Monthly Archives: April 2003

Operation Fantasy Plan, Peter Gilboy

Morrow, 1997, 290 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 0-688-15246-5

Though it may be hard to imagine at this particular moment in time, there was a time, barely six years ago, where it was fashionable to think dark thoughts about the CIA. Rather than have this reputation as hard-working defenders of our Western freedoms, the CIA could be used in thrillers as a deeply corrupt agency with no compulsions whatsoever. If exploiting human weaknesses was what it took in order to secure access to information vital to the protection of American interests, well, so be it.

For the longest time, protagonist Peter Gaines had been one of those operators, doing what was necessary in order to weasel information out of semi-cooperative agents. But everyone has his limits, and Gaines’ is reached when he’s put in charge of “Fantasy Store”, a high-class bordello in Bangkok. Here, every vice is catered to as long as cameras are rolling in order to provide good blackmail material. The more despicable the act, the better the blackmail. Gaines reacts poorly and is promptly fired for his excess of conscience.

There is, naturally, a woman at the root of the problem: Songka, the newest recruit of “Fantasy Store”, the most beautiful woman Gaines has ever seen. He goes nuts for her, and his quest to find her again will take him back to Thailand even though the CIA is watching his every move. In this new civilian life, Peter has to learn that nothing is what it seems and every revelation might not be entirely truthful.

Operation Fantasy Plan could have been written during the seventies by a British author and it would still be the same novel. The prose exudes an air of deep cynicism and of resigned weariness. The dour narration is interesting at first, taking us deep in a world of secrets upon secrets. The first few chapters are a crash-course in psychological manipulation, as Gaines recounts his training and the major incidents of his career. The first-person narration makes it impossible to hide or to distance ourselves from the narrative. Gaines isn’t much of an optimist, and the style of the novel reflects that.

As the tale emerges, though, a few problems appear. For a die-hard cynic, Gaines moves deeper and deeper in sentimental territory that’s hard to justify, even for someone as smitten as he is. It’s understandable that this is written as a romantic story as much as a straight-up thriller, but the endless pining of the narrator for “his” Songka gets to be a bit much after a while.

Then there’s the small-world cliché, in which every single person mentioned in the first five chapters end up being vitally important to the story resolution, with particular boos to “Vaal” as being the worst example of this.

Plus there’s the novel’s declining interest once the “big secret” is out of the bag, maybe three-quarter of the way in the novel. The rest isn’t nearly as compelling, as we’re down to a who-trusts-who game that gets so twisty it’s tiresome. Compared to the rather fun first third, the third act is too long, too depressing and far too sentimental. What began as summer reading ends up in a heavy philosophical morass closer to John LeCarre than to Richard Marcinko. Some will be impressed; some will be disappointed.

Not that anyone will have time to complain, I suspect. At a brisk and airy 290 pages, Operation Fantasy Plan is short enough that even the most demanding readers won’t lose too much time over this. The result is an adequate, but ultimately forgettable novel that simply doesn’t do much to distinguish itself from the pack.

Maelstrom, Peter Watts

Tor, 2001, 371 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-56679-3

I had been mildly critical of Peter Watts’ first novel Starfish, but intrigued enough by his potential that it wasn’t much of a struggle to decide to read the sequel, Maelstrom,. Now it turns out that I’m similarly half-critical of the second novel, but for rather different reasons.

Maelstrom begins not long after the cataclysmic events of Starfish‘s climax. (Don’t bother reading if you’re not familiar with the first book) The North American west coast has been trashed, and that only make a bad world worse. The whole global communication network is acting up, environmental collapse is well under way, gigantic corporations are up to their usual dirty tricks and a fractal death-wish seems to be affecting every aspect of the world, from single individuals to entire countries.

In this situation steps in Lenie Clarke, the very very bitter (and very very powerful) surviving protagonist of Starfish. She wants answers. She wants closure. She wants justice. And very few people are going to be willing to stand in her way once she gets going. If she has to kill millions in order to fulfill her goals, well, most of these millions are already ready to die for her…

If your SF diet has grown a touch too optimistic lately, it’s time to delve in the dystopian nightmare that makes up most of Maelstrom. Here, impending global cataclysm (from a variety of sources) is a backdrop to a series of very dark adventures in which an outbreak of primordial microbes is the least of everyone’s worries. The environment is trashed anyway. Violence is commonplace. Employees are guilt-tripped by their employers in acting in the best interest of shareholders, and the cure to that particular issue may be even worse than the problem itself.

