Monthly Archives: December 2003

Nanotime, Bart Kosko

Avon, 1997, 311 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 0-380-97466-5

Whoah! Where did that book come from?

I mean; as a pretty wired-in hard-SF reader, I expect to be aware of most of the writers on the market. I’ve got contacts, reading lists, hangouts for recommendations: I don’t expect brand new writers to be sprung on me like that. Prior to cracking open Nanotime‘s spine, I didn’t know about Bart Kosko.

Now I’m wondering why I haven’t heard more of him. Certainly, he doesn’t seem to stem from the fannish community: I can’t find any listing of him at a science-fiction convention, and indeed most of the web hits I get seem to indicate that Kosko hails from the futurology field, not the literary side of the SF genre.

Well, bully for him. Regardless of the origin of a writer, I’m always glad to read a science-fiction with strong extrapolation, and if Nanotime has one quality, it’s in presenting to us tons of new gadgets. Kosko’s 2030 is a dangerously unstable time. It’s the end of the age of oil, and the usual players aren’t too happy about it. Israel and the Arab countries are still looking at each other with angry eyes, terrorists are everywhere, information technology is now exquisitely complex, sophisticated weapons like cruise missiles are now cheaper (a mere $10,000) than the means to defend against them and the United States now has a 51st state, Southern California. Everything costs more and is taxed beyond belief.

In the midst of all this, one man still wants to save the world. John Grant think he’s got the perfect solution of the world’s energy problem: A molecule that splits water (!) to generate cheap, cheap, cheap hydrogen to be used as fuel. But as the novel begins, a Saudi missile strike on Israel (in retaliation to a nuclear terrorist act cleverly manipulated to look like the work of Israeli Greens) destroys the only facility in the world willing to test his ideas. Before long, though, Grant has other problems: A master terrorist has taken over his wife (literally), the US government thinks he’s a traitor and the Israeli themselves have other plans for him. It escalates. Everything escalates.

Cyberpunk usually conjures up images of virtual reality and criminals using tech to their own purposes. Nanotime certainly qualifies when is comes to VR content, but takes the paradigm up to the next level: here, terrorists use tech to their own purposes, and the result isn’t as much a high-tech noir novel than a high-tech global thriller smacking of Clancy with nanotech. (It’s no accident if Clancy’s own Sum of All Fears figures in the book’s bibliography.)

Kosko has a good eye for gadgets and the occasional good scene (remember the staple scene in cyberpunk literature where our protagonist is implanted with nanodevices? Well Nanotime has one in which the protagonist’s skull is sawn open… even as he’s conscious of it. Good luck stopping reading after that) but there are a number of annoying flaws in his novel that grate a bit. I can certainly forgive the portrayal of the protagonist as a rugged, two-fisted individualist in the grand tradition of typical SF heroes. But what’s more annoying is the lack of integration of the gadgets. Nanotech, VR and AI all prefigure prominently here, but in stunted niches. Why is there a super-acid that eats an entire ship, and no super-acid that can do the same for an oil slick? Why limit the use of AIs to personal assistants? Where are the silly tech derivatives to these? If the Internet revolution has proven one thing, it’s that every possible permutation of a high-tech idea, no matter how silly, will get VC funding.

Furthermore, the novel has an annoying tendency to cut away from the main narrative to nearly-useless side-vignettes featuring characters not worth getting excited about. The ending is also a problem, almost as if the author simply threw everything up in the air (including our protagonist, in what is almost literally a cliffhanger) for the sake of closure and refused to see beyond the next step. Frustrating, especially given the build-up; destroying things is easy; building them after that is the hard part.

Still, there’s way too much original stuff in Nanotime, from a writer-scientist whose latter silence in the SF field is puzzling. When is the next novel due? And why hasn’t Nanotime attained cult status?

Making Book, Teresa Nielsen Hayden

NESFA, 1994 (1996 reprint), 158 pages, US$11.00 tpb, ISBN 0-915368-55-2

As an occasional visitor to the Nielsen Hayden’s blogs (both husband and wife maintain online journals over at www.nielsenhayden.com; go take a look), I couldn’t resist grabbing a copy of Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s Making Book at the Torcon3 huckster’s room. (NESFA Press books are usually so rare in Ottawa as to be invisible).

At a scarce 158 pages, Making Book is a too-short collection of fifteen essays by Teresa Nielsen Hayden, long-time fan now editor at Tor Books. A fair number of them are reprinted from fanzines in which she participated (or edited!) and we can only consider ourselves lucky that they’ve now found a semi-permanent book-form home.

