Saturday, July 26, 2008

"I knew you liked comics..."

"... so I got you these!"


Friday, July 25, 2008

Review - Contact

1998 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

I have to confess that I have never read Carl Sagan's book Contact which this movie is based on but let this serve as a warning to those who feel that bad adaptations do not harm books: having seen the movie and disliking it makes me want to avoid the book. I reasonably understand that Carl Sagan is probably better at handling the science than the movie is but the science in the film is so bad I can't even think about looking at the book.

A radio astronomer has spent her life working with SETI and a few weeks before her project is shut down she detects a signal coming from Vega. The movie then goes into the world wide reaction as it is decoded and a strange machine based on plans included in the signal is created. The hundred foot tall machine is designed so that a person travels into it when it is activated meaning that most people suspect that it is an interstellar communicator or a transportation device but the only way to know for sure is to turn it on and send someone in.

When I say the science in the movie is bad I'm not talking about the magic-tech alien science. I can accept that as part of the premise of the movie. The idea that people might think that a signal from Vega could be faked, on the other hand, demonstrates a lack of understanding of grade school science. It doesn't take a scientific genius to realize that this would require blocking every single potential receiver on earth in perfect line with Vega indefinitely. The only way to fake it would be to get your signal source well outside of the solar system. Around Vega would be about right.

That sums up the problems with the science in the film. It's in half measures getting loose concepts right but fills in the details so poorly it makes me want to scream. No one has any idea of what the giant alien machine is supposed to do but they know its working properly. No one takes into account the fact that giant spinning electromagnets might interfere with electronic equipment. The scientist objects to taking along even basic observational tools. And perhaps most egregious of all is that no one in the film grasps the concept of recording data and duplicating results.

Since Contact is a film about science being unable to get elementary concepts correct is a bad problem, but the movie goes on to have a central theme of faith and how science and faith have to work together since both are "the search for truth". I'm not a touchy atheist who feels the need to slap down any religion that I come across but that made me angry. That unfortunately is how far too many people think of "science", it's an attitude I've come across far too often, and it speaks of a mind happily wallowing in ignorance and refusing to make even a basic attempt to understand the world around them.

Then there's the other theme in the movie: everything the government does is bad or wrong in some way. When the alien signal is detected the US government is angry that they let foreign sites track it completely missing the concept of the rotation of the earth. They bring an armed military escort along with them mainly so our heroic scientist can express a dislike of firearms. The government man gets credit for the project because he's part of the government and the government says so despite the fact that our main characters were well known in the field and already publicly acknowledged as the ones who did the work. Every time the US government is involved they are at best corrupt and at worst incompetent. I'm not fond of government but as presented in Contact they couldn't run a softball team let alone a country.

Then there are the characters. We're supposed to be building sympathy with the radio astronomer played by Jodi Foster who is our view point character but she doesn't confront adversity so much as whine at it until it goes away or she is handed a solution to her problems by someone else. She's in a relationship with a non-denominational preacher who insists that belief is as important as evidence. Everyone else is essentially a non-entity who exist only in service of the plot.

So I hated the characters, the themes, and above all else the science in the film. There were things I did like: the longest pull out shot in film history and the reactions of the public for example. Those were tangental to things that annoyed me in this movie. The plot could have worked if it wasn't undermined every few minutes by the insistance that faith is the equivelent of science and it has one of the worst climaxes I can think of. I'd say that this film is just better off ignored.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Journey to the Center of Mars 3D

I would have loved to save this for next week but I'm not sure how long it will last.

The first thing will be around. NASA is now providing stereoscopic images of some of the Phoenix lander's views. In other words, 3D along the lines of those red and blue glasses. I have some trouble seeing these (I can't even view Magic Eye pictures) but it looked pretty good to me.

So where do you get 3D glasses if you're not enough of a geek to keep a pair handy at all times? Well right now Wal-Mart is giving them away free as part of some kind of Hannah Montana promotion. Go ahead and grab a few pairs and then check out the view of another world.

Congratulations to Robert J. Sawyer!

It's official! You have written both the worst book to ever win a Hugo and the worst book to ever win a Nebula! Take a bow!

It'll be two weeks before I do the review for it but that one will be another doozy. I'm thinking of a two sentence review of the book and several pages on how to identify shoddy writing for those people who somehow think that Sawyer is a skilled author. I can accept different points of view in the world but to think that The Terminal Experiment or Hominids are high quality books is such an alien concept to me it's trying to fathom the mind of one of the Great Old Ones.

