Monthly Archives: October 1997

Yours, Isaac Asimov, Ed. Stanley Asimov

Doubleday, 1995, 332 pages, C$??.?? hc, ISBN 0-385-47622-1

Despite what anyone may think of Isaac Asimov’s fiction, opinion, style or latter years (this reviewer, for one, maintains that most post-1970 Asimov novels were average at best, errors otherwise), there is no denying the influence he had on SF and America during his life. This in itself would make the Asimov name pretty valuable (to publishers) even after his untimely death in 1992.

So here is another book by Asimov about Asimov. In this case, here is the Stanley Asimov-edited book of Isaac Asimov-written letters. Before e-mail, before facsimiles there was the letter, and Asimov wrote a bunch of them. How much of a bunch? “Isaac received about 100,000 letters in his professional career… he answered 90 percent of them.” [Introduction] Even considering that half these answers were on postcards, that’s a staggering mass of material.

To his credit, Stanley Asimov manages to distil a jovial book of Asimovillia, full of the Good Doctor’s own brand of immodest modesty, suggestive limericks and unique personality. A writer of nearly 500 books can’t escape having encyclopedic interests, and this is one of the most distinctive things gleaned from Yours, Isaac Asimov.

Beyond that, it’s a revealing look at the personality of the man by his writings, collected and edited by someone who knew him well. Even those who think they know everything about Asimov should learn a few things.

For instance, fans of the prurient Asimov from the forties and fifties will be surprised, even shocked, at the decidedly looser opinions of the more unleashed writer of the sixties onward. More than forty limericks, among other things, populate the pages of this book. Some of them are fairly spicy.

The book is divided in more than fifty short thematic paragraphs, among them “Being a liberal”, “Quantity”, “Campbell and Pohl”, “Fans”, “Youth”, “Memory”, “Censorship” and “Being Atheist”. Stanley poignantly ends the collection with two chapters on Health and Death. And yet, the overall tone of the book is one of cheer and good living. Asimov loved life and these letters show it.

Of course, this collection will mean more to Asimov fans that to relative newcomers. As such, it might not be worth buying in hardcover, but any serious Asimov collector should at least take a look at it.

It occurs to this reviewer that if ever humanity perfects the machine in Robert Silverberg’s “Enter a Soldier. Later, Enters Another” (Where everything known about a person is entered in a computer in order to simulate his personality), Asimov might be one of the best candidates to recreate. Not only has he left us more that 450 books from where to glean material (not including his massive autobiographies and everything everyone else wrote about him), but everyone could agree that Doctor A. should still be around.

I can’t think of a more telling homage.

Look at the Evidence, John Clute

Serconia Press, 1995, 465 pages, C$29.00 hc, ISBN 0-934933-06-5

So there I was, in the dealer’s room of Montreal’s Con*Cept’97 convention, blowing most of a week’s salary on books I didn’t really need but wanted anyway. So I hand my stack to the dealer, who promptly gives me back John Clute’s Hugo-winning Look at the Evidence.

You can imagine what kind of thoughts passed through my mind: What? Is he refusing my right to buy the book? What’s going on? Then the dealer points at the other end of the table: “You might want to get this autographed right now.”

Now, John Clute is physically impressive: Close-cropped blonde hair at the top of a frame that’s well-over six feet and a width that would make him a serious contender for a part as a wrestler in any TV production. We chatted about CD-ROM encyclopedias (Clute is one of the authors of both the Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction and the Encyclopedia of Fantasy) and I escaped with nothing more serious than a dedication. (“for Christian,” etc… sure is better than a dislocation) (Then there’s when I asked Lois McMaster Bujold to autograph my copy of Mirror Dance, but I’m already name-dropping way too much.)

In the field of SF, there is no better critic than John Clute. Co-Author of the definitive encyclopedias in two genres, not including the Visual and Multimedia encyclopedias of SF, Clute is one of the field’s watchmen. So it’s quite a treat to find five years of critical essays reunited between the same cover. Look at the Evidence is the compilation of all reviews Clute wrote during the years 1987-1992. SF has changed dramatically during those five years, and this book is like a report from the frontlines of this change.

It is during these five years that Clute developed his theory of First SF (roughly; SF-written-as-SF, not really as separate future extrapolation). Also included is a Protocol of Excessive Candour and a too-brief passage about the Real Year of a given SF book. And, of course, a heap of book reviews, sometime favorable, sometime scathing but almost always interesting.

