Monthly Archives: February 2001

Lodestar, Michael Flynn

Tor, 2000, 365 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-86137-0

I like to think that there’s an unspoken contract between author and reader, going well beyond any financial transaction possibly taking place. While the reader is willing to give out several hours’ worth of time and concentration, the author, in return, has to ensure that our investment is well spent. The book has to be entertaining, enlightening, educative or engaging, and preferably all that at once. See it as a coldly Return-On-Investment equation influenced by our materialistic culture or not, but most of us would rather read good books than bad.

This unspoken bond becomes more important as the length of the story increases. A bad short story remains a bad short story, but at least the most you’ll spend on it is a few minutes. But a bad trilogy will set your reading back for weeks, and the complete run of the Dune series will take a few months to even the fastest readers, with ever-diminishing returns.

The first book in Michael Flynn’s as-of-yet-untitled future history, Firestar, was a lengthy bore for several reasons, running from rampant naive libertarianism to endless setups to a comatic pace to unlikeable characters. Some liked it, but others just wished it went somewhere.

The second volume, Rogue Star, was much better. A nice pure-SF curveball coupled to some long-awaited payoffs and a more involving story all contributed at a much stronger volume. Even the characters seemed to do something interesting… and it all lead to a spiffy conclusion.

The third volume of the story (which doesn’t seem to be a trilogy) is a stunningly dull return to the first volume’s flaws, except that this time we can’t very well blame it on the need to define the characters.

A lot of the book’s 350+ pages is taken with a cyber-war that is not only long and tired, but also useless as most information gleaned during this episode could easily be revealed far more efficiently. The redundancy of this scenario, and the laboriousness with which most points are made, is emblematic of Flynn’s approach to the series. Whereas a snappy writer could have compressed the first volume to a few paragraphs and trimmed at least half the second volume, Flynn is just content with writing on and on and on. Lodestar could be resumed in a chapters and few would see the difference.

But no. Flynn is writing a future history, with all the extra smothering of extra realism-through-exhaustion that implies. He did his research, it shows, and the reader suffers from it.

It’s not as if I don’t want this story to be told; I think that Flynn is on to something, that his hundred-odd cast of characters and his willingness to detail everything is admirable. But he needs not only an editor with a chainsaw, but also a keyboard that sends electric shocks at each page break. As it stands, Lodestar is a pure waste of time, a sideway trip that doesn’t really advance the overall story.

(Nowhere is this better illustrated by the cover art, which represents a foreshadowing dream sequence near the end of the book, itself a preview for the fourth (fifth?) book in the series. If, like me, you saw the cover and intuited a sizeable jump between the second and third volume, then wait for the next one to come out.)

If ever you find yourself in a bookstore with your hands on Lodestar and an irresistible urge to find out what happens next in the series, read the very good epilogue, which tells you everything you need to know about the book. Then proceed directly to the next book.

If you haven’t started the series, don’t. Not only will you waste your time, but it looks as Firestar will be obsolete before the last volume is published.

It might be that Flynn needs money. It might be that we’re in for the “Trek-Movie curse” of odd-volumes-suck, even-volumes-rock. It might be that Flynn simply doesn’t care. But it’s certainly a breach of the unspoken contract between author and reader to read 350+ pages in a series book… to find out that nothing really happens.

The Fifth Horseman, Larry Collins & Dominique Lapierre

Simon & Schuster, 1980, 478 pages, C$15.00 hc, ISBN 0-671-24316-0

Regular readers of these reviews know that I’m a big fan of techno-thrillers. I usually associate this fondness to the same impulses that push me toward hard-Science Fiction and nonfiction books; a craving to understand the world, and to play with rigorous “what-if” scenarios.

Techno-thrillers were formally defined as a genre by the mega-success of Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October, which not only told an engrossing yarn of intrigue and action, but did so with a quasi-documentary style that took delight in pointing out fascinating facts to the reader even as the story went along. It wasn’t the first techno-thriller, nor even the first bestselling techno-thriller, but it became something of a publishing watershed.

