Monthly Archives: March 2002

The Art & Science of Web Design, Jeffrey Veen

New Riders, 2001, 259 pages, C$67.95 tpb, ISBN 0-7897-2370-0

As a technical professional with a deep interest in web design, I was pleased, over the last year, to see the emergence of a new type of how-to books. More focused on the theory and bigger issues of web publishing than hands-on coding concerns, these books exemplify the emerging maturity of the web. Whereas before the field was moving too quickly and hapzardly to allow for any formal (written) literature, the recent stabilization of standards and depth of past case studies is having an impact.

Jeffrey Veen is one of those old-timers with a lot of experience to share. He’s been working for Wired Digital, involved in web standards work and is generally recognized as pretty hot stuff in web design communities. Now he’s ready to spill the beans and share his experience in The Art & Science of Web Design.

It’s a heterogeneous book divided in eight sections that can be read more or less independently. Rather than to generalize excessively, I’ll cover the book section by section, and so…

[1]: Foundations starts the book with a conceptual bang. In less than thirty pages, Veen provides a historical context for the web, as well as a solid theory on why and how to develop the web. This is easily the book’s highlight, with its emphasis on bigger issues rather than nitty-gritty.

[2]: Interface Consistency is a case study of other sites, and a powerful theoretical argument in favor of navigational standards. This section is complementary to the work of Jakob Nielsen. Again, it’s wonderful stuff if you like to think on a higher plane of design.

[3]: Structure is another good theoretical primer on how to organize information, how to differentiate between various organizational schemes and why some are more appropriate than others.

[4]: Behavior starts promisingly enough with a good argument in favor of rule-based design, but slowly peters out with an interesting but incongruous technical demo of a headline-resizing piece of code.

[5]: Browsers helps to understand the awesome responsibility of web designers in accomodating users through their browsers. A good technical overview, maybe a bit too short.

[6]: Speed is an argument for clever simplicity, well-needed at a time where designers tend to assume high bandwidth for everyone.

[7]: Advertising is a short but interesting primer on how to advertise -and to accomodate advertising- on the web.

[8]: Object-oriented Publishing is somewhat of a let-down as a final chapter, being mostly a case study of one sample web site presumably done by Veen. It lacks the oomph required to send off such a book and also piles up a lot of technicalities at once.

Overall, though, I was impressed by Veen’s chatty style and overall grasp of the bigger picture of web design. There was a lot in there that I already knew, but reminders always help, and they’re not overly annoying when they’re backed-up by good arguments.

I wasn’t so fond of the book’s latter half, which seemed out-of-place in a paper-media reference work. If I want Javascript code that will resize my headlines based on their length, I’ll head out to a web site. It doesn’t belong with the theoretical information that should be contained in a book destined to remain on my professional reference shelf. It’s almost as if past the first few chapters, Veen had to use filler in order to satisfy a publishing contract…

In the same vein, it’s hard to say who’s the target audience for the book. Its scattershot approach make it more efficient as a periodical refresher than a reference source. It’s mixture of theory and coding puts in in reach of both managers and tech weenie; maybe it’ll help both realms understand each other, or maybe it’ll confuse them forever. It’s a worthwhile read, sure, but unfortunately it’s also unsatisfying. A lot of good stuff, improperly tied in together. Maybe it’ll all be fixed in the upgrade…

Manifold: Time, Stephen Baxter

Del Rey, 2000, 440 pages, C$34.00 hc, ISBN 0-345-43075-1

Stephen Baxter is a hard-SF author with quite a few outstanding deficiencies, but one thing he’ll never be accused of is lacking ambition. In his previous novels, he imagined an alternate manned expedition to Mars (Voyage), wrote a sequel to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (The Time Ships) and collaborated with Arthur C. Clarke on a novel about the end of privacy and history (The Light of Other Days).

It’s an impressive résumé, but with the first volume of the Manifold Trilogy, Baxter demonstrates that he’s not going to stop there. Manifold: Time‘s plot focuses on Reid Malenfant, a business tycoon with a fascination for space exploration. In only a few pages, Baxter takes us back to a familiar hard-SF situation: Feeling betrayed by NASA, a rich entrepreneur tries to establish a private space program but is hampered by the overregulated government agencies. It’s all very comfortable.

