Monthly Archives: April 1999

Trunk Music, Michael Connelly

Little Brown, 1997, 383 pages, C$31.95 hc, ISBN 0-316-15244-7

The biggest problem with crime fiction nowadays is that a lot of it tends to be written as part of a series. You know the setup: One author will create a really good protagonist, and then re-use him in multiple books. Never mind the unlikeliness of someone going though all of these adventure; it seems to be the norm.

Publishers will undoubtedly tell you that this is a great way to sell more books. If a reader likes one book, then s/he’ll be more likely to try the next book in the series. For the authors, it arguably allows them to concentrate on the all-important plot and proceed with an already-established protagonist in a familiar environment.

Unfortunately, there is a darker side to this practice. The most significant is that this assumed background gets more inclusive as the number of books piles up. Readers jumping into a series in mid-stream can be bewildered. It becomes a major challenge for an author to find ways to integrate this background in their newest novel to allow them to pick up new readers. (The limitations imposed by the existing background are of no relevance to this review and will thoughtfully be ignored here.)

Trunk Music is the fifth book in Michael Connelly’s series about an LAPD detective with the unlikely name of Hieronymus (“Harry”) Bosch. Novice readers need not worry about jumping in mid-stream, however: Bosch begins the novel by opening his first case since coming back from disciplinary leave. As Harry gets back into the Homicide-solving business, we readers are offered the opportunity to meet with his new colleagues and reflect with the protagonist about how his job has changed. Nice.

Furthermore, Harry’s first case isn’t your boring run-of-the-mill murder: The victim is discovered stuffed into the back trunk of his car, a white Rolls-Royce. His name: Tony Aliso. His profession: Movie producer. Of course, things are about to get far more complex. The wife reacts strangely. The Organized Crime unit reacts strangely. Internal Affairs reacts strangely. We’re in for a suitably twisty maze of a plot.

Almost every interesting element of crime fiction is present in Trunk Music: California, Murder, Las Vegas, Double Agents, Theft, Escapes, Hollywood, Mafia, Romance, Blackmail, Los Angeles, Internal Affairs, Racism, Prostitution, Cars, Old Flames, Gambling, Corruption, Interrogations, Movies, FBI… the list goes on. The result is a complex novel that uncharacteristically remains understandable throughout.

Even more convincing is the accumulation of procedural detail. It’s crucial for most crime fiction to convince the reader of their plausibility and Trunk Music is undoubtedly a novel of the nineties, with its post-Rodney King LAPD, attention to Employment Equity issues and usage of modern communication and audiovisual equipment.

Connelly’s writing style has a lot to do with the novel’s success. His characters are well-introduced and suitably handled. Nobody’s perfect, and even the hero is motivated by goals that aren’t always admirable; watch as his initial handling of the case is more a case of personal advancement than reasonable procedure. The dialogue is spot-on and there are more than a few chuckles to be enjoyed from Harry Bosch. Great Scenes also pepper this novel, raising it from the ranks of the merely good novels to the status of a little great yarn.

Despite being a fifth-of-a-series, Trunk Music starts out in a way that’s easy to immerse newer readers. Then the plot, the characters and the details take over and the result is nothing short of a superb police procedural. Publishers will undoubtedly be pleased to note that gee, if Trunk Music was that good, it might be worthwhile to read Connelly’s next book…

Shadows of Steel, Dale Brown

Putnam, 1996, 367 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 0-399-14139-1

Another book, another enemy, another war.

It must not be an easy job to be a techno-thriller writer. The standard formula -to which one must adhere in order to keep readers- requires at least one non-negotiable variable: An implacable enemy who threaten America’s interests. In the eighties, such an enemy was easy to find: Every country behind the Iron Curtain was an acceptable foe and most novels featured Evil Soviets.

Of course, things weren’t as simple after the Berlin Wall came down. Writers have been forced to use drug dealers, American Terrorists, India, Russian extremists and other more-or-less convincing enemies.