Naturally, Look at the Evidence will be most revealing to those who already have a deep knowledge of the field. I’m always fond of saying that reviews have to answer to those who already read the book in addition to those who wonder if they should. Clute is a critic more than a reviewer, and this means that he’s often speaking to readers In The Know. (There’s one memorable pun about Connie Willis’ Lincoln Dreams… but never mind that.)

Of course, not all reviews are equal, and Look at the Evidence is obviously best consumed in small doses: Reading review after review is not a good way of distillating Clute’s sagacious opinions. Clute’s style is dense and heavy with wordplay: Don’t take this book to the beach.

Unfortunately, the physical format of this collection isn’t very appealing. I disliked the cover illustration (attributed to Judith Clute), and the overall typographical tone of the book is traditional British-drab. The black cover of the trade paperback edition is easily damaged, with unsightly white spots appearing after even the most careful handling. But this shouldn’t detract the readers from the exceptional content.

For a would-be reviewer, reading Clute is a humbling experience. His column at Sci-Fi Weekly (http://www.scifiweekly.com/) offers a shocking contract with the remainder of SFW’s regular reviewers, and Look at the Evidence should be considered as an ideal to attain. I, for one, am in awe of Clute: Even my best reviews are only scribbling compared to what’s in his collection.

Clute as an (intellectual) wrestler? I’m down and out!

The Forest of Time and Other Stories, Michael Flynn

Tor, 1997, 381 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-85526-5

In recent years, Michael Flynn has become one of Analog Magazine’s brightest writers, with tales of Hard Science-Fiction exemplifying what the genre is capable of doing nowadays. After a collaboration with Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (Fallen Angels, an infamous homage to fandom incidentally never mentioned anywhere in this anthology), a story mosaic (The Nanotech Chronicles) and two novels of his own (In the Country of the Blind and the critically acclaimed Firestar), Michael Flynn offers us this collection of ten tales, all published in Analog between 1982 and 1994.

Most of the ten tales are Hard-SF, even if there are a few borderline cases. There is an interesting variation of styles, from the tall tale (“On the High Frontier”) to the social satire (“Grave Reservation”) to alternate histories (“The Forest of Time”) to ambiguous SF/fantasy (“The Feeders”). A few stylistic tricks don’t overly complicate the usually straightforward style. The whole book is readable pretty quickly. A few stories are predictable.

There is an introduction, and story notes for each tale. Readers will be pleased or annoyed by their elitist tone, (especially when Flynn talks about Hard-SF) but Flynn’s explanations are sometimes revealing.

It’s an interesting book, and an adequate anthology. Flynn fans and Hard-SF enthusiasts should throw themselves on the paperback.

New Nightmare (1994)

(On TV, October 1997) I wasn’t really familiar with the whole Nightmare On Elm Street series, so my enjoyment of this movie was affected in consequence. What’s so special about Freddy? Who’s that girl anyway? Why should I care for her annoying kid? There’s one scary sequence (the death of the babysitter, predictable but still spooky) and one chilling scene (the script-on-the-computer-screen), but the finale is average (My, it seems we’re knee-deep in phallic symbols, here!), the remainder only shows blips of interest. The shock tactics are predictable (oh no! It was a dream!) and the meta-story element isn’t even near of the much more enjoyable In The Mouth Of Madness. Not good, not bad, not even bad enough to be good.

Tesseracts^5, Ed. Robert Runte & Yves Meynard

Tesseracts, 1996, 352 pages, C$9.00 mmpb, ISBN 1-895836-25-5

As we all gather ’round the (imaginary) fire, we can ask ourselves many questions. Depending of the audience, one might chance to ask “What happened to Canadian SF?”

Usually, this kind of question is asked with sadness, or disbelief. How could X have sunk to these lows? Where is Y now? Is Z better remembered by his role in an otherwise insipid TV sitcom of the sixties?

But in the case of Canadian SF, What Happened To It is a story that can be told with a smile, a winning smile. What Happened To Canadian SF is that it’s never been better. Not only are major authors of the genre indisputably coming from Canada (Robert J. Sawyer is the best-known of them. There are/will be others.) but an increasing number of people are turning in totally enjoyable material. Case in Point: Tesseracts^5

Published by Tesseracts books, a Canadian editor, and featuring stories by Canadian authors, the Tesseracts series of anthologies is now an annual celebration of the best SF found north of The Border. Any reader, not necessarily motivated by a sense of duty toward his country, can pick up this book and have a good time.

