Thursday, January 10, 2008

Reviews - Michael Whelan's Works of Wonder, The Chesley Awards for Science Fiction and Fantasy Art, and Science Fiction of the 20th Century

So do those books have long titles or what?

The related non-fiction Hugo winning books tends to fall into a handful of narrow categories. There's the encyclopedias (two of which I've already touched on), there are the biographies (Isaac Asimov could be a category unto himself), and then there are the art books.

I am not an art critic. I can't even pretend to play one on television. The best I can do is look at something and say, "I like that." So take any judgments on the art with that grain of salt. Instead I'm going to be concentrating on the presentation of the art in these three books. So let's get started.

Michael Whelan's Works of Wonder
by Michael Whelan
1988 Hugo Winner for Best Related Non-Fiction Book

I'm not a fan of Whelan's work though he is one of those artists that the Hugo voters latched onto for a decade and selected over and over again for the best professional artist. I find much of his work to be too stiff and lifeless, like manikins instead of people are staring out into the vague middle distance from his covers. I have seen works by him that I liked but they are almost all a decade into the future at the point that this collection was published.

So for me the art was a bust but if you like Whelan the package is superb. Each work is given a two page spread. On the right is a large reproduction of the original painting while the left page has the final book cover, preliminary sketches, and a short text piece by Whelan about the painting. The downside of this format is that there's only about thirty of Whelan's paintings in the book and he was far more prolific than that. Large chunks are taken up by demonstrating each painting for a particular series like his covers for all of the then published Piers Anthony Incarnations of Immortality series.

I would have liked to have seen more works and a more diverse selection in this book but the layout did work to give you everything you could want on the paintings included. If you love Whelan there are more recent books of his art that you may prefer but I don't think you'd be unhappy with this.

The Chesley Awards for Science Fiction and Fantasy Art: A Retrospective
by John Grant, Elizabeth Humphrey, and Pamela D. Scoville
2004 Hugo Winner for Best Related Non-Fiction Book

On the far side of the spectrum this collection of the winners of the Chesley Awards features works from over fifty artists. Their work covers the full range of fantastic images from high fantasy to horror which means that there's something in it for every taste.

The book is broken up into years with large pictures of the winners for each category and a multipage spread of the major works of the winner of the Artistic Achievement award. Occasionally there is a very brief comment from the artist on the work. The awards for specific works are given a minimum of a quarter of page with most of them being larger. In the retrospective sections the images are occasionally smaller but it features a fine selection.

My biggest problem is that the Chesley award selection seems rather similar to the Hugo selection for best professional artists: they tend to pick the same people for the major awards over and over again. I'm not completely familiar with the fantasy art scene but I suspect that it should be large enough that the same four or five people should not dominate awards for decades. Even the achievement awards are given to the same people repeatedly.

Also it bothered me that in some years all of the winners were not included. Too often there was a tiny box that told me who two or three of the winners not depicted were. If this book is intended to cover all of the winners, as it appears to, then not being complete is flaw.

Still if you just want a book featuring a wide variety of high quality fantasy art then you can do worse than this.

Science Fiction of the 20th Century: An Illustrated History
by Frank M. Robinson

2000 Hugo Winner for Best Related Book

There's something that cover image doesn't convey. This book is a monster. This is the book that makes the OED say, "Blimey, 'e's 'uge!" I've had cars smaller than this book. Paperbacks fall into orbit around it. In short, it's big.

To be honest I wasn't expecting an art book. The entry in my list for the collection was simply "Science Fiction of the 20th Century". And the impression I had when I ordered it was that the book was just a history book.

Well the history portion of it stinks. Three quarters of it is dedicated to different magazines where most of what was written about them were different editorial changes. Magazines are obviously a big part of the history but half way through the century they got rolled under by the rise of the mass market book publishers. The result is that the "history" feels like it has huge gaps. It's also dry and sterile. There's only one personal anecdote in the entire text, only three or four anecdotes told second hand that reveal anything, and the rest is just bland.

On the other hand it is packed with over 400 images of just about every major and minor science fiction magazine ever published. Even a few of the major fanzines get a bit of coverage. There is a bit of context given with each picture. It does have a focus on first and historically important issues but sometimes the issue described in the text isn't shown. A common bit is telling us how awful the first issue of a short lived magazine was and showing us that cover and then going on to say that the covers for the other two issues are great without providing them.

In order to pack in that many images there are few full page images and often a cover might be printed relatively small. This is a case where the size of the book helps, though, since relatively small still means a few inches and the text is clearly visible.

As a history book Science Fiction of the 20th Century is terrible but it is an impressive overview of magazines, major book covers, and movie posters. The selection of magazine covers is particularly good and if you are interested in them then it makes a fine coffee table book.