Friday 29 December 2023

Death From Above (Hugo cinema 1979)

This blog post is the 22th in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.

As the 1970s drew to a close, science fiction cinema was in transition. The Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1979 reflects this; socially conscious environmental parables of the waning decade were making way for a new era of popcorn cinema.
Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz presents the 1979
Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation to
Superman star Christopher Reeve at Seacon.
(Image via Supermania78)

For the first time, there were two animated movies nominated in the same year (something that would not happen again until 2002): Watership Down and Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings. Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy became the first (and to date only) commercially broadcast radio show to earn a Hugo nod. This left Superman and Invasion of the Body Snatchers as the only live-action movies up for the award. From the start of organized fandom, fanzines had always provided reviews of movies, but in the late 1970s, more column inches were spent on cinema than ever before. Fans debated whether movies like The Wiz, The Cat From Outer Space, or Coma deserved recognition for the Hugo, and wisely decided that they did not.

In the wake of Star Wars, Hollywood had begun to recognize the commercial viability of big-budget science fiction. The floodgates were opening.

There had also been an uptick in televised science fiction. In Britain, Blake’s 7 was drawing in up to 10 million viewers an episode. In the United States, Glen A. Larson’s Battlestar Galactica became the most expensive television series ever made up to that point. Although it received mixed reviews from fandom, the original pilot Saga of a Star World holds up surprisingly well today. One of the show’s few defenders in fandom, Mike Glyer noted that “Battlestar Galactica has been panned in every review I've read — must be something wrong with me, I enjoyed it.”

In the days leading up to the Worldcon in Brighton, UK, the original radio production of The Hitchhikers’ Guide To The Galaxy seemed to have the edge. Indisputably fannish, and replete with genre references, it was an immediate hit in the United Kingdom. Despite the fact that the Douglas Adams’ comedy would not be broadcast in the United States until three years later, SFF fans all over the world were alerted to its existence by their British friends. It was broadcast on the BBC Worldwide shortwave service, and some North American fans were able to receive it via shortwave radio (and bootleg audio cassettes). File 770 took the unusual step of publishing the schedule of shortwave broadcasts for the show.
How many Hugo finalists have
inspired songs by Radiohead
and Perfect Circle?
(Image via Wikipedia)

Though it’s broadly recognized as a classic today, Richard Donner’s Superman did not seem destined to win the Hugo Award in 1979. When the movie first came out, critics were less than charitable in their assessment of the film. The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael excoriated it as smarmy and cynical with “a sour, scared undertone.” The New York Times’ review is even more dismissive, opining that, “It's as if somebody had constructed a building as tall as the World Trade Center in the color and shape of a carrot. Rabbits might admire it. They might even write learned critiques about it and find it both an inspiration and a reward, while the rest of us would see nothing but an alarmingly large, imitation carrot.”

Even within fandom, there was a sense that comic books weren’t ‘real science fiction,’ and consequently a comic book movie wasn’t a ‘real science fiction’ movie. In the fanzine SF Review, editor Richard E. Geis wrote that “We hated Superman cordially (and hated Invasion of the Body Snatchers not so cordially).”

Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings is arguably the weakest work on the shortlist. Some of the viewers in our group would have considered ranking it below no award if we were voting today. Although the first half of the movie hews closely to JRR Tolkein’s original novel, the second half rushes through major plot points without pause before ending abruptly. Praising the faithfulness of the adaptation, but excoriating the jumpy rotoscoping and off-putting visuals, fan Bill Warren dismissed Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings as “Middling Earth.”

More than in previous years, there was debate about the shortlist, and various works had their proponents. Harlan Ellison had endorsed Watership Down, writing that, “It is intelligent, elegant, true to the splendid book from which it was adapted, and as uplifting for adults as it will be for kids.” A reimagining of the Biblical story of Exodus told with rabbits, the movie had its world premiere at the 1978 Worldcon in Arizona. It may have received a boost by being seen by likely Hugo voters, and the enthusiastic lobbying of Ellison. The naturalism of the animal depictions resonate, and the painterly backdrops are striking, but there’s a tonal disconnect between the seriousness of the violence and juvenile elements like the wacky seagull sidekick Kehaar.
(Image via IMDB)

Though it initially received mixed reviews from mainstream critics, and only a modest success in its initial release, over time the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers has gained critical acclaim. Some members of SFF fandom were ahead of the curve, with frequent reviewer Bill Warren describing it as the finest movie he’d seen that year, and suggesting that it was “more than just a remake of an old classic, it's a new classic in itself.” More than four decades after its release, the movie has aged well, with multiple possible interpretations. We ended up debating whether it was a warning about the threat of communism, a meditation on societal pressures to conform, or something else. It deserved its nomination, and would have been a worthy winner. It probably lost Hugo votes because author Jack Finney — upon whose book the movie is based — had shown some disdain for the fandom community.

In the final Hugo vote, the top two finalists were surprisingly close … each of which featured a protagonist who is the last survivor of a doomed planet and each of which had an influence on broader, mainstream culture: Superman and The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.

Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy is rightly regarded as a classic of science fiction comedy. Those in our cinema club who love it, do so unreservedly … but it was not to everyone’s taste. Understated and ironic, some consider it a masterpiece of timing and laconic charm, despite the dialogue feeling loose and unstructured. Following an everyday Englishman who survives the destruction of planet Earth, the series meanders between various science fiction tropes before the protagonist uncovers the galactic conspiracy behind his planet’s demolition. There’s a reason this radio show spawned four sequels, was adapted into a television series, a movie, a video game, and a novelization that sold more than 14 million copies.
The vote came down to two 
stories — each about a last
survivor of a doomed planet
who has to face off against
real estate developers.

The initial popularity of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy cannot be overstated. Within months of its first airing, fans had adapted it to a stage production, and Graham England was publishing a fanzine titled Don’t Panic, which was actively campaigning to get a Hugo Award for its author Douglas Adams. “I’m more astonished and delighted than I can say at the prospect of being put forward for a Hugo nomination — a fairly mind boggling prospect,” Adams wrote on February 14, 1979 about the campaign to have him recognized, and said he was trying to make the show available in the United States.

Despite the disdain critics had shown for it, Superman was the highest-grossing movie of the year and had connected to audiences. At the time, no movie based on a comic book superhero had been among the year’s top-20 grossing films (previous superhero movies such as the 1966 Batman were comparatively small-scale affairs). In many ways, this would be seen as the turning point in cinema history; the most dominant movies of today had their genesis in 1978, with almost every superhero movie in subsequent decades taking cues from Richard Donner’s interpretation of Superman.

When rewatching these movies with 40 years of hindsight, it’s clear that this was not only one of the more interesting Hugo shortlists, it was one of the best. After decades in which the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award had been somewhat of an afterthought, science fiction cinema seemed to be coming into its own.

Saturday 9 December 2023

Old Man's Boss Baby

(Image via Goodreads)
There’s a saying in the labour movement: make someone a boss and they’re going to act like a boss.

It’s an observation based on a familiar pattern of workers becoming managers and then acting in ways that put them at odds with the needs of the proletariat. The system incentives people to make decisions that serve the few instead of the many.

This is, fundamentally, the problem with John Scalzi’s latest novel. Starter Villain is narrated in the first person by Charlie, an underemployed and financially precarious teacher who inherits a megacorporation after the death of his estranged uncle Jake. Charlie quickly learns that Uncle Jake’s business empire involved global extortion, illicit genetic experiments, and orbital laser platforms; the protagonist inherits the role of corporate supervilain.

It’s an amusing and intriguing premise … one that could have been used to interrogate capitalist systems of power. Instead, Charlie is presented with a series of facile moral quandaries that are resolved when his ‘common-sense’ and ‘hometown values’ lead him to simplistic solutions for complex situations.

He’s a boss … but he avoids acting like a boss because the book skirts around the perverse incentives that (in the real world) drive many in the management class to act like psychopaths. The novel suggests that the evils of capitalism are not based on structural problems, but on the fact that the wrong people are in charge.

Possibly the most egregious example of this is in how Charlie deals with workers’ rights at his secret volcano lair. Early in the novel, he’s introduced to a pod of genetically enhanced intelligent dolphins, and he learns that they have formed a labour union in order to demand better compensation and working conditions. Although the complaints of the dolphins are depicted as being valid, their negotiating tactics are portrayed as obstreperous and confrontational. That is, the reason they have been unable to resolve their contract negotiation is because of worker intransigence. This dispute is resolved when Charlie takes the time to listen to the workers without getting angry at their antics.

The problem with this understanding of labour relations is that it diminishes the agency of the workers and portrays the skills of managers as superior instead of specialized.

Now, it should be noted that this type of labour union depiction is a significant improvement over the anti-worker rhetoric that was common in science fiction of the 1940s-1970s. But it is still based on ideas of management-class paternalism; this is a story in which the liberation of the cetacean proletariat derives not from the emancipation of the worker but from the benevolence of management. However, in reality, anything that can be offered by a good boss can be denied by a bad one.
Maybe it's a bad idea to put people into positions
of authority based on who their uncle was.
(Image via

Ignoring worker perspectives has a long tradition in science fiction stories. Scalzi’s work fits neatly alongside Asimov’s, Dick’s and Pohl’s; evidently well-intentioned towards workers, but ultimately reinforcing management supremacy and failing to platform worker agency.

One highlight of Starter Villain, however, is a denouement which relies on worker-led interspecies solidarity. Not only is this a philosophically coherent plot mechanism, but it showcases percussive action that few authors writing today are capable of.

Scalzi is an author whose work we’ve often admired. His brand of quippy, accessible prose is often entertaining and fun. The Collapsing Empire novels were engaging and well-thought out parables about the dangers of science denial. Old Man’s War is a modern classic for a reason. But Starter Villain hews to some of Scalzi’s more irritating writerly quirks; a protagonist who’s a bit too smug propped up by smart-alec sidekicks. This is admittedly a comedic novel … and nothing is more subjective than comedy. So this farce might be more to some peoples’ tastes than ours.

Not all labour unions are created equal, and nor are depictions of labour unions in science fiction. The past few years have seen some of the best SFF about labour unions ever published (among others, we’d highlight Babel by R.F. Kuang, 
We Built This City by Marie Vibbert, & Hunger Makes The Wolf by Alex Wells). Simply put, Starter Villain falls short.