Monthly Archives: September 2003

Hannibal, Thomas Harris

Dell, 1999, 546 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-29584-X

When Hannibal was first published in 1999, critics were flummoxed. Some suspected a practical joke. Indeed, Salon.com prefaced its spoilerful synopsis with the warning “this is not a parody”. Many speculated that Harris was having fun screwing around with Hollywood. After the success of Jonathan Demme’s adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs, Harris had become, despite himself, one of Hollywood’s darling authors. It turns out that all of his novels have been adapted for the silver screen at one moment or another: For a man who writes a novel per seven years or so (Black Sunday, 1975. Red Dragon, 1981, The Silence of the Lambs, 1988), that makes any of his books very hot stuff indeed. It’s no surprise if Red Dragon has been adapted twice in twenty years, once in 1986 (as Michael Mann’s MANHUNTER) and another in 2002.

The mystery persists to this day; Has Harris deliberately played a trick on Hollywood by writing a novel that was almost unfilmable, or did he simply go off the deep end of sanity? Or was he simply having fun at his fans’ expense, writing a novel that was sure to piss them off?

Transforming protagonist Clarice Starling from her goody-two-shoes persona in The Silence of the Lambs to a bitter, disillusioned woman on the verge of a break-down in Hannibal was just the first step. The second was to take the post-SILENCE OF THE LAMBS portrait of Hannibal as a popular hero and make him even more so, by refining his qualities and showing someone even worse than he was in comparison. Here, Lecter turns out to be a charming man of considerable talents and erudition, able to work his way in an academic job in Florence, play the piano, enjoy life’s beautiful things and second-guess Stephen Hawking on advanced physics. (!) Meanwhile, the character of Mason Verger is introduced, and he makes Lecter look like a perfect gentleman. For starters, Verger is one of Lecter’s old victims; years ago, blown on drugs and encouraged by good old Hannibal, he cut off most of his face, fed it to the dogs and somehow survived, looking a lot like a faceless corpse. While that would be enough to cramp anyone’s style, Verger has one tiny advantage, being the inheriting heir of a massive meat-packing industrial empire. (An empire which thrived on such innovations as feeding animal remains to pigs, in an oh-so-subtle symbolic detail.) Flush with money and driven by revenge, he’s still looking for Lecter, snooping over the FBI’s shoulders while not handcuffed to mere trivialities such as ethics and the rule of law.

If you’ve seen the film version of Hannibal, you will recognize our three main characters -the damaged heroine, the charming killer, the ultra-rich monster- more or less intact. All of the film’s insanity is to be found in the pages of the novel, from Clarice’s contrived difficulties with the FBI to Krendler’s last supper. What you can’t know is how much more silly stuff wasn’t shown on-screen. Verger’s bodybuilding lesbian sister, who wants to impregnate her partner using her brother’s genetic material (even though he abused her during childhood). Lecter’s memory palace (see DREAMCATCHER for that, or better yet—don’t!), along with the central trauma that caused him to turn evil (hint; sisters are big in this book.). The story of Florence’s Il Mostro, because you can never have enough serial killers in one single Harris novel. And so on…

The biggest change, of course, is the ending. While the film wussed out and presented sort of a happy ending, Hannibal goes to the end of Clarice’s perversion and… well, I’m not going to spoil the surprise for you, right? Suffice to say that Jodie Foster had her reasons to decline playing the character again after she read the book. Her fate is much, much worse that simple death.

But you know what? Even if Hannibal is the longest-running, most straight-faced prank played by an author on his public, it’s still worth reading. Much like the film was schlock horror directed with mastery, the book is schlock horror written with an impeccable sense of style. The book is playful, telling passages in the past, other describing the present and sometimes even warning the reader about what could happen if it went any closer to the characters. It’s a heck of a lot of fun to read, and Harris’ gift for research makes the end result always fascinating to read, even if it’s totally insane. You’ve been warned. But then again, so was I.

Against All Enemies, Harold Coyle

Forge, 2002, 412 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-34169-7

Whenever the United States get around to fight their second civil war, I want it to be like in Against All Enemies: Dull, pointless, with few casualties and lasting only a few days. But what works for me in reality certainly isn’t what I’m looking for in fiction. Harold Coyle’s latest novel is, quite simply, a bore and to bore readers is the most unforgivable thing a so-called “thriller” writer can do.

The good news is that Against All Enemies brings back Scott Dixon, the hero of many of Coyle’s best novels (Sword Point, Bright Star, The Ten Thousand, etc.) The bad news is that there was absolutely no reason to do so. In fact, given the amount of material that Coyle voluntarily ignores in re-establishing his character and his family, it seems even worse than useless. While the “adventure in Mexico” (Trial by Fire) is very briefly mentioned, almost no mention is made of Dixon’s previous adventures in Iran, Egypt and -very importantly- Germany. Like with Clancy and Brown’s latest works, the perils of juggling an imagined military history concurrently with our “real” history get to be a strain. Best to play in an entirely new universe every time, otherwise the amount of material to conveniently forget gets to be too obvious to ignore.

Given that the emphasis, this time around, is on Dixon’s son (a brand-new army man by the time the novel gets underway) one would have thought that this would have been a perfect opportunity to get a brand new cast of characters. But no, and the contrivances are annoying. Here, Dixon’s wife (the always-beautiful-and-perfect Jan Fields-Dixon) is depicted as having a national-class TV show from the American Midwest. By sheer coincidence (of course), she finds herself part of the catalyst of the political crisis which will precipitate the Idaho uprising her husband and son will have to fight. As if that wasn’t enough, another returning character, Nancy Kozak, conveniently happens to be around (as a reservist, no less) whenever the action heats up. Ah, the curse of too much character background… Beyond “kill your darlings”, some writers need to be told “ditch your universe.”

Now here’s the interesting part: The previous Dixon novel (Code of Honor) dates from 1994. While Against All Enemies is copyright 2002, Coyle mentions in his afterword that it was originally written in 1996. What happened next in Coyle’s career is well-known: a detour through civil war fiction, followed by a return to contemporary military fiction in the late nineties. (Alas, with works such as the wretched Dead Hand) One can speculate as to why it wasn’t published in 1996. And one can speculate very nasty reasons indeed…

But why speculate when we can read the result? Even with years of revision, Against All Enemies still feels like a half-hearted attempt at a military thriller. While the premise is fantastic (A second American Civil War! What else do you need?) and so is the thematic intent to explore the conflict between serving one’s country versus the needs of one’s community, the result falls short of expectations. Any expectations.

While you’d think that the rebellion of a state against the federal government would be caused by something big, something worth fighting for, Against All Enemies gives the impression that this comes from a governor’s oversized ego and a botched raid by the FBI. While you’d think that Coyle could milk a lot of juice from this type of premise (USA fights a war with itself! Films of modern weaponry at 11!), it ends up being a few planes and a bunch of tanks against a militia. Not very impressive, not very interesting. Even as the sort-of-antagonist governor eyes Dixon’s wife, you’d think that there could be some place there for very personal stakes. Naah. Coyle! You wuss! I accuse you of holding back! If there’s one more rationale for ditching the old universe, it’s this: With brand-new characters, you can blow them all up if you want.

I really wanted to like this novel, and there are in fact a few passages I like here and there. But overall, Against All Enemies is just a snore, and that’s the worst thing I can say about a thriller. I can’t even work up any kind of hate for it like I did for Dead Hand (which was a much, much worse novel, though). At best, I won’t remember any of it in a few weeks. And that’s just too bad. I want my fiction to be striking and my reality to be unmemorable, not the other way around.

The Teeth of the Tiger, Tom Clancy

Putnam, 2003, 431 pages, C$40.00 hc, ISBN 0-399-15079-X

The most encouraging thing about Tom Clancy’s The Teeth of the Tiger is how comparatively slim it looks. After years of bloated 800+ pages novels with severe pacing problems, one could hope that Clancy had finally wizened up. Unfortunately, the length of this book ends up being one of the most deceptive things about a very disappointing novel.

I wanted not to bury this novel, but to praise it; after all, I have all of the Clancy novel in hardcover on my bookshelves, and despite our increasingly diverging political views, I have always kept a soft spot for his no-nonsense style of writing and his gift for plotting.

Sadly, little of that ends up in The Teeth of the Tiger, a novel that ends up smelling as if it escaped from those infamous “Tom Clancy’s” derivative lines. The setup seems depressingly familiar; as more evil middle-eastern terrorists plan a dastardly attack on America, a top-secret group of intelligence operatives fights to keep them away. It really does end up feeling a lot like Clancy trying to second-guess 11/09/2001, with all the predictable plotting that ensues.

Had Clancy moved away from his Ryanverse, it may not have been too bad, but unfortunately enough, this novel takes place after the end of Jack Ryan Sr.’s presidency and features Jack Ryan Jr. taking his father’s initial role as an analyst in the intelligence community. The big, big problem is that Clancy has to juggle twenty years of Ryanverse events with real-world history. So September 11 is somewhere in the background, along with Afghanistan and Homeland Security, but also the Ebola attack that led to a ground war in Saudi Arabia (Executive Orders) and the whole Red October business. Curiously, little is said of the plane crash on the Capitol (Debt of Honor) or the Chinese nuclear strike (The Bear and the Dragon), presumably because those didn’t fit. But the whole setup is increasingly far-fetched and Clancy would have been better off just scrapping the whole Ryanverse altogether rather than present an increasingly problematic “next generation”. A smaller problem is that the end of the Ryan presidency is glossed over, along with the dramatic death of one major fan-favourite character; most will feel cheated by the curt paragraph that describes what happened.

But wait! It gets worse! Clancy so loooves his characters that, guess what, those dastardly terrorists attack a mall where, as it happens, two of our main characters are shopping for shoes. Now, it just so happens that those two are members of the secretive “Campus” where, it just so happens, also works Jack Ryan Jr. Who, it just so happens, is not just also their cousin, but it also tracking down a guy who, it just so happens, is handling the finances for those very same terrorists! Wow! Some would call this series of links very convenient, but who knows—coming from Clancy, it just may be genius in disguise!

That’s bad enough, but what really hurts is the ideological position at the centre of the book. Basically, The Teeth of the Tiger is a book-length rationalization of why it’s quite OK for a shadowy agency, not controlled by the government, to go out in foreign countries and kill suspected associates of terrorists. No less. “The Campus” is an agency outside federal regulations —thinly protected by a stash of blank presidential pardons— which gets in the business of assassination as the novel begins. Oh, our two would-be-assassins do have a few doubts… but a convenient terrorist attack in which they witness the death of a little boy (awww) wipes out every possible moral qualms they may have kept from Sunday school. (“They’re the bad guys, bro!”) And so they go on their merry way, rubbing out people on the streets of Europe using information that may not be entirely solid.

Is this supposed to be good? Heroic? Lawful? Just? Am I the only one who still thinks vigilante-style retribution isn’t the sum of all answers? That it’s a simple-and-dumb solution to a complex problem? Is it perfectly acceptable to decree (without accountability, without recourse, without remorse) the death penalty on four targets whose tenuous support to terrorism was merely financial and logistical? Anyone who’s read Clancy for a while might justifiably ask whether this is from the same person who wrote Clear and Present Danger, a novel in which Jack Ryan Sr. went against his own government because it was involved in violent off-the-book operations which betrayed the spirit of the American Constitution.

