Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Based on a Philip K. Dick story

In many ways the film version of The Adjustment Bureau is stronger than the original short story, “The Adjustment Team” (1954), which I am sure is heresy to Philip K. Dick devotees. The story and the movie have little in common. The story is about the counterfeit nature of surface reality. It has no romance, never Dick’s strength, and none of the same characters. No hats, no doorways. It shares only the idea of a mysterious team of people who adjust and edit reality. Questioning the solidity of reality is central to Dick’s work. It also suggests, with more subtlety than the movie, that either a science fictional or fantasy explanation could be applied. The story is early Dick, with undistinguished prose and overtly sexist treatment of women.  The main character is an average guy who works at a real estate office, a typical sort of Dick viewpoint character, not the promising politician running for Senate in the film version.

If it hasn’t happened already, surely soon there will be a Philip K. Dick film festival drawing upon the many adaptations of Dick’s stories. It’s an appealing idea. This list has gotten lengthy: Blade Runner (1982), Total Recall (1990), Confessions d'un Barjo (1992, French Canadian), Screamers (1995), Minority Report (2002), Imposter (2002), Paycheck (2003), A Scanner Darkly (2006), Next (2007), Radio Free Albemuth (2010), and The Adjustment Bureau (2011). Most of these are obscure or flawed or both. Blade Runner stands out as the best of the bunch, an influential film that created a stunning future Los Angeles, copied endlessly in other science fiction films.

More Philip K. Dick adaptations are in the pipeline. Ridley Scott, the director of Blade Runner, is attached as executive producer to a four-part BBC mini-series adaptation of Dick’s Hugo award-winning novel The Man in the High Castle (1962). A remake of Total Recall is supposedly in “pre-production.” Director Michel Gondry says he is adapting Dick’s novel Ubik (1969). No doubt there will be others.

That’s fine. Really. It’s not a zero sum game, where every movie based on a Philip K. Dick story means that another science fiction film for grown-ups doesn’t get made. Is it? Charlie Jane Anders at io9.com helpfully suggests 10 unfilmed Philip K. Dick stories that “deserve” to be movies. Um, yeah, that would be great. Except, before I worry about overlooked Philip K. Dick stories that should be filmed, what about some other authors? I feel awkward pointing this out, but Dick died almost 30 years ago. What about stories from the past 30 years?  How about a movie based on a story by Neal Stephenson, or Connie Willis, or Vernor Vinge? Or perhaps China Miéville, or Lois McMaster Bujold, or Paolo Bacigalupi? Or Pat Murphy, or Octavia Butler, or Michael Swanwick? Or Nicola Griffith, or Kelly Link, or Ted Chiang? Or Jeffrey Ford, or Elizabeth Hand, or Margo Lanagan? Or Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke? Or The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon? I could go on. These are some of the people who have turned out the best work in recent years. Where are the film adaptations of their work?

Related links:
Every Philip K. Dick movie ranked from best to worst
The Man in the High Castle to become BCC TV mini-series
Michel Gondry to adapt and direct Ubik: link one and link two
The Adjustment Bureau review

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

A mostly satisfying film, The Adjustment Bureau (2011, directed by George Nolfi) is loosely based on a Philip K. Dick story. A couple meet and develop a relationship in defiance of a mysterious organization with incredible powers that tries to keep the couple apart.

Matt Damon and Emily Blunt star as David, a New York Congressman running for Senate, and Elise, a dancer. The “adjustment bureau” is composed of men with hats who adjust and edit reality to conform to a pattern set down by the Chairman. Where the film succeeds is as a romance. The first meet-cute scene in a men’s bathroom and the second meet-cute scene on a bus are both charming and engaging.

What is the Adjustment Bureau and who are the men in hats? The movie has trappings of science fiction, with doors that cross great distances and machines used to revise people’s thoughts and memories. It wants to be a fantasy, too, suggesting that the men in hats are angels. In the least subtle moment in the movie, one of the adjustment men pointedly looks up to Heaven when he refers to the Chairman. While there is some discussion of fate and free will, little light is shed on the subject.

The final chase scene is nicely done, with David and Elise using the special doors to skip across New York. Unfortunately, the powers of the adjustment men grow and diminish as needed by each plot point in the course of the story. The result is a sense that there is no coherent, underlying idea defining the goals of the Adjustment Bureau or the extent of their powers.

If you combined Wings of Desire (1987, directed by Wim Wenders) and Men in Black (1997, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld) and focused on a romantic couple, the result would be something like The Adjustment Bureau. My advice is to watch the brilliant Wings of Desire, which is vastly superior to either of the other films.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Diana Wynne Jones (1934-2011)

Diana Wynne Jones has passed away after a long battle with cancer. She is not as well known in the United States as she should be. According to the authoritative Encyclopedia of Science Fiction she was "probably the premier UK writer of children's fantasy in the late twentieth century." She wrote exceptional books for teens and adults, and children's books for children of all ages. Her novel Howl's Moving Castle (1986) was made into an animated movie in 2004 directed by Hayao Miyazaki.

