Saturday, August 30, 2008

Review - The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
2003 Hugo Winner for Best Long Form Dramatic Presentation
2003 Nebula Winner for Best Script

I said last week that I enjoyed Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings quite a bit and that hasn't changed in seven days. Since the three movies really run together it's impossible to judge one alone. So nearly all of my opinions regarding The Fellowship of the Ring apply to the The Two Towers.

A quick plot recap for those who need it; people spend a lot of time walking around and complaining and then some armies attack people. The ring still isn't in the volcano at the end of the movie.

So this time I wanted to talk about the adaptation process since The Two Towers contains what I think is the only misstep that Jackson made in adjusting the material for the screen (and I'll bet you won't be able to come up with which change I'm talking about).

Even more than most books a literal adaptation to the screen would have been a disaster with The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien takes a leisurely stroll through his world and many sections deflate the intensity of the core plot in a way that a movie would not be able to survive. It has a monstrously large cast even before you look at characters who just turn up for a chapter or two before vanishing never to be mentioned again. To work for a mass audience on the screen the book had to be tightened up considerably. While certain die hards may reject any modification made to the original text almost every single change was necessary for the plot to work on the screen.

The most immediate and obvious changes in The Two Towers are with Frodo's plot. It ends several chapters ahead of where it does in the book. The reason for this is obvious: how much action does Frodo's story have in The Return of the King? In the third part while the other characters are all rushing around and having exciting battles Frodo is trudging along not doing much besides being depressed. In fact since so much of the last part of the book is dedicated to even more endings than the movie portrayed the central conflict of Frodo's story arc is resolved very early in his part of The Return of the King. So they off loaded some action from Frodo's half of The Two Towers to The Return of the King in a necessary step to balance the third film.

In addition Faramir in the book is a very different character from Faramir in the movie but again this was necessary to deal with the lack of tension in Frodo's half of the novel. Tolkien's structure for the Frodo portion of The Two Towers allowed him to end on a cliffhanger that wouldn't have worked on the screen so he could have Faramir turn up to be the polar opposite of Boromir and then move on. Jackson gave Faramir an emotional arc in The Two Towers that might not have been completely effective but it was needed for theatrical audiences.

There's also good reasons behind the wargs attacking the refugees on the way to Helm's Deep and Aragorn's separation from the group. The attack is there to pick up a slow portion in the middle of the film with some light fluff that doesn't really detract from Tolkien's story. As an addition it helps smooth out the pacing of the movie and it doesn't undermine anything. Aragorn's separation is necessary to continuing his emotional arc; it's an excuse to squeeze in an Arwen flashback. In the book Arwen is hardly there and she's effectively completely missing in the The Two Towers so it was necessary to remind movie goers that she existed and she was the love of Aragorn's life even if a valkyrie was hitting on him.

And so it goes. The confrontation in the throne room needed a more direct hand by Saruman since he was going to be an off screen villain for the bulk of the film. The Ents needed to be trimmed back because most of those scenes in the book are just the hobbits hanging out in the forest waiting for them which wouldn't really play that well on screen. And Merry and Pippen needed to provide a reason for the Ents to attack because otherwise they would just be baggage for the entire movie.

So what is the change I don't like? It's one that is completely unnecessary, exists mainly in dialog, and changes what was a logical plot element in the book to Hollywood nonsense. In the book everyone recognizes that they do not have nearly enough men to fight the army of orcs on open ground so the plan is to retreat to Helm's Deep and hold out there until help can arrive. This makes a great deal of sense. In the movie Gandalf calls Theoden a coward for not wanting to take five hundred people against one hundred thousand in an open field. Yes the good guys always win but it's Hollywood reasoning that charging into a vastly superior force is somethign that will let them win instead of fighting a defensive battle. That was a completely unnecessary change and the only reason I can think of for it have been made is that some people didn't like the idea of the heroes retreating.

Any adaptation of The Lord of the Rings would have to deal with the problems that Jackson did. While another director might have done things differently I have a difficult time believing that another director would have been able to do the job significantly better. We would just wind up with a different set of complaints about the changes made. There's no reason to avoid the movie because of the changes to the book; most of them exist mainly to make the book work as a movie.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Review - Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "Conversations with Dead People"

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "Conversations with Dead People"
2003 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form

I don't plan on reviewing both dramatic presentation winners in the same week typically but I am going to follow this up with The Two Towers tomorrow mainly because both 2004 dramatic presentation winner tie together.

So here we are at the start of the short form Hugos and I have to say that this was one of the best changes they've made in recent years. In the past decade science fiction and fantasy on television has exploded and there is a lot of high quality material being produced. At the same time it will often be overshadowed by theatrical productions. Look at the history of the Hugo awards and you'll see that before the short form award was created only four television shows ever won the Hugo: The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Babylon 5. It was far more common for a weak movie to be selected in preference to a television show.

Enter the division between long form and short form dramatic presentations. Now television episodes had a category essentially created just for them and the first winner selected I think says a lot about the changing nature of SF fandom.

By this point in history we're well into the Internet fandom focusing period. I'd put the first two shows to take advantage of the effect of the Internet to mass fandom in one location as Babylon 5 and X-Files (Star Trek fans may have been on the net as long as it existed but Trek fandom was larger and scattered as the Internet started taking over) but Buffy the Vampire Slayer was among the first big shows to have its entire run in the connectivity era. A large, organized fandom a more than half the battle toward winning these awards and Buffy had that to spare.

To keep things simple for both of you who found this blog and are unaware of the series Buffy is a girl and she fights vampires. There's the show's premise in a nut shell and it kind of helps that it's all in the title. The show started off witty with some action and a hint of soap opera angst but by the last season when "Conversations with Dead People" aired the soap opera angst had taken over the series. Episodes, particularly in the sixth season, were more likely to be about the personal relationships between the characters than fighting monsters or even being amusing.

"Conversations with Dead People" was one of the episodes from early in the seventh season where it showed promise to not fall into the patterns that made the sixth season the least popular portion of the show. Unfortunately pretty much all of the great set up in this episode never really comes to fruition and the series manages to go out with a whimper. In this episode Buffy chats about how screwed up her life is while fighting a vampire psychologist and other characters are visited by dead characters who make threats and/or warnings about the future.

Really this award has more to do with the history of the series than the quality of this particular episode. It's a good episode but not a great one and by the time the Hugo award voting had rolled around the series was over and people had seen where it all lead to. I can't say I mind that very much since the times when the show truly deserved the award it was steamrolled out of the dramatic presentation category by theatrical films.

The cast does a fine job with this episode and that's to be expected since they had years to grow into their roles. I've never been fond of Sarah Michelle Geller's Buffy since she had a tendency to lay it on a bit thick but she's almost subdued in this episode and attention is spread among other better actresses.

I have to mention the transformation of one of the dead toward the end of the episode as being among the creepiest things I've ever seen broadcast on television. I don't want to say anything about it since part of what makes it effective is the shock of the transition.

If Buffy the Vampire Slayer had maintained this quality through the entire last season then no one would have with complaints but as it stands "Conversations with Dead People" is one last hurrah for a series that had been worn out. I'd recommend watching episodes from season two and season three instead of this one if you want a sample of what made Buffy an entertaining series.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The King's Birthday

August 28th is the most important holiday on a comic fan's calendar: Jack Kirby's birthday. To celebrate, here is the first appearance of one of his greatest creations the Mighty Thorr:

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Review - Camouflage

by Joe Haldeman
2005 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

And so I have caught up with myself.

When I started my project of reading the award winning SF novels Camouflage was the most recent Nebula winner. A few weeks later another was announced and now we have yet another. This is the home stretch for the Nebula winners.

In the not too distant future an object made of something far denser than any element is found sitting beneath a million years of silt at the ocean floor. A research company brings it up and finds as they prod the thing that it is likely to be of alien origin.

When the object arrived on Earth two alien beings left it both of which are shapeshifters. One adapted to the land while mankind was still in the paleolithic era and walked the earth while the other played around as a fish for millenia before emerging from the ocean in the early twentieth century. The one that emerges late kills a boy, takes his place to learn about people, then rapes a woman. That is the "good guy". The other apparently just decides that if other shape shifters exist they must die and automatically joins the "evil" side in any conflict. This is how you know he is the "bad guy". They both converge on the object where our "good guy" alien attempts to infiltrate the research project and immediately has sex with the lead scientist. Wackiness ensues as the government realizes something is going on and interferes.

