Friday, September 12, 2008

Review - Soylent Green

Soylent Green
1973 Nebula Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

Let me get this out of the way. Despite having the highest spoiled to watched ratio of any other movie out there I'm not going to say a word about the contents of soylent green. I do these write ups considering the perspective of someone who hasn't seen it so no Charlton Heston jokes even if they did blow it all to hell.

The Nebulas have a funny history when it comes to dramatic presentation awards. They experimented with them in the seventies where the first one given was for Soylent Green. After just three years the idea was award was abandoned but the arguments over it continued for decades. The pendulum swung back in the late nineties but now the awards are for "Best Script" but the bad feelings over it were so prevalent that a porno film made the final ballot.

Only twice have the Nebulas disagreed with the Hugo for dramatic presentation and both times it was the first year that the Nebula handed out an award. Soylent Green is one of these films, the other is The Sixth Sense.

I have to say that I'm not fond of the script/dramatic presentation Nebulas. It's not because there aren't enough script writers in the SFWA (there definitely are) or that it's not "real" science fiction writing (it definitely is). My issue is that the SFWA is a writer's association and the awards (despite their label) are not being handed out for writing. Few of the people selecting the award would have access to the script in order to judge it. The selections are being made on the final product where hundreds of people coming together under the director are responsible for the result. Not that I'm particularly passionate about the subject; the award just seems out of place.

Today's subject Soylent Green is loosely based on Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room! which was one of those late sixties books that told us that a world with six billion people in it wouldn't leave anyone with food or even room to stand. A police detective in this overpopulated earth is called in to investigate the murder of an executive of the Soylent Corporation, the company that manufactures most of the food on Earth. They're gearing up for the launch of a new product soylent green. Over the course of the movie the detective finds a conspiracy around the product line of the Soylent Corporation.

This movie is very clearly a product of another time. Setting aside the very 1970's style future Charlton Heston's detective spends the bulk of the movie rather forcefully "seducing" the victim's live-in prostitute (she comes with the apartment). It's clumsy and creepy and I got the impression that it was not the intended effect. At the height of the feminist movement we have a movie where the only woman who is not literally objectified to the point of being furniture is a nun.

The film's story is told at a pace that might generously be called "leisurely". A less generous person (like myself) would say it's plodding. I suspect viewers are supposed be entertained by the depressing future rather than interested in the actual plot since it slowly wanders its way around before getting to the point. There are good sequences in the film (the food riots, the suicide facility) but they're few and far between.

The only reason really to watch this movie is the surprise twist and if you know it already then there's nothing left. The direction is bland and the style is very dated. The acting isn't really that interesting. Soylent Green just isn't worth watching.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Heinlein's Mail

Here's a nifty bit of science fiction history: how did Robert Heinlein deal with a flood of fan mail and still have time to write? A check list form letter! Presumably it was mainly for the more pesky requests that came in constantly but it is an interesting look at what he was regularly dealing with.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Nebulas Vs. Hugos - Literary Merit

When I was younger the difference between the Hugos and Nebulas to me was that the Hugos were the popular selection and the Nebulas were the professional one. Obviously professional writers would select based on literary merit and have a higher set of standards than just fans who show up at a convention, right? I've heard that sentiment many times; the Nebulas are supposedly the "literary" award.

I lost this view once I knew a bit more about the SFWA and their petty squabbles. If I hadn't been dissuaded of it before then reading all the Nebula winning novels would certainly do it.

The question remains for me, though, of which award really goes for literary merit. To that end I'm conducting a survey where I will be final judge of that very loosely defined term. I'm writing this paragraph before I perform the count so I don't know who will win but I'm betting on the Hugos. I am only counting novels since I'm still twenty-one stories away from finishing off the Hugo winning short fiction and I haven't dug too deeply into the Nebula winners.

For my purposes I'm judging literary merit partially based on if the author was attempting to expand the genres of science fiction and fantasy beyond the standards of the time. I also am looking at the prose so a clever and well written book might get the nod where one with a good big idea but pedestrian writing would not (few Nebula and Hugo winners actually have bad prose despite the efforts of Robert J. Sawyer to break this barrier) . So Dune gets marked as literay because it is a gothic novel in science fiction despite the fact that I don't like the book and just about every epic fantasy novel in the past thirty years has been in the gothic form (even if most of those authors couldn't tell a gothic novel from a gothic cathedral). I'll bring up some borderline cases after the poll and how I went with each for further examples.

This is not intended as a measure of quality; I can point out several novels in both that are self-important literary messes that

Ready? Drum roll please.....

The Hugos:
Literary: 26 - 46.4%
Not Literary: 30 - 53.6%

The Nebulas:
Literary: 23 - 52.3%
Not Literary: 21 - 47.7%

Not what I was expecting at all. I found that I was judging mainly literary for both up until 1980 when a switch suddenly flipped on the Hugos and I started judging mainly not literary. The Nebulas underwent a similar shift at 1990 but it gave them an edge.

Here's some of the borderline ones:

Starship Troopers - While Heinlein may have created the template that military SF would follow after it was still following in other's footsteps and made it fall on the line for me. I chose literary mainly because of the political lectures; it made it seem like Heinlein was trying to pull in Ayn Rand's literary style at the height of her popularity.

The Falling Woman - I wavered a lot on this one but in the end I decided that the shift to including more women's perspectives within SF was well represented by this book and chose literary.

The Mars Trilogy - I thought long and hard on Red Mars and Green Mars due to the science aspects. In the end I felt it was an extension of existing Campellian forms rather than something distinctive.

The Moon and the Sun - I had to pause a second to think when I this this: how prevelent was historical fantasy before the late ninties? Then I realized it was very prevelent and shoved it under not literary.

American Gods - I may like Neil Gaiman as an author but after a few moments thought I decided that he was both just revisiting themes that he had already been over repeatedly and they weren't exactly unique when he did it. I'm a harsh critic sometimes.

The Diamond Age and Rainbows End - Both novels are part of the standard "Here's what a technology will do to us in the future!" form of science fiction and both are exceptional examples of it. I wound up saying yes to The Diamond Age because of its Victorian novel roots and multilayered structure but no to Rainbows End because it didn't really offer anything new in terms of writing.

Who Are These Handsome Devils?

Here's pictures of all four 1965 Nebula winners receiving their awards. Can you name them?

Looking at those photos I've determined that I can never be a science fiction author; I don't own a nice enough suit.

The big hint to one of their identities is the fact that he has two Nebulas in front of him. Since 1965 was the first year they were awarded that makes him the first man to win twice.

Read for the answers?

Top left is Brian W. Aldiss who actually crossed the Atlantic to be at that first award ceremony in person.

To the right of him is Harlan Ellison. It's unclear from the photo if he is being curmudgeonly in his acceptance speech but it's a good bet.

The man with two Nebulas is Roger Zelazny. He tied with Aldiss for the Nebula and our last writer for Hugo that year.

Finally we have Frank Herbert who tucked his Nebula under his arm and nearly out of the photo.