Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Nebula and Hugo Winners

Eighteen times the Hugo and Nebula voters have agreed on what was the best science fiction or fantasy novel of the year. They were:

Dune by Frank Herbert
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Ringworld by Larry Niven
The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov
Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
Gateway by Frederik Pohl
Dreamsnake by Vonda McIntyre
The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke
Startide Rising by David Brin
Neuromancer by William Gibson
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold
The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

That's more than 40% of the time they selected the same book. The time of the greatest agreement was the 1970's when just two years that decade they disagreed. The least agreement occurred in the 1990's where they only agreed twice.

Almost all of those books are worth checking out though I think Forever Peace should be avoided. I didn't like Paladin of Souls but fans of epic fantasy might find more to enjoy in it than I did.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Review - The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King

The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
2004 Hugo Winner for Best Long Form Dramatic Presentation
2004 Nebula Winner for Best Script

Gollum's Acceptance Speech at the MTV Movie Awards
2004 Hugo Winner for Best Short Form Dramatic Presentation

Third time's the charm, right?

For that person who has been held in some third world prison for the past ten years and is being forced to read this blog as torture here's quick synopsis. In this last film the two guys finally reach the volcano while a lot of fighting happens elsewhere. Then the movie has six endings.

Once again I enjoyed it quite a bit and was satisfied with it as an adaptation of the book. The three movies were shot simultaneously they're really aspects of one whole piece even if Jackson adapted them so each movie had a conflict that would be resolved by the end of it. So my comments on The Fellowship of the Ring apply just as equally to The Return of the King.

On the subject of the quality of the adaptation many people became agitated when it was made clear early on in the movies' development that certain points of this book would be dropped. My response to this was that once the ring hit the lava the theater audience would only tolerate things for another fifteen minutes. Director Peter Jackson actually went with roughly a half hour of wrapping up and you'll note that the many endings was one of the biggest complaints about the film.

I have to confessed that I was surprised when The Return of the King swept the Academy Awards that year taking eleven awards and winning every category it was nominated in. Just about every single one was a technical award and I can't dispute that they were well earned. Best director is a stretch but no other director in film history has taken on such a massive project and Jackson succeeded perfectly. The best picture and best song awards on the other hand are not my preferences (The Triplets of Belleville got robbed on best song); I suspect that those categories got caught up in the popularity of the film.

That popularity I suspect drove the short form Hugo since it is one of the very few times with the dramatic presentation where I strongly disagree. Here's that winner in its entirety (and if you haven't seen it, go ahead and watch it now; it's less than three minutes long).

Really, that's it in its entirety. It's an amusing bit of fluff but "Best Dramatic Presentation"? Okay, the Buffy series ending wasn't that great and neither was the Smallville episode but that quickly done two minute gag beat out the two episodes of Firefly that Fox actually aired. The popular name with nothing behind it beat actual "presentations".

That's the legacy of Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. It's massive popularity has made the three films the twenty-fourth, fourteenth, and tenth top grossing films of all time (they were higher but several movies have beaten their totals). Many more people have now seen these movies than read the books. Much like The Wizard of Oz the movie is likely to supplant the original in popular consciousness. Some people may have found the book through the movies but they're the exceptions rather than the rule.

Here's a quick example of that using the supreme arbiter of popularity: a googlefight.

"Lord of the Rings" movie - 13.3 million
"Lord of the Rings" book - 11.2 million

Despite it's head start and it's place deep in the heart of nerds the movie has reached many more people. My mother who wouldn't have been able to tell an orc from a fork has seen them. Better get used to that Tolkien fans, Jackson's is the one people will remember while the books fade.

There's a certain irony to that.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Review - The Yiddish Policemen's Union

The Yiddish Policemen's Union
by Michael Chabon
2008 Nebula Winner for Best Novel
2008 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

Once again here I am at the end of the line. It's the most recent winner of the Nebula, the winner of the Hugo just a month ago, and this year's Locus award. It might be the most celebrated science fiction novel in years. I've disagreed with popular opinion often enough before (sometimes vehemently) but when it comes to The Yiddish Policemen's Union I don't. Still I'm not as enthusiastic about it as some people mainly due to the fact that the plot didn't grab me.

When the state of Israel was founded after World War II it lasted just weeks before being overrun by its Islamic neighbors. As a temporary alternative the United States offered a sixty year lease of a rough patch of land in the Alaskan panhandle.

Toward the end 2008 that lease is coming due and the United States has no intention of renewing it. The Jews that moved there are being scattered across the world again. In the midst of this a homicide detective at the lowest point in his life encounters a murdered chess player in the same flop house he has been living in. It is an event that sets him on a path of finding a conspiracy and redemption.