Cheryl Morgan has provided an interesting list of links to Diana Wynne Jones remembrances. The most informational of these links is the one to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, which does a good job of putting Jones's work in context and perspective. It ends with a thorough list of her work.

Related link:
Chris Moriarty: 10 Things I Learned from Diana Wynne Jones

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominations: Novella

The Hugo Award nominations deadline is upon us very soon (March 26). To my regret, the novella category is one that often gets short-changed by me.  I never seem to allow enough time to read that particular length of fiction. This year I’ve done better than usual and I’ve read what I hope are many of the best novellas. I was guided in my choices for what to read by the Locus Recommended Reading List and Year in Review essays in the February 2011 issue of Locus. I was guided, also, by the contents of the four year’s best science fiction anthologies edited by Jonathan Strahan, Gardner Dozois, Rich Horton, and David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer. I haven’t actually held any of these books, most of which haven’t been printed yet, but their tables of contents are available online.

First rank:
"The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon" by Elizabeth Hand (Stories)
"Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance" by Paul Park (F&SF)

These were the two best novellas from 2010 that I read. Both are brilliantly written, involving and mysterious.  Both stories concern secret histories, or hidden histories. "The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon" concerns members of the staff of the Museum of American Aviation and Aerospace, who gather after learning that a coworker is seriously ill, and, in an elegiac gesture, decide to test fly an early heavier-than-air craft. "Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance" is a meta-fictional history of the author’s own family, past, present, and future, reaching back to the Civil War and forward to a depopulated, exhausted future. Both stories are filled with wonderful images and unexpected turns. I am not sure which one will be at the top of my ballot.

Next rank:
“The Lifecycle of Software Objects” by Ted Chiang (Subterranean)
"Dead Man's Run" by Robert Reed (F&SF)
"Troika" by Alastair Reynolds (Godlike Machines)
"The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen's Window" by Rachel Swirsky (Subterranean)

These are fine, award-worthy novellas. I would be pleased to see any of these on the final ballot. My quandary is that one of them will have to be left off my list of nominees, since there are only five spots available.

Honorable mentions:
"The Sultan of the Clouds" by Geoffrey A. Landis (Asimov's)
“Seven Cities of Gold” by David Moles (PS Publishing)
“Alone” by Robert Reed (Godlike Machines)
“Blue and Gold” by K.J. Parker (Subterranean)

These were quite good, but won’t make my nominating ballot, alas. A good year for novellas, I think, and there were several more published in 2010 that I wish I had gotten to read in time for voting.

Related links:
Locus Recommended Reading list for 2010
Locus Year in Review issue, February 2011
Hugo Awards at the annual World Science Fiction Convention

Monday, March 21, 2011

SF Site Best Books of 2010: Reader’s Choice

SF Site has presented its annual Reader’s Choice for the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of 2010:

1. Dervish House by Ian McDonald (UK: Gollancz; US: Pyr)
2. Kraken by China Miéville (UK: Macmillan; US: Del Rey)
3. Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay (UK: Harper Voyager; US: Roc)
4. Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks (UK and US: Orbit)
5. The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi (UK: Gollancz; US: forthcoming May 2011)
6. The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman (US: Tor)
7. Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis (US: Spectra)
8. (tie) How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu (US: Pantheon; UK: Corvus)
8. (tie) Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold (US: Baen Books)
10. Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis (US: Tor)

The Rajaniemi, Yu, and Tregillis are all first novels. First novels made another strong showing recently when the 2011 Nebula short list was announced (see below). None of the first novels overlap between the two lists.

Overall it looks like a strong list. I’ve only read two of these so far: Dervish House and The Quantum Thief, which were both quite good. Time to get back to the to-be-read stack.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes (Angry Robot)
The Dervish House by Ian McDonald (Gollancz)
Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness (Walker Books)
Generosity by Richard Powers (Atlantic Books)
Declare by Tim Powers (Corvus)
Lightborn by Tricia Sullivan (Orbit)

The Arthur C. Clarke Award is a British jury award for science fiction novels published in Britain in 2010, which explains the oddity of a Tim Powers novel published in the USA in 2000 appearing on the list.

I’ve only read two of the books, Declare and The Dervish House. Declare is likely Tim Powers’ best novel to date (as I once wrote and as Gary K. Wolfe holds in the most recent Coode Street Podcast). The Dervish House is probably Ian McDonald’s best novel to date. If the other nominees are up to that level, and I have no reason to suspect they are not, then this is a strong list indeed.

For a science fiction award there is a surprising amount of fantasy on the list (Declare, for instance).

The nationality of the shortlisted authors has been the subject of some discussion (Cheryl’s Mewsings). They are a South African (Beukes), two Americans (Powers and Powers), two Americans living in Britain (Ness and Sullivan), and one lifelong Brit (McDonald).

This year’s judges were Paul Billinger, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Martin Lewis, Phil Nanson, Paul Skevington, and Liz Williams. The winning novel will be announced April 27, 2011, in London.

Related links: