Monthly Archives: February 2004

The Physics of Immortality, Frank J. Tipler

Doubleday, 1994, 528 pages, C$25.00 tpb, ISBN 0-385-46798-2

The dust jacket copy suggests it all: An attempt to bring religion under the aegis of science. The physical proof for God. Equations proving that we’re going to be resurrected sooner or later. Whew!

It has now been ten years since the publication of The Physics of Immortality and the book has had time to percolate through the noosphere. Science Fiction has (somewhat) embraced a few of the book’s arguments: Frederik Pohl wrote a trilogy about Tipler’s “Omega Point”, and the same rough outline of divinity can be found in works such as Robert Charles Wilson’s Darwinia and the Clarke/Baxter collaboration The Light of Other Days. I suppose it’s appropriate for SF to take back a little bit from a work which itself owes a lot to Science Fiction.

Tipler’s “Omega Point” theory, as I understand it in a nutshell, is that as life inevitably spreads through the universe (don’t worry: even his postulates are grandiose), it will come to achieve a complete mastery of space/time, develop ultimate computing capabilities and generally achieve god-like powers. In addition to that, life (being all-good) will do everything in its power to recreate past life through fantastically detailed simulations and, yes, will end up recreating you at the moment of your death, and then keep simulating you in a perpetual state of bliss forever and ever, amen.

Yes, it sounds silly. But Tipler certainly doesn’t think so, and he spends a lot of the book’s 528 pages proving to his satisfaction that mathematics and physics and computer science and general relativity are on his side. In one way, this is a book-length rationalization where physics are used to prove wishful thinking. Or at least that’s the impression I got. But I’m no scientist, and the 150-pages “Appendix for Scientists” (where the book’s equations are carefully contained, though this is no way implies that the rest of the book is unusually accessible.) looks exactly like the kind of stuff that should intimidate me into silence. As Tipler points out in his foreword to the Appendix, “the science (here) is extremely interdisciplinary. To comprehend it all without reference to a research library would require Ph.D.s in at least three disparate fields: (1) global general relativity, (2) theoretical particle physics, and (3) computer complexity theory” [P.395] Oookay.

But that doesn’t mean that I can’t comment the book from the perspective of a science-fiction reader, right? In the absence of rigorous peer-reviewed eschatology papers in Nature, it may be the most appropriate way to tackle it. (Certainly, some of the book’s premises are already untenable; ten years later, the “Big Crunch” is thought unlikely to happen) There is no shame in browsing parts of this book for lack of interest; not everyone is dying to know how Tipler’s “Omega Point” theory fits with other major religions, much like few will care about the topology of a contracting universe.

The least you can say is that Tipler thinks big. Universe-wide concepts reaching to the end of time are bandied about with ease, through -ironically enough-, SF readers are liable to feel restless through them, as they’re either taken straight from SF or have since been re-appropriated. As a fun theoretical supposition to play with, the “Omega Point” theory is a nifty thing: With it, you can effortlessly tie THE MATRIX with God, time-travel and faster-than-light voyages.

It’s even more interesting as a philosophical point, though: By arguing that God doesn’t yet exist, but will be created by the perfection of humankind, Tipler is essentially shifting religion from the past (and the creation of the universe) to the future, leaving aside the still-troubling questions of where the universe came from. And yet the practical “moral guidance” implied by a resurrection by the hands of a future God is identical to traditional theology: work hard at perfecting the world so that your descendants can keep making progress toward the Omega Point, and do so nicely, because this future God may not want to resurrect its undeserving ancestors. Cute, and entirely consistent with the pro-knowledge, good-triumphs-over-evil ethos of traditional Science Fiction.

If only for that, here’s a lot to like from The Physics of Immortality, even though it’s kind of cruel to ask readers to slog through hundreds of pages to get to that point. There’s no denying that Tipler’s book is almost the ultimate in self-rationalization. Even though I’m looking at it from a singularly uninformed perfective, it doesn’t strike me as serious science nor serious theology. But the central point is worth mulling about. And, who knows, it may even act as a source for other good SF stories…

The Cabinet of Curiosities, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Warner, 2002, 466 pages, C$36.95 hc, ISBN 0-446-53022-0

At first glance, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s The Cabinet of Curiosities seems to be breaking new ground for the authors: The dust jacket promises a mystery in which a contemporary serial killer uses the deadly signature of a long-dead historical murderer. But don’t be mislead; in most ways, this is yet another rather good Preston/Child thriller, with their typical flaws and strengths.

Even though there’s a great deal of emphasis on historical New York, this isn’t even remotely similar to Caleb Carr’s historical mysteries: For one thing, the action is set strictly in the present. For another, The Cabinet of Curiosity is a clear descendant of the authors’ previous thrillers. The protagonists are characters from previous novels: Archaeologist Nora Kelly and journalist Bill Smithback, fresh from Thunderhead and still dating after her move to New York. Then there’s Special Agent Pendergast, in a follow-up performance after Relic and Reliquary. And there is no doubt that The Cabinet of Curiosities is his novel: Even before the novel gets underway, Pendergast is introduced with an appropriate amount of panache: while the two other novels gave a hint of his personality, this is the first one to truly explore the dimensions of his character, a modern-day Sherlock Holmes with quasi-supernatural mental tricks up his sleeve and a fabulous lifestyle that, yes, is somewhat explained in the course of the novel. While Nora and Bill are not uninteresting (Smithback’s mistakes are constantly infuriating), they pale in comparison to Pendergast.

