Saturday, December 24, 2005

Happy holiday SF memories

Season’s Greetings everyone!

In the spirit of the season, I thought I’d indulge in that favourite of yuletide traditions: reminiscing.
Okay, fine, in actual fact my favourite holiday tradition is to belly up to the dining room table with family and friends (especially since in recent years we’ve gathered other merry-makers for an orphan’s Christmas when many of us haven’t been able to make it home to our families for the holidays) for some laughs while we attack a turkey with all the trimmings (save some extra skin for me!).
But since this blog is about SF rather than food (although, admittedly, the subject of food does come up a lot in one way or another – I make no apologies for nods toward one of my other passions), I thought it would be fun to look back to some of, in my opinion, the best SF contributions to the holidays.
For me, no Christmas Eve has been complete since I became an adult without re-reading “The Star” by Arthur C. Clarke. There’s a poigniency in any tale about a man grappling with his faith, but in this case it’s all the more interesting because of his shocking discovery in the depths of space, and during the Christmas season no less. Sure, some of the science (notions of supernovaed suns having lasted long enough to spawn planets with intelligent life) is out-dated, but that doesn’t distract from the pathos of the story.
And you can’t have Christmas without Charles Dickons’ “A Christmas Carol”. In an age where there are probably at least a dozen versions of this story on film and tv, it’s always worth it to pick up the book every couple of years and feel and smell the paper as the ghosts drag the Victorian curmudgeon through time and space to bring him around.
Other literary recommendations: “Christmas Stories” from Random House’s “The Charles Dickons Library” to get a look at some of Dickons other, less well-known holiday tales; “Christmas Ghosts”, edited by Mike Resnick and Martin H. Greenberg; “Christmas Stars”, edited by David G. Hartwell; and J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Letters from Father Christmas”.
On to the small screen. Let me say right off the bat I have no fond memories of that great fiasco of the ‘70’s: “Star Wars: Christmas Among the Stars”. This is for the simple reason that I haven’t actually seen the aforementioned train wreck. Granted, I was around when it aired, but I didn’t catch it at the time and Lucas has done a good job in eliminating all traces of it in the years since. I haven’t bothered with trying to track it down on the net yet, but one of this years we’ll probably cross paths (came close a few years back when visiting my folks in Ottawa for the holidays when the club Zaphod Beeblebrox down in the Byward Market screened it one night as part of a theme party, but I had other, family-related duties at the time).
No, my first TV Christmas special loyalty is to a program that’s nearly equally as rare: “John Denver and the Muppets Christmas”. While the more recent “Muppets Christmas Carol” gets aired nearly every year, the older Henson production is pretty much unknown these days. In fact, I was pleasantly shocked out of my boots back in the mid ‘90’s when the record companies finally transferred all the old songs from that special onto CD. For years we’d been listening to a somewhat scratchy recording of the show on an original vinyl LP my mom had bought for us that had been releasaed back in the ‘70’s when the show first aired. No Christmas is complete without hearing the Muppets’ wacky renditions of the classics. For years when I was a kid, the Muppet version of “The 12 Days of Christmas” was the only version I knew, and I was surprised as tyke to learn that you weren’t actually supposed to yell “ba-dump-bump-bump!” like Miss Piggy after the 5 gold rings verse halfway through the song.
While many people will profess their loyalties to the original animated “Frosty the Snowman” or “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and other examples of puppetronic ilk, as much as I enjoyed them as a kid, they don’t hold the same interest for me as an adult. No, give me that rollicking late ‘80’s cartoon “The Tick”. Most especially, the episode entitled “The Tick Loves Christmas”. I nearly killed myself laughing during that one, especially when the security elves lock-down Arthur’s apartment and Santa arrives to convince the Tick he has to see the difference between himself (jolly old St. Nick, that is) and the evil Santa clones plaguing the city. “Now, Tick, I’m grateful that you’ve believed in me longer than any sane adult would, but it’s time to put that aside so you can fight the bad Santas.”
