Saturday, January 19, 2008

Review - A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange
1972 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

A Clockwork Orange marks the end of the Hugo voter's love affair with Stanley Kubrick. To be honest I'm a bit surprised that The Shining didn't at least get a nomination but I suppose in the 70's that a horror film was just too far for science fiction fans to go.

2001 may have been an exploration of the heights that humanity could aspire to, but A Clockwork Orange is all about the depths that it can find. Almost every single character is amoral and the few that are not are typically victims of those that are. Even those who have an appearance of an altruistic streak have their own selfish motives at heart. This might be the single most cynical film ever made.

Alex is a member of a gang that spends its time fighting, beating helpless people, and raping anything that crosses their path. The only things in his world are violence and sex. After a session of cruelty which results in a woman's death Alex is caught by the police and finds that the authorities are just as brutal to the weak as he is. Alex is given an opportunity to leave prison by participating in an experiment that removes his capacity to commit violence.

Once more Kubrick demonstrates why he is one of the greatest film directors of all time. First he plunges the viewer into the same world of violence and sex that Alex occupies both overtly through watching Alex's gang and subtly through the images that occupy the background. He just as quickly shifts gears to present the "fun" of the first half of the film in a more harsh light and it builds some sympathy in the viewer for the sociopathic protagonist.

And just like in Kubrick's 2001 the imagery steals the show. Besides the famous sequence of Alex with his eyes pried open being forced to watch scenes of violence there's odd quirks like the high speed sex scene played over the William Tell Overture. Alex's choice of murder weapon is a giant ceramic penis which he is warned when he picks it up that "It's an important work of art!" His vision of the crucifixion is that he would enjoy being one of the Roman centurions torturing Jesus.

The cast deserves a special note in A Clockwork Orange. Besides Malcolm McDowell who had the challenge handling Alex all of the cast has to present a friendly face one moment only to turn into a beast the next. Everyone handles it superbly and it only adds to the chilling effects of scenes as the "innocent" turns on someone.

It's an exceptional movie with perhaps two flaws. First, and the most minor, is that the subject matter is a bit rough. The film earned its X rating and while it wouldn't be the same film without it at the same time it can definitely make people uncomfortable. I don't think its a reason to avoid the film but it's there. The other problem is that it tends to hammer home its message that the base instincts of mankind are part of what makes us human and that a complete repression would be a disaster. Fortunately there's only a few spots in the script where they stop to moralize but it was grating when it happened.

The fact that those complaint are so minor says a lot about how perfect this movie is. A Clockwork Orange is yet another masterpiece of cinema from Kubrick and certainly more of a coherent movie than his 2001. It is a movie not to be missed.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Oozing Skull, or Cinematic Titanic Episode 1

I just got back from seeing Cloverfield which is a spectacular monster movie. I could nitpick some things but it's a giant monster movie. It hits all the giant monster points exactly right and adds a few nice additional layers. If you have ever enjoyed any giant monster movie then Cloverfield is a film to see.

But let's go to the far side of the cinematic quality spectrum. The Oozing Skull a.k.a. Brain of Blood is the first of the releases from "Mystery Science Theater 3000"'s Joel Hodgson. His Cinematic Titanic project is a revival of the show, or as close as he can get to it. They are acquiring distribution rights to terrible movies, riffing on them with a Shadowrama style overlay using about two-thirds of the cast of the show (most of the remaining cast work with Mike Nelson on Rifftrax).

They came out of the gate with guns blazing. With five people riffing on the film they were rarely silent, they had plenty of good gags, and even the obscure references that MSTies love. Going with a seventies exploitation film for the initial project was a smart idea since it is rarely dull while being a terrible movie.

The "plot" of The Oozing Skull is that the very white dictator of a middle eastern country dies but has plans to have his brain transplanted into a young body. Needless to say things go wrong. He gets Abby Normal's body thanks to an incompetent mad scientist assistant and goes crazy. There's also a kidnapped woman chained up in a dungeon below the modern ranch house for some reason, a crusading doctor who's just kind of there, the little guy who played Master of Master Blaster in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome using a convenient footstool to tamper with car engines, and some rednecks who just pour battery acid on people for no good reason. Don't think about the film, just let it wash over you.