But this is a genre novel with the firm intention to thrill, and so it’s no surprise if Pendergast himself pales in comparison to the plot and atmosphere. Like with Relic and its sequel, the action initially revolves around the New York Museum of Natural History, a fantastic neo-gothic establishment dropped straight in the middle of New York City. Something evil still lurks within the labyrinth of the Museum, if not in New York City itself.

Almost all Preston-Child novels so far have included elements of archaeology, and this one is no exception. Like with Reliquary, New York City is revealed as a treasure-trove of secrets hidden under ordinary apartment, on dusty archive files or in abandoned mansions. The historical mystery aspect of The Cabinet of Curiosity is one of the book’s chief delights and an engine for some powerful scenes, including one in which a basement apartment in Chinatown ends up being an ideal starting point for an archaeological dig. Indeed, fans of edutainment will probably learn a lot about how those charming “cabinet of curiosities” of the nineteenth century eventually became the starting point for our modern museums.

Just be sure to set aside enough time to read this novel; like the author’s other works, but perhaps even more so than their previous books, The Cabinet of Curiosities is a ferociously slick page-turner. It’s hard to slow down, let alone stop reading. Characterization is part of the book’s appeal and so is the carnival of fascinating details, but the clarity of the prose itself is impeccable. Coupled with good pacing, it goes straight to the core of the story and doesn’t let go. Its unfortunate that the drawn-out climax leads to a conclusion that smack too much of deus ex machina, and that some early coincidences are never convincingly explained. Not that it’ll slow down anyone.

It’s become a staple of Preston-Child novels (in the tradition of most techno-thrillers) to punish any intellectual ambition and cork genies back into their bottles. So it’s no surprise to see the triumphant ending of The Cabinet of Curiosities sport some variant of the usual “there are things that humankind should know” crap. (Yes, a lot like Riptide and The Ice Limit; too much knowledge is seen as an evil thing) This, coupled with what seems to be a growing tendency to recycle their cast of characters, certainly makes me worry about their long-term plans. If they’re not willing to gamble their entire universe at the end of the novel, why care? Wouldn’t it be a lot more interesting for the genie to escape from the bottle? Oh well; I guess that’s why they invented real Science Fiction: To go where timid thriller writers fear to go…

But if Preston-Child’s next efforts are as interesting as The Cabinet of Curiosities, there isn’t much to worry about; their narrative abilities are getting better even as their prose is leaner and cleaner. Save from some late-book problems, there’s not a lot to dislike here: Perfect entertainment!

Author Unknown, Don Foster

Henry Holt, 2000, 318 pages, C$38.95 hc, ISBN 0-8050-6357-9

Literary sleuth! It sounds like a concept for an unlikely comic-book superhero, but Don Foster was, for a while, the world’s closest equivalent to such a thing: Someone who could sit down at a computer, read volumes and volumes of prose, develop a feel for the mind of the author and then apply this feel to evaluate the authenticity of a suspicious piece of writing. Whether the object is scholarly or criminal, curious or political, Author Unknown is a fascinating exploration in literary analysis and a book that should make any author nervous.

Don Foster became a literary sleuth by accident. A graduate student in English Studies, he became fascinated by the possibility that an obscure pseudonymous poem may have been written by none other William Shakespeare himself. The results of his investigation led to media notoriety, then on to the analysis of “Anonymous”’s Primary Colors and, later, criminal investigations. Author Unknown is part biography, part explanation regarding the amusing art and science of textual analysis.

The most intriguing chapter is doubtlessly the prologue, a breathless tour through his office in which he promises much… to be told later in the book. True crime fans may take note, however, that no criminal investigations are detailed in Author Unknown: For reasons of confidentiality, Foster wasn’t able to share the content of his files in this area. An understandable decision, but also a disappointing one given the wealth of material he alludes to.

More satisfying is his “unmasking” of William Shakespeare, the cornerstone case of his career. It’s a fascinating chapter not because of Shakespeare’s ID, but because it takes us through the treacherous halls of academia. It’s also deeply amusing in how it (twice) demonstrates Foster using his textual-analysis skills to pierce the identity of “anonymous” peer-reviewers. Alas, don’t believe everything you read, especially not the conclusion: Some quick Googling for (“Don Foster” Shakespeare “John Ford”) will give you the not-so-triumphant epilogue to this tale.

On the other hand, the second chapter is pure dynamite: It concerns Foster’s search for the identity of “Anonymous”, the pseudonymous author behind the political satire Primary Colors that so fascinated official Washington D.C. in early 1996. Foster details, in vivid prose, how he came to be hired for the job and how he managed to identify journalist Joe Klein as the true author. It’s by far the best tale of the book in part because there’s a clear conclusion. After months of nearly pathological denials, Klein was confronted with further evidence and confessed. Such definite resolutions aren’t common elsewhere in Author Unknown.

