Monthly Archives: January 2001

Enigma, Robert Harris

Arrow, 1995, 390 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-09-999200-0

March 1943. It’s not the darkest hour of the Second World War, but it’s still somewhat bleak. While the Nazis are getting stomped on by the Russians at home, progress is being made in Africa and supplies are getting through, the war isn’t quite won yet. Convoys from America are still the thin lifeline sustaining England and it is essential to keep the U-Boats at bay (or, more accurately, safely sunk on the ocean floor) if the fight is to go on.

Fortunately, the bright fellows at Bletchley Park, a top-secret English codebreaking centre, have cracked the top-secret encryption used by the U-Boats to communicate with their home bases. This allows the British Royal Air Force to oh-so-conveniently patrol the areas where -surprise!- they discover U-Boats ripe for sinking. A cozy arrangements for all except the Nazis and the U-Boat crews.

Naturally, the Germans can’t be allowed to find out that their codes have been broken, right? Otherwise, they’d change it to something completely different and the RAF would be back to totally random patrols. The expression “national security” was invented exactly for situations of this type.

As Robert Harris’ Enigma opens, a “brilliant young mathematician” (it’s in the job description) named Tom Jericho has two problems. First, he’s recalled to Bletchley Park from his self-imposed exile because the Germans have finally switched encryption. Second, but far more importantly, he’s still moping over the cause of his exile, a small love disaster with a girl named Claire.

The fact that their relationship isn’t too spectacular, remains safely in the background or that Claire emerges as something of a trollop isn’t the novel’s principal flaw.

In any case, Jericho is driven back to Bletchley Park, where we get a tour of the facilities with the care we could expect from an author who’s made his reputation with intricately detailed “alternate histories” novels of Nazi-occupied England. The technical details all sound right, and we can only be grateful for yet another good record of not only one of the war’s biggest stories, but also the birthplace of computer theory.

Bletchley Park is a great setting for a spying thriller, mixing dramatic importance with technical possibilities. Enigma also has the advantage of covering what was at the time (1995) unbroken ground for thriller writers. (Ironically enough, the first histories of World War II completely ignored Bletchley Park because all the details were still classified. It is only since the seventies that the relevant papers have been declassified and that the true significance of Bletchley Park has been integrated in the “official” history of the War.)

Well, mostly unbroken ground now. Technically-competent readers have since had the chance to read profusely on the subject of cryptanalysis, and the definitive fictional treatment of Bletchley Park is now to be found in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon.

In other words, try to read Enigma before Cryptonomicon, otherwise Stephenson’s irresistible prose may spoil Harris’ soggy narrative. It’s not that Enigma isn’t a good book (it’s quite good, actually), but it shares with British cuisine an overall air of sophisticated detachment, of carefully studied blandness. Hey, don’t be fooled: it’s still good, smart, perfectly adequate entertainment. But don’t be surprised if you find out that the tough unpleasant British wartime conditions start mirroring the novel’s overall appeal.

(As of this writing (January 2001), the film version of Enigma has screened at the Sundance film festival, garnering mixed critical notice. Perhaps the most puzzling thing about the film is the casting, with Dougray Scott (Jericho), Saffron Burrows (Claire) and Kate Winslet as the “plain” Hester sidekick. Ah, only in the movies… It should open continent-wide sometime in 2001 whenever it finds a distributor.)

Tesla: Man Out of Time, Margaret Cheney

Dell Laurel, 1981, 320 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-39077-X

I sincerely pity those who don’t take the time to study history. Not because of Santayana’s admonition or out of a feeling of cultural superiority, but mostly because these people tend to miss great stories and impressive characters. The Yom Kippur war of 1973. Francis Drake. World War II. Scott and Amundsen’s race for the South Pole. Disraeli. Xenophon’s Ten Thousands. Our history is filled with dramatic event, major characters and important knowledge that tends to be swept away by time unless they’re studied by modern audiences.

It’s a fair bet to say that while many remember Thomas Edison, few can precisely identify Nicola Tesla. Even I, no stranger to scientific history, somehow ended up with the misapprehension that he was Russian. Well, if anything can correct this regrettable oversight, it’s Margaret Cheney’s book-long biography Tesla: Man Out of Time.

