Monthly Archives: July 1998

Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris

St. Martin’s, 1981-1988, ??? pages, C$??.?? mmpb, ISBN Various

Red Dragon: 1981, 348 pages
The SIlence of the Lambs: 1988, 352 pages

They took away the student’s notebook when he entered the prison.

“You can’t be serious!” he protested “he can’t be that dangerous!”

“Amical Lecteur is a sick man” replied the orderly responsible for the student’s well-being. “He is the most dangerous reader you will ever meet. Always remember that.”

They went down the stairs toward the maximum-security wing of the prison.

“A few months ago, one of our nurses forgot a copy of The Bridges of Madison County near him. He read it in less than an hour, called it a pretty ordinary story about bad photography and cardboard characters. His pulse never went above seventy.”

“Gee.”

“We took away your notebook because you had written something in it. Lecteur will go frantic in the presence of reading material. We have restrained him, but you never know.”

They approached the last cell of the corridor. A chair had been placed in the middle of the corridor, facing the bars of the cell.

The orderly checked one last time and retreated, leaving the student with Lecteur. The student could only see the outline of the prisoner in his darkened cell.

“Doctor Lecteur? I’m here-”

“I know.” He advanced, and even despite the darkness of his cell, the student could see the heavy blindfold that had been placed upon Lecteur’s eyes. “-they might have tried to make me blind, but not stupid.”

The student gulped. “I’m here to ask you about-”

“The two serial-killer thrillers by Thomas Harris. Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs. Am I correct?”

“Yes- Yes, sir.”

“Did you know that since 1977, Harris has only published three novels? All of them have been adapted to successful movies. The Silence of the Lambs even won a Best Picture Academy Award-”

“Yes. Were you aware of the movies when you read the book?”

“Aware yes. I even saw parts of that movie, but never all of it.”

“Did it help?”

“Curiously, seeing only disconnected parts of the movie probably set the tone, characterisation and overall atmosphere of the book while leaving most of the plot surprises intact. Then again, given the publicity surrounding The Silence of the Lambs, you don’t even have to have seen the movie.”

“What about MANHUNTER, the adaptation of Red Dragon?”

“I knew it existed. That is all.”

The student paused, thinking about his next questions.

“What did you think of the books?”

“Why is it important to you?”

“Why is that important to you?”

“You never learned never to answer a question by a question?”

“Who told you that?”

Silence.

“They’re both fairly good crime thrillers” finally says Lecteur. “You’ve got to realize, though, that both novels have basically the same premise.”

“Oh?”

“In both, you’ve got a protagonist asking the advice of this really sadistic psychopath, Hannibal Lecter, to catch a serial killer. In both cases, he’s able to do it and make life miserable for the policeperson sent to interrogate him.”

“Much like our discussion, then.”

“Do you have to point out the obvious?”

“Sorry.”

[Pause] “In both case, the result is an tense novel. The similarity of the plots even help, since Harris does it better the second time around.”

“How?”

“First off, Clarice Starling from The Silence of the lambs is a stronger, more interesting character than Will Graham from Red Dragon. The same also holds true for the serial killers, although both are portrayed as wimps. I guess this is to show off Harris’ centrepiece, which is Hannibal Lecter.”

“He’s chilling?”

“Utterly. Brains combined with complete evilness. A very memorable villain. The damning thing is that he’s also endlessly charming. Just as you think he’s a pretty likable fellow, well…”

“Are the books very violent?”

“Somewhat. They stay in the norm for crime thrillers. It’s the impact of that violence that remains with the readers, though.”

“So, which is the better book?”

Silence of the Lambs, without a doubt. Even though it’s a remake of the previous volume, readers having read Red Dragon first should read the sequel. The reverse isn’t necessarily true, though, as Silence of the Lambs greatly improves on the predecessor. Think of it as a computer game remade five years after the original, with better graphics and gameplay.”

“You recommend The Silence of the Lambs?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you sir. I think-”

“Don’t leave me like this! Give me-”

“I really must go.”

“Give me a book! A baseball program! A cereal box! Anything to read!”

The orderly rushed to the cell, electric prod in hand. As Lecteur became even more frantic, the orderly silenced him with flashes of blue-white electricity. Lecteur retreated in his cell.

