Thursday, April 26, 2007

Space Opera

A couple of coworkers tried to recruit me into their opera club the other day.
A bunch of the staff and volunteers at the office get together every time a new opera comes to town and have a potluck supper followed by a discussion about the particular feature they’re about to head out to see. The idea is to revel in their specific cultural passion and to try to “enlighten” non-opera fans (and thus swell their ranks).
I declined the invitation.
While I have the highest respect for this form of music, it’s just not something I enjoy much. Certainly I do enjoy the instrumentals of operas, but the singing doesn’t do anything for me. I think it’s an acquired taste – and one that’s still fairly bitter to me.
The fact that the office types haven’t given up in their attempts to convert me (this recent “invitation” was, in fact, their fourth attempt – and it should be noted this recent invitation was actually repeated about three times over the course of two days) has caused me to begin to view them (affectionately though) as a type of cultural Borg – attempting to assimilate all consciousnesses in the office into their collective in an attempt to achieve perfection in musical appreciation and potluck supper variety. They differ significantly in that they haven’t arrived at the office in a huge cube or sphere – yet.
That’s got me to thinking about instances where opera has popped up in sci-fi/fantasy/horror TV and movies. This is not to be confused with operas that have used speculative fiction as their inspiration (such as “Dracula” or “1984” – Wikipedia’s got a whole list of them, and one that’s by no means complete – hasn’t “the Lord of the Rings” been turned into an opera?) – I’m talking about television shows or film in the genre(s) which have made effective use of opera as part of their soundtracks or the focal point of scenes. Even though I don’t enjoy the singing component, I can appreciate how its use can enhance a scene.
Non-genre examples come to mind easily: “Philadelphia”, “Glory” and “The Untouchables” to name but a few.
But speculative fiction TV/film examples are a little harder to find (references to opera in written sci-fi, fantasy & horror are legion).
It goes without saying that the various incarnations of “The Phantom of the Opera” feature this particular art form at some point.
There’s the scene near the beginning of “Star Trek: First Contact” where opera rattles the portholes as Picard broods over his recent visions of the afore-mentioned Borg just before Riker enters.
“Deep Space Nine” in its final years featured regular references to, and examples of, opera – though the decidedly unpleasant Klingon variety. And I think it was mentioned on “Voyager” from time to time.
There were a couple of points in “Conan the Barbarian” where opera is employed quite powerfully.
We hear references to and see the ruins of (and full-blown hallucinations of an intact version of) the opera house in the capital city of Kobol on the new Battlestar Galactica (though opera itself is not used in the show’s score to my recollection).
Don’t the new brides belt out a bar or two at the end of “Young Frankenstein”?
Can we classify that weird singing/spherical swimming performance in “Star Wars – Episode III Revenge of the Sith” in the scene where Chancellor Palpatine dangles the possibility of discovering the secret of preventing death in front of Anakin Skywalker as a type of opera?
Was opera featured as background music in a scene or two of “Serenity” or “Children of Men”? I can’t quite remember.
Beyond that, nothing much comes to mind in film or TV.
That being said, the disturbing thought has begun to take root that if I can appreciate – and even enjoy – the use of opera to enhance a scene in sci-fi/fantasy/horror TV and film, then perhaps, just perhaps, there is a tiny, deliberately unrecognized, part of me that does, in fact, enjoy it. (shudder) I won’t be buying tickets to see the Tenors anytime soon, but maybe this means there’s the possibility I might join the office opera club for supper one night sometime down the road.
Resistance is futile.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Science Fiction Slapshots

