Monthly Archives: June 1999

The Next 500 Years, Adrian Berry

Headline, 1995, 338 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-7472-0987-1

So you want to know the future? Don’t worry; you’re not alone. From palm-reading charlatans to government-sponsored futurists to your humble reviewer, everyone has his or her idea on what’s going to happen sooner or later. The only thing every one of these apprentice-seers have in common is that they’re all wrong. The future never ends up being like we imagine it to be, which is both a terrifying and a comforting thought.

This incertitude aside, it’s always a good idea to keep informed of what other people think may happen soon. Fortunately, a quasi-subgenre of non-fiction literature has popped up to fulfill this desire. Futurist books may be less entertaining than science-fiction, but they appear to have an extra sheen of credibility.

Adrian Berry’s The Next 500 Years attempts to paint a cohesive and all-encompassing picture of humanity’s near-to-medium future. Though written with a certain sympathetic style and containing many good ideas, it nevertheless fails at being a satisfying read.

The first half of the book lacks cohesiveness: Berry flits away from irrelevant panics to upcoming ice ages to undersea exploration with very little transition. This would have been fine if the whole book would have been done this way, but the second part of the book flow far more easily, reinforcing the impression that he’s anthologizing a few short pieces written separately.

I still was about to give high marks to The Next 500 Years where two things happened to make me change my mind. The second thing was an overly condescending final chapter, where Berry abandons every pretence at cautious projection and confidently states such enormities as “politicians will disappear” and “religion is doomed” while “belief will still continue”. Not only is this contradictory, but the whole final chapter smacks of unproven assertions, and the effect is rather sobering, in a bad sense.

The first thing was rather more damning. The Next 500 years contains several surprising counter-popular affirmations (The ozone hole is not a problem, the greenhouse effect is natural, etc…) One must take these affirmation on the basis that the author knows what he’s doing. But then, I discovered a huge mistake in one of the most basic equations of the books, where it is stated that passengers aboard a spaceship going to a star seven light-years away at a speed of .7c will only experience a trip of two-and-a-half years.

This is incorrect for two reasons. One: a .7c trip won’t take (1/.7)*light-years-to-destination because of the gradual acceleration/deceleration of the spaceship. Second, the time-dilatation factor of .7c is closer to 2/3 than 2/5, but Berry translates his factors in minutes (1=60) and then takes the minute figures as decimal (1=.6) factors!! In both case, he really screws up.

Pretty esoteric, true (I did research on this very subject for a short-story of mine, which is why I happened to know that much about it), but if I see such a stupid mistake, what about the remainder of the book? In one statement, Berry blows away most of his credibility. This is not complex science, but if it made its way through multiple revisions, then what about the more complex statements he makes?

So, it is with reluctance (and, it is true, a giggle or two) that I would ask readers to stay away from The Next 500 Years. Fortunately, other resources can now offer a better picture of the future. (Beginning by the web, resources go from K. Eric Drexler’s Foresight institute at http://www.foresight.org/ to the very serious Futurist at http://www.thefuturist.com/).

Let’s just hope that this future will include better book editors…

[Update, November 2005: A reader writes to add…

I spotted his use of Kinetic Energy = 0.5 m v^2 for input values approaching c in the BASIC program that appears in the appendix.  Slightly more entertaining (in a very sad way) was his claim that the origin of the factor of 1/30 in the reduction of energy required to lift matter from the Moon’s surface compared to lifting it from the Earth’s surface arises as the product of the ratio of surface gravities (1/6) and the ratio of escape velocities (1/5).  By my algebra, this equates to the claim that “all astronomical bodies are the same density”!

Ouch…]

Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World, Lee M. Silver

Avon, 1997, 317 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 0-380-97494-0

The biggest hardship imposed on humanity by genetic engineering might not be the appearance of a race of supermen as much as it’s the flurry of bad jokes and titles oh-so-cleverly plugging in the expression “Brave New World” everywhere they can. Governments should seek a moratorium on that expression rather than looking to ban human cloning research.

