Monthly Archives: February 2002

The Chronoliths, Robert Charles Wilson

Tor, 2001, 301 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-87384-0

Any reader who’s been following the career of Robert Charles Wilson has been surprised more than once before. Wilson has transformed himself from a mid-level SF writer heavily relying on stock premises (Gypsies, The Divide) to someone capable of moderately entertaining riffs on familiar concepts (The Harvest, Mysterium) to more original novels hampered by significant problems (Darwinia, Bios). Now here comes Wilson’s most original and most satisfying novel yet, The Chronoliths.

It certainly begins with a bang, as a monolith materializes in the middle of Thailand and further examination reveals that it’s a memorial to a military victory… twenty years in the future. No one can figure out how it got there and what it’s made of. Before long, though, other monoliths are appearing, celebrating other victories, always twenty years in the future.

The novel also begins with an emotional bang of sort for our narrator Scott Warden, whose carefree manners finally catch up to him, resulting in a serious debilitating injury for his daughter and the dissolution of his marriage. As the narrative advances, Warden will find himself increasingly enmeshed in the mystery of the Chronoliths, with significant impact on his family and friends.

There is no better way to hook a reader than with a fascinating mystery, and so The Chronoliths revolves around a big secret; the origins of the huge blue monuments that appear out of nowhere, creating considerable destruction over a large area. (It doesn’t help when they appear in densely-populated areas) Wilson plays well and plays fair with readers’ expectations, and the overall resolution of the enigma is rushed but satisfying. As with some of the finest time-travel thrillers, there is a delicious sense of impending doom, and the curious structure of the story essentially pre-loads the narrative with the dramatic confrontations that make the flashiest parts of the story irrelevant and so left to a few throwaway lines. Don’t be mystified; just read the book and you’ll be satisfied at how well it unconventionally comes together.

It helps, of course, that Wilson knows how to write polished, limpid prose. Warden’s narration is easy to read, peppered with tense moments and filled with telling details. This is a book you can reasonably read in a single day; chances are that you’ll be so absorbed in the narrative that the though of doing anything else will seem absurd.

For a writer who has only broken out of contemporary narratives with his last book (Bios, which took place in an appreciably distant future), Wilson does a fine job at setting up his future. The Chronoliths takes place over a touch more than a decade and its sense of social evolution is quite intriguing. After The Chronoliths, Bios seems even more of a successful writing experiment to help Wilson break out in new directions.

You could quibble with the ubiquitous presence of the narrator in the various events of the Chronolith saga, but amusingly enough, Wilson anticipates the objection with some hand-waving about how everything links together in mysterious ways (In fact, the novel’s second paragraph is “Nothing is coincidental. I know that now.”) Cute. Works for me.

Add the cool cover illustration by Jim Burns and you’ve got one of the finest SF novels of 2001. Wilson’s continued growth as a writer has finally produced a great SF novel without the caveats of his previous work. The Chronoliths is a best-of-career high for him, and a most encouraging portent of things to come. If you still haven’t read anything by Robert Charles Wilson, this is the place to start. If you’re already a fan, well, go forth and get it, already!

Unearthing Atlantis, Charles Pellegrino

Avon, 1991 (2001 reprint), 355 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-81044-1

The legend of Atlantis has fascinated many over centuries, all the way from Plato to us. Could it be possible for an advanced civilisation to disappear, just like that? Through the rumors, the stories, the myth, what is the true story that inspired Atlantis, if there was one? Are there any lessons to be learned from the fall of Atlantis?

In Unearthing Atlantis, Charles Pellegrino applies his considerable archaeological experience, writing talent and gift for vulgarization to give us an overview of what we think we know, at this moment, about the Minoan civilization, the buried city of Thera and how it all ties into the myth of Atlantis.

It doesn’t stop there, of course. Pellegrino is pathologically incapable of sticking to one subject and Unearthing Atlantis takes delight in rummaging through Science’s entire bag of tricks. A gifted polymath, Pellegrino can discourse as easily on anti-matter rockets, archaeology or palaeontology. The result is unique, and a testimony to how much fun the pure acquisition of knowledge can be, both for the scientists and the average readers.

