Friday, August 22, 2008

Review - The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
2002 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation
2002 Nebula Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

Hey, can you guess what won for dramatic presentation for the next two years? If you said the other two Lord of the Rings movies you're wrong since this was the last year that both the Hugo and Nebula used their original format for the award. The Nebula award switches over to a writing specific "Best Script" award (though I'm dubious of how well that is reflected as opposed to the movie as a whole) and the Hugos split into a long form dramatic presentation intended for movies and a short form intended for television series. Not that it has actually worked out quite that way since several format breaking nominees for the dramatic presentation Hugos have come up; this year, for example all of the first season of Heroes was nominated in the long form category while a fan created video distrubed on the web was nominated in the short form (and that doesn't even get into one of the strangest Hugo winners you'll find).

I wouldn't call myself a major Tolkien fan. I don't speak Elvish, I don't have the history of Numenor memorized, and I don't have the multivolume History of Middle Earth series. On the other hand I do own The Annotated Hobbit with the original "Riddles in the Dark" chapter, have read The Silmarillion, and can sound my way through Tolkien's runic alphabet. I suppose it's a matter of scale; I've read his works, enjoy them, and know them but don't live them or considder them the pinnacle of human achievement like some appear to.

I recall when the film was announced and Peter Jackson was to direct it. My reaction was one of shock: as good as Heavenly Creatures was I could not envision the man responsible for Meet the Feebles and Dead Alive handling The Lord of the Rings. The movies would be the most obsessed over film project in history (thanks to the Internet bringing nerds together) and there was a disconnect between Jackson's manic style and Tolkien's sedate mythology.

I'm sorry to tell those of you hoping for another three thousand words on how much I hate something I enjoyed the entire trilogy quite a bit. I found it to be a wonderful example of how to adapt difficult material: keep the themes and as the major structure but be willing to make dramatic changes that fit the new medium without violating the spirit of the original. The changes, as any change in an adaptation tends to do, caused some on the Internet to declare the films to be monstrous abominations.

Does anyone who finds this blog need a plot recap? Besides being based on the single most widely read work for nerds its also one of the highest grossing films of all time. Still, there's these rings and one's really bad and some short guys are suckered by a wizard to tramp across the country side to throw it into a volcano. They team up with a bunch of other fellows to beat up monsters and then two of the short guys decide to ditch the rest of the team to hog the glory for themselves so the movie ends before the bad ring is destroyed.

I'm not going to go into the adaptation process since The Fellowship of the Ring was the most faithful of the three films. I need to review all three films and I have to save something for the future. I will say that I didn't mind the loss of the Old Forest and Tom Bombadil; it's a diversion when the plot of a movie needs to be ramping up. We'll get into that next week.

What I will comment on are the three things that I found most immediately striking in the film: the direction, the elegant design work, and the acting.

The shift toward digital editing in the mid-nineties triggered a change in action set pieces in Hollywood movies that I despised. Directors lost the ability to carry a scene in them and substituted random shots that typically made little sense in context (Michael Bay, I'm looking at you). Similarly the advent of CGI encouraged directors to do everything in CGI regardless of how sloppy it looked. Jackson didn't follow the crowd with either of those.

While the editing in the action sequences is more jittery than the pastoral scenes it does not consist entirely of one and half second long shots of the moment of impact for a blow. Jackson lingers on the action and in doing so imbues the sequences with more character. That's the kind of thing that can make up for a lot of faults in my book since it is so rare but Jackson did a respectable job with the rest of the film packing it with striking images that were so perfectly formed that they'll likely supplant the personal vision in reader's minds.

One of the things that caused The Lord of the Rings to take such a long time before being translated to a live action movie was the complication of having five major characters and scores of minor ones who are dramatically shorter than the average human but still need to interact with them constantly. Hiring actors who can fit the height requirement isn't an option since there simply aren't enough of them. Jackson may have made some of the most successful CGI creations depicted on film but they wouldn't stand up as a full cast with screen focus for an entire movie. The use of forced perspective and dozens of practical effects tricks to make things appear different makes the illusion seem very real.