For instance, Chapter Three proceeds backwards, taking the identity of the Unabomber and working backwards to “prove” that he could have been connected to Ted Kaczynski well before his brother turned him in. Chapter Four is a classic exercise in frustration: The Monicagate “talking points memo” are analyzed without a straight conclusion and it doesn’t help that the subject really just isn’t exciting.

The last two chapters are a mixed bag. Chapter Five is an exercise through a small community of writers in an effort to prove that a pseudonym was not that of Kurt Vonnegut. Chapter Six is an exploration of the true author of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”, a subject about which I couldn’t be any less interested. The conclusion states Foster’s intention to retire from this crazy stuff, which obviously brings the book to an end.

Obviously, this Author Unknown is a mixed bag. The Primary Colors chapter is excellent material, especially if you’re familiar with the original novel. The Shakespeare chapter is interesting, but ultimately less than convincing. Pynchon fans won’t be the only ones to enjoy Chapter Five, but it’ll take die-hard political junkies to care about the “Talking Points” memo. As for the rest, your mileage will vary.

On the other hand, it’s impossible for even amateur writers to read Author Unknown without becoming acutely self-conscious about just any type of writing. Foster’s insistence on unconscious “signatures” is convincing, and it’s fertile material for paranoid thinking, especially for those engaging in pseudonymous writing. Authors: Don’t read this book before bedtime! The Literary Sleuth is after you!

Deepsix, Jack McDevitt

EOS, 2001, 432 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-06-105124-1

[Disclaimer: I received a copy of Deepsix straight from EOS after winning one of their online contests. This review wasn’t solicited, but I always feel better specifying which books I didn’t buy.]

Every author has its own set of pet obsessions, and after half a dozen Jack McDevitt novels, it’s fair to say that he’s got a major fascination for history and archaeology. Invented future histories and archaeologies, mind you; his protagonists are constantly digging through ruins, uncovering past secrets and saving precious relics. That they do so in the far future, about ancient events (to them) that haven’t yet happened (to us) is part of the attraction.

Perhaps his best novel to date is The Engines of God, which starts with a bang as a team of archaeologists races against time to save alien artifacts from certain destruction from an imminent Richter-10 earthquake. If you want an idea of Deepsix‘s plot, take the tension of that opener and spread it over 400 pages.

The links to The Engines of God run a little deeper than that, actually: Deepsix takes place in the same universe, and also stars plucky pilot Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchins. This time, the planet being threatened with total destruction is Maleiva III. At the start of the novel, mere days remain until it’s slated to be absorbed by a gas giant in a cosmic game of pool. But things are never simple in a McDevitt novel: Suddenly, after decades of neglect, a last-minute expedition discovers remnants of an advanced civilization. Interesting, but there are further complications: There aren’t enough ships nor qualified personnel to explore the planetary surface.

None? Not so fast: Hutch is nearby, along with a capable planetary lander. So she’s ordered to go take a look. Of course, stuff happens, tragedy strikes and before you know it, they’re stuck on the surface of the planet with no way to get back to safety. Ay-yay-yay, what next?

Well, what’s next is the bulk of the novel, a grand-scale rescue attempt involving treks over vast distances, fancy orbital mechanics, abandoned equipment from a disastrous mission decades earlier, tantalizing alien mysteries and a nick-of-time conclusion. McDevitt is too much of a professional to simply write a smash’em-up brawl, and so his heroes have to rely on their cleverness and toughness far more than their strength or aggressiveness. Running against them: corporate greed, human faults and simple incompetence. Whew!

As a straight-up action/adventure SF, Deepsix is maybe a touch too long, but it certainly fits the bill. The thrills are there and the delicious balance between hope and doom is effectively maintained. Characterization is initially shaky, but all characters come to emerge effectively —even the ones that may not be overly likable at first. Then there’s the writing; like most other aspects of the book, it takes a while to engage, but eventually develops its own nice little cruising speed. There’s no need to be fancy when writing a book of this nature, and so Deepsix flows unimpeded.

The problems arise when trying to consider Deepsix as anything more than a Science Fiction adventure. While there are enough interesting details, here and there, to set this story in a believable future, there isn’t much that’s startlingly new or original. The Engines of God could rely on a staggering concept, but Deepsix is merely an adventure. I suppose that most readers will be satisfied, but as far as the state of the art goes, this isn’t it.

But I don’t think it’s a serious problem for McDevitt. He’s written other fine adventures before (See Moonfall for his version of a catastrophe movie) and other more ambitious novels as well. This one happens to fall in the first category and not the second. I’ll be there for his next books, but hoping that they’ll be more similar to his other novels than the merely adequate Deepsix.

Hart’s War, John Katzenbach

Ballantine, 1999, 551 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-42625-8

It’s impossible to be a genre fiction reader and not admire John Katzenbach’s audacity when it comes to Hart’s War‘s premise. What if, during World War II, there was a murder investigation set in a prisoner-of-war camp? Can you say “genre blender”? Can you enjoy a story mixing war elements, prison stories and courtroom drama? Of course you can. So buckle up and enjoy the ride.

