Monthly Archives: August 1998

The Moon and the Sun, Vonda N. McIntyre

Pocket, 1997, 421 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 0-671-56765-9

I’m mad, and I’m going to tell you about it.

A few months ago, members of Science-Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) decided that The Moon and the Sun was the best Science-Fiction or Fantasy novel published during the preceding year, beating out such contestants as A Game of Thrones (George R. R. Martin), Ancient Shores (Jack McDevitt), Bellwether, (Connie Willis), City on Fire, (Walter Jon Williams), King’s Dragon, (Kate Elliott) and Memory (Lois McMaster Bujold).

Leaving alone the issue that these were most definitely not the worthiest books published in the oh-so-confusing Nebula period of eligibility (which here seems to go at least from April 1997 to September 1998), was The Moon and the Sun the best of the seven books? Of course not. Let me tell you why.

The Moon and the Sun is the story of a young woman in King Louis XIV’s court in 1693. Her brother has captured a sea monster, and various royal things happen around her. Eventually, she figures out that the sea monster is intelligent. Of course, she’ll try to free it.

I have seldom had as less motivation to read a book. It takes almost half the book to get out of the historical details and get on with the “fantasy” element. Despite a certain elegance of the prose, this novel is a colossal bore. If this hadn’t been a Nebula-Winner, I would have likely abandoned it well before the end. McIntyre mentions in her after-word that this has also been written as a movie screenplay: I would have rather read that than the book.

The overemphasis on explicit feminism is annoying. The problem isn’t with the idea of feminism, but the treatment. McIntyre should have remembered to show, not tell. Far better to keep the heroine trying to acquire freedom and go against obstacles rather than make a few speeches about it. It’s ridiculous to see concerns of the nineteen-nineties clash with the historical atmosphere in this way.

Then we come to the difficult question of the genre. The Moon and the Sun is a novel billed as an alternate history that won an award by and association originally founded by Science-Fiction writers. Problem is, it’s neither SF nor alternate history.

There is nothing “alternate” about the history presented here: What are the repercussions of the sea monsters? The divergences with our history? Unseen, untouched, unimagined. This is historical fantasy.

Then there’s the astonishingly positive advance blurbs on the back cover of the book, by author friends of McIntyre who should know better. “The finest alternate history ever” (Le Guin), “One of the best novels I’ve read” (Preuss), “engrossing story” (Gabaldon)… ack, ptui! Even granted that I don’t even like these authors, what were they smoking?

In a sense, you could say that it’s fortunate that The Moon and the Sun won the Nebula: Otherwise I would not have read, or finished, the book and would not have anything to complain about. It still doesn’t erase the boredom and the pain.

The Nebulas have a substantial history of choosing The Wrong Book as a winner; boring, stuffy fantasy novels that are neither remarkable or especially meritorious. Years later, who still remembers the unspectacular Where the Late Birds Sang (Kate Wilhem) or the incredibly boring The Falling Woman (Pat Murphy) or the rotten The Einstein Intersection (Samuel Delany)? I confidently predict that The Moon and the Sun is headed straight for this memory abyss. The infuriating thing is that the novel will bore generations of Nebula completists. Forever and ever.

The Callahan Chronicles, Spider Robinson

Various, 1977-1997, ???? pages, C$??.?? mmpb, ISBN Various

Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon: Ace, 1977
Time-Travellers Strictly Cash: Ace, 1981
Callahan’s Secret: Berkley, 1986
Callahan’s Lady: Ace, 1991
Lady Slings the Booze: Ace, 1992
The Callahan Touch: Ace, 1993
Callahan’s Legacy: Tor, 1997
Off the Wall at Callahan’s: Tor, 1994

Somewhere along highway 25 in Suffolk County, Long Island (Spider Robinson tells us) once existed an inauspicious bar called Callahan’s Place. That bar wasn’t your average neighbourhood drunk-hole, however. Robinson chronicled the weird, strange and marvellous incidents that happened there: Time-Travellers, Aliens, People with special talents… or just plain unfortunate folks in need of cheering up.