Lee M. Silver, author of Remaking Eden, doesn’t fear the supermen. In fact, his non-fiction exploration of the possibilities of genetic engineering seems to welcome the advent of homo sapiens plus. As such, he’s far removed from the usual naysayers and knee-jerk reactionaries: No wonder he spends most of his book addressing their objections.

Genetic Engineering is not something we can forget about, for a variety of reasons. The first is that it is not, comparatively speaking, an expensive technology. In an age where any new important endeavor in the field of physics require multi-million equipment, genetic research -and, more significantly, the implementation of existing research- can be done in the confine of large private clinics. Much as computing was popularized by easy accessibility of computers to the masses, reproductive technologies will be used widely, whether we want it or not.

Another reason why reproductive technologies will not be stopped is that the impetus driving them is no abstract business sense, national competition or far-off payoff: Research in this area is driven by the basic human need to procreate. Parents, not presidents, will insist that the newest technology be used to enhance their children. After all, what’s a tweaked gene or two when some of them are willing to pay for the best schools, the best music teachers, the best social clubs?

Genetics is not a simple subject, so Silver can be excused to spend more than half the book discussing past and contemporary research. “Bottle babies” aren’t exactly making headlines nowadays, and that’s exactly the point Silver wants to make: These once-“immoral” technologies are now firmly entrenched into accepted social norms. Further genetic research -like cloning, or children born of same-sex parents-, will soon be here, and we can eventually expect them to pass into the same kind of acceptance.

The book really hits its strides, however, in its last three chapters, where Silver really goes beyond today’s technology to explore the future possibilities offered by The “virtual” child and the “designer” child. The virtual child is an extension of today’s methods, except it consists in fertilizing several eggs, analyzing their genetic makeup and allowing the parents to select the “best” of the embryos. This is only a temporary step to the designer child, which lets parents specify the actual genetic makeup of their children. Of course, we’re not there yet: our knowledge of genes is still too primitive… but we’re getting there. To Silver’s credit, he sees it as a boon and not a doomsday device.

Remaking Eden is a pretty good book for iconoclast, and a work of Satan for the fundamentalist. The first chapters pretty much destroy the notion that a “natural” threshold exists between living and non-living and that birth is the best compromise we can find. Even for stone-cold atheist humanists, Remaking Eden is at time a harsh read. Make no mistake: this is a book written for controversy. Silver uses the book at tribune to counter-argument some of the most persistent clichés against reproductive technologies. It’s a breath of fresh air to see that he’s so convincing.

This brand of open-mindedness is absolutely essential to discuss this type of research convincingly. Cloning means, for instance, that there is essentially no conception. That someone’s grandparents can actually be his biological parents. It will take some heavy-duty mental reforms to ensure that these clone children find their harmonious place in society.

Remaking Eden is a needed rarity: A well-written, accessible book about reproductive technologies that allows us to imagine a better future. Lee M. Silver has done us a real service by writing this book, and allowing to envision a future not necessarily dominated by fear and weakness. It’s well worth reading.

Headcrash, Bruce Bethke

Warner Aspect, 1995, 344 pages, C$6.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60260-4

When future histories of SF will be written, some pundit will probably observe that cyberpunk died in the early nineties and that Headcrash was one of the pallbearers. When the satiric carrion-eaters start hovering in droves around a genre, you know it’s a pretty stinky corpse.

But really; a genre founded on a bleak future dominated by corporations in this era of consumer-power? A genre glorifying street-smarts, as written by patsy-faced SF geeks? A genre wetting itself upon fancy cyber-virtuality when today’s networld is clogged to a grind by porn addicts? A genre where brain damage was the way to punch out, and no one ever though about a fuse-protector? What the hell were these cyberpunk writers smoking in their spare time? Who can blame Bruce Bethke for taking on such an obvious target?

