Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Do Androids Dream Of Cinematic Masterpieces?

It’s been 25 years since Ridley Scott took Philip K. Dick’s classic of futuristic paranoid dystopia, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” and retooled it into “Blade Runner”. In doing so, Scott was something like Dr. Tyrell, building replicants along the design of their human creators, but with improvements necessary for survival in their new environments. The difference is that Scott’s creation, for all its variances from the original model, does not set out to destroy what was laid out in ‘Androids, rather “Blade Runner” pays tribute to what made the novel great. In fact, I remember a classmate way back in high school who was inspired to start reading the works of PKD because he enjoyed “Blade Runner” so much.
Volumes have been written about both the novel and the film, exploring the metaphysical questions, the elements of paranoia, the dehumanizing effects of technology and other nuances. Probably all of us who love SF movies and literature have discussed the subtext of these works with friends at one point or another. But tonight, as I re-watched “Blade Runner” to celebrate the anniversary, for whatever reason, those larger critical concerns were in the background as I found myself focusing on the masterful way this film was put together.
I’m not talking about the editing and pacing or casting of the movie (although those were spot-on), I’m talking about its look and sound and feel.
The claustrophobic towers and rain-slick streets are only the beginning when talking about how the environment in the movie becomes one of the characters.
It’s the light and shadows that make “Blade Runner” come alive. The ever-present darkness down on the street level is essential to the mood of film-noir on overdrive. The depth of the shadows between the buildings, on the faces of the people and in the contours of their clothes and bodies and between everyone completely isolates them in a way that few other movies have ever come close to. “Dark City” certainly attempted this feeling years later, but came nowhere near to the layering of shadow accomplished in Scott’s film.
When light makes its appearance, it is to create contrasts. The peons swarming along the streets are soaked in the greasy glare of neon, while high atop his ziggurat, Dr. Tyrell can actually see the sun, and moreover has the choice of whether to block it. For this king of the mountain, his artificial light of choice is the archaic but softer, more pampering candlelight.
Light is used to divide people – the slash of streetlight or sunlight coming through a window across a table separates Deckard from Rachael during his initial examination of her. The same occurs to a greater extreme in the opening sequence where the blade runner officer interviewing Leon is entirely lit by the window while the android is generally in shadow.
In “Blade Runner”, light is often used to give hints of things unseen rather than to illuminate. Returning to Deckard’s interview of Rachael, we see that marvelous shot once the windows have been darkened of the band of light across Deckard’s lower face. We’re seeing the working of the cop’s mouth during interrogation – what we’re subtly seeing clearly is the investigation by the numbers – what’s hidden from us (not completely, but, through the use of some shadow, metaphorically) are his eyes, and thus his thought process. We’re forced to read him purely on a physical level, which puts us to some degree in Deckard’s place – forced to deal with replicants as physical objects and unable (usually because of dangerous circumstances as well as his own orders) to get to know or care about what they’re thinking and feeling.
Sean Young’s hair styles throughout the movie are also used to manipulate light to create facades or hide things about her. In the beginning, the no-nonsense business coif allows her to put forward a serene mask of disdain, concealing the burgeoning inner turmoil about her identity which Tyrell tells Deckard he suspects is beginning to take root. The hair itself also creates a black aura around her, drawing the focus to her face instead of things around her (where an investigator might uncover details?) Later, when her hair comes down in Deckard’s apartment, it softens her look, but creates shadows to try to hide her now more openly troubling emotions.
Sebastian’s apartment is shrouded in gloom – there is much that is only hinted at there. We see android toys walking around in full shots in some scenes, but later we get quick, tight, medium-shot glimpses at them bound and gagged. We see a wasteland of wrecked toys and female mannequins giving rise to some vague unease about the state of mind of this supposedly innocent, childlike inventor.
Conversely, all is bright white in Chew’s frosty eyeball laboratory. The man has nothing to hide. Indeed, he’s even stripped of his cold-weather gear by Roy and Leon, and left in his longjohns, emphasizing that he isn’t concealing anything. His responses to their questions are open too: “I just do eyes” - he’s also pretty straight-forward about telling them where to find Sebastian.
Light is used to highlight character traits in other ways. We are very clearly meant to pick up on the danger Sebastian is about to find himself in when he first meets Pris, not only because we already know she’s an android, but because the twin streetlights with their pale greenish glow above and behind her have gone slightly out of focus and now look like cat’s eyes gazing down at a mouse (an image further enforced by the sound effect of the cat’s yowl woven into the scene). She also uses spray-on makeup to mask her eyes and thus her intentions, creating another contrast of light around her.
The sense of danger around Roy is always emphasized by his movement into and out of light: in neither condition is a person safe from him. It shows that the replicant leader is completely dangerous all the time.
For his part, our hero, Deckard, is almost always shrouded in half-light. For a tired and nearly broken, but still capable man (who may not be a man after all), varying degrees of shadow are his realm – one that he never leaves for long. Perfectly appropriate for a man who takes orders to deal out life and death, who hunts in the shadow world of streets and abandoned buildings, and who may be that which he pursues.
Hand-in-hand with lighting is the brilliant, highly limited, use of colour in this movie. This is a world where there aren’t many colours that exist. It is a place of black and white and grey, with some dingy browns, faded dark blues and highlights of sepia. This is true for wardrobe as well as d├ęcor. The trend is bucked when we see splashes of red in blood, street neon and a replicant’s lipstick.
Using brief slashes of colour for shock value in what would otherwise be a black & white movie in some ways makes “Blade Runner” a precursor of “Schindler’s List” or “Sin City”. It’s also interesting that colour was used as a highlight to a predominantly black & white world in another cinematic milestone that happened to be released in 1982: “Tron”.
These occasional appearances of red in “Blade Runner” usually mean trouble’s on the way: someone’s died, or Deckard’s on the street hunting or being hunted, or, in the case of lipstick, a male’s attention is being drawn to female beauty (whether it’s Deckard in the presence of Rachael, or Sebastian in the clutches of Pris) which is about to draw him into whole new levels of complexity and danger. Admittedly though, the red lipstick analogy gets strange at the end of the film when Roy smears Pris’ blood onto his mouth and chin – adding a gruesome lipstick of sorts. Does this mean he’s taking Pris unto himself in some profound way as he attempts to avenge her death? Is he trying to make her a part of him as he lashes out at a world of humans that have enslaved them?
Roy Batty’s colour – or lack of colour, is also extremely interesting. White is a colour associated with death in many Eastern cultures, and the replicant leader certainly brings enough of it to Earth with his gang of fugitives. On a flag, white is the colour of surrender, which is what Roy eventually does in the end, sitting down and waiting for death. Disturbingly, one might see Batty’s pale superhuman strength as a white supremacist’s ideal – though one that is short-lived and unsuccessful. In contrast, white is the colour of the saviour in the Christian tradition, and without a doubt, that’s the role Roy tries and fails to assume for his fellow androids, and yet successfully accomplishes by saving Deckard, the man trying to kill him. Certainly, we tend to connote white with innocence, and despite his bloody quest, there is an innocence about Roy in how he seems to savour his life, how he mourns the deaths of his friends (in telling Pris about Leon and Zhora, his facial expression looks very much like a little boy’s), and even the quest itself: yes, Tyrell’s right, Batty is aware that there have been no scientific breakthroughs to prolong his life, but the act of wanting to ask his creator to try once more implies innocence and hope. Even killing Tyrell in a twisted act of justice/vengeance is a kind of innocence in its attempt to impose meaning and consequence on an unfair life and universe. A true cynic would probably not have bothered with the voyage to Earth to begin with. One could even reach back into literary tradition and say that in being both hunter and hunted, being pierced by a sharp object at the end, by trying to protect others of his kind, Roy’s whiteness connects him to the whale Moby Dick – with the difference being that he sinks into death at the end, rather than under the waves, leaving Deckard afloat on the meaning of it all much as Ishmael took refuge on Queequeg’s coffin.
Just looking at this movie was a treat. But let’s not forget the sound.
Animal noises are used to underscore the emotions of scenes. I’ve previously mentioned the cat’s yowl associated with Pris, but let’s not forget Roy’s wolf-howl of anguish at her death, or the buzz of bees adding a frantic, coming-at-you-from-all-sides feeling to the chase through the rotting maze of rooms in the Bradbury hotel at the end.
There’s the endless, layered noise of the street. That was yet another layer of heaviness in the smothering darkness of futuristic Los Angeles.
And the soundtrack played an important role too. Vangelis’ weird synth soundscapes are appropriate for the pictures on screen; they’ve got a high-tech feel while maintaining an overwhelming weariness. The occasional blues piece is perfect for the burnt-out, raw-edged-nerve feeling of a beat-up Deckard at his limits. And the simplicity of a piano piece by itself painted all the pictures we needed of a lost and possibly non-existent childhood for Rachael.
The sights and sounds of “Blade Runner” are clearly ones we don’t want to experience for ourselves, but if we must dream with the androids, this film does a fantastic job of letting us feel their electric sheep.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Anime And Feeling Old