As a non-drinker, non-bargoer, non-whatever, I’m far from being the ideal target audience for Robinson’s own brand of uber-hedonistic philosophy that permeates his work in general and the Callahan chronicles in particular. Despite his well-meaning tone of desolation, I like being a product of the conservative eighties, with all its petty monetary concerns, monogamous sexual relationships and cautious attitude toward alcohol.

And yet, there is a definite charm about the Callahan sequence that is very, very hard to resist. Although it’s a definite possibility that reading these books will infuriate you, you will still come away from it with a sense of goofy satisfaction.

Not least among Robinson’s many talents is the effortless prose and the engaging characters. Simply put, it’s a pleasure to read these books. When this pleasure fades -see below-, we can see the holes in the stories.

The sequence is composed, quite neatly, of three epochs:

The first one comprise the stories contained in the three earliest books. It’s the Callahan’s Place era. This period is characterized by a collection of several short stories setting up of the divergent rules that eventually coalesce to make up the universe in which the Callahan sequence takes place. In many respects, this is the best Callahan’s period: It’s fresh, exciting, invigorating and not too silly. (Fortunately, it is now contained in an omnibus volume from Tor called The Callahan Chronicles.)

The second era takes at about the same chronological time, but at another place: Lady Sally’s House, the best… er… house of pleasure in New York. The two “Lady” books are far more prurient than the opening trilogy and written as novels, not an assembly of stories. The result is more coherent but less impressive. For some reason, Robinson decides to save the world from nuclear terrorists late in Lady Slings the Booze, and that particular plot clashes badly with the remainder of the sequence. Generally speaking, Callahan’s works best when dealing with small-scale weirdness and personal problems: It’s when it tries to be too ambitious that the problems arise.

Finally, the narrator of the first trilogy decides to go in business for himself, and the two more recent books of the series chronicle his time at Mary’s Place. In a way, these two are a return to the familiar environment of the first three books. While written as novels, they’re far less linear than the Lady Sally books. Unfortunately, silliness happens (like the cluricaune and the oh-so-sensual-group-telepathy/orgy-to-save-the-world) and the effect is more ridiculous than uplifting. A curious tendency to showboating and unarguable sermonning by Robinson also diminishes the effect of the later books.

(Off the wall at Callahan’s is a compendium of quotes, puns and jokes from the first five books. It’s recycling, but great recycling.)

Still, readers will be hard-pressed to find this sequence other than enjoyable and refreshing. Reading another Callahan book feels exactly like coming back to a place where everyone knows your name. And that’s probably exactly what Robinson intended.

Cheers!

Tesseracts^6, Ed. Robert J. Sawyer & Carolyn Clink

Tesseracts, 1997, 297 pages, C$8.95 mmpb, ISBN 1-895836-32-8

Next step in my Aurora-nominee reading program this year: The sixth Tesseracts anthology of Canadian Speculative Fiction. A tradition has been established that each successive Tesseracts volume has a different set of co-editors. This year, the husband-and-wife team of Robert J. Sawyer and Carolyn Clink are serving their tour of duty at the forefront of what has become Canada’s most celebrated SF anthology series.

They say that an anthology is well-served by great stories in the opening and closing slots. In this regard, Tesseracts^6 succeeds admirably well. The opening fiction is by Eric Choi, a promising hard-SF author. “Divisions” tackles a very-hard-SF story upon an alternate history where Quebec secedes in 1981. The result is very satisfying. At the other end of the book, Robert Charles Wilson delivers the kind of fiction that has made his reputation with Protocols of Consumption, a character-based tale with adequate scientific content and a surprising amount of paranoia.

For the most part, you get what you expect from Tesseracts^6: The top authors keep their level of quality. I have yet to read a boring story from Andrew Weiner, as he proves with “Bootlegger”. James Alan Gardner is also a reliable author, and his “Love-in-Idleness” is one of the best stories of the volume. “What Goes Around” (Derryl Murphy) doesn’t quite lives up to its premise but remains a fun read. Yves Meynard enhances his reputation as a fantasy author with the curiously pleasing “Souvenirs”.

