Monthly Archives: December 1998

Luminous, Greg Egan

Millennium, 1998, 295 pages, C$21.95 tpb, ISBN 0-85798-552-4

Greg Egan’s reputation is already established: A hard-SF writer of considerable ambition, he invariably integrates stunning ideas in his fiction. Even though his shortcomings are significant, there’s no arguing that he’s one of the defining SF writers of the nineties. His influence is considerable, given that he now seems to exemplify Hard-SF. (It will be noted, though, that Egan seems to have few political ambitions and thus will not promote himself as heavily as other writers.)

His first short story collection, Axiomatic, was an impressive compilation of unflinching Science Fiction. Egan tackled the Big Themes head-on, producing stories that might have been slight in literary qualities, but iron-clad in concepts. To say that Luminous was heavily anticipated is to understate matters.

Was it worth the wait? Well, mostly yes for the fans.

The best news are that Luminous shows that Greg Egan has lost none of his willingness to confront the big themes. Tackling Happiness, Mathematical Certitude, Genetics, Cosmology, Sexual Orientation and -oh, that too- Consciousness, Egan is a perfect poster-child for SF’s grandest literary aims. It’s not quite as well executed as it’s attempted, but still…

The title story has a strong beginning. It doesn’t really meshes well with the remainder of the story, but draws you in effectively. “Mitochondrial Eve” is a good satiric story, with an impeccably readable style. “Cocoon” forces you to think twice about sexual politics. “Our Lady of Chernobyl” is a futuristic Private Eye mystery that’s as enjoyable as anything else written in the sub-genre. “Reasons to be Cheerful” is fascinating in the exploration of a few key assumptions.

Other stories are less successful. “Silver Fire” ends as it was just beginning to take flight. “Mister Volition” is almost a rambling monologue about some ill-defined point. “The Plank Dive” lays on the science too thick: I love Hard-SF, but this went over the limit. “Transition Dreams” is an interesting horror story à la Dick, but dragged on. “Chaff” is like a lengthy description of an neat idea, with two pages of plot at the end; it took me two readings to grasp the point, and it’s not much of a stunning one.

Containing only ten stories, Luminous is also a disappointment in its length. Still, it’s an essential part of the Egan bibliography, and a key piece of nineties SF. Wait for the paperback, sure, but don’t miss it then.

BRIEFLY: My conclusion after reading Egan’s Diaspora: I must stop reading Greg Egan on the bus. If, for some reason, you’re unable to concentrate, you won’t be able to extract all the good stuff from Egan’s concept-heavy writing.

A huge tale (both in space and time) of humanity’s expansion in the metaverse, Diaspora inverts most of the standard cliches of SF and, even then, presents some inspiring thoughts. If you even felt uncomfortable at the silly STAR TREK-style space exploration paradigms, this is the book for you. It’s not especially readable, or gripping, but it’s almost endlessly surprising. I’ll definitely need to re-read this one again in a few years. But not on the bus.

Time Bomb 2000, Edward Yourdon and Jennifer Yourdon

Prentice Hall Ptr, 1998, 416 pages, C$27.95 tpb, ISBN 0-13-095284-2

This review will look silly in two years.

But that’s okay, given that the book I’m reviewing is going to look even sillier in two years.

Personally, I love the idea of the Y2K bug. It appeals to several archetypes that I find just irresistible: The failure of improperly managed technology; the trans-generational ticking-bomb suspense of it all; the signal that computers really ruled the late twentieth century… Plus, the timing just couldn’t be better. Just as we had half-convinced ourselves that we were rational creatures that didn’t really fear an arbitrary year-symbol increment, here comes this wonderful doomsday problem, sprung up from half-buried secrets and whose consequences could be as terrifying as anything we could imagine…

If it wasn’t a science-fiction story (and it was, cf: Arthur C. Clarke’s The Ghost of the Grand Banks, 1989 —my first exposure to the Y2K problem), well, gosh-darn it, it should have! It’s just too good for it!

Of course, the mercantile instinct has awaked in the shadow of this impending catastrophe. Since they’re saying our money might become worthless, some people are quite ready to take it away from us right now!

How many “miracle solutions” newscasts will we have to endure before the madness ends? Well, Time Bomb 2000 will at least tell you what’s in store, given that there’s no such thing as a magical Y2K silver bullet.