I’m not a super fan of anime, but I do enjoy pulling “Porco Roso” or “Royal Space Force/Wings of Honneamise” or “Ghost in the Shell” down off my DVD shelf and watching them on occasion. Anime has always been somewhere in the background and occasional foreground of my SF viewing for as long as I can remember. “Starblazers/Space Battleship Yamato”, “Battle of the Planets/Gotchaman” and “Robotech/Macross”, among others, were staples of TV over the years of my childhood and pre-teen years and augmented the western SF fare in terms of flushing-out ideas of how science fiction could be presented. Watching some of the older shows now stirs up a whole range of feelings and memories. One thing I never expected as a result of watching anime, though, was that it could make me feel old.
I’m not talking about feeling old in the sense of watching some show that you loved as a kid and saying “How the hell could I ever have wasted time on that?” like you might after seeing a rerun of “Mr. Belvedere”.
No, I mean old as in “That went to air when? No-one else remembers it? Geez, I must be old!”
That’s exactly what happened a couple of weeks ago, and it was a double-shot to boot! And both times concerned the afore-mentioned “Starblazers/Space Battleship Yamato”.
It started during the conversation with a friend about our favourite shows when we were kids (a discussion I’ve mentioned a couple of posts ago). One of the programs on my list, and in fact, one of the shows I recall watching as just a little guy back in the mid-late 70’s, was “Starblazers” (the North American title for “Space Battleship Yamato”). My friend, who’s only a couple of years younger than I am, didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. Granted, a couple of years can make a huge difference in terms of TV experience, and granted the TV stations she watched here in BC likely were running some different programs than what their counterparts were in Ontario where I grew up (and by extension, New York state, which had signals that could be picked up in some parts of Ontario), and granted because she was a girl she might not have paid any attention to the kick-ass space battles that I, as a boy, would have craved. But still, no idea that it existed at all? Suddenly, the few years between us began to feel like centuries. I felt like an old-timer trying to tell a modern kid about traveling by steamer.
The second blow came within a couple of days: my wife and I were strolling through a local mall when we noticed some hopeful young entrepreneurs had opened a store devoted to Japanese manga and anime and their spinoff toys, models, action figures, clothing, etc. We ambled in to check out their wares, fully expecting that we wouldn’t recognize most of the stock because we’re not immersed in this particular SF subculture, or that if we did recognize it, the items might be from some popular cheesy production like “Sailor Moon” that we wouldn’t watch if you paid us. And to be sure, there was a lot of merchandise for series/movies/whatever that we didn’t recognize. And there were more than a few statuettes of scantily-clad anime heroines with cat ears on the tops of their heads which we passed by.
But there, crowded up at the top of a side shelf, was a box with an illustration that I actually recognized. I crossed the room, reached up and brought it down for a closer inspection. It was none other than a model of the Yamato/Argo, the cosmic warship at the heart of “Space Battleship Yamato/Starblazers”. I was shocked that the storekeepers would stock such a retro item among the endless rows of mecha from the latest incarnation of the endless “Gundam” series. I was downright impressed.
Presumably because my wife and I didn’t fit the mold of his usual customers (17-year-old fanboys holed-up in their rooms in front of the latest videogame consol when they’re not on the streets trying to impress each other with their customized Honda Civics with oversized mufflers to create extra noise), one of the proprietors (just a tad older than his normal clientele and still happily lodged in their world when he wasn’t investing more of his dad’s money in the store) came scuttling over to ask if we needed help. He prattled on for a while about the minutia of the model, looked at me like I was a savage when I asked what type of modeling glue they recommended (it was a snap together! My fault for not having put together a model since I was 12 and assuming people who do these days might still have something called patience and steady hands), and prattled on some more.
I finally was able to get another word in and noted how surprised I was that they’d carry such an oldschool item amidst the new fads. The kid, with self-centred innocence, proceeded to explain how there was enough of a demand from the solid fanbase of 24-25-year-olds – “people my age” he said - who’d seen the "Yamato" and “Arcadia” (the battleship featured in the various “Captain Harlock” adventures) shows in their first run.
“First run?” I asked, smelling something off.
“Yeah,” he said, “we were the first ones who watched the shows. The videos came out about 12-15 years ago.”
Huh? “Starblazers” first aired in North America in ’77 (originally launched in Japan in ’74). This kid wasn’t even a glint in his father’s eye back then.
I did my best to keep a straight face and to prevent myself from sounding too condescending when I quietly interjected with “Actually, it’s people my age, in their mid-30’s to early 40’s who saw ‘Yamato’ when it first ran on TV in the 70’s.”
The kid looked at me like I was from Iscandar. He simply couldn’t fathom the possibility that this particular artifact of anime predated his own birth by nearly a decade. It was like he was trying to decide whether I was bullshitting him or if he had to suddenly re-evaluate his whole concept of the history of anime.
Not wanting him to strain anything, I changed the subject by asking if he had any smaller models. He didn’t, so after a cursory glance at a few other items in the store, my wife and I left.
For me, the experience was another blow. Leaving a self-proclaimed anime expert stunned because I’d watched a particular series not only years before he had, but years before he was born, made me feel like a bit of a relic. I don’t think this incident would have weighed as heavily as it has if it hadn’t been for that previous discussion with my friend.
The odd thing is, I know I shouldn’t be quite so surprised at being dated. It happens all the time when I chat with my parents’ 14-year-old godson, who’s “Star Wars” experience in the theatre is exclusively the new prequel trilogy. For him, the originals are things that only exist in video format and lack much of the emotional punch because they’ve already been spoiled by the prequels.
Maybe anime is different somehow in its impact precisely because it is animated. Sure, this particular medium has been using CG for years now, but still, it is, ultimately animation. The tropes, themes, and yes, even the visual styles, haven’t really changed much over the years. It’s that continuity that probably lulled me into not seeing the passing of time in quite the same way. And yet, time has passed, and at the tender age of 33, having seen the old anime series that I have in their first North American runs, having watched the Yamato cruise off into the sea of stars on an old wood-cabinet TV in a fake-wood-paneled 70’s basement, I am now something of an old-timer when it comes to discussions of anime.
If you’ll excuse me, I feel a “Back in my day…” rant coming on. I’d better get my rocking chair and cat ready.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Series III Of Doctor Who