Historians of the genre, even casual ones like myself, can take delight in unearthing earlier works in the same genre. Michael Crichton’s first thrillers (The Andromeda Strain and The Terminal Man, most famously) certainly fit the mold, as do other popular novels of the Seventies.

While, technically speaking, The Fifth Horseman misses the Seventies by only a few months, there’s no doubt that it’s a strong contender as a primary source of influence for the genre. It’s got everything that latter techno-thriller would use; a dastardly terrorist plot concocted by an enemy leader; military hardware; international scope; police procedural work; a whole stable of characters at all levels of society; ever-decreasing odds; nick-of-time escapes; limpid writing; and, perhaps most distinctly, a love and flair for details. Israeli airplanes don’t simply depart to bomb an enemy country: We follow the whole process, from political decision-making to locked vaults with activation codes to pilot scramble to the actual flying. Improperly handled, if makes for lethargic writing, but properly used -like here- it brings extra levels of suspense and verisimilitude to the story.

This extends to using real characters as cameos or antagonists. While most current writers would be content with using a faceless dictator from some unnamed country, Lapierrre and Collins don’t shy away from naming Qaddafi as the bad guy, even providing substantial dialogue, psychological profiling and internal monologue!

Oh, the book isn’t a complete success: The characters aren’t equally interesting (for each dynamic mayor Abe Stern or street-smart policeman Angelo Rocchia, there’s a useless Whalid Dajani or weaselly Patrick Cornedeau.) and not every subplot is equally interesting. (The French subplots, for instance, were probably more useful to Dominique Lapierre than to readers of the past twenty years.) The readership of 1980 being relatively unfamiliar with techno-thriller conventions, there is maybe a tad too much explaining. And when you compare The Fifth Horseman‘s relatively simple find-the-bomb plot with the sophistication of some of the latter techno-thrillers, it’s hard to be impressed.

But keep in mind that the book already has a fifth of a century, and that it remarkably hasn’t aged a lot since. The decision to focus on a terrorist threat rather than a Cold War intrigue helps a lot, as is the nature of the threat; somehow, even though the equipment currently used by NEST is probably far more sophisticated, I don’t think that finding a nuclear bomb in New York today would be any easier today…

All in all, The Fifth Horseman still works well, and not only as a historical curio. It was a good thriller and remains so today. Students and fans of the genre will get an extra value out of reading it, but casual reader shouldn’t feel cheated either.

Merc: The Professional, Frank Camper

Pocket, 1989, 304 pages, C$4.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-20215-9

Anyone remotely familiar with the circulation figures and overall tone of such magazines as Soldier of Fortune knows that there is a substantial reservoir of untapped bloodthirst in America. Quiet suburban males who wouldn’t otherwise even raise their voices vicariously live off other people’s heroism. Hey, I should know; I’m one of them.

So, predictably, a whole industry has sprung up to answer this demand. Military thrillers aren’t strong enough; now we’ve got first-person accounts of dangerous paramilitary operation, mercenary memoirs, real-life secret service exposés and such.

Frank Camper has produced his share of such books, but Merc: The Professional is pretty much an autobiography describing his “moments in action” from 1968 to 1987. In the first chapter, Camper repeatedly escapes US military forces; in the last, he’s thrown in jail for terrorism.

In-between, he get a rather impressive account of an interesting life. After a tour in Vietnam, an administrative error that led to his disenchantment with the military, several escapes and apprehensions from various military prisons and some time spent as a US Ranger, Camper quits the force and decides to go freelance. He will spend some time training local terrorists (while working for the FBI), being a pro car racing mechanic (they win the 24-hour Daytona) and working/fighting in the middle-east (making regular reports to the Mossad). In 1980, he establishes a Mercenary school near Birmingham, with a predictable amount of concern from authorities.

After that, Camper’s life history becomes even more fantastic. Beyond the fascinating operational details about Merc school, he makes contacts and is asked to conduct missions in just about every single hot spot around the world. From Miami to El Salvador, Belize, Guatemala, Lebanon, Panama, Nicaragua and Mexico, Camper travels widely and, if you believe him, has a minor role in everything from Sikh terrorist plots to assassinate Indira Gandhi to the Irangate itself. (But never fear; he always inform the official US authorities if what he is asked to do is suspicious. Naturally, that’s never quite as simple as having friends in high places.)

All of this will eventually catch up to him, and in 1987, he gets thrown in jail, unfairly isolated, disavowed by the government and all that good stuff. You can’t imagine anything better. It’s written in a dense but eminently readable style, with plenty of slam-bang action and cool little details that demonstrate a good understanding of what he’s writing about. The events described strike by their excitement and their mundane nature, establishing a perfectly realistic tone of real-life stories.

That is, if you want to believe him.

Oh, there is no doubt that Camper has done most of the things he did; he reprints newspaper articles, makes generally verifiable claims and doesn’t seem to contradict himself or make technical errors. He has since become a reasonably prolific author, with now half a dozen books to his credit. He’s making loads of money with his security consulting firm. He’s appeared on 60 Minutes.

But he’s also in the business to sell; himself, his adventures and his books. Frank Camper is frequently mentioned in conspiracy theory circles, being the author of a book, The MK/Ultra Secret, in which he suggests that Lee Harvey Oswald might have been brainwashed by CIA mind control techniques and… Well, you get the picture.

As usual, these types of gung-ho tell-all autobiographies are rather enjoyable provided they’re taken with a large spoonful of salt (also see Richard Marcinko’s Rogue Warrior). The style, stories and overall dramatic arc of the book makes it worthwhile reading if nothing else. As for the veracity of it all, well, it’s an ideal way to practice your investigative journalism skills…

[June 2003 note: This review generated two messages this month, with an interesting impact on the above review. The first message asked me if I knew of Frank Camper’s whereabout. After admitting that I didn’t know (I’m just a chump who bought the book at a charity sale, after all), I searched for Camper on the web and found out that the man essentially disappeared from view in 1997. This made me rather less skeptical of Camper’s claims and far more interested in what happened to him. Then, as if to confirm my lessening skepticism, I received a message from a graduate of Frank Camper’s Mercenary School who established to my satisfaction that the school was indeed what Camper claimed it to be. If you know of Camper’s current location or if you want to know more about the school, please head over to The Mercenary School Graduates Website! As for me, well, I’ll eat a little crow.]

[April 2004 note: Over the past few years, several other people have written to me about Frank Camper, and all of them have one point in common: They assure me that the book is the real story. Further corroborative evidence and updates also suggests that Camper was, indeed, all that he claimed to be. Now I’m just a chump who doesn’t know much about these things, but I’m happy to admit that my initial impression was wrong, and that Merc: The Professional is well worth reading… as a pure documentary.]

[August 2006 note: A pseudonymous correspondent contacted me to let me know that Frank Camper is alive and well and living in Alabama. I wish him the best of luck!]

[August 2007 note: A correspondent sent me very interesting information regarding the positive impact that Frank Camper’s training camp had on US police forces tactics against armed gangs. Most impressive.]

Zeitgeist, Bruce Sterling

Bantam Spectra, 2000, 293 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-10493-4

Reading a new Bruce Sterling book is the closest that SF readers can come to have a “satisfaction-guaranteed” experience. If you’ve liked Sterling in the past, he’s constantly improving himself, and even if you’d don’t really like his stuff, there are usually enough interesting elements to still make it all worthwhile.

In his latest novel Zeitgeist, SF’s premier world-traveller returns to the unclean, exotic edges of Western civilization, sort of a flashback to Europe after the American Distraction. This time, East European technicians meet Middle-eastern mafia meet American promoter meet… well, just about everyone. Leggy Starlitz, from the short story “The Littlest Jackal” in A Good Old-Fashioned Future, returns as the manager of a musical group suddenly faced with the prospect of middle-age when his daughter is dumped on him by one of her mothers.

The time is 1999, but don’t expect anything like SF nor historical fiction, because Zeitgeist might best be assimilated to a magical melting pot when everything ends up as a contemporary world fantasy, with supernatural powers, time-shifting people, literal regurgitation of metaphors and more than a little meta-fictional content. (Sterling says of Zeitgeist that it’s “technological fantasy”) How else to interpret Princess Di in a suitcase?

Parts of the book feature (but never revolve around) a pseudo-musical group named G-7, featuring interchangeable girls from every country of the group. Naturally, as Canadian, I was amused at the references to the “tartan-clad, toque-wearing Canadian One [who] spoke a little French, which naturally endeared her to the French One. [She] was polite, modest, and self-effacing, practically invisible in the group’s affair [and] very pleased to be consulted.” [P.47] Heh, eh? Most of the book is like that, with its self-assured, world-weary hipster style that make it all look effortless.

Not certainly not mindless, because even with this, maybe Sterling’s lesser book since Heavy Weather, it’s still a wonderful read. Obviously, coming from Sterling, it’s all very smart and often devastatingly funny. Leggy Starlitz is obsessed with his place in “the master narrative”, and the only thing funnier than someone obsessing about that is a character obsessing about it. The final “deus ex machina” ending is a sustained howler, one of the most unique moments to be found in recent fiction. (It’s almost as if Chris Carter stepped into a typical X-Files episode and slapped some sense in the characters while saying they’re more right than they can even imagine, just not in the right way.) This Zeitgeist is fluid, and that’s the fun of it.

The flaw of the book is contained in its brilliance; the very danger that this accumulation of smart jokes, witty conversations and this-side-of-weird elements might accumulate to create a future-shock of Wired-speak and promote the moment at the expense of the book’s overall plot. There’s never a dull moment, but there are a few long stretches.

But as you may gather, it doesn’t matter very much. With Zeitgeist, Sterling only solidifies his enviable position as one of the field’s best authors. He gets away with stuff that would doom a lesser writer; the convergence of genres, the throwaway gags and outrageous meta-fictional content are not only a lot of fun, but they also feel included for a reason. Good reading for everyone; check it out at the library.

The Alternative Detective, Robert Sheckley

Tor, 1993, 255 pages, C$19.95 tpb, ISBN 0-312-85381-5

Evoke the name Robert Sheckley to a sufficiently knowledgeable Science-Fiction fan, and (s)he’s most likely to evoke memories of Sheckley’s earlier short stories. During the fifties and sixties, Sheckley was the funny SF writer, producing a string of amusing stories lashing out at American culture through standards SF devices. His fiction would clearly lead to material such as Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Though his production has diminished considerably in the past few years, any new novel from him -even, as it is, in the mystery genre- should be cause for rejoicing. The first edition of The Alternative Detective having passed unnoticed in 1993, Forge republished the book in 1997 to coincide with the release of the second (and third?) novel in this contemporary mystery series.

If The Alternative Detective is any indication, I’m not surprised that the series hasn’t known wide acclaim. It’s not that it’s a bad book as much as it’s not overly good.

The first surprise of The Alternative Detective is how ordinary it all is, even despite its best intentions. Narrator Hobokan Draconian is an ex-hippie with a network of contacts in Europe (a product of his years in Ibiza), a wife he’s encouraging to shack up with another man and other assorted quirks. But in a genre that relies so much on good narration, Hob Draconian barely registers on the fun scale. The comic eye that Sheckley exhibited in his short stories is nowhere to be found here; instead, we have to settle for some vaguely amusing narration that tries hard but never sparks.

It doesn’t help that there are at least two hallucinatory sequences that don’t really serve any further purpose. A gourmet chef making the rounds in a French prison is good for a chuckle or two, but it’s hard to be overly forgiving when it’s so artificially inserted —and so summarily dispensed with: “You must have been hallucinating!” [P.172]

“Even though Hob ends up in plenty of clichéd private-detective situations, he can always find something funny to say about them, and some ingenious ways to weasel out of them.” breathlessly promises the back-cover blurb, conveniently forgetting to add an exclamation point. (!) Alas, Sheckley’s 1993 state-of-the-art postmodern detective simply takes a lot of naps and often quits cases before they’re through.

It’s not as if there aren’t a few fun touches; funny cab rides with poodles and inexperienced abductors, a reality-obsessed film director; a satisfying description of Ibiza; a sympathetic French cop; a mime friend… but all of those are presented with banality and a decidedly curious lack of impact.

