Friday, June 6, 2008

Review - Terminator 2

Terminator 2
1992 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

This film is a milestone in film making. Not for the plot (it's okay but not brilliant) or the direction (James Cameron does a solid job but it's not nearly as clever as the original Terminator or as well structured as Aliens) or the acting (one word: Schwarzenegger). There's one important reason: the effects.

I was once told that while people were expecting the change from practical effects (models, miniatures, and so on) and CGI to be a gradual adaption process it was actually a cliff. Terminator 2 is that cliff edge. On one side people were getting by with matte paintings and on the other it was nearly all computers and it was Terminator 2 that convinced an industry that computer graphics were the way things had to be done.

In the not to distant future humanity will start a nuclear war despite the valiant attempts by the heroic AI Skynet to stop it. Blaming their attempted savior the remaining bands of humanity gather around John Connor who leads them in a crusade against machines. To stop the neo-Luddites from destroying the last fragments of civilization Skynet sends an agent back in time to convince Connor to go into computer programming. The Luddites don't want to lose their leader so they send a reprogrammed android back in time with two goals: make sure John Connor hates robots and overthrow the governor of California.

Or something like that.

Cameron structured the film almost identically to his original Terminator film, using many of the same lines in different context. The inversion of roles between the sequels was meant that lines like "Ah'll be buhk," (or "I'll be back," in English without the heavy Austrian accent) conveyed something very different. But the structure is the same; two guys from the future trying to change history and chasing each other around. Despite this Cameron manages to give Terminator 2 its own distinct feel.

Part of this is the selection of villain: a liquid robot that shifted forms quickly. It was a familiar concept for science fiction fans but just about unheard of onscreen. It gives the character an extra air of menace as he could change at any moment to become deadlier; it puts the audience on edge as well.

It also made him a showcase for the fledgling computer effects industry and "morphing" entered the common language for the shape shifting effect. The state of the art has come a long way in the nearly twenty years since Terminator 2 was released but it still looks pretty reasonable. It helps that for most of the CGI shots they stuck with relatively simple things and the choice of when to use an effect could serve as an example to other filmmakers.

Naturally as you'd expect from a film where Arnold Schwarzenegger is the headliner the acting is not very strong. The kid playing John Connor doesn't manage to rise about the level of "annoying teenager". Linda Hamilton does the best work in the film reprising her role from the original movie but driven to the edge by the knowledge that the end of the world is coming.

There's one more thing of interest I need to mention in Terminator 2: like Aliens Cameron overshot the film and then pared it back to a tight structure. Much of this footage has been added back in the various "special editions" of the movie but they damage the pacing badly. The best version of the film is the original.

I wouldn't call Terminator 2 one of the greatest movies ever made. On the other hand it is a well made action film that was very influential in film production and that makes it worth checking out. Besides, you can't go wrong with evil future robots hitting each other.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Hugo Awards - Some Fan Artists

I'm continuing to present a work by the winner of the Hugo award for professional artist that is contemporary with the short stories I am reviewing. The fan artist category is one that I have not touched yet. I won't be doing this regularly and I'm not going to restrict the images I offer to just the year the award was given.

I'm going to offer these with minimum comment since I'm not an art critic. Where possible I will link to a gallery of the artist's work or their own site.

Jack Gaughan
1967 Hugo Winner for Best Fan Artist

The same year that Gaughan won the first award for fan artist he also won for professional artist. For a man with an art award named after him there isn't a great quantity of his work available online. There is a gallery of his work with magazine illustrations for Fred Sabrehagen's Berserker stories.

Vaughn Bodé
1969 Hugo Winner for Best Fan Artist

Bodé was an underground comic book artist who passed away in the mid-70's. His son, an accomplished comic artist in his own right, maintains a gallery of his work. Just as a warning much of his art is not safe for work.

Tim Kirk
1970, 1972, 1973, 1974, and 1976 Hugo Winner for Best Fan Artist

There isn't a lot of Kirk's artwork online so I stuck to some of his Tolkien images. His best known work is stuff that he goes uncredited on: he did the art design on some portions of rides at Disney theme parks including the Indiana Jones and Alien portions of The Great Movie Ride at MGM Studios. In the mid-seventies he was best known for a series of Tolkien illustrations.

Alicia Austin
1971 Hugo Winner for Best Fan Artist

Austin is the first of these winners to have a very extensive gallery of her work available. She has remained active with creation of fantasy art.

William "Bill" Rotsler
1975, 1979, 1996, and 1997 Hugo Winner for Best Fan Artist

If that wasn't enough they also gave him a "retro-Hugo" for 1946. Rotsler was involved with just about every possible creative endeavor in the twentieth century. Besides his cartoons he wrote novels, directed films, and even was helped with the design of the Nebula award. There is a site dedicated to collecting his cartoon art but it is currently down.