Occasionally the film is interrupted for brief skits where they typically interact with the screen but I found that these were not very good. I'm willing to give them some leeway on that since they're finding their feet.

I'm not fond of the Cinematic Titanic set, it feels overly busy to me and blocks too much of the screen. Also despite getting distribution rights to the film they only include a riffed version. I would have enjoyed having both versions of the film on the DVD even if I never watched it unriffed.

But that's hardly anything to complain about. This was a good effort and it makes me excited for the next Cinematic Titanic release.

I would tell you to go order it now but there is one major problem with this. At the moment The Oozing Skull is not available for download. They promise in the future to offer downloads for the films and that is the distribution method I would recommend using. Their other option is to have a service burn a copy of the movie, apply a label to the disk, and then send it to you. The burn and mail system is a complete disaster. It took four weeks between my order and the point that I received my disk. They tried to excuse themselves by saying that the demand was high. I'm sure it was but it costs pennies to use a local DVD reproduction service. They should have spread out their workload for the duplication. The other problem is that I received the disk in an envelope. No protective sleeve, no disk case, just a cardboard envelope at the same price as I could get most DVD's. It makes the burn and mail service seem completely unreliable and I would never use them again even if that's the only way the film is available.

So the product is good but until they have the online distribution rights (supposedly coming in April) I'd say keep away. Patience is a virtue and those of you who can be patient will hopefully be rewarded with much better service than I received.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Original D&D Comics

Across a period of two years in the early 80's TSR ran a special series of advertisements in comic books for Dungeons and Dragons. These ads were short comic strips detailing an adventure party which makes them the original D&D comics. We start our story with the adventure already in progress (I have been unable to locate an earlier strip leading into this):

This page is the only one with a signature: Willingham. That would be Bill Willingham, artist on the very impressive series Fables, who spent one year doing images for TSR modules. Obviously he did not do the first page.

After after that the adventure ends, but the advertisements must go on so...

And so it ends. No more of these advertisement strips were produced; the next month TSR switched to a more normal advertisement for their game just showing a few people in a psuedo-medieval town.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Review - Foundation's Edge

Foundation's Edge
by Isaac Asimov
1983 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

Hey kids, here's a few warning signs that a book may be terrible:

It is the continuation of a series by an author who has not done anything with that series in more than ten years.

It is even more likely if it's an author at the end of their career revisiting their biggest success.

It attempts to combine two or more separate series by the author into one.

It is the fourth (or greater) book in a series that was originally set at three (or fewer) books.

If you see these warning signs put the book down and go get something else. Yes, I know you liked the author's previous work. Yes, I know you've read all the previous books. If it's any good then people will mention it and it will still be there to read. If it is terrible then you can be smug when people complain about it and say, "Oh, I stopped while it was still good."

So that's a long way of saying that you can tell that Foundation's Edge wouldn't be very good from a long way off. Reliving past glories decades later? Check. Tries to merge series? Check. Fourth book in the trilogy? Check. So was their a miracle?

No. Not even close. Foundation's Edge is terrible. (So is Heinlein's The Cat Who Walked Through Walls for the same reason, but at least they didn't give that one a Hugo.)

In the book a member of the Foundation suspects that the Second Foundation is hiding somewhere in the universe and is still manipulating events to rebuild a galactic empire. These statements bother the current government so they exile him under the pretense of searching for the Second Foundation. Meanwhile the Second Foundation realizes that there is a third group manipulating events but doing too good of a job at it which is making people suspect the continued existence of the Second Foundation. They send an agent of their own out to assist the exile as part of their own hunt for the manipulators who they suspect is on humanity's lost home world.

There's three things wrong with this book: the plot, the characters, and the prose. (Substitute "the characters" with "the people" if you feel a need to be alliterative.) There isn't a lot of plot here. Despite being one of the shorter novels that won this could have easily been compressed to one third the length. There's large tracts of people talking in circles, explaining things the reader already knows over and over again filling pages. Many long, pointless digressions that wear the reader down until you're just shouting "Get on with it!" Not that getting on with it would help since the book is predictable with events telegraphed so far in advance you have to wonder why the characters don't realize it themselves.

