Saturday, April 26, 2008

Review - Back to the Future

Back to the Future
1986 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

Brazil was robbed for the Hugo that year but I can't complain too hard since while the voters went with a film that was a thousand times more popular it also went with one of the most fun time travel movies ever made. If the artistic film couldn't win at least the one that was good and fun took the prize.

Teenager Marty McFly accidentally catches a ride in a time traveling Delorean to the 1950's and doesn't carry the fuel with him. Stuck thirty years in the past he immediately triggers a grandfather paradox so he has to make sure his parents fall in love before catching a lightning bolt to get back to his own time.

The technical details of the movie always drove me nuts. Why would changing history take a week to have an effect? And if putting things right fixes it then why did it need to be changed at all? And why would a plan to catch a lightning bolt require split second timing when they have a sixty second window when it could happen? And how does plutonium generate 1.21 gigawatts in a spot above a Delorean's engine?

But in the end it doesn't really matter to me. The movie is fun. It's charming. A lot of my technical complaints have the direct answer, "It's that way to make the movie work," which a reasonable answer to any technical complains about a movie's premise. Trying to work out a time paradox is just headache inducing on your own; there's no reason to put it on screen and the situation gives the movie a race against time with visual representations that the audience can follow.

Thanks to playing up the humor of the situation the movie has a lot more punch than a straight adventure. The past isn't as idyllic as Marty was lead to believe which leads to plenty of gags. The complications still fall under things that work in a family comedy so there isn't really biting social commentary but it works for the story.

The cast assembled is about as perfect as you could get for the film. It's then teen hearthrob Michael J. Fox's first major film role and it launched him from television to bigger things. It also kicked off Christopher Lloyd's period where it seemed like it was working hard at the record of appearing in the movie films. They play off each other perfectly in this movie.

I'm not as fond of the two sequels that followed; they lack the same manic charm as the original though director Robert Zemeckis did work hard to make both sequels be something other than rehashes of the original.

Back to the Future is a fine movie and worth watching if you're one of the six people on earth who haven't seen it. I'd rank it with George Pal's The Time Machine and Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys as one of the greatest time travel movies ever made. It lacks the same visual style of those two movies but it's a lot more approachable by a general audience as well.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Find the Picture

After two weeks of intense content (and stuff in line for the next three days) I'm taking a night.

For your entertainment, enjoy my current time filler for the Nintendo DS translated to the web:

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Review - The 2008 Hugo Award Novella Nominees

Concluding my wrap up of the 2008 Hugo nominees let's take a look at the novellas:

"All Seated on the Ground" by Connie Willis

This story by Willis about aliens coming to earth and comic problems with trying to establish communication with them feels very familiar. It has the standard Willis features: wacky academia, bubbling bureaucrats, and a story that is obvious the reader who has to then put up with characters not figuring things out for the bulk of the story. The aliens do not respond to any stimulus until they happen to hear a phrase in a Christmas carol. One of the people who are helping with the stalled communication efforts gets the assistance of a choir director who noticed the timing of their response to work out exactly what happened. Now given those story elements there's only one way narratively that things will proceed and in fact Willis danced around the subject so much and the fact was that it was so obvious that I started thinking she was going somewhere else with it but she wasn't. Like other similar Willis efforts it is an entertaining story but that pacing just bothers me.

Despite that this is the story that I would bet on to win the category for one reason: it's set in Denver. Since Worldcon is in Denver this year there's going to be a certain amount of hometown votes. Let this be a lesson for all would be Hugo winners - learn what city Worldcon will be in that year and write a story set there.

"The Fountain of Age" by Nancy Kress

A retired mobster wants to pull off one more heist before he dies, this time to get a kiss from the love he lost fifty years before. His lover however is the most important person in the world, an immortal starlet whose body is the source of an age halting process. He recruits the assistance of a tribe of gypsies and work to dodge the federal agents trailing him long enough to get the kiss.

The tone of this story bothered me: there wasn't one. It didn't feel sentimental or suspenseful or exciting or mysterious or... well.. anything. It just sit there, inert. The concept is packed with potential but the story falls flat.

"Memorare" by Gene Wolfe

Conversely a lot of the ideas in this story are well worn but the execution is excellent. In orbit around Jupiter are a series of floating mausoleums for those who have died in space. A documentary filmmaker is exploring them and finding some to be traps designed to ensnare visitors. He invites his current lover out to assist him in his production and she brings along a friend who is fleeing an abusive husband. This friend turns out to be the filmmaker's ex-wife who destroyed his life. His lover is intrigued by the idea of one tomb which many people have entered and none have left. This is complicated by the arrival of his ex-wife's current husband who has arrived to drag her back.

