Saturday, December 15, 2007

Christmas Card From Black Mesa

Well I found my copy of Half-Life and even Blue Shift so I installed them and put together some screen grabs to make a Christmas card for my brother:

Inside is a reminder that the Christmas party will start as soon as Gordon's team is finished with the anti-mass spectrometer and will run until "???".

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Twlight Zone (Yes, all of it)

The Twilight Zone
1960, 1961, and 1962 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

Here's another example of those early Hugo voters finding their feet. For three years in a row they voted an entire television series as the best dramatic presentation. Not that there's really anything wrong with that; I can only think of a handful of other shows that might deserve the same honor and they would only earn it for one or two seasons of the program. But that does make it very hard to review.

I mean, I could say something about how overwhelmingly influential the show is, how fifty years later it is still a great piece of entertainment, how many important people contributed to its success, and how it blazed the way for science fiction beyond children's programming on television.

But you know all that. You're visiting a blog called "Das Übernerd". While you might not be completely familiar with some things this is the Twilight Zone. A cornerstone of popular culture. If you aren't able to recite Rod Serling's opening narration then it's very likely that you are either (a) some kind of creature from a parallel universe, or (b) from a country where you never saw the Twilight Zone (there is some difficulty in telling the two of these apart).

I could run down my favorite episodes but everyone could make a completely different list of ten and they'd all be perfectly good (The Shelter is my personal favorite but everyone is going to have at least one that speaks to them) . I could give you a list of striking images but you know them (I don't think anyone will forget the ending of Time Enough At Last; people who have never seen the show are familiar with that one).

The fact of a set of Hugo awards handed out to almost an entire series (around one hundred episodes are covered by the three seasons that won) just makes it hard to say any more. This was the only time that such a thing happened with the dramatic presentation Hugo. Star Trek in any incarnation didn't manage this. Babylon 5 didn't manage it. The new Dr. Who series hasn't done it yet (though they've now tied Star Trek and Babylon 5 for getting two awards for episodes). The Twlight Zone stands apart, as it should be.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

A Quick Test for Übernerd-ness

Here's some quick hints for you:
  • While Christmas shopping you buy a used original NES controller so that you can try to turn it into an MP3 player as a gift. (Short answer for that: you can without extensive effort but more than I can fit into a week and half when I don't have the parts; I may hold onto it for a birthday... or I could buy a cheap MP3 player and cannibalized it... that's oddly tempting...)
  • You spend several hours trying to locate your Half-Life game CD so you can make a "Black Mesa Company Christmas Card" from screenshots. (Spent an hour looking, couldn't find it; I may give this person a UNATCO themed Christmas card.)
  • Wasted an hour while Christmas shopping trying to find a miter box that had a thirty (or sixty for that matter) degree slot so you could cut perfect hexagons for another Christmas gift. (Couldn't find one; I'm considering going upscale on this.)
Hope you have a nerdy holiday!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Review - The Gods Themselves

The Gods Themselves
by Isaac Asimov
1973 Hugo Winner for Best Novel
1972 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

So is that the worst cover you've ever seen?

Quite frankly when I got my copy I thought the dust jacket had some kind of color separation problem but that is how its supposed to look (maybe a bit brighter than my copy but that same design). Even if it went together correctly it would be an ugly cover.

So let's get to the man of the hour Dr. Isaac Asimov whose Hugo history is odd enough that it's worth mentioning just on its own. Prolific throughout the forties and fifties Asimov just about stopped writing science fiction all together in the sixties switching to writing a massive pile of non-fiction. To use one example, his Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare which is one of the definitive works on the bard was written in this period. He was given a pair of token, one-off Hugo awards in the sixties: one for his non-fiction magazine articles and one for "Best All-Time Series" (Foundation beating out The Lord of the Rings). In the early seventies he decided to do a bit more fiction and his first new novel in years was The Gods Themselves. On first glance it does look like the Hugo and Nebula voters just jumped on the chance to toss an award on one of the most influential figures in science fiction but there is some depth here.

The Gods Themselves consists of three linked novellas with very different tones. The linking concept is that a universe where the strong nuclear force is not as powerful as it is in ours is pushing subatomic particles into our universe which has the appearance of free power for everyone involved. Unfortunately for the process is gradually bringing the laws of physics in both universes closer together which will result in their sun burning out while ours goes nova. The aliens aren't that worried about it since they can harness the energy from our sun's explosion.

