Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Redshirts - A Very Funny and Thought Provoking Novel

With all the conflagration surrounding this year's Hugo Awards, the winner of 2 years ago, Redshirts by John Scalzi, has come up as a title that may not have deserved the award. After reading it, I have to say that it did deserve the award.

An award winning science fiction novel should do a number of things. Namely tell a good story, but the really good ones make you think as well. Redshirts is very clearly inspired by Star Trek and the many one-off characters who died in the course of those 79 episodes (most of them sporting red uniform tunics). But it takes that idea to several new levels. One, it is about a copy cat show that isn't even supposed to be very good. Second, the characters come to know they are in a show and then set about changing things.

The romp through the fictional world was fun and filled with things that made me laugh out loud. It was one of the most fun books I've read in years. It was obvious from the outset (with even the title warning you) that needless death was at hand, but the way it was handled was superb. Scalzi has crafted an epic tale that will stand the test of time. You don't need to be a fan of the original Star Trek, but it helps.

So Redshirts now takes its place with the many other Hugo Award winners and it fits right in. The nature of the story, the excellently detailed universe, the philosophical ideas covered, all lead to an excellent novel that is worth the read and deserved the Awards it was honored with.

Monday, May 25, 2015

That Special Component That Makes A Classic Epic

Epic films are nothing new. In many ways, most science fiction films try to be epic. Most of them fail and I have stumped upon the single element that leads to that failure or success.

Fans of Star Wars almost universally agree that The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the saga. There is a reason for that. I used to consider the first film (titled simple Star Wars or A New Hope depending on your level of purism) the best and in many ways it is, but it was really eclipsed by its sequel in virtually every way save the ending. Empire is the middle chapter, yet it holds its own. The secret lies in the choice of director. Irvin Kershner was known for his personal, intimate style. He didn't tell epics, he told stories of people and that is what Empire is.

If you take a look at the Star Trek films, you find much the same thing. Why were the second and fourth movies the best? They told very personal stories. The second even manged to do so without having the two main opponents on the same set. A brilliant piece of story telling. The fourth film does it by making it about this small crew going home to face the music for what they have done and finding a way to save the planet in the process. These films are about the people. Plus they tell a pretty great story.

When the creators of a film realize this little secret, they hit gold. William Wyler did this for MGM in 1959 with Ben-Hur. He was the director of very intimate, personal movies. Yet here he was making the largest and biggest budget epic to date. That was the success of the film. That is why so many films fail. They fail to realize that a good story is first and foremost about the people that inhabit it. When the creators of a film realize this, the film succeed because all their choices are focused into telling the best story they can and if the background is epic, the picture is epic.

This holds true for the written word as well. All stories are about the characters and their journey. A well crafted tell can tell anything on top of that and can do so with many characters at the same time. Movies usually need to pare that down a bit and focus on just a few, but a few rare movies can capture that even with a large cast. But no matter the scale, the film needs to be intimate. You need to get close to the characters. You need to feel their journey. When you watch Han and Leia fall in love, you believe it. When Leia reveals her feelings, there is no doubt because the stage has been set. Han responding with "I know" just tops it all off.

Love, is of course, not the only intimate tale to tell, but it is a very common on. Stories fail when they fail to make the story intimate and personal. In Battlestar Galactica (1978), you care about the people. You quickly get invested in their journeys. In Galactica 1980, the characters have great adventures, but you don't get to know them at all. There are no moments when the characters reveal themselves.

Generations have followed Frodo to Mordor because Tolkien invested his tale with intimate moments where the characters come alive. Yes, the story is of great adventure and he was a great world builder, but the success comes down to the reader caring about Frodo and the story being so much about him and his companions more than the War of the Ring.

Same for the original Star Wars trilogy. We care about Luke, Han, Leia, and the others, because the movies are intimate. Here they are toppling the great Galactic Empire of Palpatine, and they story is not just about the battles they fight, it is about their friendship, their relationships, the other events in their lives, as much as the battles.

So great story telling, no matter the medium, is that intimate connection to the characters that bring them, not just to life, but close. Like you know them personally.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Watching the Classic Battlestar Galactica Again

I've had the DVD's sitting on my shelf for ages, but I had not fully watching the series in quite some time. And for full measure, I watched all of it, including the 1980 series. But I finally got around to it and just finished the final episode yesterday.

In many ways, Battlestar Galactica was just another studio's answer to Star Wars. It was originally slated to be a TV movie, but ended up being show theatrically (which is how I first saw it). Then it blazed onto the small screen. But it only lasted a season before it was cancelled. It came back a year later, but with a mostly different cast and just wasn't the same. Fast forward a couple of decades and it was rebooted and came back as a series that was allowed to run its course. I just couldn't get into that one. It lacked the visual style of the original and the story went directions that were too out there for my tastes.