On top of that the film assembled a cast based more on character actors who could play the parts and up and coming actors who had potential. It gave them a cast of skilled actors who were willing to make the sacrifices required for shooting three films simultaniously. Not one of the major characters hits a sour note for me and since there are a dozen major characters in the film that is impressive.

It was ambitious to even try to adapt The Lord of the Rings and Jackson dispelled doubts with The Fellowship of the Ring. Every bit of praise and attention it has received is well earned.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Review - The Quantum Rose

Slave Girl of Gor
by John Norman
2001 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

Hang on something isn't quite right here.

Let me just check my notes...

Oh I see the problem.

The Quantum Rose
by Catherine Asaro
2001 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

Sorry about that. It's very easy to get those books confused.

This book is completely terrible. It's poorly plotted, features a cast that I hoped would die in horrible ways, the science fiction elements are laughable, and it carries some rather disturbing messages that I suspect are the results of an incompetent writer since no sane modern author could possibly advocate them. The first sign that there might be something very wrong comes from the reviews on the dust jacket: The Romantic Reader and Romantic Times chime in with high praise along with which the author's biography tells us that she happens to be an editor for (no conflict of interest there, right?). Since romance novels and science fiction novels have very different standards glowing reviews from romance magazines is like sending up a warning flare; The Time Traveller's Wife may have merged romance and SF nicely but wasn't marketed that way.

The Quantum Rose features what might be the most poorly thought out society I have ever encountered in science fiction. Bear in mind that as you read this I am not exaggerating or presenting my own spin on things; this is explicitly how it works. The society is based on tight social contracts which are always binding and a violation of them results in the person who broke the contract being hunted down. With me so far? Good. Now these contracts require that if someone makes an offer on anything that the only way to refuse it is for the person the offer was made to must pay the person making offer more than they offered. Starting to see the problem? Finally the offers can be for anything, especially people since that's how "marriage" works on this planet.

The problem with such a society should be self-evident. A person can just keep making offers on things they don't want to get money. On things they do want they just offer over and over again each time offering 2^n-1 where n is the number of offers made until the person who was rejecting the offers runs out of money. (1 dollar for the first offer which the counter offer must be 2 dollars; then adding those two dollars to their dollar they offer three dollars and the counter offer must be four dollars and so on.)

Our heroine is the governor of a province on a back water planet. Exactly how much of a back water I have no clue; typically they seem to be at a renaissance festival level since they lack even electricity but then Asaro drops in homemade solar powered devices which would require a fairly sophisticated manufacturing base. She is due to marry the abusive governor of a neighboring province mainly because paying him off to not marry him would bankrupt her country. However a crazy guy is renting one of her palaces in between having drunken rampages across the countryside and after he sees her naked once he immediately offers significantly more than the abusive governor for her on the condition that the marriage occurs immediately.

This is in the first thirty pages so that should give you an idea of just how bad this is.

Naturally it is "true love" and our slave-governor starts to immediately change her man for the better. He is, of course, "troubled" but just talking to him changes that. A two minute conversation takes care of his pesky alcoholism, for example. Since it wouldn't do to have Mr. Right just be a nobody he's the empathic prince of an interstellar empire in hiding. Unfortunately for them despite the fact that their contractual legal system should be as simple as "If X>Y then" her original fiance has decided he has been cheated, attempts mass murder as a distraction, and kidnaps the heroine. And despite being more obvious than a neon Budweiser sign in a cathedral the offworlders decide that he must be a nice guy. Eventually true love wins out and they go off to free the prince's home planet through some rather dubious methods.

So just to make this clear: the heroine is a willing sex slave to the "hero" and this is "romantic". Trauma is cured by love and if you're attracted to someone then you can change them with no effort to remove their negative aspects. It's the stuff of bad romance novels, not good books or good science fiction in general.

Our heroine is so passive she could have been replaced with a blow up sex doll with little change to the plot. She is a plot device not a person, a prize for the men in the book to fight over. The only thing she does is improve her man and once he's made perfect by page 100 she is simply carried around. The other characters don't really fare much better in depth but at least they get to be active participants in the story.

