Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Secret of One More Day Revealed!

Comic fans are up in arms over Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Joe Quesada's demands to remove Spider-Man's marriage. Besides One More Day being a rotten story requiring that bother Spider-Man and Mary Jane be willing to betray their spouse to the devil it just shoves the book back to the same point that it was at just after Gwen Stacy died back in 1974. That got me to thinking about the fan reaction to that first removal of a love of Spider-Man's life and I found this in the letter column of Amazing Spider-Man #127:

And so the truth (or something that doesn't really resemble it) is revealed at last!

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Moon Landing

Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin, and Michael Collins
1969 Hugo Winners for the Best Moon Landing Ever

News coverage of Apollo XI
1970 Hugo Winner for Dramatic Presentation

I was totally unconvinced. You'd think that the government could find an actor who wouldn't flub his lines.

And right there is the evidence that it was faked: it won the award for "dramatic presentation". You can't win that with a news event and you know the guys at NASA were all science fiction nerds so they probably voted it in as a joke.

And "the best moon landing ever"? You'd think those Hugo voters had never seen a moon landing before.

(I hope I didn't just start another moon hoax rumor...)

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.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Review - The Snow Queen

The Snow Queen
by Joan D. Vinge
1981 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

I have to confess that I have not read Hans Christian Anderson's original story "The Snow Queen". Vinge took the framework of Anderson's story, placed some science fiction trappings around it, and this was the result. Unfortunately I am not able to compare it to the original work but Vinge's version was entertaining.

At some point thousands of years in the future there is a planet which is the only place in the known universe where an immortality drug can be made. Unfortunately for the rich and powerful this system's access to the rest of the universe alternates between open and closed every few centuries. When this change occurs the climate of the planet changes and by tradition the barbaric tribes take over. When the gate is open the planet is ruled by the immortal Snow Queen who rules a decadent city of technology.

The current Snow Queen knows her time is short and when the gate closes she'll be sacrificed and replaced with the Summer Queen but she has a plan to continue her line. She creates clone embryos of herself and has them implanted into woman from the barbarian tribes who come into her city of a festival. She then plans on locating the child raising it to be a new version of her, and then will take her life to become the new Summer Queen.

Only one of the clones survive and before she is located this clone is allowed into an order of witches forbidden in the Queen's city. Her childhood friend travels to the city to make his fortune and falls under the Queen's spell to become her right hand man and lover. Naturally things build to a confrontation between everyone.

That is a very abridged summary and the story is even more complicated than that. There's plots, counterplots, manipulative outside forces working to limit an omniscient force, and even a quick trip with some time dilation to throw things off. The Snow Queen is a very busy novel but at the same time I never felt lost reading it. Vinge juggles the many plot threads well and builds a spectacular tapestry from them.

I have one very major problem with this book. Let's say that there is a large group of people who are omniscient. They can answer any question put to them accurately though they find it exhausting to do so. That's any question from "What did I have for dinner 428 days ago?" to "How do I build a spacecraft?" It's common knowledge that they have this ability. So do you:

a) Spy on the neighbors.
b) Using some trial and error as well as writing everything down gain basic knowledge and improve the quality of life for everyone.
c) Use them to gain military intelligence.
d) Call them witches and make them complete outcasts.

Vinge goes with option "d" and the whole book and multiple plot points hinge on this. Despite the fact that these people have been around for thousands of years. Despite the fact that anyone who takes advantage of their omniscience would gain such an advantage over someone who didn't that people trying to repress them would be crushed instantly. It's my least favorite plot element: entire planets worth of people have to be idiots for thousands of years in order for the story to work.

This could have easily sunk the whole book for me but Vinge pulled off a miracle with the characters. The Snow Queen is overstuffed with some very rich, fascinating characters. All of the antagonists are given very human perspectives which make them all fascinating. The only problem that I have with the characters is that the main character is a little too willing to forgive attempted genocide.

Vinge's prose is also vivid and brings the setting to life. The decadent city that the Snow Queen rules is very distinctive and it makes the setting for the majority of the book. You can feel the weight of years and people clinging onto the ruins of the past living there.

So the plot hole gave me a huge headache but the rest of the package for The Snow Queen was exceptionally good. For that reason I'd recommend it; the story is very enjoyable and it left me wanting to know what happened to these characters next.

