Monthly Archives: August 2003

Picoverse, Robert A. Metzger

Ace, 2002, 389 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-01030-X

It doesn’t take a lot to make me interested in a book. Simple words like “a hard-SF novel by a working scientist”, for instance, are more than enough to make me drool over furniture and rush toward the bookstore check-out counter. While most would sneer at the thought of literature where scientific content would take precedence over such niceties as plot and characters, I know where my sympathies lie.

So Robert A. Metzger’s novel Picoverse would seem to be a logical choice for the generous hard-SF reader that I am. Blurbs with such choice expressions as “Fresh Thrills” (Benford), “Cosmic Concepts” (Sawyer), “mind-boggling work of hard SF” (Wilson) and “knows his science” (Sheffield) are enticing enough. The universe-spanning work suggested by the plot summary simply closed the deal. Unfortunately, as it so often happens, the reality of the book didn’t seem quite so fulfilling as the blurbs suggested.

Picoverse is about a bunch of things, but it’s mostly about how a few scientists manage to create alternate universes that somehow happen to be quite close to ours. Close enough not only to allow inter-universal travel, but also to allow for interesting alternate realities. An heroic trio is quickly formed between a woman scientist, her very strange son and a man who proves to be far more than a government contract supervior. Arrayed against them are nothing less than an alien schemestress and her faithful immortal servant.

For the first hundred pages or so, Picoverse charges full-steam ahead with a steady stream of revelations, zings of plotting twists and intriguing character setup. At some point, it’s almost impossible not to wonder it Metzger will be able to keep it up at this pace; some of the big secrets seem to be revealed far too soon for the novel’s own good.

At the same time, quite a few elements fail to gel together. The ultra-special son, for instance, seems to spring forth without explanation, routinely defying physics as we understand them without much concern from his mother—who should know better! At least the development of Jack Preston as someone far more powerful than even he realizes is handled gradually, though his coincidental (?) involvement in the plot is never resolved to my own satisfaction.

Those two early flaws contain the seeds of the novel’s ultimately disappointing impact. The twists continue (at an inconsistent rate), racing between alternate histories, grandiose cosmology and pure metaphysics, but my interest in seeing how the story would end waned as it departed further and further from any objective reality. This plot skids away from any kind of control like a screeching car, and the only possible reactions are either to hang tight or go in kind of an apathetic shock as the whole landscape spins outside the windows. Surprises are sprung with a depressing lack of effect; this is a novel where the whole point seems to be all about deus ex machina. By the time half the characters were transformed in Neanderthals, I couldn’t possibly care less. Worse; by that time I had come to actively hate the evil little kid and his mother’s one-note characterization. (Don’t hurt my son! Oooh, he may be an evil genius with the potential to destroy entire universes, but don’t you dare hurt my son!)

The fun little epilogue (not exactly unpredictable given the novel’s early flirtation with alternate history) managed to salvage some of my initial liking of the novel, but not quite enough. I don’t think even all the plot-lines are resolved.

Picoverse is far from being a disaster. It certainly contains at least a dozen different elements that could be assembled in a dynamite ensemble. (Will Rogers as the President of the United States? Heh-heh.) But for some reason, it just failed to ignite properly. I suppose that Metzger has other novels in him, and much better novels at that. I will even wait for them attentively. But in the meantime, I’m having a hard time liking Picoverse, a promising stab at an ultra-hard-SF novel that ultimately falls flat. Better luck next time; I’ll be there to check it out.

Echoes of Honor (Honor Harrington #8), David Weber

Baen, 1999, 736 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-57833-2

Honor Harrington has managed quite a few tricks in the seven previous volumes of her adventures, but this time she one-ups everything we’ve seen so far and comes back from the dead!

Well, sort of: As the novel opens, her family, friends and colleagues are devastated when they witness a video of her execution at the hands of the eeevil Havenites. We readers, of course, know better; at the end of the previous volume In Enemy Hands, didn’t Honor break out of custody, escape with dozens of her closest allies, kill the uber-nasty villainess who had planned her execution, destroy a major enemy warship and land undetected on an isolated planet?

Why, yes. And you can guess where the plot goes on from there. Even as everyone is mourning her (while a neat science-fictional twist is thrown in the gears of hereditary succession, with significant implications for future volumes), let’s just say that über-frau Harrington is plotting her revenge. Said revenge indeed ends up being spectacular; all is well that ends well, and we can once more rub our sweaty little hands at how things will turn out by next volume’s time.

