Saturday, February 9, 2008

Review - Young Frankenstein

Young Frankenstein
1975 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation
1976 Nebula Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

As noted last week humor is a very subjective thing so I'm not surprised that comedies are not popular choices for any category of Hugo award. By my count there are six comedic winners of the dramatic presentation Hugo award across fifty years of awards with a few years doubled up. And that's counting a few marginal films where they balance the humor with other elements.

So Young Frankenstein initially seems to be really odd choice. Of course it did come out at a very introspective moment in science fiction history where people were starting to look back over the genre. Brian Aldiss, for example, had recently published his Frankenstein Unbound and Mary Shelly was getting a lot of credit for kicking of the science fiction genre. Frankenstein was getting a lot of attention among science fiction fans at that moment.

It also doesn't hurt that Young Frankenstein is a really good movie. From Mel Brooks prior to his descent into a spiral of repeating pop culture references (perhaps this film represents the start of that) it's packed with jokes and manages to be a clever retelling of the Frankenstein story. It is more closely related to the James Whale film than Shelly's book but that's a choice of medium for the parody.

I think that Young Frankenstein works better as a comedy for me than Sleeper just because of its range. While ostensibly a parody of the Whale film Brooks does not limit himself to just that. The parody is a framework to hang just about kind of humor imaginable onto and it gives the movie both a variety and manic energy that I enjoyed.

One of the things that I really appreciated is that Brooks shot the film in the exact style of one of the Universal horror films from the 1930's. It goes far deeper than just shooting in black and white and using some of the old props. The effects, the sets, the make-up, even the cinematography and editing are as close as possible to the old films. There was a more theatrical style to movies in the 1930's and much of that is reproduced here. This attention to detail is completely unnecessary to the jokes but it adds another layer onto things.

Of course all of this skilled direction would be worthless without a great cast to deliver those jokes and Young Frankenstein has one of the greatest. Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, and Teri Garr carry most of the movie on their interactions alone and each of them give the best performance of their careers. Even their reactions to the jokes delivered by their fellow cast members are funny.

While my preference in Mel Brooks films is for The Producers (the original, of course) Young Frankenstein is similarly great and it isn't hard to see why the Hugo voters selected it. I can't recommend this film highly enough.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Review - Dangerous Visions

Dangerous Visions
Edited by Harlan Ellison
1968 Special Hugo Award

I mentioned in my Neuromancer review that the book was a revolution that touched almost all corners of science fiction. It wasn't the first, though. Star Wars, for example, has had a profound influence on what people expect from science fiction. But even before then there was another revolution, one so successful that most readers don't even know it occurred.

For a long time the magazine editors were essentially the gatekeepers of science fiction. If this tiny handful of people didn't care for a work then it never saw print and their tastes were firmly set on certain styles (typically a very pulpy 1930 style). It was difficult for many stories to find a place because of this. In the mid-sixties the tastes of the current audience were changing and what authors were writing was changing but those editors were not. Harlan Ellison, one of those authors who was having problems with these editors, decided to put together an anthology of stories too "dangerous" to see print. He told authors to send him their most extreme material and he assembled this massive book containing thirty-three stories from thirty-two different authors that laid out new styles and touched subjects that were being avoided.

It was wildly successful. More than just being a hit with readers the real impact was behind the scenes where those gatekeepers realized that people did want more and so started accepting works that were more like what Ellison had encouraged. Science fiction would never be the same.

I think it is fair to say that if Ellison hadn't set down this manifesto the changes in style would have seeped into the genre through other methods. All of the new wave writers were pushing the existing boundaries and that erosion would have won out eventually. What Dangerous Visions did was mark a moment in time where we can say before it the editors were more restrictive on what they would accept and after it they realized how much more science fiction fans wanted.

So it was very important but the question then becomes was it any good. Some of the stories are, some aren't, and many of the stories are trying too hard to be "dangerous" and read like adolescent ranting. There's not a single story in the volume that I would still consider dangerous, the restrictions are gone and the shock value is lost.

Most of the stories are very short. Two stories that run over forty pages push the average up to around ten pages, but the mean is closer to four. Ellison's introductions are often close to the length of the story itself. Those introductions and the author's afterwords range from fascinating portraits of the authors involved to dull self-aggrandizement. Phillip K. Dick's is especially depressing as Ellison comments that Dick's heavy drug use has not impaired him like it has some others.

So let me hit the stories in one sentence comments. For simplicity's sake I'm going to flag the ones I enjoyed in a BOLD GREEN while ones I did not in a BOLD RED:

"Evensong" by Lester del Rey - A dull religious allegory that wastes its time by trying to conceal the very obvious plot twist.

"Flies" by Robert Silverburg - A creepy and brutal tale of a man given great power by aliens and how it changes him.