Finally coming to rest on the couch Monday night after hopping around the living room in the hometeam-just-got-a-big-win-in-the-playoffs-ecstacy, I got to thinking about science fiction stories.
Strange, I know. There’s little apparent connection between the Vancouver Canucks’ 4-1 victory over the Dallas Stars in game 7 of their first round Stanley Cup playoff series (my hats off to fans in Texas, though – as much as I want Trevor Lindon and what’s affectionately been called in some quarters of the Lower Mainland “half of Finland’s Olympic hockey team” to take the cup, the Stars played one hell of a series and in some games deserved to win a lot more than our inconsistent Canucks did) and speculative fiction. I admit, it’s quite a leap. But for someone who’s passion is first and foremost sci-fi, and the national pastime of the True North a distant third (after good food), that leap is natural.
Flushed with a hockey-high, I got to thinking about how many Canadian SF authors practice their stickhandling with The Game, and while it’s not a theme you see in every story in every magazine or anthology, hockey does get mentioned once in a while.
The one that comes most readily to mind is Phil “The Mallet” Voyd’s heartfelt, funny and intense “Jonny B” (from On Spec’s Winter 2000 edition). It’s a first-person yarn of a regular guy who excels at one thing: Shinny – pick-up games on local outdoor rinks, Armed with his Edmonton Oilers Gretzky jersey, our hero finds himself facing-off against more than just the neighbours out for a little winter fun or an ex-minor-leaguer or NHLer remembering his glory days. No, this time it’s the devil himself, and it’ll be a frosty day in hell before he lets a weekend warrior get the best of him, unless our hero can make him lose his cool.
Another story worth checking out, also concerning the fascination denizens of other planes might have with a sheet of ice, a stick and a puck, is Marissa K. Lingen’s “Carter Hull Recovers the Puck” from On Spec’s Spring 2006 edition.
I could probably rattle a few more off the roster, but it’s getting late and tomorrow’s Game 1 of the Canucks second round series against the Anaheim Ducks. Who knows, if you listen really hard, you might hear, over the roar of the crowd, over the crunch of players against the boards, over the slap of a stick against the puck, the sound of a writer out there putting pen to paper as the game gives rise to new legends.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Pizza Con?

Who’d have thought dinner at a pizza parlour on a Saturday night would be like attending a science fiction convention? I certainly never did – at least, I never thought it was something that could happen by chance. But it did this past weekend.
My wife had come out to meet me at an event in Burnaby early in the evening as I was packing up a display table I’d been manning for the non-profit agency I work for. We decided to amble over to Me-n-Ed’s Pizza for a late dinner. The evening proceeded normally enough: we took a booth over by the windows, we shared a Caesar salad, my wife ordered her usual - a small roast garlic & smoked salmon pizza, I bellied up to a large gangster pizza (I know what you’re thinking and you might as well stop now – I may be portly, but I sure can’t finish a large pie by myself in one sitting – I’m not quite that much of a glutton – yet – I’ve gotta have leftovers for lunch the next day!) accompanied by a frosty bottle of rootbeer (ever since I was a kid, I’ve always felt a quality pizza needs a good rootbeer to truly get down into your soul and make you feel happy).
That’s when it happened.
We were talking about which of this summer’s roster of popcorn sci-fi and fantasy flicks we wanted to see when something a few tables over, I can’t remember what, caught our attention. Just as we were chuckling over some of the latest internet gossip about the movie “Fanboys”, something made us look over at a table of guys who looked, well, just like the characters from the “Fanboys” promo. And, true to appearances, they were talking about sci-fi movies and comics. The topic, if I remember correctly, was their collective opinion about what they perceived as an unwritten rule that “the main character can’t die”. Sure, it’s an assertion that I’d probably disagree with (I can think of at least half a dozen sci-fi films off the top of my head where the protagonist does, in fact, shuffle off his/her mortal coil by the time the curtain falls), but it’s the fact that our fellow geeks were chatting about SF movies, not four metres away from us, at the same time we were that was a bit of an odd coincidence.
Reaching for the hot chili flakes, we changed the conversation to books – a review of Cory Doctorow’s “Overclocked”.
But that wasn’t all.
Oh no, a one-off like that, in and of itself, would be a bit weird, but not entirely surprising. I can remember moseying down Broadway one night into Memphis Blues for some ribs, chatting about an episode of the new Battlestar Galactica, when, as we waited by the door for a seat, we overheard a nearby table of eight discussing the misadventures of Admiral Adama & co.
No, this night at the old pizza parlour was a threefer… About 15 minutes later, two big guys came in the front door - one of them a dead-ringer for Blues Traveler lead singer/harmonica player Jon Popper (minus the sideburns and the ammo bandolier loaded with harmonicas) – and grabbed a table about five metres away, pulling out a couple of Magic decks for a quiet game as they waited to order their dinner.
What was it that, without apparent rhyme or reason, attracted three groups of sci-fi fans to the same pizza parlour and caused us all to sit in the same section within a couple of tables of each other? It was like some weird version of Highlander, except with pizzas and fanboy talk instead of swords and Sean Connery and headhunting, where something inexplicable drew us to the same spot. It was like going to a con, where each table was a different room with a different discussion or activity. It was fun, in its weirdly unexpected way. Probably worth dining-in at the pizza parlour more often instead of just getting take-out.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Bradbury Garners Pulitzer Citation

