Saturday, May 10, 2008

Review - Watchmen

by Alan Moore (writer), Dave Gibbons (illustrator), and John Higgens (colorist)
1988 Hugo Winner for Other Forms

And so we come to a unique award. 1988 was the only time that the Hugo for "Other Forms", a category intended a catch-all for works like comics and anthologies that were not appropriate for the other award categories. The fact that it hasn't been continued has been disappointing to me since there are fine efforts that are ignored but it's understandable since a such a broad category can be difficult to manage. It certainly isn't appropriate that a work dependent on the connection of both images and writing to be nominated in the regular fiction categories; it's a different art form.

So let's get to Watchmen. One of the few graphic novels to achieve mainstream success. Often cited as the greatest comic book ever made. Watchmen lives up to its reputation by featuring some sharp writing, a challenging moral quandary that gets at the heart of all heroic fiction, and a deconstructionist take on the concept of superheroes. It's been copied many times since and so it's lost a bit of its impact but it's a comic book that any comic fan should read and a work of fiction that will stand as a major achievement.

In Watchmen costumed vigilantes ran wild starting in the forties. They were normal people who for a variety of reasons (mainly psychological problems) dressed in gaudy costumes and beat up criminals. At the end of the fifties the first superhero appeared, a human who through apothesis gained effective omniscience and omnipotence. The US took advantage of having god on their side to dominate the cold war.

By the 1980's the heroes have gone away, most forced into retirement when a new law against vigilantism was passed. One of the most extreme refused to quit and when he finds that a murder victim was a vigilante who worked for the CIA he begins to suspect that someone is killing heroes. A few days later the superhero is implicated in a cancer scare and he abandons the Earth, the Soviet Union unleashes thrity years of pent up hostility, and there may be only days to find the killer before the end of civilization renders the question moot.

Perhaps the most noticeable quality to the writing is how multiple threads are constantly juggled. It's the rare panel which does not have some subtle link to what came immediately before it. This extends even to the covers of the individual issues (referred to as "chapters" in the collected form) which offer visual motifs that book end that issue and reoccur throughout. The story dances from the main thread to a greek chorus (which has it's own chorus in the form of a pirate comic) continually. It's dizzying how tightly images and words tie together with different contexts.

This would just be artistic gimmickry without a solid story to tell and Watchmen has that. The murder mystery at the heart of Watchmen is interesting but it's also wrapped up in the history of vigilantism, an omniscient viewpoint that the reader gets inside for one chapter, and some incredibly sharp dialog. Most chapters give one character a viewpoint and explore their history which come together as a sharp image in the end.

I need to also mention that Watchmen is notorious for its subversion of genre conventions. It ask what does it really mean to be a hero and what the consequences of vigilantism are. It also has one of the most chilling lines ever at the end of its penultimate chapter; anyone who has read it will remember their expectations being completely destroyed at that moment.

So it's really well written and then there's the art. Gibbons confines almost all of his page composition to a nine panel frame and then builds off of that. This tight confined space reinforces the comic book feel but it also lets him play tricks with panel continuity as each feels less like a posed action and more like a frame of a movie. In addition each tiny window is packed with enough detail to stun someone (on that note, if you can justify the expense the Absolute Watchmen edition has pages that are 50% larger letting those cramped panels really shine). And Higgin's coloring work is exceptionally moody as well despite not having access to modern coloring techniques.

There are some people who say that Watchmen is the comic book to read if you don't like comics. I think they're wrong since it is a deconstruction of the genre and the impact is lost without the cultural knowledge. It is still one of the greatest graphic novels ever done and anyone who has ever enjoyed a superhero comic should appreciate this.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Review - The Motion of Light in Water

The Motion of Light in Water
by Samuel L. Delany
1989 Hugo Winner for Best Related Non-Fiction

In the past I've usually paired these non-fiction reviews but that isn't going to happen for a while with Nebula award winners dominating my reading list. So I'm just sticking with a shorter review of these works as they come up.

The Motion of Light in Water is an autobiography of Delany's journey to a professional science fiction writer. It's also the story of an often unhappy marriage of convenience, of being a homosexual in New York in the early sixties, and his development as a writer. Delany uses a drifting style where short numbered sections that are usually just a paragraph or two but occasionally as long as a page change from topic to topic rapidly.

Delany in one of his earliest hetrosexual experiments got his partner pregnant during their first year in college. They eloped and moved to a tiny apartment in a slum where both continued to work on developing writing careers. Delany was an active homosexual and the book goes into detail on his sexual exploits which most commonly consisted of one night stands and mass encounters at secretive gatherings. Eventually while dealing with all of this Delany decides to write a science fiction novel which he manages to sell.

One of the things that I appreciated in The Motion of Light in Water is that Delany takes a very critical eye to his youth. Rather than just romanticizing his past Delany recognizes that he wasn't a good husband (his wife was well aware of his sexual activities; the problems were ones of emotional support) and he acknowledges the moment when he realized that as good as he was his writing was still falling short of the qualities he wanted.