I don't like skipping ahead with things but The Terminal Experiment was so terrible I couldn't hold back.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Review - Stations of the Tide

Stations of the Tide
by Michael Swanwick
1991 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

In a set of almost hallucinogenic sequences a bureaucrat from a space station that would give M. C. Escher a headache journeys to a planet kept at a primitive level. He is pursuing a man who has stolen forbidden technology but lacks the power to do anything about it when the confrontation occurs. The world is flooding as a "new tide" is sweeping in so the bureaucrat (who is never given any other name) only has a week or two to find this man. Oh, and the man is a magician and the world has a network of witches and wizards who use traditional tricks to make it appear they have power but the man being pursued may have actual power as he is promising to transform people so they may live in the sea when the waters come.

This is a novel out of time. It would fit in perfectly with the new wave authors at their trippiest since it includes all of their favorite themes. There's a drug trip, several sequences that might as well be drug trips, classical mysticism, a story structure that makes rambling old men look linear, and a fair dose of heavy handed symbolism. It's a dense allegorical monster. I might as well be reading The Einstein Intersection again.

In fact once I typed that sentence it occurred to me what an apt comparison it was. The two books are very closely related is style and they share many of the same strengths and weaknesses. The vignettes in Stations of the Tide often have a comfortable, familiar feeling thanks to their ties to mythology while Swanwick manages to put his own spin on things though Swanwick's use of mythology is more symbolic than direct as it is in Delany's Einstein Intersection. The flip side of that is the novel is chaotic with only the loosest of thread linking chapters.

Those individual chapters are superbly written and in particular I found the imagery in the novel striking. It's a world that's having a bittersweet ending and dealing with that transition. The waters are coming in and they celebrate that before departing to the high ground while regretting abandoning what they had before. The mysticism in the book is wonderfully portrayed as Swanwick marks it as strange abilities at first and then deflates the mystics by telling you how its done. Those explanations, however, depend on the reader deciding between a rational world and a mystical one.

The characters are perfectly drawn and I cannot think of a single one that did not fascinate me. The bureaucrat's journey into the world and examination of himself is a powerful story in itself. And then there are the fakirs or fakers depending on how you choose to view them who are living by their own rules and as a result make very interesting antagonists for someone who is defined by rules.

But that lack of a coherent story grates on me. The novel drifts from topic to topic with only the barest of connections between them. Each chapter can be summed up as "The bureaucrat goes someplace new, encounters something strange and wonderful, and then heads off for something else." There is a mystery that develops but it feels almost secondary to to this structure. Things just seem to happen by author fiat rather than some internal purpose within the novel.

And that makes this one is a tough call for me. There was a lot I liked in Stations of the Tide but the stuff I didn't grated on me pretty strongly. I'd say that if you enjoy any of the New Wave period of science fiction then Stations of the Tide is a must read. If you need a strong narrative structure in your books then this is definitely not for you. If you fall somewhere inbetween... well give it a try there is a quite a bit in it worth checking out.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Far Side of the Gender Politics Loony Bin

After that Tehanu review I'm going to take a few moments to give equal time to other lunatic fringe in gender politics. Though less noisy than the distaff lunatic fringe their masculine counterparts are no less loony. And despite what you may think this isn't going to be about someone who wants to keep women barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen or even a religious fundamentalist (pick your least favorite religion to fill in that blank).

I'm going to tell you a bit about Dave Sim. Not an awful lot since I wanted to do a whole set of stories on his gradual descent into madness and I still might in the future, but I wanted to give you an idea.

First let me give you an idea of why anyone would know who Dave Sim was to begin with and why anyone would pay attention to him. He is the creator of Cerebus, perhaps the most ambitious comic book project ever conceived. While the title started as a parody of Barry Winsor-Smith's Conan comics (thus two firm steps removed from Howard) it quickly metamorphized into a more philosophical book with a light touch wrapped heavily in the religion and politics of their medieval world. Sim decided that the comic would run for exactly 300 issues telling the story of its title character and conclude with that character's death. He conceived its ongoing story in vast movements of more than twenty issues each and he did this in the mid-seventies when such long term planning were just a twinkles in British comic writers' eyes.

In the 1980's he became one of the most outspoken political voices in the comic book world commenting on the industry, working to encourage self-published comic books, and rallying people for causes like defending obscenity charges against comic shop owners. He turned his company into a showcase for independent comic books and was generally a very popular person in industry circles.

And then came the madness.

