Thursday, November 27, 2008

Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Book by Brian Froud

Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Book
Illustrations by Brian Froud, Text by Terry Jones
1995 Hugo Winner for Best Original Artwork

Usually the author is listed first but since the Hugo was for the artwork I decided to flip things. And that is Terry "Monty Python" Jones as the author of the text.

The book purports to be a reproduction the diary of a young girl who rather than pressing flowers like other Victorian era young ladies pressed fairies. She sneaks up on them as the frolic and slam the book on them to keep them. It's just as strange as one might expect from that description.

But what about the art from it?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Twenty Years Ago Today a Man and Two Robots Started Watching Bad Movies...

Geez, has it been twenty years?

On November 24, 1988 the tiny Minneapolis UHF station KTMA aired some filler featuring local comedians talking over bad movies and making fun of them. It was not the first time something like this had been done but for whatever reason it got the attention of executives of the just forming Comedy Channel and they went national next year. And so Mystery Science Theater 3000 was born leading to a vast movie riffing empire that continues to this day.

In honor of MST3K-day I'm going to watch the Rifftrax of The Happening (I saved a really stinky one for the show's birthday), and point out my favorite episodes from each of the ten seasons it aired nationally:

  • Season 1 - Project Moonbase - The production was rougher than even the minimal standards of later years, the cast would change immediately going into season 2, and yet the humor was already there. And how can I select anything other than the one episode written by Robert Heinlein.
  • Season 2 - Rocket Attack USA - Besides being the episode where the stinger concept came from (the blind man wandering the streets during the nuclear panic saying "Help me" in as dead of monotone as you can make inspired them), it was also the first episode I ever watched. The ending must be seen to be believed.
  • Season 3 - War of the Collossal Beasts - The production values hit their stride and just about any of the episodes from this point on could be selected as that season's greatest. I have to give the nod to War of the Collossal Beasts, though, not for the main episode but instead for the short: "Mr. B. Natural". The andogynous musical pixie would haunt MST3K fans nightmares for years to come.
  • Season 4 - Manos: The Hands of Fate - The season with Ed Wood, Monster-A-Go-Go, Killer Shrews, and "Tor-cha!" but can there be any choice other than the most infamous film ever featured on the show. Who can forget how the haunting Torgo's Love Theme rocketed to number one on the charts as a result.
  • Season 5 - Mitchell - The episode where they arrest Harlan Ellison ("Good!"). Oh and original host Joel escapes to be replaced by the series's head write Mike thus triggering the second eternal Internet flame war (right after Kirk v. Picard).
  • Season 6 - Red Zone Cuba - Even with the hysterically funny mirror universe episode (Last of the Wild Horses) the nod has to go to one of the Coleman Francis trilogy; one of the great finds of MST3K his directing career will now live forever.
  • Season 7 - Laserblast - Coming to the end of the run on Comedy Central I have to go with Laserblast as both an astoundingly bad movie and the end of an era.
  • Season 8 - Space Mutany - Revived at the scifi channel but under a narrower mandate: only science fiction and fantasy films and no shorts, they showed that they could survive a network jump intact. Space Mutany stands out that year as an attempt to do a space opera in the same way that rock bands in the 1970's attempted to do opera: loud, with borrowed features, and poorly.
  • Season 9 - Hobgoblins - The chain was loosened and other genres started slipping in including this horror film which couldn't scare anyone.
  • Season 10 - Squirm - The second to last episode is one of my favorites since I have a certain fondness for the 1970's animals go crazy and kill people horror subgenre (a surprisingly deep one, too). This time it's earthworms and it's paired with one of the greatest shorts that they've ever used: "A Cast of Spring Fever" where a man wishes for a world without springs and quickly repents of it.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Review - "Fast Times at Fairmont High", "Hell is the Absence of God", and "The Dog Said Bow-Wow"

Michael Whelan
2002 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

This is an odd year of winners for one major reason: I do have a single bad thing to say about any of the winners. For those who want a quick review that's it; these are not only stories worth reading but stories that you need to read.

