Monthly Archives: June 1997

Frameshift, Robert J. Sawyer

Tor, 1997, 347 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-86325-X

Ideally, a reviewer’s subjectivity should be as “pure” as possible, if such a thing is possible. Shallow, transient things like the weather, sentimental problems and temporary physical discomfort aren’t supposed to affect judgement on artistic ventures. The very worst sin, of course, is to let monetary matters affect judgement: Reviewers aren’t supposed to calculate things like money/enjoyment ratios.

And yet, that was what happened while reviewing Frameshift.

Robert J. Sawyer is one of the most exciting authors of the nineties. His seven previous books compose an impressive body of work: His sixth book, The Terminal Experiment won a Nebula and was nominated for a Hugo. The seventh, Starplex, also garnered both nominations. Yet, all of Sawyer’s books had been published in paperback until Frameshift, his first hardcover publication from Tor.

Frameshift begins in mid-plot like the two latest Sawyer novels, when a creepy assailant attempts to kill protagonist Pierre Tardivel. Sharp-eyed readers will already pick up a few unsettling details in this prologue, but before anyone can catch their breath, flashback and we’re back in linear time again. The time and place: Treblinka Concentration Camp, August 1943.

Before long, we’re back in then nineties and Nazi war criminals, insurance company hijinks and genetic diseases are converging toward an exciting climax. The plot is complex but fast-paced: Frameshift is an exceptional book to take along to the beach. Sawyer’s style remains economical and pleasingly clear. Hard-SF fans will be pleased to note that the scientific content of the novel seems exact, and there is rather a lot of genetic jargon. Finally, the conclusion is satisfying. Closing the book, one can’t help but thinking that this was time well-spent.

But, if Frameshift is such an entertaining novel, why the disappointment? Part of the answer lies with the fact that Frameshift is Sawyer’s less science-fictionish book yet. Only one element (albeit a big one) stops the novel from being classifiable as a techno-thriller.

Also disappointing is the almost preachy angle of the book: Genetics, Sawyer tells us, can really mess up your life. To demonstrate this, it seems that almost every supporting character has a genetic problem of some kind. This quickly gets tiresome, like a talented musician always playing the same melody with only a few variations.

Then there is Pierre Tardivel, another one of Sawyer’s typical protagonists. Granted, he is much more vulnerable than the others, but the mold is the same: Adult well-educated white male, etc… The protagonist is not the only thing reminiscent of Sawyer’s other novels: His emphasis on theology and marital problems (Read: Adultery) also comes back, albeit in a less-central role than in The Terminal Experiment. The plotting is also awfully convenient at times…

As a French-Canadian, it was pleasant to see -finally!- a French-Canadian protagonist in a Science-Fiction novel written by an Anglophone author. Yet, a few things didn’t quite ring true: Few self-respecting Québécois would be caught dead shouting “Morceau de Merde!” (A literal translation of “Piece of s…!”) when a good old “Enfant de Chienne!” (literally; “Son of a b….”) does so well… But that’s a detail.

Even devoted Sawyer fans might want to think twice before buying Frameshift in hardcover. Others will certainly want to take a look at it as soon as it comes out in paperback.

[January 1998: I was skittish bout not liking this over as much as Sawyer’s others novels. However, I’m heartened to find that I’m not the only one to think along the same lines…]

Brother Termite, Patricia Anthony

Ace, 1995, 261 pages, C$6.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-00187-4

(The roomful of journalist quietens as the White House Press Attaché enters the conference room)

Attaché: Ladies and gentleman, the press conference will begin soon. Christian Sauvé will read a short statement, and then answer your questions. Please welcome The Reader of Rockland.

(Christian Sauvé enters the room, goes to the podium and clears his throat. He shows a paperback edition of Brother Termite to the audience)

Reader: The book discussed today is Brother Termite, by Patricia Anthony. To resume it quickly: The premise of the novel is quite fascinating, since it’s about a White House chief of staff who’s really an alien. Unfortunately, the book never quite lives up to that promising slogan: In the world Miss Anthony postulates, all his alien buddies are running things in the background with the full approval of the world’s governments. We get implausible extrapolation, validation of the most popular alien-conspiracy theories, a thoroughly unsympathetic alien protagonist and an overall atmosphere of gloominess. I do not recommend the purchase of this book, and considers it one of the least interesting work of fiction I’ve read this year. Now, on to the questions. Yes?

