Wednesday 18 May 2022

All My Apes … Gone!

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

For a $2.3-billion grossing science fiction franchise that has spawned nine movies, a popular toy line, a saturday morning cartoon, a prime-time drama, and some of the most enduring Simpsons gagsPlanet of the Apes has had shockingly little recognition at the biggest awards in the genre.
Though later movies would ape its style, the
original movie's cinematography stood out.
(Image via American Cinematographer)

To date, no entry in the entire franchise has been shortlisted for a single Hugo Award or Nebula Award. This seems odd since these awards have rarely shown reluctance to reward high-grossing dramatic presentations, and some of the Apes movies are genuinely quite excellent.

Pierre Boule’s novel, originally published in French in 1963 and translated into English by Xan Fielding later that same year, probably remains the high point of the Apes franchise. Enriched by a terrific narrative framing, it’s an almost poetic allegory about the horrors of how humans treat animals. Given that the author was already an Academy Award winner (for Bridge Over The River Kwai), and the fact that it received positive reviews in the press, it seems odd in retrospect that the book was overlooked by Hugo voters in 1964. We can only speculate that within fandom circles, it carried the stench of “mundane literature.”

The first movie — which was one of the top-grossing movies of 1968 — likewise seems a surprising omission from the Hugo Awards shortlist. It was nominated for two Academy Awards, on top of a special Oscar for makeup (which was not yet a category). It was a cultural phenomenon, moments of which continue to resonate in pop culture. Looking at it in retrospect, some of the pandering and broad comedy (“Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30,” for example), comes across as condescending for today’s audience. But the 1969 Hugo shortlist has one or two weaker entries (I.E. Yellow Submarine), so it’s worth asking why the movie was ignored.
As Camus has said, an ape begins by demanding
justice, and ends by wanting to wear a crown.
(Image via USA Today)

Sequels of diminishing quality (with the possible exception of Beneath the Planet of the Apes) are also easy to dismiss as Hugo contenders, as are both of the execrable television shows. But their existence and popularity in their day points to the enduring appeal of the original works in the series. It also points to how malleable and powerful a metaphor the Apes franchise is built around: a world dominated by Apes can be used as a tool to criticize animal testing, to examine the fatalism of Cold War military policy, to interrogate class struggles, and to comment on youth culture.

Although Tim Burton’s remake was a compellingly weird flop, recent movies directed by Rupert Wyatt and Matt Reeves (of The Batman fame) have been among the most thoughtful and nuanced action blockbusters of the past decade, and featured what may be Hugo-favourite Andy Serkis’ finest performances of all time. Despite their critical and commercial success, however, not one of them has earned a coveted spot on the Hugo or Bradbury Award ballots.

It’s interesting to speculate about why this might be. Does the failure of some early works in the franchise cast a long enough shadow to dismiss consideration for subsequent releases? Do Hugo voters get into the habit of sticking with one franchise over another when preparing their nominating ballots? Despite the franchise’s success and turn towards serious dramatic fare, do the jokes about the campiness of the original frame even the later works as unserious? Whatever the reason, it seems notable.

Few media franchises have, over the course of almost six decades, seen as much variability in quality as Planet of the Apes (sometimes varying wildly within the same film). Despite its success in the broader culture, this franchise seems to be unloved within fandom. Perhaps it’s worth reevaluating our relationship with it.

Monolithic! (The Hugo cinema of 1969)

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

Content Warning: This article contains references to sexual violence, both that which is depicted in these movies, and perpetrated by the director of one of those movies.

Spoiler Warning: This article contains plot details of 50-year-old movies.

2001: A Space Odyssey was the first science fiction movie to be shortlisted for the Academy Award for screenwriting. It was a crossover success drawing rave reviews from the mainstream press, with audiences lining up to see it. On its release, it was the first science fiction film in more than a decade to be one of the top-grossing movies of the year. The American Film Institute places it 22nd on their list of the greatest movies ever made.

To non-fans, the fact that 2001 won the Hugo Award
in 1969 might seem like gilding the lily.
(Image via Harvard Crimson)
But still, winning a Hugo Award seemed far from certain.