“Sorry about that, sir.” said the orderly. “He gets violent from time to time.”

“At least he doesn’t kill people.”

“Sometime, we almost think it would be better that way.”

Triad: Three Complete Science-Fiction Novels, A.E. van Vogt

Simon & Schuster/SFBC Edition, 1951, 527 pages, C$??.?? hc, ISBN Unavailable

Tonight, ladies, gentlemen and extraterrestrials from Cylonak, we are going to delve deep into the archives of Science Fiction to dredge back a forgotten masterpiece, or three for that matter. At a time where men were men and women were irrelevant… at a time where it was plausible to postulate non-Aristolean logic without howling with laughter… at a time where you could have spacemen waving vibrators around without having your book banned… at a time where SF fans perceived themselves as being persecuted and hunted down like rabid dogs… lived an author named A.E. van Vogt.

A curious fellow, this Arthur Elton van Vogt. Born in Canada in 1912, emigrated in the United States in 1944, he had by that time established himself as one of Science-Fiction’s giants. He specialized in grandiose tales of space-opera, of supermen, of monsters and empires. He never made too much sense, but he wrote with such intensity that few were left unimpressed. Today, we will see three of his finest novels, brought together in one handy package unimaginatively called Triad.

van Vogt’s first novel was Slan, a classical wish-fulfilment fantasy starring a superhuman boy, a princess, an evil empire and a book-long chase. It was enormously popular among SF audience, who identified with the persecuted protagonist. Slans being superior humans, the novel was the basis of a fannish rallying cry: Fans are Slans!

As for the novel itself, we can already see in Slan the distinguishing characteristics of the latter van Vogt: Endlessly surprising twists and counter-twists of plot, often brought up without rhyme, reason or latter accountability. It is never too clear whether van Vogt has a fantastically complicated outline, or is making it up as he goes along. Modern readers will find Slan interesting in a certain naïve way, as if the sheer chutzpah of van Vogt can carry the novel through. But modern readers will most likely see in Slan the blueprint for more than fifty years of wish-fulfilment novels.

With The voyage of the Space Beagle, modern readers will experience virulent déjà-vu reactions. Not only does the Space Beagle function eerily like the “Star Trek” paradigm, but a sequence from the novel contains the genesis of the movie ALIEN. (van Vogt sued, and settled out of court for $50,000, says the Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction)

The Voyage of the Space Beagle is a collection of mostly enjoyable short tales describing the adventures of a space ship on a deep exploration tour. Surprisingly, the human squabbling and political infighting are more interesting than some of the aliens. The hero is likable, the plot twists are numerous and the aliens are imaginatively created. It reads like STAR TREK on acid. Creaky, musty fun.

The World of Null-A has an interesting MacGuffin: There are other modes of thought than Aristolean, Newtonian and Euclidean logic. Nothing interesting is done with this premise, but the ever-exciting plot has a twist every five pages and quickly buries its incoherencies under a cloud of plots, counterplots and counter-counterplots. Again, you never quite know if van Vogt has an incredible outline, or he’s just making it as he goes along. No matter; even despite all its numerous faults and its increasingly hilarious creakiness, The World of Null-A manages to entertain.

If Triad teaches us something, it’s that SF has certainly grown up. No author could now afford to publish novels as ill-conceived as van Vogt’s. On the other hand, it’s unclear if today’s fiction has the same sense of fun that’s present in van Vogt. It’s also a matter of debate as to which kind of fiction will read better among non-literary readers a half-century from now.

In the meantime, Triad contains the essential van Vogt. A worthwhile buy if you can find it in used bookstores, along with a copy of his other major novel, The Weapon Shops of Isher.

Formula One, Bob Judd

Avon, 1989, 374 pages, C$4.95$ mmpb, ISBN 0-380-71014-5

Novels being works of imagination, it’s surprising to find out that some readers devour them to learn things. Why not grab a non-fiction book instead? Authors are free to imagine whatever they want in any given context: why should any reader trust the author?

