Monday, March 31, 2008

Top Ten Animated Science Fiction Characters

Welcome to the gates of April. This month it is an all Anime extravaganze at the SFSNNJ, with the topics ranging from Anime and Manga, to original novels that were adapted to the screen and much more. While I am not as much of an Anime fan as some of my friends (you know who you are), I do still know a few things. This list will feature characters in books and films that have made the leap to animated features and TV shows.

10 - The crew of the Enterprise - That's right, Star Trek the animated series. It was fun, it was cool, and it went where no TV show could. When Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest of the crew made the transition into the 2D world, it was with great fanfare and cool episodes, proving that even Shatner could be animated with style.

9 - That Rats of N.I.M.H. - Robert C. O'Brien's brilliant tale of rats who have been given near human intelligence by tinkering human scientists made the leap from page to screen in the 1980's, and showed us that we needed to take responsibility for our curiosity. Although the Don Bluth film changes many elements of the story from the book, it is never-the-less still an excellent adaptation of this powerful story.

8 - Fiver and Hazel - Richard Adams tale of the hardships of a group of rabbits attempting to start afresh after the destruction of their warren made its bog screen debut to much interest, and managed to show that the British are able animators as well as voice actors. Well treated and respectful of the original work, the film version of Watership Down is considered a classic even today.

7 - Rowf and Snitter - Plague Dogs by Richard Adams is another brilliant film adaptation of animals with human traits. Even more different from the book, the movie version of Plague Dogs features an ending that is far bleaker, but actually a bit more satisfying than the ine in the book.

6 - Winnie the Pooh - A.A. Milne's classic fat little stuffed bear made the leap to the screen care of Disney Studios, but is the animated version truly superior to the original Shepard illustrations? Many say yes, but the truth is that both are excellent pieces of art in their own right, and the animated Disney version remains as popular today as it was in the 1960's.

5 - Arthur Pendragon and Merlin - Another animated classic brought to us by the talent at Disney, The Sword in the Stone, and one of the more classically inspired stories of its time. Disney's treatment of the classic tale of young Arthur growing up to the point where the mere boy pulls the sword from the stone to claim his birthright is fun and inventive.

4 - Neo - The Matrix has spawned a huge number of professional and amateur animated shorts and features. The version that springs most to mind is the DVD collection entitled The Animatrix, which featured a myriad of new works by noted directors and voice actors.

3 - Juan "Johnny" Rico - Many people disparaged the film adaptation of the classic science fiction novel by Robert Heinlein, but Starship Troopers really found its niche when it transitioned into an animted series called Roughnecks. Though there are still many deviations from the book, and the politics of the universe are mostly glossed over, it is still a great version of this classic story.

2 - Taran - While most people find it odd to have the hero fo the story be a Wizard's assistant pig-keeper, it is this youth that makes the story so interesting in Lloyd Alexander's The Prydain Chronicles. While the Disney feature film conflates several characters and books, condensing them into the animated film, The Black Cauldron, it was still a great, fun fantasy film with some monumentally scary moments for kids. While it does not follow the story set by Alexander, it does follow the tone and style of Alexander's original works.

1 - Bilbo Baggins - Try topping the animated version of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, I dare you. Well drawn, well voiced, and very faithful to the original story, The Hobbit shows how wonderful a faithful adaptation of the original work.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Dread Empire's Fall

OK, it has been a while since i actually did a three update week, but I swear that I am going to get back into the habit of doing this the right way.

Recently I had the opportunity to read through the current three novels of Walter John Williams' Science Fiction series Dread Empire's Fall. These books have been winking at me from the shelves of teh Science Fiction section for a while now, but I have been hesitant to pick them up, if only becuase I did not want to fall into another giant SF series. Luckily for me, I bought the first two books at Borders in Wayne during their store closing sale.

The series takes place about ten thousand years from now. Humans and several alien species have been living under the rule of an alien species calle the Shaa for milennia. Any sources of innovation and free thought have been ruthlessly suppressed for generations, and the Shaa have employed horrific weapons to ensure the continued obedience and loyalty of their servant species. Over the Empire's 12,000 years, the ideals of the Shaa, as embodied in a document of law called the Praxis, have become the ideals of the client species. Unfortunately, the last of the Shaa has decided to end its immortal life (presumably the rest of the Shaa had done so over the course of time leading up to this point).

The problem is that the Empire is kind of like a bonsai tree, and has been shaped and molded to the specifications of the Shaa over many generations. The vacuum of power left behind by the last Shaa has been filled by the bureaucratic Convocation of Peers, who rule as any collective would. one of the client races, the Naxids, decides that it is up to them to restore a proper heirarcy with one species on top, taking the place of the Shaa in the Empire. As they were the first conquered species, the Naxids decide that they are best equipped to run the Empire.