The characters themselves are paper thin and exist only to move the plot forward. Protagonists are perfect, antagonists are are mustache twirling, ineffectual twits. Our perfect protagonists effortlessly wander the universe and solve their problems while they tweak the noses of the villains. These characters are as interesting as drying paint.

Particularly annoying is the way that Asimov tries to cram in thirty years of advancement into Foundation's Edge to justify the future presented in original trilogy. He attempts to merge in his Robot stories while justifying the lack of robots in the Foundation universe before. Since the low technology of the original setting can't really be justified except in the metatextual way of just saying, "It was science fiction written in the 1940's," trying to justify it is an exercise in frustration.

The result of this whole thing is unsatisfactory at best and just a terrible novel at worst. While I can give a hesitant recommendation for the original trilogy based on its importance this follow-up is better forgotten. It's a case where the Hugo voters picked their selection based on the name of the author rather than the quality of the product and it makes Foundation's Edge one of the biggest shames of the Hugo Awards.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Review - The Foundation Trilogy

Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation
by Isaac Asimov
1966 Hugo Winner for Best All-Time Series

Since I'm reviewing Foundation's Edge tomorrow I thought now would be a good time to go back and look at the original three. Written as a series of short stories and novellas over several years they were published in book form before the Hugo Awards began (eventually one novella section, "The Mule", would be awarded a "retro-Hugo", an award handed out for works written decades before). And before I get too far into this let's take a brief look at the nominees.

Isaac Asimov's The Foundation Trilogy - Our eventual winner, the culmination of the golden age of science fiction and a work that paved the way for the change in focus of science fiction in the 50's.

Robert Heinlein's Future History - A more loosely collected set of stories and books from the man who was on top of science fiction at that moment.

Doc E. E. Smith's Lensman series - The high point of early space opera and packed with a real sense of wonder.

Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom Series - You can make a good argument that almost all of the pulp science fiction sprung from this source.

J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings - One of the most well-read, well-regarded, and influential books of the twentieth century and the only one which fifty years on was still having a major and direct impact on culture.

One of those doesn't belong; can you tell which?

Actually this says quite a bit about the changing nature of fandom. The Hugo award is chosen by the vote of science fiction fans at that year's Worldcon and in 1966 fantasy didn't have the dominating following that it does today. So they picked the one that they knew.

The premise of the stories is that in the distant future mankind has filled the galaxy. It has been united for thousands of years by an empire that covers millions of worlds. Harry Seldon is a psycho-historian, a branch of science that attempts to chart the course of history by determining the paths that entire societies will take. He realizes that social forces are in motion that will cause the Empire to collapse and result in a dark age lasting thirty thousand years. To counter this he establishes two foundations at opposite ends of the galaxy with the intention of them reducing that dark age to just one thousand years.

The books start with a series of short stories illustrating the challenges that the first foundation faces in maintaining civilization. Typically this focuses on a crisis moment where they are threatened but the forces of sociology defend them. A real kink in the plan occurs when a mutant is born who through that one person's actions can overturn the progression of history.

When the Foundation series was written history and sociology were not sciences that were generally considered acceptable subjects to theorize about for science fiction. That impression started changing with it, developed more fully in the fifties, and finally was well accepted by the 1960's. Asimov also overturns the roll of the traditional pulp adventurers and villains because as the book progresses their roll is less important than they would like to think.

Asimov used his own knowledge of history to fine effect in the books. The collapse of the Galactic Empire parallels the fall of Rome and Asimov used the hindsight of history to set up some of the scenarios that the Foundation faces.

Unfortunately the prose in The Foundation Trilogy simply does not hold up. It's very pulpy right down to the people spitting large blocks of exposition that they already know at each other. If you don't mind pulp in your writing then it isn't so bad but it will turn off some modern readers.

The science of psycho-history is a real stumbling block as well. The idea is that while individual actions cannot be predicted the paths that societies in general will take can be. It is, in essence, the opposite of the "great man" theory of history where events are shaped by having one person in the right place at the right time. Psycho-history works so well, we are lead to believe, that it can predict down to the day when problems will occur. The books do eventually go on to fill in that plot hole somewhat but the concept doesn't really hold up to close scrutiny.