Nikola Tesla was born in 1856 in Serbia. An early prodigy in physical sciences, Tesla dropped priesthood studies in order to become an engineer. Disappointed in the lack of interest for his inventions in Europe, he emigrated to the United States in 1884 where he worked a few months for Thomas Edison before striking out on his own. Shortly afterward, he invented and patented the basic elements of alternating-current electricity, which is still used today. Unfortunately, this was in direct competition with Edison’s direct-current systems, which caused a lifelong war between the two men. Unfortunately, Edison was far more organized than Tesla, which explains the current reputation of both men despite widespread technical recognition of Tesla’s superior technical achievements.

Make no mistake: Tesla: Man Out of Time is, from its title onward, a gee-whiz popular biography. There isn’t a lot of scientific or technical detail (Despite the blurb that claims that Cheney is “a science writer”, I fail to see any degree of technical comfort in her writing) and what little is there doesn’t impress by its clarity or precision. The book is filled with statements that Tesla invented something that’s still in use today, even if the difference between idea and actual implementation is often enormous. (The passage on VTOL aircraft on page 201-203 illustrate this very well.)

It’s obvious that Cheney’s goal is to make some sort of quasi-magical super-inventor out of Nikola Tesla. One of the biggest failing of the book is its uncritical acceptance of parapsychological events surrounding Tesla’s eccentricity. (Even citing now-discredited ESP research as “proof”) It smacks of seventies’ ESP craze and casts a shadow on the rest of the “harder” assertions. And that’s not even mentioning all the bow-wow “this effect was never replicated after Tesla’s death” passages.

But even allowing for a considerably margin of error, fudging and outright statue-building, Nikola Tesla remains a fascinating individual. The patent record speaks for itself as for the technical genius of the man. The book does the rest for his freakish personality. His considerably ingenuity never translated in financial success due to stupid decisions, lack of discipline and Edison’s mud-throwing. What didn’t help was Tesla’s incessant boasts which might or might not have been based in reality. (Of course, Cheney seldom expresses doubts as to the validity of these impetuous declarations, further enhancing Tesla’s mythical status and devaluating her credibility.)

But even given those provisos and assorted warnings, Tesla: Man Out of Time remains an exceptional introduction to one of history’s most interesting inventor. While I’m not as convinced that Tesla single-handedly invented the basis of modern civilization as Cheney seems to be, she did manage to convince me that Tesla is an unjustly-forgotten character whose likes we’ll probably never see again. A fascinating man, and one deserving of further study.

As well as of a second opinion.

Exclusive, Sandra Brown

Warner, 1996, 469 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60423-2

I’m usually a very demanding reader. I expect intricate plotting, well-defined characters, strong realism, exact technical details and, generally, a novel that doesn’t assume that I’m an idiot.

But then again, I like to think of myself as a reckless book critic who likes to take chances and isn’t afraid to look like a moron.

In short, I liked Sandra Brown’s Exclusive even though on many level it’s an awful novel.

For starters, it doesn’t even attempt to be realistic. The First Lady of the United States invites a low-level TV journalist and suggests that her newborn child was murdered. Cut to the president scheming how to shut up the TV journalist. Cut to the journalist checking out an ex-presidential aide now retired in the wild. Insert gratuitous sex scene. Cut to president demanding that the ex-aide be disposed of. Insert revelation that the child might have been the aide’s because the president had a vasectomy without telling his wife. Add presidential murders, infanticide, double-crosses, torrid sex, false fakeouts, conspiracies, FBI agents, strong-and-deadly protagonists, houses blowing up and you’ve got something akin to a weird hybrid between men’s adventure novels, X-Files episodes and Harlequin romances.

Exclusive never attempts to cultivate an aura of realism. The cackling evil president has no basis in reality (not even as a cross between Clinton and Nixon), the secret agents seem to come straight from Men in Black and the intricate interrelationship are stolen straight from daytime soaps. Sloppiness or cheekiness, the effect is the same; a novel that’s enjoyable because it’s so honestly over-the-top.