CBC just aired the first episode of Series III of Doctor Who this evening and it was a smashing way to launch this next installment in the legend.
Admittedly, this is all pretty old hat to anyone in the UK who saw this a while ago, but for those of us here in the Great White North, we’ve had to wait until the Sleepy-C got around to securing the broadcast rights and actually making time to air it - meaning the Mothercorp had no interest in running a Brit SF show, no matter how popular, until the Stanley Cup playoffs were over and they needed summer filler.
Anyhow, it’s finally here and I’m looking forward to getting my next fix of the adventures of the 10th Doctor.
The first episode, “Smith and Jones” had all of what makes a great installment for the 10th Doctor in all the right measure: lightning plot pacing, rapid-fire dialogue and loads of humour (both blatant slapstick and more subtle fare, like the hospital consultant who gets the blood sucked out of him being named “Mr. Stoker”). Was it the smartest episode ever produced? Nope. It was as shallow as a Mr. Turtle Pool. But that’s okay, because they don’t all have to be dark and brooding or sad. One of the virtues of the Doctor over the decades has been that the show has no problems turning on a dime and indulging in silliness from time to time. That’s prevented the show from getting too full of itself. Watching this episode was like having the pleasure of seeing an old Abbot and Costello film with all of the vaudeville snappiness and energy.
I also appreciate the writers keeping the continuity of the previous season’s storyline intact – the characters make a passing reference to the recent war against the Daleks and Cybermen. Other writers might have been tempted to make no mention of this catastrophe, but here it’s acknowledged as something that’s had a significant impact on the lives of ordinary people. They’re not dwelling on it, but it’s a fact of their lives and it’s what, in part, gives the Doctor’s new Companion the grounding to deal with the crisis at hand.
And that leads me to the introduction of said new Companion, medical student Martha Jones (played with easygoing confidence by Freema Agyeman). She’s extremely intelligent (or, as the Doctor says: “She’s as clever as me. Almost.”), cool under fire, funny, and, oh yeah, verrrry easy on the eyes. Clearly Agyeman’s up to the challenge, and if the writers continue to write her character with such high calibre, this series is sure to create a benchmark in Doctor-Companion relationships, and Companion quality in general. Hers is the kind of personality that lets the audience know she’s going to be a full participant in the adventures to come, not just a moving prop who squeaks “Oh, Doctor, what’s going on?” as some others have.
Of course, we also need to give full credit to David Tennant for continuing to play the Doctor with aplomb. He’s still got all the geeky energy he brought to the beginning of Series II that made him so charming, and can instantly shift gears to give you a glimpse of the Doctor’s depths. This is an actor who clearly isn’t taking the role for granted just because he’s in his second season and getting good reviews. Tennant remains engaging, and with the writers, has forged a stand-out Doctor amid a pantheon unique individuals and takes on the part. While Tennant’s predecessor, Christopher Eccleston, did a competent job with the role, the 10th Doctor has been the most engaging personality since Tom Baker.
With Doctor Who back on the air, suddenly prime time TV doesn’t seem like such a wasteland any more.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Finding The Dragons Amid The Hoard