It would be inaccurate (and libellous) to portray Clancy as a racist or an anti-Muslim. But his portrayal of the bad guys (“bad guys” and “good guys” are helpfully pointed out in the novel, so don’t worry about making the distinction for yourself) is crude enough to warrant special attention. (By far the most hilariously offensive moment comes as one of the terrorists lays, dying, on the floor of a sports-goods store. One of the Killer Catholic Twins has the decency to put a football in his limp hands and add “I want you to carry this to hell with you. It’s a pigskin, —-hole, made from the skin of a real Iowa pig.” [P.252] Touching; I could hear legions of Rush Limbaugh fans weeping.) Clancy even feels obliged to add two pages on how “terrorism had about as much to do with the Islamic religion as it did with Catholic and Protestant Irishmen” [P.383] (Ever the good lad, Jack Ryan Jr. comes across this stupendous insight by “googling his way into Islam”. And yet people keep saying that a good conservative education has no benefits…) Fair enough, but next time it may be helpful to actually have real and realistic Arab/Muslim characters rather than making all of his protagonists good-old Catholic-Irish boys mowing down terrorists through Europe. This, coupled with other typical conservative tics such as the knee-jerk euro-bashing (with a particular dislike for the French; one wonders if those slurs will be kept in translation), media bashing and a rather short-sighted view of politicians, finally makes me wonder if Clancy, for all his gifts, may just not be as smart as I thought he was. Or getting dumber by the book.

Certainly, other areas of the novel aren’t much brighter: The plotting also has its share of dumb moves; once the terrorists are identified and one lead is uncovered in the financial labyrinths of Europe, you would think that the best way to react would be to study the subject and identify his links to other terrorists. Naaah; Clancy goes gung-ho happy and immediately send his good little Catholic twin assassins to rub out the guy in a busy street. They do that in the hope of forcing other guys to react, calling it “recon-by-fire”. Uh-huh. Don’t let Clancy anywhere near the Organized Crime units, please. Other deeply dumb stunts abound, such as sending a team of fraternal twins (their mom “must have punched out two eggs that month”, as it’s delicately referred to on pages 32 and 89) as a tracking/assassination team. You’d think that a suspect might go “huh?” after seeing two eerily similar guys around (See P.74: “People often remarked on their resemblance, though
it was even more apparent when they were apart”), but apparently that doesn’t seem to bother Clancy very much. (Neither does the idea of sending an untrained ex-president’s son on an assassination mission, for that matter. Makes you wonder what Chelsea Clinton truly does in her spare time, doesn’t it?)

Once again, there are clear signs that Putnam’s editors have all given up on Clancy. Beyond the pacing problems, the bone-headed plotting, the flamboyant jingoism (anyone even considering an opposing viewpoint is accused of defending the devil), this novel (like the two before it) suffers from bouts of bad writing. Once again, every half-clever line is repeated at least twice in the course of the novel. (Some men may need killin’ more than horses need stealin’, but some novels sure need editin’) Some sentences have missing words. See if you can make sense of this comma-ridden one: “What to drink? If he was having a New York lunch, then cream soda, but Utz, the local potato chips, of course, because they’d even had them in the White House—at his father’s insistence.” [P.214]

Technical accuracy? Don’t make me laugh. The time during which Clancy was considered an authority has long passed. Since Rainbow Six‘s memorable “life detectors” blunder, Clancy doesn’t even try to fact-check his stuff. Here, the NSA routinely crack all electronic traffic as a matter of routine, and our characters can check not just their email, but everyone else’s too. Convenient, especially when the all-magical “Campus” can simply slurp off the traffic being exchanged (over the airwaves!) between the NSA and the CIA. Isn’t there anything a rogue operation won’t do?

Then there are the characters. Good little Jack Jr., praising his pop at every second internal monologue. The Killer Catholic Twins, who never seem to be any less than perfect. But then again, they’re all there to kill terrorists; no further development is needed. It’s certainly not as if we get to know them through adversity, because they just never fail. (Well, except for the odd occasional spilt wine, in a hideous plot cheat no one is going to forgive.)

All of which may have been forgiven if the book actually had some suspense in it. But save for a few moments of tension whenever the action is about to begin, The Teeth of the Tiger is a thrill-free thriller. The mid-book terrorist attack has its moments or two, but everything pretty much goes like planned for the rest of the book. It’s dull and linear with no surprises: there is nothing in here that even looks like “rising stakes”. The second half of the novel is pure eye-for-an-eye neo-conservative wanking, as our two good little wisecracking Catholic Assassins joyride through Europe (driving brand-name cars), only stopping to kill the next terrorist-by-association. It brought back to mind a similar trip in Nelson deMille’s The Lion’s Game… except that in deMille’s case, it was a terrorist travelling through America to kill American servicemen. Hmm…

Suffice to say that there is no heightening tension in The Teeth of the Tiger. It ends when there are no more easy targets to kill. The first half reads like a watered-down mixture of The Sum of All Fears (terrorists plan an attack in excruciating detail) and Rainbow Six (secret terrorist-killing unit is put together) while the second all brings to mind a thin rehash of Red Rabbit with Ryan Jr.’s contrived arrival in the field and his rite of passage where he proves his all-American manhood by killing one of the terrorists. But if you truly want to compare this latest novel with something bearing the Clancy name, you’d have to go and check the awful “Tom Clancy’s” derivative work; this latest novel feels as contrived, as lazy and as dumb as anything in the “Net Force”, “Op-Center” or “Power Plays” series. (Indeed the idea of a “good guy” rich conservative having his elite force of operatives ready to kill people around the world is a direct riff on Politika, the first “Power Plays” book.) The derivatives have finally tainted the main stream of Clancy’s work: Once you start playing with easy money…

Worse of all is the realization that the end of the book is merely a customary one that solves nothing and simply sets up a sequel —or, goodness forbid, a series of sequel. (Last lines: “The enemy could not possibly know what kind of cat was in the jungle. They’d hardly met the teeth. Next, they’d meet the brain” [P.431] Oooh!) Don’t believe the length of the book; this is merely part one of a bigger (but maybe not all that greater) work. It’s not exactly a cliffhanger, but all that’s missing is a “to be continued”.

