luck. There's also some odd oversights; I noticed comic book illustrators in the entries but when I looked up the most famous one of them all, Jack Kirby, he was missing (yes, Kirby's comic book work is better described as science fiction but he had more than his fair share of fantasy such as his run on Thor). Japanese animation which was booming with fantasy at that point only gets one lump mention as "anime" while a handful of key movies have entries that simply refer back to that anime entry. Children's fantasy outside of written works is almost completely missing. There is also a very heavy UK bent with many UK authors getting space far out of proportion to their importance.

Despite these failings there are good points. The entry on opera covers every major opera with fantastic elements that I can think of and is an example of The Encyclopedia's detailed entries on fantasy that pre-dates the twentieth century. The attempts to categorize the shapeless all-encompassing form of "fantasy" is interesting to nerds like me who feel the need to break everything down though I've never heard most of the terms found in the encyclopedia used in the same context ("Crosshatching", for example, they define as settings where the fantastic and mundane coexist but do not intermingle much). And if you do know an author you want to find out more about you will find them along with a listing of their major works.

This book has been supplanted by the Internet it just isn't worth it to go back. While writing this I tried to compare the shorter entries found in The Encyclopedia to Wikipedia to see if there was any place where The Encyclopedia had an advantage. I found one entry for Sir William Russell Flint (an early twentieth century illustrator) where the hard copy had more detail on his works than this one online resource. I'm not a fan of Wikipedia but I have to concede that it is more efficient than reference books like this and it is not the only source of free information out there. In the end The Encyclopedia of Fantasy just isn't worth it.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Review - The Wanderer

The Wanderer
by Fritz Leiber
1965 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

I guess I need to say that I don't hate Fritz Leiber. I didn't like The Big Time and as I'll make very clear in a few moments I didn't like The Wanderer, but I have enjoyed his short fiction. His Lankhmar stories are some of the short list of sword and sorcery fiction that I enjoy. And I disliked The Wanderer for a different reason than I disliked The Big Time.

The Wanderer is a forerunner of the disaster films that would become stylish about a decade after its publication. One night a psychedelic planet with roughly the mass of Earth appears just beyond the orbit of the moon and starts eating our natural satellite. Initially it appears in the sky as a purple and yellow yin yang symbol which should rather firmly establish that this book was written in the 1960's. Naturally this causes many bad things to happen as the tidal stresses pull on every fault line and cause massive flooding. The new planet is quickly nicknamed the Wanderer by the people trying to survive its arrival.

The book is a scattered set of survivor stories from around the world and these range from entertaining (the treasure hunters taking advantage of a very low tide to search for sunken ships) to tedious (the black girl trying to get a random rich old white man out of Florida before the state goes underwater) to just plain crazy (the "three interracial weed brothers" wandering the streets of New York in something that reads like a bad Cheech and Chong routine). Unfortunately tedious covers the bulk of them since most of their stories just have the characters standing around being stunned by the devastation rather than taking any kind of action. Most of the rest feature characters drawn only as broad stereotypes which just makes the story feel bland at those points.

One plot line is given the bulk of attention. An astronomer and wife of an astronaut decide to stop at a beach party for UFO enthusiasts on the night the Wanderer appears. Just after the new planet arrives the astronomer is abducted by one of the aliens for some kinky catgirl sex (welcome Google searchers, by the way) but the catgirl drops her alien superweapon in the process and this ragtag group attempts to survive and take it to the authorities.

The catgirl initially reads like a joke and when confronted by the astronomer she begins to act like a stereotypical superior alien patronizing the inferior humans. Initially this contradiction annoyed me but in one of the novels better moments the astronomer points out all of the exact same contradictions that bothered me. Turning the expectations over in this instance worked really well (and it makes all of us nerds feel better since we now know that calling catgirls out on their inconsistent behavior will lead directly to kinky catgirl sex)

One of the best things about The Wanderer is that Leiber clearly put some thought into how a new planetary body suddenly appearing would affect the earth. I think he overestimated how quickly the shift in ocean levels would occur (if my understanding is correct it would take at least several days for the tides to settle into their new rhythm while Leiber has it occur in a few hours) but he used it for dramatic effect. He makes it very clear that the Wanderer's arrival is a disaster that has cost millions of lives.

Where The Wanderer falls very flat is in the justification for this. After hundreds of pages of death and disaster around the world Leiber then attempts to build sympathy for the aliens living on the Wanderer and fails miserably. They make half-hearted attempts to save a handful of people, for example. They try to justify their destruction of the Earth and the moon by saying they're on the run from what is essentially the Interstellar Man ignoring the fact that if they needed a large rocky body our solar system is full of them away from the Earth (no one ever uses Callisto in science fiction; it wouldn't be missed). The beings on the Wanderer are callous, selfish, and destructive and because Leiber spends so much energy trying to justify their attempted genocide in the novel is brings down the whole thing.

I'd say that The Wanderer is about half of a good novel. Without the boring digressions to thin plot lines or flimsy justifications I would have liked it a lot more. The big idea is interesting but in the end I have to say that I don't think Leiber's writing was quite strong enough to overcome the flaws. The Wanderer just drifts around like its namesake and never quite manages to find its feet.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Free Game Sunday - N

Super Mario Galaxy will be available in a few hours and it's one of the very few games I'm willing to pay full price for. So naturally I need to look at a game in Mario's own native genre, platform action, for my free game.

(For what it's worth, how I mentally rate games is by deciding how much I'd be willing to pay for them. No game goes above $20 unless I have strong reasons to suspect that I'd enjoy the game in which case it gets bumped up to $30. A very tiny handful of games exist that I'm willing to pay full price on based mainly on the developer and if I have a long history of enjoying their games coupled with a desire to play them as soon as I can. So far this year the total of those games is four and it's been a busy year. I am the game industry's worst nightmare; a player with patience.)

Technically N isn't really a descendant of Mario. N holds a lot more in common with titles like Montezuma's Revenge which predate even Mario Brothers by a few years. The game is simple: you jump, you stick to walls, and you want to get to the exit. On the way to the exit you have to dodge the an assortment of enemies, make tricky jumps, and figure out simple switch puzzles. A clock is constantly ticking down and you can collect gold bars scattered around the stage in a Lode Runner type fashion to push it back up.

One of the more interesting things about N is how deadly the game is. The game's joking story says that you have an average life span of fifteen minutes but that's being generous. On many levels it will be closer to fifteen seconds. Anything bad is instantly fatal and the enemies are fast and accurate. The tracking rockets follow closely, the machine guns fill the area around you with bullets, and lasers home in on you fast. The only thing you can do is keep moving as fast as you can and slip by them. The only punishment for dying is having to do that level over and that means you typically only lose a few seconds.

The graphics in N are minimalistic in the best sense of the word. Everything is tiny but moves smoothly. There are no distracting screen elements: just you and the puzzle. Each stage is exactly one screen in size For the screen shots that are accompanying this post I had to trim down the view so it would be possible to see what was occurring.

Not every level is as balanced as it could be: some even past the initial gentle learning curve missions can be run through in seconds while others can be hair pulling challenges. To avoid this becoming a problem N has five hundred levels and you can jump around them in blocks of fifty to avoid getting stuck at too frustrating of spot. There's also a level editor and the ability to play other user's levels built in. That's a lot of game play in one simple package.