Youtube is like a crow’s nest. An octopus’ garden. A dragon’s hoard. It’s a vast pile of video, mostly junk, where, if you’re a determined searcher, if someone else gives you a good tip, or if you’re just plain lucky, you might find buried treasure. The other day, my friend Kim and I were reminiscing about our favourite cartoons and animated features from childhood. One that sprang quickly to mind for me was “The Flight of Dragons”. On a whim, I decided to probe Youtube to see if I could find any trace of it. I wasn’t holding out much hope, since the producers and distributors have never transferred this feature to DVD (there are VHS copies available from some sources online, but if I’m going to spend money on something like this, I’d like it to be a quality copy on modern technology) and there aren’t many people these days who remember it.
But the gods of retro animated video must have been smiling that day, because I found it! And not just the official feature trailer or fan-created videos, but the whole thing! Someone has posted the entire “The Flight of Dragons” movie onto Youtube in 11 parts (each about 10 minutes long). Jackpot!
So I sat down in front of the computer the other night and relived the magic. And I’ve gotta say, in the decades since I originally saw it on TV, “The Flight of Dragons” hasn’t lost its charm.
The story (based on the novels of Gordon R. Dickson and Peter Dickinson, screenplay by Romeo Muller) is about Peter, a 20th century man, pulled back into a magical past to aid the forces of good in a quest to defeat an evil wizard bent on world domination. The tale takes a twist when a spell gone wrong puts merges Peter with a dragon, leaving the man’s mind in control of the fire drake’s gigantic body. In the final showdown, Peter must choose between science and magic to save the world.
Sure, the copy posted to Youtube is dark and isn’t as crisp as it would be if the movie was available on DVD to watch at home. The animation style is a bit dated. Sometimes the dialogue is a bit clunky and on occasion John Ritter goes a bit over-the-top in playing the hero, Peter Dickinson, as a wistful geek.
But on the balance, this feature still has a lot going for it. The story sets itself up quickly but thoroughly and the pacing is logical in how it drives its characters forward. There’s a nice attempt to scientifically explain how a creature as large as a dragon could fly. Some of the dialogue works very well and there’s a fair amount of humour. Hats off to James Earl Jones for a great performance as the evil wizard Ommadon.
It’s also impressive how thoughtful a meditation the film is on how much room there is for magic in the scientifically-driven world of man. In the story this question is literal – magical forces are being diminished and fantastic creatures are being marginalized by the encroaching technology of humans. In a metaphorical sense though, the question is what room is there for dreams and fantasy in our pragmatic modern world. The answer is stated explicitly by the good wizard Carolinus in the opening act, and underscored in the finale with Peter’s victory over Ommadon and his awakening of Princess Melisande - there needs to be a balance: while one must live within the practical, real world, there needs to be imagination to energize us to improve ourselves and everything around us. A great lesson for kids and an important reminder for adults.
It’s also significant to note that “The Flight of Dragons” didn’t pull any punches in what it showed to kids. Sure there was fun and adventure and good triumphed over evil, but there was a price. In this movie, there is death – of heroes as well as villains. The old dragon, Smrgol, dies after slaying the evil Ogre of Gormley Keep in a bid to save the other heroes. Nearly all of the good guys are killed by the wicked dragon Bryagh during the climactic battle (although they are brought back to life by the good wizards after Peter’s victory). Even bystanders are not safe – the innkeeper is murdered by the Ogre of Gormley Keep when it comes to capture the heroes, and the film opens with the deaths of innocents: a swan and some faeries riding it are pulled under and killed by a mill wheel. And in presenting death as a consequence of adventure, as the sometime price of confronting evil, “The Flight of Dragons” was very much a creature of its time – mortality was a staple of movies (animated and live action) geared in part or in whole to child audiences during the 70’s and early-mid 80’s. “Watership Down”, Disney’s “Tron” and “The Black Hole” and “Child of Glass”, “The Secret of Nimh”, “The Dark Crystal”, “Starblazers” (“Space Cruiser Yamato”) and “Robotech” (“Macross”) to name but a few, all saw heroes or their sidekicks/advisors or bystanders die. To a lesser extent we see it also in “The Last Unicorn” where there is a definite sense of loss for the title character when she returns to her equine form from human shape – though she has freed her people, she can no longer truly be one of them, having experienced complex human emotions – a death of sorts. You’d be hard-pressed to find films or TV programs with children as part of the intended audience these days that featured the death of a good guy or bystander. I don’t think the killing of yesteryear was something gratuitous that TV producers had to learn to get past either. I think the presentation of death in those features was a kind of honesty, a courage to deal with children and young adult audiences with respect and an understanding that they possessed a degree of maturity. It was a way of telling kids that winning out over evil or injustice doesn’t always come without some kind of a sacrifice. Writers and producers of that era very clearly had the example of Frodo (and to a much lesser extent, Boromir) from “The Lord of the Rings” in mind when creating their fantasies.
I can only hope that we see a return to this kind of honesty in film-making for younger audiences. In the meantime, I hope we’ll someday see “The Flight of Dragons” available in a restored, high-quality form on DVD for future generations to appreciate.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Update On Aurora Award Nominations

There’s been an update on this year’s Aurora Awards: the nomination submission deadline has been extended to July 23rd.
Good news for anyone who wanted more time to think or who missed Friday’s original deadline.
I managed to get mine in on time, but not without a fair amount of consternation. Nominating the three best Canadian short stories this year was easy; there were lots of great ones to choose from – in fact, it was very tough to choose. I picked Dave Whittier’s “Coming Back to Kabul” from the Summer 2006 edition of On Spec, “Threshold of Perception” by Scott Mackay from “Tesseracts Ten” and Sandra Kasturi’s “Frankenstein’s Monster’s Wife’s Therapist”, also from “Tesseracts Ten”.
There were also a few good titles for the category for anthologies.
The section that should be easy, and the one that this year was impossible for me, was the novel category. Unfortunately, I’d read only one novel published in 2006 by a Canadian author, Bakker’s “The Thousandfold Thought”, and there was no way I was going to nominate that steaming pile of crap. There’s a nice big list of eligible books on the Canadian SF Works Database. Sadly, the closest I’ve come to any of the others is to make a note to add a couple to my “to read” pile. Not having read them, I couldn’t in good conscience nominate any. And I’m never happy when I have to leave a section of a nomination form blank.
At any rate, if you’re a Canadian citizen or a permanent resident of Canada, make sure you get your nomination form in.

Live And Let Die

This past Wednesday was “The End of the World”. At least, according to Steve at the blog My Elves Are Different. The site posted a neat challenge to bloggers around the world: on Wednesday, June 13, post as though there’s been a massive outbreak of zombies – tell the rest of the net what’s happening in your city as the living get routed by hordes of the gibbering, brain-eating undead. Dozens of bloggers, including the boys over at SF Signal, rose to the challenge of reporting the fictional devastation, and in some cases, their own demise.
From the few posts I’ve read so far, it looks as though everyone who participated had a riot (so to speak). Hats off to you if you took part and managed to make it through the day without losing your head… or brain… or, well, really any other bits and pieces for that matter, to the ravening zombies.
I’d thought about taking part in this blog challenge myself but held off for two reasons. First, I’m not a fan of the zombie sub-genre of books and films. They scared the crap outta me as a kid (I blame, in equal parts, the Stephen King novels my cousin used to read out loud to us, and “Thriller”), and as an adult I’m indifferent to them. I figured I’d leave this challenge to the true fans, so as not to be a poseur (I’ve been called many things in my life, some of them deservedly, but never a wannabe). Second, I was, admittedly, mighty tempted to take part anyway, just cause it looked like one hell of a fun writing exercise, but I checked my schedule at work and knew I wouldn’t have the time to post enough during the day to do the thing justice.
At any rate, I applaud My Elves Are Different for having the creativity to organize such a big theme blog event.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Awards

Canada’s Space: The Imagination Station gave out its annual “Spacey” awards for the best in science fiction, fantasy and horror film, TV and video games this evening. Viewers pick the winners in some of the categories while the channel’s staff pick the others.
I must admit I’m feeling like a bit of a sore loser after having watched the production… very few of my picks garnered prizes this year.
At least it was entertaining to watch host Jonathan Llyr hamming it up between the awards (like getting boxed into doing set security on “Stargate Atlantis”). Host Natasha Eloi is always fun to watch too. Hats off to the various guest producers like Bruce Boxleitner, Katee Sackhoff and Bryan Singer. And while it’s always nice to watch host Kim Poirier, listening to her is quite another matter. The girl still hasn’t learned how to be at ease on-camera – waaaaaay too much posing and forced dialogue delivery (she could put Shatner to shame sometimes).
Check out the Spaceys page for the winners by category.

