Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

Antarctica, Bare-Faced Messiah

Sunday, October 10th, 2004

Neither of these books quite qualifies as science fiction, but they’re close enough for reviewing purposes. I picked up Antarctica by Kim Stanley Robinson for research purposes only. As an introduction to what can be done in near-future Antarctica fiction it was useful; as a novel it left something to be desired.

I was expecting to hate the characters as much as I grew to hate the immortal cast of the Mars trilogy, so when they started out sympathetic and intriguing, I was pleasantly surprised. The novel was fuzzy around the edges, though; I couldn’t tell when this near future was supposed to be happening. No dates were given and it seemed too near in general. The voices confused me as well: multiple characters would use idiosyncratic capitalized expressions like “Ice Planet” and “Götterdämmerung,” or carry on untagged dialogues, making it hard to distinguish between people.

The politics and feng shui weren’t sufficiently integrated into the plot, so whole chapters had a telling-not-showing feel to them. If it were me, I wouldn’t have introduced the ecoterrorists so early on in the novel; I would have let their depredations develop as more of a mystery. Instead of being the climax of the mystery, the man-against-nature results fill out the middle section of the novel. The end is devoted to politics.

That, also might have been more interesting had there been any conflict, but as this raving review points out, Antarctica is utopian in theme. There are no bad guys, so it’s not clear why any political wrangling is necessary. Even the ecoteurs turn out to be good guys who didn’t want to hurt any people in their ecotage. The bad corporations and politicians never appear, so there’s no real conflict after the man-against-ice resolution.

Even though I like feng shui and a lot of the politics involved, the presentation just wasn’t exciting enough for me. I have to agree with Steven Silver’s review that Antarctica works better as a travelogue than as a novel.

Bare-Faced Messiah is an on-line biography of L. Ron Hubbard I’ve been reading in fits and starts for a long time. It just ended at Hubbard’s mysterious death. I recall some wild speculation on the topic of his death from other anti-Scientology sites, so I was both impressed and disappointed with the mild ending of Bare-Faced Messiah. Truth is stranger than theology in this case (and that’s saying a lot when Scientology is involved).

Lost Horizon

Monday, October 4th, 2004

To amuse me while I amused the cat I’ve been catsitting (not Veronica’s extra-large Kitty, but Dr. Deb’s extra-small Siamese), I watched the restored version of the 1937 Frank Capra film Lost Horizon on DVD. The Film Site has a spoiler-filled review, but suffice it to say that this is a standard utopian tale in which everyone is good and happy merely because everyone is good and happy, and the answer to all the obvious objections Our Hero raises is a naive “why?” from Our Heroine.

But it’s pretty for 1937, and Our Hero (Robert Conway, played by Ronald Colman) manages to enliven the dull talky parts with his awestruck gazing and general sense of wonder. The action scenes at the beginning and end were also helpful.

The alternate ending wasn’t a big change, but one of the other DVD features described the original framing sequence and the experience of filming at 24°F in a huge refrigerator (because Capra wanted to see the actors’ breath). One thing I didn’t learn from the extras was that Our Spunky Supporting Actress was supposed to be dying of consumption. A little coughing and six months to live says lung cancer to me.

Lost Horizon was not a success, and is remembered today mainly for its stupendous budget and the loss of the original print due to our oppressive copyright laws. It was based on the book of the same name by James Hilton, which is remembered mainly for allegedly being the first paperback ever published (Ballantine, 1939?). It’s still in print.

The Keep

Friday, October 1st, 2004

The Keep is the Alien vs. Predator of horror: Nazis vs. Vampires. I wanted to read something by F. Paul Wilson, and this was one of the few on the library shelf that wasn’t a sequel to something else. I don’t want to give away the ending, but suffice it to say that it strays into Highlander territory when the mystery of the eponymous keep is finally explained.

On the plus side, it was a page turner and a quick read. On the minus side, one of the main threads of the novel is the alleged gradual corruption of a main character by the nameless evil which dwelleth in the keep, and it failed. Yes, the character got corrupted, but the process wasn’t gradual enough for me to catch it. Somewhere near the end of the novel, uncorrupted character A says to uncorrupted character B see how so-and-so was slowly corrupted by the nameless evil which dwelleth in the keep? and B replies yeah, tragic that. (I’m paraphrasing here.) The corruption wasn’t sufficiently distinct from stupidity for such an important plot point.

Also on the minus side is the Nameless Red-Haired Man who dwelleth nowhere. I call him the Nameless Red-Haired Man because the author referred to him constantly as the red-haired man. Why he didn’t go with ‘redhead’ and give him a pseudonym earlier on is beyond me. Nameless spends much time approaching the keep, then hanging around the keep, without ever becoming a full-fledged character. Of all the cast he is the least fleshed-out, even though it’s clear from his first appearance that he’s a main character.

