Friday, 23 September 2022

Clash of the Cinema Titans (1972)

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

The early 1970s saw a flourishing of SFF cinema. In 1971 alone, Jim McBride’s X-rated Glen and Randa scandalized audiences with post-apocalyptic sex scenes, and garnered critical love along the way. Boris Sagal threw Charleton Heston to the vampires in the blockbuster The Omega Man. And Josef Pinkava offered audiences a whimsical tale of children with a magical computer in The Wishing Machine. But these films were up against long odds to make the Hugo shortlist. 

The shortlist in 1972 may have provided the most star-studded Best Dramatic Presentation ballot the awards have ever seen. 

The movies on that shortlist were directed by a cavalcade of what are now household names for many: George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Robert Wise, and Stanley Kubrick. Between these four people, there’s a total of 46 Academy Award nominations and $23 billion in box office receipts.
George Lucas and Steven Spielberg in the 1970s.
Long before they were beloved by millions of 
moviegoers, science fiction fandom embraced
the works of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
The Hugos gave each of them their first award nods
for feature films.
(Image via Reddit)

Each of these directors moved the art of moviemaking forwards and made extraordinary contributions to science fiction cinema … but to be blunt, none of them produced their best work in 1971.

Despite the Hugo ceremony taking place in downtown Los Angeles, none of the finalists made an appearance at the awards. In fact, none of them even bothered to send someone to pick up the award, with local fan Bill Warren acting as the acceptor.

Four movies made the ballot — and a second Firesign Theatre album. Only Bozos On This Bus loosely continues the story started in the previous year’s comedy album, which may make it the first instance in which a work and its sequel were both shortlisted for a Hugo. It probably would have been near the bottom of most of our ballots though. 

More interestingly, an little-remembered television movie L.A. 2017 did make the ballot.

Just 24 years old at the time, Steven Spielberg was taking short-term television gigs while trying to break into feature film work. He’d had a rocky start with poorly-received work on Rod Sterling’s Night Gallery and on Marcus Welby, M.D., when he had the opportunity to direct a one-off science fiction TV movie for an anthology show about journalists in Los Angeles. The result, L.A. 2017, is a surprising inclusion on the Hugo ballot.

Shot for a paltry $375,000, and with a script by Philip Wylie (author of When Worlds Collide and
Poster for City of Stars
The real Los Angeles of 2017 turned out to be far
more dystopian than even Steven Spielberg had
imagined in his first feature-length movie L.A. 2017.
(Image via IndieWire)
Gladiator), L.A. 2017 is an uneven work at best. The parable about a fascist future United States living underground to hide from pollution is heavy handed, most of the acting is hammy, and the ending is an appalling cop out. But having watched a number of other television movies of the time during our voyage through Hugo history, we were struck at how much livelier the directing was. It’s clear that Spielberg was head and shoulders above most of his peers directing television in the early 1970s, conveying more through effective framing and camera movement.

Although not well remembered, L.A. 2017 is of significant historical value as it opened doors for the young Spielberg. It’s also interesting to note that this nomination means that the Hugo Awards can boast of being the first major award to have shortlisted Stephen Spielberg.

Just two years older than Spielberg, George Lucas was somewhat more established in Hollywood. Fresh off filming the disastrous Altamont Music Festival for the Maysles brothers’ documentary Gimme Shelter, Lucas was given his first chance to direct a feature film through a partnership with more-established filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola.

Intended to launch a new studio, THX-1138 was shot on a modest budget of slightly under $1 million — by comparison Marooned, which was released little more than a year earlier, had cost ten times that amount. Lucas does an extraordinary amount on that small budget, creating a world that is evocative, cold, and sterile to tell a story about rebellion and a search for emotional connection.

Although this may be one of George Lucas’ most visually compelling movies, the plot (which is essentially an unacknowledged adaptation of Brave New World) is mostly unengaging. The coldness of the setting leaks into the dialogue, leaving little for an audience to engage with.
Shockingly, the guy who would go on to write 
screenplays for The Radioland Murders and
Strange Magic wrote some clunky dialogue
in the movie THX-1138.
(Image via Lucasfilm)

Interestingly, the Hugo nomination for THX-1138 was also George Lucas’ first major award nomination for a feature film (a short version of the film had received a nod at the Oberhausen Short Film Festival in 1968.)