It starts with a bang, as “God and I” details how she “got hauled up in front of an ecclesiastical court this summer and formally excommunicated.” [P.1] It’s a great story, a poignant testimony, and you’ll have to read it to know more. But already the bar is set pretty high for the rest of the volume. Half-confessional, half-esoteric pedagogy, Making Book stands in many ways as a testimony to what nifty stuff can be found in long-forgotten fanzines. (Hey, how long until a “Reader’s Digest” of past fanzine highlights? Just asking.) [December 2003: Ho! Look at that! Fanthology ’87 is what I’ve been asking for!]

Not every essay manages to meet the standard set by the first one, but some of them still stick in mind. “Of Desks and Robots” ends up saying what a lot of us would wish to say about obscenely expensive purchases by billionaires who should know better. “Black Top Hat and Mustache” should find a special place in the heart of every public servant. “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoenherr” makes a fascinating point about theme parks and “The Big Z” will forever banish thoughts of narcolepsy as an amusing disease.

Some of the other pieces aren’t as successful. Without mentioning titles, let’s simply say that a number of them depend on highly specialized knowledge of the fan scene in the early eighties, which is obviously not accessible to everyone even despite the Internet and best intentions. There are nuggets of goodness here and there, but like the disclaimer to “Over Rough Terrain” suggests, you’ll end up having to do a lot of culling by hand. What remains is well-worth a read, though.

The other highlight of the book, however, is a reprint of her copyediting guide for Tor Books, back when such activities took place on a single manuscript copy that was passed from hand to hand (ack, ptui) and where copyediting jobs were subcontracted, creating an urgent need to make more of those freelance copyeditors conform to “the house style”. (Knowing the inherent conservatism of most publishers, things may very well still be like that nowadays, but that’s such an impure thought that I refuse to consider it.) “On copyediting” is a fascinating look at one of the most neglected parts of publishing, a revealing glimpse behind the scenes at one of the steps so necessary in making books for all. I’d love an update.

In fact, I’d pretty much love an update to the whole book. Let’s see: Since 1996, what else has changed in Nielsen Hayden’s life? What else has she written? What can be stolen from her blog and reprinted in book form? (I’d argue that the Mary Sue blog entry ought to be expanded. Republished. Celebrated.) And could we have more, more, more, please? 158 pages is not nearly enough, especially when it’s so enjoyable.

Oh well. Back to her blog. Maybe there will be new content over there.

Dude, Where’s My Country?, Michael Moore

Warner, 2003, 249 pages, C$36.95 hc, ISBN 0-446-53223-1

2001-2003 have been a couple of weird and wonderful years for Michael Moore. From a relatively obscure documentary filmmaker (ROGER AND ME, etc.) with one rather poor fiction film (CANADIAN BACON) to his credit, he has now become, thanks to BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, Stupid White Men and a well-received Oscar acceptance speech (heh-heh), a leading figure of the American left-wing movement. His scathing denunciations of the Bush administration continue to leave few indifferent.

And so Dude, Where’s My Country? comes along as the book-length expansion of Moore’s shtick over the last few years. By now, he’s got the “everyday man” routine down to a science: Ask superficially silly questions, be angry from time to time and don’t let a lot of research deter you from speaking at your audience’s level. I’m not doubting his honesty; on their other hand, he does make a good foil to similar tactics as practiced by other figures on the American right.

What is discussed in Moore’s latest book shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who follows the news: The Bush response to September 11th, the frantic race leading to the invasion of Iraq, knee-jerk paranoia to whiffs of potential terrorism, America’s counter-productive foreign policy and Bush’s billionaire-friendly actions are all discussed. If you’ve been following left-wing blogs on the web, you’ll find a lot of the same material here, maybe packaged with a little more coherency but not radically new information by any case. Good? Bad? It depends on your level of understanding of today’s American political spectrum. Someone like me may already know all of this stuff already, but unplugged Americans may read this and feel the scales come off their eyes.

So think of this as “2003-liberalism 101”, rehashing why Bush is bad, bad, bad for everyone and how to take back the political system from the far-right interests. For non-Americans, it’s important to note that Dude, Where’s My Country? is published in a rabidly polarized political context, in which both left and right are trying to grab pre-electoral mindspace, to the delight of publishers. (This has been going on for at least ten years, and reams of writing now exist on how Republicans have been remarkably successful in translating this polarization into political power)

That Moore’s book is published by none other than Warner Books is sign enough that there’s a lot of money to be made by fanning the flames of political discourse. In this context, Moore is neither better or worse than Ann Coulter, Al Franken or Rush Limbaugh: All of them are not exactly contributing to a culture of compromise and understanding, not when Coulter and Franken are trading off “traitor!” and “liar!” as casual greetings. This being said, Moore includes a rather amusing pair of chapters (9 and 10) in which he argues that deep down, America is liberal, and then gives out tips on how to convert a conservative brother-in-law to liberal thinking (hint; it’s all about what good for him). Jolly good stuff, and already a step closer to a gentler, more inclusive brand of politics.