The movie had been highly anticipated within fandom, but reactions immediately after it was released in April 1968 were extremely harsh. Reviewing an advance screening of the movie for Science Fiction Times, Walter R. Cole opined “2001 probably will be considered for a Hugo nomination in 1969, but unfortunately it is a big disappointment and should not win.” Lester del Rey was filled with invective for the movie. And although he would later change his tune, Isaac Asimov initially panned Space Odyssey.

Despite this initial vitriol, the movie slowly found champions among fandom. One of the most prominent voices in debates over Best Dramatic Presentation Hugos Juanita Coulson, declared that no science fiction movie had ever filled her with such awe. The fanzine Double Bill proclaimed it to be the best science fiction movie ever made. Even reactionary fan Ted White reluctantly went to see 2001: A Space Odyssey having told Samuel R. Delaney that he fully expected and intended to loathe it, but came out of the theatre a convert: “There is little in this movie which will be new to SF fans; in precis it reads like a 1931 SF story: a moralistic travelog that ends upon an almost sermon-like moral” White wrote in Shangri-L’affaires “But it is effective … I was impressed. In spite of myself.”

Certainly, the movie divided our viewing group as few films ever had.

Given the polarity of opinions about A Space Odyssey, it was bound to be a contentious winner, and arguments continued about it for years. Notably a faction of younger fans were all-in for The Prisoner, while another faction was peeved that Star Trek had been left off the ballot altogether.

There are numerous intriguing omissions from the ballot that year. Planet of the Apes, which was a cultural phenomenon and kicked off one of the most successful science fiction film franchises of all time, was nowhere on the ballot

Possibly the most egregious omission in hindsight is Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero’s seminal and provocative classic. Though it has spawned numerous imitators, sequels, parodies, remakes, and rip-offs, this raw and visceral original has yet to be equaled. It’s tightly edited and enjoys a narrative momentum that distinguishes it from its contemporaries in SFF. The characters are quickly introduced, and they are thrown into a pressure cooker. The multipolar tensions in the group illuminate issues of race and class in ways that continue to resonate more than 50 years later. For at least one member of our cinema club, this movie deserved the Hugo Award most of all.
The movie that has possibly withstood the test of time
best of all is the low-budget Night of the Living Dead.
(Image via FilmComment)

Almost as notable an oversight is that after two years of Star Trek’s dominance, the show was shut out from the Hugo shortlist. Despite a common perception in 1969 that the show had jumped the shark, Star Trek had several worthy episodes that would have been eligible. These include The Enterprise Incident (air date September 27, 1968), The Immunity Syndrome (air date January 19, 1968), The Ultimate Computer (air date March 8, 1968), and The Tholian Web (air date November 15, 1968). Given the dominance of Trek the previous years, we were not too disappointed to see it off the ballot, though it is a shame that the late great Dorothy Fontana had to wait another 20 years to receive a Hugo Award.

The ballot as it stood hewed more to mainstream culture than to the fannish, which was unusual for that era of Hugo Awards. Between the five nominees, two of them were among the top-grossing movies of the year, another featured the most popular pop band in history, and another was an actor-focused drama and mainstream critical darling. Three of the shortlisted movies received trophies at that year’s Academy Awards: Ruth Gordon winning for Best Supporting Actress in Rosemary’s Baby; Charly getting best actor for Cliff Robertson; and 2001: A Space Odyssey being recognized for the best special effects.

Although Yellow Submarine is a visually compelling movie that’s livened by classic and enduring songs, it seemed to us the weakest of the nominated works. Despite the truly spectacular images, a thread-bare nonsensical plot, and the wittering banalities fobbed off as dialogue render long stretches of the movie almost unbearable. In retrospect, we would argue, this did not deserve consideration for a Hugo Award: it’s great as a sequence of music videos, but poor as fantasy or science fiction.