If I take a deep breath and temporarily disengage my liberal/pacifist/Catholic ethical module, I’d still like to point out that the book is clearly written and that Clancy’s depiction of the military/espionage world (aside from all of that “Campus” garbage) still feels much more credible than most of his colleagues. You can easily read The Teeth of the Tiger in a single quiet afternoon, though the question arise whether you really want to do so. I certainly would have been pleased to savage the book even more if I hadn’t read The Teeth of the Tiger right after Joe Weber’s truly wretched Primary Target, another Middle-Eastern-terrorist book that -in comparison- clearly shows the difference between a hack like Weber and a flawed-but-competent novelist like Clancy.

In Science Fiction fan circles, the gradual slide in mediocrity of a once-great author is often explained away by saying that “the brain-eater got him”. One can reliably track the careers of such luminaries as Larry Niven, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein to that point where every successive book gets worse, and worse, and worse. I think that with The Teeth of the Tiger, Clancy has confirmed the trend of his last few books, and may even have entered the final, terminal part of his career; the brain-eater has got him, and the results are spectacular.

(While doing research for this review, I came along this rather telling quote from Clancy himself, posting on alt.books.tom-clancy (June 30th, 2003): “For those of you who think you can do it better than I do, please give it a try. If my pride can go before the fall, you own it to your intellectual integrity (chuckle) to expose yourselves as I do. You know, as I approach -gasp- 60 I find myself becoming less tolerant of critics. Perhaps this is because they are like reporters, or-worse-politicians.” Well, what can I possibly add to that?)

Ashes of Victory (Honor Harrington #9), David Weber

Baen, 2000, 560 pages, C$37.00 hc, ISBN 0-671-57854-5

I had been warned, early in my quest to read all ten novels of Honor Harrington’s saga, that the series took a sharp downturn in the last few volumes. It seemed difficult to believe during the first few books; how could such an enjoyable series turn sour?

Well, after reading the ninth book, it’s now more than possible; it’s obvious. What started as a fun romp through classical military fiction in zippy three-hundred-pages instalments with plenty of overdone space battles has now degenerated in a contest of endurance with overwritten behemoths that tell the story in a self-satisfied manner that belies way too much overindulgence.

When we last saw omnipotent Honor Harrington and her magical treecat Nimitz (I’m not beyond sarcasm at this point), she had successfully managed to escape the galaxy’s most secure prison, freeing half a million political prisoners in the process and destroying a sizable fraction of the enemy naval forces. No less.

The previous novel, Ashes of Victory, ended as Harrington ran back to friendly territory, leaving all the tedious mopping-up work to be done—we assumed—during the two novels. Er, not so. Almost half of Ashes of Victory is spent tying the loose ends of the previous volume. As Honor meets and greets practically every single member of the Harrington household, she engages in a tedious series of insufferable discussions in which both parties do their best to be as smug as possible. Trivial points are explained in excruciating details, well past the point at which any reasonably patient readers cries uncle. Meanwhile, the treecats’ capabilities are expanded once more (this time, they’re learning language. Quantum physics research can’t be far behind.) and Harrington gradually becomes queen Elisabeth III’s trusted confidante. The only upside to the whole sequence (indeed, the whole novel) is that we’re saved most mentions of the icky Harrington/Alexander romance.

That’s because Alexander (“White Haven”, whatever) is off grabbing the latest Manticoran technology and kicking Havenite butt. The war (launched all the way back in volume 3) finally ends here, though it ends with a abrupt twist: Rather than fight it out like men, those evil cheese-eating Havenite actually surrender! Those perfidious monkeys! How can they dare?! Heck, by that time even the readers are applauding, as the war seems to be won through large scale space battles… that are never shown on-screen. Weber’s tendency to explain useless things and gloss over major events is never clearer than in Ashes of Victory, where even the fate of several major antagonists are briefly explained away in a sentence or two even as treecat minutiae takes pages to resolve. When the ending finally arrives after chapters and chapters of self-satisfied armchair bon mots between Harrington’s best friends, Weber rushes through dozen of dramatically important events in mere pages in order to wrap up the novel.

Worst of all is that while all of this is going on, Honor Harrington is safely back home, managing her stead and setting in her new job as… a teacher. That’s right; the war ends without her. In fact, the only heroics are late, late, late in the book, and seem tacked-on to contrive Weber’s pre-determined conclusion. Those who have been charting Harrington’s ascent through the ranks will be pleased to note that she ends this particular novel on quasi-kissing terms with the Queen.

But that’s not much of a relief for everyone else who had to slog through the novel. The tell-don’t-show style of plotting is bad enough, but when you couple it with the grating dialogues and the overall lack of energy, well, suddenly it’s just as well if this is the penultimate volume of the series as it currently exists. There’s only one more Harrington book left on my bookshelves, War of Honor, and that’s more than enough for me. At this point, I don’t care all that much to see what happens to her next.

When Gravity Fails, George Alec Effinger

Bantam Spectra, 1987, 276 pages, C$5.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-25555-X

While I’ll be the first to champion SF’s many virtues and defend it against all unbelievers, I’m not blind to its many fault and won’t pretend to ignore them. One of the biggest of them, for instance, has always been SF’s lack of cultural awareness. Borne out of the social homogeneity of early SF writers (most of which were male, young and Caucasian), the genre’s cultural horizon has always been firmly Anglo-Saxon, from copious references to Shakespeare to a religious outlook that was seldom other than Judeo-Christian. Heck, women had to wait until relatively recently to be granted access to this boy’s club, let alone people of other ethnicities and religions. For a genre that claims a stake to all of humankind’s destiny, science-fiction has often assumed that the future would be all-WASP.

Things are getting better nowadays, thanks to an increased diversity of authorial voices and the slow realization that you can’t get away with such outrageous simplifications in a world where the North-American readership itself is becoming more heterogeneous. Still, the length of the distance to cover can best be demonstrated by the continuing impact of George Alec Effinger’s When Gravity Fails.

In many ways, there’s nothing very special about the plot of this novel. Here, our protagonist is a private investigators (stuck between the criminals and the police, as usual) who is asked by a shadowy crime lord to investigate a series of gruesome murders. Save for some of the background details, the first half of the novel is familiar to everyone with a taste for noir mystery fiction. Only at mid-novel, when the protagonist has to undergo radical body modifications, does it become obvious that, yes, this is true cyberpunk science-fiction, where the street is almost a character and where the future turns out to be much like today… except with more lethal gadgets.

It reads well and feels great, mind you: Effinger’s prose is perfectly compelling and it doesn’t take a long time to be sucked into the story, as familiar as it may be. The prose is simple, stylish, accessible and full of local colour. Indeed that “local colour” ends up being the novel’s main claim to fame.

Because When Gravity Fails takes place in a future where both the United States and the Soviet Union have imploded in dozens of splinter states, essentially wiping them out of the global geopolitical map. For other countries, this means that they get to run their own affairs, without political power plays by one side or another (or, in today’s post-Cold War world, without American influence). The novel takes place in the Budayeen, a dangerously decadent section of an unnamed Arabic city on the south shore of the Mediteranean sea. (Effinger isn’t particularly forthcoming as to the location; I thought some clues may point to Tripoli, but there’s nothing I can refer to in the novel to bolster this claim)

Our narrator is Marîd Audran, a young Algerian/French Arab whose religious convictions vary according to the person he’s dealing with. His girlfriend Yasmin used to be a boy (not that there’s anything unusual with that in Marîd’s world), his liver is bullet-proof and his contacts are to be found anywhere between the police station and the sewer.

Thanks to him, we get to visit the Budayeen and immerse ourselves in a completely foreign culture that’s as fascinating as any of the alien worlds to be found elsewhere in SF. What makes this novel work is the environment in which the story takes place. Even as Bruce Sterling was developing his globalhead, Effinger was right there, showing us that the future wouldn’t necessarily be Americanized. The fun of When Gravity Fails is in large part in hearing Marîd bitch against other ethnicities and explain the particularities of the world he lives in. Here, age-old Arabic traditions meld successfully with high-technology and the result is so memorable that we can only ask why Effinger’s cycle (there are two sequels to this volume) has remained a curio even more than fifteen years later.

No matter; thanks to the cultural content, When Gravity Fails remains relevant, readable and enjoyable even as other cyberpunk novels of the era feel like tired clichés. It’s a good story, but the atmosphere is just terrific: seek out the novel if you have to… it’s well worth it.

[October 2007: The sequel, A Fire in the Sun, is more of the same: The crime plot is standard SF/mystery, but it’s the setting that captivates. On the other hand, it’s more familiar and not quite as fresh. Worth a look for fans of the first volume, but don’t expect to be bowled over.]

Knight Hawk, Pat O’Connell

Leisure, 1997, 358 pages, C$6.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-8439-4253-3

If you’re looking for a quick trash techno-thriller, hop on board, because Knight Hawk is all guns and few brains, a guilty pleasure that’ll leave your mind half-satisfied.

This is a novel that doesn’t dawdle, even at its very beginning. By page 50, a “statuesque and shapely dark-haired woman” called Kim Kenada (Brief AKIRA flashback: “Tetsuo!” “Kenada!”, etc…) has commandeered a top-of-the-line F-15 armed with two nuclear weapons and taken off, leaving behind burning trucks, a few crashed planes and a trail of bodies. As the entire US Air Force scrambles after her, it’s obvious that she’s got scores to settle… and enough nuclear explosives to reduce, say, New York or Washington to glowing cinders.

But who is that woman and what does she want? Knight Hawk‘s only deviation from its tight pacing occurs as we flashback and see Kenada’s younger years, and the cold calculating way in which she murders her cheating husband. (See? Nothing to worry about; merely one run-of-the-mill psychotic terrorist!) Otherwise, the novel seems paced in real-time, taking place between 19:05 and 23:00 on one clear January night. Impressive conceit, and it actually does work quite well.

How well? That would be judged by the number of fun scenes O’Connell manages to cram in a few hundred pages. It’s obvious from the get-go that Knight Hawk is an action novel through-and-through. The dogfights quickly accumulate as Kenada manages (from a plane she’s never flown before!) to shoot down dozens of expert fighter pilots. (What can we say? According to the novel, she learnt it all on her IBM PC.) One gets the impression that most of O’Connell’s research was performed using Microprose’s “F-15 Strike Eagle III” flight simulator. On the “ridiculously easy” setting.

The centrepiece of the book is undoubtedly a massive dogfight above and between Manhattan’s skyscrapers, as dozens of jets cause untold damage to the New York skyline while trying to catch that one PC-trained rookie terrorist. Missiles fly, jets explode, windows shatter from sonic booms, Central Park gets hit a few times and it all culminates both with a fly-between the World Trade Center and a nuclear detonation above the city. Whew! I’d pay good money for a movie version of this novel, only for this crazy sequence alone. It’s exhilarating in its go-for-broke willingness to ignore most of what we’d consider to be normal physics. Most of all, it’s tremendous fun. The rest of the novel is downhill from there despite a nifty climax above Washington DC landmarks.

I would be less than forthright if I didn’t point out the superbly over-the-top quality of the ending, which manages to run all the way through the very last paragraph before revealing the grand bogeyman behind this whole fiendish plot—our good old friend Saddam! If by that time you’re not shrieking with laughter, well, I’m sorry, there is nothing I can do for you. Knight Hawk just isn’t the kind of novel you’re likely to enjoy.

On the other hand, it is true that not many people are likely to enjoy Knight Hawk, if only because it’s such a terrible novel. Evil protagonist Kenada is significantly more appealing than any of the other cardboard characters only because she actually has a personality of sorts, as clichéd as it may be. The rest are essentially names and pay grades, with scant place in the plot but in shouting orders and exclamations of astonishment. One pilot manages to accidentally destroy sections of the Staten Island Bridge, an oil tanker and at least two other aircrafts (including his own), and the best the novel can do is the equivalent of an embarrassed grin—and damn the dead civilians. The quality of the writing isn’t much better than adequate, and is frequently dull when not describing action scenes.

