Saturday, February 23, 2008

Review - Star Wars

Star Wars
1978 Hugo Winner for Dramatic Presentation

Okay, true confession time. I do not like Star Wars. Or to be more specific, I'm not fond of the movie Star Wars and I hate what Star Wars the franchise has become.

I am a member of the Star Wars generation and naturally when I saw it when I was six I was enthralled. And for a while the flashy visuals were enough for me. As I got older the flaws in the film (and I'm not just talking about the acting here) bothered me more and more until around twenty years ago the movie was just a turn off for me. This was still the dark ages when Star Wars was just a movie that had been wildly popular but hadn't gotten a lot of attention since the excitement around Return of the Jedi died down. Then sometime around 1992 the Star Wars nostalgia started building amid the nerds and it completely overran all aspects of nerdiness. I won't begrudge George Lucas for his popular creation but the obsession where so many people feel a need to tie everything back to Star Wars just got under my skin. At this point if I never see another pop culture reference to it I'll be happy.

So in other words don't look to me to comment on the new Clone Wars stuff.

(On that subject let me give those of more evil intentions reading this a helpful hint for brute forcing your way into any system in a tech company: Star Wars. I can't go into details but one of my former jobs required that I helped maintain some secure systems for a company that wasn't particularly secure and over three-quarters of the passwords used by tech-savy people were Star Wars based. If you ever want to bring down the Internet just seed your password checking lists with Star Wars references.)

Star Wars was released just before the 1977 Hugo award voting. Those of you who follow these things way too closely might notice that the previous award was for 1976 and Star Wars won in 1978. The effect of Star Wars's release was to completely overshadow the dramatic presentation award in 1977 so that none of the the nominees (Carrie, Logan's Run, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Futureworld) were given the award. Instead the film was singled out for a special award in 1977.

So let's get to the movie. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away a Galactic empire that has been providing strong support for military contractors and reducing unemployment for several planets to near zero thanks to its massive engineering projects is fighting a rebellion. This rebellion wants to tear down the Empire because... well... it's not really stated but this rebellion of slave-owning racists attempt to hold a coup so they can depose the Emperor and replace him with their puppet. These evil rebels steal the plans to one of these engineering projects so that they can perform further acts of terrorism. The plans are delivered to a retired cult leader who immediate recruits a local farmboy with some clever lies. Joining the cultist and farmboy are a drug smuggler and a token minority who everyone treats badly. Eventually the heroic leader of the Empire's military forces catches up with them and in a climactic battle the rebellion kills a few hundred thousand innocent people. Flush with triumph from crime the rebellion gives out medals to the farmboy and smuggler while heaping scorn on the token minority and slaves who helped them.

If there's one thing Star Wars does well it's scope. The science fiction of the 1930's came to life on the screen in more detail than anyone had seen before. The designs were unlike anything seen on the movie screen before but would be familiar to anyone who had seen science fiction art. It doesn't matter that the acting is for the most part wooden, that the script is thin, or that the world building falls apart if you look at it closely; Star Wars is about the visuals.

Not that any of that review really matters. Star Wars is to my generation what King Kong was to my grandparents; it's a key piece of pop culture. In the past few years I have only encountered one person that I know of who wasn't familiar with it. Few works in history could claim to have reached the saturation level of this film. I'm kind of looking forward to seeing how it ages in a world where people have encountered works derived from it before seeing the original.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The True Face of Doom

Alrighty, I had time to dig out and copy all the references so now I give you the single most persistent question in all of comics: how badly scarred is Dr. Doom's face?

Most creators present what little we see of it as completely hideous but Jack Kirby who certainly created the look of Dr. Doom if not the entire character often said that Doom's face only had a small scar but his vanity caused him to hide it. So what can be said about that?

I'm going to avoid the authorship issues of the Lee/Kirby era of Marvel comics because that's a fight that would require a post of its own to cover. My personal opinion is that Lee had to sign off on the books as editor-in-chief and Kirby for all of dynamic art was churning out pages as a draftsman at that point so Kirby was unlikely to just turn in pages with a new character that Lee would appropriate. They were working close together as partners in those days and there would be give and take with Kirby having close hand in plotting. So my take is that the stories in these very early Fantastic Four issues that I'm going to reference were mainly Lee with Kirby's input. Kirby's creative control would increase as Lee and Kirby continued to work together until that golden year of 1966 where they synchronized perfectly.

