Saturday, May 3, 2008

Review - Aliens

1987 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

Let me tell you a simple story. It's about a bunch of tough guys who go someplace remote thinking that they have an easy job ahead of them. As it turns out there's a whole lot of bad guys there and they have to try to hold out as long as they can as things progress from bad to worse. They do the best they can with their plans in the face of overwhelming odds and in the end just a handful manage to defeat their last enemy and escape alive.

It's an old story. It's been used in movies almost as long as movies have been made. But rarely has it been used as well as it is in James Cameron's Aliens (the only man who I can think of who has done it better is Akira Kurasawa and there's no shame in being second to him). Instead of simply retelling the story used in Alien for a sequel Cameron used it as a launching point for his own movie and added a shocking amount of depth to the formula.

This time the tough guys are space marines who are accompanying Ripley, the survivor of the first movie, back to the world where they found the first alien. While Ripley in hibernation on route home a colony had been built on that planet and shortly after she arrived and reported on the monster they lost contact with the colony. Once there they find the place overrun with the monster who proceed to destroy the marine's methods of retreat leaving them trapped on the planet with no supplies and hundreds of very deadly killers.

What elevates Aliens above the standard fare is how Cameron develops themes throughout the movie. Motherhood resonates throughout the film as Ripley connects to a young girl who is the only survivor of the colony but there's also the aliens who are born from one mother and infect people to have them give birth to the adult aliens. The bonds and process of motherhood touch on almost everything in the movie.

And then there's the Viet Nam reaction. You have in this case your military going to help defend a population against a geurilla force and being overwhelmed by their opposition. In a straight up fight the marines would have no problem but the aliens take advantage of the terrain in a way the marines can't. Finally the survivors have to take the last chopper out of Saigon escaping just ahead of the enemy.

Another aspect of the film that works well is the fact that it manages to juggle roughly a dozen distinct character arcs without feeling overwhelming. The cast starts much larger but quickly gets pared down to a size that lets individual stories be told. While only a few of them get a great deal of depth there's so much happening that it makes the movie even more engrossing.

Finally there's a lot to be said about the art of film making used in Aliens. Cameron has done some great movies, some solidly made movies, and some weak ones but I find Aliens to be his strongest movie over all. He takes the opportunity to play with a very different canvas than any he used before or since. You'll see elements of the same style in other films but not the same balance of complexity. The lighting effects use some of the style from the original movie but for the most part it's Cameron selecting an ideal shot composition. This is an exceptionally well made movie.

If you have the opportunity I would recommend watching the extended cut of Aliens since it is a much worse version of the film; it will give you a greater appreciation for the incredibly skillful editing in the original cut.

I'm going to sound like a broken record for most of these dramatic presentation awards but the fact is they're rarely handed out to bad movies. In this case it was handed out to an exceptional movie (something that also happens relatively often). If you are somehow a nerd who hasn't seen the movie then you really need to as soon as possible.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Iron Man on Foreign Policy

With the Iron Man movie opening tomorrow there's been a bit of talk about why Iron Man has always been a marginal title. Like so many other comic fans I've never really been interested in Iron Man and it comes down to the fact that he has never had a hook that I liked (trying to write a hero around technology when the standards change from week to week is admittedly a rough task) and most writers have settled on a characterization of him as a warmongering jerk. Here is how he reacts to enemies of the United States (before Civil War reduced him to a weak strawman for fascist politics):

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Review - Flowers for Algernon

Flowers for Algernon
by Daniel Keyes
Tied for 1966 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

One of the classic arguments in science fiction is if the original short story or the novel is better. There's a lot of stories that have been expanded to full length novels and a good way to start a fight in a room full of nerds is to say that one was better than the other. The original short story "Flowers for Algernon" won the Hugo award in 1960 and Keyes reworked it into this book which managed to win the Nebula.

Charlie is a mentally handicapped man who has been selected for an experiment to raise his intelligence. Through his journal entries the reader can see his developmental progress as he both becomes smarter and seeks emotional maturity. With his new viewpoint Charlie seeks to make peace with his childhood. And in this confusion the possibility that the change is temporary arises.

Flowers for Algernon is a superior novel. Charlie's story has a real punch to it thanks to the developing first person narrative which gives you a chance to see his development on multiple levels. Starting with the childish writing it builds perfectly over the course of the story. It makes the book one of the best constructed novels I have ever encountered.

