Invasion of Astro-Monster

Invasion of Astro-Monster

We finally signed up for Netflix. It took me several days to clear out enough space in my evenings to actually take advantage of this, but at long last it was time for a movie. I had initially planned on starting a new anime series, but instead had a sudden craving to see rubber monsters stomping on cities. Because I don’t know all that much about monster movies, my selection was more or less at random. Something called Godzilla vs. Monster Zero seemed a good choice for the evening, so in it went. The correct title of the movie according to IMDB is Invasion of Astro-Monster, though it has been called a number of things in a number of countries.

I am not a connoisseur of B movies, or of movies at all really, so my reflections on this will lack profundity and insight. It will have to suffice however; I can only hope this is worthy to be my final 2013 Vintage SciFi Not-a-Challenge contribution. (There may yet be more, but knowing my writing speed lately, I’m not counting on it.) And SciFi this is, in the truest sense of the word, since Toho Studios decided to cash in on two lucrative movie genres: giant rubber monsters and alien invasions. Sitting in on the brainstorming session for this would have been hilarious: “What can we do this time to spice things up a bit? We’ve already had multiple monsters battling each other, and our Tokyo sets are getting a bit bedraggled.” “What if aliens invade while the monsters fight?” “By Jove, you’ve got it!”

So off our brave heroes go in a 60s vintage rocket ship, to Planet X which has been discovered just past Jupiter. Good thing for the heroes that Jupiter is a quick jaunt from the Earth, since they don’t appear to have packed a lunch. Less fortunate is the fact that Jupiter appears to be a carved, wooden disc hanging in a cheap starscape. Let’s not nitpick though, instead getting straight to the aliens wearing, of course, silvery suits, strange helmets, and killer wraparound shades. They had me at hello. The aliens need help with a giant monster of their own, so they ask to borrow Earth’s. This eventually leads to my favorite scene in the movie, where tacky flying saucers hover above a lake in Japan, pull up Godzilla and Rodan with levitation rays, then tow the two off to Planet X.

I really shouldn’t mock this too much, so I’ll mention some positives. The movie does its best to stay science fictional. In spite of the battling rubber monsters and the aliens in funny hats, the heroes are scientists trying to solve their problems in scientific ways. Looking back, this was the single biggest surprise of the movie. Humanity triumphs not because they punch harder or shoot faster, but because people found the root of the problem, applied knowledge and engineering, and in true Campbellian fashion, built an answer. Crazy. I must also give credit to a couple of visual moments. Yes, Jupiter was pretty hilarious when it first popped up, but there were a couple of shots of rockets and monsters on the eerie surface of Planet X, Jupiter looming cinematically in the background, that were striking. I was genuinely surprised at the artistry.

But those were just moments. For the most part, this is unintentional hilarity from start to finish. Bad dubbing, bad acting, cheap effects, massive plot holes, Godzilla dancing a jig, questionable gender messages, the works. The biggest disappointment for me was the relative lack of destruction. Rubber monster fights were sacrificed for story and aliens, so the total screen time of model houses and cars being smashed was disappointingly low. I enjoyed what I saw, but ultimately wished for more. Less talking between people I don’t care about and more buildings being demolished make for a happy movie reviewer. Oh well.

My final recommendation? It’s a solid rubber monster movie. Anyone who likes that sort of thing will probably enjoy this one too. (Fans of Japanese B movies probably already own the Blu-Ray.) The SF elements make it an interesting study, but I wouldn’t highlight this as a can’t miss film. I wish I had the academic chops to put this in a cultural or cinematic context; sadly that will have to wait until I’ve seen a few more. For now, I have to content myself with Mystery Science Theater 3000 imitations instead.