Voluntarily provocative, smoothly readable, often laugh-out-funny, Moore’s book was nevertheless dated even before it came out. It wouldn’t be out of place to wish it a rapid descent to historical curio, a sign of a troubled time where partisan debate ruled over reasonable policy-making. If I may be so corny, let’s hope that all Americans end up finding the country so poignantly wondered about in the book’s title.

The Holy Land, Robert Zubrin

Polaris Books, 2003, 298 pages, US$14.95 tpb, ISBN 0-9741443-0-4

[Requisite disclaimer: This particular novel was sent to me by the author in November 2003, with the understanding that I would review it shortly afterwards.]

Given the increasing silliness of the last few years in the United States and elsewhere in the world, it’s been dismaying to see Science Fiction avoid the question altogether. Save for a few writers (goodness bless Bruce Sterling and his “In Paradise”), few seems to have the required guts in tackling today’s mounting problems. Where are the Pohls, Kornbluth, Sheckelys when you need them? Today’s stuff seems more interested in catering to the market than changing how people think about the world.

Well, Robert Zubrin makes a valiant attempt at socially-responsible satiric SF with The Holy Land. The result may have a few rough edges, it’s still an audacious novel that deserves a much wider audience than it’s likely to get as a work published outside the mainstream cluster of publishers. The first book of a small publisher named “Polaris Books”, The Holy Land probably won’t make it to your local bookstore.

A quick look at the book’s premise may help explain why bigger publishers may be reluctant to deal with it: One day, the American president awakes to find out that Kennewick, Wasington, has been taken over by aliens. Not just every aliens, mind you, but refugees from a galactic war, coming back to claim their ancestral land. Americans are booted out of there and placed in refugee camps, whether they like it or not. Meanwhile, the American government (a bunch of greedy fundamentalist morons –no relation to reality is implied) encourages kids in the refugee camps to sacrifice themselves in suicide attacks against the alien invaders. (Cry ‘pagan!’ and let slip the weasels of war, or something like that.) And so on. This summary barely scratches the surface of the first two chapters of the novel.

The least we can say is that Zubrin has guts in tackling the Israeli/Palestian conflict in such a madcap fashion. But he’s got a lot more on his mind, as the rest of the novel picks apart the War on Terrorism, American foreign policy, oil capitalism, media demagoguery and the rest of what we’ve come to associate with this brand new century. This is not subtle stuff by any measure, at least initially: The first chapter is a laugh-a-page marvel of breakneck satire, served with more gusto than polish. It works incredibly well at sucking readers into the story.

Such pacing can’t be sustained, of course. After the first twenty pages, The Holy Land loosens its grip on satiric content, allowing the “real” story to come to the surface, the evolving relationship between alien Priestess Aurora and human prisoner of war Andrew Hamilton (US marines). It’s a risky bet; not only does the book sell itself as humor, but such “humans and alien learn to get along” stories have been done before. Repeatedly.

But it works. Against all odds, even as the laughs are replaced by a more restrained approach, The Holy Land becomes something else. Real drama surprisingly starts to emerge from the book, but so smoothly that it’s not immediately obvious that a tone shift has taken place. There are still a few good lines here and there (“an hour after the Weegee assault, over 80 percent of the Peruvian Earthlings are still alive… has the much-vaunted Western Galactic Imperial Navy finally embroiled itself in a hopeless quagmire?” [P.158]), but the book has moved away from staccatos satire to a brand of lighter science-fiction somewhat reminiscent of books like Peter Jurasik & William H. Keith, Jr.’s Diplomatic Act.

Bits and pieces of sharp satire can be found scattered through the novel, mind you. The helicity segments are a not-so-subtle jab at oil-driven foreign policy . There are hysterical digressions on feminism, profiling, “the August 11th tragedies” and a cute little scientific inside joke about the real cause of the galactic Red Shift [P.137]. Droll stuff… and that’s not even going into the material that flew over my head during the first read-through. Some Internet digging on the “Kennewick man” and helicity is enough to make me suspect several such easter eggs buried elsewhere in the novel.

