Monthly Archives: May 1998

The Ringworld Throne, Larry Niven

Del Rey, 1996, 355 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-41296-6

They say that there’s a difference between saying “it sucks” and “it didn’t work for me.”

Let’s try it.

The Ringworld Throne didn’t work for me because first of all, I was bored stiff by it. Somehow, it seems that since… oh… 1980, Larry Niven has forgotten his previous success as a straight storyteller, and has settled in a comfortable position of Science-Fiction Elder. The result is that most of his single novels (he’s still okay in collaborations, with exceptions: See The Gripping Hand) are interminable, peculiar, monotonous and lifeless. The sense of boundless fun to apparent in the early Niven work has virtually disappeared. As a result, we readers have to slog through more that half The Ringworld Throne before something interesting happens.

And when it happens, it’s still unimpressive. Even though we eventually get to something approaching a conflict about the whole Ringworld, the setup is so flat that the whole book itself becomes dull. The focus, most of the time, remains on the small problems of a few humanoids on the Ringworld.

The Ringworld Throne didn’t work for me because it didn’t grab my interest in the characters. For a third book in a series, you would think that we would spend a lot of time with the characters of the previous novel. Not so. By the time perennial Niven favorite Louis Wu makes a substantial appearance, we’ve had almost two hundred pages of assorted travels with new, underdeveloped characters. We never care for them, Niven never cares for us. There’s a dramatis personae at the end, but it’s irrelevant since all characters seems to condense in a single nameless mass. While Wu is on stage for some time, it doesn’t seem enough. Even Wu’s usual verve seems almost extinguished this time around.

The Ringworld Throne didn’t work for me because it didn’t use its setting to its full potential. Admittedly, this has always been a problem with the Ringworld series: While the concept of a ring around the sun large enough to accommodate the landmass of a zillion planets seems promising enough, how do you make an interesting story about that? The suspicious plotting in Ringworld and The Ringworld Engineers only highlighted this. I’ve never been too fond of the unlikely aspects of the Ringworld series (Teela Brown bred for luck? Please. Rishathra? Puh-lease!) and The Ringworld Throne takes an almost childish delight in bringing these concepts back and harping on them.

The final result is the use one of the biggest object ever imagined to tell a over-padded story of warring tribes. Ugh! I’d rather read something about Ian Bank’s Orbitals.

The Ringworld Throne didn’t work for me because, as if it wasn’t enough yet, it’s almost a fantasy novel that could have taken place anywhere else. I’m not sure we really needed “vampires” and “ghouls” on Ringworld. Perhaps Niven should have taken this little neat idea(s) of his for a third Ringworld novel and stuffed them into a little black box safely hidden away. I won’t shy away from calling this a bunch of words with only scant legitimacy to the Ringworld succession. Bad idea, bad execution, bad, bad novel.

Oh heck, I’ve given it a shot. Now let’s call it like it is:

The Ringworld Throne sucks.

Relic, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Tor, 1995, 474 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-54326-2

Thriller fans, rejoice.

You want a scary concept? Imagine a creature, snatched deep from the unexplored Amazonian jungles and brought to New York City. A perfect predator, with the intelligence of a human and the robustness and reflexes of a large reptile. It kills. It eat parts of the victim’s brain. It can’t be shot, it can’t be found…

You want a scary setting? Imagine the New York Museum of Natural History. Halls and rooms and corridors filled with bones and statue and skulls… Abandoned basements left unexplored for decades… Rooms where bugs lovingly eat the flesh of dead animals so their bones can be easily cleaned… An opening exhibition on the subject of Superstition.

You want characters? Imagine Margo Green, young museum researcher. Imagine Dr. Frock, an old wheelchair-bound iconoclast. Imagine Lt. Pendergast, a police lieutenant with the mind of Sherlock Holmes and the street smarts of the best noir detectives. Imagine Bill Smithback, a young journalist with dreams of glory, but a book project hampered by the Museum’s management. Imagine ambitious researchers, overbearing police officers, a control-freak public relation officer, a New York City mayor and a host of other characters.

