Monthly Archives: March 2004

Souls, Slavery and Survival in the Molenotech Age, Lin Sten

Paragon House, 1999, 250 pages, C$37.00 hc, ISBN 1-55778-779-4

As someone with, thanks to Science Fiction, a deep interest in technology and its impact on society, I’m part of the natural audience for an essay like Lin Sten’s Souls, Slavery and Survival in the Molenotech Age. This little-known book, found at a remainder sale, promised much: “Compared to the past gradual evolution of our natural and technological environments,” says the dust jacket blurb, “the rate of evolution in the next decade will be revolutionary. In the new environment, the mans of survival will be so different and the need for adaption so extreme, that few humans may survive.” Hot stuff! Could this be a book-length version of Bill Joy’s qualms in his landmark article “Why the future doesn’t need us?” A critique of nanotechnology by someone unconvinced by The Foresight Institute?

As it happens, Sten’s book is almost exactly that. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to make it worthwhile.

His main thesis is interesting and worth discussing. He fears that with the progress in nanotechnology (here gratuitously called “molecular nanotechnology”, or “molenotechnology” for short) and associated sciences, humanity is headed toward a dead-end of sorts; when people will be able to manufacture tactical nuclear bombs in their home-based Universal Assemblers, human nature will naturally lead to widespread death and destruction. Increasingly omnipotent power in increasingly unaccountable hands is not a recipe for social harmony, despite what most gun advocates will tell you.

It’s an interesting thesis (I myself have referred to something like it as “the rabid wolf problem” in other venues) and so I’m doubly disappointed that Sten wasn’t able to it justice in this book. Sometimes, it’s his fault; sometimes, it’s mine.

Mine first; I have read copiously on nanotech and associated issues. Decades of Science Fiction consumption, occasional scribblings on “Terror in Hard-SF” and outlines for stories yet to be written have, shall we say, made a nanodanger buff out of me. In this context, Sten’s speculations often read as introductions or basic thinking on a complex subject. I can’t reasonably fault him for not pushing the envelope when I know so much about the field, but I can be disappointed that I haven’t been able to find much new material in this book.

But that’s just me; your mileage may vary on this particular subject. On the other hand, this book has other flaws that may run deeper.

The writing and (lack of) organization is one: Despite a relatively uncomplicated vocabulary and a short length, Souls, Slavery and Survival in the Molenotech Age is not very pleasant to read. I suppose that a better editor may have been able to clarify some of the mess and straighten out some dull passages. But as it currently stands, this book is a singularly tepid take on a fascinating subject. That hurts, especially when the goal of the book is to send us in a tizzy of concern. Instead, readers are more likely to shrug.

Then there the “Cabal” issue. As the book advances, more and more time is spent discussing shadowy interest groups, “cabals” of common interest that will some to enslave humanity through ever-more powerful molenotechnology. While I can recognize the inherent danger and historical precedents for such things, Sten’s use of the “cabal” concept is far closer to conspiracy theory than to careful social explanation. It throws a blanket of wacky unreality on a book that desperately wants to be taken seriously. It’s a small detail, but you know how things work: when you’re ambivalent about something, even trifles can have an impact one way or another.

Ultimately, though, I didn’t get the impression of learning much from Souls, Slavery and Survival in the Molenotech Age. There are a few ideas here and there, but few of them haven’t already been mentioned elsewhere in contemporary Science Fiction or in Wired Magazine. No small wonder, then, if the book remains obscure even today.

Double Fold, Nicholson Baker

Vintage, 2001, 370 pages, C$21.00 tpb, ISBN 0-375-72621-7

For someone who spends so much time tinkering with computers and using the Internet, I have a decidedly classical relationship with paper. I love books, I print digital stuff for archiving, I think libraries are holy places, I like the feel of good paper and I can do wonders with cardstock, scissors and a fancy printer. (Raise your hand if you’ve ever made your own book. Uh-huh.) While ebooks are a wonderful thing and have undeniable data advantages over dead-tree versions of the same content, my dead-tree-parts collection is one of my favourite things in the whole world. No data storage backup concerns; no anxiety about the quality of the digital capture; no usability trouble in case of power failure or electromagnetical pulse. I just love paper.

Double Fold is a book for people like me and Nicholson Baker is a guy I like.