The Pulitzer Board has awarded a special citation to Ray Bradbury.
The boys at SF Signal posted the news on today’s SF Tidbits list.
For its part, the Pulitzer site says the recognition is:

“…for his distinguished, prolific and deeply influential career as an unmatched author of science fiction and fantasy.”

At the time of this posting, there’s been no comment yet from the venerable master on his official site.

Bradbury certainly deserves this honour. I’ve enthused about his imagination, his heart and his style many times before on this blog, so I won’t go into it again except to say that Ray Bradbury is one of the greatest storytellers in the English language of our time and it’s a treat to crack open each new book he offers.
This announcement couldn’t have come at a better time for Bradbury either. Michael McCarty’s interview with the author for Sci Fi Weekly’s interviews page notes there are two new books coming out this year. Gauntlet Press is releasing “Match To Flame: The Fictional Paths to Fahrenheit 451” and “Somewhere a Band is Playing”. Definitely looking forward to those.
So let’s look back on this “deeply influential career”…
As I’ve said before, my favourite Bradbury novel is “The Halloween Tree”. Best short story collection I think would have to be a three-way tie between “The Martian Chronicles” (pretty much a given), “From the Dust Returned” and “Quicker than the Eye”. Favourite short story: probably the one from “Quicker than the Eye” about the time traveler who visits the giants of English language literature on their deathbeds to reassure them that their lives and works have meaning and lasting value. Unfortunately I can’t recall the story’s name off the top of my head and I just happen to have loaned the book to a friend. I guess the old word of advice about never loaning books is really true, ‘cause now I don’t have it when I need a quote/fact check!
And now it’s your turn.
What’s your favourite Ray Bradbury novel, collection or short story? Which chunky, delicious Bradburian turn of phrase captured the exactness of a moment or feeling or thing to you? Which one of his tales made you weep or laugh or shake in horror or sit back and wonder? Send me a note and share with the rest of us how this great magician of the language has left his mark on you.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Someone Should Have Yelled "Cut!" On "The Reaping"

