Monthly Archives: January 2004

Nobody’s Safe, Richard Steinberg

Bantam, 1999, 469 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-58188-0

I remember standing at the local Chapters bookstore, looking over the New Fiction paperback rack. “For over fifty years, a mysterious organization has been guarding a secret that will change everything you have believed about our government” said the cover of Richard Steinberg’s Nobody’s Safe. I took a look at the back cover, read the blurb and frowned. Aliens, I said to myself. That’s the secret. I don’t normally glance at last pages, but this time the impulsion was too strong: I peeked. And confirmed that, indeed, aliens were the twist of the novel. Needless to say, it went back on the shelf.

But everything comes around, and years later I met Nobody’s Safe again, this time at a dirt-cheap used book store. Things had changed between that initial contact and this one, though. I admit that I read some authors because they’re bad in interesting ways. Patrick Robinson is one of those, and Richard Steinberg certainly earned his place in that category after The Gemini Man (a rather silly story glorifying a serial killer) and The 4-Phase Man (one of the dullest thrillers I’ve ever read). If Nobody’s Safe measured up to his two other books, I might have been due for a treat.

As it turns out, Nobody’s Safe is bad, but bad in different ways from his two other novels. Taken together, they could form an unholy trilogy of What Not To Do when writing thrillers.

The novel starts a lot like Absolute Power (the David Baldacci novel or the film, take your pick) in that a master burglar at work witnesses a brutal murder. But the similarities end there, as Nobody’s Safe‘s Gregory Picaro has a bit more on his plate than a simple presidential homicide: the murdered man had some very intriguing things in his possession, and powerful forces are ready to do anything to retrieve them.

Take a guess as to the nature of those documents and artifacts retrieved by Picaro. Or better yet, don’t: Among other stupid ideas, Steinberg bluntly reveals documents stamped “MJ-12” on page 72, but remains curiously coy as to the significance and meaning of those documents. Two problems, here: First, the fact that “MJ-12”, or “Majestic-12”, is ridiculously well-known in pop culture as being associated with UFOs, aliens and government cover-ups. Given the success of The X-Files, the prevalence of the Internet and UFO-literature, you’d have to work overtime to find a thriller reader who doesn’t already know about the MJ-12/Aliens link. Why does Steinberg spend so much time, then, pretending that there’s a big secret? Is this a sign that he’s taking his readers for idiots? As the author self-gratifyingly re-invents the big “alien” twist, more experienced readers are liable to frown and bristle at the dripping condescension.

The second problem with MJ-12 is both more and less serious. It’s quite well-known, by now, that the MJ-12 documents are pure fantasy. No, not just “UFO freaks are nuts” fantasy, but well-disproved forgeries fantasy. (Search around for “MJ-12” and “Phillip Klass” for details) This is a minor issue because it’s been a while since I have expected total realism from my thrillers. To point out that this is a bad novel because, obviously, there’s no such thing as an aliens cover-up is not just highlighting the screamingly obvious, but it’s also somewhat besides the point. What is far more damaging to Nobody’s Safe, however, is that in cheerfully reusing the MJ-12 mythology, Steinberg demonstrates an appealing laziness. Not only does he stoop to recycling stuff, but he’s content to recycle debunked stuff too!

The rest of the novel isn’t much better, and in fact gets worse and worse. Whole segments of the action are telescoped between chapters, and trivial inanities end up taking forever. (Hint: It’s easy not to care about gypsies if you’re not as fascinated by them as Steinberg is. Really easy, as a matter of fact.) Dozens of pages are wasted on dull scenes even as the action should accelerate. The characters are colourless, and so is the action as contact with the aliens is made. Nobody’s Safe is worse than insulting and condescending like The Gemini Man; it’s dull, and as such clearly points the way to The 4-Phase Man. (I simply can’t resist suggesting the blurb “Nobody’s safe… from that piece-of-crap novel”)

There are, to be fair, a few interesting details about the art and science of burglary, and at least one intriguing scene where a judge discusses the status of truly illegal aliens. But that’s not nearly enough. The rest of Nobody’s Safe speaks for itself: It’s a bad thriller regardless of how one looks at it and it solidifies Steinberg’s credentials as someone who should be doing other things. Indeed, he doesn’t seem to have published a fourth novel… and while it would be catty enough to suggest that it should remain that way, another part of me can’t help but to mourn this drying fountain of bad books. It means that I’ll have to look forward to the next Patrick Robinson opus.

