Sunday, 25 October 2020

Hugo Cinema Club: The "No Award" of 1959

This blog post is the first in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.  

At the 1959 Hugo Awards, three movies that are still well-remembered today vied for the title of “Best
(Image via IMDB)

Hollywood Movie.” There was The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, in which Ray Harryhausen crafted the first of his mythology-inspired adventure movies; the influential off-kilter science fiction horror in The Fly (directed by Kurt Neumann); and Christopher Lee redefined the modern vampire in the Hammer Studios version of Dracula. It was an excellent shortlist.

In a decision that looks more and more curious in retrospect, none of these films were honoured, as Hugo voters chose to present no award.

At the time, this was not a controversial choice. In the fanzine Science Fiction Times, Belle C. Dietz describes that the vote to do so was overwhelming. Writing in Fanac, Dick Eney describes people cheering as they learned that no movie would be honoured that year. The long-standing beef that many fans had with how filmmakers outside of fandom had adapted their genre to the screen seems to have been in full force that year.

It’s a shame because each of these movies has a lot of strengths, and each show differing ways in which science fiction and fantasy cinema continued to evolve.

Of the three, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is the most visually compelling, but it’s also clearly the weakest in terms of storytelling and acting. The movie follows Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews) as he goes to Colossa Island, fights monsters, and gets involved in a magician’s subterfuge. The plot seems to exist mostly to take the viewer from one special effects sequence to the next, but those sequences are compelling enough to warrant a viewing.

In many ways, it is not a movie that has aged well: There are significant issues of cultural appropriation, of casting lilly-white actors to play Middle-Eastern protagonists, and the reinforcement of unfortunate
As visually impressive as any
movie made in the 1950s,
7th Voyage of Sinbad is
basically still just a kids movie.
 (Image via Classic Film)

cultural stereotypes. But the creature effects and the skeleton fight scene are epic. It pushed special effects forward so much that it was selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry.

Modern viewers are probably more familiar with David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake, but the original The Fly also holds up remarkably well. Much like the remake, the 1958 original is a body horror about a man who becomes merged with a fly during an experiment in teleportation.

The narrative framing of having the story told as an extended flashback as police interrogate Hélène does a disservice to the plot. Because of this framing, viewers go into the horror knowing how the story will end, who will survive, and who will not. This unfortunately leeches some of the tension out of an otherwise first-rate science fiction horror.

The pacing of The Fly is terrific, the acting and directing are more naturalistic than was common for films of the era, and the horror of a man slowly losing himself is extremely effective. This would have been a worthy Hugo winner, and was the top pick for at least one of our viewers.
He may not have a clue and he may not have style
But everything he lacks, well, he makes up in denial.
(Image via Avalon Theatre)



But for most of our viewing group, the clear stand-out on the ballot was Dracula. From top-to-bottom, the 1958 version of Dracula has an extraordinary cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough, and Melissa Stribling are all note perfect.

Despite making significant changes to the novel, it was still clearly made with care and respect for the original source material. The story may be more confined to a smaller stage, but the broad strokes are all there. And unlike previous almost-chaste adaptations of the novel, the Hammer Horror version oozes with a dark lust. This is the definitive movie version of Dracula, and should have not only won the Hugo Award, but deserved recognition from the Oscars.

All three of these movies received significant praise and commercial success outside of fandom. The 7th
Christopher Lee is the all-time
 definitive movie Dracula.
(Image via Filmschoolrejects.com)

Voyage of Sinbad
earned $6 million at the box office — more than ten times its budget. A contemporaneous review in the London Spectator praised The Fly as ‘serious,’ ‘respectable,’ and ‘ingenious.’ While Motion Picture Daily listed Dracula as one of the all-time best horror films.

Interestingly and likely relevant, 1959 was the first Hugo Awards in which “No Award” was an option, and voters chose to snub all the movies in this category. In explaining why they offered voters that choice, Worldcon publications editor George Young wrote “It was very apparent from the nominations ballots that in some categories there was no particularly outstanding selection. Because of this we have included a choice called “No award in this category.” The option was offered in three categories: Short Story, Best New Author, and Best Movie.