Sometimes you go to see a movie as a favour to someone else because they want some company. And when it’s a favour, it’s very often because your gut’s telling you ahead of time (based on previews and whatever buzz you’ve soaked up) that for whatever reason, this flick is gonna be a disappointment. To be sure, you can be surprised and enjoy your cinematic experience. But even if you’re instincts are right and the movie is a stinker, there’s no joy in telling the other person “I told ya so” because you’ve voluntarily wasted an hour-and-a-half to two hours of your life (and possibly some cash for the ticket and snacks) by going along. Last weekend was just such an occasion. My wife asked me to see the new Hillary Swank movie “The Reaping” with her, and sure enough, my gut was right: the best part of that show was the stale popcorn I sucked back waiting for the flick to end.
“The Reaping” is so unoriginal it’s not even worth talking about all of its flaws in detail because you’ve already seen all of its elements at some point or other. Combine your favourite (or at least the first that comes to mind ‘cause it’s hard to find one good enough to call a “favourite”) one of each of the following cliché suspense/horror movie categories: satanic cult, demon-child, pleasantly-bumpkinish-on-the-surface-but-in-fact-somewhat-creepy backwoods village, or world’s about to come to an end in a wash of hellish or vengeful heavenly fire – you’ll end up with “The Reaping”. If there’s a suspense/horror trope that’s been overused to the point of near irrelevance, this film will flog it a little more.
(And now for the totally unapologetic spoilers:) This is a movie so clichéd they even killed the sidekick black guy! You would have thought that being an intelligent scientist/investigator, this fellow would have said: “Hmmm. I’m knee-deep in a river of blood outside a town beset by biblical curses, with a reportedly evil child skipping through the bog somewhere just behind the next bush on her way back to her mom’s biker flop-house, the food’s rotten and maggoty, the cows are psychotic, later on I’ll be crawling around a ruined church and a mausoleum, and they’re asking me, a black guy, to spend the night in a dilapidated old Southern plantation house – on the uncomfortable hide-a-bed couch in the den no less! Something bad may just happen on this trip, and I think it may just happen to me. If you’ll excuse me, I’m taking the truck and going home. Best of luck, Hillary, and I’ll see you next semester (hopefully).” But, of course, that doesn’t happen.
Really though, I think the scariest thing about “The Reaping” isn’t all the hoary old tricks they use to try to make you jump in your seat, it’s the fact that the hereditary leader of the satanic cult that’s brought the wrath of god down on that forgotten hunk of bog is the town school’s science teacher. In an era where science seems to be held in suspicion by a frighteningly large number of Americans, I would worry that this turning away from rationality does not need to be reinforced by the movies – especially by one as bad as this. You might argue that the filmmakers did this on purpose to in some way satirize this apparent growing distrust of science, but I would caution that even if this is the case (and I’m not sure that it is) that too many people in the audience would have that distrust reinforced by the choice of the bad guy’s occupation, rather than see it for the intended satire. Will this film cause Americans to run into the street demanding that men of science be burned at the stake or that Galileo be re-excommunicated? No. But sociologists and psychologists have long warned that pop culture does have an effect on people’s perceptions, and this movie’s depiction of the town’s only scientifically educated person (someone who possesses what to the “simple” townsfolk must be arcane knowledge beyond their reach, and one who is a teacher and thus more powerful shaping the minds of the young) as someone with malicious intent, might at least subtly bolster the subconscious fears of some members of the audience.
Moreover, it isn’t Swank’s rationality or scientific knowledge that saves the day, it’s a leap of faith and trust in the ability of the almighty to shoot straight and hit the right target. Certainly not an original ending, nor one that will help turn the tide of suspicion of science that seems to be growing.
Why can’t science help the good guys win? I remember the climax of the 80’s animated movie “The Flight of Dragons”, where the hero counters the evil wizard’s summoning of various fell monsters with a roll-call of the sciences. What about the “Ghostbusters”, who used their “unlicensed nuclear accelerators” to blast a surly demi-god/100-foot-marshmallow-man back into “the nearest convenient parallel dimension”? What about “The X-Files”? Even though Mulder often followed his hunches and held a great store of faith in the existence of various critters of the unknown, it was always his cooperation with Scully, the doctor (read scientist), and their use of rationality and science that allowed them to uncover the truth, survive and, on occasion, triumph.
“The Reaping” could have shown some smarts and learned a lesson from “The X-Files” and maybe turned into a success. Instead, it put its faith in Hollywood horror clichés and failed utterly. If you really want to waste your time on this movie, be smart about it and wait until they show it on TV – at least then you won’t waste your money.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