This series follows the course of the Rebellion of the Naxids and the careers of several very interesting characters. All of the story is told following the exploits of Gareth Martinez, younger son of a very welathy, but not prestigious family of Peers from the Empire's furthest provinces, and his on-again off-again lover Caoline, Lady Sula, last survivor of the high ranking Sula clan, whose Peerage is second only to two or three other families of humans. The rub is that Sula is not quite whom she says she is, and Gareth is an overly romantic fellow who does not understand the problems that the Lady Sula seems to have with their relationship. Set against the backdrop of this vast war (which is the first war ever fought between fleet of similar technology as well as the first combat that the fleet has seen in over 1000 years), the romance, politics, and interpersonal maneuvering make this series really stand out.

Throughout the series we watch as the political wrangling of the Convocation, which is attempting to run the war themselves, and whose armchair general practices lead the Empire into blunder after blunder, and we can see exactly how the galaxy has come to this dreadful pass. Through the techings of the Praxis, everyone knows that one the tried and true ideas of old are worthwhile and practicable, and thus the tactical innovations practiced by Lord Martinez and Lady Sula are looked at with disdain as being one step short of heresy. It is interesting to watch as the political interplay unfolds in the story, and how the characters are treated by an Empire that should be very grateful to have their service.

I tore through these books very quickly, and that is a testament to how much I enjoyed them as well as the ease and accessability of the writing. Walter John Williams has done an excellent job, and I look forward to reading some of his other works when I have some more time.

Top Ten Disaster Scenarios

Whether it is plagues, giant asteroids, demons, alien weapons, nuclear war, or undead menace, the Apocalypse is never complete without its own special brand of horrible happenings. Over the years we have seen movies and books portray cataclysmic events in ever more interesting fashions, but still the method of our destruction remains pretty much confined to a few plausible choices.

10 - Alien Invasion - I think that most of us are picturing the incredibly ridiculous movie Independence Day on this one. It is not the only example of Aliens committing genocide and wiping out the human race, but it is one of the most prominent (and also the silliest in many respects). Say what you like, but this one is an all time favorite, and whether you are talking about The Arrival, Titan AE, or The Thing it all pretty much amounts to the end of the world if the aliens win. The problem is that no matter how advanced, smart, or powerful the aliens are, they will always be outwitted by the clever monkeys of Earth.

9 - Climate - OK, well, if you missed the movies The Core and The Day After Tomorrow, then you have yet to see the idea of ecological/climatological disasters at their finest. Though it is hard to convincingly see the idea of the planet itself as being the method of our destruction, many have posited this idea in fiction and in real life. Check out John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up for a good example in literature.

8 - Religion - Look out, here comes Jurgen Prochnow with the memos of the end times. Seriously, though, whether we are talking about Constantine, The Seventh Sign, or End of Days, the idea of biblical revelations has been a popular one in film and in print. Luckily for us, the gods have not yet decided to destroy the world, so Ragnarok is postponed for yet another day (sorry Thule Society).

7 - Outsiders and Beings of Madness - Call them what you like, but the Elder Gods scenario (much like the religious end of days scenario) has been one in many stories and films. From HP Lovecraft's work on the Cthulu mythos through movies like Hellboy, creatures from beyond the comprehension of many have always been a threat to the continued survival of mankind.

6 - Evolution - I am sure that the Neanderthals are laughing themselves silly over this one, but there have been a number of really great stories and TV shows about the evolution of humanity to its next step, and how that next step will eventually destroy modern man much as we destroyed the Neanderthals. My favorite example of this one is the TV show Prey which did not last anywhere near long enough to reach its cool prospective payout, but other good versions of this idea are things like X-Men, Firestarter, and Scanners (don't laugh).

5 - Frankenstein's Monsters - Man has a talent for inventing the method of his own destruction. Sometimes the destruction is more along the lines of a transhumanist concept, like the one in Netwon's Wake by Ken MacLeod, but more often it is something akin to the Terminator franchise. The issue here is, to quote from Jurrasic Park, "God creates dinosaurs, God kills dinosaurs, God creates man, man kills God, man creates dinosaurs..." "Dinosaurs eat man, woman inherits the Earth..." Killer robots, genetic experiments, and such will always be a staple of disaster stories.

4 - The Chain Reaction event - Much like the ecological and climatological stories, the Chain Reaction story relies on massive changes to the Earth usually brought about by things that are beyond our control. Unlike Climate-style disasters, Chain Reaction events are not the fault of humanity, but rather a more natural turn of events. Films of this type include such things as Sunlight, and similar themed movies and books.

3 - War - Although the Cold War is long over, the idea of war being the end of all life on Earth has still not disappeared from the collective unconscious. Although we are no longer balanced on the knife edge of mutually assured destruction, films like those in the Defcon series, as well as movies like The Day After, By Dawn's Early Light, and Failsafe still have a massive impact (just look at the TV series Jericho if you don't believe me).

