Sunday 23 April 2023

A Canticle For Hopepunk

From early days in the genre, novels were often built out of previously-published short stories. The result was called “A fix-up.” Stories that had been popular in pulp magazines sometimes helped convince publishers that there was an appetite for a more expansive and expensive book-length version.
Vast sweeps of history can show
the ramifications of policy decisions.
(Image via Goodreads)

These fix-ups also came with their own synergy between form and function. Interlinked stories working on similar themes turned out to be a form of science fiction that was well-suited for galaxy-spanning tales and large sweeps of future history. Many of the books traditionally considered to be classics of the genre fit this mold, such as Foundation, City, and The Martian Chronicles.

With the rise of cheap paperback novels in the 1960s, and the decline of pulp magazines, the great science fiction tradition of fix-ups has been in significant decline. Which is why it’s refreshing to read Annalee Newitz’ latest novel. Although not technically a fix-up, The Terraformers uses a style and structure that is reminiscent of many of these works.

In fact, the novel could be read as a response — a mirror image even — of Walter Miller Jr.’s Hugo-winner A Canticle For Leibowitz. But while Miller is focused on history’s cycles of creation and destruction, Newitz’ book explores tensions between freedom and corporate serfdom.

Like Miller’s fix-up novel, Terraformers is split into three sections that are set in similar locations but separated in time by centuries.

Each book’s first section focuses on an individual in a sparsely-populated world making the discovery of an underground facility filled with hidden knowledge. It’s this section of Terraformers that provides the book’s two most memorable and compelling characters; an ecological systems analyst named Destry and Whistle, the intelligent flying moose she rides.

In both novels, the second section involves two institutions in conflict over the control of technology. While Miller had secular scientists and the church battling over access to knowledge, Newitz shows democratic egalitarian governance struggling against hierarchical capitalists over transportation technology.

We are on #TeamWhistle.
(Photo by Olav Rokne)
Though both novels end with a revolution, Newitz’s work is less fatalistic. Terraformers seems to suggest that although there will always be those who seek to dominate others through wealth, through hierarchy, and through coercion, the majority of people will work towards community and good governance. 

The classic fix-up novels that focused on a sweep of history shared many similar flaws; compelling characters are given short shrift, transitions between historical eras can be jarring, and some portions drag. In mirroring the strengths of these works, The Terraformers is also burdened with many of the same problems.

Large-scale sweep-of-history stories might make it difficult to put the focus on individual characters, but they do provide the opportunity to relay the long-term consequences of policy decisions. In the hands of politically astute writers like Newitz and Miller, this medium can provide insightful commentary on human nature.

There is also something of Clifford D. Simak’s fix-up novel City in the DNA of The Terraformers, as uplifted animals debate the merits and the legacy of humanity. Newitz introduces us to talking wolves, cats, and earthworms, whose views on the conduct of homo sapiens is not always glowing. This occasionally gives the book a fable-like quality that some readers appreciated, but others found a wee bit twee.

With their third novel, Newitz offers readers a good example of a classic science fictional form that has been much neglected over the past few decades. As with the best fix-ups, it is more than the sum of its parts.

Sunday 16 April 2023

Successful Mimicry

Given the character’s adherence to logic and to the scientific method, Sherlock Holmes has long been considered at least liminally a science fictional character. In various guises, and with thinly-veiled references, Holmes lurks in the margins of almost every science fictional mystery tale.
(Image via Amazon)

But science fiction is a difficult setting in which to construct a mystery plot. Drawing readers in to an imaginary world involves providing information about the setting … which is at odds with the ways in which mysteries must keep a reader guessing. Offer too little information about a science fiction setting and readers will not know what’s going on, offer too much information in a mystery story and the whodunnit becomes trivial.

With her recent novella Mimicking Of Known Successes, Malka Older provides one of the few examples of navigating that philosophical tension successfully, providing a richly imagined world whose politics and conflicts hit close to home, while also drawing readers into a mystery whose solution isn’t immediately obvious.

Set on a network of floating communities in Jupiter’s atmosphere centuries after the Earth was rendered uninhabitable, the book follows an academic ecologist named Pleiti who is dragged into a missing person’s investigation by detective (and ex-girlfriend) Mossa. The detective is renowned amongst her peers for her ability to solve cases from minute pieces of evidence; she is the person that they consult when cases seem insoluble. The case grows more complex as items are stolen from Pleiti’s university laboratory, and the two get targeted by an assassin.