This, unfortunately, can have an unfortunate scattering effect on the unity of the book’s structure. Unearthing Atlantis goes one way, then another and then in yet another direction. Fans of the author’s previous books already know this, but this can be disconcerting for a new reader. Fortunately, a complete index will help if you want to track down specific passages quickly.

It’s not as if your attention will wander, even if Pellegrino’s narrative does: the stories he has to tell are fascinating. From the memorable bio portrait of the driven archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos to the “time gate” (an intellectual device possibly borrowed from Pellegrino’s own scarce Time Gate book, which I haven’t yet read.), here’s a vulgarizator who knows how to communicate the passion of science and the excitement of discovery.

Pellegrino fans will appreciate that this book once more ties into his pet obsessions to a degree or another—most notably the Titanic wreck. This 2001 re-edition of Unearthing Atlantis is touted on the author’s web site as the “uncensored version”, which probably refers to the carbon-dating controversy in Chapter 11. (I believe that it is in Return to Sodom and Gomorrah that Pellegrino explains the highly adverse reaction of Egyptologists to even the suggestion that some of their canon might not match with independent carbon dating.) Fun personal anecdotes pepper the narrative, from Pellegrino’s run-in with Prince Charles’ security forces (an event casually mentioned in his novel Flying to Valhalla) to an amusing desert drama:

”…one Egyptian scholar became so disturbed by news that some of her pottery dates may have to be rewritten that she began to confide in me some chillingly detailed suicide fantasies. Since I was depending on this woman to get me out of the desert alive, I decided not to press the issue. As far as I can recall, she is the only person ever to have succeeded in shutting me up.” [P.265]

In short, it’s another wonderful book by Pellegrino and a perfect example of good scientific vulgarization. Even as far as Atlantis is concerned, Pellegrino is careful to play down evidence of catastrophic destruction in the end of the Minoan civilization, noting that the empire was already showing signs of collapse.

Still, it’s a lot of fun to speculate about a relatively advanced civilization, ready to spring forward yet destroyed by a freak geological event. Otherwise, how different would have been history? Might we already be standing on an extra-solar planet by now? Maybe. Who knows? With enough “What if?”s, it’s easy to make the legend of Atlantis stretch all the way from the past to our future.

Into the Storm, Tom Clancy & General Fred Franks Jr.

Putnam, 1997, 531 pages, C$37.50 hc, ISBN 0-399-14236-3

I’ve said it before, but it’s an axiom worth reprinting again: Publishing is a funny business. You can sell a lot of unlikely books if you have the right hook, and the quality of the product rarely has anything to do with the end result. Neither does reader enjoyment; you can slide and dice the numbers any way you want, but there aren’t very many rational answers for the wild best-selling success of Stephen Hawkins’ math-heavy A Brief History. Many have uncharitably suggested that it was a book that was more interesting to display than to read, and that’s not far from the truth. Not many people have read A Brief History of Time all the way through, but many poseurs proudly include it in their personal library.

In much the same vein, General Fred Franks’ Into the Storm could have easily been yet another of those dry military history textbooks: Published by a specialized printing press, advertised in a few small magazines, bought by a few hundred universities and overwhelmingly invisible to the general public. Regardless of the quality of the work, this would have been a hard-core military book for a small audience of military buffs. Or, even worse, an unpublished manuscript.

But in our universe, Tom Clancy stepped in.

Or, should I say, best-selling techno-thriller author Tom Clancy stepped in. He (or someone else) thought it might be a good idea to co-author a series of non-fiction books with professional military personnel. Into the Storm is, reportedly, the first book in this series.

In a sense, everyone should come away happy from this experience. Clancy gets to work with interesting people and acquires a considerable amount of credibility as an expert in the field. The co-authors get an experienced wordsmith and vulgarizator. Oh, and a best-seller is certain.