"The Host" With The Most

Right from the beginning, when the buzz first started to come out of the film festival circuit and filter through the internet, there was something about the Korean horror movie “The Host” that intrigued me. In an era of flicks with armies of zombies, honked-off ghosts, demon-seed kids, and worse, the endless series of deplorable “Saw”-like productions obsessed with sadism for its own sake, here was a good old-fashioned mega monster movie.
How long has it been since a new version of the I-can’t-believe-you-didn’t-see-it-comin-it’s-so-friggen-huge, citizen-stompin’, military-mashin’, one-monster tornado movie? The last new one I can recall Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” remake in 2005. Bfore that, probably the ‘98 “Godzilla” remake starring Matthew Broderick but where Jean Reno stole the show complaining about the lack of croissants. If there’s been anything since then, I can’t remember it. Help me out here, folks, have there been any other building-bashin’-sized monster movies lately?
It’s as though movie industries around the world decided that this genre of film just wasn’t cool any more – that audiences wouldn’t appreciate it ‘cause it wasn’t scary and the potential to be lame was too high. It’s as though “King Kong” was a one-off allowed in deference to Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” clout more than an appreciation of cinematic history. It’s as though the genre almost died.
And then along came director Joon-ho Bong with “The Host”.
Just like those famous beasts that stomped across the silver screens of yesteryear, the mega monster genre has risen again (if only for now) with this Korean gem.
The film centres on a Seoul family that’s pretty much like gum stuck to the bottom of society’s shoe: The grandfather at the head of the clan is a former carouser now eking an existence out of his snack shack in the park with his stupid and sleepy oldest son. His daughter ought to be a gold-medal archer but lacks the confidence to fully realize her potential. The younger son is an unemployed university graduate. The sole redeeming member of the family is number-one son’s 12-year-old daughter, Hyun-seo, who alternates between the roles of parent and child. The family is thrown into turmoil when a gigantic creature leaps out of the near-by Han River and begins its rampage, mashing some victims underfoot and swallowing others. One of those who winds-up in the belly of the beast is young Hyun-seo. The catch is that this critter seems to have a fairly slow digestive process, and if a person isn’t killed in the initial gulp, there’s a chance they may still be alive when the monster decides it’s eaten too much and regurgitates some of the bodies later. The girl, vomited up with a couple of corpses in a pit in a sewer, does what any smart 21st century kid does and scavenges a cell phone to call for help. But while her family members attempt to pull themselves together for a rescue, they’re hampered by government officials who refuse to believe the girl is alive, and who claim that anyone who’s been near the creature is now infected with a mysterious illness that makes SARS look like a summer cold.
“The Host” has it all: “gotcha” moments of thrills that make you jump in your seat, brooding atmospheres, well-rounded and realistic characters that you can believe in and cheer and worry about, social and political commentary (and while plenty of this is overt, some is couched in image and metaphor and requires some thought – something that helps give this creature feature a bite), a nod to monster movies of the past (there’s a clear connection of tradition between the original “Gojira”/”Godzilla”, awakened by nuclear testing and sent on a path of destruction through Japan, and the pollution-spawned creature of ‘The Host” which savages Seoul’s riverfront – it’s merely an update of the zeitgeist fears – what horrors will man’s irresponsible tinkering unleash), and best of all, it’s absolutely hilarious. And that’s not because the movie mocks itself. Far from it, the plot stays in character the whole time. The humour comes from the humanity… from the bickering, the bitterness, the misunderstandings and the natural stupidity of people, even those in tense situations.
A lot of the gags come from the main characters, but it’s a treat to see what’s happening with the supporting cast. I certainly wouldn’t want to spoil any of the laughs, but some of the funniest moments involve what’s happening in the background. In fact, it’s this layering of activity that shows just how smart this movie is. You’ve gotta have a huge amount of respect for a director who deliberately gives scene-stealers (whether they’re laughs or moments of terror or sadness) to the tertiary actors and extras, and who, by extension, gives the audience quick insights into a larger world involving more than the protagonists who we’re with for the ride. This is a crucial part of the success of this movie.
So let “The Host” invite you into its world for a while. It’s certainly worth the full price of admission.