There were hints of it before. It was not so blatant that the masses would say, "Aha! Misogyny! Shun him!" instead of looking it as an unusual direction to take his story but in retrospect it is the first signs. The title character raped a woman and it was treated lightly. That did set some people off but by the end of that story arc he's lost everything and learned that he will die miserable so some punishment was coming. That same story arc let readers know that the male aspect of the universe was the creative one. Those warning signs were followed up by stories that detailed the hard choices in a woman's life and a retelling of the death of Oscar Wilde which dispersed the concerns.

The real change over came in the early 90's. In the middle of a storyline about a matriarchy taking over the world due to the fact that all women are mind controllers who force men to do their bidding (start inserting "Really!"'s here) Sim went into a tangent about the comics publishing industry. One of these lengthy essays printed as part of the comic story (as opposed to an editorial printed outside of it) took the cosmic male creative force and female devourer and put it at a human level. It was essentially "Women are all inherently evil trying to tear down men!" Sound familiar?

Sim rapidly lost the support he built up over the years and his rants in his comic became angrier and stranger. He turned his anger against anything he perceived as feminism and you can read at least one of his rants at The Dave Sim Misogyny Page.

He did eventually finish his 300 issue long story and someday I might actually finish it and then go through each volume here. I just want to buy the books used so Dave Sim won't get any more money from me.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Review - Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea

Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea
by Ursula Le Guin
1990 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

I've mentioned tribute awards in the past where the voters select a famous name over the quality of the work. I hope to god that's the case here since if someone voted for Tehanu on its "merits" they need a refresher course in... well... pretty much everything. This book goes with They'd Rather Be Right and Hominids as one of the worst I've read and it has a particularly abhorrent philosophy behind it.

Tenar was the girl who started as a priestess of dark gods and escaped from the second book in the original Earthsea trilogy but after escaping that fate she married the first farmer who made a pass at her and became a housewife. Now her husband is dead, her children are all gone, and she lives alone on the farm that due to laws of inheritance belongs to her missing son. One night a badly burned gypsy girl is brought to her and as Tenar nurses the girl back to health she adopts the girl. Together they go to tend to the archmage of the island in his death where Tenar manages to make enemies of several people because she is a woman. Ged after expending his magic to close off life from death has returned to his homeland a broken man. Meanwhile the people who burned the girl and then turned her over to get healed come back to kill her because she's a girl. People turn up looking for advice but don't listen to Tenar because she's a woman.

I did not make any of that up. In fact, you can apply that sentence to pretty much everything I relate bout Tehanu in this review.

Besides being a terrible book this is an offensive book. It comes from the heart of the most militant feminist creeds that all men are evil rapists just waiting for their opportunity to destroy the purity of women who are inherently good unless corrupted by those vile men. I'll consider it nicely ironic that just yesterday I reviewed "Even the Queen" which was also a very feminist story but was infinitely better than Tehanu: Tehanu is the adolescent rantings of someone unable to put together a coherent thought for the sake of being confrontational while "Even the Queen" deflated that attitude and simultaneously built up feminism.

There is not a man in the novel who is not out to keep women down. That's not an exaggeration; at best men are patronizing but it's far more common for them to active work to harm women just because they're women. That isn't conjecture or a deconstructionist reading; Le Guin comes out and says that this is the reason that her villains are out to harm anything female. The characters discuss how all men hate and fear women while spouting modern feminist ideology.

At this point let me stop and say that it a challenge to not add "Really." after each sentence.

And that's why the philosophy of Tehanu is so terrible: it is one of hatred. Not men hating women but a thin justification of "It's okay for women to hate men because they did it first!" It's an attitude that forms the foundation of the novel and its disgusting enough that I never want to touch anything by Le Guin again. This is the Le Guin I mentioned in other reviews when I said that her writings had put me off but Tehanu actually is the worst I've ever encountered her at.

Enough philosophical objections, let's get back to the novel itself. It stinks. The plot is a mish mash of events with no strong arc. People walk off stage and come back with their problems resolved or moved on to the next stage. There is no development or changes, things just happen. Things that appear to be developing plots just vanish without warning and in one case vanishes for a hundred pages only to reappear to give the semblance of a "climax". Le Guin's prose was at best workmanlike and completely lacked the poetry that she demonstrated twenty years before.