This is in many ways a false argument. Compare sitting down for a few hours with a quantum mechanic textbook, or a Greg Egan hard-SF novel. The choice is pretty easy to make. Fiction involves the reader. Sure, it’s less rigorous, but the basic elements still come through, especially when dealing with non-tangible subjects: someone who wants to know about the camaraderie and competition between fighter pilots will more easily grasp it reading a Stephen Coonts novel than a non-fiction account.

As for trust, it has a lot to do with an undefinable authenticity in the text itself, added to the author’s credentials. While Arthur Hailey has never been an airport or hotel manager, his novels Airport and Hotel (among other “educative” thrillers) have mesmerized whole beachfuls of readers. Hailey has acquired a reputation for research; Coonts is a former aircraft pilot. Both are known for getting their facts right.

Which brings us to Bob Judd, who brings us in turn in the fast-paced world of Formula One racing for his debut thriller Formula One. With fast cars, loose women, big money and high stakes, the world of Grand Prix racing seems a natural background for any thriller. Formula One takes full advantage of its setting.

Ace Formula One driver Forrest Evers has problems. After three disastrous races, he has abandoned racing. Now, in the opening pages of the novel, he watches as the second driver of his team kills himself in a stupid 200mph accident. Soon afterward, Evers is back behind the wheel with only one idea: Find out who killed his friend and who’s trying to kill him again.

Many thrillers boast intriguing promises but fail on delivery. Not so here. Judd writes like a racer going for the pole position. Evers’ first-person narration is immediately gripping and carries the novel through like few thrillers read recently.

Even better, we readers get a first-class ticket to the world of F1 racing. The jargon, the mechanics, the shady dealings, the political nature of the game are all explained in painless terms. Best of all, Formula One stays with its subject most of the time. It’s not a coincidence if the novel falters around the three-quarter mark, where the protagonist stops being a driver and behaves more like an amateur secret agent. Soon afterward, Evers and the novel are back where they belong—behind the wheel. The climax is memorably written.

What’s more, you will enjoy learning about F1 racing here. The details are well-mixed with the action, and seldom feel like exposition lumps. Judd acquires his credibility not by past novels or by an author blurb, but by being very, very good at what he does. It’s a challenge to pull off a first-person narration by someone who’s obviously in a technical field, but Judd achieves it magnificently.

There’s plenty to like in Formula One: The writing is delicious, the protagonist is likable, the gallery of supporting characters is sharply drawn, the technical details are right and the plot moves. You’re unlikely to read a better thriller soon.

[July 1998: Just discovered that Formula One is the first of four (so far) Forrest Evers thrillers. I’m unsure to read further, lest inferior sequels taint my memories of the original.]

The X Files (1998)

(In theaters, July 1998) As a casual fan of the TV show, I was adequately satisfied by this adaptation, which retains most of the qualities and faults of the TV show. On one hand, it irresponsibly promotes goofy conspiracy theories, makes no attempt at internal consistency, confuses “complexity” with “incoherence” and can’t have the guts to answer its own questions. One the other hand, it’s beautifully cinematographed, competently realized, fairly entertaining and the leads actors have a nice chemistry. A good TV episode, it’s a bit of a let-down -content-wise- on the big-screen. Wait for the video.

There’s Something About Mary (1998)

(In theaters, July 1998) You wouldn’t expect a film about guys stalking a woman to be hilariously funny, and yet it is. In the not-so-grand tradition of the “gross-out” school of comedy (see Dumb & Dumber), here comes There’s Something About Mary, which uses props such as mentally retarded people, crutches, bodily fluids, genitalia-caught-in-zipper, sun-wrinkled breasts, homosexuals, hyperactive pets and almost-dead dogs. It’s vile, disgusting, not subtle but also incredibly hilarious… but you will hate yourself for laughing at these things. (The movie is very probably lost on anyone older than 25.) In short: Very funny, but I can’t recommend it.