Wolfe builds a story around the strong personalities and none of them descend to the easy caricatures that he could have used. The secrets of the deadly tomb are also a well worn path that Wolfe still managed to make fresh. The whole thing worked very well.

"Recovering Apollo 8" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

In an alternate history Apollo 8 misses the moon sending its crew off into space but a final plea from them before they die keeps the space race running so that regular civilian space travel is a reality by the end of the twentieth century. One of the industrialists behind the development of commercial space travel is obsessed with recovering the astronauts and giving them a proper burial and this story covers the efforts that span his lifetime.

Roughly eighty percent of this story is entertaining but then right at the point where it could have ended satisfactorily it made a sharp left hand turn into badness. The conclusion relies on an astronomically improbable coincidence that the story doesn't earn. It makes the ending very unsatisfactory. Still the beginning is interesting and so I think its worth a look.

"Stars Seen Through Stone" by Lucius Shepard

Yet another case where a strong story is damaged by a weak ending and in this case I think it is damaged to a point where it ruins the story. A small independent music producer in small industrial town has found a new talent but the musician is as unpleasant of human being as you'll find. One evening they witness a strange phenomena and coinciding with it is a burst of creativity in the town, but a story of the towns founder hints that there may be something sinister behind it.

The build up portions of the story are wonderfully atmospheric but the problems arise when the monsters show up. They're so bland and mundane that they can't help but be disappointing. There was no need to have the monsters arrive which just makes the ending seem odd. The ending recasts the entire story in a weak light and damaged what I found to be a very enjoyable and unique take on Lovecraftian themes.

So with all that, here is how I would vote for the novellas:

"Recovering Apollo 8"
"All Seated on the Ground"
No award
"Stars Seen Through Stone"
"The Fountain of Age"

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Review - The 2008 Hugo Award Novelette Nominees

Continuing with the 2008 short fiction nominees we have the novelette category. Tomorrow I'll wrap it up with the novellas.

"The Cambist and Lord Iron: a Fairy Tale of Economics" by Daniel Abraham

This is the only nominee in the short fiction categories that I'm not reviewing. It may be good, it may be bad, it may be brilliant, but it hasn't been posted online as far as I can tell. In this day and age if you do not make the nominees for the short fiction available to be read you will not get votes for the Hugo. There can be a lot of reasons for why the story has not been made available but I hope for their sake that they can straighten it out soon.

"Dark Integers" by Greg Egan

I found this sequel to Egan's "Luminous" to be on the weak side. The build up was interesting as it deals with a handful of mathematicians keeping an uneasy truce with another universe that has a different set of mathematical laws. Performing certain calculations can make other axioms in either universe behave differently and could allow someone on either side of the universal divide overwrite the other universe. Ten years after almost wiping each other out and becoming aware of the other universe's existence someone from our universe may be accidentally starting hostilities again.

The problems come when this aspect of the story is resolved and it gets back to inter-universal relations. Then the story has all of the interest of watching someone typing at a computer. One of the major rules of any fiction is "show don't tell" but there's not a good way to show mathematics and so there's a lot of telling. It makes the narrative in the second half just fall apart.

"Finisterra" by David Moles

On a gas giant with an oxygen/nitrogen atmosphere (the reason for it is magi-teched away) people live on the backs of giant flying animals. A woman fleeing her family signs on with a group of poachers who kill the smaller islands. They want her to figure out a way to ship the largest of the islands off world intact.

This story features heavily one my big literary pet peeves. The characters do not speak English, they're speaking either Spanish or Arabic. For the most part the characters speak the same languages. The story was written in English so the majority of it is in English except occasionally random words and phrases are in Spanish or Arabic, often with the English equivalent nearby in the text. It's a sloppy narrative method to make things "foreign" which only succeeds in breaking the readers immersion.

Besides that the story is obscure. I'm not clear how poaching the little islands is supposed to be affecting the other ones since there is no description of how the creatures interact. As a major plot point the planet is poor despite having certain obvious resources that are not being used. For some reason spreading out the population is supposed to help this.

This is about as long of review as one of these short stories is going to get because there are so many negative things about "Finisterra". It left me bewildered as to how it got on the ballot.