It’s not a cheery novel and this lack of cheer does eventually take its toll. The dense but generally dour prose style does little to propel the story forward. The book’s single biggest failing may be how it remains curiously indifferent to the events it describes. A more nervous, more direct writing style might have been appropriate considering the magnitude of the story. But Watts seems more content with a style that seems designed to depress even beyond what happens in the story. A most angst-ridden bunch of characters would be hard to find. It’s not obvious (nor even desirable, maybe) to emphasize with them.

Fortunately, SF fans can look forward to a bunch of tasty little details. From marine microbiology to computer science and neurobiology, Watts reaches deep in background detail (a wonderful pure-science discussion/bibliography is helpfully provided at the end of the book) for plenty of cutting-edge concepts. And not just technical ideas either: Here, Québec has emerged as an important player on the geopolitical scene thanks to its massive hydro-electrical projects ensuring plenty of energy for sale. Resentment is palpable almost everywhere else.

Indeed, perhaps the best thing about Maelstrom is how the scope of the story has expanded. For a cycle that had its beginning in a short story (“A Niche”) exclusively set on an underwater station, Watts has embraced the whole world (with a focus on Ontario) as a canvas for Maelstrom. The story lives up to the title, offering a shifting web of complex -sometimes even contradictory- alliances.

In the end, the telling of the tale might not do justice to the content of the story, but Maelstrom certain has a lot to offer to readers with a a penchant for dystopian tales. In some ways, this is grown-up cyberpunk, with its usual clichés assimilated in a larger, more complex setting. It’s not a perfect book, but the good outweighs the bad by a significant margin. Heck, enough to make me interested in his next novel.

Big Red: The Three-Month Voyage of a Trident Nuclear Submarine, Douglas C. Waller

Harper Torch, 2001, 448 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-82078-1

A few years ago, this book would have been impossible. Tensions ran high between the United States and Russia and the lurking presences of the nuclear-armed Trident submarines was an integral part of the United States’ nuclear deterrent. Even if Russia could target (and presumably destroy) all of the United States’ known terrestrial nuclear sites, it simply could not account for the submarine fleet. Automatically assured mutual destruction. Stalemate even before the game had been played.

In such a context, releasing even a shred of information on the inner workings of a Trident submarine would have been foolhardy. That’s why the Trident program remained shrouded in mystery even as other areas of America’s military capabilities were endlessly hyped, such as in George C. Wilson’s Super Carrier —a book which meticulously described the latest and greatest Lincoln-class nuclear aircraft carriers.

But things have changed, and even though several navies still maintain a submarine fleet, their capabilities remain ridiculous when compared to the American underwater might. As the back jacket suggests, the 18,500-ton, $1.8 billion Trident submarines are “taller than the Washington Monument and wider than a three-lane highway”. Oh, and they carries enough nuclear weaponry to glassify whole countries, if the American political leadership so chooses. (Meanwhile, Canada has problems ensuring hull integrity for the four used British-built submarines it just purchased.)

In this context, explaining the inner workings of a Trident submarine serves two purpose: First, terrify any county even dreaming of going toe-to-toe with the Americans. There’s a good reason why fifty cents out of every defence dollar spent in the world today is American; maintaining even one of those submarines, let alone building it, would tax the capabilities of almost any other nation on Planet Earth. Second, an exposé of the Trident program might just ensure that such weapons remain in service at a moment where serious questions are asked regarding the need for an underwater deterrent.

Certainly, few are going to remain unconvinced of the impressive professionalism of an elite Trident crew after reading this tell-all description of a typical Trident voyage about the USS Nebraska. Correspondent Waller takes us inside almost all areas of the ship, from the bridge to the trash disposal area, from the mess to the chambers in which the nuclear missiles are stored. Even in peacetime, don’t think that deployment are easy for the crew; it’s drills, drills, drills all the time, and the first few days of operation end up being mostly sleepless ones.

Waller’s style is brisk, to the point and filled with fascinating details. It’s a telling comment than to point out that the most mundane elements of underwater life (food, entertainment, worship) are described in as many fascinating details as the more exciting trials, such as hostage-taking training scenarios, a description of the nuclear firing sequence and simulated war-games. A lot of attention is also paid to the men manning the machines, as dozen of sailors are interviewed and invited to discuss the paths they followed in order to serve aboard the USS Nebraska.

All in all, Big Red will doubtlessly appeal to military buffs, engineering geeks, as well as anyone with a deep interest in one of the most secretive areas of the American military forces. The depth of reporting is thorough enough that the book will doubtlessly act a primary source for countless techno-thriller writers in years to come. In the meantime, Big Red truly stays the definitive layman’s text on Trident.

Fire, Sebastian Junger

Morrow, 2001, 224 pages, C$35.99 hc, ISBN 0-393-01046-5

It used to be a fashionable idea to think that the world was a safe place.

We know better now, but the nineteen-nineties were seen by many (North-)Americans as an age where nothing serious was going on. And yet, you didn’t have to look far to see hot spots all over the world. Forest fires in the forests of North America. Tensions in Kashmir and Cyprus. Civil wars in Africa, Afghanistan, Eastern Europe… and those are merely the trouble spots covered by Sebastian Junger in his first non-fiction collection, Fire.

It happens all the time in Science Fiction: a solid but underrated writer wins raves and awards with his latest novel. Suddenly, a collection of his/her short fiction is published after years of unsuccessful attempts (because they’re usually regarded as being commercially risky). As it turns out, success breeds the same ideas everywhere, so it’s not particularly surprising to see the success of Junger’s The Perfect Storm breed a market for a collection of his magazine articles. Fire brings together ten articles from 1992 to 2001, spanning the globe in an attempt to explain danger to comfortable land-lubbers like us.

The book might as well have been titled Risk, because all of the articles involve men and situation that could have dire consequences. Only the first two scorching articles, about forest firefighters, truly reflect the title of the book.

After that, well, it gets more dangerous. After a breather in which Junger describes the hair-raising job of “the last living harpooner” (there are plenty of good reasons why they’re extinct), we move in more disturbing territory. “Escape From Kashmir” describes one of the many consequences of a dirty little conflict between India and Pakistan, the kidnapping of a group of Western tourists, most of whom simply disappeared without a trace. One of them managed to escape from his captors, and the article is his story.

From there, we go to to Kosovo for the first time (“Kosovo’s Valley of Death”), in a war piece that seems almost too shy to report on what is happening. (This piece is markedly more recent -1998- than the previous ones. All subsequent pieces were written between 1999 and 2001, signalling Junger’s shift in the major reporting leagues.) Then it’s off to Cyprus, torn between Greek and Turkish enclaves. Here, Junger (from the Greek side) shares reporting duties with Scott Anderson (on the other). Their joint “dispatches from a dead war” are a fascinating examination of a difficult issues, with a surprising conclusion.

“Colter’s Way” is, initially, a historical account of a man thriving on the edge of danger, but it also serves as a springboard to the examination of modern life and self-induced risk. (resemblances between this subject and the book itself aren’t totally coincidental) Nice, but nothing compared to “The Forensics of Death”, which uses the Kosovo civil war as a way to talk about international war justice and the issues associated with it. “The Terror of Sierra Leone” could be an ideal background piece for a modern thriller, mixing diamond lore, an African civil war, private security firms and much more. The volume concludes with “The Lion in Winter”, the portrait of Ahmed Massoud, a reluctant Afghani revolutionary fighting against the Taliban. (You might remember his name; he was killed during by al-Quaeda operatives in September 2001, a fact that adds a tragic dimension to the piece.)

All is described in Junger’s descriptive prose, with appropriate explanatory passages that give us a better idea of what it all truly means. Junger’s eye for detail is stupefying, and almost every page of this book contains one or two new thing you didn’t know about. Though the book could benefit from photographic material, this is nothing to be sneered at. A superior journalism book, telling us more about our dangerous world as it really is.

Little Green Men, Christopher Buckley

Random House, 1999, 300 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-679-45293-1

I remember showing the bright-yellow jacket of this book to a colleague, who then asked the obvious question: “Are there any Little Green Men in it?” My first answer was “Well, with a title like this…”, but as it turns out, my colleague’s question was absolutely appropriate. Little Green Men is a rarity, a comedic thriller about UFOs that should satisfy both believers and sceptics alike. It also helps that for a humorous story of political intrigue, it’s about as non-partisan as it’s possible to be these days in the United States.

Starring an unlikely protagonist named John Oliver Banion, Little Green Men is the story of a Washington talk-show host who is suddenly abducted by UFO occupants. A man of considerable intellect and reason, Banion has trouble coming to grip with his predicament. That is, until he’s abducted again. After that, he simply decides to become a crusader for all UFOlogists, with predictable results: His talk show is yanked off the air, Majestic-12 gets involved, his family and friends desert him and he becomes the coqueluche of the vast fringe-wing conspiracy. But what he’ll discover will defy both his imagination and yours… and spin wildly out of control as he finds himself with just a little bit too much power.

I should probably avoid any further spoilers, because the pleasure of Little Green Men is how it twists the obvious developments and develops the obvious twists. As a confirmed sceptic regarding this whole UFO business, I approached the novel with guarded expectations, but what I got was considerably more interesting than what I first expected. It’s a remarkably clever little book, exploiting conspiracy hysteria in a fascinating fashion. Buckley Does Not Believe, and this detachment allows him to have a lot of fun with the material. (There are footnotes)

Purists should note, however, that even though this is billed as a novel of political humour, there isn’t much in way of belly-laughs in the book. They’re scattered here and there, but for the most part, Buckley sticks to reasonable just-this-side-of-reality plot developments, avoiding obvious burlesque unless absolutely necessary. But to judge this novel on the number of laugh somehow misses the point, especially when it’s hard to wipe a sustained grin off our face as we read the novel. (Given the considerable sustained appeal of the prose, be prepared to grin from beginning to end.)

Another note worth pondering: While you may get hints of known figures in the quick character sketches, don’t assume that Little Green Men has any link to pre-1999 political figures. In the first few pages, we learn that Saddam Hussein has converted to Catholicism, Robert McNamara was “addicted to mind-altering hair-restorative drugs the whole time he was escalating the war in Vietnam” [P.18], Israel annexed Jordan based on a new translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls and that our protagonist once co-authored a congressional committee report that “stuck a well-balanced tone between righteous indignation and cautious reform, between those who though that the United States had no business trying to poison Canadian prime ministers and those who, while disapproving of this particular instance, felt that the United States ought to reserve the right to dispatch troublesome Canadian PMs in the future, should circumstances warrant.” [P.16] In short, any resemblance between this reality and our is, hopefully, entirely coincidental. This lack of adherence to acknowledged reality is one of the elements making Little Green Men fun reading for conservatives and liberals alike.

The evolution of this protagonist from a righteous bastard to a definitely more sympathetic hero is one of the novel’s chief delights, but hardly the only one. I’d end up recommending Little Green Men to just about everyone. Sagaciously plotted, deliciously-written and executed with more than a twinkle of amusement, it doesn’t need much more to get my recommendation. If you think that X-Files-inspired rants and government conspiracies have evolved in a less-than-amusing direction lately, well, this is the book for you.

Echoes of Earth, Sean Williams & Shane Dix

Ace, 2002, 413 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-00892-5

All right, Science Fiction fans: Your wait is over. If you’ve been scouring bookstores and libraries for the next Big-SF adventure, this is it: Echoes of Earth, a spectacular, large-scale future tale with plenty of guts and a willingness to follow up on initial promises.

Admittedly, it doesn’t start all that strongly: In this imagined future, Earth has decided to explore the stars by proxy: Volunteers had their personalities scanned, copied and digitally sent to nearby stars inside an automated craft. (Shades of Greg Egan’s Diaspora, proving how the genre is evolving away from outdated assumptions.) There aren’t enough bodies for everyone, so personalities are downloaded in generic android bodies, ready to explore their destinations whenever they’re there. As the novel begins, our protagonist (an “engram” named Peter Alander, who nearly underwent a complete nervous breakdown upon arrival) is taking a bath.

