Saturday, July 12, 2008

Review - Babylon 5: "The Coming of Shadows" and "Severed Dreams"

Babylon 5: "The Coming of Shadows" and "Severed Dreams"
Respectively 1996 and 1997 Hugo Winners for Best Dramatic Presentation

My how times have changed. Just ten years after the show has come to an end Babylon 5 has gone from being the television show for nerds to a footnote. There's good reason for that, the property has not been managed well since the series ended and other shows have taken the ideas and format of Babylon 5 and taken them further.

Do this: name one television show before Babylon 5 that was a high concept program with planned out story arcs for the season (so starting in 1993). A few of you might have remembered a season of Doctor Who where they did this, a bit of Blake's Seven, and even The Prisoner arguably entered that territory. A couple of you going outside the box might have pointed to anime which has a long standing tradition of this. On American television, though I am unaware of a single example since nighttime soaps are not "high concept" and rarely planned their arcs for an extended period. I won't hold Babylon 5 responsible for this paradigm shift in television but they were right on the forefront along with X-Files in this revolution. But unlike most television shows that use this model now Babylon 5 was plotted out for the entire series.

That makes a dramatic difference in viewing. The X-Files may have been continuity heavy but wasn't plotted in advance. Buffy may have used season long arcs but viewing the show as a whole story has problems. Babylon 5 was one of the first shows that rewarded obsessive viewing as details and hints were buried everywhere.

Adding to that Babylon 5 hit right at the beginning of the Internet revolution. It was the first show I followed closely online through the newsgroup rec.arts.sf.babylon5.moderated. The show's creator was the first one I know of to take advantage of the technologies and communicated with fans on a daily basis online.

What you have then is a recipe for an obsessive fandom which would drive the votes for the two Hugo victories. Not that either episode that won is not worthy but they do not stand on their own. I'd like to recommend watching the entire series but those early episodes when the cards were being played close to the chest its harder to overlook the show's flaws. Things picked up dramatically toward the end of the second season when the show's creator began an unparalleled achievement in prime time drama of writing over fifty consecutive episodes. The only two people to receiving writing credits after season two are this obscure short story writer named Harlan Ellison who provided a concept and comic book nerd and Duran Duran biographer Neil Gaiman. The fact that Babylon 5 may be the only television series where it can be said that an auter was running it may contribute to the fact that its story arc holds together much better than the majority of problems that have followed in its wake.

So enough about the process of the show that made it special, let's get to the details. Babylon 5 was announced as the U.N. in space, a story of humans dealing with several competing alien government in the wake of a war against a superior alien force that surrendered when the Earth was at their mercy. I recall when the show started the concept was generally mocked by people who couldn't see a television show in politicking aliens. The show's opening told you that the space station that gave the show the title was the "last, best hope for peace" and where was the fun in that?

"The Coming of Shadows", the first of the Hugo winning episodes was also the first episode that revealed what the show would do. Mysterious hostile aliens had been brief appearances in the series and opened negotiations with one of the major governments. The dying leader of that government comes to Babylon 5 for one last mission of peace but his political opposition senses a power vacuum coming and moves to take advantage of it.

The reason that this episode is particularly notable is that we find out that the "last, best hope for peace" was a fool's hope. Babylon 5 wasn't the "U.N. in space", it was the League of Nations in space.l It's one of the two major turning points in the series where the premise and easy solutions are abandoned. When the majority of shows are governed by having things return to the status quo each week it was a dramatic change.

The other of those moments, appropriately enough is "Severed Dreams" where an increasing xenophobic and McCarthy-esque Earth government declares martial law and starts attacking break away colonies. The officers on Babylon 5 have evidence of conspiracy at the highest levels and knowing that the of government so they choose to declare independence and a civil war begins.

This episode splits the series cleanly in half and concludes the abandoning of the premises that the series started with. Neither of these changes were abrupt, they were heavily foreshadowed over the course of the entire series. And they represent what made Babylon 5 special even if ten years down the line everyone is special just like them.

Friday, July 11, 2008

It's Moments Like These I Hate Being a Collector

Putting together my book order for the week I found out that my options for hardcover editions of The Terminus Experiment (1995 Nebula winner) are an incredibly expensive first edition or leather bound. I've paid more for books that it turned out I didn't like while building this collection but never this much for one that I've been 99% certain I'm going to hate since it's by Robert "Hominids" Sawyer. He doesn't even have the decency of Lois Bujold who has the majority of her works available in less expensive omnibuses (though Bujold's Barryar is and will remain the highest I've paid for any book in this collection; fortunately I enjoyed it even if I found it to mainly be light fun).

Yeah, I'm going to get it but I'm not happy about it.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Games I Got Recently

One thing I haven't been able to mention is the games I purchased at Origins. As you look through this list keep in mind that I budgeted myself at $150 and reached that limit exactly.

