Monthly Archives: April 2002

The Deadly Frost, Terrence Moan

Ballantine, 1979, 342 pages, C$4.00 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-28947-1

At first, I didn’t intend to review this book.

Understand that I do not write full-length reviews for every single book I read. Not only would this be prodigiously time-consuming (I’m having enough trouble as it is keeping up with my reviews backlog), but I have convinced myself a long time ago that not every book contains enough material to warrant critical discussion. I’d rather read fifty pages of a good book than to waste my time writing about how dull was another one. Average books are usually those who fall on the wayside: neither good enough to recommend nor bad enough to tear apart, those mid-list works are almost instantly forgettable.

The Deadly Frost would be one of those average novels. The premise is intriguing enough, at least for catastrophe fetishists like myself; in an alternate future not-too-far-removed from 1979, a gigantic Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) tanker suffers a catastrophic accident right in the middle of New York Harbour, unleashing a cloud of cryogenized methane. As soon as the winds pick up, the gas cloud will make its was to Brooklyn and Manhattan, where it will instantly freeze solid everything it encounters. Oh, and any spark will detonate the entire cloud. Eight million lives are at stake. The Brooklyn beaches are packed. Rush hour is about to begin. Welcome to frozen toxic catastrophe.

I have great admiration for writers who can pull off this type of disaster-building tension, where every option is gradually made impossible, and disaster seems inevitable whatever happens next. In this case, Moan efficiently sets up his situation and gradually shrinks the box in which his protagonists are placed. Structure-wise, it reads a lot like a Hollywood blockbuster, with just enough death and destruction before the invariably triumphant finish. There is a ghoulishly enjoyable death-and-destruction vignette in chapter 20 involving the World Trade Center “Windows on the World” restaurant.

This being said, it’s not a classic novel. For some reason, I was completely uninterested in the fate of any of the “average” characters caught in the disaster. I always wanted to go back to the president, the mayor, the engineer working at actually doing something about the problem. For this reason, the novel suffers a considerable lull in its second half before picking up again near the end. Even those active characters aren’t much more developed than their usual disaster-novel counterparts. In short, The Deadly Frost isn’t a particularly noteworthy novel once you’ve discarded the rather original premise.

It’s one thing for me, as a lowly book reviewer, to say such a thing. It’s quite another to find out that the rest of the English-speaking world seems to have collectively forgotten the novel.

I often do web searches on novels and authors, especially when they date a bit. I was stunned to find out that doing an Amazon search for “deadly frost” turned up one result, an out-of-print mention of the book as being written by “terence moan” [sic]. Even a Google search for “Terrence Moan” “deadly frost” turned up a measly two results. Moan himself seems to have become a real-estate developer in the Harlem area of New York City.

So I set out to write this review, as a more substantial notice that yes, Terrence Moan’s The Deadly Frost did indeed exist and that despite its faults, it wasn’t a bad novel.

As a reader, book-lover, collector and occasional librarian-groupie, I find the thought of a forgotten book to be infinitely disturbing; an affront to the natural order of human thought. New York City being fictionally transformed in a ball of toxic fire doesn’t creep me out nearly as much as the thought that a book once released by a major publisher might simply disappear from our collective memory, not even twenty-five years later.

Now that would be a catastrophe.

T2: Infiltrator, S.M.Stirling

Harper Collins, 2001, 389 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-380-97791-5

I was in a bookstore, looking at the pile of remaindered books and felt torn between two futures, determined by me buying the book or not.

On one hand, I loathe media-derived SF. It’s hard enough to find good original SF that authors who slum at playing by another person’s rules probably don’t fully deserve the title of “science-fiction author”. If you’re going to be restrained by a defined universe, why don’t you simply write contemporary fiction? The very intent of SF is to make us play with interesting new possibilities, not to dive once again in a tired old conventions.

On the other hand, I really do hold the TERMINATOR film franchise in high regard. James Cameron’s time-travel thrillers might not be overly original, but they were certainly a great pair of filmed SF tales, not to mention a pair of excellent action movies. Any “officially approved” novel, especially when written by a “real” SF author like S.M. Stirling, would be a welcome thing.

