Monthly Archives: September 1997

Light Raid, Cynthia Felice & Connie Willis

Ace, 1989, 263 pages, C$6.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-48312-7

The line between reality and fiction, despite a few odd incidents, is very clear. In SF and other high-action genres designed for escapist entertainment, it is essential to suspend our disbelief; to accept without discussion some of the concepts at the basis of the fictional construct. With the best stories and authors, this is easy since there’s usually some kind of coherent link with What’s Already Known by Us. Lesser fiction assumes things out of thin air and bases the whole story on impossible concepts. The sagacious reader loses respect for the story, can’t believe in it, and usually closes the book in disgust. While a boring book is just a boring book, a bad book can be infuriating.

This is all to say that Light Raid is a truly wretched novel. I would normally give average marks to this average story, but the problem is that the authors made a huge, fatal mistake: They used Quebec as the antagonist.

The plot, so we might get past it as soon a possible: North America is torn apart by war. Quebec is fighting against an alliance of states, in this case the Western States. In this, somewhere, a teenage girl (Adriadne) is desperately trying to prove that her mother isn’t a spy for Quebec. Hijinks, laser raids by Quebec satellites and pathetic adolescent romance ensues.

The problems with this already-stupid plot are numerous: The first being, of course, that it’s impossible. There are seven million people in Quebec, half of them in Montreal and most of them in jobs that aren’t exactly in highly-scientific or technological sectors. And we’re supposed to believe that these evil Quebeckers can terrorize three hundred million people with laser satellites? To take a comparable simile, can you imagine North America at war with Evil Ontarians? Uh-huh.

Militarily speaking, the protracted war described in Light Raid is absurd. War buffs will tell you that high-tech conflict can’t last long; it’s even worse to consider that Quebec, a province in a country without an inkling of a decent space program, could maintain an orbital fleet of laser satellites without… ahem… American intervention.

But that’s small potatoes to Felice and Willis, who had to have an antagonist, and who better to use that the Quebeckers since they don’t speak English, (*gasp,* the infamy!) and probably won’t even read the novel anyway. Would the novel would have worked better starring, say, a California-Texas Union? Absolutely. Would it have pissed off Texans and Californians? You bet. Would that have affected the book’s sales figures? Rhetorical question, my dear Watson.

The idiocy doesn’t stop there, though: Speaking of Watson, one of the characters is an agent for Scotland Yard. Never mind if Scotland Yard has jurisdiction in western North America, or why there’s a Saskatchewan Prince: His main purpose is to get Adriadne out of trouble and make sure she have sex with the right guy (i.e.: himself. Never mind she’s 17 and he’s 22. Must be typical adolescent romance stuff.)

Even more shocking, the Peter Harris cover illustration actually represents a scene from the book. (“Where will it stop?” he cried.)

This book is insulting, and what’s worse, not even remotely engaging. Call it a unfavorable prejudice, but I just couldn’t get into it considering the blatant disregard for reality that the authors display in their world-building. I always say that If you can’t muster the intelligence, rigor and will to play by the physical rules of the universe, you shouldn’t even try. In this case, I hope never to see anything this horrible again: Connie Willis has demonstrated she’s able to do better (Bellwether), but it’s going to be difficult for her to do much worse.

The Heechee Saga, Frederik Pohl

Del Rey, 1977-1990, ??? pages, C$??.?? mmpb, ISBN Various

Gateway,1977, 278 pages
Beyond the Blue Event Horizon, 1982, 279 pages
Heechee Rendez-vous, 1984, 311 pages
The Annals of the Heechee, 1987, 278 pages
The Gateway Trip, 1990, 244

Frederik Pohl is a workmanlike SF writer, turning out novel after novel of decent -if not overly exciting- works. As a founding elder of modern SF, he’s been around a while and so there’s a large fan base for his works. Pohl’s writing career can be divided in two sections: The first took place before 1961, when he revolutionized the SF field by writing social satires (often in collaboration with C. M. Kornbluth; see the beloved classic The Space Merchants). After a lull in which he edited genre magazines, the second half of his writing career truly ignited in 1977 with Gateway.