Meanwhile, the real plot-line of the novel evolves into something that is interesting in its own right, and not simply as a support for satiric jabs. Aurora and Hamilton don’t simply act as stand-ins for their respective races, but as good characters in their own rights. They have a nice rapport, even as Zubrin generally avoids most of the maudlin moments you would expect from such stories. Even Aurora’s undercover visit to Earth (which becomes increasingly predictable as the novel’s structure becomes evident) has its unexpected delights.

Being a product of a small publisher, The Holy Land suffers from a few rough spots in term of editorial supervision; while the production qualities of the book are nearly indistinguishable from what we have come to expect from major publishers, there are a number of prose snippets and segments of the plot which could have been improved with some editorial attention. But no big deal, really: Zubrin has good instincts when it comes to plotting and the novel moves at such a pleasant clip that it’s not worth nit-picking on small details.

Readability remains high throughout; it’s quite possible to read the book in a single afternoon, pausing for occasional laughter. Only the unsatisfying Joan-of-Arc ending is bothersome, as it seems a little bit too dramatic, a little bit too quickly set up and resolved. On the other hand, the ultimate fate of the American President is a delightful last-minute punchline. The laughs are there right up to the end even though, for a moment, it looked as if Zubrin had started pulling his punches.

All in all, though, The Holy Land is a pretty satisfying book. The satiric intensity of the first chapter (which you can read on-line at the Polaris Book website) isn’t sustained all the way through, but a much harder trick is pulled off in building a fun novel about issues that have been explored before in other stories. Much like in First Landing, Robert Zubrin proves uncommonly adept at making the most of his characters and rescue books from obvious pitfalls. It’s unusual enough to see a hard scientist manage to write a novel in which the characters come to life, it seems almost too good that they’d do so in a novel with satiric intent. Certainly, this is a welcome direction for SF. As today’s world becomes crazier and weirder, it wouldn’t be inappropriate for science fiction to follow suit, and maybe enlighted us in the process.

Into the Buzzsaw, Ed. Kristina Borjesson

Prometheus, 2002, 462 pages, C$??.?? hc, ISBN 1-57392-972-7

(Read in French as Black List, Les Arènes)

Even though I’m a born-and-bred French-Canadian, I rarely discuss French-language books in these reviews. Why should I? It wouldn’t be fair to tease you with books you can’t get or read. The issue of translations seldom comes up: I’m too much of a purist to settle for translations, and the overwhelming truth is that English-language books are usually far more available (and affordable!), even in Canada’s national capital.

Well, usually. Because chances are that Into the Buzzsaw‘s distribution in English-Canada was about as widespread than on the other side of the linguistic barrier. Prometheus Books is a solid and interesting publishing house (see my review of The Truth About Uri Geller), but their distribution network is quasi-confidential; their willingness to tackle controversial issues from a sceptical perspective is seldom a match for the major distributors.

In retrospect, it seems almost inevitable that Into the Buzzsaw would make it on my reading pile in French form. Silly American “patriots” may have thought themselves clever when they came up with the whole “freedom fries” thing as a way to protest foreign policy self-determination, but all they achieved was to forever make “freedom” a synonym for “French.” Sometimes, it takes an outsider to tell (some of) the truth, or in this case, translate it for us.

Into the Buzzsaw is a collection of fifteen essays written by journalists with stories to tell. Stories of media censorship, of corporate influence, of smear campaigns, of government conspiracies, of dirty little secrets almost too controversial to tell… Most of these journalists have worked at highly-respected media outlets. Almost all of them have lost their jobs due to a story their were covering. This book is what they have to tell about the state of American investigative journalists. It’s not pretty.

Every one of those fifteen stories is another brick in a convincing argument; American journalism has lost its nerve. It is easily cowed in submission by threats of lawsuits and official innuendoes. It has eschewed investigations for meek reporting of official press releases. It is now beholden to the vast corporate empires where the operative directive is to profit and not to serve the public interest. In becoming members of the bourgeoisie, journalists have lost their credentials as members of the public and now identify with the officials they’re supposed to interview.

It’s a damning portrait, and a convincing one. While it’s always possible to dismiss one or two stories, all fifteen of them make up for alarming reading. Into the Buzzsaw is a horror show, a scathing description of how nowadays, the truth will not make you free. The vast majorities of the stories told here have been lauded for their integrity even as governments and corporations were casting doubts on their veracity. The truth will get you fired. It will get you branded as a conspiracy theorist or a politically-driven flake.