The writing style reflect this willingness to plow forward without attention to verisimilitude: This is a one-day no-bookmarks novel designed to make you turn the pages as quickly as possible. The writing is simple, direct and to the point.

Which doesn’t preclude some annoying quirks. The last act of the novel is precipitated by a preposterous link with a minor background detail that borders on sheer coincidence if not outright authorial intervention. It’s not the only, nor the least, of the outrageous plot development. Brown is also fond of fakeouts, which will quickly cause experience readers to fall back on their most paranoid ain’t-dead-until-you-kick-the-body attitudes. Finally, for some reason, it’s really hard to warm up to Exclusive‘s protagonist, who comes across as a none-too-competent whiner more than a true heroine. But then again, Brown’s sarcastic dialogues would make a shrew out of Mother Theresa.

And yet, for all its excessiveness, multiple twists and eye-rolling revelations, Exclusive is a heck of a lot of fun. Granted, it’s hard to make an outright comedy with infanticide, presidential murders and other cheery material, but Exclusive is best seen as a tongue-in-cheek quasi-parody of those oh-so-serious political thrillers available elsewhere on the shelves. Somehow, I don’t think that Brown was quite aiming at this territory when she set out to write this book, but given that this is her sixteenth novel, she’s professional enough to make it a lot of fun anyway.

Surprisingly enough, while occasional readers might like Exclusive on its most basic level, it’s the jaded readers who might the biggest kicks out of Brown’s novel, with its lively tendency to do exactly what you wouldn’t expect. Considering it a comedy might be unfair and extreme, but then again so is Exclusive.

Mars Crossing, Geoffrey A. Landis

Tor, 2000, 331 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-87201-1

Like with so many SF authors known uniquely for a string of excellent short stories, Geoffrey A. Landis’ first novel was eagerly awaited by readers of the genre. As a particularly gifted representative of the Hard-SF school of writing, Landis had demonstrated, through his stories, a talent for complex characters, lucid prose and a fertile imagination. Mars Crossing arrived on shelves in time for Christmas and the new millennium, hopefully satisfying a legion of eager fans.

Landis plays it safe by setting his first novel on Mars. In the past few years, SF has seen a renewed interest in the Red Planet outstripping even the early-nineties boom which had given rise to, most famously, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. He takes a half-serious, half-adventurous approach to the planet halfway between the nuts-and-bolts of Stephen Baxter’s Voyage and the wild ludicrousness of Hollywood’s Mars blockbusters. The result is uneven, but entertaining.

As with several of the other Mars novels, Mars Crossing spends half its time describing the trip on Mars, and the other half explaining how the various members of the expedition ended up there. The current section of the novel is fine, concerning itself with a series of nick-of-time adventures aimed at getting the astronauts off Mars after a disastrous technical problem shortly after landing. Parallels are made with the exploration of Antarctica, which should give you an idea of the book’s body count. Canyons are crossed, planes are flown, calculations and stupid mistakes are made, people are killed or murdered and during all that time, as with all Mars novels, the stupid people on Earth couldn’t care less about space exploration. Thrills and chills abound and the pacing is snappy.

It’s the other half of Landis’ novel that isn’t so good. In an effort to bring more drama to a survival adventure story, Landis makes sure that every one of his characters (except the guy who buys it barely fifty pages in the novel) is jam-packed with past traumas, deep secrets, unchivalrous motives, hidden identities and severe sociopathologies. While it would have been fine for one or two characters, the cumulative effect invites disbelief. It’s entirely possible to come to a point where you can’t care about the next big trauma that Landis will reveal.

On the other hand, this does make up for a bunch of interesting characters. Those who thought that the “Survivor” casts had interesting problems and treacherous personalities are bound to be pleasantly surprised here.