"Glory" by Greg Egan

This story opens with a technical sequence which might just be the most insanely awesome method of interstellar travel ever conceived of. Since it's Egan again naturally mathematics comes into play as two mathematicians travel using this extreme method to a solar system which does not have interstellar travel. What they do have is the remains of a civilization that existed on their planet before them which dedicated themselves to a complete understand of mathematics before suddenly dying out. The world is divided between two superpowers and each lands in one hoping to just be able to pursue research but find themselves caught in their politics.

This was a very effective story by Egan since the characters waver between supreme competence in some areas and naivety in others. It makes the situation and the complications feel very natural and the story was entertaining.

"The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" by Ted Chiang

This story, on the other hand, was brilliant. It's not just my favorite of the nominees in this category but of all the nominees. An alchemist in medieval Baghdad has created a door that when a person passes through it they travel through time twenty years. Chiang tells the usual time travel stories of unintended consequences, manipulating history, and trying to recover lost love. The trick is he does it as a set of Arabian Nights style fables. The story reads like the Burton translation of the classic stories and features nested framing sequences, morals about Allah's will, and characters that move in and out of related stories. Stylistically and narratively it's perfect. This is not a story to miss.

As you may guess here's how I would vote:

"The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate"
No Award
"Dark Integers"
"The Cambist and Lord Iron: a Fairy Tale of Economics"

No offense intended toward Abraham by putting him last; I just couldn't vote for a story which I have not read.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Review - The 2008 Hugo Award Short Story Nominees

While I don't read enough current novels to even touch on the nominees for the novel category (my early money is on The Yiddish Policeman's Union in a Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell style win but that's just a guess based on which book has gotten popular acclaim outside of science fiction) almost all of the short fiction nominees are available online and I've read them all. There are some that are pretty good and some that left me scratching my head wondering why that got on the list. So let's start with the short stories and over the next few days I'll move up to the longer categories.

The nominees are:

"Distant Replay" by Mike Resnick

An old man finds a young woman just like his departed wife and strikes up a friendship with the her. She's uncertain about her fiance and he offers advice from his own past before trying a different solution.

There's nothing really wrong with this story but to me it never elevated past being cute. I just wasn't interested in the characters and there was nothing else to the story other than them.

"Last Contact" by Stephen Baxter

The universe is rapidly coming to the end in this story which features it from the point of view of a woman reconnecting with her mother in the last year of the Earth's existence. As the fabric of the universe crumbles the world is receiving many signals from deep space indicating intelligent life.

I have some problems with the universe wide disaster as presented in the story but the real point is the human interaction and the behavior in the face of inevitable destruction and so I didn't mind that. Baxter tells this story well in brief, staccato chunks and as a result it doesn't overstay its welcome by wallowing in the breakdown of society. I wouldn't call the story brilliant but I found it to be a particularly fine bit of work.

"A Small Room in Koboldtown" by Michael Swanwick

This is a fairly generic locked room murder mystery that relies on the protagonist stumbling onto a key fact about the victim that I would hope that anyone doing a basic investigation would realize immediately. It's set in some kind of modern fantasy world and is apparently part of a series.

This story is weak presumably because it's starting from an assumption that readers are familiar with the setting which I was not. This is particularly bad for a locked room murder mystery because they're puzzles for the reader and in this case it was obvious from the start that the puzzle wasn't even approachable unless you had the background. So the mystery was a bust but that's the only major story element worth mentioning; the characters all meant nothing to me but were written like I should know who they were.

"Tideline" by Elizabeth Bear

This story of a boy and his dying robot war machine is schmaltzy but not completely ineffective. A severely damaged mech after civilization has fallen walks a beach gathering debris to turn into necklaces as a memorial to its fallen comrades. While doing this it befriends a child and teaches him about life. While they didn't have to take the mech behind the barn and shoot it this wasn't a very original story. It was told reasonably well from the point of view of the war machine.

"Who's Afraid of Wolf 359?" by Ken MacLeod

A man has to go to a star system where a previous colony collapsed and determine what happened. When he gets there he finds something radically different from what he expected and has to deal with the possibility of genocide. There were a lot of very interesting ideas in the story but for some reason the prose never grabbed me. It might have been that the smarmy narrator was a bit too insufferable or it might have been that the pacing just felt off but I couldn't connect with the story at all.

