Thursday, July 13, 2006

Review: The Peoples' Choice Award Entries

So here we are.

I've finally finished reading through each and every one of the shortlisted entries for the Peoples' Choice honor in the First Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards. Contrary to what some people may think, it's been more of a chore than anything else. These entries, no matter what Fully Booked would have us think, are still not in their final form... and I can assure you that they're far from perfect.

Taking into account that people will be voting on these entries this Saturday, I figured that it might be best to look over them anyway. I wanted to see what was good and bad about each one and see how it would apply to both my style of writing and my approach at critiquing. I wanted to write down what I wanted to see in a good story, and perhaps make sure that I applied the same lessons to my future works. That, and I wanted to make sure I was voting for the best one, too.

Before I proceed with my comments, I would just like to note that I have a particular approach when performing critiques. My viewpoint is that any short story will have some good aspects and some bad aspects -- the good aspects being those redeemable parts of the story that can be used for other works, and the bad aspects being those flaws or failures that need to be corrected or taken into account. Sometimes one side overcomes the other, giving us what we think are "good" and "bad" pieces, respectively, but the two aspects always exist in each work. With each review below, I ask myself what I think is good and bad about each short story, and tie that in to the opinion as to whether or not I like the final result.

The following entries are reviewed in the same order in which I read them. For the sake of some of the more traditional readers, I have also refrained from mentioning any "spoiler"-type details that may intrude upon their literary experience:

The Great Philippine Space Mission - I give this work points for the title alone; That was the reason why I read it first.

With that said, I feel that "The Great Philippine Space Mission" is a magical realist story in the guise of science fiction: It starts off technical and realistic (not to mention frank), but it eventually mutates into a strange combination of the two genres. As I read it, I couldn't seem to shake the feeling that it was supposed to be a completely logical story despite the fact that absolutely unexplainable events were occurring. Considering that gossip is a central theme to the piece, the two of them resemble each other in that regard: They both use information that might not really be information in the first place. They both feed us stuff and expect us to take it as it is. It's a good parallel.

The main problem I have with the story, however, lies with the social context. It's not likely to reach many international readers because it depends on details that are only familiar in a Philippine-based perception. (And despite the author's well-crafted setup, I have a hard time believing that more people gossip about Kris Aquino than they do about Tom Cruise.) Apart from this, the author has problems with grammar and verb-tense consistency in quite a few areas, and I feel that the ending is too wide open in order to work properly. (This goes in line with the work's focus, yes, but I believe that it could have been done better. At the moment, it gives me the impression that the author simply ran out of ideas for resolution.)

All in all, I think it's a good attempt at an experimental work... but it doesn't quite strike a chord with me. It's okay, I think. It's "okay", it's not quite "good", and I don't think it's certainly "great".

A Strange Map of Time - This, I feel, is definitely a strange one. It's polished, but it's not quite polished to the level of perfection. It belongs firmly in the realm of the fantastic, but whether it can be classified as fantasy or science fiction or some relatively unknown genre is really up in the air.

To be frank, I like the story. It starts off vague and confusing, but then irons itself out in the course of the tale - which is probably what it intended to do in the first place, in order to mirror the main character's journeys. It'll probably take the average person a couple of reads to understand everything completely, but in the end, everything fits together somewhat neatly. Everything eventually makes a kind of sense, as long as one has the patience to figure it out.

My primary concern with the piece is that the various stages of the main character's journey don't seem to be treated equally; Some areas get more screen time than others, and I find it difficult to see why. I believe that the story also needs to work on its setting and background descriptions a little bit, especially in the first parts of the work; The only indication I found that the main character was moving around in a future Philippines, for example, lay in an off-hand mention of hoverjeepneys in the sky.

It's a nice work, though - one of those things that you wish you had the patience and planning to put together yourself. It got me thinking, at least.

A Song for Vargas - I remember quite a few scenes from the screen version of The Last Unicorn, one of them involving both fine wine and the power of memory. I get the feeling that this author happens to be familiar with the movie as well.