But soon afterward, the novel takes a turn towards originality. Our protagonist is warned that the human race will end in two hundred years. A space mission is to be manned by a squid. Hyper-intelligent children are popping up everywhere on the globe. As if that wasn’t enough, an attempt to receive messages from the future actually succeeds. It heavy stuff, instantly addictive for anyone -you know you you are- looking for their next big crunchy hard-SF novel. There are physics lectures, lumps of explanatory narrative, evil Luddites, a reformat-the-universe ending and other genre staples.

It all ties in together, in what is occasionally a very loose fashion. Manifold: Time is a fascinating novel, but I don’t think you can say it’s a tightly-focused one. For one thing, I happen to think that the intellectual climax of the book happens mid-way through, as the protagonists get a glimpse at the future of the galaxy. Promising elements that could yield another book’s worth of material -the biggest single example being the squids- are dropped unceremoniously as the novel advances.

For another, Manifold: Time relies heavily on frustrating clichés of the genre. Reid Malenfant is one; while I can appreciate SF’s need for multicompetent Heinleinian characters, Malenfant isn’t particularly well developed beyond being an icon of how determination can be a palliative for a bunch of skills. He’s a bit too caricatural to work well in this environment, and has done too much in his life to be believable in the context of the novel.

Baxter, like many of his hard-SF colleagues, doesn’t really believe in the goodness of humankind, and once again manipulates his vision of humanity to irrational extremes. In this novel, hyper-intelligent children are beaten up, thrown away and forgotten, then threatened and nuked by governments. It smacks of personal trauma (Was Baxter beaten up for being too smart in grade school? Magic Eight-Ball says yes.) but as for myself I’m getting tired of seeing religious nuts and irrational cults spring up in reaction to change in every single g’damn hard-SF novel. On a related point, I found the mass social reaction to the Carter catastrophe to be far too extreme and simplistic. Humans have an unlimited capacity for self-denial and I happen to think that we’ve immunized ourselves to “end of the world” scenarios with Y2K event and such.

But never mind my last little rant. Truth be told, I had a lot of page-turning fun while reading Manifold: Time, and I will be reading the next volume in the series shortly. It’s easy to target Baxter for his usual tics and problems, but on the other hand, it must be pointed out that there’s a lot of good fun extrapolation elsewhere in the book. I may not believe in the Carter Catastrophe at all, even from a statistical standpoint, but it does bring a delicious urgency to the novel up to its spectacular finish.

When We Were Kings (1996)

(In theaters, March 2002) Fascinating documentary on the Ali-Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match of 1973. Archival footage mixed with contemporary testimonies give us a true idea of the scope of the event, the personalities involved and the sacrifices of all the players. Makes a perfect double feature with Michael Mann’s Ali (2001), if only for comparison purposes. The portrait of Ali is fascinating; charismatic and bigger than life, Ali is well-served by the documentary. Often overlong (the musical segments can get tedious) but more interesting than not.

We Were Soldiers (2002)

(In theaters, March 2002) It’s one thing to be able to recognize emotional manipulation. It’s another to be able to be affected by it despite professional cynicism. We Were Soldiers is doubtlessly a manipulative war film; it spares no subtlety in playing on such classic levers as honor, loss and bravery. Yet it does so in such an unapologetic way that it’s hard not to be swept in. Applying the lessons of Saving Private Ryan (gory realism, nervy direction, historical accuracy) to a Vietnam-era setting, We Were Soldiers manages to establish its own identity in the war film genre as a uniquely balanced perspective on one of Vietnam’s most significant military encounter. Mel Gibson takes command as general Hal Moore, and infuses the film with a quiet dignity that’s not belied by first-time director Randall Wallace’s efforts. In fact, We Were Soldiers stands as a film of apologies; Wallace redeems himself after Pearl Harbor‘s execrable script, and Barry Pepper almost makes us forget Battlefield Earth with his role as a journalist thrown in combat. The battle scenes are shot with eye-popping realism that really put us alongside the soldiers; one scene featuring fuel-air explosives is brutal enough to make you gasp out loud. Vietnamese enemies are represented as heroic in their own right, and the result is a film that feels real. I managed to be unexpectedly moved by that staple of all war films, the “death telegram” scene. Granted, the patriotism and the forced anti-racism segment can feel awkward at times, but the film itself is an unqualified success.