"The Day After the Day the Martians Came" by Frederik Pohl - The reactions of some people to a new race are cleverly examined.

"Riders of the Purple Wage" by Phillip José Farmer - The Hugo winning story which I didn't like; a weak Joyce pastiche where the style for a hundred pages gives me a headache despite the interesting ideas.

"The Malley System" by Miriam Allen deFord - This story about punishing psychopaths by giving them exactly what they want starts with some strong imagery but the resolution is less subtle than a hot pink elephant in a library.

"A Toy for Juliette" by Robert Bloch - A time traveling serial killer picks up the wrong guy from 1889 London in this cute story which succeeds despite the fact that even Bloch has gone to this source repeatedly.

"The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World" by Harlan Ellison - This is a sequel to the previous story that takes it in another direction as the prowler stalks a civilization as cruel as himself.

"The Night that All Time Broke Out" by Brian W. Aldiss - A fun gag story about a problem with a system that let's people really live in their past.

"The Man Who Went to the Moon - Twice" by Howard Rodman - The most out of place story in the anthology, this charming fable of tale telling is very enjoyable.

"Faith of Our Fathers" by Phillip K. Dick - This story is what you'd get if H. P. Lovecraft wrote espionage stories in a hallucinogenic haze.

"The Jigsaw Man" by Larry Niven - Organ transplant banks lead to new opinions on the application of capital punishment in this implausible but fun story.

"Gonna Roll Them Bones" by Fritz Leiber - Another Hugo winning story but this tale of a very high stakes dice game is much better than the other winner.

"Lord Randy, My Son" by Joe L. Hensley - A dying man's son is the next messiah in this flat story.

"Eutopia" by Poul Anderson - A man from an alternate world where Alexander the Great's empire never failed gets in trouble for violating sexual taboos which winds up being duller than it sounds.

"Incident in Moderan" by David R. Bunch - It's a one-note story but it does that one-note, a misinterpretation of a brief truce in a war, very well.

"The Escaping" by David R. Brunch - "The Ox-Bow Incident" on LSD which removes the coherence of the original.

"The Doll-House" by James Cross - I didn't care for this tale of a man who gets access to a Greek oracle which had good moments but the resolution was rather trite.

"Sex and/or Mr. Morrison" by Carol Emshwiller - The awkward point-of-view harms this story of a person trying to determine the gender of her neighbor.

"Shall the Dust Praise Thee" by Damon Knight - I'll give Knight points for style in this telling of a Biblical Armageddon but the whole thing just comes across as just an angry rant.

"If All Men are Brothers Would You Let One Marry Your Sister" by Theodore Sturgeon - Removal of all sexual taboos is the key to making everyone healthy and happy in this tale. (And on that subject, why is in the stories about how free love will fix everything that it's only free love of multiple hot women throwing themselves at the uptight men? I've read that theme about a dozen times and it just keeps getting creepier ever time.)

"What Happened to Auguste Clarot?" by Larry Eisenburg - I think this story about the disappearance of a famous chemist is supposed to be humorous but I didn't find it funny at all.

"Ersatz" by Henry Slesar - This gag story about people making substitutions in times of need on the other hand put a smile on my face.

"Go, Go, Go Said the Bird" by Sonya Dorman - Cannibalism is the focus of this disturbing tale.

"The Happy Breed" by John T. Sladek - It's predictable that a utopia where everyone is kept perfectly comfortable is also one no one is allowed any risk but it is told very well.

"Encounter With a Hick" by Jonathan Brand - Yet another joke story; this time I liked the joke about a theologian's encounter with the son of a world builder but didn't care for the style of the telling.

"From the Government Printing Office" by Kris Neville - The unique point of view of a three year old child makes this story about raising better children very interesting.

"Land of the Great Horses" by R. A. Lafferty - A mysterious land appears to give home to wanderers but despite the clever premise the story just feels half told.

"The Recognition" by J. G. Ballard - An twisted circus comes to town and the results are very predictable and it takes far too long to build up to its point.

"Judas" by John Brunner - The creator of an android that has established itself as God returns to shut it down with some very clumsy Christian iconography.

"Test to Destruction" by Keith Laumer - A revolutionary fights aliens on the battlefield of his mind to demonstrate the limits of humanity in this story which just wasn't that interesting.

"Carcinoma Angels" by Norman Spinrad - The build up of a man who can accomplish nearly anything is entertaining but the story descends into a drug trip for the second half and I just stopped caring.

"Auto-Da-Fé" by Roger Zelazny - This simple story of an autodor (think matador but with living cars) is wonderfully told.

"Aye, and Gamorrah..." by Samuel R. Delany - The sexual practices of the sexless is the focus of the final story in book and the exploration of those connections is very interesting.