It is an intense shame that voters felt the need to insult these films by declaring that none of them deserved recognition. It is sometimes easier to assess the enduring merit of works with the benefit of hindsight. It seems likely that if there were Retro Hugos for 1959, modern audiences would not select “No Award.”

Thursday, 8 October 2020

Interview with Gautam Bhatia, author of The Wall

Lawyer, academic, and author Gautam Bhatia has been editing non-fiction articles at Strange
Gautam Bhatias debut novel
The Wall is the sort of book that
you keep pondering weeks after
you finish reading it. 
(Image via Amazon) 

Horizons magazine for more than five years. The Rhodes Scholar has written two non-fiction books about constitutional law, and in August saw his fiction debut The Wall released by HarperColins. The book, which is set in a city that has been trapped within an impenetrable wall for 2,000 years mixes insights into sociology, law, and the nature of rebellion. Bhatia, who is completing his PhD at Oxford, spoke via Skype with blog contributor Olav Rokne in September.   

The Wall is a powerful metaphor. Never more so than in the current political context, in which world leaders have used walls as a totemic symbol of their own xenophobia. Was this book in any way shaped by that political environment?

The idea of the wall was part of the story from the beginning. It was there when I started writing the book in 2008, long before walls … you know … really became such an unwanted part of our daily imagination. 

 But many people have always lived with walls.

I mean, the India-Bangladesh border has always inspired rhetoric about infiltration, so-called illegal migration, fences and walls. So there have been people who always suffered because of walls.


It strikes me that The Wall is actually an almost exact mirror image of what Iain M. Banks did; The Culture was entirely post-scarcity and the world of The Wall is one in which scarcity is turned up to the Nth degree.

There’s one little line where someone says that “you can vote for many things, but you can’t really vote against the wall.”

That line actually is a little sly tip of the hat to a statement made by one of the European Union commissioners when there was a popular protest movement in Italy against austerity, and he said that “look you can’t vote against the treaties.” There’s a sense that for the European Union, when a country wants to rebel against austerity, it’s treated as if they’re rebelling against the natural law of the world. How can you possibly vote against a natural law? 
 
And so I thought about what would happen if something like neoliberalism took a physical form in the shape of a wall; you literally can’t vote against The Wall.

In the world in which we live, scarcity is a rhetorical device that is used to suppress popular aspiration. What would happen if scarcity wasn’t just rhetorical, but actually physically there in front of you? 

Author Gautam Bhatia's
keen legal mind informs
his rich and nuanced 
worldbuilding. 
(Image via The Times of India)


What other writers influenced your writing?

[Ursula K.] Le Guin was a massive influence.

When I was seven or eight years old, my parents got for me a copy of the Wizard of Earthsea. There were three books I read when I was very young. One was the Hobbit, the second was the first Harry Potter (a Canadian colleague of my dad’s actually brought it from Canada when he came visiting and it hadn’t become a cult phenomenon yet), and the third was Earthsea.

At that time, I really loved Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter both. I kind of passed by them after a point, but Le Guin has been a continuing and formative influence.

Dispossessed, as you can see is a huge framing influence on this book in many ways, not just in the shape of the political conflict, but also what Le Guin kept telling us all: that we should imagine alternatives to capitalism, and that it was possible to imagine those alternatives even in constrained spaces.

There’s a scene early in your book that reminded me of The Dispossessed, how our words constrain our language, and how our languages can constrain our worlds. It’s the scene with Methila learning about the word “horizon.” I wondered if you were deliberately setting this up as a metaphor for the ways that our imagination can be constrained by a hegemonic set of ideas.

You’re right that it is a metaphor, but also I wanted to explore in literal terms what impact that kind of constrained life would have upon your language and what impact the inability to frame certain words would have upon how you could visualize certain things.

One thing that's fascinated me has been the interplay between language and the way we perceive the world. Samuel Delaney’s work was in that sense very interesting for me and more recently China Miéville’s Embassytown.

