Saturday, March 22, 2008

Review - Raiders of the Lost Ark

Raiders of the Lost Ark
1982 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

When I decided to also go through the dramatic presentation Hugos I knew I would have to deal with this. Let me just run through a few facts about Raiders of the Lost Ark:
  • At the time of its release it became the third highest grossing film of all time behind only it's director's Jaws and it's producer's Star Wars. It's still in the top fifty money makers over twenty-five years later.
  • On the IMDB it's listed at the 17th best movie of all time marking its continued popularity.
  • On Rotten Tomatoes it has a 95% fresh rating demonstrating it's massive critical success.
In short, it's one of the most successful, popular, and well regarded films of all time. It doesn't even have same kind of people who eventually got turned off to it like Star Wars has. I strongly question if there's an American on the Internet who has not seen Raiders.

I suppose I could whine about how weak the upcoming Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull looks or complain how Temple of Doom lacks the punch and Last Crusade feels too much like a rehash but who wants that?

So a synopsis... Indiana Jones is a field archaeologist who appears to not do an awful lot of archeology. Instead he spends his time collecting treasures from ancient temples with highly improbably but cool looking death traps, getting into bar fights with Nazis on Mount Everest, smashing priceless artifacts to escape a pit full of cobras, riding on the outside of trucks and submarines, and generally causing entertaining mayhem. He does this to keep the Ark of the Covenant away from Hitler who thinks it would look just spiffy next to his Spear of Destiny. It's structured like an adventure serial but with a significantly higher budget.

Okay, it wouldn't have been my choice for the Hugo award winner that year. As an adventure movie the fantasy elements were downplayed and saved for the very end making it a weak genre entry despite its qualities as a film (yeah, I know it's an arbitrary distinction). 1982 also had the underrated Time Bandits and the fine retelling of Arthurian legend Excalibur on the ballot but popularity triumphed.

So if you're the one person who might stumble across this and have not seen Raiders of the Lost Ark drop what you're doing and see it now. It has God going Old Testament on Nazis in it!

Friday, March 21, 2008

Review - James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon and Wonder's Child

Before I get to the reviews I should say that I don't really care for biographies. I find most of them flawed on one basic premise: the subject is either "the hero" or "the villain" and everything is presented to support that position. Human beings are more complex than that and every life is a mass of contradictions that don't match. I find myself reading between the lines of the biography trying to puzzle out how much of it is true and how much are from decades old recollections recast to make the teller as sympathetic as possible. Also usually a life in a biography has a particular period that's of interest, and as a result the author of the biography feels it necessary to cover the entire life trying to relate each event to that period. The result of this is that for the sake of the "story" of the biography I feel that I usually get a very distorted view.

That's why I haven't been reading a lot of the biographies that have won the related non-fiction Hugo awards. However, I have read two of them: this most recent winner and the first proper biography that won. (Both King's Dance Macabre and Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction had a biographical section but the first was about horror in general and the second was about Asimov's stories not Asimov himself.)

Now that you know how I feel about biographies in general and can filter my opinions through that let's get on to the books.

James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon
by Julie Phillips
2007 Hugo Winner for Best Related Non-Fiction

James Tipree exploded onto the scene in the late sixties. He had a style that was radically different from anyone else's and a distinctive, fresh point of view. Tiptree was also a figure of mystery; though he carried on lengthy correspondences no one ever met him, he never attended conventions, or even spoke to him. He hinted that he had a high government position and when Tiptree's writing stalled at the height of Watergate it only made the rumors grow wilder. Suddenly the veil was ripped away to reveal that James Tiptree was actually Alice B. Sheldon, a woman who hadn't started writing science fiction until well into her fifties. After she was revealed her writing continued sporadically until suddenly one night she killed her husband and then herself.

This book is a perfect example of the kind of biographies that I dislike. Phillips decided that Sheldon was a tragic heroine and so casts everything that occurred to her in that light. Sheldon is always presented as the victim in the biography even when her destructive behavior (which was much more than just her last acts) harms those around her.

