“Best of the Year” lists start appearing as early as November, so we are perhaps a little late in asking folks around the community:
[Also added was this note: They don’t have to have been released in 2009. Feel free to choose any combination of genres (science fiction/fantasy/horror) and media (books/movies/shows) you wish to include.]
Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and our Last Chance to Save Humanity, by James Hansen.
It’s not genre-related at all, and that seems somehow telling. One hopes that science writers aren’t about to trump science fiction writers as the people who actively look at the world around us and speculate about its ramifications.
Naturally this would be the year I was asked to contribute to a year-end roundup, since most of the movies I watched that actually came out this year were varying degrees of disappointing, and most of the best books I’ve read came out many moons ago. So a lot of my choices will be very old news to many people. (And some of the moves I’ve been watching have been very old indeed.)
On the movie front, the best skiffy cinema I watched this year was the Blu-ray final cut of Blade Runner. Except for the long- (and mercifully-) excised voiceover, all the flaws of the original version (one of Harrison Ford’s flattest performances, the lack of any chemistry between him and Sean Young, etc.) are still present, but with each passing year they simply matter less and less. The gorgeous, gritty, dilapidated, detailed, lived-in, fully realized future that Syd Mead created for Ridley Scott not only remains unsurpassed, it’s never even been seriously challenged.
On the complete opposite end, both budgetary and aesthetic, would be Primer. If you’ve never heard about it, do yourself a favor: Don’t read anything more about it, just go to your video store or Netflix queue, pick it up, and watch it. I saw it at a friend’s house without any idea what it was (from the title I guessed it was a crime drama), and was greatly surprised (and gratified) that it turned out to be science fiction. It’s about some garage start-up guys (and they get the terminology exactly right) who invent a device that turns out to have some strange properties. It unfolds with an impressive, low-key, low-budget realism until things get really weird, at which point the movie becomes iterative, unfolding, and recursive, sometimes all at the same time. Likely to make your brain hurt in all the right ways. One of the Top Ten science fiction films of the 2000s.
Also very good (if a little over-praised) was Swedish vampire film Let The Right One In. An intelligent, well-done film about a pre-teen nebbish whose life changes (primarily for the better) when a girl who just happens to be a vampire moves in next door. The low-key realism of the film provides a sharp contrast with the hyper-kinetic sparkly vampires Hollywood has been offering up as of late.
Also worth noting is The Place Promised in Our Early Days, an animated film by director Makoto Shinkai. Like Shinkai’s previous film, the excellent half-hour Voices of a Distant Star, it’s somewhat slow and character focused, but engrossing and rewarding. It’s set in an alternate world where communist forces conquered half of Japan, then built a giant tower whose purpose seems to involve alternate worlds. During the course of the film, a girl falls into a coma, and it soon becomes apparent she’s somehow inhibiting the tower’s activity; her dreaming literally keeps the world real.
As for films that came out this year most have been disappointing. Two of the most successful SF films this year (Star Trek, and District 9) were modestly successful action films driven by pretty stupid plot devices. (Although, in the case of Star Trek, most of the plot devices were no stupider than the ones introduced in the latter serials. And speaking of Star Trek, a friend picked up the original series on Blu-ray (with the enhanced special effects), and many of the classic episodes (“The Trouble With Tribbles,” “Doomsday Machine,” “Balance of Terror”) hold up quite well.)
Strangely enough, the best science fiction film I saw in theaters this year was the one I didn’t know would be science fiction going in: Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds), which turns out to be alternate history…
And in the very, very, very guilty pleasures category comes Die, You Zombie Bastards! In Tropic Thunder, Robert Downey, Jr.’s character offers up a sage piece of advice: “Never go full retard.” It’s a good thing the writer/director of Die, You Zombie Bastards! didn’t follow it. As a coherent, low-budget zombie film this would have been a crushing bore. As a hyper-retarded, transcendentally stupid and incoherent bag of pure WTF, it’s actually somewhat entertaining as a sort of mutant emissary from somewhere to the left of the Tromaverse. (Also, there aren’t any real zombies, just naked women in green paint.) At one point there’s a teaser for a Mexican version of the movie thrown in for no apparent reason. It all starts to flag near the end, but until then it’s worth watching just to see which kitchen sink they’re going to throw in next. (Available for free on Crackle, and worth every penny, but don’t be fooled by the inexplicable G rating, as this is, at the very least, a very hard R.)
The worst ostensible science fiction film I saw this year (and probably any other year) was Exterminator City. Imagine someone trying to make a robot slasher film…and failing. The robots are played by puppets on coat hangers, all evidently voiced by the same (incompetent) person. The futuristic buildings are cardboard boxes with holes cut out. The flying car are toys tossed past the camera. The same 45 second loop of lousy music is repeated over the entire length of the film. The robot slasher puppet never actually appears in the same scene as the woman it’s supposedly killing. The naked breasts of several notable scream queens are on display, and it’s still the worst film ever made. It’s not “so good it’s bad,” it’s just merely really, depressingly bad. I’d rather see the Star Wars Holiday Special for a third time than watch Exterminator City again.