But, maybe worse for the ultimate impact of the book is that Sheckley has dispensed with pop fiction’s Number One Commandment: The Protagonist Shall Do Something. Instead, Draconian is essentially pushed and pulled in various directions until the climax, where again he is brought to a place where all the parties settle their differences without his intervention. Draconian is about as useful as Watson without Holmes, almost as if Sheckley couldn’t be bothered to make an active participant out of the viewpoint narrator. Postmodern? Alternative? How about unsatisfying?

This structural failure, coupled with the pedestrian beat of the narration, suggests that readers would be best advised to spend their valuable entertainment time elsewhere. Why not check out one of Sheckley’s short story collections instead?

By Any Other Name, Spider Robinson

Baen, 2001, 429 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-31974-4

Ah, Spider Robinson…

I’ve never met the man, but I’ve heard he’s a pretty likable person. Entertainer extraordinaire, quick with witty banter and overall quite a number, a trusted source called him “something else entirely” which, as non-qualifiers go, is pretty good.

But I’ve read a lot of material from him (roughly a dozen books now) and I can say, without casting any sort of judgement on him, that we don’t agree on a bunch of subjects. No surprise there; Robinson practically prides himself of being a product of the counter-culture, an ex-hippie with a high tolerance for sex, drugs and good rock’n’roll. Take away this love for rock’n’roll, and there aren’t a whole lot of common points left with a catholic-raised French-Canadian like myself.

Chances are that Spider Robinson would like it that way. His fiction contains a major motif of questioning the social status-quo, upsetting our assumptions and generally promoting a gentler, more humanistic future. Now, I find his ideals somewhat unrealistic, uncomfortable and even a bit silly… which is probably his point, exactly.

And yet, if I don’t agree with him, why is it that I keep on reading whatever he writes? His two latest collections offer an ideal opportunity to reflect on the subject, especially when I’ve spend a good 20$ acquiring them both.

It would be easier to rationalize if Robinson was an infallible writer, someone whose each and every story was a gem. But the truth is that, while he’s technically very good, he’s not perfect. There are duds, most often stories who go on for far longer than they should (“By any Other Name”, “Nobody Likes to be Lonely”, “When No Man Pursueth”). His reliance on shock tactics also gets real old real fast… and if the tactic doesn’t work, his story often ends up stuck to it.

His humanistic approach also makes him predictable. When, for instance, a hired killer is sent after his target in his fiction, you can be sure that he’ll end up changing his mind before committing the deed, or else do it “out of compassion”. See “The Magnificent Conspiracy”, “Satan’s Children” or “By Any Other Name” for examples. He’ll also drive you crazy with authorial interference. His SF-educated protagonist are so freakin’ intuitive that they’ll make astonishing leaps of logic, drawing “proofs” from suppositions that would deter the National Enquirer and somehow coming up with the correct answer each time. I suppose it’s a change from idiot characters, but it’s a very showy, heavy-handed, self-conscious process, especially in a collection. See “Orphans of Eden”, “-and subsequent construction”, “Tin Ear” and several stories in the Callahan sequence.

But despite everything, it must be said that when Spider Robinson is on, he is on. It’s difficult to disrespect him because, despite every twisted logic, blatant provocation and overindulgence, he plays the SF game like it’s meant to be played. He is a writer with a deep respect and understanding of where SF comes from, and his fiction shows it. He might hold opposite viewpoints to yours, but it’s difficult to state that he is undoubtedly wrong. If you do, it’ll be after a deep and thorough examination of the issue.

And that might be the key to why I’m still buying his books. Beyond the easy style, the witty dialogue and the good plotting, the intellectual appeal of his work is compelling. I have yet to meet a science-fiction fan who doesn’t enjoy a good argument, and for all his faults, Spider Robinson knows how to argue. He pounces on his readership while respecting and understanding them. Preaching to the choir while whipping them into shape. In some ways, he’s the ultimate SF writer.