Time Bomb 2000 looks at the Y2K problem on twelve sectors from three perspective. For Jobs, Utilities, Transportation, Banking/Finance, Food, PCs, Information, Health/Medicine, Government, Embedded Systems, Education and Telephone/Mail, the Yourdons (father/daughter) estimate the chances of day-long, month-long and year-long disruptions. Their conclusions, as might be expected, aren’t very optimistic.

Their conclusion is both rational and chilling: Nobody knows what’s going to happen. Given this premise, the Yourdons gently suggest that it might be better to be over-prepared than caught without necessities. The authors remain quite confident despite everything. They don’t predict the fall of civilization as we know it, but they’re not ready to call it a non-event at this point. Seems reasonable to me. If anything, being over-prepared for the Y2K might be a good idea in case of extraordinary snowstorms, etc…

(Readers who think that I’m being too gullible on the subject of disaster preparation should know that during January 1998, the whole Eastern Ontario/Central Quebec area was paralysed by an ice storm of extraordinary proportions. Though my hometown was spared from any ill effects beyond a twenty-four blackout, it did hammer home the usefulness of a wood stove, a good set of preparation, candles and a positive attitude in the face of these event. Other areas went without electricity for almost three weeks. When people ask me about Y2K, I usually answer by telling them to prepare for another ice storm.)

Consider Time Bomb 2000 mental insurance; even though you might not follow each suggestion or take each threat seriously, at least you will have the choice to make up your mind. As for me, I must say that the book forced me to take in consideration a few factors. Given that I’m planning a major lifestyle change (buying a house is a major lifestyle change) the potential Y2K systemic failures described in Time Bomb 2000 led to establish a timeline that takes in consideration at least the possibility of Bad Stuff happening… just in case.

The Golden Globe, John Varley

Ace/Putnam, 1998, 425 pages, C$32.99 hc, ISBN 0-441-00558-6

Thirty-three bucks for a tour of the solar system. How does that sound to you? Even better: Wait a year and get it for ten bucks. Or rush to your library and get it for free! But given that it’s a new John Varley novel, why wait?

My first exposure to Varley was tardy, but significant: An impulse purchase of a (discount) hardcover edition of Steel Beach. I loved that book. Varley’s style -a chatty, lively first-person narrative loaded with fascinating asides about an original future- make than made up for a weak narrative structure and deliberately shocking details.

It was only later than I discovered Varley’s most successful works: The short stories assembled in The Persistence of Vision and The Barbie Murders. I wasn’t really ecstatic over the “Titan-Wizard-Demon” trilogy, but liked Millennium and loved The Ophiuchi Hotline. So, it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I was waiting for the arrival of Varley’s first novel since 1992’s Steel Beach: The Golden Globe.

Even casual students of the Elizabethan era will infer that this novel has some relation with Shakespeare and/or the famous theatre in which many of his plays were first performed. But Varley gives another meaning to the title by referring to the cornerstone of his imaginary “Nine World” sequence: Luna.

Taking place a few years after Steel Beach‘s “Big Glitch”, The Golden Globe is a gigantic travelogue through Varley’s most celebrated future history. Kenneth “Sparky” Valentine is a once-famous actor, now running from the law after a few rather illegal acts on Pluto. He’s a spectacular thespian, a student of Shakespeare, a con artist and a terrific narrator. As with Steel Beach, Varley opens with a shock sequence as Sparky plays both Mercutio and Juliet in a rowdy representation of the Bard’s classic—including the sex scenes.

Before long, however, we’re on the run with Sparky as an unkillable Charonese (think “Silician”) mafia assassin is aiming for him. A few flashbacks, a few exotic locations, a few action scenes, a sudden new plot, a sudden conclusion and you close the cover on one of the best SF books of 1998.

There’s no denying that The Golden Globe is a shaggy-dog story. Fans of complex plotting won’t really find what they want here. Varley’s talent is in writing short stories, and he does the next best thing here by offering a string of vignettes, mini-adventures, tourist visits and linked flashbacks. Some will find it tedious; others will read it with glee.

In this regard, it’s very similar to Steel Beach, which also spent a lot of time describing future life on Luna, and included unrelated vignettes here and there to either sustain our interest or divert us from the main action. I may prefer the earlier novel by a nose (I’m more partial to a journalist protagonist than an actor) but the bottom line is that readers who loved Varley’s previous novel will also like this one.