Anyone with a college-level education is probably familiar with microfiche. Those tiny black-and-white reproductions are often the only way to consult past issues of newspapers in university libraries. Even as the magical age of digital information advances, there is still plenty of content locked away on those tiny plastic sheets. Anyone who’s used them is also aware of their deficiencies: those muddy, often-unfocused black-and-white reproduction of the original content can often be a headache to read. It would be so much better to be able to consult the original… but where can you put all of those newspapers?

The truth is that several large libraries, until the 1950s, actually did keep, bind and store paper archives of newspapers. Then microfiche came in and promised incredible space savings at very little cost for “the same amount of information”. And so went the bound newspaper paper archives: Sold to the highest bidders or thrown in the trash when they weren’t simply left to rot in damp basements. In several cases, there are no paper copies left of several important newspapers.

That in itself is not a very pleasant thing. But as far as Double Fold goes, it’s merely the tip of the iceberg. Baker spends the rest of the book detailing how, for now more than fifty years, American libraries have vigorously pursued policies that led to the destruction of priceless documents, all in the name of ill-defined conservation, space savings and unfounded worries about the durability of even pulp paper. (The CIA is involved, believe it or not.) It’s a fantastic story, even more so when Baker puts his retirement funs on the line to preserve a few historically-important bound newspaper runs. And that’s not even mentioning Egyptian mummies and explosive de-acidification processes!

Double Fold is as much a documentary as an essay against the incalculable damages brought by short-term thinking in libraries. Books destroyed to make imperfect, often incomplete microfiche copies. Perfectly adequate books discarded over ludicrous “double fold” testing results. The systematic elimination of priceless pieces of history. An all-out war on paper. Even sceptics are likely to be moved as Baker suggests, at the very least, a smoother gradient between the roles occupied by librarians and archivists.

For bookish fellows such as myself, Double Fold is a significant book. Baker does a superb job at revealing the seedy underbelly of libraries, presents exquisitely-researched details (the “notes” section takes up nearly a fifth of the book) and manipulates his audience like a puppet master. It’s informative, frequently outrageous, packed with fascinating details and likely to inspire either tears, disbelieving moans and a fair bit of anger. It deservedly won a National Critic Board award for best non-fiction book of 2002 and it’s likely to inspire both debate and action everywhere it’s read.

Infuriating, fascinating and shocking at times, Double Fold easily gets my recommendation as a must-read if you’re even slightly interested in books. I’d love to press a copy in the hands of every librarian on planet Earth, but in the meantime I’ll be content in shouting out its praise over my web site. If it can eventually save even one book from too-hasty destruction, then it’ll be a job well-done.

Web Design on a Shoestring, Carrie Bickner

New Riders, 2004, 215 pages, C$37.99 tpb, ISBN 0-7357-1328-6

Regular readers of this web site will scarcely be surprised by my librarian fetish (though it still creeps them out). As keepers of books, masters of reference information and holders of library keys, librarians secretly control the world and that just makes them unbelievably hot. (And this regardless of whether they hold their flowing locks of curly hair in a bun or not.) Certainly, Carrie Bickner of www.roguelibrarian.com fame does nothing to quell my fascination for book-indexing ladies. Heck, by embracing the information age and leading the way for web standards, Bickner is the pin-up girl for what modern librarians should be. Entire crowds of geeks mourned when she married master web designer Jeffrey Zeldman (of, yes, www.zeldman.com fame), but she’ll forever remain special to all of us. Who hasn’t bookmarked her NYPL web style guide, already?

With Web Design on a Shoestring, Bickner carries the torch of efficient web standards from the virtual world to the real. The book sets out to help over-worked and under-resourced web professionals do the most with the least. In a post-dot-com-bubble world where the web has remained essential even as budgets for it have shrunk to almost nothing, this book is a sign of the times and a harbinger of things to come. Everyone needs a web site, but there’s not much money for it. Welcome to the real world.

As a public sector web designer and an occasional free-lance web expert, I could read the book as a member of two audiences, and Web Design on a Shoestring does indeed try to cover as many situations as possible. As long as you’re trying to make web design more cost-effective, this book has something to offer.

Bickner, for instance, illustrates the importance of web standards in bringing down costs; by designing to standards and doing cost-efficient usability testing, it’s relatively easy for web designers to sidestep incompatibilities between web browsers, simplify the design template of sites and be reasonably confident that they’re satisfying the vast majority of their audience. Further tips on typography, hosting, images and web writing help the book cover a very large subject.