"A Song for Vargas" strikes me as more of character study than a story; Not much of a plot occurs, and whatever background detail I get has more to do with events surrounding the main character's history than anything else. With that said, it's an interesting narrative rife with extensive descriptions. I particularly like the characterization of the summer wind, as well as the author's concession that a man's personality is also reflected in the view that other people take of him.

The problem I have with description, however, is that I don't like encountering too much of it in my readings. There's an oft-repeated saying that goes "show, don't tell", and I feel that whatever time spent visualizing the characters and their surroundings would be better used to advance the plot a little further. In fact, despite the richness of the background and the situation, I finished the story with a lot of questions that were never satisfactorily answered: Why is Vargas perpetually haunted by his ghosts? Does he ever find what he is seeking? What eventually happens to the island? That's not exactly the kind of closure I like to see.

Still, my quibbles could just be more of a personal opinion than a proper literary critique. If you hold more faith in description than you do in plotting, then you'll probably be fine with this story. Unfortunately, I don't... and as a result, I'm not.

Stella for Star - The idea for this story is hardly a revolutionary concept. I feel that it's been done before, although no specific examples come to mind at the moment.

Some strange voice inside my head tells me that this piece could potentially be a good one. "Stella for Star" takes a perfectly ordinary plotline and throws in a few elements that aren't quite mundane. (I'm impressed with the involvement of a contemporary gay couple, an aspect that leads to some fairly good possibilities.) These elements fit together better than expected (I particularly like the tabloid headlines), and the resulting story is entertaining enough for a quick read. To be frank, I find this to be the fastest read among all the pieces so far.

If "Stella for Star" fails in anything, however, I think it's in the pacing. I think that the work makes a significant attempt to build suspense, but that the sections read alternatively too slow and too fast. One moment we're breathlessly overseeing the interaction between Dorian and Stella, and the next, we're needlessly listening to Paco complain about his career. I feel that the character of Sophie, in particular, is wasted - she walks in for a single scene near the climax, and then we never see her again. If there's anything that I think the story needs, it's some lengthening; That way, all the folds and creases of the pacing can be smoothed out.

Basically, I'm getting the impression that this piece needs a bit of work. It's interesting, and I think it's right up my alley, but it needs some spit-and-polish before I can say that it came out right.

Atha - The author of this work and I apparently share a certain quality: We both like writing really, really long sentences.

"Atha" feels like science fiction, but it's a "dreamy" sort of science fiction - it reminds me of Terry Gilliam's "Brazil", for some reason. It's a post-apocalyptic setting where the sense of post-apocalypsis isn't too overbearing, and that's pretty rare. For that matter, while it does hover around the idea of man repeating his past sins, I believe that it also concentrates on the alternative viewpoint: That man can't help but do it, for reasons only he can understand. I find that a fresh take on an old approach.

Despite its high points, however, I think that the story actually needs some work on its setting. I spent most of the story assuming that Conrad and the main character were the only humans around; The sudden appearance of other people in the ending seems to undermine the story. For that matter, I fail to see how gunpowder-based cannons could possibly still exist there, especially when their weights and trajectories in the story feel a little too unrealistic. Some elements such as these just feel weird... or perhaps these were meant to have a slight unrealistic feel in the first place? I'm not sure in this case.

With all that said, the story feels good to me. It's a good take, although you'll have to consider things a bit in order to understand it. While I think it needs tweaking, I also think that it's quality work. It's certainly good enough to get me reflecting on it.

Monstrous Cycle - Ever gone through a short story and exclaimed "THAT'S IT?" at the ending? It can be a good or a bad indication - either the story captured your attention to the degree that you didn't expect the sudden ending, or the story didn't get enough of your interest in the first place. Whatever the case, an abrupt ending isn't a very good sign.

I like the idea behind "Monstrous Cycle". The notion of a supernatural being entering the world of show business opens up a huge can of worms: What movies would he/she make? What product endorsements would come knocking at their door? How would they compromise their usual supernatural habits? The story takes this unlikely situation into account and touches on each of those. In a sense, it makes the concept believable - I was entirely willing to accept the possibility of a winged freak of nature doing shampoo commercials, the way the work presented it.