Phil Foglio
1977 and 1978 Hugo Winner for Best Fan Artist

Foglio is the first artist who before I went looking for his work I had to decide what to use. The current page of his very popular ongoing webcomic Girl Genius? What's New With Phil and Dixie? I chose instead a selection of his most distributed art, card art for Magic: The Gathering. I'm sure having several million copies of your art being snatched up by people is a huge ego boost.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Oddities From my Library - Strategy Guide

Timescape update: my copy has finally shown up. I can't promise a review for Monday because I want to be able to build up a buffer of read books again. So I need my copy of Book of the New Sun but I'm moving forward.

So here's another oddity from my library:

Yes, a video game strategy guide. It's not however a strategy guide that resembles anything that the majority of people are familiar with.

A long time ago writing on computer games was held to a very high standard. The magazine Computer Gaming World read more like the New York Times Review of Books than Wired. That changed rapidly as computers started becoming a mass market thing. The first issue of PC Gamer in 1993, for example, had a highly positive review of a game by the same person who wrote the prerelease strategy guide. These days you won't find a gaming site with advertising that isn't ensnared in conflict of interest relationships with their subjects.

The few strategy guides for PC games that were released before those days of putting out a guide day and date with the game were very different. For example I have The Official Book of Ultima which is half biography of Ultima creator Richard Garriott and history of Origin Games and half walkthroughs for each of the Ultima games to that point. Then there's books like this Master of Magic strategy guide and Rome on 64k a Day for Civilization (no 2, 3, or 4) which didn't just give you a few paths to victory and a list of units; they contain enough enough data to be able to rebuild the game from scratch.

Let's start with one of the obvious difference. Right there on the cover you'll see that it "covers up to version 1.3". This book was not released on the day the game was released to be sold to suckers purchasing the game who were not aware of free guides online; this book was released months after the game was.

The book is 441 pages long. Across those 441 pages there are twenty screen shots. Small screen shots that fit across one column of text. And almost all of them are in the first one hundred pages. And the text used is small; I've read history text books with less information than what is packed in these pages.

What it does have is formulas. Lots and lots of formulas for every single aspect of the game. And it points out where the bugs are that can be exploited due to those formulas. There's seven formulas for determining each city's gold income, for example. Every one of the hundreds of combat modifiers are given detail.

There's so much information that many people have used this book to remake the game from scratch. This is the nuts and bolts of a computer strategy game from a time when complexity was something people were striving for. You don't get game guides like this any more because the market wouldn't support them.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Oddities From my Library - Comics in the Speculator Boom

Despite the grandiose title Internal Correspondence Special: Marvel 1992 Editorial Plan this publication was neither "internal" or "special". It's a compilation of one page ads for Marvel's 1992 line up that was given out to comics retailers at various trade shows. I obtained it since at the time I was working for a comic book dealer. I've hung on to my copy mainly because it's an interesting window into a dark time.

This was the middle of the Marvel explosion when Marvel was flush with cash and pumping out as many books as the printing press could run. So who was the big man in 1992?

The Punisher was featured in six different titles that Marvel promoted. Take that Wolverine! In addition Marvel was promoting several new series by associating them with the Punisher whether there was a connection or not. The revamped Death's Head, Cage, Nomad, Silver Sable, and Terror Inc. were all placed along side the Punisher in their promotions.

Marvel also was promoting a push for female readers this year. So what titles did they offer for women?

Barbie, Barbie Fashion, and Beverly Hills 90210. Why with a line up like that I just can't understand how female readers avoided comics until the rise of manga.

Don't worry sports fans, there's something for you too!

Monday, June 2, 2008

Oddities From my Library - Mars

Status of Timescape: reordered but has not arrived. If it doesn't arrive by Wednesday then the reviews are getting pushed back another week.

So let's start with oddities from my library!

Up first is a book I have mentioned before. I give you:

Okay, it's history lesson time. Mariner 9 was the first time that an object from Earth orbited another planet. It was launched in early 1971 and in November of that year reached Mars just ahead of two Soviet probes that arrived a few months later. When it arrived the planet was covered with dust storms that raged for months but once they ended it sent back a vast quantity of high resolution black and white images which allowed us to map the planet.

For this milestone in planetary science NASA compiled Mars as Viewed by Mariner 9 as a series of images from the probe along with quotes from the team that worked on it. Many of the images are very grainy and you'll find better full color images from more recent probes. What this book has now is history. This is the beginning.