Most of Hart’s War is seen through the viewpoint of Tommy Hart, an aviator doing his best to endure the misery of his internment in a German prisoner-of-war camp. That is, until a new prisoner is introduced in the volatile mix; Leo Scott, a black airman from the famed Tuskegee unit. Racial tensions run high and Scott isn’t dumb or meek; he quickly sets himself apart from the other men in the camp through his haughty and aggressive behaviour. So when popular “Trader” Vic is murdered after a long period of acrimony between the two men, Scott is quickly accused of murder. Under the Nazi’s amused stares, the Allied prisoners arrange for a speedy court-martial. But who is unlucky enough to be designated defence lawyer? Why, Tommy Hart, of course. In the absence of qualified lawyers, his stint at Harvard Law School is more than enough to allow everyone to maintain appearances of a fair trial.

So much for his plans to stay as discreet as possible while waiting for the end of the war: In the absence of anything more worthwhile to do, the trial quickly becomes a lighting rod for the latent tension in the camp. Assisted by expert British legal advice and capable Canadian muscle, Hart himself has to develop fancy survival skills in an environment where murder may be a front for something much more dangerous…

The beauty of Hart’s War is how it seamlessly plays with elements of three very different genres to form a coherent whole. The book’s characters are plunged in an unusual situation, while their actions are constrained with deliciously complicated obstacles. This, in turn, makes the lines between allies and enemies rather less than definite. There are more than enough surprising twists and turns to keep anyone interested in the story.

If the above plot summary seems like a crass attempt at throwing genres together to see what sticks, well, that may not be far from the truth. But it would also be ignoring that Katzenbach’s book is a slick and massively entertaining yarn. Among many other virtues, it’s a well-told tale that does justice to its premise and its plotting. Katzenbach may not be a particularly artful scribe, but his utilitarian prose works wonders at driving the story forward. Hart’s War is a page-turner in the best old-school sense of the expression. You may know when you’ll start to read it, but you can only guess at when you’ll want to stop.

Time and time again, the book takes an unexpected tack. Some of them don’t work (the ending section is overlong and sends what was up to that point a thriller into more straightforward action territory), some of them are a bit silly (Hart takes forever to guess the “true” story behind the murder, even though it’s patently obvious to most readers) and some of them work beyond any reasonable expectation: The contemporary scenes that frame the story are unexpectedly moving even though they’re patently manipulative.

Yes, a film was adapted from the book. But while I rather like the film, the book is much better. Less blatantly message-driven (the wonderfully acerbic Scott is an inspired character, one whose flaws are integral to the book’s arc), more realistic (Hart’s not a recent arrival like in the film) and considerably deeper when it comes to the details of prison-life, Hart’s War is still worth a detour for those who are familiar with the film adaptation.

All-around successful thrillers should be celebrated. With a brilliant premise, great execution and straightforward prose, Hart’s War has more than enough to deserve a look from everyone looking for a good story. Heck, it’s almost as if you get three for the price of one.

The Silk Code, Paul Levinson

Tor, 1999, 308 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-56775-7

One should be lenient about an author’s first novel. The poor writer is just stretching his or her writing muscles without the benefit of latter career experience. Even though editors are there to prevent a first novel from going totally awry, there’s a limit to what they can do to correct amateur structural problems. Latter books are usually conceived with some experience with this whole publishing thing.

Being a book reader rather than a magazine reader, I’m not terribly familiar with Paul Levinson’s body of short stories. Still, Levinson’s “The Mendelian Lamp Case” was a bright spot in David G. Hartwell’s Year’s Best SF 3 anthology (1998), enough so that I could remember details of its premise -secret biological warfare between the Amish and another shadowy group- even years later. The Silk Code is a direct descendant of that short story, reprising most of it in its first section. But whereas protagonist/investigator Phil D’Amato escaped the short story leaving a few threads dangling, the novel goes deeper in the mystery, first by going back in time and then by telling the rest of the story.

The first section has problems, but they’re acceptable in the context of a short-story-turned-introduction. The pacing is a touch too rushed, for instance: as the deaths pile up, it feels as if the plot is moving too quickly for its own good. But it’s a rousing good read and a pretty unusual SF piece; what if, under our nose, overlooked “backwards” groups had managed to master what we consider to be high technology? Add to that the appeal of rural Pennsylvania as a fresh SF setting and it’s not hard to see why “The Mendelian Lamp Case” was so lauded. As the first part of a longer work, it’s not nearly as effective, but -who knows- maybe it would lead to better things.

Those “better things” certainly aren’t the second part of the book, a long detour through 750 AD history to make a point that is succinctly summarized later in the book. As a device to keep readers on the hook for the rest of the adventure, it works more as a roadblock than an interesting segue.

Things pick up in the third section onward. We’re back in contemporary times as Phil D’Amato is faced with an intriguing mystery as he has to entertain the possibility of Neanderthals living among us. Meanwhile, the occult war hinted at in the first section continues unabated, along with plenty of Amish tricks and weird occurrences. Levinson is a very smart man, and his considerable erudition shows throughout the book by way of digressions, exposition and educated conversations. Some are obvious, most are fascinating and many actually work quite well.

