Saturday, December 1, 2007

Reviews - "Exploration Team" and "The Star"

Virgil Finlay
1953 Hugo Winner for Best Interior Illustrator

"Exploration Team"
by Murray Leinster
1956 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

A rugged individualist has landed on quarantined planet to settle by himself. Meanwhile the quarantine has been lifted and a more full colony has been started with the help of robots. This colony gets in trouble as the robots cannot deal with the unexpected super-predators that occupy the planet so the interstellar law enforcement agency sends someone out to check on them. This law enforcement officer accidentally lands at the hidden illegal settlement. Together our odd couple must cross hundreds of miles of dangerous terrain to rescue the lost colonists. Leinster has his characters spend a lot of time ranting about the use of robots which apparently are a bad thing to let run unsupervised (I know, it's a shocker).

I've read this story before. Not "Exploration Team", but 90% of it could have been plopped down from other fiction. It wasn't even that special for science fiction of the period. The hypocritical anti-technology rants seeded in the short story are apparently done straight faced with the characters one minute decrying the use of robotics while being more than happy to use them when they have control.

The only thing I did like in "Exploration Team" is the idea of creating Kodiak bears that had mannerisms more like dogs. I wouldn't want one around my house but the idea of building off a hostile species so that it can integrate directly with man is interesting to me.

Sadly Leinster didn't carry that idea forward to the sphexes, the super-predators of his alien world. Humanity has decided it wants this planet and that it's perfectly okay to drive them to extinction to do this. Extermination is the option despite the fact that in the story itself there are several very good options that could be adapted to allow safe co-existence (train some of them like the Kodiaks to keep the wild herds away, for example). I'm not one for the hand wringing, "Oh look at what those evil humans have done to their environment!" stories that some science fiction writers are fond of but presenting this kind of alien slaughter as a positive thing is just over the line for me.

"Exploration Team" simply isn't worth reading. The writing is clunky, the story itself is redundant and has been done better hundreds of times, and the manifest destiny theme isn't going to sit well with any modern reader. It's completely skippable.

"The Star"
by Arthur C. Clarke
1956 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

It's hard to find much to say about "The Star". It's a short and blunt piece of prose with the only character of note being the narrator who just gives us a bit of exposition and then it ends. The premise is that an exploration ship to a nebula that was a supernova finds the shattered remains of a civilization which some of the crew take as absolute proof of the non-existence of God. The Jesuit priest who narrates the story, however, notices a coincidence about when the star exploded.

"The Star" reminds me a lot of those e-mail messages that people pass around with poorly written stories about convenient miracles. Having received way too many of those for one lifetime I didn't like "The Star", but unlike "Exploration Team" I don't think it was worth actively avoiding. It just isn't anything special.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Reviews - "The Darfsteller" and "Allamagoosa"

Hannes Bok
1953 Hugo Co-Winner for Best Cover Artist

As I start down the road of short fiction I thought it would be nice to include an image from the Hugo winning artist of that year with each of them. Since the same artist won for the four years I'm going to be covering in the next few days I am jumped back to the beginning and coincidently found an oddity.

It's the kind of thing that you can expect from time to time with the Hugo awards. Since they are voted upon by fans there can be votes for bodies of work rather than the specific things that are winning. It leads to situations where a famous writer who has been underrepresented gets an award for one of their worst works to use a very convenient example.

In this case in 1953 both Ed Emshwiller (often credited as just Emsh) and Hannes Bok won for Best Cover Artist. This occurred despite the fact that Bok didn't illustrate any covers in 1952. Bok did do quite a few very nice covers before and a few covers very early in 1953 which probably put him in the voter's minds. I'll admit to liking the earlier stuff better (there's some very nice work he did in 1951) but I wanted an image that the voters would have seen which is the one that I'm starting with.

So that minor controversy out of the way, let's begin:

"The Darfsteller"
by Walter M. Miller Jr.
1955 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

"The Darfstellar" left me with mixed feelings. I liked flow of the story that Miller created and he never went quite where I expected him to, but at the same time it's built on a conceit that I just can't accept.

In "The Darfsteller" the theater has almost completely replaced other forms of entertainment. However this is not simply actors on stage, the theater in this case is essentially elaborate puppet shows with a computer using a program built around famous actors to manipulate the android puppets on stage. The advantage to this, we are told, is mass-produced theater; a performance that can be sent around the world and done precisely the same way every time with the actors appearing on thousands of stages.

The problem is that even in 1954 when it was written they had this and it was common place. It's called "movies". What Miller had done was transplant the advantages of movies onto a much clumsier form and that simply would not happen. Perhaps it seemed more viable in the 1950's when the theater was much stronger than it is today but it pulled me out of his story.