The problem, however, lies in the "setting-story" distinction. To me, "Monstrous Cycle" doesn't tell a story as much as it presents a setting, and as interesting as the setting might be, it ultimately doesn't mean anything when it gives no substance to the events of the story. We read that something happens, and then something happens, and then something else happens, but we never see why. I feel that the result doesn't transcend anything, really. It tells me of the events that occur in the story, yet somehow doesn't make me feel as though the experience was worthwhile. It caused me to ask what the point of the entire exercise was, and that's definitely not a good sign.

Right now, I'd rank this the worst of the eight shortlisted entries. Yes, it's got some definite redeeming values, and yes, it's certainly better than a number of other pieces I've read. But I think its greatest problem lies in the fact that it needs more of a story to go along with its development, and it's a really big problem in that regard.

The God Equation - It's got shades of Dan Brown, and images of divine beings doing God's work on earth, a story idea that's been approached and used many, many times in the past.

I find the style of this story to be excellent. It reads in a far more coherent manner than any of the other seven shortlisted entries, practically to the point where it can be read aloud to a group of eager listeners. The dialogue is done well (albeit long and overbearing), and the exotic references subtly noted. There are even a couple of extremely creative touches: the systematic nature of celestial operations (which works a little like international relations), the manifestation of divine agents into human form, and the strange involvement of ice cream in the narration. It has virtually all the elements of a good piece of fiction.

Yet, for all its advantages, I don't like the short story. "The God Equation" may have the style and panaché to carry things through, but it seems to concentrate too much on the nature of its own subject matter to make for a good tale. Whole pages are spent detailing technical details that have little or nothing to do with the plot itself, and after ten pages of this or so, I was skipping over all the mentions of prime numbers, of Mandelbrot, and of Leonhard Euler. The characters feel anything but "human" to me; While they are supposed to be celestial beings, I was unable to feel the slightest empathy for what was them, or for what was going on. I got the impression that the story was both preachy and distant, and those are a couple of qualities that it really shouldn't have.

Don't get me wrong... "The God Equation" has style, rhythm, and class. I just think that it needs to get its head out of the clouds and become a lot more appealing to the average reader. What significance does a "God Equation" have, after all, if no one cares about it?

The Omega Project - I've worked with cockroaches from a literary standpoint before, although this treatment is quite new to me.

"The Omega Project" has good style and narration - not perfect, but good enough to make for a fast and entertaining read. It has good flow as well, in that it is able to alternate between two different points of view while keeping the story running. This interplay allows the story to slowly unfold, although most of the revelations appear in the first half of the piece itself. I particularly like the closing paragraphs, in that they provide excellent closure; It's been a while since I've read a satisfactory ending to a story.

For a science-fiction-centered piece, however, the "science" needs a lot more development. The story left me clueless as to how the setting came about or how the ending came to pass; There are a lot of logical disconnections in the course of the tale. There are a number of areas that seem far more developed than others, but these areas always seem to receive little more than a partial mention in the story. I constantly had the impression that something was left out of the telling, and I believe that, if there's one major flaw in this work, it's the fact that it fails to emphasize details that really should be emphasized.

In hindsight, however, that's perfectly attuned to the reality of a cockroach: Always there but hardly ever raised to anyone's attention. At least until we squish it, of course.


That's it, ladies and gentlemen. That's how my comments go after a single read through each and every one of the eight shortlisted entries.

You may fully agree with some of my writings as featured above. You may vehemently disagree with them, or you may violently object to my opinion and immediately start plotting to kill me. I suppose that that's fine. We're each entitled to our own opinions, after all.

If you have any points to raise that require my attention, however, feel free to leave a comment below. I'm open to discussion regarding any or all of these stories, much more so if we can trade ideas about the whole review thing. The more people join in, after all, the more subjective our collective opinions can get.