But it was born in 1978. Looking at it today compared to its compatriots, Star Wars, Alien, Battle Beyond the Stars, Star Trek The Motion Picture, and others, the sets and effects hold up very well. They started out with high production values and they kept that up for the first series (to some the only real series - and understandable viewpoint). The stories were well written. When you consider that it came on 10 years after Star Trek's third season, it is frankly an amazing series.

The DVD includes several special features which reveal a lot about the series and probably a bit about why it didn't make it. The series had great production values on screen, but they were rushing things. They had intended to do a TV movie and maybe later a series, but the network wanted a series and they gave them one. With the actors getting scenes minutes before they were to be shot and everything happening at the last minute, some things about the series are less than stellar. Sometimes the acting leaves a bit to be desired, sometimes there are goofs. But when you compare it to other contemporary series, it is very good. Supremely good, but maybe a bit before its time. It arrived in the wake of Star Wars, but it wasn't Star Wars. Glen A. Larson mixed a bunch of his interests together and crafted an idea that was unique and stands up to time. But like many series (dare I bring up Firefly), it didn't find its audience fast enough and it went off the air. The network had them do another series - something more familiar - and Buck Rogers was on the air for 2 years (next up in my viewing schedule). So it wasn't the production, it was the story. I got it, but not enough people did. Plus the little issues that brought the show down a bit.

But 37 years on, it is still outstanding. It can hold its own with Star Trek, Babylon 5, and Firefly. At least that is until you add in the 1980 series.

Many will automatically go "yuch" at the mere mention of Galactica 1980, but it did not turn out to be quite what they had envisioned it to be and had to change course after the pilot story. It was to be a time travel story and it ended up being a Colonial Scouts story. You really can't put it in the same category as the first series. It just isn't up to that standard. Plus it wreck's the continuity. That said, I have seen a lot of bad movies and bad TV series and Galactica 1980 isn't that bad. It is cheesy, but that was not unusual in 1980. It is just so far below the first series that few of the fans could appreciate it. Watching it now, 35 years later, I found that I did appreciate it. At least for what it is. It is flawed, deeply flawed, but the premise has merit and the execution was normal. I find it far more watchable than Knight Rider, though not nearly as good as Airwolf. But it certainly didn't find its audience. 10 episodes in it was cancelled. Probably for the best, though I think the production team was just getting the hang of the new format they had been forced into.

One of the most fun things is the final episode. While it is set in the framing story of Doctor Zee telling Adama about a dream, the episode is about Starbuck. It gives the entire series an end on a high note with one of the best stories of all of them (definitely the best of Galactica 1980). I shouldn't wait so long to watch it again.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Ann Leckie - What A Hugo Award Winner Should Look Like

I've been reading F/SF for over 35 years. I have a lot of past Hugo Award winners that number among my favorites so I am well versed in what constitutes an award winning story. Last years Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice popped onto my radar when it won not only the Hugo Award, but the Nebula Award as well. It went on to win several other awards as well.

It features an interesting set of premises - that the point of view character is the last remaining component of a ship AI and the culture that it comes from makes no gender distinction. Consequently all the pronouns, except when using a different language (noted in the text as such), are feminine.

I have a feeling the pronoun usage might get in some people's way in enjoying this work, but I found it very alien and that it added to the world building immensely.

When you get down to the story, it is a truly epic space opera set far in the future - in terms of unspecified thousands of years. Everything is fleshed out, painting a brilliant picture of the world in the author's mind. You feel what it might be like to have different pieces of yourself. You can feel the Ancillary's pain and confusion when that is cut. And brilliantly, the author not only portrayed the former AI that way, but also the leader of the people. How else do you control a multi-system empire except to divide yourself and be everywhere at once.

And past the events of the story itself are the character interactions and development. The characters come alive and are more than the words on the page. I felt like I had lived the story with them. A brilliant feat of writing.

I have to say that this was as good, if not better, than some of the great stuff I read many years ago. Hugo Award winning (and Nebula Award winning) are markers of quality and this novel fit right in.

I quickly followed reading Ancillary Justice with the sequel, Ancillary Sword. It was as good and as engrossing, bringing with it new aspects of the universe and the characters. If a sequel ever deserved as many awards as the original, this one certainly does. It is a magnificent world given to us by a magnificent writer. I can't wait for the third book. I definitely have a new author to add to my list of favorites. I can't wait to see what she does next. Her nomination for this year's Hugo Awards is justly deserved.