You want an unlikely succession of events? Imagine that days before the opening of the major exhibition on Superstition, bodies of visitors are found in the museum, horribly mutilated. On the night of the glitzy opening, the killings continue… but everyone’s trapped and the classical storm is raging outside the building.

Given all these elements, it’s no surprise to see that Relic is a pretty enjoyable thriller. The events happen in much the same way that you’d expect them to, with the gradual unveiling of a terrible threat and the impossibly complicated final setup. There are pretty neat final revelations at the end of the narrative. It’s fairly well constructed, doesn’t loses time with needless maudlin romance and lets us wander down the hall of a fascinating place. The style is also at the standard thriller level, which means that clarity takes precedence and that you’ll be able to breeze through Relic‘s fat 450+ pages in almost no time.

It’s interesting to note, however, that this reviewer has a slightly disappointed opinion of the final result. Despite valiant efforts, Child and Preston don’t seem to make the extra step that would transform Relic from a pretty good thriller to a truly stupendous one.

Maybe the fault lies with the characters, who for some reason come along as adequate, but not overly sympathetic. As it is often the case with this kind of book, the world is divided between villains and heroes, and the distinction is pretty clear-cut. Bad things usually happen to bad guys, and the heroes all survive to party another day.

Part of the fault might also lies with the science, which sounds plausible but is still unconvincing. Okay, so there are polysyllabic words, but when you strip them away, you still get a Star Trek: Voyager-type situation. It’s interesting, but not very persuasive. (Not having seen the much-ridiculed movie version of Relic, this reviewer suspects -but cannot prove- that this is what happened in the paper-to-screen translation.)

But the biggest flaw seems to be the level of improbability of the story-line, which places most of New York’s elite in the grips of the monster with glee but not with a lot of justification. And though it might be nonsense to say so, the book seems to lag a bit in the second third.

Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t grab Relic the next time you’re in the mood for this type of reading. It’s the classical Beach Reading book that sells copies because it more than satisfies the reader’s expectation.

To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis

Bantam Spectra, 1997, 434 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-09995-7

Only Connie Willis could have pulled off this novel.

Connie Willis: Multiple Nebula and Hugo winner, author of the celebrated 1992 time-travel tear-jerker Doomsday Book and all-around good person.

This novel: To Say Nothing of the Dog is delightful mixture of Victorian fiction, romance, mystery, time-travel thriller and screwball comedy. It begins when historian Ned Henry, suffering severely from time-lag, is transported to 1888 so he can rest a little from a harried search for a nearly-useless artifact. Of course, he only has to accomplish a very, very easy task first… It’s not hard to guess that the task will be bungled, and will be made worse by successive “corrections.” In this case, the traditional devices of the screwball comedies are complicated by the perils and peculiarities of time-travel.

Pulling it off: There aren’t many words in the English language that describe To Say Nothing of the Dog as well as “delightful”. I first began to read more with a sense of duty and homework. After fifty pages, I seriously wondered why I was spending my time reading this particular book when there were so many other in my reading stack. A few dozen pages later, I didn’t wonder any more: I was hooked of the characters and (mis) adventures of Ned, Verity, Cyris, Princesse Adjumante, Terence, Toodles and the remainder of the cast.

Despite a slow start, To Say Nothing of the Dog grabs the reader and reels them in. A large part of this is due to the style, which brings back fond memories of, simultaneously, victorian-era novels, Agatha Christie mysteries, P.G. Wodehouse stories… and of course, Connie Willis at her best. (I guess Jerome K. Jerome must be there somewhere, but I lack the literary references to say for sure. Although Jerome’s characters are in To Say Nothing of the Dog, which in turn is the subtitle of Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat.) The writing is slightly enlivened (in a historical way), but gripping once the reader is immersed in it.

There isn’t a single romance in this novel; there are three of them. And they all end happily. (As if there was any doubt!) Sympathetic characterization is one of Willis’s many talents, and this novel relies heavily on it.

