Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Most Disputed SF Definition of Them All...

I just got my copy of The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction (look for a review in a few days) and I immediately jumped to the single most argued over definition in SF. Here it is:

hard science fiction, hard sf n. science fiction in which the technology or science portrayed in the story has been extrapolated from current scientific theories, especially in which the laws of nature (as understood at the time of writing) are not violated.

Hmm... I don't think that will stop any bickering over what hard SF is...

Friday, October 17, 2008

Review - Serenity

2006 Hugo Winner for Best Long Form Dramatic Presentation
2005 Nebula Winner for Best Script

"Great news!" I said to my friends, "I got us tickets to the preview screening for Serenity!"

"What's Serenity?" one of them asked.

"The movie that continues Firefly!"


I lent them my box set of the series and the next week when I saw them the first words out of their mouth were, "Where's the rest of it?"

"That's it. There is no more. It was canceled after only a few episodes aired."

"We need to see more."

"Well fortunately there's a movie in development and I've got tickets to a very early screening..."

The movie was everything I wanted: a well made conclusion to the spectacular television series. Unfortunately it also made it clear just what a hard sell any high concept science fiction will be to a mass audience.

The crew of the interplanetary trading ship Serenity are just trying to get by doing whatever they can for money even if they have to bend the law a bit to do it. Among them are a brother and sister on the run from the authorities since she's been brainwashed to be their psychic assassin and is carrying a head full of secrets that could destroy the government. So they wind up trying to run from the amoral agent trying to capture her.

I'm not one of those people who give Josh Whedon a free pass on everything he does (I have seen Aliens: Resurection and there is no excuse for that), but the television series Firefly was one of the great cut short series of the past ten years. The blending of western motiffs and science fiction was hardly new even for media SF (see Outland) but it is rarely done as well. When it was cancelled after being bounced around the schedule more times than it actually aired it left behind many dangling plot threads and Serenity was designed to give some kind of conclusion to them.

Despite that the movie stands well on its own. It opens with a flash back to before the show began to fill in the back story and necessary exposition is handled quickly. While you'll get a lot more out of the movie if you've seen the teleivision series the film is not hostile to new viewers.

One aspect to the show and movie that I appreciated was the fact that nearly all of the cast are anti-heroes of some stripe. They're not upstanding citizens; at best some of them are less likely to sell out anyone they come across. It can make some viewers less likely to enjoy watching them but I found it make their reactions more interesting since it was tough to say which way things would go.

And that's one aspect to Serenity that I particularly enjoyed. The first time I watched it I had no idea how it would end. A pyrrich victory? The Butch Cassady and the Sundance Kid ending? It was a brutal movie in that sense; who would walk away at the end was strongly in doubt.

If you are a nerd on the Internet who somehow hasn't watched Firefly and Serenity I strongly recommend it. It's lively, witty, clever, and exciting in a way that other science fiction franchises only wish they could be. There isn't an SF fan out there who I wouldn't recommend it to.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Review - Schlock Mercenary: The Teraport Wars

I don't read a whole lot of webcomics. I used to back in the young days of the web when the idea that someone might draw a comic and put it on the web was a wild idea. Those early pioneers set patterns still seen today: the wanna-be epic where a humor strip loses humor for massive infodumps of bad story requiring understanding of years of confusing continuity, the fanbase pandering where in-jokes take over, the egotrips where self aggrandizement takes the place of actually making the comic, and more. There are acres of webcomics where the artistic quality of the first strip is as good as it ever gets no matter how terrible it is. And that doesn't even get into the massive piles of strips that are just outright terrible.

One of the very few I do read consistantly is Schlock Mercenary which I've been following for more than seven years. The ongoing story of mercenaries a thousand years into a space opera future manages to hold me for three key reasons and they all are in the writing: it's clearly told, well paced, and strip creator Howard Taylor makes a point of recognizing the ugly consequences of the details of his world. Taylor has just released his fourth print collection of strips entitled The Teraport Wars which cover nearly eighteen months of his daily strip.

There's a lot of stories in The Teraport Wars but its central one is a conflict between a fleet of altruists and dyson sphere building aliens who have manipulated interstellar civilization for over a hundred thousand years by torturing secrets out of anyone who used their interstellar transportation system with the mercenary cast stuck in the middle and just wanting to get paid.