Anonymous said...

are you going to review the comics as well? i thought they were more interesting...

Dominique said...

Hi, Sean, I'm done with mine, but they're scattered across several entries. I have a different view on "Monstrous Cycle," which I quite liked. I agree it doesn't have much of a story but for satirical purposes, it achieves its aims.

I agree with Anonymous: the comics showed far more promise.

Sean said...

Anonymous: Not as long as I'm on a dial-up connection, unfortunately. :)

Seriously, though: I felt that I could post my opinion on the shortlisted fiction entries because I felt qualified enough to write a plausible review, owing in part to experience in both writing and critiquing short stories. If I felt that I didn't have enough exposure to one or the other (which is the case with me and comics), I wouldn't have felt right putting my "amateur" opinions online.

I'm still planning to read through the comics, though. I just need a better connection from over here...

Dominique: I find most works of satirical fiction to be kind of sketchy. As opposed to standard fiction where an author just has to get the elements of the story right, a satirical-fiction author has to get the humor and satire done well, too. I can see why it's difficult to pull off, given that consideration.

With most of the satirical fiction I read, I usually end up seeing more satire than story or more story than satire... and when it comes right down to it, I personally fall back on the story requirement. That, unfortunately, is the main reason why I didn't like "Monstrous Cycle": I felt that it had remarkably little "story" in its "short story". I think it was a fine satire, though, and the negative review just illustrates that I'm probably just a "story" man at heart.

banzai cat said...

Hey Sean, check out this guy's blog. He did a review of the stories plus interviewed some of the writers:

Sean said...

Banzai Cat: Interesting stuff, although I wish the blog address were something I could recall easily. The writer interviews were pretty good, especially the "What if Kris Aquino saved the world?" mention.

I find it even more interesting, though, that most of his reviews run contrary to mine. Does that mean that I'm missing something here?

For that matter, is it just me, or did the winners all know each other somehow? I'd like to see one or more of them put up essays on why they thought they won; It would be a useful resource for the rest of us. (The identity of the actual judges would also be a huge help in this regard, though.)

banzai cat said...

Nah, the winners didn't know each other except through skinny's blog.

On the other hand, I figure all opinions matter in this one and considering how you justified your reviews, I don't think you were wrong. In any case, de gustibus non disputandum, yes?

skinnyblackcladdink said...

hey, thought i'd drop by, hearing from bc's blog that you might have a more "literary" take on your reviews...

unfortunately, i seem to have burned out on the awards and can't seem to get myself to read through everything...

i did read your Atha review though, which was, hands down, my fave entry. this is just a personal choice thing, btw, as the other winners arguably have other qualities of equally high standard which make them valid winners as well.

i hope you'll indulge me.

i agree that there were logical flaws, but i loved the way she treated everything. even the flaws just managed to fit into her little world.

i actually like letting authors take me for a ride, if they do it well, because i take anything in fiction with a grain of salt. unless some element really doesn't work in a story, i'm liable to let it slide.

in Atha, the illogical elements for me actually add to the sketchy end-of-the-world feel of the City (which is not to say that i thought the City was sketchy; on the contrary, i thought it was thoroughly "fleshed"), and i liked that. i liked that Mikey Atienza didn't bother with hard tech like explaining how the beast could fly, how it could become sentient, or how gunpowder cannons that appear to be hundreds of years old can still be effective... it adds a surreal hallucinatory quality to everything that i just really dig.

as for thinking they were the only humans left alive, i think that only goes to show how well Mikey set the tone. haven't you ever gotten the feeling, early in the morning, that you're the only one alive in the world?

sorry, as bc would put it, for spamming your blog.

Phil said...

FYI: the judges were Tony Perez, Peque Gallaga and Gregorio Brillantes.

banzai cat said...

That's interesting. Given how we don't have a writer knowledgable about the genre to be called in as judge, I wonder if the judging was skewed by the background of the three judges.

Heck even UP Professor Emil Flores(?) could even have served given that he teaches a course on SFF at the state u.

Sean said...

