Monday, November 29, 2010

R.I.P. Leslie Nielsen

Sad news tonight that Canadian actor Leslie Nielsen has died. CBC is reporting Nielsen died in hospital in Florida after a battle with pneumonia.

His best-known connection to SF was for his role as Commander JJ Adams in the classic 1956 film Forbidden Planet. I think the first time I saw the movie was as a teen in the late 80's watching the late night Sci Fi Friday feature on KSTW out of Seattle. What struck me immediately was that it was a rare example of smart science fiction storytelling in 1950's cinema (although it had an advantage over most movies, working from the Bard's excellent source material), and it's one that I still enjoy watching (in fact I'm still kicking myself for not picking up a copy on DVD a couple of years ago when they released the anniversary edition). For his part, Nielsen did a good job of playing the typical square-jawed ship captain forced to deal with a deeply weird and extremely dangerous situation.

Nielsen had other SF gigs as well, including the early 50's TV series Tales of Tomorrow (never seen this one because I've never come across any reruns of it and haven't bothered to try to hunt it down online).

Mainstream audiences probably remember him best for his comedic roles of the past 30 years, including Airplane! and the Police Squad TV series and its successor Naked Gun movies. The Naked Gun flicks were pretty funny, but I also really enjoyed Nielsen as the 'shroom-fuelled Jedi master of curling in Paul Gross' Men with Brooms. Come to think of it, the only one of Nielsen's comedies that didn't make me laugh (surprisingly) was the Mel Brooks flop Dracula: Dead and Loving It. Overall though, Nielsen had a brilliant sense of timing, the ability to keep a straight face amidst the most ridiculous antics, and a twinkle in his eye that always promised more laughs.

His accolades include being made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2002, and stars on the Hollywood and the Canadian Walk of Fame.

Leslie Nielsen was 84.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

5 Long Years

At the end of November 2005, I launched bloginhood. The night was chill and damp and a typical impenetrable West Coast winter fog was oozing over everything in the Lower Mainland and I was reading Bradbury.

Five years later, in the deep of tonight, it's strangely cold (not the dry, skin-blackening, space-between-the-galaxies cold of the Prairies or the drenching, overwhelming, claw-at-your-bones cold of Eastern Canada) and snowflakes are gently but insistently stumbling out of the low-hanging orange sky and I'm reading Robert Charles Wilson's Darwinia.

In the time between, I've been babbling about this and that having to do with science fiction, fantasy, magic realism and everything else in between that makes up the grand, creaking, expanding, wonderful genre of SF; hopefully with some degree of consistency. Why? Because it's so much fun! All of the book, TV, and film critiques - the savaging of the bad, the gushing over the good and the grand shoulder-shrugging over the indifferent; the sharing of genre-related news tidbits; the meditations or rants on the genre in general or issues affecting it; the reports from the cons; the side projects like launching a short-lived sister blog or playing a small role on the editorial team of an online critical SF magazine in its dying days; the BSG set photos as the writers' strike forced the series into hiatus; the War of the Worlds rehash; the occasional privilege of taking part in discussions on the very cool SF Signal; the 365 Short Story Challenge; and the lists in all their varying lengths and entirely subjective content... all of it has been such a blast! SF is my first love and it's so great to be able to have a place to come and talk about it.

One of the best parts of the whole experience has been all of you. I'm kind of baffled that people bother coming to this site, but for whatever reason, I'm grateful that you do come because it's cool to know that other fans out there are thinking about some of the same books, shows, films, and issues - even if you're also thinking that I'm totally out to lunch in my assessment of them. Which, admittedly, I probably am. So here's a shout-out to all of you, fellow SF fans, to the folks in London and Dorchester and Manchester and Glasgow, in Madrid and Wiesbaden and Berlin, in Torino and Stockholm and Moscow, in New Delhi and Adelaide and Canberra, in Seoul and Urasoe and Osaka, in Sao Paulo and Bogota and Mexico City, in Seattle and San Francisco and Peoria and the Bronx and Houston, and of course here at home in Edmonton and Saskatoon and Kitchener and Toronto and Nepean and Laval and Halifax and Mount Pearl, and yes Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley and Courtenay and Kelowna and the rest of BC, and all of the very cool places in between. Thank you, one and all, for being part of the last five years.