Small Soldiers (1998)

(In theaters, July 1998) As kids, I suspect most of us dreamed of having action figures that could act as our best friends, carry on conversation and generally be more animated that they were. Small Soldiers carries this concept all the way by proposing action figures equipped with military CPUs. Before you can say “Hey, haven’t we seen this in Gremlins before?”, the small soldiers of the title are busy wasting most of our young protagonist’s neighbourhood. The special effects are okay, but the script is strictly by-the-numbers and by the end of the movie, that’s what matters: Whereas Small Soldiers could have been so much more, it ends up being fairly ordinary. Side note: In February, I managed to grab hold of an early draft script of Small Soldiers. (don’t ask how.) While the theme and characters remain in the final movie, a lot of material has been cut. The result is a tighter and better movie, but also one that loses a lot of the draft’s most memorable parts. Curious…

Kilo Class, Patrick Robinson

Harper Collins, 1998, 442 pages, C$35.50 hc, ISBN 0-06-019129-5

In the Science-Fiction community, there is a certain prejudice about the so called “Hard-SF” segment of the genre, which is the epitome of scientific exactitude in SF. This concern has led critics to charge that the genre consistently privileged scientific content (ie; the “Science” in “SF”) over such niceties as characters, plotting or writing style. (“Fiction” in “SF”)

Amusingly, this debate also takes place outside the genre of SF. In the category of thrillers, for instance, you’ve got the same division. On one side, these fairly generic writers content to churn out pulpish book after another about spies, war and conspiracies. On the other, these authors who take great pain into researching the hardware, the politics, the procedures. Ludlum, Follett and Le Carre versus Clancy, Coonts and Coyle.

Patrick Robinson made a certain splash in the thriller audience last year with the release of Nimitz Class, a novel that begins with the nuclear vaporization of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier.

In my previous review of Nimitz Class, (“starts promisingly enough… a few characters are efficiently set up… then the novel goes awry… goes on an unexpected direction… then on another tangent… very anticlimactic… unconvincing romantic thread… odd bits of exposition in dialogue… barely worth a library loan. In paperback.”) I was disappointed by the lack of plotting skill, the laughable romance and the useless detours. The faults were made worse by what is unarguably a fairly strong first third.

Kilo Class is more even, but overall a weaker entry than its predecessor. The plot is of a laughable simplicity: China has bought ten submarines from Russia. The United States doesn’t want China to receive these subs, so they do everything they can to destroy them.

Gimmicky; given that two subs are already in safe haven at the beginning of the novel and that this is pretty much everything the good ole’ USA will tolerate, you can bet that the novel won’t stop until most of the submarines are destroyed.

Most of Kilo Class, then, is like watching one (or several) car (or sub) accident happening. These dastardly americans hatch their plot, then send their best elements to execute them. Most of the time, they succeed. Since Robinson is a “hard-thriller” writer, he lays on the details pretty thick. We’re not only told that SEALs have blown up a submarine, but we also get fully fifty pages of preparations plus a twenty-page investigation by the bad guys. The result is almost interminable.

Unlike Nimitz Class, Kilo Class becomes more focused as the story evolves, and while most readers will find themselves asking why they’re reading the first half of the book, the last hundred pages are a lot more fun. But it’s an uphill battle until then.

Robinson’s weak characterisation (don’t plan on making any friends in this book) and suspicious plotting (what was it with the Kerguelen Islands?) make things difficult for anyone else but a dedicated techno-thriller buff. Fortunately, bits and pieces of interest spice up the going, like a tremendously exciting description of three submarines’ demise.

Of a most serious nature is the ludicrousness of the main premise. The United States risking war, attacking enemy ships under no clear and present threat? I don’t think so, and the afterword didn’t convince me.

Summing up: Mixed reactions toward Kilo Class. It’s definitely not worth the $35.50C. for the hardcover. In fact, I’m not even sure it’s worth a library loan. Nimitz Class fans might want to read it to find out what happened to Bill Baldridge (it’s a loose sequel to Nimitz Class), but beyond that… Summer 1998 has too many good new books by established techno-thriller authors (Bond, Brown, Coonts… even Clancy!) to waste on Kilo Class, a decidedly average entry in the genre.

Matinee (1993)

(On TV, July 1998) Who would have thought to combine nostalgia for the Cuban Missile crisis of 1962 with an examination of B-grade horror movies of the same era? Director Joe Dante, that’s who. John Goodman is great as a horror-movie producer peddling his latest movie (“Mant!”) to a small Key West city. In fact, he’s so much fun (along with the fake movie itself) that the various adventures of the teen characters become more of an intrusion than an integral part of the movie. Uneven, but worth a look. Matinee‘s social commentary about horror movies does not go much further than a Stephen King essay, but is unusual to see in a Hollywood product.