But there’s also some good material from newer names (at least to me): Catherine McLeod’s “Skulling Medusa” is an excellent hard-boiled action featuring a futuristic Private Eye. Douglas Smith’s “Spirit Dance” does interesting things with a love triangle, were-animals and the CSIS. (!) Additionally, Tesseracts^6 might make you realize that some of the latest novels seen in libraries are in fact from Canadian authors, like Scott Mackay (Outpost) and Nalo Hopkinson (Brown Girl in the Ring).

Four of the stories are from French-Canadian authors, although it seems like two of them (Yves Meynard’s “Souvenirs” and Jean-Louis Trudel’s “Where Angels Fall”) were written directly in English. Annoyingly, like the previous Tesseracts anthologies, there is no mention of where the two translated stories (Sylvie Bérard’s “The Wall” and Élisabeth Vonarburg’s “The Sleeper in the Crystal”) originally appeared.

Due to poet Carolyn Clink’s co-editorship, this Tesseracts volume contains a fair amount of poetry. As a reader, I have seldom been attracted to this genre, and have to report that I have not been convinced by what I have seen here. Readers with different background can feel free to disagree.

On another register, I am happy to report that the interior typesetting is greatly improved over the past few Tesseract publications: The font is crisper (though still not heavy enough) and the margins are adequate. It’s a shame that the page header doesn’t indicate each story, though. The curiously unfamiliar paperback format (halfway between mass-market and trade paperbacks) takes a while to get used to. Unfortunately, the cover illustration is one of the worst I have seen in recent memory. It’s probable that the awful colour balance and the amateurish collage of elements will keep this book away from a few prospective readers. An unfortunate change from the beautiful cover of the previous volume.

Tesseracts^6 proves, if it was still left to be proven, that Canadian SF is strong enough not only to be fill a volume of good stories, but to do so at a yearly rate of publication and with different sets of editors. It also provides good reading… so what more is there to say? Bring on the next volume!

Trader, Charles de Lint

Tor, 1997, 464 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-55157-5

Many cinephile will remember a spate of body-switching “comedies” around 1988: BIG, LIKE FATHER LIKE SON, VICE VERSA, 18 AGAIN… Along with 1977’s FREAKY FRIDAY, these movies used body-switching as an excuse for character-driven comedies of, mostly, mutual redemption. (The latest film of note in this sub-genre, 1997’s FACE/OFF, used slightly-more-plausible face switching as an excuse for a rather good guns’n’mayhem movie.)

Charles de Lint’s Trader is markedly different. Not only is it decidedly not a comedy, but it actually treats the improbable subject of body-switching with a certain realism that always seems to be sorely lacking is the afore-mentioned movies.

For one thing, this isn’t a kid’s story: Trader is mature, comfortably adult fantasy. The hero of the tale is Max Trader, a renowned, introvert maker of guitars. When he suddenly wakes up in the body of an unemployed, despicable loser named Johnny Devlin, he has to face the fact that he has not only inherited Devlin’s problems, but that Devlin (now Trader) doesn’t want anything to do with him. After a fight with Devlin’s old girlfriend, being kicked out of Devlin’s apartment and being unable to return to his old home, Trader finds himself on the streets. What follows is his journey toward redemption.

In a lesser story, Trader could have been faultless; a quiet, introspective man not given to meanness. But part of what gives Trader its power is the realization that Trader himself isn’t as perfect as we could think. We realise that even as average and mild-mannered as Trader is (or we are, for that matter), he still has things to learn to enjoy life at its fullest.

Trader doesn’t only tell a story; without bashing the reader over the head with it, it also contains a surprising amount of not-so-conventional philosophy. Trader is about life, what you make of it, and the friendships that let you go through it.

de Lint’s prose is typically engaging, effortlessly drawing the reader into the story. Characters are very well handled. While this critic isn’t a de Lint reader, the comments read elsewhere about him returning to old friends in Newport seem dead-on accurate.

The novel does have its flaws: part of the last third venture more in some sort of fantasy dreamland where almost anything can happen; a departure from the relatively realistic remainder of the novel. In retrospect, one character’s aggression also seems unwarranted.

With good characters, easy prose, a lot of heart and an undeniable maturity, Trader shows why de Lint is at the top of his field. A strong contender for this year’s Auroras, and a worthwhile read, it is hard to ask much more of this book.