There is nothing in this book to make me recommend it and plenty to make me say, "Pretend it doesn't exist and hope it goes away." I enjoyed the first three Earthsea books but this one is not just a post-modern departure from those themes (something which could have worked) but an angry screed. If I wanted to read poorly thought out ranting I have an Internet connection.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Review - "Barnacle Bill the Spacer", "The Nutcracker Coup", and "Even the Queen"

Don Maitz
1993 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

Well after weeks of loving every story I read the streak was bound to break. If you just want me being cheerful and handing out compliments skip to the end. Otherwise settle in for some griping. Okay not really griping, just general dissatisfaction but angry words get more attention.

"Barnacle Bill the Spacer"
by Lucius Shepard
1993 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

There's a long tradition in pop culture of the wise fool, the idiot whose lack of intelligence grants them a special insight into the world. They are inevitably kind, gentle souls who are tormented by the wicked people around them until the protagonist recognizes their special nature and through it learns how much better it is to feel than to think.

I hate that story. There is exactly one time where I have encountered it where it was effective, "Flowers for Algernon", since typically it carries a heavy handed anti-intellectual message. Knowledge is inherently evil in this kind of story and the smarter the character is the worse of a human being they are. Even when that message isn't intentional that's what comes through so thankfully it's not half as popular in science fiction as it is elsewhere.

Obviously "Barnacle Bill the Spacer" is one of these stories. This time the eponymous wise fool is a man born on a space station where the limited available area means that he is barely tolerated. A cult of nihilists that have terrified the earth are starting to infiltrate the station and one of the security personnel works to protect the fool while trying to cut off the cult. The fool notices a change in vacuum dwelling life forms that the attach themselves to the surface of the station and insists that change is important. Predictability ensues.

The security officer who cares for the title character is a destructive man himself and Shepard does drop a bit of information in the first few pages to try to turn "Barnacle Bill" less sympathetic but that is the best the story gets. Each character is introduced with some characteristic that would add texture to them which is then completely abandoned as the story goes on so they fit into their simple little archetypes. It also doesn't help that much of the story's prose is outright purple: there are sentences that go on for nearly a full page and not as stream of consciousness. And that just leaves the story which as I stated was not very good.

Usually I can work out why a story won even if I don't like it. This is not one of those times. It's a weak story that can be safely ignored.

"The Nutcracker Coup"
by Janet Kagan
1993 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

I missed this before but while reading something this week I found out that Janet Kagan died a few months ago. I read her Star Trek novel Uhura's Song twenty years ago and recall thinking it was pretty good then but that was before I underwent some dramatic shifts in taste. I can't think of anything else by her that I've seen. I didn't care for her "The Nutcracker Coup", but I couldn't let the passing of its author go unremarked.

A minor diplomat on a primitive world has a major impact on that world's culture by sharing Earth holiday traditions. Knowledge of Christmas and Martin Luther King Day drive the natives to rebel against their repressive regime that controls them.

The problem is that things aren't really that bad. The extent of the evil of the repressive regime is that the emperor doesn't like people making fun of him and the terrible punishment for it is public humiliation. Really; that's it. I like freedom of speech enough to express it daily but that's downright mild. There's countries that considered free and long time allies of the United States that have more onerous restrictions on speech (see Germany where they'll throw you into jail for expressing certain vile political beliefs). It makes it a bit hard to get worked up about things though Kagan tries to by presenting things through the filter of "sympathetic" natives. The repressive regime never even responds to the open rebellion until its on their door step and still are unwilling to do much of anything. Passivity is not a good characteristic for an antagonist.

The result is that the story is dull as dishwater. More interesting characters could have saved it but they were about as flat as they come. It adds up to "The Nutcracker Coup" being a weak story but not nearly as annoying as the one that preceded it in these reviews.

"Even the Queen"
by Connie Willis
1993 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story
1992 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

And before this week becomes a total loss there is the best short story from Willis that I have read. Its a situation where I think the short length worked to its advantage since it let Willis get in, make her points, and get out. And she had a lot of fun making her points which make the story that much more enjoyable to read.

In the not too distant future women no longer menstruate due to a drug that is widely available and dolled out from an implant that they receive before their first period. There is a movement that considers these implants part of a male driven conspiracy to control women by making them ashamed of the menstrual cycle. When the youngest daughter of a judge decides to join them the entire family of very willful women come together to confront her about this.

If you told me that I'd love a story about women sitting around and talking about their menstrual cycles I would have called you insane. Each of the women who wind up meeting have very different opinions of how things should be handled and the bulk of the story is their intervention. And despite the fact that they all start from different places their menstrual cycles still bring them together in end. Well, most of them.

Willis's comedic side is in full force in this story and I smiled and laughed through it. Even if "Even the Queen" wasn't a good story (and it is) it would still be fun and that forgives a lot.