Which is more than I could say for the novel as a coherent unit. The breakneck pacing of the first section continues unabated and a ridiculous pile of corpses accumulates as the chapters fly by. Worse is the lack of clear focus, as D’Amato goes from one country, one faction, one mysterious character to another and another and yet another. There is a lot of movement, but not much development. The rushed conclusion feels forced, as if plot threads are cut rather than tied together. D’Amato himself seems like a curiously low-key investigator: I suppose that had I read other stories by Levinson, I might have some built-in sympathy for the character. But I haven’t, and so I don’t.

Then there’s the “Canadian thing”. It’s unfair to criticize a book based on a three-page humorous passage, but there’s a puzzling aside on pages 167-169 where D’Amato has to deal with obstinate Canadian custom officers (“’Will there be Canadian scientists at this seminar? Are you taking in account the contributions that Canadians have made in the area?’”) and praise New York at the expense of Toronto. Maybe this is based on real-life incidents; otherwise, well, it seemed a bit mean. (“What was the law here? Were you even innocent until proved guilty?”) I may have shrugged it off if it hadn’t confirmed a completely bone-headed comment about Canadian culture made by Levinson at Torcon3. Separately, both comments may have been dismissed; together, they indicate someone who ought to know better despite his erudition in other areas.

While “the Canadian thing” doesn’t amount to much in the overall scheme of things, it might have crystallized a latent disappointment with the way the novel is handled. Despite the fantastic concepts, the new ideas and the grand concepts, I wasn’t particularly bowled over by the overall sweep of the story. Here’s hoping I’m just being a cranky Canadian: Maybe his next novel will be better…

Twisted (2004)

(In theaters, February 2004) Another year, another Ashley Judd thriller. But whereas such films as Double Jeopardy and High Crimes were formula films with moments of deep stupidity, Twisted is a deeply stupid thriller with moments of pure formula. Here, characters act like twisted puppets of a mad screenwriter who has lived on a diet of Joe Ezterhas exploitation films. Nothing makes real-world sense and people do ominous things simply to plant red herrings. Ironically enough, this “twisted” films ends up having one of the tritest endings in recent memory. Don’t be surprised if you figure out the “twist” minutes or even hours before the supposedly top-notch detective. The exasperating dialogues are obvious and devoid of artfulness or subtlety. The same goes for the acting and, heck, the cinematography: Despite taking place in ultra-photogenic San Francisco, Twisted settles for a dull series of waterfront shots and interminable apartment scenes. If you ever wanted to see a straight-to-video film accidentally released in theatres, look no further.

The Perfect Score (2004)

(In theaters, February 2004) “It’ll be like The Breakfast Club” says one of the characters at one point, which is highly appropriate given that The Perfect Score often feels like a cross between a typical teen ensemble comedy and a heist film in the Ocean’s Eleven vein. Here, the object of desire is not money or diamonds, but self-esteem and future success in the form of SAT test results. Six different students with their own reasons join up and try to infiltrate the offices where the answers are located. It’s an excuse for a teen comedy, sure, and the “suspense” isn’t as much in whether they’ll get the answers, but in if it’s going to do them any good. (It’s carefully neutered for the parental approval of all; this is no edgy morality tale, oh no) At least the film shines when it comes to the characters; while the characterization may not be all that deep, it’s adequate, and there’s good fun in seeing Scarlett Johanssen run around as a goth girl with a pink wig after her turn in the oh-so-serious Lost In Translation. While Erica Christiansen is as hot as usual with her flawless complexion (but how much CGI was needed for such perfect skin?), it’s Leonardo Nam who steals the show as the stoner narrator “Roy”. There are plenty of technical mistakes (disappearing cameras, lousy computer security, lack of police common-sense) but it’s all in good fun, with a few oddball gags (such as a shot-perfect parody of The Matrix) thrown in for good measure. The usual teen movie stuff, worth a look for brain-free entertainment.

La Mystérieuse mademoiselle C. [The Mysterious Miss C] (2002)

(On DVD, February 2004) Surprisingly engaging kid’s film, partly about love of reading and the goodness of libraries. (How can you not love a film about that?) There is the usual amount of cheap kiddie pandering, ill-used “hip” kid-speak, dumb character moments and not a lot of emotional depth, but it is, after all, a film for the young ones. As such, it’s still more than good enough to hold on to any adult’s attention. The directing is surprisingly engaging (woo, moving cameras!), and the acting talent is fine. Story-wise, the “beauty and the beast” interludes are interesting, but repetitive as they don’t add much to the film: the title character remains frustratingly distant, molded as she is in a deliberately mysterious role. The DVD is a touch disappointing, offering few special features and, in fact, not even any subtitles.