The game I purchased that's been getting the most plays is Battlelore. I haven't played every scenario yet but it has been a great, simple tactical game. Since the scale is roughly skirmishes it plays very quickly for a basic wargame. I also got the Call to Arms expansion and Hill Giant figurine but haven't been able to dig into them.

I've only gotten in one play of Reef Encounter but I enjoyed it immensely. It did take a full game for me to finally grasp all the nuances of this surprisingly complicated area control game. I'm looking forward to playing this again since it does take time to develop an understanding of it.

I've enjoyed the new Fantasy Flight edition of Arkham Horror quite a bit but I've been hesitant to add too many of the expansions. A game can get bogged down if too much is added to it. I finally obtained The King in Yellow which mainly adds more encounter cards and effects but also adds a play that can bring the game to a sudden end.

Thanks to the recent Hasbro reprint I obtained a copy of the plastic 3M edition of Acquire at about a third of the price that it would have gone for six months ago. I never played this classic before and I found it to be a tough challenge to choose where to invest.

The other old 3M game I obtained was Speed Circuit (though here I got the Avalon Hill edition). In this case it was missing the rules and some of the pieces but substitutes are easily available on Board Game Geek.

I haven't had a chance to play it yet but the game that I'm most looking forward to digging into is Hammer of the Scots. I have been hearing about this strategic game that uses blocks to provide fog of war for years. Hopefully I'll finally get a game in this weekend.

Despite being designed for miniatures Babylon 5: A Call to Arms contains enough counters to play out most fleet combat scenarios (there's roughly twenty sheets of heavy counters). So far I have only read through the rules but I wasn't impressed enough to push it to the table. I may eventually try a few solo scenarios but I don't have much hope for it. Also, the fact that I got two things titled "A Call to Arms" is just one of those weird coincidences that color our lives.

Ricochet Robots is a game that divides people. There are those who love it as a logic puzzle and those who hate it for the same reason. I got my copy because I was certain I would be in the first category. Still haven't had a chance to play a game of it year but hopefully soon.

I gave up my Magic cards around the time that the initial bubble burst but I wanted a few to play with so I bought a box of a few thousand random cards. Yeah its all going to be junk but since I don't care about playing competitively I have enough to stick with for now. I did have to ask them for some land to play with when I purchased the box.

I don't buy a lot of RPG's since I never have a chance to play them these days but I did get a few books while I was at it. The first is Silver Age Sentinels in the tri-stat edition. Since I obviously have an affinity for superheroes this was a natural choice. In addition some of the designers of it are currently working on the Champions MMORPG which I am very likely to play which made me interested.

I also obtained three Transhuman Space books: In the Well, Under Pressure, and Personel Files. I found Transhuman Space setting to be one of the more well defined science fiction settings with the concept of a human society right on the brink of singularity. These three books just about wrap up the set for me.

The first game I got as part of the Rio Grande give away in the Board Room was Guatemala Cafe. It sounded like an interesting light game but I don't expect to get around to playing it any time soon.

The other free game from Rio Grande was Halli Galli which I have little interest in and will probably give away as a gift.

I purchased Maginor at the auction thinking it was another game (I was thinking of Magdar from the same publisher and the box was covered by the auction slip so I couldn't see the art). As a result it's low on my list of things to play but I may get around to it at some point. I really don't know much about it other than the fact that it isn't that popular of title.

I won two games in the Board Room drawings and neither of them are worth it. Crocodile Pool Party is a game rightfully considered the worst of Kosmos's two player series. It's nightmarishly terrible and I won't even be able to give it away.

The other game I won was Tricky Town which appears to be a simple roll-and-move children's games. It's another one that's going out as a Christmas gift.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Review - The Falling Woman

The Falling Woman
by Pat Murphy
1987 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

Starting in 1987 the Nebula award for a period of four years went to women and three of their novels dealt with distinctly feminist themes. It was odd reading through this period and seeing the contrast between how each author handled the same themes. In fact if I was going to single out a period of the Nebulas to examine it would start here and run through Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea for three reasons:

First, the four winners represent a paradigm shift in the SFWA. While female authors had been rising to prominence in science fiction throughout the 1970's only three Nebulas for novels had gone to women before this point. After this things are close to evenly distributed.

Second, because there is overlap in themes it is an interesting study in post-feminist writing. The days of the shocking feminist theme are ten years gone at the point that The Falling Woman won and each author wound up in a very different place. One effectively ignored gender issues, one built the transitions into the story, one was still trapped in the anger of revolution, and one looked to the results of it.

Third, the despite the similar themes these are four very different books in structure, content, and quality. In order we have a dark fantasy, space opera, Vietnam war story with a light fantasy overlay, and a more traditional genre fantasy. That may sound like a lot of fantasy but each of them is unique.