Any story with a master-detective who has a near preternatural understanding of evidence working alongside a non-detective friend will inevitably be read as a modernized homage to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. It is a daunting mantle to bear, but Older carries it remarkably well.

Malta Older is known for policy-forward
and wonkish science fiction (which we've
enjoyed in the past). Mimicking of Known
is a departure, but still excellent.
(Image via
Far too many of those who have sought to imitate or adapt Doyle’s stories have failed to grasp the centrality of the Watson-Holmes dynamic, often portraying Watson as a dullard sidekick who serves as a sounding board as Holmes expounds upon unfolding plot details. Older seems to understand Doyle’s work and character dynamics, imbuing the Mossa-Pleiti partnership with both a warmth and a mutual respect that fans of Arther Conan Doyle will appreciate. The fact that there’s romance between the two main leads is believable and more interesting because of that foundation.

When Mossa and Pleiti unravel the mystery, it is largely unexpected and yet makes perfect sense within the setting and the society that Older has presented. Just as importantly, the motivations of the primary antagonists are understandable, and easy to empathize with. It is an impressive piece of writing.

Given that Older is best known for her Hugo-finalist Centenal Cycle, readers might expect hard-edged and wonkish prose that delves into governance structures and alternate ways of organizing. However, Mimicking Of Known Successes provides something more similar to Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers books; something cozy and inviting that has hidden depths for those who want it.

Mystery and science fiction are rarely this satisfying when mixed, and rarely this much fun.

Monday 3 April 2023

Edgelord Cinema Maximalism (Hugo Cinema 1976)

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

Warning: Contains references to sexual violence depicted in the movies being reviewed. Also spoilers.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the new wave of science fiction transformed the genre. Writing styles became more varied. Surrealism and postmodernism were embraced. Authors began to explore previously taboo subjects like sexuality, drug use and abuse, and psychology.

Many of these genre-shaping stories were rightly celebrated for their insight, their boldness, and their inventiveness. But in some quarters, the pushing of boundaries became an end unto itself, and transgression became mistaken as insight.

Although the 1976 Hugo-winning incel manifesto A Boy And His Dog may not have been the nadir of this trend, it’s probably the most iconic example.

Members of our cinema club described
A Boy And His Dog as “a spasm
of puerile adolescent garbage” and
“The most reprehensible
thing I have watched.”
(Image via IMDB)
Set in a post-apocalyptic America decades after a nuclear war, A Boy And His Dog follows Vic (Don Johnson) a libidinous 18-year-old and his telepathic dog Blood as they search for food and women. The main plot of the movie covers Vic getting lured by a woman named Quilla June (Susanne Benton) into the clutches of a community living underneath the ruins of Topeka. After a failed revolution in the underground city, Vic and Quilla June fall in love and escape back to the surface.

The offensiveness of this movie and its misogyny cannot be overstated. The protagonist is a sexual predator who hunts women for sport. The animal sidekick cheers him on in his rapes. This all culminates in a “twist” ending in which Vic murders Quilla June and feeds her to the dog; driving home the fact that this movie treats women as little more than meat. At no point does this movie critique this repulsive stance; rather, it embraces it.

The novella upon which the movie is based provides a blueprint for all these problematic elements, but is slightly more critical in its treatment of Vic and of Blood. Director L.Q. Jones — who was trained on old-school westerns — provides mostly neutral or adoring depictions of Vic and Blood. The appalling end sequence is delivered with a smirk, and with a heroic framing as they ride off into the sunset.

Numerous contemporaneous critics flagged the reprehensible nature of the movie. Joanna Russ wrote a long-form critique, suggesting that “Sending a woman to see A Boy and His Dog is like sending a Jew to a movie that glorifies Dachau; you need not be feminist to loathe this film.” Writing in Yandro, Gary Anderson suggested that he was unlikely to vote for it in the Hugos.

A Boy And His Dog should not have been nominated for a Hugo Award and yet it won one. Anything else on the shortlist would have been a better choice. It is a black mark on the Hugos, and on Worldcon.

Although it received the fewest votes that year because of its limited distribution, The Capture might have been an interesting winner. A deeply fannish work, only shown at SFF conventions, it was a slideshow presentation (later self-published as a graphic novel) written by Robert Asprin and illustrated by Phil Foglio. It tells the story of a group of science fiction fans who are abducted by aliens. Filled with nerdy references, in-jokes about frequent Worldcon attendees, and deep-cut references about SFF, this isn’t a work that would appeal to everyone.
Illustration from The Capture by Phil Foglio. 
There is enduring value to fan history for this
work to be more accessible to readers.
(Image by Phil Foglio via Merrill Collection)

But it’s also quite charming. The art is terrific, and the writing is snappier than any of us had expected. The denouement — in which the fans are so annoying that the aliens decide to give up and send them back to Earth — is just … genre appropriate.