The Mask Of Zorro (1998)

(In theaters, July 1998) At first glance, there’s nothing very exciting about the concept of Zorro: A masked guy (yawn), swordfighting (yawn) evil Spaniards (yawn) in 19th century California (yawn). And yet, The Mask Of Zorro fills a need you didn’t think you had: To see one good swashbuckling movie about a stylish caped crusader. Antonio Banderas brings authentic looks, charisma and comic timing to the title character. Sultry Catherine Zeta Jones burns the screen. The stunts are great, the swordfighting isn’t butchered by quick edits, the script is okay and the sheer style of Zorro isn’t overshadowed by the unobtrusive direction. One of this summer’s most satisfying blockbusters. Great fun for everyone.

(Second viewing, On DVD, September 1999) Fortunately, this marriage of old-fashioned swashbuckling adventure with modern pacing still holds up amazingly well to a second viewing. This is obviously a by-the-number action script, but the whole atmosphere lifts the film up above your run-of-the-mill film. A trio of extremely capable actor (Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins and the breakaway presence of the luscious Catherine Zeta-Jones) and some quasi-classical scenes complete the work. The DVD doesn’t add much besides an unremarkable making-of featurette.

Lethal Weapon (1987)

(On TV, July 1998) A routine “buddy” cop movie that raises itself above average with the inclusion of a few action sequences (the money shot being a car doing a vertical 180o in front of a bus) and the marvelous mismatched characters personified by Danny Glover and Mel Gibson. Exemplifies a certain archetype of 80s buddy-cop action pictures: I wonder how much of the film’s then-freshness is invisible today thanks to countless imitators?

Lethal Weapon 4 (1998)

(In theaters, July 1998) Once you’ve accepted that Lethal Weapon 4 is going to be an incoherent action comedy, the movie is a blast. Sporting no less than six big-name stars (Gibson, Glover, Russo, Rock, Pesci and Li) and numerous explosions, Lethal Weapon 4 is still a pretty good follow-up to the franchise. It’s certainly one of the first 1998 releases that can be enjoyed by a wide audience without too many problems. Again, the standout sequence of the film is a fabulous car chase that resulted in applause in my theatre. Rene Russo is criminally underused, the coincidental aspects of the plot are troublesome, the emotional content of the movie is manipulative, some of the comedy falls flat and most of the drama is quickly glossed over, but Lethal Weapon 4 delivers like few blockbusters this year.

Takedown, Tsutomu Shimomura with John Markoff

Hyperion, 1996, 509 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-7868-8913-6

As today’s world is becoming increasingly dependant on electronic networks for communications, business and entertainment, the potential for abusing these systems is also expanding. On one side, clever young anarchists with time to lose and the “Information should be free!” slogan. One on the other, computer security specialist and corporations with information to protect.

It’s not only a technical issue. Without effort, it also touches ethical, philosophical and personal issues. In an age where the Internet is now offering more free information than was available to every human that ever lived before, property issues are become more important than ever.

Unfortunately, Takedown only briefly touches on these important questions. This might not necessarily be a criticism of the work, given that the book is about one particular instance of computer crime.

On Christmas Day 1995, somebody broke into Tsutomu Shimomura’s system, copied files and went away. Unfortunately for the cracker, Shimomura happened to be an expert in computer security. Takedown details Shimomura’s hunt for the culprit, a hunt that eventually took him to a Raleigh suburb for the apprehension of the suspect.

There have been a few books on the subject of computer security, and Takedown is an average entry. It’s an enjoyable book: simply written, not too technically obscure, satisfyingly resolved. Despite the cover blurbs, it’s not as good as a detective novel, but it holds its own. The process of detection, identification and localisation of the computer cracker is gradually revealed, and the chase even becomes exciting when Shimomura has to go on the terrain to investigate. (You can tell that this isn’t a movie by the fact that the cracker and Shimomura don’t meet until after the cracker’s apprehension.)