Every Man a Tiger, Tom Clancy & Chuck Horner (ret.)

Putnam, 1999, 564 pages, C$39.99 hc, ISBN 0-399-14493-5

Tom Clancy may or may not have written any part of this book (it’s getting hard to tell with the spin-offs, sequels, computer games, recurring allegations of ghostwriting and substantial dip in quality), but his name certainly figures large on the cover. This second tome in the so-called “Command” series ends up combining the mass-market appeal of the Clancy brand with a detailed military study, once again bringing a highly specialized account to wider audiences. I wasn’t particularly impressed with the first volume, Into the Storm (by Clancy and Fred Franks) but if the second volume it still not quite perfect, it’s a great deal more interesting than its predecessor.

Part of this appeal is Horner himself, a retired fighter/bomber pilot with plenty of tales to tell. From training to a difficult tour of duty in Vietnam to the dark era of the American armed forces to its rebirth through the eighties and its ultimate success during the Gulf War, Franks makes a sympathetic hero. His stories give a good idea of the life of a pilot during that time, and also serve as a key to understand the transformation of the US Air Force from Vietnam to Kuwait.

This mini-biography takes nearly the first third of the book, and it’s essential in setting up what follows. The Gulf War, in some respects, was the first computerized war. In this case, however, the important things are not the computers, but the things now made possible through them. Coordinated sorties. Inter-forces communications. Precision bombing. Instantaneous battlefield monitoring. Lightning-fast supply lines. Unbelievable logistical feats. The Gulf War was also unprecedented in that air power effectively filled the role of ground forces in “plinking” the opposing land army, reducing their ability to fight well before the army got in action.

The bulk of Every Man a Tiger offers a description of the Gulf War from Horner’s point of view as one of the allied commanders, with an obvious emphasis on air power. Gulf War buffs will relish the level of detail offered here, from logistical issues to anecdotes and step-per-step progress of the air campaign. Horner isn’t shy at telling what worked and what didn’t: He particularly singles out the search-and-rescue operations as deficient during the air campaign, and lucidly explains the reasons for this problem.

Through it all, Horner comes across as a model soldier, a man who’s aware of the painful necessity of war, and the need for multilateral cooperation. His sense of humour comes through clearly, and so does his understanding of the constraints in which he operated. There are poignant passages in the book in which he professes his admiration for Arab culture and explains the sacrifices made by the American military forces to include as many allies as possible in their decision process. While it has become fashionable, in these days of the Bush administration, for non-Americans to decry the military might of the United States, it’s easy to forget that the real issue here is the political leadership and not the military forces. Men like Chuck Horner only represent a most admirable professionalism, and professionalism is exactly what we need from them.

In fact, one of the unexpected treats of Every Man a Tiger is the meticulous description of the political decision-making behind the American intervention in Saudi Arabia and, eventually Kuwait. Horner was lucky enough to be a fly on the wall during some of the crucial top-level meetings, and it’s fascinating to see the ways in which military power is approved, and then how the military itself arranges to deliver this power. (It’s also somewhat unremarkable to notice many of the names which would later star in Gulf War II: Iraq Invasion. Hello Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz…)

All in all, while this second volume can’t escape a certain trivial dreariness, it’s a somewhat better effort than the frequently-dull Into the Storm. Horner benefits from a bird’s eye perspective on the Gulf War (literally) and this perspective, coupled with a good flow of anecdotes and personal recollections, make this one of the best books yet written on that particular conflict.

How to Make a Fortune on the Information Superhighway, Lawrence A. Canter & Martha S. Siegel

Harper Collins, 1994, 234 pages, C$28.00 hc, ISBN 0-06-270131-2

Do you like spam? Well, if so, you’re the perfect target audience for this piece of trash book whose repellent reputation is only exceeded by the scorn heaped upon its authors.