House Of Sand And Fog (2003)

(In theaters, February 2004) It doesn’t take a long time, through the leaden cinematography and the ominous performances, to understand that this is not a story that will have a happy ending. As a house becomes a battleground for a desperate young woman (Jennifer Connelly, as willing as ever to sink in an unglamourous role) and a hardened Iranian immigrant (Ben Kingsley, in a masterful performance), the conflict involves more and more victims in the spiral. Forget about antagonists and protagonists; here, everyone is a victim, and that’s never so true than at the end of the film. This emotional demolition derby ends with only one person standing. (Alas, it ends at that moment, with scarcely any nod at the aftermath) This is the stuff “dramas” are made of; it may not be pleasant to watch, but it’s unarguably powerful. The directing is sober, making ample place for the cinematography and the performances. The plot is a sadistic exercise in rock-throwing, so don’t be surprised as some of the more outlandish twists and turns; it’s not playing fair in its pursuing of pure pathos. Not a particularly good choice for entertainment, unless you seek reassurance that your own situation is not, in fact, so desperate.

Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada and the Myth of Converging Values, Michael Adams

Penguin Canada, 2003, 224 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-14-301422-6

As a teenage Canadian during the early nineties, it was easy to feel pessimistic about the future of my country: The free-trade agreement was being expanded to include all of North America, the Meech accord had failed and a recession was going on even as the government still spent like a drunken sailor. Common wisdom had it that, sooner or later, Canada was due for an ultimate absorption into the United States. After all, weren’t the two countries so similar anyway?

But don’t assume that this kind of thinking was a product of the nineties; ever since Confederation, Canadian history has been dominated by this fear of American hegemony. What’s new, though, is Canada’s growing disbelief in this “myth of converging values.” As Michael Adams sets out to argue in his numbers-enhanced book-length op-ed Fire and Ice, Canada may in fact be at the threshold of a mature understanding of itself as a distinct entity from the United States.

The genius -and chief distinguishing characteristic- of Fire and Ice is that it’s based on new data extracted from polls conducted in 1992, 1996 and 2000. Adams’ polling company (Environics) conducted surveys in both Canada and the US, asking respondents to agree or disagree with statement designed to measure their attitudes toward social values. Those answers were grouped together to evaluate respondents’ social values, which are then plotted on a two-scale map running from Individuality to Authority on one scale, and from Survival to Fulfilment on the other.

When Adams started comparing the answers of Canadian respondents to Americans, he saw clear differences. In the book’s most shocking example, when pollsters asked (in 2000) if respondents agreed with the statement “the father of the family must be master in his own home”, 18 percent of Canadians agreed, whereas fully 49 percent of Americans answered affirmatively. (In response to another question, 44% of Americans in 2000 agreed that “a widely advertised product is probably good” versus merely 17% of Canadians.)

Even more striking: When Adams started comparing results of his surveys from 1992 to 2000, he not only saw important differences between Canadian and American social values (Canadians generally being more individualist and more fulfilment-oriented than Americans), but also saw them headed in increasingly divergent direction: Canada toward Individuality/Fulfilment, and the US toward Individuality/Survival.

The numbers get more and more interesting as Adams digs into subgroups. Among all age groups, for instance, the relative positions of Canadians versus Americans remains generally constant, but the divergence gets stronger as one goes down the age groups, suggesting than contrarily to popular belief, the difference between younger Americans and Canadians is increasing compared to their elders. More interestingly, regional dissection of social attitudes revealed a Canada clearly different, even region by region, from the United States. Quebec and British Columbia at one end of the social scale, and the American Deep South at the other extremity.

All of those numbers are spun in a compelling argument about the divergent nature of both countries. Adams is clear in his belief that Canada is becomes an increasingly diverse and socially mature country. He’s not quite as certain of the evolution of trends in the US. Ironically enough, one of the most striking suggestions in Fire and Ice has to do with the American “culture war”. While opponents on both sides of the debate agree that it’s a tug-of-war between conservative and liberal ideology, Adams argues that his number are not showing “winners” in one direction or another, but an orthogonal disaffection with both sides. In the book’s terminology, the conflict between the Authority/Survival values and the Individuality/Fulfilment values are in fact resulting in a massive shift toward Individuality/Survival. (Or, in cruder words, a nihilistic “I get mine; screw you” attitude in a culture already predisposed toward violence.)

All of which draws up a highly comforting portrait if you happen to be a Canadian or think like one. Adams makes his case with lively writing, plenty of pop-culture references, occasional slams at the Bush administration and a few well-used charts and editorial cartoons. By suggesting that Canada is not only different, but is also evolving in a “better” society than its southern neighbour, Fire and Ice is like catnip to Canadian liberals. I’d love to read American reviews of it.

I do have a few reservations, mind you. Many of Adam’s examples feel cherry-picked for maximal impact. Even though it’s an argument visibly based on numbers, said numbers are still hidden in Environics’ proprietary databases. It’s also too easy to make sweeping statements based on three data points. The next step would be to conduct the poll again in 2004 and see if the trends are maintained. [February 2004: I was lucky enough to be able to contact Michael Adams by email, and he confirmed that Environics hopes to perform another North-American values survey in late 2004.]