Our Heroine got the most fleshing-out, although she was also a stereotypical good guy in certain ways. Her attitude was both too Victorian and too modern for her background, but she overcame those handicaps by having plenty of specific characteristics and feelings. Her father and the two German officers also did well, especially in the beginning.

Overall, I’d say that the author was working at cross purposes with the supernatural horror. It wasn’t clear whether the Nameless Evil killing Nazis was all that evil, whether it was supernatural or natural, whether it represented Evil or Chaos, and why Chaos was worse than Non-Chaos. I was interested by the story, but I wasn’t horrified. I’ll have to try a medical thriller of his next time.

I, Robot

Tuesday, September 21st, 2004

Jay Severin thinks Bush will win the debates just because expectations for him are so low that all he needs to do is show up and speak English for people to think he did well. On the other hand, Kerry needs to pull off a miracle to win this election, so the bar is so high that an excellent yet non-supernatural performance from him will seem like a disappointment.

I, Robot was kind of like that. I’d heard only bad things about it, but Dr. Deb insisted on seeing the robo-action on the big screen. I walked into the matinee expecting Plan 9 from Outer Space and I got a movie that, while almost entirely unrelated to the source material, was still moderately entertaining.

It goes like this: Detective Spooner (Will Smith) of the Chicago Police Department is the only person on Earth who doesn’t like robots. You’d think there would be more of a Luddite movement going on if robots are taking people’s jobs away, but no, it’s just him. Later in the movie we find out why he has this grudge; for an angsty, misunderstood cop, he’s a funny and well-developed character.

One of Det. Spooner’s character quirks is his passion for relics from the year (you guessed it) 2004. While appropriately reactionary, this personality trait led to confusion in the opening scene, where Det. Spooner is in his 2004-style apartment with its turn-of-the-century furniture, wearing his turn-of-the-century clothing, and waking up to the buzz of a turn-of-the-century alarm clock. I’d challenge the reader to decorate her apartment completely and flawlessly in the style of 30 years ago, on a policeman’s salary.

Once he goes outside we see the robots and the self-steering cars, but when he visits other people’s homes (the victim’s, the love interest’s) they don’t have appreciably more tech than Our Luddite Hero. The overall feel is that of 2004 with robots and fast cars.

That’s a minor point beside the tired plot of a conspiracy that only Our Hero knows about, cares about, and is willing to stop. The paranoia is straight out of Minority Report. Some actual Asimov content about the three laws relieves the monotony, and the Scientist Babe has some nice scenes with Our Robot. The sequence of events at the end, however, didn’t make much sense plot-wise, nor did I buy the solution to the murder mystery.

The big offense against Asimov is the Luddism, but it plays well in Poughkeepsie. Imagine the challenge of getting the audience behind Asimov’s pro-robot views. I, Robot was what it had to be, under the laws of Hollywood. Rent, do not buy.

Timescape, Ilium

Monday, September 13th, 2004

Pippin of the day: a soldier of Gondor

I’ve been reading mostly short fiction lately, but I got around to a couple of novels. Timescape by Gregory Benford seemed like a good idea at the time—a story about scientists from two different eras. In 1962, a Jewish researcher deals with strange perturbations in his experimental data while trying to understand his native Californian girlfriend. In 1998 (the book was written in 1980) a team of British physicists tries to extract grant money from a world government more concerned about imminent environmental collapse than hypothetical tachyons.

Except for the killer plankton, that’s about the sum total of the science in Timescape. The rest of the novel alternates between Our Hippie Hero’s relationship problems and the sexual escapades of a future Brit bureaucrat. In fact, the main pastime of scientists and their (stay-at-home) wives in 1998 seems to be adultery. The one female scientist I recall was a lesbian. Toss in the Armageddon by Plankton and the predictive power of Timescape approaches zero—not very reassuring in a time-travel novel (of sorts). I’m not sure whether this is a mainstream novel dressed up with tachyons, or a sci-fi novella with 300 pages of characterization tacked on. Either way, you get the picture.

Dan Simmons’ Ilium was the only Hugo nominee I hadn’t read, and now I’ve remedied the situation. Although Nicholas Whyte and Locus rated it first, I was disappointed by the lack of an ending. Paladin of Souls is also part of a series, but a freestanding part. I see now why it won over this book. Ilium left me hanging at the foot of Mt. Olympus.

