Saturday, April 12, 2008

Review - 2010

1985 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

Nearly twenty years after 2001, a film that many argue as the greatest science fiction film of all time, Arthur C. Clarke returned to the well for a cash-in sequel to the book. He'd return to it twice more with the quality dropping further with each iteration. The first of the sequels made it to the movie screen in a film that isn't terrible but just cannot stand against the reputation of the original.

Nine years after Dave Borman vanished after his encounter with the alien monolith in orbit around Jupiter a join Soviet and US team return to try to determine what happened. Unfortunately while they're up there international relations break down and the world goes to the brink of war. At the same time something is changing Jupiter and its moons.

2001 was a masterpiece of cinematography by one of the greatest directors who ever lived. 2010, to put it mildly, is not. Which doesn't mean that it stinks, it's just average. There are good ideas in it but they're wrapped in a layer of disinterest.

One of the things it does well is that while most of the characters could be replaced by mannequins without significantly changing the story there were a handful that really came alive. In particular the sequence where two of them cross to the space craft abandoned nearly a decade ago is well done.

In addition the special effects, some of the earliest uses of CGI in film, for the astronomical effects are well done. Okay, our view of Io and Europa has changed since the film was made but the astronomical details are for the most part correct. Okay, except the part where they say no one has done aerobraking before.

The film has a bad case of "Don't tell anyone so it's more dramatic!" syndrome. H.A.L., the murderous computer from 2001, is kept out of the loop on things which impact him so there will be a dramatic sequence where he discovers what is occurring at the last possible second but if the characters had told H.A.L. immediately they could have worked around him. The crew receives warnings that "something wonderful" is about to happen but being direct would have simplified the plot.

On the other had it has a straightforward plot so while characters may not communicate vital data between each other until the last minute the story can be followed by the average viewer. This stands in direct contrast to 2001 whose ending has sparked more than its share of arguments.

I found 2010 to not be really that important, an appendix stuck to a great movie. It didn't stink is the nicest thing I can say but thanks to its cold war storyline it feels more dated than the original. If you catch it on television I don't think you'd mind seeing it but it's not worth the effort to seek out.

Finally, as promised here is Arthur C. Clarke's cameo from the film. He's the one on the left.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Review - "Enemy Mine", "Sandkings", "The Way of Cross and Dragon"

Michael Whelan
1980 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

This is a bit of a funky year. First off, Michael Whelan begins his dominance of the artist category. Get used to seeing his name up there, he wins again in ten of the next twelve years.

Second, this is the first year where an author has won multiple Hugo awards in the short fiction categories. Other authors have won multiple awards in a year but they have been spread out.

Third, two of the three stories below have had adaptations made. One a feature film and the other as the pilot episode for the revival of The Outer Limits.

"Enemy Mine"
by Barry B. Longyear
1980 Hugo Winner for Best Novella
1979 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

Two pilots on conflicting sides of an interstellar war crash onto a hostile world and have to learn to live with each other to survive. It's a simple enough formula but Longyear manages to tell the story pretty well. Unfortunately he also takes a lot of shortcuts for the sake of his story that significantly reduce its impact.

The parts that work are the story of survival. Two people from very foreign cultures gradually learning to live with each other is an interesting story. What didn't work for me was the fact that the human was the only one changed by the experience. The alien who crashed with him doesn't learn about humanity, the flow of changes and re-examination is only one way. In addition when a child is born it ages in a matter of months to the equivalent of an eight year old human so that the world can be explained to him.

This makes the story come across as rather heavy handed ("Oh how foolish humanity is when explained to a child or a person from a perfect culture!") and in the end I see it as a fine effort but not quite good enough.

by George R. R. Martin
1980 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette
1979 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

This isn't a deep story; the characters a paper thin caricatures that you've seen before. This isn't an unpredictable story; it follows the standards of horror fiction very closely. What this story has is a very good telling of those common elements.

A man who enjoys exotic pets purchases colonies of "sandkinds". Hive mind insects that build elaborate castles and wage war against each other. He starves them and makes them battle against other creatures for his entertainment but eventually they get lose and madness ensues.

Despite following a standard pattern Martin still somehow manages to make each turn in the story surprising. He ratchets up the horror regularly and somehow always finds another worse level to go to. This is not a story to read if you have any kind of fear of insects.