One final bit of bragging about this. I purchased my copy from a used book dealer for just a few dollars and when I received it I found that someone had scribbled on one of the first pages. On closer examination I saw that the beginning looked like an "H". Yes, I got an autographed, hard cover edition of this key work for less than five dollars. Some days you just get lucky.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Hugo Awards Late 80's Recap

While I don't hold the idea that the Hugo award winning novels have gotten worse over the years the late 80's does give someone enough material to build a case. While there was only one book that I disliked in the period there is a distinct feeling of treading water.

That comes from the fact that this period is dominated by sequels to other Hugo winners. The love for Ender's Game swept in Speaker for the Dead while The Uplift War and Cyteen continued their author's universe. Even Neuromancer shares a character in common with Gibson's earlier "Johnny Mnemonic". Even Ender's Game was a fix-up of an earlier novella of the same name. There was not a single original work in the lot.

An odd thing is that all of the winning authors are definitely products of the 80's. Besides her two novel wins Cherryh had one award for a short story in 1979. Orson Scott Card won for his two novels as well as a novella in 1989 and finally got one more award for non-fiction in 1991. All three of Brin's Hugos were in the 1980's too. Even if Neuromancer was not clearly a product of the 80's it is Gibson's only Hugo award. This is a perfect example of how the awards reflect the shifting tastes of fandom; they were the "hot authors" of their day and the situation changed rapidly.

If there's one theme that dominates this period its pulpy space opera. Strip away the re-examination of the interface between humans and machines and Neuromancer is a noir detective story. The Ender books are almost straight pulp despite the psychological themes. Brin makes no pretense of his Uplift books being anything other than an updating of space opera. Only Cyteen breaks away from this mold.

The tally board for the novels currently reads:

Liked: 24
Didn't Like: 12

The only book I didn't like this time was Speaker for the Dead leaving me with a solid two to one majority for the books I've liked.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Review - Cyteen

by C. H. Cherryh
1989 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

I mentioned in my review of Downbelow Station that Cherryh is a writer who can take five hundred pages to tell a two thousand page story. Imagine how much story she can cram into a full thousand pages.

Cyteen was the Hugo winner that took me the longest to read. The density of the text is just overwhelming and it took me two weeks to finish it. The only other Hugo winners that came close were some extremely overlong, extremely dull, and extremely terrible books that you'll see a lot more griping about when the time comes.

In Cyteen (which I'll grant is one of the worst titles I've ever encountered) Ariane Emory is something of a cross between Einstein and Machiavelli. She controls all of the breeding on the planet Cyteen using a Brave New World-esque system where she chooses who will be in the top caste and who will be slaves. With this power she has dominated the politics of the world for over a hundred years and people are willing to overlook her unpleasant hobbies like raping children. She's made herself necessary to running the planet and the ruling body maintaining its power so when she is murdered those rulers enact a plan to recreate her.

They start by cloning Emory but that is not sufficient enough to recreate her genius so they proceed to manipulate the clone's life to make it run as close to the original Emory's as possible. Complications set in when the clone takes an interest in the son of the man who murdered the original.

Cherryh spends a lot of time setting up this situation and just like Downbelow Station you'll spend the first few hundred pages in a daze trying to build a picture of politics on Cyteen. It isn't until about two hundred and fifty pages in when Emory is murdered that the book really takes off. This can certainly be a problem for people (I'm not a fan of being told "Just keep going through and it gets better!" since it almost never does) but the extended set up is necessary so we know Emory before we see the attempt to duplicate her.

Despite the large backdrop Cyteen is really about the raising of children and nature versus nurture. The Emory clone is just a small (and obvious) part of this; Cherryh has a new generation of characters all growing over the course of the book and the tensions between those two poles affect them all.

One thing that may bother people is that the culture of Cyteen is not particularly nice. The planet is run by a Marxist dictatorship that breeds slaves. It gives an extra layer of tension in that I would prefer that the government of Cyteen fail. They're not only destroying a young girl's life by trying to remake her into her parent, they're doing it to prop up their own oppression.

The biggest problem is that Cherryh's prose isn't as absorbing as it could be. I find that her writing is wonderful on the plotting and the structure but its density makes it rougher to read. It isn't so much that it feels like a summary of events but rather that every event and detail is significant.