Hello, He Lied, Lynda Obst

Little Brown, 1996, 246 pages, C$31.95 hc, ISBN 0-316-62211-7

We’ve seen quite a few books about Hollywood actors. We’ve seen an substantial number of books on Hollywood directors. Screenwriters take delight in writing books about themselves. The only “big” credits we seldom read about are producers.

(With one important exception: The flashy crash-and-burn career of Don Simpson -TOP GUN, FLASHDANCE, etc…- has resulted in one chainsaw biography (Charles Fleming’s High Concept), but there was nothing typical about the drug-fuelled life of excess he led, nor anything ordinary in his producing career.)

This paucity may be justifiable. Producers don’t have a set job description: They buy scripts, finesse stars until they extract a commitment, put together an offer for studios, arrange for financing, supervise operations on the set, arrange marketing campaigns, try to ensure awards for their movies… it just goes on and on. Maybe producers just don’t have enough time for writing books about what they do.

Now, at least one producer has slowed down and published an autobiographical account of her own experience in Hollywood. Lynda Obst’s account is in many ways a disappointing account of what a typical producer does, but at least it’s better than nothing.

After a perfunctory introduction that explains how she came to land in Hollywood (in short; her then-husband moved), Obst starts to explain the pre-movie life of producers. It may very well be the most heart-wrenching thing I’ve read about Hollywood this year. Turns out that the life of a producer is enough to make a casual cinephile wonder in awe at how anything gets done in Hollywood. Producers will buy scripts, try to interest stars, go in meetings with studio head, try to satisfy large groups of people and get them to agree to spend million of dollars on creative projects. The tiniest things can cause a deal to collapse, sending everyone back to square one. When you factor in the fact that everyone is on tight schedules, well, things have a tendency to become very complicated. Obst’s frustrating experience with the OUTBREAK project is enough to make you swear off ever moving to California.

All of the above has to be accomplished in cooperation with people with more power than intelligence, using a highly sophisticated set of social codes and ritualized small-talk. Obst thinks she’s being witty in describing how things get done in Hollywood, but for any outside reading up, it’s just disheartening; if government was run like this, there would be a revolution in a matter of days. (Oh, wait…)

The rest of the book is a mixed bag: Obst includes a chapter on the place of “Chix in Flicks” that, again, is as depressing as it’s self-serving. It’s immediately followed by a chapter about life on location, which is actually funny and informative; I don’t recall reading about these things elsewhere, and that’s worth something.

As far as the whole book goes, though, it’s not a completely satisfying reading experience. Throughout the book, Obst includes segments and anecdotes she obviously finds funny. Alas, you must have to be an insider in the industry to be amused, because everything comes across as markedly less amusing that she must think it is. A few anecdotes fall completely flat. Others simply don’t make sense. Sign of the author’s place in the Hollywood food chain, there isn’t much here that’s self-critical or even highly critical of the industry. You’d think that a really shrewd observer could be able to step back and point out the problems… but Obst actually seems to enjoy all of the insanity. Furthermore, would it be cynical to point out that Obst’s Hollywood oeuvre isn’t anything worth crowing about? It’s not as if her movies (BAD GIRLS? ONE FINE DAY? Even THE FISHER KING?) are exceptional or uniformly better than others…

Still, Hello, he Lied is an interesting book. It focused on an under-appreciated role in the Hollywood machine and might even serve to illuminate the dark recesses of the industry. It’s not much of a funny book, as much because of its stylistic shortcomings as for its discouraging subject matter. I just wish there was a better book on the subject.