Rounding out the Top Three holiday tv specials, a nice little tongue-in-cheek animated production out of the UK entitled “Father Christmas” (or as I tend to remember it: “Another Bloomin’ Christmas”), which shows the off-season adventures of a somewhat foul-mouthed Father Christmas as he takes a much-needed vacation. Hats off to the Brits for loving Santa enough to be able to show him getting the turkey-trots after eating some bad food in Mexico. I think this one was cooked up by the same studio which did an earlier, quiet little feature called “The Snowman” (my wife’s favourite of the season).
In film, I’ve gotta give an honourable mention to a favourite of my mother’s side of the family: the old black and white version of “A Christmas Carol” starring Alistair Sim. A must watch.
But, that being said, my heart truly lies with the funnier, updated ode to the reform of a die-hard capitalist that came to us in the late ‘80’s: “Scrooged” starring Bill Murray. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen it over the Christmases since it first came out, but I laugh every time. That’s the true test of a comedy.
Also, another honourable mention. This one in a bit of a strange direction… one of my all-time cinematic guilty pleasures: “Walt Disney’s The Black Hole”. Don’t think this is a Christmas movie? In the beginning when the crew of the Palomino comes across the seemingly derilect U.S.S. Cygnus, and the larger cruiser suddenly hits the lights, co-pilot Charlie Pizer remarks “Just like a tree on Christmas morning”. And that’s not just a convenient simile either – the novelization by Alan Dean Foster sets the story on Christmas Day, with the aforementioned Mr. Pizer just sitting down to a reconstituted turkey dinner when he gets the call from the robot Vincent to come to the bridge.
Why would I give “The Black Hole” the time of day when so many, like my brother, hate it with a passion? That’s a discussion for another entry. For now, my wife’s calling me down to Christmas Eve dinner, and of course, food and family are the most important parts of the holiday.
So, whatever you celebrate, be it Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, Festivus-for-the-rest-of-us, some other religious festival, or even just a couple of well-earned days off from work, may you have a happy holiday season with good folks around you, plenty to eat and peace in your heart.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

A Feast of Dreams

First of all, folks, sorry for the lack of a posting last week, I was busy with a few things. From now on, I’ll try to keep up to date with some sort of weekly ramble here on bloginhood’s SF soapbox.
On to the point…
It’s been an early Christmas for fantasy lovers this year. The latest installments of two of the best (and longest) stories in recent years have hit the shelves. Robert Jordan has presented us with “Knife of Dreams” from his “Wheel of Time” saga. And just weeks later, from his “Song of Ice and Fire” series, George R. R. Martin has served us “A Feast for Crows”.
Interesting timing, since I seem to recall both series had installments published at roughly the same time back in the winter of 2000/2001. This kind of double helping from the book-buying menu is hard on the old bank account (especially since both are hefty hardcovers), but how can you resist? I can’t. Admittedly, I’ve always been a glutton when it comes to good books.
In both cases, fans have been waiting with baited breath for these new additions to the story lines to come out. In fact, the breath of Martin’s fans has been so baited they’re now blue in the face, since the last installment, “A Storm of Swords”, came out in 2000. But we can forgive him the half-decade delay since it’s obvious he’s been crafting his tale with such diligence and attention to quality. Martin himself has been up-front in admitting the story was getting just too long and complex to publish on time and in one volume. Instead of making us wait another year or two for what would be a monster of a couple of thousand pages, he’s decided to split the story in half – wisely, not square down the middle, but rather allocating the individual story lines of some characters to this book, leaving the other characters for the next, thereby allowing him to do them, and the broader story, justice, by flushing them out in another volume expected sometime next year. (Keep your fingers crossed)
In fact, the issuing of both series’ installments so close together almost invites comparison of the two. Especially since being the afore-mentioned book glutton, I gorged myself on both of them back-to-back.
Let’s take a look at the man wielding the One Power first. Jordan gets points right off the top in the fast service department, with three new volumes and a prelude within the past five years, as opposed to Martin’s two. Jordan’s installments are entertaining and always leave you wondering what the protagonists will do or have to put up with next. He’s drawing from a lot of influences including Tolkien, Herbert and the Arthurian legend. Jordan also goes into detail about how his elemental magic works, and more interestingly, how men and women wield it differently, and their impressions of how the other sex uses it.