Snake Eyes (1998)

(In theaters, August 1998) This film starts off with an impressive seemingly-uncut, very complex 12-minute scene. Nicolas Cage also starts off grand, but loses a lot of energy as the movie advances. Not coincidentally, the movie also settles down after a while, causing considerable disappointment. A whodunit becomes procedural thriller, then degenerates in late-night movie fare. Beautifully shot by Brian de Palma, but finally quite average. The most-charitably-described-as- deus-ex-machina ending is adequate in the theatre, but doesn’t survive the trip back home. A shame, considering the talent involved.

The Silence Of The Lambs (1991)

(On TV, August 1998) Adapted from the Thomas Harris novel of the same name, this movie suffers a lot from a recent reading of the book. Punches are known, and a lot of the tension is absent; a fatal flaw in a suspense thriller. Still, well filmed (though with an overuse of the looking-at-the-camera angle) and very well acted. No wonder this movie won a few Academy Awards. The adaptation is loosely faithful (cutting some material along the way) and adds a clever last scene.

Night Of The Living Dead (1990)

(On TV, August 1998) Almost a bore. What happens when you’ve got a horror movie that’s not horrific? You begin to laugh. What if there’s nothing to laugh about? You start to wish you were watching another movie. Fortunately, the finale is a bit better than the rest -and Babylon-5 fans will appreciate seeing a lot of Patricia Tallman- but there are far better choices than this for a B-Movie night.

King of the Killing Zone: The Story of the M-1, America’s Super Tank, Orr Kelly

Berkley, 1989, 288 pages, C$5.75 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-12304-9

With a title like that, you can bet it’s not a book about fluffy rabbits.

No, King of the Killing Zone is definitely a book for the intellectually macho guys among us, the ones who also devour Hustler magazine for the military hardware articles, who buy Tom Clancy novels in hardcover, who don’t quite think that an obsession about military hardware is somehow unhealthy.

(Am I describing myself? Ahem…)

King of the Killing Zone is definitely a dream come true for military buffs among us.

(Which reminds me of the old saying: The difference between a fan and a buff is that the buff in interested in stuff where dying is involved. Witness Military buffs, WWII buffs, history buffs, etc… Are there Spice Girls buffs? There you go.)

There is a special magic in the creation of an expensive machine. The process leading up to the design, debugging and manufacture of your car is sufficiently fascinating in itself. Now imagine the whole story behind the introduction of a completely new tank in the U.S. Army. That’s the subject of King of the Killing Zone.

During your reading, you will not only learn about the M-1, but also about tanks in general, major figures in the U.S. Army since WWII, the military equipment acquisition process, intelligence work, tanks warfare strategy and hundreds of small details that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with tanks at first glance.

This could have been a long, dry read. The drudgery of military administration can be terribly annoying if you’re outside the system. Fortunately, author Orr Kelly has mastered the none-too-obvious trick of writing a densely packed, yet easily readable prose. He obviously knows his subject, and the notes on sources are very complete. A useful index completes an already-great non-fiction account. As a result, King of the Killing Zone moves briskly, yet satisfies the reader.

Among the highlights of this book are the incredible tale of Chobham armour, the competition between GM and Chrysler to decide who would build the tank, the tactics revolution brought by the M-1’s speed, quiet and manoeuvrability, the man who made “all the right decisions for the wrong reasons”, the debugging of the tank’s most obscure flaws…

Behind the whole book, though, stands the question: Is the M-1 Abrahms a good tank? To that, Orr answers with a cautious optimism. The publication date (1989) of the book is ironic, coming two years before one of the most significant military event of the late twentieth century. The Gulf War proved to sceptics that the M-1 could deliver what had been promised. Despite heavy use of fuel and problems due to the infiltration of sand in machinery, the M-1 swept the battlefield and erased most doubts concerning the tank’s worth in combat. It would be interesting to see a post-1991 revision of King of the Killing Zone.

It is only too rare to find a book that lucidly and knowledgeably explains the steps by which new weapons systems are developed, tested and put into service. In an age where the easy 30-second clip on the evening news can weigh more heavily than a thoughtful report, King of the Killing Zone demystifies the process and takes the time to explain. A must-read for techno-thriller fans, and military hardware buffs.

