Saturday, April 5, 2008

Review - Blade Runner

Blade Runner
1983 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

There's three films that I think have defined the look of every science fiction film that has followed: Star Wars, Alien (which borrowed a lot of set design from Star Wars but find me an alien monster not inspired by H. R. Geiger now), and Blade Runner. Blade Runner itself borrowed a lot of visual techniques from film noir and placed them in the context of a sharp, grimy near future.

In the distant year 2012 Decker is a retired blade runner, a hunter of rogue replicants. Replicants are androids which are physically superior to humans in every way except that they have a built-in life span of four years. Replicants have been banned on earth and so when some of them do turn up on earth the blade runners hunt them down using psychological tests to identify them. A group of replicants comes back to earth to find their creator lead by a high end military unit and when they kill one of Decker's old friends he feels obligated to come out of retirement to hunt them down.

The movie wanders very far from it's source material, Phillip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. The fact that the title has changed helps mitigate some of the sting of that and the fact that director Ridley Scott built a pretty good science fiction film out of the adaptation process helps forgive more. It does bother me that most editions of Dick's book since the movie have the title Blade Runner but I can't blame the movie for being successful.

As mentioned the film is visually stunning in a way that still images can't convey. Scott took advantage of some old techniques and played up the contrast between light and shadows in the film and they constantly shift. On top of that he works with a very dynamic camera that moves through the sets in a way that makes them feel more lived in.

Blade Runner presents some core science fiction concepts rarely put on screen and for that alone it is worthy of praise. The androids are seeking meaning in their short lives and trying to be human. They're not simple movie monsters lurking and killing off the humans; they're sympathetic.

I do have some problems with the pacing since the film seems to switch gears so often that it can leave you dizzy. The hunt for androids in the population tends to fade to the background as the replicants tend to just come out and fight. Decker spends quite a while doing things that don't really connect directly to his investigation. Still Blade Runner has what I find to be one of the greatest climaxes in film history (not just science fiction films) so the choppiness of the scenes leading to it can be excused.

I can't end this review without mentioning the three different cuts of the movie. Obviously the Hugo was handed out for the original theatrical cut which is my current preference. Scott's director's cut was released in the early 90's removes a voice over narration and adds in some shots to give the film a "twist ending". Finally there is a new cut of the movie released in the past few months which I have not seen yet (it's in the mail so I'll comment on it when I see it). While I don't want to give out spoilers for the end of the movie I am not particularly happy with the twist added since it requires that the majority of the people in the early part of the film be lying solely for the purpose of fooling the audience. There's no need for the conspiracy gymnastics they would have to run through to allow the ending to work since a much more direct and simple option is available. So it's a twist that only exists to screw with the viewer's head and doesn't make sense in the context of the film. The other changes in the director's cut are fine to me but that one puts the rest of the film in a bad light.

Blade Runner is an exceptional movie. Well made on every level and well worth the attention it has received over the years. If you haven't seen it then now is the time to get a copy of it with the original version being widely available again.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Review - Paladin of Souls

Paladin of Souls
by Lois McMaster Bujold
2004 Hugo Winner for Best Novel
2004 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

Yet another Hugo award for my archenemy Bujold and once more I am forced to concede that it is actually pretty go... hey, wait a second. This one isn't particularly good at all!

Paladin of Souls is the first novel to win a Hugo from the epic fantasy genre. Usually found clustered in three book series it has become the cash cow of sf/fantasy in the past few decades. I can't stand them myself despite having read quite a bit of it when I was younger. It has reached the point where I will not read a fantasy book if it features industrious dwarves, nature loving elves, or evil orcs. Borrowing characterization and world building from someone else is not the path to creating quality fiction.

Bujold doesn't follow the standard pattern of these books by not cribbing Tolkien-esque races, but she does fall deeply into the other major trap that annoys me about epic fantasy. Her cultures are essentially modern day European with the trappings of medieval Europe. In these novels the heroes are the ones who are most like modern day progressive thinkers while anyone who actually behaves like they're living in an feudal society is at best the patronizing foil if not an out and out villain. It's the a similar problem to the one I had with Hominids: modern day western culture cannot be transplanted to an non-industrial agrarian society. The problems become even more pronounced when fantasy elements that should completely transform society are introduced but the author sticks to their Renaissance festival culture.

Paladin of Souls is the second in Bujold's Chalion series (I actually disliked the previous book The Curse of Chalion even more). This time the middle aged dowager queen who was a minor character in the first book decides to flee her life and go on a pilgrimage. On the way she meets a spunky peasant girl who defies society's conventions and faces a demon before getting captured by an enemy nation. She is rescued by an unstoppable knight who takes her back to his castle which is holding the border on the eve of a war. There she finds a mystery involving his brother who is hovering on the brink of death twenty-three hours a day.