In 1972, Robert Wise was a Hollywood icon at the height of his career. He’d won Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture twice (1961 West Side Story, 1965 Sound of Music). After Universal had won the bidding war over Michael Crichton’s breakout novel The Andromeda Strain, Wise was brought onboard to bring a sense of respectability to a script that might otherwise have been seen as another cookie-cutter disaster movie. Andromeda Strain covers a four-day period after a pathogen arrives from space, and concerns itself with the scientific team attempting to contain the disease.

While it may not deliver high-octane thrills, or incisive social commentary, it’s one of the best depictions of science or scientists that science fiction cinema had seen up to this point. Notably, it's refreshing to see the inclusion of central protagonist Dr. Ruth Leavitt, a caustic, competent, and down-to-earth scientist. Her character — and the lack of objectification — makes Andromeda Strain one of the least sexist SFF movies up to this point.

That depiction stands in stark contrast to the over-the-top misogyny of A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick’s stylish, beguiling, and deeply unpleasant Hugo winner. Set in a near-future England that has slid into fascism, the movie follows a young man named Alex, his friend group, and their experiences with the police and prisons.
Alex in Clockwork Orange screaming as he's forced to watch awful movies.
Documentary footage of our cinema club reacting
to 1960 Hugo-finalist Men Into Space.
(Image via FilmLoverss)

Based on a novel by Anthony Burgess, the movie seems to suggest that the sexual revolution will only provide ways for men to aggressively dominate women’s bodies. Debates have raged over the past five decades over whether Clockwork Orange is a commentary on misogyny, or simply misogynistic in and of itself.

Though Kubrik won his third Hugo Award as a director (a feat only equalled by three other directors), it’s difficult to suggest that the voters got this one right. Clockwork Orange is certainly a classic of cinema, and the actual filmmaking, editing, and camera work are all meticulous. But it’s barely science fictional, and many (including about half our cinema club) find it offensive.

It’s not made by as famous a director, but perhaps the more meat-and-potatoes populist option of The Omega Man might have been a more suitable choice to honour with a Hugo in 1972?

Thursday, 15 September 2022

The Gordian Knot of Fan Vs. Pro

Wilson Tucker was a superb author whose prose almost earned him the very first Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1953. His Long Loud Silence — one of the most unflinching and depressing looks at the future of war — came in second to Alfred Bester’s Demolished Man.
Should Tucker have recused
himself from consideration
when he was shortlisted
for the Hugo for best Fan Writer
in 1970? We would suggest not.
(Image via File 770)

But his accomplishments as a professional writer were often overshadowed by his contributions to fandom. He coined the term “Space Opera,” and helped develop the fanzine culture that continues to enrich the genre. He was Fan Guest of Honour at two Worldcons: 1948 in Toronto and 1967 in New York.

In a very real way, Tucker is the case example of a dilemma that has bedeviled those arguing about Hugo Awards rules: the question of fan versus pro, and, specifically, what works should qualify for fan Hugos. Given his output as an author, Wilson Tucker was a pro. Given his contributions to fandom, Wilson Tucker was a fan. But should these roles be viewed as complementary or binary for the purpose of community recognition? And should there be clear guidelines about who counts as a “fan”?

These questions have reared their head in the wake of Worldcon 2022 at which three out of the four fan Hugos were presented to industry professionals. We want to stress that, in our opinion, all of these finalists and Hugo winners are worthy of recognition — in particular we were glad to see Lee Moyer win a long-overdue first Hugo Award. Questions of what a “fan” work is shouldn’t distract from the quality of these projects.

But it is still worth talking about why questions about “Fan Vs. Pro” arise, and hopefully forestall any hasty and ill-considered changes to the WSFS constitution.

This debate has a long history. While it’s clear that “Fan” and “Pro” are not antonyms, there’s reason to suggest that “fan” might be interpreted as being synonymous with “amateur” or “non-professional.”

The category now called “Fanzine” is the second-longest running Hugo category, having been awarded on no fewer than 75 occasions (only Novel has been recognized more often). But for the first quarter century the award existed, it was called the Hugo for best Amateur Magazine, and the distinction was explicit that this was a non-professional award.

From the very beginning, there were questions about what counted as amateur (or “fan” work), and what counted as professional. The first recorded constitution of the World Science Fiction Society from 1963 sets out the fanzine category as a “generally available non-professional magazine devoted to science fiction, fantasy or related subject.” That constitution’s primary author George Scithers noted in a 1964 edition of Yandro that non-professional was not defined, but added “I think the terms are well-enough understood to be clear.”