Judgment of Tears: Anno Dracula 1959, Kim Newman

Carroll & Graf, 1998, 291 pages, C$35.50 hc, ISBN 0-786-70558-2

Kim Newman’s 1992 novel Anno Dracula was, in many respect, a remarkable book. A perfect fin-de-siècle novel, it summed up the vampire genre of horror by combining it to alternate history, along with a lot of fun and potent horror scenes. What if the Dracula of Bram Stoker had escaped his hunters and lived on to marry, through imperial connections, Queen Victoria? What if that ascendancy had pushed vampirism in the open, creating a worldwide rift between the dead and the living? What if our history had been altered by the presence of this new type of humanity? Any way you looked at it, Anno Dracula was a masterpiece, an instant classic and an all-around wonderful book.

Naturally, it had to spawn sequels. Even though, according to a recent interview with Newman, a fourth book in the series should be published before the end of 2001, The Bloody Red Baron and Judgment of Tears complete what is essentially a trilogy of books about Dracula and his human nemesis Charles Beauregard. No, it doesn’t end like you’d expect it to; the Anno Dracula series is too smart to allow that.

After Victorian England, The Bloody Red Baron takes us to the trenches of World War One, where vampires fight on both sides, but the German vampires are predictably far more evil that their Allied counterpart. Here, an older Beauregard asks a capable younger agent, Edwin Winthrop, to investigate mysterious happenings related to the enemy fighter pilots. Of course, it’ll end up being somewhat significant.

The Bloody Red Baron reuses all the elements that made the success of the first volume, and if the brilliant originality is lessened, the sequel is clearer, more exciting and definitely as compulsively entertaining. Like all great follow-ups, it allows us to revisit characters and find out what happened to them in the interval, whether they’ve weathered their years well or not. (In Newman’s all-inclusive theory of vampirism, this is crucial, as “newborns” don’t have a very good chance of outliving their natural lifespans.) The biggest problem of the book comes at the very end, when we are to envision an endless series of stories without resolution of the Dracula/Beauregard conflict.

That worry is definitely put to rest in Judgment of Tears, which skips over the obvious WW2 setting to settle in La Dolce Vita’s 1959 Rome. This time, we get a resolution to both Beauregard and Dracula, as well as a none-too-comfortable expansion of the supernatural mythos. Suddenly, vampires aren’t the only fantastical creatures around, and then the book stops, almost as if it had just realized that it might be opening up too much of an X-Files-sized can of glowing mutated worms to continue. Hey, even die-hard vampire-haters might find themselves cheering for these undeads this time around.

On the other hand, Judgement of Tears is even more fun to read, almost daring us to laugh despite dramatic moments. The density of famous cameos is impressive, from Patricia Higley’s Tom Ripley to Lovecraft’s Herbert West to an italian named Marcello. The presence of an English secret agent named Bond is excuse enough to include spy movie theatrics. All your favourite scenes are there save for the outrageous gambling: Seduction/Assassination, Car chase, even the visit to the villain’s lair. At the same time, yes, there’s important serious stuff… but not only that.

Anyone who loved Anno Dracula will like the two follow-ups. While they’re not as impressive as the first one, they’re very good sequels and should quench the thirst of anyone who wonders whatever happened to the characters of the first book. And, needless to say, the whole trilogy is so much smarter than most of the horror dreck currently on the stands that it would be nearly a crime to give them a pass. Great stuff.

Monkeybone (2001)

(In theaters, February 2001) If you want a proof that Hollywood’ll mix everything up regardless of appropriateness, check out this film, which combines nightmare imagery with toilet humor in order to create a mishmash of elements that will satisfy no one. What Dreams May Come with fart jokes, except more sophomoric than pretentious. The first half-hour isn’t all that bad, especially when factoring the often-disturbing designs, but then the film jettison its most appealing features (good set design, Brendan Fraser, the Monkeybone character) in an attempt to make things more interesting… and it doesn’t work. From this point onward, the immaturity of the film isn’t grounded by better elements. By the time a reanimated gymnast loses internal organs (immediately picked up by a team of ghoulish doctors) in a series of chases, it’s far too late for redemption. There are at least three major plot cheats in the last act, the type of unforgivable script shortcut that will make you go Huh! as you watch it. (“Hey, he’s in the bus!” and “Hey, little doggy!” are the worst) Stephen King and Harry Jay Knowles have cameos, but trust them to recant faster than the audience run toward the exits. A disappointment exacerbated by the waste of talent.

