Visions of Paradise

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Red Mars

Continuing my dipping into books by my favorite authors, an occasional trend I began about a year ago with Robert Silverberg (Phases of the Moon), Roger Zelazny (Four For Tomorrow), Clifford D. Simak (Strangers in the Universe) and C.J. Cherryh (Finity’s End, Sunfall), now takes me to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, which I first read in the mid-1990s.

There are several similarities between the fiction of Robinson and that of C.J. Cherryh, especially her Union-Alliance novels. Both write deliberate, detailed examinations of people living in a situation different from what they are used to. Both consider the political implications of events, and their plots are generally event-driven. There are major differences as well. Their settings are worlds apart (literally). Robinson rarely strays far from Earth, his Mars stories being about as far as he tends to go (until he bravely took Galileo to Jupiter in his latest novel Galileo’s Dream, and I’ve read that his next trilogy will be a space opera), while Cherryh wanders far from the solar system. She also tends to analyze human-alien interaction, while Robinson is content to explore how humans interact with each other. But while their means may differ, their intent is fairly similar: analyzing how people deal with difficult adjustments.

Red Mars is the first book in a trilogy which details fairly precisely how humans might colonize and terraform their nearest neighboring planet. It begins with the first hundred colonists, who become media stars as their long flight and settlement are broadcast across Earth on an almost-daily basis. So while viewers on Earth see an ongoing reality show, we readers see almost constant bickering among the hand-picked hundred. They were chosen for a combination of scientific expertise and the ability to subjugate their personal feelings toward the common goal. While the former might have been done successfully, the latter was a total failure, as their differing views, goals and personalities bring them into almost total opposition, so that bickering becomes more common than compromise.

The unofficial leaders of the group are Frank, a consummate politician from the United States contingent, and Maya, an emotional leader from the Russian group. Other dominant colonists are:

· John, who was the first astronaut to visit the red planet, and whose decades-long celebrity has given him considerable influence among the colonists;
· Ann, a rigid proponent of not terraforming Mars, but maintaining its pristine condition;
· Sax, the scientific leader of the colonists, who devises most of the ideas for terraforming Mars;
· Hiraku, the head of the gardens providing the colonists with food, who forms a cult of followers who ultimately flee the settlement to live hidden away in the Arean wilderness;
· Arkady, a “wild card” who almost from the beginning of the flight advocates vociferously the colonists’ need to ignore the United Nations’ demands and become an independent society.

Much of the first third of the novel takes place during the flight, when the hundred colonists plan their settlement while bickering constantly. Once they reach the planet, things improve somewhat as different groups head off in different directions to do their colonizing, exploring, and terraforming. Things worsen though as the UN begins sending additional colonists, so that tensions between groups become inevitable, and sabotage against the terraforming starts taking place, including at least one attempt on the life of John, the most visible proponent of terraforming.

John is the main character in the middle-third of the novel, as he rushes from settlement to settlement handling disputes and pushing the goal of terraforming Mars. After his assassination—which is revealed in the first chapter of the book—Frank becomes the viewpoint character as he deals with the growing difficulties of out-of-control immigration with no master plan for the assimilation of so many people, as well as increased interference in the affairs of Mars by multi-national corporations(the transnationals). In spite of Frank's efforts, conditions are getting worse and worse until the rebellion starts, as colonists attack transnationals, UN police attack settlers, and the whole planet is on the verge of exploding.

Red Mars is a strong novel equally-divided between political and human-interest concerns. I selected it as my book-of-the-year in 1992, and I see no reason to change that high opinion of the book upon this latest reading of it.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951 version)

Another 1950s sf movie…

Having enjoyed Forbidden Planet so much, I dug into my slim collection of dvd’s for The Day The Earth Stood Still, another classic sf movie from the 1950s (definitely not the recent remake starring Keanu Reeves; the trailers I saw for it gave all indications of its being another chase thriller based so loosely on the source material as to be another I, Robot debacle).

In case you have never seen the original, a flying saucer lands in Washington D.C. with two occupants: Klaatu, an alien played in a low-key but effective manner by Michael Rennie; and Gort, his giant, indestructible robot companion. The reaction caused on Earth by their appearance is as expected, and one of the soldiers surrounding the landing site almost immediately shoots Klaatu in the hand.

