Saturday, December 22, 2007

Review - Dr. Strangelove

Dr. Strangelove
1965 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

I'm going to take a bit of a different direction on this since everyone should already know what any review of the actual film will say:

Dr. Strangelove is one of the greatest movies ever made, blackly satirical, and perfectly captures the zeitgeist of the cold war. It's wonderfully shot, perfectly acted, has a script that's dead on, and even the editing is great. The movie has completely contaminated the cultural consciousness and in a method similar to Citizen Kane or The Godfather you'll find references to it everywhere. In short if you have not seen it for some reason go see it now.

So that's done now let's get to the real question: should it have won a Hugo?

First, let's jump back a couple of years. The last dramatic presentation Hugo had been given to the Twilight Zone and then for several years the voters chose not to give an award. In 1965 there were two films that were deemed worth nominating: Dr. Strangelove and The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao. I have to confess that I have not seen Dr. Lao so I can't really judge if it was more deserving but I think it's safe to say that it isn't the better film.

The problem that I'm getting to is this: is Dr. Strangelove really science fiction (or fantasy for that matter)? I have to come down rather firmly on the side of "No" unless we open the definitions up so broadly that all fiction fits into the genre.

This isn't to say that Dr. Strangelove isn't speculative, there is a Soviet retaliatory doomsday machine at the center of course, but that's not a greater stretch than your typical James Bond novel. If it had been dropped into a serious drama audiences would not have a problem accepting it as then current technology. The only other thing that might be cited as "future technology" is the eponymous doctor's arm which some people claim is "robotic" though no one says anything about its nature in the movie. My feeling has always been that it is a normal prosthetic behaving oddly for comedic effect.

So the technology doesn't really move things to science fiction but the scenario it presents is speculative so that's good enough, right? Well, no. The plot of Dr. Strangelove is one that could happen at any moment during the cold war. Perhaps not to the darkly comic effect but the possibility of an unintended initiation of a first strike bringing about the end of the world was reality. Saying this movie was eligible for the Hugo because of this speculation means that all movies not based on a true story should be just as eligible and the purpose of the award is lost.

And that leaves Dr. Strangelove with no reason that it should have been awarded a Hugo. The film simply has no science fiction or fantasy elements. It did get robbed at the Academy Awards that year. I mean, My Fair Lady sweeping the awards? (I don't hate My Fair Lady but it's just not on the same level as the cultural shockwave that was Dr. Strangelove.)

It's easy to understand how Dr. Strangelove won an award intended for the best science fiction film. It was popular, it was current, it was very slightly speculative and that was all the justification that science fiction fans at that Worldcon in London needed to toss their votes at it. It's one of those instances where popularity trumped the purpose of the awards and it's not uncommon in the Hugos. Perhaps the best thing that could be said about this award was that it kept the dramatic presentation category alive long enough to reach the late 60's when it really blossomed.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Review - I Am Legend (with some tiny spoilers)

The third time's the charm, right? I mean the Will Smith vehicle I Am Legend has the same title as Richard Matheson's classic story so right there it has to be ahead of the previous two times that that it's been adapted for the screen. For the first two thirds I could could have believed that but it all fell apart in a terrible third act that undermined the entire film for me.

A disease has killed off nearly everyone on earth turning the vast majority of the survivors into what are essentially vampires (they burn in sunlight, are attracted to blood, and have a certain amount of superhuman physical abilities). Almost anyone who is naturally immune has been torn to pieces in the initial chaos of the disease but Robert Neville who was working on a cure has managed to survive on the island of Manhattan. Neville struggles to survive each day in isolation while continuing to hope for the creation of a cure. He occasionally captures one of the sick people to use in his research. His problems really begin when one of the vampires starts aggressively pursuing him.

And here is where the film really diverges from the original story. When I say diverge I don't mean things like "changed California to New York" or "altered the nature of the virus"; there are minor things done for the sake of adaptation and they don't hurt the core themes. Matheson's story takes this rather generic set up and adds a particularly subversive plot twist that changes everything (if you haven't read "I Am Legend" then it's well worth your effort to get it and read it). The film appears to be building to this plot twist but then abandons that developing thread completely. You can almost see in the script the marks where it was abruptly cut off and pulled out. What it was replaced with was the same generic formula that Matheson was subverting.