And that’s the really surprising thing about Into the Storm. It’s a jargon-heavy pure military text. It describes the history of mechanized infantry from the Vietnam War to the Gulf War. It describes, in overwhelming detail, how ground troops prepared and fought in the Gulf War. It’s a biography of General Fred Franks. It’s a summary of fifteen years’ worth of changes in the US Army. It’s a primer on how to fight a modern war with modern weapons. In short, it’s not beach reading. And yet it was published, massively marketed and probably bought by thousands of readers who were probably expecting another Clancy pot-boiler. Gotcha!

It’s not even a bad book, though it definitely has its limitations. For even the moderately knowledgeable military buff, it’s often dry reading. While the details are exhaustive, they’re usually not presented in a compelling way; there’s a limit to how excitingly you can describe transit operations and force preparation. Some of it is even dull beyond belief. You almost have to be a professional military analyst to enjoy the full book. There’s also an additional annoyance in that Franks seems to be using passages of Into the Storm to answer Norman Schwarzkopf’s criticism in his autobiography It Doesn’t Take a Hero. Naturally, readers who aren’t familiar with the previous book might not care at all.

But don’t let that blind you to the interesting sections of Into the Storm. At its best, it’s a clear description of the overhaul of the US Army after the scars left by Vietnam. It’s a rather good autobiography of a professional military man. It’s occasionally a good description of the Gulf War. From time to time, you’ll even uncover a nugget or two of fascinating military trivia. Its grasp of the real-world military chain of command and logistics is also unparalleled in widely-available literature.

But if you’re not a dedicated military buff, goodness, don’t pick up Into the Storm expecting another easy read by Mr. Clancy. It all too often happens that the publishing industry fools relatively smart people in buying total crap, but in this case it’s fascinating to see the complete opposite—the marketing industry managing to convince a large audience to buy over their heads. Now that Into the Storm has hit the remainder stacks, you can find out for yourself if you’ve got the mettle for 500+ pages of hard-core military jargon.

Cradle of Saturn, James P. Hogan

Baen, 1999, 421 pages, C$35.50 hc, ISBN 0-671-57813-8

James P. Hogan has always been a very peculiar writer, constantly dogging boffo premises with botched characters and limp execution. In a sense, he’s the incarnation of everything that’s good and bad about hard Science-Fiction with his unique extrapolation of original ideas mixed with an appalling inability to write. Cradle of Saturn is a frustrating novel that’s highly representative of his body of work.

In a few words, Cradle of Saturn is yet another novel of implacable celestial catastrophe. The late nineties -driven by pre-millennial fever, the intellectual impact of the Schumacher-Levy comet on Jupiter or simply synchronicity- were filled of such stories on a variety of media: ARMAGEDDON, DEEP IMPACT, the TV miniseries “Asteroid”, Yvonne Navaro’s ludicrous Final Impact, etc… It wouldn’t be fair to criticize Hogan, however, for being unoriginal given the mood of the times. (He himself even bemoans his unfortunate timing on his web site)

For one thing, he’s far more innovative in his choice of celestial body: Rather than hand-wave a collision between two rocks in the asteroid belt, Hogan postulates as-yet unknown planetary mechanism to extract a planetoid out of Jupiter. (the moniker “Athena” is inevitable) Before anyone can say “Uh-oh, not again”, Athena is lined up in a game of planetary snooker to send Earth in the corner pocket.

The first half of Cradle of Saturn is its most embarrassing from a literary point of view. Characters have little meetings to hurls reams of expeditionary material at each other, nods gravely and then rush off to other expeditionary meetings. Our hero, Landen Keene, is a maverick engineer who only wants to build cool rockets without being hampered by a stunningly unimaginative government. (Stop me if you’ve read that one before.) For some strange reason, though, he seems to be surrounded by people who think that conventional scientific dogma is wrong on a number of subject. And for some other reason, the rest of the scientific community is a bunch of retarded morons who’ll do their best to ignore new evidence.

Aside from the cliché characters, the cheap and constant “they laughed at Galileo!” discourse and the atrocious integration of cool ideas in a weak narrative, this half of the novel is actually quite interesting. Hogan’s science is far-fetched, but unusual enough to make us pay attention. His rant on the improbability of dinosaurs alone will be enough to make even the hardened skeptics very curious about alternate explanations. But the real argument of the book is about celestial mechanics, the formation of planets, the impact of near-misses on the atmosphere, the strangeness of our universe and scientific evidence hidden deep in our myths and religious texts.

By now, readers familiar with recent pseudo-science might recall a similar theme of thought in Immanuel Velikovsky’s widely-debunked work. (Worlds in Collision, a staple of the sixties’ new-age fad) Given Hogan’s fascination for weird science (again, please refer to his web site), it’s unsurprising that he’d set up a premise suitable for a rematch. His arguments are vigorous and clever. He even conspicuously avoids any mention of Velikovsky apart from the novel’s dedication and stacks the deck with convincing fictional arguments. SF is a rational game of “what-if?” and Hogan plays it very well. Experience Hard-SF readers will read this section with glee and ignore the flaws.

The second half of the novel, alas, isn’t nearly as good. Athena hits, most people dies and our heroes are on a mission to escape Earth. While one can temporarily forget the inherent elitism in letting most of the planet die to save a few valorous heroes, the problem is that when he’s not being intellectually stimulating, Hogan doesn’t have a whole set of narrative skills to work with. The latter action-oriented half of Cradle of Saturn is trite, long and boring. Rather than end on a triumphant success, Hogan’s novel ends on an mixed note of shameful escape and exasperating hypocrisy.

Hard-SF fans might want to tolerate the flaws and savour the ideas. Others should be warned that there are more satisfying novels out there.

[July 1998: James P. Hogan fans (and non-fans) already know that he’s not a very accomplished stylist. They might have a surprise with Realtime Interrupt, which is easily his best book yet. A tale of virtual realities that brings back memories of quasi-Dick-ian paranoia, Realtime Interrupt also takes the time to mull over various aspects of Artificial Intelligence. Corporate infighting is mixed up with mature romance and the result is slow to revv up, but worth the wait. It’s a shame that most of the first half of the book is fairly obvious to even the average reader; the last third gets better as it goes on. The climax is vivid. Readers disappointed by Hogan in various outings might want to check this one out.]

The Judgement, William J. Coughlin

St. Martin’s, 1997, 424 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-312-96244-4

A courtroom drama element which drives me nuts is how attorneys can spend months of their time on single cases. How their lives can revolve around a single client from sunup to sundown. While this may very well be true for corporate lawyers or Johnnie Cochran Jr., most lawyers are usually stuck dividing their time between multiple competing priorities.

While I’ll be the first to acknowledge that my reference pool in crime fiction is very shallow, William J. Coughlin’s The Judgement is the first novel I’ve read that convincingly represent the life of a small-town attorney in what seems to be a convincingly realistic fashion, complete with glamorous and boring clients, big and small cases. Heck, The Judgement even features two strong parallel cases that don’t even relate to each other!

It is first and foremost a novel of character. The narrator, Charley Sloan is an ex-big-shot attorney. Once one of Detroit’s judicial stars, Sloan hit the bottle once too often and found himself sliding down the social scale. Now, years later, he has re-established himself in a small town, away from the spotlights and comfortably sober. As The Judgement begins, Sloan is happy, solvent and engaged in a good relationship, yet slightly bored. Excitement walks in his office in the form of Mark Conroy, a top Detroit policeman under fire from accusations of corruption. Sloan is warned that high-level political corruption might be involved. He takes the challenge. In the next pages, he’ll be bugged, threatened and bribed to drop the case.

His biggest challenge, however, comes from another direction: In his small quiet town, a serial murderer strikes, and young children are the target. His girlfriend is on the case, but it’s Sloan who will be most affected.

In addition to these two cases, Sloan has to account, as a small-town attorney, of a variety of other cases, serious and not-so-serious. His narration is clear, amusing but not without tense segments. Sloan gets to interrogate witnesses, hack the law, call in a few favours and generally give us a good time.