Bujold's writing is up to its usual breezy standards but the story she's telling just isn't that interesting. It's another light adventure novel from Bujold but at this point her formula is wearing thin. You could almost copy and paste some of the characters straight from her Vorkosigan books. I wasn't interested in the characters and it doesn't help that there's quite a bit of literal deus ex machinas occurring (in fairness to Bujold some of the divine interference is set up). The result was that I just couldn't care about the book.

My reaction wasn't as violent as it could have been, but that doesn't make me like the book. There's other popular fantasy authors who have the same problems and can't string a sentence together like Bujold. Still in the end I can't recommend Paladin of Souls; I just didn't enjoy it. It's a standard generic fantasy novel just like hundreds of other ones.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Review - "Stardance", "Eyes of Amber", "Jeffty is Five"

Rick Sternbach
1978 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

I don't know what it was but 1978 might have been the best single year for Hugo award winning short fiction. I'd call two of them excellent and the other one very good

by Spider Robinson and Jeanne Robinson
1978 Hugo Winner for Best Novella
1977 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

You might recall that I didn't like Robinson's earlier "By Any Other Name" but my problem with that story wasn't the writing or the characters; it was the fact that my suspension of disbelief was snapped so hard that it walked with a limp afterward. "Stardance" is different (perhaps due to the influence of his wife who is credited as co-author) and while I found its overall story a bit predictable the telling couldn't be better.

There is a woman who wants to be a dancer. She's brilliant with choreography, poetic with her own motions, but doesn't have the figure for a modern dance company. On her own she's perfect but with others she can't do it. So she is locked out of her dream but attempts to pursue it on her own with a professional camera man. Eventually she gets access to an orbital facility and trades her body for the opportunity to dance in zero gravity. The effect of working without gravity is destroying her but her dances are inspiring the world. She has one last great dance to perform but the stress of doing it may kill her.

The Robinsons have built a powerful, moving story on this framework. The characters for the most part are richly detailed and fascinating. Even though I knew quickly how it would progress (the story opens with hints of the ending) the narrative pulled me along. I could not recommend this story more highly.

"Eyes of Amber"
by Joan Vinge
1978 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

An alien civilization has been found in our own solar system and humanity has sent a space probe to them. The probe lands on Titan and falls into the hands of a psuedo-medieval bandit who is seeking revenge on her family. While her plans take shape the human monitors on Earth separated by the time lag for their signal debate what to do about it.

"Eyes of Amber" raises a lot of difficult questions and offers no solutions. Is it right for humanity to impose its values on another civilization? What about when it's our views on murder? And how much does the promotion of science in popular culture matter? How far should it go? The characters make their decisions but they aren't made easily. It does give the story a bit of an anticlimactic feeling since the tension mostly comes from the human drama which makes the resolution come across as a bit flat. Still I enjoyed the effect of the story as a whole.

"Jeffty is Five"
by Harlan Ellison
1978 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story
1977 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

Remember the Harlan Ellison who wrote clever and interesting stuff like "'Repent Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" and "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream"? The one that got consumed by the pretentious, droning Ellison? Well by 1978 the New Wave was gone and people stopped equating "densely overwritten and meaningless" with "good". So the old Ellison came back with the very good "Jeffty is Five".

In a suburban neighborhood live Jeffty who is, as the title states, five years old. Jeffty has always been five since the narrator of the story was five years old himself. It appears to simply be a situation like Peter Pan until the narrator finds out that not only is Jeffty five, everything that was important to him when he was five also exists around Jeffty. Radio dramas continued, movies in that style still turned up, and so on.

As a result Ellison's story is deeply embedded in nostalgia and that isn't a bad thing. He indulges it while at the same time recognizing the problems with it. It makes the whole thing feel more like something Ray Bradbury would write rather than the angry ranting that Ellison commonly dipped into. Perhaps that was a sign of Ellison growing up.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

One More Chilling Note About Hominids...

While writing that review of Hominids I remembered something. Here's the shortlist for the novels up for the 2008 Hugo award:

The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon
Brasyl by Ian McDonald
Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer
The Last Colony by John Scalzi
Halting State by Charles Stross

He somehow made it onto the ballot again.

Review - Hominids

by Robert J. Sawyer
2003 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

The reason that I missed a few days of posting wasn't because I had moved and didn't have Internet access until they wired up the house. I had touched this book again and it hospitalized me.

This is it: the bottom of the barrel, as low as things can get, the worst novel to ever be awarded a Hugo. I found They'd Rather Be Right's pro-Scientology message disturbing but at least the book was written to the average standards of quality for science fiction in the 1950's. There is no such excuse for Hominids. It reads like a bad fanfic.

Robert J. Sawyer used to promote himself as Canada's only full time science fiction author (he wasn't really but why let facts stand in the way of self-aggrandizement). The 2003 Worldcon where this... thing that passes itself off as a book was selected for the Hugo award was held at Torcon in Toronto. So congratulations Canadians, your nationalism has committed the single biggest atrocity in the history of science fiction awards.

