Saturday, March 1, 2008

Review - Superman

1979 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!

So that's really the opening to the radio program rather than something from the movie; it still tells you what you need to know about that iconic figure Superman. He had last been on a movie screen in movie serials but the time was ripe for his triumphant return and film goers received what is easily the best movie based on a comic book released to that point. It's been superseded by a handful of better efforts since but Superman is still the model that superhero films follow.

Rocketed as an infant from the distant planet Krypton moments before its destruction, found and adopted by Kansas farmers, disguised as mild mannered reporter Clark Kent, Superman fights a never ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way. The film spends quite a bit of time dealing with his early life (the origin, if you will) and it is nearly an hour into the movie before the costume appears. From there it speeds to a confrontation with criminal mastermind Lex Luthor who plans to sink California.

People who have told stories about Superman always run into a common problem: the lack of conflict. Superman is power personified and unless handled very carefully dramatic tension is drained out of the film. Donner is not entire successful at dealing with this; the best portion of the film is in the middle as Superman goes around helping people but the climactic confrontation against Lex Luthor just isn't that interesting. In an odd contrast Superman saving cats from trees, catching falling planes, and the like is interesting because it's about him being a samaritan, the kind of helpful person we'd all like to encounter, while confronting Lex Luthor makes it about the conflict between the two which (at least in the film) isn't interesting. Even armed with a weapon that may kill Superman, Gene Hackman's Luthor never is believable as a threat.

Perhaps part of the problem is that Donner was very good at portraying Superman's power. The film's tagline is "You will believe a man can fly," and while I'm not sure that a modern audience will believe I do find the effort that goes into making it feel natural goes a long way. Some of that is in Christopher Reeve's performance, but the majority of it comes from the direction and cinematography. Everything is done with an effortless grace that feels like a god descended to earth.

Speaking of Reeve this was easily the role he was born to play. He was cast both for his look and his ability to portray the Clark Kent/Superman dichotomy and he became the standard for depictions of Superman afterward.

If there's one thing I have to single out in the film it's the cinematography. Even beyond the effects of presenting Superman's power there's a scope to the movie that is incredible to view. Watch those wide vistas and the complicated tracking shots; Donner took the lessons of Star Wars and applied them with greater skill. The only major misstep is the time traveling sequence where to this day I encounter people who think that the film showed Superman spinning the world backward.

Superman is the definitive film version of that iconic character and the pattern that so many superhero movies since have followed. Despite my reservations of the weak climax to the film I still find it to be entertaining.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Review - Justice League: The New Frontier

To start their new direct to video animated feature group Warner Brothers took a pretty weak comic book story line and made it into the pretty good Superman - Doomsday. So when they start from a really good comic book and turn it into a movie then the results have to be that much better, right? Well, no.

Darwyn Cooke's The New Frontier (the comic) was a celebration of those early days of the Silver Age. Every major character that was revived in the early fifties was brought into play and he drifted from sequence to sequence showing us tiny fragments of their lives. Even with the sinister undertones of the politics of the 1950's Cooke's story was bright and cheerful, full of promise and hope.

The animated movie apes the distinctive style of art but carries with it little of the storytelling. I'm not so foolish as to think that things can shift medium without changes and the overall concept of the changes is good. Most of the minor characters are cut except for cameos and the movie focuses on the first three new superheroes to emerge in the 1950's: Martian Manhunter, Flash, and Green Lantern. That focus is needed but instead of keeping things in that tight focus the movie continues the awkward transitions and plotting. Cooke used it because he was telling us about a setting, the movie is trying to use it to tell a narrative and so it fails.

Perhaps the best example of this is the ending. In the original comic the villain shows up about 95% of the way through the book but in the movie it shows up about two-thirds of the way in. The villain is a complete non-entitity; a generic, faceless Lovecraftian beasty that works better off screen than on. The battle with it is anti-climactic and probably the biggest weakness in the original work. With a full third of the movie dedicated to the fight (and not animated nearly as well as the fight scenes in the recent Superman animated feature) the anti-climax drags on and on.

Another real problem I had with the movie was the violence. Cooke in the original series didn't shy away from it but the violence and gore was used for moments of impact, a punctuation mark on top of the fifties style comic book violence. No one got hurt... until someone did. In the movie blood is flying everywhere even if we don't typically see it emerge from a body. It's a modern sensibility applied to a silver age style and the result is jarring.

Enough griping about the film, I do think the art design which was taken almost exactly from Cooke's work is done well. The cast assembled for this animated movie is superb and there's hardly a weak note among them. But these qualities are diminished by the fact that the film tried to make Cooke's work into something it wasn't and failed.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Hugo Awards Early 90's Recap

Is there a theme to the early 1990's Hugo award winning novels? At first glance space opera seems to be on the rise but when two of the three space opera winners are part of the same series from the same author it lessons the impact. Even if we extend the space opera label to Hyperion which has some of the elements but uses them in a very different way it's not much of a theme. There's a surprising number of light novels in the awards between Bujold and Willis but the rest of the winners are a bit dense.