A perfect example of this is when Tiptree is discovered. When Sheldon's deception is revealed Phillips focuses on only the few preceding years where Sheldon danced around her gender in her letters rather than the years of intentional lies that were used to set up the identity. The responses to the revelation are only her supportive friends with no mention of any hostility. Even when the harm is minimal people feel hurt when lied to for so long but the reader doesn't find any of that. Basically Phillips forgets the lies and ignores any response to the actual deception in order to put Sheldon in the best light possible.

A stylistic touch that I didn't care for was Phillips treating Tiptree as a separate person than Sheldon, but even in the text it is clear that Tiptree was a role Sheldon affected rather than a complete personality. Sheldon was conflicted and trying to keep her science fiction writing separate from the rest of her life however trying to split them into distinct individuals was a step too far.

I disliked The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon quite a bit. The story of Tiptree is one of the most unique ones in the history of science fiction (and when you consider science fiction authors that's really saying something) and despite flashes of interest I felt the structure didn't really give me a view of Sheldon's life. The best thing I can say about it is that it explores the sources of Sheldon's stories very well and that isn't enough to make it worth while.

Wonder's Child: My Life in Science Fiction by Jack Williamson 1985 Hugo Winner for Best Related Non-Fiction

Wonder's Child by virtue of being an autobiography doesn't have the same tone problems but it reads like a set of anecdotes from a friendly uncle. Williamson made his first story sale to Hugo Gernsback in 1926 and proceeded to have a career writing science fiction that went off and on for nearly eighty years (his last book before his death was published in 2005).

I'm not a fan of Williamson but I appreciated his honesty in his autobiography. In his discussion of his writing for the pulps he makes it clear that he spent a lot of time mimicking other authors. Many early science fiction authors did but I don't recall any being so open to discussing who's ideas they were reworking.

I said the book reads like anecdotes but they are of the rambling kind that shift into digressions and back again. Williamson's youth is the focus of Wonder's Child, three-quarters of the book takes things up to 1950 but I didn't mind that since the portion I was most interested in were the remembrances of those pulp magazines.

Still I can't recommend Wonder's Child. It left me feeling ambivalent, I didn't really like it but I wasn't left annoyed or disliking it either. I'd say that the dividing line for readers is going to be if the like Williamson or are interested in the pulps. If you are then you may find something of interest in Wonder's Child but if you don't then it will leave you bored.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Hugo Awards Late 90's Recap

So here's the slightly delayed 90's recap and we're finally coming to an end.

The 90's were lost thematically, but I did notice that all of the winners were established fan favorites. Lois McMaster Bujold won for another entry into her popular Vorkosigan series which was already an award winning hit. Similarly Kim Stanley Robinson managed another award for the final entry in his Mars trilogy. Neil Stephenson was a hot author coming off of Snow Crash when he wrote The Diamond Age (he wrote another novel under an pseudonym between the two). Connie Willis's time travel stories had a solid following. Joe Haldeman's books had become classics.

The industry's love affair with established works continued but The Diamond Age was the first Hugo winner to not be part of a series since Clarke's The Fountains of Paradise won in 1980. On top of that all of the other books that won were parts of series where another book in that series also won the Hugo award (Haldeman says he intends Forever Peace to be a spiritual successor to The Forever War so I'm taking him at his word on that even though it really does stand alone). Even worse was the fact that three of the books had prequels in the past few years. The popularity contest nature of the Hugos really caught up with it in the late 90's.

It strikes me as a little odd that in the middle of the Internet boom none of the winners really had anything to do with computers. The closest that things come is the networking of human minds in Forever Peace. I suppose that science fiction got that out of its system a decade ago with the cyberpunk movement.

So the current tally for the Hugo award winners is:

Liked: 32
Disliked: 15

I found none of the winners in the late 90's to be great but I enjoyed To Say Nothing About the Dog, appreciated the growing style of Bujold in Mirror Dance, and found the changed world interesting in The Diamond Age. I disliked Forever Peace and completely loathed Blue Mars.