But those fifteen journalists are no flakes; despite some occasional spirited prose (Greg Palast’s piece being perhaps the most stinging in attitude), there is no doubt that these are professionals, that they still believe, deep down, that the good guys ought to win and that journalism is a honorable profession. But they’re completely merciless in denouncing the abuses and apathy of the system. The gallery of rogues here exposed will surprise no one: Fox News, Monsanto, Dupont, Food Lion, Democrats, Republicans, the CIA and other assorted federal institutions are all here seen at their worst. If you’ve been paying attention to the news, many of those stories aren’t exactly new, nor the names of the journalists. I’ve got good books by Michael Levine and John Kelly on my bookshelves, and I’ve heard about Greg Palast and Carl Jensen before. This is not a book of crackpots or amateurs: They may be disillusioned, but the quality of their information and the righteousness of their conviction is irreproachable. Even Michael Levine, whom I had previously pegged as a borderline source, comes across as utterly convincing. The story I had most trouble believing was Kristina Borjesson’s own investigation into the TWA Flight 800 disaster, but even that comes across as a piece presenting intriguing allegations that should be investigated in further detail. There is obviously a common self-interest in those fifteen accounts. But that in no way invalidates the central thesis of the book; strong investigative journalism is key to true democracy and there are worrying signs that American newsrooms are shying away from the real stories. Maurice Murad’s description of how the “killer” stories are used to juice up newscasts is, alone, almost worth the (short) time it takes to read the book.

For a layperson, Into the Buzzsaw make for unsettling reading. Sure, we laugh about Fox News as “Faux News”, but Jane Akre’s first-hand account of how they gutted WTVT’s solid newsroom in a bread-and-spectacle provider is gut-wrenching. Gary Webb’s piece on how The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times teamed up with the CIA to discredit his “Dark Alliance” stories on how Contras were allowed to sell crack cocaine to L.A. Gangs is almost beyond belief. One of the best essays is Gerard Colby’s astonishing account of how DuPont: Behind the Nylon Curtain, his meticulously-researched book on the DuPont empire, was “privished”: buried, gutted and sabotaged by his own publishers. There’s more, of course. Much more. Stories of American deserters being gassed. Stories of civilian massacres in South Korea by American forces. Stories of American POWs being consciously forgotten in Vietnam by their government. Then there are the corporations, happily suing any news organisation that threatens their bottom line, as if the public had no right to know. Infuriating stuff. Dangerous stuff.

From a December 2003 perspective, it’s already regrettable that the book was published in 2002 and translated in early 2003. Certainly, the overall lack of nerve of the American press corp has never been so visible than during the breakneck lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. The Bush Administration has, so far, escaped unscathed from serious journalistic inquest, from the Valerie Plame affair to other business. The days of Watergate are long past… and no, the Lewinsky affair doesn’t count. Certainly, there would be another book to write on the subject of troop embedding alone…

Flaws? Some. The book sometimes trades off detached objectivity for personal frustration, a choice that makes the result more readable, but may annoy some readers expecting a more academic work. The mosaic-like structure of a book of essays is, once again, a source of slight frustration as several points are repeated over and over again. In this case, however, those elements serve as useful counter-points to one another, places where we can triangulate the real story from multiple sources. (It also, I guess, allows ever chapter to stand alone, which is useful in an academic setting) More serious is the lack of index, at least in the French version of the
book.

It’s tempting to just throw back the book on the shelves and shrug in “what-can-be-done?” fatalism. But there are bright spots. Nearly all of the stories in the book have achieved some sort of legitimacy; favorable judgements in favor of the journalists (though not usually before they lose all of their money in legal fees), journalism awards, acclaimed publication of the stories, etc. In many cases, the Internet looms large as a source of alternate publication, extra documentation and, ultimately, truth. While the Internet hasn’t yet fulfilled all of its promises as an engine for democratic discourse, there are promising elements emerging from the net’s increased maturity. Blogs, among other things, are keeping stories alive and propagating articles worth reading.

Ultimately, that may lead any contentious reader towards a solution of sort to the problems raised in Into the Buzzsaw. We will get the information we deserve. We will read good journalism only if we support and demand good journalism. Consider Into the Buzzsaw your wake-up call: look for those stories, refuse to settle for cheap alarmist entertainment masquerading as journalism. And keep digging for the truth. Start at http://www.intothebuzzsaw.com/ and follow the links. You shouldn’t have to wait until an improbable series of events makes a French-language edition of the book land on your desk.

Uncovering Clinton, Michael Isikoff

Crown, 1999, 402 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-609-60393-0

Was the Clinton/Lewinsky affair a Watergate for the nineties? Hardly. Well, maybe. Every generation gets the scandals it deserves, and maybe all the carefree nineties warranted was a scandal about presidential naughtiness. Or was it just about presidential naughtiness?