Reader references run deeper, as it’s difficult to talk of this novel without mentioning Heinlein at least once, and Double Star at least twice. Much like Heinlein’s Lorenzo Smythe, Valentine’s narration is a compulsively readable mix of classical theatre and street smarts.

Indeed, it’s difficult not to like Varley’s protagonist, and in the end, that’s what carries the novel through. Even the travelogue aspect of The Golden Globe should not be a disadvantage given that SF has a long and illustrious history of such novels (Clarke’s 3001, Niven’s Ringworld, large segments of Robinson’ Mars trilogy, etc…)

So get the book, sit back and enjoy.

The show is just waiting to begin.

Zero Effect (1998)

(On VHS, December 1998) Another of these movies whose opening sequence might be too strong for its own good. We’re very convincingly introduced to Daryl Zero, an utterly eccentric modern-day Sherlock Holmes and the plot is set rolling by a series of rather fun scenes. But then, the movie begins to takes itself seriously, Zero loses a lot of his peculiar nature (and doesn’t use his amazing deductive powers as much as we’d like) and the result, while reasonably good, is somehow disappointing. Too bad, given Bill Pullman’s good performance and the potential of his character.

Ying hung boon sik [A Better Tomorrow] (1986)

(On VHS, December 1998) My hopes might have been slightly too high for this film, given that this was a John Woo film. The nuance is that this is Woo’s breakthrough film; a promising cop/criminal drama, but nowhere as eye-popping and exciting as his best movies (Hard-Boiled, Face/Off) or even his first American disappointments (Broken Arrow and Hard Target). On the other hand, unlike his two first Hollywood effort, A Better Tomorrow keeps the strong emotional core that’s so characteristic of Woo’s work. The result might not be a kickin’ action masterpiece, but remains an enjoyable movie. Curiously, Chow Yun Fat is under-used as the sidekick.

Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)

(In theaters, December 1998) This reminded me, like the X-Files movie, of everything I really hate about the source TV series: Lousy science, complete lack of durable character evolution, horrendous dramatic structure, boring stories and the grating certitude that it’s written by people far from being as smart as they think they are. Above all, it’s the smug “see how intelligent / technical / philosophical we are?” attitude that’s insufferable, especially since nothing makes sense if you examine it closely. “Don’t ask” says Picard’s love interest after a particularly unexpected “magic” trick. Well I’d like to, but I’m sure that even the writers don’t have the answers. Even though it follows Star Trek’s well-known odd=bad/even=good sequence, it must be said that the final product nevertheless manages to entertain (and isn’t as bad at either Star Trek 5 or Generations) a bit. If you don’t expect much.

Twistor, John Cramer

Avon, 1989 (1998 reprint), 338 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-71027-7

Even though I usually borrow the books I review from the library, or otherwise acquire them at used bookstores, I’m still a firm believer in the voting power of a dollar. You might see me reading a Harlequin romance, but you’ll never catch me buying such a book. Looking back at the past six months, the list of authors I’ve bought in new bookstores (excluding French-language books) goes like this: Greg Egan (x3), John Cramer (x2), Robert J. Sawyer (x2), Charles Pellegrino, Bruce Sterling, John Varley, Thomas M. Disch, Peter David, Joe Haldeman, Stephen Bury, Paul di Filippo… It’s no coincidence if most of those authors best represent my idea of SF.

The relationship has two components, of course: I’m buying a book from a good author to support him, because s/he usually writes a book good enough to make me feel my money was well-spent. Charles Pellegrino’s Dust, for instance, contains so much stuff that it’s almost a bargain to buy the hardcover at full price.

It’s a bit of an overkill to speak of an author as “reliable” after only two books, but John Cramer is exactly the kind of author that I want to support with my hard-earned dollars. A working physicist by day, Cramer dons his secret identity by night and writes ultra-hard science-fiction for the enjoyment of (mostly) everyone.

In a field too often dominated by hand-waving technobabble at even the most basic level (think “Star Trek”, for instance), it’s refreshing to see some true SF where the magic is carefully confined to a far-away place. The technobabble isn’t gone, but it sure sounds better.

In Twistor, we get a story that has been done a few times already: A scientist discovers a way to switch a volume of space between various alternate universes. While he works on this revolutionary discovery, a greedy businessman and a non-less greedy supervisor try to wrestle the discovery away from him…

Familiar territory, but it’s all in the execution. The first virtue of Twistor is to establish its credibility with a careful assortment of details and of real-life procedures. Even though we’re still dealing with a scientist-and-his-female-assistant, the verisimilitude of this cliché isn’t as grating as could have been, given that the female assistant is a very strong character, and the relationship is initially explained as a teacher/graduate student situation.

