Friday, October 3, 2008

Review - Battlestar Galactica: "33"

Battlestar Galactica: "33"
2005 Hugo Winner for Best Short Form Dramatic Presentation

After Battlestar Galactica the only television series left that has won the Hugo award is Doctor Who. Between the two of them they represent the two different directions that high concept television shows go these days. Doctor Who is the whimsical one (usually) but I'll cover that in a few weeks and represents shows like Pushing Daisies. Battlestar Galactica is the brooding side of things representing shows like Lost.

I have a confession to make here: I no longer watch Galactica. There was a period of about six months where I was unable to watch the show and the continuity is so tight between episodes that I decided it would be better to just wait it out and get the DVD sets when the series was over. I am the media creator's worst nightmare: a patient man.

Battlestar Galactica is about the last human survivors of a devastating attack by their sentient robotic creations. The few space craft that were away from the planetary colonies have managed to come together for defense with the only remaining warship, the Galactica. It only survived because it was to be decommissioned the day the attack occurred. Together they are journeying toward humanity's lost home world, the Earth.

The show debuted with a miniseries that established the situation. "33" was the first episode of the regular series and it debuted with a bang. Every thirty-three minutes the robotic enemies manage to locate the fleet and attack causing the refugees to flee by a hyperspace jump again. This situation has been going on for five days straight and everyone is strained to the breaking point. A possible cause of these constantly reoccurring attacks comes to light and the characters have deal with sacrificing a significant portion of the few remaining free humans to keep the rest safe.

I couldn't imagine a more perfect pilot. First, it clearly establishes the themes of the series. Our heroes are terminally outgunned and the only option for them is running as fast as they can. The military is segregated from the civilians in a way that will naturally cause conflict. And it also clearly establishes that multiple major characters are sleeper agents for the enemy. If you aren't interested in seeing what happens next after watching this episode then I have to say that you probably aren't interested in science fiction on television in general.

The usual flaw for any high concept television (not just SF) was that the show's creators usually have to settle for less than stellar actors. That has changed as serial drama has become a popular entertainment choice and Battlestar Galactica has a superb cast. None of them grate on me and several, such as the bridge crew of Galactica, stand out.

The visual style of the show needs to be mentioned. The technique of shooting everything, including most of the special effects shots, as though they were being done by a hand held camcorder can be distracting initially. I got past it quickly but I personally found it to be more gimmicky than dramatic. People with large televisions and a tendency for motion sickness might have a rough time.

SF has finally come into its own on television in these past five or six years and Battlestar Galactica is at the heart of that. The original television series is a good example of what was wrong with SF shows before; the new is a good example of everything that is right. While I can't say much about what follows the first half of season two I can say that the first season is well worth watching.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Short Review - The Umbrella Academy

A lot of comic book fans online have recommended The Umbrella Academy so I finally got around to reading it the other day. I can see what people like; it is an exciting cacophony of psychedelic imagery. Unfortunately there's nothing else to it and so I was left disappointed that so many interesting ideas were tinkered with and then forgotten.

There was a group of children with special powers who had mad cap adventures. As they grew up, though, they came to despise their adopted father and went their separate ways. When their father dies they reunite only to be informed by their time traveling sibling that the end of the world is coming.

As I said, the imagery is interesting. The book opens with a wrestler defeating a cosmic squid and potentially causing the virgin births of dozens of superpowered children around the world. This leads directly into the Eiffel Tower being piloted by a steam powered zombie robot Gustav Eiffel rampaging in Paris before launching itself into space. This is the kind of thing that happens constantly in the book with little rhyme or reason for it. That can work if the reader has some kind of anchor elsewhere, a plot or characters to connect them to the insanity. Writer Gerald Way attempts to do this and fails miserably.

There's two storylines that he attempts to pursue. The first is the end of the world driven by an evil orchestra that one of the siblings joins. This is driven by random events with no context and the resolution of every aspect to it is a deus ex machina where something new comes in from left field or someone demonstrates an ability the reader was never informed they had. The reader is supposed to react to how cool the events are but I was left wondering why I should care.

The other story, and the one that it seems like the book is really trying to hook onto, is the siblings dealing with the death of their hated father. The problem here is that we just don't know enough about any of them or their relationships. What little is in the pages of The Umbrella Academy is hamhanded (the father telling one of them "You're just not special," early on in the story for example).

The impression that I got is that I was supposed to know who all of these characters were before I read the book by reading exposition that was not provided in the story (and as someone who hates giant blocks of exposition it kills me to say that the story did not have enough). I typically didn't work out even the basics of who the characters were until it was far too late. An example of this is that one of the character's special powers is vital to the way the other characters treat them but the reader is never told what their power is until a story that is printed in the book after the miniseries. She uses her ability once in the first few pages in a very ambiguous method and apparently Way thought that was sufficient to establish everything the reader needed to know.