The Judgement is an admirable crime thriller, told with crisp economy and considerable skill. The story moves well and makes for compulsive reading. The whodunit is not particularly difficult to figure out, but don’t worry: The book’s most memorable moments are character-driven, whether it’s quirky supporting characters or a personal depiction of a major lapse back in addiction. If nothing else, The Judgement gives a convincing look in the inner working and meaning of addiction support group. Among other things.

Interestingly enough, while fact-checking this review on Amazon’s entry for this novel, I found a note by someone claiming to be Coughlin’s son, alleging that The Judgement was posthumously written by a ghostwriter and not by Coughlin, who died before the book was published. Internal evidence shows that the novel itself is copyrighted “1997, Ruth Coughlin”, but further Internet searches don’t show any other supporting material. While I’m not discounting the statement, it doesn’t really matter; The Judgement is a fine novel, ghost-written or not. Worth a read, anyway.

The Big Book of Scandal!, Jonathan Vankin et al.

Paradox Press, 1997, 191 pages, C$20.95 tpb, ISBN 1-56389-358-4

Once in a while, the vagaries of fate shine upon the jaded book reviewer and a chance encounter with an oddball title proves to be a ray of light in an otherwise dreary reading regimen. For your faithful critic, the latest of those serendipitous accidents is Paradox Press’s The Big Book of Scandal!, a wonderful comic book that stand high above most of the non-fiction read recently.

The Big Book of Scandal! is a collection of fifty-odd comic strips (ranging from one to six pages), each telling one of the twentieth century’s best-known scandals. (Or, in the case of the O.J. Simpson trial, a twelve-page two-parter describing the period before and during the trial) Each comic strip is drawn by a different artist, but all are written by the same Jonathan Vankin, who does an impressive job of condensing together oodles of material in one accessible but reasonably exact account. The account of the Irangate scandal, for instance, does a splendid job at explaining a remarkably complex business in an entertaining fashion.

After a succinct but clever introduction, The Big Book of Scandals! starts off amusingly enough with a section on Hollywood scandals. The standout piece here is “The Scandal that Sank a Studio”, a wonderful and hilarious six-page exposé on the disastrous making of Elizabeth Taylor’s CLEOPATRA. Other good pieces talk about Ingrid Bergman, Elvis Presley, Woody Allen, Heidi Fleiss and the “Hollywood Bad Boys”. Most of these stories are good shadenfreude material, especially given the personal -often scabrous- nature of the scandals. Good fun, really.

An edge of bitterness begins to creep in the second section, in which we cover miscellaneous celebrity scandals. Tonya Harding, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, the English Monarchy and Michael Jackson all get their dues—plus the inevitable O.J. Simpson. Here, financial impropriety vie with more scabrous indiscretions as the source of scandals. While it may be entertaining to read about a preacher being caught paying prostitutes, it’s not as funny to read about them bilking thousands of people out of their money. And it definitely rankles to see someone famous walk away with murder. (This Factoid book might be “100% true”, but don’t make the mistake to assume that it’s 100% biais-free!)

As the book progresses in its third section about crooked politicians, the light humor of the book’s first half is gradually replaced by a merciless sarcasm. While a Hollywood star caught with his pants down might be cause for a prude chuckle, politicians are messing around on the taxpayer’s dime and the public’s trust. Vankin’s treatment of Watergate, Irangate, the Anita Hill episode, the Kennedy Legacy or the S&L Bailout are straight-out chainsaw jobs, clearly explaining exactly what was so wrong about them. The biting humor only drives the stake even further.

But wait; the worse is yet to come. “Dirty Business” is the angriest part of the book, detailing such scandals as John DeLorean, Michael Milken, Robert Maxwell, Lockheed, Ford Pintos, Love Canal and Thalidomide. Some of it so dirty that you’ll end up thinking that a bullet through the head of some of these people might be too generous, whereas a daily knee-capping might be just about adequate. Here, the comic form pushes exactly the right buttons in order to make us sit up and take notice. The Thalidomide segment is a model of clear and direct vulgarization, complete with a forgotten hero (Dr. Frances Kelsey) and criminal corporate behavior.