So let's get started with The Falling Woman. An archeologist who has visions of the past is digging in Mayan ruins. Her estranged daughter comes to the dig to try to reconnect with her mother while recovering from traumatic changes in her personal life. The Mayan priestess who was the cause of the Mayans to abandon their cities and is the only vision of the past able to communicate with the archeologist warns that ancient evil forces are starting to stir as the Mayan calendar begins to turn to a new age. The priestess demands a return to the old ways but the cost for that may be high.

The plot itself isn't particularly great but Murphy's characters are the book's strength. The archeologist has recovered from a ruined life mainly by fleeing her family and her daughter's return throws that recovery in risk. Her husband had not been physically abusive but drove her to a mental breakdown. Her daughter's life is dominated by abandonment and that continues after she arrives in the jungles of Mexico. Neither of them are presented in a completely positive light; while the archeologist may have been a victim she has also victimized others with some of her behavior. They have friends and lovers with equally textured lives. Consequently the supernatural aspects of The Falling Woman feel buried beneath the human drama that is the real point of the novel.

That brings us to the real theme of the novel: the women in the book are all victims but they turn that on other people and being hurt didn't excuse them hurting others. It is not strictly men tearing down women in the book. The men also provide genuine support (as opposed to simply "rescuing" the women) and in one situation a couple mutually take advantage of each other. The past features powerless women being overwhelmed by men but things have changed by the point the novel starts and the relationships between the genders have become equal.

The fulcrum of a reader's reaction to this novel is how much they appreciate how Murphy handles her characters. The fantasy elements while intersped throughout the novel are secondary to the story of a daughter who is lost attempting to connect with a mother who has never been a mother. Unlike the previous two novels I reviewed those elements are well written and they are not dressed in sloppy writing. For this reason I'd recommend reading The Falling Woman even though it wouldn't go on my list of best science fiction and fantasy novels.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Most Horrible Thing Ever

Hey, it's a naked dancing woman!

Yeah! Zoom in there!
Uh... something seems off...

Uhura's fan dance courtesy of Star Trek V.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Review - No Enemy But Time

No Enemy But Time
by Michael Bishop
1982 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

You know a novel is dated when its reformers have become monsters. I found the positive references to Robert Mugabe in the book ironic given recent history. Not that this has a whole lot to do with the quality of the book but it stood out to me.

When I picked up No Enemy But Time I noticed it was published by Timescape Books and I became concerned. A publishing line based on a pretentious, poorly attempted fusion of mainstream fiction and traditional science fiction? I had a bad feeling but then I had second thoughts. How could I start basing a first impression of a book from a book by another author? Just because a large publisher used a lousy book as the launching point for a line doesn't mean that every book in that line is going to share the faults of that book. Should I assume that ever book from Dan Brown's publisher is an overhyped mess written to the level of ten year olds? So having chided myself I abandoned those preconceptions and started reading.

Then I hit page four.

As a note to any potential authors reading this putting a thinly disguised metaphor intended to excuse your novel's choppy structure in the first few pages is a very bad idea. Nothing says I'm a self-important writer with delusions of artistic grandeur but little actual talent than wrapping up things in unnecessary metaphor.

After being told that the novel will be randomly shuffled like a deck of cards and that I should just go along with it because minor details like a narrative arc don't really matter I did something that I don't usually do: I started keeping notes on all the flaws and things that got on my nerves.
Typically I don't keep notes because I'm reading these books mainly for my own pleasure and just relating my opinion on them but for a book to take such a deadly misstep immediately I knew I was in for a Hominids-esque crawl. I stopped this when I got annoyed with stopping every page or two to note a new problem.

Sufficed to say I hated this book. It recounts the life of a man who dreams of Africa a hundred thousand years ago. A process is invented that allows people who dream of distant times to soft-of time travel to them. Exactly what "sort-of" is rather confusing, involves spoilers, and goes well outside the scope of this review except to say that it involves a deus ex machina that isn't really consistent with the other ways time travel is used in the book. As he travels to the distant past he follows a pre-human tribe and gets involved in a sexual relationship with one of them. The chapters detailing the time travel are intersped with scenes from his life before he went on the trip; sometimes these flashbacks play off of the events in the previous chapter but more often they're just random sequences.

One of my pet peeves is on full display in this novel as the research time travel trip to the dawn of humanity is so fundamentally unprepared for even the elementary aspects of this research. He isn't carrying so much as a pad and pencil to take notes on, lacks any kind of camera, and takes only the barest of supplies. When the communication device for contacting the future immediately fails he plunges on to intentionally spend weeks out of contact rather than going right back through the open hole in time which they can reopen at any time so they can double check things before proceeding.