And so it comes to pass that even though Knight Hawk contains more honest mayhem than any five randomly-selected techno-thrillers, it’s still a very disappointing book. A better writer could have done miracles with those insane action scenes or even the bare outlines of the plot. As it currently stands, though, Knight Hawk‘s only literary merit is in the compressed pacing. It’ll be of interest to military fiction-fans with an unquenchable penchant for Cool Scenes, but few others. Too bad; there’s a lot of wasted potential there.

Yamakasi – Les samouraïs des temps modernes (2001)

(In French, On TV, September 2003) Luc Besson has turned in a one-man co-producing machine these days, and like with most people who overreach, the quality of his films has spiralled downward. Yamakasi is one of the lesser work attached to his name, a satisfying crime story starring disenfranchised inhabitants of the French suburbs but not much more than that. The problem is that for all of its “The Modern Samurais” tagline, Yamakasi stars petty thieves, and there’s not much that’s noble in stealing rich people to pay for a medical procedure. (C’mon: it’s really cheap emotional manipulation!) In many ways, it’s a thinly-veiled “extreme sports” film with a thin plot covering action scenes, in this case “urban climbing” where people simply grab the nearest building and go to the top. Unfortunately, it’s curiously tepid when comes the moment to show some action: one sequence involving hopping thieves and attacks dogs in a two-floor lobby sticks in mind, but the rest isn’t all that memorable. Once again, the Besson-penned script features dumb dialogue and knee-jerk populist rich-bashing (including the requisite digs at politicians, always a popular target in France) which gets to be tiresome when there isn’t much substance elsewhere in the plot. There’s a certain narrative energy, mind you, and a somewhat satisfying conclusion. I also quite liked the ethnic diversity of the cast, especially when it mean we get to look at Tunisian-Egyptian hottie Amel Djemel. But none of this makes Yamakasi worth a bother, so you might as well just wait until it plays on TV one weekend and just avoid changing the channel.

Underworld (2003)

(In theaters, September 2003) Let’s take care of one thing right away: Yes, Kate Beckinsale is quite fetching in a series of latex suits that look as if they’ve been poured on her. She’s adorable as a kitten as she slinks around in the dark, her damp hair highlighting her vampire-white face. Good. Alas, that’s almost the only thing worth contemplating at length in Underworld, one of the sorriest waste of potential yet seen this year. Every five minutes or so, the script, the design or the director shows some sign of promise, which is then buried under a mass of unremarkable normalcy. Blade and its sequel certainly proved that there was something fresh and exciting to be done with the vampire mythos; Underworld is even more disappointing as it finds nothing new to do with both vampires and werewolves. (Instead, we have people posing as vampires or werewolves) The movie certainly looks great if you only watch thirty seconds of it; the gothic design and the dark, quasi monochrome black-and-blue atmosphere gives it an interesting style. Problem is, it’s a one-note trick played during the film’s entire duration. There are no daylight scenes in the film, and this monotony eventually becomes tiresome. There are no reasons (beyond creative laziness, that it) why the palette of the film should be so limited. Eventually, it all blurs into nothingness. But far worse than the look are the characters, a bunch of indistinguishable Europeans with no singular characteristics. The villain is especially dull, and Beckinsale’s character herself isn’t much more than a shapely body with a latex coating: she never cracks a joke or even shows a hint of personality. The action is repetitive (guns, guns, guns and not very sexy guns either), once again failing in comparison with the Blade series. It’s not that Underworld is completely worthless; it’s just that it barely shows glimpses of something much, much better, hiding in the shadows.

The Rundown (2003)

(In theaters, September 2003) Well, that’s a surprise. After a less-than-fantastic first starring role in The Scorpion King, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson strikes back as a cook/henchman in The Rundown, and is lucky enough to find himself in one of the best adventure buddy-comedies of the year. That’s not meant as overwhelming praise, but then again this is the type of film that works well because it’s so surprising. The fun begins in the very first scene, as the protagonist slaps down a football team in order to accomplish his mission (“Can’t we do it some other day? I thought they had good chances this year.” he first warns) While the quick-cut action direction isn’t particularly endearing, it quickly sets up the fun tone of the film and later cedes way to some amazing computer-enhanced shots in which characters get pummelled from multiple angles. Those latter fight scenes (The many-on-one jungle brawl, mostly) are filmed in a manner reminiscent of a hyped-up Jackie Chan film and represent another of the film’s happy surprises. Seann William Scott isn’t particularly surprising, but he does much better here than in the lukewarm Bulletproof Monk. The luscious Rosario Dawson also has a good turn as a bartender/rebel leader, but no one -of course- comes close to the genius of Christopher Walken, who transforms a regular antagonist role into something very special. (“There’s been a… complication, a… twist in the plot…”) While The Rundown has its share of silly, stupid or insipid moments (I’ll pass on the monkey business, except to say that the use of monkeys is once again confirmed to be an act of creative desperation), it succeeds more often than it fails and the overall result is a lot of fun.

Once Upon A Time In Mexico (2003)

(In theaters, September 2003) Yes, señor! El Mariachi is back in the biggest instalment of the trilogy. This film may not be a purely operatic as Desperado, but it’s certainly a lot more epic, what with criminals, policemen, soldiers, mercenaries, the FBI, the CIA and the DEA all gunning around during a coup to take control of Mexico on the Day of the Dead. Fans of Robert Rodriguez don’t need to be told why they should rush to see this film. Once again, Mexican/western imagery is married with Hong Kong style to produce an action film that runs on pure atmospheric adrenalin. Antonio Banderas is cooler than ever as the iconic “El”, but Johnny Depp owns the film as an unhinged American agent. (Few other people would be able to get away with such classic lines as “Are you a Mexican or a Mexican’t?”) Salma Hayek makes the best of her limited screen-time (the trailers lie to you), whereas nearly all of the other players (including the sultry Eva Mendes and the wonderfully rough Danny Trejo) also turn in very good performances. Only Willem Defoe looks out of place in a role that doesn’t give him much to do. The rest of the film is all sick black humour and unlikely stunts, with terrific cinematography and quick pacing. It’s not for everyone, obviously, but it’s a lot of fun for those who like that style of film.