One of the interesting aspects to the central concept is that while you could characterize the behavior as a "war" between universes it is a war of science. Communication between the universes is minimal since only very small amounts of matter can be pushed through and most of it is just to change elements on our side to be more radioactive.

The first third of the book is pure classic Asimov firing on all cylinders. It features some fairly lively characters, science that catches attention, and a conflict at the center of it that anyone could related to. In this portion of the book the researcher who noticed the other dimensional aliens transmuting elements has become an Edison like figure who uses his prominence to crush anyone who might disagree with him or his methods. Other researchers start to notice that the free energy might not be as free as everyone thought but have to deal with their line of research being blocked for political reasons.

The middle section deals with life in that alien universe where we find a family of fairly unique life forms. One member of this family realized they might be killing everyone in our universe and tries to stop the process on her own. This section isn't quite as effective as the first as it meanders a bit and the life cycle of these aliens isn't completely convincing. Still it's interesting and works well as a continuation of the first part.

That last novella is a problem, however. It reads like Asimov doing a bad Heinlein pastiche. In this section a scientist who lost his position as a result of the Edison-figure from the first novella relocates to the moon where he learns about the lunar society and devises a solution to the overarching threat. When Heinlein does large, clumsy societal exposition it's usually slightly annoying but he can carry it with distinct characters; Asimov copying the worst aspect of Heinlein just made it that much worse. This last third of the book is a dull, plodding mess with characters who just can't connect to you since they're there to just spout rhetoric and tell us how great they are.

So this leaves me in a lurch. The first third was brilliant and if Asimov did a whole novel like that I would have been thrilled. The second third was okay with bonus points for some creative concepts for the aliens and a whole book of that would have left me disappointed but understanding why the award voters selected it. That last third is dreadful and if it was the whole book then I'd be annoyed that they wasted their awards on handing out a token one to Asimov. Weighing the three I think that the last third did not diminish my enjoyment of the first two parts of the novel so I'd recommend reading it, but if you reach that last novella and just can't continue don't feel too bad. It took me three tries to make it through that one myself.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Star Wars Weapon of Mass Destruction

Also Known As: The Star Wars Holiday Special.

First of all if you do watch the atrocity I recommend taking some special precautions. The best option would be to move yourself to a concrete bunker several miles away from the program. Be warned, however, that its fumes can be deadly and you should not emerge from the bunker until you hear the all-clear siren. Bring food for several months.

There's been a lot written about the special over the years, it's a favorite whipping boy of nerds and holiday staple of blogs everywhere, so let me find something new to say. I could try to fake some praise for it and become the only positive comments you'll ever read about the special but quite frankly I'm positive that the weight of such a lie would drag me directly into hell before I finished the post. And I'm an atheist so that's saying something.

I will say that Mike Nelson's Rifftrax for special does make it tolerable but you will need the version from Google video (linked to above) in order to synchronize it properly. You see the special was so terrible that they could not riff it all the way through and instead had to take a break to riff the 1970's commercials that are part of that footage. The riff is hysterical, one of the best they've done, but at the same time they're riffing on the worst atrocity ever committed against nerddom.

I won't dare to describe one facet of the special for those who have not seen it. Much like the Necronomicon no warnings could possibly prepare you for its mind-blasting contents. Better to enter the fray blind and be shocked and disturbed by each new layer applied. Every time you think that things can't get any worse they step down one more level. Okay, I'll say one thing: interspecies wookie porn. And no, that's not a comic misinterpretation of something in the special; it's actually in there.

And so I leave you with this image to haunt your nightmares:

Monday, December 10, 2007

Review - To Your Scattered Bodies Go

To Your Scattered Bodies Go
by Phillip José Farmer
1972 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

The love fest that has been my last few reviews is over.

Let me get this out of the way fast: in To Your Scattered Bodies Go everyone who ever lived on earth from the dawn of man to the people wiped out an alien doomsday machine in the not too distant future wake up immediately after their death in a million mile long, planet spanning river valley (presumably it circles the planet multiple times). Magical technology along the shore of the river provides food and some other basic conveniences but that's it. The book follows nineteenth century explorer Richard Burton as he gathers a crew of historical figures and explores the strange afterlife.

"What a concept!", right? It's mind boggling, brings into play anyone from history who might be interesting, and any kind of story could be told with it. It's one of the best ideas in science fiction.

So how did it turn into one of the worst books to win the Hugo award?