And speaking of Canadian SF awards…

If you’re a Canuck who loves speculative fiction, whether you’re at home or abroad, remember to get your votes in for this year’s Aurora Awards (nomination forms can be downloaded from the Awards’ site). The deadline for mailing your nominations is June 15.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

At Wits' End After Recent "Pirates" Movie

I feel like I’ve been cast adrift in a dinghy with minimal provisions after watching the latest Disney “Pirates” movie.
It was one of the popcorn films I knew I’d end up seeing this summer at some point, not because it was at the top of my to-see list, but because my wife was looking forward to it. I enjoyed “Curse of the Black Pearl” immensely, but “Dead Man’s Chest” left me singing “ho-hum” instead of “yo-ho”, so I wasn’t itching like a sailor who’s been at sea too long to see “At World’s End”.
Admittedly, the third installment in the “Pirates” franchise (based on the Disney theme park ride) had its moments. The special effects were top-notch, the stunts and fight sequences were cool, and the humour lubricated the film enough to help me get past the armada of things that didn’t work.
And there were many.
Worst of all was the convoluted story: betrayals, defections, misunderstandings, secrets and strange mythologies were flying around like deck and hull fragments in a naval battle. Why bring sea goddesses, pirate lords, pirate kings, pirate code keepers and the like into the mix? Why begin the film with the main characters skulking around Asia, leaving out so much backstory that I spent the first 15 minutes of the movie trying to piece together what had supposedly happened between the end of “Dead Man’s Chest” and the beginning of “At World’s End”? If the writers, directors and producers had kept the story simple – how to get Jack Sparrow back from the dead, eliminate the threat of Davy Jones and the East India Company boss and arrange for Will and Elizabeth to finally tie the knot – the movie would have been on par with the first installment. It’s almost like they were afraid the audience was tired of the franchise and that they had to cram all the “cool” ideas they had for another four or five films into this one, just in case they didn’t get the chance to make any more (despite some rumours that more films are potentially in the works).
All of that was manageable until the final battle sequence, when all logic was forced to walk the plank and I followed it, bailing on any further enjoyment of the movie. Now, I’m just like most of you out there: I have very little patience for weasely little fanboys who sit there and use technicalities to bitch about a movie and tear it to pieces when said presentation is a work of fantasy. BUT (there’s always a but, and in my case, it’s fairly large) what I do want to see, what is a true hallmark of skill in writing a fantasy film, is that the film is logically consistent within itself.
For example, during “Curse of the Black Pearl”, when Sparrow and Turner decide to steal a Royal Navy ship to pursue the Black Pearl, they have their choice of two vessels and, quite rationally, they make off with the smaller one. Why? Because they can’t manage a large ship-of-the-line with only two men, and because the smaller ship, being smaller, was much faster. The film, though a fantasy (how many undead pirates have you seen stomping around your local harbour these days?), generally stuck with reason when it came to this aspect of seamanship. At another point in the film, those listening to the tale of Sparrow’s escape from an island were quick to question the believability of a man lashing two sea turtles together with his own hair and riding them to port.
But in the final act of “At World’s End”, all logic is forgotten. They’re not even trying any more. Case in point: the slugfest where Sparrow and Turner, each in command of a ship, take on Endeavour, presumably a Royal Navy vessel (but let’s just say British from now on, in case someone wants to take issue with me and claim the ship, even of that size and firepower, was privately owned by the East India Company), that would appear to be first rate, maybe second rate in its line position. Initially, the two pirate vessels are running perpendicular to Endeavour – okay, that would be a prudent navel tactic a smart captain would be aware of and, in fact, prefer: “crossing the T”. It would allow both pirate vessels to fire off broadsides, using maximum firepower, against Endeavour’s bow, allowing the British vessel to use only the minimal weaponry in the bow against both ships. The Brits would have taken a brutal beating. Something that would sit well with any pirate. Did they do it? Nope. They came about, flanking Endeavour and went broadside-to-broadside. Why is this so dumb? Because Endeavour’s broadside firepower so clearly (just look at the side of the ship) massively overmatches either the Black Pearl or Turner’s ship, that both pirate vessels would have been torn to pieces. Doesn’t happen though. Our merry band of seagoing scofflaws must triumph. We also see Endeavour quite literally blown to pieces after just one pass by the two attacking pirate ships. Now, I’m no historical naval expert, but I have read a little about warships of the time, and they were built fairly tough. Even after a beating like that, Endeavour should have at least been afloat, if not battleworthy. Oh, and why did it take such a pounding? Because it’s captain/admiral/whatever, stood around waiting for the East India Company bad guy to give the order to fire. Odds of a senior naval officer, no matter how incompetent, allowing that to happen: almost, if not, zero. But the pirates must have their day. And then, when the flagship goes down, the fleet of several dozen British vessels turns tail and flees from the much smaller pirate fleet. Uh-huh. But if the boats full of robbers, rapists and murderers don’t win, it’s not an American summer blockbuster. Again, I really don’t like to be one of those technical fanboys pissing on a fantasy movie’s campfire, but really, this film could’ve been saved if it would have kept some reason. Instead of a whole fleet of British ships, why not just one? Why not a smaller one? Why not have the sea goddess damage it in her storm? (the storm and whirlpool, helping neither side, being about the only thing she did besides belatedly claiming to be mighty honked-off at both the pirates and Davy Jones – you’d think a tetchy deity would be able to inflict just a tad more directed wrath and smite a few specific people instead of making it rain and stirring the sea like a martini without actually destroying any ships) Something, anything that would justify the British vessel going down so easily.
“Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” is not a bad movie. I don’t think I would have regretted renting it. I just felt like I’d wasted my theatre time and money on it when I probably could have been in the cinema next door seeing a more enjoyable fantasy popcorn flick. If Disney, Bruckheimer, Verbinski and co decide to launch more “Pirates” movies in the future, I hope they come to their senses, forget about the last two installments, and look back to “Curse of the Black Pearl” for inspiration.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Going Down A Familiar Road