(Second viewing, On DVD, March 2004) Robert Rodriguez fans already know that the man can’t make an uninteresting film and that the supplemental material on his “special edition” DVDs are often more interesting than most movies. So it is that the DVD of this third segment in the “El Mariachi” trilogy is jam-packed with fascinating extras and plenty of information on the wonders of digital filmmaking. The film itself is still a lot of fun, in an operatic vein that seems so fresh after countless average action films. But the early 2001 (!)guerilla-style making of the film, using unproven digital technology, proves to be as fascinating as the end results. “Film is dead” is the title of a fascinating featurette included on the DVD, and it’s hard to remain unconvinced after seeing the excellent results. Other featurettes complete the package, along with an excellent audio commentary by the director. Extra fun is included in the form of a hilarious “ten minute cooking school” and an excellent tour through Rodriguez’s Troublemaker Studios, located (where else?) in his refurbished garage. Once again, cinephiles and budding directors will find their money’s worth in this DVD.

The Silence of the Langford, David Langford

NESFA, 1996, 278 pages, US$15.00 tpb, ISBN 0-915368-62-5

My first stab at electronic commerce took place in late 1993, as I was a wee young lad let loose on the Internet for the first time: The web didn’t exist back then, but there was a bunch of stuff to read on Usenet, and one of those was a ad for a CD-ROM containing a bunch of science-fiction material. I sent all the required information and never got anything back; maybe the email disappeared in the ether. Nevertheless, I finally got the CD-ROM months later by lucking out at a local computer store. One of the things on the disc was a copy of David Langford’s Let’s Hear it for the Deaf Man, a collection of hilarious shorts critical pieces on science-fiction.

Ten years later, the web is everywhere and e-commerce is a matter of billion$, but I still had to wait until I saw a real paper copy of Langford’s much-expanded 1997 collection The Silence of the Langford at Torcon3 (along with a real-life original of the author) to buy a paper version of Langford’s writing. NESFA’s little gem brings together pieces of Langford’s long bibliography dating from (roughly) 1982 to 1996. Mostly humorous critical pieces, The Silence of the Langford packs enough hilarious barbs to keep any true SF fan in stitches for hours at a time.

Where to begin? There’s always the classic “Dragonhiker’s Guide to Battlefield Covenant at Dune’s Edge: Odyssey Two”, a sharp literary disembowelment of 1982’s SF blockbusters from Asimov to (eek) Hubbard. Rarely has SF criticism been as incisive, or as fall-down funny. This holds true for the vast majority of The Silence of the Langford; there is a lot of material here, and very few of it is less than hilarious.

But don’t go thinking that The Silence of the Langford is merely a book of nasty jokes strung together: There is a considerable intellect at work here and past the laughs, there’s a real critical intention. Langford’s dissection of mainstream writers attempting to write SF in “Inside Outside” is a wealth of information on how SF truly works, delivered with impeccable style and wit. It’s easy to laugh at Langford’s “Trillion-Year Sneer”, but his points about SF’s tendency to do really stupid things are well-taken.

It takes a die-hard SF fan to get all the jokes, naturally. And British SF fans are naturally at an advantage, given the number of references to European SF fandom peppered through. Langford is a good member-in-standing of the SF community (his fifteen-odd Hugos—and climbing!— are testament to that) and he repays his debt in full through hilarious portraits of the community. “You Do It With Mirrors” portrays the insanity of a convention newsletter so well that it’ll discourage hundreds (well, maybe dozen) of SF fans to ever undertake the enterprise.

Even though Science-Fiction remains Langford’s true love, his erudition doesn’t stop at SF. There’s noteworthy content here about more conventional mystery fiction, including the “Slightly Foxed” columns, each and every one of them a delight despite being (often) outside SF. It helps that in addition of being a top-notch SF commentator, Langford is also a physicist by training, and so a few essays apply hard scientific methods in order to make his point. His destruction of Whitley Strieber’s Majestic (in which one of Langford’s most fictional work had been integrated without even a nod at Langford’s self-avowed hoax) is nearly as good as his merciless trashing of L. Ron. Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth.

But wait! There’s more! The Silence of the Langford also includes pieces about Langford himself, from one of the best “how we moved” memoir I’ve read to plenty of priceless pieces on the life of a freelance writer. If that’s not enough, well, be advised that there are even a few computer columns thrown in for extra fun.

David Langford, one of the smartest beings on the planet? Maybe. Certainly one of the funniest, and when you combine the two, you get an extraordinary writer. SF fans with a love for the field could do worse than order a copy of The Silence of the Langford. You probably won’t get it autographed (e-commerce be damned, there are advantages in buying a copy in presence of The Man himself), but the book itself will be enough of a trip that you won’t care. After reading it, trust me; Langford’s collection of Hugos will seem well-deserved.

Matchstick Men (2003)

(In theaters, September 2003) Yet another con man film at a time where we’ve seen a number of them in recent months. But even though, yes, there is a con both on the characters and on the audience, the heart of the film is more of a character study, starring Nicolas Cage in another deeply neurotic performance. Matchstick Men is a story of how conning is affecting the protagonist, and how he’s able to come to a point where he’s able to kick the habit (sort of) and become a better person. Director Ridley Scott once again throws just about everything he’s got on the screen in the hope that some of it will stick and the result, as may be expected, is very uneven. Some of Cage’s antics are annoying, but as usual he’s never as good as when he’s foaming with rage. (Just wait until late in the film). It’s not a particularly deep film, but there’s a twist, a few good scenes, and high-grade production values that are seldom uninteresting. It’s not flashy, but it does the job. Some will have a problem with the happy ending (which reportedly wasn’t to be found in Eric Garcia’s original novel), but it fits with the overall thrust of the movie, which is the story of a man who happens to be a criminal and not the story of a criminal per se.