So based on that my ballot would be:

"Last Contact"
No award
"Who's Afraid of Wolf 359?"
"Distant Replay"
"A Small Room in Koboldtown"

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Nebulas

So the Hugo award winning novels are done (I'm still reading the short stories and non-fiction as well as watching the dramatic presentation winners), but there's two more major awards for fantastic fiction that I think are worth noting: the Nebulas and the World Fantasy Award. I'll talk about the World Fantasy Award (which is similar to the Hugo only specifically for fantasy) later but my next project is reading through the Nebula winners.

The Nebulas are handed out by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (or SFWA) with their members voting on the results. In theory this would lead to more artistic choices than the populist Hugos and in some cases it has. Unfortunately the SFWA has a history of being one of the most argumentative groups in history (any time you put a few hundred nerds together and you'll see the same result). The consequence of that is the Nebula awards tend to be even more prone to being affected by politics than the more open Hugos are.

The Nebulas overlap with the Hugos for the majority of their first twenty years but then a break occurs between it and fandom at large and the two awards rarely coincide after that. I won't be covering the Nebula winners that I've already reviewed which will shorten the list of books to be read dramatically.

Here's the current list of winners for best novel:

2006 - Seeker by Jack McDevitt
2005 - Camouflage by Joe Haldeman
2004 - Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold 1
2003 - The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon
2002 - American Gods by Neil Gaiman1
2001 - The Quantum Rose by Catherine Asaro
2000 - Darwin's Radio by Greg Bear
1999 - Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler
1998 - Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman1
1997 - The Moon and the Sun by Vonda McIntyre
1996 - Slow River by Nicola Griffith
1995 - The Terminal Experiment by Robert J. Sawyer
1994 - Moving Mars by Greg Bear
1993 - Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
1992 - Doomsday Book by Connie Willis1
1991 - Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick
1990 - Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
1989 - The Healer's War by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough
1988 - Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold
1987 - The Falling Woman by Pat Murphy
1986 - Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card
1985 - Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
1984 - Neuromancer by William Gibson
1983 - Startide Rising by David Brin
1982 - No Enemy But Time by Michael Bishop
1981 - The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe
1980 - Timescape by Gregory Benford
1979 - The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke
1978 - Dreamsnake by Vonda McIntyre
1977 - Gateway by Frederik Pohl
1976 - Man Plus by Frederik Pohl
1975 - The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
1974 - The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
1973 - Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
1972 - The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov
1971 - A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg
1970 - Ringworld by Larry Niven
1969 - The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
1968 - Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin
1967 - The Einstein Intersection by Samuel R. Delany
1966 - Tie between Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany and Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
1965 - Dune by Frank Herbert

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Review - "Lost Dorsai", "The Cloak and the Staff", and "Grotto of the Dancing Deer"

Michael Whelan
1981 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist
1981 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Artist

For the second time ever and the second year in a row an author won two awards in the short fiction categories.

"Lost Dorsai"
by Gordon R. Dickson
1981 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

Perhaps this story would be more effective if you are a fan of Dickson's Dorsai universe. I'm not and Dickson does not provide much in the way of exposition in this story which makes it hard to follow at some points.

A group of highly skilled professionals from a planet where everyone is a mercenary are tricked into taking a contract that puts them in the unwinnable position of defending a fortress with a marching band against an army of thousands. One of those mercenaries happens to be a pacifist which is why he left home to be the bandmaster. To Dickson's credit he doesn't go the completely obvious route with the concept but he makes up for that in other places. I found the characters to be interesting but it wasn't enough for me. I found it to be a fine attempt that I just couldn't connect with.

"The Cloak and the Staff"
by Gordon R. Dickson
1981 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

This on the other hand I found to be a very effective story. A highly placed slave of invincible alien conquerors rebels in little ways until he is found by the real resistance. Dickson does a suburb job in setting up the desperation of humanity being reduced to barely tolerated livestock. The villains are distant impersonal forces while the humans are are lost. It's a bleak, depressing tale that I think works because it takes time to set up the desperation. It makes "The Cloak and the Staff" well worth checking out.

"Grotto of the Dancing Deer"
by Clifford D. Simak
1981 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story
1980 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

Simak's story falls under the heading of "tribute Hugos". He was at the end of his career and this not particularly good story won both the Nebula and Hugo. The only way I can take it is that they were given on the basis of his career. An archaeologist who has been on a dig at a cave with extensive paintings goes back for one more look, meets a mysterious local who helped him on the dig, and finds a hidden set of paintings and artifacts. You're probably able to guess where this goes from just that brief description and the story offers zero surprises. The characters are flat despite the opportunity for some depth and the story appears to exist mainly to justify it's blindingly obvious twist.