Saturday, August 16, 2008

Review - Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
2001 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation
2001 Nebula Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

I enjoy wuxia films quite a bit. I used to order them from Hong Kong before the Chinese took it back (and after they took it back I suppose); they appear to be legitimate copies but when you're ordering movies from Hong Kong it doesn't seem likely. I especially enjoy those films from about the mid-eighties to the early-ninties when the filmmakers had the craft down well enough to make things look good despite working from budgets that would make Roger Corman throw in the towel. They have a kind of manic style born from the unique combonation of low budget filmmaking and having a crew capable of performing the complex staging. For the most part older films are a little too static and more recent ones have taken too many tricks from Hollywood.

So when Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was released I was ammused by the entertainment coverage by people who suddenly realized that Chinese action movies existed and could be good. People went to it for the wire-fu action sequences but there is a great movie within them as well.

A shao lin master is retiring from his fighting ways to seek peace and as part of that he is turning his indestructable sword over to a friend for safe keeping. Shortly after being being handed over it is stolen by a young woman exceptionally skilled in martial arts. She's the daughter of a wealthy family who sought out the knowledge for excitement but does not know the wisdom that should have come with the training. The master finds her and recovers the sword he attempts to teach her these before her life goes down a path of self-destruction.

In fairness I think if you asked three different people what the plot of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was you'd get three different answers. To me the film is about the master/student relationship and trying to get Buddhist philosophy through to the girl but others might cast the film in the light of the romantic plots or the just the action. The thing about the movie is that it is deep. There's multiple layers of meaning in it and many of them are subtle.

It's also a beautifully shot movie, most memorably toward the end where there is a confrontation atop a bamboo forest. The film is firmly in the style of the wuxia film but at the same time there's an exceptional skill in the cinematography that you rarely see in anything. It's more than the landscape, it's in how characters are framed and focused. Peter Pau really deserved the academy award for cinematography he won for this movie.

And speaking of academy awards, Tan Dun's score is an exceptional work of minimalism. In a major Hollywood production the music would be overwelming but his choice is a more mournful sound even when it picks up for the action scenes. It gives the movie a radically different feeling than what you normally find.

I can't comment on the acting since while it seems fine to me I also know that what seems fine to someone who doesn't speak the language sounds wildly exagerated to someone who does. So I will leave it at simply, "Seems fine to me."

For the first Hugo award given in any category to a foreign language work Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is spectacular. It's the kind of movie I wish there would be more of rather than one every four or five years: the action movie that perfectly blends in a quality story and spectacular visual sense.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Few Words on Science in Science Fiction

Next week it is likely that I'm going to mention science quite a bit in my reviews so I thought it would be best to talk about this now.

We're not living in the pulp days where someone could write a story about some aspect of physics or chemistry. Most science fiction these days has more to do with technology than science. As a result few science fiction authors include a lot of science in their books. That is not necessarily a bad thing.

So I don't spend a lot of time dwelling on the science in these books. I could nitpick them apart; while that's good for starting nerd fights I'm not really interested in that. What bothers me is that when it is so egregiously wrong that it breaks suspension of disbelief. I know that different people have different levels of "egregiously" but to me that means that someone with only a basic knowledge of the science involved can immediately tell that something is wrong.

One problem is when the author gives actual numbers since they assume that readers won't do the math. If the author hasn't done the math then this can quickly become a situation where the reader is going to pick up a problem. A planet with a twenty-five year long orbit and fifty-five hour long day with a five hour night in the temperate zone on the solstice is obviously not going to be habitable to humans no matter how much handwaving the author does (and in the case I'm thinking of the author did a whole lot of handwaving much later in the book that made things worse to in an attempt to justify that). You don't need to do the math to know this, just enough about the solar system to know that a twenty-five year long orbit is going to be pretty far our and enough experience with life on Earth in general to recognize that having days that much longer would be very hot.