Headcrash is, simply, a satire on cyberpunk. Jack Burroughs is a nerdish compu-minion in a multi-megacorporation. By day, he slaves away at a dead-end job and fights office politics. By night, he’s MAX_KOOL and do pretty much whatever he wants in cyberspace. Unfortunately, the afore-mentioned office politics bite back and he finds himself “transitioned to Unpaid Administrative Leave” [P.117]. After being mugged by security guards in the parking lot (the bastards even cut off his tie!), Burroughs is offered a risky hacking job by a curvaceous cyber-babe…

By any rational standard, Headcrash is pretty darn funny. “Here comes Bruce Bethke. And he’s got a chainsaw” blurbs Joel Rosenberg on the back cover. He’s not kidding. Bethke savagely rips apart cyberpunk from The Shockwave Rider to Snow Crash, with a hundred-page detour on the inanity of corporate life that reads a lot like Dilbert on acid. Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton also get their dues…

The first-person narration is wonderfully funny and compulsively readable. Be careful about reading this one on the bus, unless you don’t mind everyone looking at you when you laugh aloud. Like most geek-fantasy tales, this one promises plenty of techno-gadgets and sex, though it eventually reneges on the latter. Disappointingly, many of the “surprises” are telegraphed miles in advance, with predictable results.

(Warning; mild spoilers in this paragraph) Headcrash finely upholds the cyberpunk tradition of unsatisfying endings, by pulling a huge disappointment out of its bags of tricks. (One Amazon reader called it “a GPF of an ending”) The long-awaited relationship between two characters isn’t consumed and even if the effect seems conscious, it isn’t less damning. One get the feeling that even if the protagonist ends up pretty satisfied with himself, he should -and could- have had better. (Like, er, traveling with someone else.) I will note with some interest that another recent corporate satire -Mike Judge’s film OFFICE SPACE- ends on more or less the same philosophical point.

Still, one would have to be really ungrateful not to like Headcrash —though it is entirely possible not to get it given the strongly satiric bent of the work. The dour cyberpunk genre really needed such a strongly-worded eulogy… and as far as send-offs go, this one is really quite decent. As if Neal Stephenson, Bruce Sterling, Douglas Adams, William Gibson and Scott Adams decided to celebrate the death of the genre by poking fun at each other, with Hunter S. Thompson crashing the party mid-way through.

Random Excess, Ross Laver

Viking Canada, 1998, 339 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 0-670-87972-X

Does it make sense to read a book about Corel? Probably.

Does it make sense to read a book about Corel if you’re an Ottawa-area Comp.Sci. graduate? Sure.

Does it make sense to read a book about Corel if you’re an Ottawa-area Comp.Sci. graduate who likes to post his reviews on his web site and then put his web site on the resume he’s sending to Corel? Probably not.

You have to understand that Corel is a Pretty Big Deal in the Ottawa area. Not as much as the all-powerful federal government, or even telecommunication giants Newbridge and Nortel, but Corel has two important advantages: immediate popular name-recognition and a certain technological sexiness, given the sophistication of their flagship product CorelDraw! It’s one thing to be slaving away at code for the Canadian civil service, or for world-wide telecommunications, but nothing beats seeing “your” software lavishly advertised in trade magazines (or in the local-area newspaper).

That Corel seems almost suicidally aggressive only adds to its image. Even the pressure-cooker reputation of the company deterred few of us Comp.Sci. graduates of sending an application there in hope of a job.

So, one thing leading to another, it does makes sense to read up about Corel. It’s a testimony to Ross Laver’s skills that he was able to write a general-interest business book about Corel and its founder Michael Copeland while still appealing to the hardcore technical members of his audience.

Laver’s account begins along with Copeland himself, with a description of the small English tourist town on the decline in which he was born. The path of young Michael Copeland through the English education system is a bit soporific, but already highlights his competitive qualities. Then, upon graduation, Copeland is offered a job at Northern Telecom. Like many immigrants here on a whim, he will never go back.