I greatly enjoyed Cyteen and I would recommend it but that first quarter of the book can be tough to get through. If you do start reading it and don't enjoy then I would recommend reading to the halfway point before giving up since it does change tone so radically.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

So I bought myself a telescope

I found a telescope on after-Christmas clearance last week: a 60mm Meade. While it is the first telescope I've ever owned I know enough to say that this isn't a particularly good telescope but find me something with a wider aperture for $20 and I'll buy it. Here's the model that I have:

So, I've got my cheap telescope and I noticed that Jupiter and Venus were coming up for a good position to view (yeah, I can identify the planets in the sky by sight but I've never owned a telescope before; I am a nerd), but every time that I have been able to go out and do this in the past five days since I've purchased the telescope the sky has been overcast. That's just my luck...

Monday, February 4, 2008

Review - The Uplift War

The Uplift War
by David Brin
1988 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

Another day, another sequel from a then hot author and once again... hey wait a second! This one is actually pretty good! Brin's The Uplift War is one of the few books where I found the sequel to be significantly better than its predecessor.

Once more Brin places his story in his Uplift universe where humanity is the underdog is a galactic civilization that is built upon the status gained from raising animals up to sentience. This time the events that are occurring in Startide Rising have caused some hostile species to move directly against humanity and their children sentients the dolphins and chimpanzees. A colony world is conquered and the governors son goes into hiding with the daughter of the ambassador of one of the few friendly alien species. They join forces with the few remaining free chimpanzees and start a guerrilla war to take back the world (don't look at me, it's Brin's pun). Unfortunately they also discover that their world holds a secret that could cause the end of humanity if it is found.

Somehow Brin took the single most cliché story possible and made it plausible. I can't say much about this since I avoid spoilers but Brin spins careful justifications for why a planet can be conquered with minimal damage and how a tiny resistance group can plausibly overthrow a completely ruthless occupational force. He spins a great adventure story out of trying to justify the space opera elements.

My problem with Startide Rising is that I could not connect with the dolphin characters that were the focus of the novel. While there are significantly less human characters (there's really only one that matters) in The Uplift War I found the chimpanzee and alien characters better written. None of them were human but their viewpoint was more understandable so when there are several chapters from stranger points of view it didn't bother me.

With the previous book I loved the concepts Brin provided for his Uplift universe but was disappointed at how little we saw them. The Uplift War gave me plenty of aliens and details on the complications for humanity in the setting. Significant portions of the book are dedicated to the invading aliens trying to hold on to the world.

The Uplift War feels like Brin read my mind and changed everything I didn't like in his previous book resulting in a wonderful book. This is an exceptional space opera and adventure story. If you've ever enjoyed either of those then you should love this book.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Review - "Ill Met in Lankhmar" and "Slow Sculpture"

Leo and Diane Dillon
1971 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

"Ill Met in Lankhmar"
by Fritz Leiber
1971 Hugo Winner for Best Novella
1970 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

Two highly skilled thieves ambush the same jewel thieves at the same time and strike up a friendship. One a former barbarian, the other a former wizard's apprentice: together they cause crime.

By far Leiber's greatest success were the Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories. Though he had written them for decades it wasn't until 1970 when a revived interest in swords and sorcery fantasy that he told readers how this dynamic duo met.

Leiber wrote quite a few new stories about this pairing in the late sixties and seventies but this was the best of them. They make interesting anti-heroes and Leiber paints a vivid image of Lankhmar. His prose does tend toward the clumsy side (in one rather memorable moment after introducing themselves the Mouser asks Fafhrd how to pronounce his name), but there's a lot of fun to be had in this story. It's among the best the sword and sorcery genre have to offer.

"Slow Sculpture"
by Theodore Sturgeon
1971 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story
1970 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

The premise of "Slow Sculpture" is simple: a woman suffering from breast cancer meets a genius who has a cure for cancer which he refuses to provide to the world. This genius has many creations that could improve humanity but he hates people. The story is about their interaction and what it does to both of them.

This is a cynical story even if Sturgeon tries to redeem it at the end and its cynicism is built on the worst assumptions of conspiracy theorists: "they" want to keep down things that would help people because they "don't like alternative medicine" or "wouldn't make money on it". I see that kind of reasoning all the time from people who don't understand the scientific method or economics. That reasoning ignores the fact that there are simple double blind lab tests to demonstrate the cure conclusively regardless of what source it comes from. Any automobile manufacturer who did introduce a super-efficient car would dominate the industry in a manner not seen since Henry Ford. If the character who created these advances was presented as not being particularly stable then I might have been willing to accept this but Sturgeon goes through great lengths to tell us over and over again how brilliant this man is in all fields and since that's the primary driving point of the story it makes the whole thing fall apart for me.

I also didn't care for the several pages of technobabble that accompanied the cancer cure. It was complete nonsense and it served to pull me out of the story when just saying it was doing something would have been effective.

Since the story was built on such a flawed premise I couldn't enjoy it at all. Sturgeon does tell his story competently enough but requiring me to accept that businesses would choose "being evil" over "making large piles of money" just doesn't work.