On a particularly creepy note when the narrator encounters one of the female members of the tribe he follows the descriptions make it clear that even though the other people aren't quite human (or even homo erectus) she's sexually attractive. It makes it obvious that this woman will be the love interest despite the fact that it's dancing on the line of beastiality.

Continuing my lessons of what not to do as a writer do not make your main character a smarmy, self righteous jerk who is always morally and intellectually right. Do not make them the focus of the book so they can constantly put all the lesser beings in the book (which would be everyone) in their place with a few words. Do not make the conflicts in your novel be about how everyone else is wrong and that obnoxious main character is always right.

If the plot wasn't bad enough the writing carries similar flaws. For example, at the beginning of one chapter the tense changes from present tense to past tense in an attempt to demonstrate the time travel division but this isn't carried over to any other divisions between past and present in the novel which just makes it feel sloppy. Bishop alternates between using first person and third person view completely unnecessarily between chapters.

This book is terrible on so many levels. The plot is painful. The characters are among the worst I've ever read about. If that wasn't enough the prose feels like the results of a college English major trying to write the most important book ever. Avoid this one like the pages are printed on pressed ebola virus pulp.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Review - "The Hemingway Hoax", "The Manamouki", and "Bears Discover Fire"

Michael Whelan
1991 Hugo Winner for Professional Artist

Once again I was relatively impressed with the short fiction that won this year. Every one of these stories is good. I'm starting to wonder if there was a short fiction renaissance for science fiction in the early 90's that I missed.

"The Hemingway Hoax"
by Joe Haldeman
1991 Hugo Winner for Best Novella
1990 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

I'm not a fan of Ernest Hemingway; I've read a few of the novels and a couple of short stories but none if it really thrilled me. Perhaps I'll give it a try again someday now that it's been a couple of decades.

The reason I mention that is "The Hemingway Hoax" is Haldeman's tribute to the author and I'm not really qualified to judge how well Haldeman's pseudo-Hemingway matches with the real thing. That's okay then because I found "The Hemingway Hoax" to be a fascinating story that was only let down by a weak ending.

A student of Hemingway's works, his wife, and a con man come up with a plan to make forgeries of several lost stories and a novel fragment. They had been lost when Hemingway's wife took the originals and copies on a train trip and the bag was stolen (so don't expect them to turn up like Metropolis has). Their scheme however is setting off a chain of dominoes that will result in a nuclear war and a supernatural being who prunes dangerous points in the time line is determined to kill the writer before this occurs. The problem for that being is that when the writer dies he wakes up in a parallel world where the plan is continuing.

Haldeman's prose is just as strong as it ever was and the story itself manages to be an interesting examination of Hemingway without ever feeling like a exposition dump. The characters are a bit on the shallow side and I can recognize some of the archetypes from what I've read of Hemingway but I think its fine for the story that Haldeman wants to tell. Where it becomes a problem is the ending which is particularly unsatisfying due to its confusing nature; a lot of stuff happens that I can follow the events but why these things are happening is beyond me. Still the vast majority of the story is worth it so I can't say that the last five pages make it necessary to discard the rest.

"The Manamouki"
by Mike Resnick
1991 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

You might recall Resnick's "Kirinyaga" from a few weeks ago. I enjoyed that story but I was concerned that I was applying my own deconstructionist view on the story. "The Manamouki" is another tale in that setting where an ultra-traditional Kenyan tribe has been moved to a space colony so that they could maintain their way of life. And what I took from it was that I was not putting my own perceptions on the original story: Resnick is making a story where the conservative forces of an African tribe are not morally "better" by virtue of not being industrialized.

This time new immigrants arrive at the colony, a Kenyan man and his American wife. The American is determined to fit into her new life but even beyond a few missteps the newcomer is initiating changes in the society simply through her attitudes. For example, despite accepting her subservient role as an owned woman she doesn't respect the cultural hierarchy. By seeking to do the best she can she initiates anger and jealousy in her neighbors. The witchdoctor who rules over these people is forced to intervene in this conflict among women.

What I found effective in the story is that once again Resnick establishing a situation that is morally complicated. How far does an immigrant have to adjust to a society? What if that society holds to standards that are abhorrent to outsiders? And how far can cultural conservatism extend? How he manages to fit all of this into such a tight package I have no idea.

"Bears Discover Fire"
by Terry Bisson
1991 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story
1990 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

Bears have figured out how to use fire and are organizing themselves into tribes but that's background to this story about a man who is dealing with his mother who has been dying for years. She has been in a retirement home for some time and he has been trying to maintain his connection with her in the last years of her life. Bisson crafts a gentle story that reminds me a lot of the better works of Clifford Simak; it's about a pastoral life that has a bit of wonder injected into it. Eventually Bisson brings the separate elements together in a touching conclusion that sticks with you.