Saturday, December 29, 2007

Nerdiest of 2007

With just three more posts left in the year and the topic for the next two already taken it's time for the traditional "Best of the previous year" post. But for me that would not be particularly entertaining. I read two books that were released in 2007 (one of which was a gift) and saying Making Money was the best book of the year simply because I like Terry Pratchett more than Stephen Colbert isn't really that helpful. I'm in a similar boat with movies where I have seen about a dozen 2007 releases but several of those were for Rifftrax commentaries and I wouldn't call them "best of" anything.

The problem is that I'm a cheapskate and I stick to older media. So rather than this being a "Best of Stuff Released In 2007" I'm making it a "Best of Stuff I First Encountered In 2007 (With Some Caveats)". It's a bit more longwinded than I'd like but that's the way it is.

Nerdiest Book - I'm going to skip over the fifty-five books I read as I went through the Hugo winners since I want to keep them out of this and that narrows my list considerably. So I'm going with Herodotus's The Histories (clearly demonstrating that I'm going for books older than 2007). I had been intending to read this book for a long time and had never gotten around to it. The release of 300 put me in a mood to immerse myself in Greek history before I was subjected to massive quantities of pop culture versions of it.

Herodotus is a gold mine of the way of life for people in the 5th century BCE. Even if he's not accurate he covers as many stories about the scope of the world as one could expect to exist. It's even got a handy guide on how to make a goblet out of your enemies' skulls. I read the Penguin Classics release and found that the translation flowed very well.

Nerdiest Comic Book - Sometimes I'm in the mood for something dark and brooding and sometimes I want something light and energetic. Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's All Star Superman falls squarely in the second category. It's a celebration of everything that has made Superman into an icon and easily the best Superman story since Alan Moore's Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow. It's heavily mired in nostalgia which can be a flaw in many comic books but in this case I think its important since it is about that golden age of Superman. I'm eagerly awaiting the second volume which will finish the series but I don't see it arriving any time soon.

Nerdiest Game - I played a lot of very good games this year but when it's all said and done I've got to stick with 1960: The Making of the President. The board game features a great deal of history and it immerses the players in the struggles of campaigning. It also features a system where the momentum of the election swings back and forth often making the outcome in doubt until the votes are counted. It's even well balanced; in the more than a dozen plays that we've had there has yet to be a clear indication of an advantage for the Kennedy or Nixon player.

Nerdiest Video Game - Since I picked a board game out for the Nerdiest Game in general I'm going to make it hard on myself and pick a separate Nerdiest Video Game and here is where it really sticks me. I have played close to a hundred new games in the past year and picking out just one is painful. I'm going to fall back on the term "nerdiest" and say Bioshock is it. Besides the technology (which always drives nerdiness) there's the soundtrack, the atmosphere, and the direct ties to one of the nerdiest games of all time System Shock 2. The game play isn't as refined as it could be but the other aspects of it are high quality. If all you want is game play then substitute in Super Mario Galaxy.

Nerdiest Movie - I've seen a lot of awful movies this year but not a lot of great ones (I usually see the big movies at the beginning of the year but I watched the great 2006 movies in 2006). The nerdiest one I've seen in 2007 has to be Stardust. Perhaps it didn't live up to its potential but it was an exceptional adaptation of Neil Gaiman that managed to retain a lot of the properties of his writing.

Nerdiest Television - There's a lot of good, nerdy television this year but I have to give the nod to the single greatest chunk of Dr. Who I've seen (and I've seen most of the surviving episodes). The new series has had its up and downs but "Blink" was absolutely brilliant. Okay, the monsters of the week didn't make an awful lot of sense if you thought out about it too long but they were there for atmosphere. This is the episode that twenty years from now the children who watched it will be remembering how they couldn't sleep with the lights off for a week after seeing it.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Star Trek: "The Menagerie" and "City on the Edge of Forever"

Start Trek: "The Menagerie" and "City on the Edge of Forever"
1967 and 1968 Hugo Winners for Best Dramatic Presentation

For a nerd I'm not much of a Star Trek fan. Oh I used to be. I watched every episode of the original series and read a pile of associated material and obsessed over it. Things started to change when Next Generation hit and I slowly got weaned off Trek by season after season of mediocre shows. I was young and stupid then and had not learned to not become a drooling fanboy yet.

These days I look at the original series and I think to myself "Wow! They managed to get one full season's worth of decent shows out of three full seasons on the air!" This being a much more impressive ratio than Next Generation's twenty-odd episodes that I found worthwhile out of seven seasons. And don't get me started on what came after.