Allow me to use some of my Internet-Old-Timer credentials: In April 1994, Usenet users saw something very strange and very unusual: A message hawking legal services, posted to thousands of unrelated newsgroups. It wasn’t the first piece of spam, but it was widely acknowledged as such as the “Green Card Spam”. (Some will say that it was so appropriate that the first Internet hucksters would be lawyers with the temerity to charge hundreds of dollars for something that can be accomplished with a simple postcard) What we feared at the time (but really had no clue about, of course), was this was merely a small taste of things to come. For better or for worse, it was a significant event, a watershed in the transition of the Internet from its academic origins to its mass-market future.

Almost immediately after, flush with their success, Canter & Siegel decided to further annoy the burgeoning Internet community by writing a how-to book. As the title so obviously indicates, How to Make a Fortune on the Information Superhighway is decidedly a book dating from 1994 and a proud inheritor of the “Make Money Fast!” school of business methods halfway between doubtful legitimacy and outright fraud. Here, the spamming duo tells all about both using the Internet for making money and forcing any message on unwilling users.

While I’m sure that the book must have been infuriating back then, things are somewhat different today: While I defy anyone to read this book and not want to slap its authors silly, this anger is somewhat diffused by the unfair advantage of hindsight. Nine years later, the Internet has changed a lot (No one ever calls it the “I-way”, for instance), and there’s a lot of twisted delight in seeing Canter & Siegel make bone-headed assumptions about Internet commerce that, of course, didn’t pan out. (The web as a series of virtual malls modelled after shopping malls? Er, not quite.)

But it’s somewhat disingenuous of us 2004-folks to laugh, right? As much as it pains me to say so, the truth is that this book does “get” the potential of legitimate business on the Internet, and did so years before everyone else. Yes, the “you too can make tons of money!” tone is grating, and it doesn’t take along time for the authors to reveal their true anti-technological colours (Page 3: “You’re here to make money. Therefore, our best advice is to ignore those clowns. (By clown, we mean the glassy-eyed nerd over there with the pocket protector.)”), but there’s a kernel of truth in this book that, frankly, has to be acknowledged.

That doesn’t let Canter & Siegel off the hook for what they did, of course. The first few pages of the book are a retelling of the infamous “Green Card Lottery Spam” as seen from their perspective, and no amount of self-congratulatory rhetoric and vituperation about those evil, evil techies can masquerade the authors’ venality. By the third time they’re kicked off their ISPs for their activities, no amount of tearful victimization can justify their wilful disregard for Usenet community standards. Time and time again, self-serving justifications show that Canter and Siegel have heard the right arguments against what they were doing. (Four simple words: “Tragedy of the Commons”. OK, one simple word: “inappropriate”) Yet they pooh-pooh the objections as ravings of marginal curmudgeons and proceed as if everything was OK. It’s during those passages that you start wishing for lighter fluid, a match and a private meeting with the authors.

Internet historians will undoubtedly get a kick out of this book, if only to hear “the other side” of the story. The delightful text screen-shots alone brought back many memories of very early excursions on the pure-text Internet. Otherwise, well, the web has left this book behind as an artifact of a time that was both simpler and more difficult. In the light of the subsequent spam scourge, it’s interesting to see that even Canter & Siegel are somewhat leery of using unsolicited mass mailings to drum up business [P.104-105]. Go figure why their ethics went so far and no further.

In the real world, there is a ghoulishly happy conclusion for all Canter & Siegel haters. According to sources around the Internet, the couple had a falling out soon after the publication of the book (a later edition was republished bearing only Siegel’s name), resulting in divorce. Then they lost their license to practise law once again. (They’d lost it in another state for unethical activities well before the “Green Card” spam) Siegel died of cancer in 2000 while Canter established a software company in California. Perhaps proving that there is such a fate worse than death, a 2002 CNET interview revealed an unrepentant Canter bemoaning the fact that he receives over three hundred spams per day.

How fitting. Welcome to the Internet you have created, you idiot.

Wong Fei Hung III: Si wong jaang ba [Once Upon A Time In China 3] (1993)

(On DVD, January 2004) Maybe the most plot-heavy instalment of the three and also the silliest as it mixes gangs fighting for a tournament, political assassination, early film technology and a grand villain businessman. Alas, even with all of the above, the China-vs-foreigners theme of the trilogy isn’t as strong here than in the two previous films. Fortunately, it features some of the most memorable moments of the series thus far, with a fight over an oil-slick surface and a colourful finale taking place around a wooden pyramidal structure. Even the character moments have some subtlety, what with the budding romance and the surprising arc of one of the film’s villains. The all-in-one trilogy DVD contains the subbed movie, and that’s pretty much it.

