Thursday, June 4, 2009

2009 Hugo Nominees - Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

It's John Picacio's turn to be showcased as a nominee for best professional artist:

In this case that's a scan from my copy of the magazine; unlike the other artists I've shown so far his website hasn't been updated since 2005.

So getting to the dramatic presentation nominees:

METAtropolis; written by Elizabeth Bear, Jay Lake, Tobias Buckell and Karl Schroeder; edited by John Scalzi - I'm getting this one out of the way first because it's the one that I haven't heard. In this case it's an anthology that was designed for being an audiobook. There is a printed version available but the audiobook is what has been nominated so I have not read it. On top of that it is only available as a download; a CD release is scheduled for just after the awards have been handed out. I don't buy media if I can't have a physical copy it so I won't be listening to METAtropolis for a while.

WALL-E; story by Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter; screenplay by Andrew Stanton and Jim Reardon; directed by Andrew Stanton - I just reviewed this as a Nebula winner and my thoughts have not changed. It's brilliant. A richer story more subtly told than you'd be able to guess just from the premise.

Iron Man; screenplay by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway; based on characters created by Stan Lee, Don Heck, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby; directed by Jon Favreau - I also kind of reviewed Iron Man already, though that wasn't much of a review since it was about how flawed the structure of the film was. I did not like this movie about an weapons manufacturer who turns altruistic after recieving a near-fatal injury and so builds a suit of power armor to bully third world nations. The action set peices were far too few and weren't interesting; when I'm watching an action movie I'll forgive flaws in all other areas than this since they're the reason the movie exists. I also found the main character to be completely unlikable.

The Dark Knight; story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer; screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan; based on characters "created" by Bob Kane; directed by Christopher Nolan - I didn't review The Dark Knight because for two weeks after it was open you couldn't look at a website run by a nerd without being told how brilliant it is. I didn't need to add my voice to that. In this sequel (for the three of you who don't know about it) the Batman is still fighting crime in Gotham City and providing an inspiration but now the Joker has turned up intent on spreading chaos and tearing humanity down. This film is very effective mainly due to how Nolan split the hero and villain between morality and amorality instead of just immorality. Giving the villain equal time built him into an equal and the action set pieces were many and varied. It was the ideal superhero movie.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army; story by Guillermo del Toro and Mike Mignola; screenplay by Guillermo del Toro; based on the comic by Mike Mignola; directed by Guillermo del Toro - I found the first Hellboy movie to be a good effort but critically flawed in the pacing. A close but no cigar situation. This time around the pacing has improved, the art design has been pushed from "interesting" to "spectacular", but the story (which was never great to begin with) leaks out. The film is about a group of unusual beings who work for the US government to deal with supernatural threats. This time the threat is a group of elves who are seeking out an indestructable clockwork army so they can wipe out humanity. I enjoyed watching the film; the goofy characters are a lot of fun and the supernatural elements are terrific. I just something with a better plot.

So my ballot for this category would be:

The Dark Knight
Hellboy II
No Award
Iron Man

Deciding between WALL-E and The Dark Knight was hard but I felt that WALL-E was the better production. METAtropolis is at the bottom solely because I have not listened to it and I won't be able to revise that opinion until after the award has already been handed out.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Review - "Da Vinci Rising", "Lifeboat on a Burning Sea", and "A Birthday"

Before I say anything else I need to point out that my absence for the past few days did not have anything to do with the fact that one of the Nebula winning stories being reviewed has a tragic connection to an event recently in the news. That's just one of those coincidences that color life.

"Da Vinci Rising"
by Jack Dann
1996 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

Instead of remaining on the drawing board Leonardo with the assistance of a young Niccolo Machiavelli build a glider to impress the rulers of their city. After a nearly disastrous first test where Leonardo finds out that it's easier to go up than to land safely the artist and engineer becomes obsessed with making it safe while Machiavelli and the Medicis push for other applications.

