Saturday, August 2, 2008

Bob Clampett's John Carter of Mars

Moving away from astronomical photographs here is one of the unfortunate losses of the 1930's:

The project was not to be, unfortunately. Bob Clampett would instead animate many Warners Brothers cartoons in the forties but left the studio before their own Marvin the Martian was created.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Review - The Truman Show

The Truman Show
1999 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

I have seen in the past that when someone mentions The Truman Show as an science fiction film that some people react in shock. "It can't be science fiction," they say, "it's good!" There's an attitude that you'd think would have died out a while ago.

And The Truman Show is more than just good: it's also fun. I sometimes wonder if Hollywood has forgotten how to stick those two things together.

Truman is an insurance salesman living on a small island that he has left only a handful of times in his life. He has a crippling fear of water which he gained after his father died in front of him in a boating accident. Odd things are starting to happen to Truman, though: it rains on him moments before it starts raining elsewhere, a klieg light with the name of a star on stuck to it falls out of the sky in front of him, and most dramatically he sees a man who looks just like his father. The truth of things is that his life is a carefully staged reality television show and having begun to see through the illusion Truman can't rest until he knows what is happening.

I know ten years later it's hard to conceive of but The Truman Show was released right on the forefront of the reality television shift. Oh for those innocent times when the thought of raising a human being as entertainment was a wild idea. These days it wouldn't shock me for it to show up on Fox.

It's a real delight in the first half of the movie watching all the subtle (and many not so subtle) hints that something is very wrong with Truman's world. The film builds slowly though the movie poster, box, and all the promotional material makes the premise clear. It isn't until the movie is half over that they finally come out and say exactly what is happening but that makes the "bloopers" in the first half so much more entertaining. The viewer is in on the joke that the movie "plays straight".

Once the viewer is allowed "behind the scenes" the movie looses some of its momentum. I think this was due to the fact that Truman was the viewpoint character for the first hour and to suddenly lose him as the sole focus threw things off. It doesn't become a bad movie or even annoying, it just isn't as good as the perfect first half.

Jim Carrey was a surprisingly effective choice for the role and this was the first time he attempted anything dramatic. Watching him shift from the straight laced insurance salesman to a man convinced the world is wrong is a pleasure. While he does get "manic" he never succums to the outright mugging for the camera that usually marks his performances.

I also have to mention the cinematography which might be one of the most clever things in The Truman Show. Most of the shots in movie aren't that great and it's intentional. Cameras and blocking are set up so that many scenes appear to be shown from the viewpoint of a hidden camera. The angles are often awkward and the view of the action gets obscured by people or vehicals entering at the wrong moment. Truman always the focus of these shots. When you next watch the movie I recommend paying close attention to this as it gives the appearance of the audience watching the show within the movie.

The movie does get a bit heavy handed with its message and all but comes out and hits the audience with its coda at the end but I'm willing to forgive that since on the whole it is a great movie. Now if we could just get everyone to realize its science fiction.

The Martian Show

There's a lot of cameras on and around Mars these days but this image of a cliff in the distance is from the one that sends the best surface images to look at: the panoramic camera on the Mars Exploration Rover.

Thursday, July 31, 2008


Continuing Mars Week I give you the location of one of scenes in the upcoming movie Watchmen:

Much like the more famous "face" on the Cydonia plain this face is a trick of perspective. Still I bet the guys checking the returning images cracked up when they got that one back.

And looking at the current Amazon top ten best sellers list I see:

While I expected an upswing in interest in Watchmen as the movie approached I think every comic book nerd on earth is shocked at the response. A set of issues #1 to #12 are going for hundreds of dollars this week when a few months ago you'd be lucky to get twenty bucks for the set. Copies of the hardcover absolute edition (which is the version I currently own) are going for similar amounts despite the fact that DC plans to reissue it in a few months for the Christmas season. Retailers literally cannot keep the trade paperback on the shelf; many of them report that it sells almost as quickly as they put it out.

This is unprecedented in the history of comic book movies. Earlier comic book films might have caused an upswing in interest in the source material but not this frenzy. The Dark Knight has made Batman books get a bit more attention from comic book fans but it's not driving massive sales for The Dark Knight Returns. I don't know what else to say but "Good for Moore and Gibbons!" They deserve it even if I can't figure out why it's happening.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Review - Moving Mars

Moving Mars
by Greg Bear
1994 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

There's a rather large contradiction in Moving Mars that I think illustrates the fundamental problem with the book well. At the beginning of the book it is made clear that the narrator telling the story is looking back at it decades later at the end of her life. At the end of the book it is made very clear that she is telling it shortly after the narrative ends. It's less than ten years later but she made reference to the events being decades before.