Will Smith does a fine job as Neville conveying the wide range of emotions of a man who is close to dying of loneliness. His only companion is his dog and talking to it or himself provides the bulk of the dialog in the film. There are brief flashbacks to the early days of the infection that help give us some context for his tragedy and Smith is very convincing with his mental breakdowns.

The film acts a bit like a guided tour of Manhattan as Neville's actions are inevitably backdropped by some famous location that has fallen into ruins. The location CGI work is impressive and most of it feels very real.

There is a problem with the CGI for other things, unfortunately. The only real animal in the film is Neville's dog but there are CGI deer, lions, birds, and vampiric dogs that are very unconvincing. The worse problem is the CGI vampires; by chosing to not use any real people for the vampires the filmmakers took something that should have been simple and effective and completely undermined it. Extras in make up would have been a much better choice.

I'm going to spoil things just a little now but it's a situation where I think they're already spoiled. The film ends on a literal deus ex machina. The only way that things could have been worse is if they had actors portraying the Greek gods lowered into frame to fix everything. As it stands the Judea-Christian God gets to do it but fails to put in an on screen appearance. I Am Legend was such a bleak, depressing movie that it could have used Matheson's subversive plot twist as one final gut punch to go out on. Having God make things better is bad writing, a disgrace to the original story, and not even particularly interesting. At least in The Stand God actually appears on stage, in I Am Legend the filmmakers just beat you over the head with the fact that God made things better.

Despite that incredibly terrible ending I still think the first two thirds were good and for that reason I'd say it was worth watching on video but not paying to see it in a theater.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Review - The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed
by Ursula K. Le Guin
1975 Hugo Winner for Best Novel
1974 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

So I went into The Left Hand of Darkness expecting to dislike it. After all Le Guin is a highly political writer and I personally dislike her politics and The Left Hand of Darkness had a reputation for being a big "important" novel ("important" being a term that can usually be interchanged with "preachy" and "pretentious"). Strong writing and a richly textured world overcame my prejudices (even if I didn't find it important) but then there's The Dispossessed, the other of Le Guin's "important" novels. Surely I'll hate a novel in which Le Guin tells the reader repeatedly how magically perfect a society without the concept of property is while capitalists are vile, evil worms.

And I was wrong again.

The Dispossessed is a wonderful novel with a real strength of characterization and a very complex pair of societies. One, Urras is fairly analogous to the United States while the other, Anarres, is a communist anarchy, they have no concept of property or almost no overarching central authority. The Anarrians shun any concept of ego or self; not even their names are their own as they are chosen randomly by computer and reused once they die.

Shevek is a scientist from Anarres and he has developed a theory along the lines of quantum physics that will radically overturn huge portions of accepted science. He finds that his work is being repressed by a scientist who manages the distribution of the limited resources available. Shevek choses to leave be the first person to leave his world for its neighbor Urras where he hopes to find the freedom to continue but quickly discovers that he has to produce results for someone. The culture shock crushes his abilities and eventually he choses to return home in order to finish his work and try to move his society back toward its ideal.

The novel is told in alternating chapters starting with the present day Shevek trying to deal with a society that has property and then flashing back to his life on Anarres which eventually brings him to leave it behind. It's a disorientating technique but one that really serves to draw the reader in to Shevek's life.

The real strength of the novel is in it's depiction of Anarres and Shevek coming to grasp the problems with his homeland. The country is an anarchy that has descended into a kind of social totalitarianism. They're blind to their own faults because of those social structures and suppress anyone who could suggest that there may be a problem. If a member of the society dares to point out that one of those who have gained a measure of power through popularity then the society viciously turns against them attacking them for having a perceived ego. It's a communist country run by mob mentality and it's both terrifying and believable.

Le Guin isn't the only person in the seventies to write about "perfected" socialists states and it's a theme that I generally despise. Typically these books are about how wonderful life is without property and how everything manages to run itself just fine with everyone being nice to each other. This is usually peppered with preachy rants about how evil twentieth century capitalists or their stand-ins were (funnily enough you don't see many of these books post Soviet collapse but there are exceptions). Le Guin at this point recognizes the real complexities with such a world view. The people in The Dispossessed are aliens so she can gloss over the issues of human nature but by building it around social pressures you can see how such a fanatical society would form and maintain itself.