Iran, however, has always been a good enemy (Clancy’s Executive Orders, Coyle’s Sword Point, etc…) and in Shadows of Steel, we go back to the tried-and-true Iranians, whose usual anti-American stance and aspirations toward becoming a regional power makes up for at least a willingness to fight.

On the other hand, these are the enlightened nineties, and only a few of Iran’s craziest military officers wish war with the United States. No matter; before long we’re bombing them again. What else do you need to know about a Dale Brown novel?

If it’s any good? Tough question. Shadows of Steel is a competent technothriller, but invites comparison with other works that will inevitably make it seem less enjoyable than it actually is.

The biggest problem with Shadows of Steel is that it’s part of Dale Brown’s long-running “Patrick McLanahan” series. It brings together characters from many novels, including Skymaster‘s Jon Masters, Day of the Cheetah‘s Wendy McLanahan and Storming Heaven‘s Kevin Martindale. In internal chronology, it takes place after Brown’s second novel Day of the Cheetah. And there lies the difficulty. Brown’s 1989 novel wasn’t very realistic, featuring several fictional high-tech devices in a future seven years removed and postulating a dastardly plot by the Soviets to steal one of America’s newest fighters. On the other hand, it’s still one of Brown’s most exciting novels: Plausibility was more than compensated by slam-bang action and the result was one heck of a good read.

You can guess the rest: Shadows of Steel is so much more down-to-earth (fewer high-tech, more jargon, more actual procedures) that compared to Day of the Cheetah, it’s downright boring. Not entirely boring, mind you: Brown is incapable of delivering anything else than a good read. But the difference between the two novels is shocking, almost as if a soft-spoken attorney reminded you of his past as a Black Panther.

Either Brown wants to be exciting, or he has to match his series’ coherence with real-world markers. There is increasingly less middle ground. Unlike Tom Clancy, whose “Jack Ryan” novels are now ludicrously diverged from reality, Brown is trying to take his wilder earlier novels and tighten them up even more closely with current events. It doesn’t work. Time for new singletons.

Two other major annoyances: Along with the previous Storming Heaven, Shadows of Steel also feels like a series of good-to-great scenes linked together by a thin thread of plot. More ominously, Shadows of Steel concludes on a note that more than feels like if the whole novel was a setup for Brown’s next book (Fatal Terrain).

Is Shadows of Steel still worth a read? As usual, the answer -despite the relative lack of excitement in the plotting- is still that military aviation fans will find here one of the most polished novels dealing with their favorite subject. Non-fans need not enlist.

Mars Underground, William K. Hartmann

Tor, 1997, 428 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-58039-7

The most unfortunate consequence of Science-Fiction’s fascination for Mars during the nineties is the production of the planet’s definitive future history. From now on, every novel about the Red Planet have to contend with the towering shadow of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, which more or less said everything that needed to be said seriously about Mars until we eventually get there: Lesser Mars novels like Jack Williamson’ Beach Head are eaten for lunch by Robinson’s Mars.

It seemed to me that the only serious way to avoid comparison to Robinson’s story was to go gonzo and write far-out novels like Greg Bear’s Moving Mars, so different from Robinson’s history that it couldn’t be compared. So, I didn’t really expect anything like Mars Underground to succeed, given the way it almost retreads the first half of Red Mars. And yet…

Mars, 2032. We will follow four persons: Dr. Alwyn Stafford is the closest thing to a Martian: He’s been on the planet for almost twenty years and continues his research in Martian life-forms. Carter Jahns (shades of Burrough’s “John Carter”?) is one of the engineers responsible for planning human expansion on Mars. His friend Philippe Brach is the French artist-in-residence on Mars. And, disrupting the cards by her arrival from Earth is Annie Pohaku, news journalist.