Another is to anthropomorphize external forces. Evolution is a popular choice for this but I've seen it applied to other things. It's natural for human beings to do this but when it becomes a key plot element that DNA has desires and an understanding of what constitutes an "improvement" from a human point of view then that suspension of disbelief snaps.

That falls a bit under the "_______ is magic!" meme. As long as science fiction has existed writers have dropped fantastic elements into stories and explained it as the cutting edge science of the time. Never mind that anyone with the knowledge gained from reading a popular magazine article about that subject would know that it doesn't make sense, the writer puts it in because they equate it with magic. Radiation was a popular choice for magic for a while, computers had their turn, and these days it tends to be quantum physics, nanotechnology, and genetic engineering.

So as you might guess I'm about to get into some books with scientific errors. Errors so bad that it snapped my suspension of disbelief and there was nothing good in the book to even attempt to reattach it. It's not impossible to deal with scientific errors but if the author can't put anything in the book worth reading it makes those problems stand out more.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Review - Parable of the Talents

Parable of the Talents
by Octavia Butler
1999 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

I found the first novel in this series, Parable of the Sower, to be a book with two interpretations. A surface reading of the text wasn't particularly clever or interesting but I interpreted it as a story about a woman filled with the arrogance that only youth can contain who became determined to remold the world in her poorly defined image. I was somewhat surprised to find that Parable of the Talents gave two very different interpretations of events: one very close to my reading of the original book presented by the main character's daughter decades after the events and the continued viewpoint through the journals of the protagonist. I suspect that Butler does come down on her protagonist's side of the philosophical considerations and that's a problem but not one that completely derails the novel.

A few years after the United States suffered an economic collapse brought on by rising gas prices and a collapsing financial industry (or something like that) Lauren Olamina has established a small town based on her religion of "Change is God". Unfortunately for her a president is elected who makes today's fundamentalist religious regimes around the world look progressive. It isn't long before her town is overrun and converted to a concentration camp which she and her dream of building her religion must survive.

It's a risky thing to drop a new philosophy as the center point in a novel. It takes someone exceptionally clever to present a belief system that doesn't come across as the scribblings of a disaffected teenager. Butler doesn't manage to do this but I'm left thinking that she recognizes it. "Change is God" is something that I'd expect a fifteen year old to think was a clever insight; you have to be young and stupid to think that the inevitability of change is a spiritual revelation. That is exactly where the character is when she hits upon the idea. The only ones who would be drawn into such a simplistic philosophy would be the broken and disaffected and those are the people who join until toward the end of the book. On the other hand when someone does have an opportunity to dismantle her religion they set up simplistic strawman arguments for the followers to knock down.

That is a problem with the book: if you read it get ready to be preached at. A lot. This is naturally going to occur in a novel about the early days of a religion but that is something that grates on my nerves.

I may have not liked the philosophy but the characters involved are very interesting. Our protagonist may be smart and tough but she has some serious blind spots to her own faults. Reading between the lines in her diary entries, which most of the book consists of, makes me think that she's engaged in some extreme self-aggrandizement. Similarly the bitterness of the alternative viewpoint colors those statements. It establishes a metaconflict over the course of the novel that helped propel things forward.

I did have a real problem with the plot where the United States would suddenly turn on a dime and start throwing everyone except the president's supporters in concentration camps. To cut off the inevitable response anyone who thinks the camps the US is running/has run in the past needs to take a good look at history; detainment camps are bad but don't have anything on rounding up large portions of well integrated populations to force them to work to death. Even in Germany the camps didn't open in 1933. The policies presented in the novel would make more than fifty percent of the country immediately realize they were at risk of being hauled off. If the novel had built to it I could have believed it but this was a sudden immediate shift.

The style Butler chose for the novel is particularly effective. Each chapter starts with a few verses, followed by some commentary from well after the story is done, and then journal entries to contain the actual plot developments. Having two or sometimes three different voices giving their views brings the underlying conflict in the book to the forefront.