Red Moon and Black Mountain

Moldy Fantasy: Red Moon and Black Mountain
Joy Chant

Shortly before Christmas, Mrs. Pep developed a sudden interest in The Lord of the Rings. I got her the first DVD as a present, then the second and third as we powered through the trilogy on consecutive nights. This fired in me a long dormant craving for similar high fantasy, complete with prophecies, world-threatening evil, epic battles, and other trappings of Tolkien-esque stuff. I looked up a certain knock-off that I read in my youth, which shall remain un-named except to say that the remembered phrase “doughty Warrows” quickly turned it up, and was led through related posts to an article about the heretofore unknown Red Moon and Black Mountain. Intrigued, I checked the library, found an available copy, and added the slim volume to my pile.

I hope that the gentle hostess of the 2013 Vintage Sci-Fi Not-a-challenge will forgive the blatant trespass of high fantasy into her project, because this is definitely vintage. It also appears to have slipped into obscurity, despite being a prize-winning book in the early 1970s. Joy Chant has only written three other novels, leaving her work more or less unknown to the new generation of fantasy readers. Those that know the book seem to feel quite strongly about it though, with most reviews I found saying things like, “I loved this book as a child and it still holds its magic today.” I came to it in the context of Tolkien rip-offs, so my first impression was somewhat different. While I entered with slightly different expectations than its biggest fans may have held, that goes with most of fantasy for me and should be taken as a given. This is in many ways the quintessential Moldy Fantasy addition.

A certain amount of plot summary is necessary before diving into comparisons. Three English kids, Oliver, Nicholas, and Penelope, are magically transported into another world. They are split up, each finding themselves a part of the usual cataclysmic battle between good and evil. We get right to it, with battling eagles, spells of eternal winter, princesses held captive in towers, and noble horsemen on the plains. Oliver grows to be a man and a valiant warrior. The other two meet magical types and have adventures. After awhile, the forces of good gather in a white walled city to fend off the armies of the Evil Wizard. Select portions of the Battle of Pelennor Fields are reenacted. I won’t spoil the ending by revealing if Good ultimately triumphs over Evil.

There is a definite whiff of Middle Earth here, with appearances by Tom Bombadil, Arwen, Sauron, Minases Morgul and Tirith, and to an extent Rohan. To me though, it felt even closer to another iconic fantasy creation, Narnia. By shipping in three heroic children from contemporary England, Chant seems to be attempting a world with the depth of Middle Earth inside the framework C.S. Lewis used for his books. To her credit though, I think Chant ultimately makes the world her own. The horse people in particular are given a much bigger stage and consequently separate themselves from their literary forbears. Other parts have become fantasy convention enough to gloss over, especially great white cities, elves (or whatever passes for them), prophecies, and much more. It’s hard to know what is original and what is borrowed when tropes have progressed as much as they have.

In some ways, I am less interested in what this book stole than what was later stolen. If Weis and Hickman didn’t read this and make off with the concept of multiple, different colored moons affecting magic, I will eat my hat. Dragonlance adds a moon to better fit in with the D&D alignment system, but everything else is identical. I didn’t really notice anything else egregious, just the same tropes and conventions that snake their way through most fantasy. The scene where the Earth Mother walks through the battlefield, feet sinking into the ground and leaving new life in their wake gave me a massive flashback to Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, though I have no idea if they are actually related. Certainly this is a book that lends itself to a Miyazaki production.

Not all is well of course, and I would be remiss if I didn’t grumble a little. The biggest complaint I have with the book is the combination of pacing and length. I have read that Chant built this world over years and years of personal imagining and storytelling; this is apparent from the start. The challenge for an author in this case is to somehow reveal the details and background while keeping the story moving along, a challenge exacerbated by word count limitations of the pre-doorstop fantasy era. Here, the author gives herself a couple hundred pages to lay out the world, bring our English children up to speed, establish the bona fides of the diabolical nemesis, and set up a world altering conflict. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t always work. There are going to be trade offs when space is so limited, in this case the high drama of the conflict gets sacrificed in favor of world building. At the end of the book, we know a lot about the world and how it works, but the threat from the head bad dude never really feels urgent. There is much talk of how awful it would be if Good were to lose, but Good never loses anything, even its car keys.