The tale gets more interesting as Copeland leaves Northern Telecom, creates Mitel, watches Mitel become an industry leader, leaves Mitel, creates Corel, watches Corel become an industry leader… Copeland was lucky enough to find gold twice; such a personality is neither simple nor easily resumed. It would be too tempting to paint Michael Copeland as an ambition-mad intellectual butterfly going from one thrill to an other. Fortunately, Lever paints a portrait that is multi-faceted, tough but fair. Despite some damning passages, Copeland comes across as a figure to be respected. One gets the feeling that Copeland would be pleased. Then again, Lever did have several interviews with him during the preparation of his book…

Otherwise, Lever manages to infuse a sense of palpable excitement in the chapters describing the first releases of CorelDraw! The race to beat competing software houses to the market is succinctly represented, as well as the ultimate technical superiority of the released product. These chapters neatly encapsulate both the technological and the marketing aspects of software development in an unusually accessible manner, even for non-technical readers.

The biggest problem of the book is not related to the content of the book itself: It’s that whatever happens, Lever left his tale at a moment of crisis: Corel still in debt, a declining market share, some heavy sniping from users and a drive toward Java technology. On the other hand, the question isn’t definitely resolved even a year later. But who knows how this book will read in a few more years?

Until then, Random Excess is a pretty good account of the Copeland/Corel story. It’s a delightful change to read about high-stake computer stories taking place around Rideau Canal or Carling Road, rather than Silicon Valley. Especially for local-area computer-science graduates.

Mining the Sky, John S. Lewis

Addison-Wesley, 1996, 274 pages, C$36.00 hc, ISBN 0-201-47959-1

In her early-nineties pop-song “Sleepless Satellite”, singer Tasmin Archer wondered “Did we go to the moon too soon?” When hit records begins to ponder the fate of the space program, it’s a sign that things have really gone to waste.

And, looking at 1999’s NASA, we can only wonder how we’ve gone from the moon to a few overpriced, timid expeditions in low Earth orbit. By any means, we now should have landed humans on Mars, established a base on the Moon and seeded our skies with space stations. Instead, we go nuts over a teleguided rover on the surface of Mars. Whatever.

Maybe we did go to the moon too soon, argues John S. Lewis in Mining the Sky: That the whole initiative was a purely political battle against the Soviets and nothing more. There’s certainly historical validity to the argument. The challenge then become to find a worthwhile reason to go back into space. As Lewis announces early on, “if we are to return on the moon, it will be because there is some visible relationship between that endeavor and [our] future material well-being.” [P.ix] Mining the Sky is a book-length treatise on the practical advantages of space exploitation.

It begins close to home, and eventually moves to the stars. We see how we could harvest oxygen from the moon, power from the sun, minerals from asteroids and fusion fuel from Neptune. We see why we should move into space as soon as possible, from stopping civilization-killing meteors to restoring ecological balance to Earth.

Lewis is no newcomer to the space business. He advances dollars as readily as chemical reactions. While this often becomes obtrusive, it brings an extra layer of credibility to the book, making it unusually convincing.

Among the great moments of Mining the Sky is the monetary evaluation of an ordinary asteroid: NEA 3554 Amun, the smallest known M asteroid is “only” two kilometers in diameter and weights thirty billion tons. “Assuming a typical iron meteorite composition, the iron and nickel in Amun have a market value of about $8,000 billion.” [P.182] Including the other metallic elements expected in this type of asteroid, Amun’s tag price climbs up to 20,000 billion dollars. Not bad for an object likely to smash into Earth sooner or later.

Another great moment comes when Lewis tries to represent how much iron is accessible in the asteroid belt: A> 825 quintillion tons, B> four hundred million years of present-day consumption, C> Covering Earth’s entire surface in 800 meters of iron, D> Seven billion dollars’ worth of iron for everyone alive on Earth today. That’s only considering iron and excluding the other metals. And the fact that there are even more Trojan asteroids in Jupiter’s orbit!