The Prisoner, which comes from the same “cool Britannia” moment of pop culture as Yellow Submarine, fares a lot better in the light of history. The concluding episode “Fall Out”, which made it onto the Hugo ballot, sums up the themes of the series nicely, and provides an emotional resolution to the question of whether or not Number Two can escape. Interestingly, both Yellow Submarine and The Prisoner: Fall Out use the song “All You Need Is Love” in their soundtracks. It’s used with sincerity in the Beatles movie, but with a twist of irony in The Prisoner. We would suggest that it is more effective in the latter.
Was Barbarella a good movie? Definitely not.
But it was visually compelling, and the focus
on female pleasure stands in sharp contrast to 
the violent and deeply troubling scenes in Charly.

is the first remake to have been shortlisted for the Hugo Award, having been previously on the ballot as the TV movie The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon in 1961, shortlisted as a novel, and having already won a Hugo as a short story Flowers For Algernon. In light of modern understandings of disabilities, this movie comes across as dated and condescending towards persons with Down’s Syndrome. And the scene in which the protagonist Charly Gordon tries to force himself on his teacher Alice is extremely problematic, especially in light of how this act of violence is framed as forgivable, and an expression of love. If we’d had our druthers, this movie would not have been a Hugo finalist.

It is impossible to talk about Rosemary’s Baby without addressing the later conduct of its director. Roman Polanski has admitted in court to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, and as such, his inclusion on this shortlist is a stain on the Hugo Awards. In fact, it is difficult to judge this movie without considering Polanski’s crimes, particularly given that the feminist themes in Rosemary’s Baby stand in stark contrast to the director’s personal life. While there is a scene in which sexual assault is depicted in this movie, it is framed much differently than in Charly. By showing the event from a female perspective, Rosemary’s Baby does not imply the act is anything other than horrific.

The whole movie can be read as a parable about how the patriarchy forces women into specific roles, and punishes those who confront conformity; and the horror of the final scene is that Rosemary ultimately gives in. This presents a significant question about how much a viewer should separate the art from the artist, or how much of a movie belongs to the director, rather than to the original novelist, or actors like Mia Farrow who gave an extraordinary performance, and accentuated the works feminist themes. In some ways, Rosemary's Baby might be more poignant these days than in 1969, and the fact that a predator created it makes it even more unsettling. It is a remarkably excellent movie on many levels and might have topped some of our ballots, though in light of his crimes, most of us would choose not to honour Polanski.

Revisiting 2001: A Space Odyssey in the context of contemporaneous screen science fiction highlights
As had become tradition, nobody
involved in the making of the
Best Dramatic Presentation winner
was on-hand to accept the award.
Well-known fan David Kyle
accepted the award on behalf
of the production.
(Photo by Jay Kay Klein
via Calisphere)

just how remarkable a movie it was. However, it remains just as polarizing. Some of the group could not get past how slow and ponderous it was, but all acknowledged the cinematography and immersive special effects were unlike anything that had been made to date. The special effects would not be equaled for almost a decade. Even such minor elements as the helmets on the spacesuits look light-years more believable than those from Marooned — a movie made a year later on an equivalent budget. The scope of the movie was huge but was made relatable through the slice-of-life-in-space scenes. Some go as far as to call it a masterpiece. Love it or loathe it, we could not deny its impact, both on science fiction and how mainstream audiences perceived the genre.

Screen science fiction and fantasy’s best and worst were on display at the 1969 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, and often within the same shortlisted work. Even more than previous years, the Hugo shortlist feels like a time capsule that both reflects a world that no longer exists and reminds us that, when it comes to gender-based violence, we’ve still got a ways to go.

Friday 13 May 2022

The enduring appeal of the last ditch attempt

It feels like Project Hail Mary fell out of a time travel portal from the year 1986.

Much like many of the best-selling and award-winning science fiction novels of that time, Andy Weir’s third novel is an engineering-forward big adventure in space. And much like many of the best-selling and award-winning science fiction novels of that time, the book largely ignores pesky questions of race, class and gender.
Project Hail Mary's cover was
designed by Hugo-finalist
Will Staehle
(Image via Goodreads)

While many of us in the book club are often drawn to SFF that incorporates social justice commentary, some of us were happy to add a more escapist work like Project Hail Mary to our reading lists.