Can you tell me a little bit about the legal system, and what ideas were you trying to explore with it?

The exploration of the legal system in The Wall obviously stems from my other life as a lawyer — as a constitutional lawyer specifically.  

I realized over the years that legal structures — in a certain sense — form the hidden plumbing of the world. Many of the things that you don’t think have anything to do with the law are still very much undergirded by what the legal system allows or doesn’t allow.

[For example], the so-called free market itself is entirely a construction of a series of legal rules involving property contracts. So law is kind of the unarticulated basis of many things we do in our daily lives. It’s relatively unexplored in speculative fiction.

Law is so connected to the material realities of any society. If you were to change something as basic as having a wall that ensured a literal scarcity of resources, and created actual restraints on mobility, then the way the laws would be framed to express that material reality would also be very different. I thought it would be very interesting to explore.

Are you working on any books after these two?

Right now mentally and emotionally completely consumed by Book Two and finishing the story. I have some vague vague ideas for another series that continues to play with Ursula LeGuin’s whole idea that the task of speculative fiction writers is to imagine alternatives to capitalism. That’s just something that I’m obsessed with. I’m just thinking about how to work with that within a space opera framework.

It’s something a bit like what Iain M. Banks did, but he didn’t really explore how The Culture worked. He often focused more on the conflicts The Culture had with other non-Culture societies, and I’m more interested in how a post-capitalist space-faring society would work — how the mechanics of it might work from the inside. I just have some very very vague ideas which are completely unformed right now.

But for the moment, I’m investing my energy on Book Two and finishing that now.

Monday, 28 September 2020

A Strong Sense Of Justice

An active and ebullient presence on Twitter, Adri Joy has been blogging about science fiction for more
Adri Joy is one of the 
editors at Nerds Of A Feather.
(Image via Twitter) 

than five years.

Having joined Nerds of a Feather as one of their editors in 2019, she has written first-rate reviews and provided needed criticism. Her work deserves to be recognized and we will be putting her name on our Hugo nominating ballots in the fan writer category.

Given the fact that she is both a millennial and British, it should come as no surprise that her writing style is quippy and nuanced. Her reviews are often well-constructed, stylistically solid, and provide a strong through-line of argumentation about what makes a work compelling.

By any measure, Joy has written some of her best work in 2020. In her review of Incomplete Solutions, she provides a culturally sensitive approach to the work while not not turning a blind eye to issues surrounding gender. Her discussions with other bloggers about awards shortlists often provide both wry humour and accurate criticisms. In her blog post “Tor.com Publishing, First Become Ashes, and the pretty pastel packaging of abuse,” Joy offers an even-handed, insightful and compelling analysis of the marketing surrounding K.M. Szpara’s novels. It is this last post that is particularly illustrative of what makes Joy such an important voice in the SFF community: she is unafraid to engage with the political and social questions influencing the genre.

And on these political and social questions, Adri Joy seems motivated by a strong sense of justice. She is fierce in her defense of trans rights, gay rights, the rights of neurodiverse people, the rights of persons with disabilities, and the rights of all marginalized people. In doing so, she does not shy away from controversy, and seems more interested in integrity than popularity.

Just as important as her blogging, Joy’s presence on Twitter contributes to her standing as a first-rate fan writer. She is quick-witted, funny, and fast to find the joy in the SFF community.

There are times that some people in this book club don’t entirely agree with Joy. What is undeniable however, is that she argues with insight, passion, and tenacity. Even when we disagree with her, the debate is better for what she has to say.

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

There is grandeur in this view of life

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved.” 
— Charles Darwin

An alternate history that delves into unfollowed evolutionary paths, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s latest novel The Doors Of Eden is a complex and perplexing book that is ultimately more than the sum of its parts.

The book follows four disconnected people in London: young Fortean cryptid hunter Lee whose girlfriend Mal mysteriously vanishes; a mathematician Dr. Kay Amal Khan who is targeted by terrorists; a ruthless criminal enforcer Lucas May whose employer seems to be involved in the paranormal; MI5 agent Julian and his colleague Alison.