Mambo Italiano (2003)

(In theaters, September 2003) It’s easy to dismiss this film as just another in the “Canadian ethnic sitcom” category best-represented by My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but there’s a lot to like about Mambo Italiano, from its hip cinematic beginning to the unconventional ending. A leading contender for the title of “most innocuous gay-themed movie ever made”, Mambo Italiano leaves no comedic stone unturned at the intersection of Italian-Canadians, gay men, dysfunctional families and neurotic siblings. (Claudia Ferri steals every scene she’s in as a typical sister with problems) It’s all quite charming, even though the rhythm of the film’s first thirty minutes isn’t sustained and slowly steers in more dramatic territory. The third quarter of the film is markedly slower, but it picks up for a spirited finale. No, it’s no classic for the ages, but it’s more than able to hold its own against non-Quebec productions. There are plenty of good performances, plenty of good jokes and plenty of good fun. The language may be a touch too crude at times for this to be a film for the whole family, but it’s certainly charming enough to be of interest to a large public.

Cabin Fever (2002)

(In theaters, September 2003) The best thing about Director Eli Roth’s first feature is how it sticks to the basics of old-school teen horror: This forest-cabin tale brings back memories of the first Evil Dead films, but the schlock treatment is classic eighties: some nudity (Yay for Cerina Vincent!), a lot of bloody effects, a downbeat ending and incredibly sadistic jokes make Cabin Fever a straight throwback to a certain school of B-grade horror films. This is not to say that the film is without problems, though: For all comparisons with the Evil Dead films, Cabin Fever remains desperately pedestrian, with only a few restrained scares in its arsenal (Just a flesh-eating virus? Bah!) and not much in the way of comedy until the very end, where the film takes an abrupt and sustained turn in black humour. The plotting also has its share of deeply dumb moments, with bad luck being a constant player in whatever happens to the characters. Some of it works (“Have you seen my cousin?”), some of it doesn’t (“That’s my wife!”) and some of it is just weird (“Pancakes!”) Mostly of interest to the horror fans, I suspect that Cabin Fever will be best-remembered as an early work in Roth’s career, if not an minor embarrassment to a few of the younger actors when their career take off.

Year’s Best SF 8, Ed. David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer

EOS, 2003, 496 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-106453-X

One of the few things that annoy me about David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer’s Year’s Best SF anthology series is how it’s impossible to guess, from the cover, which year’s “Best SF” we’re talking about. It’s undoubtedly a flaw that came straight from EOS’ marketing department. For one thing, a “1999 best SF” collection dates itself on the bookshelves far more quickly than an equivalent “Year’s Best SF 5”. For another, Hartwell and Cramer may have been trying to distinguish themselves from other year’s-best anthologies in SF’s long history, quite a few of them with the actual year in their title. (But then again, the Gardner Dozois anthologies also don’t put the year in their title, preferring cumbersome titles such as “The Year’s Best SF: Twenty-First Annual Collection”. Sigh…)

But as annoyances go, it’s minor. It may be best to focus on what Hartwell and Cramer do well. If you compare it to the Dozois annual collection, Year’s Best SF is usually shorter (the editors have to deal with more stringent space restriction, hence few -if any- novellas), ensuring a better time/variety ratio for the reader. (It also makes it possible to publish the book as a mass-market paperback, to the financial joy of everybody) Then —and this is the big advantage as far as I’m concerned— there’s the fact that the Hartwell/Cramer books tend to be more firmly science-fictional than their fantasy-contaminated Dozois counterpart. Part of the reason for this purist approach is that Hartwell/Cramer also edit a “Year’s Best Fantasy” series… so they don’t have to cram everything they like in one single volume.

I’m not saying that one should avoid the Dozois collections: For a complete overview of the field, it’s probably essential to read both, plus the recently-introduced Silverberg/Haber “Best of” series too. But if you can only read or buy just one…

In any case, Year’s Best SF 8 is about year 2002, and the choices are eclectic. Not everything in here pleased me or interested me; I started skimming some stories a few pages in, others held my interest throughout. Some of them made it on the Hugo ballot; some were unjustly forgotten in the selection process. But I thought maybe half of the material was worth a read, and that’s not a bad average when it comes to recent fiction.

The book opens on a strong note with Bruce Sterling’s whimsical “In Paradise”, my choice for short story of the year. It deals with a Texan plumber who falls in love with an Iranian girl thanks to the automatic translator in their cell phones. The diplomatic repercussions are so severe that Homeland Security gets involved, threatening to destroy the couple on behalf of national interest. As a reflection of 2002’s zeitgeist, it’s pitch-perfect. It also helps that it’s both hilarious and touching.

Other strong stories include Charles Stross’ “Halo”, a fresh and new look at what may be our complicated future by a relatively new writer who is quickly climbing to the top of the SF field. Nancy Kress’s “Patent Infringement” is a cynical and very darkly funny take on the current intellectual property insanity. Meanwhile, Ken Wharton’s “Flight Correction” is a down-to-Earth (har-har; read the story) take on the idea of a space elevator and the possible ecological ramifications of the idea, mixed with some good character drama.

Other stories I rather enjoyed included Michael Swanwick’s “Slow Life” (Hard-SF in the Arthur C. Clarke mold), Robert Sheckley’s “Shoes” (a mean but funny little tale about high-tech running shoes that attempt to take control of the narrator’s life), A.M. Dellamonica’s “A Slow Day at the Gallery” (interstellar war and intrigue… in an art gallery) and Greg Egan’s “Singleton” (Egan continues his apprenticeship of how to write better characters). Meanwhile, stories like “Geropods” (Robert Onopa), “Snow in the Desert” (Neal Asher), “Grandma” (Carol Emshwiller), “I Saw the Light” (Terry Bisson) and “The Diamond Drill” (Charles Sheffield) left me interested but unsatisfied, as if something was missing.

But taken together, there’s something for everyone in this latest Year’s Best SF 8, a vigorous anthology that shows clearly that SF isn’t even on the threshold of irrelevance yet. As the millennium recedes in the back mirror, maybe there’s a place for more newer futures in our fiction. And those stories show the way it just may be.