It’s an amusing misnomer to call this “a new SF book” since it’s a strongly nostalgic work that plays heavily on the reader’s memories of widely disparate works. This novel, even though it’s an unassuming comedy, plays much better among those readers with a strong background in these types of fiction.

Needless to say, Willis’ own Doomsday Book is essential background reading: I see To Say Nothing of the Dog as the antithesis of her earlier Hugo-Winning novel, the comedic equivalent to the intense drama of the previous book. An antidote or an apology, Willis took risks in sharing the same future history for both novels. I hope that reader that were disappointed by either will like the other.

It might just be me, but after Remake, Bellwether and now To Say Nothing of the Dog, Willis has solidified her standing position as one of the best, most humane authors that SF has to offer at the moment. Not hard-SF, no, but still an essential part of today’s scene.

Icon, Frederick Forsyth

Bantam, 1996, 567 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-552-13991-2

It must be a difficult time to be a spy-thriller writer. With the Soviet Union down and out, with the climate of global harmony (more or less) reigning over the civilized countries of the world, what can they write about?

Usually, they fall back on history, invent new enemies or write about something else altogether. Frederick Forsyth does a bit of all of this in his latest novel, Icon.

A note to would-be authors everywhere: This is how a master begins a novel:

“It was the summer when the price of a small loaf of bread topped a million rubles.

It was the summer of the third consecutive year of wheat crop failures and the second of hyper-inflation.

It was the summer when in the back alleys of the far-away provincial towns the first Russians began dying of malnutrition.

It was the summer when the president collapsed in his limousine too far from help to be saved, and an old office cleaner stole a document.

After that nothing would ever be the same.

It was the summer of 1999.”

Frederick Forsyth is not an unknown author. His first book, The Day of the Jackal, was one of the best thrillers -nay, novel- of the seventies. He has been a steady bestseller even since. Icon is his twelfth book, and he has not lost one bit of his talent.

What to expect from a Forsyth novel? A very complex plot. Multidimensional characters. A succession of fascinating details. A solid grasp of politics. Clear, delightful prose. Surprises backed-up by solid facts. Some action. And some of the best suspense you can find in prose.

While ex-journalist Forsyth has made his reputation writing near-past thrillers artfully blending fact and fiction, Icon goes in the other direction and becomes a near-future thriller about a mad politician in Russia just about to become prime minister. It’s also about a master spy name Jason Monk, destroyed by Aldritch Ames, the KGB mole inside CIA in the eighties. It’s about how to stop a madman from taking power. It’s about the dangers of a fallen superpower. But most of all, it’s about a couple of hours of good, solid entertainment.

Unlike some other spy writers (Seymour, LeCarre), Forsyth has never lost his goal of a pleasant read. It’s complex, but the prose isn’t, and this rather convoluted plot thus becomes sufficiently accessible.

Goodness is in the details, and Forsyth once again fills up his novel with a dizzying array of well-researched facts. His chronicle of Aldrich Ames is as fascinating as it is discouraging. It’s impressive that this wealth of minutia never slows down the narrative, or bore the reader. Pure storytelling is among Forsyth’s skills, and he shows off a clear example in Icon by interleaving in the first half of the book the early career of Jason Monk and the main plot of the novel. (By the time Monk joins the main story, his back story is fully introduced; a virtuoso feat of narrative structure.) Icon loses some steam in the second half, and somehow does not fully attain a superior level, but still holds the interest.

Demanding readers are unlikely to be disappointed by Icon. It’s refreshing, in an ironic kind of way, to see that the spy thriller genre isn’t dead yet. Even better, this novel shows that Forsyth is still at the top of his game, after a few average-to-good books that disappointed some. A marvel of summer reading, Icon is big enough to mesmerize during several hours.


Adiamante, L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

Tor, 1996, 312 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-54558-3

Thousands of years after being exiled from Earth, an evolved subset of humanity comes back seeking reparations. If the population of Earth can’t agree to give what they want, well, destruction might as well be as good as anything…

Intrigued? There’s more.