So I picked up T2: Infiltrator. Maybe, in some alternate universe, this space is occupied by the review of a soul-stirring modern classic, a masterpiece of deep personal resonance and disquieting social implications. Maybe, in that parallel universe, not picking up a book has led me to a fateful encounter with a stunning red-headed physicist/supermodel…

But in this universe, you’re stuck with my bitter review of S.M. Stirling’s cash-grabbing T2: Infiltrator. And, oh boy, are you going to regret it.

Nah, I’m kidding.

Truth is, T2: Infiltrator isn’t that bad a novel. Stirling is too professional a writer to let a bad book slip under his watch, and if I’m not particularly impressed by Infiltrator, I’m not completely dismissing it either.

On the other hand, well, I’m not particularly enthusiastic about it.

T2: Infiltrator picks up nearly ten years after the events of JUDGEMENT DAY: Sarah Connor and her son John are living in South America, having successfully established new identities. They think they’re safe, both from Skynet and from the US government, who have branded them both as terrorists for their attack on Cyberdyne.

But they’re wrong on both counts. Not only does the US government pick up their trail (a hideous coincidence makes it so that the “original human model” for the T-8000 is their new neighbor; he just happens to be an ex-special forces operative), but Skynet, after much mumbo-jumbo, sends another agent to track down and destroy John Connor. This time, Skynet has sent back a specially-trained human agent who, it hopes, will blend in a little bit better and be able to perform her mission. As if it wasn’t enough, Cyberdyne is back on-line (thanks to off-site backups and the remnants of an arm found in the foundry at the end of the second film) and Miles Dyson’s brother is an FBI agent who has sworn to track down his sibling’s killers.

It’s not a particularly promising premise. Not only does it retread the first two films (once again, Sarah and John must elude killers, yadda-yadda), but it does so with far too much of a wink; inserting the “human” T-8000 is almost a wee bit too contrived, probably to help readers imagine Arnold S. in the story.

But the execution does little to improve on the premise. The book is very wordy; a fatal flaw when taking off from a visual source. Re-reading William Wisher’s novelisation of T2, I was struck at the breakneck pace at which it flowed; in comparison, Infiltrator is like molasses, even during its action scenes.

Even worse; by the end of the book, it’s obvious that this is a first volume of a series that might be very, very long. A considerable number of loose ends are left untied and ripe for sequels. Oh joy. The worst is that I probably won’t be able to help myself, and will read them anyway. Unless a future version of myself can somehow come back and warn me against them, naturally.

The Confederation Handbook, Peter F. Hamilton

Warner Aspect, 2000, 282 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-61027-5

As a big fan of Peter F. Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn Trilogy, I was naturally curious about the “companion guide” to the series, a handbook bringing together in one handy volume all the considerable background information that served as source material for his 3000+ pages opus.

My first impression was that this would be a fan-gouging rip-off, an impression scarcely dispelled by the cheap trichrome cover recycling graphic elements from previous book covers. The slim volume should have warned me, but no, nooo, I had to buy the darn thing.

After reading it all, I won’t ask for a refund… but I’m still not totally happy about the end result.

It’s not as if it’s not exactly what it purports to be; a handbook describing the universe in which the Night’s Dawn trilogy takes place. Successive sections examine the political environment (Adamist and Edenist cultures), hardware (starship and weapons), players (confederation members; Sol, Ombey, Tranquility, New California and the other planets/asteroids/habitats on which the series takes place) and alien races. There is also a dramatis personae (with a few details) and a timeline of event from here to then, though the last two can also be found in the trilogy books themselves.

The first, and most discouraging conclusion formed after reading the Confederation Handbook is that there isn’t much in here that isn’t mentioned somewhere in the books. It’s presented in an organized fashion, of course, but there aren’t any startling revelations here for those who have read the series. (The story of Edenism is already well-described in the short story collection A Second Chance at Eden)

I was also disappointed by the patchy organization of the book. Oh, it’s not as if everything isn’t at its place, but I would have preferred numbered headers (eg; 3.1.1.1: Earth Government), especially in Section 3 where the multiple levels of information are occasionally confusing. There are also patches where information provided for one entity isn’t provided for another (or is simple glossed over quickly), reflecting the amount of information available in the novels themselves.