It was a wild ride, though. Ilium follows the adventures of three sets of characters: several intelligent robots from Jupiter’s moons, a scholar resurrected by the Greek gods to check the progress of the Trojan war against the account in the Iliad, and a group of young eloi—useless, decadent humans—living on Earth. The robots eventually join up with a set of humans, but the other two plots never come together. It’s like reading two entirely separate novels shuffled together into one 575 page volume, and only one of them has anything like an ending.

Here’s another review along the same lines. It’s a fun read and hard to put down, but I wouldn’t recommend starting Ilium until you have your hands on the sequel.

[Update:] I forgot to mention my big nitpick of Ilium. The following are facts related to reproduction on the future Earth:

  1. A lecherous main character is concerned that his cousin may not want to sleep with him because of antiquated incest taboos.
  2. Each woman can reproduce only once.
  3. There is no incest between brothers and sisters because no one has brothers or sisters.
  4. There may be incest between fathers and daughters because no one knows who their father is. They do know their mothers.
  5. The natives believe their population is (artificially) fixed at one million people, though later in the novel this estimate is revised.
  6. Things have been this way for a long time now—to the characters, it seems that they’ve always been this way.

These facts contradict each other in several ways. The two characters cannot be full cousins if no one has any siblings. They could be half-siblings on the father’s side or the half-cousin descendants of such half-siblings, but they would not know it because paternity is not tracked.

Also, the population cannot be fixed at any number, either the original 1,000,000 or the later estimate, because the rate of reproduction (one child per woman) is far below the replacement rate. The number of fertile women would be halved in every generation. That the population is in geometric decline fits the plot of the novel, but the characters don’t seem to realize it. They may be clueless eloi, but that kind of population loss would be hard to miss after several generations.

The Return of the King III.a

Monday, September 6th, 2004

I’ve reviewed the movie The Return of the King two and a half times already—once for the first time I saw it and noted all the plot problems, once for my second viewing where I appreciated the scenery, and half a time when I discussed M. Garcia’s opinion that heroic fantasy is becoming unfilmable.

I saw the movie again tonight; I think it was the final Noreascon event, though the con officially ended at 3pm. Some of the major plot changes still bothered me, especially Theoden’s “what has Gondor done for me lately?” line, the absence of Sam’s moment of decision over Frodo’s jaundiced body, and Denethor’s overdone insanity. I also had problems with Jackson’s horror style in the flaming palantir scene, the rotting, glowing green Dead scenes, and the unexplained pillar of light over Minas Morgul.

On the other hand, I thought Shelob was great. The “As you know, Smeagol” scene between Slinker and Stinker (Gollum’s two personalities) amused me as infodump, and I thought Gollum came off very well. I’ve heard that Elijah Wood can act, so I’m transferring blame for the failure of Frodo as a character from the pretty face to the script and the director.

But the little glimpses of the unfilmable heroic fantasy that wormed their way into the movie outweighed all the problems. Theoden’s “Death!” speech and Aragorn’s “not this day” speech are lovely. Even Gandalf’s speech to Pippin about heaven (which, in the LotR universe, he’s actually seen) is nice, mainly because those lines were stolen from an actual description of the way to Aman. Mainly, though, what appeals to me is the fighting and dying for a hopeless cause; the world is coming to an end and honorable men (not to mention the occasional honorable shieldmaiden and shield-hobbit) go out there and fight the overwhelming hordes of orcs and trolls and oliphaunts despite the futility of the endeavor. In fact, the Rohirrim seem to be enjoying it because it’s hopeless.

Hope is for wimps.

A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords

Thursday, August 5th, 2004

Security fence of the day: A question of neighbors

A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin is another example of the super-novel form that I’ve tried to name before. Although I’m still fond of novelitis, it’s too derogatory for this particular example of Novels Gone Wild. Let’s go with n-ology, or nology, to indicate that I don’t know how many volumes A Song of Ice and Fire will be in the end.

So far it goes like this: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, with A Feast for Crows expected out in hardcover any month now (and the check is in the mail). Those are just the names you need to know to find the books; they aren’t particularly meaningful divisions of the greater nology. (I didn’t realize it was called A Song of Ice and Fire until I heard someone else refer to it that way.)

For example, in the prologue to A Game of Thrones, we see some nasty cold things, definitely folks on the Ice side of the nology. They play no further role in the novel, make a guest appearance or two in A Clash of Kings, and don’t really get freezing until A Storm of Swords. Although ostensibly main characters die in every installment, they don’t do it picturesquely at the end of the book. In fact, I couldn’t tell you now where one book ended and the next began. A Song of Ice and Fire is more of a medieval soap opera (in a good way) than a typical fantasy quest-for-plot-coupons. Each chapter is named for the character whose perspective it follows. By the time the nology is 8 or 10 books long, the surviving characters will have had a whole novel of their own, in installments.