Okay, back to Doom. Here is his origin as given in his first appearance:

It's pretty standard mad scientist stuff. You'll note we don't even see his original face in this. As appearance went on it was made clear that Doom's face was about as hideous as you could get. Here's one from a year on in Fantastic Four #10 of Doom visiting the Marvel comics offices (Fantastic Four was bi-monthly for that first year):
Of particular interest is that sixth panel. If we assume, like some people do, that Kirby was completely responsible for all of the Fantastic Four plotting then he was responsible for that panel where Lee and Kirby react in abject horror to Doom's face. Also note the scarring in the tiny glimpse of Doom's head in the seventh panel. At this point it is clear that Kirby is handling Doom as hideously scarred.

We start to see a little more depth in Fantastic Four Annual #2:

There's several important things on these pages. First, the glimpse of his head that we get when he's smashing the mirror isn't bald and scarred. Could Kirby's choice of how to depict Doom have changed?

Also note that Doom immediately puts on a metal mask lifted out of a smoking urn. It's still burning when they put it on his face. That will be important in a moment.

So from this point on Doom's origin is pretty much set and this version is what we see. Kirby left Marvel comics in 1970 and sometime after that the story starts circulating from convention appearances that Doom isn't badly scarred at all, he just has one mark on his face. While it's possible Kirby started saying this before leaving Marvel comics the earliest reference I have been able to find is the early seventies which is when he was working for DC comics. Kirby did a few sketches like this of Doom without his mask:

Fans like this idea since it adds another layer of depth to the character but it doesn't fit in with the printed stories. There have been several which have plot elements that rely on Doom's face being disturbingly ugly. So then along comes John Byrne. He gets villainized quite a bit for retcons (many of them justifiably), but in this instance where all he does is pull together the two versions of Kirby's story I think it works. Here's Byrne's version from Fantastic Four 278:

You'll note he uses the exact same dialog as Fantastic Four Annual 2 and really I think it does a nice job of resolving things for the sake of continuity. As cool as Kirby's revision is it can't be made to fit with old stories but including it in a revamped version of the origin is a nice acknowledgment of it.

Finally, the second biggest question about Dr. Doom is what exactly is his doctorate in? As we've just seen repeatedly he was kicked out of college before getting it so did he go through a Guatemalan diploma mill? That was officially answered a few weeks ago: Doom lies about his credentials. For shame, "Doctor" Doom, is there no end to your villainy?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Review - "Trillion Year Spree" and "Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction"

Trillion Year Spree
by Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove
1987 Hugo Winner for Best Related Non-Fiction Book

Criticism is the theme of the day and one of the biggest books around is Aldiss's and Wingrove's Trillion Year Spree which covers the history of the genre in its entirety. Unlike some others who link science fiction back to any fantasy with a foot in the real world Aldiss traces science fiction back to Mary Shelly's Frankenstein which he calls the first book to solidify the themes and structure of science fiction. He then goes back to cover the proto-science fiction novels before charging into the key figures and major movements in science fiction.

Trillion Year Spree is at its best when it covers the big picture of movements. The shifts that occurred when Astounding started pushing new material or when science fiction became mainstream. The best chapter, in my opinion, traces the waning years of seven of the biggest science fiction authors and how they've been impacted by the market forces.

The worst is when Aldiss and Wingrove simply run through a list of authors and titles with minor comments on each. I don't get any feeling for the author or their place in the history of science fiction when they choose to do this.

I like the fact that the authors are typically unwilling to just forgive poor writing. Too often I see fans of a genre willing to gloss over some poor quality swill for the sake of some narrow fetish (see the vast majority of current fantasy epics). Their commentary attacks just about anything that moves which takes it a bit further than I like to go but they dismiss a lot of popular works out of hand.

Unfortunately the book is also host of editorial problems. Repeatedly the topic changes mid-paragraph and then goes on to describe the new title or author for several paragraphs before telling the reader what they're talking about. Even when they remember to let the reader in on the discussion the text drunkenly lurches from subject with very few transitions to be found. I can't count how often I had to double back just to make sure I didn't miss something when the topic suddenly changes. Often these sudden shifts result in some very contradictory concepts turning up in the book.

I think a perfect example of the contradictions in Trillion Year Spree is how it deals with Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell. Gernsback gets two pages while Campbell get a chapter. Gernsback is attacked for claims that he popularized the term "science fiction" due to a single reference in a book from 1851 that by their admission had not been opened in over a century when they looked up the reference. Campbell is credited with most of the major creative decisions in science fiction during the 1940's. Gernsback is derided for publishing childish fiction while Campbell's narrow view of acceptable science fiction is glossed over. In short, they're brutally unforgiving to Gernsback going so far as to attack him for things that aren't really a problem while being very forgiving of Campbell's faults.