(Okay, I got myself started. Locally Babylon 5 was shown at 9pm while Voyager was on at 8pm and I had roommates who didn't have the love of Star Trek drained away. So at the apex of Babylon 5's quality I had to sit through at least some of the nadir of Star Trek's quality so that I wouldn't miss a bit of my show. It gave me a special hatred of that program in the midst of the great B5/Trek Wars of the mid-90's...)

Getting back to the topic at hand, as one of the cornerstones of geek culture two of the most beloved episodes (three if you count "The Menagerie" as two parts) from the first two seasons of the show were awarded Hugos. Only the presence of one of the most beloved science fiction films of all time stopped "Spock's Brain" from picking up the third Hugo.

Okay, I was joking about "Spock's Brain" being up for a Hugo. It was "The Way to Eden".

I could write some fairly conventional reviews for these episodes but once more I feel that it is a waste of everyone's time. If you like Star Trek then you already know and love them. If you don't like Star Trek but came here because you like science fiction you still probably know them (at least "City on the Edge of Forever").

I will say that if you have never seen a bit of Star Trek then "City on the Edge of Forever" is easily my pick for the best episode of the original series (it's a popular choice for that distinction) and any science fiction fan should have seen it at least to know what the fuss about Star Trek was.

We've reached a point where I feel that Star Trek fandom is fading fast. The original series is hardly picking up any new fans and what has now reached decades of weak programming has reduced Star Trek to shadow of its former self. I won't say that it's impossible for the new movie to revitalize interest in the show but Star Trek has become the show that the current generation's parents watched and it's just a matter of time before it fades completely from view. (Don't get smug Star Wars fans; your turn is coming especially given how hard that franchise is being milked.)

I should say something about "The Menagerie" since it is the other episode to win. It was never a favorite of mine. I found it to be a bog standard, generic Star Trek plot though at the time it was voted in it probably wasn't clear yet that Trek would return to that same story over and over again. God like aliens offering a paradise would have seemed novel on television at that moment. I'd probably go with "Balance of Terror" as my favorite from those first few episodes.

Finally I leave you with these scenes from the episodes...

...No, wait, that was Futurama's "Where No Fan Has Gone Before". It's easy to mix those up.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Hubris or Just Insanity?

I saw this while in the bookstore last night:

The paperback adaptation of the movie is titled identically to Anglo-Saxon poem.

Now I don't think it's a bad thing to reinterpret old stories and legends; Neil Gaiman's career is pretty much built on it. You'll note though that none of the well regarded deconstructions use the same title as the original.

Would it have really killed them to title it Beowulf: The Movie? I do think it will be entertaining when someone needs Beowulf for a class and winds up with this thing.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Review - Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang
by Kate Wilhelm
1977 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

I was dead certain that this book was going to be a slog and a half. The dust jacket screamed "generic crap". A one sentence synopsis is a bunch of people in rural West Virginia try to survive the collapse of civilization. That was the essence of the plot synopsis on the dust jacket. And yet this turned out to be one of the best post-apocalyptic novels I ever read. The reason is simple: characters. Wilhelm populates Where Late the Sweet Birds Sing with an army of richly written characters that are driven into conflict by their personalities. No matter how awful some of things they do are (and some of them are pretty terrible) you can understand why they think it will help them survive.

Let me give you a bit more detail on the story (and take my word for it that all of this plays better in the novel than it sounds). Pollution, wars, disease, and other stresses have finally broken humanity and worldwide everyone and most animals becomes infertile. An extended family of survivalists think that this will go away as these problems vanish but humanity has no way to last that long. To insure that humans will go on they build a large cloning facility below their home and settle in to wait out the end of the world until their descendants can have children once more. It turns out the clones don't like that plan. Batches that are decanted together have a Midwich Cuckoos style telepathic link between all of them so long as they don't individualize too much.

Jump ahead a bit and the clone society is starting to fail. The replacement parts are running out and they haven't been able to scavenge new ones. They can last a few more generations but they have to do something. They don't want to start making babies again since anyone who becomes pregnant loses the telepathic link and winds up being an outcast from their society. One brash woman struggles to be an individual in this society only to be tormented by it. Her child, who she hid from the village for almost a decade, however has many of the personality traits needed for survival the clones lost. The fate of the survivors depends on if the clone society can adapt to his way of life and if he can forgive them for his mother.