All the existing fan categories were hived off from Amateur Publication / Fanzine. First with fan writer and fan artist recognizing those who contributed to fanzines, then with fancast as a new medium of fanzine. They all derive from the same tradition of amateur publications.

Just three years after the Scithers constitution was introduced, Jack Gaughan showed just how unclear the existing language could be, winning both the fan artist and professional artist Hugo Awards in a single evening. There was an outcry over this — why have two separate categories if the same body of work could win both? A clause was quickly added to the constitution to prevent this from happening again, but the language did not seek to clarify what was Fan and what was Pro, rather stating that “Anyone whose name appears on the final ballot for a given year under the professional artist category will not be eligible for the fan artist award for that year.”
In the unlikely event that this blog ever generated more
than $500 a month in revenue via crowdfunding, we would
recuse ourselves from the fan categories. To be clear,
we do not plan to profit from our fan writing, and instead
of ever having a Patreon we would encourage you
to support Trans Lifeline, Planned Parenthood,
the EFF, Wikipedia, or the ACLU.
(Image licensed via Shutterstock.)

Over the years, this question has resurfaced fairly regularly. Questions were raised over John Scalzi winning best fan writer in the same year that his novel The Last Colony was on the ballot. Two years later there was some slight grumbling about Fred Pohl — at that time one of only 25 authors to have won three professional prose Hugos — winning for best fan writer.

So in this context, a well-intentioned but problematic proposal (“An Aristotelian Solution to Fan vs Pro”) brought forward to this year’s business meeting provided an attempt to parse out this question. The Hugo Awards Study Committee suggested that language be added to the constitution laying out strict guidelines about the commercial purposes or uses of artistic works and fan writing. Though this proposal was soundly defeated at the 2022 WSFS business meeting, the subsequent Hugo Awards ceremony featured three of the four “fan” categories going to creators who are full-time professionals within the field. In some cases, the fanworks in question were also commercially successful.

The Hugo Study Committee suggested commercial activity as a means to determine what constitutes professional works, and thus which creators are non-professional. For example, it would be difficult to call an online publication “amateur” if it has a Patreon page that collects upwards of $1,000 per month. But there are more problematic scenarios. What about fan artists who sell a handful of print-on-demand T-Shirts based on their works? They might make enough from these sales to buy a Starbucks coffee every other week… should that prevent them from being recognized in a fan Hugo category?

Attempts to set a bright-line test to determine category correctness are doomed. Should there be a rule to parse out which creators can call themselves “Fans,” it would inevitably fail. No creator who works for both payment and fandom does so in isolation of the other.

To further complicate this question, authorship is a profession which operates in a reputation economy in which an individual author’s future earnings are contingent on the public awareness and appreciation of that person’s works. As such, any publishing activity or communication to the public by an author whose living depends on sales can be seen as promotional activity, and therefore could be interpreted as “professional,” even if they never earn a dime directly from that output. When examining the question under this lens, the work may be fannish, or it may be professional, and the only difference is motivation. Let us say very clearly here that it should never be the job of anyone in fandom to police or attempt to interpret the motivation of creators. 
Alexei Panshin recused himself from the fan
categories after winning best fan writer. Lady
Business recused themselves after winning best
fanzine. It's a courageous decision to make.
(Photo by Jay Klein via Calisphere)

There is no easy solution to this dilemma, no set of rules that will ever be able to parse out what should be considered as fannish activity from that which is not. When it comes to what should count as fan works, we should avoid the temptation to take the same approach that United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart took on obscenity: “I know it when I see it.”

As America has seen with the selective enforcement of obscenity tests, any determination based on a gut feeling will be overly influenced by the unconscious prejudices of those in power. For example if the Hugo Admins or a motivated block of voters took it upon themselves to selectively determine what was appropriate to be a “fan” work in any given year, it’s likely that such decisions would disprivilege the already marginalized — not through ill intent, but due to subconscious factors.

So where does this leave us?

Perhaps the best solution is not to change the rules at all, but rather to foster existing cultural norms that encourage us all to ask ourselves whether or not we are appropriate for the categories we are shortlisted in.

These categories have sometimes recognized pros for their fannish endeavours, but have continued to mostly recognize non-professional amateurs who have contributed to fandom. As long as nobody Langfords a category, the fan Hugos will be just fine.

