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.