Quite a few of the books I've gotten for my Hugo winner collection have book plates, the most popular being that Boris Vallejo one that every teenage boy who liked fantasy used for a period in the 80's. My copy of The Snow Queen has the most terrifying of them all:

I've removed the name to protect the guilty but looking up that name I found an alternative musician that fits the right age and location for the used book store that I got the book from. Should this person ever hit it big I have the blackmail material handy.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

That's Their 25 Best?

It's been passed around quite a bit in the past few days but take a look at Entertainment Weekly's selection for the best science fiction movies and television shows of the past twenty-five years. Go ahead and look, I'll wait.

So is that the worst list ever or what?

I mean the first thing you see when you go to that list is V. V, the low quality miniseries about reptile space aliens stealing earth's water. They say it's a cautionary tail about fascism but then why not add a good one to the list like the coincidently named V for Vendetta?

The Clone Wars is on the list and that was an okay bit of animation but it was disjointed just by being set up in three minute chunks. If they wanted a Star Wars item on the list and wanted to stay away from the new trilogy then maybe Return of the Jedi might have been a good choice.

Two Paul Verhoeven movies are on the list one of which is generally regarded by science fiction fans as one of the greatest travesties in modern film. It makes me wonder if the person who compiled it actually watches a great deal of science fiction or if they just picked a bunch of names out of a hat.

Notably missing is a field where science fiction has flared to prominence in the past twenty-five years: anime. While I wouldn't want to flood the list with animated movies and television shows it would be easy to justify quite a few. Sticking to just the big names which are major oversights Akira, Ghost in the Shell, or Cowboy Bebop easily outclass the bulk of their list.

Now I'm not one for trying to make numbered lists. My moods change from day to day and how I'd rank something shifts so I won't try to rework the list. Instead I'm just going to run through twenty-five shows that were not on their list but were better than some of the things they had:

28 Days Later
Alien Nation
Babylon 5
Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure
Cowboy Bebop
Crest of the Stars
Dune (the miniseries)
Ghost in the Shell
Jurassic Park
Mystery Science Theater 3000
Now and Again
Red Dwarf
Return of the Jedi
The Road Warrior
Stargate SG-1
The Truman Show
Twelve Monkeys
Twilight Zone (the 80's television series)
V for Vendetta
X-Men 2

I'm sure that another science fiction fan would be able to come up with more and that will always be a problem with making this kind of list. Still the list that Entertainment Weekly had was packed with weak entries and quite a few that were completely terrible so just about anything would be better.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Review - The Fountains of Paradise

The Fountains of Paradise
by Arthur C. Clarke
1980 Hugo Winner for Best Novel
1979 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

With The Fountains of Paradise I decided that the longer works of Clarke were simply not for me. I found the book too heavy with the engineering, too light on the glossed over human elements, and just bland in general. In other words almost exactly like his previous winner Rendezvous With Rama.

Also this is the end of the almost perfectly coinciding Hugo and Nebula winners that the first fifteen years of Nebulas had (over the previous decade the winners in the novel category were the same 80% of the time). The next four years the awards do not match followed by a short run of matching winners and then finally going their separate ways only occasionally meeting again.

The Fountains of Paradise deals with the construction of the first orbital elevator in a slightly fictionalized version of Sri Lanka, a cable with the top in geostationary orbit and the bottom anchored to the ground so that one can simply climb up the thirty thousand miles to space. Complications abound such as the ancient monastery on top of the mountain where the elevator terminus would be and sabotage from the Tamil Tiger stand-ins.

I'll give Clarke full credit for having an interesting idea for the novel. There's no reason why the push to create a space elevator shouldn't be an interesting idea but Clarke writes about it like he's writing about the construction of a parking garage. I don't mean that the characters should spend time going "Gosh, wow! We're transforming the future of humanity!" but they are and everything is so passionless that it just wears me down. The best that Clarke does is near the beginning as he describes to us the wonders that will be disrupted by the massive project. I suspect that comes from his love of the country that he's describing which he would retire to after the book was published.