I've got to get this out of the way first. In my copy there is an introduction by Dann where he mentions the vast research that he did on Leonardo da Vinci's life. Somehow he managed to miss one of the big things that drive historians nuts: "da Vinci" was not Leonardo's last name. Vinci was the town he was from so "Leonardo da Vinci" means "Leonardo from Vinci". It's not a family name or title. If you ever want a ten minute diatribe out of a historian just call him "da Vinci" and stand back.

So despite Dann missing that detail this is an interesting historical story. There's still a lot of name dropping and throwing out irrelevant factoids but it never becomes overwhelming. Once you're past the opening where all the major historical figures in Florence at the time were thrown into the mix things improve dramatically. Dann focuses in on the development of a flying machine given renaissance technology and a distractable genius and that was an effective story.

On the other hand I didn't really get a feeling for the characters beyond their broad historical roles. Leonardo is brilliant but prone to flights of fancy. Machiavelli is a conniving social climber (not entirely fair to Machiavelli, of course, but that is most people's perceptions). Relying on the weight of history for characterization is not effective.

Consequently I'm left with a slightly negative impression of "Da Vinci Rising". If you're interested in the period or Leonardo then you'll probably find more in this story to enjoy. Without that connection there isn't anything in it to draw a reader in.

"Lifeboat on a Burning Sea"
by Bruce Holland Rogers
1996 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

A pair of researchers are looking into developing machine intelligence to the point where it can replicate human intelligence. One is desperately seeking a means for immortality while the other is seeking knowledge. Despite the fact that they play off each other for research their spiritual beliefs bring them into conflict. When the knowledge seeker dies the other is pushed into creating a computer simulation of him and finds some anomalies.

Rogers does a great job of establishing the tension in the philosophies of the main characters: one who feels he is racing death itself in order to find a way to transfer his mind to a computer and the other who believes in an immortal soul that cannot be contained in this way. Its a classic scenario and it plays out very well because there are not even hints of something beyond the philosophical arguments. There are no ghosts or indications that the computerized copy is more or less than what it is presented as since those would disrupt the theme.

I did have a problem with some of the characterization in the last portion of the story. It felt to me that Rogers wanted (to continue this theme) a philosophical ending and consequently some of the motivations get muddied. This isn't really a problem with the story since it is one of those messy situations that life can get into, it's just that I think that the concepts could have been presented more clearly.

What Rogers does really well with his story is bring those arguments about minds and souls into simulations. It's not unique but he told it very well and for that reason I think "Lifeboat on a Burning Sea" is worth reading.

"A Birthday"
by Esther M. Friesner
1996 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

In the not too distant future the conflict between pro-choice and pro-life with abortion is effectively over. A law was passed that made abortion available to women who wanted it but when they had an abortion a recording of the genetic code of the fetus was made. Once that was done for the next seven years the women would be confronted by images of the child they never had on any digital screen they used. One woman is on the last day of this sentence and she spends it helping at a women's center where she encounters many facets of the consequences to this.

The idea that the two sides of the abortion debate could come to an accord is a huge stretch. Setting aside religion for the moment (which is difficult to do given how it entrenched it is on one side) you have the question of when a fetus transitions into a human being weighed against the question of when is it acceptable to restrict self-determination and it is impossible to resolve those two cleanly (I expect that the abortion debate will be with us for a long time to come). Still I'll accept it as the premise of the story and Friesner does a great job of making that the only major assumption. Human beings are still human beings; twisted up and conflicted despite the accord.

The story obviously exists to explore the details of this world though in this case Friesner emphasizes the personal story of the woman seeing the child who has haunted her for the last time over the talking with all of the people who have been impacted by abortions. Friesner keeps it personal and that's the best way to deal with a story that is really about the setting.

This isn't a perfect story; it might still be a bit too exposition heavy for some. I think that Friesner managed to overcome that problem and write a story that manages to show the qualities and flaws in both sides of the argument. I've read far too many stories along these lines that can only demonize the side that the author disagrees with and while I think I've felt out Friesner's actual opinion I wouldn't bet money on it. That makes "A Birthday" a mix that could anger any reader and that makes it a bit more interesting.