While the book didn't repulse me like so many other recent Nebula winners have I can't really say that I enjoyed it. The book alternates between present day poking at the artifact and what the aliens were doing in the past and neither of the stories were satisfying for very different reasons.

Nothing happens with the research. Each time they devise some ludicrous plan to get it to do something then they do it and nothing happens. It quickly becomes apparent that nothing really important is going to happen with the artifact until the aliens get to it and that is pretty much the case. It drains the tension and interest out of those scenes.

The aliens themselves are incredibly dull to read about. After the "good alien" gets the raping women thing out of his system he wanders around getting smart and helping people. The "bad alien" decides to join the Nazis because it likes death camps and kicks puppies. These characters are so bland that when the chapter switch occurs it usually took me a bit to work out which alien it was about. They're referred to as "camouflage" and "chameleon" but I couldn't tell you which is which.

The story has a central mystery to it where the research project may have been infiltrated by one of the shapeshifters but it is immediately obvious that it has been infiltrated and who that infiltrator is. Of course Haldeman "hides" this until the last few pages for a "dramatic" reveal that left me more annoyed than surprised. This is followed by the most bland showdown between two shapeshifting beings you could imagine; there's hundreds of ways this idea has been handled in the past and this one falls squarely in the pointless category.

I've got to mention this because it bothered me so much. It's a plot point that the alien doohicky is perfectly reflective on all frequencies. It's mentioned as part of the reason why it is so strange. And then they decide to shoot a high powered laser at it and Haldeman hadn't even forgotten the reasons why this was a bad idea since people watch through a material that is perfectly invisible to that laser's wavelength. For some reason the perfectly reflective object absorbs the laser rather than, say, reflecting it which is a good thing too since the test fire of the laser blew up a quarry. Of course I wouldn't want to find out that something perfectly reflective wasn't perfectly reflective by trying to burn a hole through the landscape around me but it's a bit of a lucky break for them. I swear if I had a nickle for every science fiction writer who didn't grasp the concept that a laser is light I'd be a very rich man.

That doesn't even get into the plan to launch an orbital rocket sideways and turn it off just at the right moment to not cause any damage to buildings a short distance away.

Haldeman is a decent writer when it comes to his prose and I wanted to enjoy this book. The characters are so uninteresting that they cannot save the bland plot and I was left disappointed. It isn't as annoying in that regard as Forever Peace but I cannot recommend this Camouflage.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Magazine Just for Übernerds

No, it's not Make even if they are incredibly cool too. I'm talking about:

If you can name at least 80% of the characters on that cover and identify exactly which game each comes from then this is the magazine for you.

[i]Retro Gamer[/i] is published in the U.K. which makes it hard to find over here but I have seen a copy or two from time to time. The expense made me hold off until I saw this collection which appears to be about a year's worth of issues crammed inside. It's actually volume two and it makes me want to hunt down volume one and any other volumes they've made.

Inside you'll find feature articles on the making of classic games, the history of platforms, profiles of a particular publisher or developer, and occasionally a double page spread of a low resolution game. Since it is from the U.K. it does have a very U.K. focus but I didn't mind much since I'm not really that familiar with the Spectrum and Amstrad platforms.

Now to go and find that volume one...

Monday, August 25, 2008

Review - The Speed of Dark

The Speed of Dark
by Elizabeth Moon
2003 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

I can't stand how certain people online seem to have no middle ground between spectacular and horrible. The medium contributes a bit to that since not many people are going to go out of their way to say, "Well I thought it was alright but it didn't really stick with me." Looking back at my recent Nebula winning novel reviews I have been particularly bad. I've hated with passion a lot of them, was thrilled by a few of them, and only had a moderate response to the smallest fraction. I'm not going to try to hide my honest opinions out of a perceived need to have balance in the reviews but it does bother me that I have had such extreme reactions.

That brings me to The Speed of Dark: it is easily among the best novels that have won the Nebula. Borrowing elements heavily from one other Nebula winner and one other Hugo winner Moon takes the ground work set down by others and frames it in a very different light.