Wong Fei Hung II: Nam yee tung chi keung [Once Upon A Time In China 2] (1992)

(On DVD, January 2004) The story of Wong Fei-Hung continues, this time in Canton as a popular uprising brews, headed by a charismatic villain. Once again for this series, the stronger-than-usual historical content is often more interesting than the actual fights, though the end duel is not bad at all. At least the characters start to emerge (especially Foon), and there’s a pretty amusing scene in which eastern medicine is demonstrated to westerners. Alas, the film blurs with its prequel and sequel when shown back-to-back, which may actually indicate a pretty consistent level of quality. The all-in-one trilogy DVD contains the subbed movie, and that’s pretty much it.

Wisegirls (2002)

(On DVD, January 2004) This straight-to-video mob story with a twist is decently entertaining, but not much more. Here, Mira Sorvino does well as an aspiring doctor forced to move to Staten Island to take care of her ailing grandmother. The plot is set in motion as her budding medical abilities serve her well when she stumbles upon dark dealings while working as a waitress at an Italian restaurant. The rest of the story has a familiar air to it: The budding friendship between three waitresses, the growing realization that the restaurant is a front for the Mafia, the impending crisis as cops and criminals collide around the protagonist… It’s, in many ways, cookie-cutter stuff, but it’s decently paced and not terribly done. Plus, Mariah Carey is scorching hot as Raychel, and her good performance can help forget her turn in Glitter. The bare-bones DVD has a few trailers, and that’s it.

Whale Rider (2002)

(On DVD, January 2004) I’m not a big fan of dramas in which old cultures learn to resist new social conventions, and so that particular aspect of Whale Rider is a bit lost on me. Where it works a little bit better, though, is in depicting a young girl’s fight for acceptance among her family, and the relationship between her and her grandfather. It unfolds pretty much as you’d expect, with appropriate pauses for tears and laughter. I can see why other people could go for this Oscar-nominated film. Good images; impeccable technical aspects. Keisha Castle-Hughes is wonderful as the heroine, but it’s Rawiri Paratene who steals the show as her gruff grandfather.

Wheelers, Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen

Warner Aspect, 2000, 505 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-446-52560-X

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating again: The most representative works of Science Fiction, the ones that really rekindle our burning love for the genre, are not necessarily the best. Great characters, gripping plotting and superb writing are nice, certainly, but they are in no way what differentiates SF from the vast body of “other” fiction. Fans of the genre can appreciate a good work of fiction over a bad one, but we read the stuff for other reasons: The ideas, the concepts, the unflagging dedication to logic and reason as our best hope for the future. These are what makes SF so special. Call it an ideological position fit for nerds and geeks if you want, but you won’t be able to shake the appeal of fiction that speaks directly to what we believe in.

Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen’s Wheelers is pretty much a textbook-example of how to write hard-core Science Fiction. It’s not particularly strong in any area save for ideas, technical accuracy, respect of science and sense of wonder. In short, everything that makes this genre so great and so much fun.

The plot ball takes a while to get rolling, but when it does, it places circa-2220 humanity in the path of a comet. (The situation is actually more complicated than that, given how the comet was redirected toward Earth after a decidedly unnatural realignment of Jupiter’s moons.) Given the nature of celestial mechanics, there’s both plenty of warning and not much time to spare: A team of crack scientists is assembled and shipped off to Jupiter to investigate the findings. It helps, somewhat, that proof of some Jovian intelligence had been discovered by the book’s protagonist right before everything started to go wrong.

Naturally, the plot isn’t the main attraction here. Stewart and Cohen are both working scientists and so the real meat of Wheelers is in the details. While not staggeringly original, the imagined future presented in this novel is intriguing, what with Earth clawing its way out of an anti-technological age, the moon and the asteroids in the hand of a Zen sect and plenty of alien activity underneath Jupiter’s clouds. Just you wait, though: The revelations get progressively more exhilarating and even if the plot concludes far too early, the last few pages are a carnival of neat ideas.