I had considered doing a full week of just how terrible Hominids is. It's that bad. I could have torn it apart page by page, posting passages of people spouting random facts like a child copying a sentence from an encyclopedia for a report one day and detailing the non-characters another. My move has put me behind schedule though so you only get this one day of review. I have a lot of pent up hostility toward Hominids so it's going to be a doozy. Thanks to Robert J. Sawyer I now know what a human optic nerve looks like. This is due to my eyes rolling so much as I read this birdcage lining masquerading as novel that I could see my own brain shriveling in horror.

In Hominids a Neanderthal from a parallel world where Cro-Magnons died out is transported to our world due to an accident involving computers. Once here he provides unsubtle and unclever comments on how bad modern day man is which are presented as "deep". Meanwhile on his own world his partner is put on trial for his murder despite the fact that it's incredibly simple to demonstrate that he didn't.

Sawyer peppers the book with facts about Neanderthals that often makes it read like a third grader's science paper. Particularly awful is the fact that his technologically advanced Neanderthal society is directly built around then current theories about Neanderthal behavior. Think about that for a second. Let's turn that around for us. Could you extrapolate anything like modern western society from knowledge of society and culture at the time of the Norman invasion? You might be able to draw simple parallels (there's white men in charge!) but hardly anything else and that's starting from a thousand years ago with a fairly complete understanding of the society. Sawyer attempts to connect societal structures from hunter/gatherers 100,000 years ago to a technological society a hundred years more advanced than us. It's a hundred times more stupid than thinking you could start from William the Conquerer and drop that society right into the modern UK.

And the foolishness keeps on coming. Neanderthals don't have internal combustion engines as they are good little guardians of the earth, but the book explicitly states that they use plastic sheets as writing materials (presumably so they don't hurt trees). Plastic means that they extract oil and refine it. If they refine it then they have to make kerosene and gasoline. So what are they doing with the combustibles since they aren't burning them?

The book is jam packed with contradictions like that. If you can't find a major logical problem on each page then you must be looking at one of the blank ones that are occasionally between chapters. There's the fact that an AI that learn English in four hours and could pass a Turing Test doesn't prove that the Neanderthal isn't from our present-day earth. And did you know that since Neanderthals cannot pronounce the long "e" sound due to their mouth structure neither can their computers. Or how about the fact that it is explained that a quantum computer would use copies itself in parallel universes but it ran out of parallel earths ("Divide by Infinity Minus One Error: Abort, Retry, Fail?")? Or that one of the human characters suddenly has a 1930's telephone connection that requires operator assistance to place a call so that he can have dramatic dialog?

The really bad stuff comes from things where Sawyer decided to just have Neanderthals do things differently from humans just so they would be different with little consideration of the complications of engineering, design, culture, or usability involved. They pull studs rather than push buttons; imagine trying to work a keyboard by pulling stops rather than pressing keys to see why this doesn't work. Neanderthal clothing is fastened at the shoulders; stick two towels together with a little bit of masking tape so that one hangs over each side of your body and they are fastened at your shoulders and then gently pull one down to see why clothing isn't made this way. And a special annoyance for cooks reading the book is that they use lasers to grill their food; despite what George Forman tells you a grill is not defined by the fact that it leaves lines on food when it cooks it.

So the world building is about as bad as it gets but Sawyer is not content to just be sloppy. The characters are also a problem. Or should I say the lack of character. Everyone in this book could have been replaced with a cardboard cut out and it would have made no difference. Particularly horrifying is the educated, mature college professor who gets raped at the beginning of the novel (Rape! TM, the lazy way of giving a female character a tragic background since 1612). She doesn't report it since she thinks that she wouldn't be believed. An over forty year old woman. In modern day Canada. On a college campus. And apparently she thinks she has the reputation as the town slut, that quick and simple techniques for handling the crime don't exist and certainly wouldn't be available in the location where rapes are most likely to occur, or is living in a place where women aren't trusted when they report rapes. Instead she freezes her attacker's sperm sample. You'd think that this would be an important plot point but the only thing that happens because of the rape is that she doesn't like men.

And she's the most defined character.

Despite the lowest common denominator prose and the large print and margins on the page it took me a long time to get through this one. Mainly because I had to stop every two paragraphs to walk across the room and pick up the book again. My body reflexively hurled anything that moronic thing away from me for fear of being contaminated by it. I'm not even joking on this one; I repeatedly tossed this book away as I recoiled from the horror of it.

I can honestly say I'd rather read They'd Rather Be Right again than this tripe. This is as bad as it gets. I have heard that Sawyer's Nebula win was similarly due to politicking and is an equally terrible novel. I'm dreading reaching that one.