Here is a sampling from the book:

A region near Cerberus, about 245km across. The prominent dark streak is probably depositional in character. An upwind crater can be interpreted as the source of the dark material which carried downwind produced the dark tail. In the process a part of the rim of the smaller crater appears to have been covered by dark material, but there is also a shadow zone behind the smaller crater where no deposition occurred. There is a similar wind shadow behind a hillock near the lower right edge of the longer tail.
- Carl Sagan

The best view yet seen by man of Phobos is this computer-enhanced picture taken at a range of 5540km. The large crater at middle right, near the terminator appears to have at least one small crater on its rim. More than a dozen other small craters are visible. The irregular edges of Phobos strongly suggest fragmentation. - James B. Pollack

The shield volcano at Pavonis Mons is about 400km across and rises more than 20km above the surrounding plains. Concentric graben occur on the flanks of the shield and in the surrounding plains. The caldera consists of a single large circular depression, 55km in diameter. - Michael H. Carr

Mars as Viewed by Mariner 9 is not a common book but copies can be found here and there. If you are interested in the history of NASA and space exploration then it makes a nice addition to your library.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Review - "Gilgamesh in the Outback", "Permafrost", and "Tangents"

Jim Burns
1987 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

Hey, where did Michael Whelan go?

And yes that was the best of Burns's work that I could definitively tie to the award period. I'm not fond of it myself but Burns does have better work at his website.

"Gilgamesh in the Outback"
by Robert Silverberg
1987 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

There's a long tradition of telling stories in the afterlife and populating it with famous people. Apparently if you're famous you get to be important and if you're not you exist simply to serve the famous people. You'd think in a place where everyone starts from nothing that there would be at least some change up in the order of things; if you don't have to eat, you don't die, and there's no need for currency why would people consent to being the servants of the famous dead person?

Silverberg gives us a Gilgamesh who has achieved immortality through dying. Over the thousands of years he has been dead he's seen the ebb and flow of history and while managed to adapt to earlier changes the past five hundred years have been too much for him. After a fight with Enkidu where they left determined to never speak to each other again Gilgamesh retreated to the wild, unpopulated lands to spend his time hunting. This is interrupted by Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft who are traveling as envoys of a kingdom and mediating in a war between Chairman Mao and Prester John.

Despite my annoyance that the story relies on famous people dealing with famous people Silverberg chose his subjects well. That was the plot but the story is really about the relationship between men. Gilgamesh and Enkidu's friendship is played off of Howard's homosexual attraction to a man who might have been Conan come to life (it doesn't take a deep reading to find homosexual themes in the Epic of Gilgamesh). And with Howard there his long friendship with his polar opposite in H. P. Lovecraft is a natural inclusion.

One tiny problem that I had due to this, though, is that there is a character named Howard and a character named Howard Phillip Lovecraft interacting with people. So there were times when someone was referred to as Howard that threw me off because it could have been either of them. This was strictly my problem since Silverberg only refers to Lovecraft as "H. P." but other Lovecraft fans might be bothered.

That's a minor annoyance, however. Silverberg's allegorical tale succeeds because it's not about the afterlife even if its framed that way. He'd repeat the structure two years later with "Enter a Soldier. Later: Enter Another" which won another Hugo. I'm not fond of this kind of name dropping historical but Silverberg manages to do it well.

by Roger Zelazny
1987 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

I've mentioned before how Roger Zelazny is the Ernest Hemingway of SF. While "Permafrost" doesn't fit smoothly into his standard pattern it does open with a frozen leopard on the side of Kilimanjaro. You can hardly get more Hemingway than that.

There's a resort world that's a paradise for fifty years and a frozen wasteland for fifty. A man who was rich and lost his fortune has returned to it in the middle of its winter with a new love to help him recover his fortune. He had acted as the winter custodian of the resort and he left after his lover died under mysterious circumstances. There is an AI ghost of person who handles day to day operations and doesn't trust him due to that death; the AI works to protect his new love from possibly facing the same fate. And if that wasn't enough the world itself seems to be working in the treasure hunter's favor.

The total result is a cute but not brilliant story. It follows the standard Zelazny pattern even less than his previous winner does; no one has a fist fight in this story where they become friends afterward, for example. Zelazny does use some unusual prose at some points but I found it to be slightly awkward rather than poetic. Still I enjoyed it.

by Greg Bear
1987 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story
1986 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

One of the very few creative works that I've distributed was a mash-up of Edwin A. Abbott and H. P. Lovecraft (hey, there he is again!) that dealt with the invasion of beings with an extra dimension from the perspective of a two dimensional being. The reason I bring this up is not to compare myself to Greg Bear but to say that trying to squeeze two dimensional perspective, design, and biology into my three dimensional thoughts gave me some massive headaches. While Bear doesn't use a completely alien point of view his story about normal humans attempting to interact with four dimensional beings does feature quite a bit of people trying to explain how the gradual extension of four dimensional shapes into three dimensions would look and I can sympathize when one of the characters complains about how rough that is to do.

The real heart of the story is the interaction between a cryptography expert in hiding and a neglected foster child. The cryptography expert is spending his time trying to visualize an extra spacial dimension and the child is a genius who can describe it. The child identified beings that exist there and do not often intersect our three dimensional space. Together they devise a plan to communicate with them.

The story wasn't bad but it didn't impress me and since the child acted more as a plot device than a person I couldn't get into their relationship which formed the heart of the story. I wasn't repulsed but there just wasn't enough here to make me really happy with it either.