Man: Bernstein, Washington Post: What do you mean by “alien-conspiracy theories?”

Reader: Well, in the novel we eventually learn that the alien “hero” -I use the term loosely-, named Reej, was close to presidents since Eisenhower, arranged to have Kennedy killed, in addition of being closely implicated in abductions, human experiments and the like. What Anthony does, really, is say “Okay, so all the conspiracies are true. What now?” I mean, just look at the cover art! Isn’t that the prototypical Grey?

Man2: Stine, for Analog: Could you comment on the implausible extrapolations?

Reader: Sure. The novel takes place at fifty years in the future, yet absolutely nothing has changed. People are still eating McDonald’s Happy Meal, having AT&T install their telephone lines, driving Jaguars, booting up computers. In fact, this future even appears retrograde, since there’s nothing even approaching the Internet, or any sophisticated technology that we have right now. Anthony tries to cover up everything by saying that the aliens just blocked everything related to progress, but that’s unbelievable! I don’t think humanity could tolerate such a stagnation, and I’m speaking from an intellectual, cultural and economical viewpoint all at once. Our civilisation -our economy!- depends on change and growth. Yet Anthony more or less assumes the same world… (Noticing the impatience of journalists) Yes?

Woman: Vonarburg, for Solaris: Aren’t you missing the point, here? Isn’t Brother Termite a satire?

Reader: Oh, absolutely! But there’s a difference between being satiric and being stupid. The tone of the novel is dark, serious and mostly humourless. Reej spends most of his time brooding and feeling sorry for just about everyone. By page 100 you wish he’d die, by page 200 you wish everyone would die. When the novel start bringing up things like a president who’s been president for fifty years, or his successor being President Kennedy as channelled by a medium, or some sort of mythical alien group consciousness… Well, enough is enough! I like satiric SF when it’s well-done, but in this case, it just ain’t. Next question?

Man: Cronkite, Columbia Journalism Review: What is the place of media in Brother Termite?

Reader: Pitiful. Miss Anthony believes you’re a bunch of degenerate dolts who accept everything told to them like holy gospel, and ask idiotic questions about Kennedy’s affair with Marilyn Monroe instead of -keeping in tone with the novel- investigating an alarming drop in birth rates.

(Uncomfortable shifting in the journalistic audience.)

I mean, I wouldn’t expect you to believe everything I say at face value: Who knows, perhaps I’m the only one on this planet who hates the book? Yes?

Woman: Karman, from Womyn Will Win: A Question and a follow-up: Reading your past reviews, I was struck by the fact that you dislike a lot of women SF writers. Weren’t you biased against Brother Termite?

Reader: I certainly was. Aside from Lois McMaster Bujold, very few women SF writers are writing what I like to read. They either write literary stuff I can’t stomach, or else they commit new-age crap like Ammonite that’s not even worth the effort of discussing again. Your follow-up?

Woman: How come all the critical questions asked in the review are from women?

Reader: So you caught on to that? Good… Yes?

Man: Krishnamurti, Journal of Applied Philosophy: Your rejection of Brother Termite seems more holistic than factual. Is there some basic assumption in the book that goes completely against your perception of the world?

Reader: Yes, as a matter of fact. You know, I’m of the John Campbell/David Brin school of though: We humans are good, in both sense of the term. We’re smarter, more adaptable, more able to take care of everything than anything around us. Despite everything you may hear on the news, and the self-depreciating pop philosophy that’s fashionable nowadays, humans have made incredible progress, sociologically speaking, in the last decades toward non-aggression, peaceful understanding and compassion. We have laws, and almost everyone obey the important ones. Physically disadvantaged people, (touching glasses) me included, are now living long productive lives that would have been impossible in any other time. And that’s not the ET’s influence: That’s something we managed ourselves. The greatest thing about us humans is that we’re never satisfied: We just have to keep on coming with better solutions. To strive, to seek and not to yield-

Man: That’s Tennyson!