Four of the six winners are not stand alone novels requiring either prequels or sequels to complete the stories and even the other two are part of series. I suspect that voting for the entire series is what drove in The Vor Game, Barrayar, and Green Mars. It doesn't speak well of the genre that for this period the majority of the winners cannot stand on their own. It speaks to an insular nature, a group going inward rather than reaching out. Eventually that does change but this period is the nadir of that attitude.

Picture for a moment that you're a young science fiction fan looking for a book. I know that's a stretch since all of those words don't really go together any more but bear with me. The Hugo awards as a small part of their function draw attention to these works and so you buy Hyperion. You only get half a book that way! While I'd never say that award winners should not go to books that are part of a series seeing every award go that way points out a real problem with the science fiction that was published at the time.

So let's hit the tally board:

Liked: 29
Disliked: 13

For all my griping above I did enjoy Hyperion, The Vor Game, Barrayar, A Fire Upon the Deep, and Doomsday Book. The only one I disliked (and that's putting it very mildly) is Green Mars. Stay tuned for a lot of reruns in the late 90's; you'd almost think that things were falling into a very deep rut.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Review - Green Mars

Green Mars
by Kim Stanley Robinson
1994 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy holds a special place in my heart. Red Mars won the Nebula award while Green Mars and Blue Mars both won the Hugo so it had to be good, right? Well, no. Not only is it not good, it's terrible. Painfully, horribly terrible. And over two thousand pages long for the whole thing. This was a slog along the lines of the Bataan Death March. I've read worse books in the past but the trilogy as a whole comprises the worst reading experience I've had since I made my resolution twenty years ago to avoid reading crap.

The trilogy tells the history of the colonization and terraforming of Mars. Green Mars as the second book takes place after the government has for no good reason specified in the novel attempted the very public assassination of the original founders with absolutely no repercussions for anyone involved. Now those founders who are effectively immortal are in hiding working behind the scenes to build a second civilization on Mars.

Really that's about it for what happens in the book. It goes on and on with minor story events but nothing really happens. Robinson has a droning prose that goes on at extensive length with descriptions of barren landscapes. Without the aimless descriptions of the landscape the book would be half its current length.

The characters read like an attempt to be more "real" by defining them all by psychological problems. The result doesn't make them multi-textured so much as make every single character seem like a whiny high school student. They're all completely unpleasant people to read about mainly because they're all so small-minded and petty that I seriously wondered how they could possibly have ever risen to the top of their profession and been selected for the first permanent settlement on another world. Robinson constantly tells us how great and brilliant they are but you never see it in their actions and their "brilliance" often comes across as inanity.

A perfect example of this is the economic system that Robinson drums into readers at intervals. It is, in short, the most inane adaptation of Marxism I've ever seen in a science fiction book and considering the number of authors in the sixties who wrote books trying to convince people that communism was the real way the future would go that's saying something. The idea, roughly, is that on a planet where resources are painfully scarce that people should be obligated to give things away (including very complicated manufactured goods) and organizations should be forced by the government to stay below a certain size. No totalitarian government is created to enforce this, no social structures are in place to drive this, everyone just goes along with it and for some reason it doesn't completely destroy their industrial development.

I'm only scratching the surface of how bad the Mars trilogy is but I have to same some scorn for Blue Mars which shares all of the problems of the previous books. Since the head-smackingly stupid sociology that infects this book really comes to the forefront there I'll save it (here's a preview: despite more than two hundred years passing and a bursting population the only people important on Mars are the first few people; even their children are marginalized).

The trilogy is really one very long book and I wouldn't read the middle section by itself, but then I couldn't more strongly advise you to avoid the books. If it the painfully dull story isn't enough to make you uninterested then there's the annoying characters. And if you can put up with the annoying characters then you still have to overcome the ham-handed politics and sociology. The only thing that is of any interest in this book are the broad terraforming concepts and you can get more entertainment from those by reading about them in a science text book.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

I'm Gonna Be a Webcomic Millionaire!

It has come to my attention that any idiot with an emulator and MS Paint can become popular on the Internet by "creating" "comics" using old video game sprites. So now here is my very timely introduction to my own series about the wacky adventures of a giant space fly, a square, and Mr. T:

I'll start printing the shirts.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Review - Doomsday Book

Doomsday Book
by Connie Willis
Tied 1993 Hugo Winner for Best Novel
1992 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

And now for something completely different: a light, comedic book about the black plague.

Willis has a series of books and stories about the time traveling history department from Oxford University in the near future which carry over many of the same characters. In Doomsday Book, which other than a quick reference has nothing to do with the Domesday Census, an ill-advised trip to the thirteenth century by a young woman coincides with with an outbreak of a severe disease in Oxford. As a professor in the present tries to make sure that she can be recovered when her trip is over she finds that she has arrived several decades too late in the middle of black plague. Needless to say, epidemics ensue.