Fortunately, despite everything, “Survivor” addicts are not the only one likely to derive some satisfaction from the novel. Landis wrote a lot of short stories before sending Mars Crossing to Tor, and it shows through the limpid writing style as well as the numerous short chapters. While the flashback to the characters’ previous lives might be exasperating at the macro-level, they’re handled with the right amount of detail and attention. As with all good adventures, Mars Crossing moves with the proper pacing. And, Landis being a working scientist in his non-writing time, you can be assured of the novel’s aura of technical authenticity. He’s less successful in describing future social trends and musical styles, but at least he makes an effort at it.

The end result, all things considered, is a honest first novel with some flaws, but also with enough strengths to recommend to the hard-SF audience. While a slight disappointment on some levels, Mars Crossing promises a lot for Landis’ future career as a novelist, as well as for his expectant fans.

Transfer of Power, Vince Flynn

Pocket, 1999, 549 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-02320-9

With the first part of Vince Flynn’s first novel, Term Limits, it was possible to imagine reading something new: A libertarian thriller backed by a major publisher. As corrupt politicians were offed by patriot executioners with nary a second thought by the author, it was a memorable departure from countless other thrillers stuck in their black-versus-white worldview. Of course, the book lost its nerve shortly afterward, and the rest of the narrative was focused on a chase to apprehend more classically evil “copycat” terrorists. (Though it’s worth remembering that the original virtuous terrorists almost get away with it.)

Transfer of Power is Flynn’s second novel, and as with many sophomore efforts, it’s more technically successful yet ultimately less satisfying.

It begins as so many other thrillers do, with an American operation deep behind enemy lines. Before long, a well-known terrorist is captured and brought back to the United States. During his in-flight interrogation, he reveals that his buddies are preparing something big. Against the President of the United States.

The alert is given too late, but not entirely too late. While the White House is taken over by the terrorists, the security service, warned by the CIA, manages to escape the threat and take refuge in a half-completed bunker. A jammer is installed, cutting off all contact between the president and his forces. The Vice-President takes command. Demands are made. No one can agree on what to do next.

Well, almost no one. As could be expected in this type of story, there is always one lone maverick who won’t hesitate to talk straight, think tough and act decisively. In Transfer of Power, this man (it’s always a man) is Mitch Rapp, a special forces operative who has pretty much all the talents needed to retake the White House.

The rest of the plot you can pretty much figure out by yourself, especially if you’ve seen DIE HARD and its imitators. No troubling moral questions here. There’s one shock moment near the end that is inevitable in retrospect, but still shows some guts. But most of all, Transfer of Power is built and executed according to formula. Nowhere is this more visible in the tacked-upon romantic subplot, which annoys and slows down the novel more than any other factor.

But if we discard the conventional structure, length is by far the worst of Transfer of Power‘s faults. Flynn’s novel simply doesn’t have the depth or complexity to sustain very nearly 550 pages. This type of book, to be efficient, needs to be snappy. And snappy it is not, with endless delays, romantic uselessness and far too much time spent waiting for something.

Still, if you’re after an averagely satisfying thriller, you could do worse than to try Transfer of Power. Despite the length, Flynn keeps things interesting, integrates interesting details in the narrative, adequately sketches his characters with effectiveness and generally knows how to deliver.

Expect a dumb-as-dirt Hollywood version sometime soon.

Storm of the Century, Stephen King

Pocket, 1999, 376 pages, C$22.00 tpb, ISBN 0-671-03264-X

EXT. ROCKLAND, ONTARIO: MIDDLE-CLASS SUBURBAN NEIGHBOURHOOD—NIGHT

A lone Saturn car makes it through the streets of Rockland. It is snowing heavily, and only the excellent driving skills of THE REVIEWER, plus the front-wheel drive of the Saturn, manage to overcome the blizzard. The town is blacked-out: Only the headlights of the car illuminate the streets.

The Saturn finally turns in a driveway and stops besides a modest home. The REVIEWER gets out of the car and enters the house. Behind him, his footsteps in the snow are erased by the howling wind.

INT. HOUSE, HOME OFFICE

The REVIEWER tries to open the light, but the power is obviously out. Ever-prepared, he opens a drawer and takes out candles and dry food.

He settles down in his favourite reading chair. Looking on his coffee table, he notices that the next book on his reading stack is Stephen King’s screenplay for the TV movie Storm of the Century, published in book form by a publisher eager to make a few extra dollars.