I certainly didn’t think so in 1998, and neither did Michael Isikoff, the Newsweek reporter who was an integral part of the affair. In Uncovering Clinton, Isikoff describes his own tortured history vis-à-vis Clinton (including his dealings with Paula Jones and Katherine Willey), the contacts he had with Linda Tripp (the real mover and shaker behind the Lewinsky business) long before the story went public and all the behind-the-scenes machinations at Newsweek, at the Kenneth Starr office, at the White House during the lead up to the entire affair. Isikoff isn’t shy about his opinion of the whole business: It was Clinton’s pattern of unrepentant deception and lies that were his real problem, not the assorted gratifications he pursued.

(Which pretty much rejoins what I thought of the whole business. Naturally, there’s now a certain naive nostalgia is considering Clinton’s indiscretions during the Bush II administration. Nobody died when Clinton lied, goes the bumper sticker. But I digress.)

All the President’s Men this isn’t, as poor Mickey Isikoff is dependent upon Linda Tripp for further tales of Clinton’s indiscretions. But it’s still an interesting story. For better or worse, Isikoff was at the center of the media side of the Lewinsky investigation, and was well-prepared to deal with it given his experience with Jones and Willey. His description of his work as a journalist is endlessly fascinating to a news junkie like myself, and at least this part of the book is a pure delight. There is a lot of good material in here on the lives of journalists, from interrogating sources to fighting with editors. Isikoff is a pro, and his meticulously detailed version of the story is fascinating to read. I suspect that this book will remain a primary source for all future historians with an interest in the scandal. (Don’t forget to read the end notes, some of them as fascinating as the main text.)

But what emerges from Uncovering Clinton goes further than simply the revenge story of a spurned public servant (Tripp) or the unfortunate infatuation of a young woman who should know better: it’s the collision of two forces: Clinton’s own self-destructive pattern, and the right wing’s rabid obsession with something, anything, to get the sitting Democrat. All else was merely excuses and justifications. No one managed to get Clinton on Whitewater, Flowers, Jones, Vince Foster, Willey or any of the other little things. So they used Lewinsky. It was a dirty and complicated business (it takes hundreds of pages to get there and as Isikoff writes in one of the book’s best passages, sometimes the best stuff comes from the worst people), but things are seldom simple or admirable at that level of political viciousness.

(In some ways, Uncovering Clinton is a charming reminder, to amend my previous digression above, of a simpler time where I was able to dislike a Democrat for the things that he’d done rather than cheering for anyone-but-the-Republican-madman. Aaaah, so that’s what it felt like to be non-partisan… I long for those days again.)

And so Isikoff’s account will find a place as a point of view in this whole business. Not an impartial one (Isikoff is himself too much a part of the story to see it objectively), but a valuable one. The Lewinsky scandal started a long time before it broke on the Drudge Report, and there was more to it than a headline on a web site. At least this book gives proper appreciation to that.

But what is maybe the book’s truest passage comes on the last page, where Isikoff suggests that yes, maybe journalists were scum to pursue a story like this. But that nevertheless, it was worth pursuing, and so will all stories like that in the future. And when that will happen, Isikoff’s ever-present notepad will always be there to note the details.

Paycheck (2003)

(In theaters, December 2003) Very depressing as it leaves little doubt in John Woo’s declining skills since Face/Off. The director has been quoted as being bored with action films, and the boredom is all there on the screen, in a directing job that is so unremarkable that it doesn’t even feel like Woo. The weak script doesn’t help, but when even the action scenes are downright pedestrian, it doesn’t leave much to watch. Oh, Ben Affleck is adequate in the type of young-professional role he does best, but Uma Thurman simply shows up in a bad haircut and goes through the motions like the rest of the cast. (Only Colm Feore is great as the heavy.) The screenplay is packed with annoying clichés and doubtful contrivances that stand out even in a story predicated on the ability to preview the future. Ironically enough, viewers will also feel uncomfortably prescient in knowing what is about to happen. (Among other weak spots, the film doesn’t “flash-forward” three years later as the protagonist enters the process, delivering a useless scene in between) Oh, there are a few nice touches (the bookstore fight visibly takes place in the Science-Fiction section, Einstein can “see” the future, etc.) but the whole thing just feels lazy, what with armed guards standing guard in front of a lab and protagonists escaping fireballs with a predictable ease. Blah. To be fair, Paycheck probably represents a decent time-waster, but it’s hard to accept such ordinary fare from John Woo.

Hybrids (Neanderthal Parallax #3), Robert J. Sawyer

Tor, 2003, 396 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-87690-4

And so the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy ends, not with a bang, but with a tacked-upon conclusion driven by a mustache-twirling villain. In some ways, this is a fitting end, an adequate finish to an adequate series that had both good and bad moments.

