A Deepness in the Sky, Vernor Vinge

Tor, 1999, 606 pages, C$38.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-85683-0

For some reason, I was one of the few people not overly impressed by Vernor Vinge’s previous novel, the 1992 Hugo-award-winning A Fire Upon the Deep. Epic space opera, yes, but constantly focused on the wrong narrative threads: The poor humans stuck on the backward planet rather than the all-out galactic war taking place around them. But that was then, and now is A Deepness in the Sky. Deepness is widely hailed as “the prequel to A Fire Upon the Deep”, but is really so thinly linked that it’s best read as a stand-alone volume. (Though the symmetry of the pair is intriguing.)

Two human expeditions arrive around a star with the interesting property of cyclically “shutting off” at precise intervals. They discover a planet whose indigenous inhabitants (“Spiders”) are on the verge of attaining space-flight technology. Problem is, the two human expeditions come from radically different societies. One is composed of traders, the other is based on intellectual slavery. Before long, the expeditions are fighting it out in orbit. After the brief skirmish, both camp find out that they can’t travel back to their home systems and that they won’t survive unless they combine their resources. And so the survivors from both camps settle down warily, waiting until the Spiders can provide them with the way to go back home… a prospect at least thirty years away.

There can be no mistaking that A Deepness in the Sky is pure science-fiction, at least not if you accept the proposition that “SF is about the effects of technological change”. Vinge lovingly details the Spider’s technological progress, using this subplot as a convenient excuse to make some sociological comments on the place of technology on human progress. Though the book is only moderately high on ideas, Vinge’s extrapolation hold some interest. (His digression on multi-generational legacy code held special interest for this IT professional.)

Vinge also uses a neat trick (which I won’t spoil) to anthropomorphize a basically alien species. Though the use of “cars”, “telephones” and other typically human terms may annoy some readers, it’s a great device to humanize an entire segment of the cast.

Which, unfortunately, doesn’t really solve the question as to if these alien subplots should have been kept in the novel. If A Deepness in the Sky is a pure-SF novel with fascinating bits and intriguing aliens, it’s a shame that it’s so long and bloated. Wordiness kills a large part of the novel’s momentum, so that even if the first few hundred pages contain massive space battles, the book doesn’t get moving until the mid-point mark. Make no mistake: A Deepness in the Sky is well written, but it’s well over-written too. The characters are worthwhile, but they’re not easily approachable.

Fortunately, when the book starts moving, it really starts to be interesting. Vinge manages his threads effectively, and his extended conclusion effectively completes the story.

While assuredly one of the front-runners in this year’s SF crop and definitively worth your money in paperback, A Deepness in the Sky nevertheless fails at provoking enthusiasm. Slowed down by a deliberate prose and longish subplots, this novel joins the ranks of recent books that could have been improved by some serious editing. This caveat aside, don’t miss what is easily one of the best recent examples of a simple yet epic SF story well-told through the personal struggles of full characters.

Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999)

(In theaters, July 1999) Wildly uneven pseudo-documentary about a small-town beauty pageant that turns really ugly (the pageant, not the movie). Often wickedly funny in a mean-spirited black humor way, with gags that go all the way from slapstick to social satire. The mockumentary approach is unconvincing, with its occasional jump-cuts, multiple camera edits and other contrived techniques. Not as subtle as it should have been. Should have used a narrator-driven approach, like Bob Roberts or Fear Of A Black Hat. Kirsten Dunst is adorable. Goes on for at least ten unnecessary minutes. A marginal rental choice, but a late-night movie treat.

Deep Red (1994)

(On TV, July 1999) The lovely Joanna Pacula (The Silence Of The Hams, Virus) continues her streak of being the most watcheable element in otherwise disappointing movies. This straight-to-video SF thriller mixes elements of detective fiction (a Pi, tortured by remorse, accepts a protection contract) with SF gadgets (nano-enhanced unkillable characters) and ends up as a film without the means to accomplish its goals. Though not without potential, Deep Red loses itself in incoherencies, unresolved plot threads and too-convenient developments. Maybe they could have saved on one of the three explosions and hired another writer… Besides Pacula, Michael Biehn (The Terminator) and John De Lancie (Star Trek: TNG) also star.