The Time Machine (2002)

(In theaters, March 2002) Just as, after Harry Potter and The Lord Of The Rings, we were wondering if Hollywood had finally mastered the art of faithful adaptation, here comes a film to reassure us that nothing has really changed. If you have fond memories of H.G. Wells’s original novel, you might want to avoid this 2002 adaptation which rips out the guts of the novel by trying to “improve” the plot. It doesn’t take five minutes (at which point the fiancée of the protagonist is killed by a strangely unconvincing ruffian) to understand that this is going to be not only a bad adaptation, but an awful film in its own right. The rest of the film is -alternately- dull, stupid, loud, cliché, ugly, nonsensical and worse. Guy Pearce does his best with the trash he’s given as dialogue, but there’s a limit to what he can do in the middle of the paucity of imagination surrounding him; for SF fans, it’s excruciatingly painful to see the wasted potential of his trip through future New York. Granted, there’s one thing that saves The Time Machine from complete failure, and it’s the visuals. Some accelerated-time shots are impressive, and some images are truly arresting. Alas, most of it is thrown on-screen as mere eye-candy; the bulk of the story is a boring caveman-versus-monsters story we’ve seen countless times before. Oh, and lest you ask; all the sociological subtext of Wells’s story has been excised; now the Eloi are simply prey, without any exchange between them and the Morlock, who are now simply bestial. (The make-up job on the Morlocks is one of the most awful thing I’ve seen in years of special effects.) The script is filled with gigantic logical holes (parts of New York survive an ice age and massive erosion intact, pieces of the moon still orbit in roughly-identical position after epochs, etc…) and the main story isn’t directed with enough competence to make us care. Just avoid, okay, avoid. The only reason I kept a minimal interest in the film is because I was, at the time, playing around with a wireless web browser in the theater.

Slackers (2002)

(In theaters, March 2002) An early contender for worst-film-of-the-year awards, Slackers‘ biggest problem is that it features no characters to cheer for. The “hero”, aptly played by Devon Sawa, is a world-class liar and cheater whose attempts at being honest feel like the biggest cheats of all. His slacker friends have all of his faults and none of his charisma. The antagonist is the worst uber-nrrrd to disgrace the silver screen in a long while. (It’s incarnated by Jason Shwartzman, almost as a dark parody of his already borderline-loathsome character in Rushmore) You might think that the poor stalked heroine would be left as the protagonist-by-default, but she’s so damnably boring that we come to wish the worst indignities on her simply for extra sadistic fun. (Fortunately, there’s a somewhat amusing gallery of supporting characters, from a militaristic teacher’s assistant to a sluttish roommate) Already starting from a character deficit, the screenplay mixes a few amusing vignettes with loads of gross-out humor and an inconsistent tone for a comedy experience that’s simply unpleasant. Even though I can name five to ten little moments that I liked in Slackers, the rest of the film is so worthless that I’d be hard-pressed to recommend it at all.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

(In theaters, March 2002) While I recognize the artistic qualities of writer/director Wes Anderson’s previous Rushmore, I doubt that I’ll ever manage to like it. I was prepared for more of the same with The Royal Tenenbaums, and so my feeling at the end of the film is one of relief. Yes, it’s more or less the same approach than Rushmore, but this time the discomfort factor of the first film is toned down and the characters are more broadly sympathetic. The result is a much more enjoyable film. The acting talent present in the film is awe-inspiring; Hackman, Huston, Glover, Stiller, Wilson [x2], Paltrow… aside from Bill Murray (in a role that could have been played by anyone), few of them are wasted. There are still uncomfortable moments (the Paul Wilson plot-line, for instance) but the writers’ love for their characters shines through and carries the audience over the less pleasant moments. The direction is appropriate, though occasionally a touch too pedestrian especially given the flourishes shown elsewhere in the film. While I’m not particularly enthusiastic over The Royal Tenenbaums, it’s a definite step up from Rushmore and a quirky comedy in its own right. Definitely worth a look on video if that’s your type of film.

Resident Evil (2002)

(In theaters, March 2002) I’m usually a very forgiving viewer when it comes to zombie films or videogame adaptations, so don’t blame me if I liked Resident Evil for what it tried to be; a trashy-but-fun B-grade horror/action film. The first thirty minutes are easily the best (save from one boffo last shot), with a finely-tuned sense of pervasive dread that promises much more than it delivers. It’s much more pedestrian after that (alas!), but it never stops being fun in its B-grade kind of way. For director Paul W.S. Anderson, it’s nowhere near the terrifying atmosphere of Event Horizon or even the pure good kung-fu fun of Mortal Kombat, but at least it’s a step up from the putrid Soldier. There isn’t a while lot of originality to the plotline (watch and identify the sources: Aliens, Romero, Half-Life, Cube, etc…) but it’s handled with some visual deftness and a script that doesn’t attempt to be anything but zombie fun. It’s a bit frustrating to imagine how much better this film could have been if it had pushed the limits of its R-rating, here grossly wasted by a near-complete absence of gore and nudity. The acting is unremarkable, save for Michelle Rodriguez, who essentially reprises the same character she’s played in her last two films. As far as zombie films go, it’s a good one. Take it for what it’s worth!