Depending, of course, what one would consider a good time. While most stories in Tesseracts^5 are in fact excellent, nobody can argue that they’re almost uniformly gloomy. Abuse and anarchy abound. Even the most light-hearted story (Paul Stockon’s “High Pressure System”; the quintessential Canadian SF tale if there’s one!) still has a horrifying core. From accidental maiming (Jan Lars Jensen’s “Domestic Slash and Thrust”) to sexual domination games (“Laïka”, Natasha Beaulieu), the best stories are also the most uncompromising. What this says about CanSF is one truth that might not be comfortable to interpret yet.

The anthology contains stories by both French, and English-speaking Canadians. (The French stories are translated) Fans of French-Canadian SF should note, that all of the French stories here have already appeared somewhere else despite the incomplete copyright information.

Other than that, the best stories of the volume are by known and not-so-well-known names. Jean-Louis Trudel’s “The Paradigm Machine” is remarkable not really by its construction (four vignettes loosely connected) but by a representation of the Internet by someone who knows his stuff—The flame-war sequence is a gem. “Messenger” (Andrew Weiner) is an eminently readable piece about a journalist-narrator and (what else?) a “mad” scientist. Michel Martin’s “Tortoise on a sidewalk” and Sally McBride’s “There is a violence” do interesting things with the traditional clichés of, respectively, time-travel and alien contact. James Alan Gardner does a fine job at describing alien psyches, despite a slow start, in “All Good Things Come From Away”. Robert Runté’s afterword is well worth reading by itself.

A few other stories are less pleasing: There are a fair number of plain tales, of interesting stories without any memorable conclusion, of pointless meandering and of perhaps too-subtle stuff. But as anthologies go, Tesseracts^5 is better than average in this regards.

If there’s one serious complaint, it’s that the interior design of almost all Tesseracts books is not as good as it should be. It’s designed on a personal computer, and it shows: The typography is less precise than usual from professional publishers and the printing is often reminiscent of good photocopies.

The presence of such an annual collection couldn’t be a better sign for the Canadian SF industry. It is to be hoped that the next volumes of the series (Tesseracts^6 is in bookstores as of this writing) maintain the high level of this book, and that more writers, known and unknown, find their stories widely distributed by this series.

Twelve Monkeys (1995)

(On TV, October 1997) Exceptional movie, superb acting, groovy visual style. The initial situation is preposterous, but once past the premise, 12 Monkeys becomes one meanly effective motion picture. Of course, the script is great; how could it have been otherwise from the pen of the Peoples (re: Blade Runner, Unforgiven…)? I see it as an answer to the in-comparison almost-jovial tone of both Terminator movies. It would have been an interesting thing to read, (my criteria for good media SF) and it is certainly an interesting movie to watch. Doesn’t insult the audience, take its time with the characters, packs some impressive emotional power. One of the best SF movies, ever.

The Peacemaker (1997)

(In theaters, October 1997) Average techno-thriller, but any average techno-thriller is better than no techno-thriller at all. Clooney and Kidman are delightful in their respective roles, and a few scenes are just too good to be missed: This is the first movie I’ve seen that more or less has a good grasp of what it takes to correctly disarm a nuclear bomb. Greatly benefits from being one of the most “realistic” (read: mean-spirited) movie in recent memory. Good direction by Mimi Leder, nice “invisible” special effects. Worth a matinee, and certainly the video rental.

(Second viewing, On TV, March 2001) While this film received mixed critical attention upon release, a second look reveals an efficient action film backed up with a solid post-cold-war plot that’s nothing to be ashamed of. George Clooney’s first film breakthrough (well before Out Of Sight) shows him in full command of his trademark mix of easy cockiness and hard confidence. Nicole Kidman is irreproachable as the analyst suddenly plunged out of her depths, without the usual clichés associated with these characters. It’s a shame that director Mimi Leder hasn’t followed up on the dynamic direction exhibited here; the action scenes are models of clarity and sustained tension. The Vienna car chase/demolition derby alone is worth a rental by its nastiness alone. A few budget-induced problems (the unseen opening explosion, mostly) still annoy me, but while The Peacemaker doesn’t really aspire to be more than a good technothriller, it does so exceedingly well.