What may be the biggest difference between Twistor and inferior SF is that the author is willing to play the game of “Yeah, but…” with the reader. It’s a blast to think of objections to the plotting… and then to see them answered two of three pages later. (eg; the section taken out of the tree affecting its stability) Less rigorous writers usually ignore these objection; Cramer confronts them head-on and the novel feels even more real because of that. He’s also willing to explore all the possibilities of his initial premise.

Like most hard-SF, Twistor has the usual flaws in writing and dialogue. It should be worth noting that even if Cramer isn’t a stylist on the order of, say, Kim Stanley Robinson, he does have a stronger grasp of plotting and characterisation than his hard-SF colleagues.

It should be obvious by now that I’m encouraging you to vote with your dollars, so rush out and buy Twistor if you feel that hard-SF is your cup of tea. While you’re at the bookstore, pick up a copy of Cramer’s second novel, Einstein’s Bridge for a pair of books that will not only give you faith in contemporary SF, but provide you with a few hours of very enjoyable entertainment.

Il silenzio dei prosciutti [The Silence Of The Hams] (1994)

(On TV, December 1998) The title offers many opportunities for rotten cracks on “hammy acting” and such, but it would be a mistake to pounce on this relatively enjoyable spoof of (mostly) Psycho, with bits of The Silence Of The Lambs thrown in for good measure. It’s far from being as polished as other spoof comedies, but still packs in an impressive array of jokes. Most are juvenile; some are hilarious. Probably not worth renting unless you’re in the mood for this stuff, but it’s a blast if you can catch it for free on TV.

Shakespeare In Love (1998)

(In theaters, December 1998) Unarguably one of the best movies of 1998. Why? Pure Magic. Who would have thought to be enchanted by a hilarious film taking place in Elizabethan times, starring William (“Will”) Shakespeare as the romantic hero? Doesn’t sound promising, but the result is magnificent. Great acting by Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow as the leading couple, plus Judi Dench as the second Elizabeth worthy of an Oscar nomination this year. (Shakespeare In Love does makes a perfect companion to the rather humourless Elizabeth) The film played exceedingly well to a demographically heterogenous audience, drawing laughs from both Shakespeare scholars and teenagers less familiar with the works of The Bard. (It also played quite well to your crusty “anything-but-a-chick-flick” reviewer…) It’s a testimony to the power of film that Shakespeare In Love will finally make you understand the greatness of Shakespeare and the magic of theatre; while not perfect, it’s good enough to land on my yearly Top-5 without hesitation. A shame it’s not widely released; don’t miss it!

My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997)

(On VHS, December 1998) Not as good as expected. Sure, Julia Roberts is at her best. Sure, it’s a more balanced romantic comedy than most. Sure, the script has its moment. But the movie cannot escape its own intentions and contradictions. If the result is more mature than the typical Hollywood love story, it’s also much less satisfying. On the other hand, the movie takes life every time Rupert Everett is on screen; he turns a potentially dreary role in a scene-stealing performance. That’s probably why I loved the last scene as much as I did.

The Faculty (1998)

(In theaters, December 1998) As a fan of Desperado, and as a wisecracking MST3Ker, I had high hopes -but low expectations- for The Faculty. Written by “look how postmodernist I am!” Kevin (Scream) Williamson (who, I’ll maintain, is a hugely overrated screenwriter) and directed by Robert (From Dusk Till Dawn) Rodriguez, The Faculty should have been something quite special. Unfortunately, its eagerness to spoof “alien invasion” movies clashes with its intent to scare and its rather poor script. There are logical plotholes everywhere and even though we’re not supposed to notice them, they really do grate after a while: some of the “twists” are really conjured out of nowhere, without an inkling of how they should be possible. Still, don’t get the impression that I didn’t enjoy myself: The movie plays well once underway (much like the other teen-supernatural drama The Craft, the first 30 minutes are insufferably tedious but the movie picks up once the basics are established) and there are a few nice scenes here and there. (Shoot me; I liked the football sequence!) The result is an unexplainably ordinary film, perfect on video for a slow Friday night.