But his world lacks depth.
Hold your gasps of outrage, here, I know Jordan’s shooting for high fantasy, but in a story line this long and with the amount of effort the author’s put in to detailing the different nations of his world and the occasional phrases from the Old Tongue, there are plenty of issues that haven’t been examined enough or dealt with at all, and streaks of luck for the main characters that are getting a little hard to believe.
In all the battles that have ravaged the lands, be they Trolloc-caused or due to yet another onslaught from the late-returning invaders from over the sea, do any of his young lordlings ever stop after the slaughter to consider the long-term consequences of the chaos on the people they’re fighting to protect? Have they ever looked at the wreckage of a barn or a blasted field and thought “Gee, some of these little folk may starve this winter. That’ll mean lower tax revenues, fewer new recruits for my army, fewer supplies for my army, a likely spread of crime in the cities due to refugees, and the possible spread of disease. Oh, not to mention the human cost of this tragedy. Yadda, yadda, yadda.”
Why, if it’s common knowledge that the “Wheel” turns and the ages repeat themselves, do his protagonists never actually pause to reflect on the implications of their constant reincarnations and the world’s repetition? Granted, they’re all strong-willed, driven types, but amidst all the battles, grim pauses before the battles, imprisonments and inconvenient political machinations, wouldn’t you think at least one of them would entertain a second of bleak resolution and think: “Well, even if I blow it, it doesn’t much matter in the grand scheme of things, ‘cause the Wheel of Time always repeats everything, so one way or another the Dark Lord will be overthrown by somebody, if not me in yet another incarnation, so why bother worrying much?” And what if one of these ta’veren actually DID give up, pack up his ball and go home? Why do they seriously worry about the head honcho of evil actually upsetting the pattern when in all the countless repetitions it’s never happened before?
On that note, for the large number of protagonists in Jordan’s tale, they all have quite a knack for surviving. Despite all the close calls, the very nature of this repetitive universe dictates that the good guys will make it through at least to the final battle. Kind of robs the tension from some of those moments. The reader may wonder how the characters will get out of this sticky situation, but it’s unlikely you’re seriously doubting they will get out. After all, who, among the primary cast, has actually died? Thom Merrilin pulled a disappearing act after slugging it out with a Myrddraal but later reappeared. Moiraine apparently went down fighting one of the Forsaken, but there were always indications (now clearer than ever in the most recent volume) that she’d be back too.
And if the protagonists aren’t dying, they’re certainly not changing much emotionally/mentally/as people either. Rand may have become somewhat testy since looney Lews Therrin crawled out of the closet inside his head, and may get even more touchy with the loss of his hand, but ultimately, he’s still the same good country bumpkin who wants to save the world, cuddle his three wives, and has resigned himself to one day going buggo and breaking the world. The other characters as well are all psychologically pretty much the same as when they were first introduced: Mat checks out the chicks but wants his independence and is annoyed with constantly falling into trouble; Perrin’s something of a stoic (except when it comes to his wife), finds his position as a focal point of fate to be a pain in the ass, and is extremely secretive about his doggy-style allies.
In fact, one of the earliest criticisms about Jordan’s character development was his portrayal of women. While many have applauded his accurate portrayal of a female mindset, his women are frequently all of the same mindset. They’re all more or less scheming and somewhat distrustful of the intellectual abilities of the men they’re trying to control. That may be a female mindset, but it’s certainly not the only one. The fact that it creates a certain constant degree of paranoia in his male characters is a stretch too.
And what’s with the spanking fetish in these books? It seems that’s pretty much the only punishment around for characters who have been naughty or merely perceived to be out of line or disrespectful of assumed authority. You’d think they would come up with something else as a civilization.