Saturday, 20 August 2022

Possibly The Worst Year In Sci-Fi Cinema

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

The 1971 Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo ballot was filled to the brim with mediocrity. Despite having the benefit of hindsight and an internet to help us learn about films eligible in that year, our cinema club couldn’t have produced a better list of nominees.

Despite Joan Crawford's performance, Trog is not
up to the standards we might look for in a Hugo finalist.
(Image via IMDB)
We scoured the internet for other options. Doomwatch was influential, but an absolute bore. Skullduggery was a hit, but beyond risible. David Cronenberg’s first movie Crimes of the Future shows promise, but is still the unfinished vision of a young creator. Fans had slim pickings when nominating that year — which may in part explain some of the more … unorthodox choices they made.

It was the first year that audio recordings made it on the ballot, and as much as we are fans of being format agnostic, we wish that the distinction of being the first comedy album to get a Hugo nod had gone to a more worthy entry than Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers.

Expressing a sentiment that was common at the time, John Baxter wrote: “Written SF is usually radical in politics and philosophy; SF cinema, like the comic strips, endorses the political and moral climate of its day.” While we’d suggest that Baxter was a little too generous towards prose SF, having watched and listened to the 1971 shortlist, it’s clear that there’s some merit in his indictment of screen offerings.

The shortlist was an eclectic one in some ways. It had one theatrically released American movie (Colossus: The Forbin Project), one television movie (Hauser’s Memory), one British movie (No Blade of Grass) one spoken-word comedy album (Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers) and one prog rock concept album (Blows Against the Empire).

While this relative diversity of formats could be praised for a willingness to consider various forms of storytelling, to our eyes it looks like Hugo voters were scraping the bottom of the barrel. Writing in Science Fiction Review, Fred Patten suggested that the entire shortlist “is not worthy of consideration.”

Paul Kantner's Blows Against the Empire has
a relatively simple premise that hasn't aged well.
(Image via Futurama)
Blows Against the Empire, recorded by Paul Kantner and some of his Jefferson Airplane bandmates, loosely tells the story of a bunch of San Francisco hippies who steal a starship to go off into space and create a new, better civilization on another planet. The story also seems to focus on a baby that Paul Kanter was having with Grace Slick. To be perfectly blunt, the storytelling offers the height of self-indulgent self-aggrandizement that reflects the worst artistic impulses of the Altamont generation. The majority of the songs contribute nothing to the narrative, and although music may appeal to some listeners, as a piece of science fiction it is dreadful.

Ever so slightly less perplexing a choice for a finalist is Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, the third album from Los Angeles comedy troupe Firesign Theater. Although it seems fairly scattershot at the beginning, it slowly becomes clear that the album is telling the life story of a single character named George Leroy Tirebiter, through flashbacks and television. The comedic style has aged poorly, and we wonder how it ever could have been appreciated. The degree to which the work counts as science fiction or fantasy was also perplexing.

Hauser’s Memory, a made-for-television adaptation of Curt Siodmak’s novel of the same name, is a competent if boring spy adventure in which scientist Hillel Mondoro (played by NCIS-regular David McCallum) injects himself with evil brain juice in an attempt to recover secrets that are vital to national security. As the cerebral spinal fluid infects his mind with the memories of a Nazi scientist, Mondoro is compelled to commit a series of crimes, and finally dies. It’s slow-moving, uses excessive crossfades to depict the disorientation of the protagonist, and treads many similar plot points of the author’s previous and much superior novel, Donovan’s Brain.
Sharp-eyed Canadian political
buffs may recognize that the role
of Joseph Slaughter in Hauser's
is played by the younger
brother of Deputy Prime Minister
Erik Nielsen. 
(Image via IMDB)

Viewers of the era were somewhat more generous, with Hank Davis writing in Yandro that Hauser’s Memory was “The next best thing I have seen this year.” Of course, this assessment needs to be taken in context.

Tying into the nascent environmental movement, No Blade of Grass updated the John Cristopher novel The Death of Grass to make it clear that the demise of all plants from the Gramineae family is caused in part by pollution. There are some interesting scenes that foreshadow later post apocalyptic films like Mad Max, and the bleak premise is followed through to a logical conclusion. It’s an uneven effort that has some high points — such as the sadly realistic depiction of an incompetent British government sacrificing millions of people — but it is bogged down by brutal misogyny and clumsy foreshadowing.

Given the distasteful treatment of women in the movie, it’s hard to recommend No Blade of Grass to a modern (or truth be told any) audience.