It speaks volume that by far the most interesting segment of the book is a pure application of physics: When, midway through, one character absolutely has to go from planet A to planet B in mere days rather than the usual months dictated by chemical propulsion technology, a hair-raising hack is devised involving celestial mechanics and mass drivers. It’s a wonderful, jaw-dropping sequence, and a neat idea that wouldn’t feel out of place in, say, one of Niven’s good hard-SF stories. Real SF fans will lap it up like milk chocolate.

Happily, the rest of the book is a lot like that. To their credit, the authors manage to craft a good novel without too many obvious flaws —though the way the POV kept switching from one paragraph to another in the same scenes is truly annoying. Yes, the novel spends far too much time establishing back-story, ends too soon, muddles its “alien viewpoints” segments and doesn’t create much empathy with its human characters. But it does conform to most accepted standards, and heaven knows that other working scientists have churned out far worse stuff in the history of SF.

But few of those things matter when considering the intellectual ride that is Wheelers. The erudition of the authors is obvious throughout (they can’t resist “As you Know Bob” scenes, but they do it in a reasonably entertaining fashion; see P.25-30), there are a fair numbers of cute little gags and the steady escalation of revelations is profoundly satisfying to anyone weaned on a diet of classic hard-SF.

Every year, dozens of hard-SF novel pass unnoticed by fans who would rather complain that there’s nothing interesting being written in the Asimov-Clarke-Heinlein vein. While Wheelers is not -let’s be honest- in the same league, at least playing the same sport, and sometimes that’s just good enough. Hard-SF fans, rejoice… and give Wheelers a spin or two.

Swept Away (2002)

(On DVD, January 2004) Yikes! What the heck happened to Guy Ritchie? After spectacular success with films like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, here comes this… travesty. Granted, it stars Madonna and she was (at the time of the film’s release, anyway) his wife. But the problems with Swept Away run much, much deeper than her deficient acting skills (she does fine, actually) or the lavish indulgence the film showers over her. The script, in a few words, simply suck. I don’t care about the “comedy” argument: There aren’t many ways a man demanding “you will call me master” to a woman can sound funny these days, as the film devolves into an insipid power trip. It’s unconvincing, not really amusing (save for some sparse gags) and it just takes forever to move. While the Mediterranean cinematography is nice, it’s not a substitute for plot or dialogue, and Swept Away fails when it comes to those. The direction is so flat that it’s virtually impossible to guess that Ritchie is as the helm, which is probably the film’s most damning indictment. To top it off, the so-called “comedy” ends on a complete downer. But don’t worry: You will have stopped caring long before. Maybe even stopped watching long before. The DVD contains a puzzling “making of” interview between Madonna and Ritchie, as well as a commentary track I will watch only after being paid big bucks.

Serving Sara (2002)

(On DVD, January 2004) On one hand, there’s scarcely anything new or innovative or even remarkable about this film. A subpoena server is stuck between duelling spouses competing for divorce. Romance ensues. Hoo-ha. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to think of the details of this film even mere hours after seeing it. But save for a few distasteful scenes (I never want to see the bull sequence again), the film isn’t terrible, and the zippy put-downs do a lot to make it seem funnier than it actually is. Matthew Perry does the most with a role that allows him to showcase some superficial acting and Elizabeth Hurley is -as usual- quite fetching. Of the rest of the cast, both Cedric the Entertainer and Bruce Campbell are fine, but they seem a bit confined in underwritten roles. The film seems longer than it is, mostly due to some questionable editing choices and some scenes that run a bit too long. Otherwise, well, it’s the kind of film you see because you haven’t yet seen it, not because it’s particularly interesting or commendable. The DVD contains a few mildly interesting featurettes (all self-congratulatory) and a director’s commentary I would have listened to had I had more time to waste.

Seabiscuit (2003)

(On DVD, January 2004) It’s a movie about a horse. Yes, it’s well directed, and it’s got a few interesting moments here and there. But in almost any aspect, it’s old fashioned. A film that your grandparents would love, had your grandparents been Americans. The dialogue, directing, cinematography, values… good, but unremarkable. Even “the future” so triumphantly promised in the film is comfortably in our own past. Yes, the horse is a metaphor for depression-era America. Get over it. Tobey Maguire is indifferent as Seabiscuit’s jockey. Far more interesting are Jeff Bridges as his rich employer and Chris Cooper as a tough horse trainer. Otherwise, well, there isn’t much to say about the film: the making-of featurettes included on the DVD are nearly more interesting than the film itself, as they describe how some of the horse-racing scenes were shots and how the writer/director adapted the original book into a script, and then into a series of shots. The true history of Seabiscuit is also quite interesting, though it ends along with the film and not at the true end of the road for this horse and its humans. (The end of their story was, shall we say, rather darker than a Hollywood movie ending.) This is a completely safe family film experience. No edge… but apparently it was good enough for Oscar nominations.

