Saturday, January 5, 2008

Review - 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey
1969 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

Twenty years ago I would have a hard time finding a science fiction nerd who hadn't watched all of Stanley Kubrick's 2001. Before I wrote this I made an unofficial poll of three fellow office nerds and none of them had watched the movie.

Which of course didn't mean that they weren't familiar with its iconic moments and scenes:

If that doesn't stir you then please get yourself to a mortician because you are probably dead.

The plot, for those of you who only know the film by its big moments, is that in the distant year of 2001 an alien artifact has been found on the moon. An artifact identical to it (perhaps even the same one) was present at the moment a primate started down the road to being a cro-magnon. Shortly after humans dug it up it transmitted a radio signal to Jupiter and so our first mission to Jupiter is sent with the intentions of finding what it transmitted to. Great secrecy surrounds the artifact and those secrets cause complications for the crew of that mission as the "infallible" AI cannot handle the secrets and works to eliminate the crew.

The movie is gently paced. A less charitable person than myself might say it was "slow and boring", but my feeling is that it misses a large point of the movie which was to capture the wonders of the early days of man stepping away from the Earth. So there's lots of extended shots of spacecraft over Strauss music and many shots of people working mundane jobs.

The real star of the film is the cinematography. Kubrick regardless of whatever else one might think of him was a master of crafting film images and 2001 is his masterpiece. The movie would be sparse on dialog if it was half its length so the imagery is left to captivate you. Perhaps the only place that it fails is in some of the alien landscapes toward the end, but so much else has been right up to that point that I can forgive some then experimental photography that didn't work.

Arthur C. Clarke helped write the screenplay as he was writing the book which means that they are more closely related than most adaptations and that leads to some real arguments over which is better. I tend to come down on the side of the movie since I enjoy Kubrick's cinematography and think that the less blunt approach with the story is better, but I know many people who prefer the book for the more coherent ending.

The man I feel most sorry for in 2001 is Alex North. If you're not familiar with the name he is a film composer and was commissioned to write a score for the film. However when the editting was done the temporary score consisting of classical music was so powerful that it remained and North's score was discarded without informing him. Regardless of how good his score was it could not compete with "Also sprach Zarathustra" (a fine piece of music that now has the misfortune of being permanently tied to the movie).

It's kind of popular for picking on 2001's optimistic hopes for just a 33-year jump but they weren't that optimistic at the time. Kubrick didn't foresee the implosion of space exploration that occurred once the moon race had been won and forty years took use from the Wright brothers to the air war of World War II. So a handful of explorers in tin cans to people living and working in space doesn't seem that implausible in that gap.

2001: A Space Odyssey has a well deserved reputation for being a classic. It features some of the most powerful images ever used in a science fiction film. Used in any film period, really. It pulls you along through to the boggling ending. There's only one more place I have to go:

My god, it's full of stars.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Evidence of a Misspent Youth

A friend of mine passed along this quiz featuring video game sounds from the 70's and 80's. I managed to score 22 out of 24 without having to think about most of the questions. I would say that I have way too many neurons dedicated to this kind of thing but this is the game that I've been playing over the past few days:

I've been playing it again on my Nintendo DS thanks to the fact that a tool for using homebrew applications on it is cheaply available at Wal-Mart. It's nice to have a console platform that can so easily and immediately turned to such purposes.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Hugo Awards Late 70's Recap

Looking over things the 1970's in general was a good time for science fiction in my opinion. The first half was filled with quite a bit of love and same with the second. Between '75 and '79 there weren't any winners that I felt ambivalent about or even just mildly disliked. There were four books I really enjoyed and one that I absolutely hated.

I couldn't even pick a favorite out of this period. The Dispossesses, The Forever War, and Gateway are all brilliant in their own way and which one I liked best would depend on my current mood. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sing is also very good but not quite on the level of those classics.

The lone dissent would be Dreamsnake which was horrifically awful. When I'm finished with this and I compile my list of best and worst winners Dreamsnake will be down there. I've read cereal boxes with more interesting characters.

The closest we get to a common theme in this period is the post-apocalyptic setting which both Sweet Birds and Dreamsnake use. The rest is a hodgepodge completely unrelated books which point to a broadening of tastes with fans. Often I'll find a block where very similar books or stories win over and over again but in this case they are each dramatically different.

Perhaps a second theme would be surprising me. I fully expected to be irritated by the political screed in The Dispossessed but found it a rich exploration of the complicated social systems. I thought that the story in Sweet Birds sounded dull and derivative and found a rich narrative.

We've entered the era of Star Wars but it hasn't impacted written science fiction yet. The closest to space opera this time around is Gateway which was published before Star Wars reached theaters.