The most redeemable work on the Hugo Best Dramatic Presentation ballot in 1971 was certainly Colossus: The Forbin Project. From opening scenes exploring a mountain-sized computer, the movie draws in the viewer to a world that becomes quickly dominated by an artificial intelligence designed to bring peace. It’s a great concept that’s mostly followed through on. Eric Braeden is excellent in the lead role of Dr. Charles Forbin, though the supporting cast is mostly merely filling space.

Contemporaneous reviewers generally agreed with this assessment. Richard E. Geis, writing in Science Fiction Review, named Colossus as the only noteworthy science fiction film of the year. Kay Anderson was somewhat more effusive with her praise, writing in Yandro “For my money, The Forbin Project is better than 2001 … Reviews around here are calling it a masterpiece, and I’ll drink to that.”

The pickings were slim, but in some places you could see the seeds of better things to come, though it might take years — even decades — for these themes to flourish. No Blade of Grass was not in the same league as the environmental parables that would be released later in the decade, but with the benefit of hindsight we can see how it was a stepping stone in the evolution of SFF cinema. Likewise, the concept of a science fiction rock opera concept album may be old hat now, but in 1971, Blows Against The Empire was doing something new. These films — and albums — may be mediocre, but they were pushing the medium forward.

By this point, the Hugos had attempted to recognize works of stage and screen on a dozen occasions, and for a third time in that span Worldcon attendees decided not to present a trophy. Not for the first time, the audience laughed and cheered in approval at the announcement of no award. Thankfully, we can find no record of any representatives of any of the five finalists being in attendance for the ceremony, so they were spared this indignity.

Several members of our cinema club may have ended up voting for no award (though others dislike no award on a matter of principle). Either way the consensus was clear: this was a terrible year for science fiction told by screen or sound.

Tuesday, 9 August 2022

The Breakfast Club in Space

There is a long-simmering tension in science fiction that could be reductively described as being between those who prefer books that are about things happening, and those who prefer books that are about people
Becky Chambers' fourth Wayfarers
novel continues her evolution away
from high-octane thrills.
(Image via Amazon)
experiencing emotions.

On the one extreme, we could describe the cold, sterile, action-packed Asimov tales of the 1940s. On the other extreme, we could examine some ponderous elegiac late-period Aldous Huxley works.

Few authors have pivoted between these two poles as thoroughly, or as successfully as Becky Chambers has over the past eight years since her (initially self-published) debut novel took the science fiction world by storm. Likewise, few authors have been as successful in showing the importance — and the value — of both strains of science fiction’s heritage.

Nowhere is this more evident than in her flagship works, the Best Series Hugo-winning Wayfarers novels. Fascinatingly, the most recent novel in this series The Galaxy, and the Ground Within could even be read as a textual mirror to the first book in the series Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet.

Both novels feature a diverse cast of middle-class characters from a variety of alien races, and both novels celebrate diversity, understanding, and compassion. But while Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet is an action-packed romp in which things never stop happening, this latest Hugo-finalist novel is far more meditative. They are similar in so many ways, but the later book could be interpreted as a foil to the first one’s action packed — and populist — approach to storytelling.

The set-up to Galaxy, and the Ground Within is fairly simple. Five characters with wildly different backgrounds are forced to spend time together after a technical failure traps them togetherfor several days. It’s The Breakfast Club in space, and as such the narrative is driven not by a series of events, but rather by how the characters relate to one another, and how they feel and grow. Althoughthere is a rescue plot at the very end of the novel, it feels somewhat tacked on.

Five people with wildly different personalities
and problems find commonalities and empathy.
(Image via Criterion)

Chambers’ Breakfast Club analogues are blue-collar Laru, immature Tupo, popular girl Pei Tem, mysterious Roveg, and good girl Speaker. Over the course of the novel, they deal with small survival issues pertaining to the life support system, but mostly they share their backstories and learn to get past their differences and prejudices.

It often seems that the vast majority of science fiction and fantasy deals with the fate of empires, the doom of worlds, epic galaxy-spanning wars of conquest, and special unique people born to greatness … and in doing so offers stories that are less relatable because they are not human scale. The fundamental relatability of Chambers' work is its greatest strength. 

Many of the folks who yearn for action adventure like Chambers’ earlier Wayfarers novels might not be drawn in by this book, and might in fact prefer some other Hugo finalists. In fact, those who aren’t drawn in by Chambers’ writing and excellent character building, might uncharitably dismiss The Galaxy, and the Ground Within as a book in which nothing happens. But that would be a mistake; this is a truly excellent example of emotionally grounded science fiction in which the narrative questions revolve around people experiencing emotions.