I'm left with mixed feelings on the Parable of the Talents but in the end I have to give it a recommendation. The storytelling and characters are interesting but the flaws in the novel are ones that grated on my nerves quite a bit. If you have a higher tolerance for people treating basic facts of life as a deep truth then you may enjoy it more than I did.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Some Terrifying Video Game Art

You know, I'm kind of used to anatomically disturbing females presented as "sexy" in games. A few decades of it and it just fades into the background. This took it to new heights:
Besides the art being ugly and featuring a man with a large chest measurement of his own (he's the one on the left on the front cover; yes it is a man) those women are such bizarre parodies of the female form that it's disturbing. I'd like to say that the artist meant it as a statement on the ludicrous images of women in video games but sadly I think this was intended as attractive.

The game plays pretty well but the spine crushing forms are carried over to the game.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Review - The Moon and the Sun

The Moon and the Sun
by Vonda McIntyre
1998 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

You might recall McIntyre's previous Nebula and Hugo winner Dreamsnake was a book I hated. There were two major reasons for this. First was the plot that built to a "dramatic reveal" that was absolute nonsense (a very common problem with SF). The other was the main character who was better than everyone else in the book, fixed complex problems with no effort, and whose only fault was caring too much.

Just because I call myself Das Übernerd doesn't mean I like reading about übermench.

So eventually McIntyre won just the Nebula with a second novel but unlike some authors I didn't approach with trepedation. The problems in Dreamsnake were ones of a young writer who has yet to learn how to make their characters more richly textured and many fine SF authors have left parsec across plot holes in their weaker works. I didn't have any problems with her actual writing and this time it's set in the court of Louis XIV where everyone was nasty and intrigue ruled the day. It would be really hard for those same faults to break this book.

At this point I want to say that Vonda McIntyre is now on my "never buy" list.

On the eve of reconciliation with the pope a Jesuit priest captures two mermaids and presents them to King Louis but one doesn't survive the trip. Keeping the other alive in the fountain of Apollo at Versaille the priest and natural philospher begins a disection of the corpse looking for an organ that grants immortality. The priest is assisted by his sister who went to court before him and is our protagonist.

In a twist that won't shock anyone who has been exposed to science fiction or fantasy the mermaid that is being treated as a dumb animal is actually intelligent. The sister develops a report with it that allows them to communicate through song and she works desperately to save the mermaid's life while falling in love with the king's most loyal advisor.

So why is McIntyre now shut out for me? After two books I do not believe that she is capable of creating an interesting protagonist. Our lead character as a woman at Versaille is:
  • A better artist than anyone at the court. Her sketches impress the king and she designs a medal for him.
  • A better scientist than anyone else. She immediately identifies aspects of the mermaid anatomy that other people who should know better miss.
  • Composes music well enough to impress Domenico Scarlatti.
  • Does calculus in her head and corresponds with Isaac Newton on it.
  • Argues theology better than the pope.
  • Is working on developing chaos theory.
All that and the plot necessary ability to communicate with mythical creatures. Her only "fault" is that she's innocent. McIntyre essentially writes her as a late-twentieth century American woman who just happens to live in late-seventeenth century France.

She's not the only one to be a paragon of perfection: all of the "good" characters are similarly talented. We have the woman born into slavery in Haiti and lived in the household of the main character their entire lives who the second upon gaining freedom becomes a Muslim black radical straight from the 1960's who happens to be the best hair dresser at Versaille. Really. It's not a gradual thing either, it's a switch that suddenly gets flipped midscene. The love interest in a sexually non-threatening athiest who can be quickly identified as the only kind person at court and whose only "fault" is that he's loyal.

These aren't characters, they're charactures. And because they're placed against the much more facinating flawed human beings at Versaille they all rapidly become unlikable. McIntyre can't have that so the characters who previously just had some pretty severe problems before become generic villains toward the end of the book. It didn't succeed in making me like her heroes, just in making me dislike her novel.