Reader: -that’s the spirit. And what does Anthony make of us in Brother Termite? Wimps! Amoebas! Idiots who don’t mind a fifty-year break of progress? Preposterous! I hate to steal a line from Ursula K. LeGuin, (*) especially one that I don’t agree with, but Anthony has diminished the human race for the sake of one lousy story, and that, is unforgivable.

(A Pause)

Woman: So, did you like it?

(Laughter, even the Reader is amused)

Reader: No, I’m sorry to say I didn’t. I really hope this isn’t Miss Anthony’s best novel, because that’s not very impressive. I don’t think you should read it, period. In a way, it’s a schizophrenic book: UFO-freaks aren’t smart enough to catch on the subtle political and SF details, while those smart enough to do so won’t be able to suspend their disbelief because of the UFO elements. In case you’re wonderi
ng, I’m so critical that I hated everything.

(More laughter. The Reader looks at the clock.)

Reader: Well, I’m holding up your deadlines. See you next time!

(Exits Reader)

(* Bibliographical notice: In Playground of the Mind, Larry Niven states that Ursula K. LeGuin doesn’t like his “Inconstant Moon” because Niven was essentially willing to wipe out half the human race for the sake of one love story. Of course, LeGuin herself was willing to transform the whole human race in insensitive oppressive savage (male) exploiters in her “The Word for World is Forest.” As you all see, opinions differ.)

Children of the Mind, Orson Scott Card

Tor, 1996, 349 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-85395-5

The four-book cycle concluded by Children of the Mind is remarkable: The first volume, Ender’s Game, was one of the best books of the eighties. Critics will forever argue whether it was designed to be popular, or just ended up being an exceptionally-well written power fantasy, with just enough guilt at the end to make the reader realize that while destroying another species is fun, it’s not without consequences.

The second book, Speaker for the Dead, sent the series in a whole new direction. Andrew (‘Ender’) Wiggins is trying to atone for his crimes, and his new purpose in life is to Speak for the Dead. (ie: Make fancy eulogies at funerals.) While Ender’s Game was hyperkinetic, its sequel is reflective, quieter but not without interest. In addition to winning the Hugo, it was a remarkably enjoyable novel on many levels.

Xenocide wasn’t so unanimously praised. The events set up in Speaker for the Dead are further developed in this third tome, but one seemingly deus-ex-machina event left a sour impression in most reader’s minds, as did a completely new focus on Japanese culture.

Children of the Mind is a better novel, but builds heavily of the weaknesses of the third book. The threads introduced in the previous books are tried up together in a satisfactory manner and if a possibility for a sequel still exists, it is evident that this is the end of Ender’s story. [Newsflash! Card is preparing a prequel! Aaaarrgh!]

The prose is mostly readable, at the exception of a few needlessly sophisticated scenes on a beach. Card’s talent at dialogue is impressive: We’re hanging on to every reply, each more sagacious and penetrating than the one before. Children of the Mind almost approaches in this respect the incredibly sophisticated multileveled dialogues of the Dune series, with layers of hidden meanings and single phrases that send the conversation in a new direction. What Card masters and Herbert didn’t, however, is the amusing touch: Even in the most serious, dramatic exchanges, there’s always a humorous reply, a hilarious comment that puts the conversation in perspective. As the old movie slogans go: “You’ll laugh! You’ll cry!”

Children of the Mind gets high marks for character development, managing to turn a few characters inside-out, to kill a few of them and to marry the rest. (Wasn’t it Mark Twain who said that a comedy concluded by a marriage and a tragedy by a funeral? Then what is Children of the Mind?)

Speaking of conclusions, Children of the Mind kicks in overdrive somewhere past half-point. Threads are resolved in almost every chapter, relationships stabilize, galactic issues are settled. No villains remains at the end, an interesting characteristic of this series. The book could have easily been a few hundred pages longer, but sense prevailed over length, and the result is a good, medium-sized book, unlike Xenocide, which was a good 200 pages longer.

The author’s after-word is curious, talking mainly about a small aspect of the fourth volume instead of global thoughts about the entire series. Disappointing, and this from an after-word fan.