It helps that Charlie is a fascinating character. He starts innocent but the fruit of the tree of knowledge changes that quickly. I never found him to be particularly likable but he was sympathetic; you could understand him despite the exotic situation. In addition Keyes manages to avoid a simplistic equating of knowledge with unhappiness that some authors use; knowledge makes Charlie unhappy but there's underlying problems. Ignorance wasn't complete bliss.

So what is the real difference between the book and the short story? Primarily the arc of short story is intellectual, the arc of the novel is emotional. The short story is about what happens and the novel is about what Charlie does about it. I think Keyes was more effective in the short story since the events contain their own drama but if someone told me that they preferred the exploration of Charlie's past and emotional development in the novel it wouldn't surprise me. Each will appeal to a different group of readers.

You'll note I had nothing negative to say about Flowers for Algernon. I can't help that since it's not just a great work of science fiction, it's one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century.
If you have never read the book then I cannot recommend it highly enough. My preferences lie with the short story but the book has its own strengths. If you're going to read one book that I recommend this is the one.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Why I don't like Resident Evil

Yeah, I know I'm twelve years behind the times but I spent some time this weekend trying to play through the Gamecube remake of the popular game and I loathed it. I've tried to play the game in the past (both original and remake) and failed to get very far into it. I'm not sure what prompted this attempt and while I got much further than I had in the past I've still given up. Resident Evil breaks every rule of good game design, does things that stopped being acceptable years before and does things that stopped being acceptable years before its release. The game's popularity is completely inexplicable to me.

First let us start with a premise: Resident Evil is an adventure game with some action segments. The survival horror theme directs certain aspects of the game (how effective combat is, placing the player in stressful situations) but the core game play element is to explore the environment and solve puzzles. That's what players will be doing 95% of the time.

Okay, so we've got a starting framework and Resident Evil does that badly. The puzzles are mostly have the key item at the right place; not a bad starting point but not very deep either. But then the game severely limits the player's inventory. Since most players will want a weapon, ammo, health item, whatever key you're currently exploring with that leaves two to four slots open for item found while exploring. Since a player is always conditioned to pick up everything those slots fill up fast. the only place you can drop things are special rooms so the player spends a lot of time running back and forth. "Oh here's a puzzle that needs the key item I found a while ago! Time to run all the way back, empty my inventory, pick up the item I need, come back, and hope I have enough slots for whatever I get once I solve the puzzle."

So the player spends a lot of time doing nothing but backtracking. Wandering around the same empty rooms over and over and over again is conducive to boredom, not horror.

So in addition to this punishment for exploring the rooms (like the player is supposed to do) Resident Evil stacks on another one. Zombies that are killed will eventually get up again stronger and tougher to kill. So if you explore a room and kill a zombie in there only to find out that you don't have the key item you could have to fight a worse zombie when you come back. Since the player's resources are severely limited (a reasonable design choice given the genre) the player has to spend more than twice the usual amount of their limited resources because they explored. It's like the game was designed to played with a walkthrough rather than puzzled out by the player.

And then there's the save system. I understand that consoles have limited space and so need a more structured save system than on a PC. The problem is that Resident Evil provides a resource (carried in those limited inventory slots, no less!) that is required to save. Once you introduce a limited resource you change how a player perceives it. Every time the player looks to save they're going to have to ask themselves "Is this the best use of my limited resource?" This is good for things like health potions, it's bad for things like saving. It means when the sudden deaths come (and it is a horror game so it can happen quickly) it's not horrifying, it's annoying. What made me stop playing was facing a repeat fifteen minutes of empty game time to get up to the point where I died again. And that wasn't the first time in the game it happened.

Resident Evil is game that punishes playing. It's not horrific; the closest it gets is throwing things out of blind spots and a shock is not a scare. The sloppy combat doesn't add anything to the game and the fact that the character handles like a drunk frat boy makes all the repetitive wandering even more painful. And the less said about the "story" the better. The whole thing just isn't fun to play and an embodiment of bad game design.

I have played Resident Evil 4 and I did like that game; the improved controls and the better designed environment made it more fun. Given my dislike of the first game I was shocked.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Popularity and the Dramatic Presentation Awards

Why isn't there a review here? Mainly because if I hold off starting the Nebula reviews until Wednesday then next week can be an all Samuel R. Delany spectacular with his two Nebula winning novels and his Hugo winning history. That kind of set up is too good for me to resist so the reviews of novels will start up again on Wednesday.