I just got finished dusting myself off after reading Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”, and while it was a good book, to a science fiction fan, this isn’t a new road at all. No, as far as post-apocalyptic SF goes, “The Road” is more like a new layer of asphalt paved over an existing highway that’s been paved and re-paved a bunch of times already. A highway which in turn was built over an old dirt road, which itself was nothing more than a widening of an old horse trail overtop of an older footpath which took the place of an old animal trail. The mainstream readers of the world (those part of Madame O’s cult of personality or otherwise) may see this as startling and new, but SF fans have been down this road before.
In describing the desolation of a blasted and dying world, to oppress the psyche of the reader to such a profound degree with its total finality, it takes McCarthy 284 pages to say what Ray Bradbury did in only 8 pages with “There Will Come Soft Rains” near the end of ‘The Martian Chronicles”.
For the sense of individuals trying to maintain and/or rebuild themselves amidst the ruin of an old world, Walter M. Miller’s “A Canticle for Liebowitz” paved the way decades ago, and gave us an entire cycle of death, rebirth and death again. This was echoed years later with Asimov and Silverberg’s novelization of “Nightfall”.
Individuals scavenging among the ruins for survival in a world where it’s nearly impossible to rebuild because other humans have been forced by that very struggle for survival to debase themselves beyond humanity? Let’s tap a pop culture icon for an example here: how about the “Mad Max” films?
And as for cross-country journeys through the badlands in the hopes of finding a better place, we can again look to film – how about some seriously retro stuff in the form of “Damnation Alley”? (ah, George Peppard ramming across the desert in his heavily-armed silver phallic symbol, the Landmaster – the American redneck’s wet dream) Or why not something a little more offbeat, like “Watership Down”? (the Richard Adams novel or the animated movie)
Books about the relationship between two people (father and son or other types of relationship) clinging to each other through tragedy are legion in SF and mainstream literature – far too many to mention. I’ll go with Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles” again because it contains a few examples along these lines and it’s close at hand. Pretty much anything by Dickens if you want a mainstream example.
To keep things from being impossibly bleak, to make some nod to the hope that lies within human nature (at least the nature of some humans), McCarthy does offer a kernel of bright possibility at the end of his tale. But again, SF fans have seen the flower amidst the ashes before – let’s look at Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles” again, the last chapter with two families having escaped the devastation on Earth in the hopes of opening a new chapter for humanity on Mars.
Again, let me stress, “The Road” isn’t a bad book. It’s quite good if you want to be depressed on a “Jude the Obscure” level. What I am saying is ignore the hype. It’s a good book, but not one of the greatest ever written, and certainly you don’t need a map to see that it’s not heading in any new directions.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

"Canadian SF Works Database" Now Online

Canada’s Dean of Science Fiction, Robert J. Sawyer, and Marcel Gagne have launched a new wiki called The Canadian SF Works Database.
The aim of the site is “to be a database of titles to provide a memory aid for people who are nominating titles for the various awards”.
It’s still in its infancy, but I think it’s a notion that’s long overdue. There’s a lot of great Canadian speculative fiction out there and it would be mighty helpful to have a central archive of it somewhere – not just for awards, but also for people who want to browse to find out what their favourite authors have been publishing that they may have missed, and also for forgetful types like me who stumble around when blogging trying to recollect which name goes with what title.
The site works on a membership basis, but once you’ve signed-up you’re free to mine the database and to add to it.
Thanks, Robert and Marcel, for getting the ball rolling on this!

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

"Babylon 5: The Lost Tales" Trailer

Spacecast.com’s Hypaspace page is running a link to the official “Babylon 5” page on the Warner Brothers site featuring a trailer for the new direct-to-DVD movie “Babylon 5: The Lost Tales”. Click on the “Main Menu” icon. It’ll automatically run a trailer for the B5 series, but if you click on “The Lost Tales” tab next to it the TLT movie trailer should start up.
Normally I don’t like to get into speculations about what’s coming up, but B5 is one of the most intelligent, one of the all-around best television shows ever, so I feel a little fanboy gushing is permissible. If there’s nothing on TV and I’m hankering for some high-quality sci-fi, there’s a good chance I’ll pull one of the seasons of B5 off my video shelf and watch a favourite episode or two. Once every 15 or 16 months or so, I’ll watch the whole series again (sometimes followed by the movies collection and “Crusade”).
Admittedly, I’m a little cautious, given the universal tomato-throwing “The Legend of the Rangers” earned. I still haven’t seen that one yet (can’t rent it locally, it’s only available for purchase), but one of these days I’ll spend a few bucks to see for myself what was so bad and to try to figure out how Andreas Katsulas would get involved with it.
That being said, the trailer for TLT doesn’t look half bad, so I’m remaining cautiously optimistic.

Khaaaaaaaaaaan!!!