This book is highly recommended to fans of the series, but builds so heavily on the previous volumes that it’s not a good singleton choice. This might not be a problem: Given the excellence of the first two books, it’s a fair bet to say that not many readers will try to read Children of the Mind as a stand-alone.

Fallout, Kevin J. Anderson and Doug Beason,

Ace, 1997, 306 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-00425-3

Craig Kreident is back!

The High-tech FBI special agent, after a moderately entertaining debut in Virtual Destruction, makes a stronger appearance in Fallout, the second is what will probably become a series comparable to Cussler’s “Dirk Pitt” sequence.

This time around, the plot doesn’t hinge around virtual reality, or mentally deficient nuclear workers. Instead, Anderson and Beason takes us deep into two of America’s most secret installations: The Nevada Nuclear Test Site and Area 51, the Air Force’s shadowy research installation.

This book also has a different tone that the first tome: While a murder still has to be solved, Kreident must now deal with a right-wing extremist terrorist group: The book opens with the FBI trying to prevent an explosion at the Hoover dam. The result is a techno-thriller much closer to “thriller” than to the mystery genre.

Fallout is more exciting, more interesting, and (if possible) readable in even less time than Virtual Destruction, which was already quite a page-turner.

Otherwise, character development is only adequate, at the exception of Kreident-subordinate agent Goldfarb, which figures prominently in a few action sequences. Despite everything, Kreident remains likable, and it’s a joy to root for government guys once in a while.

This is no surprise, since both authors have worked in government offices (Beason is an Air Force officer). Jabs at INDEPENDENCE DAY are thrown, and other UFO-freaks beliefs are equally skewered. The background has a distinctive “authentic” feel to it, which marks a nice change to the usually unbelievable thriller setups.

On the other hand, the final terrorist motivation is quite laughable. This is probably intentional by Beason and Anderson, but any thriller fan knows that plausibility has a quality of its own. Terrorist motivation is not the only disappointing aspect of the finale: Paige Mitchell (the almost-girlfriend character) is also terribly passive, falling back too easily in the so despicable “helpless female” role. However, the other aspects of the resolution are suitably well-handled, and suspense runs fairly high.

Fallout would make an interesting movie, but is probably too smart for that. It remains to be seen whether the next volumes of the series will manage to be as interesting as this one. Especially fascinating is the problem of being able to involve Paige Mitchell in every Craig Kreident investigation. That should be interesting to watch.

Even when considered absolutely, and not only in comparison with its predecessor, Fallout fares pretty well. It had the required action, stupid mistakes, evil terrorist groups and other hallmarks of the genre. Since it’s readable in a blink, it might be a better choice to loan it at the library rather than buy it full-price.

Craig Kreident can come back any time he likes.

* * *

Briefly: Anderson and Beason’s Ill Wind is even better, something predictable given the catastrophic and post-catastrophic theme of the book (this time: anti-polymer microbes ravage the world’s oil and plastics) and the fact that it’s a one-shot novel. Points given for realistic science, clean prose and likable characters. I’ll quibble that the novel ends too soon (Sequel possible? Oh no!) for any sense of durable consequences. Good reading for fans of the sub-genre and/or the authors.

Richter 10, Arthur C. Clarke and Mike McQuay

Bantam Spectra, 1996, 407 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-57333-0

Criticism is many things to many people, but most readers assume that the review will contain at least a fragmentary plot resume, and a brief critical opinion. Most readers prefer when the opinion is decisive: (It sucks!)/(It rules!) are the two binary states of criticism.

The object of this review, Richter 10, isn’t a book that lets itself be so easily dismissed.

First, it’s a Clarke, but a Clarke collaboration. All Clarke collaborations, without exception, have been horrendous. Benford’s sequel to Against the Fall of Night was simply indigestible. The “Rama” trilogy was overlong and under-whelming. And now, as Clarke explains in the after-word, Richter 10 isn’t even a collaboration: McQuay wrote the book based on a 850-word movie outline by Clarke.

Briefly put, Richter 10 is the tale of Lewis Crane, a brilliant scientist with an obsessive passion: Earthquakes. As the book opens, Crane has perfected a method for predicting earthquakes and their effects: He literally marks down “safe” areas. The book follows the successes and failures of Crane: Scientifically, sentimentally, financially, the guy’s in for a rough time.