One day, Stafford disappears while on a solitary exploration trip. The whole Martian contingent is mobilized to find him, including Jahns. The clues they find are puzzling, suggesting deliberate intent to confuse the situation rather than accidental disappearance. But why, and how, would Stafford disappears? The story gets even more complex when Annie gets much closer to Philippe and then to Carter… serial seduction, or ways to ensure she doesn’t miss a potential scoop?

For a newcomer to science-fiction, William K. Hartmann has impressive credentials: Multi-degree scientist involved with projects such as Mariner 9 and the Mars Global Surveyor Mission, Hugo-nominated author/co-author of eleven science books, be brings both knowledge and technique to Mars Underground, with fascinating results.

The biggest surprise, I suspect, is that despite Mars Underground‘s clear membership to hard-SF, it is written with an elegance uncommon to the subgenre and an attention to characters that is far removed from the quick sketches we’re almost used to read. Uncommonly, this novel centers almost as much on a love triangle than on the promise of a good old-fashioned scientific mystery.

As far as enigmas go, this is a good one. Stafford’s disappearance has a few quirky aspects that can’t be easily explained by Jahns, who presses on further and further until he discovers an explanation, then another, then a conspiracy… The intrepid Annie is with him at each step of the way, but whose side is she really on, besides herself? Hartmann keeps the reader guessing throughout the novel, only letting the answers appear near the end. Even though the conclusion isn’t as strong as it could have been, it’s spectacular enough to be interesting.

Ironically, it’s the reverse that’s true of the novel: While Mars Underground is very strong in terms of characters, plotting and overall writing, it’s not as spectacular as it could have been. Hartmann stays as close as possible to the realm of the possible -his Mars is uncannily *real*- and while the result is commendable, it’s not as awe-inspiring as one might have expected. This is not really a failure as it is a slight disappointment, and even then not very much. Mars Underground is a better-than-average Hard-SF novel that’s surprisingly human and should gather a readership beyond the usual school of Science-Fiction realism. It needs no comparison to Robinson’s Mars to be appreciated.

Stalker Analog, Mel Odom

ROC, 1993, 367 pages, C$6.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-451-45257-7

Legend has it that the late famous Amazing editor John Campbell used to tell writers that he didn’t want their old recycled western stories. After all, it’s so easy to go through an old story and replace every “John” with “Blorip”, “horse” with “tronaap” and “colt” with “pistolaser”. SF, argued Campbell, must be -in addition to everything else- uniquely SF. Remove the SF element from the SF story, and there should be no coherent story.

I never expect too much from ROC books, and Stalker Analog finely upholds this publisher’s track record as an inconsistent peddler of sorta-SF. Examples of fantasy disguising as SF from ROC are numerous (see a good proportion of Emily Devenport’s production, or a large part of the stories in “SF” anthologies like Future Net) and it’s no coincidence if their books tend to be forgotten come award time and if you have a hard time finding ROC books in mall libraries. Put put it simply, they don’t measure up to the good publishers in the field of SF.

(There’s also an issue of boring covers, which is not worth getting into today.)

Stalker Analog starts out as a pretty good illustration of what I mean by sorta-SF. It takes place in a near-future Houston economically dominated by the Japanese and stars a young female cop named Bethany Shay. After an opening sequence where Shay busts up a casino, the real story begins: A serial murderer in the Jack-the-Ripper tradition is terrorizing the city, and it’s up to Bethany to find him/her.

Up to maybe the two-third of the book, we get a police procedural—a rather enjoyable one, but a police procedural nonetheless. There are a few hints of cyberspace stuff and oh-so-early-nineties Japanese influence, but nothing you couldn’t excise easily from the novel.

It’s only in its final hundred pages that the plot moves resolutely in Science-Fiction territory, and then only to conclude on a note strongly reminescent of ROBOCOP II. Elsewhere, there isn’t much to attach the novel to pure SF… not even a few high-tech gadgets.