From that starting point Le Guin builds a rich picture of her protagonist Shevek which propels the book forward. He doesn't set out to be a revolutionary but becomes one by default. He becomes the ideal form of the Anarres society holding up a mirror that shows their hypocrisy. He grows, forms a family, and questions his purpose and ideals in the face of societal pressures.

So once again Le Guin surprised me and brought in a good novel. In fact, let me revise that: this is a great novel. I'd mark this one down as one of the best Hugo winning novels simply because of it's rich structure and detailed examination of the societies while the compelling story of Shevek is just icing on the cake. This is a book not to miss.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Hugo Awards Early 70's Recap

In the seventies science fiction was getting more political but you wouldn't know it from the Hugo award winning novels in the first half of the decade. The Left Hand of Darkness is the best example of this phenomena which was filling up bookshelves at that point but the rest of the awards went to books that were more about engineering and exploration than humanity.

I suppose that is understandable. The 1970 awards were for books published the same year that the first moon landing occurred and by the 1974 awards a trip to the moon was beginning to look routine. In that context I suppose a return to science fiction's roots with the rest of the awards is understandable even as other elements were developing. Even the New Wave of the late sixties is lost under the this and the winners almost feel like a step back into the fifties.

The most extreme of the science novels would be To Your Scattered Bodies Go which you can make a good argument about it being a sociological novel but my feeling is that cribbing from Lord of the Flies doesn't turn a book with a focus on exploration into a statement on the human condition. A lot of the metaphysical implications of the resurrection of the dead are simply lost in Farmer's story which focuses more on how and why this happened rather than how people deal with it.

Asimov's The Gods Themselves is at its best when he sticks to the chemistry and engineering that drives the first third of the novel. Even the later sections with their change in focus are much better when he sticks to those strengths.

Clarke and Niven are the most blatant about their books being novels of engineering with the stories being completely centered on the exploration of the vast alien devices mentioned in the titles of their novels. Niven's Ringworld does a much better job of giving the exploration some depth than Clarke's Rendezvous With Rama though Clarke's engineering is considerably more realistic (for certain large values of realistic).

All of the winners in this block are big winners with all of them having at least three Hugo wins over their careers (Farmer's third was for "Best New Writer" in the first year that the Hugos were awarded). Le Guin, Clarke, and Asimov notably have won twice for best novel but Asimov's second win was particularly undeserved (I'll deal with that in a month or so). All of them have won at least once for short fiction and if you're willing to extend the award a little for him Clarke even has a victory for dramatic presentation thanks to his script for 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The current scoreboard for all Hugo winning novels reads:

Liked: 14
Didn't Like: 7

This time around I enjoyed but wasn't thrilled with The Left Hand of Darkness and Ringworld while the borderline case of The Gods Themselves landed on the "Liked" side of things. My dislike of Rendezvous With Rama was mild compared to the hatred I had for To Your Scattered Bodies Go. The early 70's is the weakest block of Hugo winners until the late 90's when you'll see some venom really start to flow and not let up for a while.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Review - Rendezvous With Rama

Rendezvous With Rama
by Arthur C. Clarke
1974 Hugo Winner for Best Novel
1973 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

Rendezvous With Rama is a beloved book, considered by many to be a classic work by a scifi master. It's time for me to be heretical again.

I didn't like it. I found it dull, plodding, filled with characters that would have to vibrate to become two-dimensional, and in general just wasn't a very good book.

In Rendezvous With Rama a gigantic alien space ship enters our solar system for a close fly-by of the sun. Humanity sends a team of explorers to examine the ship as it passes through and inside they find an environment that wakes up and evolves in the few hours that the ship is near enough to the sun.

Really that's about it. There's a couple of minor plot elements like a plot to blow up the miles long ship (and when that is a "minor" plot element then you know something is odd) and one of the explorers gets lost for about twenty pages but that's it. The rest of the book is essentially people standing around staring slack jawed at the glories of an alien civilization and the reader being told how marvelous it all is.

It wouldn't be impossible for a writer to make that entertaining but you would need strong characters to do that slack jawed gazing and for the most part these characters are complete blanks. You could have cut these people out with cookie cutters. They're there just to witness the majesty of alien spacecraft and are secondary to the engineering.