Monday, 8 August 2022

Hat on a Hat

One of the first things that an aspiring improv comedian will learn is this: Never put a hat on a hat.

Basically, what this means is that when you have a strong premise, it’s usually inadvisable to distract it by layering a different premise overtop of it. To put it another way, cognitive dissonance caused by disharmonious conceptual work will distract from strong material. Point is, if you have one hat … why do you need another hat on top of it?
This is an extremely well written
book filled with great ideas.
It’s unsurprising that Ryka’s other
works have been recognized
by the Lambda Literary Awards.
(Image via Goodreads)

Despite being an exceptionally well written novel filled with likable characters, and some very interesting ideas, Light From Uncommon Stars suffers from hat-on-a-hattedness. And this may prevent it from being at the top of our Hugo ballots. It’s a novel composed of at least two fundamentally separate narratives, and those stories might have been better served by being split into separate works.

The main story arc follows Katrina, a gifted but untrained violinist, whose talent blossoms after being spotted by Shizuka Satomi, a superstar violin teacher. Saddled with a surprisingly apt nickname ‘the Queen of Hell,’ Satomi needs to claim a human soul to free herself from a deal with the devil. Taking the young violinist as a student, Satomi offers a safe harbour from an adolescence marked by horrible abuse and neglect. Twinning musical and personal growth, Katrina eventually finds her feet at an open air concert, bringing the audience to tears with a classical piece (despite her passion for videogame music). The consummate entertainer, she adapts to meet her audience with a confidence that comes from self-actualization.

The anticipation builds as the reader is left wondering when, and how, Shizuka will be remunerated for her tutelage. Will she turn Katrina over to the demon Tremon, as traditional narrative would demand, or can a different future be negotiated? As a purely fantastical tale, Light From Uncommon Stars is well written and engaging, and gives us a main character that is easy to care about and root for. It’s strengthened further by deeply researched backstories about the emotional weight of violin production and ancestral gender roles that have disadvantaged women around the globe.

Recent documentary
Donut King provided
context that helped us
enjoy the book more.
(Image via IMDB)
On its own — with no aliens or spaceships — this would have been enough. But woven into this tale is another story about entrepreneurial aliens who have to learn the hard way that their food replicators are no match for an earthling palette. On its own, this is a satisfying science fiction story filled with alien tech toys: projectors that levitate their subjects, phones that scramble English into Vietnamese, AI that can substitute offspring, and weaponry that disintegrates humans and/or their memories. And this is all packed into a completely delightful narrative concept that could easily have sustained a whole novel. Instead, it left us wanting more. 

The novel could have stood on the rock solid foundation of a beautiful girl finding her place in the world, through the mastery of musical expression and the support of a found family.

While this profusion of distractions from the main story are in most cases entertaining, on their own, our group felt they could sometimes feel like clouds that blocked the light from the star.

We wanted more Katrina.

Monday, 27 June 2022

Clark's inDjinnious worldbuilding

With his first novel, Master of Djinn, P. Djèlí Clark returns to the alternate magical Egypt that he previously explored in works such as his Hugo-finalist novella The Haunting of Tram Car 015.
The UK edition of Master of Djinn sports
a cover that is as epic as the contents. 
The designer Matthew Burne deserves kudos.
(Image via Little Brown Book Group)

Set decades after magic was returned to the world by 19th-Century wizard al-Jahiz, these stories follow detectives who are tasked with solving supernatural mysteries.

This time, protagonist Fatma el-Sha’arawi is tasked with solving the murder of an important foreign dignitary, Lord Worthington, and the possible return of al-Jahiz himself.

What elevates the work is Clark’s use of the premise for confident explorations of colonialism, racism, and sexism. One member of our book club flippantly described Master of Djinn as being “from an alternate history where The Dresden Files bothers to say something interesting.”

Alternate history often doesn’t have a deep enough toolbox with which to examine and challenge historical power structures. Colonialism, patriarchy, and structural racism are so ingrained in the cause-and-effect patterns of real-world history that it’s difficult to find plausible allohistorical points of divergence in which these forces are subverted. In short, it would take magic of the sort that enriches Master of Djinn to tackle these entrenched forces and their myriad complexities.