It's that candidness that makes his autobiography effective. In addition Delany focuses almost exclusively on the first few years of his marriage before he separated from his wife and left the country with only a few diversions to illuminate those events. Delany's prose is just as sharp as it ever was which makes this an interesting autobiography to read.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Review - The Princess Bride

The Princess Bride
1988 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

A nerd on the Internet who hasn't memorized half of The Princess Bride? Inconceivable!

Google gives me seventy-five thousand hits on "You killed my father. Prepare to die."

The nerds who used to quote Monty Python moved on to quote The Princess Bride before going on to The Simpsons and Futurama.

What I'm getting at is this movie is beloved pretty much for one reason: the absolute note perfect script by William Golden. Adapting from his own novel the veteran screeenwriter of such classics as Butch Cassady and the Sundance Kid and All the President's Men created a note perfect fairy tale for this film packed with wit.

Framed as a grandfather reading his sick grandson just the good parts of a book. The Princess Bride goes on to tell a story of pirates, dramatic sword fights, giants, revenge, dramatic last minute rescues, and true love.

The acting is rather standard with a few people hamming it up, though a bit of ham is perfectly appropriate for the film. Peter Falk as the narrating grandfather is by far the best performance in the movie and he spends the majority of it off screen. The direction is pedestrian; I don't think I could point to a visible aspect of the direction that I found spectacular despite director Rob Reiner putting together a great movie on the whole. But that script is magnificent.

Which isn't to say I have real complaints about the movie. Okay, Andre the Giant's performance is a bit rough but I wouldn't have expected miracles there. And the puppets used for the occasional monsters aren't really that great but they're barely remembered in the face of the rest of the movie. And that's the closest thing I can come to complaining; it's just that the movie doesn't quite live up the quality of Goldman's script.

As I pointed out it's quoted endlessly online. And anyone who sees the film is going to remember certain classic moments for the rest of their life. In fact it's been hard to resist the siren song of just peppering this review with great quotes (I allowed myself one at the beginning but I promise that's it). The dialog zing back and forth perfectly and if it doesn't bring a smile to your face then you're most likely legally dead.

The worst part of these dramatic presentation reviews is that these are movies that are well known, well loved, and for the most part it's for a very good reason. So once again if you have not seen The Princess Bride you should watch it as soon as you can. If you don't have a copy handy just as the nearest nerd you can find, I'm sure they have one.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Review - The Einstein Intersection

The Einstein Intersection
by Samuel R. Delany
1967 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

There's a line in The Einstein Intersection that when I read it I thought it summed up the book perfectly. Unfortunately I have been unable to locate it scanning through the pages again but what it said essentially was that the characters were just repeating old stories until they were all used up and then they could start making their own. And that's The Einstein Intersection; Delany borrowing meaning and identity from a dozen other sources with little of his own in it. It's the novel of a young man (Delany was twenty-one when he wrote it) who is borrowing the clever ideas of more developed writers and eventually when he has run out of them he'll write his own.

In a distant future where humanity has vanished from the earth our myths and legends are being echoed by the species that follows us. When his lover dies a shepherd is directed to descend into the underworld and confront Kid Death, a malicious spirit who kills at will. The shepherd journeys across the world encountering analogues of other myths.

There's a lot to like in The Einstein Intersection but unlike Babel-17 I don't think it comes together well enough in the end to make the book worthwhile. Part of my problem is that for all the myths and legends that populate the novel it didn't feel to me that Delany was really saying anything about myth. It came across more as borrowing meaning from other works than finding meaning. The beings are shaped by myth, a theme that should be packed with meaning and inferences, and yet it seems like Delany just stopped at the concept.

(As an aside here you might notice that the edition I read had a forward by Neil Gaiman, an author who has built his career on exploring that very theme.)

The narrative is also very abrupt. Sequences sometimes don't feel like they connect to each other and the climax of the central conflict occurs in the space of the last three pages in a chapter after Delany puts out a thematic climax.

But enough complaints, there are good points as well. The characters are all very strong and interesting. The central concept is a solid enough hook even if I thought it wasn't built on enough. The post-human culture that Delany sets up (and quickly abandons) is also one of the more fascinating post-apocalyptic cultures I've read about; the people ruthlessly cull their population which is rife with mutations while changing the line of what is acceptable.

And really that's early Samuel R. Delany to me. A whole lot of really clever, literary ideas put in solid prose that just has problems gelling together into a solid work. He was so radically different from the traditional Cambellian stuff that came before that it doesn't surprise me that he gained a lot of attention from a writer's organization. The Einstein Intersection left me feeling dissatisfied and for that reason I wouldn't recommend it.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Grand Theft Auto IV is...

Wow! Grand Theft Auto IV! Look at it! There it is!

Okay, I'm not willing to spend sixty dollars on a game that I've now played eight times. And that's counting only games in the Grand Theft Auto series; then there's the clones that add a few more times through the same type of game.