Of course, there’s more. Somehow, a mechanism is activated on the planet they’re exploring, and out of nowhere, massive structures start to grow from the ground up, eventually forming -in a matter of hours!- not only a series of orbital towers, but an orbital ring around the planet. Investigating the event, our protagonist is blessed with “gifts”—automated, quasi-miraculous systems and equipment left behind by an alien race.

But wait! There’s even more! Peter quickly discovers that one of the gifts bestowed by the aliens is a faster-than-light ship. When the exploration team starts discussing what to do with that particular gadget, an automated “mole” buried deep within one of the personalities aboard the exploration ship is activated and takes control of the expedition, shutting down the rest of the crew to ensure compliance with mission directives. After some unpleasantness, Peter leaves for Earth—and discovers something very very shocking. Fortunately, an old acquaintance which has survived it all is (reluctantly) ready to help him absorb the new paradigm.

Echoes of Earth really hits its stride in this second half. The high-speed acceleration of Earth’s technological progress has radically changed the solar system, leaving deep scars. This kind of free-wheeling extrapolation is seldom seen in SF, and always welcome. The future imagined by Williams and Dix combines elements from other previous SF works, give them a spin and plays along with the results. It also helps that the second part of the novel is told from the perspective of a different character, giving an interesting take on the first protagonist, a deeply flawed personality that purposefully doesn’t include the capability to see anything wrong with itself.

It all accelerates in a scenario that would be highly unpleasant if it wasn’t told with the energy it displays. Suffice to say that if you like your SF big and spectacular, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more spectacular canvas than Echoes of Earth this year.

The only quibble I had with the novel -save for the unspectacular opening- was the ending, which seemed to wrap quickly and leave a lot of loose ends. I still might have been satisfied if it had stopped there, but it turns out that a second volume, Orphans of Earth, has appeared in bookstores as I was reading what is the first volume of a new series. Completists and singleton-lovers might want to temper their enthusiasm in consequence. Other might as well start reading as quickly as possible.

[July 2004: My enthusiasm hasn’t survived the reading of the last two tomes of the trilogy. While there’s a decent bag of cool stuff in these three books, it’s spread way too thin and never equals Echoes of Earth‘s portrait of the post-Spike solar system. The trilogy’s biggest problem, however, is that it’s all too easy not to care about the aliens and engrams characters. It certainly doesn’t help that Heirs of Earth, the conclusion of the series, purposefully avoids giving answers as to What Just Happened. Some scenes are spectacular (including an exploding sun), some ideas are nifty, some twists are intriguing, but the whole thing barely holds together. What was intriguing quickly became ordinary. It’s no wonder if it was published as a series of paperback originals.]

Phone Booth (2002)

(In theaters, April 2003) There is something… pure about this location-locked thriller, and this purity is what director Schumacher (yep; who would have thought?) best achieves. The dynamic camera whips, cuts and twirls around one man, one phone… and one booth. Indeed, once the fantastic opening is over (“this is the story of the last user of this phone booth”), the movie loses interest whenever the camera stops focusing on the lead protagonist. Collin Farrell proves that he possesses a certain movie-star quality by carrying pretty much the whole film on his shoulders. (Though Kiefer Sutherland does excellent voice work) The screenplay is able to wring much out of few elements, and it knows enough to stop whenever the film threatens to become tiresome. There are flaws (an underwhelming justification, a diffusion of tension in the last act, disposable female roles) but none are big enough to derail one of the crunchiest thrillers in recent memory. Delicious from beginning to end through the magic of good writing, directing and acting, Phone Booth isn’t likely to be forgotten anytime soon.

A Man Apart (2003)

(In theaters, April 2003) Yes, I think Vin Diesel is The Man, the most credible action hero on the market right now. But even he can’t save this tepid attempt at a “thriller”, packed with stuff we’ve seen elsewhere before. It’s not as if the “crazed vigilante cop” shtick hadn’t been done before, but to do it with such a lack of energy is almost fatal. The film never plays to Diesel’s strength, except for two scenes (a shakedown in front of a hairdresser, and an undercover transaction that goes horribly wrong) that seem out of place. Replace Diesel with some other no-name actor, and A Man Apart would have gone straight to video. Everything else is average and scarcely worth paying attention to.