Given Lewis’ intent to write a more-rigorous-than-usual vulgarization book, it’s reasonable to warn any prospective reader that Mining the Sky is more of a serious argumentation than an easily accessible “fun” book. The style can get very dry in spots, though Lewis’s unflagging enthusiasm more than does enough to pull us in.

True, Mining the Sky is a great work of unbounded optimism. But ask any space enthusiast, and they’ll tell you -like Lewis does-, that Space Exploration is not for gloomaniacs. It’s a lot like putting money aside now to ensure a comfortable life later. It’s the logical way to go. It’s the ultimate adventure. It’s where no man has gone before. And in any case, it’s better to go to the moon too soon than get there too late.

The Thirteenth Floor (1999)

(In theaters, June 1999) This has a very good central idea. The problem is that it has basically just one, and that it is fairly obvious to experienced SF readers. Thirty minutes in the movie -if not earlier-, the astute viewer is way ahead of the characters; fifteen minutes before the end, he can write the remainder of the script himself. Still, The Thirteenth Floor is very well-done, and develops in a way that far more subtle than the usual media-SF histrionics. Plus, the central concept itself is really thought-provoking. Any other year, and The Thirteenth Floor would have garnered raves everywhere. But in 1999, right after Dark City, The Truman Show, The Matrix and Existenz, understated dishes like that taste like leftovers.

(Second viewing, on DVD, June 2009): Generally overshadowed upon release by the showy pyrotechnics of The Matrix and the weirdness of Existenz, this third virtual-reality film of 1999 nonetheless holds up pretty well today: The nature of 1930s Los Angeles is blended with nineties L.A. to produce a glossy piece that plays up drama rather than techno elements. It’s undemanding SF, and it’s perhaps more intriguing because of it. Dramatically, there are a few clichés and a Big Revelation that’s Really Obvious, but no major fatal missteps: The actors do well, the revelations are held in check, and there’s a little bit of sense-of-wonder to top it all off. This isn’t a big or complicated film and however good it is, there’s a limit to how much discussion it can sustain. But it’s still worth a look, and the DVD edition presents a decent amount of deleted scenes, production notes and a decent audio commentary focused on the making of the film.

Aftermath, Charles Sheffield

Bantam, 1998, 452 pages, C$19.95 tpb, ISBN 0-553-37893-7

The great thing about modern civilization is that every few days, we find new ways to bring it down. Take an electromagnetic pulse, for instance. In theory, it’s an energy reaction that simply produces an massive influx of electrons. The consequences, however, are devastating on modern machinery: They overload electronic circuits -frying them permanently- and wipe out magnetic storage formats. This well-known phenomenon -which can be caused by nuclear explosions, among other things- is slowly becoming the sword of Damocles that’s hanging over our modern electromagnetic civilization.

EMP wouldn’t have been a problem a hundred years ago. Even as late at 1975, the consequences wouldn’t have been as dramatic. But nowadays, a large part of our financial, communication and media networks increasingly rely on complex electronic devices easily damaged by electromagnetic pulses. It’s going to get worse. Aftermath is a novel that takes place after a freak astronomic event has created a massive electromagnetic pulse that completely devastates Earth’s electronics…

Three cancer victims begin a hunt for a scientist who can continue their longevity treatments. The president of the USA is besieged by personal and national issues. Astronauts from the first Mars mission arrive near Earth to find that nobody can come and get them. Yet another fanatic religious group arises..

If you suspect a disaster novel, then you’re right: Though Aftermath is definitely SF, it takes place is a future far closer to ours than Sheffield’s other novels. The time is 2026, and in spite of a few fancy new gadgets, there really isn’t much there to tantalize the SF fan. It actually looks closer to 2010 than anything else. Like many disaster novels, Aftermath also sacrifices ideas for lengthy plotting, which is where Sheffield begins to lose control over his book.

I’m of the opinion that sex is absent of most hard-SF writer’s work because they end up looking silly if they try it, (which isn’t to say that sex in non-hard-SF works isn’t pretty silly either!) and Aftermath pretty much proves my point. Nearly each characters discourses at length about his sexual (in) capacities, from homosexual congressmen to pedophiliac scientists to impotent heads of state. I believe I speak for a sizeable proportion of the North-American population when I say that the less said about the president’s sex life, the better. 