Each of these characters spends the first half of the novel investigating disparate mysteries, all of which eventually are revealed to have a common cause: the impending collapse of the universe.

Between character-based chapters, non-diegetic inserts offer vignettes about how evolution progressed in different timelines. The relevance of these passages to the narrative unfolds as the beings in these worlds become part of a larger effort to preserve the multiverse.

It’s a lot to fit into one book, and sometimes it feels like Tchaikovsky is juggling too many narratives. But somehow, for the most part it all ends up fitting together nicely. And, as is often the case, it’s more satisfying to have an author resolve a story in one book instead of three. 
One of our favourite interludes
was "The Philosophers." 
(Art via author's Twitter)

A recurring theme in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s science fiction is an ever-expanding definition of who and what deserves to have rights. The Doors Of Eden might be the most definitive thesis statement he has offered on this point: myriad types of intelligence are introduced throughout the book, and their neurodiversity has value. The villains of the book are those who strive for a narrow-minded definition of a “pure” race, and those who believe there is one correct way to be, to think, or to perceive the world. Diversity of thought, diversity of experience, diversity of form, are all overtly shown to be strengths. 

One character’s attempt to create an England for English people drives this point home, as Tchaikovsky draws a direct line between intolerance for differing ways of being and thinking, and a rigid authoritarianism that is incapable of dealing with global challenges. 

We appreciated the fact that the book’s celebration of diversity included representation of non-cis-gendered people (though we would be interested to hear the thoughts of someone from the trans community about what they thought of this depiction). There were moments in the novel in which an alt-right villain deliberately misgenders a protagonist who is trans, and this made some of us uncomfortable. 

In previous novels, Tchaikovsky seems to have taken inspiration from his degree in zoology, and his knowledge of ethology and evolution are again on full display here.While reading The Doors Of Eden’s speculations on various evolutionary paths, we were repeatedly reminded of Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale, and that book’s detailed dive into the diversity and beauty of evolutionary biology. The Doors Of Eden is a joyful celebration of the natural world’s endless potential, and an appeal to our shared empathy.

Tchaikovsky’s latest is among his best novels, and among the top-tier of 2020.

Friday, 11 September 2020

The absolute, unquestionable, definitive and unalterable science fiction canon

Over the past few weeks, prompted by events at the recent Worldcon, the science fiction blogging
There are no politics
in this novel at all. 
(Image via Amazon)

community has been engaged in one of our regularly occurring debates about what is the literary canon of our genre.

There are, of course, interesting and compelling arguments being presented on both sides of this debate. While some people suggest that the genre is a vibrant, ever-evolving, smorgasbord of creativity in which it would be foolish to try and codify a list of great works, other (more reasonable) voices have been pledging their undying fealty to what are obviously the greatest works of science fiction that will ever be written.

Using a methodology that we will not explain — but which is nonetheless unquestionable and scientifically accurate — our panel of experts has meticulously compiled the definitive list of which works that every human being absolutely must read in order to be taken seriously in any discussion of science fiction.

It should be obvious to all that the fact that most of the great works were written by able-bodied straight white men who died decades ago is entirely a coincidence. The questionable political views of some of these authors is likewise immaterial, as all works are obviously separate from their author.

1. O-Zone by Paul Theroux
(Image via Goodreads)

Whitbread Prize-winner Paul Theroux delved into science fiction in 1986 with this apocalyptic tale of radiation and racism in a vast uninhabited area of the Midwest USA. Theroux uses his literary skills to find the redemptive nature of decay and abandonment. The New York Times praised it as a book that “tells us what we already know, but it does not tell us this well, or interestingly, or vividly.” 