I was left pondering as I read the story what exactly Miller was trying to make a parallel to with his puppet theaters. Technology replacing creative endevors is obvious (and timely considdering the recent release of Beowulf), but was he raging against movies and television replacing other forms? Is it supposed to be like the introduction of the talkies? Color film? The reduction of the importance of the theater? Radio? I suspect that I'm just too far removed from this work.

There is an actor in the story named Ryan Thornier who was a method actor and as a result could not have his personality programmed into the computer for stage acting. He has become a janitor in one of these puppet theaters but he has a plan to put on one last performance.

The theme of technology supplanting man is one of the most common ones in science fiction and I will give Miller credit for putting it into such a unique context. Miller also took what could have been a pile of cliches and turned them all over.

Altogether I think "The Darfstellar" was worth reading. While that premise is impossible to swallow and severed my suspension of disbelief completely Miller did carry the narrative well.

Ed Emshwiller
1953 Hugo Co-Winner for Best Cover Artist

by Eric Frank Russell
1955 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

On the other side of things, "Allamagoosa" is an inoffensive bit of fluff with nothing to recommend it or make me loath it. The short story is essentially an old military joke told over several pages. In "Allamangoosa" shortly before a military inspection the crew finds an item in their manifest that they've never heard of and no one knows what it is. I think you can see where this goes from here. There's not much in the way of setting, character, or distinctive prose. This is a one note story that if you came across it you might think, "Oh, that was cute," but then immediately forget again.

I've got to be negative on this one for just that reason. Don't bother searching for "Allamagoosa", it just isn't worth your time.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Hugo Awards Late 60's Recap

And so we've come to the turmoil of the late-sixties and I'm actually kind of surprised at the general lack of reaction in science fiction. There's signs and traces but the big issues that were making the news every night weren't showing up yet.

A perfect example is Viet Nam and the anti-war movement. Stand On Zanzibar had obvious parallels to Viet Nam but there is no conflict yet with it. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Lord of Light, and Dune all featured wars but they were "righteous" ones with clear "good guys" and "bad guys" with no one pushing for peaceful resolution. I suspect that the science fiction publishing industry at that point was following the example of much of the rest of the media and trying to politely ignore the situation and hope it went away. That changed, of course, but the I feel that the shift in outlook isn't really visible for another ten years.

It's a similar situation with the racial strife that the United States was going through at that point and once again Stand On Zanzibar reflects the year it was written. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress did, at least, include a protagonist that was not Caucasian and the vast cast in The Wanderer included a few token characters but race is generally a non-factor.

Disaster novels are the big thing this time. The Wanderer and Stand On Zanzibar are both slice of life novels (coincidently I didn't like either of them but for different reasons) showing the reactions of a huge cast to their respective disasters. This Immortal is more about recovery from a disaster. Even The Moon is a Harsh Mistress has the characters dealing with the fallout from overpopulation.

My current tally of liked versus didn't like stands at:

Liked: 11
Didn't Like: 5

This time around I enjoyed This Immortal, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and Lord of Light while I didn't care for The Wanderer, Dune, and Stand On Zanzibar.

This weekend I plan on starting to fill in some of the short fiction so the next three days will feature brief reviews of the first few years worth of short fiction Hugo award winners.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Review - Stand On Zanzibar

Stand On Zanzibar
by John Brunner
1969 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

Starting in the early sixties there came a wave of doom saying which we hadn't seen before and hasn't let up yet. Each week brings us a new book or press releasing screaming that unless something is done right that second about its pet cause we would all be doomed by it within ten years. Some of these are based on actual problems that were wildly overstated by the fear mongers attempting to sell their books.

One of the biggest of these in 1968 was Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb that warned of expanding populations causing world wide famine and economic collapse by the 1980's. His primary theory was that population would continue to grow exponentially but food and raw material production was at its peak. Ehrlich wasn't the first one to suggest this, it was a popular theory at the time and you see it reflected in a lot of science fiction from the late sixties and early seventies and even in more popular culture like the film Soylent Green.

Stand On Zanzibar is one of those books built on that doom saying. It projects the bleak year 2010 where the world has been overpopulated with seven billion people. People are packed in tightly, starvation and disease run rampant, and the world is in political upheaval. People regularly are overcome by the pressures and descend into psychopathic rampages. The world is then thrown into further chaos when a small communist dictatorship announces that they have discovered a method for custom building children.

Stand On Zanzibar has a bit of a split personality. On one side you have a narrative that follows a handful of characters getting by in this dystopia. The actual narrative portions of Brunner's work are pretty good. He draws you into a fairly believable world through the characters as they work on a project to prevent a third world nation nation from collapsing or dealing with an espionage mission to find the secret of cloning and genetic engineering. If I had just read these chapters I would have enjoyed the book a lot more despite its problems. The other half is what damaged the book beyond recovery for me.