For instance, the returning humans are cybernetically enhanced humans. Their ships are almost indestructible. Their weapons are terrifying.

The humans on Earth have established a decentralized society that is very near utopia. There are un-enhanced humans, but most of the elite is composed of, again, enhanced humans.

The would-be destroyers are willing to negotiate, so Earth assigns negotiation to a reluctant man. His problem, beyond -obviously- avoiding destruction, is to deal with the threat in a manner that will not transgress the basic principles of his society. This future Earth is unwilling to become a monster to fight monsters.

The plot is original. Fortunately, Modesitt’s writing is up to the task. Adiamante alternates between the third-person viewpoint of the invaders and the first-person narrative of the Coordinator. The result is one akin to a psychological poker game with ever-rising bets. Only rarely do novels manage to attain -and sustain- this level of intellectual tension.

Part of this success must be attributed to Modesitt’s world-building. His future Earth may not be believable (see below) but is fairly consistent. The moral choices are explicitly defined. Some novels quickly gloss over the political structure of the future -especially when they’re not readily identifiable as “straight” democracy or dictatorship- but Modesitt takes great care in filling in the details of his society.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone aware of Modesitt’s previous works. A long-time favorite of the Libertarians, Modesitt obviously has an agenda. Still, he manages to produce an entertaining novel without (too many) political messages. This critic didn’t really believe in Modesitt’s postulated system, but it’s a fine idea anyway. Other readers with sufficiently open minds should have no problems with this.

The heart of the novel is a clash between the incompatible cultures. The title Adiamante is well-chosen, reflecting both the adiamante motif in the book and the rigid positions of both parties. (Adiamante being in the novel a practically indestructible material, much stronger than diamond.) The science in this novel is believable and exciting: There’s a vivid description of advanced weapons for persons so inclined.

Adiamante has the distinction of offering a vision of the future that’s fresh without being too alien. While the narrative may be predictable, at least the setup offers an original situation. The new animal species populating Earth, for instance, are logical and frightening.

Some of the characters could have been brought out of the background a bit, but since this is more of a premise-driven novel, it makes sense to develop only two of them.

Very enjoyable, nicely written, provocative without being (too much) pontificating, Adiamante is a good choice for SF that’s both entertaining and intellectually stimulating.

The Sea Hunters, Clive Cussler & Craig Dirgo

Simon & Schuster, 1996, 364 pages, C$32.50 hc, ISBN 0-684-83027-2

Even the most casual reader has probably heard of Clive Cussler. Author of almost fifteen novels, Cussler has enjoyed a sting of bestsellers starring an delightfully wisecracking hero named Dirk Pitt. Starting with the success of Raise the Titanic!, Cussler has become the foremost writer of adventures today.

I’m not much of a fan of Cussler, even though I’ve read most Dirk Pitt adventures. It’s what I call fast-food novels; highly entertaining, but mostly empty. It doesn’t help that almost all Pitt novels are precisely constructed over the same framework; they do tend to be repetitive after a while. But at a rate of, oh, once a year or two, Cussler’s books are usually a good way to pass the time.

What most Cussler fans didn’t know was that Cussler himself shares some of his literary alter ego’s adventurous traits. As Cussler himself explains, he used some of Raise the Titanic‘s royalties to fund his first small-scale expedition to find lost shipwrecks. It didn’t go well, but Cussler was hooked. Since then, he goes out at least once a year to look for lost ships. Cussler is in the shipwreck business for the excitement, not the money. He doesn’t take souvenirs of the shipwrecks, or loot his finds. When he finds the wreck, he report the positions to everyone. Local authorities then may choose to raise the wreck or not. The Sea Hunters is a collection of his most memorable adventures.

There are approximately ten shipwrecks covered in The Sea Hunters, and each account is preceded by a fictionalized account of the last moments of each ship. (Much like the prologue of each Cussler book, in fact.) To be entirely fair, I skimmed over most of these historical dramas. While they’re useful to the context, they rarely bring something essential to the discovery stories. (Since each search account is written at the first person by Cussler, the historical docu-dramas might have been Dirgo’s contributions to the book.)

