(In theaters, March 1999) This film isn’t very good, but it’s much more entertaining than what one might expect. A hilariously “modern” adaptation of French 18th century novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Cruel Intentions benefits from the strength of the original material to stand heads and shoulders above the other rather insipid “teen romance” movies. The film isn’t believable as itself, but acquires an extra dimension when you consider the various tweaks and changes they’ve made to take an old novel and present it to modern audiences. (Eg; Sebastian’s money-driven charm is implausible in itself, but entirely believable when considering the original aristocratic character.) Surprisingly tame for its raunchy potential, it manages a few good moments—like the “Bittersweet Symphony” ending. While Cruel Intentions was hailed as “not a good date movie”, I must report that my two straight-laced female companions did like the film.
Tor, 1996 (1998 reprint), 277 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-55392-6
Good examples of Science-Fiction crossed with Crime Fiction are nearly as numerous as crossovers between SF and Thrillers. Many SF authors have written a few mystery novels (Isaac Asimov, Stephen R. Donaldson, etc…) and for some reason, (solidarity among the ghettoes?) readers of SF are often fans of crime fiction. The basic plotline of thrillers, (One man confronting powerful forces conspiring against him!) on the other hand, has always been a natural way to develop the bigger-than nature plots of most grandiose SF. Murder in the Solid State will suck you in with a murder mystery, but ultimately evolves in your basic near-future conspiracy thriller.
It all begins, appropriately enough, at a nanotechnology scientific conference. David Sanger is a young physicist with things to prove to the world. Shortly after the beginning of the conference, he finds himself arguing against a rather unpleasant older scientist widely despised by his peers. Heated words eventually lead to sharp weapons and before long David is sword-fighting (!) against his nemesis. His martial arts training takes over and he wins the fight, but finds himself in custody the following morning as the older scientist is murdered during the night… A hundred pages in the novel, David’s most trusted friends turn against him and he finds himself tangled in something much bigger than just a murder.
In time, the “Solid State” of the title assumes its full political importance and it’s a bit of a surprise to find us cleverly slipped a message about the dangerous implications of comfortable safety. Like many pure-SF writers, McCarthy espouses libertarian (or at least vaguely anti-government) tendencies but exhibits them more carefully than most of his peers.
One of the cover blurbs is James Patrick Kelly saying “Think ‘Hitchcock meets Heinlein’” and the comparison is apt. The narrative is lean and rarely pauses for its breath. The future technology is described plausibly, with some attention for the social impact of said technology. The protagonist is suitably sympathetic, with the result that we keep on rooting for him even as he is forced to commit unpleasant acts. The narration is suitably paced and the reader’s interest rarely flags.
But if Murder in the Solid State is a perfectly competent thriller with the added interest of being peppered with solid nanotechnological details, it’s also obvious that it’s a bit pedestrian, a bit… well… ordinary. After the whirlwind first hundred pages, the novels comfortably settles down in a classical thriller structure, and it doesn’t take a lot of perspicacity to intuit that the protagonist is eventually going to confront the Bad Guy.
But it doesn’t really matter, because even if not every book can be a classic, we can always use another good competent SF adventure. And Murder in the Solid State more than proves that Wil McCarthy is an author worth examining. Who knows what else he’ll come up with next?
(On TV, March 1999) Regular readers of these reviews already know that I’m always in the market for a good techno-thriller, so it’s no surprise if I liked Crimson Tide as much as I did. A good story (from submarine thriller novelist Richard P. Hendrick) and a fine script, plus the always-excellent Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman make this a tense, solid underwater suspense. Obviously a guy’s type of movie (was there even one female after the first ten minutes?), but a good one. Worth a rental on video.
(In theaters, March 1999) Despite the frosty critical consensus, I thought that this was a pretty darn fine B-series action movie. Of course, I’m almost a card-carrying fan of both Chow-Yun Fat and “Marky” Mark Wahlberg -for the music and the acting-, so I’m not exactly objective in the matter. Still, it has a crunchy story, with a few good action scenes (a car chase in which pedestrians get wounded! Imagine that!) and a tone reminiscent to Fat’s previous Hong Kong movies. On the other hand, I must admit that the action scenes aren’t very well directed, the script could be improved and the final battle isn’t very exciting. Still, it’s a good popcorn film if you’re in the mood for some action.