Friday, April 13, 2007

The Shape Of A Few Good Yarns - "Tesseracts Ten"

It doesn’t take much arm-twisting to get me to take a break from novels for a little while and dive into a short story collection or two. They’re a great way to get a quick fix of favourite authors, to sample up-and-comers and to detect the occasional poseur who’s made it through so you can avoid him/her if they somehow pull off a novel. And best of all, you get to see writers rising to a different set of challenges to their craft than novels pose: how to cobble together an intriguing plot, how to develop multi-dimensional characters we actually care about (flying in the face of the nonsense regularly spouted by high school English teachers that short stories are all about plot with lean to non-existent characterization), and how to pull this off in the confines of an editor’s word limit. It’s the mark of a successful anthology when most of the stories within it can pull this off. “Tesseracts Ten”, edited by Robert Charles Wilson and Edo van Belkom and published by EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy, rises to this challenge.
Veteran authors Wilson and van Belkom have assembled a group of 19 new Canadian writers offering various shadows of unsettling futures cast by the uncertainties of today. Wilson says it best in the opening segment of his introduction to the collection: “The going gets tough, and the thoughtful get nervous.”
The anthology gets off to a strong start with Scott Mackay’s “Threshold of Perception”, a cometary armageddon tale of faith amid ruin. And it’s the human focus to the story that makes it so great… where others might be tempted to go the disaster movie route and centre simply on the damage caused by the comet, Mackay makes his tale one of human beings challenging each other and themselves to look at reality in new ways. He skillfully paints us a picture of people dealing with these challenges in shades of Asimov’s famous “Nightfall” (both the short story and the collaborative novel with Robert Silverberg). I’ll also admit I really liked this as a kick-off story because I’m a sucker for a well-written alternate history.
The poem “Frankenstein’s Monster’s Wife’s Therapist”, second in the lineup, packs a solid punch that sent me reeling. Here’s an example of how effective and sharp a really short contribution can be to an anthology like this. This kind of selection is like an onomatopoeia in a comic book – if it doesn’t get your attention, then you weren’t really paying attention to begin with.
I also liked “Buttons” by Victoria Fisher (did Dickens’ Sydney Carton have a collection like this after his appointment with the guillotine in “A Tale of Two Cities”?), Mark Dachuk’s “Permission”, and Rhea Rose’ creepy take on how Spiderman could have turned out (if Peter Parker was a farm wife) in “Summer Silk”.
But every anthology has its weak links. In the ho-hum category were Allen Moore’s “Donovan’s Brain” and Jason Christie’s “Ideo Radio Poem”. And Scott Mackay, while scoring with a great opener, falls a bit short the second time around with “The Girl From Ipanema”, which should have ended sooner.
On the balance though, Robert Charles Wilson and Edo van Belkom’s “Tesseracts Ten” (really the 11th in the family – though I try to forget about “Tesseracts Q” with its tedious separatist sentiments) is an enjoyable and intelligent collection. It’s a worthy addition to the line begun 22 years ago under the careful hand of the late Judith Merril and mentored through its successive incarnations by powerhouses like Phyllis Gotlieb, Robert J. Sawyer and Nalo Hopkinson. For all the dark omens threatening to seep out of the pages of this book, van Belkom is correct when he points out at the close of his afterword essay that the remarkable variety of these tales shows a bright future for Canadian speculative fiction (and I would add, especially the tradition of writing fine short stories) with new authors such as these to nurture it. “…that child is coming of age and entering adulthood with its best and most fruitful years lying ahead with only the sky serving as the limit to their creativity and ambition.”

Thursday, April 12, 2007

An Empty Monkey House

Just got the word from Sci Fi Wire and SF Signal that author Kurt Vonnegut has died.
First impressions count for a lot, and that’s certainly been my experience with Vonnegut. The first tale of his that I ever read, and the one that sticks out the most in my mind for some reason, was his short story on an egalitarian nightmare “Harrison Bergeron”, from the collection “Welcome to the Monkey House” (originally published in “The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction” in October 1961). The story revolves around the life of the title character, a physical and intellectual superman in shackles to keep him at humanity’s common denominator (which in this story happens to be the lowest leveling of the playing field) and his eventual slipping of his bonds, obtaining his perfect mate and rising above the rabble. More than the caution of the perils of insuring that all people are equal, I think the theme in this story that stuck out most in my mind was that humanity’s own worst enemy can easily be itself, and in unexpected ways. In order to prevent individuals from dominating their peers or their country, the society depicted opts for stagnation. In trying to keep balance and prevent a fall in one direction, the pendulum has swung too far the other way.
Some of Vonnegut’s other well-known works include “Slaughterhouse-Five” and “Cat’s Cradle”.
Sci Fi Wire quotes the New York Times as reporting Vonnegut had suffered brain injuries as a result of a fall a few weeks ago. Kurt Vonnegut died in New York on April 10th at the age of 84.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Speculative Fiction At Work

