Saturday, March 8, 2008

Review - Alien

1980 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

Ah Alien, the double jawed face that launched a thousand tie-ins. Ridley Scott took an old chestnut, gave it a fresh spin and I hope for his sake that he gets a piece of all the product that followed.

A deep space freighter picks up a signal on a distant world where there should be no life and find a derelict alien space craft filled with eggs. A monster hatches from one and attaches itself to one of the crew and from there an orgy of violence and cat retrieving ensues.

The movie could act as a basic primer on how to shoot a horror film. While I don't think Scott was innovative he did use every classic trick in the book. The tight focus on the shots, the shifting lighting, the shadowy use of the monster; it adds up to a very creepy, claustrophobic film. Sure there really isn't a good reason for things to go foggy with strobe lights when the monster shows up but it works for the atmosphere.

I've heard it said quite a bit that Alien is a haunted house movie in space. Personally I don't see it, at least not the traditional haunted house story. Compare Alien to The Haunting (the archtype of the haunted house film) and you'll see similarities in how they are shot but the story being told is different. The haunted house is usually tinged with tragedy, typically something personal to the people involved.

Alien strikes me more as the scifi B-flicks grown up. They find something alien, it starts to go on a killing rampage, someone wants to keep it for "science", and eventually someone uses a bit of science to kill it. That's almost the dead on model for any number of cheapy monster films from the 60's and 70's. Here it's played with far more dignity, directed far more effectively, and told much more suspensfully but when the monster shows up it's still a guy in a rubber suit.

Despite recognizing its cheesiness tucked underneath a layer of bleak atmosphere I enjoy Alien. Not as much as its sequel which I think was a more refined film but I like it. I haven't liked anything attached to the property in more than ten years but it had a good start.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Review - The Science Fiction Encyclopedia, Cosmos, and Dance Macabre

Time marches on and sometimes it marches some of the non-fiction Hugo winners right out of relevancy. These are the first three non-fiction winners and between them one has been supplanted by more efficient resources, one is badly out of date, and one is actually still fairly interesting and useful.

The Science Fiction Encyclopedia
by Peter Nicholls
1980 Hugo Winner for Best Related Non-Fiction

Starting with the easiest to review, this volume is the root of other encyclopedias that Nicholls has edited including the already reviewed The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. And just like that later book this one has been completely replaced by online resources. I did find it slightly more helpful than Fantasy mainly due to a comprehensive introduction which let me understand the book better even when I don't agree with some of their comments. Googling is always going to be faster and will typically return a lot more information than looking something up in this encyclopedia will but I've seen worse reference books.

by Carl Sagan
1981 Hugo Winner for Best Related Non-Fiction

Look at that cover, that grouping truly captures the vast majesty of space in a way that will never be surpassed...


...Well, never mind then.

And that pretty much sums up what has happened to Cosmos. As a companion to the television series it made a fine overview of science, particularly astronomy, in 1980 but it's now 2008 and these days a book from 2006 would be badly outdated.

With the advancements made in the past ten years it can be hard to remember how exciting the Mariner, Pioneer, and Voyager probes were. I have a NASA publication called Mars Through the Eyes of Mariner 9 that features breathless quotes by people who worked on the project about what it meant to planetary science (including some by Carl Sagan!), but the photographs that accompany it are grainy, low resolution black and white. It's an interesting historical artifact but it's not very good for the science.

The history lessons in Cosmos are fascinating and Sagan makes them very enjoyable. He goes into the how and why of the facts, something that most science books gloss over. Unfortunately this only covers about a third of the book.

That's appropriate since any value for the modern reader in Cosmos is going to come from history. It's one of the first pop-science books, the state of astronomy and planetary science in 1980 is captured well, and the actual history lessons are very good. But I don't think that's enough to recommend it to a modern reader.

Dance Macabre by Stephen King 1982 Hugo Winner for Best Related Non-Fiction

I don't think that a publisher could find someone better than Stephen King to write a book about the horror genre. Besides being the best known author in the field he's made a study of his genre and knows it inside and out. The result is a book about scary stories that may lack a few details on modern writers but doesn't feel lacking.

I wish I had read this right after I read Aldiss's Trillion Year Spree as it stands as a strong counterpoint to everything I disliked in Aldiss's book. Dance Macabre doesn't make a pretense toward being a scholarly work but it conveys just as much information about its broad subjects and in a more interesting tone. King also doesn't try to cover the entire breath of the horror genre. He discusses its rise (from much of the same roots that Aldiss covered) but makes a point of sticking to what he knows best: roughly everything from 1950 to 1980.

I can think of only two major shifts in horror that King doesn't cover due to when the book was written. The first is the rise of the neo-gothics such as Anne Rice. The second is television returning to be a viable medium for telling horror stories. Things like the slasher craze of the 80's or it's descendant the torture porn of recent years aren't directly mentioned in the book but their look-alike parents, the exploitation films of the 1970's, are.