Any book which causes a strong emotional reaction has to be commended: The Big Book of Scandals! sneaks up on you with laughter and then hits you with pure rage. The art is excellent (with particular kudos to artist Lennie Mace for the Thalidomide segment) and the writing is a marvel of concision. The Big Book of Scandal! is well worth tracking down.

Finally, g’darn it, don’t be prejudiced about a “comic book”: In a month where I’ve read such diverse graphical works as Ghost World, Crisis on Infinite Earth and Alien: Stalker, The Big Book of Scandal not only shows that a “comic book” can be as good as equivalent pure-text non-fiction, but can even be better.

Requiem For A Dream (2000)

(Downloaded, February 2002) In a nutshell, the message of this film is that drugs are bad for you. Simplistic? Well, yes, but you’ve never seen it expressed in such a visceral fashion: Director Darren Aronofsky packs tremendous audiovisual impact in his narrative, and the result is a memorable film that will stay with you a long time. The four protagonists’ progressive descent into hell is implacable and merciless. Watching Requiem For A Dream is a lot like being repeatedly struck by two-by-fours. You’ll enjoy it and ask for more, because this is cutting-edge cinema. It’s not safe, it’s not boring and it’s certainly not average. You might not want to see it twice, but you have to see it at least once.

John Q (2002)

(In theaters, February 2002) Is it possible to tell the difference between a social-issues film which demonstrates its views through action and a melodrama which looks to social issues as an excuse? You’ll have a hard time deciding while watching John Q, a film whose message at time seems too forced to be taken seriously. (And that’s not even considering the health care panel discussions between hostages and hostage-takers.) The real acting treat in the film isn’t the ever-dependable Denzel Washington as much as it’s the supporting characters played by veterans James Woods and Robert Duvall. Despite heavy audience manipulation and the inconsistent tone, John Q is a competent thriller, an undemanding drama-of-the-week with a sheen of social respectability. Rarely subtle (good=poor=black, bad=rich=white), often shameless and barely surprising. But it works, somewhat.

In The Bedroom (2001)

(In theaters, February 2002) Another one of those “actor’s movies”, focusing more on intimate drama than out-and-out conflict. Here, sharp words have the emotional impact of a nuclear detonation. Bad things happen to ordinary people, and the film essentially follows the consequence of the resulting grief. It’s long and leisurely paced, which occasionally helps in getting in the characters’ mind, and occasionally hinders as nothing seems to happen for a long, long time. The title promises a touch of voyeurism, and indeed we get tight close-ups, revealing character traits and an emphasis on so-called normality. While the film may initially seem disconnected and sloppy, closer attention reveals a superior depth of background information and many clever touches. (One of the best being a framed photo of a lawyer, his wife and their dogs leading to a devastating “You don’t!” reply. Blink and you’ll miss it.) But even being generous doesn’t mitigate the overall blahness of the film, which plays things so low-key that they risk being invisible. Marisa Tomei turns in a good performance, but seemingly disappears from the narrative during the last quarter. It’s a good family drama, but most viewers already suspect the limits of that genre.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Starting a Reading Group, Patrick Sauer

Alpha, 2000, 359 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 0-02-863654-6

Even though I’ve been avidly lurking in bookstores for most of my adult life, I still consistently manage to be delighted at some of the oddball books I can find. A trip through the cookbook section will reveal untapped areas of taste (and ever-narrower demographic segments) I never suspected. The self-help section will reveal serious widespread emotional problems I hadn’t even imagined. The biography section will make me discover hitherto-unknown famous persons. There’s always something new and interesting in bookstores. If ever I win the lottery, keep the million dollars; I want an unlimited expense account at Chapters.

Can you say “bilbiofreak”? I knew you could.

In many ways, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Starting a Reading Group is a book that I couldn’t resist. No, I have no intention of starting (or even joining) a reading group, but the very idea that such a book deserved to exist was simply too delicious to pass up. Plus, hey, it was heavily discounted.

The first chapter of this Idiot’s Guide quickly establishes that the book has been written in an alternate universe. (“Does it seem that every time you turn around lately, another friend or acquaintance has joined a reading group? Everyone seems to be in on it.” [P.1]) This isn’t necessarily a bad thing -even though I’d like to emigrate there- given that Sauer seems to be writing in terms of “the ideal reading group” rather than our own humdrum lives. Is the CIGSRG escapist literature? Maybe.