You shouldn’t be reading this review if you haven’t yet started the trilogy, and you shouldn’t start the trilogy if you don’t intend to finish it. Suffice to say that the plot finally starts to roll in this third volume, as every element laboriously set up by Sawyer during the first two volumes finally comes into play. The Earth is threatened by an abrupt reversal of its magnetic poles. Evil villains take a long hungry look at this new unspoiled alternate Earth. Mary and Ponter want to have a kid. Whee!

If any overly sensitive Americans, misogynists or fundamentalists were left in the room after the first two volumes of the series, they’re in for further shocks: The only American character of note turns out to be a lunatic with dreams of trans-universal conquest (how droll), our female protagonists muses at length on the destruction of human males and the novel more or less ends up celebrating a multi-racial bisexual marriage à trois. Whew! Check your prejudices at the door, a Canadian liberal is on a rampage!

There is indeed some shock value built into this trilogy (witness the graphic sex scenes, for instance) and one gets the feeling that Sawyer is consciously pushing the envelope in order to piss off some people who ought to be offended. It’s all good fun, though it’s not pulled off quite as subtly as it ought to be. That type of material requires a deft touch and I’m not sure that Sawyer’s typically unsubtle style is appropriate for it. (I will once again remain bemusedly coy on the aftermath of the “rapist” subplot of the trilogy.) On the other hand, Sawyer’s treatment of the religious theme of the trilogy ends up someplace different than I expected given the author’s past track record; good.

It’s somewhat of a relief, though, to see the plot moving after nearly two volumes’ worth of nearly constant exposition. Alas, the plot development sometimes feel quite a bit silly, such as when this isolated Neanderthal scientist ends up possessing the Magical Plot Device that not only turns out to be vitally important to our protagonists’ happiness, but also contains the seeds of destruction for both worlds! (Here are a few more explanation points to sprinkle freely in the previous sentence: !!!!!!!) Who would have thought that a whole industrial civilization would be useless in coming up with this stuff? Or that such a useful technology would stay banned like that, once again by a curiously monolithic civilization? (If you want to keep on nitpicking, you can also note my objections to rapid plague vectoring in a dispersed civilization. But I’m not forcing you to.)

Generally speaking, I was also somewhat disappointed to see the direction taken by the latter two books of the trilogy. By focusing on two individuals and a very short time span, it merely suggests a bigger story worth telling: How contact between the two societies would ultimately result in some pretty significant changes along the way on the two worlds. The monolithic Neanderthal society, in particular, would seem to be ripe for some dramatic changes. But that may only serve to highlight the lack of political depth (as in “various interests competing”) in Sawyer’s otherwise expansive imagination of the Neanderthal civilization. (Eek; is he planning a sequel?)

Silly stuff, but it’s hard not to see it with some affection when Sawyer’s writing style is so devastatingly efficient. A screwy novel that doesn’t take any time to read isn’t the worst thing in the world. Indeed, even the “Basic Suspense 101” twists that Sawyer keeps throwing in the second half of the book have a certain well-worn charm.

But this is hardly Hugo-worthy stuff, and it’s not hard to share some pundits’ dissatisfaction with Hominids taking home The Big One in September 2003. I like Sawyer, and I think that some of his stuff is well worth reading. In the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy, one gets the feeling that he did try for more ambitious material and succeeded only mildly. Still, the effort is commendable, and we can only wait for his next effort.

The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King (2003)

(In theaters, December 2003) I may not be the biggest fan of The Lord Of The Rings, but the though of “reviewing” part or all of it makes me feel vaguely ashamed, as it sometimes happens when a film leaves the bounds of ordinary criticism to just become “it”, a referent about which critical qualifiers are useless. Certainly, The Return Of The King has a lot of spectacular visual effects and an overabundance of finales and a place for a really good knock-knock joke (“Who’s there?” “Aragorn” “Aragorn who?” “Aragornna Kick Your Butt!”) and some killer action scenes and exemplary direction and all that jazz. But really, I couldn’t care less about a star rating or the fact that this third volume is better or worse than any of the two others: It concludes a monumental fantasy epic in such a way that I can only gasp at the magnitude of the 11-some hours achievement. This is pretty much the best Lord Of The Rings adaptation we could hope for. And that is all that is worth writing down.