Liked: 18
Didn't Like: 8

Obviously The Dispossessed, The Forever War, Gateway, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang have been added to my liked list while Dreamsnake went onto the didn't like list.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Review - Dreamsnake

by Vonda McIntyre
1979 Hugo Winner for Best Novel
1978 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

Another double winner so it's clearly another high quality bit of science fiction.

That statement could not be more wrong.

Dreamsnake is on my shortlist of the worst novels to win the Hugo award. The fact that it somehow managed to get a Nebula as well makes me suspect that there was a lot of good cocaine going around at science fiction conventions in 1979. That's the only way that this piece of tripe could have won both awards.

Snake is a shamanistic healer in a post-apocalyptic world who makes people better by having her trained snakes bite them. One of the snakes is an alien species which does vague magic things which she requires to be a good healer and at the beginning of the novel it is killed by a group of tribesmen who you know are bad people because they don't have the same enlightened 1970's attitude that Snake does.

One of the tribesmen is immediately converted over to her point of view after some hot sex and follows her around for the rest of the book. Snake wanders the world looking for another magic snake making things better for the people she meets with no effort in short vignettes. Eventually she fixes everything in the world by learning where babies come from, something a society of genetic engineers haven't been able to figure out after centuries of observation.

That's a bit more information than I normally like to give but the key plot twist that drives the story is so monumentally stupid that I was disgusted. Husbandry is Animal Breeding 101; you should understand the mating habits of a creature under constant observation before you try tinkering with its genes. On top of that the people who were this insultingly stupid couldn't tell that they were dealing with a type of genetic material that was different from DNA despite being genetic engineers. (Shockingly another Hugo and Nebula winner a few years from now has the exact same situation where people who are doing genetic manipulation of a species don't understand how it reproduces or the fact that its genetic material is radically different from earth norms.) The whole book hinges on this and it took my suspension of disbelief which it beat to death with a snake.

Oh but one plot point isn't enough to hate a book even if it's one that someone who had some vague idea of how to raise animals could see through so let's get to other things. Snake is perfect. She's a flawless, modern thinking person who's idealism inspires everyone around her. People who actual act like they're living in a post-apocalyptic society where most people have to get by on sustenance farming are not nearly as smart, clever, or good looking as Snake and those she can immediately convert to modern liberal thinking (in the classical sense, not the current political stances).

Dreamsnake is packed solid with stock characters. There's the little girl who has suffered abuse at the hands of wicked people who immediate attaches herself to Snake so that Snake can put the abusive parent figure in their place with no effort. There's the good looking kid with sexual hang-ups and father issues that Snake fixes with a half page of dialog and some quick sex.

I hated this book. I found the stories to be terrible, the characters to be terrible, and the world building to be terrible. It reminded me a lot of those painfully awful fantasy novels that are pumped out by the hundreds with its technology that might as well be magic, lack of technology elsewhere, and "plot" that revolved around set pieces that seemed to exist only for the reader to be impressed at how enlightened and wonderful Snake was. Just keep away from this one.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The History of the DC Universe in 30 Seconds

As part of the Invincible Super Blog's anniversary there is a contest to recap a comic book story in "30 seconds" using quickie crayon drawings and hopefully a dash of humor (many of the recaps take longer than 30 seconds but you can scan through them that quickly).

Not being one to do things small I thought back to a problem that every comic nerd faces every so often. Someone wants to know a bit of the ways DC comics have progressed ("What is this 'Pre-Crisis and Post-Crisis?'"). So I give you:

Monday, December 31, 2007

Review - Gateway

by Frederik Pohl
1978 Hugo Winner for Best Novel
1977 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

And now we move back into that staple of 1970's science fiction: the giant engineering project. Following in Clarke's and Niven's footsteps Pohl's aliens have built a massive structure which humanity can only fathom the most basic of information about it. Unlike Clarke and Niven, however, the people in Pohl's novels are working to do something about that.

Gateway is a huge alien space station that exists outside of the plane of the solar system close enough that people can travel there regularly. On the station are thousands of small craft that are the only thing known capable of faster than light travel. The problem is that people only know how to get them to go and stop. A course can be set but its unintelligible to the humans who gamble on these ships to find artifacts of the lost civilization that built Gateway. They've been gone for over a hundred thousand years but the few trinkets that survive can be reverse engineered. With the destinations unknown the risk for people searching for artifacts is high but someone who returns with a new find will be rich beyond imagination.

The book is about Bob Broadhead whose last trip out from Gateway made him one of the wealthiest men in the world but left him mentally shattered. As he undergoes psychiatric treatment he recounts how he spent his winnings from a lottery on a ticket to Gateway to gamble on making a real fortune but lost his nerve when he got there. How he recovers it and the tales of the journeys he makes from the station drive the story.

