Thursday, May 28, 2009

2009 Hugo Nominees - Best Graphic Story

First, here's another nominee for best professional artist, Donato Giancola:

The nominees for the new best graphic story category are interesting since they can be easily broken into three blocks of two books. We have two licensed comics based on already popular SF properties, two climaxes to long running Vertigo series, and two webcomics. I don't usually read licensed comics since they usually disappoint so those were the two I had not read before. The two webcomic nominees are one third of all the webcomics I follow and of the remaining webcomics there's only one that might even be considdered for the award. So I'm going to break it down by those blocks.

The Dresden Files: Welcome to the Jungle; written by Jim Butcher; art by Ardian Syaf - Though I'm aware of Butcher's novel series about a hard boiled wizard detective in modern Chicago I haven't read any of them. The books have been recommended to me a few times but I'm always hesitant to pick up any book that's described as part of a "series". After reading this comic series I think I will try one of the novels. This comic had the advantage of being written by Butcher and unlike some writers from other mediums Butcher used the comic format well; his dialog is tight and complements the images. In this story the wizard/detective is called in to consult on a murder at a zoo that is being blamed on a gorrilla. Naturally there's evil magic involved and the detective gets in over his head. I don't want to discount Syaf's contribution to this work; most memorably he drew the title character in an overshadowed hard-boiled rough style while his unwilling sidekick is much lighter. The whole thing made for a charming book that made me smile.

Serenity: Better Days; written by Joss Whedon and Brett Matthews; art by Will Conrad; color by Michelle Madsen; cover by Jo Chen - In contrast with the previous book this is exactly why I don't read licensed comic books. While all of the common beats from the Firefly television series are here this comic is like a faded photocopy. The scruffy rogue characters are there but they're a bit off. It's a plot that you might see in the show (the crew makes a large pile of money while they're being hunted by someone looking for veterans of the war) but it doesn't come across well. There are moments that are effective and they are fleeting. The main storyline is disjointed and jumps from big moment to big moment. Given how the dialog just falls flat I strongly suspect that Whedon's involvement with this comic was just to say "Hey, let's make a Firefly comic!" and putting his name on it to increase sales. Conrad's art isn't bad but is nowhere near smooth enough to make up for that story.

Y: The Last Man, Volume 10: Whys and Wherefores; written by Brian K. Vaughan; pencilled by Pia Guerra; inked by Jose Marzan, Jr. - I never thought I would enjoy a series about all the male mammels on earth dying except one man and his monkey. Instead of taking the obvious route Vaughan turned it into a journey into a post-apocalyptic world as the last man wandered the face of the earth looking for the girlfriend he was about to propose to over the phone when the deaths struck. In this last volume he finally catches up with her after years of wandering and has to decide what he really wants. Simultaniously his enemies are catching up with him for one last confrontation. That storyline is incredibly effective as Vaughn and Guerra capture the growth that all the characters have undergone. The final issue is a bit more controversial since it jumps forward several decades and is filled with a lot of clumsy dialog telling the readers what happened to everyone. On the other hand the conclusion of that final issue is absolutely perfect. Still this is a very good story that only suffers because the reader needs to have read the rest of the series to appreciate it.

Fables: War and Pieces; written by Bill Willingham; pencilled by Mark Buckingham; art by Steve Leialoha and Andrew Pepoy; color by Lee Loughridge; letters by Todd Klein - I'm a bit confused on this nominee: there's a three issue storyline titled "War and Pieces" that's part of the Fables series and there's a six issue trade paperback War and Pieces. Given the context of the nominees I believe that they mean the trade paperback but I can't be certain. The series itself is about all stories being true (especially fairy tales) on other planes of existence. Before the series began one of the characters, known only as the Adversary now, has conquored all of the other worlds forcing the characters in those fairy tales to flee to the real world. In this volume those refugees take the lessons of the real world back to make war on the Adversary. So there is a spy story as one gathers vital information which is followed by the story of the very brief and very brutal war. This volume does have the advantage of standing well on its own though again as the climax of a seventy-five issue long storyline it's more effective if the reader doesn't start at the end. Willingham clearly planned out the war carefully which makes the plan something simple and direct that the reader can both understand and believe. Buckingham always does a great job and for the final issue in the storyline does everything in spectacular verticle layouts.