All of this ties into a bigger complaint, which is that Aftermath hasn’t got a recognizably normal character in its dramatis personae. No one to identify with, no bird’s eye view of the action and disaster. I’m all for originality in characters, but when overdone it reads a lot like your average daytime soap opera.

Fortunately, Aftermath has a bit more meat than the usual melodrama, and it’s one of its virtues that it steadily becomes more interesting as it advances. Be prepared for a rather average start. Unfortunately, it quickly becomes obvious that the novel’s plot lines won’t be tied up by the end of the book, and so Aftermath ends on a note strongly suggestive of at least one sequel. It would have been decent for Bantam to at least acknowledge this on the dust jacket…

This lack of closure, coupled with the humdrum nature of most of the novel and the sometime-ridiculous sex-driven character dynamics make Aftermath a less-than-commendable choice. Sheffield has done much better in the past, and we can only hope that he’ll come back to form soon.

Street Fighter (1994)

(On TV, June 1999) In this era of silly big-budget high-profile movies without a shred of redeeming value, there’s something to be said about a silly cheap B-movie that knows exactly what it is. (It does star Jean-Claude Van Damme…) Writer/Director Stephen de Souza isn’t as clever as he thinks he is (and could have done much better anyway), but adults and kids alike can watch Street Fighter without too much embarrassment. A few good one-liners, and some visual gags (like Kylie Minogue’s Cammy progressively evolving from straight-laced British major to blue-latex videogame heroine) pepper this rather enjoyable-in-a-silly-way film. A shame that Raul Julia’s career had to end with this. Oh, and Ming-Na Wen is… er… wow… Is it any wonder I’m developing an Asian fetish?

Solar Crisis (1990)

(Second Viewing, On TV, June 1999) I had first seen this film on video in 1993 or 1994, and kept mostly good memories of this SF drama. It’s a measure of either malleable memory or evolving tastes that a second viewing several years later provoked an almost exactly opposite impression: Many special effects look cheap in this era of computer-generated imagery, the acting is laughably bad, the plot is beyond ludicrous and the dialogue plain silly. The science is so wrong that it’s charitable to suspect that the writer hasn’t got a clue. While some sequences do crank up the tension effectively, they’re almost immediately overshadowed by the remainder of this lousy film. If SF is a genre that provokes speculation, the best that Solar Crisis can do is to make one wonder what the flaming heck were Charlton Heston and Jack Palance doing in this piece of celluloid trash.

Happy Gilmore (1996)

(On TV, June 1999) Let’s establish right away that Adam Sandler and I have nothing in common. According to rumor, I read more books in a month than he’s read in his entire life. I flatter myself by thinking myself superior to his intended frat-boy audience. I was unable at first to sit through more than five minutes of Billy Madison. And yet, I found Happy Gilmore to be adequately amusing. Why was this tale of a reluctant golfer trying to do good so funny? Was it the hockey jokes? The non-sequitur humor? The cartoon violence? The (Subway) unrepentant (Subway) product (Subway) placement (including Subway)? Or the fact that I was high on a buzz of chocolate chip cookies? Whatever the reason, I might try to watch Billy Madison again. After a cookie binge. And a lobotomy.

The Transparent Society, David Brin

Perseus Books, 1998 (1999 reprint), 377 pages, C$22.00 tpb, ISBN 0-7382-0144-8

Imagine two cities in which cameras are installed in every public area. The only difference is who controls the camera: City Number One has cameras accessible only by the police force. City Number Two has cameras easily accessible by everyone. City Number Two even has cameras installed inside the Police stations! Which city would you rather live in?

This, in a nutshell, is the main argument of David Brin’s The Transparent Society: modern information technology cannot be stopped and our only choice is to learn to live with them openly. This lucid and thought-provoking work explores the new possibilities and dangers of the information age and comes out with a set of opinions at odds with everyone else, yet curiously reasonable.