The Mexican (2001)

(In theaters, February 2001) The hardest type of films to review are those competent movies that are simply adequate entertainment, without being excessively good nor bad, just maybe too ordinary. And so is The Mexican, two solid hours of not-too-dumb not-too-smart entertainment. Its attempts at quirkiness hamper the film as much as they help, with almost-gratuitous end twists that retrospectively create more problems than they solve. Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt are appealing leads, but somehow they don’t work as well as it could be expected. The villain is unusually ineffectual; his big entrance (complete with potato chips) will create more giggling than dread. The film constantly threatens to become very interesting while never daring to do so. Oh well.

Job: A Comedy of Justice, Robert A. Heinlein

Del Rey, 1984, 376 pages, C$23.00 hc, ISBN 0-345-31649-5

It’s generally acknowledged amongst Robert A. Heinlein fans and scholars that the science-fiction author started writing in 1939 with “Life-Line”, stopped in 1987 with Beyond the Sunset but “lost it” as a compelling novelist in 1973 upon publication of I Will Fear No Evil, a long and rambling message novel that left many unsatisfied. Certainly, Heinlein’s near-fatal health problems in early 1973 had something with the lack of editorial discretion exhibited in the final version, but the problem seemed to run deeper: While Heinlein remained a deft storyteller, it seemed as if he had no more stories to tell.

Most of his subsequent novels seemed more preoccupied with tying up together all the diverse universes of his fiction in a single incoherent metaverse where it seemed as if everyone was surprisingly related to everyone else. The stories… well, the stories never got any better. Material for a short story suddenly found itself blown over four hundred pages and scenes that should have been over in an instant suddenly took whole chapters.

But somehow, it all remained interesting. Heinlein’s writing style redefined “limpid” for generations of readers, always clearing the way for the story while polishing it up for memorable epigrams. It’s no accident if most of Heinlein’s work is narrated in the first person; it’s a natural device for allowing the storyteller full access to his repertoire of tricks, devices and character insights. (It also allowed every protagonist to sound exactly the same, but let’s not go there.)

In this context, Job stands as perhaps Heinlein’s second-best post-1973 book. (I still think that Friday isn’t all that bad despite a considerable mid-book lull and some rather strange psychodynamics.)

The plot is self-explanatory from the title (with an SF twist). Our protagonist, a church man from a radically fundamentalist culture, is arbitrarily yanked through alternate universes, reduced to abject poverty, forced to menial work and constant vigilance by the whims of two supreme entities on a bet. As I said; good material for a short story smeared over far too many pages. But at least it all builds up to something grand, which is considerably more than one can say about, oh, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls.

Fortunately, one thing that has only improved with age is the way Heinlein told his story. It’s a testament to his verve and overall skill that even at his worst, Heinlein remained a compulsively readable author, someone whose books could be loads of fun without necessarily leading somewhere. Even in Job‘s dullest moments -the first half of the book is a succession of adventures that might or might not have any meaning- there’s always a comforting, witty narration to help us through.

Alas, another trait that became more obvious through Heinlein’s latter year is his delight in didactism. Heinlein was, in many respect, an exceptional man who aimed at becoming even better. This credo of his, when practised properly, gave form to some of the best juvenile fiction out there (Hey, I got in SF solely because of Space Cadet), but at its worst gave rise to message-fiction so thinly disguised it was embarrassing (The Number of the Beast). Job is halfway between the two, poking fun at religion in a significant, yet respectful, fashion. The old man knew what he was doing.

The end result of Job’s travails is not quite as impressive as you might think. Some late-book developments will make you go “huh?” and some promising early leads are never followed, such as the “money case” that gives the impression that Heinlein started writing an action-adventure story, then got a better idea.