And that's the problem. The book at the end is not the same book as the one at the beginning. It is a much worse book; so much worse that I had to wonder what happened to the careful political plotting and human insight that made the first half enjoyable.

Mars has been colonized by small corporations rather than governments or even large corporations and each "family" tends to have its own small outposts. The story follows the life of young politician as she gets her first taste of political activism in college, winds up a member of a trade delegation to Earth, and stumbles into a position of prominence in the attempts to bring the families together under one banner so that they might have some recourse against the economic dominance of Earth.

And then someone invents magic.

No, really, they invent magic. With minimal effort they can instantly teleport large masses across any distance, convert any amount of matter to anti-matter, communicate instantly with any point in the universe, impart velocity to objects, and more. Their manipulation of energy, space, and matter have no limits. Suddenly anything becomes possible and practical solutions to all aspects of the problems presented in the book are within reach in the long term. In the short term things would naturally become more complicated politically. It should be the start of an Earth/Mars cold war where even if they hate each other neither side can really do that much about it.

So naturally rather than dealing with this sudden turn over in political power in anything resembling a realistic measure Bear decides that the Earth thinks that the best way to handle someone who has power of life and death over the universe is to start shooting at them. Any political developments that had been occurring are out the window for a shooting war.

When you give characters god like power to pull anything out of their hat you're inviting a world of writing complications. Every reader who picks up the book is going to be thinking of how they could take advantage of those abilities in given situations and so the author pretty much has to be smarter than his audience. When a team of super geniuses and all of the think tanks on Earth can't come up with solutions using their god like power and the readers easily can then the book's plot falls apart.

I wouldn't be going on about this so much except for the fact that the first half of the book was so good. The protagonist was an interesting character as she was constantly over her head and struggling to stay afloat; she was smart, clever, a quick learner, and diplomatic but there were people around her (and often in opposition to her) who could do more due to their experience. Her biggest advantage was often being the right person in the right place at the right time. I could sympathize with her and watching her grow from a politically ambivilant college student swept up in a revolution to a driving force in Martian nationalism both was interesting and felt natural.

Bear also set up an interesting political situation where the culture on Earth pays lip service to diversity of culture and thought but only in approved ways. In the significant ways the world has become a homogenous population who practice groupthink but they are not able to recognize this in themselves. It makes a natural conflict with the independent minded Martians who have to be pushed into working together in even the most basic ways. Putting people on both sides of the political divide who have good points is something that too many authors fail to do and I appreciated that even though Mars is our viewpoint the population of Earth as a whole are not villains.

If Bear had stuck to his beginning concept and if the amazing technological leap forward in the middle of the book that changes the balance of power had been more reasonable (just instantanious communication would dramatically change things) I would have enjoyed Moving Mars a great deal. It's a great set up that is flushed down the drain of a poorly thought out space opera. Because of that I have to recommend avoiding this one.

Moving Deimos

Since tonight's review is Moving Mars I have the motion of Deimos with a time lapse image of Deimos entering Mars's shadow:

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Happy Birthday NASA!

As I continue my Mars week I cannot overlook the fiftieth anniversary of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. I think every science fiction fan out there is eagerly awaiting for the day when the seed of their efforts help take us to other worlds.

NASA might not have always been first to reach goals but they did get there. They were the first to successfully land on another world with Viking I since Soviet plans to land on Venus crashed. Here's that first view of Mars:

I'm looking forward to more first views in the futures.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Review - Red Mars

Red Mars
by Kim Stanley Robinson
1993 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

This was the beginning of my Bataan Death March of science fiction. When I read this by page one hundred I was in horror that I still had over fifteen hundred pages to go. Somehow it actually managed to get worse as I went along and considering I hated Red Mars that's saying something.

Red Mars tells of the join US/Russian mission that lands on Mars to create a permanent colony. What follows is a set of linked novellas where they fool around, argue about terraforming, and develop immortality. Earth starts shipping up anybody they can shove in a rocket building the population and the first people on Mars wander around and deal with them. Eventually the fact that some of these people don't like Earth's policies drive the government to try to publicly assassinate them and murder hundreds of thousands of civilians in the process.