Instead I've been busy with:

I'm just too cheap to pay anything more than twenty dollars for games that do not feature an exploration of Japanese mythology or rolling everything on earth into a ball to make a star.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Review - Babel-17

by Samuel R. Delany
Tied for 1966 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

Babel-17 is an odd book for me as I started out with a strong negative opinion and in the end reversed it. This change didn't occur because of any aspect of the novel but strictly in my point of view.

In the middle of an extended interstellar war acts of sabotage have been accompanied by a strange, indecipherable transmission. It is given the name "Babel-17" by the military code breakers and when they cannot solve it they hand it over to a former cryptographer who has become the universe's most famous poet and has a near supernatural gift for linguistics. She quickly determined that Babel-17 is its own language instead of a code and understands enough of it that she knows where the next attack will be. She gathers a motley crew together to follow the signals as she works out more and more of the language and its secrets.

I was annoyed with this book at first for one simple reason: the linguistics that are the center of the book both narratively and philosophically are nonsense. Narratively Delany goes into great depth on how the language of Babel-17 is more densely packed with information than any other known language. It's super-efficient and allows the speakers of it to gain insights through that language. The problem with that is to have the level of information that Delany describes would actually make the language significantly less efficient; to pack it in all as densely as the novel uses would require layers of context that would slow down the thought processes. In addition the nature of the language requires that many characters in the book behave like idiots so that the main character can demonstrate how great she is.

What changed for me is a discussion on suspension of disbelief. I made the point that you have to allow the movie or novel its premise and as long as that was internally consistent to let it go. I realized then that I had been viewing Babel-17 through a hard SF filter and it's not. I don't just dismiss stories that feature pseudoscience faster-than-light drives as a problem even when the author wastes my time pretending to explain it. Babel-17 is about as soft as science fiction gets only its choice of science is different.

So taking a second look the protagonist who's so perfect that everyone falls in love with her and she changes the world view of everyone she meets makes a bit more sense. Delany is telling a story about language and the hows and whys of it don't matter even if he tries to explain it. The protagonist's mastery of language affects those around her.

It still isn't entirely successful. The way the story jumps from episode to episode without a real purpose or connection is annoying. Even when I understand where Delany is coming from with his perfect character it doesn't make her more endearing to the reader. It doesn't make the strawmen characters who exist mainly to be shown the right way by the protagonist more interesting.

What does work is that once you allow for the unreality of the premise Delany has some fun with the idea of an incredibly powerful language. It not only shapes the world view of those who use it, at several points it actually shapes the text of novel. Delany's prose is sharp in this regard and is a good match for a book on language.

In addition the adventure story being told in Babel-17 is interesting and packed with some fairly unique concepts; many of which really deserve a novel of their own to focus on the concept. Humanity is losing meaning as people modify their bodies wildly to their whim but this is a superficial detail in the novel. The dead are raised and serve as both crew and a kind of synaesthetic sensor system.

So in the end I found the novel worth reading but overstretched in certain respects that might turn off many readers. There's a lot of interesting to read about concepts but few of them are supported well. I liked it but it's a borderline case.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Review - "Souls", "Fire Watch", and "Melancholy Elephants"

Michael Whelan
1983 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist
1983 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Artist

by Joanna Russ

1983 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

An unusual abbess stands against a viking invasions and tries to save the lives of the villagers that surround her abbey in this short story that never manages to be predictable and offers a lot of touching moments. The story could have easily descended into predictable structures and somehow Russ managed to keep taking things to a slightly different place. Early on I suspected that having the person with modern attitudes as the protagonist in a medieval setting would get to me but Russ quickly introduces a reason why their behavior is so strange. This is a sharp, brutal story which works well since it doesn't pull the punches with its setting.

"Fire Watch"
by Connie Willis

1983 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette
1982 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

I'm not sure of the time line of Willis's time travel stories; this might be the earliest one but it shares characters with and refers to events that would turn up in her later stories. This time an unprepared time traveler is sent to the blitz to help defend St. Paul's cathedral against incendiary devices where he is forced to watch a miserable history play out.

Does that sound a little familiar? Willis goes to the same well over and over again and she manages to refine the concept over time. This isn't a bad story (even with the predictable "twist" at the end that plays off some of the more popular college urban legends), it's just that she does the same ideas better later on and for that reason I'd recommend seeking out her books rather than going out of the way for this story.

"Melancholy Elephants"
by Spider Robinson

1983 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

This was a surprisingly timely story. Congress has before it a proposal to extend copyright indefinitely and a representative of a lobbying group for artists is trying to stop it. There's a lot of reasons that a perpetual copyright is a bad idea but this story focuses on one unique reason that ties into the lawsuits that science fiction authors had been filing against different films for being similar to their work (van Vogt's lawsuit against Alien is explicitly named in the story). The story exists mainly to make it's philosophical point and I don't necessarily agree with the conclusion but it's an interesting concept.