I suppose that I’m become increasingly flippant about the plot of the latter Honor Harrington books, but the series itself is steadily approaching self-parody. Isn’t there anything Harrington (along with her faithful—and increasingly powerful—treecat Nimitz) can’t do? Even partially blind, even with one arm not tied behind her back, but entirely cut off? Gee-whiz: It’s a wonder Queen Elizabeth III hasn’t yet abdicated in her favour.

Even if you’re the kind of person who’s soft on increasingly omnipotent heroines, Echoes of Honor has other flaws. I have said numerous times before that the series’ dullest moments always come whenever the action moves away from Honor, most specifically to delve in Havenite politics. This volume once again proves the validity of this complaint. As the villains cackle and Honor’s acquaintances mourn, it’s obvious that we’re just not having fun with them—it’s all about Honor, Honor, Honor.

Another flaw in Weber’s work is also becoming glaring; his tendency to over-write the trivial and skip over the essential. Pages and pages of details are spent explaining minor political points even as space battles are glossed over in a blink. More often than not, his scenes tend to present characters reflecting on past actions and planning their next act, without any actual “immediate” description of the action itself.

Some of the exposition is interesting, mind you: In this volume, it’s obvious that the war of attrition is certainly not working for the good Manticorians: Haven is out-producing them, and their newer ships are gaining technological ground. But don’t worry too much; by the end of the novel, Manticore has found one interesting advantage and seems poised for a major technological breakthrough.

Having paid for all ten books, I’m still on-board for the rest of the series. But of all the flaws described above, the over-writing is really starting to annoy me. From a snappy first volume, the Harrington books have become huge behemoths, unwieldy and seriously dull in spots. It’s non-sensical to try to force political realism (as boring as it may be) around a heroine so obviously over-the-top. Echoes of Honor is a mixture of the good with the bad; the audacious stunts of Weber’s larger-than-life heroine mixed along increasingly annoying writing flaws. Hey, maybe the war will be over by the next volume? Unless, oh, no… does that mean we’ll have to endure the White Haven romance once more?

Impact Parameter, Geoffrey A. Landis

Golden Gryphon, 2001, 340 pages, US$24.95 hc, ISBN 1-930846-06-1

Hard SF is good to find, and so the news that there would be an anthology of Geoffrey A. Landis’ short-fiction made me giddy with joy. What didn’t make make overly happy was the fact that it would be published by a small specialized editor and widely available only through the SF Book Club. Eh, what can you do? At least it counted against my “minimal purchase” membership requirement.

At least the book itself was worth the trouble: Sixteen stories clearly tilted toward the hard-SF end of the spectrum, with some variety (a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, a humour vignette, a hard-SF/magic hybrid) thrown in for extra fun. It’s worth noting that Landis has published over sixty stories since his entry in the field: no mention is made, however, of the rationale behind the selection of those particular stories. We can probably assume they’re the best and/or the most representative. Indeed, there are a number of award-nominated stories in those sixteen.

Landis is a NASA scientist by day and a science-fiction writer whenever he’s got time, and so it’s not surprising to see that his fiction tends to focus not just on hard-SF, but on real-science science-fiction. Stories like “Dark Lady” study the interactions between modern-day scientists and the way their mind works, with only a tiny nod at a scientific breakthrough at the very end. “Beneath the Stars of Winter” is similar, as Soviet scientists struggle to understand the universe from within a gulag deep in Siberia. In this regard, Landis’ fiction feels like Gregory Benford in how eager it is in presenting science fiction in another sense of the expression, with very human scientists.

The difference between the two might be that Landis has a slight edge in accessibility. Of the sixteen stories, few are anything less than compulsively readable. Stuff like the sarcastic “What We Really Do At NASA” is even too short.

Fans of the Hard-SF stuff will be please beyond belief at some of the science puzzle stories in this volume. The book opens with “A Walk in the Sun”, the kind of quasi-classic tale that takes a simple premise and, well, walks with it. Other stories, like “Ecopoeisis”, “Into the Blue Abyss” and “Approaching Perimelasma” are straight from the Hard-SF school of fantastic explorations. (Murder on an abandoned Mars! A trip in the oceans of Neptune! A dive through a wormhole!) Good stuff, though some fans with a lower regard for “that yucky characterization stuff” (yup, that’s me) may not find some of the sub-plots so compelling.