The fantastical elements of Clark’s Egypt are imbued with a deep sense of history. While this book isn’t precisely an alternate history (as many purists of that genre will argue that any story that involves magic cannot be alternate history), Master of Djinn’s worldbuilding is complex enough for the reader to feel that there is a real past and a real future to this society.

In fact, this living, breathing history might be the most engaging character in the book. It’s a world full of sky trams, clockwork angels, and jazz clubs. Clark has skillfully woven worldbuilding details into the narrative that made it seem effortless and natural. It helped, of course, to have a character smitten with history and dedicated to sharing that knowledge.

An interesting parallel could be drawn between Master of Djinn and Rockne S. O’Bannon’s Hugo-shortlisted dramatic presentation Alien Nation. These are stories that deal with police investigating mysteries in a society that is adapting to the arrival of alien beings. In both cases, there are strong elements of social criticism and the use of non-humans as a metaphor for cultural barriers.
P. Djèlí Clark — also known as Dr. Dexter Gabriel
— holds a PhD in history and teaches at the University
of Connecticut. This education is evident in the 
richly layered history that he crafts in Master of Djinn.
(Photo by Peter Morenus via UConn Magazine)

While the central mystery of the book, and most of the characters, are mostly enjoyable they are also largely unremarkable. For some readers, the relentless description of the flawlessness, stylishness, and incredible competence of the protagonist became tiresome. Likewise, Fatma’s much-trumpeted skill as a detective is undermined by how selectively observant she was, and how much of the plot depended on her missing obvious clues. Those who are seeking an engaging mystery may be disappointed, for the reasons above and also because this is not a page-turner typical of that genre.

It did seem odd that the novel was peppered with so many references to the previous stories set in the same world. Those who had not read the preceding works were left feeling that there was something missing.

But for many in the book club, these quibbles are overshadowed by the engaging motivations of those who committed the crime, the well-thought out tensions in the world’s international politics, and the skillful interrogation of power dynamics. Digressions into a possible alliance between the Kaiser and Ottoman Empire, and speculation about what Lord Worthington may have been up to before his demise are all quite interesting.

A Master of Djinn is a strong Hugo finalist that may be near the top of some of our ballots.

Friday, 17 June 2022

One Giant Leap Backwards For Science Fiction On Screen

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

“The dramatic Hugo is the least satisfactory category under today's reality.” - Harry Warner, Jr., 1970

“I didn’t see anything worth giving it to.” - Buck Coulson on Best Dramatic Presentation 1970

To say that the fictional works on the shortlist for the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo in 1970 was a step backwards would be an understatement.

On first glance, the shortlist seems like an aberration, comprising such unloved and unmemorable works as Marooned, The Bedsitting Room, Illustrated Man, and The Immortal. Watching these movies, we wondered what Hugo voters could have been thinking in nominating them. 
Hugo finalist dramatic presentation Marooned has
the unique distinction of being the only Academy
Award winner to be lampooned on MST3K.
(Image via IMDB)

But the more we looked at cinema from that year, the more we realized that Hugo voters had done as good a job as possible in selecting the shortlist, considering that the eligible films for those Hugos (movies released in 1969) included such celebrated works as Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, Moon Zero Two, Night of the Bloody Apes and The Curious Dr. Humpp.

Reality had overtaken screen SFF. The decision to honour news footage rather than fiction (a decision we had initially questioned) seems rather brilliant in the context of the rest of the shortlist and the state of science fiction cinema. 

The nomination process wasn’t helped by a moral panic among a recalcitrant conservative faction of fandom. With the site selection vote having given the 1970 Worldcon to Heidelberg, West Germany, there were fears that the Hugos would be taken away from the English-speaking West, that the United States might never have another Worldcon, and that the Best Novel shortlist would be comprised of nothing but Perry Rhodan books. Members of the 1969 WSFS business meeting passed several motions trying to prevent this speculative calamity, including provisions that put restrictions on the language that the Hugo finalist could be published in (spoiler: English only).

Thankfully, fandom has moved beyond this type of knee-jerk panic. There’s no object lesson to be learned from what happened in 1970, and none of these events are at all relevant to anything going on in Worldcon fandom in 2023.

This change meant that in 1970, the Japanese action movie Latitude Zero and the Italian-French comedy Hibernatus were ineligible. Although neither movie is a classic, either one would have been a more interesting finalist than most of the works on the shortlist.