What makes it worse is that up until that point about three-quarters of the way through the sections where we're not dealing with the protagonists are interesting. It's clear that McIntyre did her research and rather than infodump it on the readers the portions that she can use are tightly integrated into the structure of the book. When the story that the author is telling is dragging down the interesting parts of the novel then you know that it has serious problems. I had no problem with the overdone "thing being treated as an animal is actually intelligent" story mainly because the characters in it were so uninteresting.

So that is why I won't touch McIntyre's books anymore. Despite the fact that she has demonstrated that she can do some interesting things the fact that she cannot create a character worth reading about has perminantly put me off her works. Mark The Moon and the Sun down as yet another Nebula winning novel to avoid.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Review - "All Seated On the Ground", "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate", and "Tideline"

Stephan Martiniere
2008 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

Martiniere has been doing exceptional work in recent years with some very impressive book covers. She did that wonderful cover for Rainbows End, last year's Hugo winner for best novel. This sample of her work is the cover to Queen of Candesce.

"All Seated On the Ground"
by Connie Willis
2008 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

Would be Hugo winners let me give you the east path to victory:

1. Determine what location the Worldcon five years from now will be held at and move there.
2. Write a story utilizing that local setting. It doesn't have to be great, it just has to not stink (and sometimes that isn't even a problem).
3. For added insurance make sure its published in the last eligible month so that its fresh in people's minds.
4. Profit.

I enjoy Connie Willis's work quite a bit. I enjoy it enough that I've got a reasonably expensive hard cover edition of some of her short stories on the way. "All Seated On the Ground" however was a weak effort.

Aliens land in Denver but they don't do much more than stare disapprovingly at people while a government team attempts to communicate with them. This goes on for some time until a core group of nutcases is left including our narrator. Suddenly while taking them to the mall during Christmas to pick up a Nintendo Wii or something they finally respond. A choir director who rapidly becomes the love interest of our protagonist points out that they responded to a line in a Christmas carol and they spend the rest of the time trying to get them to react to other carols, figure out a message that won't be harmful, and work out what's happening.

The problem is that what's happening is immediately evident to the reader but Willis dances around the subject for three-quarters of the story. It left me wanting her to just get on with it. On the positive side of things the story does use Willis's lighter style to decent effect but it's a cute story that overstays its welcome.

"The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate"
by Ted Chiang
2008 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

I don't think I've mentioned this before but I have a decent folklore collection and one of my favorites from that collection is 1001 Arabian Nights. I have at least four copies in three different translations and I am very familiar with the Richard Burton translantion (that would be the explorer/adventurer not the actor). Chiang's story is wonderful but knowing Burton's work elevates it even higher.

I'm not sure I can even propperly explain this story except in the broadest terms. There's an alchemist and he builds a door that connects points twenty years distant. There's a merchant who lost his wife nearly twenty years ago. And there's a whole lot of people who time travel using that door.

The thing about this story is that much like 1001 Arabian Nights it isn't "a story", it's eight stories (if I'm counting correctly). And it's not as simple as one story ends and the other begins; people constantly interrupt one story to tell another one and so the stories become nested at least three deep. Chiang borrows many other elements from Nights. The sexual elements are particularly noticiable especially when paired with the pious morals.

Chiang managed to take a well worn science fiction theme and make it enjoyable by using a distinct structure. It doesn't matter that using time travel to attempt to save your loved ones and change history is overdone, Chiang makes it feel fresh and new again by filtering it through a new vision.

by Elizabeth Bear
2008 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

Speaking of old themes in this story we have a robot learning emotions by bonding with a child. That's two old themes for the price of one! Bear isn't nearly as successful as Chiang is at putting fresh life into them but she does a decent job.

After a devistating war a robot tank too damaged to travel far wanders a beach knowing that some vital component will fail soon. It is attempting to make a memorial to its fallen comrades but keeps getting interupted by a boy. Naturally sweetness ensues.

Bear does a fine job with this and manages to avoid completely swamping the reader in sentimentality. It's may be an old story (or stories) but its told reasonably well. For that reason I wouldn't recommend going out of way... no, forget it. It's a short story freely available online that will take you half an hour to read so there isn't a reason to skip it.