Interestingly, apart from a brief flash of interest at the end, the novel was substantially weaker in its SF phase. The police procedural is well-handled, and the character development is worth it. When all rules fly out to cyberspace, however, the novel loses a lot of its coherency and evolves in ways that aren’t really clear or satisfying.

Too bad; I would have liked to see a version of Stalker Analog as a modern crime novel. The elements for a good procedural are all there, and Odom can really write in a manner to hold our attention. The plotting is also quite good, moving rapidly from one point to another. Finally, the action scenes are well described, which is always a must for action thrillers of this type.

In the meantime, ROC remains a publisher without a clear idea of what SF stories should be. It’s not enough to add “Analog” to a generic title to get a science-fiction novel: you also have to put some of it in the plot too.

Death Drives a Semi, Edo van Belkom

Quarry Press, 1998, 263 pages, C$19.95 tpb, ISBN 1-55082-214-4

In his introduction to Death Drives a Semi, Robert J. Sawyer writes that Edo van Belkom is “the ideal of what used to be called, back when the term wasn’t disparaging, a pulp writer—he writes stories quickly, often to a given editor’s specification, always producing a quality, salable product on time.” Disparaging or not, “pulp writer” neatly encapsulate both what’s good and what’s not about this collection.

Horror is a very curious literature that has become even stranger in the last decade. The nineties have seen the popularization of the genre through movies, television series and, more ominously, “young adult” novels. Much like post-STAR WARS Science-Fiction, Pop-Horror finds itself reduced to the lowest common denominator. The result, more obvious on the silver screen, is more successful at inducing laughter (GHOST IN THE MACHINE) when it’s simply not successful at all (I STILL KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER).

Horror is losing potency, slowly being defanged by its increasing accessibility to everyone—including teens and pre-teens. We’re slowly ending up with a genre synonymous with tame, formulaic, lifeless (ho-ho) stories where everyone dies at the end, but readers couldn’t care less.

This reviewer might already be too jaded despite only a passing familiarity with the genre, but the biggest problem with Death Drives a Semi is that for the most part, it’s nothing special. Many stories can be resumed as “Person discovers supernatural thing, supernatural thing kills person, another person comes in.” Most of the stories end up of the sort easily shown on prime-time television: few chills and even fewer scares. There is no feeling of dread, of disturbing visions. Horror without bite. Morality tales of dark irony, not horror.

This being said, a few stories are successful in a Twilight-Zone type of way, mostly those who escape the “and then he dies”-type of pat ending. “Roadkill”, “Death Drives a Semi”, “Rat Food”, “And Injustice for Some”, “S.P.S.”, “Baseball Memory” are all superb.

Furthermore -this is where the good side of being a “pulp writer” comes in-, even van Belkom’s most ordinary stories are a lot of fun to read. The man writes clearly and tells a story. A perusal through a recent “Best New Horror” anthology revealed that the “best” of the genre has evolved in a rarefied realm of smothering over-characterization and emphasis of atmosphere over point or story.

Thankfully, none of that here. There are no “bad” stories in Death Drives a Semi. (Though “The Ice Bridge” is problematic, with its resolution having nothing to do with the main conflict of the story.) Van Belkom’s character are almost invariably well-defined, with just enough background to make them believable. Technically, this is a very instructive collection.

But there is a difference between being technically perfect and being actually terrifying. That’s what’s missing from Death Drives A Semi: a willingness to go further than just the usual. “Blood Count”, for instance, stops just when it was getting interesting, just when we were in for some major supernatural disturbance. It would also be interesting to see van Belkom write some more about his “Zombie” world, here represented in “But Somebody’s Got To Do It” and “Roadkill”.

Hopefully, Death Drives a Semi is the first collection of a writer who will go on to better and more horrific things. It’s only a matter of taking that last step that separates very good from great. In the meantime, Death Drives A Semi is worth your attention; borrow it at the local library or do your part for Canadian-published horror and buy the book.