Another major problem I have with the book is that they put a lot of stock in the concept that everything has a subtle metaphoric meaning to be explored. Sometimes there can be but in my experience the symbols chosen reveal more about the critic than they do about the author. It's hard to deny that there's plenty of sexual imagery in Shelly's Frankenstein but they felt the need to credit one passage with the imagery based on wording that picked up cultural significance in the mid-twentieth century. Then there's the Ring in The Lord of the Rings as sexual metaphor (so what does it mean that when you do penetrate it you vanish and get stabbed?). They see support for American imperialism in the anti-war science fiction novels of the 1980's (apparently Ender's Game is pro-America conquering the world and not an indictment of a military that chews up children).

And that's another issue: I'm uncertain about his partner but Aldiss is British and the book shows a serious European inferiority complex (that unfortunate disease that affects Europeans who then feel the need to spout loudly to Americans how much better they are at everything than Americans). I appreciate them pointing out some obscure science fiction works and magazines hidden in Europe in the early twentieth century but denigrating science fiction being written in the United States by comparing to non-science fiction by Kafka (and trying to claim the works as science fiction when they fall well outside even his broad definition) is a real stretch. They dismiss Ellison's Dangerous Visions because Moorcock was pushing the same kind of material in the UK magazine New Worlds but it was the anthology and not the magazine that caused the shift in the publishing industry. (As I stated in the past, the revolution was inevitable since so many authors from around the world were pushing that way; Dangerous Visions was a catalyst.) Telling science fiction fans in the United States that they're bad fans because they don't learn Swedish and get a novel that had a small printing in 1935 is just going overboard.

When they stick to history Trillion Year Spree is pretty good but too often they run off on odd tangents and the criticism even when I agree with the conclusions left me annoyed at their poor reasons for those conclusions. In the end I can't recommend Trillion Year Spree.

Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction
by James Gunn
1983 Hugo Winner for Best Related Non-Fiction Book

Gunn's focus was much tighter with this book on Asimov and while he doesn't have the problems that Aldiss and Wingrove have he also doesn't have any of their good points. The book contains some minor biographical information but it was published just a year or two after Asimov's first autobiographies so that is downplayed for a description of his science fiction works up to around 1980.

Gunn's book is slight; he provides detailed synopsis for every story and novel but the commentary on them is rather thin. There's nothing on the shifting perspectives or how Asimov attempted to push his previous material further through exploring the same ideas. You won't find much actually criticism in this book.

Gunn is also very forgiving in his biographical material. Asimov's notorious womanizing is a playful quirk to Gunn, his sleazy legal maneuvering in his divorce is somehow transformed to a strong moral stance. I suspect that Gunn is simply too close to his source in this case. I enjoy Asimov's fiction but I can't share the rose-tinted glasses that Gunn views him through.

Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction provides a nice overview of Asimov's works but because Gunn provides complete synopsis I can't recommend it to someone looking for information on what he wrote. And since Gunn's commentary on the books is so weak I can't recommend it to someone looking for that. And finally since the biographical information is so tainted and there are many other sources for it I can't recommend the book for that either. It simply was not worth my time.

Serendipity Strikes the A Fire Upon the Deep Review

In one of those very odd coincidences that make life interesting I stumbled across Vernor Vinge talking about the Fermi paradox. I wasn't looking for Vinge, I wasn't looking for Fermi, and I didn't even know that he gave it this much serious consideration. My spiel was based on how the better science fiction authors in the past twenty years have been addressing it in a general sense. So here's what Vinge said in his 2002 Worldcon Guest of Honor address:

In fact I think the Fermi paradox - you know "where is everybody?" - is so interesting. We are getting astronomy technology now that's good enough that we're getting bounds on what could really be there, and to me it is complimentary to the singularity issues [one of Vinge's popular themes; the idea that we will soon reach a point where accelerating technological changes will transform humanity into something radically different]. My version of the singularity is you have this "unknowability." Certainly we're not seeing evidence of technology that we recognize out there.