It Runs In The Family (2003)

(In theaters, April 2003) Tolstoi once muttered something about dysfunctional families being unique and interesting, but the wisdom of his maxim continues to be lost in Hollywood, where the “dysfunctional family” movie has acquired a set of clichés that are usually followed to the letter. Family members hate each other until a terrible event brings them together. Young people are rebellious; old people face death, middle-aged people face overwork and adultery. From the movie-of-the-week credit sequence onward, It Runs In The Family feels like a film made by numbers. Through all the adventures that afflict the protagonists, dramatic tension runs low and the ending isn’t as much a climax than a conclusion. There are a few noteworthy things about It Runs In The Family, and they all pretty much relate to the Douglas family; Kirk impresses with his patriarch performance, while Michael is as much fun as he usually is and Cameron doesn’t embarrass himself in presence of his acclaimed elders. (On the other hand, Bernadette Peters has a bigger speech impediment than Kirk) Still, this is an amusing and, to its credit, it didn’t bore me as much as I thought it would. But the perfunctory ending (Hey, how about the girl?) mirrors the film as a whole, which is worthwhile if you like family dramas, but not deserving of any particular sacrifice. The Douglasses had their fun.

Identity (2003)

(In theaters, April 2003) It is incredibly fitting that this film will leave viewers with (at least) two very different impressions. The first one stems from the first half of the film, which is a cliché-ridden, yet aptly-executed murder mystery that lulls us in predictable conformity. But pay attention, because the film suddenly veers in fantasyland, leading to our second impression. The central conceit of Identity is so audacious it feels like something midway from genius and pure audience contempt. In a way, it rescues a film that seemed to be headed for pure clichés. In another, it slaps the audience in the face and shouts loudly “Ha. Didn’t see That Coming!” Some of you will enjoy. Some of you won’t care. Some of you will feel cheated. And some of you will feel all of this at once. Suffice to say that there’s a lot to like at a basic level: John Cusak turns in one of his best performances in years, with able support from Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet and a good supporting cast. Director James Mangold manages to do interesting things with familiar material. Plus, of course, the script… but enough about that. Except to say that the last minute is a howler, the kind of cheap ending that has no relation to reality. But that, in many ways, is the whole point.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King

Pocket, 2000, 297 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-7434-5596-7

If you are a Stephen King fan, there is only one thing you need to know about this book: It’s essential reading. Go get it. Now. Shoo. Come back whenever you’ve read it. I’ll wait. It won’t take a long time, trust me.

For everyone else, it’s important to place On Writing in the proper context of Stephen King’s life and times. In King’s nearly thirty-year-long career (Carrie was published in 1974, though King wouldn’t become a mega-selling author until after the de Palma and Kubrick adaptations of, respectively, Carrie and The Shining in the late seventies.) King has never been shy about either talking about himself or the craft of writing. (For proof, see, oh, the “Constant Reader” forewords, interviews and non-fiction pieces in places like Writer’s Digest.)

But until now, though he had published non-fiction before (his book-length exploration of horror fiction, Danse Macabre, is a must-read for every serious student of the form), King had never tackled a sustained autobiography, nor a lengthier piece on the act of writing.

Well, no more. On Writing is on shelves, and it’s definitely worth reading. Part confessional autobiography, part inspirational advice, part reflection on the techniques of writing, On Writing is of most interest to existing fans of King’s work, but should reach a much larger public by sheer virtue of honesty. The big surprise, in light of the massive length of some of King’s novel, is how On Writing comes out as an easy, short and snappy book, just long enough to leave us wanting more.

The first section is a collection of thirty-eight memories, anecdotes and vignettes of his life, from the infant Stephen King to the seasoned best-selling writer. Though I’m no literary scholar, the level of honesty exhibited here by King is commendable. From an unremarkable childhood in a single-parent family to his first forays in writing, King gives us a glimpse in the formative experiences of the writer he has become. Future King specialists will read this in awe; the rest of us won’t be any less fascinated. King occasionally shocks (On his addiction problems: “I wrote The Tommyknockers, often working until midnight with my heart running at a hundred and thirty beats a minute and cotton swabs stuck up my nose to stem the coke-induced bleeding.” [P.90]) but follows up with some good advice (in this case, that the myth of the gloriously addicted writer is a false and dangerous one; “Hemingway and Fitzgerald drank because that’s what alkies are wired to do.” [P.92]) King also describes the fascinating process by which several of his best-known books were written. He doesn’t even remember writing entire novels, but what he does remember is sobering.