Twenty-five years ago today, William Shatner spewed Admiral James T. Kirk’s frustration and rage against his gloating nemesis Khan across the cold lengths of an uncaring universe in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”.
And pop culture (especially SF) hasn’t been the same since. How many times has that shout been lampooned over the years? How many times have we, as science fiction fans, borrowed that bellow to vent our own frustration and rage on a cold and uncaring universe? Or better still, how many times have we used that yell as the basis for comparison of all other impassioned verbal explosions? I know Kirk’s outburst was the measuring stick I used against Darth Vader’s feeble “Nooooooo!” at the end of “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith”. James Earl Jones could’ve taken a few lessons from Shatner on that one. Probably the only time in the history of the universe that anyone would say that James Earl Jones could take a lesson from William Shatner, but there it is.
All kidding aside, overall, TWOK was a great movie for a number of reasons.
Sure there’s the infamous gossip around Shatner’s scene-stealing antics and overacting, and sure, we as an audience have to wonder why it’s always the Enterprise that’s the only Starfleet vessel close enough to deal with any given emergency, but this film had a lot going for it.
Let’s start with what were great special effects for it’s day. Say what you will about modern special effects advances with photo-real computer animation, some of those old model-based films had a look and texture that was real enough, if only for the moment, to move the story along. The initial space battle where Khan’s Reliant surprise attacks Enterprise still raises the hairs on the back of my neck.
The cinematography was truly masterful when it came to underscoring the punch of certain plot points too. One of the best-shot scenes in a prolonged action sequence in western cinema had to be when Spock hacked Reliant’s main computer, ordering it to lower its shields; panic hits Khan and his crew; as Khan orders his minions to raise the shields the camera does a quick pan across the control panel to highlight the confusion of the supermen when dealing with an unexpected emergency with unfamiliar equipment, before cutting back to Khan before Kirk orders Enterprise to start blazing away. It would have been adequate to simply go with a close-up of Ricardo Montalban and rely on his acting to show us panic. It was brilliant to actually show us his point of view and the impossibility of figuring out how to work the controls amidst the surprise.
TWOK had a strong, focused plot too, with subplots that complemented each other. (Something that can’t be said for all Trek films) It presented themes of revenge, obsession, coming to terms with unexpected family, coming to terms with midlife crisis and self-worth, the implications of enormous power. There was an obvious, strong "Moby Dick" metaphor at work (Melville being one of the holy trinity for Star Trek – in addition to Twain and Shakespeare) and there were allusions to Dickens among others.
And the writers forced us an audience to deal with something quite rare for heroic action movies – especially installments in serials – the death of a major character. A Red Shirt here and there, that’s to be expected. Killing off a secondary character? That helps move the plot along. But killing Spock, a primary character and audience favourite, was a gutsy move that took TWOK a bit beyond the typical summer popcorn fare it would have been otherwise. It was an emotional punch that forced the audience to grow up a bit, and James T. Kirk to grow up a lot. Sure, in the words of Monty Python’s “The Holy Grail” Spock “got better”, but at the time this death was a serious event that was handled deftly and with thought by the writing team.
Ultimately, it’s this maturity to the plot that allows it to stand the test of time. I don’t know how many times over the years I’ve watched “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”, but these days it tends to be about once a year, and I still enjoy it. The same can’t be said of other installments in the franchise.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

A Really Late Review: "Overclocked"

And here’s yet another really, really , really late book review. I’m trying not to make a habit of this. This time it’s for Cory Doctorow’s latest offering: “Overclocked – Stories of the Future Present”, a collection of six short stories.
Now some of you might point out that any review of the contents of this collection would be about as outdated as William Shatner’s toupee in “The Wrath of Khan” since Doctorow released the individual stories for free on his website long in advance of the hardcopy version hitting the bookstore shelves. And you’d be right.
But I’m kind of old fashioned that way – I like to feel a book in my hands, smell the paper and watch the lamplight caress the words on the pages. So, rather than download the individual stories and read them off my computer screen (‘cause I do enough reading off of the computer on a daily basis at work) or run-down the ink cartridge on my printer putting it into hard copy myself, I waited for the book to be released. And boy did I have to wait… When the print release date finally rolled around, I happily trotted over to White Dwarf Books (my local SF bookstore) to grab a copy, but shockingly, there wasn’t a single volume to be found. Stunning, since these guys carry everything, even old stuff that’s been out of print for years. When I asked what was going on, they sighed and said that since the stories had been released online for free, it was unlikely that many people (besides me) would bother paying for a copy and thus they hadn’t ordered any. Needless to say, I was somewhat floored. I’ve done my best to stay out of the free online distribution vs. paid print edition debate, but this was the first time its ramifications had jumped into the practical world, grabbed me by the collar and given me a good shake. Now, to be fair, the nice people at White Dwarf did offer to order me a copy, but I figured I’d let them stick to their principles on this one, and because I wanted the book right away, I decided to go corporate. I tried one of the local outlets of Chapters – Canada’s big box book retailer. Now when it comes to their SF stock, Chapters is known for loading up on lots of cheesy role-playing-game-based books and making populist and otherwise odd choices for the rest of its merchandise, and never keeping more than a pittance of classics on hand at a given time. I’m not completely opposed to Chapters, I’d just rather give my business to the little guy who has lots of the good stuff on hand and actually knows what he’s talking about when you ask him a question. At any rate, I got lucky – the big box actually did have “Overclocked” on hand.
Which was great, because I’d been looking forward to it since Doctorow first let it be known this collection was in the works. I’ve always been a fan of Doctorow’s fiction. Not only is he a great writer, he’s also a Canadian (though currently an ex-pat) who happily sets a number of his tales in his country of origin (Toronto, generally, but those of us who live outside the centre of the universe will forgive him that). Stylistically, I’ve always seen him as the bastard child of William Gibson and Douglas Coupland – he dances through modern and just-over-the-horizon technological issues with the greatest of ease while presenting well-flushed-out characters with heart.
And “Overclocked” didn’t disappoint.
I won’t say that every story within is a gem. They’re not. Only a couple are memorable. But they are all solid and enjoyable in the moment. Of note are “After the Siege”, “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth” and “I, Row-Boat”.
To be fair, I think the main reason why “After the Siege” sticks out in my mind is because of Doctorow’s preface where he talks about why the story is so personal to him. The tale of a girl struggling to survive while her home city is under a prolonged siege is based on the experiences of Doctorow’s grandmother, who lived through the siege of Leningrad during the Second World War. The story itself does a capable job of illustrating how in such an environment, horrors are commonplace and the day-to-day efforts to survive are as great as the efforts to resist the enemy.
“When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth” is the tale of computer systems administrators around the world who survive a massive terrorist attack/war involving multiple types of weapons of mass destruction, and their efforts to rebuild society using their technological know-how and political idealism. It’s a SF-fan’s fantasy of a post-apocalyptic world where the geeks are on top instead of the tough guys – as though Brain were the bad-ass in “Escape from New York” instead of Snake Plissken or The Duke. Most importantly, it’s a story of people who really try to hold things together, to stave off entropy, despite overwhelming odds.
My favourite of the bunch though was “I, Row-Boat”. It’s the story of a dingy that possesses artificial intelligence, working with an automated pleasure diving expedition yacht in the Coral Sea to help post-human tourists who download themselves into bodies for vacations. Robbie the Row-boat’s routine of ferrying tourists and contemplating Asimovian-3-Laws philosophy is interrupted one day when a meddling post-human decides to “uplift” a coral reef by giving it intelligence and self-awareness, and the newly-awakened reef is cranky at the thought of intruders near-by. It’s a funny story, but I think what gives “I, Row-Boat” its punch is the fact that among all the characters (post-human, AI, uplifted reef), the post-humans are the least human. They’ve lost quite a bit in leaving their bodies behind to exist as vast intelligences residing in computer systems in the cold spaces between the planets. They engage in weird experiments like giving awareness to a coral reef without considering or caring about the consequences of their actions. The AI’s, struggling to find meaning in the world, are more human than their creators. The story is an existential masterpiece.
Is “Overclocked” Doctorow’s greatest book? No. As short story collections go, “A Place So Foreign and 8 More” is stronger and I think his most interesting and touching narrative is the novel “Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town”. That being said, “Overclocked” is a solid collection and worth owning – whether you’ve downloaded it for free or packed home the hardcopy.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