Distraction, Bruce Sterling

Bantam Spectra, 1998, 439 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-10484-5

Power can take many forms. Most of us either think of power as being incarnated by electricity, violence or (inevitably) politicians. But even for politicians, elected officials often don’t wield as much power as we’d believe. Considerable influence can be attributed to non-elected personnel in the politician’s staff, who can analyze situations and recommend favourable alternatives. Bruce Sterling’s last novel is a true political science-fiction novel, exploring the sources and consequences of power in a future America that’s far stranger than anyone but Sterling could imagine.

Distraction features protagonist Oscar Valparaiso, a political operator with “personal background issues.” As the novel begins, he’s happy but exhausted: He just managed to elect his candidate, an architect with senatorial ambitions. He soon has to face his biggest challenge, however, in trying to rationalize the operations of a federal research institute. His effort will have greater repercussions than he ever hoped for.

But as with most Bruce Sterling novels, mere plot descriptions do little justice to the actual book: It’s the constant accumulation of details that makes the novel so enjoyable. The United States of 2044 aren’t quite as impressive as today. Military bases get operating funds by establishing roadblocks. Vast bands of high-tech nomads roam the countryside. Louisiana, led by a charismatic leader, is on the verge of secession. A new Cold War is taking place between The United States… and the Netherlands.

It’s a measure, either of America’s current insanity or Sterling’s talent that despite the rather high comical/ironic content of Distraction, the novel remains believable. Part of this impression should be attributed to the author’s refusal to play around with a single-tone future like so many inferior SF writers. Distraction‘s future feels real because it’s composed of widely disparate elements without necessary relevance to the plot. It is textured.

At some point, someone is going to have to write a thesis on how Bruce Sterling’s non-fiction writing has enhanced his novels. He’s a regular contributor to Wired magazine, and it shows: Distraction even provides comfort who everyone who ever thought that SF is destined to be “mainstreamed” in a society constantly closer to Science-Fiction. (ask Thomas M. Disch) Distraction is pure, fresh, cutting-edge SF.

It’s worth noting that despite a few exceptions, Sterling develops his characters quite well. Only the lack of development of Oscar’s crew (or rather—“krewe”) disappoints.

(Tangentially, it’s interesting to note that two of the most politically complex SF novels of 1998, Distraction and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Antarctica, feature senator aides protagonists.)

Readers disappointed with the aimlessness of Sterling’s previous novel Holy Fire will be pleased to learn that Distraction has a much stronger plot. Even though the wealth of details makes for a leisurely-paced story, the impression is a least that the narrative is going somewhere. Indeed, it’s a rather satisfying story that Sterling wraps up… an uncommon impression in the field of political thrillers where dead protagonists turn up as often as back-room deals.

It’s almost a given that Distraction will find itself listed on almost every major SF award nominee list. Sterling’s already considerable reputation and Distraction‘s reader-friendliness also almost ensures that it’s going to be a strong contender for the Hugo and/or Nebula. Enjoy.

A Bug’s Life (1998)

(In theaters, December 1998) I usually boycott Disney movies. No hard ideological feelings; I just hate the sugar-sweetness of their animated features and the jackhammer subtleness of their marketing approach. I did make an exception for A Bug’s Life, though, given that it’s A> Computer animated (a few months of experimentation with the form left traces on me) and B> It’s really made by Pixar, not Disney. It was a good decision; A Bug’s Life is a lot of fun and it virtually guaranteed to be so for everyone. Animated features are so deliberate that it’s virtually impossible for a stinker to emerge from the process, since that so many people double-check the results. (On the other hand, don’t expect to see anything but writing-by-committee, but still…) The computer animation is simply incredible and the writing is pretty sharp. I liked the characters, and the Dot-rescue sequence is an tremendously exciting piece of action film-making. Stay for the end credits which are hands-down the most riotous part of the movie. Inevitable comparisons will be made with Dreamwork’s contemporary effort Antz, and that’s really a shame since both are good movies that shouldn’t somehow diminish one another. See it, and not only once!