Faced with this, we can justifiably ask who is the audience for that book. Role-Playing Games enthusiasts will certainly enjoy having all that world-building information coherently organized, as would universe-building writers looking for inspiration.

To Hamilton’s credit, the Handbook doesn’t contain many spoilers, making it a useful reference book for anyone reading the series. (Whatever spoilers there are are concentrated in the latter xenoc and characters section, and seemed clearly identified; avoid reading the detailed dramatic personae and the post-2611 information!)

One thing in which the Confederation Handbook excels, though, is in evoking comfy memories of the original trilogy. Seeing all the background information squeezed in one coherent whole clearly illustrates the richness of Hamilton’s universe, as well as the dramatic possibilities so entertainingly exploited throughout the trilogy. If I hadn’t already read the trilogy, I’d be sold on doing so by now.

Ultimately, though, the Confederation Handbook is a strange object, halfway between curio, resource and cash-grab. If you think this is a type of book that would appeal to you, by all means go make your local SF bookstore owner happy. If you have the slightest doubt that you’d be better off borrowing it from the bookstore, though, steer clear and follow your instinct. It’s not bad or disappointing, but it’s quite redundant.

Manifold: Space, Stephen Baxter

Del Rey, 2001, 452 pages, C$36.00 hc, ISBN 0-345-43077-8

The possibility of extra-terrestrial intelligence has fascinated science-fiction writers even since H.G. Wells’ novels, and probably even before then. Certainly, when considering current scientific knowledge, there is nothing particularly surprising in that what happened once on Earth may certainly happen elsewhere. Combine that to the multiplicity of planets in the Milky Way alone, and the probability of extra-terrestrial intelligence becomes not merely conjecture, but quasi-certitude.

There is one problem, though; even though we have looked hard for any trace of extra-terrestrial life, the vexing reality is that we have been unable to see, from our limited perspective, any trace of ET intelligence. No unambiguous visual sign. No radio signals. No markers on Earth or on the moon. Nothing. Given the galaxy’s numerous planets and lengthy life-span, any civilization breaking through should be able to conquer the galaxy in a matter of millennia. Why aren’t we seeing anything of the sort?

This question (the Fermi paradox, from Enrico Fermi’s famous axiom “Where are they? If they existed, they would be here.”) has fascinated many, but Stephen Baxter has devoted an entire trilogy at trying to figure out plausible reasons why we might not be seeing anyone else at the moment. We should use the word “trilogy” loosely, though, as the Manifold series re-uses the same protagonist (Reid Malenfant) and some recurring characters in wholly different universes where even the nature of reality might be different.

In Manifold: Time, Baxter showed a universe where humanity was alone, and the steps they took in order to correct in situation. In Manifold: Space, there are aliens everywhere. And they’re not really friendly.

To some degree, Baxter’s logical train of thought brings him to the same conclusions than Greg Bear (The Forge of God) and Charles Pellegrino (The Killing Star, etc.): Natural competition for resources, the awesome powers of extra-solar civilizations and plain simple fear all lead to a winner-takes-all mentality. To put it bluntly, whoever wipes out everyone else will win.

Manifold: Space comes from the British tradition of SF, and it’s far from being a cheery book. Speaking as a colonial, the Brits know a thing or two about losing an empire, and this melancholy permeates Space like a stain. As Malenfant’s travels take him further and further is the far-future, we get a long-scope view of human evolution, with all its foibles Humanity either destroys itself or is wiped out by external forces a few times in this novel, and the effect isn’t a lot of fun. Interestingly enough, we get a better appreciation for the awesome power of time in this novel rather than in Manifold: Time.

If you want to continue comparing this novel to its predecessor, the resemblances are interesting: Both novels are obvious work of ideas, not characters: Malenfant is borderline-unlikable, and the other characters are cyphers more than anything else. Both books also share a curious structure in which the biggest punches are to be found at the middle, and not the end of the narrative, which gradually loses power as it advances and diverts itself in meaningless side-shows.