Beyond this, I only have quibbles. Things are a bit overwrought, which is to be expected of the genre. There is a lot of dialog that would make me giggle were I to read aloud to my children. Chant has an odd hangup with Christianity throughout the book. Satan makes a cameo and Oliver displays an inexplainable loyalty to a religion with a fervor that far outstrips his connections with Merry Olde England. I’m not sure what the point of this is, since it is never shown as admirable per se, or even relevant, what with the other gods roaming about. I bring this up not as a glaring issue, just something that knocked me out of the story every time it popped up. The Tolkien flashbacks were the only other bits I found jarring, difficult as they are to ignore.

On the other hand, I remember reading the last twenty pages or so and thinking, “whatever faults I may find with the rest, this ending makes me forget them.” Something in the resolution feels right in a way that many books fail to achieve. Had I read this book at the impressionable age of twelve, I’m sure it would have bowled me over. It probably would have bowled me over now with an extra hundred pages to work with, a greater willingness to step away from God and Tolkien, and a more convincing threat from the dark forces. The characters and societies that get their chance in the narrative shine, but the spotlight is a bit uneven. Altogether though, Red Moon rises above its flaws and promises more and better goodies in the books that follow. Epic fantasy types should definitely seek this out, as well as anyone curious about how the genre has developed.

Rating: The 1970 Uruguay squad. They ended up fourth in one of the greatest World Cup tournaments ever, but remain overshadowed by Pele & Co. and largely forgotten.

The Fractal Prince

The Fractal Prince
Hannu Rajaniemi

I bowled through The Fractal Prince in my last, mad bid to read the best of 2012, getting a brand new library copy of the book just as the year expired. It is yet another stop on the 2012 Hard SF Revival Grand Tour, proving conclusively that Analog readers need not yet weep for the death of SF’s core subgenre. Parenthetically, I thought that my Best of 2012 list would be utterly mainstream and unoriginal. Instead, I find that it is overwhelmingly Hard SF and not at all like others I am reading. I’m not sure why this surprised me. Digression aside, The Fractal Prince presents several challenges to the reviewer, which forces this post further into more appropriate territory for The 2013 Science Fiction Experience. Why? Because Rajaniemi’s novel clearly illustrates the change that has overtaken SF in the last decade or two.

First, the book and its challenges. The largest is basic comprehension. Between string theory, quantum physics, and Rajaniemi’s oft cryptic narrative style, I did not understand large patches of the book. This is generally not a problem, since I don’t really need to know what a “qdot” is, the ins and outs of space battles, or why exactly something works the way it does, but I confess to scratching my head a bit at the end, double checking myself to make sure I knew what had just happened. A certain type of reader is going to go bonkers at this. As a reviewer, the swirling question marks make it difficult to pen a coherent and knowledgeable response, since I spend as much time going over basic plot points in my head for comprehension as I usually do with analysis.

That said, the story sweeps along, pushing all willing readers before it with a certain inexorability. Rajaniemi has utmost confidence in himself, to tell a story beguiling enough that the reader will forget any confusion, and in his audience, to have brains enough to keep up. Uncompromising it may be, but The Fractal Prince shows the utmost respect for the reader. Rajaniemi of course has no control of the bewildered audience, its patience, or its interest, but his self-confidence is well placed. The book is an elegantly crafted mystery of stunning prose and imagination, one that threatens the stone walls of genre and the glass ceilings of science fiction convention. Yes, he’s telling a caper, but he tells it with style, with math, and, in this case, with The Arabian Nights tangled up in quantum physics. The influence of a merry band of Scottish authors is clear, but Rajaniemi weaves those same threads of mayhem visible in Banks or Stross in a way all his own.