This is the best value of any web comic strip collection I've ever seen.

Strike that: this is the second best value of any comic strip colection I've ever seen beaten only by those really impressive Fantagraphics collections and they only edge this out by being the complete works of various masters of the art form. First, The Teraport Wars is more than 210 pages of strips for twenty-five dollars. That's 493 daily strips. You'll pay only slightly less than that for half the content from most people. Second the production values are exceptional. It's printed on glossy paper in full color with a layout that flows smoothly and allows plenty of room for notes from the author and sketches.

And the content isn't bad either. Taylor moves quickly from story arc to story arc and there's a lot of big space opera action. The cast is a wondeful collection of barely functional sociopaths who have taken the saying "Violence is the last resort of the incompetent" to heart; they're not incompetent so they resort to violence much earlier.

One stumbling block is the art. In the beginning the art in Schlock Mercenary was... well... terrible. I've seen worse art in webcomics but not often. By the start of The Teraport Wars Taylor was on his way to developing his ability but things were still rough. By the end of the book you can see real development in the art (eventually he does drop the thick inking). Taylor aknowledges this; in fact the first collection of his strips actually follows The Teraport Wars for when they were originally published.

Webcomic collections can be a tough sell since who needs a print collection of what's being given away on the web? The Teraport Wars does deliver on that by being a wonderful presentation of the strips. if you haven't read Schlock Mercenary I'd say jump to the beginning of the current storyline where the band of thugs takes on a mission of mercy where everyone is in over their heads.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

I Am Not Iron Man

Six months after its release I finally watched Iron Man. I didn't see it in theaters since the trailer made it pretty clear that I wouldn't like it and I wouldn't have even bothered with the DVD except that Rifftrax released a commentary for it. My initial impression from the trailer was dead on; Iron Man is exactly what I don't like in superhero movies.

The thing about superheroes is that they are completely ludicrous but have their own conventions and form which is followed. In short it's the implausible form of modern day deities beating the snot out of each other that forms the basis of superhero comics. Yet somehow superhero movies tend to forget that's what the "stories" exist for.

Looking at Iron Man we have exactly three short set pieces where there is superhero action and only the first of them is particularly satisfying. First we have the emergence of the superhero in a prototype form smacking around the terrorists who were holding him hostage. Despite the fact that this takes almost no effort there is a certain amount of catharsis to the sequence which lets it pay off.

Not so for the second time where the completed Iron Man goes back and with even less effort kills more of the same group of terrorists. This is clearly intended to stand in as the hero goes out and does good deeds to establish himself sequence but because it's a fight with no risk involved it doesn't really matter. I've already gotten my "Hell yeah! Take that terrorists!" moment out of the way in the first set piece and the second one feels pointless.

Finally at the very end of the movie it's time for a supervillain confrontation. Except Iron Man has already been disabled and the "fight" isn't much of one. The villain is never established as a real threat since he had to cheat even before he debuted. Iron Man is never established as a hero because we never saw him do anything heroic. So the final set peice lacks any weight at all.

Compare this to The Dark Knight where Batman and the Joker have repeated confrontations. Similarly in Spider-Man 2 there's a lot that happens specifically to establish what Spider-Man does (besides "whatever a spider can"). Iron Man is closer to Daredevil where we only see the superhero action a handful of times and none of them feel significant.

The reason this happens is obvious: action set peices are expensive. With a bit of effort and skill, however, this can be worked with. When the narrative form of a superhero movie can't even live up to your standard level of superhero comics then there is a real problem.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Review - Chronospace, "We Will Drink a Fish Together", and "The 43 Antarean Dynasties"

Bob Eggleton
1998 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

This was a funky set of stories to read. Not because of their content or any link between them but because they were a pain to get them. Chronospace is an expansion of Allen Steele's "...Where Angels Fear to Tread"; since the story has never been collected anywhere I had to get that book and rather than just read the section with the title of the short story I need to review the book as a whole since I can't be certain how it was expanded. "The 43 Antarean Dynasties" is not widely collected as well so I had to obtain a copy of Resnick's collection Travels With My Cats (which is a fine set of his short stories and I'd give it a solid recommendation with my only complaint being that there is no hard cover edition). Which meant that I had to get a third book for "We Will Drink a Fish Together".