Oddly enough a major plot device in the book is the near total control over the weather that the Earth has (fine enough to whip up a major storm in a specific location). I would think that anyone with the technology to manipulate a chaotic system in such detail on a global scale would have no trouble with a space elevator project. Weather control on that scale is so far into Clarke's technology indistinguishable from magic that when you posit a civilization that has that has it then you might as well say they have anything.

The Fountains of Paradise is a very anti-religion novel. Besides the Buddhist monks who stand directly in the path of the superhighway there is an alien probe that passes through the solar system and essentially says, "Oh by the way, all of your religions are wrong! See ya!" Clarke tells us that this shuts down religion world wide and makes everyone happy. Except the Buddhist monks, of course.

For a book with a fantastic premise The Fountains of Paradise is just weak. If you are happy with novels about engineering then it may appeal to you more than it did to me but it ended my desire to read any more from Clarke.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Review - "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman", "The Last Castle", and "Neutron Star"

Frank Frazetta
966 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

"'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman"
by Harlan Ellison
966 Hugo Winner for Best Short Fiction
1965 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

And so I finally come to Harlan Ellison, the grumpiest man in science fiction. Ellison had some very good years starting in 1966 but that's better covered next week when I touch on the year he walked away with three Hugos in three different categories.

If I had to pick a single Ellison story as the best example of his style it would be "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman". Despite the clumsy title it is a very entertaining counterculture tale of a society that has made being late a sin and now runs like clockwork. The Harlequin is a mysterious figure who tweaks the nose of authority and gums up the works a bit while his nemesis is the Ticktockman who is given power over life and death to make sure everything runs on time.

It's the classic Trickster versus the Lawgiver formula wrapped up in an Orwellian future. Anyone would cheer for a character who makes a fool of Big Brother, but the Harlequin is also a man who isn't able to function in their society and Ellison adds a touch of pity through that.

Ellison's use of language is superb (just in case you couldn't get that from the title) and the prose carries the story very well. It's sharp, it's tight, and I can't recommend this story enough.

"The Last Castle"
by Jack Vance
1967 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette
1966 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

In 1967 the short fiction awards were divided again into two categories and the following year they would be split once more into three categories. Vance took the first of the returned novelette awards with this story of the collapse of a decadent society.

In the distant future a new breed of aristocrats have set themselves up in the ruins of the earth. There people are so aristocratic that they make Victorian england gentlemen look like savages. They have captured intelligent aliens and converted them to slave races. When they inevitably revolt they are quite put out and are rather shocked when the rabble they've been condescending toward for decades don't fall over themselves to protect the people living in the castles.

The characters in this short story are like shadow puppets of aristocrats; they're two dimensional and shallow. They exist only to show the reader how ludicrously over the top they are. It makes them both unpleasant to read about and uninteresting because they are so incredibly predictable.

If you like seeing obnoxious aristocrats getting their comeuppance then you may find more to enjoy in this story than I did. Personally I've seen that done too many times that this average entry into that field didn't interest me at all.

Jack Gaughan
1967 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

"Neutron Star"
by Larry Niven
1967 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

This was one of Niven's earliest published stories and it is still a bit rough though you can see some of the promise that his later career would demonstrate.

Supposedly nothing can get through a General Products spaceship hull except visible light but when a scientific mission passed within a mile of a neutron star something killed all of the crew on board and smashed much of their equipment. Concerned about their reputation the president of General Products hires a pilot and outfits him with a state of the art ship to replicate the trip and determine what killed the crew.

I do have a problem with this story in that I would hope that any scientist planning a close pass by a neutron star would realize the problem that killed them. It's part of what makes the star an interesting thing to visit. If they're the experts in their field that they're supposed to be then they would have taken it into account. At the same time if the company was making a major effort to determine what killed them then the answer would be found just by asking a few people familiar with the concept of neutron stars. Since the solution isn't necessarily obvious to someone who isn't planning or researching them having people who wouldn't spot the problem as the focus of the story would have eliminated that plot hole.

The characters are rather thin, though the pilot does get some development. Mainly they exist to act as a science lesson to the reader and Niven's prose does convey the unusual phenomenon well. It reminds me of those stories from the golden age where the heroic scientist demonstrated some principle of physics to resolve the story. Your tolerance for "Neutron Star" is going to be dependent on how much you enjoy that.