It really is interesting to see how this silence in the sky combined with improved astronomical technology has affected science fiction and space opera. And it seems to me that every hard science fiction writer, or writer who is writing seriously about space adventure has had to address this. There's about six or seven, well, as many approaches as there are writers who are seriously doing it (that means more than six or seven of course). There are many major categories of approaches to this. You [Greg Bear] in your Sky River novels, you had an approach to this. I had it in the Zones [the two novel series including A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky]. There are what I call the clockstarter scenarios where you say that actually why it's quiet right now is there was a major disaster that shut everybody down. And the nice thing about that, if you're going to write stories, is that it does an end run around one of the most difficult things of stories, and that is to have synchronized the short period of time where everyone's tech is recognizable.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Review - A Fire Upon the Deep

A Fire Upon the Deep
by Vernor Vinge Tied
1993 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

Of the last twenty Hugo award winners only two have aliens appearing on screen and only one other has "aliens" in it at all. The first is A Fire Upon the Deep and the second is its sequel A Deepness in the Sky. One of the big reasons for this is an increase in the popularity of the Fermi paradox which is a result of Drake's Equation. In short, the idea is that given the scale of the galaxy and the lengths of time involved that the skies should be teaming with life and the obvious signs of it. Just a one million year head start on the other side of the galaxy should mean a galaxy packed to the brim. That's less than .1% of the time since life emerged from the oceans and that's ignoring the fact that there's no reason that life couldn't start expanding while the Earth was still forming.

Which doesn't mean that there isn't intelligent life elsewhere. There's many good answers to the paradox ranging from technology using civilizations are exceptionally rare to any species that could emerge from their solar system has to walk a mine field of resource problems to get off their own world (much as we're running into right now). But part of this is that authors who want to have a space opera universe feel a need to address these problems. Brin, for example, in Uplift has the Earth as a forgotten resource in a universe that ignores anything that isn't already in their book. Vinge on the other hand comes up with one of the biggest, most mind-blowingly incredible ideas to justify it and that justification is at the core of A Fire Upon the Deep.

In short Vinge postulates that the laws of the universe are not constant as they appear to us. In particular the speed of light varies dramatically getting slower and slower as you approach the center of the galaxy. But this isn't as simple as people just go faster at the galactic edges, the speed of light limits the processing abilities of thinking machines including organic brains. There is a boundry which when you cross it the mathematics of hyperspace travel become possible and you can break the speed of light. At the heart of the galaxy are the unthinking depths where things go so slowly that minds break down while at the far end things progress so quickly that godlike intelligences are created and burn out in a few years. The earth lies in between these extremes but at some point we emerge from our slow moving section of the galaxy to find a universe overrun with life that has a written history going back millions of years.

When A Fire Upon the Deep starts a group of human researchers have found instructions for creating a transcendent AI in a forgotten ruin. Creating it unleashes a sentient plague that overwrites all thought at the edges of the galaxy and unlike other AI's it is stable, seeking only to expand and will not burn out. A few of these scientists escape with a device that can contain it but their ship is damaged and they flee to a planet that has just emerged from the slow areas; a location where the plague cannot easily reach. Meanwhile another AI has discovered the spreading plague and recruited some humans and sentient plants to retrieve the device before all of the advanced civilizations in the galaxy are absorbed. And if that's not enough the researchers have encountered a medieval civilization of pack animals that exist as a sentient network and become involved in their power struggles.

I haven't even touched on half of the fun things that Vinge throws into his book. His training as a computer scientist shows through as the galaxy has faster than light communication but very little bandwidth for it and the book is filled with USENET-style news posts from people trying to get a grip on the situation.

So there's a lot of really big ideas in here but how's the rest of the book. It's fairly well written space opera with some especially interesting aliens. The network aliens are very alien with a particularly distinct, and fragmented, point of view but the plants are equally interesting since they lack a long term memory and have to rely on a device to remember things for them. Vinge maintains these distinct voices and uses chapters that have a very tight point of view that switches characters. Those points of view are a problem when reading, though, since they are so unique that it can take readers quite a while to grasp the aliens.

Sadly the humans aren't nearly as interesting as the aliens. The children of the researchers who are the focus of the planet bound action are essentially innocents blown by fate. The humans trying to get to them have token characterization ("She's a homesick librarian, he's a time lost spacer who may be the puppet of godlike AI; how can this odd couple ever get along?") but they won't stick in your mind.

Really the best thing about A Fire Upon the Deep is the incredible concepts that Vinge throws around and makes them feel reasonable and plausible. It's those big ideas that will grab your brain and refuse to let it go. He follows up those big ideas but being a decent writer whose prose never excites me but it works well enough. It's yet another space opera but it is the single best space opera I've ever read.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Face of Doom

From The Jack Kirby Collector #5 I give you Dr. Doom without his mask on!