Dance Macabre does a fine job of giving the reader an overview of the horror genre in that thirty year period as well as quite a bit of details on the genre itself. As a result I found it to be an interesting and informative book despite being twenty-five years behind the times.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Review - The Dimond Age

The Diamond Age
by Neil Stephenson
1996 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

I've encountered quite a few people who think that the definition of "science fiction" is a story which takes a technological advancement and depicts the impact of that advancement. I'm not one to define the field so narrowly since the label has been used to encompass just about everything (at this point I think of science fiction more as a style than a genre), but there was a time when it seemed like that narrow focus was what authors were working on.

The Diamond Age is firmly in that form. There's a story there but really it takes a back seat to the exploration of what the advent of nanotechnology does to humanity. Stephenson is exceptional at this; his novels work best when they dig into how technology transforms people and The Diamond Age would be my selection for the top of his form.

As mentioned the book is set in a not too distant future where the ramifications of nanotechnology have completely changed the world. Anyone can have whatever they want through matter builders in the home, impossible architecture made possible by super-strong materials grows buildings out of the ground, an entire island is raised from the sea and populated with animatronic mythological beasts in a matter of minutes. It's a time of miracles.

And then there are the horrors. Ever present nanopolution and a fragmentation of mankind into tiny cliques. The needs of survival may be easily available to everyone but the same class divisions still exist.

Into the crushing poverty of a slum on the Chinese coast a girl named Nell is born without a father. She has little hope for the future but her brother mugs people on the street and one evening he steals a very special book. He gives it to his little sister and it triggers a chain of events that changes the world.

The book is The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, a nanotech supercomputer built for the daughter of the CEO of largest corporation the world. He was concerned that the society that his granddaughter was being raised in was too static so it was intended to be able to each a young girl everything that she needs to succeed in life. A copy was made by one of the designers who wanted to give his daughter the same advantage and that copy was what the one stolen and given to Nell.

The focus of The Diamond Age is Nell's education from her birth to becoming a woman. There are side trips into the lives of the actress who provides a voice to the book and consequently becomes a surrogate mother to Nell, the designer who stole the book and becomes involved in a plot to take nanotechnology to forbidden extremes, and a magistrate caught between the law and justice.

I would be remiss if I didn't at least mention the ending. It is beyond anti-climactic. Several plot lines that I though were dropped and just didn't go anywhere are suddenly reintroduced three pages from the end and wrapped up with text that essentially amounts to, "And then everything was better and they all lived happily ever after." Stephenson has a reputation for not being able to end a book and The Diamond Age is a perfect example of this.

Also while Nell is an interesting character no one else is. Every time the book drifted away from her I just wanted it to get back to Nell's story. Everyone else is just there to report the plot or tell us about the wonders of the future.

That future on the other hand is breathtaking in its depth. I can't think of an aspect of nanotechnology that Stephenson didn't delve into. It literally transforms every aspect of the world but Stephenson also knows that no matter how technology changes human beings will still act like human beings.

For this reason I think The Diamond Age is worth the attention it received. The complexity of the world building and the thoughts on a technology that is becoming more and more important makes it feel very relevant. So despite its flaws I found it to be a great book.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

In Memorandum Gary Gygax

Yes, that is my copy of the Dungeon Master's Guide up there. It's well worn, well loved, and deeply played. What better memorial can there be for a game designer?

Monday, March 3, 2008

Review - Memory

Mirror Dance
by Lois McMaster Bujold
1995 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

Once more Bujolds returns to get an award for another novel in her Vorkosigan series. This time it is a direct sequel to Brothers in Arms in which her brittle, sarcastic protagonist Miles found that he had been cloned. (Brother in Arms has no hard cover release and as such holds the distinction of being the only paperback novel I've purchased in nearly ten years; yet another thing I can hold against Bujold.) I found The Vor Game to be a fun but not particularly deep space opera and Barrayar to be a bit of an improvement on that with its tighter theming. Mirror Dance on the other hand is spectacular.

Miles's clone, now going by the name of Mark, impersonates him to lead a commando raid to free prisoners he feels a connection with. The raid is a disaster and Miles sweeps in to rescue his soldiers who have been swept up in it. Then Miles is killed by taking a missile to the chest.

That's not a spoiler: it happens by page eighty.

Bujold takes Mark, drags him through the mud, breaking him down as far as a character can go, and then tells a novel about rebuilding his life. And it works spectacularly.

The broad sweeping operas of the previous Bujold titles are gone as of this moment. The mad actions that Miles gets away with in previous books have dangerous, deadly consequences now and no one comes through this unscarred. The sudden transition from an adventure novel style to something more realistic is jarring but I think it was supposed to be. Daring rescue missions are supposed to work, disobeying orders for the sake of doing what's right isn't supposed to get innocent people killed, and the hero isn't supposed to have their internal organs reduced to a fine mist.