For a short book Wilhelm really packs it in. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is obviously a novel stretched over generations and yet it doesn't feel like one of those sprawling overwordy "epics" that were in style at the time (we've got new styles of sprawling overwordy epics now clogging up shelves like a blood clot going to the brain). Wilhelm has a tight focus on the characters and the problems of the society and doesn't waste a word.

As I stated the strength of this novel is in the characters all of whom are driven to have people (not just themselves) survive and to have children. The initial survivors are trying to keep humanity going long enough but find themselves overthrown by their own creation. The clones lose the ability to survive independently for the sake of their own new society and are threatened by a handful of individuals. They maneuver and squabble and undermine each other but each thinks they are doing it for the good of humanity.

Perhaps the most disturbing bit of survivalism is how the clones treat fertile women. Since there is a copy degradation problem with the clones that prevents there from being more than five generations from the original they recognize that they will need an infusion of fresh DNA to maintain their culture. To that end when the first few start becoming pregnant the women are sequestered and forced to continue breeding the next generation. It's a concept that can be understood intellectually from a standpoint of the survival of the species (the clone's reasons is the same cultural reasons why women's roles in society were limited until the recent past) it is disturbing and an unpleasant step backward for people who claim to be building a better future.

I was impressed at how Wilhelm took such a generic, standard story and turned it into something special. The whole book has a melancholy feeling as the earth goes out with a whimper rather than a bang but at the same time there is a hopeful edge that the struggles that all of the characters go through may lead to a rebirth. It's a lovely novel and even though I went in expecting something awful she won me over.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Monday, December 24, 2007

Review - The Forever War

The Forever War
by Joe Haldeman
1976 Hugo Winner for Best Novel
1975 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

The Forever War is unique among Hugo winning novels. Besides being the first reflection of the post-Viet Nam America's response to the military in these books it is the only Hugo award winning novel that is a direct rebuttal to another winner. Haldeman's novel is the dark mirror of Heinlein's Starship Troopers but it stands on its own as well.

The Forever War follows the military career of William Mandella who is drafted into a war in the far off future of 1996. While there is faster than light travel to use it often requires some travel at relativistic velocities so Mandella experiences centuries of a changing world and warfare in his few years of subjective service. Initially the interstellar war goes well for earth but it descends to a centuries long quagmire as each side advances technology asymmetrically and as high attrition wipes out those earliest veterans Mandella rapidly rises through the ranks.

Haldeman goes extensively into the changes in a society as it grows accustom to an eternal war and every time that Mandella returns from a tour the world has radically changed in his absence. These changes typically drive him to return to service despite his better judgment. The use of these science fiction changes makes it so that the reader can empathize with the disorientation returning soldier. It is by far the strongest aspect of the novel.

Haldeman drew on his experiences in Viet Nam and consequently the descriptions of combat are some of the most evocative that you are going to find in science fiction. Battles are not glorious action sequences where heroic actions sweep back the vile aliens. They're chaotic terrors; a point of view common now but almost unheard of in science fiction thirty years ago.

One thing that I found off putting is that the military in The Forever War condones soldiers raping each other as part of their service. Haldeman presents this as more loose sexual mores in the future where no one would object to just using someone else not interested in having sex but I read it as rather creepy. In the novel the only example we see is a woman forcing herself on a man which might be his attempt to mitigate it.

The narrative arc is very similar to Starship Troopers in that we follow a soldier from training to enlisted man to officer and Haldeman does his own spin on powered armor too. The difference is in the government. Heinlein's government is a largely benevolent organization (perhaps fueled by the fact that those running it are all former civil servants), the commanding officers are generally competent albeit strained, and the war is truly a just war along the lines of World War II. Haldeman's government (perhaps that should read "governments" since there are many of them over the centuries) is manipulative at best and outright corrupt at worst. While they're not so vile as to simply pitch human beings into a meat grinder they are more than willing to lie to veterans and induce psychological torments. The officers are often pretty terrible and the first close "battle" with the aliens make it seem very likely that they were massacring civilians. In essence Starship Troopers is like those old war movies where our side are the good guys and things are unambiguous while The Forever War is the modern war movie where things are rarely simple.

It is impossible for me to praise The Forever War highly enough. Despite some quirks with some of the societal impacts The Forever War remains among the greatest depictions of the military in science fiction. It was at the forefront in a change in focus that was occurring with military science fiction which continues to this day. Haldeman's characters are richly drawn and the prose is sharp. The follow-up novels lack the power of this initial novel but the the emotional wounds of the war were still fresh and it shows through.