(Second viewing, In theaters, December 1998) No, not a typo… I really went to see it again. (I made a bet with a female friend and lost… don’t ask.) Frankly, I was surprised at how well A Bug’s Life stood up to a close second look, three weeks after seeing it for the first time. In interviews, director John Lasseter said he made movies to endure through repeated viewings (he does know his adult public) and I’ll admit that he succeeded. Many other details pop up, and the succession of scenes is still as fun the second time. Oh; the second set of outtakes isn’t as riotous that the first one, but still cracked up most of the audience. My favourite? “Princess ABBA”…

Brazil (1985)

(On VHS, December 1998) Not many films deserve the to be called “brilliant”, but this is one of them. Obviously rooted in the dystopian frameworks of 1984 and Brave New World, Brazil one-ups them by being a fiercely cinematic work. Director Terry Gilliam seldom disappoints, and the result is a non-stop succession of quirky images and weird angles that doesn’t flag halfway through like many other “high-visual” films. While it is true that the ending drags on for a while, the payoff is worth it. A memorable vision of a bureaucracy gone mad, Brazil is another movie to rent as soon as possible (though you might find it mis-shelved under the category “Comedy”…)

(Second viewing, on DVD, June 2009): I had inordinately fond memories of this film, and it turns out that I had forgotten just how great the film was: Another look kept surprising me with forgotten details, snappy turns of phrase and the film’s insane conceptual audaciousness. A sarcastic dystopia, Brazil never wimps out… especially at the very end. Twenty-five years later, Terry Gilliam’s direction is still spot-on, the production design of the film is still mesmerizing, and the pacing feels just as urgent as today’s films. Alas, the bare-bones DVD edition I watched had no supplements to speak of; this will be one of my must-buy Blu-Ray titles.

The Cobra Event, Richard Preston

Ballantine, 1997, 432 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-40997-3

Most accounts of Richard Preston’s previous non-fiction book, The Hot Zone, commented on its terrifyingly high suspense factor. This reviewer wasn’t an exception, going as far as to question the appropriateness of horror novels in the face of The Hot Zone‘s realistic subject matter of viral plagues.

Well, Preston seemingly listened to the reviewers and wrote The Cobra Event, a gripping novel of -what else?- biological terrorism in the continental United States.

It begins as a teenager dies gruesomely in a high school art class. Soon, a CDC medical pathologist is on her way to New York to see what caused the death. She discovers that the teenager isn’t the only victim… and that the deaths might be part of a biological warfare test run.

Viral infections are scary enough that there’s really no need to imagine cold-blooded terrorists hatching a global depopulation plan. But that’s where The Cobra Event chooses to go, and the result is gripping.

This novel’s greatest strength -credibility- is almost a given from the author of three non-fiction books. Even though there’s no stopping an author from inventing spurious facts, false references and imaginary events (it’s fiction, after all), this reviewer is firmly convinced that careful homework shows. It informs the narrative and gives it an extra layer of credibility that is essential.

The Cobra Event is, right down to its very narrative, loaded and enhanced with facts, descriptions, actions and plotting that have to be modeled on real-life. The most immediate effect is to assign an unusually high plausibility to a basic idea (terrorists do bad things) that had been done time and time again elsewhere. A less-obvious effect is to engender a delightful feeling of dread. This is not a novel for the squeamish: many deaths are very violent and clinically described. The book contains two full-fledged autopsy scenes that will make even the most hardened reader squirm in their seats.

But, as many inept techno-thriller writers have demonstrated inadvertently, credibility isn’t enough for a successful book. You have to make it serve the story and to deliver a novel that’s compelling in its own right. Above all, it must be presented in a way that will be accessible to thousands of airplanes passengers all over the world.

Here too, Richard Preston excels. As readable as The Hot Zone was, The Cobra Event is even better. Good sympathetic characters, fast pacing, hypnotically readable prose all merge and make up a superior thriller. Down to the conclusion, which isn’t as tidy and wrapped-up as we would have liked to believe… just like a real-life bio-warfare event would presumably be.

Memorable, entertaining and credible, The Cobra Event is pretty good effort for a first novel, letting us speculate on a long and successful dual career for Preston, alternating non-fiction books with novels.

BRIEFLY: In comparison, Pierre Ouellette’s The Third Pandemic is, if you’ll pardon the pun, anaemic. Though it deals knowledgeably with a plague caused by bacteria and doesn’t stop right before the abyss, The Third Pandemic isn’t exactly enjoyable. Good set-pieces can’t erase the bad taste left by an annoying pessimism about human nature, very suspicious plotting, anti-technological bias (the second-to-last paragraph of the book is almost offensive) and lack of large-scale vision when dealing with a global disaster. The writing is also unnervingly ineffective, transforming exciting scenes in hum-drum descriptions. Read Richard Preston’s The Cobra Event instead.