Certainly, Fire and Ice finds a lot of validation in what one may gather from news and current social trends. If the 2000-2004 period has proved anything for Canadians, it’s that it’s quite possible to disagree with the United States. To be more precise, while every Canadian may have felt like an American on September 12, 2001 (and don’t look at me like that: I was on Parliament Hill with 100,000 other silent Canadians as we mourned 9/11), the aftermath, including the American Invasion of Iraq, proved far more divisive than anything else in recent memory. Canada found spiritual kinship in Europe, not in America.

What more, the arguments expounded in Fire and Ice resonate with plenty of other recent social commentary. Watch BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE again and tell me with a straight face that America isn’t regressing toward values centred on fearful survival. (Indeed, the Canadian segment of the documentary can almost act as a précis for Adams’ thesis) In an America gating itself in restricted communities, ever-more fearful of poverty and foreigners, isn’t Canada a counter-example worth admiring? One of the virtues of Fire and Ice is how it doesn’t simply lays out the differences between both countries, but also makes educated guesses as to why the land of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness seems to be less free than the land of peace, order and good government.

Adams’ argument also finds jaw-dropping resonance in another recent book, Robert Kagan’s Of Paradise and Power, a treatise on the growing rift between American and Europe when it comes to defence and foreign policy. Kagan argues that America is choosing Power (economic and military) whereas Europe is headed toward a post-modern Paradise of multilateralism and tolerance. Faced between those two choices, Canada’s logical alternative seems obvious. It’s difficult to escape the feeling that both Kagan and Adams are describing the same thing from different perspective, Kagan being strategic while Adams focuses on the tactical. The portrait, in both cases, h
as an innate bleakness: The fracturing of the western democracies in two factions, one fully enjoying its position in history while the other one becomes paranoid and aggressive. Kind of takes the extra oomph out of being a kinder, gentler country, doesn’t it?

In any case, Fire and Ice is a lot to digest in a few dozen pages. (Its main text is barely 144 pages long; the rest of the book is made out of more technical appendices) It’s a whole new social theory, but one that definitely looks like reality. Adams makes a forceful case, and his gentle flag-waving nationalism is a pleasure to read, not just because it happens to be pleasant, but also because it’s written in delightfully readable prose.

Time and a few more surveys will tell if Adams is on the right track and if our new divergent values will, indeed, keep diverging. In the meantime, though, Fire and ice is likely to be picked up by thousands of interested readers and dozens of university-grade social studies classes. Maybe it’s even headed toward self-prophecy. Who knows? While Adams may spend the first few pages of Fire and Ice explaining why its thesis is so counterintuitive, it comes at a time where the nation (officially declared “cool” by no less an authority than The Economist) finds itself dealing with something new; self-confidence.

Because, really, when was the last time you heard a Canadian complaining about the inevitability of assimilation? We left that in the twentieth century, baby!

[April 2009: A new edition of Fire and Ice is now in stores, and if it doesn’t update the main text of the book, it does provide a new 30-pages preface that reflects upon the last few years and presents the latest data from Environics’ 2007-2008 household surveys. Bad news for those who thought that The Obama/Harper combo meant that the nations were growing closer together: Adams’ data suggests that not much has changed in the past few years, and that the nations are still on divergent paths.]

Elephant (2003)

(In theaters, February 2004) This is a very frustrating film. As a naturalistic, quasi-documentary representation of a high-school shooting, it’s simultaneously pointless and brilliant. Gus Van Sant is an experienced director and Elephant is never better than when it develops its chronology of events through alternate overlapping viewpoints; the camera literally follows one character, then another, then another and it eventually interlocks to forms an almost-coherent picture of what just happened in the span of a few minutes. There are delicious moments of “don’t go there!” suspense as we develop an understanding what is happening at the same moment. (Pay attention, though, and you’ll discover at least one vexing moment of mismatching chronology. Hint; follow the “we’ll be back by one-thirty” line.) Alas, the genius of the premise is not equalled by the execution: the real-time camera moves can be exasperating (“A powerful film about getting from Point A to Point B!”), there are some technical goofs (street is dry; street is wet) and not all flashbacks work equally well. Worse, perhaps, is the film’s lack of an impact: While Van Saint should be commended from turning his film in a message about something, Elephant falls into the opposite trap –to present but not enlighten. Some live, most die arbitrarily, but there is no dramatic arc, no attempt at a resolution. Even the film’s final frames leave a lot unsolved and unexplained. Good point for realism, but this is a mere embryo of what could have been done with the concept.

The Butterfly Effect (2004)

(In theaters, February 2004) Surprise surprise: In the rush to dismiss The Butterfly Effect as yet another career move by it-boy Ashton Kutcher, most seems to have missed the fact that this is, in fact, quite a good film. It doesn’t take a long time to realize that this is a lot darker than anyone could guess. Within the first few unnerving minutes, child abuse, murder, rape, suicide and supernatural creeps are all trotted out in horror-film fashion. It’s not pretty nor engaging, but it works; soon enough, the film presents the usual time-travel premise in a fairly original manner. But what the rather clever script does with it is progressively darker, with scant relief. Now, before anyone gets too enthusiastic, it’s worth pointing out that the film makes less and less sense the closer you peer at it: The time-travel mechanism evolves in pure wishful thinking, while the time-travel paradoxes get more obvious as multiple time-lines are spun. (The protagonist’s motivations are also suspect, but at least the other characters have the guts to call him on it) Still, there’s no denying that the film works rather well on its own as a B-grade supernatural thriller in the Final Destination vein. Kutcher himself does a good job, even though the supporting actors all steal the show as they have to incarnate vastly different versions of themselves. Often uncomfortable but seldom less than intriguing, The Butterfly Effect achieves what it sets out to do. Heck, it even pays appropriate to Ray Bradbury in a split-second visual gag.