Deep Blue Sea (1999)

(In theaters, July 1999) Now that’s what’s a summer action movie is all about. Ignore the bad dialogue. Ignore this curious impression of déjà-vu. Ignore the bargain-basement Frankenstein lesson. Focus. Focus on the wonderfully-written action scenes. Focus on the unrelenting tension. Focus on the superbly coherent editing. Deep Blue Sea, despite its lack of intelligence, is a very clever movie in what counts; the action and the suspense. Scarier than most horror films despite not being billed as a scary movie, Deep Blue Sea redeems all of its significant flaws by been exceedingly good at pleasing the audience. It does what it has to do and does it very, very well. Special mention must be made of a totally unexpected scene that completely took our theatre by surprise. I laughed, I whooped, I gasped, I clapped: What more would I want?

Canadian Bacon (1995)

(On TV, July 1999) At its heart, a one-joke sketch stretched out over ninety minutes and thirty minute’s budget: To bolster weapon sales, a capitalist convinces the United States to declare war on Canada. Starring John Candy, Alan Alda and Rhea Perlman, this intermittently funny movie paints far too good a portrait of Canada, though most Canadians will appreciate the effort. A mildly pleasant late-night movie, obviously more interesting to Canadians than Americans… A good double feature with Wag The Dog.

Flashforward, Robert J. Sawyer

Tor, 1999, 319 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-86712-3

One might wonder at the reason behind Robert J. Sawyer’s current success. Certainly, the author’s tireless auto-promotion has something to do with it. The regularity with which he publishes is another, at roughly a novel per year since 1990. His direct, journalistic prose is easy to read. His professionalism is obvious; he always deliver the goods with each successive book.

In other words, Robert J. Sawyer truly understands and produces what the average reader demands of SF: Easy, captivating yarns built around the solid core of an idea and wrapped in professional characters and plotting. His latest, Flashforward, is almost a textbook example of how to write a fair contemporary SF novel.

The premise is a good one: Following a high-energy physics experiment at CERN, everyone on the planet experiences two subjective minutes of a future twenty years away while their “objective” bodies lose consciousness. The immediate repercussions are horrendous: Thousands of people are injured or killed as they blank out in dangerous situations. But the long-term effects are even more significant as everyone correlate their individual visions and find out that they all refer to the same future…

Fantasy concept, sure, but Sawyer manages to make us willingly suspend our disbelief. In the process, he raises concepts of free-will, of fate, of guilt, of the non-eternal duration of love. Sawyer aficionados won’t be surprised to see Sawyer’s usual matrimony/theology themes weaved in all of this. Heady stuff, but adequately presented in digestible bites.

The concept leads itself to some delicious situations: A man investigating his own upcoming murder, a marrying couple knowing they won’t be together twenty years later, a writer with a glimpse in his non-upcoming-greatness, a president-to-be harassed with congratulation calls, a future-couple uncomfortably meeting for the first time… Flashforward really benefits from these touches of irony, which compensate for the thin -but well-handled- characters.

There are a few flaws, like the dubious “everyone-asleep-was-dreaming” assumption (hasn’t Sawyer heard of deep sleep?). The ending is a bit rushed, with the typical Sawyer last-chapter paradigm leap. As usual, Sawyer’s ideas exceed his executive capacity -intentionally?-, and hard-core SF readers can’t be faulted for take the author to task for being a bit pedestrian. But most readers will love it.

Otherwise, there really isn’t much to say about Flashforward. Fans will like it, with most agreeing that it’s one of his best books yet. It does wraps up a bit easily and could benefit from less conventional writing, but it’s hard to fault such an easily-readable novel (don’t bother with bookmarks) for being too accessible. As usual, a sure choice for the major awards.

Brainscan (1994)

(On TV, July 1999) Long before David Cronenberg’s Existenz, Brainscan -superficially- explored the issues surrounding the nature of reality in an age of Virtual Reality games. Of course, this being a low-brow horror film, the result wasn’t as interesting. Still, there are a few interesting elements, though it progressively gets sillier as it advances. Besides being “all a dream”, Brainscan can’t be bothered to adhere rigidly to the rules it sets for itself, and so we get a senseless script that pretty much boasts of its senselessness. The weak payoff at the end doesn’t redeem the movie. No nudity and few good one-liners make this a marginal choice for late-night TV viewing.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

(In theaters, July 1999) This didn’t work for me. Widely over-hyped as being one of the scariest movies ever made, this ultra-low-budget film is a pretty good illustration of how a clever premise can be far more intriguing than the end result. (It’s also a study in how originality and web-savvy marketing can lend itself to a boffo opening-weekend promotional push.) Unfortunately, as I’ve lamented elsewhere, originality must not be confused with entertainment and artistic merit. The Blair Witch Project is, all things considered, a fairly ordinary film that quits before getting really unnerving. (What would I have considered really unnerving? How about the true self-destruction of the trio without resort to artificial means like the witch?) The constant shaking of the handheld camera footage is immensely distracting in theatres. Charges that “this movie stimulate your imagination, you barbarian” are laughable, considering that written horror has been doing that for… oh… more than a hundred years now. While I won’t deny the effect of The Blair Witch Project on many viewers (especially those gullible enough to believe it’s “a true story”), I simply couldn’t muster any lasting feeling about it; I slept well that night. For me, the scariest thing about this film is the prospect of endless rip-offs…