The Romantic Times quote mentions that "Connoisseurs of good science writing [...] are in for a real treat," which proves that people who review romance novels are not the ones to look to for elementary school levels of science. In this book a closed population for 3000 years has somehow managed to retain traits bred into specific groups rather than smearing together. The book goes so far to mention that someone is different because he has 55% of one type of DNA and 45% of another. Asaro also provides some hard numbers on the backwater planet which are so obviously bad that any science fiction fan will immediately say, "Hey, that's wrong!" Her hand waving explanations later in the book actually manage to make things worse.

I haven't even touched on the prose which just gave me a headache. Quite a bit of time at the beginning of the novel the technology of the settlers of the backwater planet is mentioned in the context of "Boy those ancients sure were stupid/silly/odd"; the reader is supposed to find this humorously ironic since we know that they've lost the knowledge but that kind of gag stopped being clever in the 1930's. And don't get me started on how modern English ties into that; the linguistics are just horrifying in how shoddy they are.

I need to mention the author's afterword where Asaro explains the book. Needless to say it is one final nail in the "She really is that bad" coffin. She spells out her metaphors for the reader but her metaphors don't make sense in the context of the book. It's like a first year English major thinking that just because they put a reference in that inherently makes it a good reference. If a metaphor must be explained in detail to a work's target audience then it is not a good metaphor.

I put The Quantum Rose down with The Terminal Experiment at the bottom of the Nebula winners. It's so bad that I consider it an attempt on my life. Don't just avoid this one, run from it.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Review Tomorrow; Very Sick Tonight

You don't even want to know the strange paths my brain followed while trying to organize my thoughts on The Quantum Rose while running a high fever and expelling every drop of liquid in my body. It's already going to be a weird one and that would just make it worse. So despite the fact that I can now sit up I'm holding things off until tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Tiniest Peice of Another World You've Ever Seen

In case you can't tell from a glance the above is a new image from the Mars Phoenix lander. It is an image of a piece of Martian dust one micrometer in size. It's the first time that anything microscopic has ever been examined on another world and that's something just plain nifty.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Review - Darwin's Radio

Darwin's Radio
By Greg Bear
2000 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

I can understand why science fiction authors keep trying to break into the "airport thriller" field. It's lucrative and, to put it bluntly, that mass audience they're shooting for has neither the demands of science fiction readers or standards of literary readers. So I don't inherently begrudge the attempts even when the result is something better used for bird cage liner; it might make me wish they'd never write anything again but it's not because they tried to get more readers. What does bother me is that the SFWA apparently thinks that these things are worthy of their highest honor.

There's a disease that is dormant in the human genetic code and when something triggers its activation it causes miscarriages. The fetuses miscarried are non-viable monstrosities and that pregnancy is immediately followed by a second one where the the fetus doesn't miscarry.

Our heroes are a geneticist who identified the viral genes before they became active, a disease hunter for the CDC, and a discredited anthropologist who found evidence that the disease might actually be an evolutionary trigger. Together they... um... do... stuff while people riot demanding that... er... stuff happens. Our heroes are in a race against time to... prevent, I guess... something.

Alright, I give up. The plot of this book is completely incoherent. I can follow the individual chapters just fine but they do not connect together in any meaningful way. The first roughly three-quarters of the book has the heroes attempting to understand the disease. The complications occur when people don't want them looking into the possibility that it triggers a species change.

Why someone would want that line of research stopped I have no idea and the book offers none. It's not like their efforts wound up taking away from other efforts to locate a vaccine or treatment methods.

So why the characters need secret meetings about it I don't know. But they have several secret meetings that it's vital that no one know about. Not that it makes any difference when they're eventually discovered.

And why people riot at a scientific conference where they're discussing treatment methods I don't know. People "protest" against the disease and demand the cure... which is the FDA is very publicly fast tracking. It would be like cancer survivors turning up to protest a medical conference where they're releasing details on a universal cancer vaccine they're testing.