Barbershop 2: Back in Business (2004)

(In theaters, February 2004) This follow-up to the surprise 2002 “black comedy” hit may not have the elegance of its prequel, but it’ll prove more than worthwhile enough for fans of the first film. All protagonists are back for a second cut, and their arc is a natural extension of the first film. This sequel certainly seems to have more money to play with, as the action regularly goes outside the barbershop and around Chicago over a period of several weeks. In a way, that’s unfortunate; the original had a wonderful sense of spacio-temporal unity, a “day in the life” in a barbershop that acted as a refuge against the cold winter. Here, it’s summer and the action hops here and there and even across decades as there are several flashbacks in Eddie’s life. They don’t all work as effectively. The other thing that the sequel has over the original is a sense of what it’s doing, but this self-awareness often translates into self-conscious showboating. The easy, unassuming freshness of the original is somewhat dulled. Then there’s the setup for the next instalment of the franchise, Beauty Shop, which doesn’t quite feel as an organic part of the story. Oh well; at least the actors are having fun and so are we. Warning for French-Canadians or other people without an ear for inner-city slang: You may want to take advantage of a subtitled version to understand some of the rapid dialogue.

The Poet, Michael Connelly

Warner, 1996, 501 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60261-2

Michael Connelly has done it again. At a time where I’m quite willing to throw the towel on Yet Another Serial Killer Mystery, he manages to produce a gripping mystery novel about… a serial killer.

It doesn’t start out that way, of course. All that narrator/protagonist Jack McEvoy knows is that his brother Sean is dead. Jack is a journalist on the crime beat. Sean was a homicide detective before killing himself with his service revolver. But there is something strange about the death, a suicide note quoting Edgar Allan Poe. Did Sean truly pull the trigger on himself?

Digging deeper, Jack uncovers another suicide with troubling similarities to his brother’s case, a second homicide detective, miles away, killing himself after leaving a note quoting Poe. What is the link? Has Jack discovered a story he can’t handle? The Poet goes on from there, as it becomes more and more obvious that someone, out there, is hunting the hunters.

Connelly’s reputation for slick crime fiction needs no further bolstering, but works like The Poet are what makes him so great. Serial Killers are, by now, a cliché of crime fiction. It takes some imagination to wring a twist or two out of the concept. In this case, the identity of the victims is a twist; it’s not giving away much that the identity of the killer(s?) is another. Some passages, details and situations show Connelly at his most clever self.

Fortunately, this isn’t a contemptuous sort of cleverness. The Poet doesn’t take a long time to earn the interest of its readers with its grieving first-person narration, uncluttered close and steady narrative thrust. The novel keeps switching gears to make things interesting: Jack’s solo investigation is soon co-opted by larger forces and he’s swept along with the rest of them in a very different story.

“The rest of them” is an interesting bunch of characters, most well-defined according to their role in the plot, and as competent as they can be. Nearly all major characters have a pleasing depth to them, and even the tale’s villains prove to be a lot more interesting than usual. As a narrator, Jack has seen so much of the dark side that he’s the next best thing to a hard-boiled detective protagonist. He starts both first and last chapter with the reminder that “Death is my beat” and often, you get a feeling that death has beaten Jack McEvoy at his own game. One can only speculate as to the similitudes between McEvoy and Connelly, himself a crime reporter before turning to the crime-fiction trade.

As may be expected from the work of an ex-journalist, the wealth of procedural details to be found in Connelly’s book is mesmerizing. We get the feeling of an insider’s view of FBI profiling procedures as Jack is reluctantly made a member of an unusual investigation. As clues are discovered, planted or disproved, the investigation becomes more and more twisted. Connelly plays the mystery fiction game like a grandmaster; even as he honestly manipulates his reader in thinking something, he surprises them with a counter-twist. In some ways, this is a mystery novel for those who are jaded of mysteries; his narrative is stuffed with double and triple twists in an effort to surprise even those who think they can figure it all out.

This elaborate game of subterfuge between author and reader can take its toll, though: The ending is a bit drawn out, and feels a little artificial in how the twists are finally revealed. After so many procedural details, it’s also surprising to see how little of the villain’s motivation is revealed. There is also a palpable lessening of tension as the precise timing and identity of the rescuing cavalry is never in doubt. But that’s small potatoes of complaints after such an exhilarating book. Clearly, this novel deserves all the acclaim it can get.

The Poet is a complete entertainment package. It works on all levels, from characterization to plotting to the way the words are strung together. While it falters when comes the moment to present a conclusion, it’s still good enough to uphold Connelly’s reputation as one of today’s best crime novelist. Whether you’re contemplating beach reading or fireside reading, don’t miss it.