Monday, July 19, 2010

Aaron's Take on the 2010 Hugo Nominees :: NOVELETTES

Eros, Philia, AgapeBest novelette is the most difficult category for me to rank this year. I find three of the nominees outstanding——the Eugie Foster, Rachel Swirsky, and Peter Watts stories——and have trouble selecting between them. The good news is I will be happy if any of them wins the award.

After much deliberation, my top ranking goes to Rachel Swirsky's "Eros, Philia, Agape." It is arguably not quite so ambitious as the Foster and Watts stories, but the execution is flawless. The protagonist of "Eros, Philia, Agape" acquires a male robot programmed to develop a personality that conforms to all her desires, yet somehow this proves not enough for a lasting relationship. I recommended this story when it first appeared, and I stand by my assessment that it is a wonderfully subtle meditation on universal issues about identity and love and marriage and family and parenting.

My second choice by the narrowest of margins is "Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast" by Eugie Foster. This is a beautifully written story built on an intriguing premise, a world where each person puts on a different mask every morning and subsumes herself within the role that mask represents. The whole society is thus comprised of individuals lacking, or at least unaware of, individual personalities. Not surprisingly, our protagonist(s) ends up questioning this way of life, but Foster's resolution of the story was not entirely satisfying to me.

"The Island" by Peter Watts is perhaps the most intellectually fascinating of the nominees, combining a provocative first contact scenario with the politics on a starship engaged in an eons-long journey to construct wormholes for interstellar travel. But it didn't grab me emotionally as the Swirsky and Foster stories did. Watts is not entirely successful at conveying his protagonist's despair, and he waits far too long to reveal important things that she knew or should have known much earlier.

"Overtime" by Charles Stross is a Christmas entry in Stross' Laundry series, in which superspies battle Lovecraftian horrors despite the constraints of their Dilbertesque bureaucracy. Their high tech office includes, for instance, a rotary phone, because "the NDO's office budget was misfiled years ago and nobody knows the correct code to requisition new supplies." This is an entertaining story that does everything it sets out to do, but is just not as memorable as the previous three nominees.

Nicola Griffith's "It Takes Two" is an engrossing story. Griffith does a wonderful job of putting the reader into the skin of a woman falling in love. Add to that the tension from the reader's suspicion that something is not right about this love affair, and the first half of the story works very well. Unfortunately, we then find out what's not right, and the story abruptly stops working. There is no believable reason for the protagonist to have agreed to the elaborate procedure described, and her stated reason for agreeing (she didn't want to feel uncomfortable going to a strip club) is so flat-out preposterous that the whole story falls to pieces.

Finally, Paul Cornell's "One of Our Bastards Is Missing" is an inoffensive SF locked room mystery, involving a strange disappearance at the wedding of a British princess. There is nothing wrong with this story but neither is there anything award-worthy about it. I can only assume it made the ballot thanks to a certain segment of fans (you know the ones——they talk funny and they nominated every eligible episode of Doctor Who) who are fascinated with the royal family.

Aaron's Ballot for Best Novelette
1. Rachel Swirsky - Eros, Philia, Agape
2. Eugie Foster - Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast
3. Peter Watts - The Island
4. Charles Stross - Overtime
5. Nicola Griffith - It Takes Two
6. Paul Cornell - One of Our Bastards Is Missing

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Aaron's Take on the 2010 Hugo Nominees :: DRAMATIC PRESENTATION, SHORT FORM

A grassroots effort to turn the Dramatic Presentation, Short Form category into "Best Doctor Who Episode" was thwarted by the fact that only three Doctor Who episodes were released last year. I'm not sure it was necessary to nominate all three, but at least they are good examples of the form, and the two non-Doctor nominees are strong enough to make this a solid list overall.

Let's dispose of the Doctor first. To my tastes the best of the three nominated episodes is "The Waters of Mars," in which the Doctor encounters a body-snatching alien life form. Its appearance comes at a critical moment in history, and for once the Doctor is convinced he should not interfere. His frustration at being unable to help lends an effective "Cold Equations" feel to the episode, and it is appropriate that the action he finally takes does not turn out as intended.

"The Next Doctor" is also a strong episode. The identity of the "next doctor" makes a nice mystery, although Russell Davies made the right choice in not waiting until the end of the show to reveal the answer. The episode has some strong dramatic moments, despite a disjointed story and the actors hamming it up in typical Who fashion. The King of the Cybermen strolling through 1850's London is an effective ending image, but then Doctor Who was doing steampunk long before it was cool.

Less successful is "Planet of the Dead," which features a nonsensical plot, beginning with perhaps the most egregious example yet of the Doctor just happening to be there when bizarre stuff happens——naturally, he'll be riding the one bus in the history of London to be pulled through a wormhole——and ending with no explanation of why this swarm of nasty critters should open a wormhole to attack Earth but then wait exactly as long as the Doctor required before trying to zip through the hole. Meanwhile, the interaction between the Doctor and wannabe companion Lady de Souza feels forced.

"No More Good Days," the premier episode of FlashForward, combines an interesting premise (thanks to Robert Saywer) with good acting and nice effects. David Goyer's direction is intrusive at times, for example circling the camera around conversing characters until the viewer's head swims, but by the end he managed to build up the tension nicely. This was a solid opener to the series, but we have learned recently that Hollywood TV introduces SF plotlines far better than it resolves them.