The answer there is simple: fan fiction. If you have not been made to suffer by reading fan fiction then you should be grateful since you might have missed the most annoying of all fan fiction characters the "Mary Sue". A "Mary Sue" is when the author inserts an idealized form of themselves into their story and the more transparent this is the more annoying it is.

To Your Scattered Bodies Go features a character by the name of "Peter Frigate" who drops piles of exposition on the famous historical figures, all but swoons over Richard Burton, gets excited to be traveling with a Lord Greystock who he calls "Greystroke" (Tarzan being one of Farmer's obsessions), and beats up a thinly disguised stand-in for an editor that caused an earlier version of the novel to be lost. He earns the respect of the other historical figures over the course of the book. It's not as ugly as some Mary Sues I've read but it's still fairly horrible.

What really kills To Your Scattered Bodies Go is that it is essentially Richard Burton fan fiction. There's a lot of time in this very short book telling us how great Richard Burton is. We're told of his expeditions repeatedly. Farmer hand waves away his antisemitic writing and throws in a major character that's Jewish so we can see that Burton isn't really antisemitic (a redundant character too since he only exists for this purpose). Burton is the daring man of action who has other characters just react in awe.

The end effect is that I found Burton unlikable. Telling me over and over again how great a character is has the opposite result when I'm reading and that is apparently the only characterization Farmer could do. We're even told how the genocidal alien is a decent guy despite killing everyone on earth because he thought that the US (not earth, mind you, just the US) could reverse engineer his space ship and then launch a conquering invasion fleet against his people's interstellar civilization.

I'd say that To Your Scattered Bodies Go has about forty pages of good things in it. Sadly my copy was two hundred and seventeen pages long and those pages that didn't have good things in them were complete rubbish. If I want to read poorly written fan fiction where the author puts themselves in the story there's terabytes of it on the Internet now.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Review - "Flowers for Algernon" and "The Longest Voyage"

Ed Emshwiller 1960 Hugo Winner for Best Illustrator

Obviously the "Starship Soldier" mentioned on the cover and illustrated there was eventually retitled to Starship Troopers.

"Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes 1960 Hugo Winner for Best Short Fiction
I once read that "Flowers for Algernon" was the single most anthologized story ever written. I'm not certain if that's true, it might not be true any more even if it was true once, but it's obvious why it would be such a popular choice. The story is great; in fact once it was expanded to a novel it won a Nebula award. It's powerful and moving.

In "Flowers for Algernon" a mentally challenged man named Charlie undergoes an operation to increase his intellect. As he grows smarter he gains some harsh insight into his previous life and then just as cruelly has his new intelligence slowly stripped away.

It's a bit maudlin at times, but the strength of the story comes from it being told in Charlie's own words which change as he does. Keyes uses a journal to show the progress to the reader and the early entries are poorly written and filled with misspellings (much like your typical Internet message board). It gives the reader additional feedback beyond what is simply told.

"Flowers for Algernon" is a magnificent short story. The viewpoint used is an exceptional choice by Keyes. While I didn't care for the playing up of certain easy emotional themes the writing is strong enough to carry the whole work.

Ed Emshwiller
1961 Hugo Winner for Best Illustrator

"The Longest Voyage"
by Poul Anderson
1961 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

Unlike the previous winner "The Longest Voyage" is a much more straightforward science fiction story sticking to the usual tropes but it does put them in an unusual situation.

"The Longest Voyage" features the crew of a tall ship performing the first circumnavigation of the world, which is not Earth. On their journey they find a vaguely Polynesian style civilization which claims to have a ship that came from the stars. Using his wits the captain of this ship meets the marooned sailor who needs just a gallon of mercury to repair his ship. This can be done but there's concern on everyone's part on who will control the ship in the end and how will it be used.

Anderson's story doesn't have a really rich theme beyond the sailing and those sections read more like he watched some pirate movies before writing the story than performing research. Not that there's anything wrong with that, it just makes the sailing seem rather thin; I will take "rather thin" over "pointless slabs of exposition dropped in by the author to show how smart he is" any day.

The core conflict between the sailors, the islanders, and the space traveler is rather thin as well. We're barely introduced to it before someone decides to cut the Gordian Knot which doesn't let a lot of tension over the conflict build and didn't let me build up a lot of interest in how it was resolved.

Still despite my complaints it was a cute little story. Giving us two cultures dealing with the impact of high technology was a nice addition and the history of the age of sail gives some interest in whether or not imperialism will spread. It's not bad, it just isn't anything really special. In the end I have to come down on the side of having enjoyed it.