David Brin is no stranger to odd ideas. An astrophysicist by formation and science-fiction writer by trade, Brin’s novels include new concepts and fancy extrapolations by the truckload. With this book, he polishes off a few pet notions, integrates new material, backs it up with some research and enlivens everything with a prose forged in the merciless arena of escapist entertainment. The result is very, very good.

To be fair, The Transparent Society is not only a book about privacy versus accountability, but also a fascinating techno-social study of neo-western civilization. Fans of Brin’s previous writings will recognize an attempt to consolidate and strengthen his earlier themes. The concept of “social T-cells” alone is a meme that should spread far and wide.

One of Brin’s biggest strengths is that, even while exhorting a quiet revolution, he just sounds so darn reasonable. Unlike what one might expect from a hard-SF writer, Brin is no elitist: it is obvious that he loves today’s society and the people that compose it. That puts him at least a notch above the many cleverer-than-thou techno-social writers.

For this reason, not everyone will agree with Brin’s “contrarian” approach. On public discussion forums, he and The Transparent Society have attracted a fair amount of negative comment. Some of this is undoubtedly due to Brin’s skepticism regarding the so-called “cypherpunk” (or “crypto-anarchist”) movement, who claim that strong encryption will liberate the people and bring down all evil governments. Brin offers several compelling reasons why this simply won’t happen, earning the enmity of these online groups.

The notion of transparency as championed by Brin is not the easiest choice to make. It’s far easier to make mistakes and have your way behind closed doors than in public. On the other hand, our civilization is more or less already based on transparency: Think of the medias, the check and balances in our government, our free market economy, our scientific method based on rigorous peer review… The very idea of truth-as-transparent is even ingrained in our language, as demonstrated by some wonderful common expressions: shady deals, dark side, murky affairs, obscure intent…

On more practical matters, the book itself is well-produced, though the numerous “hidden” footnotes bring so much to the text that they should have been integrated as on-page side notes rather than put at the end of the book. The index, however, is very complete and useful.

Brin’s overall thesis is quite convincing. The Transparent Society should be required reading for most policy-makers and forward-thinking individuals. We should consider ourselves lucky to see such a readable counterpoint to the usual shrill privacy alarms that seem to be issued daily. Brin’s ultimate message is worth thinking about; with increasingly decentralized power put in the hands of wholly average persons, privacy will become obsolete, even dangerous in the future. We cannot possibly hope to live in an information age without being transparent to some degree or another.

[July 1999: It should be noted that, fittingly enough, The Transparent Society was my first purchase ever by on-line commerce. A suitable book for a system built on a sane balance of openness (Internet) and security (encrypted transactions).]

Goodbye Lover (1998)

(In theaters, June 1999) This belongs to the “twists and turns” school of black comedy, where the plot and the reversals are far more important than any of the other aspects save, perhaps, for the dark cinematography and intense direction. The genre does have built-in limits, which is where this movie flounders. At least two huge plot holes can be uncovered without effort, and the crucial test of your enjoyment is based of whether you’ll be able to ignore these flaws or not. Otherwise, Goodbye Lover includes the requisite kinky sex, well-paced deaths, cynical law representatives (Ellen Degeneres, in a good role), adulterous characters, psycho killers and sarcastic one-liners. The direction starts out great, then becomes ordinary. Not a first choice for a rental, but a good film to catch on late-night TV.

Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999)

(In theaters, June 1999) Slightly shagadisappointing! After the delightfully silly original film, Austin Powers -one of the best comic creation of the nineties- is back in a sequel that exacerbates the very worst characteristics of the original. Did it have to be so scatological and painfully obvious? Probably not, but then again it seems to work for some. The satirical bent of the first film is lessened, and the sequel is more of a sporadically amusing exercise in self-conscious comedy. Not exactly unfunny, but it could have been better. You can actually get more laughs from the original script now floating around the Web.