Gattaca (1997)

(In theaters, October 1997) Very cold, but at the same time very interesting SF movie for the high-IQ segment of the movie-going audience. No aliens, no laser pistols, no gee-whiz machinery, no impressive special effects. In other words, the words are important. That’s why it failed at the box-office and that’s why it’s the best SF movie of 1997 along with Contact. Like the latter, it’s an ultimately uplifting tale of human determination and of unusual style. Never mind that the setup is ridiculous, that the story is of early-sixties written-SF vintage and that the instant-blood-test is already obsolete: “There is no gene for the human spirit” says the tagline, and that’s exactly the gist of the movie. This being said, I can understand why less sophisticated viewers would consider this dreadfully boring. That’s good news: for once, a movie doesn’t have to pamper to the illiterate, MTV-afflicted hordes in order to fashion a satisfying movie. I hope director Nichols makes more movies like this.

(Second viewing, on DVD, June 2009): I remembered how great this film was, but I didn’t remember how much of its greatness it owes to its mesmerizing design sense. Because, let’s face it, from a story telling standpoint this is a hollow shell: It stops dead with exposition during its first thirty minutes, takes place in a South California simulacrum with no relation to reality, features amazingly stupid detective “work”, and hobbles from one repetitive situation to another, always playing on the same suspense of discovery. Almost all of its emotional power works by allusions and not demonstration: All the characters seem frozen, and it’s easy to claim that the film’s deeper emotional interest only appeal to space nerds. And let’s not speak of the science. Still: I watched the film in a trance-like state, amazed at the visual design, the mixture of styles, the fairyland stiffness of the world. It’s a fable much more than a science-fiction film, and it truly delivers on its premises when seen as such. For a film that doesn’t survive any degree of scrutiny, it’s still unbelievably convincing. In fact, it uses its own limits as a shield of sorts, and effortlessly evokes the mythical whereas a more realistic approach would have moored it in the past: You can still see it twelve years later and it hasn’t aged a bit. What an achievement. The “Superbit” DVD looks nice, but what this film needs is a special edition with supplements that do justice to the film.

The Blob (1988)

(On TV, October 1997) Lifeless, not really enjoyable “blob from space eats people” flick. Follows standard horror conventions, is too stupid to be believed in, but too competent to be laughable. Better seen really, really late. Effects are beginning to show their seams.

Primary Colors, Joe Klein [as Anonymous]

Warner, 1996, 507 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60427-5

From time to time, a book appears which become more than a book. For a quirk or another, it becomes not something that talks about something, but something that’s talked about. Recent example include Kitty Kelley’s unflinching biography of Nancy Reagan (Her Way), the scientifically-racist The Bell Curve, James Redfield’s The Celestine Prophecy and… the “anonymously” written Primary Colors.

In Primary Colors‘ case, the identity of the author was the subject of the discussions. Warner Books was pushing a satirical novel about American politics, in which a previously unknown southern governor (and his domineering wife) dealt with sexual scandals and other assorted problems on the way to the Democratic convention. Given the parallels with the Clintons, if it was written “anonymously” then it must have been the work of someone closely related to the Clintons! Could it have been the work of George Stephanopoulos, the press secretary? Or another person high up in the Clinton organization? Whodunit, Whowroteit?

The game amused political America for a few weeks, until it was discovered that Joe Klein (a Newsweek journalist who covered the campaign.) wrote the novel. The game wasn’t over yet (more than a few journalists questioned the ethics of Klein, who reportedly went in rages of denial at his coworkers and friends before it was conclusively proven that it was him) but the controversy was enough to send Primary Colors riding on top of the bestsellers lists.

But what about the book?

Well, it’s just about everything we’ve been promised: a scathing look at American politics, starring the Stantons, close (but not perfect) representations of the Clintons. The events described in the book are, fortunately, quite fictional, and it makes for some mesmerizing reading about modern politics in America. The wheeling, dealing and back-room back-stabbing are all well-described, at the exception of a few rough spots where the author might have tried to be too clever for his own good.

The story is narrated by Henry, one public relation whiz who joins the Stanton team early on. (The narrative stops before the presidential campaign.) During the book, Henry will fall in love with a fellow co-worker, deal with personal issues, discover shocking “truths”, make friends and influence people. His personal odyssey become at times more interesting than the campaign itself. He’s sympathetic, and he should be: A few passages are unusually moving, and the reader will run the gamut of emotions, from humor to disgust, back to exhilaration and loss.

A strong stable of supporting characters help round out an already solidly-written novel. Klein’s style is not without quirks, but mostly carries the reader through to the story he’s telling. This isn’t an “anonymous” novel because the author disavowed his writing; Klein should be proud to have produced quite a good piece of prose. There are a few rough spots, and the conclusion is of the “make up your own” type, but Primary Colors is an interesting book in its own right. It’s appropriately cynical, fairly funny and compulsively readable. A must for every political pundit.