Occasionally, Landis takes a stylistic or conceptual detour, and the results are as fascinating: “The Singular Habits of Wasps” has got to be one of the best steampunk crossovers I’ve read. “Snow” is a moody piece that picks away at SF’s triumphant ethos. “Ourobouros” is a simple but unnerving idea, done well. (Maybe he’ll expand it in a novel some day) “Elemental” is sort of an odd-ball in the lot, his first published story mixing hard science and gonzotific elemental magic. While intriguing, the concept seems developed in a uneven fashion: I’d certainly welcome a slicker, longer take on the same ideas.

Anthologies are always, in my mind, a better way to judge a writer’s strengths and themes than a simple novel. In Landis’ case, Impact Parameter is a much stronger work than his rather disappointing Mars Crossing. It shows his dedication both to the parameters of science and the impact of fiction. His afterword notes awards, inspirations and details about his stories, clearly showing a genre writer who’s aware of his strengths. I will certainly buy his next book in an instant. Even through the SFBC if I have to.

The Edible Man, Anne Kingston

MacFarlane Walter & Ross, 1994, 365 pages, C$26.95 hc, ISBN 0-921912-72-2

My fascination with all things related to Loblaws grocery stores will be difficult to understand by non-Canadians (or even, I suspect, non-Ontarians). Suffice to say that Loblaws is the provincial champ when it comes to food retailing. It provides a lot of good food at good prices, and that’s nothing to dismiss even if you’re one of those who swears by farmer’s markets, health co-ops and ethnic groceries. For nerds like me for whom the food-gathering experience is torture, Loblaws has simplified the process (through wide aisles, bulk packaging and tons of frozen dinners) to such an extent that shopping anywhere else is a trip back in hell.

But that’s just me. Ask anyone else in Ontario, though, and they’re likely to mention the “Insider’s Report” ads and the distinctive “President’s Choice” products that are produced exclusively for Loblaws. In a world dominated by brands like Coca Cola, Heinz, Kraft, Christie’s or Nestlé, Loblaws has managed to build an in-store brand that offers products equal or superior to those sold everywhere else. The only way to get those “President’s Choice” products, naturally, is to go to Loblaws or one of their affiliates. Slick.

This state of affairs is familiar to Ontarians, but it wasn’t always so, nor is it still a phenomenon outside the province. The Edible Man (subtitled “Dave Nichol, President’s Choice and the Making of a Popular Taste”) explains why, as it tracks not just the life of Dave Nichol (the putative “President” of the brand), but also the history of Loblaws, and tangential issues such as the rise and fall of consumer environmentalism, the education of taste, the war between national brands and in-house brands, the mechanics of cookies, the challenges in producing Italian food for dogs (no, really) and the introduction of low-cost beer in Canada.

The rise of Loblaws as a major food empire in Ontario (along with Nichol’s role in this renewal) is a fascinating story and writer Anne Kingston does her best to extract all facets of it. While you may expect, from the title, a simple biography of Nichol, the real story is in food retailing. Fascinating anecdotes about the mechanics of food mass-production pepper the narrative, exposing readers to vitally important issues they may never have considered. (How much time do you spend thinking about what you eat? How much time should you spend thinking about what you eat?)

In this, Dave Nichol emerges as a visionary with a truckload of faults. Contrary to the impression suggested by the chatty “Insider’s Reports” and the personality-centred “President’s Choice” promotional material (complete with his dogs and personal opinions about the nation), Nichol doesn’t have much affection for the “Unwashed Masses”. Gradually trained in fine cuisine from decidedly non-aristocratic origins, Nichol made himself an elitist arbiter of good taste in all facets of his life. Good news for customers, bad news for his employees: Tales of Nichol’s temper are also sprinkled throughout the book, reinforcing the impression of a tyrant who got results. For an authorized biography (Nichol figures prominently in the acknowledgements), this is an unusually honest one, even though one suspects that elitists do, in fact, like to be recognized as such. (Nichol’s lack of enthusiasm for ethnic food, however, is an interesting commentary on his so-called fine taste.)

As a non-fiction book, this is a good one; issues are explained clearly, all the principal players seem to have been interviewed directly and if the structure is often erratic, the tangents are fascinating. All is brought together by a good index. Whether it’s used for reference or for pleasure reading, The Edible Man is one tasty non-fiction book.