Stepping back for a broader look, one thing stands out more than the craft and intelligence: The Fractal Prince shows possibly the clearest demarcation yet between traditional science fiction and the contemporary scene. Rajaniemi hasn’t upended the genre with this book, but a reader looking back can see just how far science fiction has moved in the last decade or two. The sensation is rather like hiking with one’s head down for a couple of hours, then looking up and realizing that the tree line is some ways back and the scenery is completely different. He is standing on the shoulders of giants to accomplish this of course, giants of the New Wave, the cyberpunk movement, the Singularity crew, and others, but the book comes very close to burning the bridge leading back to traditional SF.

What makes this science fiction experience so different? More than anything, this is a book of the Information Age. I have written before how science has expanded, adding the entirety of the IT field. “Scientists” now include programmers, network admins, project managers, and the like. Readers that once were engineers and physicists are now also computer gamers and app creators. Hard SF can still be about gargantuan engineering projects in deep space, but more often it is about information. Further, Vernor Vinge and his Singularity posse have made post-scarcity a real concept to be wrestled with. When everybody has stuff and things, what matters are intangibles: art, ideas, secrets. There are still stories about pragmatic, Anglo-Saxon engineers solving problems, but they read like relics. Cyberpunk led the way, but its doubtful that William Gibson and crew had any idea that network security would form the basis of whole sagas, that no book written past the mid 1990s could be taken seriously without some extrapolation of the internet.

All of this is clearly visible in the story. We rejoin Jean, our erstwhile protagonist, in the heart of a giant, outer space construct; but it is not a space station or battle fortress, it is a building-sized router. Jean is on a quest, so to speak, and while he isn’t hacking in the traditional sense of the word, he is searching for information, for bits of code. In The Quantum Thief, Jean was stealing time, another intangible that retains value in a post-scarcity world. Rajaniemi is slowly outlining the contours of the major conflict in his universe, a conflict immediately recognizable to readers of post-Vinge SF. The Sobornosts, when not fighting each other, are in a slow burning war with zoku over, in a word, death. Not to the death, but about death. The Sobornosts want to digitize everything, while the zoku prefer to retain some attachment to the wet, squishy parts of us. Everything is utterly post-human of course, but this is a debate we see in Stross, Schroeder, and others. Beneath the jaunty caper, the lyrical prose, and the string theory, we are watching the debates of the information age play themselves out, debates that were well-nigh unimaginable during the Golden Age.

By now I suppose it is painfully obvious that I am not going to corral this into a simple plot summary and recommendation. A reduction into an arbitrary number of stars isn’t going to help anyone anyway, since individual mileage will vary here more than most novels. I would never in a thousand years give this to someone who asked me, “So what’s this science fiction thing you talk about? Where should I start?” I wouldn’t give it to the Baen Books crowd either. The people who are going to love this book are people steeped in science fiction, willing to make the effort to understand something complicated and challenging, and hunting for new paths for the genre to take. The rewards are there for those who go looking.

Rating: Roy Hodgson! Let’s do a little switcheroo here. “Woy” went to Scandinavia from England and gained renown for changing how they play football. He won numerous club titles in Sweden and pushed Finland to their highest world ranking ever. Is there similar glory in Rajaniemi’s future?

YGSF: Analogue Men

Analogue Men
Damon Knight

This is my first post in the Vintage SciFi Not-a-challenge, but also the first post in an exciting new series here at Two Dudes. We’ve had Moldy Fantasy for awhile now, so now it is time for the SF counterpart to emerge: Yo’ Grandpa’s SciFi (pronounced Sah-Fah). And who better to kick off YGSF than, not just any Grandmaster, but with the very namesake of the Grandmaster Award, Damon Knight? I’ve never read Knight before this, so was fortunate to find this small, battered paperback at one or another of the book sales I haunt. Analogue Men, sometimes published as Hell’s Pavement, appears to be his first novel, though he had been writing short stories and criticism for many years before.