But it all leads somewhere somewhat satisfying. An embarrassment of rich epigrams is also available for the retelling. If I pity those who have read Job more than those who haven’t, it’s because they can now look forward to one less Heinlein book. That’s how good he remains, despite everything.

Hard Rain (1998)

(On TV, February 2001) Natural disaster plus bags of money and big guns should equal pretty good action film, but while the production qualities of Hard Rain might be impressive, they’re the only thing that really stand out from this relatively average action film. There are few memorable moments beyond the sights of a town being submerged and the associated mayhem when criminals want to rob a money truck. Christian Slater makes a good -but not spectacular- action protagonist (though he was better in 1996’s Broken Arrow) and Morgan Freeman carries an inimitable presence as the bad guy, but the rest of the script is ho-hum. On the other hand… the quality of the script may not be overly impressive, but let’s face it; a soggy Minnie Driver is worth about thirty bad pages of dialogue. Worth a Saturday-evening cheap rental for action junkies.

The Nudist on the Late Shift, Po Bronson

Random House, 1999, 248 pages, C$38.00 hc, ISBN 0-375-50277-7

When charting the evolution of human civilization, things inevitably get rolling in Africa. After some time in the Middle-East, the vanguard of human society eventually moves to Europe. (And China, which for the purposes of this review, we can pretty much ignore.) Then it’s off to the New World, where the (North American) East Coast enjoys its moment of glory before passing the marker to the West Coast. Interestingly enough, new territories, unmarked as they are by existing social conventions, are always fertile breeding reactors for new social experiments.

Lacking habitable land on Mars or Venus, the cutting-edge of humanity has remained in California, making movies, enjoying the surf and increasingly pushing back the limits of technical knowledge and capacities. The so-called “Silicon Valley” has sprung up from relatively sedate farmground, pushed by university graduates, venture capitalist and, let’s just face it, plain weirdos.

The Nudist on the Late Shift is an attempt to explore what is Silicon Valley, through various aspects of life in the Valley. It reads a lot like a collection of articles in Wired, which in fact it is at a certain degree: Bronson is a regular contributor to the magazine, and certain parts of the book did seem awfully reminiscent of previously read material.

But the book has an advantage that Wired doesn’t, and it’s that it’s going to be shelved in libraries for a long time, explaining to future generation what was, for a brief time, Silicon Valley. Whether they find it amusingly quaint or unbearably insane will say a lot about the final impact of the Valley on the world at large.

In eight chapters, Bronson explores “the culture” of the Valley through its various inhabitants. There are The Newcomers, The financiers (in The IPO), The Entrepreneurs, The Programmers, The Salespeoples, The Futurist, The Dropout and everyone else in “Is the Revolution Over?” With them, we visit the Valley’s Internet Hub, we go through the nerve-wracking process that leads to an Initial Public Offering, we envision a clock that will still be standing a thousand years from now, we sell software, we cheer for the immigrant-cum-millionaire, we demo hastily-programmed software for a major Internet player, we gaze in the future of the business and peek under the belly of the gleaming techno-beast to see if the dream’s alive for everyone.

It could have been any book, but isn’t thanks to an impeccable writing style. Bronson is used to the magazine crowd, and that’s why his book constantly switches narrative gears, displays an amazing range of techniques and generally makes itself so compelling to read that you’ll read whole chapters in one sitting. There are many impressive moment, whether dramatic (the IPO chapter is a must-read for everyone interested in this type of financial event) or hilarious. (don’t be surprised to laugh aloud during sections of the book, as Bronson’s narration is so amazingly pitch-perfect.)

Best of all is that there doesn’t seem to be any technical mistakes. Bronson gets the details right and doesn’t overly dumb them up for the general audience that his book is trying to reach. Add to that the reams of useful or plainly odd information contained in the book and the witty style and you’ve got yourself a winner. Read it as a time capsule, or as a plain entertainment: Either way, it’s a success.

Useless note for the amusement of the reader: I bought my copy of The Nudist on the Late Shift at a used-book sale in one of the richest neighbourhood of Ottawa. Imagine my surprise at finding, inside the book, a “Review Copy from Random House” note addressed to a book reviewer at the National Post newspaper! The highlighted sections were informative.