Bad Boys (1995)

(On TV, July 1999) The last gasp of the “buddy-cop” series of movies produced by Hollywood between 1984 and 1995. The ingredients are simple; two policemen protagonist with opposing personalities, drug dealers as antagonists, sunny weather, big guns and a bunch of action sequences. What makes Bad Boys special isn’t so much the rehashed plot or the Florida locale, but the dynamic direction of Michael Bay and the ineffable charm of Will Smith. Otherwise, the characters of Téa Leoni and Martin Lawrence are annoying, and so are the alleged “comedic” moments. The can-you-possibly-be-more-clichéd demise of the villain is also pretty weak. In summary: Check out the action scenes and fast-forward the rest.

Icefire, Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens

Pocket, 1998, 703 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-01403-X

If Icefire is to be believed, the government should be monitoring private home pages to detect, identify and act upon threats to the state based on intricate psychological profiles. In this case, I fully expect unmarked black vans in front of my home any moment now: In the past year, these book reviews have demonstrated an unhealthy interest in global catastrophes of various flavors: Insect extinction (Dust, Charles Pellegrino), Alien Invasion (The Killing Star, Pellegrino and George Zebrowski), EMP event (Aftermath, Charles Sheffield), Exploding Moon (Moonfall, Jack McDevitt), Crazy Terrorists (Storming Heaven, Dale Brown), Cometary Impact (Final Impact, Yvonne Navarro), Bio-Warfare (The Cobra Event, Richard Preston)… Now here comes Icefire, a global catastrophe thriller that begins in one of the world’s most unexpected places… Antarctica.

The Reeves-Stevens premise is simple: A large part of Antarctica (The Ross Shelf) is actually hanging over open sea. Should this area be abruptly hurled into the sea, it would create a massive wave that would travel across the entire Pacific Ocean in a matter of hours, devastating everything in its path.

Guess what? This is exactly what happens in the opening pages of the novel, as nuclear warheads are detonated by terrorists. Before long, our Navy SEAL protagonist Mitch Weber is forced to team up with environmentalist Cory Rey to warn the world of the impending danger. Complicating the matter further is that the two were once lovers, but now stare at each other from totally opposite ideological viewpoints.

To be charitable, Icefire is not a novel of characters. A techno-thriller in the best tradition, it is a breathtaking narrative of rapidly introduced ideas and good-old American can-do military intervention. Everyone who despaired at the current techno-thriller slump should rejoice at the arrival of the Reeves-Stevens on the scene.

One crucial element that has been well-understood by the writers is the techno-thriller genre’s reliance on secrets. Whether anyone believes that the US military knows about UFOs and such, most of us suspect that they’ve been hiding some pretty fascinating technology. Icefire has far too much fun in imagining what these secrets might be. Though overdone in some areas (come on, they’re still rehashing Roswell?), this is one of the nice surprises of the book. Are these high-tech secrets convincing? Well, I did look on the Internet for some references to the mysterious objects described on pages 243-244. Even at 10$ for the paperback, there is a lot of material for your money in Icefire‘s 703 pages.

The other surprise is how darn exciting it all is. Icefire begins with nuclear explosions and builds on to bigger things. The means used by our protagonists to travel beyond the wave are increasingly high-tech, and the action doesn’t let stop. Several “Cool Scenes” [TM] pepper the narrative, pushing Icefire well above the average techno-thriller novel.

Best of all, the writing flows very well. The characters are well defined in their functions, even if not much deeper. (I never really believed in the protagonists’ past romance, for instance, seeing how radically different their personality types are.) The plot mechanics are ingenious, wisely dropping cards when needed and withholding some bigger stakes for later. The conclusion is kind of flat, but after all that happened, who can blame readers for being a bit numb?

One could go on endlessly about Icefire, but it all boils down to how much fun it all is. What’s most surprising is that Reeves-Stevens are relative newcomers at techno-thrillers. They either studied their market cynically well, or they instinctively know what to do. In any case, I’m anxiously waiting for their next techno-thriller. Good stuff.