Gateway (Best Novel Nebula and Hugo) was the story of one Robinette Broadhead, who spent most of the novel telling his hang-ups to a psychological computer program. The Gateway of the title is a vast asteroid, filled with alien ships who can travel across the galaxy. Problem is, they don’t always come back… and Humans can’t control the ship in any way. Gateway is a fun read, presenting intriguing idea and a suitably complex protagonist in a clean, compelling prose. Some call it one of the best SF novels ever, others just like it very much.

Beyond the Blue Event Horizon takes place a few years later, when Robinette is even richer, and feeling far more guilty. Another alien Heechee artifact is discovered in this solar system, and Robinette must (as in “must advance the plot”) explore it. This sequel is a bit of a letdown, and isn’t resolved at the end.

Heechee Rendez-vous picks up another few years after the events in the sequel, and introduces even more plot threads only tied up at the end of the fourth volume. Said fourth volume offers less surprises than the previous three, and the ultimate conclusion is easily guessable by the sufficiently attentive reader.

The four-book cycle could have easily been compressed in a trilogy, mostly by forgoing extrataneous elements in the second and fourth volume. The inclusion of a few misunderstood kids in the fourth tome is especially grating.

But it’s an interesting series. Concepts are deftly introduced (not always, though: Lumps of ugly exposition are scattered here and there) and used in efficient ways. Pohl’s style is readable even at its worst. A sense of accomplishment is gained.

The Gateway Trip ends up the series on a high note. More of a collection of ideas about Gateway, it reprints the fascinating novella The Merchants of Venus (prequel to the whole series) and a bunch of short fictional-expositionnary texts about Gateway, the expeditions from Gateway, the Heechees and other stuff. It can be safely read by anyone who’s read the first two volumes, and could even be used as a substitute for the last three books. Lavishly illustrated by Frank Kelly Freas (the illustrations lose their potency in the paperback edition, though) it’s a lovely little book, well worth the effort and money for Gateway fans.

The Best of the Nebula, Ed. Ben Bova

Tor, 1989, 593 pages, C$17.00 tpb, ISBN 0-312-93175-1

A 600-pages book full of the “best Nebula-winning stories”.

To me, that sounds dreadful. I prefer Hugos to Nebulas: My liking for storytelling over literary prowess is well-known, and so is (despite a few exceptions) the preference of the SFWA for literary prowess over storytelling.

And yet, I’ve made a point to read all the Nebula-winning novels, and most of the Nebula-winning stories. The Best of the Nebula offered a chance to complete my collection.

The books is edited by Ben Bova, who not only serves us a lousy introduction, but also a few paternalistic introductions. As for the actual content, most of the stories are “classics”… this despite actual quality or entertainment value.

For instance, I’ve never been able to read McCafferey’s “Dragonrider” to the end, and this anthology only serves to up the number of tentative to five. Most of Zelazny, Tiptree, Delany, Leiber, Russ or LeGuin’s material doesn’t impress me, and this didn’t change with The Best of the Nebula either. On the other hand, I’m glad I finally read Martin’s “Sandkings”, Ellison’s “A Boy and his Dog”, Silverberg’s “Passengers” and Moorcock’s “Behold the Man”.

This anthology offers a fairly good overview of slightly higher-grade SF for the literate neophyte, but fans of the genre will want to take a look at the table of content before buying it.

I’ve played the game, and selected my favourite Nebulas since 1965. Here’s the list:

Novels

  • Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)
  • Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke (1973)
  • The Forever War, Joe Haldeman (1975)
  • Man Plus, Frederik Pohl (1976)
  • Gateway, Frederik Pohl (1977)
  • Startide Rising, David Brin (1983)
  • Neuromancer, William Gibson (1984)
  • Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card (1985)
  • Moving Mars, Greg Bear (1994)
  • The Terminal Experiment, Robert J. Sawyer (1995)

Short Stories

  • “Repent Harlequin!, Said the Ticktockman”, Harlan Ellison (1965)
  • “Behold the Man”, Michael Moorcock (1967)
  • “The Screwfly Solution”, Alice Sheldon (1977)
  • “GiANTS”, Edward Bryant (1979)
  • “Tangents”, Greg Bear (1986)

Novelettes and Novellas

  • “A Meeting with Medusa”, Arthur C. Clarke (1972)
  • “The Bicentennial Man”, Isaac Asimov (1976)
  • “Sandkings”, George R. R. Martin (1979)
  • “The Ugly Chicken”, Howard Waldrop (1980)
  • “Blood Music”, Greg Bear (1983)
  • “The Night We Buried Road Dog”, Jack Cady (1993)

…and a few others, mostly in the Novel and Longer Short Stories category, but that’ll do for now. Of course, my list of favorite Hugo-winners is far, far more interesting…

Samurai from Outer Space, Antonia Levi

Open Court, 1996, 169 pages, C$30.00 tpb, ISBN 0-8126-9332-9

You can find the strangest thing at your nearest college’s library.