Roger & Me (1989)

(On DVD, January 2004) Most Michael Moore fans discovered him with this film and then followed his career through Canadian Bacon and the rest. I had to start with 2002’s Bowling For Columbine and work my way back, but the big surprise is that even fifteen years later, Roger & Me is still as relevant than it was back in 1989. This feature-length opinion piece (not exactly a documentary, mind you) detailing the downfall of Flint, Michigan along with General Motors’ plant closure still resonates in this Bush II era of offshoring and jobless recovery. A colourful cast of real characters makes good fodder for Moore’s omnipresent camera, along with some staggering revelations coming forth unsolicited. Yes, this is a film that practises misdirection: The chronological order of some events is jumbled up and there’s the obvious feeling that Moore is cherry-picking his material. But that, in itself, does nothing to invalidate Moore’s thesis and even less to diminish the emotional impact of the film. Through its numerous tangents (“Pet or Meat: Rabbits for sale”) and sometimes gratuitous grandstanding, Moore manages to produce a mesmerizing piece of cinema that’s as compelling as great fiction. The editing of the film alone is a model in indictment: I especially liked how careful juxtaposition of scenes managed to make four frail old ladies seem the most evil quartet on planet Earth. Also up for props: The self-serving words of a corporate executive, intercut with heart-breaking scenes of a family being evicted on Christmas Eve. Great stuff. Alas, few things have changed since then. The DVD includes a commentary by Moore which, while interesting and informative, also seems half-lacking in substance.

Of Paradise and Power, Robert Kagan

Knopf, 2003, 103 pages, C$27.00 hc, ISBN 1-4000-4093-0

In the June/July 2002 edition of Policy Review, Robert Kagan wrote an article titled “Power and Weakness”, in which he tried to explain the growing policy differences between the US and European leaders. It begins with “It is time to stop pretending that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world, or even that they occupy the same world.” and goes on from there. Lucky readers who consulted the article early on had the rare privilege of prescience over the next few months, as the whole unilateral rush toward the American invasion of Iraq gave proof to Kagan’s theory.

While the article is available on line (and yes, you should read it), its lucid description of Pax Americana geopolitics was deemed worth of expansion and book publication. The resulting work, Of Paradise and Power: American and Europe in the New World Order, may be an exceedingly thin book, but don’t be fooled by its succinctness: It’s a brilliant piece of work.

Kagan argues that since the winner of the Cold War has been decided, the western world is gradually losing its convenient cohesion. National interests are once again taking precedence over global ideological goals. Now that the burden of the “War on Terrorism” has been taken over by America, allies of convenience are looking at each other warily.

But America and Europe (as Kagan explains, the success of the European Union is proof enough that “Europe” can now be considered as a cohesive entity) are dealing with this era in vastly different fashions. America’s thinking is being influenced by its military strength and its economic power, much like Europe’s thinking is being affected by its lack of military strength and its own version of economic success. The tools dictate the ways to perform the work and this has substantial implications in the way those two entities approach conflicts and dangers. If Europe can’t field an effective army, it will depend on economic and diplomatic negotiation to develop a mutually acceptable settlement. If America has unstoppable destructive power, it will try to fix a problem through overwhelming force before bothering with other options.

But it doesn’t stop there: While America is increasingly willing to use power, Europe seems equally complacent in assuming that the United States will come in and solve everyone’s problems. Hence the lack of progress on the notion of unified European armed forces. Europe, in some ways, thinks of itself as beyond history, as living in a sort of postmodern paradise.