I hope you'll all join me here for the next few years.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Review: The Space Opera Renaissance

I love speculative fiction anthologies. Whether they're historical retrospectives, cultural collections, awards anthologies, a year's best, an author's best, or highlights of a sub-genre, anthologies are the sampler platters that satisfy and educate SF appetites. They not only entertain and highlight the zeitgeist within the genre or larger culture, they frequently contain essays and introductions that provide valuable critical perspectives on their contents, the people who wrote them and the times when they were crafted. I owe my education in the classics of the Golden Age and New Wave to anthologies like Greenberg & Asimov's The Great SF Stories books and nowadays I find the best way to learn about what's happening in the genre around the world is to look for collections from particular countries, like Jack Dann's Dreaming anthologies of Australian SF (one of my biggest disappointments when travelling in Hong Kong this past spring was being unable to find any collections of HK/Chinese SF that had been translated and made available in English language bookstores). One of the highlights of VCon every October is being able to go to the Edge Publishing table in the dealers' room and pick up an advance copy of the year's Tesseracts anthology. The testament to how much I love anthologies is that every few years when I'm forced to go through my book collection and cull the herd to make room for new items, I never remove anything from the anthology shelf. Even the bad ones are kept.

The Space Opera Renaissance, edited by David G Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer is no exception. As a collection offering a perspective on the evolution of a major sub-genre, it's an important book that deserves to be kept, even if its contents are, on the balance, mediocre.

On the up side, TSOR is an enormous volume packed with a large selection of authors from Edmond Hamilton in 1929 on up to present day figures like Alastair Reynolds and Charles Stross. With a selection like this, you're pretty much guaranteed to find something you'll enjoy, whether it's an author/story you already know, or a new acquaintance. Some of my favourites include Leigh Brackett's Burroughsian adventure "The Enchantress of Venus", Cordwainer Smith's "The Game of Rat and Dragon" (read before but still enjoyed), "Orphans of the Helix" by Dan Simmons (a nice return to the Hyperion universe that I was pleased to read again), Allen Steele's "The Death of Captain Future", and "The Survivor" by Donald Kingsbury (something I'd read years ago when going through the Man-Kzin Wars books - a long one, but well worth the time). Many of the other stories included, at least in my opinion, were, if not great, good enough and worth reading. Some, like David Brin's "Temptation" or Iain M Banks' "A Gift from the Culture" weren't favourites, but grabbed me enough to make me interested in reading the Uplift (Brin) or Culture novels at some point.

In addition to the stories, Hartwell and Cramer offer well-researched and interesting commentary on the evolution of space opera from the "shit" of the early days (at least in terms of its reputation) to the current "shinola". Their introductions to each story offer not only the authors' bios, but opinion on the writers' impacts on the genre and where their tales stand in relation to it - either building space opera up along its classic lines or satirizing it or offering a more realistic interpretation. I also enjoyed reading, in the case of more recent authors, comments the editors solicited from the writers themselves for the purposes of this anthology. Great to hear the author's own take on their story's place within the genre.

On the down side, one of the anthology's greatest strengths is also its biggest weakness: in nearly a thousand pages, there are more than a few stories that tanked, and some of these were too long. Edmond Hamilton's "The Star Stealers" and Jack Williamson's "The Prince of Space" were prime examples of this. Others I found so tedious that (and I really hate to admit this), after suffering through a few pages I called it quits and skipped ahead to the next story. The one that comes most readily to mind here was David Weber's "Ms. Midshipwoman Harrington". Far too boring to justify nearly 80 pages (true, Kingsbury's "The Survivor" was pretty fat too, but at least it was an engaging story with that explored the relationship between cowardice, survival and adaptation, and played games with the reader about whether the protagonist was really all that sympathetic). The amount of stories that didn't work for me got to be enough of a problem that TWICE I put the book down to go off and read something else. Granted, to some extent this has to do with personal taste, but I'm sure I'm not the only reader who got bogged-down trying to get through this thing.