To tide you over, though, I thought I'd take a quick look at the dramatic presentation awards. They're tied to popularity even more than the novel categories. Here's a list of all of the winners that have made more than $100 million dollars and where they place in the list of all time top grossing films:

2 - Star Wars - $460,998,007 - 1978 Hugo
9 - The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - $377,027,325 - 2004 Hugo and Nebula
12 - Jurassic Park - $357,067,947 - 1994 Hugo
13 - The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers - $341,786,758 - 2003 Hugo and Nebula
21 - The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring - $314,776,170 - 2002 Hugo and Nebula
24 - Return of the Jedi - $309,306,177 - 1984 Hugo
27 - The Sixth Sense - $293,506,292 - 1999 Nebula
30 - The Empire Strikes Back - $290,475,067 - 1981 Hugo
37 - The Incredibles - $261,441,092 - 2005 Hugo
49 - Raiders of the Lost Ark - $242,374,454 - 1982 Hugo
74 - Back to the Future - $210,609,762 - 1986 Hugo
80 - Terminator 2: Judgment Day - $204,843,345 - 1992 Hugo
149 - Who Framed Roger Rabbit - $156,452,370 - 1989 Hugo
207 - Superman - $134,218,018 - 1979 Hugo
230 - Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - $128,078,872 - 2001 Hugo and Nebula
242 - The Truman Show - $125,618,201 - 1999 Hugo

The majority of the remaining winners are television shows which obviously wouldn't be on this list. The award is biased heavily against smaller, quality films though in the past two years the awards have gone to Pan's Labyrinth and Serenity which I would not describe as "popular". Perhaps things are changing...

Nebula Winners of the 1990's

1990 Nebula Winners
Novel - Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
Novella - "The Hemingway Hoax" by Joe Haldeman
Novelette - "Tower of Babylon" by Ted Chiang
Short Story - "Bears Discover Fire" by Terry Bisson

1991 Nebula Winners
Novel - Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick
Novella - "Beggars in Spain" by Nancy Kress
Novelette - "Guide Dog" by Mike Conner
Short Story - "Ma Qui" by Alan Brennert

1992 Nebula Winners
Novel - Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
Novella - "City of Truth" by James Morrow
Novelette - "Danny Goes to Mars" by Pamela Sargent
Short Story - "Even the Queen" by Connie Willis

1993 Nebula Winners
Novel - Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
Novella - "The Night We Buried Road Dog" by Jack Cady
Novelette - "Georgia on My Mind" by Charles Sheffield
Short Story - "Graves" by Joe Haldeman

1994 Nebula Winners
Novel - Moving Mars by Greg Bear
Novella - "Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge" by Mike Resnick
Novelette - "The Martian Child" by David Gerrold
Short Story - "A Defense of the Social Contracts" by Martha Soukup

1995 Nebula Awards
Novel - The Terminal Experiment by Robert J. Sawyer
Novella - "Last Summer at Mars Hill" by Elizabeth Hand
Novelette - "Solitude" by Ursula K. Le Guin
Short Story - "Death and the Librarian" by Esther M. Friesner

1996 Nebula Awards
Novel - Slow River by Nicola Griffith
Novella - "Da Vinci Rising" by Jack Dann
Novelette - "Lifeboat on a Burning Sea" by Bruce Holland Rogers
Short Story - "A Birthday" by Esther M. Friesner

1997 Nebula Awards
Novel - The Moon and the Sun by Vonda N. McIntyre
Novella - "Abandon in Place" by Jerry Oltion
Novelette - "The Flowers of Aulit Prison" by Nancy Kress
Short Story - "Sister Emily's Lightship" by Jane Yolen

1998 Nebula Awards
Novel - Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman
Novella - "Reading the Bones" by Sheila Finch
Novelette - "Lost Girls" by Jane Yolen
Short Story - "Thirteen Ways to Water" by Bruce Holland Rogers

1999 Nebula Awards
Novel - Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler
Novella - "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang
Novelette - "Mars is No Place for Children" by Mary A. Turzillo
Short Story - "The Cost of Doing Business" by Leslie What
Best Script - The Sixth Sense by M. Night Shyamalan

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Nebula Winners of the 1980's

1980 Nebula Winners
Novel - Timescape by Gregory Benford
Novella - "Unicorn Tapestry" by Suzy McKee Charnas
Novelette - "The Ugly Chickens" by Howard Waldrop
Short Story - "Grotto of the Dancing Deer" by Clifford D. Simak