Analyze This (1999)

(In theaters, June 1999) This film has its moments of inspired amusement, though it’s hard to avoid being funny when dealing with a mobster going to a psychologist. Thought perhaps a bit less fun that I had been led to believe, the script is undoubtedly aimed to a more mature audience that the usual comedy. Some weird shifts in register (like the bizarre other wedding ceremony) give us a glimpse of a comedy that could have been less realistic but more hilarious. In any case, Robert De Niro turns in a good mobster performance despite unconvincing sobs, and Billy Crystal is tolerable as the psychiatrist.

Star Trek: The Next Generation #50: Dyson Sphere, Charles Pellegrino and George Zebrowski

Pocket, 1999, 235 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-54173-0

Star Trek has never been known as being particularly rigorous in its scientific accuracy. Hard-SF has never been praised for its overwhelming attention to characters. So what happens when two of today’s hottest hard-SF writers team up to write a Star Trek novel? Dashing all hopes of a Trek novel with the usually well-defined TNG characters dealing with accurate science, the result ends up combining the flaws of both sub-genres.

Faithful readers of these reviews, if any, undoubtedly noticed my general admiration for the novels of both Charles Pellegrino and George Zebrowski, both of whom have written exciting novels of hard-Science-Fiction that traded characters development for clever ideas and plotting. Together, they have written The Killing Star, a pretty good modern novel of alien invasion that combined ideas and themes proper to both writers.

I found myself in the unusual position of anxiously waiting for a Trek novel when I learned that they were busy at work on a follow-up to TNG’s episode Relics. That episode, as long-time Trek fans remember well, signaled not only the return of Trek’s original engineer Montgomery Scott, but also marked the introduction of a solid SF device in the Trek universe: A Dyson Sphere.

A Dyson Sphere is, basically, a ball built around a star so that all of the star’s energy is used. It’s unimaginably big, easily providing the usable surface of billions of Earths. This is the first problem with Dyson Sphere: It’s simply too big to mean anything to the characters. Though not exactly a new problem (Niven’s Ringworld also suffered from “too much to see here” syndrome), it’s especially grating when the novel has to be over in two hundred pages.

Compounding this problem is the mis-match between setting and characters. There is nothing left for Beverly Crusher, for instance, to do but be awed and fascinated by the sphere. None of the characters can do anything about the setting. (Apart from Picard, that is, and his only emotion is a desire to explore.) Pellegrino and Zebrowski bring back the silicon-based Horta from previous Star Trek episodes, but can’t given them anything interesting to do.

The second problem is that Dyson Sphere is a story where the characters spend their time reacting to things instead of acting upon them. Basically, they discover a neutron star that will soon strike the Dyson Sphere, destroying it utterly. Fine. (What a coincidence!) But once that’s established, what’s left to do for the crew of the Enterprise? Explore until impact? That’s pretty much all there is. No suspense, even in the few action scenes. The deficient writing doesn’t help; the action is described in a minimal fashion that simply doesn’t evoke the required awe.

As if this wasn’t enough, the authors are curiously inconclusive about their hypotheses. Was the Dyson Sphere built by Borgs? Possibility raised, but left unexplored. Is the neutron star a weapon of war? Possibility raised but left unexplored. What the heck happened at the end? Possibility raised… Very frustrating. Not to mention the deus ex machina.

Ironically, the book improves after the novel ends; 37 of Dyson Sphere‘s 235 pages are dedicated to multi-pages author bios and two lengthy afterwords. The afterwords have nothing to do with the book, but they’re fascinating in their own right, discussing antimatter rockets and other advanced physics.

It pains me considerably to decommend Dyson Sphere: I really expected something better from these two authors. Great for them if the royalties earn them enough money to make them happy (Dyson Sphere was in the USA-Today Top-50 bestseller list!), but as for me, I’d suggest reading the afterwords at the bookstore and wait until the author’s next books. (Or pick up a copy of Pellegrino’s Dust, a much better work at roughly the same price…)