The REVIEWER takes the book, looks at the white blackness outside and smiles. How appropriate. He sits down and starts to read.

There is a battery-operated alarm clock besides him. Five minutes pass.

REVIEWER (VO)

Wow, King surely loves to spoil things in his introduction. Should have been an afterword. I’m worried about his comparison with Needful Things, because so far the plot of both stories seem identical. Let’s read on.

Five minutes pass.

REVIEWER (VO)

No small surprise that King loves the script format. It’s as descriptive as his usual writing style, and he can’t help but comment on the action.

Twenty minutes pass.

REVIEWER (VO)

Nothing much has happened so far, but I’m intrigued. Who’s that Limoges fellow who kills and then asks for something? What’s that something? If it wouldn’t be for that question, the rest of the setup would be unbearably slow.

Another twenty minutes pass.

REVIEWER (VO)

You know, King, it might be time to start the action. Halfway through, and half the dialogue’s so far is Limoges saying “Gimme whatta want and I’ll go away.”

Five minutes later.

REVIEWER (VO)

Ah! More people die!

Ten minutes later.

REVIEWER (VO)

Okay, stop the body count, I think I get the point.

Five minutes…

REVIEWER (VO)

No, but really!

Ten minutes.

REVIEWER (VO)

So that is what he wants. Is that it?

Thirty seconds.

REVIEWER (VO)

Apparently so. I can see where this is going.

Ten minutes. The reviewer snaps the book shut.

REVIEWER (VO)

Pretty much of a downer. Doesn’t deliver much, but that’s okay since we weren’t expecting much. Not one of his best, obviously.

The REVIEWER gets up, shaking his head. At least he’ll be able to read something more interesting right away. He glances at his reading table and sees that all the books are more copies of Storm of the Century

He gets up, shocked. He runs to his library and looks at the shelves. More copies of Storm of the Century. In all formats: paperback, hardcover, audiobook, videocassette, DVD…

STEPHEN KING (VO)

Give me the review that I want, and I’ll go away.

The REVIEWER hyperventilates and screams.

REVIEWER

NOOO!!!

Outside, the storm continues, unabated.

Voyage, Stephen Baxter

Harper Collins, 1996, 772 pages, C$6.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-105708-8

It’s nearly impossible nowadays to have more than a passing interest in space without feeling betrayed by politics. It’s a sobering thought to realize that no one has left Earth’s orbit in more a quarter of a century, or, personally, in my lifetime. The glorious results of Apollo have not been, to speak like managers, “leveraged” to better and bolder things. No Moonbase. No exploitation of lunar resources. No expeditions to Mars. After a few spectacular missions, the United States just… stopped. Politicians cut NASA’s budget, essentially stopping space exploration in favour of some ill-defined social programs that, frankly, don’t seem to work very well.

This theme of betrayal runs deep in Stephen Baxter’s fiction. In Traces, Baxter collected several short stories about alternate space programs. In Titan, astronauts steal a shuttle to go to Jupiter. In Moonseed, Baxter rails on for a while on NASA’s shortcomings. And now, in Voyage, Baxter really lets himself go and describes an alternate space program in which Americans land on Mars… in 1986.

The point of divergence between our universe and theirs, surprisingly enough, turns to be the oldest of those “what if” scenarios, which is to say a different fate for John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. JFK lives to be an indefatigable booster for the space program, which realigns its priorities after the first moon landing to develop a one-shot Mars mission for 1986. Various difficulties intervene, stuff and marriages blow up, people are selected to go to Mars and, as you might guess, the novel ends on Mangala Valles itself.

As suggested by the introduction to this review, Voyage is less of a story and much more of a book-length treatise and analysis of the impact of politics on the space program since the sixties. As such, don’t expect compelling drama, heart-stopping suspense or heavy theatrics. In his quest for verisimilitude, Baxter concentrates on how it might have really happened rather than on constant jolts of action. (There is one good jolt midway through, and it has more impact due to the lack of action preceding it.) Even the structure of the novel -told in flashbacks between liftoff and Mars landing- seems to conspire against heightened tension. There isn’t really any suspense in knowing if the mission will make it to Mars. Indeed, the novel ends on a note that seems to suggest that the return from Mars itself is unimportant.