Aggressor Six, Wil McCarthy

ROC, 1994, 253 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-451-45405-7

The Alien, in Science-Fiction, has been a symbol for many things, most of them contradictory. It has gone, from story to story, from ultimate enemy (The War of the Worlds, ALIENS, ID4, The Forge of God) to benevolent friend (ET, Stranger in a Strange Land) while going through stages of Enigmas (Schismatrix), Caricatures of human traits (Star Trek), All-Powerful Guardians (The Ophiuchi Hotline) and everything in between, as needed by the authors. Most of the above-mentioned stories are tales of First Contact and it is in this tradition, more or less, that Wil McCarthy’s Aggressor Six belongs.

Technically, it’s not quite a “first contact” story, given that the first, first contact is vaguely described through flashback. But it’s certainly the account of the first meaningful exchange between humans and Waisters.

But Aggressor Six is also a war novel and it begins as humanity is going down for the count. Human colonies have been implacably destroyed by the Waisters, who are now heading for the solar system. Meanwhile, a team of human experts on Waisters is put together to try to emulate the alien thought processes and find a way to beat the invasion.

It is a miracle that Nietzche’s advice on fighting evil doesn’t figure on the first page of the book, because Aggressor Six is all about Becoming the Alien. That the process is intended by the characters doesn’t make it any easier: The protagonist’s superiors and colleagues are unsettled when he truly begins thinking like the Waisters.

This was Wil McCarthy’s first published novel and it has a few regrettable deficiencies that we can blame on inexperience. For a 250-pages story, it has considerable lengths. Most of the middle section, for instance, is spent in internal monologues and not enough in external action. In his willingness to represent the strangeness of the aliens, McCarthy initially goes too far, eliciting confusion instead of comprehension. This confusion eventually abates, and the conclusion of the novel is well-handled. The aliens might be strange, but they have internal coherence.

The end result is a novel that’s moderately satisfying, though perhaps more worthwhile for a hint of the author’s latter works than the actual narrative. The action scenes are well-done, and McCarthy manages to inject interesting ideas in his First Contact story. The Machine Intelligence sequences are particularly chilling, even though not exactly ground-breaking. Aggressor Six is a cut above the usual ROC material.

Personal Trivia: I happen to remember Aggressor Six as the first novel I’ve seen promoted on the Internet by the author itself. It was, as I recall, in 1994 on rec.arts.sf.written. It took five years, but the promotion effort did pay off!

The Phantom (1996)

(On TV, April 1999) The presence of sultry Catherine Zeta-Jones in this movie immediately reminded me of The Mask Of Zorro, and that’s the frame of mind in which The Phantom is best-appreciated. A charmingly quaint adventure story set in the 1930s, this movie adroitly straddles the line between self-awareness and camp and the result is something that is far too sympathetic to dislike. Billy Zane pulls off a role that requires him to parade in a skin-tight purple jumpsuit (!) without embarrassing himself too much. Though inconsistent with its approach to the supernatural (The Phantom isn’t; the villain is) and a bit overlong in its middle part, this movie is a good choice for a family adventure film.

Favorite Deadly Sins (1995)

(On TV, April 1999) Very uneven collection of three sketches supposedly about deadly sins. The first one (“Lust”) is promising but ends on a “conclusion” that’s both pointless and senseless. (Hey! Isn’t it supposed to be about a deadly sin?) The second sketch (“Greed”) is not only the longest, but also the best. A sharp satire about the media, it’s worth watching by itself. (Though maybe five minutes overlong.) The third piece (“Anger”) stars the repulsive Andrew Clay, who pretty much sinks whatever value the sketch might have once had.