The good news are that it’s half a decent tale: The book is readable fairly quickly despite the 400+ pages-length. There is a clear narrative drive: What will happen next? Turn the page to find out!

However, the book has serious believability problems. Suspension of disbelief is handy for most SF, but Richter 10 takes it a little bit too far. Shaky elements include a simulation able to perfectly recreate earth’s geological history, a near-magical arm injury, a woman living her whole life as a man, Chinese corporations ruling the USA, a plan to end earthquakes, a scientist-cum-religious leader, ten years in total isolation, a virtual lover taking over a person’s life, etc… “Hard to swallow” is an understatement, and the situation isn’t helped by a mostly dystopic vision of the future.

There also seems to be a focus problem with the book. The first three quarters of the tale are recognizably the same story. But the books shifts in high gear for the finale, leaving characters quickly sketched and readers quickly breathless. At times, it almost seems as if a whole trilogy has been compressed in one book. (This might not be a bad thing, if the alternative was to actually read the trilogy.)

Finally, perhaps the biggest “problem” with the book is that most characters behave in ways that will displease average readers. While it’s fun to see characters go from lover to villain to friend, it’s also a bit unsettling. Readers beware. Overly paranoid readers will also detect a strong anti-Islamic bent to the book. The scientific method as depicted in this book is also a throwback to the (bad) old days of SF, where the lone maverick hero defended his (*His!*) invention against hordes of infidels.

Much as earthquakes completely transform the territory they affect, Richter 10‘s tone, atmosphere and characters undergo several dramatic transformations during the course of the novel. Whether this is ingenious or plain unfortunate remains to be seen. Richter 10 is a moderately entertaining tale, the kind of book best taken to the beach for a few hours of quiet, undemanding reading.

Unless, of course, you happen to go to a Californian beach…

Mortal Error, Bonar Menninger

St. Martin’s, 1992, 361 pages, C$29.99 hc, ISBN 0-312-08074-3

I did not kill JFK!

I was born in 1975. There is no way that I could have been the one who pulled the trigger on Kennedy. No, no, absolutely not. Trust me.

But even if I’m clearly not guilty, some people seem to have a fascination with what happened during six seconds in Dallas on November 22nd, 1963. Witness the books, the movie, the alleged conspiracies surrounding the events. According to a Time poll, much more than half the population thinks that the official version of the events does not truthfully describe what really happened.

Why?

Without going into details, one could easily bring up that the average American feels that the JFK assassination was a disturbing event that should not have happened: A conspiracy to kill the president then does bring back order in a chaotic situation. Joe Sixpack, once again satisfied by the immutability of the universe against him, settles back in his chair, mumbles something like “damn government” and switches the channel to a football game.

But conspiracies are fascinating. Watching authors twist every available fact, deny other author’s evidence, propping their own pet theories… it should be an Olympic event.

There are many, many books on the JFK assassination. I have carefully avoided most of them, but Mortal Error attracted my attention, if only for the unusual theory presented in its pages.

Briefly put: Oswald did mortally wound the president. But the “exploding head” shot was accidentally fired by a secret agent carrying an AR-15 (Civilian M-16) in the follow-up car.

Oops.

No Mafia, no Cubans, no grassy knoll, no Marilyn Monroe with a sniper rifle, no aliens… Mortal Error almost disappoints by its lack of excitement. But what it misses in excitement, it makes up in believability. Mortal Error‘s thesis comes from Howard Donahue, a certified ballistic expert. The book shows how Donahue establishes his theory. From trying to prove the lone-gunman scenario to the progressive discoveries leading up, finally, to the last pieces of evidence falling in place… the account is meticulous, and well-researched. It’s easy to be seduced by the idea of an accidental shot.

Being convinced is another matter entirely. Books like Mortal Error are scantly more than propaganda in their own favour. Everyone’s got a theory, and all the other ones are wrong. Still, Donahue’s hypothesis is strangely compelling. It explains the government’s alleged cover-ups and doesn’t involve any highly improbable conspiracies. It also appeals to the universal principle of irony, and Murphy’s law. What can beat that?