Unlike some books that I hate I know exactly why Robinson's Mars trilogy managed to rack up awards. In spite of the paper thin plot and characters Robinson put in a lot of detail on "practical" terraforming. The majority of it wouldn't work nearly as well as he said, there's several things that violate the laws of physics, and even with the Phoenix lander's findings the massive underground seas theory that was popular in the early nineties has fallen out of favor. Despite that it is a very solid effort in describing how terraforming could proceed.

And if Robinson had put that into a book then my opinion might have improved a bit. Instead he dragged out enough plot for one four hundred page book to three six hundred page books. I'm not joking when I say I could cut seventy-five percent of the books, cram it into one volume, and lose nothing of significance.

Part of the reason for this is that Red Mars starts Robinson's love affair with geology textbooks. This is where the pages long descriptions of dead landscapes begin as Robinson attempts to squeeze in ever land formation in the glossary into his book. Sadly that's not an exaggeration; I would do a direct comparison using some of my geology books but since I realized what was occurring after I started reading the Mars trilogy I would have to reread them in order to demonstrate this. There's no way I'm doing that even at gunpoint.

As you might have guessed from the plot description not a whole lot happens in the book. There are events but they're so spaced out between the landscape descriptions and character moments that it doesn't matter.

The characters are the real problem here. Robinson builds his book on the characters since there is not much of a plot for them to work with. So obviously they have to be interesting, dynamic individuals whose interactions are capable of carry a massive tome on their own. They're not.

Robinson tells the reader constantly how brilliant the characters are. He tells us that they are the best of the best. The average age of the team going to permanently colonize Mars is late forties and there's no one younger than their mid-thirties. In their actions, however, they act like junior high school students on a field trip. On the whole they're whiny, passive aggressive, losers. We're told they're great but we never see it and the examples of their "brilliance" aren't really that smart. I hated every single one of the characters and I was quickly reduced to the eight deadly words: I don't care what happens to these people.

I didn't care about their tangled love lives that a mature adult could deal with in seconds. I didn't care about their infighting which should be resolved by having an effective command structure. I didn't care about their petty schemes which seemed more like kids plotting to make someone look bad than a real plot. This book quickly drove me to just not caring and yet it went on and on with nothing happening.

The best thing I can say about Red Mars is that it is simply a bad book. The Mars trilogy doesn't hit those really aggressive levels of awfulness until the next book where Robinson really adds in his sociology and economics ideas into the mix while somehow making the books even slower.

Mars Week Begins!

With two books about Mars being reviewed this week I have declared it to officially be Mars Week! So enjoy this composite view of the red planet with the view centered on the Valles Marineris:

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Review - "Down in the Bottomlands", "Georgia on My Mind", and "Death on the Nile"

Bob Eggleton
1994 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

And here is the previous Hugo professional artist darling Bob Eggleton. He's won eight Hugos for professional artist including this one which is his first. Since we're only now approaching the 2008 awards I think you can tell we'll be seeing a lot of his work. He's doesn't quite manage to dominate the way Whelan did since he skips a year quite a bit but until 2006 and 2007 he didn't miss two years in a row. The two most recent awards have gone to the same person, though, which may be a sign that his time of domination has come to an end.

I do generally enjoy Eggleton's work more than Whelans since Eggleton's images are generally more active but that terrible dragon painting is the only thing I could find that I could definitively place in the award period. I may have to get his art book (which won a Hugo award for non-fiction itself) just to have a better selection.

As for the stories this is a funny set of winners. Two of them don't have proper climaxes, two of them start with an Agatha Christie style set up and then drop it for another theme, two are essentially alternate history, and two take place at roughly the same geographic coordinates but one at two thousand feet below sea level and the other at twenty thousand feet above it. Worst of all I wasn't impressed with any of these stories.

"Down in the Bottomlands"
by Harry Harrison
1994 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

Let's start off with the worst of the bunch and the only one I'd recommend actively avoiding. Harrison goes to his usual alternate history roots with this story where the Mediterranean got blocked off a few million years ago leaving a vast pit which belongs to a nation of neanderthal descendants that live along side homo sapiens. None of that actually matters for the purpose of the story, though, and Harrison doesn't even spell it out. He just drops hints every couple of pages about it in some of the worst cases of calling rabbits smeerps I think I've ever encountered.

"Calling a rabbit a smeerp" is James Blish's term for substituting in alien names for regular things in order to give the world an exotic feel. The problem here is that if you're talking about a rabbit and the reader is supposed to be able to understand the characters then giving things funny names but having them be the same thing is both lazy and annoying. There are some near literal "smeerps" in this story as a funny name is substituted for rabbits. Adding to this there are some animals that get to keep their English name in some circumstances and use a funny name in others.