I’m not sure what to make of this novel. The basic concept is the “analogue,” a machine that convinces brains to cook up hallucinatory reasons for controlling behavior. Ostensibly used to prevent criminal antics, it is inevitably abused, leading to whole societies full of Norman Bates, forever hectored by imaginary spinsters. The first bit of the book feels rather like a poor man’s Space Merchants. Later it turns into Bizarro Hogwarts, then something really crazy, and finally a strangely unsatisfying conclusion, with stops at Thrilling Adventure along the way. It is mostly satirical, I think, though some of the targets of that satire have drifted into obscurity. At the same time, the book maintains its Golden Age sensibilities, especially for language and gender.

The story concerns itself primarily with the battle for Free Will, as one might expect when mind control is the bugaboo. (Speaking of mind control, is it just me, or is this a plot device that went out of fashion about the same time as psionics? I can’t think of recent books about it.) We follow a young, confused male as he journeys through the world, trying to make sense of the fact that his analogue appears to be broken. He finds himself free of the compulsions that those around him seem plagued by and, eventually exhausted by trying to fit in, ends up crashing through neighboring kingdoms, going to school, and having adventures. For whatever reason, the plot contrives to keep him sidelined during the most exciting bits of the conclusion, leaving the reader to wonder what sort of fun stuff is going on off stage.

Some things I liked about the book: once it gets rolling, there are some gripping action sequences and engaging world building. I’m not sure that the societies Knight proposes are natural progressions from the analogue, but they are at least interesting to read about. My favorite is the giant blank area that used to be the states of Washington and Oregon, because if there is to be one part of the nation that must transcend consciousness and turn their realm into really odd hippie heaven, it would be the Pacific Northwest. I also appreciate that Knight seems to be pushing the envelope with some risque stuff, though to modern eyes it seems more like sweaty-palmed teenage boy salaciousness. I’m giving him points for what I presume the intent to be, rather than the result.

Some things I didn’t like as much: I already mentioned the end, which felt off. The book has unquestionably aged, though most works from the era have. More than anything else though, there is a sense that things don’t totally hold together. I can’t quite put my finger on why not, but Analogue is a bit like a Jell-O that didn’t firm up. I looked at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction to see what might be going on, and uncovered its accusation that the novel format is not Knight’s strength. He is justifiably a Grandmaster, but much of what he did for SF was as a short story writer, a critic, and an editor, says the Encyclopedia; Anlogue bears this out.

Even with those complaints, it was an interesting read. I won’t call it essential, but it was fun, hasn’t been visited too many times by the Suck Fairy or the Sexism Fairy (no small accomplishment), and has some bits that are memorable. If the author were to dig a little deeper into the story, open up the world a bit more, and let his characters take a bigger role in the goings on, we might have an exciting story on our hands.

Rating: England 1982. This was a particularly frustrating World Cup for the birthplace of football, as they bowed out weakly in the second round after dominating their opening matches.

Upcoming Events

Upcoming Events

Happy New Year all and welcome to 2013. With the new year come two new projects that Two Dudes is proud to be a part of. First, the Vintage SciFi Not-a-challenge, hosted by Little Red Reviewer. This will be a fun month-long excursion into the past, where a bunch of blogs collaborate to read and review old stuff. It promises to be a great chance to both look at ancient SF we might otherwise skip, and to meet others in the SF blogging community. I’ve already struck up conversations with a few new people and look forward to all the banter. Expect the first post within a couple of days.

Second is Stainless Steel Dropping’s 2013 Science Fiction Experience. This isn’t a thematically defined event, just a two month long exploration and celebration of science fiction. Carl V. at SSD is graciously providing a hub where all sorts of people can congregate, share posts and reviews, and just chew the fat about SF. As a broader event, this promises to introduce a diverse set of bloggers, not just the SF crew; I’ve already bounced my way into a Japan blogging circle by following Carl V.’s links.

So big thanks to Little Red Reviewer and Carl V. for taking the time to build these virtual water coolers for us. Stay tuned for posts, links, and illuminating commentary.