But, ah-ha, the “getting there” aspect is very well-done. The amount of detail that Baxter packs in Voyage are nothing short of awe-inspiring. In his mind, he’s obviously setting out to re-create a complete space program, and he achieves it successfully. All levels of the space program are covered, from the astronauts to the NASA administrators to the humble contractors doing more than “just their job” in order to put Americans on Mars. Authentic documents are reproduced, and seemingly-authentic ones are written.

One small nit I had was the lack of other changes in this alternate history. The presidents remain the same. Moon landing date and Apollo 13 are unaffected. Historical events don’t seem to be disturbed by JFK’s survival. Sure, it focuses the interest on the Mars mission, but still…

A more serious issue (which is not necessarily a complaint) is that for all its intricate detail and constant proselytism, Voyage fails to convince that this alternate history is somehow better than ours. It makes a powerful argument that we should go to Mars, but the post-Voyage space program seems poised to stop like ours did, except without any Shuttles or Voyagers in service. Voyage literally ends once someone steps on Mars. Maybe Baxter wants to give us an idea of the required trade-offs?

But if your kicks tend to be space-related, and/or if you have a fondness for Hard SF and historical novels, give Voyage a try. It’s an ambitious work that highlights new possibilities for the genre, and represents an impressive intellectual achievement in its own right.

Traffic (2000)

(In theaters, January 2001) Generally speaking, I’ve given up on cinema as a narrative medium. Sure, it can show me cool pictures and exciting battle scenes, it can make me laugh or wow me with special effects, but films that succeed at telling me a story are few and far in between. That’s, in large part, what pleased me so much in Traffic: The sense that it’s willing to tell a large, complex story in a way that’s appropriate for the medium. Granted, it’s an adaptation of a British miniseries (which explains the density of plotting) but a good one, relocating the action and reformulating it in terms of American interest. Traffic is, roughly, three stories centered around three locations. The weakest of the bunch is about some rich kid getting addicted: it’s all very TV-movieish familiar and smacks of facility (Our rich white girl even gets a black pimp, which is good for a meta-giggle or two.) At least the Mexican story is less black-and-white (if you’ll excuse the juxtaposition and the cinematographic in-joke) and the Californian story carries some suspense. In any case, this rather long film passes quickly, and carries through to a satisfying ending. Technically, the film is exceptional, from the nervy direction to the convincing cinematography. (Though the color tinting is very heavy-handed) All acting credits are excellent, from the movie stars (Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones) to the B-stars (Benicio del Toro, Randy Quaid) to the character actors (Luis Guzman, Miguel Ferrera). As if that wasn’t enough, Traffic is a welcome change from the usual Hollywood pablum in that it’s willing to tackle a controversial political issue. Whether it has something of value to say takes back place to the willingness of the attempt. All in all, one of the best films of the year.

The Lions of Al-Rassan, Guy Gavriel Kay

Penguin, 1995, 582 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-14-024313-5

I’ll be prompt to confess that I don’t read a lot of fantasy. Science-Fiction, thrillers and military fiction are my chosen genres, but fantasy… well, I’ll leave that to other people. We can get along.

But that doesn’t mean that I read no fantasy. It just depends on the circumstances. For instance, I found myself, during Fall 2000, rummaging through a table of books at a goodwill sale, ending up with 11 choices. The salesperson counted them and asked if I minded picking another book to make it an even dozen to simplify the bill. Always glad to oblige, I looked over to the nearest section and saw, in the middle of a tapestry of Harlequin novels, Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan. I had known for some time that I would read Kay sooner of later (after all, he’s a fellow Ontarian), so luck decided that I’d end up reading Kay sooner rather than later.