Early on the in novel there's quite a bit of humor in the college bureaucracy but it does dry up as people start dying and Willis handles this transition from light-hearted time traveling fun to apocalyptic devastation well. Don't expect big laughs once the characters you've gotten to know both in the past and present start dropping. Willis does both the comedy and drama well.

Unfortunately I had a major problem with the pacing in Doomsday Book. It's obvious to the reader right from the start that the time-traveling historian did not land decades before the plague as intended but is instead in the middle of it. Willis attempts to be coy for the majority of the novel before finally dropping this "revelation" on the reader. Since it is so obvious I wound up grumbling "Okay, it's the plague. Get on with it." The slow build up also served to make the main character seem particularly clueless when she wasn't able to pick up on the many very large, very broad hints that thousands of people around her are dying.

And she is very dense. Despite being a well trained historian and seasoned time traveler she proceeds to make every standard time traveler error. Presents knowledge that no one should have yet? Check. Is shocked by medieval living conditions despite being a medieval historian? Check. Applies modern social standards to a medieval society? Check. On top of that she demonstrates a poor understanding of things outside her field of expertise like basic statistics. It left me wondering just how low the standards of Oxford University were going to drop in the next fifty years.

Oddly enough the time traveling protagonist is just about the only character in the story that I wasn't interested in. Willis presented the medieval people as human beings living in a radically different culture rather than the modern humans roughing it that are the standard form for so many pseudo-medieval settings. The historian spends the novel at a manor house in a tiny village and Willis captures the flavor of an illiterate priest, a socially climbing minor noble and the sullen resignation of a teenager in a political marriage. They are not the population of her local renaissance festival dropped into the book.

The slightly in the future Oxford is filled with quirky academics that are interesting in their own right. They're all caught up in their own worlds of the competitive college environment. It's something that Willis has done very well in other books and it works well here. The only problem I have is with the know-it-all kid who shows up and is predictably key to the resolution.

I enjoyed reading Doomsday Book but I don't think that it is Connie Willis's finest book mainly due to the those pacing problems. Still if you are interested in a fun time travel story with a more realistic medieval setting than you'll find in most fantasy then I'd recommend reading it.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Review - "The Girl Who Was Plugged In", "The Deathbird", and "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"

Frank Kelly Freas
1974 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

Freas continues to be voted in over and over again as the best professional artist (he owns the seventies much in the way certain other artists will own the award during their decade), but you'll note that there isn't a magazine or book cover this time. That year Freas designed the Skylab mission patch.

"The Girl Who Was Plugged In"
by James Tiptree, Jr.
1974 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

A biography of "Tiptree" won the Hugo award for best related non-fiction this year so I'm not going to go into the author's unique history at the moment. Let's just say that in a field filled with unique, quirky personalities (and Harlan Ellison) Tiptree's story is one of the most interesting. I'll talk about that when I get to the biography.

The story is about a very ugly girl who is given the chance to join upper-class society. But rather than a Pygmalion style transformation she controls a perfect woman as a puppet, living the high life through separate eyes. The reason for this opportunity is that in a future where advertising is banned companies promote their products by creating celebrities and having them use the product. The plugged in girl becomes more and more absorbed into the life of her doll until as the doll she finds true love in someone who doesn't realize the body is a doll. Needless to say, complications ensue.

The story uses the style of a storyteller relating a romance to the twentieth century reader and I don't think it was completely successful but it did work to gloss over any technical details which weren't really necessary for this very human story. You can't help but be drawn in as the title character descends into a peculiar kind of schizophrenia. I could not recommend this story highly enough.

"The Deathbird"
by Harlan Ellison
1974 Hugo Award for Best Novelette

This, on the other hand, is a complete failure. The Devil, who the limited information in the story tells us really isn't that bad, wakes up the last man on earth to go confront God, who the limited information in the story tells us is insane. This could have been good but the justification for it is built on anti-religion rants like you'd see from first year college freshmen rebelling against their parents; they rely on sophism and have no grounding in theology or logic. So man confronts God for no good reason on the prompting of the Devil who does it for no good reason and God does something nebulous and unspecified for no good reason and nothing really happens. The whole thing as a result is very unsatisfying.

It doesn't help that Ellison is very deeply into his all-style, zero-substance period. "The Deathbird" is peppered with asides and essays and quiz style questions that struggle to build a point of religion being bad but fail when logic is applied to them (and this is coming from an atheist; I can only imagine what someone with some really detailed knowledge of theology would think). If I want to be preached at ineffectively I'll go to a church.

"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"
by Ursala K. Le Guin
1974 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

Finally this... um... well... it's not really a story. It's more of an essay or a screed. There's a perfectly happy city where they live in decadence and it's all good except for one kid who they torture because the story says they have to in order to keep their happiness. It's an old philosophical question, what is the value of the happiness of one innocent? Le Guin just drops it there and leaves it sitting. The story is all description: no real characters, no plot, just the city and then the kid and that's it. It's not even told particularly well. Take a philosophy course and skip this one.