The Last Samurai (2003)

(In theaters, December 2003) There is something very, very curious in this film, in the way it tries to sell us a romantic vision of pre-industrial Japan, complete with a rural fantasy, impeccable honour codes and a shaggy Tom Cruise. It’s a beautiful film, no doubt about it: The “Samurais in the mist” sequence is simply astonishing. But eventually, even the lush cinematography fails to hide a growing discomfort with the story as portrayed on screen. There are other annoyances too, such as the plot shortcuts taken as our stalwart warrior-hero is able to learn pretty much all there is to enjoy about the samurai way of life (including the katana) in one short winter. Still, The Last Samurai ranks highly on the year’s list of film through sheer competence. The battle scenes are immersive, Cruise once again makes a likable protagonist, and the Japanese are portrayed honourably. It’s a pretty good time-travel film in how it easily wraps up its audience in late-nineteenth century rural Japan. Certainly not a waste of time.

The Guru (2002)

(On DVD, December 2003) Halfway between the sex farce and the Bollywood derivative (complete with a number of snappy dance numbers), this is a light and unassuming comedy with plenty of sympathetic characters and a number of amusing moments. The sexual content of the film may surprise some, especially after the (mostly) innocuous trailers. (On the other hand, the DVD back cover refers to the film as a “sex-obsessed comedy”, which may not be the most felicitous choice of words, but certainly does a fine job at describing the tone of the film.) It’s such a light movie that it seems almost cruel to criticize parts of it, but here goes: The “idiot plot” shortcuts really bothered me. Jimi Mistry plays a likable protagonist, but his character is written like an idiot, who’s reduced to reading notes verbatim rather than spin stuff on his own from what he’s given. Then there’s his rapid rise through the star system and his “double life”, which he manages to keep hidden from one another. Erg. Sure, most of that is inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. But it’s annoying. Just once, I’d like to see a hero who could actually play off those “mistaken identity” situations in a way similar than Real People would. Oh well. If you can get over that (and certainly, the magnificent sight of Marisa Tomei in underwear really does help a lot), the rest of the film is delightful.

The Cold Cash War, Robert Asprin

Ace, 1977 (1992 reprint), 212 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-11382-6

I’m not sure one could conceivably call this a “proto-cyberpunk” novel, but there’s certainly some eerily prescient content in here, even a quarter of a century after original publication.

You see (and please note that spoilers will follow), The Cold Cash War posits a future in which corporations are almost literally fighting against one another. The only “almost” that makes it impossible to use the unqualified “literally” is that, at least at the beginning of the novel, they use mock weapons and mock munitions, relying instead on a computerized system to account for kills and damage and such. Though bloodless, this is no mere set of simulations: the objectives gained or lost during those battles are very real, and the corporations act accordingly with the results of those battles, bound as they are by intricate agreements about this sort of thing.

But things escalate when a proposition is made at the highest levels arguing that “fake” munitions expended should be tied to real-world supply stocks. Suddenly, the war heats up and Real Deaths ensue in a shadowy campaign just this side of public exposure. But exposure there is, and by mid-book the governments are trying to shut down the renegade corporations. But in this particular reality, governments are breathtakingly corrupt and citizens quickly side with corporations (???) against the established order. Moments later, universal peace ensues and we’re left to imagine a future in which a cash-padded slipper is stamped upon the face of mankind –forever.

Are you laughing yet? Because despite the grim plot summary above, the 1992 reprint of Robert Asprin’s The Cold Cash War is definitely marketed as a fluffy comedy: “Corporate takeovers were never so hostile” blares the cover illustration as two GQ-worthy young executives fire at each other over a backdrop of business suit-clad armies. Even the book itself seems to be aiming for a broadly satiric tone, with its broad-brush hopeless view of governments and corporations. Chapter 22’s concluding “Big Speech”, in all of its simplistic glory, hearkens back to the golden age of satiric SF more than conventional SF

But one of the book’s biggest problem is that this satire falls flat, or more accurately that the tone of the book keeps shifting toward grimmer and grimmer territory as it advances. The encroaching power of corporations is no small matter nowadays, and there’s something quietly suffocating in the novel’s heady rush to oligarchy. This is dark comedy at its blackest, until it’s not comedy any more. The last line of the novel completes the circle, forever erasing whatever giggle factor the novel may have initially possessed.

There are other problems, mind you: Threadbare characters, a profusion of useless vignettes, a lack of focus, hum-drum action scenes and truly inconsistent storytelling (at time broad and at other times quite specific) all fail to do justice to the ideas behind the story. But it’s the shifting tone that makes The Cold Cash War such a jarring read.

Much better has been written on the subject since, whether in a serious or satiric mode. But this may take its place in cyberpunk’s anti-corporate lineage. SF historians take note. Meanwhile, I’ll still be waiting for the wacky SF novel promised by the book’s cover.