But the novel’s impact stands out, mostly as a boffo twelve-pack of hard-SF Big Ideas. Anyone with an interest in the Fermi Paradox will love Baxter’s speculations, even though it’s hard to get away from other SF authors’ thinking on the subject. Manifold: Space could have used some extra trimming (the whole natural-nuclear-reactor subplot plot branch struck me as a let-down), but I don’t think that any hard-SF fan will seriously regret reading the whole book. It’s decent high-powered idea-driven speculative fiction and a decent companion volume to Manifold: Time. Good stuff for hard-SF enthusiasts.

Three Days Of The Condor (1975)

(On TV, April 2002) There have been, um, a lot of conspiracy films released over the past twenty-five years, but even today, the granddaddy of them all, The Three Days Of The Condor, still manages to packs some punch. For one thing, it plays everything very straight, as if no one up to that point had ever seen a conspiracy thriller (which they often hadn’t, to think of it). For another, it features Robert Redford as a bookish, but fiercely smart protagonist, who reacts in a way that viewers can only cheer for. Good plot twists follow, mixed with clever manoeuvres from both sides. Though unshakably set in the mid-seventies, this film survives admirably well as a period piece. It concludes on a meanly effective monologue that still resonates a quarter of a century later.

The Scorpion King (2002)

(In theaters, April 2002) Sword-and-sorcery films are usually terrible beyond words, and The Scorpion King is no exception. Where it manages to be good, though, is in the fun department; despite the awful dialogues and the linear plotting, this film never takes itself too seriously. It’s no Conan, naturally, but it’s much better than trash like Kull The Conqueror. (Some of you may remember that The Scorpion King is supposed to be a “prequel” to The Mummy Returns. If so, forget it, because there isn’t any strong link between the Mummy series and this film. At all.) “The Rock” isn’t much of an actor, and the film wisely avoid asking too much of him, with two shudder-inducing exceptions. Otherwise, well, the battles scenes are well-choreographed, and skilfully edited in a coherent whole that Gladiator didn’t even attain. Even the logical flaws are deftly handled; one particularly glaring mistake is covered by the spectacular entrance of Asian co-star Kelly Hu, wet and naked save for her strategically-placed long hair. The enjoyably multicultural female extras do wonders to distract from the rest of the incoherencies. Beautiful ladies, good battles scenes, swordfights and a smirking tone; what else could you possibly want from a B-movie? It’s exactly the type of movies you will like if you like that type of movies.

Panic Room (2002)

(In theaters, April 2002) David Fincher is one of the few dependable directors out there, and Panic Room is another good example of why he’s always worth a look. In this case, like in The Game, he takes a script with a few serious problems and transforms it in a technically polished piece of suspense moviemaking that elevates the material to a mesmerizing level. From a film-geek’s point of view, Panic Room is a lovable demonstration of skill, from an effective simple-but-ominous credit sequence to a boffo “camera-flying-around-the-house” CGI/composite shot to a wonderful mute slow-motion sequence maybe halfway through the film. His camera angles are always effective, the editing is top notch, the spatial location of everything is clearly established and the overall atmosphere of the film is as claustrophobic as it should be. But, ah-ha, what about the humans in the film? Acting-wise, everything works; Jodie Foster is rather bland, but she -as with everyone else- turns in a good performance. The biggest problem with Panic Room, though, is illustrated by the fact that the film’s most sympathetic characters is one of the nominal “villains”. There isn’t much reason to care for the protagonist besides the obvious (they’re female, weak, without weapons and afflicted by an illness) and some promising character traits (like the heroine’s claustrophobia and/or myopia) are forgotten in mid-film. The late appearance of a rather useless character raises far more questions than it settles. Ultimately, though, the intellectual cat-and-mouse game between characters and Fincher’s technical prowess are more than enough to make Panic Room a commendable choice. But it’s too bad that with only a little more script work, this could have been a classic rather than merely a good thriller.