They typically feature some background on the setting told in a James Joyce style stream of consciousness. It's chaotic, meandering, and meaningless. I'm from the school of thought that believes that the writing should be almost transparent, a window to the story. The narrative sections do this well and I would have gotten the exact same understanding of the setting without the jumbled chapters. When a writer dips into such a radical stylistic it's like erecting giant billboards that say, "Look at what a clever writer I am! Get it! Get it!" You see this quite a bit in amateur work from college students since they tend to be going through that phase where they think being pretentious is a virtue and a good writer can take this and make the reader forget about the style. I'm not against experimenting with style but style should not be an end goal in itself.

I can hardly disagree that it is debatable if Brunner is successful at using this barage of text technique. Obviously I feel that he isn't but I recognize that some people may find it an effective way to convey overwhelming input. Of course, I happen to live at a time when I'm part of the overwhelming media input so it's a concept that doesn't carry a lot of weight for me. Still here is a sample paragraph so you can judge for yourself:

I saw scrawled on the corner of a wall scrawawawled on a wawawall caterwauled catty corner on the wawall what did I see scrawled on the wawl I forget so it can't be that important KNOW IN YOUR OWN HANDS WITH A POLYFORMING KIT THE SENSATIONS OF MICHELANGELO AND MOORE OF RODIN AND ROUAULT let us analyse your metabolism and compound for you a mixture that's yours and yours alone guaranteed to trip you higher further longer
It continues on like that with no paragraph breaks or punctuation for four pages.

Despite those terrible, pretentious sections of the book the other half really is good albeit dated. One character accidentally starts a race riot, for example, but it is a well depicted section as the reader can see the tragic series of events building. Brunner's muckers, people who have gone crazy and started attacking anyone around them, seem very prophetic but he extrapolated a sad trend that was already becoming visible at the time.

It's a problem for science fiction to be able to look back with the advantage of hindsight and say, "Boy was that wrong!" Forty years on with nearly twice as many people on earth and we're still not close to causing our immediate destruction through overpopulation. Stand On Zanzibar is a book firmly stuck in the late sixties with its concerns, style, and setting and in this case I don't think it is worth the effort of reading. I came away from it feeling worn out from reading the massive book but feeling like Brunner hadn't really said an awful lot.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

They're back, Baby!

Ten years ago the greatest event in human history occurred. Futurama debuted and we have been living in a cold, pale mockery of existence since Fox canceled it. There was wailing and gnashing of teeth and online petitions (all of which have a long history of being equally effective and causing change) but it came to naught. Finally driven to desperation nerds bought multiple copies of the DVD box sets (one to watch, one to keep sealed for collecting, thirty-six to give as gifts) and Fox finally noticed that people like the show and agreed to make four direct-to-DVD movies. And so now the second greatest moment in human history is upon us as Futurama: Bender's Big Score is released.

And the result? A not particularly enthusiastic, "Well I liked it." It wasn't brilliant but I'd put it at the level of an average Futurama episode. It wallows a bit too much in fan service and as a result spends way too much time calling back to the original series. They didn't go completely off the deep end of the premise like they had in the original series. The script didn't quite have the same level of stinging witticism or parody. Still, I liked it.

If there's something you liked in the original series then its very likely that you'll see it turn up in Bender's Big Score. The Globetrotters? They're there. Fry's dog Seymore? Yep. Seven-leaf clover? Check. Niblonians? Them too. Robot Santa? Oh, yes. God? He puts in an appearance. Al Gore? All over the place. But the net result of calling back to pretty much every single great moment from the series is like the writers are standing there saying, "Remember this? Wasn't this funny?" Pop-culture references are not funny in and of themselves even when the guys making the references are the ones who created the original source so the result of packing them in wall to wall like this just drains the movie.

Sadly there are also musical numbers that are closer in quality to the ones the Simponsons have run into the ground rather than the ones that were in the original show (one place where going back might have been better). They're toneless, lifeless affairs, even with Coolio as Kwanza-bot rapping in one of them.

On the other hand the movie does have its moments. There are nudist, spamming aliens for the villains, for example. Anyone who's seen or read a lot of time travel stuff will work out the big plot twist in seconds (I think it took me about five seconds from the introduction of one of the key elements to saying, "Oh, that's what's going to happen.") but they do make some use of the time traveling plot elements. Not as much as I'd like but they do manage to get three Benders, four Frys, and one Nibbler into the same room. There's even a giant space battle against a fleet of solid gold Death Stars. And plenty of nudity, of course.

On the plus side the animation quality has not dropped at all despite this being a direct-to-DVD release. There are several points where the animation goes all the way to spectacular. Naturally there were plenty of talking heads (both in jars and otherwise) to compensate for those budget busting sequences but it was satisfying.