(In theaters, March 1999) I couldn’t make it to the end of this film for uncontrollable reasons (no, I’m not that squeamish: I had a severe headache even before the movie started and my physical condition went downhill after that…), but I did like what I saw. Nicolas Cage is always decent, and the script efficiently goes through the motion. I did miss most of the extended third act, (I left shortly after Cage used a screwdriver on a Machine) so reports of a drawn-out conclusion might or might not be true.
Guild American Books, 1989, 406 pages, C$15.00 hc, ISBN Unavailable
Ever since the “New Wave” pseudo-revolution of the sixties, a segment of Science-Fiction has been quite content to push the boundaries of literary achievement at the expense of the story. Sometimes is works (Neuromancer), but second-hand bookstores across the nation are packed with the failures of the experiment. Arguably, the final result is a stronger, more mature and better-written Science-Fiction. But ordinary readers can’t be blamed if they get the impression that a lot of the simple storytelling fun has gone out of today’s SF. Even worse; they tend to accept this as a matter of fact, and so the impression that Written SF Can’t Be Fun Any More If It Want To Be Serious subconsciously endures.
That’s why it’s such a breath of fresh air, from time to time, to re-discover solid works of SF that unashamedly bring back the simple joy of reading. It’s not fancy to be conventional, but most of the time it works.
Charles Sheffield will never be misidentified as one of the genre’s greatest stylists. A scientist by trade, Sheffield has turned to Science-Fiction late in life, producing works heavily inspired by the hard sciences, with only a perfunctory interest in characters.
His first novel was Sight of Proteus (1978), a short tale about a future Earth modified by the widespread use of nonsurgical techniques to modify the human body. These can be as innocuous as simple plastic modification or as fundamental as changing sex, etc… The hero of the tale is Behrooz Wulf (ie; Bey Wolf), a top investigator at the agency charged with protecting the Earth from illegal and dangerous modifications. It all begins as they suspect a famous scientist of forbidden experiments…
Sight of Proteus is, to be frank, a bit silly. Sheffield’s body-shaping technology is a mix between fancy machines and almost wishful biofeedback mechanisms. Given that the real-world has invented nanotechnology since Sheffield’s novel, let’s just say that his techno-babble isn’t as fresh or convincing as it was then even if the end results are more believable. The world-building is also slightly suspicious; one would expect more of scientific progress if, after all, they’re able to shape bodies literally at will.
But even despite these quibbles, Sight of Proteus is fun. The writing is marvelously limpid, up to a point where one wonders how come most novels aren’t as accessible, imaginative and entertaining as this one.
Things get less pleasant by the end, as our protagonists go an Nivenesque trip through the solar system and the story doesn’t conclude as much as is dropped almost in mid-flight.
Proteus Manifest is one of the Science-Fiction Book Club’s own omnibus editions, thus cleverly combining two book published at ten year’s interval under a same cover. Unfortunately, a universe based on the body-changing premise and a protagonist with the same name are about the only things the two novels have in common: There are few linkages with the events of the first novel, and Sheffield’s prose has evolved significantly in the decade dividing Sight of Proteus with Proteus Unbound (1989).
Even the plot is bigger, as Behrooz Wulf is asked to solve disquieting form-changing equipment failures in the Outer Solar System. At the same time, he’s plagued with maddening hallucinations and a lost love. Oh, and there’s also a rebel colony hidden inside the asteroid belt. Could all of these things possibly be linked?
The fun of the first volume carries through the second book, which is more satisfying than the first (though the conclusion is almost as abrupt). Good ideas, sharp writing, nice plotting and an effortless mastery of hard sciences; it’s good enough to compare with Niven and Clarke, as well as make one wonder why they don’t write that kind of SF any more.
Though Proteus Manifest is at time frustrating and not exactly completely successful, it is so wonderfully imaginative and clearly written that it’s well-worth picking up in used bookstores. Who said that the New Wave had killed old-fashioned Hard SF?