It’s an interesting work. I appears solid and plausible, for all that’s worth. I’m not a JFK buff, so my perceptions aren’t dulled by interminable repetitions of the same arguments. Still, it makes for entertaining reading. As the jacket blurb suggests, it’s one of the sanest theories around. As long as anyone keeps a sense of perspective and skepticism about the whole matter…

Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997)

(In theaters, June 1997) The original Speed wasn’t expected to be very good but ended up making millions, so it’s no surprise that the sequel is so inferior. Bullock is as lovely as ever, and Patric is marginally likable, but even them can’t save Speed 2 from the mostly unexciting script. A cruise boat is hijacked, but the villain (William Defoe) is more pathetic than menacing. A squad of Islamic terrorists would have worked better. The traditional Stupid Action Movie Mistakes abound, but the greatest flaw of the movie is that it tries to be a tense thriller before switching in action-movie “boom-boom” format. The money shots are saved for the end, but they’re unfortunately spoiled by the promos. Still, director De Bont’s style is enjoyable (despite more than a few misfires) and the movie will make a splendid video rental. More bland than bad, but still not very good.

The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump, Harry Turtledove

Baen, 1993, 367 pages, C$7.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-72196-8

Harry Turtledove has made quite a name for himself in one particular sub-genre of SF: Alternate history. What if racist time-travellers had brought AK-47 to the Rebels? (The Guns of the South) What if alien invaders had interfered with WWII? (The “Balance” series) What if…?

The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump might be considered alternate history, if one is of sufficiently open mind: What if magic replaced technology as the engine of our civilization?

Consider: David Fisher is an EPA (Environmental Perfection Agency) bureaucrat in a world where people travel by magic carpet, where alarm clock contain imported timekeeping demons and where spell-checkers are much less concerned with grammar than with sorcery… Yep, it’s a magical wacky wonderland. California still has traffic jams, pollution, illegal immigrants, environmental hazards and all the other trappings of a modern civilization, but if the end result is the same, the means are considerably different.

When Fisher is called in to investigate mysterious reports of a leaking toxic spell dump, he’s blissfully unaware that his seemingly-innocuous probes could be the start of the Third Sorcerous War…

It’s humorous in intent (as if the title wasn’t a giveaway!) and light-hearted in execution. Turtledove casts even the slightest pun, and leaves no small gags un-summoned. Fisher is a sympathetic narrator, and the style is readable, even if most readers will want to pay a bit more attention to the throwaway jokes.

The plot wanders around a bit, giving us a tour of Fisher’s world, but then goes back more or less on track. Even then, the conclusion is disappointing. The last few pages are almost an anticlimax; the girlfriend-character is poorly treated in the last third of the novel. Stephen Hickman’s cover is very pretty in a pseudo-classic way, but the relation between the cover art and the content of the novel is less than evident.

It’s not a great book, but it’s entertaining reading, and doesn’t really assume that the reader has a substandard IQ. Furthermore, it’s a blast for everyone who’s already wondered what would happen if all religious beliefs were real, and how to build a computer-era civilization when magic is so readily available. (Microimps, anyone?)

Of course, anyone who’s allergic to puns will want to steer clear, as well as those who can’t tolerate “light” books. The others will read this book with a smile on their face and an amusement spell on their minds.

Face/Off (1997)

(In theaters, June 1997) The best action movies always have an extra layer of… depth to them. Die Hard, Aliens, Terminator 2, even The Rock all had a strong cast of character to give meaning to the action so the bullets weren’t flying around for nothing. Face/Off succeeds so well in this regard that it would have been interesting even without the superior actions sequences that pepper the script. The story begins where most other action movies end: Bad Psycho Terrorist (Nicolas Cage) is arrested by Good Straight Policeman (John Travolta) But soon, cop has terrorist’s face and vice-versa and we’re set for a fascinating exploration of the mind/body duality (and a few explosions on the side.) Both leads are just great, as is director Woo. Despite many impossibilities, the script works very well and even offers a few moments of genuine emotion. Even better, the female characters are strong, and not limited to the helpless hostage role. Face/Off holds together better than most of the recent action movies in memory: satisfying, solid entertainment.