Orbital Decay, Allen Steele

Ace, 1989, 324 pages, C$4.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-49851-5

Science-Fiction, for all its vaunted capacity to extrapolate logically into the future, is often an awfully unrealistic literature. Consider one of the genre’s flagship universe: Star Trek. In the first two television series, everything ran smoothly on the Enterprise: Few crewmembers disagreed with each others (when they did, it was a sign of alien possession), everyone had comfortable living space (no one complained about cramped quarters, at least), nobody was bored or burnt out, the food was great… In short, quasi-utopia in space. From Star Trek, we were meant to interpret this as a better future, with better specimens of humanity that never bickered, bawled or belched.

Our “real” future is likely to be very different.

Allen Steele is not your typical Science-Fiction writer either. His “real job”, before writing SF, was being an investigative journalist for an alternative paper. This, to say the least, differs somewhat from the usual SF writer, who either goes through science, engineering or Eng.Lit. degrees before putting pen to paper. This difference has permeated his fiction: Steele is interested in the blue-collar guy, the working man who makes it happen, not the scientist, the engineer or the politician who makes grandiose plans.

Orbital Decay might be the novel that most clearly illustrates this difference yet. It’s the story of the blue-collar workers who actually have to build those fancy new solar power satellites and space stations. These workers aren’t exactly very bright, nor completely at ease with the law. Stuck away in a tin can without sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, they’ll soon rectify matters…

Orbital Decay distances itself with glee from the squeaky-clean futures of SF: The only engineer in the novel is a space-sick spoiled brat who’s there for maybe three scenes. The commander of the construction project is a picture-perfect astronaut who believes that space is for a superior breed of man: he becomes insane. The government is installing a device to overhear all telephone conversations across the globe. The new hydroponic technician brings up marijuana seeds. Two (2!) of the main characters are on the run from the law.

The resulting book is a novel that has plenty of potential to annoy the readers more comfortable with the “good old (conservative) stuff” of SF. Your reviewer (a straight arrow if there was one) anticipated the drug subplot with dread, even though it finally wasn’t as bad as expected. (The characters come to the same conclusion as anyone with a brain would foretell in five second: Drugs are dangerous in space, for even worse reasons than drinking is dangerous in a car.)

Unfortunately, the stupidity of the drug subplot brought this reviewer to reflect on the other absurdities of the novel. So Bruce can’t request a tape deck for weight reasons, but can bring in a lot of cassettes? So none of the construction wroekrs can communicate down there while ham operators can do it with our current-day astronauts? So they’re limited to PG movies tapes while satellites around them are broadcasting the Spice Channel? Granted, the novel is now ten years old, but the concept of next-generation launchers like the Delta Clipper has been kicking around for a while… are we still supposed to believe that it still costs X,000$ per pound to ship stuff into space? Add to that the unlikeliness of a corporation signing up the first-arrived (like, uh, criminals on the run?) as space construction workers. What do they do now for oil rig crews?

Don’t be mistaken: For all its faults, Orbital Decay is an acceptable novel, bringing a unique perspective to SF’s assumption. But it isn’t as good as it think it is. To challenge the basics, one must be sure to understand them correctly. But that, would say Steele, is exactly the kind of reaction he was aiming for. So don’t be discouraged by this review and pick up Orbital Decay. If nothing else, it’s a darn good read.

Lost & Found (1999)

(In theaters, April 1999) This film won’t win any awards, will probably be forgotten by most viewers one week after seeing it, but still remains adequate entertainment. Though low on hilarity and deficient in charm, it still remains a rather pleasant date movie and should be caught on television. David Spade is misused (too much sweetness, not enough bite), as are the two great French actors Sophie Marceau and the dapper-looking Patrick Bruel (both of whom should have spoken French when talking to each other.) The script could have used another re-write, to remove the annoying final tag, strengthen the sidekick and tighten the middle act. Ironically, the two sequences that remain in mind are musically-oriented, with Spade triumphing with a Neil Diamond song and the final dance montage. Let’s face it; no movie using Dee-Lite’s “Groove is in the Heart” twice is worthless.