Much like Weir’s first (and most famous) novel The Martian, this is a book about a lone human protagonist in an unfamiliar environment using logic, math, and science to solve problems. The protagonist Ryland Grace wakes up from suspended animation in a spaceship with little memory of why he’s there, and must figure out both his mission and how to survive.

The broad strokes of the narrative — life on Earth is imperiled by a cosmic catastrophe, and it’s up to science to save humanity — will be a familiar one to many readers. In fact, the plot could be paralleled to those found in recent Hugo finalists such as Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut of Mars books and Neil Stephenson’s Seveneves.

With Project Hail Mary, this cosmic catastrophe comes in the form of solar dimming that will plunge the Earth into a fimbulwinter. It is quickly determined that the problem is caused by a microorganism — dubbed “astrophage” — that’s infected the sun and several other nearby stars. The titular project is subsequently launched to investigate the one local star that astronomers believe is immune to the astrophage.

Grace’s amnesia is a bit contrived at times, and provides ample opportunity for the sort of trigonometry fetishism that is a hallmark of Weir’s writing. Readers who get frustrated at the pedantic demonstrations of high-school physics will probably not enjoy this book.

Flashbacks to the inception, creation, and launch of the spaceship provide much-needed context to what’s going on, both on Earth and in space, but unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few decades, can feel somewhat naive. Weir paints a picture of humanity coming together to solve a global problem that threatens the survival of the species, which seems unlikely. Negative consequences of decisions made by protagonists are waved away. As an example of this myopia, we’d suggest looking at the side plot about an enormous solar project built in Africa, which Weir offhandedly notes will “lift the continent out of poverty”. Anyone who has taken even a cursory examination of development economics or the history of infrastructure projects built in Africa by for-profit behemoths will know that these ventures never end up enriching local populations. At times, this can feel hopelessly Pollyannaish and even knock an especially jaded reader out of the book. Even those of us who enjoyed the book noted Weir’s tendency to avoid talking about challenging political ideas, which can be seen as an embrace of the status quo.

At the risk of spoiling some plot arcs within the novel, what elevates Project Hail Mary above Weir’s previous two books is the communication, cooperation, and eventual friendship between Ryland Grace and a non-human sentient being named Rocky. This heavy-metal arachnid might be Weir’s most memorable character to date, and this empathetic relationship provides the novel with much-needed heart. The habitrail-like system of tubes that Rocky builds himself within Grace’s spaceship also provides an amusing visual. As an aside, many of the visual descriptions seem purposefully written for the screen and, surprise, a movie is in the works. However, as pointed out on the Narrated Podcast, even the character of Rocky is affected by the author's penchant for taking the path of least critical engagement with culture; Rocky is referred to by male pronouns, even though it is made textually clear that they/them pronouns would be more accurate. 
A three-page copyright court scene could almost stand
alone as flash fiction, and provides observant commentary
about the broken nature of this regime. It’s oddly believable
that it would take an international coalition with legal
immunity and the backing of a large military to ensure
that copyright public policy serves the public good.
(Image via

Andy Weir’s approach to science fiction is a classically nerdy approach, and can probably be best paralleled to that of Hal Clement or to Fred Hoyle. Like Clement, Weir sets up an improbable — but vaguely scientifically plausible — scenario and then follows that premise to as logical a conclusion as he can manage. And like Clement, his work has attracted a lot of ardent fans among engineers and scientists. (It might be noted that Clement also had to wait until he was nearly 50 years old to receive his first-and-only Hugo nomination in 1971 for the novel Star Light.)

Triumphalist visions of accelerated NASA, rocket ships to nearby stars, friendly sentient aliens, and survival stories in space are well-worn ideas in science fiction. But Project Hail Mary shows that there can be value in old ideas done well.

The novel is elevated by an emotionally satisfying ending that managed to simultaneously be unexpected, and to fit within the context of the story.

Hard science fiction has rarely been front-and-centre with the Hugo Awards, but over the past two decades, it has seemed that this type of work has fallen even further out of fashion. Despite some flaws, Project Hail Mary is a good example of the subgenre, and one we’re glad to see on the Hugo ballot this year.