He follows this confessional with writing advice that occasionally takes up more of an inspirational quality than a strictly didactic one. It also helps that this is a book about writing from someone who knows how to write and loves doing it. A random selection of King’s fiction shows an uncommon fascination with writers and the writing process (One title: Misery), and this fascination is entirely organic to his own writing process. It would be hard to imagine his best-selling colleagues (say, Tom Clancy or Danielle Steele) being able and willing to write a similar book. (Audaciously enough, King also takes the time to criticize some of his colleagues)

The book closes on more autobiographical material, this time a lengthy description of his 1999 accident (in which he was hit by a drunk driver) and his rehabilitation. Seasoned horror readers might find themselves cringing with sympathy as King spares no details in recounting how difficult the experience was. At this stage in the book, it comes as no surprise if starting to write again has been a key element in his recovery.

At this stage of his career, it’s widely acknowledged that King is well on his way to become the representative popular writer of the late twentieth century. On Writing shows the qualities that will make him a Dickens for our time in years to come. His dedication to craft and his knowledge of what he is doing are unequalled in the best-selling arena. There are undoubtedly better writers out there, but few have been able to marry popular success with literary quality like he has been able to do. We are lucky that he’s been so willing to set down his advice and his memories in such a book.

Confidence (2003)

(In theaters, April 2003) Ah yes. The con film that begins with the narrator describing his own death. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this is all going to turn out nicely, but the twists and turns are the name of the game and if Confidence isn’t particularly revolutionary, it plays well enough. I’ve been, inexplicably, a mild fan of Ed Burns for a while and he certainly knows how to play as the lead man in a gang of con artists on a rampage in Los Angeles. One operation goes too well, they find out they just double-crossed a powerful crime lord and suddenly, they must atone for their miscalculation by performing another con. Double-crosses, counter-crosses, infini-crosses follow. Fans of Rachel Weisz will not be disappointed, as she demonstrates an uncanny capability at playing a scheming seductress. The rest of the supporting cast is also quite good, with the usual props to Dustin Hoffman, Paul Giamatti and Andy Garcia. The direction moves with a certain style and the screenplay efficiently propels the story forward. The ending is a bit of a mess; I’m not even sure if it makes any sense at all. But in a con film, these senseless twists are the norm, and they are easily forgiven as long as it ends in a satisfactory fashion. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a happier ending than the one featured here, and this happy impression is the one to keep.

(On DVD, September 2010) Years later, this film may play even more smoothly than it first did: I had forgotten much about the smooth scene transitions, clever dialogues and exceptional ensemble cast. Director James Foley knows what he’s doing, and his Los Angeles is drenched in unusual color accents. As a con film, it’s hardly revolutionary… but it promises a good time and it fulfills its part of the bargain handily.

Bulletproof Monk (2003)

(In theaters, April 2003) Kung-fu is cool. Ancient secrets on scrolls are cool. Chow Yun-Fat is the king of cool. Sean William Scott can be cool. Jamie King will be cool one day, once she acquires a distinct personality and starts playing off her resemblance to Catherine Zeta-Jones. Nazis are cool, and gorgeous blonde Nazi psycho bitches are even cooler. Why, then, is Bulletproof Monk so uncool? Maybe it’s the lazy direction. Maybe it’s the uneven script which neutralizes every cool thing with an uncool things seconds later. Hey, if you can’t even use a mega-über-cool character name like “Mister Funktastic” properly, you’re just not trying. Bulletproof Monk barely distinguishes itself in the “let’s pair an Asian cinema star with a hip Hollywood young thing” sub-genre that has become so tiresome in recent years. Rather than exploit Hong Kong cinema stars’ innate charm, they try to shoehorn them in yet another Hollywood formula and the result is generalized boredom. Bulletproof Monk has a few worthwhile moments, but frankly… it’s as if the filmmakers didn’t even care. So neither will we.