For a book of this bulk, Hartwell and Cramer should probably also have included more entries from the early days of space opera. While the title does describe it as the Renaissance of the sub-genre, rather than a complete history, it does span a period from the end of the 1920's all the way up to the early 21st Century, and thus does almost constitute a complete history of the genre. Why not include entries from some of the other early giants of space opera like EE "Doc" Smith, AE Van Vogt or John W Campbell?

That being said, while The Space Opera Renaissance didn't hit the ball out of the park, it is a comprehensive look at the sub-genre that's generally good enough to be worth adding to anyone's collection.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Pausing to Reflect on Remembrance Day

Today was Remembrance Day, marking the 92nd anniversary of the end of WWI, and a time when we pause and reflect on the sacrifices of those who fought in all of the wars and police actions and peacekeeping missions over the decades. Sacrifices that have made it possible for us to enjoy the freedoms we have today.

Look back through your family tree and you'll find names, and maybe even photos that go with them, of people who were soldiers, sailors, airmen, merchant marines, nurses and others who have served their country. Some of these people you may have known, others may be generations gone. If you're lucky, there are stories to go with the names and faces, because the stories are important. The stories make these people real - more than just names dates and faded photos. And when these stories help us really feel that these people were real, we more fully appreciate their sacrifices.

What does all of this have to do with this site's usual focus on SF? Nothing? Everything.

Because of the contributions of our veterans and war dead, we're able to freely express our opinions on the internet, even if those opinions are only about science fiction and fantasy. It's because we have these freedoms that authors and TV producers and film-makers can tell us all kinds of different stories that challenge not only our imaginations but our beliefs and politics.

It's also relevant because there's some pretty good SF out there that talks about the wars and peacekeeping. Here's a post from a few years ago where I've named a few stories on this theme that I enjoyed the most.

But most of all, regardless of this site's focus, it's important to highlight Remembrance Day because it's simply the right thing to do.

Lest we forget.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Radio Gaga - Listening to Canadia: 2056

A couple of weeks ago while on the CBC website, I stumbled on an ad for a radioplay that had been airing on Radio One that was surprisingly geeky: Canadia: 2056.

Not being a regular listener of the station, I'd missed the series' original run, so I hunted it down on iTunes and downloaded both seasons. I've been listening to a couple of episodes every night for the past little while and have just finished it. On the whole, Canadia: 2056 isn't bad.

As the title makes fairly clear, this science fiction-comedy is set in the year 2056, where the American government warns that the Earth is threatened by a hostile alien race, and builds a fleet of warships to pre-emptively destroy the enemy before they can leave their own world. Canada is the only other government that supports the US mission, and contributes a single vessel to assist the fleet: the Canadia. But you won't find this ship on the front line of battle - at least, not deliberately. Canadia is a maintenance ship - more to the point, the vessel and its crew specialize in unclogging toilets and various other small jobs like replacing lightbulbs.

The story opens with the crew of Canadia desperately trying to get the ship ready so it will be able to leave orbit with the rest of the fleet, when an unexpected new shipmate arrives. Midshipman Max Anderson is an American, son of a senior admiral who thinks her boy needs to man-up and that the best way to do that is to send him off to war - except, wanting to ensure that he'll get home safe, she assigns him to the Canadian maintenance ship, believing he'll be out of harm's way. Max initially has to put up with resentment, American jokes, and the awful realization that he'll be plunging toilets for the rest of the war. Having to deal with this new member of their crew are the Captain, a petty, egomaniacal, somewhat dim bureaucrat who's obsequious to his US Commanders only as long as the com system is on, then turns on a dime to grumble spitefully about them; the much put-upon First Officer Margaux Faverau who holds the crew together as she puts up with her bumbling captain and jokes about her heavy Quebecois accent; absent-minded old Doc Gaffney; and Amanda Lewis, the engineer who quickly develops a crush on Max.

Throughout their odyssey, Canadia's crew has to deal with everything from nutty AI's to American admirals that are either indifferent or overbearing cowboys, mysterious aliens to time travel, catastrophe to brains in jars, Canada-US relations and the stereotypes each country has of the other, government bureaucracy, and, of course, clogged toilets across the entire fleet.