So I wouldn't read this story looking for a brilliant insight into the human condition but it is chilling in the best possible way and I enjoyed it.

"The Way of Cross and Dragon"
by George R. R. Martin
1980 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

In the distant future the Catholic church has adopted new ways to deal with alien species and interstellar travel. A new heresy has sprung up on a planet where they have sainted Judas Iscariot and an inquisitor travels to that world to confront the heresy. The new Bible created features an immortal Judas being slandered as the betrayer and spending eternity attempting to atone for sins he committed between the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Once on the world the inquistor confronts the head of the new religion and is very surprised by what he finds.

And I can guarentee that the reader will as well. As I read the story I thought I knew where it was going and then in one sudden sharp line Martin overturned everything. And then just when I thought I knew the new direction of the story he manages it again. It's almost like he was trying to make up for the predictability of the general plot of "Sandkings" by piling on the plot twists here.

The story on the whole works very well giving real thought to how large organized religions would react to interstellar travel and some real thought on what religion means to people. The story as a whole is spectacular and worth seeking out.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Nerding Out Over Secret Invasion #1

Okay, I'm not actually reading the new Marvel crossover where Skrulls are replacing people (again) in order the world (again again). It's been a standard comic book plot since Fantastic Four #2 and that's just the Skrulls. I've seen it before and I'm sure it'll be done again.

Still if you read any comic book sites it's been impossible to avoid. People have been going crazy over one particular image that they think implies which heroes may have been replaced.

Either they're completely wrong or the author of the series (Brian Michael Bendis) isn't doing the basic groundwork on the character's histories.

Here's the shot which features a group of heroes (wearing 1970's and early 80's versions of their costumes) emerging from a crashed space ship:

I'm not completely familiar with every aspect of all of those characters but the majority of them have had events occur to them since this point which mean the hero we've been reading about can't be a Skrull.

Before I get into that I have a few notes on continuity. My feeling on comic book continuity is that the major events involving characters have to count but the tiny details can slip. By dropping in characters from the past like this Bendis has opened himself to continuity complaints. So while I'm ignoring the fact that the Skrulls all had their shape shifting abilities removed in the mid-80's and were stuck in their natural forms (everyone seems to ignore that brief storyline) I'm not ignoring the story lines for character's first appearance and other major transitions.

In addition I'm assuming that the Skrulls are not omnipotent and that supernatural beings are not going to bother covering up for their plans in order to screw with people.

So let's get started.

White Queen
Replaced by Skrull? Impossible.
Since she wore that costume the White Queen has swapped bodies with multiple people.

Replaced by Skrull? Impossible.
Recently sold his soul... er... marriage to the devil.

Replaced by Skrull? Possible but unlikely.
I'm not aware of any specific events that exclude the possibility but the Beast has been directly involved with a lot of people who should be able to tell the difference.

Luke Cage
Replaced by Skrull? Could be.
Cage has some nice gaps in his life which could be used to justify a replacement and I'm not aware of anything that means he could not be a Skrull.

Replaced by Skrull? Not a chance.
Since that point he gained the power of Odin, triggered Ragnarök, been revived from the afterlife, and that's just the obvious ones. As a god Thor would be particularly difficult to replace successfully.

Wonder Man
Replaced by Skrull? Impossible, but if there's a character for them to get wrong I'd bet on him.
Wonder Man has died and gone to the afterlife since he wore that costume. Repeatedly. Since dying reveals if the person is a Skrull we know Wonder Man is not.

Invisible Woman
Replaced by Skrull? No way.
Went to heaven and met God recently. I think he'd mention something like that.

Phoenix/Jean Grey
Replaced by Skrull? You're kidding, right?
Phoenix is a cosmic entity and after she died it was revealed that she was a substitution for the real Jean Grey who returned. I can't even wrap my head around the problems caused by saying she was replaced by a Skrull.

Replaced by Skrull? Seems the most likely.
There's a few minor events that would preclude the possibility but his continuity is so tangled now that it easily allows for a few replacements.

Iron Man
Replaced by Skrull? Could be but don't bet on it.
I'm not aware of anything in Iron Man's history that specifically prevents him from being a Skrull (the Crossing's multiple layers of retcons can still work with a Skrull) but since it's the obvious one then he won't be.