Bend It Like Beckham (2002)

(In theaters, April 2003) Behold the most charming teenage sport romance since Bring It On. A successful blend of light ethnic drama and underdog comedy, this is the kind of low-budget film that doesn’t need much more money to keep the audience interested. A good script coupled with great performances… and voila! Keira Knightley may be the “sexiest tomboy beanpole on the planet” (to borrow an unfortunate expression from the embarrassing ads running on Aint-it-Cool-News), but she’s nowhere nearly as hot as Parminder Nagra, the adorable protagonist of the story. You don’t need to be a fan of soccer/football to cheer for our plucky heroine as she tries to reconcile both her Indian heritage and her English culture. (Don’t worry, it’s far from being as dreary as it sounds) Certainly a painless conversation piece about ethnic integration if there’s one, Bend It Like Beckham earns that highest distinction; a film that deserves to exist. While the script often takes easy dramatic shortcuts (“comic” misunderstandings can often be seen coming miles away), the film also exhibits a remarkable level of realism on how some characters react to some situations. Good stuff. The direction is appropriate, with frenetic soccer scenes and lush wedding sequences. Existing in a continuum forged by films like The Full Monty, My Big Fat Greek Wedding and East Is East, Bend It Like Beckham is one delicious piece of cinema. Please don’t miss it.

Field of Dishonor (Honor Harrington 4), David Weber

Baen, 1994, 367 pages, C$7.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-87624-4

Well, that’s a pleasant surprise.

After bemoaning the lack of variety in Honor Harrington’s first three adventures, here’s a fourth volume that delivers exactly what I’ve been asking for. No space battles for Honor this time around; in fact, precious little military action is featured in Field of Dishonor. As the title may suggest, this time the action pretty much all takes place in the political arena, with consequences far more affecting than any of Harrington’s military engagements.

The novel starts scant moments after A Short Victorious War, as Pavel Young’s (grrr!) cowardly behaviour during the third novel’s final engagement is examined by military analysts. The recommendation is swift to come; Young should be court-martialed for his actions, a process that may carry with it the death penalty for treason. All is not so simple, however, as the case becomes a battleground for the political factions in the Manticoran parliament. Conservatives are quick to defend Young, which they see as an unfairly persecuted member of one of the most honoured families in the kingdom. Many of the other factions rally around Honor… well, except for those who still remember her punching one of theirs in the face during the events described in The Honor of the Queen. It’s a complex issue and it quickly gets even more complicated when the court-martial is decided by a jury with opposing -but definite- views.

All of the above takes place before the novel is halfway through. What follows is, by a significant margin, the most interesting section of the Honor Harrington novels yet. Matter of revenge and retribution are exacted left and right, with Harrington in the middle of the conflict. Pretty much all of the series becomes important in many subtle ways; no details are forgotten as Harrington becomes an unfortunate media darling. Nearly all characters are involved in the story. The final chapters are a heck of a lot of fun as, finally, we get something else than a Big Space Battle as a climax. Harrington’s involvement is also deeply personal, going beyond simply playing a lethal video-game combat really well with occasional casualties. This fight has no intermediaries.

In short, it is by side-stepping the usual military SF dramatic arc and embracing a character-driven plot that Field of Dishonor becomes the best entry (so far, so far!) in the series. Real character development takes place, with real issues affecting the characters. Though some of it may be predictable (it’s not as if we couldn’t see part of the story coming, even from the previous volume), it’s very well-done and carries with it a great sense of urgency. It’s also deeply satisfying in a very unconventional way. For maybe the first time, the entire series truly pays off. While a dramatic loop of some kind has been closed, it’s clear that this is far from being an ending.

(I’m not too pleased, however, with the off-screen death of one major character, whose demise is simply reported in the next chapter without any attempt at showing what happened. Kind of a missed opportunity for a good dramatic scene, if you ask me.)

Field of Dishonor might be a lot of things, but it’s -perhaps most importantly- a shot in the arm for the entire Honor Harrington saga. Wisely concentrating, maybe even only for one novel, on the characters rather than the hardware and the strategies, Weber has ensured a renewed interest in the adventures of his heroine. Despite the sombre tone of the last few pages, there is no doubt that Harrington will be back in action, and soon. Next volume, please!