(Second viewing, In theaters, June 2002) Audacious directing can save a film from total boredom, and my second viewing of Resident Evil shows that even though director Paul Anderson may be a total moron when it comes to writing stories, he’s actually not all that bad when it comes to showing a story on screen. The script is still weak and highly derivative, but the rhythm is sustained, there are a few nice technical flourishes and the actors hold their own. I still like it as a B-grade zombie film. It’s not as good as it ought to have been, but it’ll do.

Orange County (2002)

(In theaters, March 2002) Even though it was marketed as just another road-trip teen comedy, Orange County has a bit more to offer. It’s the “oh-so-sweet” story of a teen trying to find his way in life, despite his tortured family, troublesome friends and incompetent adult figures. The journey isn’t as raucous nor as raunchy as some of the trailers would like you to believe. A bunch of mostly-unknown young actors get to beef up their resume with some skill (along with a few more familiar faces, from supporting players John Lithgow and Jack Black to cameos by Kevin Kline and Ben Stiller); we’ll probably see them in other movies soon. The pacing is okay though not spectacular, and that ultimately stands as an assessment of the film as a whole: Better than most teen comedies, sure, but ultimately nothing overly remarkable. The conclusion is of the “awww” variety, though one is compelled to wonder if the protagonist is ultimately one of those pitiful one-true-story type of writer.

Food, Susan Powter

Pocket, 1995, 542 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-56756-X

Food is a deceptively simple title for such a complex book. Everyone needs to eat. Whole industries have been created around one of humankind’s most basic desire. Heck, there’s even an industry with the goal of teaching people how to eat less.

Susan Powter’s follow-up to Stop the Insanity! remains primarily an unusually-detailed diet book, but that doesn’t stop it from providing the reader with a holistic look at food; what it is, how it comes to be in supermarkets, how it’s sold to us and how we use it as much more than simple fuel. Though it would be dangerous to suggest Food as an “ultimate” book on nutrition, it’s certainly provocative enough to strike fear, doubt and uncertainty in even the most convinced couch potatoes.

It’s not as if Powter doesn’t know what she’s talking about, couch-potato-wise: As she relates to us again, and again, and again, a series of emotional disasters made her bloat up to 260 pounds before she got a grip and made herself melt back down to her current 130-odd pounds. Susan Powter’s relationship to food is more complex than most of us but don’t worry; by the end of the book (heck, by the end of page 25) you’ll be told her whole story in excruciating detail. Over and over again.

We’ll come back to Powter’s particular manias in a short while, but let’s mention right away that Food is akin to the most unpleasant dietician you’ll ever meet. Organized in three part, Food gradually hammers down the usual American diet until nothing is left beyond tofu and organically-grown vegetables. “Stage One” is simple enough; spell “less fat” and you’ve mastered the essential of it. It’s not so simple, of course; Powter explains in tedious detail the “fat formula”, the wily ways of the fat industry and the insidious lure of fast food. There are recipes, calories tables and checklists: Food can be used as a reference book. It’s nothing you haven’t heard before, which if course doesn’t mean you’ll be any more receptive to it.

Don’t worry yet; it gets worse. In “Stage Two”, Powter goes beyond the Fat paradigm and takes a chainsaw to the dairy industry, protein, sugar, chicken and everything else that makes eating good and just. If you’re not depressed by the end of that section, you haven’t been paying attention.

I’m not sure if it gets worse in “Stage Three”, where Powter turns her attention to chemicals, psychological issues related to food and other jolly topics. On one hand, the eat-well message gets more and more rigorous; on the other, Powter’s own tics and motifs become so intrusive as to trivialize what she’s saying.