Chabon melds noir, alternate history, and theological fantasy (my own term for fantasy novels with a foot in real world theology) wonderfully. Despite the claims of some people along the lines of "It's not science fiction or fanasy!" you could not seperate these elements from the novel. This is accomplished by using the traditional detective story as the frame occasionally hooking in elements from the other genres.

My problem is that Chabon is fairly leasurely about exploring the plot he established. The majority of the first half of the novel is taken up with establishing the characters and letting them sink to personal low points. It isn't until the half way point in the novel before things start moving. In addition a lot of the story is predictable; Chabon manages to throw a few twists in but I spent a lot of time waiting for the characters to realize something I worked out chapters before. The central mystery just wasn't very compelling to me as a result.

Fortunately there are many other aspects to the book. The characters are not simple to pin down as they try to change as the world does. Most of them are seeking redemption in one way or the other, searching for a messiah that might never come. How they develop and change in their search for that redemption is the real central conflict to the novel rather than the political change over and murder investigation.

It's tempting to describe the secondary characters are very distinctive; I can honestly say I have never encountered a rabbi mafia don in fiction before. The novel is packed with this kind of interesting character and watchign them play off each other is what makes The Yiddish Policemen's Union worth reading.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a very Jewish novel and I think that might hamper it a bit. While Chabon explains in narration the aspects of the culture important to the plot there are a lot of details that I only picked up on because I lived in an area with a significant Jewish population for a few decades. The conflicts between different factions have real world parallels for example, and Chabon doesn't explain many details.

I need to mention Chabon's prose which is... I guess unusual is the best way to put it. It has a very unique voice that I'm not convinced really works. Besides using the present tense which as I've mentioned tends to push me out of the story it tends to meander, wander, add excessive details, lengthy lists seperated by commas. I think the positives of the stylish prose outweigh the negatives but a reader will remember it.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union is an interesting book and looking at it I don't think it was as effective for me as it could have been. I enjoyed the facinating characters but the prose left me conflicted and the plot didn't thrill me. I liked it but I just wouldn't call it one of the greatest books I've ever read. This is a situation where I think that your milage may vary wildly so I do recommend checking out the novel.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Oddest Product Announcement... or Greatest?

Google announced their new web browser Chrome by sending out a thirty-eight page comic book by Scott "Understanding Comics" McCloud. Since everyone loves a Scott McCloud comic they've made the announcement available on their site.

I haven't tried the browser yet since I'm reasonably happy with Firefox and the list of new features hasn't made me jump for joy (I'm unconvinced that the performance will be significantly better for one). I'm holding off until the early adopters hit it and find the troubles.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Review - Seeker

by Jack McDevitt
2006 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

I don't give space opera a lot of credit. I know its one of the foundations of science fiction and it remains the most popular subgenre to this day but it also manages to beat out Sturgeon's Law by a considerable margin when it comes to crap. Even when it's done well very few authors of space opera do much more than just spin a decent adventure story. Bujold as a good example of this; she tells an interesting tale but few of the Vorkosigan books have significant depth. There's nothing wrong with that approach and honestly I'd rather read a good but simple adventure than a poorly written pretentious bit of "literature", but I often walk away feeling like it was missing something. McDevitt's Seeker comes very close to that mark for me: in the end I think that the exploration of his themes was flawed and yet it is a very entertaining book.

Ten thousand years in the future humanity has spread throughout the galaxy and in that time civilization happened. There was as much history between now and that future as there is between us and farming villages in Mesopotamia. The protagonists are treasure hunters who seek out the lost artifacts of the interstellar human civilizations that rose and fell in that period and sell them to the highest bidder. One day they're asked to appraise a cup which appears to be from the first interstellar vessel to disappear. This puts them on the trail of that missing ship and a lost civilization along the lines of Atlantis. Meanwhile they have to deal with claimjumpers, protestors demanding they stop looting the past, telepathic aliens, and astronomical mysteries.

It's very rare to see history as a science addressed in science fiction. Authors will pile on back story and overlook the fact that things a few hundred years ago are distant and thousands of years ago are ruins. McDevitt clearly put a lot of thought into how vacuum archeology would work. Unfortunately this is also where the book hits the sour note for me. The main characters are treasure hunters and McDevitt establishes a treasure hunter versus archeology theme which he doesn't really expand upon. The book is told in the first person by one of the treasure hunters so I wouldn't expect an unbiased opinion from them but it's like he just drops the whole thing. It disappointed me to see this theme abandoned in the novel since I can't recall ever encountering it in science fiction.

Setting aside that thematic problem Seeker is a very interesting story. Mysteries are tough to work into science fiction and McDevitt handles it deftly by having the book be a procedural, a story about the process of solving the mystery rather than the resolution. The trail of breadcrumbs they follow is lengthy and winding; until the climax I was uncertain of where McDevitt would be going next with his story. These plot twists sometimes strain credibility to the breaking point but I didn't mind mainly due to the fact that the whole point of the book was following these strange turns of fate.