And a fortuitous choice it was. The Lions of Al-Rassan sucked me in its narrative like very few fantasy books have managed to do. From the opening pages, where a young doctor is forced in a campaign against the king, Kay is a professional who knows how to hook his readers. In short time, we’re effortlessly introduced to a historical setting with troubling similarities with medieval Spain, but also quite unlike it. Three major culture clash on a single peninsula, with assorted third-parties jumping into the fray as needed.

Even though The Lions of Al-Rassan is usually labelled fantasy, it’s not your usual Tolkienesque heroic fantasy ripoff. There is one single element of “impossibility” in the novel (a remote viewing sense which could have been written out, slight as it is); the rest is strictly realistic. Kay has written sort of an extreme alternate history of medieval Spain and the result is astonishing by its depth, accessibility and cleverness. There is a lot of material here, especially for a one-shot novel that could have been (unfortunately) turned into a full trilogy. Kings are killed, empires fall, wars are waged in an unusually zippy 582 pages. The depth, complexity and realism of Al-Rassan’s complex universe is nearly awe-inspiring.

But to spend much time on the empires and the cerebral qualities of The Lions of Al Rassan would be ignoring the novel’s biggest strength, its unusually well-developed and sympathetic protagonists. A trio of linked characters—a doctor, a warrior and a politician/poet—form the access point through which the land of Al-Rassan is revealed to the reader. These Lions are at the center of the upheavals described in the novel, and while the narrative may often feature royal palace intrigues, it is most compelling when focusing on the three protagonists. “How-to” writing books repeat that good characters are the key to sweeping fiction: you will not be able to find a better illustration of this maxim than with The Lions of Al-Rassan.

Kay is gifted in that he can write a prose that is polished, beautiful and completely understandable at first glance. Breathtaking descriptions of Al-Rassan co-exist with clever dialogue and pulse-pounding action scenes that would belong in action movies. It’s hard not to like an author who delivers the goods like that.

If there are things to dislike, they come at the end, where Kay seems to delight in obscuring some information in order to maintain suspense for a few more pages. Unfortunately, the effect is closer to exasperation than suspense, as we’ll just rush through the rest of the book to find out who won and who didn’t.

But never mind that: I won’t go as far as saying that The Lions of Al-Rassan single-bookedly restored my faith in Fantasy, but it’s certainly an exceptional, memorable work by a professional of the genre. As my testimony might suggest, even non-genre readers might enjoy this book. At least give it a try.

Spice World (1997)

(On VHS, January 2001) When all will have been said and done about the Spice Girls, you’ll be able to listen to their best-of compilation and watch this film to get a quick complete representation of who they were. It’s important to note from the onset that this is not a good film: The narrative thread is frayed, the acting is often embarrassing, the dialogue has very rough spots and the technical polish of the film is, well, lacking. This being said, Spice World becomes endearing almost despite itself, managing a few very good jokes (“Not necessarily”) and thriving on the charm of the titular music group. While the Girl’s fifteen minutes are up, at least the film will remain in libraries for a while. It won’t take long for future viewers to wonder what the heck that was all about. Maybe the film has a chance at cult status.

Snatch (2000)

(In theaters, January 2001) Well, if you loved director Guy Ritchie’s first film, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, get ready to run and see Snatch, because it’s pretty much the same film. Low-level English criminals, complicated plot, multiple camera tricks, fast editing, time-shifting, incomprehensible English accents; it’s all there, and the level of quality is pretty much identical. While it’s not as delightfully surprising as the first film, it’s probably more self-assured. (It is somewhat darker, though) Most of the actors are excellent in their respective roles, but special notice must go to Brad Pitt as a gypsy boxer. Make sure to turn on the subtitles before watching the film. Good fun.

(Second viewing, On DVD, August 2001) Sure, a great script is always a good basis for a great film, but it usually takes more than that. Director Guy Richie is this element for Snatch, confidently mixing virtuoso editing, unusual -but appropriate- camera tricks, wonderful music and an assured mastery of all that’s cool. Part of the success must be shared by the actors, of course (with a special emphasis on Vinnie Jones and Brad Pitt), without whom coolness would have no face. This is one film which you won’t get tired of watching, if only because of the density of some of the material. The DVD is everything you’d hope about Snatch, from an informative audio commentary to a honest making-of featurette. Snatch Snatch as soon as possible!