As is often the case with books almost a decade old, an update would be sorely needed. Nichol’s departure, which closed the book, wasn’t exactly the end of the line as far as his involvement with Loblaws was concerned: His face, his “Insider’s Report” and, obviously, his “President’s Choice” products continue to be facets of circa-2003 Loblaws store. Cott is still going strong as a generic soft-drink company after a disastrous diversification in the mid-nineties: it only recovered after the death of its founder (something one could predict from reading The Edible Man). Deals with retailers in Quebec have allowed Loblaws to expand in this market. After the abrupt end of his Cott-sponsored new business endeavours in the mid-nineties, Dave’s biggest post-Loblaws success to date has been a line of beers, an ironic fate for a man who didn’t even like this very proletarian drink…

The Perseids and Other Stories, Robert Charles Wilson

Tor, 2000, 224 pages, C$17.95 tpb, ISBN 0-312-87524-X

From a sequence of unremarkable early novels re-using the traditional tropes of Science Fiction in indifferent fashions, Robert Charles Wilson has matured in a far more interesting SF writer. Staring from The Harvest, continuing with Mysterium and then on to his “Tor books” (Bios, Darwinia, The Chronoliths), Wilson has become steadily more ambitious and the impact of his novels has increased along with the author’s improving skills.

Now, Tor has confirmed their faith in Wilson by publishing this collection of his short stories. The surprise isn’t that the book is a good one (any Wilson fan could have predicted this), but how much, even as Wilson sets out to write science-fiction, the cumulative impact of these stories is much, much closer to horror.

There are nine stories in The Perseids, three of them written specially for this collection and the other spanning a a publication period running from 1995 to 1999. For American readers, this collection fulfils an essential purpose in bringing together stories that hadn’t previously been available south of the border: Four stories had previously appeared in Canadian SF/Horror anthologies whose American distribution was, at best, lacking. There is one Aurora-winning short story in the bunch, along with the Hugo and Nebula-nominated “Divided by Infinity”.

While Wilson claims that all the stories are loosely related by a common link (the presence, explicit or not, of a used bookstore called “Finders”), the links are very loose, with a multiplicity of dark, strange creatures inhabiting the crevices of our reality. You could make a better case that the stories are united by their chilling impact; while billed as SF, The Perseids is closer to a horror anthology, as every story has an uneasy edge to it, usually topped by a glimpse behind the comfortable illusion of our reality. There are other similitudes, mind you: most stories feature lonely, unapproachable protagonists (usually men, usually bouncing back from failed relationships), a fascination for the esoteric and frequent acknowledgements to science-fiction itself. As acknowledged by the ominous cover montage, the city Toronto itself usually prefigures as a constant background to the stories.

Of the nine stories, the best may very well be the Hugo-nominated “Divided by Infinity”, which could previously be found in the original Tor anthology Starlight 2. It offers a nifty literary “what if?”, follows it up with a Big Catastrophe and concludes with a cute SF twist that pushes quite a few assumptions to the limit. Also very strong is the Aurora-nominated title story, which mixes occult knowledge with, again, a bit of SFictional existential horror to memorable impact.

Conversely, I wasn’t so taken with either “The Observer” (an alien abduction story with some neat historical cameos) or the concluding “Pearl Baby” (which didn’t have much of a point despite tying together many of the sub-threads of the book), but it’s worth noting that either of those stories remained far more interesting and accessible than most of the stories on this year’s Hugo ballot.

Another of The Perseids‘s wonders is that, even despite the dour protagonists and the spine-chilling conclusions, it’s never a depressing book. The horrors are offset by the magnitude of their revelations, almost as if SF’s sense of wonder could compensate for the terror of the unknown forces. It also helps that Wilson’s style is never less than limpid, with just enough style to add to the prose without distracting from the story itself.

In short, there’s a lot to like in The Perseids regardless of whether you’re already a fan of Wilson’s fiction or not. It’s certainly one of his strongest books, free of the curious structural problems that plagued books like Darwinia and Bios. The stories all pack an interesting wonder or two, while acknowledging their debt to previous science-fiction (essentially; playing to the crowd). Torontonians should be more pleased than most to see how their city prefigures in the collection (sometimes as a part of the story itself, such as in “The Inner Inner City”) while everyone else, regardless of their origins, should get a kick out of a snappy, solid anthology.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Cory Doctorow

Tor, 2003, 208 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30436-8

Finally. Someone is getting it.