Atlas Shrugged (35th anniversary edition), Ayn Rand

Signet, 1957 (1992 reprint), 1057 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-451-17192-6

I know that, no matter what, I won’t be satisfied with this review.

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is bigger than most of the books I usually review. Not merely in a purely physical sense, but also in terms of ideas, reputation and social significance. It champions unusual ideas in a vigorous fashion. It has been credited with the creation of a cult/philosophy. It’s been hailed by various commentators either as a masterpiece or pure trash. Some call it their favorite book. Others think it’s simply obnoxious. You can find endless debates (some of theme quite ridiculously profound) everywhere on the world wide web. (noblesoul.com/orc/ is a great place to start.  That they link to this review only adds to my own good opinion of the site.)

Trying to fit my own feelings about the book in 650 words, when considering the rich decade-old debate already surrounding the book, is somewhat intimidating. But I’ll give it a good try.

Atlas Shrugged starts as hard-core industrial fiction detailing the tribulations of a railroad company. All is not well in that world, though, as lassitude and plain apathy seems to corrupt society from within. Our heroine Dagny Taggart does her best to succeed, but she ultimately comes to realize that someone, behind the scenes, is doing his best to stop the motor of the world. “Who is John Galt?” indeed.

It doesn’t take a long time to figure out that Atlas Shrugged is not only science-fiction (it is!), but that it takes place in an alternate pocket universe with scant relation to ours. The curiously Soviet industrial feel of the book, with its pronounced brushed-steel aesthetics, is a dead giveaway. So are the ridiculously convoluted relationships between the thirty or so characters populating the book. Yes, Atlas Shrugged is one of those imagined worlds where everyone knows each other. (This becomes very handy whenever Rand gets around to postulating her main conceit, which depends on a few dozen people around the country.) The psychology of any of the characters is also incompatible with our reality, from the impossibly virtuous protagonists to the cackling villains. The antagonists of Atlas Shrugged are so impossibly evil and idiotic that you can only wonder at how they’re supposed to form an effective force. Rand stacks the deck a wee bit too much in her favor to make an impact. It just ends up being laughable.

And frankly, once I started giggling at Atlas Shrugged, it proved very difficult to stop. Strip the empress of her clothes, and Rand becomes a humorist. Brain-damaged characters spouting contrived slogans in a made-up universe; funny! Chapter VII “This is John Galt Speaking”, a fifty-page monologue clumsily stuck in the narrative; hilarious! The conviction by which Rand’s protagonists are so certain of what they’re doing; riotous!

As you may gather, I wasn’t completely convinced by Rand’s philosophy, or even her narrative. It surprised me somewhat; as someone routinely accused of having too much faith in other people’s rationality, I should be a prime candidate for Rand’s “Objectivist” philosophy.

Instead, it strikes me as a dubious “rational” justification for acting like a selfish child. Calling other people “leeches” isn’t much of an argument. Superficially, Objectivism looks like an excuse for doing whatever you want without regard to other people. And that’s just, well, irrational. Some college students might love it, though…

Still, I don’t regret reading Atlas Shrugged. It is sort of an imposed event for serious readers, a good philosophy primer (if only on why you don’t agree) and an interesting book any way you look at it. Even despite the infamous monologue and the insufferable lengths, it was rather pleasant to read, and certainly managed to hold my attention. But then again, I did giggle a lot: “‘Who are you?’ screamed some terror-blinded voice. / ‘Ragnar Danneskjöld!’

  • Price of the paperback: .50c at a garage sale.
  • Time to read the book: Two weeks.
  • Being amused by Objectivism: Priceless!

Murder By Numbers (2002)

(In theaters, April 2002) It doesn’t take much to make me happy in a theater; just deliver a movie that’s better than I expected. In the case of Murder By Numbers, I expected a so-so thriller, and I got that, plus a solid performance by Sandra Bullock, a complex set of character interactions, hissable villains and a few interesting details of police work. Bullock (who co-produced the film) should get points for playing a darker version of her Miss Congeniality policewoman character, a damaged cop using work as a shield—no, it plays much better than you’d expect. The two antagonists are thoroughly despicable teens who decide to kill for kicks, probably working from a stoned reading of Nietzche’s greatest hits. Other matters, large and small, come to complicate everything, and the result is a nicely entertaining film that’s much better than the conventional trailers would lead you to believe—that is, until the ending, which is every bit as conventional as the trailers suggested. It’s unspectacular but satisfying entertainment.