Klaatu is taken to a hospital for treatment, but he heals almost miraculously overnight. It is obvious to the viewer and to Klaatu that he is being kept in the hospital as a prisoner moreso than for his health’s sake, but he decides he wishes to observe humans more closely. So he escapes from the hospital—and wisely, this scene is not shown, it is merely assumed that Klaatu’s advanced technology somehow helped him escape without being sighted by the guards outside his locked door—and takes a room at a local boarding house under the guise of “Mr. Carpenter.” This is the part of the movie requiring some suspension of belief, since apparently none of the newspapers or media have shown any pictures of Klaatu’s face, so nobody at the boarding house recognizes him at all.

The majority of the movie involves three aspects: first, the interactions between Klaatu and two other members of the boarding house community, a young single mom and her son who becomes attached to Klaatu almost immediately; second, the military’s intensified pursuit of Klaatu, deciding of their volition (and apparently without any government approval) that killing him is as good as capturing him alive; and third, Klaatu’s meeting with the world’s leading scientist (played by Sam Jaffe bearing an uncanny resemblance to Albert Einstein) to arrange a meeting between Klaatu and the world’s leading scientists to discuss his purpose in coming to Earth.

As I have indicated, there are several weaknesses in the movie, but they are minor compared to the effectiveness of the bulk of it. Do not watch it expecting any special effects though; it was made on a visual level below that of Forbidden Planet and the early 60s sf show The Outer Limits. But the story is effective nevertheless, never resorting to the type of chase scenes that ruin so many other science fiction movies. And the ending is truly chilling and thought-provoking, and nowadays might be the basis for a series of truly inferior sequels.

Good viewing. Occasionally curiosity makes me consider watching the remake, but my better sense and those “thrilling” preview scenes prevent me from doing so, probably thankfully on my part.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Some comments on the Hugo Awards...

I’ve never been the type of blogger who fears putting my foot in my mouth, so here are my thoughts on the recent Hugo Awards:

Best Novel: The City and the City and The Windup Girl were easily the two most acclaimed novels of 2009, so it is nice to see them tie for the award. Of course, while I have both novels on my computer, compliments of Aussiecon, I have not yet read either one, so whether I feel they actually represent the best of the year is an opinion which must be delayed awhile.

Best Novella: I had expected that Kage Baker’s popularity, combined with her recent death, would have been enough to push “The Women of Nell Gwynne’s” over the top in this category. I was not too surprised that, with Baker not winning, the always-popular Charles Stross won the award. I have had a problem getting into Stross’ fiction though, finding it so packed with ideas that the story and characters seemed to get lost beneath the sturm und drang. Of course, much of my opinion comes from a few stories, mostly in the Accelerando sequence, so perhaps I should try some of his less-frantic fiction sometime.

Best Novella: Peter Watts’ “The Island” might have been the best novelette of 2009, but would it have been if Watts had not been mistreated and arrested by the U.S. custom police? While I can appreciate much of the anti-American fervor sweeping the world, I wonder if it is at least partly responsible for Watts’ win in this category.

Best Short Story: I had expected Kij Johnson’s “Spar” to win this category, so I was surprised that relative unknown Will McIntosh’s “Bridesicle” beat her out. An unknown generally only wins a major category when it really is the best story at its length that year. I wonder if McIntosh would have beaten out Mike Resnick though had the worldcon been held on Resnick’s home turf of America? When the worldcon is held on foreign turf, the winners tend to be less “same ol’ same ol’” and more truly representative of the best of the year. My feeling is that this is due to the huge size of American-held worldcons, many of the attendees being either fringe-fans or media fans who vote as much on name recognition of the nominees as they do on quality.

There were several winners which, at least in my opinion, were overwhelming favorites in their categories: This Is Me, Jack Vance! (Best Related Book), Girl Genius (Best Graphic Story), Doctor Who (Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form), Ellen Datlow (Best Editor, Short Form), Shaun Tan (Best Artist), and Brad Foster (Best Fan Artist). All of them were deserving winners and should not elicit too much hand-wringing in fandom.

Frederik Pohl winning Best Fan Writer is guaranteed to cause controversy though. The main contention here seems to be that a major professional should not be eligible in a fan category, but there is precedent. Jack Gaughan won Best Professional Artist and Best Fan Artist the same year in 1967! Of course, he was drawing both for prozines and for fanzines, so who could argue his eligibility for both awards (although I do not necessarily agree with his deserving the Best Professional Artist that year). Assuming one accepts Fred Pohl as a fan writer, his blog is one of the better ones, although not necessarily better than the body of work by the other nominees in this category. So I guess the main question here is did Pohl win due to the quality of his blog, or the quality of his professional writing?