2 - Meteors/Comets/Impact Events - These are always a lot of fun because in the long run there is really nothing we can do to stop a massive chunk of rock from hitting the Earth (assuming we even see it coming). Frankly my favorite of these films is Deep Impact which treats the subject seriously and works hard to make the story and the characters believable. Still, there is something to be said for the plethora of meteor disaster films.

1 - Plague - The Stand is but one of many stories that revolve around a world destroying plague. This idea has been around for a very long time, and will continue to have impact. Given disease scares like Avian Flu, Ebola, and others, the idea of the global pandemic is still topical and still really frightening. The long and the short of it is that this one is numero uno on the End of the World list because it will always be a potential problem, and is so common an occurance that it scares us all deeply.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Top Ten Post Apocalyptic Tales

I must again apologize for the delays, but unfort

March is here, and with it comes our Secret Conspiracies, Apocalypses, and End of the World Cults Month (just try fitting that on a placard). OK, so if the end of the world is nigh at hand, what happens next? After the world-shattering event there are going to be survivors, and so let us take a look at some of the best tales of 'after the bomb' living...

10 - Deathday/Earthrise by William C. Dietz - Remember the movie Independence Day? Well this series of novels posits a similar scenario with the simple correction that the aliens are not total morons (and that you cannot hack into an alien computer, even with Linux). The aliens wipe out 90% of the population of Earth and enslave the rest. It is a pretty brutal existence, but then again, what isn't.

9 - The Marked Man by Charles Ingrid - This is a story of life in California long after the Earth has been struck by a massive meteor. Humanity, well un-altered humanity anyway, was wiped out in the cataclysm, but a number of altered variant humans have survived, and some of these are trying to breed back real humans through natural selection. A brilliantly told story of a hardscrabble life that makes a whole lot of sense (after all, the most important location in the story is the Water Treatment Center in San Marin County).

8 - The Forge of God/Anvil of Stars by Greg Bear - An alien civilization does not like noisy neighbors, and sends self-replicating devices of supremely destructive power to wipe out life on Earth. This is a tough story because it involves two alien factions, one of which is trying to preserve as much of humanity as it can, and the other of which may (or may not) be long dead. The survivors, which the good aliens have planted on Mars, are forced to cope with the loss of billions of their people, and must send out a crew to bring justice to the aliens who wiped out their home world. This is a remarkable series on a number of levels, and really shows how tenacious children can be.

7 - I Am Legend by Richard Matheson - Well, there have been three movies that have totally missed the point of the book, but in the end it is this seminal tale of a lonely survivor in a vampire infested world that stands the test of time. Poor Robert Neville must learn to cope with days filled with emptiness and nights filled with horrible creatures that want to get him. This does not sound like fun.

6 - Dahlgren by Samuel R. Delaney - Often described (and decried) as one of the most difficult SF novels of all time, this particular tale of the time after Armageddon is a lyrical and bizarre story of characters trapped in an eternal now. Maybe. Actually, I am not entirely sure about that either... Anyway, it is a great book.

5 - Vellum/Ink by Hal Duncan - Surprisingly this series by Scottish newcomer Hal Doncan is as complicated and difficult as Dahlgren, but with a twist: you can actually understand what is going on. This series takes us through a semi-scientific and semi-supernatural apocalypse that leaves immortal super-beings strewn across the map of time like poorly squished roadkill. Beautifully written and combining stories from past, present, and future, this series will provide you with hours of discussion and thousands of questions.

4 - Eternity Road by Jack McDevitt - Much like the Marked Man series, this takes place in a far future, where the apocalypse is a distant memory. A group of scholars set out on the road to find a hidden library of knowledge from before the fall of man. These folks understand the idea of some of the mechanical innovations that came before (like submarines and cars), although they do not really comprehend how to make them work. There is a great scene in the story when a building's AI asks the explorers to kill it.

3 - The War Against the Chtorr by David Gerrold - When a series of nasty plagues wipe out most of the population of Earth, the survivors must try to band together to defeat an alien infestation that may have started the massive die-offs. In turns this series is strange and common, and it makes one really think about how man would cope in these situations. After all, it is hard enough dealing with the deaths of billions without the threat of being eaten by caterpillars the size of Volkswagens.

2 - A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller - Set in the years after the nuclear war that almost destroyed mankind, a young Jewish engineer converts to Catholicism and starts a monastic order dedicated to the preservation of works of science and technology in a world gone suddenly luddite. The story follows characters over three time periods as man strives to fins a new way in the age after the Flame Deluge.

1 - The Stand by Steven King - And speaking of plagues, here is the granddaddy of all plague stories, with 95% of the population of the Earth dying from the 'Captain Tripps' version of the super flu. Good and evil duke it out between Boulder and Las Vegas, and life, as always, finds a way. Filled with suspense, action, and great characters, this is a classic of many genres.