The story itself starts off well. A conscripted tour guide to the national park found on the desert floor escorts a diverse group of tourists to a lodge in the park. One there one of the guests who may have been a spy for a foreign government is murdered. There's only a handful of suspects and in a remote location so this is going to be a murder mystery, right?

Nope! While the story continues to act like a murder mystery that falls away and we never do get an answer to who killed the man (there's two obvious possibilities at the end of the story neither of which makes a whole lot of sense). Instead the tour guide is forced mainly by authorial fiat to continue the tour since he's from a culture where if someone signs a contract they hold the employee responsible for it regardless of murder investigation, the fact that their contract would be with the government, and the obvious risks in going to remote locations with someone who doesn't mind killing people. Somewhere along the way a bomb plot turns up and the rest of the story is about chasing that until a deus ex machina comes along.

Harrison's story requires that the reader be able to accept that a nuclear device carried in piecemeal would be enough to collapse a mountain range. Even allowing for a fault line (which I shouldn't) the concept is ludicrous. The only way a reader could accept this is if they think nuclear bombs are magic and just do whatever the author says they do. Other technologies that are often used as magic include computers, nanomachines, and forensic science; radiation and electricity used to be magic but that has fallen out of favor.

I would cap off the "prose, plot, character" trifecta by talking about how annoying the characters were but I can't. They were all so bland there's no point. The tourists are all stereotypes, the protagonist is a stereotype, the investigator who turns up might have been out of a buddy cop film. There's just nothing to these characters to really latch into with the anger compared to the rest of the story.

So this one was bad. Really bad. The best thing I can say is that despite some lazy writing Harrison does keep things moving. It's like one of those Hollywood thrillers that don't make any sense but keep throwing things at the viewer to try to distract them. That trick doesn't work on me.

As one final note, if anyone reading this ever thinks that naming a character "Evillia" is a good idea just ask the next person you meet about it. They'll set you straight.

"Georgia on My Mind"
by Charles Sheffield
1994 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette
1994 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

A computer scientist is called half way around the world to a remote New Zealand farmhouse where his friend has made a major find. He has located what appear to be replacement parts for an analytical engine, Charles Babbage's nineteenth century programmable computer. Together they decipher the clues at the farmhouse and peice together an image of someone with not only a working computer a century before the first electronic one was built, but who used it to solve an even greater problem.

I didn't hate Sheffield's story so I'm not going to go into the detail I did with "Bottomlands" but it did get on my nerves. The problem was that nothing happened and there isn't even an ending to the story arc he was developing. The characters sit around talking about their find for twenty pages and the most story development that occurs is with two nineteenth century characters they talk about. Then at the end he appears to be developing a climax and the story just stops with nothing resolved and a message about globetrotting science fiction writers going after big science stories. While I was unhappy with the abrupt ending to "Death on the Nile" (which I'll get to in a moment) at least there the arc that Connie Willis was developing was completed; with "Georgia on My Mind" it makes the whole thing feel pointless.

And just because I find these kinds of things amusing I have to point out that Sheffield's character refers to the mysterious builder of the analytical engine by their first name several pages before he finds out what their name was.

"Death on the Nile"
by Connie Willis
1994 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

On a bumpy plane ride between Athens and Cairo there is a sudden jolt and everything outside the plane goes white. Upon landing in Cairo it becomes immediately clear to that something has gone very wrong. One woman in a group of touring couples comes to the conclusion that they died and are now in an Egyptian version of the afterlife. She's dealing with trying to hold on to her husband who is having an affair with another woman in their group. Our protagonist tries to prod the group on, especially her husband, to the judgment that will let them continue.

It's a good hook to work with but in this case Willis wasn't telling the story I was interested in. I wanted to see how sins of the heart were reflected in judgment, if Anubis felt that pushing a soul to him that was almost certain to fail his test was the same as murdering the person. Willis was telling the story of a woman who could not let go of her husband and ends the story before it reaches the point I wanted to see. It's not incompatible but I wanted philosophy and ethics and Willis gave me an emotional arc that I found unsatisfying.

The general concept is derivative and is commented on repeatedly in the story itself as such. This wouldn't be a problem except and I didn't care enough about Willis's characters to connect with the story. As such I don't recommend seeking it out but it would not surprise me in this case to find someone out there who loves it.