The late nineties were a time of unprecedented social change as driven by new technology. The Internet barged in, people reacted, adapted, lived on. Textbook techno-revolution as defined by Science Fiction. You would have thought that SF would have thrived, expanded, crowed a little, gained new respect and built on the wave.

Pfah. Insert sounds of crickets. SF stood still, closed its eyes and hoped no one noticed it was still recycling its own past glories. Meanwhile, I was going nuts trying to find The Good Stuff, the real cutting-edge SF that went past First SF’s increasingly creaky futures. Bruce Sterling, Neal Stephenson and Greg Egan rock my world at every new book. But they alone can’t sustain an avid reader like myself. Where are the other new SF writers? Why can’t anyone else do something as simple as consider the lessons of the Internet boom and apply them to the coming spintronic, biotech and nanotech revolutions? Why is it that “Wired” is more interesting than “Asimov’s”?

With his first novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Cory Doctorow vault onto the stage as an amazingly confident SF writer, someone born of both SF fandom and the pressure-cooker of high technology. With his book, he bitch-slaps most of the sleepy SF mid-list, teaches the genre a new trick or two and (in passing) reaffirms my belief in Science Fiction as a literature with a future.

Reading the most optimistic speculations of the digerati, it would often seems as if humanity is doomed to utopia. What with nanotech ending material scarcity, biotech leading the way toward immortality and computers linking us all while putting libraries of libraries at our fingertips, you will have to work hard at being physically needy in the none-too-distant future. Throw in space exploration, personality uploads/downloads, cryogenics plus a reputation economy based on “whuffies” and you’ve fulfilled Wired’s checklist for the future. When people are free to live long enough to compose symphonies, learn dozen of languages, get multiple post-graduate degree and do pretty much what they want without fear of death as more than an inconvenience, what is the difference between such a society and paradise as defined by the Internet revolution?

That’s where Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom begins. It’s no accident if the cover blurbs are from luminaries from the infotech and SF field: Sterling, Rushkoff, O’Reilly, Kapor, Lessig and Rucker all provide tantalizing praise about the novel and it actually does live up to its advance reputation: This is prime twenty-first century Science-Fiction, staking a claim to our new futures rather than the recycled day-dreams of the old SF. As our protagonist Julius navigates the chaotic (but functional) ad-hocracies of the Bitchun Society and sees his whuffie level fluctuate along with his attempts to preserve Disney World in its original TwenCen glory, the electric newness of Doctorow’s prose becomes contagious. You do not read it as much as it infects you.

Though it may be only 208 pages long, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is one heck of a book crammed with an overdose of ideas. Written in a compulsively absorbing style that combines the eyeball kicks and the irreverence of the latest prose punks (Palahniuk, Stephenson, Sterling… you know: the good ones), Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom flattens the competition and delivers on the promises of Science Fiction. You do not merely want to live in this future; you want to create it.

But, perhaps more importantly for genre readers, this is a novel that finally takes the extrapolation crown from the socio-technological crowd and brings it back (if only for a book) in science-fiction. This is what SF should have transformed itself into, rather than keep on refining the same old shtick over and over again. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is not a complicated book (the ending is even a curious let-down), but it has a vitality of its own. Reading it is a breath of fresh air after so many dull stories that all feel the same. Doctorow manages, with this novel, to land at once on my “to buy!” list of authors: He, like few others, represents the future of SF.

You can see for yourself at http://craphound.com/down/ where the whole novel is freely available on-line for your reading pleasure… Read the thing, forward the URL, pre-order the paperback for your paper library and wait for his next book… if you can.

S.W.A.T. (2003)

(In theaters, August 2003) Everything about this film (trailer, poster, cast) screamed “generic action film” and indeed, the end result is almost a prototypical Hollywood product. There isn’t much that’s overly noteworthy about S.W.A.T., beginning with the actors’ performances. LL Cool J, Samuel L. Jackson, Colin Farrell and Michelle Rodriguez all play roles that aren’t dissimilar to their typecasting so far. (On the other hand, Rodriguez gets to smile and wear her hair down—once; it’s like a gift from the gods) But there’s a real pleasure in seeing these actors play their own archetypes, and this pleasure certainly carries over the rest of the film, which hits pretty much all of its objectives. This look at the L.A.P.D.’s elite force may not be particularly strong in the realism department, but it makes the obligatory action sequences feel more far more organic than in other similar films. One of the shining facets of the script (co-written by David Ayer, who’s quickly acquiring a reputation as L.A’s foremost cop writer after Training Day and Dark Blue) is how willing it it to explore the failures, and so we get a botched escape attempt and an unsuccessful recruitment attempt. This interest for the useless and the usual is often taken too far, though, as with pointless romantic scenes and quite a few sequences that drag on for far too long. The end product clocks in at more than two hours, at least fifteen minutes too many. In the hands of a more efficient director, one who truly understand action, this would have been quite a film; right now it’s just adequate. Fun, but not particularly memorable: A good-enough moment for just about everyone.