Why scientists work to cover-up a Cro-magnon infant being born to neanderthals I don't know. It would be one of the most important finds in archeological history since they were able to sequence the genetic code of both parents and the infant and confirmed it. It would be something completely unfalsifiable, so why they have a conspiracy to bury it is beyond me.

What the heroes hope to accomplish by finding out that the plague is an evolutionary trigger I don't know. There's the glory of finding it, of course, but they act like confirming this will somehow change the fact that it's a disease that's impacting millions.

I spent more than three hundred pages asking "Why?" with no answers before Bear kicked off a nonsensical fugitive plot for the last portion of the book. At least when that happened events in the chapters connected together even if the reasoning behind their actions was even more suspect.

I've barely begun scratching the surface of the problems with the story in the book. Bear tosses in things like an American public not only willing to accept manditory abortions (except the religion right since obviously people who fought for reproductive rights wouldn't care about this) but jailing pregnant mothers. They're not spreading the disease, they don't present a health risk, they're just doing it because the government is evil.

So the story itself was terrible. Unfortunately nothing else in this book is any good to make up for it. The characters are all thoroughly unpleasant ciphers who move according to "plot" necessity (maybe that should read "scene necessity"). For example two of them wind up in bed together after meeting once for an hour for business. Bear needed a "love interest" so he ignored the lack of any kind of establishment of a relationship or behavior that would explain it and just slammed them together arbitrarily. I suppose it goes back to the plotting, everyone does everything arbitrarily which never lets the reader get a handle on any of the characters.

Before I wrap things up I need to mention the evolutionary biology: it's as terrible as the plotting. Not the fact that there's a disease that causes species change. While we know that isn't how evolution works I can accept stepping outside the bounds of normal biological science for the sake of science fiction. The problem comes in when Bear explicitly states that this is triggered by the stresses of modern society. Really. Because apparently modern society is much more stressful than... well... pretty much everything that predates it in human history. By that standard the disease should have been constantly running rampant.

Besides not realizing that homo sapiens as a species have been under constant pressure, Bear also gives the evolutionary process intelligence to recognize what is "better". Better in this case is not simply different, it identifies what a better human being would be by human standards.

The best thing that I can say about the book is that the prose didn't actively hurt me. I have no other kind words for Darwin's Radio and I would strongly recommend avoiding it.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Fan Artists of the 1980's

It's time for another round of Hugo winning fan artists. Again, the images selected to represent them are not tied to the voting period. In one of those odd coincidences most of these artists have done work with different RPG lines which I had the books for but were displaced in various ways (some day my agents will hunt down the person who has my copy of GURPS Illuminati...).

Alexis Gilliland
1980, 1983, 1984, and 1985 Hugo Winner for Best Fan Artist

Gilliland is better known as an author than a cartoonist. He won the John W. Campbell award in 1982 for best new author. Oddly enough for someone who won four times there wasn't a lot of examples of his work online. The cartoon above comes from a recent issue of File 770, regular winner of the best fanzine Hugo.

Victoria Poyser
1981 and 1982 Hugo Winner for Best Fan Artist

Poyser transitioned from fan to professional shortly after winning the Hugo award. She specializes in this similar kind of fantasy art

Joan Hanke-Woods
1986 Hugo Winner for Best Fan Artist

The only information that I could find on Hanke-Woods was his biography at the recent Worldcon site. Apparently he dropped off the face of the earth after winning his Hugo only to recently re-emerge.

Brad Foster
1987, 1988, Tied for 1989, 1992, 1994, and 2008 Hugo Winner for Best Fan Artist

The most recent fan artist winner took the award for the first time two decades ago. He's also the first of the winners this time who has a website. He holds the record for the most fan artist Hugo awards.

Diana Gallagher Wu
Tied for 1989 Hugo Winner for Best Fan Artist

She's better known as Diana G. Gallagher and writes licensed novels under that name. Currently her novels are based on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed. I aknowledge that is not a very good picture but that is the only picture I have been able to find by her online. Her website is only about her writing and there is another Diana Gallagher who is a professional photographer which made searching difficult.