Part of it is the Powter writing style; chatty, breathless as well as HEAVY ON CAPITAL LETTER AND EXCLAMATION POINTS!! It’s accessible, but best absorbed in small doses; otherwise, it’s like being stuck with a nagging shrew. What doesn’t help are the constant (and I mean constant) references to Powter’s life history, which eventually smacks of deeper problems than simply food addiction. (This isn’t as much of a catty comment as you might think; Powter herself acknowledges this, though it doesn’t make it any less annoying.)

It’s difficult to describe the ultimate impact of the book. On one level, yes, it’s hard to continue eating in the same way after reading the catalogue of potential horrors trotted out in Food. Most of her recommendations make a lot of sense. Heck, I even find myself somewhat sympathetic to casual vegetarians, which is something I never thought I’d write in a public forum.

On the other hand, I’m not seeing any behaviour modification in my own life after Food: You’ll only pry my red meat out of my cold dead mouth. (A potentially ironic statement, that!) Food is also, despite the breezy humorous tone, a deeply depressing book; post-Powter, food becomes not an obligation or a pleasure, but a chore and a highly complex chore at that.

Given the massive amounts of partisan disinformation in the food arena, it’s dangerous to suggest that there’s an ultimate source of information out there. Powter’s Food certainly isn’t, though it’s an exemplary piece of argumentation. If nothing else, that’s a good start.

Men With Brooms (2002)

(In theaters, March 2002) Finally, Canadians now have a darn good reason to be culturally chauvinist! Deliberately engineered to tickle typically Canadian chords, Men With Brooms takes the usual sports/romance comedy template and applies it to the god-sent sport of curling, with highly enjoyable results. Writer/Director/Star Paul Gross does his best with a low budget (the deficiencies are most visible during the curling scenes, which aren’t much flashier than televised curling) but the real strength of the film is the script’s sense of fun. Good humour permeates Men With Brooms and ensures a constant level of giggling. It helps that the characters are enormously likeable, with particular props to the Gross/Molly Parker lead couple. Men With Brooms is shamelessly manipulative, but it works. (What doesn’t work as well is the whole wacky-Americans/NASA subplot, which feels a touch too contrived. Similarly, there are occasional tonal problems, especially in the third quarter.) The film even features digitally-created beavers, which somehow pushes back the state of the art in computer-generated special effects. All too often, local movies leave us saying a vaguely guilty “it’s good, for a Canadian film.”, but Men With Brooms actually warrants a “It’s good, because it’s a Canadian film.” Shoo, Atom Egoyan and your depressing work; the new hip Canadian cinema is here!

Ice Age (2002)

(In theaters, March 2002) It’s always risky to pre-judge a film on its trailer. Ice Age‘s trailer promised us a madcap cartoon with animal characters. The film itself includes the trailer as its first few minutes, but then continues on to tell us a far more conventional kid’s story in the Disney rather than the Warners style. Even though the end result is a fine piece of film for the kids, I’m still disappointed. Granted, I started as a hostile audience given my lack of affection for the look of the film; I thought the character designs were some of the ugliest things I’d seen in a while. That impression gradually disappeared though the movie, to be replaced by a far more substantial shortcoming: Ice Age is a bunch of very funny vignettes strung together with only an adequate plot. It’s probably all right for kids, but as an adult I though that there were some seriously dull stretches in between Squeak’s antics and the other action highlights (like the dodo segment or the wild ice cavern sequence) Ice Age has occasional charm, but it’s not an all-and-out success.

The Count Of Monte Cristo (2002)

(In theaters, March 2002) For some reason, swashbuckling adventure is a genre that, if well-executed, never fails to set my spirits soaring. The romance, the action, the drama of it all! The Count Of Monte Cristo is the first such good film since 1998’s The Mask Of Zorro and the wait has been worth it. Here, the filmmakers run back to the classics for source material (Alexandre Dumas’ eponymous novel) and run with the concept, producing a film that has the feel of a timeless treat. Jim Caviezel surprises as Edmund Dantes, the innocent-to-awesome hero of the story; while Caviezel’s previous roles have been serviceable but hardly impressive, here he gets the chance to exhibit a great deal of range, strut a badass attitude and triumph against all odds. (He even exhibits a killer goatee) In comparison, even the dependable Guy Pearce is over-staged. (On the other hand, Luis Guzman finally gets a juicy supporting role!) Technically, the film is highly successful, with limpid directing, a good screenplay and top-notch cinematography. Even though the film is a solid 135+ minutes, it feels more epic than overlong. The epitome of good fun for everyone, The Count Of Monte Cristo is an unqualified success. There’s no reason to bitch and moan about the level of quality of Hollywood movies as long as films like this one continue to be released; go, rent, watch and enjoy!