That's a problem for the whole series: far too much is ambiguous. Not just the little story developments or character twists but fundimental information that the reader needs to comprehend what is occurring. It was four issues in before I realized one of the characters had a human head on the body of a gorilla (I thought it was his space suit until that point). And I'm still not sure how everyone put together enough information to show up for the climax of the story.

The Umbrella Academy depends on the reader reacting to the events and ignoring them in the context of the whole and I'm just not capable of doing that. When I was younger I might have been distracted by the shiney moments and then accepted its flaws. I am not that young anymore, however, and so I can't recommend it.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Review - "Call Him Lord" and "The Secret Place"

More Hugo winning short fiction reviews are coming in the next few weeks but for the time being I'm pressing ahead with filling out the Nebulas. It is not uncommon for there to be at least some cross over between the Hugos and Nebulas with short fiction though. My plan is that when a year only has one winner that has not been reviewed I'll roll it up with another year's stories.

Now is a good time to mention the Nebula winner anthologies. For thirty-three years the SFWA published a collection that included the winners of the awards, essays, and other Nebula nominees that were worth noting. They have since been replaced by a yearly Nebula Awards Showcase which for some reason the handy doesn't index (for some reason information on this series online is very thin). I haven't gotten any of the Showcase collections yet but from the first few Nebula Awards books I'd have to say they work very well as a "Best of 196x" series. The stories are all solid and so far they've all contained some of my favorite SF stories. The Annual World's Best SF series didn't start until 1972 so the first few Nebula Awards books can do a good job of covering that hole.

On the other hand if you want to read just the Nebula winners then I don't recommend them. Okay the first volume was about two-thirds winners thanks to the fact that there was a tie in the novella category but the winners get more sparse after that. There is a collection titled The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 3 which covers the Nebula winners between 1965 and 1969 (the first two are good as well). Volume 4 carries this forward to 1974 but that is as far as these go. Still two books are a more efficient purchase for someone who isn't being a collector than ten.

Getting to the stories...

"Call Him Lord"
by Gordon R. Dickson
1966 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

I really should have hated this story but I didn't. It's cliched, simplistic, and carries a some disturbing unintended messages but Dickson also managed to make it entertaining.

The heir to the Emperor of the Galaxy is coming to Earth as part of his touring education. The Earth is kept as a primitive backwater where people ride horses to get around and generally reject any twentieth century technology. The prince is one of the new breed of humanity: smarter, stronger, more intelligent, and naturally completely lacking in any social skills. He is to be guided by an Earthman who served the Emperor in the past. Together they get into a lot of trouble as the prince treats everyone like crap and is shocked that they don't defer to him automatically (despite the fact that he's hiding his noble heritage).

This must have been a popular year for arrogant aristocrats getting their come-upance. The Novella winner for both Hugo and Nebula was "The Last Castle" where a bunch of snooty aristocrats get kicked around by the people they pushed around. This concept was a cliche when Shakespeare used it and it's just as much of a cliche now. Dickson made it work for him however and the reason for that is that his snooty aristocrat makes it personal.

A bunch of strange guys replacing an alien race's stomachs with nutriant pods? There's no connection there for the reader. A stuck up rich kid thinking he can get away with anything? Now that's something that the reader can identify with. For that reason I liked "Call Him Lord" and I suspect that most people will too.

"The Secret Place"
by Richard McKenna
1966 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

McKenna died in 1964 and this story was published posthumously as were most of his writing. That is disappointing since while I don't think this story worked perfectly it is a surprisingly modern fantasy story that would not be out of place in any publication today. I would have loved to seen more from him; he was at the start of his literary career and things would have only improved from here.

In the early thirties in a small desert town a boy declares that he has found a gold mine. When his neighbors don't believe him he runs off and is found dead a few hours later with a nugget of gold and a crystal that turns out to be uranium ore. The townspeople can't find the mine and it becomes a local legend.

Ten years on the army becomes interested in the uranium ore. They send a geological survey team who insist that the terrain is wrong for gold or uranium but search anyway. When they cannot find anything one team member, our narrator, is left behind to continue the search. Instead of looking geologically he tries involving the boy's sister. She reveals that her brother created a fairy tale kingdom that they played in and the narrator finds that it might have been too real for both of them.

That's the simply view of the story. There's also the complicated one that the science is right and the fairy tales are part of a schizophrenic break that the narrator is cruelly exploiting. This is what makes things interesting; the way McKenna builds the story around contrasting views of reality. The divisions between everyone are highlighted as the central theme and it makes all of the characters interesting to read about. The prose is solid and carries the story well but I think the ambiguities of the climax weaken the story. So I can't give it a whole-hearted recommendation but I still think it's worth checking out.