In any case, the accounts of Cussler’s travels are the real treasures of The Sea Hunters. Cussler takes us with him through research and discovery, enabling us to taste some of the excitement of these sea hunts. Cussler explains that not only are there a lot of lost ships, but most of them can be found cheaply (if not always easily) provided a few dozen hours of careful research.

Some of the highlights of The Sea Hunters involve a lost ship eventually found under a parking lot, another destroyed barely hours before Cussler got to it and another adventure where they search for a sunken… train. But the most rollicking and hilarious adventure is wisely kept for the finale, where Cussler and his band of merry adventurers go against nothing less that the French government, secret services and a French frigate! This part alone contains several laugh-aloud moments.

It’s easy to see where Dirk Pitt got his talent for witty repartee: Cussler knows how to tell a story, and this book shows it. The contemporary search accounts are compulsively readable, and rarely dull.

The Sea Hunters offer a look at an author that’s definitely not your usual novelist. I’ve become more of a Cussler fan after reading this, and that’s probably the nicest thing I can say about this already memorable book. Cussler fans might want to take a look. Other might find this a good introduction to Cussler.

Lightpaths, Howard V. Hendrix

Ace, 1997, 345 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-00470-9

Looking at the bookstore shelves nowadays, it would be too easy to think of science-fiction as a dead genre, replaced by fat fantasy trilogies, endless media spin-offs and cheap thrillers with aliens and laser guns. But, despite the endless moaning of doom from many (this critic occasionally included), this is simply not true. There has rarely been so much good, serious hard-SF fiction published at a same time. Looking at the May 1998 SF bestseller lists, we can see books from such dignified examples of good, hard SF writers like Clarke (3001), Benford (Cosm and Foundation’s Fear), McDevitt (Moonfall and Eternity Road), Flynn (The Forest of Time), Bear (Dinosaur Summer and Foundation and Chaos) and Bova (Moonwar), with Cramer (Einstein’s Bridge) and Brin (Heaven’s Reach) waiting in the wings.

Not only isn’t hard-SF dead yet, it’s not even sick.

Past these powerhouses of hard-SF, many other writers are writing perfectly delightful works that deftly combine serious extrapolation, scientific knowledge and narrative savvy. Lightships (Howard V. Hendrix) is a perfectly acceptable example of them.

Almost half a century in the future, events come to a head inside and around an orbital complex high above the Earth: A socially-engineered Utopia is threatened by factors both internal and external. A computer system might attain sentience. A male researcher with a voyeurist masochist fetish seeks to design a fool-proof population-reduction device and transform human society into a highly selective matriarchy. Meanwhile, his female co-worker is working on an immortality plague. Mysterious X-shaped objects are being manufactured in space around the complex. During that time, a highly popular musical group is giving concerts on the habitat.

Even in nearly 350 pages, there is a lot of material in Lightpaths. It’s almost ridiculous at times (A conversation almost turns into something like “Hi! I’m working on a way to diminish Earth’s population. You?” “Oh, I’m finishing my work on immortality.”) but it does make for interesting reading. Woven with great skill throughout almost all facets of the book is the motif of Utopia.

This book offers a lot of food for thought. Even the questions asked by Hendrix aren’t as easy as one might suppose: He is a writer with great ambitions, matched with obvious talent. Especially catchy are the invented musical lyrics, which can easily be hummed. It will be interesting to see where Hendrix goes next.

Which is not saying that the book is flawless. The cover quote is by Robert J. Sawyer, who says “If Robert A. Heinlein had grown up reading William Gibson… Lightpaths is the novel he’d have written.” While it’s easy to see why Sawyer used this simile (Lightpaths‘s utopia has distinct Libertarian overtones, and there is a distinctively cyberpunk edge to at least one subplot… then there’s the Gibsonesque writing style) it must be said that Hendrix still doesn’t master the sheer narrative verve that Heinlein used so well.