You know it’s been a good day at the office when you’ve been able to have in-depth, intelligent discussions with coworkers about speculative fiction. Today was just such a day for me.
The lunchroom conversation ranged from literature to film, stuff with pop culture status as well as selections quite a bit more obscure. We browsed on Tolkien, David J. Lake’s short story “The Truth About Weena” (which I first encountered in the Australian SF anthology “Dreaming Down Under”) and its different take on the tale of H.G. Wells’ Time Traveler, “The Matrix”, Bradbury and “V for Vendetta”, to name just a few.
And what made the chat great was that it wasn’t just a tete-a-tete between myself and the other SF nut on staff – everyone had something to say. Some wanted to hear more about authors or films they hadn’t encountered before, and I picked up a few titles that I’m eager to look into. A very refreshing change from other workplaces where the cattle merely graze in silence, or where legitimate points made using speculative fiction examples are met with snobbery from literati poseurs. It’s been said many times before that you can learn a lot about your peers from what they read and what they watch, and I must say I learned quite a bit today.
A good day at the office, indeed. Somebody cue Bachman’s “Takin’ Care of Business”!

Choosing Among Favourites

Here’s a note I added to SF Signal’s discussion about a recent poll in SFX (a UK science fiction magazine) on the best science fiction film ever. The top three on the poll were Star Wars, Serenity, and Blade Runner, respectively. 2001 came in down in 8th place. It’s hard having to choose from among your favourites – especially when the list provided is by no means complete!

“In some ways, I think Star Wars vs Serenity is one of those apples vs oranges questions: they're very much different kinds of movies and shouldn't necessarily be on the same set of scales. The appeal of Star Wars (when it first came out) was very visceral - it dragged you onto the rollcoaster for an unapologetic popcorn romp and any subsequant metaphorical/intellectual dimensions are just that - afterthought. Serenity, on the other hand, despite the action and humour, is right from the get-go more of an intellectual picture. The characters are full-flushed (especially with the series' background) and the issues raised demand some thought. In any case, I think Star Wars and Serenity are really duking it out for third place. If we're talking about the best SF flicks ever, 2001 and Blade Runner have first and second place, respectively, in my books.”

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Working The Bugs Out Of "Eifelheim"

First of all, I’d like to apologize, folks, for the long gap since my last posting. I try to find something to babble about at least once a week, but things have been hectic for the past little while. My grandmother had a massive stroke two weeks ago and my wife and I, out here on the Wet Coast, had to grab a flight back to my hometown of Cambridge, Ontario to visit her in the hospital and to say goodbye. She’s still holding on and fighting to improve (the family doesn’t affectionately call her The Velvet Sledgehammer for nothing) and is fully aware, but the stroke has left her partially paralyzed and at 93 years old, you just never know. If I hadn’t gone back, I probably would’ve regretted it. Add to that a heavy workload at the office when I returned, and I haven’t had any time lately to indulge in the pleasure of logging on and spouting off.

But I’m back now, so let’s get to it.