Go (1999)

(In theaters, April 1999) I didn’t expect much from this film, and was thus pleasantly entertained by this slight, sharp, funny film. A succession of three interlinked tales, Go overcomes the shadows of both its teen target audience and its Pulp Fictionish approach to plot by producing a film that is entertaining from start to finish. Some great sequences (The Macarena, the thinking cat, the car chase) pepper a good script and the directing is up to the task. My chief complaint -and it took me some time to realize what it was- is that by the end of the film, you get the impression that none of the rather obnoxious characters had been changed by the events of the movie; they will remember the events of the film no differently than us, as an entertaining diversion…. Still, this caveat aside, Go is a pretty darn good choice for video rental. Go!

(Second viewing, On DVD, November 2000) One of the best teen-comedies of 1999, Go‘s inconsequential nature grates upon a second viewing. As the audio commentary explains, the goal of the film is to “show young people doing stupid things and getting away with it.” While the stupid things are still as entertaining as before, their ultimate lack of impact is unsatisfying. The DVD includes many deleted scenes (some good, some not) and three music videos, the best of the bunch being for Philip Steir’s remix of Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride”. (Steir being a studio musician, the clip is presented as a deleted scene, as the characters from the Las Vegas segment impersonate a featured band.) Still worth a viewing, if only for the good writing, unusual characters and time-shifting structure.

Fear Of A Black Hat (1993)

(On TV, April 1999) Everyone is forever marked by the music of their teen years and as luck had it, I ended up being fifteen in 1990. Which probably helps a lot to appreciate Fear Of A Black Hat, an absolutely riotous (!) mock-documentary about the rise, fall, breakup and reunion of a black gangsta-type rap group. Skewering targets from Vanilla Ice, M.C. Hammer, Salt-n-Pepa (and, retroactively, the Spice Girls!), C&C Music Factory, etc… Fear Of A Black Hat is nothing short of hilarious. The best parts of the movies are undoubtedly the mock MTV videos. Though weak in its latter third and making an inconsistent use of the documentary approach, Fear Of A Black Hat is one of the funniest films I’ve seen recently and most assuredly one of the top musical comedies of the nineties. Do yourself a favor and look for this one.

(Second viewing, On DVD, July 2006) Everyone’s got their own little favourite films, and this is one of mine. A rap mockumentary solidly modelled after the classic Spinal Tap, this takes on the rap industry of the early nineties. Like Spinal Tap, it’s a lost less funny now after fifteen year’s worth of self-parodying hip-hop… but it’s still worth a look. Good music, fast jokes, clever writing and loose acting make this a treat for everyone, though fans of old-school rap will get a lot more out of it. The long-awaited DVD release offers a bunch of extras, some of which are fantastic (don’t miss writer/director Rusty Cundieff’s absorbing audio commentary, or the compilation of music videos from the film) and some of which are lame (you could miss the “reunion” audio interviews, at least if it wasn’t for the cute interviewer). Fans of the film will be pleased by the DVD; I certainly was, and my expectations were high.

Engines of Creation, K. Eric Drexler

Anchor, 1986, 298 pages, C$13.95 tpb, ISBN 0-385-19973-2

(Also available online at http://www.foresight.com/EOC/)

Read enough reviews, and you’ll inevitably come a review lamenting a bad book by referring to trees cut down senselessly. Far less often, however, will you find the opposite opinion. Given the environmentalist thinking of the past decades, it seems vaguely heretical -or at least very uncomfortable-, to actually suggest that dead trees were justified.

Engines of Creation is the type of book that not only inspires this kind of devoted following bordering on fanaticism, but also includes the intellectual rationale to stop feeling guilty about it. Simply put; if what Engines of Creation proposes becomes true, we’ll be able to give back to nature what we’ve taken from it—with compound interest.

Heady assertion, but the book is that convincing. Let’s review the basic argument: We will eventually develop tools and techniques to manipulate matter at the atomic level. It’s not even a new technique; biology is, after all, the domain of this kind of manipulation.