Of the films that did make the shortlist, the most serious is the high-budget Marooned, a Martin Caidin-penned tale of three American astronauts dealing with technical problems during a NASA mission. Although the movie has high-wattage star power featuring (among others) Gregory Peck and Gene Hackman, it is astonishingly dull and monotonous.

There are a few redeeming moments in Marooned; the heroic role of Russian cosmonauts and the international cooperation depicted is certainly refreshing for the era. And there is an excellent taut sequence in which one of the astronauts is asked to sacrifice himself to save oxygen for the rest of the crew. But overall, it is an astonishingly dreary movie to endure.

It’s interesting that Marooned and 2001: A Space Odyssey were filmed on comparable budgets at approximately the same time. Although it won an Academy Award for special effects, Marooned seems cheap and shoddy by comparison to Kubrik’s masterpiece.

The Illustrated Man, based on Bradbury’s collection of stories, is mediocre in more perplexing ways. Much like the collection it’s based on, the movie uses a man’s tattoos as a narrative framework to tell various stories, including Bradbury’s “The Veldt,” “The Long Rain,” and “The Last Night of the World.”

While any of these stories could have been adapted into serviceable episodes of The Twilight Zone, they don’t work well when combined into one overarching narrative. Compounding this tonal mismatch is leaden dialogue and hammy acting.

The most controversial of the shortlist for us turned out to be The Bedsitting Room, a frankly bizarre post-apocalyptic comedy set in the ruins of London in the wake of a nuclear war. Based on a stage play by Goon Show legend Spike Milligan, the movie rambles between the 20 or so survivors of the atomic fires as they go about their daily lives and come into incredibly petty conflicts and surreal misadventures.

The Bedsitting Room is elevated by an exceedingly strong cast including Dudley Moore, Rita Tushingham, Peter Cook, and Marty Feldman (in his film debut).
In the bright cold air, you seemed as innocent
and fair as Rita Tushingham in 1969.
(Image via IMDB)

Very little in the movie makes sense, whether it’s an elderly woman spontaneously turning into a piece of furniture, an aquatic bishop swimming up from a lake to perform a forced marriage, or the cast being listed in the credits by order of height. While those of us with strong cultural ties to the United Kingdom found some of these moments funny, overall it was a difficult movie to appreciate.

The nearly forgotten and short-lived television series The Immortal may have been the strongest fictional work on the ballot in 1970.

The show is a story about Ben Richards, a race car driver whose genetics render him impervious to disease and likely to live an extended lifespan. The show puts him in conflict with a billionaire who wants to kidnap him and harvest his blood. Much like Richard Kimble, The Incredible Hulk, or Johnny Bago, the series follows the protagonist as he flees across the country.

The Immortal — which didn’t even last a full season — wasn’t great. They took a decent novel by James E. Gunn, sanded the rough edges off it and made it safe and generic television. However, the fact that most of our cinema club would have put it on the top of our ballots is an indictment of the quality of screen SFF that year.

Produced by Universal's famous "factory" model
of television storytelling, the Immortal is remarkably
similar to many of the studio's shows. 
(Image via ComfortTV)
In light of the year’s fiction in this category, the selection of news footage from Apollo XI as the winner for Best Dramatic Presentation looks rather inspired. Certainly the special effects were extraordinarily realistic (given that they were real), viewers were emotionally engaged by the memorable characters such as Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong, and the work did provide some of the most quotable dialogue in dramatic presentation history (who could ever forget lines like “One Giant Leap For Mankind”?).

The news footage is interesting, but needed an editor to tighten it down to a shorter run time and to provide context. Rather than going back and watching the original news footage, we would recommend watching the spectacular IMAX documentary Apollo 11. The event and the documentation holds up remarkably well 53 years later.

There was at least one major omission from the Hugo Awards ballot: Destroy All Monsters. The ninth, and arguably most bonkers, of Ishirō Honda’s Godzilla movies brings together kaiju from all previous entries in the series. This is the Avengers: Endgame of the GCU (Godzilla Cinematic Universe.) It is likely that among our viewing group, this would have been the top pick amongst actual movies and TV shows that year. Likewise, it's possible that one of the late episodes of Star Trek such as "All Our Yesterdays" might have warranted an inclusion … though even this might be a stretch. 

After several years in which Hugo nominators had an embarrassment of riches to choose from, the well had gone suddenly dry, and there was little top tier science fiction on screen.

It still feels weird to honour real history in a category that has otherwise been exclusively dedicated to fiction, but if not for Apollo XI, this might have been the first year that we suggested a No Award result.