That narrative isn't really the point, though. Gateway is about as immersive of science fiction novel as you'll find. The station feels real and you can almost smell the stench. Everyone on the station is gambling on one big score and their triumphs and failures resonate strongly. Pohl adds to the immersion by often including tidbits of text from various publications on Gateway; advertisements, lecture notes, bits of reports, and the like. By the time the novel ends Gateway is a living breathing place.

As a viewpoint character Bob is pretty reprehensible. He does a lot of unlikable things in the novel but one gets the impression that much of it is done because of his fragile mental state and he remains interesting despite this. Still if you require a likable protagonist then you may not enjoy Gateway as much.

One of the things that I really appreciated in Gateway was the fact that people are trying to learn from the alien artifact. In Rendezvous With Rama, for example, people show up and look around but they don't do much in terms of trying to recover artifacts. Here people are taking a step up, often at great risk.

And speaking of that risk if there's one problem that I do have with Pohl's novel its that prospecting from Gateway is far too deadly. I did some quick back of the envelope calculations and found that they should run out of aliens ships to attrition in just a few years with the results that Pohl provides. It's a nitpick admittedly but since part of the atmosphere is that it is very dangerous and deadly having that danger far out of proportion to what should allow the system to function is disruptive.

But that's the worst thing I can say about Gateway. It's a wonderful book, a fine take on the alien artifact genre, and fascinating in its view of the mashed up culture that forms on this new frontier. It also has an incredibly haunting ending that will stick with you for a long time. This is one not to miss.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Reviews - "The Dragon Masters", "No Truce With Kings", and "Soldier, Ask Not"

Roy Krenkel
1963 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

"The Dragon Masters"
by Jack Vance

"No Truce With Kings"
by Poul Anderson

"Soldier, Ask Not"
by Gordon Dickson

1963, 1964, and 1965 Hugo Winners for Best Short Fiction

This one is going to be a bit different. These three stories were almost interchangeable. All are military science fiction and all feature a mysterious third party that claims to be neutral but is in fact using their advanced technology to affect the outcome. Two of them have some of that advanced technology be Asimov style psychohistory (predicting the course of civilization mathematically). Two of them are in post-apocalyptic settings. It's like the Hugo voters had a very set idea of what they wanted and voted for it over and over again.

"The Dragon Masters" is easily the worst of the three and I found it pretty objectionable. The key concept is that the survivors of humanity on a distant world have captured a few intelligent alien invaders, bred them like dogs into warrior slaves, and use them for their fighting. They also go so far as to use their intestines to make clothes. It's creepy and disturbing and I got the impression that Vance didn't realize the monsters he was making out of humanity. There were some moments that indicated that he might have meant something more (the protagonist justifying it because the aliens breed humans like dogs, too) but the whole thing is so ham handed that I'm left with the impression that Vance was promoting the enslavement of intelligent beings.

Adding to my dislike of "The Dragon Masters" is the fact that the characters are so stereotypical they might as well have been punched out from a mold. The hero is a scholarly man of action who uses his wits to triumph while the villain is a scheming blackheart who might as well twirl his mustache.

Ed Emshwiller
1964 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

"No Truce With Kings" fares better but not by much. The characters on all sides of the conflict are richly drawn and you get the impression that everyone featured are people who are caught up in events outside of their control. Anderson did a fine job in presenting some reasonably detailed military tactics which help drive the novel.

Unfortunately the story is also packed thick with clunky exposition and the prose drove me up the wall. Foot soldiers as a rule should not stop and give a page long explanation of the current political situation in the middle of combat, for example. Also, Anderson somehow claims that feudalism is the political system of choice for freedom. Perhaps if you were a land owner under the Magna Carta but I think most serfs would disagree with that assessment.

John Schoenherr
1965 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

"Soldier, Ask Not" is the best of the three by far. Rather than following someone in the military it follows a supposedly neutral news reporter who is determined to crush the spirit of the people on the losing side of a war. It's not a subtle work by any stretch but I found it interesting that Dickson argues that fanaticism, particularly religious fanaticism, is a vital part of human personality. Such an argument would be inconceivable in modern science fiction; Dickson would be stoned if it was written today. I disagree with that conclusion but Dickson at least makes the argument.

Of the three "Soldier, Ask Not" was the only one I thought was worthwhile. Dickson's story is interesting and all of the characters are fascinating. Anderson has an interesting idea but the prose hampers it badly. "The Dragon Masters" just completely repulsed me. Fortunately the voters got tired of this theme after three very similar stories so next time they picked something very different.