I was very disappointed that StarshipSofa won Best Fanzine, since I do not see anything resembling a “zine” about it. I have no problem with it being online exclusively, especially since that is the direction fanzines are headed anyway. But audio presentations are a different breed altogether from fanzines. However, I was pleased that Clarkesworld won Best Semi-Prozine, since it is a very good outlet for original science fiction and deserves to be read by more fans.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Sunfall (The Collected Short Fiction of C.J. Cherryh, part one)

Sunfall was originally published in 1981 as a collection of stories showing life in six great cities as Earth’s sun nears the end of its life. This premise has been used previously, most famously by Jack Vance, but Cherryh is neither interested in magic nor frivolity, concerning herself with an incisive look at the people who might be living in those ending days.

The book was republished in 2004 as part of the omnibus The Collected Short Fiction of C.J. Cherryh, which included the complete Sunfall (with the addition of one more city Venice), her general collection Visible Light, (from 1986) and an additional 300+ formerly uncollected pages. Cherryh is one of my favorite writers, and her stories are nearly all detailed studies of people struggling to cope with difficult situations. They are generally well-plotted, and the characters always progress in one direction or another, often ending in carefully-paced thrillers.

Sunfall differs slightly form a typical Cherryh story, being more poetic as it deals with the aura and feeling of each city as it nears the end of its long existence. The first city is Paris in “The Only Death in the City,” where most people are reincarnated endlessly, renewing their former lives each time. Thus two men Pertito and Legran have hated each other for centuries, and end up fighting and killing each other every reincarnation. But Alain is a newborn, a rarity in Paris, trying to live among all the ancients who have lived for centuries at least, perhaps even millennia. He falls in love with another teenage girl who actually is the reincarnation of one of the oldest people in Paris. She is amused by his passionate love, but has no interest in such a youngster. Still he pesters her until she agrees to four years of love followed by his death, presumably to be reincarnated again. Until Death herself takes an interest in the couple, and when Death takes one’s life no reincarnation is possible.

“The Haunted Tower” (London) tells the story of the mistress of the Lord Mayor of a future London, who has somehow offended him and is imprisoned in the Tower of London. She believes she will regain the mayor’s affection when he speaks to her again, but she begins doubting herself when she receives nightly visitations from the ghosts of former inhabitants of the tower, such as the two princes, Anne Boleyn and the Earl of Essex. This story builds to a suspenseful climax, which is totally unexpected and very well-done. This is one of Cherry’s finest pieces of short fiction.

“Ice” (Moscow) is one of Cherryh’s most poetic stories, strongly reminiscent of the short fiction of Roger Zelazny. It concerns a hunter who is one of the few people who ventures outside the gates of the city into the endless snowstorms to capture food for Moscow’s residents. He enjoys his work until a pack of wolves begin stalking him, endangering his life and making his occupation seemingly impossible.

“Highliner” (New York) tells about teams of people who do repairs outside the immense skyscraper which has become the entire city. One team is approached by a mysterious man who offers them a bribe to overlook certain structural deficiencies in the building. Reluctantly, they agree, but soon afterwards they find themselves trapped outside the city as one-by-one their lines are cut and they fall to their death. This is a crime story, with an unexpected conclusion which I found very satisfactory.

“The General” (Peking, since the book was published before the western world began using the pinyinization Beijing) is based on the historical Mongolian hordes which swept out of northeast Asia and conquered China as part of its overall conquest of much of Asia and Europe. The general is old and as he weakens physically, so does his hold on the various tribes under his command. As his horde nears the walled Forbidden City, he struggles with his army as the inhabitants of the city prepare for the invasion.

“Nightgame” (Rome) was both the shortest and weakest story in the book, a minor misstep in what was otherwise a superb one-author theme anthology which never lost sight of either the overarching theme or the fact that each story must be a complete tale in itself.

Anybody who reads Sunfall as part of The Collected Short Fiction of C.J. Cherryh got a seventh story “MasKs” (Venice) as part of the collection, and it is definitely a worthwhile novella set during carnevale about the power struggle between a young doge who came from the middle class and an aristocrat from Verona who wishes to overthrow him. The story is told from the point of view of the intended bride of the aristocrat who falls in love with a mysterious stranger whose identity remains hidden behind the masks of carnevale. While the ending is a bit pat, the story itself is as fine characterization as Cherryh has ever written.

For the sake of reading “MasKs”, I recommend you buy The Collected Short Fiction of C.J. Cherryh, whose further review will be continued...