I watch very little TV. The farther I get from the Battlestar Galactica climax, the more disappointing it gets (which is a shame, since it was a great show for most of the run). The Simpsons, Dexter, and the occasional South Park are pretty much all I watch regularly these days.
On to books. The older I get, the less interested I am in beautiful prose for the sake of beautiful prose, and the more interested I am in plot. Ironically for someone who edited a critical magazine dedicated to cutting edge science fiction, the books I’ve enjoyed the most this year have been action-packed fantasies. I greatly enjoyed Naomi Novik’s Temeraire, even though the whole “Napoleonic Dragons” idea seemed entirely too high concept, but it’s a very engrossing novel with engaging characters (both human and dragon) your really care about. Even older was the Gnome Press King Conan, which proves, yet again, that Robert E. Howard Had the Stuff. Among science fiction, the novel I enjoyed the most this year was Richard Morgan’s Broken Angels, tasty old school-flavored cyberpunk, which should give you an idea of just how far behind I am in my reading.
Books–I devoured Jo Walton’s Small Change trilogy over the course of a weekend. Beginning with the chilling Farthing, this alternate history details the rise of a Fascist government in Great Britain in the middle of the century. I also loved Daniel Suarez’s SF thriller Daemon, in which gamers (of the MMORPG variety) essentially take over the world. In terms of movies, I enjoyed the new Star Trek immensely, yawned my way through District 9 and adored Moon, which covered the same ground as District 9 but in a far more elegant, character-driven and far less noisy fashion.
After a slow start, the TV show Defying Gravity delighted and surprised me, and I am very sorry it didn’t get picked up for another season.
I confess that I have not had as much time to read as I ever like, and it drives me crazy to answer such a question with a media answer. However, my definite favorite in 2009 was the new Doctor Who. This is especially strange when you realize that I not only rarely watch any SF/fantasy (far preferring books) but that I hated the old Doctor Who, which I found cheesy and boring for the most part (admittedly, I haven’t watched much of it, so I might have only seen boring, cheesy episodes — lots of people love it, and I’m sure they have a reason). The new Doctor Who episodes were a bright light in an otherwise crazy year. Most of the episodes were bright, fresh, well-plotted, well-paced, and very well considered. There were a few dogs (most notably the 3-part finale of the Martha Jones season), balanced out by some amazing stuff that stays with me even almost a year later. David Tennant, in particular, is a brilliant actor. The episode called “Blink” was a masterpiece, as was the two-parter whose name escapes me. It had a theme of a child in a gas mask looking for his “mummy”. I was able to get hold of four seasons, and all of them were mostly spectacular.
Not sure if this counts as SF/fantasy, but I have been trying not to miss exactly one television show. I have tried several, but this is the only one that maintains my interest. I can’t stand so-called reality TV, and most of the dramas are just glorified soap operas. I have a propensity for situation comedies, but I don’t find bathroom and sexual humor funny per se unless it is cleverly handled. Most media jokes anymore consist of someone farting, which everyone around me seems to find hilarious with or without context. I need more. Also, I don’t find promiscuity entertaining, and boobs, penises, and vaginas are not funny simply because they exist and people say their names aloud. “Penis -ha, ha, ha!” Though the theme of this particular show is not SF or fantasy, the characters are perfect SF/fantasy fans. I am referring to The Big Bang Theory. Great acting, hilarious writing, spot on caricatures of SF/fantasy fans — a sure guarantee of cancellation.
As far as novels are concerned, I read six or seven novels for fun. I didn’t like any of those enough to recommend them, unfortunately. Not wishing to create ill-will with those authors, I’m not going to tell you what I read. I did have to read all of Isaac Asimov’s robot stories for a project I am working on, and I loved them. Not exactly new for 2009, but it will be new for 2010 or 2011. Although I had read quite a bit of Asimov, I had not read I, Robot and the other related material, and it was all wonderful reading. He was a great man, and an absolute sweetheart; and I’m very glad I got to meet him before his death. I only wish I had actually gotten to chat with him long enough to go beyond superficial conversation. I did read Jim Hines’ The Stepsister Scheme in 2008, but it actually came out in 2009, so I suppose that counts. If you like your reading light-hearted, fast-paced, and funny, it is a definite winner and well-worth reading. I also read his Goblin Quest novel at the same time and also enjoyed it.
First: the books. My 2009 discovery of the year was Stanislaw Lem. Not sure why I missed this writer before, but he has a permanent place in my tin-plated, digital heart now. Doesn’t matter which of his books you read. They’re all wonderful and entertaining in a Sudoku kind of way: lots of food for logic thought. His plots are superfluous. I’m not sure he even has any. What’s important is what he’s playing at. And if you’ve studied science, done the math, or know that Centrifugal Force is not a force at all but one of those things that makes life so much fun, you’ll enjoy anything this man writes.
