Wednesday, December 31, 2008

RALPHIES 2008: Once again it's time to take up Ed Cook's invitation to post best-of-the-year varia. For my Ralphies of 2005, 2006, and 2007, follow the links. Ed's 2008 Ralphies are here. Mark Goodacre's are here. Doug Chaplin has posted his Ralphies for films here at MetaCatholic.

As before, these are my favorites of the year and probably say little about anything except my own idiosyncratic tastes and what I happened to see or hear.

BEST FICTION BOOK: I don't think I've read any fiction that was actually published in 2008. I'm frequently running a year or more behind on such things. Of the things I did read, by far the best was The Night's Dawn Trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton: The Reality Dysfunction, The Neutronium Alchemist, and The Naked God. Actually, I re-read it, having read it the first time in 1998-2001 as it came out. It was one of the major contribution to the revival of space opera and its concept, like most really brilliant ones, was simple: an ill-timed accident breaches the gap between Hell and our universe and allows the souls of the damned to cross over and possess the bodies of the living. This is set in a twenty-seventh century context in which nanotechnology and FTL travel are taken for granted (and given adequate scientific rationales), the emerging human galactic empire is presented with an amazing level of plausible detail, the wider tapestry is brought to life with a host of reasonably to highly convincing characters, and the finale is stunning. Highly recommended.

Honorable mention goes to the more recent Black Man (Gollancz, 2007), by Richard Morgan, which had a similar feel to his earlier Takeshi Kovacs novels (noted here), although set in a different world. Morgan has now set his hand to epic fantasy in The Steel Remains, which I am looking forward to reading.

More novels are noted below.

BEST NONFICTION BOOK: Since becoming Head of School I've had very little time to keep up with professional reading, but I do try to do a few short reviews so as not to fall entirely behind. Of the few academic books I read this year, the most impressive was:
Loren T. Stuckenbruck, 1 Enoch: Chapters 91-108 (Commentaries on Early Jewish Literature; de Gruyter, 2007)
An invaluable reference work for anyone working on the Enochic literature.

BEST MOVIE: As usual I saw few films in the cinema, all of them children's films I watched with my son. The only one of these that was even bearable was Journey to the Center of the Earth, which merits a mediocre three stars of five. Brendan Fraser did the best he could, and at least the script relied on some plot instead of entirely on CGI. A bonus was that seeing the movie motivated us to get out our copy of the Jules Verne novel that was the loose inspiration for the movie and read it together, which was a lot of fun. I first read it when I was about my son's age and it was a nice complement to H. G. Wells's The Time Machine, which we read earlier in the summer.

As for pre-2008 movies that I saw for the first time this year, my favorite (and my favorite overall for the year) was Sahara (2005), based on the novel by Clive Cussler. Cussler's archaeologist-adventurer hero Dirk Pitt has been around since well before the Indiana Jones movies, and Matthew McConaughey and Steve Zahn had just the right chemistry as Dirk Pitt and his sidekick Al Giordino. It's a pity that Cussler and the movie's producer, Philip Anschutz, fell out. I would have liked to have seen more Dirk Pitt adaptations with McConaughey and Zahn. Be that as it may, the movie also introduced me to the Dirk Pitt novels, of which I have particularly enjoyed Treasure, in which Pitt recovers the lost Library of Alexandria, which luckily had been packed up and hidden in a very unexpected place by an alert ancient Roman official. Would that it were so!

BEST TELEVISION: There was a lot of good television this year and it's hard to pick out a favorite. Doctor Who was excellent again, and I'm sorry to see David Tennant leave. The Doctor even encountered (apocryphal) Old Testament Pseudepigrapha this year, and what could be better than that? Series two of Primeval was fun and I'm looking forward to series three. Series two of Torchwood was good too. I also managed to watch the first two seasons of Battlestar Galactica, which I quite enjoyed, and series six of 24, which was okay but no more. I was disappointed with Ashes to Ashes, the sequel to Life on Mars (noted last year), and I think of it as a real lost opportunity.

This fall's Merlin takes the place in the autumn slot of the disappointing Robin Hood as the BBC's child-friendly British legend program. I liked Merlin. It plays fast and loose with the legend, but, heck, so did Malory. And, again, it got my son interested in Arthuriana, and we're currently reading Howard Pyle's The Story of King Arthur and His Knights.

All in all, I think my favorite television series in 2008 was Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. I loved the first two Terminator movies, but found the third very disappointing. It is somewhat redeemed in my eyes now that I see how it fits into the complicated mythos: it presented the failure of the attempt in Terminator 2 to prevent Judgement Day and laid the groundwork for the current series, in which Sarah and John Connor have another go at setting things right. The casting is good and the scripts have been mostly good so far, with some excellent ones. Summer Glau (River Tam in Firefly and Serenity) is particularly well cast as the hot, scary, reprogrammed-to-the-good (most of the time) Terminatrix, Cameron Phillips.

As for my favorite television moment of 2008, it's hard this year to settle on one, but I guess I'll go with moment in the Doctor Who episode "The Doctor's Daughter" when Jenny tells her father to "watch and learn":

I hope we see Georgia Moffett again in the role of Jenny.

BEST MUSIC: I heard almost no new music this year and haven't a clue what's going on. I did, however, dig up a lot of old music on YouTube. One oldish song (1997) did stand out, and I came to think of it as my theme song for 2008: Tubthumping by Chumbawamba.

As those close to me know, 2007 was for me an annus horribilis. 2008 has been a year of nettle-grasping and rebuilding, but all in all it was a significant improvement. May the trend continue in 2009 and may you all have a good year too.

UPDATE (5 January): Chris Brady has his Fifth Annual Ralphies posted over at Targuman.