Kagan takes great care to point out that this kind of thinking is not recent, nor has it been precipitated uniquely by the inauguration of the Bush Administration or the attacks of September 11, 2001. While the Clinton administration may have soft-pedalled America’s growing hegemony after the fall of the USSR, it established the bases of its successor’s unilateralism. Similarly, Europe’s insistence on multilateralism is an entirely consistent response with past decisions, including the formation of NATO. Then there’s the trifling detail that America is now acting like European powers did when they had power; the players may have changed, but the tactics certainly haven’t. It just depends on who has the most weapons at any given moment.

This book doesn’t think small. Barring catastrophe or singularity, it’s a roadmap to the likely geopolitics of the early twenty-first century. Reading it is like placing the last pieces in an especially difficult puzzle. With clear prose and lucid examples, Kagan manages to link together past events, policy decisions, social trends and news items. Time will tell if it’s a truly important book, but at this moment it reads like one of the most compelling explanations of the way things are at the moment. It’s a perfect tool for anyone looking at international affairs, and can be applied to a surprising number of current events.

There are a few objections, mind you; America’s trend toward self-centred isolationism is not particularly well-debunked (though Kagan does attempt to do so rather than ignore it) and there seems to be a lack of acknowledgement at the economic dimension of power and paradise. It’s unclear whether US military superiority can be maintained without massive amounts of foreign investment, and whether this money flow can be sustained even as foreign investors are figuring out the extent of American hegemony –not to mention the fact that they are the ones paying for it. (More speculative commentators are welcome to ponder whether America has finally put conventional warfare out of financial reach for everyone else. Wouldn’t that be a kickin’ application of lassez-faire market forces? An American monopoly on war!) Finally, the book may offer a cogent thesis of what is happening, but it’s not as successful in explaining what can happen next.

But those are small quibbles. Letting aside the fact that the book is a pure delight to read and understand, its worth is obvious, because it just makes sense. It’s consistent with the evening news: Doesn’t Europe’s relationship toward American power also reflect the attitude of smaller states such as, say, Canada? Granted, Of Paradise and Power doesn’t have the eerily predictive aura of the original article… but chances are that over the next few years, we’ll see plenty of empirical proof for Kagan’s assertions. For better or for worse. Expect this book to be a fixture of political science courses for a while, and the precursor to other work expanding its central thesis.

Mystic River (2003)

(In theaters, January 2004) This is a film that, yes, revolves around a murder investigation. Cops discover the body, accumulate clues, interrogate suspects and eventually catch the killer. But where Mystic River leaves more conventional crime thrillers behind is in how it doesn’t limit itself to just a genre story: By focusing on the victim and the impact of her death on friends and family, writer Brian Helgeland gives all the necessary material to director Clint Eastwood to craft a film with more ambitious goals. The result may not be perfect (the pacing is a bit too slow, and the ending is intentionally frustrating) but it’s still a good film. The cast is impressive (it’s hard to pick a favourite performance when you’ve got Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon, Tim Robbins and Lawrence Fishburne to choose from) and the investigation moves at a delicious pace. What’s not so compelling is the drama side of the equation, which beats up viewers over the head over and over again with the same points, symbolism and torpid pacing. Ironically enough, much of the same story could have been told without the childhood abuse tale that frames the film. The ending takes a quick turn toward tragedy as not all the guilty are punished and not all the innocents are given justice. But it’s a film with a lot of content, and some of it is bound to hit even as some manages to miss the target. Not bad.

Love Actually (2003)

(In theaters, January 2004) You don’t have to be a screenwriter to appreciate the achievement that is Love Actually, but it helps: It’s hard enough to juggle one or two plotlines that anyone with the guts to try to keep seven or eight such stories going at the same time must be congratulated for the effort. Not all subplots are as equally effective, but it doesn’t matter very much when they’re all wrapped in layers of such sugary holiday sweetness. Writer/Directory Richard Curtis succeeds more than he fails in producing a superior romantic comedy, one that is as funny as it is uplifting. He’s helped with a cast of stars (Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson and Colin Firth are as good as always), judicious pacing and a hip sensibility: I’m surely not the only one to find it very interesting that standing up to an “American bully” president would come across as a plot point worth cheering for. Rarely has there been such an effective holiday romantic comedy. One one level, Love Actually is pure manipulation; on the other, it’s truly effective. Bring the whole family or snuggle with your loved one, enjoy the minimalist elegance of the script or indulge in the unabashed sentimentality of it all.