Unlike the perpetually annoying Otherland books, each chapter of A Song of Ice and Fire is relatively freestanding and cliffhanger-free. The intervening chapters aren’t spoiled by the reader’s desperate need to find out whether so-and-so survived his or her last chapter.

So how can I mean “soap opera” in a good way? The chapters are episodic, so reading the books is like watching a TV show about GRRM’s fantasy world. That’s not surprising for someone who was in TV before he started this nology. What is strange is how well it works, whether because of or despite the structure I can’t really say. The characters, action, and background are all wonderful. I usually can’t bear fantasy, but I loved this one.

Nor am I alone in my appreciation. A Song of Ice and Fire was at the very top of The Internet Top 100 SF/Fantasy List the last time it was compiled, right above Lord of the Rings. If you only read one 3,000+ word nology this year, make it A Song of Ice and Fire. You won’t be sorry you stayed up all night reading.

The Village

Monday, August 2nd, 2004

I’m a huge M. Night Shyamalan fan, so I enjoyed “The Village,” but I also understand why it’s getting mixed reviews. I saw it with Dr. Deb, who loved it, but I was torn for most of the movie. I’ll try to keep the spoilers down, though I’ll need a few to make my point. Please see the movie before reading any further.


Stalking the Wild Hugo

Monday, July 5th, 2004

My brief review of “Walk in Silence” by Catherine Asaro was linked as a dissenting positive opinion in Nicholas Whyte’s roundup of the 2004 Hugo Nominees. I’d tell you to vote early, vote often, but it’s too late to register to vote now.

[Update: It was too late for nominations a while back. I’m not sure about voting.]

The Prisoner of Azkaban

Sunday, June 13th, 2004

Warning: spoilers ahead.
Note: this is a wallaby-free zone.

Veronica has been found, so we went to see Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Thursday night. As I’d expected, the movie was visually stunning but a bit weak on the plot side. Since I’m pretty much the only one in the blogiverse who hasn’t read the book, I’ll be tossing spoilers right and left. Don’t make me say I warned you…

I can see why people say this movie is darker than the previous two, but I wouldn’t put it that way myself. I would have said that the Potterverse is getting more unjust. This is a separate moral inadequacy from the one I noted in The Sorcerer’s Stone and HP as Star Wars - Harry is still a problematic character, but he’s overshadowed now by a problematic society.

The movie begins with Harry being excessively cruel to his aunt - the proper response to snark is snark, not helium. It’s understandable as a spell of passion, but even in his post-meditation Harry has no regrets. Maybe he’s never regretted abusing his abusive guardians, but now that his power over them so obviously exceeds theirs over him he seems out of control - and yet the magical authorities are surprisingly disinterested in this offense.

Next up we have the discombobulators (pardon me for munging the technobabble), who try to suck the life out of Harry at every opportunity. The trouble here is that they’re supposed to be helping the good guys. Instead they’re a nightmare of quis custodiet ipsos custodes? With friends like these… but more on them later.

Hermione is clearly up to no good being in two places at once, even before she goes for Draco’s throat and nose. But breaking the laws of physics is a minor offense in the new lawless Potterverse. I’m more interested in the cruelty to hippogriffs. Poor Mr. Ed did nothing wrong - certainly he did no more damage to Draco than Hermione’s right hook, and with more provocation - so why the death sentence? Why the exceedingly baroque reprieve, in lieu of simple justice?

Next in the hit parade, Harry takes down Snape for no good reason, indirectly allowing the escape of Bubonic Pete. At this point I suppose he has good reason not to expect a fair hearing for godpapa from Dumbledore, Slayer of Innocent Beasts, but he doesn’t handle the situation any better himself. By the time the moon comes out - oops - the whole situation has degenerated into farce…

…relieved only by the return of the discombobulators, in force. Again I have to ask, what use are guards who attack only the good guys? What kind of people would hire them to watch a school full of defenseless children? And who uses vicious demonic creatures to carry out cruel and unusual death sentences on criminals…

…never mind on innocent men? The most disturbing bit of PoA is that godpapa has been locked up for twelve years with the discombobulators despite his innocence, and even though Dumbledore knows it he’s sentenced to death by discombobulation. The great Oz needs a couple of children with a souped-up pocket watch to set an innocent man free - another exceedingly baroque reprieve - and even then his name isn’t cleared. He and Mr. Ed are fugitives from injustice.

If this is the wizarding world, Harry was better off with his inflatable guardians. Better life under a staircase than Azkaban. I’ll have to read the book to see if the world is really supposed to be this out-of-whack. Someday.