But somehow, Takedown isn’t as fascinating as it should have been. Worse, a better similar book exists. The Cuckoo’s Egg, by Clifford Stoll, told the tale of an eclectic astronomer who managed to catch teen crackers by luring them in a network of false information. Not only are the stakes higher in The Cuckoo’s Egg (military info versus cellular phone software), but Stoll is -I’m sorry to say- a far more interesting individual. Both books work in a considerable amount of detail of the two men’s personal lives, but whereas Stoll is a genuine eccentric, Shimomura comes out of it as a brilliant hacker desperately trying to pass himself as “normal”. His interests in skiing, hiking and other pursuits besides computers seem tacked-on to humanise the characters, not as essential parts of the narrative. His romantic interest also seems -with apologies to these two- pretty weak.

In the end, we’re left with an interesting tale of modern detection, spiced up by a deliciously portentous “physical” dimension when the narrative moves to Raleigh. Critics voiced on the Internet have complained that the Intruder’s side of the story has been given short thrift, but that’s an insignificant assertion given the source of the story. Far more damaging is the rather obnoxious narrator and the sometimes-ridiculous attempts at humanizing the character. Whatever your opinions about cracking, Takedown is unlikely to convince anyone. Readers, let them be laymen, hackers or crackers, will get out of the book what they bring into it.

Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)

(On TV, July 1998) This sequel loses something of the initial interaction between the two lead characters, but gains fantastic villains and even better action sequences while retaining a certain dramatic edge that is nowhere to be found in latter films of the series. Series regulars may regard this one as a high point of the series, lame ending aside.

Das Boot (1981)

(On VHS, July 1998) Incredibly convincing account of a U-boat submarine patrol in the middle of WW2, Das Boot ranks as one of the finest war movie I’ve seen. Mesmerizing, suspenseful, touching in its sincerity, Das Boot should be seen at least once. My “Director’s Cut” widescreen version was in German, with English subtitles. It works. This should be experienced on as big a screen as possible, with the best sound system you can afford to put together. It’s a bit longish in spots, but uses most of its long stretches to build suspense or develop characters. Don’t miss it. Makes a perfect double-feature for Saving Private Ryan.

Armageddon (1998)

(In theaters, July 1998) It gave me a headache, it frequently didn’t make any sense, had some of the goofiest science ever and the worst editing I’ve seen lately, but Armageddon was definitely a perfect summer blockbuster. It’s the second “something’s going to smash into the Earth!” movie of 1998, but whereas Deep Impact was okay drama, Armageddon is slam-bang action. The goofs are innumerable and I could probably prepare a good hour-long seminar on “Physics Armageddon writers should have studied”, but you’re unlikely to be bothered with it: just consider it a caricature. Okay acting, spectacular Special Effects, adequate characters… Complete nonsense, but it delivers. One truly enjoyable brainless audiovisual stunner, just perfect for the 4th of July. I just wish for an extended director’s cut where they’ll use shots lasting more than three seconds.

(Second viewing, On TV, February 2001) Watching this on a TV screen with three year’s worth of hindsight is an instructive experience. Stripped of the hype and of the audiovisual pummelling prepared by director Michael Bay, the film proves to be better and worse than remembered. For one thing, despite all his problems with coherent editing, it’s difficult not to be impressed with the dynamism of Bay’s direction: moving cameras, beautiful framing, interesting setups, wonderful colors. Indeed, the first half-hour of Armageddon is a top-notch, A+ thrill ride, with what may be the most extravagant action scene yet put to film (the destruction of New York, with its orgy of exploding cars). It’s in the latter part of the film that things don’t go as well. While the script works well as a comedic action film, it never takes off when it attempts to build love scenes (the infamous “animal crackers” bit), drama (“That salesman is your father!”) or heroic sacrifice ([spoiler]) The last half-hour is not only far too long and repetitive, but the editing problems get worse (it’s virtually impossible to have a clear idea of what’s happening) and the script problems also deteriorate in unintentional ridiculousness that clashes more and more with the heroic tone of the film. At least no dollar has been spared to bring us the pictures (some of which only last a flash or two) and most often than not, the pictures are worth looking at, while they’re still on the screen.