A Late Review: "The Children of Hurin"

My review of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Children of Hurin” is, admittedly, pretty late in coming to the table. I bought the book a day after it hit the store shelves and dove in right away, but for one reason or another, I’ve been putting this review off for weeks.
That being said, despite the recent release in stand-alone form, is there really any rush to review a work that’s been available in one form or other as part of “The Silmarillion” or “The Book of Lost Tales” or any of the slew of other collections of his father’s works that Christopher Tolkien’s released in the past few decades? After reading this edition, sadly, I have to admit, not really.
I’m a huge fan of J.R.R. Tolkien. I think he is one of the finest writers in the English language. Period. So I was very much looking forward to this edition’s release.
That being said, I made a point specifically of not getting my hopes up (and no, I wasn’t unduly influenced by some early reviews that hinted at disappointment) because everything an author produces should be assessed first and foremost on the basis of how it reads on its own, and only secondarily as part of a larger narrative. Reputation or love of previous works shouldn’t enter into it.
So I approached “The Children of Hurin” with an open mind. Or, at least, as much as it could be open given that I’ve read the story in different forms before on several occasions in the above-mentioned books.
On the positive side, the book is a wonderful example of how utterly bleak Tolkien can be with his storytelling. Certainly, Turin’s life isn’t a complete plummet off of a cliff, he does have his moments of victory and joy, but those serve as powerful underscores for the inexorable drag downward towards suffering and ruin. It shows Tolkien’s bravery as an author that he can depict the slow destruction of a world and yet still make us care for the people in it, even though they are flawed and doomed to be destroyed as well.
Tolkien gives us believable, three-dimensional characters: while Turin is given to rash decisions and arrogance, he does have his thoughtful moments and questions his choices, even if generally in hindsight. The many elvish characters present different sides of their personalities as well (rather than being stereotypically cold and all-knowing like in the myriad of knock-off fantasies featuring elves), though wise, some proceed with potentially fatal actions despite their misgivings; one of the elf maidens who falls in love with Turin does so despite knowing that a relationship between them cannot work. Even Mim, the petty-dwarf, is not simply presented as “the traitor” – he may be vindictive and spiteful, but he grows to like Turin and only turns from him when an elf (a species he hates) arrives at their hideout (his ancestral home, taken by Turin and his gang) and he feels himself displaced in Turin’s affections, and he only helps the orcs because of coercion.
And, it is great to see the story in a longer form, with more time taken to get into some of the details.
As a nice addition, the book includes some beautiful, ghostly illustrations by Alan Lee.
But despite the haunting prose, full characterization and a plot that forcibly drags you along to its tragic conclusion, the book didn’t work for me.
Yes, it’s great to see the tales that compose “The Children of Hurin” presented in a longer form, but the story feels far too abrupt without the various other threads from the tapestry of the First Age of Middle Earth to give it context. I say this as someone well-versed with the larger story too.
Maybe it’s because I’m so used to reading the tales of Hurin and Turin as part of the larger work of “The Silmarillion” that I feel left hanging when there’s nothing more at the end of this family tragedy, or that this book seems to start with a shudder.
But I don’t think so. I think the other stories enhance the flow of this set of narratives. I think the cycle of Turin – because that’s what this book is really all about, it feels as though Hurin’s part is just a bracket to the tale of his son – suffers from not having all of the previous tragedies presented before it to give it weight, depth and consequence. Taken in and of itself, it doesn’t really give you the powerful sense that this is one of the last desperate stands against total darkness that you’d get reading it as part of “The Silmarillion” or “Book of Lost Tales”. And that’s a key part of where the tales of Hurin and Turin get their power – because they are stories of people who are being overwhelmed by evil not just personally, but because their entire world is about to be drowned in a dark wave that’s been building for centuries – that underscores their desperate heroism and futility. Without the rest, the rebellion of the Noldor, the forging of the elven kingdoms, the hemming-in of the evil in the north, the break-out of Morgoth’s forces, the trials of the early tribes of Men, all of the victories and all of the losses before and after, “The Children of Hurin”, all by its lonesome, comes off more as the story of one family that’s been picked-on by the god of evil and the consequences that befall anyone else who happens to fall in with them.
And that’s coming from the perspective of someone who’s read, understands and loves all of the stories of the Elder Days. I’d hate to be a newbie coming to this who had only read “The Lord of the Rings” and/or “The Hobbit”, or, perish the thought, nothing by Tolkien at all! To a greenhorn, “The Children of Hurin” would be utterly confusing. Christopher Tolkien’s attempt to put together a quick synopsis of what’s happened so far by way of an introduction is hurried, shallow and utterly inadequate. It’s also boring. I doubt a newcomer would get through it. At least someone coming at this cycle for the first time through a set of developing stories in “The Silmarillion” or “The Book of Lost Tales” is given something interesting and dynamic with characters they can follow – in short, they’re told a story. This introduction is merely a bland statement of facts. One that would be quickly forgotten, leaving the new reader to wallow in confusion when he/she finally made it to the first chapter.
I’m not saying “The Children of Hurin” is a bad book or a poor book-buying investment. It’s merely an addition to a collector’s set. What I am saying is that it’s not something that I’ll be reading as often as “The Silmarillion”.


Strange book-related observation:

My local Costco began stocking “The Children of Hurin” several weeks after it was released. Despite my feelings stated above, I do applaud the chain for purchasing quality fantasy. What’s really odd though is that they’ve piled their copies of this book in the children’s section. Clearly the staff responsible for displaying the book stock haven’t read this one. I figure they must have taken a quick look at the cover and figured “Hmmmm… fantasy, guys with swords, goblins, it says ‘children’ on the cover, must be a kids book.” Yeah, kids fantasy novels are frequently filled with big battles and bloodshed galore, but there’s a lot of fairly adult concepts going on in this tome, not the least of which are suicide and unintentional sibling incest. By all means, they ought to be stocking the kids section with copies of “The Hobbit” (which itself becomes a fairly adult story by its conclusion), but “The Children of Hurin” really belongs at the far end of the table with the adult books. It could do some real good down there too – not only might it entice people to start reading fantasy and science fiction, it would displace of some of those junky Danielle Steele novels that take up so much room and never seem to disappear! I must have a word with the manager one of these days.