(Second viewing, On DVD, April 2004) Take a “generic action film” rubber stamp and apply it on this DVD. While S.W.A.T has a generous number of interesting moments and fun set-pieces, it never achieve anything memorable. Fine actors; fine direction; fine effects, cinematography and soundtrack. But is it anything more? Naah. At least the DVD can rely on the film’s solid tech credentials to liven things up, from a fascinating feature on sound design to an “anatomy of a shootout.” Also fascinating are the two audio commentaries; the first is with the director and most of the actors, with plenty of sarcasm from Michelle Rodriguez and the usual assortment of quick shooting information from the director. Far more interesting is the sparse second commentary, which brings together several of the screenwriters of the film, some of whom had never met through the film’s lengthy production history. The result is kind of a round-table discussion about blockbuster screenwriting, with plenty of inside bitching and some supplementary information on Training Day and American History X. Fascinating stuff, especially for anyone interested in screenwriting. Certainly more unique than the film itself.

The Medallion (2003)

(In theaters, August 2003) Can you say “cookie cutter”? I knew you could. Now, can you say “defective cookie cutter”? The problem with this Jackie Chan film is not that it’s essentially a rehash of many other films of his, but that its lack of originality is not compensated by anything else. For a putative “comedy”, it’s not quite funny (and it’s even worse when it does try to be funny: Yes, Lee Evans, I’m talking about you), it doesn’t develop its characters and it stumbles on amusing moments more than it creates them. (The least said about the “extra” sound effects, the better) The Medallion is frustrating in that even though the direction has some inspired moments, they’re undermined by the uncomfortable staging, by-the-numbers plot and overall lack of spirit. What about the wife with the secret identity? We want a pay-off! Action-wise, the influence of wire-fu is obvious, but even that can’t really raise the level of action above a certain hum-drum adequacy. Battles between super-powerful immortals should be more exciting, damnit! Jackie is getting old, and he has certain reached the age when pairing him with a nubile twenty-something (Here: the wonderful Claire Forlani) is getting yucky rather than romantic. Stop it before it reaches Woody-Allen levels of ickiness! Other aspects of the usual Chan personae are also failing: his goofy antics are increasingly out of sync with his age. Maybe it’s time for a career re-alignment, as far away from Hollywood as possible given the American industry’s tendency to produce clunker (Rush Hour 2) after clunker (The Tuxedo) for him. We love ya, Jackie; we just wish you were in better movies.

Designing with Web Standards, Jeffrey Zeldman

New Riders, 2003, 436 pages, C$54.99 tpb, ISBN 0-7357-1201-8

In my earlier review of Jeffrey Zeldman’s first book, Taking Your Talent to the Web, I made no secret of my admiration for his design philosophy and his influence on my own web design style. I suppose that this type of author/reader relationship isn’t uncommon in specialized trades, nor will it diminish in this age of daily blogs and direct publishing.

Through the early part of 2003, readers of zeldman.com witnessed a period of bi-weekly updates during which Zeldman worked on his book, finishing chapters on a daily basis and promising us a return to normalcy soon enough. Now the book in on shelves and it’s pretty much what Zeldman devotees (does this sound like a cult, yet? Zellld-maaan…) wanted and what non-Zeldfans need.

Designing with Web Standards is about many things, but it’s mostly about the web’s increasing maturity as a publishing media. The wild days of frantic exploration are over, web design is experiencing an temporary lull and both of these are good things: Now that we’ve seen the possibilities, the standardization can begin, and the result will be a better web experience for the vast majority. In this chatty non-fiction book that reads like a fireside talk and belongs on your reference shelf, Zeldman shows everyone how to learn to love web standards.