For instance, there I was in the University of Ottawa main library, checking out the New Arrival section, when a title bounced at me from the bottom row: Samurai from Outer Space. Who could resist taking a look at a book with such a title? I picked it up. The subtitle clinched it for me: “Understanding Japanese Animation.”

Now, understand that I am not an otaku (anime (Japanese animation) fan). I’ve watched countless hours of dubbed Japanese animation in my youth (French-Canadian TV was/is full of dubbed Japanese children’s series) and the “big” anime movies (AKIRA, GHOST IN THE SHELL) but I don’t go to the local Anime club, or track down the latest anime release as soon as it’s imported. I don’t even know more than a handful of Japanese words.

But I’ve got friends who are otaku. One of them’s the audiovisual tech for the anime club, the other knows enough Japanese to get by… With this kind of friend, I’d have to be an idiot not to get at least a passing appreciation for the genre by passive osmosis. So, it was only natural that I had to borrow Samurai from Outer Space.

(To give an idea of the mindset of UfO computer science students, everyone I showed the book to either said “Oooh!” or “Cool!”)

Reading this book is time well-spent. Samurai from Outer Space is a fascinating journey into not only Japanese animation, but into the very collective mind of Japan’s society. As Levi points out in her introduction, you can’t understand art without understanding the cultural context in which this art was produced. Most of the time, anime is produced by Japanese for Japanese. The attitudes of anime are thus the attitudes of Japan itself. Anyone with even a basic knowledge of history already knows about the divergent paths Japan and Western culture undertook, only to be reunited in the last few decennia.

This difference is reflected everywhere: Anime is built on a paradigm that is completely different from the Western tradition of storytelling. Mood is important; virtue isn’t necessarily rewarded; the eyes have it; women can be powerful and sexy without being a sidekick; characters can be multifaceted; animation isn’t for kids; you don’t have to have a happy ending… And that’s barely scratching the surface. The chapter on the role of women in anime and Japanese society is revealing; far from being powerless, the typical Japanese housewife wields an unsuspected power in Japan. (A power often reminiscent of the role of the rural French-Canadian housewife between 1850-1950, but I digress once again…)

But what about the otaku who doesn’t care about sociology? (Levi is quick to point out that a true otaku is bound to be interested in Japanese society, note!) Samurai from Outer Space is a splendid text for both novices and experts. Some of the analysis is invaluable and a few conclusions are surprising.

The book isn’t always interesting, especially for the casual reader: The chapter on religion is loaded with references to traditional Japanese myths, and while they’re well-explained, they’re not always easy to grasp. Sometimes, Levi overdoes the sociological analysis on this side of the Pacific ocean (“Gen-Xers […] were born in an overcrowded world filled with crime”, [P.108] etc…) but everything holds up pretty well. For an academic publication, the style is downright breezy: I found myself smiling through most of the book, and laughing quite heartily at a few places. Also notable are the “side-notes”, literally placed on the side of the page rather that at the bottom, or the end. Samurai from Outer Space could have used a few more illustrations and put them alongside the text rather in a separate section, but publishers can’t always do it all, I guess.

In short: Grab it, read it, you’ll like it. Recommended.

In & Out (1997)

(In theaters, September 1997) Audience reaction to this movie will probably hinge on their level of tolerance for… um… gay issues. A very smart, very funny script is backed-up by fantastic acting and unobtrusive direction. Loses steam and gains “meaningful intent” in the second half, but a good time is had by mostly everyone except the most closed-minded. (Be forewarned, however, that the writer Has An Agenda) Not really a good date movie! Random thought: It’s probably a good sign of our evolving society that this movie is rated PG only a few years after the separate matrimonial beds of the puritan TV shows of the fifties…

Hexed (1993)

(On TV, September 1997) Any self-respecting Babylon-5 fan had to watch this movie, only for the nearly-naked scenes of “Captain Ivanova” (Claudia Christian). Alas, Shelley Michelle body-doubles for Christian, but Hexed is still a pretty enjoyable comedy, at times oddly reminiscent of the hilarious, senseless violence of Pulp Fiction. Characters are okay, the comedy oscillates between the slapstick (the Rodney King send-up) and the lame-but-lively repartee (“I forgot to tell you; I’m pregnant” “What?” “Just kidding.”) but while this is far from being a work of art, it’s not a big waste of time either.