In the not too distant future autism a prenatal cure for autism has been found. The protagonist is one of the last autistic people born before that cure became available. He's functional and his different method of pattern recognition has made him and a few other autistics valuable to a pharmaceutical company in productivity and tax credits despite certain allowances made to them. A new aggressive manager doesn't see the benefits, just their social awkwardness and expense to the company. Since there is a new potential cure in development that has worked on chimpanzees this manager wants to force them to be the human trial for the treatment.

That's the hook for the novel's plot but things aren't that simple as the protagonist decides if removing his autism would be to his benefit or not. He's mostly satisfied with his life the way it is and sees advantages in keeping his unique point of view but complicating things is a budding romance (which he has difficulty pursuing but isn't sure if it could continue if he was cured), murder attempts, and ulterior motives by his boss.

The most striking thing about The Speed of Dark is the unique viewpoint. Most of the book is told in the first person by the autistic protagonist. Moon goes beyond the just providing the character with a great voice and uses the present tense in those sections to seperate his different viewpoint from the reader. It's there both for his difficulty in making social connections and the fact that he thinks differently from others. Occasionally she switches to a third person limited view which often repeats a scene to give another perspective. The book as a whole is very effectively written and that alone would be justification for reading it.

The characters all make for facinating reading, too. The reactions to the possibility of a cure among the autistic community range from raging at the suggestion that they are different to immediate demand for a chance to be like everyone else with plenty of shades between. Moon does a very good job at putting the reader into a community built upon their separation from everyone else and dealing with the possibility of changing that (I suspect this was inspired by the deaf community's reaction to the development of cochlear implants). The humans tend to be divided between tolerant and intolerant but Moon makes most of the incidental hostility that is encountered a consequence of the normal person not receiving the expected social reactions.

Thanks to having such well defined characters Moon takes the opportunity to explore the nature of the self. If you use medicine to change yourself are you still the same person? How much of your being is a change in the quality of your life worth? Those are not simple questions and Moon does not provide any answers; there is a give and take in each choice and each person in the novel has to judge it for themselves..

The corporate plot line might just be the thing that shocked me the most in The Speed of Dark. How many times have you seen the evil corporation who does terrible things mainly because they're evil and ignoring the fact that it's obvious, would cause a major scandal, ruin their stock price, and get the entire board ousted and then arrested. Yes companies do bad things in real life all the time but when they get to around half the scale of the evil we see in books and movies the result is usually an Enron or Worldcom. Moon subverts this by making it into a much more realistic corporate scandal; the reactions and behavior of everyone involved is very well depicted. I'm so used to seeing companies being portrayed as stupidly self-destructive instead of simply money grubbing that I was surprised to see a difference in this book.

All in all I found The Speed of Dark to be a superior book by any standard. It is not simply Flowers for Algernon repeated or a follow up to the ideas in A Deepness in the Sky (which was just about the last book I expected to be referenced by this novel), it provides a very unique voice on those same issues. I enjoyed it quite a bit and highly recommend it.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Review - "The Death of Captain Future" , "Think Like a Dinosaur", and "The Lincoln Train"

Bob Eggleton
1996 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

Once more back to the Hugo winning short stories! I'm considering alternating to the Nebulas next week but I'll burn that bridge when I come to it.

"The Death of Captain Future"
by Allen Steele
1996 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

Let me give you a plot outline for "The Death of Captain Future". You have a lunar miner who has signed on to a short hop on a craft so that he can get to a distant mining colony in time to catch a job that will put him on the road to success. The ship however is run by a self styled "Captain Future" an obsessive fan of the pulp stories of Edmond Hamilton. When they are nearly there they receive a distress call from an asteroid converted to a ship and find that everyone on it had space madness (not the name used in the story but it might as well have been). They smashed the controls and left the asteroid on course for Mars but thanks to some cliched and obvious... er... quick and resourceful thinking they save the day but something happens to result in the story title.