This wouldn't be as effective without seven previous books setting up her space opera universe and from this point on in her writing she retreats from the standard tropes. They're still there (Mirror Dance after settling down for a few hundred pages goes back for adventure novel finish, for example) but by turning things over it makes the whole thing feel fresher. This novel is about a teenager learning life is not like action movies and growing up, for example.

The only reason this works is that all of the major characters are so richly drawn, something that Bujold is very good at though she hadn't really applied her efforts in this direction before. The villains still might as well be twirling their handlebar mustaches while tying women to railroad tracks but everyone else is so interesting it doesn't seem to really matter.

A word of warning to the queasy on this book: it features one of the more graphic torture scenes I've ever encountered. It's toward the end of the book and even mentioning it is a bit spoilerish but I know at least one person who was turned off of the book by this section. It's not S&M erotica; it's brutal, graphic torture of one of the characters presented in detail.

This time Bujold has taken her adventure novels and turned them into a mature novel. I found it to be her strongest novel to that point and well worth reading. The only real problem is that it is completely dependent on her earlier body of work. If you haven't read the rest of the series then the book loses a significant portion of its impact.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Review - "A Song for Lya", "Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans", and "The Hole Man"

Frank Kelly Freas
1975 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

"A Song for Lya"
by George R. R. Martin
1975 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

Before he was raking in the cash hand over fist with his A Song of Ice and Fire series George R. R. Martin was one of the hottest up and coming writers in science fiction. Then he took a break for fifteen years to work in television and almost entirely dropped out of the literary scene until coming back with his fantasy series. "A Song for Lya" is a perfect example of his spectacular early work.

At a trading output where humanity has encountered a peaceful alien race some of the humans are converting to the alien religion. This wouldn't be a problem except for the fact that as part of this religion a parasite that consumes the person is attached to them when they turn forty and within ten years they are completely devoured. To determine how to confront this a pair of telepathic consultants arrives. They're lovers and truth they find about the alien religion strains their relationship.

From the set up I suspect that most of you would be able to guess at least the superficial layer of the mystery presented in "A Song for Lya" (I won't spoil it if you can't), but Martin layers that well-worn path with a deeper meaning that gives the story an incredible power.

The telepaths are one of the better handling of the subject that I've encountered and I've seen Martin's ideas on it mimicked many times since. His telepaths have a connection to all other living things and while one them is not strong enough to do anything more than read emotional states the other can view the depths of the mind.

While I don't think it's completely intentional I received a very Lovecraftian vibe from the story. Obviously there's the strange cult that leads its follows to being consumed by an alien slime but deeper than that the true reason for the cult's attraction is almost exactly from Lovecraft's own writings on horror. The context is dramatically different but it's not hard to view the story from a chilling horror perspective. I can't go into details without revealing spoilers.

As one final note I've rewritten this short blurb six or seven times to minimize the spoilers in it. The story is wonderful and Martin builds a multilayered tale that is hardly matched in science fiction. To describe the interplay of story elements would be to ruin the exploration of them when you read it. I cannot recommend this story highly enough.

"Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans: Latitude 38° 54' N, Longitude 77° 00' 13" W"
by Harlan Ellison
1975 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

It also wins the award for the single longest title in the history of the Hugo awards.

Ellison is still in his style over substance phase in this story but he finally seems to be shifting out of it here. He leads off by cribbing a line from Kafka which should tell you something about where he's coming from. In this story Lawrence Talbot needs his friend Victor's help to search within him for something rather important. These sections are okay but when the viewpoint shifts into a chaotic mindscape complete with punchline to tell us that the whole thing was meaningless it just breaks down. Ellison stretches for meaning involving wasted lives but I never felt the connection back to the narrative. The end result is a story that by its own admission doesn't have a purpose and is, to go back to the title, adrift.

I did find it to be better than Ellison's winners that immediately preceded ("The Deathbird", for one) it but I felt it was undermined by his taking other people's intellectual property and using it ("Victor" is in the public domain but "Lawrence Talbot" definitely is not). Ellison has rankled under even tangential uses of something vaguely resembling something he's written; seeing him do the same thing just sits wrong to me.

"The Hole Man"
by Larry Niven
1975 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

On Mars an alien device that communicates by projecting gravity waves is found. The expedition's scientist theorizes that a quantum singularity powers it and that leads to tension with the mission commander who apparently doesn't believe his expedition's physicist when he talks about physics.

This is a minor effort by Niven which I suspect got some attention for featuring what was then a very popular subject: black holes. The theory was gaining popularity then and this story contains little more than the idea of a black hole powered communicator. The characters are one-dimensional and exist solely to serve the plot which, frankly, isn't that interesting. The idea that humanity finds its first sign of alien life but the really important thing is that black hole is laughable.

A real problem with "The Hole Man" is that Niven immediately went back to the same idea and reworked it as a space opera for "The Borderlands of Sol" which won the Hugo next year. This story is completely eclipsed by the much better "Borderlands" so read that story and let this one sit forgotten.