The concepts that Asimov uses in The Foundation Trilogy are interesting; the collapse of one civilization while another arises in its ashes makes for a tale that can be very absorbing. Despite my objections I still enjoyed the concepts over all so I'd give it a very hesitant recommendation. If you'd like it depends entirely on your tolerance for golden age science fiction.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Review - Downbelow Station

Downbelow Station
by C. J. Cherryh
1982 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

It usually only takes me two or three days to read a novel. C. J. Cherryh's stuff took me about a week and a half. Not because it was significantly longer and not because it was so terrible that I had to keep putting down the book and walking away but because it was dense.

Some writers can take fifteen hundred pages to tell a story that could fit into five hundred (I'm looking at you fantasy series authors). Cherryh takes eight hundred pages and tells a story that could have fit comfortably into two thousand. Downbelow Station is stuffed to overflowing with complex plots that will make your head spin.

An unfortunate result of this is that you'll spend the first hundred pages with your head spinning. "Who was that? Why did they lie about that? Where was that again?" Cherryh places a rather painful history lesson at the beginning of the book to try to give readers the groundwork but it fails badly.

I had not read any of Cherryh's books before and so going into Downbelow Station I was unaware that it used an existing setting. I had resolved that for books where I had not read the earlier books in the series that I would try to read those earlier books first but I just didn't know. Cherryh's history lesson is too dry, goes on too long, and the exposition should have been incorporated into the book better. Fortunately once I was up to speed the fact that I didn't read the previous works didn't matter but it may have made the start even rockier for me.

The book is about the struggle for Pell, a trading outpost in orbit around the only planet where humans have found other intelligent life in the universe. Many factions want to control it or use the station as a pawn in their own conflicts and Cherryh essentially mixes them all up and has them fight. They are:

  • The Union, a Soviet style communist dictatorship that broke away from Earth and is now returning as conquerors. Pell is the last station before they can get back into Earth's shipping lanes. After an extended war they've broken...
  • The Earth Company Fleet who are now fighting a slow retreat, evacuating thousands from other stations as the Union destroys them. They've flooded Pell with refugees to throw the administation into chaos, the better to use the station as a staging ground for one last desperate gamble against the Union. However they've been betrayed by...
  • The Earth Company who have lost control of the fleet. They've withdrawn all support for the fleet and are in negotiations with the Union to try to stall them long enough for Earth to prepare it's next move.
  • The Konstantines have run Pell for generations as a neutral outpost and are trying to hold onto that neutrality in this conflict but...
  • Jon Lukas, a businessman on Pell, has a plan to overthrow them and seize control of the station for himself. Unfortunately...
  • The refugees on Pell have been forced into a cramped, quarantined section and they have plans of their own for getting out. A wild card in this is...
  • Emilio Konstantine who has been given control of Downbelow Station, the human outpost on the planet below, and has resources of his own to put into this conflict. Meanwhile...
  • The merchant alliance simply wants to stay out of it but they are preyed upon by Union and Company forces alike. The Union seizing their cargo and the Company forming press gangs.
And that's just part of it. There's the double agents, plots within plots, and everyone lying about just about everything. Downbelow Station requires careful reading because of its density of plot. The characters are all richly drawn and I didn't find any of the antagonistic characters (it's hard to call them "antagonists" when there's so many conflicting factions) to be shallow. Cherryh created a very rich book.

My only major complaint is that the prose is at best workmanlike. It's not much of a fault really but it does make it harder to get through those initial pages while you're trying to figure out who's who.

Though I had not read Downbelow Station before I was aware of the book. When Babylon 5 was airing it was often cited by the show's creator as a major influence. I could see large sections of the novel where concepts and actions were homaged (to put it politely) and so I would definitely recommend reading Downbelow Station to fans of Babylon 5 just to see where some of the things came from.

To be more precise I'd highly recommend Downbelow Station but you need to be aware going into it that you'll have to make a major investment of time and effort before the ideas come together. I know quite a few people who couldn't make it over that initial steep hill to enjoy the depth of the novel but my feeling is that it is well worth that initial effort.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Reviews - "Weyr Search", "Riders of the Purple Wage", "Gonna Roll the Bones", and "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream"

Jack Gaughan
1968 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

I'm taking a break from the magazine covers for an interior illustration. This one is from Fred Saberhagen's "Brother Assassin" and features a Foucault stand-in noticing his pendulum while a time traveling murder cyborg from the future which is in disguise (no relation to the Terminator) hunts him down.