Drexler spins this argument through its logical implications: We’ll be able to manufacture literally anything for a ridiculous cost. We’ll be able to build better immunological systems for our bodies. We’ll be able to feed, clothe and house everyone while simultaneously ending our dependence on natural resources. Limits to growth? Imperceptible.

Optimistic previsions are often harder to believe than the standard doom-and-gloom prophecies. That’s probably why Engines of Creation is a meticulously constructed argument. Drexler begins by explaining the drivers of change and the roots of projection. He warns about the wrong ideas polluting our mental landscape and then hammers down the counter-idea to the widely-held belief that there are absolute limits to our growth.

Engines of Creation is an invigorating book. It shows us a possible future that’s simply too good to miss. It’s also the kind of book that creates not only fans, but believers.

But it’s a mistake to assumer that Drexler’s opinion of nanotechnology is unqualifiedly positive. In fact, he spends most of the book discussing the horrors of nanotechnology run amok and the ways to ensure that it stays firmly under control. He’s as terrified of nanotech as anyone else, maybe because he understands it so much. Drexler, however, isn’t a doomsayer. He acknowledges the problems, but also proposes reasonable theoretical solutions.

This book is a joy to read for its clear writing style and the wealth of ideas blossoming from its pages. Beyond being the manifesto for the nanotech crowd, Engines of Creation is also a powerful book on the philosophy of science and technology, as well as a good volume of anticipation writing.

But beyond the optimistic outlook and the limpid writing, is Engines of Creation credible? Scientific non-fiction books usually have a very short shelf life: Before anyone knows it, science has progressed further and the fixed content of a book becomes obsolete. It’s fascinating to see that even though Engines of Creation was written in 1985, there only one obsolete chapter in the whole book. It’s even more interesting to realize that it’s the most convincing chapter: It talks about the Internet, predicting quite accurately the rise of global communication in scientific research and the wonderful possibilities raised by the cross-linking of texts. “It might even become addictive” warns Drexler. Little did he knew. If he was right about that, what about the remainder of the book?

It’s hard to over-praise Engines of Creation given its enormous cult following and the wonderful possibilities offered by the book. Suffice to say that it should be recommended reading for everyone. If there is even only a slight possibility that some of Engines of Creation becomes true, then we all need to be prepared for what’s coming up.

Fatal Instinct (1993)

(On TV, April 1999) Curiously tame spoof of erotic thrillers (Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct, mostly, obviously) best caught on TV, not rented: Even though constantly amusing, it’s not exactly hilarious and fails to make the most of its opportunities. Armand Assante is quite good, though the remainder of the cast fades in the background. Put it at a level above Robin Hood: Men In Tights, equal with The Silence Of The Hams but below any of the early Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker films such as Airplane!, Top Secret! and Hot Shots!.

Die Hard (1988)

(Third viewing, On TV, April 1999) It’s always risky to sit down and watch an old favorite movie. Who knows if you’re not setting yourself up for a disappointment? Maybe your memory isn’t as good at you think it is, and “enhanced” the movie beyond its actual worth? Fortunately, Die Hard still possesses -even after countless imitators- the same qualities that made it an action classic: a tight script, a good premise, nicely-defined characters, a nasty and believable villain, comic relief, great pacing and -perhaps above everything- a superb performance by Bruce Willis. Though perhaps unintentionally ridiculous by moments -like Powell recovering his… er… virility-, Die Hard still stands as one of the action genre’s towering achievements.

(Fourth viewing, On DVD, October 2001) The classics never get old, and so you can watch Die Hard on a yearly basis and still find yourself sucked into its magic. Are there any flaws to this film? Probably, but I can’t be bothered to find them. It’s just too much fun to watch uncritically. The “Five-Star” DVD edition is adequate, but somehow disappoints by not offering more, more, more about the film.