1981 Nebula Winners
Novel - The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe
Novella - "The Saturn Game" by Poul Anderson
Novelette - "The Quickening" by Michael Bishop
Short Story - "The Bone Flute" by Lisa Tuttle

1982 Nebula Winners
Novel - No Enemy But Time by Michael Bishop
Novella - "Another Orphan" by John Kessel
Novelette - "Fire Watch" by Connie Willis
Short Story - "A Letter From the Clearys" by Connie Willis

1983 Nebula Winners
Novel - Startide Rising by David Brin
Novella - "Hardfought" by Greg Bear
Novelette - "Blood Music" by Greg Bear
Short Story - "The Peacemaker" by Gardner Dozois

1984 Nebula Winners
Novel - Neuromancer by William Gibson
Novella - "Press Enter g" by John Varley
Novelette - "Bloodchild" by Octavia E. Butler
Short Story - "Morning Child" by Gardner Dozois

1985 Nebula Winners
Novel - Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
Novella - "Sailing to Byzantium" by Robert Silverberg
Novelette - "Portraits of His Children" by George R. R. Martin
Short Story - "Out of All Them Bright Stars" by Nancy Kress

1986 Nebula Winners
Novel - Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card
Novella - "R & R" by Lucius Shepard
Novelette - "The Girl Who Fell into the Sky" by Kate Wilhelm
Short Story - "Tangents" by Greg Bear

1987 Nebula Winners
Novel - The Falling Woman by Pat Murphy
Novella - "The Blind Geometer" by Kim Stanley Robinson
Novelette - "Rachel in Love" by Pat Murphy
Short Story - "Forever Yours, Anna" by Kate Wilhelm

1988 Nebula Winners
Novel - Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold
Novella - "The Last of the Winnebagos" by Connie Willis
Novelette - "Schrödinger's Kitten" by George Alec Effinger
Short Story - "Bible Stories for Adults, No. 17: The Deluge" by James Morrow

1989 Nebula Winners
Novel - The Healer's War by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough
Novella - "The Mountains of Mourning" by Lois McMaster Bujold
Novelette - "At the Rialto" by Connie Willis
Short Story - "Ripples in the Dirac Sea" by Geoffrey A. Landis

Nebula Winners of the 1970's

1970 Nebula Winners
Novel - Ringworld by Larry Niven
Novella - "Ill Met in Lankhmar" by Fritz Leiber
Novelette - "Slow Sculpture" by Theodore Sturgeon

1971 Nebula Winners
Novel - A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg
Novella - "The Missing Man" by Katherine MacLean
Novelette - "The Queen of Air and Darkness" by Poul Anderson
Short Story - "Good News from the Vatican" by Robert Silverberg

1972 Nebula Winners
Novel - The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov
Novella - "A Meeting with Medusa" by Arthur C. Clarke
Novelette - "Goat Song" by Poul Anderson
Short Story - "When It Changed" by Joanna Russ

1973 Nebula Winners
Novel - Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
Novella - "The Death of Dr. Island" by Gene Wolfe
Novelette - "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand" by Vonda N. McIntyre
Short Story - "Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death" by James Tiptree, Jr.
Dramatic Presentation - Soylent Green

1974 Nebula Winners
Novel - The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
Novella - "Born With the Dead" by Robert Silverberg
Novelette - "If the Stars Are Gods" by Gordon Eklund and Gregory Benford
Short Story - "The Day Before the Revolution" by Ursula K. Le Guin
Dramatic Presentation - Sleeper

1975 Nebula Winners
Novel - The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
Novella - "Home is the Hangman" by Roger Zelazny
Novelette - "San Diego Lightfoot Sue" by Tom Reamy
Short Story - "Catch That Zeppelin!" by Fritz Leiber
Dramatic Presentation - Young Frankenstein

1976 Nebula Winners
Novel - Man Plus by Frederik Pohl
Novella - "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" by James Tiptree, Jr.
Novelette - "The Bicentennial Man" by Isaac Asimov
Short Story - "A Crowd of Shadows" by Charles L. Grant

1977 Nebula Winners
Novel - Gateway by Frederik Pohl
Novella - "Stardance" by Spider Robinson and Jeanne Robinson
Novelette - "The Screwfly Solution" by James Tiptree, Jr.
Short Story - "Jeffty Is Five" by Harlan Ellison

1978 Nebula Winners
Novel - Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre
Novella - "The Persistence of Vision" by John Varley
Novelette - "A Glow of Candles, a Unicorn's Eye" by Charles L. Grant
Short Story - "Stone" by Edward Bryant