Cheung foh [The Mission] (1999)

(On TV, January 2001) One of Hong Kong Action cinema’s strongest selling point is its sheer demented nature. Rather than waste time establishing realism, Hong Kong Action works on hypercharged kinetism, extreme theatrics and guns that don’t need reloading. The Mission tries to break away from this style with a slightly more realistic approach, but the result isn’t nearly as successful. The atmosphere and tone are much more somber, with unsweetened violence and -especially toward the end- a constant paranoia of sudden aggression. There are also too many main characters to deepen any of them. The action is brief, humorless, often without any of the suspense of the best examples of the genre. The Mission will do on a slow afternoon, and does work on several levels, but don’t expect it to be as entertaining as the other typical representatives of the genre.

Bordering on Aggression, Floyd W. Rudmin

Voyageur, 1993, 192 pages, C$14.95 tpb, ISBN 0-921842-09-0

An American invasion of Canada has long been a favorite topic for humor writers. While no one would seriously question the military superiority of the United States of America versus Canada’s mostly figurative military forces, it’s hard to imagine why the Americans would do such a thing. Canada and the States have been good buddy-friend nations for so long that the mere thought of a war between the two countries is enough to elicit giggles. US invading Canada (or the reverse) spawned one comedy film, CANADIAN BACON, and at least a few hundred “humorous” web pages.

But Floyd W. Rudmin is dead serious when he discusses the subject in Bordering on Aggression, a book examining motives, plans and means by which the US could, if it was so inclined, take military control of Canada.

The first myth that Rudmin destroys is the so-called long-standing friendship between the two countries. As most alert Canadian high-schoolers remember from their history course, Americans invaded Canadian soil in 1812 and again decades later during the Fenian insurrections. But Rudmin digs deeper in American military archives and starts uncovering detailed invasion plans all the way through middle twentieth century, the latest date at which such documents were declassified.

Why invade Canada? Well, if ever the northern neighbours get a bit uppity about selling their natural resources at a fair price, then the US might take away what it needs. If that’s too unsubtle for you, just consider that in the event of Quebec independence, the US might take steps in order to protect its borders by pre-emptively securing trouble areas. If that wasn’t enough, just consider the old Manifest Destiny doctrine…

Paranoid? Rudmin would rather maintain that he’s well informed. A large section of Bordering on Aggression details the military build-up at Fort Drum, ideally positioned to unleash a strike at the Canadian heartland. Rudmin argues at length that the official mission of the base makes no sense but is ideally suited to Canadian invasion.

A lot of what Rudmin advances does fall under the “contingency” header. Somehow, I’d worry more about a US military that does not plan for all situations, including trouble in Canada. But, as could be expected, Rudmin maintains that US preparations go well beyond simply planning…

While the above premise may still sound completely implausible, the book does a good job of developping the concept. Rudmin has included many sources and even though his sensationalistic bias is obvious, he should be able to instill a flicker of doubt in any reader’s mind. He’s most adept at anticipating criticism, though: He begins the book by warning us against the giggle factor inherent in discussing the subject, later stating flatly that “ridicule has historically been the technique favoured to dismiss concern” [P.179] Rudmin’s insistence to protect himself against almost all objections often make his argumentation seem somewhat defensive, but it also defuses many of the point that smart-alecky reviewers such as myself might be tempted to make.

Even the ultimate concern is addressed: While most Canadian would welcome the news of American military preparations with a fatalistic shrug (“What can we do anyway?”), Rudmin cleverly concludes his book by suggesting that all Canadians learn Civilian Nonviolent Defence, a set of passive strategies designed to promote civil disobedience and economic sabotage. Rudmin suggests that such strategies worked previously in Denmark, India and Eastern Europe, so why not do the only sensible thing left to us? It’s an intriguing conclusion to an interesting book.

Even if you’re not overly swept away by Rudmin’s thesis, the book appears too well-researched to be dismissed easily, and in any case makes several interesting points, independent to its main argument. The historical sections by themselves are fascinating. Worth a critical look.