Replaced by Skrull? Impossible.
Got married and had children who in a pointless retcon of their own were a chunks of a demon. For him to be a Skrull requires that Mephisto is in on their plan and helping them with it.

Scarlet Witch
Replaced by Skrull? No way.
Responsible for reality shifts at the heart of two recent Marvel large scale crossovers. If the Skrulls can rewrite reality to their whim then why bother with the invasion plan?

Replaced by Skrull? Interesting but unlikely.
One of Bendis's own creations, she's retconned into Marvel history. Since she's one of his favorite characters I think it's unlikely that Bendis would invalidate her entire history but it would work and be an interesting choice.

Replaced by Skrull? Impossible.
Died, went to hell, and has interacted with many characters who were on day trips there over the years.

Captain America
Replaced by Skrull? Nope.
Besides the fact that he had a very public "death" which would have revealed a replacement there's the meta reason that he, like Iron Man, is a character people are supposed to think has been replaced so he won't be.

Ms. Marvel
Replaced by Skrull? Not possible.
After she changed costumes and joined the Avengers she had her personality and powers completely drained by Rogue. Rogue kept her powers indefinitely and had a split personality with her for some time and didn't gain Skrull shape shifting.

Replaced by Skrull? Well...
Not by "a Skrull" but by an elite team of seventy Skrulls which allow Wolverine to be an active member of four different superhero teams while pursuing his own adventures in three different books and guest appearing in half a dozen others each month.

So in conclusion, just about everyone on that ship will be a Skrull except for a couple token surprises, and most of the people who saw them come out of should realize this with just a few seconds.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Review - Spin

by Robert Charles Wilson

2006 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

So much of science fiction revolves around mysteries. Books open with strange mysterious happenings and as the characters deal with them the reasons behind the weird event/alien artifact/unusual phenomena are (usually) revealed. This is a staple of science fiction in the style of John Campbell and the basic formula has persisted for more than sixty years. The problem usually is that the solution isn't half as interesting as the problem and readers can feel let down.

Spin isn't one of those instances.

In fact I can say it has the most interesting "solution" to a cosmic problem that I've ever seen. It's a concept that not only wraps the central mystery in the novel up in a nice little bow it also blows my mind with the possibilities where it could go from the ending.

One night the stars go away. The sun still hangs in the sky but the rest of the stars are simply gone. Thanks to satellites falling back to the ground it is found that time is passing on earth is passing hundreds of millions times faster than it is in the rest of the universe. An alien artifact has enclosed the world and it shields us from star light being blue shifted to a gamma ray burst and keeps the illusion of a normal day going. Anything that goes to high up is safely put back into the universe's normal time frame. Within just a few years of time within this barrier the sun will expand to initially render the earth uninhabitable and finally engulf the planet. If the barrier stays in place it will be the world's last generation.

Dealing with this are a family of industrialists in the style of the Rockefellers. The patriarch pins his hopes on his brilliant son to develop a solution while his daughter spirals out of control mirroring the rest of society which is dealing with the emotional impact of the effect. The story is told through the viewpoint of a family friend who grows up with the children and becomes one of the last doctors.

The book digs into every aspect of the time distortion that a reader may want as humanity struggles against it. Each option tried is more clever than the last and this is what Wilson does well in Spin. Every time you think he can't get more daring with his concepts he finds a new direction to go in. It makes Spin a gripping book.

Where he falls short is in the human drama. The human beings are much less interesting than the things that are going on around them. The family melodrama wears thin after a while and far too much of the book is dedicated to it. Do these characters seem familiar to you? Dominating father, son attempting to live up to him, daughter rebelling against her father and family, crusading doctor. There's little more to the characters than those broad descriptions I provided and they play out their story almost by rote.

And compounding that problem is Wilson's prose is dry as a desert. The sense of wonder that Spin contains is derived more from its big ideas than poetic descriptions. It's not atrocious writing, it just isn't particularly inspiring.

In the end I'd give Spin a hesitant recommendation. If you like the Campbellian science fiction where bold scientists work hard to deal with a phenomena then you'll definitely like Spin since it's one of the best examples of that particular branch of science fiction. If you prefer a deep search of the human condition then you probably will walk away more annoyed than happy with the novel. And if you fall somewhere between those two poles (as I do) then I suspect you'll enjoy the book with similar reservations.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Review - "The Persistence of Vision", "Hunter's Moon", and "Casandra"

Vincent DiFate
1979 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

"The Persistence of Vision"
by John Varley
1979 Hugo Winner for Best Novella
1978 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

While hitchhiking and walking cross country a man comes across a unique community of blind/deaf people and is so taken by their lifestyle he lives among them for a while. They have built a community and culture based on intimacy. Their lack of senses seems to put them in touch with something else beyond what normal men can sense.