Coming up on Monday is the single most controversial Hugo winner and I serve up sacred cow burgers! It's a period where the Hugo awards hit their nadir before rediscovering themselves. Get ready for a whole lot of griping!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Review - A Deepness in the Sky

A Deepness in the Sky
by Vernor Vinge
2000 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

Vinge's first Hugo winning novel A Fire Upon the Deep took his knowledge of network technology and painted a whole universe with it. Everything down to the aliens were reflections of certain basic technological problems. A Deepness in the Sky is a sequel of sorts but this time it lacks the strong central theme. The result is an interesting space opera but not one that feels as impressive as its prequel.

Deepness takes place thousands of years before Fire at a point where humanity is expanding from Earth on slower than light ships. They've yet to cross the boundary into to zone toward the edge of the galaxy where magical technologies become possible since once it has been found it starts an inevitable migration out to the edge. Pham Nuwen, one of the protagonists from Fire, rebuilt the divergent, distant colony worlds into one civilization with trade and conquest but was betrayed by his lover at the moment of his declaration of an interstellar empire. He went into hiding for millennia thanks to relativistic travel and longevity treatments and now his descendants have sought him out to make reparations and gain his assistance on a trip to a star where there's a sign of a non-human civilization.

The star is called OnOff since it flares to brightness for a few decades every few centuries before gradually dimming again. A strange species has built a culture around surviving these cycles, rebuilding themselves from almost nothing and then hibernating deep below the surface as their world freezes over again.

Shortly after arriving the traders encounter another interstellar human civilization, this one fascist. A battle ensues which devastates both fleets leaving them incapable of interstellar flight but the traders completely without leadership. The senior officer they have left is a young man on his first voyage whose family owned a share of the fleet. The fascists still have weapons and so an uneasy peace is built with them on top with both trying to last long enough to uplift the alien civilization to a state where it could help them. As the decades pass rebellions occur, war threatens the planet below, technology threatens to turn the traders into monomaniacal slaves, and in the background Pham plots a slow revenge on all sides and using the new technologies to build an empire that will last.

I can't help but notice that I need a lot more room to explain a Vinge plot; it doesn't feel like that when you're reading it but one of the interesting things about many of his books are when he puts together so many high concept ideas and sees how they interact. That may be Deepness's single biggest weakness since it doesn't feel like it has a particular guiding theme. You have three conflicting cultures influencing each other, nanotechnology and distributed processing, and human interaction as a filtering process. It feels like Vinge threw every interesting idea he could get his hands on in the book and it makes the whole thing feel unfocused.

There is a lot in the book about perpetuating culture across great distances and if I had to pick out a single biggest concept. The aliens have to try to retain their culture in the face of destruction every few decades, Pham wants to create a common culture that links humanity despite decades of distance between them, and the two co-existing human cultures try to keep their way of life in the face of a radically different culture and distance.

Once more Vinge's aliens are much more interesting than the humans. The species of OnOff is presented in human terms but at the same time feeling slightly off. The intention is that the sequences featuring them are a loose translation. At the same time the humans are fairly shallow. The fascists are your standard evil manipulators while the traders are clearly the good guys. Their leaders is the idealist put in a bad situation and they are complete with a naive young girl who is being taken advantage of.

One thing that Vinge throws into the novel that I have to single out for notice is the concept of "Focus", a technique the fascists use to initiate a permanent state of monomania on a person so that they can use them as living processors. The obsessions make the victims effective and fragile at the same time in their areas of expertise while reducing the victim to a de facto slave. Their world view becomes microscopically tight and Vinge delves into the psychology of such a mania in a way that is very interesting. In a way it's a method of keeping those characters two dimensional but at the same time turning the humans to aliens.

A nice thing about Deepness is that it is not necessary to read Fire to enjoy it. While knowing about the zones of thought and transcendent technology casts OnOff in a different light there isn't any heavy handed foreshadowing or even playing around with sequences that would make sense only in context of the series. Deepness can stand completely on its own.

The lack of a strong focus makes A Deepness in the Sky the weakest of Vinge's Hugo winners but that doesn't make it a bad book by any stretch. It's a very entertaining space opera with a lot of fascinating concepts thrown about which makes me recommend it. I just happen to enjoy many of Vinge's other works better.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Remembering Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke has passed away. I've been fairly harsh on his Hugo winning novels and story so now I offer you a novel and a story that I think are his best.