2. Mission Earth Volume 2: Black Genesis by L. Ron Hubbard

One of the most famous science fiction authors of the Golden Age, L. Ron Hubbard’s final magnum opus is the 10-volume Mission Earth saga. This second novel is the most iconic of the series, as it sees anti-hero Soltan Gris allying himself with the mafia to undermine Jettero Heller, who is trying to save planet Earth from environmental destruction. Reading this novel really makes you understand why so many enthusiastic fans (apparently all living at the same address) bought Worldcon memberships for no other reason than to nominate L. Ron Hubbard for a Hugo award.

3. The Blindness by Philip Latham

Writing under the pen name Philip Latham, the American astronomer Robert S. Richardson published several iconic science fiction novels such as Five Against Venus and Missing Men of Saturn. But are any of them as well-remembered as The Blindness, his 1946 work in which he depicts the advent of Haley’s Comet’s return in 1987 as a parable for cultural collapse? 
There is no subtext
in this novel. 
(Image via Amazon)

4. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

This empowerment fantasy about a messianic young person who is the most special person in the history of specialness has absolutely no subtext. Our unmitigated love for Orson Scott Card’s novel should not be questioned. It is a classic that has shaped generations of science fiction fans.

5. Earth Final Conflict: The First Protector by James White

Northern Ireland’s James White is known for empathy-driven big space science fiction tales. In his final novel, he delivered this character study of an alien who lives among humanity for generations. To fully appreciate the richness of this text, readers may find it helpful to re-watch all five seasons of the 1990 syndicated television series Earth Final Conflict

6. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Just when we thought that there were absolutely no new ideas to explore in science fiction, Ernest Cline wrote this entirely unique novel. In Ready Player One, readers are introduced to “the Oasis,” a virtual reality world in which people compete to see who can memorize The Goonies better. Better yet, Ready Player One encourages readers to completely ignore any political subtext in the pop culture spoon-fed to us by multimedia conglomerates. No wonder Stephen Spielberg adapted it into a blockbuster!

Wednesday, 2 September 2020

Hugo Cinema Club: The Best Of 1958

The Incredible Shrinking Man was the 
first movie honoured by the Hugo Awards.
(image via Empire Magazine)
This blog post is the first in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.  

By the late 1950s, science fiction cinema had developed a reputation for being the domain of B-movies. Shot quickly, on a cheap budget, and featuring mostly unknown actors, these movies appear to have aimed low and were a disappointment to serious science fiction fans. It was possibly to counteract this reputation that the organizing committee of Solacon (the 16th Worldcon) decided to introduce a Hugo Award for “Outstanding Science Fiction Motion Picture,” and promote movies that took the genre more seriously.

Author Charles Beamont, quoted in the September 1955 Science Fiction News, expressed a common opinion at the time among fans: “The correction of a single mistake — Hollywood’s mad insistence upon hiring writers who know nothing about science fiction, and care for it less, to write science fiction — might do wonders toward bringing about a renaissance.” Similar complaints litter almost every discussion of science fiction movies in fanzines in the 1950s.

Having Richard Matheson closely involved with a major motion picture adaptation of one of his books was therefore something that was welcomed by fandom. As the guest of honour for Solacon, Matheson was well-known, and it should be no surprise that a movie he’d crafted was worthy of winning the first award for what would later be known as Best Dramatic Presentation.

The Incredible Shrinking Man is head and shoulders above almost all other genre films released in 1957. The story is well told, nicely paced, and emotionally rich. The movie features an ordinary middle-class American named Scott Carey who begins to slowly shrink after being exposed to radiation. Though the premise might seem pulpy, Matheson’s writing draws in the audience, first with a tale of psychological turmoil as the protagonist’s normative privilege is stripped away, then later with an adventure movie in which he faces more physical threats. 

Brian Donlevy is the only actor to have
played Professor Quatermass twice. 
And he's excellent. 
(Image via hammerfilms.com)
One of the narrative arcs that highlights the strength of Matheson’s writing is Scott Carey’s relationship with his wife Louise. Before he starts shrinking, Scott and Louise seem to have a very positive, happy relationship — though she is to some degree depicted as subservient to him. Once he starts to decrease in size, he becomes increasingly controlling towards her and lashes out as his privilege metaphorically shrinks. This connection between diminishing privilege and reactionary anger is well observed, and still seems timely.