Adding to the pleasure of the book McDevitt populated it with some very interesting characters. The brilliant but aloof researcher abd his assistant who does the leg work might be the formula copied from Conan Doyle but you won't mistake these two for Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. For one thing they both screw things up quite a bit when they try to be adventure heroes only to realize their mistakes after the fact. For another their adversaries for the most part are threats to their pocketbook rather than their lives (with the exception of someone who wants to kill them before they reach their goal).

So I might have been disappointed that Seeker wasn't as textured as I had hoped but I was still very entertained. I found it to be compelling reading and since it is part of a series I am going to seek out the rest of McDevitt's books.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Review - "Blood of the Dragon", "Bicycle Repairman", and "The Soul Selects Her Own Society"

Bob Eggleton
1997 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

The images I've been taking for Eggleton's awards are his Chelsey Award winners taken from The Chesley Awards for Science Ficiton and Fantasy Art. This painting was his 1997 winner of course.

The short stories this time are especially odd selections with "Bicycle Repairmen" being the only "normal" story in the bunch.

"Blood of the Dragon"
by George R. R. Martin
1997 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

I'm a bit disappointed that A Game of Thrones didn't make the final nomination for the novel ballot since it would have been the first time in Hugo history where the same text was nominated in two different categories. "Blood of the Dragon" is essentially an early form of the Daenrys chapters of A Game of Thrones and while it is an interesting setting I don't think it works very well as a stand alone novella and is certainly not worth checking out in preference to the book.

Daenrys is a princess in exile whose mother fled her kingdom before she was born. Her brother is a mentally unstable, sadistic monster who is determined to take back the kingdom despite the fact that he is powerless, penniless, and no one there would want him. His current plan is to sell his sister to a Mongol hoard stand in as part of buying an army. Despite being a pawn Daenrys finds a place in that cruel society.

If you haven't read A Game of Thrones then I give it half a recommendation. I have no taste for epic fantasy but Martin cast things in a more brutal, genuinely medieval light and part of that shows through in "Blood of the Dragon". Daenrys has a brutal life and Martin doesn't pull his punches with it. Of course the problem is that the series has become one of those indefinitely stretched out series where less and less happens in each book so that there will be another book to sell later. I'm invested enough to be suckered into the eventual fifth book (with the series currently projected at eight(!) which is up from the original three that were announced) but I'm hesitent to recommend it just because there is no ending in sight.

If you have read A Game of Thrones then "Blood of the Dragon" is an interesting curiosity since several scenes are different from the book but there's not enough different to justify going through a lot of effort for it.

So despite being a decent story I can't recommend "Blood of the Dragon"; either get the book that it's an excerpt from or give it a pass.

"Bicycle Repairman"
by Bruce Sterling
1997 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

A bicycle repairmen in a burned out slum in the near future receives a mysterious bit of technology. A strange woman turns up and breaks into his shop to recover it but he catches her. She's a government agent and so he has to decide what to do with her.

I didn't think much of this story. There's a lot of setting detail but it doesn't really amount to much. Just about all of the dialog is exposition; just about all of the plot is told rather than shown and I'm not entirely clear on anyone's motivations. The government agent explains (poorly) why they're doing what they're doing but why anyone else does anything is generally fuzzy to me.

In fact so little happens worth mentioning in this story that I don't really have much more to add to my review. The characters are for the most part impenetrable ciphers, the plot is ephemeral fluff, and there's no theme or structure holding it together. I can only guess that the story exists for the purpose of presenting the setting but it didn't matter to me. For this reason I don't recommend this story.

"The Soul Selects Her Own Society: Invasion and Repulsion: A Chronological Reinterpretation of Two of Emily Dickinson's Poems: A Wellsian Perspective"
by Connie Willis
1997 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

I would have hated to be the guy who had to engrave that title on the Hugo.

To know if this is a story worth reading for you look at this sentence from early on in it where the author discusses how they identified a poem fragment as belonging to Emily Dickinson:

"...but the large number dashes makes it clear they were written by Dickinson, as well as the fact that the poems are almost totally indecipherable."

How did you react:

A. "Ha ha, 'large number of dashes'!"
B. "Ha ha, 'indecipherable'!"
C. I don't get it.

If you answered A then you need to seek out this story, B indicates you'd probably enjoy it but not as much, and C means this is not for you.

The "story" is actually an "academic" paper where the author attempts to prove that two poem fragments are a result of Dickenson repulsing H. G. Wells's Martians at the turn of the twentieth century. Yes, she was dead for fourteen years at that point but the author doesn't let that get in the way of their thesis. The story is a wonderful send up of Dickenson and literature acadamia but it only really works if you're familiar with both. I loved it but then I'm weird that way.