Kirby did several of these drawings though none have ever appeared in a Marvel comic. I had planned a whole post on the evolution of Dr. Doom's origin but real life got in the way this evening so I must simply provide this one tantalizing image of what Kirby's idea was later on in his career. Look for that post in the near future.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Review - Barrayar

by Lois McMaster Bujold
1992 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

You could copy and paste my The Vor Game for pretty much every one of these novels that Bujold won for. The same strengths and weaknesses apply: mainly it's really good space opera adventure with a great cast of characters but not really that much deeper than that. Entertaining reading but not genre defining, mind-blowing science fiction. So that's the review. Go home.

What, you want more? Fine.

Barrayar is a direct sequel to Bujold's first novel Shards of Honor and it's plot ties together a lot of elements from her other books. Barrayar is about a civil war on the planet of Barrayar that the heroine from the original book is deeply involved in. The story isn't deep but it holds together much better than The Vor Game. It also doesn't suffer from the division problem of The Vor Game where that book read like two novellas stuck together.

The best thing about this book is that rather than being focused on the big battle sequences Bujold does make it a bit more personal by focusing on a narrow cast and how the war personally impacts them. There's a reoccurring theme of parents and children throughout the book as many infants and mothers are swept up in the war. But it's not adventure space opera unless there are dramatic escapes and daring missions behind enemy lines and there's plenty of that too.

Her theme of generational conflict also returns. The civil war is in part a reaction to the changes that had been occurring on Barrayar with the villains being the conservatives who want to preserve their culture and the heroes being the reformers. On the preserving primitive cultures versus bringing them up to date Bujold comes down firmly on the side of reformers. I can't help but notice that science fiction authors who are for preserving cultures always present those cultures as pastoral utopias which makes me wonder if they'd come down on the side of preserving a repressive feudal culture, but that's a question for another day.

Bujold continues to be a fine writer with a cast of interesting, well-defined characters. Or at least the heroes are all interesting characters. Her villains in this case are distant, impersonal forces. I didn't mind it here since the protagonists are so conflicted.

So in conclusion, a fine space opera adventure that is entertaining to read but not a deep or complex book. The novel is more refined than Bujold's earlier efforts and anyone who enjoys her novels would not be disappointed by it. Still because of its heavy dependence on events that occurred in earlier books I would have to say that someone should read those previous books before picking up Barrayar.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Review - A Boy and His Dog

A Boy and His Dog
1976 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

It's been a few years since I've read Harlan Ellison's "A Boy and His Dog" but from what I remember the film is pretty faithful to the original short story. It features a boy, his telepathic dog, and a post-nuclear war desert landscape where man subsists by scrounging in the ruins. There's also an underground facility where some aspects of the past are still maintained and the film shares the story's.... unique ending. The movie is not really that good but at the same there's several aspects to it that will definitely stick to you.

Particularly disturbing is the film's treatment of women. They are things to be used and discarded; in the opening scene when the protagonist finds a woman who has been murdered after being raped he's upset because she could have had "a couple more uses in her". If a woman is not a thing to be used then she's an ineffectual schemer. I'm wavering between "sardonic commentary on gender roles" and "just plain creepy" on this with "just plain creepy" winning out due to the film's nature as a 1970's exploitation film.

And it definitely is an exploitation film; cheaply made with junk based sets in the California desert with its cheap thrills. The cinematography is static and weak and the actors are all firmly in the B-class (though Don Johnson did go on to star in Miami Vice). What the film has going for it is shock value (there's that ending again). The film has some real pacing issues with far too much time spent on incidental wandering for the first hour when the real hook of the story occurs. Since it's a 90-minute film the transition is jarring.

What A Boy and His Dog does have is a distinctive viewpoint and black humor that would be duplicated often but rarely as well. While science fiction readers are going to be familiar with the things in this movie I am unaware of any cinema that depicted this now common view of a post-nuclear holocaust world before it.

There had been post-apocalyptic films before A Boy and His Dog but this movie laid down a foundation that would be copied quite often. If you were to watch Mad Max after seeing A Boy and His Dog you'd recognize the source for some of those ideas. Another place where this film had a huge influence are the Fallout computer games which borrows liberally from this film.

I don't think that the movie was successful in its attempts at art but at the same time it was such a bold attempt I have to give them credit for that. I can't recommend seeking out A Boy and His Dog but if you come across it then I would say that it should be watched just to be absorbed in the quirkiness.