If Lightpaths is great food for thought, is fare substantially less well as pure entertainment. The prose style is not compulsively readable. The characters are fully realized but a bit bland, and have a certain delight for indulging in endless conversations. There isn’t a lot of action until the end of the book. After all has been said and done… it does seems like opportunities have been missed.

Nevertheless, Lightpaths is still worth a look, especially if you’re interested in promising young authors, the theme of Utopia, cyberpunk-inspired prose or the current state of SF. It’s original, fully-conceived and a bit disappointing. But it clearly demonstrates the kind of good SF that can be found right now on library shelves, provided you’re willing to take risks and explore a bit.

The Spanish Prisoner (1997)

(In theaters, May 1998) After the usual “fun but dumb” thrill left by most movies, it’s refreshing to see a movie that let you use your mind at full gear throughout its running time. Unfortunately, The Spanish Prisoner isn’t half as smart as it would want us to believe… but we almost have to feel grateful for the attempt. This multiple-twists story is about an inventor who suddenly finds his life much more “interesting” after he invents a substantially profitable industrial process. He make friends, who might or might not be friends, and his company now might or might not want to give him full recognition. But don’t worry; as in The Usual Suspects, everything you think you know is wrong. The problem with tightly-plotted movies of this type is that they run the very real risk of being too complicated for their own good. And that’s exactly the problem of The Spanish Prisoner: Upon careful examination, several parts of the intricately crafted plot fall apart. Simply put, the chain of event in the movie could only have happened in a movie. Characters have to make dumb decisions, and commit even dumber acts. The movie simply rings false, an impression compounded by the unlikely dialogue. And of course, once you finally realize that this is the kind of twisty-turvy movie where no one is who s/he appears to be, you can safely predict the course of the plot by using inverse logic. Still, the acting’s good (especially Steve Martin, if you can believe it), the plot is entertaining and even though the plot is in its own way as preposterous as Godzilla‘s, at least it’s an intellectually ambitious failure. Definitely worth a video rental.

Watch the Skies! A Chronicle of the Flying Saucer Myth, Curtis Peebles

Berkley, 1994, 420 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-15117-4

If you think even slightly like me, you must despair at the new age section of your favorite bookstore: Whole shelves full of astrology, angels, self-help parapsychology, meditation, crystals and -last but not least-, UFOs, extra-terrestrials and flying saucers. It still heartens me to see that at the nearest Chapters, these black/green/purple books are located right besides the comic book section. (Even though it’s really embarrassing when I browse the graphic novels shelves.)

Given the flood of easy cash (“a fool and his money are soon parted”) coming from the whole UFO craze, it’s hard to find good, accurate, complete and convincing sources chronicling this modern superstition. The “Skeptical Enquirer” magazine is good, but patchy due to its periodical nature (and not available everywhere). Watch the Skies has the advantage of debunking everything UFO in a single handy package.

The whole UFO business begins in 1947, when pilot Kenneth Arnold spots “peculiar saucer-shaped aircrafts flying in a line at incredible speed.” Over the years, Peebles shows the reader how the UFO myth was shaped by fringe notions (Did you know that “contactees” were once rejected by the “mainstream” UFO mindset?), pop culture events (from the pulp magazines to the classic movie THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL to… well, Peebles stops just before “The X-Files”) but mostly wishful thinking transforming perfectly explainable events in “weird, strange, mysterious” happenings.

And, most importantly for this kind of book, Peebles is convincing. Paradoxically, his credibility is strengthened by the fact that he doesn’t try to explain everything in a definitive manner. What can be explained is explained, and the remainder isn’t. But most of the classical elements of the UFO mythos -familiar to most laypersons- are explained away. The explanations ring true. This is about as even-handed as a skeptical book will get, and it’s immensely satisfying.