The first part of the book is an idealistic advocacy piece in favour of those standards. Nearly all web sites are obsolete if you take the long view, argues Zeldman. Those patched-up hacks and unstructured presentation markup tags will look increasingly creaky in five, ten or twenty years. (Anyone who assumes that the sites will not survive this long obviously wasn’t paying attention during the Y2K frenzy.) As good web designers, professional or amateur, it’s our responsibility to do everything within our power, right now, to build solid web sites that won’t be obsolete on their launch day. Zeldman’s ideals are bigger than current reality and that’s fine. No one can know the future, but current web standards are our best guide to ensure we won’t be caught unprepared.

For regular readers of zeldman.com, this is hardly news. But the book can now be used as a “respectable paper reference” for pointy-haired bosses left cold by URLs. Indeed, I expect this first section of the book to be photocopied and sent to web project managers across the nation: Zeldman is a persuasive writer, and it’s hard to remain unconvinced of the goodness of XHTML/CSS and DOM/ECMAScript in building web sites after the first fifty pages.

What follows is a gradual shift toward practical usage of XHTML/CSS in building sites. It’s a painless introduction to CSS for web designers, and while it’s not very complete (Zeldman himself acknowledges the deficiencies and suggests Eric Meyer’s books as more comprehensive references), it’s useful in how it weaves this in Zeldman’s core thesis of web standardization. This exercise culminates in a step-by-step look at the construction of a real, web-standards-compliant web site. This section of the book, I suspect, will be invaluable to apprentice web designers as we’re treated to a look inside the mind of a professional web designer during a real-world project, from concept to debugging.

Web design doesn’t stop when the first page renders in the first browser, of course: The third part of the book delves deeep into bugs, workaround, real-world compromises and other stuff that makes web designers earn their fee. Most of this material is adapted from Zeldman’s blog, making it available (and indexed!) in a handy paper package.

All of this could be quite dull if it wasn’t for Zeldman’s world-renowned prose, surely the easiest web technical read in recent memory. There’s a punch-line on every page —and useful information too! Designing with Web Standards has the continued appeal of a Dave Barry column, backed with invaluable real-world information you can depend upon. As a book, it’s in many ways a recycling of Zeldman’s daily blog musings, but when the level of quality remains so high, it’s his on-line readers who are getting a bargain. If you’re a professional web developer, there’s no real excuse to avoid reading Designing with Web Standards. Not if you want to remain in this crazy-fun business for more than a few years, that is.

Gigli (2003)

(In theaters, August 2003) While the trailers are trying to sell you this movie as a romantic comedy and the critics are trying to tell you this is the most wretched thing in ages, the truth lies somewhere in between. It’s a low-octane crime “comedy” in which a dumb thug and a lesbian hit-woman fall in love while they sequester a mentally retarded young man. For most of the film, it’s just a dull piece of dull cinema, hampered by a bad script, no visible sense of humour and two leads who do nothing to deserve our sympathy. Only during the last half-hour does the film truly turn offensive, milking every second of its turgid conclusion like it was pure gold rather than the torture it evolves into. Two gory scenes played for laughs do nothing to focus this scattered miscalculation, through stereotypical cameos by actors such as Christopher Walken and Al Pacino offer some balm for our pain and suffering. There have been more obnoxious movies that Gigli this summer (Legally Blonde 2 springs to mind), but few that manage to reach such a level of uselessness. Jennifer Lopez tries too hard to be sexy (and, amusingly enough, fails for the first time in many movies) while Ben Affleck offers no particular depth to his obtuse character. The real villain, though, is writer/director Martin Brest, who delivers a film that has all the sexual sophistication of its retarded character. Don’t stay for the credits; just when you think the movie can’t hurt you any more, it reprises the vomit-inducing retarded acapella version of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby got Back”. After that, one can almost wish for a painful death for everyone associated with the production.

Dragonfly (2002)

(On DVD, August 2003) Fans of angels tearjerkers are sure to go gaga over this latest Tom Shadyak schmaltz-fest (it’s like Patch Adams, except with less laughs and more dead people). Others, like me, are unlikely to be impressed. While the hackneyed story would have had a certain interest at, maybe, “Twilight Zone” lengths, it more than overstays its welcome at 106 minutes. The outline of the story is obvious from the get-go, and so is the conclusion. Worse; the third act is stretched over an interminable 30 minutes despite an almost total lack of content. I suppose that this is scarcely of importance to people interested in this kind of feel-good life-after-death formula film. Kevin Costner isn’t too bad as the protagonist, and that assessment stands for most of the other actors.