In many ways, Canadia: 2056 feels a lot like the British TV series Red Dwarf. The crews are very much blue-collar workers going about duties utterly lacking in glory, and you get the sense that pretty much anyone from one series' ship would fit in well on the other vessel. Their misadventures tend to have the same feel too. The main difference is that the crew of the 'Dwarf is wiped-out in fairly short order, leaving Lister as the only living human, kept company by Holly, Cat, Rimmer, and later Kryten and Kochanski, while most of Canadia's gang manages to stay alive, more or less. In fact, I'm fairly certain that the creators of Canadia: 2056 are aware of, and probably intended, the parallels with the UK show, as evidenced by a couple of references in the radioplay to "the Jupiter Mining Corporation", which, as fans of "the short rouge one" know, was the name of the company that owned the Red Dwarf prior to her 3-million-year run into deep space.

There are plenty of nods to other SF works though. The afore-mentioned brain-in-the-jar has been used plenty, although every time it came up in Canadia: 2056, I couldn't help but think of the treatment it gets in Futurama (okay, admittedly, Groening's show uses entire heads in jars, rather than just brains, but you get the idea). Max's best buddy the robot is unapologetically R2D2. The series plays with post-apocalyptic survival a bit (take your pick of inspiration there), there's a time machine that's a half-assed cousin to Marty McFly or Austin Powers' rides, and there's an interfering, godlike alien straight outta Trek, among others.

Most of these references were worth a chuckle, but the first season's running joke with the Doctor and 2001: A Space Odyssey got really stale, really fast. I also thought the series ending was a little too The 13th Floor-ish. Parts of the conclusion were funny, but ultimately it was unsatisfying.

Is Canadia: 2056 worth spending $24 to download 24 half-hour episodes? Yes. I certainly would have preferred to listen to it for free when it aired on the radio, especially since CBC is funded by my tax dollars, but looking back at the original air dates and times, admittedly I would have been busy with other things anyway. But I don't regret paying for the download. It was funny enough when it needed to be and told a genuinely good story about some of the relationships among the crew.

I think it's also worth listening to as a way of supporting the dying art of radioplays. When's the last time you listened to one? Especially a radioplay that told a science fiction story, and in particular, one that was produced recently? I'll bet it's been a while, hasn't it? The last new ones, at least the last newly-produced ones with SF elements to them, that I can remember listening to were back when I was a kid in the 70's and early 80's. After that... nothing. Sure, there are rebroadcasts of Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre production of War of the Worlds, and the odd radio station here and there (like Rock101 here in Vancouver) will have a DJ who loves radio enough to convince the PD to let him do a classic radioplay show overnight once a week, but those are few and far between. As for the Mothercorp, CBC does a good job of maintaining the art form, but it's pretty rare for it to condescend to produce a radioplay as firmly rooted in the SF ghetto as Canadia: 2056 is. If you remember the better days of radio decades ago, when radioplays were still common, and if you want to experience a well-made one again, this program is worth while. If you're a younger SF fan and you've never listened to a radioplay, or have heard the old Welles cast and want more opportunities to listen to a story and create the pictures with your own imagination, I'd say this series is probably worth trying.

He Shoots, He Doesn't Score! - The Close of the NHL Superheroes Challenge

Well, Hallowe'en has come and gone, and with it my NHL Superheroes Challenge that offered fellow fans the chance to mock the surprisingly silly team-up between Stan Lee and the National Hockey League. And it was a bust. Not one person submitted a tongue-in-cheek superhero suggestion for their local (or favourite) hockey franchise.


Is it because there's too great a rift between comic/SF fanboys & fangirls and hockey fans?

Is it because comic/SF fans have too much loyalty to their NHL favourites to take potshots at their soon-to-be superhero avatars?

Is it because Stan Lee is too much of a sacred cow for anyone to criticize his comic creations, no matter how much the new ones are blatant marketing schemes for a sport that's big enough not to need them?

Is it because I was unable to offer any prizing for my corny little contest?

Is it because ultimately this challenge was just too weird and lame? I think this is probably most likely.

Ah well.

I'll still be keeping an eye on developments with the Guardian Project and passing them along. And when the time comes at the Allstars when these, er, heroes are finally revealed, I'll play the pointless supervillain and level the weapon of merciless criticism if they fall short.