Another cool find of the year was Vonda N. McIntyre’s Superluminal. At Book View Cafe we edit each other’s work before unleashing it as freebies and ebooks, and as part of that process I got the chance to proofread Vonda’s 1983 book. Vonda has all kinds of ideas about what can go on in the universe. Her work is pure science fiction but it always pushes the cultural envelope as well. I was impressed with Superluminal and so had a conversation with her about it. SF Signal published that back in September.
Second: TV shows. I don’t have cable and never, ever watch TV. I have better things to do with my time. I’m above all that. Life is too short to waste it on drivel. I would never be caught dead watching TV.
Naturally I’m addicted to Lost.
I watch this show via Netflix–a whole season at a time. No commercials, no Batmanish week long wait for the resolution of the previous episode. I recently discovered that Season Five finally became available. As of last night’s session ala Roku, I’m 12 episodes in and beginning to get annoyed. There’s yet another new character with the inevitable web of four or five subplots attached to her. Actually she was in the last season as an inconsequential street vendor. The problem with Lost is that inconsequential characters end up being the thing holding the thing together in later chapters. Nothing is wasted with this show. You must pay attention and don’t get complacent.
Yes, I’m beginning to get annoyed. That Twin Peaks feeling is crawling up my spine. Or worse, that day-time soap opera feeling. Was this thing plotted out in the beginning as I believed, or are Kate and Sawyer and Jack and Juliet going to end up sleeping with everybody? Even Hurley? I hate when the writers start to worry about ratings and so move the plot on to ever more fantastic, and/or sordid, levels instead of a logical conclusion. I want to know that this thing is going to resolve. Is there a master plan? Is Jacob the Jesus character or is John Locke? Is Ben the antichrist or is Widmore? Is Dan Faraday’s Mom, also Penny’s? Is Widmore Dan Faraday’s Dad? Why is he named Faraday? Does he come from a long line of physics geniuses? And what happened to the integrated couple? I have a fantasy of hunting down the actors from this series to find out just how long their contracts are for. When will it end?
Finally: movies. Much as I’d love to talk about Crank, Watchmen, District 9, and Moon, I fear I can’t because I didn’t see any of them. I usually get around to viewing movies years after they’ve been released, so in 2009 I saw things like Pan’s Labyrinth, Pi, Minority Report, and too many MST3K‘s to list here. I’m going to comment on two of my “best of the lot.”
My current fave is Inland Empire. A David Lynch movie is best watched twice in a row. The first time through so you can get to the end and find out where it’s all going, the second time so you can actually understand what you are watching. Unfortunately for me, the first time I watched Inland Empire was back in March. The second time was last week. That’s way too much time in between. I had forgotten what happened in the end. I knew there was a switch between the bad guy in Poland and somebody in America. I even remembered which actor was the bad guy in Poland, but I couldn’t remember anything other than that. The film is mostly about Laura Dern’s character. Even after the second viewing I don’t remember her name, but that’s okay because names don’t matter with David Lynch. Actors play more than one part, characters have several identities and personalities, and often a character lives in two separate homes with two separate families. Everything gets mixed and matched. Inland Empire is one of the worst, which is why I love it. I’m going to buy this movie and watch it once a week. I figure by the end of 2010 I’ll understand it. If I can at least know where the rabbit head people fit in, I’ll be happy. It’s a three hour movie, two-thirds of which concerns Dern’s trip down the rabbit hole from which she doesn’t emerge until just before the end. At least I now know which set of scenes to keep an eye on for important hints (the therapy sessions at the top of the stairs in case you’re wondering) and that will go a long way in helping me scrutinize the inscrutable.
Second oldie for me is Titus. Not sure why Shakespeare is excluded from genre lists; he’s such an accomplished horror writer. And Titus Andronicus is one of the most gratuitous slashers of all times. The movie is every bit as gruesome as the play and what’s more it’s in color. From the first plot scene where we watch Tamara the Goth’s son’s entrails roasting in a platter, through every neck wrench, fork-down-the-throat stab, tongue and limb dismemberment, and upside-down throat slash, this is one huge bloodbath. At the same time, it’s beautiful. The director, Julie Taymor, manages quite well to put the gore in gorgeous. She uses vivid reds and blacks against the imposing buildings of Mussolini’s Rome, to create a stark and striking landscape perfect for this brutal story. Adding loud and at times lively music heightens the edge. Every point is hard and forcefully driven. The acting is superb, the sickness pervasive, the downfall complete. I give anyone credit for working on such a distasteful play, but to make me a true believer in Shakespeare’s messiest and most cynical work requires genius. I believe the director and actors (Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, Harry Lennix, Alan Cumming, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Matthew Rhys, et al.) are.