Divine Secrets Of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002)

(On DVD, August 2003) There seems to be an insatiable appetite for twisted multi-generational family redemption stories and this film is only another one of those. Characters hate each other, bicker, are forced in strange circumstances and discover things about their past. The conclusion is usually preordained. What saves this film from triviality is the impressive acting talent featured for the occasion (with a nod toward the uncommon number of, er, “mature” actors assembled here) as well as the occasional sharp dialogue sprinkled here and there. It’s a sympathetic film if not a very substantial one, and your overall liking will probably notch a point or two above or below depending on your personal tolerance for this kind of stories, set in a southern United States setting and starring Sandra Bullock. Oh, and repeated cries of “Ya-ya!” –which, truth be told, can be more addictive than the film itself.

Life’s Lottery, Kim Newman

Simon & Schuster UK, 1999, 488 pages, C$42.00 hc, ISBN 0-684-84016-2

You’re at a book sale. You see a new book by Kim Newman. You’re intrigued, because Newman has produced exceptional work before (the Anno Dracula trilogy, etc.) and you’re curious to see what else he’s written since then. Reading the book jacket copy, you’re even more intrigued, because the book seems to be a “choose your own adventure” type of novel. How quaint! Good chunks of your early teenhood were spent “playing” with such books. Before you moved on to other things. You wonder what a gifted writer would be able to do with that format. The book, a British first edition hardcover, is cheap; you buy it.

Months later, you fish the book out of your “to read” pile and dive in. From the onset, this is clearly not a juvenile piece of fiction. The first chapter is laced with allusions to free will, choice and constant death. You’re Keith Marion, a middle-class English boy. This book is your life. Your lives, rather. By the end of the second chapter, you’re already faced with a choice. A seemingly innocuous question which will determine your path through life. Answer one way, go to Chapter 2, and you may live to know romantic entanglements, success beyond measure and bizarre life replays. Answer another, go to chapter 3, and your life will be dedicated to revenge.

You answer and read about the consequences. But more choices are available to you. By now, you have remembered your teenhood “interactive novels” routine and started mapping your choices using pen and paper. Soon, you’re paging through the book forward and back, going from chapter to chapter to choose how the story will end. After a few chapters, you meet a painful death. You go back up a node in the tree of fate and try again. And so on. You die often, but just as often you’re left to contemplate unpleasant “and so on” lives of fixed patterns.

This may have started by reminding you of your teenage years, but Life’s Lottery is different. Unlike the simple mostly-linear branchings of those early novels, Life Lottery pulls no stops in presenting radically different lives for Keith Marion. Pretty soon, your first sheet of paper is full and you must use another one to chart the choices available to you. Your life (or is it Keith’s life?) can be a mystery, or a thriller, or a romantic drama, or science-fiction. Characters you think you know in one way can reappear in other lives in various roles, from friend to villain, wife to murderess.

You realize that Keith’s life may be open to choices, but your perception of the book is shaped by your own reading. You may read all possible permutations, but it’s still going to be affected by your first run-through. Some elements are explained here, but not there. Mary will always be a dangerous murderess first, because you first saw her as a danger, whereas another initial path may have made her seem more pleasant.

Without meaning to, you’re caught up in the book. You read it in two days, playing with the stories as much as Newman is playing with you. There are incredible tricks in the novel, from “replays” to parallel fates to false choices to delicious hints of deep-seated horror underlying the concept. You develop an understanding of the story that resembles a fractal, or a hologram; meta-personalities emerge.

The novel also starts working on you. Forces you to consider your life and the choice you’ve made. You think this is one of the best things you’ve read in a while. Certainly one of the most original books in your collection. You finish the book, but the book isn’t finished with you.

You go on-line and seek other reactions. You’re not alone. You learn that the book was never republished in America. You learn that the narrator of the novel is featured in another novel by Newman. You find that other readers were similarly affected by the book.

Something still nags at you. You pull together your complete map of the book and start striking numbers off a list of numbers from 1 to 300. Something is left; a hidden path inside Keith’s lives, an Easter egg. You read the sequence and discover a wonderful framing sequence that (somewhat) ties it together. You consider whether this harms or strengthens the novel, and come to love it without reservations. You wonder if you should include the chapters number sequence of this hidden scenario in your review.

You finally decide against it. Some choices should be left to others.