So I can't think of a reason for a Futurama fan (which naturally will be every single person who ever reads this) to not see the movie. Perhaps it's not good enough to bombard Fox executives demanding more (after the remaining three movies, of course) but it will satisfy.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Review - Lord of Light

Lord of Light
by Roger Zelazny

1968 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

Let me make this one brief: it's brilliant. Lord of Light is one of the greatest science fiction novels I've ever read and it contains a strong fantasy element for those who like that. It is easily Roger Zelazny's best work and shows you exactly why he was one of the biggest science fiction writers of the New Wave. If you haven't read it yet you need to go out and get a copy now and read it before continuing on with your life, it's that good.

There you go, all done. See you later.

What, you want more? Well, if you insist.

I should say that I hadn't read Lord of Light before I started my project of reading all of the Hugo winning novels. In my younger days I stumbled across the spiritual sequel Creatures of Light and Darkness and I hated it. I could barely get into the book and I don't think I made it through a hundred pages before moving on to something else. Eventually I went through that fantasy phase that so many people go through and I discovered Zelazny properly through his Amber series (I need to offer an apology here to Zelazny fans; I was one of those foolish youngsters who were demanding more Amber above other things and for that I am now sincerely sorry). I never did go back and read Lord of Light, though, because of my bad memories of Creatures of Light and Darkness.

That was a very big mistake. Lord of Light is what you'd get of Doc Smith and J.R.R. Tolkein got high together while watching a Bollywood epic.

In the distant future humanity has colonized another planet and has developed technology that really is indistinguishable from magic. One of the first generation of colonists, Sam, has been enjoying decades of living the high life as a ruler in a distant land but has returned to the big city to get a fresh young body so he can continue his life of immortal decadence. He finds that while he has been away the rest of the first generation of colonists have set themselves up as the Hindu pantheon and are handing out new lives only if they think they can control the person getting the new incarnation. Sam won't stand for this so after conning them out of a new body he procedes to set himself up as the Buddha. Then he along with his sidekick the God of Death wage an extended war with the gods (okay, not really sidekick but that does sound better than "barely tolerated companion").

Now just packing the book solid with the absolutely mind blowing conflict (quite literally in this case) might be enough to make it an entertaining read but this conflict is built on some of the most interesting entities you can imagine. Sam is by far the most human and we can identify with him but the gods themselves have been corrupted by their absolute power. Kali in particular is as terrifying of a woman as you'd expect Kali to be. She's the most extreme but all of the gods show a kind lost humanity which some of them go on to try to recover over the course of the novel.

It hits all of the themes that Zelazny will go to over and over again but this time it's all done perfectly. Rather than the loose ties with Greek mythology in This Immortal he closely binds Lord of Light with Hinduism and Buddhism. The retooling of those stories with the science fiction framework lends the book an epic quality.

Zelazny's prose is at a peak in Lord of Light as well and I can let it speak for itself. It opens with, "His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam." And so you're immediately plunged into this being a modern version of the Buddha. He plays with language throughout the novel such as when, "Vishnu Vishnu Vishnu regarded regarded regarded Brahma Brahma Brahma. They sat in the Hall of Mirrors." This kind of thing gives the book a poetic quality and takes us back to the mythic epic even when Zelazny goes into his 60's hipster dialog.

Perhaps the best thing that I can say about Lord of Light is that it left me wanted to know more. I know about as much about Hinduism and Buddhism as the next informed American: hardly anything (well, I know a little bit about their beliefs which gives me a leg up on most Americans). Now I want to know a bit more just to satisfy my curiosity.

So Lord of Light is well written, jam packed with fascinating ideas, featuring a culture almost never seen in western science fiction or fantasy, and is all around one of the best books I've ever read. I could not recommend it more highly. My initial paragraph is really all you need to know.

Sadly I suspect that not many people share this opinion. The copy I have is a former library book and it happens to be a Gregg Press edition. Gregg Press did a set of high quality limited editions of certain major science fiction works in the 1970's so I can place when this book was acquired fairly accurately. In addition, the tape holding the mylar cover on was rotting which drove me to remove it so it has been there for quite some time. Between 1979 when the book had to have been acquired and the point where the library got rid of it my copy of Lord of Light had been checked out once in 1993. To that lone reader I congratulate you on your good taste.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Photos of my trip to Carcassonne

That's my friend on the left.

I've played more games of Carcassonne this weekend than I think I've played in the previous three years. If you're not familiar with the board game and have an XBox Live account for your XBox 360 a version of it is freely available at this moment.

I enjoy the game but I played it out years ago and haven't played it much since, but then my brother came by for Thanksgiving and he wanted to play it. And he kept playing it. I think for Christmas I'm going to try to push him toward Twilight Struggle...