The Negotiator (1998)

(In theaters, August 1998) Surprisingly good entry in the cop genre, The Negotiator would have floundered without the effective, spare direction of newcomer F. Gary Gray and the superlative acting talents of Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey. A friend of mine is fond of saying that Spacey (The Usual Suspects, Se7en, L.A. Confidential) has never been in a bad film; she’s still right. The setup is a bit unbelievable (cops do have an esprit-de-corps, y’know?), some of the dialogue is awful (though the delivery’s perfect!), many of the technical details are flat-out wrong (especially when computer-related) and the ending may seem an anti-climax to those expecting something else. Still, once the movie gets going, it’s an engrossing, fascinating movie that’s well worth your time.

Loaded Weapon 1 (1993)

(Second viewing, on TV, August 1998) Interestingly, the first time I saw that movie, shortly after its video release, I thought it amusing, but not that funny mostly due to timing problems. At my great surprise, I found myself laughing a lot more than expected during this second viewing. Part of this may have been caused by the increasing awfulness of the latest “satire”-type movies, or being much more familiar with the Lethal Weapon series that Loaded Weapon 1 is so obviously parodying. Whatever the reason, I can only say that this movie’s funny. Try not to miss it.

Animal House (1978)

(On TV, August 1998) Far less impressive than it is reputed to be. College comedies have to be really good to succeed, and this one suffers a lot from its bad script and its muddy cinematography. (Sound’s often incomprehensible too) John Belushi is okay, as is Babylon-5 star Stephen Furst. It seems like every single female in the movie takes off her clothes at some point. Of historical value, mostly because it’s the prototype for the much-better The Blues Brothers.

Manhunter (1986)

(On TV, August 1998) Adapted from the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon, this movie is amazingly faithful to the source material, up to the end where the book’s lackluster ending is replaced by a gunfight. Good idea, but it’s so ineptly shot that it takes away a lot of the movie’s previous impact. Still, a better-than-average thriller. Harmed considerably by the inclusion of a god-awful early-eighties electro-synth soundtrack. Of historical interest; Written and Directed by Michael Mann (Heat, The Last Of The Mohicans).

(Second viewing, On DVD, October 2002) Now that Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon has been re-adapted by Brett Ratner et al., Michael Mann’s first take on the material can be re-examined with a better critical eye. Certainly, certain aspects haven’t aged well: Underlit tables and antiseptic sets irremediably brand Mann’s Eighties aesthetics style. The awful electro-synth soundtrack is simply unbearable now. Certain plot developments come out of nowhere and don’t make much sense if you haven’t read the original novel (The discovery of the toilet-paper message isn’t very well explained, for instance) Finally, the film’s low budget must have ran out at the last minute, because the rushed ending ruins what would have otherwise been a pretty good thriller. It’s not as if the film is bad, though, even now. The urgency, personal toll and sacrifices required of the lead Will Graham protagonist (played by a too-intense William Petersen) are well-shown, and the film contains a narrative energy that only flags in the third quarter. It’s a solid thriller, too stylish for its own good but worth a look even now, though more as a comparison point between it and 2002’s superior Red Dragon.

Céline Dion: Behind the Fairytale, Ian Halperin

Boca Publications, 1997, 191 pages, C$9.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-9659583-0-2

Nowadays, it seems like every two-bit celebrity has a biography on bookstores’ shelves. Even being a celebrity isn’t a requirement any more; just being a megastar’s ex-girlfriend can now net you a fat publishing contract. But as ever, there are two very different kinds of biographies. Authorized, and not-so-authorized ones.

Authorized biographies are written by the celebrity, or most likely by a writer with bills to pay and the celebrity’s cooperation. However “honest” they claim to be, it’s no surprise that these authorized biographies end up painting a rather positive portrait of the star.

On the other hand, unauthorized biographies are usually perceived as being written by malicious, talentless money-grubbing hack without any ethics, scruples or restraints. Many fans, pundits and managers are quick to characterize unauthorized biographies as unmitigated lies on paper, and readers of these putrid pages as only slightly below unicellular slime.

They fail to mention that these biographies are much more interesting.