I think next time I'll take up creating a simpler collection. Like Faberge eggs.

by Allen Steele
An expansion of "...Where Angels Fear to Tread", the 1998 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

I'm not going to give this book a full review since I read it for the Hugo winning short fiction it was based on. I'll fit as much complaining as possible into the next couple of paragraphs to make up for that.

In the future historians time travel to investigate the past and their time machines are mistaken for alien spacecraft by those who catch a glimpse of them. A team is selected for the most dangerous mission yet, a trip to the final voyage of the Hindenburg. Something changes, though, and the blimp does not explode leaving the time travelers stranded.

I had a lot of problems with this book structurally and factually. The book is divided into three sections with the middle third having the title of the original novella. The final third reads like a sequel to it rather than part of the same book and the first third contains little activity. The whole effect is a patchwork Frankenstein's monster of a novel where the reader is given extended exposition for events they read about twenty pages before. When a character needs to be reminded that they broke history a few hours before hand then there is something seriously wrong.

(Seriously, there is a conversation that goes something like this: "Oh my god, what happened to the world?! Why has everything changed?" "Well we screwed up history a few hours ago. I suspect that might have something to do with this." "Perhaps you're right...")

A real issue for me is that the story is built upon the discredited theory that the Hindenburg exploded due to sabotage. I can suspend my disbelief for time travel, FTL drives, and concepts that get discredited after the author writes the story but I want a story about history to get the basic history right. Sabotage is nice and dramatic but even in 1997 people recognized that it was the least likely of the possible causes. And somehow between now when we don't know and four hundred years from now they discover definitive proof of the sabotage, who did it, what methods they used, and what went wrong since it is common knowledge even before the time travellers go back to view things first hand. It appeared to me as I read the book that Steele read some of the popular conspiracy theories and took them as fact.

I need to stop here before I continue on to Steele's horrific handling of exposition, his head scratching characterization, the complications policing time travel being completely ignored, and how the ending actually appears to make the central conflict of the novel worse while everyone acts like it is resolved for the better. That's enough for me, though. This is a bad novel; the middle third is a bit more ambiguous and most of my problems come from the book ending sections so the novella may be better. After that mess I'm not putting in the effort to find out, though.

"We Will Drink a Fish Together"
by Bill Johnson
1998 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

Ah the quirky folk of small town Middle America. I don't know if you can rightly call them stock characters when they seem to be defined by the author randomly picking character quirks out of a list of zaniness but they do come up a lot in modern fiction. It takes a deft hand to take this theme and give it some depth.

The human body guard for an alien ambassador is called back to his small town home to bury a family friend. Assassination attempts have been made on the ambassador and the ambassador follows hoping to dodge the attackers. Naturally wackiness ensues as they deal with the quirky inhabitants of the small town.

Not a lot really happens in this story; it just drifts from encounter to encounter until it finally comes to an end. While Johnson avoids the pitfall of being patronizing regarding the small town inhabitants he doesn't really manage to make them more than simply quirky. I wasn't really engaged by any of them. I didn't find "We Will Drink a Fish Together" to be a bad story, Johnson tells it reasonably well, it just didn't thrill me.

"The 43 Antarean Dynasties"
by Mike Resnick
1998 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

Empires rise and fall but their monuments remain to be gawked at by tourists. In "The 43 Antarean Dynasties" the monuments of past glories are alien ones; a vast civilization that has fallen into ruin after centuries of repeated invasions. A tour guide shows a few tourists these wonders and deals with their apathy.

Resnick says that the story was inspired by Egypt but it could have been about any country with archeological treasures standing next to crushing poverty. That might be the biggest problem with the story since the themes might be better explored with the present day Earth rather than disconnected with a "better than everything" alien civilization. Still Resnick does a fine job of making his points without being too heavy handed; tourists are tourists after all and they bear no more guilt for not reveling in a foreign culture than the members of that culture do for not appreciating theirs. The story is a bit light so I wouldn't say it's worth undergoing a monumental effort for but if you come across it then you won't feel worse for having read it.