The Incredible Shrinking Man could be described as two stories stitched together; the first half of the movie is a story about Carey’s fraying relationships, while the second half is a pulp adventure story about survival. While this does create some pacing issues, both halves of the movie work on their own, and the result holds up well today.

The special effects in the second half of The Incredible Shrinking Man are particularly effective, and show attention to detail. Unlike several contemporaneous movies, these effects are used to tell a story, rather than the story being a vehicle on which to sell a visual spectacle. The ending is also remarkably grim — a fact that reportedly left 1950s audiences unsatisfied, but one that in our eyes helps make the movie relevant today.

With no shortlist to rely on, it’s difficult to know what other movies Hugo voters might have considered for the award in 1958. With the benefit of hindsight, we’d suggest Ray Harryhausen’s black-and-white movie 20 Million Miles To Earth might have warranted a nod. Only his second movie in charge of all special effects, 20 Million Miles To Earth was the first movie that was made entirely as a showcase for his work. Though the plot is thin — standard monster-movie fare — and the acting is uninspiring, the level of care put into the monster elevates the movie above many of its contemporaries.

Another film that may have been suitable for a Hugo shortlist that year would have been Quatermass 2,
the Hammer Films remake of the BBC serial from the previous year. One member of our viewing club did pick it as his favourite science fiction movie of 1957, and said he would vote for it ahead of Shrinking Man. Quatermass 2 is one of the better films to follow the Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers trope. It oozes tension as the protagonist Bernard Quatermass investigates the infiltration of the British government by alien forces. There’s a lot to love in this movie — particularly the acting and dialogue, but its inconsistent special effects and an incongruent slapstick ending are disappointing.

In some ways, the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award could not have been introduced at a better time than 1958: the movies that stood out from the pack that year show the medium moving forward, and helped introduce popular audiences to a new generation of science fiction writers, directors and special effects artists. 

The Hugo For Best Dramatic Presentation starts out on a high note. Not only does the winning movie stand the test of time, the award moves science fiction cinema forward.

Thursday, 20 August 2020

Re-Watching The Hugos (Intro)

Best Dramatic Presentation is a Hugo category with a long history: Of the 17 current awards categories, only Novel, Novella, Short Story and Pro Artist awards have been handed out in more calendar years. Since Dramatic Presentations were first recognized by the WSFS, silver chrome rocket ships have been handed out to movies and TV shows at 57 different awards ceremonies.

However, the category does not seem to warrant the same cache as most of the other categories; often the recipients skip the awards ceremony, there are no podcasts dedicated to revisiting past winners, and Jo Walton repeatedly disparages the category in her Informal History of the Hugos. It is also the category in which Hugo voters have chosen to present no award on the most occasions, voting for “no award” in 1959, 1963, 1971 and 1977, and neglecting to even nominate a shortlist for the category in 1964 and 1966.

It might also be noted that movies are rarely (if ever) marketed using the Hugo Award as a credential. Did
Galaxy Quest director Dean Parsiot (front row,
second from right) showed up to accept his 
Hugo Award. (Image via Locus)
you know that Hugo-winning director Dean Parsiot has a big-budget movie hitting cinemas on August 28? The lack of using Parsiot’s Hugo trophy in the marketing of Bill & Ted Face The Music is telling, especially considering that Parsiot’s Hugo-winning movie Galaxy Quest is often held up by fans as the exemplar of why the Best Dramatic Presentation category exists.

In the past, this blog has questioned whether the Dramatic Presentation category continues to serve any purpose. In order to answer this question, contributors to this blog including Olav Rokne, Paul Senior, Daniel Calder and Earl Prusak have begun re-watching works from Hugo shortlists from previous years to see how well they hold up, to consider whether other works should have been considered, and to ask whether the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo has made any impact on how well these works are remembered.

Posts:
Blog Post 1 - The dawn of the Best Dramatic Presentation (1958)
Blog Post 2 - The "No Award" of 1959
Blog Post 3 will be posted in November