Ghost In The Machine (1993)

(On TV, September 1997) Very stupid, utterly hilarious “horror” movie. The premise (serial killer gets transformed in computer form, kills people using microwaves, heat dryers and dishwashers.) is about as ridiculous as it can get, and the details are about as ludicrous as anything else. Anyone can have several sadistic laughs at the ineptness of this grade-A Z-level shlocko flick: One of the funniest worst movies I’ve seen. Not to be confused with SF-anime masterpiece Ghost In The Shell (1995).

Holy Fire, Bruce Sterling

Bantam Spectra, 1996, 326 pages, C$31.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-09958-2

In Look at the Evidence, master SF critic John Clute has written a fascinating essay on what he calls the “true age” of a SF work. Ineptly put, this mean that despite the stated year in which a Science-Fiction work takes place, it is almost always about another year. Most of the time, a book written in, say, 1995 will be about 1990 rather than 2361. Most of the SF written in the seventies is thus about the seventies: Overpopulation, environmental collapse and feminism all figure prominently in these works. (Clute then goes on to state that a lot of recent genre SF is about 1940-1960, which is a fascinating idea that deserves exploration… but not here.)

Clute’s theory isn’t universally applicable, but works quite well in the case of Bruce Sterling’s latest novel; Holy Fire.

Before venturing further in critical theory, though, a bit of plot:  Holy Fire takes place a century from now, in a future where life-extension treatments are getting increasingly commonplace and efficient. Not surprisingly, the power is now in the hand of those who live the longest, who can invest their money in decade-long financial enterprises and can afford to wait to reap the results. There’s now “real money” and the young don’t have any. Gerontocracy is a common word in this novel.

Mia Ziemann is a medical economist nearing ninety years of age, and it’s her job to know about these things. The novel opens as she visits an old lover but a few fortuitous encounters later, Mia decides that it’s time to cash in her life savings and to be rejuvenated. Once that is done, she escapes from her medical supervision and makes her way to Europe, where she spends the remainder of the novel hanging out with anarchists, calling herself Maya, sleeping with unattractive men and finding her true self, not necessarily in this order.

It doesn’t take a diploma in literary engineering or medical sociology to guess why Holy Fire is a novel of the nineties: In an age where the baby-boomers are hitting their fifties in greater numbers (and retiring younger and younger; this critic’s father being a case in point) it’s evident that Sterling is taking a unsettling tendency and pushing it in a farther, more “Comfortable” future. Mia’s world is becoming more friendly, less violent, but also more boring with less place for innovation and initiative. Parallels…?

A better, but less exciting work than Sterling’s previous Heavy Weather, Holy Fire uses the word “postmodernist” a lot.  It shouldn’t be too surprising then that most of the novel consists of aimless wandering through the anarchist cliques of Europe. Sometimes it’s interesting, other time it’s filler until something happens. The Maya/Mia dichotomy isn’t very well defined, or at least could have been used better. This novel consciously turn the traditionally SF “coming of age” novel on its head by starring a 90-year old woman rediscovering herself using a young body. (Is it a “going of age” or “re-coming of age” novel?)

Still, Holy Fire is very likely one of the best SF book you’re likely to read this year. Sterling, a leading proponent of the now-passé (really?) cyberpunk movement, has kept intact his love of gadgets so evident in all his works. Holy Fire features talking dogs (including a likable talk-show host), translating devices (sometime reminiscent of Douglas Adam’s Babel Fish), a believable rejuvenating process (probably the most mesmerizing sequence of the book) and some impressive home pages… er… palaces.

A mature, sometime meandering work, Holy Fire strengthens Sterling’s position as one of the surest talent of contemporary SF. Perhaps too consciously post-something to achieve wide success and recognition, but smart and speculative enough to be read anyway.