Also revealing are the various hoaxes that taint the UFO scene ever since if was created. How major pro-UFO figures were persons with a lot to gain, financially speaking, from the continued existence of the myth. How others had histories of troubled psychological pasts. How others purely manufactured events and documents to gain fame, money and/or popularity. The much-lauded MJ-12 documents are here completely destroyed by meticulous comparisons of these documents with contemporary official documents recently declassified. The Bermuda Triangle (remember that?) is also debunked. The famous cattle mutilation cases are also explained away and I, as an ex-farmboy who’s had to deal with his share of dead cows, agrees with Peebles that there’s no mystery to them!

A disquieting fact about the UFO myth is how it has transformed through the year from a simple “unexplained sightings” theory to a grab-all abduction / UFO / cover-up / secret pact / alien experiments conspiracy, much more sinister and much more dangerous that it ever was in the past. A myth must evolve and become steadily more exciting, or else it becomes quaint and passé. Glancing at the UFO shelves at the bookstore, I wonder how much more time this shameless commercial exploitation can continue…

Watch the Skies! is exceedingly well-researched, with almost fifty pages of end notes. A lot of the source documents are from official documents; others are the pro-UFO books themselves. A pretty good index completes the book, although there are regrettably no pictures.

The biggest surprise of Watch the Skies! is how entertaining it is. While scholarly, Peebles’s account is also compulsively readable. While I was looking forward to parts of this book as much as my next dentist appointment, I was pleasantly entertained by most of the book. It is also sufficiently accessible for anyone, regardless of scientific or skeptical background.

Ultimately, it’s obvious that Watch the Skies! probably won’t convert true believers into skeptics. As Peebles says, UFOs become a subject of fanatical, almost religious zeal: Reasoning becomes irrelevant. But Watch the Skies! is a significant book, because it takes a hard look at the whole UFO hysteria in a carefully thoughtful manner. A must-read for sceptics and should-read for everyone else.

Godzilla (1998)

(In theaters, May 1998) First things first: Godzilla stinks. The dialogue is beyond horrendous and well into inanity, the story has gaping holes, the pacing could -should!- have been improved, the characters aren’t very interesting and the attempts at “humor” are embarrassing to watch. (Especially the awful “Siskel and Ebert” bits.) In retrospect, Godzilla stands as a particularly irresponsible waste of good money and even better talent on a more than sub-standard script. If only someone with any storytelling sense had rewritten this script in the vein of Moby Dick, then we could have had a killer movie to watch. Alas… But, to paraphrase Spice World, it was quite entertaining without actually being any good. The setup is intriguing. Some of the set-pieces are a lot of fun to watch. Jean Reno is a delight (but then again, he speaks French most of the movie, which is huge plus for my French-Canadian ears.) The ending car chase is pretty spiffy and the final battle against Godzilla is spectacular. In the meantime, most of New York’s landmarks get trashed quite thoroughly and we get to see some pretty special effects. (It’s a shame that they had to use darkness and rain to cut CGI corners, but we’ll see about that in the sequel.) In the realm of the usually-stinky monster movies, Godzilla stands as a more polished (if not necessarily better) species. Trashy B-movies adapted to contemporary standards. Whether or not you’ll like it still depends on your tolerance for trash…

(Second viewing, On VHS, August 2000) I stand by my original review: Godzilla as made by the “American” team of Emmerich and Devlin definitely has its moments, but they’re constantly dogged by uneven pacing, a script that should be taken out and burnt, below-average acting and too-expensive CGI effects. Compare and contrast with the Japanese-made Godzilla 2000 to see a film made with a lower budget, but whose willingness to trade perfection in effects shot allows for more exciting directing and more storytelling possibilities. Still; the set-pieces here are exciting and if you’re willing to gloss over the pacing in-between Godzilla’s presence on the screen, it’s a pretty good monster movie. Vicki Lewis is absolutely delicious -not to mention underused- as a flirtatious scientist. And Jean Reno is cooler than the sum of the rest of the film.