A while ago I finished Michael Flynn’s “Eifelheim”. I know, I know, some of you are probably pointing out that this book’s been out for a few months, but I’ve got a ton of new books to plough through, and when there’s fresh servings of Dan Simmons and Minister Faust to be had, other stuff from author’s I haven’t read yet gets pushed to the side of the plate.
At any rate, when I did finally get around to it, “Eifelheim” wasn’t bad. Not great, mind you, but not bad.
Flynn’s story alternates between the events in a Medieval Black Forest village when an alien ship is wrecked nearby shortly before the onset of the plague, and the lives of an academic couple: he trying to unearth the history of the German hamlet, she wrestling with quantum mechanics. While intertwining the plot lines, the book also deals with how we form impressions of people based on limited information (whether it’s the personalities and motivations of individuals who lived in a town in another part of the world hundreds of years ago or the relationship a modern historian has with his research assistant), tolerance for that which is alien (be it an extraterrestrial, someone from a neighbouring village, a new and contradictory philosophy, or a different religion), and the way in which people face crisis and possible death.
Flynn does an excellent job of bringing to life the various characters in his village of Oberhochwald/Eifelheim. Normally, when one thinks of the peasantry of Europe in the Middle Ages, faceless, dirty, rude, dumb, drudgery comes to mind – probably because the education system spends more time on the exploits of nobles, conquerors, inventors and explorers or philosophers within or against the Catholic Church. And yet by flushing out the personalities of his various secondary characters, Flynn points out to those of us in modern times (who fancy ourselves as somehow unique and memorable when future generations will likely pass us over as we do the serfs and freeholders of 800 years ago) that these villages were populated with people who were as complex (or simple) as we: some that were intelligent (if uneducated), some who were narrow-minded, some who questioned the order of things, some committed to duty, the scoundrels, the dedicated workers, the healthy and the sick – all of whom had unique reactions to whatever life had to throw at them: from the joys of festivals to the horror of pestilence. What’s more, the author tries to make as many of the characters as multi-faceted as possible in order to make them believable. A prime example is Pastor Dietrich’s ward Theresia, who has a sweet personality and loves to hear stories and practice herb lore until the arrival of the alien Krenk, when her religious narrow-mindedness makes her quite hostile to them and the priest himself, but not to the other villagers who see things the way she does.
As for the insectoid Krenk themselves, Flynn falls a little short in trying to flush them out to the same degree as his human characters. To be fair, our experience of the Krenk is through the eyes of Dietrich (and thus limited by his Medieval mind’s education and perception of the universe), and is centred on the Krenk’s attempts to survive on Earth and interact with and understand their human neighbours. And yet I was left feeling that the author could have done more to give us a better sense of Krenk culture and what it is they miss about their home (except for vital nutrients to keep them alive or perhaps rarely-mentioned loved ones).
And while the present day plot lines were necessary to reflect some of the issues raised by the Medieval story, I thought this part of the story needed some more work. Sharon’s explorations of quantum mechanics added a hard SF flavour to the story, but one that was ultimately unnecessary (don’t get me wrong, I love a well-done hard SF yarn a-la Clarke or Sawyer – there was just no need for it in this book). I’d be tempted to call this hard SF afterthought a kind of mathsterbation. The novel would have lost nothing without it.
Also, the relationship issues raised between Sharon and Tom (and to some extent Judy) throughout the book are suddenly dropped at the end, leaving their portion of the story feeling somewhat flat and unsatisfying. It’s as though Flynn was suddenly rushed to finish his book and thought “Oh, if I deal with the spousal issues and love triangle possibility that I got into in the previous 290-odd pages, this book will get too long – I’d better just slam the door on it and concentrate on the Krenk stuff – then I can cap this sucker at 313 pages!” Or like the author suddenly got worried about having spousal relationship tale cooties infecting his alternate history tale and worried that if he didn’t drop that end of the story then it might supplant the alien focus of the book. Then again, maybe that was the editor’s call. I don’t know. But it seems fairly obvious that if you’re going to get into character subplots that detailed, even if you don’t tie-up their loose ends at the close of the book (because a pat ending would be equally unsatisfying), an author should make some effort to show that these concerns are still in some way weighing on his characters minds – that they’ve had some impact on the characters. Instead, Sharon seems to disappear once she’s had her scientific revelation while Tom happily goes cavorting around the Black Forest with the other woman giving us no sign as to whether this is going to be trouble.
That being said, don’t let the weaknesses of the modern plotline prevent you from enjoying “Eifelheim”. Overall, it’s certainly worth the read.