Girl Genius, Volume 8: Agatha Heterodyne and the Chapel of Bones; written by Kaja and Phil Foglio; art by Phil Foglio; colors by Cheyenne Wright - The premise of this webcomic is a psuedo-Victorian world where some people possess the ability to create steampunk inventions that break the laws of physics. Agatha Heterodyne is the heir to the greatest family of mad scientists and has been in hiding her whole life from the forces that tore her family apart. In this section of the story she has returned to her ancestral home, an intelligent castle that has gone insane in her absense. People who want to seize that power for themselves or destroy it before it can be used have also arrived and Agatha must attempt to gain control over the castle before their plans can be activated. I've enjoyed the Foglio's work since I saw it in Dragon magazine and the webcomic is up to their standards. Unfortunately this particular storyline feels more like a bridge between larger events than a contained story of its own. We have a lot of characters moving to get into position to react but very little of them actually taking action.

Schlock Mercenary: The Body Politic; by Howard Tayler - In contrast this storyline is almost completely self-contained. The mercenary crew that stars in this strip sold one of their enemies to some revolutionaries in a desperate situation as a "military aide". That enemy managed to win the revolution and install himself as king of the planet though his reign is measured in hours. Now the mercenaries find themselves in a classic dilema: they have two people who hire them to steal the body and the government of the planet hires them to guard the body. The dilema, of course, is how can they get paid three times for the same work. Tayler's art isn't up to the quality of the other nominees (he's grown from a doodler in his first few strips to a decent cartoonist over the ten years he's been working on the strip); still the actual story is among the best thanks to it's snappy pacing as a daily comic strip. Tayler keeps things moving from gag to gag and also recognizing that any given strip could be someone's first and that makes it very accessable.

My ballot for Best Graphic Story would be:

The Dresden Files
Schlock Mercenary


Y: The Last Man
Girl Genius

No Award

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

2009 Hugo Nominees - The Novelettes

Before going on to the novelettes I wanted to include the Hugo nominated professional artists in my look at the nominees. As I did when I went through the past winners I won't review the art; I don't have an eye for it. All of the pictures were created in 2008 since that is the period that they're nominated for. Finally all of the images are taken from the artists' own websites so you'll notice their watermarks on most of the images. Since I'm behind by one nominee there's two paintings today. First, from Dan Dos Santos:

And from Bob Eggleton:

If the theme of the short story category was "monkeys" the theme here is "old horror pastiche". As before the links will take you to the text of the story. This is also the first time in looking at nominees where I didn't actively dislike any of the nominees in the category. A couple of the stories approach the borderline and none cross it.

“Pride and Prometheus” by John Kessel - I've already reviewed this story as the 2008 Nebula winner. For those who d0n't want to look back: I enjoyed it as a cute mash-up of Frankenstein and Pride and Prejudice. I can't call it brilliant work though if you like that kind of literary game then you'll enjoy it.

“The Ray-Gun: A Love Story” by James Alan Gardner - The first thing that any reader is going to notice about this novelette is the quirky voice. It's all short, declaritive sentences with almost no description. Once you get into the story about a boy who finds a ray-gun and learns about love and responsibility from that voice helps keep things from being too personal. Gardner takes the story in a few directions I didn't expect right up to the ending which has its own strange twist. One thing I appreciated was just how naturally the story progresses; it might have a ray-gun as the driving factor but all of the reactions are reasonable. Gardner does a wonderful job in capturing the changing attitudes of the boy as he matures and that carries the story well.

“The Gambler” by Paolo Bacigalupi - In the newsroom of the near future a Laotian reporter concentrates on important stories that don't attract interest. He is threatened with being fired if he cannot get more readers and one of his coworkers helps him hook up with a starlet that can raise his profile. The newsroom of tomorrow is an interesting theme to work with and I felt that Bacigalupi just didn't quite get the concepts down. Reading the story it felt like he knew the buzzwords and problems facing media organizations but not how everything connects together. Consequently he has a news cycle and reactions that are measured in seconds; the media is certainly going to be cycling faster in the future but there is a limit of human response. Getting beyond that it becomes just another story of a crusading journalist versus the people who just want fluff. Personally I would have rather read the story about the people working to fill those incredibly fast news cycles.

“Shoggoths in Bloom” by Elizabeth Bear - I was expecting more of a Lovecraft pastiche from this story than what it is. Instead Bear's story feels more like a response to Lovecraft's attitudes regarding race (those attitudes were solidly planted in the mid-nineteenth century despite the fact that Lovecraft wrote in the early-twentieth). In "Shoggoths in Bloom" the threat of a second world war is in the air as an African-American college professor attempts the first significant examination of the shoggoths in the wild. The giant, acidic, tentacle-sprouting monstrocities ooze onto shore in the late autumn where they flower for a brief time before returning to the ocean depths. While examining them the professor deals with the casual racism of New England, his own automatic responses to innocent remarks, and concerns for what is happening in Nazi Germany. The first two thirds of the story are interesting but the last portion where all of the answers are handed over on a deus ex machina left a bitter taste in my mouth. The ethical delema that replaced the questions wasn't interesting enough to make up for the shift.

“Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders” by Mike Resnick - Resnick has done it to me again; he wrote a story where I'm not sure what to make of the ending. If the man wrote endings that were any more ambiguous they'd trail off into random text. This time around two very old men reminisce about a a magic shop where they first met as children nearly eighty years before. On a lark the two of them look for the shop and find it with the same proprietor who introduced them still running it. The proprietor now agrees to show them some new things. Unfortunately for this story the ending comes down to a confrontation between some weak homilies and vaguely sinister supernatural forces. That made it much less involving for me than some of Resnick's other stories. Still it's a solid piece of work despite the fact that strange shops of wonders and reclaimed youth have been overused.

My ballot for the novelette category would look like:

“The Ray-Gun: A Love Story” by James Alan Gardner
“Pride and Prometheus” by John Kessel
“Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders” by Mike Resnick
“Shoggoths in Bloom” by Elizabeth Bear
“The Gambler” by Paolo Bacigalupi
No Award

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Review - "Last Summer at Mars Hill", "Solitude", and "Death and the Librarian"

"Last Summer at Mars Hill"
by Elizabeth Hand
1995 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

There's a psychic colony in Maine where would be psychics go and spend a summer along the coast. Two of them bring their children along with them and these two are a woman dying of advanced breast cancer and a gay man dying of AIDS. Most people go for a good time but a few people who go can see beings of flickering light who appear briefly and vanish.

I can say some nice things about Hand's story. It's reasonably well plotted, the characters avoid the obvious cliches even when they touch on them, and she understands how to pace her central mystery. For some reason that I can't put my finger on her prose bored me. It wasn't anything that I could point to and say, "That's the problem!"; no long descriptive passages, no clunky grammar, no tin earred dialog. It's just that reading this story made my eyes glaze over. I am prepared to say that my inability to get into this story is completely my own problem.

Perhaps part of the issue I had was the viewpoint. The story is told mainly from the perspective of the children one of whom is angry with her dying mother and the other is accepting of his dying father. That's almost the entire sum of their characterization. I couldn't connect with them at all and the impact of that may have been masked by the rapidly shifting viewpoints.

The plot does move in a predictable fashion though in this case I think it's more fair to call it inevitable. The peices are all there and obvious to anyone who has read a bit of SF and the story is more about the characters dealing with death.

Despite my own problems with reading "Last Summer at Mars Hill" I can't say it was a bad story. It someone was looking for a bit of light modern fantasy then they might enjoy it.

by Ursula K. Le Guin
1995 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

I've got some mixed feelings about "Solitude". On one hand it's a perfect example of why Le Guin is considered to be a good writer. On the other I suspect this is an attempt to lull me into a false sense of security and the next Le Guin story I read is going to be so terrible that it makes my eyes bleed.

In "Solitude" an anthropologist wants to study a lost colony of humanity that has developed a culture of isolation. As an adult this anthropologist cannot get anyone from the colony to communicate with her but she has a clever plan. She brings her two children along since any culture must pass on its values to children.

Le Guin draws on personal experience for this story since her parents were anthropologists who took her along into the field. I'm not sure how much of the story is drawn from her life but the whole thing feels very natural. In general I've found that when Le Guin sticks to anthropology she does a much better job of telling stories and that's the case here.

The real core of the story is a mother and daughter growing apart as the daughter is absorbed into another culture (I'm not spoiling anything there since it's clear what has happened from the start). This conflict is exceptionally well handled with the mother being unable to handle the social isolation and her daughter being grown into it. These are some characters who will inevitably hurt each other and the collision is fascinating to read about.

One problem with the story is that several plot points depend on the reader being familiar with the settings of her Hainish stories. Especially how they lack faster than light travel but have faster than light communications though there are other aspects where it helps to know the setting. As a result I could not recommend this as a story for someone completely new to Le Guin despite the fact that it touches on several of her major reoccurring themes. If you've read The Left Hand of Darkness or other books in the setting then this is a prime example of Le Guin doing what she does best.

"Death and the Librarian"
by Esther M. Friesner
1995 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

Wrapping up the common themes of the week this is a story about a dying woman having a final conversation with the personification of death. Friesner doesn't really explore new ground with this theme though she does use it well.

The librarian in this case is a woman who made a few troubling choices (I can't really call them bad) early on in life and has spent decades trapped by them. Death this time is a constantly shifting form who wants to politely whisk people off to their final reward with as little fuss as possible.

The story is a slight bit of fluff; a tiny thing where not a lot happens beyond the librarian explaining her life to death and a revelation toward the end. As characters go they're okay but not really memorable. With such a common plot I needed something more special to make it stand out for me and for that reason I can't recommend hunting it down. Though if you find it someday as you're reading an anthology then you won't be disappointed if you read it.