(Second viewing, On VHS, May 2000) This holds up well three years later, mostly because director John Woo knew where to build on a better-than-average action script to produce a film closer to his own themes. Nicolas Cage and John Travolta bring considerable credence to a tale that might otherwise have seemed utterly preposterous. The directing is clean, stylish and exciting and the action set-pieces don’t disappoint. Definitely worth a second viewing.

Con Air (1997)

(In theaters, June 1997) Now that’s an action movie. Brought to screens by the same team that produced last year’s exceptional The Rock, Con Air uses the same rapid-fire editing/directing, omnipresent explosions and crowd-pleasing techniques that made last year’s Connery/Cage vehicle so successful. While less likable than The Rock, Con Air is still two hours of pulse-pounding fun. It’s surprisingly satisfying and entertaining from the first to the last minute. Made specifically for the action crowd, Con Air succeeds admirably well at its self-imposed goals. Other audiences need not apply.

Gun, With Occasional Music, Jonathan Lethem

Harcourt Brace, 1994, 262 pages, C$28.00 hc, ISBN 0-15-136458-3

From the cover blurb: “Jonathan Lethem’s first novel is a science-fiction mystery. It’s funny. It’s not so funny.”

For once, an entirely truthful blurb. Gun, With Occasional Music is a novel in the hard-boiled mode: A lone private investigator, slowly piecing together clues of an intricate mystery, told from a suitably-tough first-person narration. Conrad Metcalf is Gun‘s narrator: a good guy, but with the traditional gamut of problems associated with the type: low-down, celibate, drug-user (with the blessing of the government), loser…

Which brings us to the science-fiction facet of the work: Gun takes place somewhere next century, in a wild world: Genetically-enhanced animals wander around like humans, (in fact, one of the book’s main characters is a young gun-toting gangster apprentice… a kangaroo) babies are force-grown, drug use is encouraged by the government, written-word newspapers are outlawed and guns play a musical theme.

Which brings us, in turn, to the “funny” part: Gun‘s future is much more satirical than realistic. (Fundamental biology dictates that the vocal equipment of, say, a sheep is woefully inadequate for speech.) But it doesn’t matter: This is closer to fable than hard-SF. Not nearly enough justification is brought forth, but that’s a flaw of Lethem in general. Even though, the atmosphere of the wacky world Conrad Metcalf lives in is deliciously textured. The reader, especially if familiar with the hard-boiled genre, will delight in the overall mood of the novel.

Which finally brings us to the darker side of Gun. The first three-quarters are -almost- jolly good fun: Metcalf’s narration is typical, the events described all fit in joyously with the sub-genre. Yet, a small lingering bad taste emerges. Metcalf’s world is funny, yes, but with unpleasant edges. Inquisitors? Karma points? Outlawed text in newspapers? Then Things Happen (to say any more would be an unforgivable spoiler) and Gun doesn’t seem so light-hearted any more. And what had been a light piece of escapist entertainment becomes something much more pernicious.

Surprisingly, this makes for a better book than an otherwise “all-happy” ending would have brought. The final few pages approach perfection… but personal tastes will differ considerably here.

High accolades for a first novel. Lethem’s style, as mentioned before, is delicious. The narration is funny and direct, yet tragic and parenthetical. Lethem’s protagonist feels like a real person, and the other supporting characters are also very well-drawn.

The cover of the Harcourt-Brace hardcover edition is also delightful: A deliberately-damaged cover “noir” illustration, and some great quotes on the back.

Some of the details are too vague, over-the-top or simply thrown away too rapidly to be fully appreciated. The ending will probably stain the book’s previous impact on some readers. Lethem goes for effect more than believability: There is no believable path from our present to his future. But readers who don’t figure that it’s not that kind of novel by the first few pages probably won’t enjoy the remainder of the book anyway.

Obviously, this book will appeal far more to fans of the sub-genre, but other readers should get excellent value for their money. Lethem’s first novel is unusually strong, and portents a promising future for this author. In any case, it’s definitely worth the paperback price.

(Briefly: Lethem’s second novel, Amnesia Moon, is far less compelling than Gun. Confusing, disjointed, metaphysical, it lacks the strong sustained plotting of the first novel. Disappointing, even for someone who’s enjoyed Lethem’s other works.)