It certainly sounds so when you start reading some of Sauer’s recommended titles for reading. All the classics are there, and then some. He doesn’t recommend very many books published in the past twenty years, though. As pointed out in Chapter 10, gender balance isn’t something you’ll find in reading groups, which tend to skew heavily towards women for a variety of reasons. The net effect, for a Techno/SF genre geek like me is a selection of recommended books that I find respectable, if utterly boring. Sauer even muddles in my genres of predilection in Chapter 16 (The title of the chapter being, I kid you not, “Oh, the Horror… the Horror”) and the selection in my well-known SF arena is rather dry and stuffy; I count only one novel (out of 19) from the nineties, and that’s Michael Crichton’s 1990 Jurassic Park. The rest is remarkably er… unexciting.

In producing a respectable book for everyone, Sauer might be a touch too conservative. While I can’t expect him to recommend Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club to everyone (I would, but then again that’s just me), his overall choices tend to promote elusive canon-quality rather than enjoyment, which would seem to be a crucial element in a book club for non-readers. On the other hand, it’s hard to read the CIGSRG without wanting to run to the library to borrow books yet unread. Plus, who can reasonably argue against reading the classics?

Sauer definitely fares better when detailing the mechanics of starting a book club. How to recruit members, how to organize meetings, how to deal with difficult members and situations are all covered in witty detail. Heck, the chapter on why to join a book club alone (“Chapter 1: To Read of not to Read?”) reaffirmed my own bibliomaniac tendencies. I’m not so sure about his main sales pitch (“Reading Groups: Singles Bars for the Next Century”), especially given the shocking lack of social tips about intra-group dating!

Well, never mind that. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Starting a Reading Group is definitely a curious book, with many uses and purposes besides the titular activity. As a reading recommendation list, it’s not everything for everyone, but it should help broaden most literary horizons. It’s mostly a book for book-lovers. You know who you are.

Hart’s War (2002)

(In theaters, February 2002) Everyone’s got their favourite movie genres, and if yours happen to be prison films, war adventure or courtroom drama (or better yet, all three), you’ll love Hart’s War, a derivative thriller that pulls many different familiar elements in a satisfying whole. After our protagonist is captured by the Germans late in World War 2, he’s thrown in Stalag 6, a Prisoner-of-War camp where it doesn’t take five minute for him to make an enemy out of the highest-ranking American officer. What follows is a prison film, a murder mystery, a courtroom drama and a war movie, in this order. It’s all very convenient, but it flows well and entertains a lot. Colin Farrell continues to impress with a sympathetic -but flawed- protagonist, and Bruce Willis is completely comfortable in a role highly reminiscent of his character in The Siege. Director Gregory Hoblit turns out another fine film (after 2000’s Frequency), with a good mix of crowd-pleasing elements. I could have done without the unsubtle anti-racism preaching when it wasn’t required, but I was also generally swept by the rest of the film, warts and all. Good entertainment; solid and pleasant.

Collateral Damage (2002)

(In theaters, February 2002) There was a time, during the eighties, when Arnold Schwarzenegger could star in any action feature and draw crowds. Now, either the quality of his films has declined, or the audience has tired of the formula, because since 1995 (Eraser, End Of Days and now Collateral Damage), it doesn’t work quite as well. In fact, given the film’s simplistic pre-11/9/2001 approach to terrorism, it’s hard to see past the stupidity of the ending, the dullness of the setup and the ridiculous nature of the narrative. In another decade it might have been an enjoyable shoot-em-up, but not it border on the offensive. No wonder (North)Americans are so hated elsewhere in the world; if this passes for popular entertainment, we’re due for a serious re-evaluation of our priorities. Now, granted, Schwarzenegger is fine as a protagonist, even though he -as a “fireman”- sets up explosive devices with the skill of a Navy SEAL. (There are also a great pair of supporting performances by John “No one gives a damn about us Canadians” Turturro and John Leguizamo.) The problem lies elsewhere; the film attempts to be complex, but that intention is constantly undermined by silliness, awful coincidences and a pitiful climax. (Doesn’t it strike anyone that it might be a bad idea to cut metal natural-gas pipes with an axe, sparks and all?) In short, it’s too sombre to be fun, and too stupid to be clever. There isn’t much left.