The Mummy (1999)

(Second viewing, On DVD, April 2002) Good, fast, action-packed fun. A wonderful lead-couple in the pure pulp/serials tradition. Bliss! Subsequent viewings tend to lessen the silliness and leave a greater place to the pure enjoyment of the piece. The “ultimate edition” DVD is a keeper, with the usual special-effects clips, a self-deprecating commentary track (discussing difficult extras and how tight editing leads to stupid plot-holes) and oodles of other features.

(In theaters, May 1999) What can I say? You either enter the theatre with adequate expectations or you gnash your teeth during two hours. In the right frame of mind, this can be a wonderful, swashbuckling adventure. Fun for the whole family as most of the death and horror takes place off-screen in a very un-gory way. Don’t expect a horror movie! Brendan Fraser is a good two-fisted action hero, though his characters loses a lot of its initial edge by the end of the movie. It’s not that The Mummy is without flaws (gawd, that script leaves plot-holes all over the place!), but it’s that with most people, they simply won’t matter. Even the uneasy mixture of low-grade horror, adventure and comedy has its charm. The Mummy is just a lot of fun, and the epitome of a good, stupid summer movie.

Marathon Man (1976)

(On TV, April 2002) Long, but good, but looong thriller that is far simpler than you might expect if you strip away all the convoluted mechanics to set up the end situation. There are some memorable moments. (Can you still go to the dentist without thinking of this film?) Good usage of New York scenery. Effective villains. Maybe a bit too manipulative. Still, a good piece. Hasn’t aged very well, though.

High Crimes (2002)

(In theaters, April 2002) I wasn’t a big fan of the original Joseph Finder novel, and as far as movies go, High Crimes is roughly of the same level of quality; strictly middle-of-the-pack, and maybe even a bit lower than that. The biggest problem, of course, is that the “big twist” of the film can be seen hours in advance. It doesn’t help that the central casting (Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman, both rather good) is instantly reminiscent of other featureless thrillers. Multiple changes to the book’s storyline help to simplify the action, and to speed up the narrative. Whatever can be said about the hum-drum nature of High Crimes, at least it usually moves quickly, and is over almost before you start asking yourself good questions about what’s happening. The final twist isn’t as gloriously insane as in the book, but the film’s coda is far more satisfying than the way the novel ends. For audiences unfamiliar with the source novel, though, High Crimes remains an average stock thriller, nothing worth getting excited about. For times where you positively have to watch a thriller and you haven’t seen that one…

1632, Eric Flynn

Baen, 2000, 597 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-31972-8

(read as an e-book, freely available from www.baen.com)

I have always been, still am and will forever remain a paper-book geek.

Still, there’s always some room for experimentation. When I got to test a Palm Pilot for the office, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to do a reality-check on the whole e-book concept. What can I say; I was skeptical. In order to ensure validity between this experiment and my usual reading regimen, I went to a well-known publisher (Baen) and downloaded the freely-available electronic version of one of their books. No sir, no vanity-press e-book amateur drivel for me!

Thus equipped, I started reading on the tiny 150×150 screen of my Palm Pilot… and it proved to be a reading experience more or less undistinguishable from the paper page thing. Sometimes even better; the Palm Mobipocket Reader software has its faults, but the instant-bookmark setup is a boon, and so is the backlit screen. Not to mention that a Palm Pilot can be, with some slight contortions, be read with only one hand, which is difficult to do with a paperback without breaking the spine of it. Works for me.

What about the novel itself, then?

It appears that I was lucky with my selection: Eric Flint’s 1632 is a terrific adventure book, an SF update of those Robinsonade stories I gleefully read throughout my teenage years.