It’s not easy to find a copy of The Capture today. We were only able to access it because one of the members of our cinema club flew 2,700 kilometers to Toronto and visited the Merrill Collection. As far as we can ascertain there are only three libraries in North America that have a copy. There is also one copy available for purchase in New Jersey. Given that it is a work with enduring cultural and historical value to fandom, but which has little to no commercial value, we would urge Phil Foglio and the estate of Robert Asprin to allow the Fanac Fan History Project the permission to host an online copy of the booklet, and perhaps a recording of the original slide presentation.

One of the more interesting speculative trends in the history of Best Dramatic Presentations is how often Hugo voters seem to be able to notice an up-and-coming filmmaker before the rest of the world does. In 1976, they recognized the work of John Carpenter, long before he went on to direct any of his classic movies. Dark Star — which began as Carpenter’s student project while at the University of Southern California — is an odd, rambling movie.

After the end of the moon landings, it became 
possible to imagine outer space as ... boring.
(Image via IMDB)
Despite a microscopically low budget, a tiny cast, and some exceptionally silly special effects, there’s a lot to like in Dark Star. The story of a blue-collar crew of a star ship tasked with destroying rogue celestial objects, it's a comedic portrayal of the boredom of long-term space missions. The movie drifts aimlessly between one misadventure and the next; someone’s alien space pet becomes a threat. Later, they get caught up in a space storm. Some of these scenes work exceptionally well — particularly attempts to negotiate with a malfunctioning artificially intelligent bomb — though others fall flat. The movie almost has too many ideas (most of which would later be developed by the screenwriters into more commercially successful movies like Alien).

The highest-grossing science fiction movie of the year had been the ultraviolent commentary on sports culture Rollerball. Directed by Canadian cinema legend Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night, Fiddler on the Roof), the movie depicts a corporate-dominated dystopian future in which a bloody sport called Rollerball is used to distract the masses from larger societal inequities. At the beginning of the movie, the unquestioned greatest Rollerball player of all time Jonathan E. (James Caan), is pressured by his corporate overlords to retire after the upcoming championship, and begins to question the system that has enriched him.

All of this is a great premise for an action movie; and there’s a lot that works well in Rollerball. The set-piece sports scenes are first-rate, some of the performances are excellent, and the worldbuilding is interesting. But the suggestions of an anticapitalist message are never fully developed; viewers never learn why Jonathan is being asked to quit the sport, his relationship with his former wife Ella is never explained, and the final Rollerball match ends up feeling somewhat pointless.
The effect of concussions caused by Rollerball 
need to be studied, as too many Rollerball stars
seem to end up as Fox News talking heads.
(Image via Variety)

Of all the movies on the Hugo Shortlist in 1976, one stands out for its cultural impact and enduring appeal: Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Dialogue including gems like, “Strange women lying in ponds and distributing swords is no basis for a system of government” may be the greatest analysis of Arthurian legend ever written.

Comedies age more quickly than most other forms of cinema, but of the 1970s humorous works that received Hugo Award nominations, it’s Holy Grail that seems to have stood the test of time best. Some elements may have been sapped of their wit through endless repetition by fans, but much of it still hits its mark.

What’s sometimes overlooked is that this is also possibly the best-filmed and most lush production that the Monty Python crew ever put together. The animated segments offer us Terry Gilliam at his best, while with the live-action portions Terry Jones created provide artful shots that are edited together with panache. The result is a movie that visually reminded us of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, or John Boorman’s Zardoz.

It is interesting to note that Monty Python and the Holy Grail took second in the balloting, only being eliminated in the fourth-round. The major complaint that contemporaneous fans had about Holy Grail was that it was “barely SFF.”

At the ceremony, as was the norm, nobody from the team behind the Hugo-winning movie attended the ceremony. Shockingly, not even Harlan Ellison was there to accept the award. It was left to Ellison collaborator Edward Bryant to accept it on behalf of the production team. He noted, “There has been an ongoing controversy over the awards for dramatic achievement ... because so many times in the past, it seems the award has gone to frankly people who don’t appreciate the award.”

Viewing and writing almost five decades later, we’d suggest that perhaps it is better to give an award to someone who doesn’t appreciate it, than to celebrate something as reprehensible as A Boy And His Dog.