After so many installments, it’s also becoming apparent that Jordan’s getting a lot repetitive in his descriptions of what it feels like when his magical miscreants touch “the Source”: “he struggled to master the torrent of fire and ice that was saidin” – yep, haven’t heard that one yet. More than 50 or so times that is.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m always eager for the next “Wheel of Time” book to come out. I do enjoy the story for all its flaws. But ultimately, Jordan’s writing is like a nice piece of chocolate cake at The Bread Garden – sweet, available quickly right out of the case, and it goes down easy, but missing it won’t mean that you haven’t experienced the best there is.
Martin’s work, on the other hand, is like a hot chocolate cake at Morton’s – it takes a long time to bake, and it’s deep and rich and memorable with a variety of textures and degrees of flavour, and you really should order it at least once.
What I said before about Martin’s delay being due to his attention to quality wasn’t written idly. Martin has written a fantasy with a hefty dose of realism. There’s a grittiness to his world, where people have to go to the bathroom (and sometimes get shot with a crossbow while going about their business in there), where soldiers desert or suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or prey upon the peasantry, where inns are less than sanitary and protagonists sleep on flea-infested straw or cloth-stuffed mattresses, where wealthy teenagers are pawns in their parents’ political games, where people stink and where major characters who we’ve been allowed to ride along with get killed - sometimes abruptly. The term “used universe” that Lucas applied when describing the look of “Star Wars” is even more apt here – Jordan will merely tell you that his character is entering this or that big castle, Martin will tell you how long it’s been there, what it looks like in detail, when and how it was modified, and what sort of sieges it’s endured. Martin describes the intricacies of his nobles’ fashions, like Jordan, with the same eye as a Paris designer, but takes it farther and describes the degree of shabbiness and datedness that couture suffers.
Life is tough for Martin’s people. In Westeros, kings have to count their coppers if they want anything done (especially with bankers from across the sea incessantly demanding payment from regent Queen Cersei), and you believe his protagonists like Brienne of Tarth could starve on the road like any other poor schmuck they encounter. Kings even die: Robb Stark never lost a battle, but ended up losing his head after annoying the Freys.
More important than the harsh realities they face though, is the fact that Martin’s characters change over time because of those experiences and because of introspection. Moreover, these developments are believable. In losing a hand, the once arrogant uber-knight Jaime Lannister suddenly has to start considering people for who they are instead of merely rolling over them, and realizes his supremacy is not a natural fact. Sansa Stark goes from being the spoiled teenager who’s so grotesquely na├»ve she gets her own father killed to being a young lady of the Vale who’s learning politics at the hands of her adoptive father in order to survive. She even changes her name, something also true of her younger sister, Arya, who’s so determined to get the tools of revenge that she goes so far as to enlist in an assassin’s cult where she will have to give up her identity and recreate herself entirely. This makes all of his characters, even those like Cersei who are too trapped in their self-delusions, exquisitely memorable. Five years may have elapsed since the last book in the series, but it’s easy to get back into the story and remember who was doing what because the characters are so interesting. With Jordan, on the other hand, I find myself frequently during the first few chapters rechecking the index at the back of the book to bring myself up to speed again.
All in all, both Robert Jordan’s “Knife of Dreams” and George R. R. Martin’s “A Feast for Crows” were worth every penny. I think on the balance though, I’m a little more eager for the next trip to Westeros than another spin on “The Wheel of Time”.
In the meantime, since it’ll be a while before either series has a new offering, I’ll be contenting myself with other fare. My recommendation for the coming months: the somewhat late fall issue of “On Spec” – a Canadian quarterly magazine of speculative fiction. While it’s understandably heavy on the Can-con (local slang for “Canadian content” to those of you not from The Great White North), there are submissions from authors from around the globe, and they all have one thing in common: regardless of their country of origin, whether they’re prose or poetry, or where they sit in that great realm of sci-fi, fantasy and everything in between, all are well-crafted and thought-provoking. If you can’t find a copy in your local bookstore, I suggest you check out their website at www.onspec.ca and look into getting yourself a subscription.
At any rate, I think this babble session has become long enough. Next posting: another trip to the movies.