By far my favorite of the nominees is "Epitaph One," the made-for-DVD final episode of Season One of Dollhouse. I watched Dollhouse from the outset, and like many viewers I felt the show got off to a slow start and was borderline offensive in its easy acceptance of the deeply immoral technology involved, which it treated initially as just a fun way to produce great prostitutes. Thankfully, by the end of Season One Joss Whedon made it clear that the main storyline would be Echo's struggle to retain her identity and defeat the evil minds behind the Dollhouse. "Epitaph One" showed us how much is at stake, with a glimpse of a future where Dollhouse technology has destroyed civilization. I found the episode gripping in itself, and also a huge step forward for the show, although the second season did not quite deliver on that promise.

Incidentally, because the character of Echo is offstage through nearly all of "Epitaph One," Eliza Dushku's detractors may vote for it with a clear conscience. I'm actually of the minority view that Dushku's acting was a strength of Dollhouse. She was not entirely convincing in all of the different roles Echo assumed, but then it was important to the show that she not be entirely convincing. However Echo was imprinted, we needed to see flashes of the same core personality, a core personality that was confused and uncertain. Perhaps this is a case like William Shatner in the original Star Trek, where an actor's flaws are happily well-suited to the character (I haven't seen enough of Dushku's work to say), but I thought she pulled that off perfectly.

"Epitaph One" was the strongest episode of a show that, despite its flaws, was the best SF on television in 2009.

Aaron's Ballot for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form
1. Dollhouse, "Epitaph One"
2. Doctor Who, "The Waters of Mars"
3. FlashForward, "No More Good Days"
4. Doctor Who, "The Next Doctor"
5. Doctor Who, "Planet of the Dead"

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Aaron's Take on the 2010 Hugo Nominees :: GRAPHIC NOVELS

I am no expert on graphic novels, but the point of including this category in the Hugo Awards is to highlight graphic works that should appeal to readers of prose science fiction and fantasy. So as a devoted SF/F prose reader, here is my take on the graphic novel (er, "graphic story") Hugo nominees.

By far the strongest of the five nominees to me is Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? This is a wonderful tribute to the character of Batman, a fitting end to DC's run of sequentially numbered Batman comic books. I'm sure to a long-time Batman fan the tribute comes across even more powerfully, as Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert have deliberately patterned sections of the story after various Batman creators of old. Even ignoring how this volume riffs on the history of Batman, it is a delightful book for its meditation on the significance of any old, oft-repeated tale. It is such a beautifully written story, I suspect most fans could identify it as the work of Neil Gaiman even if his name were left off the cover.

One reason I don't read more graphic novels is that I have long since tired of the superhero concept, in just the way I have tired of vampire stories. So there could hardly be a worse combination for me than Captain Britain and MI13: Vampire State, a graphic novel in which a group of superheroes battle Dracula and other vampires. Yet I found it impossible not to enjoy this book. Writer Paul Cornell crafted a strong storyline with many nice touches, such as the opening image of Dracula on the moon, dragging his boot across Neil Armstrong's footprint. I love how Cornell conveys the characters' Britishness, even including a long flashback to a superheroes' game of cricket. The tale is easy enough to follow despite the large extent of backstory built in, and the artwork by Leonard Kirk and several others is wonderfully vivid.

By all reports, and judging by its multiple Eisner Awards, Bill Willingham's Fables, peopled by a huge cast of reimagined storybook characters, has been one of the most inventive series of the past several years. After several books focused on the struggle against the "Adversary," the current Hugo nominee, Volume 12: The Dark Ages, begins a different story arc and introduces a new villain. This volume is somewhat lacking in drama, since the new conflict remains far from resolution by the end, but there are still plenty of clever moments. I particularly enjoyed the appearance of Fritz Leiber's characters Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.

The highlight of Girl Genius: Agatha Heterodyne and the Heirs of the Storm is the striking artwork by Phil Foglio (with lush colors by Cheyenne Wright). It's a good thing the book has such strong visual appeal, because the story ranges from jumbled to incoherent. I'm at a disadvantage for not having read all the previous volumes, but I'm hard pressed to see how anyone could care about the dense layers of background information that come into play. The humor is hit-or-miss, for me more miss than hit, although I admit I laughed out loud a couple times. A final strike against this is the abrupt "to-be-continued" ending.

Howard Tayler's Schlock Mercenary is a long-running webcomic, done in the newspaper style, with a punchline at the end of each strip. Like most comic strips, I find the humor erratic. (The only daily comics that ever struck me as consistently funny were Bloom County and Calvin and Hobbes, so my standards are admittedly rather high.) While the volume of Schlock Mercenary nominated for last year's Hugo Award had some funny moments, I'm sorry to say the new edition, subtitled The Longshoreman of the Apocalypse, did not make me laugh. That doesn't leave much to hold interest, for the story is routine at best (our mercenary heroes deliver a shipment of food to a space station) and takes far too long to develop.

Aaron's Ballot for Best Graphic Story
1. Neil Gaiman, Andy Kubert & Scott Williams - Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?
2. Paul Cornell, Leonard Kirk & Mike Collins, et al. - Captain Britain and MI13: Vampire State
3. Bill Willingham & Mark Buckingham, et al. - Fables: The Dark Ages
4. Kaja & Phil Foglio & Cheyenne Wright - Girl Genius: Agatha Heterodyne and the Heirs of the Storm
5. Howard Tayler - Schlock Mercenary: The Longshoreman of the Apocalypse