Skinnyblackcladdink: Come to think about it, your explanation probably points out why I felt that "Atha" had a strange, dreamlike quality to the storytelling. The negative qualities I cited for the story aren't even much of negative qualities in themselves: All sci-fi/fantasy/whatever fiction has to stretch the imagination in some way, I think. I'm probably just a huge stickler for background details.

"Atha" was actually my second choice among the shortlisted entries. "A Strange Map of Time" would have gotten my vote had I attended last Saturday, but only by a hair.

Phil: Thanks... you saved me a lot of work there. Congratulations on "The Great Philippine Space Mission"; The concept of Kris Aquino saving the world made it an interesting read all by itself. :)

Sean said...

Banzai Cat: And there you have it -- the point I've always wondered about, yet never could find the words to describe. :)

On the other hand, isn't that the logic we follow anyway when it comes to works we find difficult to categorize or genres we can't seem to identify? It's like establishing architectural standards for earthquakes -- we can never anticipate the effects of future events, and therefore always have to extrapolate based on previous occurrences.

skinnyblackcladdink said...

strictly speaking, the kind of background detail nitpicking you did for Atha is exactly the kind of thing that SFF afficionados do, so that's alright... only i personally am more flexible with that sort of thing given context.

Atha's context made it "plausible" for me, given the strangeness of Mikey's "future" world.

i've always been of the opinion that "good writing" standards are universal (as i've argued with banzai on my blog)... however, i'm beginning to think that that simply isn't true.

so i'm beginning to think that

"Given how we don't have a writer knowledgable about the genre to be called in as judge, I wonder if the judging was skewed by the background of the three judges"

is more significant, and possibly even dangerous to the "genre" locally, than i previously thought.

skinnyblackcladdink said...

i just read your review of "A Strange Map" and "A Song..." as these were the stories (apart from the winners) that i had the, er, strongest reaction to.

yup, our disagreements are interesting. for instance, i disagree completely about "A Strange Map". the details for that are on my blog (as you seem to have read). suffice to say that the ideas in this story for me were trite, mundane, and other words for "clicheish" and "ordinary", and not at all "strange". the treatment of time in SFF is always iffy, and i have high standards for a good time-related story. "Strange Map" simply did not deliver.

as for Vargas, one of the things i hated about it was that the writer didn't seem sure about how characters felt or thought about their situation. he's constantly contradicting himself, and while that may be a good representation of how real people actually deal with that sort of situation, it didn't work for the way the writer set it all down, because it calls into question the main character's dilemma.

and for a character study, it didn't work for me. Vargas, while pining for our sympathy, is wooden and just doesn't work. not like Beagle's King Haggard, who Vargas is obviously a transposition of.

Sean said...

Skinnyblackcladdink: Until now, I haven't quite considered myself to be an SFF afficionado from a reader's point of view. Maybe I should reassess that thought.

I don't think that the standards of "good writing" were universal to begin with, seeing that we constantly touch on a lot of very different themes, subjects, and genres. What makes the issue even more variable is the fact that, although each of us may have an idea of what these "standards" are, each of us will have a different take on them, or will approach them from different points of view. And each of us will most definitely have a different point of view, because our outlook on these writing standards depends on our individual lives, our personal experiences, and our relative insights.

I'm therefore wary about the possibility of non-SFF people judging SFF works, because they may not have the proper repertoires to stand on. It would be like asking a Marketing Manager to debug a Digital Accounting System, I think. They may have the experience, but it's not necessarily the right experience that will allow them to do the job well.

That, however, is not to say that I think we shouldn't listen to the veterans of Philippine literature, regardless of whether or not they're knowledgeable of the Speculative Fiction field. Instead, I figure that the exchange should be twofold: They should attempt to look at the newer genre/s from a more objective point of view, but we should also attempt to learn what it was about their styles and approach that made them readable to begin with. The old masters shouldn't judge SFF from a non-SFF persepctive, and we shouldn't judge non-SFF from an SFF perspective, either.

Sean said...