The Secret of Life, Paul McAuley

Tor, 2001, 413 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-765-30080-X

Paul McAuley’s previous novels had all left me mostly indifferent. I’d sit there at the word processor after reading them, trying in vain to find something interesting to say about them. It never happened—hence the absence of McAauley reviews elsewhere on this site. I could recognize a certain level of quality in his work, but it never translated in a strong positive or negative reaction. Pasquale’s Angels had an interesting uchronic premise but an overly florid execution. Fairyland had a good grasp of biological hard-SF, but a plot that floundered in nothingness. I couldn’t muster any interest in checking out his other novels.

The Secret of Life is the kind of breakout book that makes me want to re-evaluate an author’s entire output. Like Kim Stanley Robinson, McAuley had to return to Mars in order to produce an accessible top-notch SF novel. (Like Robinson’s Icehenge, McAuley had set one previous story there, Red Dust)

As with many recent SF novels, The Secret of Life presents a future where corporations trump government regulations and are well on their way to become the dominant political power. In the opening pages, an espionage operation goes wrong and dangerous alien micro-organisms are spilled in the Pacific Ocean. Months later, the micro-organisms have grown into a dangerous slick that is posing a significant ecological danger. Though she doesn’t know it yet, our heroine Mariella Anders is going to be drafted in an expedition of essential importance.

Not that you’d want to entrust anything of importance to her; Mariella is a brainy but rebellious scientist, given to body piercing, casual sex and generally bad attitude. Her résumé is impressive but her asocial tendencies are worrisome. Still, some people think that she’s the best candidate for an emergency mission to Mars in order to spy on a recent Chinese discovery. Corralled in restrictive non-disclosure agreements, forced to work with her scientific nemesis, Mariella goes to Mars halfway screaming and kicking. Contrived? Well, yes, but not as much as what pleasantly follows. Her subsequent adventures will make her an interplanetary fugitive, hunted down by federal and corporate forces as she’s trying to piece together a fundamental scientific mystery.

Clocking in at more than 400 pages of finely-detailed hard-SF extrapolation, The Secret of Life is amply worth its paperback cover price for readers thirsting for authentic science-fiction. McAuley was a professional research biologist and his latest novel is packed with the kind of insider detail that contributes so much to convincing SF. As biology becomes the primary science of the twenty-first century, it’s about time that SF moves beyond physics as its intellectual field of choice.

What makes The Secret of Life so much fun is, in the end, how clearly it’s written. Despite the heavy dose of hard-science, it reads with the narrative power of a thriller. Granted, it’s a touch too leisurely to be entirely compelling (whole sections of the novel could have been condensed without too much impact), but it’s much more effective than McAuley’s previous novels. (Amusingly enough, there’s even a reference to Fairlyand‘s main character, though it’s unclear whether The Secret of Life is taking place in the same universe as the previous novel.)

An unexpected element of The Secret of Life is the political message against corporate science and for open research. As real-world research becomes more expensive and hence increasingly affected by monetary concerns, it’s about time that open science becomes a major thematic component of SF. The Secret of Life isn’t the first book to do so, but it’s one of the first to make it an integral part of the narrative. McAuley can now claim to write truly mature SF in a vein similar to the latest works by Bruce Sterling and Kim Stanley Robinson. (There’s also an extended “ultimate hack” sequence that is reminiscent of a similar awe-inspiring segment in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, though in molecular biology rather than computer science.)

The Secret of Life is not only one of the major SF novels of 2001, but it’s also a breakthrough for McAuley, who finally manages to combine his scientific expertise and writing talents with an accessible elegance that will win him many more readers. I should know; I’ll be one of them.