Deep Impact (1998)

(In theaters, May 1998) I had been following the various rumors and previews about Deep Impact, so I thought I had a pretty good idea of the film’s value when I entered the theatre. I expected a maudlin tear-jerker with a cool five-minutes of special effects at the end and perhaps a good idea or two. I was right, but what I didn’t expect was that the movie actually played better than I thought. Overall, the science is also better than average and the story shows signs of maturity uncommon for disaster films. (Which is why I tend to consider Deep Impact a “drama” rather than a catastrophe movie.) On the other hand, the movie shows clear signs of having been rushed to the screens: Things are told rather than shown (the most egregious example being the missile strike against the comet), the scientific accuracy degrades by the end of the movie, the script should have been rewritten at least twice, the journalist character is annoying, at least one subplot should have been completely cut, the directing is average, things don’t always make sense (The car crash? Why?) and thus we are left with a curious impression of “okay, but could have been so much better.”

Beyond Star Trek, Lawrence M. Krauss

Pocket, 1997, 190 pages, C$29.50 hc, ISBN 0-465-00637-X

So you’re a hard-working physicist with a good reputation, a talent for glib talking and a certain tolerance for the worst excesses of media SF. What would be a good way to popularize your name and make some money? Write about the mistakes in Star Trek, of course! And if you’ve got the stamina for touring, you might as well come to half-forgotten cities everywhere in North America to give enormously entertaining conferences to promote your book!

Well, somebody has already done all those things. His name is Lawrence M. Krauss, and he’s (among other things) “Ambrose Swasey Professor of Physics, Professor of Astronomy and Chairman of the Department of Physics at Case Western Reserve University.” He’s the author of four books so far, the best-known of them being The Physics of Star Trek.

I had the incredible luck of going to a lecture given by Krauss in February 1997 at the Museum of Civilization in Hull. (That’s at a stone throw’s away from the Canadian Parliament, for those among you with an imperfect knowledge of Ottawa-area geography.) Even though his talk was described as exposing the mistakes of Star Trek, it would be fairer to say that it was about a whole lot of different areas of physics, using Star Trek as a thinly related driving thread. Both The Physics of Star Trek and Beyond Star Trek also adopt this slant, with fairly efficient results.

(By the way; Krauss is an excellent speaker. Don’t miss his talk if ever he comes back in your area. He’s still the only speaker I’ve seen who was able to get an audible “oooh!” from a live audience by explaining results of a neutrino experiment.)

While The Physics of Star Trek dealt only with physics distantly related to Star Trek, Beyond Star Trek goes… well… beyond that. INDEPENDENCE DAY and “The X-Files” mostly get the Krauss treatment this time around.

From INDEPENDENCE DAY, Krauss explores the themes of alien visiting earth, getting there from here, exploring other worlds and escaping the death of the sun. That’s in addition of the obvious problems of massive spaceships orbiting earth, hovering over cities and crashing down to earth.

Starting from “The X-Files”, Krauss explores the scientific difficulties in ESP claims, artificial intelligence, quantum mechanics, time-travel paradoxes, relativity and empty-space energy. As he points out about ESP: Why can’t we detect “ESP radiations” when we can already “hear” stars a few million light-years away?

It sounds eclectic, and it is. Science is too vast to be constrained, and Krauss moves merrily from one area of physics to another. In 190 short pages, we get an interesting look at physics today, all in an accessible, frequently funny style. Beyond being simply a book for trekkies, Beyond Star Trek (and its companion volume) is also a good introduction to hard science to audiences already sensitized by media SF.

Beyond Star Trek is a bit thin to warrant being bought in hardcover, or even at full paperback price. But for an introduction (or a refresher) on the amazing current world of physics, a good amount of rational thinking and some provocative philosophy of science, you could do far worse than at least take a look at this book. It’s needless to say that it’s immeasurably better than an umpteenth X-Files inspired “I was abducted by bug-eyed monsters!” hypocritical “non-fiction” trash. And it’s a blast for nit-pickers everywhere.

(It would be fun to have a book plonking down every scientific error in every SF film ever shot. But then we’d need Gharlane of Eddore as a contributor, and very probably a CD-ROM to distribute the reams of material we’d find… Hey, now that’s an idea!)