Given the proximity of the awards Rama lends itself to comparison with Ringworld which was also about a gigantic alien artifact and had characters spend a lot of time telling the reader how impressive it was. Ringworld actually had characters and solid plot elements beyond observing how cool was the author's big idea. I don't think Niven is the strongest writer for these concepts but his narrative is much better than Clarke's. On the other hand both of them had their novel followed up with some of the worst sequels to grace science fiction so they do have that in common.

One thing that Clarke does have going for him is his constant theme of peaceful contact with advanced civilizations. The spacecraft just passes through, it's not a threat and nothing inside the ship is an intentional direct threat to the explorers. It's not a bad way to do a novel about exploration like Rama but it does mean that conflict has to be shifted to other areas and that is sorely lacking in the book and Clarke's prose isn't strong enough to carry the weight of a book that's essentially just page after page of landscape descriptions.

I have to mention the chimpanzee slaves that Clarke puts in. In the future described humanity has bred chimpanzees to be smarter and turned them into a race of slaves. It's mentioned briefly toward the beginning and then never brought up again which raises some questions as to why it's in there. Even more oddly this is presented as a good thing with no negative connotations to it in the book which makes it feel very weird.

My copy of Rama is a former library book, a hardbound edition from 1975. This particular copy was never checked out and going by the condition of it I'd say it was never read before I got my hands on it. In this case I can't say those people who passed it by on the shelves were missing much. I know it's a popular work but I just didn't like Rendezvous with Rama.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Review - Hothouse

Ed Emshwiller
1962 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

by Brian Aldiss
196 Hugo Winner for Best Short Fiction (kinda)

So what would an early Hugo be without controversy, confusion, and a sketchy publishing history.

In 1962 the short fiction award went to "the Hothouse series": a set of five linked novellas that formed one complete novel. You'll note that in 1961 the novel award went to A Canticle For Liebowitz which was a set of three linked novellas. This is something that never is repeated again. All short fiction awards from then on go to specific stories but in 1962 there was essentially a second winner for best novel.

Only the Hothouse series isn't really available as a novel. Rather than being converted to some extended fix ups for publication in books they were actually abridged for publication as The Long Afternoon of Earth. All five novellas were published in their entirety in the UK but in the US they have only been collected a handful of times by specialty publishers for limited runs.

So you'll have to jump through some real hoops to read the complete thing. The leather bound edition that I have is the cheapest copy that I could find which should tell you something about it. The question then becomes is it worth it?

Hothouse descibes a far distant future where the earth has become tidally locked with the sun so it does not rotate any longer. Plant life has overrun the hemisphere that faces the sun and the continents are covered by one large banyan tree. Life has evolved to be incredibly aggressive and the plants have become mobile carnivores. Only a handful of animal species survive and the descendants of humanity are the weakest of these eking out a cautious existence in the branches of the tree.

To call the book "not scientifically accurate" is a small understatement. On the other hand the book is about a journey that consumes the lifetime of one of these people. He becomes hag-ridden by a fungus with plans for planetary conquest, encounters strange monsters, travels to the underworld, and witnesses the strange transition of life itself. In short, the book reads a lot more like a distinctive fantasy novel than science fiction. Unfortunately Aldiss spends a lot of time on the unsupportable science aspect of things but when he's not the fantastic atmosphere of Hothouse is conveyed very well.

I have to admit that I didn't find many of the characters likable but I did find them interesting. They're primitive and Aldiss doesn't fall into the trap of presenting them as modern people. This does make them hard to connect with. On the other hand the constant tension and peril (there's a lot of sudden, brutal deaths to characters as you read) pulls the story along well. Even the fungal version of Sauron is interesting in how he drives the humans toward his goals.

Aldiss does at one point have the travelers find the remains of our present day civilization and this is the section that I had the most trouble with. It's two billion years in the future. Continents don't last two billion years but somehow a building and a power source does.

For me Hothouse was worth it. It is a very interesting book though if I wasn't making a point of trying to collect everything that's won a Hugo award then I wouldn't have wanted to pay as much as I did for my copy (thirty-five dollars; I got lucky in finding it so cheap). If you can find Hothouse then go for it but I can't say anything about the abridged version The Long Afternoon of Earth.