Varley creates an interesting insular culture built around taking advantage of the remaining senses. There isn't a lot of story here (the transformation of the man who encountered the community is rather choppily handled) but the community presented is fascinating. I would recommend "The Persistence of Vision" as a pretty good except I have a problem with Varley.

I have read exactly three things by Varley and all three have prominently featured adults having sex with children and these have been presented as positive relationships. In "The Persistence of Vision" it's a thirteen year old girl throwing herself at a forty-seven year old man (which also annoys me with "sexually open culture means young, hot women throw themselves at repressed older men" theme that also is so common). Once is an odd quirk of a strange culture, twice is kind of weird, and at three times I'm suspecting that I'm seeing the author's fetishes on display. I've seen a lot of fetishes dropped into books by authors and typically it ranges from annoying to creepy. Sometimes going from one to the other like Heinlein's spanking obsession. Varley's starts out creepy and just gets worse and it has put me off ever wanting to read anything by him again.

"Hunter's Moon"
by Poul Anderson
1979 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

Anderson returns to the awards once more with this story that feels like a weaker version of his previously winning "The Sharing of Flesh". On an alien planet human anthropologists are attempting to understand why two sentient alien species are at war. One group, a flighty collective of poets and dreamers, is being preyed upon by feral stone age hunters who think that the fliers are responsible for their low birth rates. Two of the anthropologists use a weak form of telepathy to understand the two species and in their empathy with them gain insight into their strained marriage.

If this story was any more heavy handed it would have to be made from neutronium. It starts with pages of clumsy exposition and then follows that up with some particularly ham-handed parallels. And the whole this is extremely predictable; I could tell you where the story was going from page three. Top that off with one of the most bland couples as the protagonists and this is a story to avoid.

by C. J. Cherryh
1979 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

A young woman sees the world overlaid with images of death and destruction. She lives each day seeing death in the faces of those around her until one day she finds someone who appears normal. Cherryh's take on precognition is interesting and I found the story enjoyable even though I knew where it was headed (the story's title is a bit of a clue). She captures the complications in dealing with those visions wel. This is a concept that I think I would have enjoyed seeing expanded on in a longer work but the tiny image she paints with it is worth reading.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Review - Johnathon Strange and Mr. Norrell

Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
by Suzanna Clarke

2005 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

No time for a post today. Here's an article from the April 7, 1835 edition of the Morning Chronicle of London to hold you over.


Much has been made of the new story by one Mr. S. Clarke forming a fictionalized account of the revival of magic in this modern era. The follows of Mr. Norrell have sent many angry missives to the papers and literary journals decrying the depiction of their patron igniting a fresh conflagration in their debates with the followers of Mr. Strange. This reporter found the work to be a delight; in turns an enjoyable flight of whimsy, a dramatic magical conflict between great forces, and a chilling moral tale of the dangers in tampering with such strange forces.

I need hardly recount to any of you, fair readers, how magic had faded from Britain for centuries leaving only historians to pass themselves off as magicians. The discovery of a true magician in Mr. Norrell was a pleasure and the accounts of his services to the crown as well as his adventures in society were the talk of London. And of course when his pupil Mr. Strange was discovered the wonders the two of them created before being drawn into conflict were astounding. Mr. Clarke's novel tells all of this and perhaps most scandalous he depicts Mr. Norrell as one who would in desperation traffic with spirits, a claim that has been vigorously attacked.

Most curiously the novel is written in a particularly modern style that might turn off readers casual readers more adapted to classical works but any student of current nineteenth century English literature such as myself will find it delightful. In fact our young Mr. Dickens is quite taken by the style of the work and has stated that he will endeavor to mimic it henceforth. As the work was serialized first in a weekly paper it shows signs of drifting from chapter to chapter in no particular hurry. Consequently the book is particularly lengthy; some readers may find themselves exhausted with the effort of reading it though many may find themselves exhausted simply by the effort of carrying it.