"Weyr Search"
by Anne McCaffrey
Tied for 1968 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

The entire Pern series came from this humble origin but I won't hold that against this story which managed to be fairly entertaining. It's not a particularly deep story and while nominally science fiction the tropes owe a lot more to fantasy series than science fiction.

Centuries ago the dragonriders saved Pern from an invasion of a plague from another star system and maintained an early warning system against it. Now their power has waned but its close to the time when the plague will come again. Their queen is dying though and they are on a desperate search among people who no longer respect them for a woman who can rule them. They may find them in the crumbling ruins of one of the few castles who still supported them but was conquered and all of their heirs murdered.

I found all of the characters completely unpleasent in "Weyr Search" but at the same time they were at least interesting. There's the woman (who obviously is the object of their search) who plots murderous revenge for a decade, just the kind of stable personality you want ruling a group of warriors with superior firepower, and is rather casual about the brutal deaths of people around her. The leader of the search is determined to impose a new rule by the dragonriders. They're only looking for nobles; if you're not of the ruling class then you're clearly beneath them. Though they are the protagonists and the villain is set up as so much of a caricature that you have to root for them.

But at the same time they're lively, they pursue their goals ruthlessly, and are interesting to read about. The result is that "Weyr Search" is an entertaining story to read even if it doesn't amount to much. I'm not fond of where the series went or it's acres of imitators the original is enjoyable.

"Riders of the Purple Wage"
by Philip José Farmer
Tied for 1968 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

This on the other hand was painful. Very painful.

The story is pretentious, overwritten and most of it is a set up for a very bad pun. In fact there's a lot of very bad puns in the stream-of-consciousness rambling that comprises most of "Riders of the Purple Wage" something that Farmer attempts to justify by essentially saying other, better writers used them. Of course those other, better writers didn't ram the puns down their readers throats over and over again and create a nearly sixty page, unreadable mess as a set up for a bad pun.

I cannot describe just how horrible the prose in this short story is. Most of it is a very bad James Joyce pastiche and since I don't care for Joyce to begin with someone doing a bad copy of him just makes it worse. It shifts tone and style randomly and it is built around being as pretentious as possible which just makes it worse.

The story is about a young artist who is having a showing that will determine if his family can stay in their home, where his grandfather has been hiding from the police for thirty years, or if they will have to leave the country. In this future everyone gets welfare from the government and nearly everything is provided for them. Those who cannot get by on the welfare check are sent to other countries. The artist is be pressured to have sex with a critic in exchange for a good review.

I'd like to give Farmer the benefit of the doubt and say that his pretentious style was chosen because of his theme but even if he did it still makes it a very unpleasant story to read. If the prose is unreadable then the effect no matter how well intentioned has failed.

"Gonna Roll the Bones"
by Fritz Leiber
1968 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette
1967 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

Even more than "Weyr Search" this feels like Leiber slapped some very loose science fiction references onto a perfectly good fantasy story in order to sell it. He occasionally mentions spacecraft or travelers from other worlds but it doesn't come into the story at all.

Instead it is about an unpleasant man who leaves his wife behind at home one night to gamble and get drunk. He finds a new gambling den open with some very high rollers and he is determined to use his skill in perfectly throwing dice to win a large sum from them. This gambling den is not a normal place and his game is for higher stakes than he first thinks.

Though this is a pretty traditional style of story it is done very well. I suspect that I would have enjoyed it more if I knew how to play craps which is the center of the story but I could follow enough to enjoy it.

"I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream"
by Harlan Ellison
1968 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

What if an omnipotent god was a being of so much hatred that it makes the stuff portrayed in the Old Testament look like a mild scolding? It's the disturbing premise of Ellison's story which tells of five people trapped by a computer which has gained omnipotence. The computer tortures them in some of the most horrifically graphic ways you can imagine. These people live with no hope and no peace. The characters are distorted to the point of inhumanity but you can still sympathize with them due to the nature of their tortures.

Ellison's prose brings this scenario to life and though the story is very short it will haunt you and it can be very unsettling to read. It is still a great story specifically for that.