There's two obvious ways to do this story: humor and postmodern. Both of them depend on one vital thing to carry the story however: Captain Future. Steele chooses the postmodern direction and his "Captain Future" is a loser of the highest caliber. The problem is that Steele chooses to tell us that rather than show us it. The captain is barely on stage for the story at all and instead other people tell us about how pathetic he is. So the reader doesn't get to develop their own feelings about the captain, we are just supposed to attach ourselves to the other characters. Those characters are also very unlikable in a postmodern style of making them unlikable because it's "more real"; since they're not interesting it just leaves everyone in the story as unlikable.

Consequently there's not a thing to recommend the story for. The plot is tired and cliche but it is intended to be a character piece. So that might have worked except that the characters aren't worth reading about. I also suspect that it was intended as a deconstruction of pulp SF but it fails on that as well since it doesn't really examine the structure in the first place. This one should be avoided.

"Think Like a Dinosaur"
by James Patrick Kelly
1996 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

Of the three short works I read for this review this is the only one I liked and I enjoyed it quite a bit. Aliens turn up and allow human beings access to the populated universe through their teleporter that goes to other worlds. The catch is that the teleporter isn't really a teleporter but a duplicator and the aliens require that the original copy is destroyed once the new one has been received. One human is selected as the gatekeeper for this and his job is to push the button that kills the originals; if he doesn't then the aliens will likely cut off contact from the Earth. A transport gone bad has left the original alive and walking around after the duplicate is made and he must either take drastic steps to deal with it or risk closing humanity off.

It seems funny to me that this is in the novelette category since the story is fairly short. My guess is that it was just over the word count level for the short story category. Kelly manages to weave an interesting problem in that little space dealing with the psychology of people trying to adapt for aliens, the willingness of someone to use this method to leave Earth, and the not so clear implications of the technology. It's definitely worth checking out.

"The Lincoln Train"
by Maureen F. McHugh
1996 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

For some odd reason I've read a lot of things in the past couple of weeks written mainly in present tense. Besides this story there are two Nebula winning novels coming up for reviews, several other short stories that I've come across, and I bumped into discussion of the use of present tense as a voice in fiction. So after reading an awful lot of this stuff I've come to a conclusion: I don't like it.

Those in favor of its use argue for a sense of immediacy and I find that it actually has the opposite effect on me: rather than feeling immediate it feels distant. The use of present tense narration gives a work a radio announcer type quality that separates me from things. This isn't necessarily a bad thing and a distinctive point of view can make effective use of that (not to spoil things but The Speed of Dark is a perfect example of this). To simply substitute tense of verbs in a one to one substitution from past to present is more annoying than clever.

That's the situation with "The Lincoln Train". Despite being told in present tense the story would not lose a think structurally, narrative, or stylistically to be told in past tense. It left me feeling annoyed with the story. It is told from the point of view of a young woman who was a slave owner before the American Civil War (the first person voice with present tense giving it even more of a radio announcer feel). She is undergoing a harsh forced migration as part of cruel reparations placed on the South by President Lincoln who may have been left addled by a head wound he received at the theater.

I never get a feeling for the characters so I wasn't really about to connect to their plight and the style of writing grated on me so badly to finish it off. I wouldn't recommend it.

Metal Gear Sigh

I finally got Metal Gear Solid 3 today. Yes, number four is out but I just got three. The reason is that I don't like the Metal Gear games but because I am a gaming nerd I want to be conversant on the popular titles so I attempt to play through them. Since they're popular they're also cheap to buy used (at least once the new game smell has worn off) and the worst thing that happens is I'm annoyed for a few hours and then I'm out roughly the price of a movie.

I've now played for nearly three and a half hours. Or let me revise that: I've played for roughly twenty minutes and watched three hours and ten minutes of poorly written, laughably bad cut scenes. The kind of stuff where a character says a meaningless line because it sounds portentous but it's actually pretentious (I swear it's like they wrote four different versions of each cut scene as they were pinning down the plot and then randomly decided which lines to leave in). I watched the clock and there was literally over an hour and half of cut scenes between meaningful game sequences (where I did something other than use the menu or walk between screens).

And that's why I don't like the series. I want to play a game, not watch a poorly made "spy thriller" by someone who thinks obfuscation is the same thing as cleverness. I'm sticking with it since the most fun I have with the games is providing my own Mystery Science Theater 3000 commentary to those cut scenes. But as a game so far it has been failing just on the game to watching ratio.