Perhaps the most perturbing aspect of the novel is that it ends abruptly shortly after the events in Italy. While perhaps Mr. Clarke is reserving the more recent terrible events that have surrounded magic for a second volume this reader was left desiring the narrative to continue.

Mr. Clarke has performed an exceptional task in building a composite image of the first two magicians of the modern era and while some may comment upon certain aspects of Mr. Norrell's depiction it can hardly be disputed that the personality of both great men is captured within the pages. The paths that lead each of them to their distinctive forms of magic are clearly laid out so that the reader can accompany them as the art changes them.

This also leads to the most controversial portion of the novel in which the methods of the two magicians are contrasted and how they lead the two of them into conflict. Every schoolchild knows the results of that confrontation but rarely has the reasons for it been so clearly put to page.

The magical history has become a popular staple of booksellers, but I find that it is often clumsily done with characters out of place and too many things made simple for the characters by use of magic. Mr. Clarke makes it clear that magic while potent is not all powerful and as a result it increases the tension of the story while simultaneously evading the common solution of a new magic fixing complicate problems with no effort that other authors use. In addition Mr. Clarke's modern style gives his work a distinctive feel so while other authors writing of true magic resort to similar weak techniques Mr. Clarke is blazing a new trail.

All in all S. Clarke's Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is the ideal book for the reader interested in the details of modern magic but not wanting to reach one of the many dry histories that have been published in the past ten years. Perhaps most notably it has gained attention even outside of the magical enthusiasts as a superb novel. You should read it henceforth.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Review - Return of the Jedi

Return of the Jedi
1984 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

As I pointed out in my Empire Strikes Back review that movie is the best of the Star Wars films because it subverts the genre. Return of the Jedi, on the other hand, backpedals as fast as they can for the sake of merchandising and the result is terrible.

In Empire the "helpful mentors" were revealed to be lying manipulators. In Jedi, they take it all back with a flimsy excuse that is just accepted by the person who was hurt by their behavior. In Empire the training for a week didn't let the new hero face the skilled veteran on equal footing. In Jedi without any more training he's become an expert. In Empire there was a dualism, a balance in concepts. In Jedi if you get angry for a couple of minutes even in justified situations you run a real risk of turning completely evil and joining the other side. In Empire blowing up one military installation actually made things worse for the rebels. In Jedi blowing up one military installation means they win the war even though they're in the middle of a battle in which they're badly outnumbered and losing fast. In Empire the hero doesn't get the girl. In Jedi you get an out of the blue excuse why that's just fine.

Even worse, the plot for Return of the Jedi plays like a highlight reel of the best things in the previous movies. "Boy that Death Star battle was exciting... I know, let's do it again! Only this time they go inside it!" Even the lightsaber duel that should be the climax of the trilogy feels rehashed from Empire.

And there's the plot synopsis for you. Once more the Empire has built a Death Star. Once more the rebels get the plans. Once more there's a big space battle around it but this one is dependent on some of the worst conceived plans ever depicted on film to succeed. And then everyone is happy when it works, except for the trillions who die in the civil war kicked off by the rebels creating a massive power vacuum.

So the film is a rehash and a return to bland genericness after the daring steps of Empire. On top of all that there is the merchandising. A significant portion of the film feels more like an extended toy commercial than a movie. The Ewoks, the teddy bear like primitives who somehow aren't slaughtered by the overwhelming force that they're assaulting, are particularly conspicuous in this regard. Care to guess who was the center of the marketing blitz with their own follow-up made-for-TV movies and cartoons?

The only thing Jedi offers is visual style which is continuing the evolution of effects that started with Star Wars. Unfortunately a lot of it feels the same as the previous movies "only bigger" (sensing a theme here?). The most impressive sequences are the most original ones right at the beginning of the movie.

The writing took a very sharp step down from both previous movies as well. Besides the noted deus ex machina resolutions to dangling (and some not so dangling) plot points the film comes across as though written for an even younger audience than Star Wars was written to. At several points in the film, for example, an alien creature lets out a "humorous" belch after consuming something.

So after the visually innovative but not particularly great Star Wars, the cleverly subversive Empire Strikes Back, the Star Wars series ended (for a time) with a cheap cash-in. If it wasn't for the fact that Empire ends on a cliff hanger I would say avoid Return of the Jedi entirely. As it stands it makes me more inclined to just forget about the Star Wars series all together.