Céline Dion is, like me, a French-Canadian. It would be a common error to assume that given this shocking similarity, I would be a die-hard Dion fan.

Not quite. From a musical standpoint, Dion mostly sings ballads, which are definitely not my favourite kind of music. Furthermore, most importantly, I’ve never been too impressed by… ahem, let’s stay polite… the cognitive abilities of Miss Dion. As female signers so, I have much more respect for Melissa Etheridge, Sheryl Crow or Lisa Loeb (who compose, write and sing, not to mention can hold their end of a conversation) that for the pretty voice that is Céline Dion. Dion is a pleasantly packaged set of vocal chords. Nothing more.

[Unrelated anecdote: There was a TITANIC special on French-Canadian TV at the end of 1997, where Dion and ditzy talk-show host Julie Snyder were interviewing an expert on the Titanic disaster. It was a lot like watching the protagonists of DUMB & DUMBER interviewing Einstein.]

The fascination of my fellow French-Canadians for “le clan Dion” is nothing short of mystifying for me. Why glorify a not-especially-pretty woman whose only talent is to sing? The gushing acceptance of her marriage to slimy manager René Angelil (almost thirty years his senior) still manages to creep me out. Is this how we want the world to perceive French-Canadians?

Now that I’ve come clean both on the subject of Céline Dion and unauthorized biographies, let me be honest enough to say that if you like going through trash, you will love Behind the Fairytale. It’s a collection of gossip, just-this-side-of-libelous assertion and veiled half-truths mixed with saucy innuendoes. I could have lived a few more years without knowing about Dion’s suicide attempts, anorexia, unhappy marriage, nervous breakdowns and raging nymphomania.

One the other hand, it’s a breath of fresh air compared to the holier-than-church portrait of Dion that is spoon-fed to and by the media. I believe that there is more truth in this book, warts and all, than the official story. Halperin doesn’t quite establish himself as a credible journalist (he did co-author a book on the “assassination” of Kurt Cobain), but does not shies away from revealing his disgruntled sources, his personal favorable opinion of Dion (in the foreword) and that, in his opinion, the true villain of Dion’s life is manager/husband Angelil.

It is very unlikely that any fan of Dion will agree with Behind the Fairytale (just read the vitriolic comments on Amazon’s web site if you’re not convinced), so this biography will probably please most those readers not -yet- converted by the massive Sony/Angelil publicity machine. This is worth a look at the library (I couldn’t manage to buy such a book), if only to be able to see Behind the Fairytale.

Just remember: Trash can be fun, but at the end it’s still trash.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

(Third viewing, On TV, August 1998) An amazing movie, and what may be my third viewing proves it: Even despite being familiar with most elements, the movie fells as fresh and exciting as the first time. The timing is impeccable, the set-pieces are fabulous, and the level of humor doesn’t flag down. Excellent fun.

(Fourth viewing, On TV, September 2016) Taken on its own, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a better-than-average adventure: Directed with Steven Spielberg’s usual skill, it’s got original action set pieces that impress even today, genuinely funny moments, wide-screen vistas, Harrison Ford’s charm and great pacing. It’s well worth watching still. But when you set it against its predecessor or its sequel, that’s when this second Indiana Jones adventure comes in for a harsher assessment. It’s not as accomplished. There isn’t much character development. Kate Capshaw’s Willie is nowhere near as interesting as the first film’s Marion. (Heck, at times she’s straight-up irritating.) The stereotypes and jokey racism grate. There’s a much grimmer tone that doesn’t quite work as well as the alternative. There’s a five-minute stretch of possessed-Indiana that can’t end soon enough. Nazis aren’t there to be punched in the face. For all sorts of reasons, that makes Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom a significantly lesser movie than the first or third films in the series. If you want to watch it, do it separately from the other instalments, otherwise the comparison won’t be kind.

House Party 2 (1991)

(On TV, August 1998) A weak successor to the original film. Part of it may be that it tries to deal with racial issues directly rather than just making a fun movie where the characters happen to be black, like in the first film. Unfortunately, the characters also seem diluted, and the dance numbers are less energetic. The bizarre romantic subplot also annoys more than it entertains. A disappointment.