Skinnyblackcladdink: What I liked about "A Strange Map of Time" was that to me, it was a fresh take on the time-travel theme. Normally you just get a plain story that involves people travelling into a strange past or an unfamiliar future -- this one surprised me when it narrated the movements of a man from the past trying to return to his point of origin, particularly since it didn't give me any inkling of involving time-travel till the middle of the tale.

That said, you're right: The idea of time travel is overused nowadays, and it's too easy to write a bad time-travel story. On the other hand, it could be that "A Strange Map of Time" was slightly different enough to get good reviews from a few people, and that's probably remarkable in itself.

With sincere apologies to its author, I admit that I thought that "A Song for Vargas" was the worst of the shortlisted entries, primarily because it gave me so many possible directions for its story and then failed to follow up on any of them. Did the author, for that matter, think that he/she could get away with the mention of the talking skull? Virtually every SFF reader in the Philippines has probably read The Last Unicorn, if they haven't seen the movie. You and I are probably in total agreement on this one, I think.

Anonymous said...

Hi. Wanted to comment on the discussion about the judges.

Tony Perez has written about the supernatural, Peque Gallaga's made fantasy movies, and Gregorio Brillantes has written science fiction. This doesn't take into account their own personal tastes in reading, which we don't know about for sure.

What kind of an SF perspective, necessarily, should an ideal judge have? I think the variety of perspectives is a good thing; it keeps the contest from being dominated by one group patting itself on the back.

banzai cat said...

anon: It's true that sometimes an outsider's eye should be needed to judge SFF works. However, I think that a variety of perspectives may be hampered if none of the perspectives has the right background to counter-check. It'll be like the three blind men trying to describe an elephant. As for the ideal judging: say, get one from literature (Brillantes), one from pop (either threatre or movie like Perez and Gallaga), and one from genre or AT LEAST is well-versed. That means that even though he is a writer, he has read enough of the field (both genre and literary). And not necessarily a writer but even a literary critic, someone who knows his stuff. (That's why I mentioned Emil Flores: he teaches a course in U.P.)

Sean said...

Anonymous: I'm fine with Perez, Gallaga, and Brillantes. You can probably throw Emil Flores in there with no problem either. What's important is that we know what sort of background each of the judges were working from, because it'll allow us to look at the entries from those respective lights.

My concern with the judges was the possibility that none of them would be judging the entries as per the speculative genre. The last thing I wanted to see, for example, was a bunch of Marketing Executives from the corporate sponsors with more public-image sense than reading habits. I've seen a few competitions turn out this way, and I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking that it's a horrible practice.

On the perspective of an ideal judge, I will argue that there is no such thing as an "ideal judge" in the first place. There are merely only "judges" that result in entries being reviewed against their cumulative repertoire, which may or may not be perfect to begin with. Having three judges with experience in SFF may even be unbalanced in this way: It automatically assumes that Philippine SFF is already an established, legible form of fiction. We can even argue the possibility that the judging was dominated by one group patting itself on the back -- the SFF people! (Yes, it was an SFF competition, but it could just as easily have acquired a non-SFF person willing to take into account the fact that he or she would be reading something "different", I think.)

Der Fuhrer said...

There's something with Ian's story that I don't like. It was written beautifully. It had a good start but it was shaky by the end. The "strange map" theme had already worn out. What was strange in his travels anyway?

But that's just me. Great blo by the way. I hope you don't mind if I link you when my blog comes back.

Sean said...

Der Fuhrer: It wasn't perfect, I suppose. None of them were. I'm chalking it up to the fact that all of the entries didn't go beyond the "first draft" stage, though.

If you don't mind my asking, what happened to your blog?

Der Fuhrer said...

sean: I'm fixing everything. Including how I write. Haha.

and yes, It looks like all of the entires were made in a hurry but at least some of them stood out.

Sean said...

Der Fuhrer: Writers and deadlines definitely don't mix, for some strange reason. :) Drop a line once you have your blog up, will you?

Der Fuhrer said...

my blog is up na. heheh