The Breakfast Club (1985)

(On TV, February 2002) This renowned teen-anthem movie isn’t terribly compelling when watched a decade too late, but it’s still an intriguing portrait, and a much better teen-film than some of its late-nineties contemporaries. This surprisingly theatrical narrative -limited spatial location, successive soliloquies- follows a group of obvious genre clichés (the princess, the nerd, the jock, the rebel and the antisocial) as they’re stuck together in weekend detention. The featured adult also represents a full blown cliché, that of the ridiculously bitter principal. Don’t be so quick to dismiss this as paint-by-number screenwriting, though; while the film is quick to feature the staple sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, it manages to extract a surprising level of truth and emotion out of stock elements. Oh, when John Hughes was good…

The Frank Collection, Jane and Howard Frank

Paper Tiger, 1999, 112 pages, C$36.95 tpb, ISBN 1-85585-732-4

I firmly believe that everyone should allow themselves one good expensive obsession. While you’re welcome to pick up heroin addiction if that strikes your fancy, my own Expensive Obsession is SF/Fantasy art books. At my own modest level of income, the decision to drop $35 or (much) more on art books is not inconsequent, hence my own measure of “Expensive”. The important part, though, is that these books please me. They’re gorgeous to look at, they make interesting conversation pieces, they don’t devalue much… in short they’re close to the ideal art investment for someone in my income bracket. In the past ten years, I’ve acquired nearly twenty-five of these books (Whelan, Burns, Eggleton, etc…), and I’m not planning on stopping any time soon.

My own efforts are very modest, though, compared to Jane and Howard Frank. They collect the artwork itself! As explained in the introduction to The Frank Collection art-book, this husband-and-wife team was able to transform a common fascination for SF&F artwork in an impressive collection, currently exhibited in their gigantic multi-level house. This art-book is a sampler of the wonders of SF&F art, a personal testimony on the joys of art collecting and a tour through one house whose decor belongs in glossy magazines.

It’s obvious, page after page, how much the Howards love SF&F art. They speak with reverence about famous genre artists and how lucky they were to be able to buy one of their pieces for their collection. They offer anecdotes on how they acquired some paintings, and some all-too-rare commentary on specific artworks. The after-word even discusses their conception of “stewardship” for artwork, in that they don’t own a painting as much as they have custody of it for a while. You can easily see the Franks as modern art patrons, an impression confirmed by learning in the second half of the book that they are now privately commissioning artwork! It’s a fascinating progression, from simple fans to active contributor to the state of the art.

An average chump like me can only gawk at some of the incredible art that the Franks have assembled together. Covers of books that I own, covers I have seen re-printed in other art-books, classic covers from Golden-Era magazines… the Franks have it all. The only proper response is to be amazed. (You might ask where the money comes from, but there are a few mentions of Frank being an electronics business owner.)

With this richness of content, it’s only normal to complain that the book is a bit on the thin side. A more serious complaint, however, is that we get only six pictures of the inside of their house. I suppose that security concerns might have deterred them from including more, but really, given that they spend a suitable fraction of their narrative speaking about how good this or that picture looks when place a certain way, well, it would be decent for them to give us a glimpse of the arrangement. After all, we can see more of their artwork reprinted elsewhere… but this is the book about their house and their collection.

Still, I’m most grateful for The Frank Collection. Not only at the chance for a glimpse at this “showcase of the world’s finest fantastic art”, but also at the mind of two people who are undoubtedly the world’s best collectors of SF&F art. Their enthusiasm is palpable. On some level, they sort of validate by own fixation for the field, even in a diluted form.

And that’s not even considering the perverse value of being able to point to other people with a far more expensive Expensive Obsession.