(Unfortunately my copy of the movie 2010 hasn't arrived yet or I would post an image from the film of his only film cameo. That image is from the back of The Fountains of Paradise.)

The novel is easy: 2001. Written at the same time as he was working with Stanley Kubrick on the movie Clarke's vision of humanity's encounter with aliens far superior to us stands on its own. The wonderful ideas that would have made bad exposition in the film are gently slipped into the novel to make it a richer experience. I know that Clarke fans generally prefer Rama or Fountains of Paradise which I personally didn't care for; perhaps that makes 2001 the Clarke book for people who didn't care for his other books.

The story is "The Nine Billion Names of God" where he merges the mystical and the scientific into one tight, stunning story. The technology is out of date but the concepts are not. It also has one of the greatest final lines in science fiction.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Review - To Say Nothing of the Dog

To Say Nothing of the Dog
by Connie Willis
1999 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

To Say Nothing of the Dog is set in the same world as Willis's previous winner Doomsday Book and shares some characters but Dog is a better novel than Doomsday Book for one very important reason: it's more entertaining.

In my younger days I went through that period of "If it's trying to be fun then it must stink." I took seriousness and bleakness as a sign of quality. It's a valley anyone who is developing critical skills has to pass through. Back then I would have loved the dreariness of Doomsday Book's conclusion while been turned off by the cheerful playfulness of To Say Nothing About the Dog.

The title of To Say Nothing of the Dog comes from Jerome K. Jerome's humorous Victorian novel Three Men in a Boat and Willis's time travelers this time land themselves in a boat trip on the Thames and a Victorian comedy of manners. Willis's time travel is deterministic; if a time traveler could affect history then their arrival is either moved in time and space enough that they don't or the time machine simply fails to work. Paradoxes should not be possible in Willis's world.

This book revolves around the reopening of Coventry Cathedral which is being rebuilt exactly as it was originally for the hundredth anniversary of its destruction in the blitz. The entire history department at Oxford are working themselves to collapse to be ready for it since a large portion of their funding is dependent on pleasing the rich matron who is responsible for the reconstruction. The overbearing matron has been making their lives miserable in the search for the Bishop's Bird Stump, a piece of art from the cathedral which transformed one of her ancestors life and which has been missing for a hundred years.

In the exhaustion of repeated trips to the past to gather information one member of the history department removes something vital from the late nineteenth century. That should be impossible and as a consequence the paradox runs the risk of disrupting the universe. The task of replacing it is given to a man who's area of expertise is World War 2 and the time machine lands him a long way from the manor which he needs to get to. And so the fate of the universe comes down to a boat trip on the Thames, a young man who falls for every pretty face, a confused history professor, a butler who did it, an extinct species, and a shallow pampered girl. To say nothing of the dog.

The story shares a lot in common with Doomsday Book. The time traveler, for example, continually makes faux pas in dealing with the Victorian household but this time around its excused since the trip was an emergency rush and he had little knowledge of the era. Unfortunately Willis does keep her bad habit of dancing around plot points that were immediately obvious the reader for hundreds of pages. Also Willis spends a lot of time explaining the mechanics of time travel in her world which just isn't that interesting.

But that didn't bother me that much since the book is a comic one. It's not the deep rich plot that's good about it, it's the awkward situations that people keep getting caught by. Quirky characters dance in and out of the story at just the right moments to cause trouble. Most of the them exist as comedic foils so they're not very deep but they are memorable.

And that's what the book is going to come down to. Think that Willis has an inspired zaniness in the comedy used in her other books then To Say Nothing of the Dog is going to be perfect form for you. On the other hand if you find that kind of craziness annoying then you're not going to enjoy it. There's no sense of doom, just about everyone gets a happy ending, and quite a few people get kittens. It's a fun book and as a result one I recommend.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

A Handy Guide to Cthulhu's Plan

Sure he's supposed to be unknowable but what planning has Cthulhu done for the world? Here's a handy flow chart for you!

(Warning: reading flowchart costs 1d10/1d100 SAN.)

That's by a "Lord Cownostril" and posted over at's list of 20 Insane Supervillain Schemes In Flowchart Form.