1979 Nebula Winners
Novel - The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke
Novella - "Enemy Mine" by Barry B. Longyear
Novelette - "Sandkings" by George R. R. Martin
Short Story - "giANTS" by Edward Bryant

Nebula Winners of the 1960's

1965 Nebula Winners
Novel - Dune by Frank Herbert
Novella - Tie between "The Saliva Tree" by Brian W. Aldiss and "He Who Shapes" by Roger Zelazny
Novelette - "The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth" by Roger Zelazny
Short Story - "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" by Harlan Ellison

1966 Nebula Winners
Novel- Tie between Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany and Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Novella - "The Last Castle" by Jack Vance
Novelette - "Call Him Lord" by Gordon R. Dickson
Short Story - "The Secret Place" by Richard McKenna

1967 Nebula Winners
Novel - The Einstein Intersection by Samuel R. Delany
Novella - "Behold the Man" by Michael Moorcock
Novelette - "Gonna Roll the Bones" by Fritz Leiber
Short Story - "Aye, and Gomorrah..." by Samuel R. Delany

1968 Nebula Winners
Novel - Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin
Novella - "Dragonrider" by Anne McCaffrey
Novelette - "Mother to the World" by Richard Wilson
Short Story - "The Planners" by Kate Wilhelm

1969 Nebula Winners
Novel - The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Novella - "A Boy and His Dog" by Harlan Ellison
Novelette - "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones" by Samuel R. Delany
Short Story - "Passengers" by Robert Silverberg

Review - "The Saturn Game", "Unicorn Variations", "The Pusher"

Michael Whelan
1982 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist
1982 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Artist

Three multiple Hugo winners return this year and all three repeat their favorite patterns. I can only guess that the voters were looking for something familiar that year.

"The Saturn Game"
by Poul Anderson

1982 Hugo Winner for Best Novella
1981 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

This was a final Hugo win for an acknowledged master of science fiction. So naturally it's an award for his career not for the quality of this weak excuse for a story...

Wait a second. Something's wrong here... This story isn't terrible at all! Didn't Anderson realize that he could have just written anything and gotten the award? He didn't need to spend his efforts working on an interesting story. Some people just have no sense of tradition.

Which isn't to call "The Saturn Game" brilliant either. It's a solid effort that I think falls short in a few structural places.

On the long interplanetary voyages the travelers have taken to amusing themselves with free form role playing games. The first crew to travel to Iapetus, unusually mottled moon of Saturn, play a fantasy game which featured a fairy tale ice kingdom and when they arrive on the moon they lose themselves in their game. Disaster strikes and survival may be dependent upon them shaking off their fantasy world.

Anderson does a good job with overlaying the schizophrenic episodes of the explorers with reality and building them into interesting characters. The only major problem is some very large blocks of clunky exposition that set up the games. It breaks the pace of the story. Still I found "The Saturn Game" to be an interesting if not particularly deep story.

"Unicorn Variation"

by Roger Zelazny

1982 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

Leave it to Roger Zelazny to write a macho story about chess.

Our rugged hero is a hiker who happens to also be a chess master who broke down under the pressures of a major tournament. While hiking through a ghost town he finds a chessboard and on a lark he sets up a game. He finds a magical opponent in a unicorn who has come from fantasy land to kill off the human race. The unicorn is challenged to a game with the fate of humanity as a wager. To help with this game the human chess player finds a sasquatch chess master to help coach him through the game.

Zelazny's story isn't as action packed as most he's written, though people still bond over beers and conflict. It's somewhat predictable and I didn't find the non-human characters that populate the story very interesting. I think Zelazny was trying for a lighter tone with this story but it just didn't work for me. It's not a horrible story, I just couldn't connect with it.

"The Pusher"
by John Varley
1982 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

For those keeping score at home this is the fourth thing by John Varley I've read and the fourth that features pedophilia. I suspect Varley intended the protagonist to come across as sympathetic which would make it a fourth presentation of pedophilia as a positive thing but the character did come across more as a creepy pervert to me than the other pedophiles in his stories. I never want to read anything he's ever done again. I'm not going to get that wish since he won for one more novella.

So there's this guy who shows up at playgrounds when on leave from his ship that travels the universe at relativistic velocities and the story is about how he seduces little girls. Really. It's a completely unpleasant story especially in the context of the other Varley stories I've read. Independent of them it still is a disturbing story in how it tries to play up the sexual use of children as something sweet. If you can tolerate that theme then you might be able to enjoy the story.