I read "Fast Times at Fairmont High" in The Hard SF Renaissance, a massive anthology of hard SF stories that contains a lot of interesting stories especially if you enjoy SF about big ideas. "Hell is the Absence of God" was in the single author anthology The Stories of Your Life and Others which contained every single published story by Ted Chiang up to that point and for that reason alone needs to be on your bookshelf. Finally "The Dog Said Bow-Wow" can be found in the conveniently titled single author anthology The Dog Said Bow-Wow.

"Fast Times at Fairmont High"
by Vernor Vinge
2002 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

Thanks to a blurb at the front of the novel Rainbows End I had been under the impression that "Fast Times and Fairmont High" was an early version of a few chapters of that novel.

I was wrong.

It definitely is an eary version of some of the things in Rainbows End, but beyond sharing the names of a few characters and featuring a few of the same technologies it is a very different story. At the same time it shares almost all of the strengths of the novel. The book that eventually emerges has more well defined characters but the story is not lacking in quality.

In the not too distant future the ability to process vast amounts of information has radically transformed society. Students commute virtually across country to attend high school. Custom smart drugs are available that can do astounding things but only for the person they're made for. People's view of the world is constantly altered to match what they are looking for. And against this backdrop high school students are working on their exams by seeking to create something of value for their school. A weak student who has been cheating with brain enhancers and a brilliant student join forces for one of the tests where more than one secret may be revealed to the world.

Just like Rainbows End this story hits all of Vinge's strong points. And just like Rainbows End its flaws are so minor that it is not worth mentioning them. And just like Rainbows End I recommend seeking out this story and reading it; if you've enjoyed any of Vinge's work then it is well worth the effort.

"Hell is the Absence of God"
by Ted Chiang
2002 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

Since Chiang is a short story author and since this is the first Hugo he received (though not the first I reviewed) I want to say a few words about him. He is, by percentage, the most honored science fiction author in world. He has published ten stories and won the Hugo and Nebula six times. And that's with declining the nomination one year. That wouldn't mean much if Chiang's work was just popular instead of good but his stories are inevitably brilliant; perfect gems of writing.

The thing that impresses me the most with Chiang is that he is a verbal chameleon. Each story is unique in style, tone, and structure and they never strike false notes. Take "Hell is the Absence of God" since that's why we're here: Chiang writes it in a passive voice that despite breaking all of the traditional rules of good storytelling brings into focus the parable nature of the story. I suspect this is why Chiang only writes one story every two years: it just takes him that long to carefully craft perfection.

"Hell is the Absence of God" postulates a world where the evidence for something along the lines of Judeo-Christian theology is constantly around everyone. Angels manifest regularly leaving disasters and miracles in their wake. Occasionally a glimpse of heaven can be viewed where they pass and its beauty transfigures those who see it and sometimes hell can be viewed below the earth. Souls can be seen departing the dead and moving to their final destination; to heaven if its owner devoutly loves God and to hell to be apart from God for eternity if they don't.

Several people have their lives disrupted by the visitation of an angel: Neil loses his wife whose soul departs for heaven, a preacher whose mission centered on her lack of legs is given the limbs she never had, and a man who has been searching for meaning in life finds nothing has changed despite witnessing an angel. The story focuses on Neil's despair at his wife being taken by God and his necessity to learn to truly love God in order to rejoin her upon his death.

Chiang uses that framework to explore not just the theology of his posited world but modern theology. He also ties it together with an absolute stunner of an ending that is both shocking and inevitable at the same time. I've gushed enough; this is a story that you should read to get the full effect.

"The Dog Said Bow-Wow"
by Michael Swanwick
2002 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

This was the worst of the three short fiction winners in 2002 but that is like noting an opal isn't quite as stunning a diamond or ruby.

In a distant, decadent future technology that is sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from magic is falling into decay. The systems that controlled much of it have turned against humanity and things have regressed to a kind of neo-Victorian style. A dog man joins with a petty thief in a scheme to gain access to the aristocracy and rob them blind.

This is a lively, fast paced adventure story that despite being setting heavy never feels bogged down by it like a lot of SF stories can be. It's the interesting characters who drive the tale and though I worked out the scheme immediately it didn't bother me. I can't call it brilliant but "The Dog Said Bow-Wow" was very enjoyable.