Flint barely tries to justify his setup: thanks to an alien “time shard”, the West Virginia town of Grantville (mostly populated with hardy coal miners) is transported back to 17th-century Germany, smack in the middle of belligerent empires during the Thirty Years’ War. After a few moments of astonishment, the local chapter of the United Mine Workers of America chooses the side of good old-fashioned American freedom and justice. A machine-gun-powered Second American Revolution gets underway… in the heart of Europe.

As a non-American, it’s a bit difficult not to smile at such “America Über Alles” stories, but if my American readers can forgive the smirk, the truth is that 1632 remains one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read lately. (Naturally, the fact that I read it “on a break” from the middle of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged may have helped.) Flint is a gifted novelist, and the cast of characters he assembles for 1632 is well-worth cheering for. Mine workers, teachers, teenagers and farmers unite to show barbarians a lesson, and frankly, our time couldn’t send better representatives to the renaissance than a bunch of blue-collar workers. Once the initial confusion evaporates, Grantville has to figure out how to survive gracefully in a world without modern conveniences. Meanwhile, forces amass to attack the town, romance buds and a government is formed. It’s all quite fascinating, and a lot of fun whenever contemporary gadgets are unleashed on woefully ill-equipped armies. Flint isn’t a stupid writer, and the aura of realism that emanates from the accumulation of details goes a long way towards forgiving the rather easy premise.

The writing style is brisk and limpid: Flint has an eye for good scenes and sympathetic characters. The only limp passages take place whenever we get away from the Americans for some insipid court intrigue. The rest is all gravy. I found myself reading passages of the book away from my daily bus commute, which is where I had told myself I’d read 1632.

…and that brings us back to the e-book experience. After 1632, I have no doubt that the concept is viable from the reader’s point of view. I would have enjoyed the novel on paper or on-screen, and so reading it on the Palm Pilot made no difference. I’m not so convinced, however, that the e-book is a viable business model. A few days after finishing 1632, I eventually made my way to the local SF bookstore and bought a copy for my library, an act which may be seen as both damning and praising the whole e-book concept. In the end, I may remain firmly committed to dead-tree bricks but I won’t give out that skeptical frown anymore whenever I hear someone rant about electronic books.

Frailty (2001)

(In theaters, April 2002) Sometimes, the problem with cinema is that you have to pad a film in order to make it marketable. There is not much of a commercial outlet for 45-minutes-long films outside of anthology TV shows, and even then it’s a gamble. The sad result is all too often a thinly-plotted film stretched over at least 80 minutes, dressed-up with a lot of “atmosphere”. Frailty is a lot like that; not exactly bad, but so long and deliberate that you’ll have ample opportunity to ask yourself what happens next, which logically leads to the “twist” conclusion well before the end of the movie. Technically, at least, it’s rather good. The acting is fine, especially from the two young boys, and the direction -by co-star Bill Paxton- is serviceable. However thin the story is, it’s neither silly nor stupid which already gives it an advantage over most of the other horror films out there. Interesting, and maybe even more so when played in 2x fast-forward.

Death To Smoochy (2002)

(In theaters, April 2002) There’s a really good reason why dark comedies don’t enjoy much success at the box-office: For every successful Get Shorty or Pulp Fiction, there are dozen of film that don’t understand that violent death with winks don’t necessarily equal big laughs. In Death To Smoochy‘s case, someone forgot that it makes more than a sappy plot with murders and swear words to be funny, and ultimately, there are maybe three laughs in the whole film. Oh, the narrative foundation is promising; corrupt kid shows, the Irish mob, dwarves, a huge purple rhino, ice-skating and a kid’s show host groupie. What makes everything fall apart is the dry and dour tone in which everything is handled: It’s as if an accountant got hold of a Simpsons episode and tailored it to cut all the laughs. What doesn’t help is the sheer irritating nature of nearly everyone in the film, from a pestilent Robin Williams (even though he should get accolades for moving away from his amiable screen presence of late) to a grating brain-damaged ex-boxer. True, Edward Norton, Catherine Keener and New York are as good as ever. But the whole film surrounding them is tedious and annoying. The finale is especially vexing, as it forgets its own nature in favour of an all-sweet finish. A lot of wasted potential for this one…