There is, all told, a lot to like about this book. As is the norm with books by New Riders, it manages to provide a lot of technical information without being dull. The writing style is conversational, often quite amusing. The organization of the book is logical. It’s quick and to the point at just over 200 pages. There are plenty of summary points to recap the book’s most useful passages. Some of the material is unique or very handy, such as the very interesting chapters on Content Management Systems or how to deal with image sources.

Still, I can’t help but feel let down by the book. Having borrowed it from my employer’s corporate library, I’m not very well-placed to say that the book is page-per-page expensive. But even as short as it is, I know enough about a few subjects to see parts of the book as pure filler; the primer on XHTML and web design standards goes in too much detail as compared to the rest of the book, and yet doesn’t say much compared to other resources on the subject. (Furthermore, it’s not unreasonable to assume that most of the book’s target audience is already well-versed in XHTML.) Like a few other “name” web design books, parts of Web Design on a Shoestring feel like a “greatest hits” of the author’s knowledge, complete with a few technical how-tos that feel a lot like padding. Some of it is essential; some of it is practically useless and redundant.

I still think it’s a reasonably useful guide for the vast majority of web designers stuck doing much with less. But I’ll stop short of calling it an essential read: Most of the information can be picked up elsewhere on the web for far less than C$37.99 (how’s that for being cost-effective?) and whatever is left can be read at the bookstore if needs be. Too bad; there’s a lot to like about Bickner and her practical approach to web design. But when you call a book Web Design on a Shoestring, you have to deliver the best shoestrings possible.

Trump: The Art of the Deal, Donald J. Trump & Tony Schwartz

Warner, 1987, 372 pages, C$6.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-35325-6

Like many North-Americans in early 2004, I was taken by the reality-TV show “The Apprentice”, a series in which sixteen ambitious tyros competed to become one of Donald Trump’s cadre of executives. It’s easy to see why the series was such a success: Beyond the good visuals and taut storytelling of Mark (“Survivor”) Burnett’s production, the series revolved around a larger-than-life character. At a time where the reality-TV craze was in danger of crumbling upon itself for being too close to the boredom of reality itself, “The Apprentice” went the other way and found what is nearly a fictional character in a fictional environment: Donald J. Trump in New York City.

You will not find any explicit reference to “The Apprentice” in Trump: The Art of the Deal (it is, after all, a 1987 book), but it doesn’t really matter: Trump is Trump, and even the 1987 version of himself has all the hallmarks of the gruff 2004 reality show superstar. In the “real world” interval, Trump nearly went bankrupt in the early nineties and then climbed his way to a vast fortune all over again. So reading his portrait as he stood on top of the world in the late eighties makes it appear as if nothing serious had happened in the interval; certainly, Trump’s self-assurance is identical.

Certainly, there aren’t many better book from which to learn about the man himself. He has published other books since (including the aptly-titled “Trump: The Art of the Comeback”), but this first one is closest to a straight-up autobiography, complete with childhood recollections, the adventures of a budding tycoon in midtown Manhattan and the making of his first blockbuster deals. After reading this book, it’s easy to see where Trump comes from: a father already familiar with the workings of real-estate deals and a thirst to do even better. It’s an interesting story even though it’s not exactly a rags-to-riches one. (Young Donald Trump, without being very rich, was comfortably set by just about any measure.)

But Trump: The Art of the Deal is more than an autobiography and a recollection of biggest deals: It’s first and foremost a tribute to, well, the sacred art of the deal. Through Trump’s advice and recollections, it’s easy to see what is so attractive about deal-making. It is, after all, what best defines Trump and what he does. How to negotiate and get something from someone else while still both feeling good about it. The book is stuffed with complex wheeling and dealing with dozens of stakeholders and tight deadlines. It’s hard, through it all, not to develop a stunned admiration for anyone with the sheer audacity to go after such negotiations. Anyone with an interest in business probably has a copy of the book already: it’s just such a great primer on business.

For fans of “The Apprentice”, the book also details the making of several of the show’s backdrops, from the Wolfram Ice Rink to the world-renowned Trump Tower. (Warning: Many of the references may be wasted on anyone not familiar with the eighties’ New York City) Great stories in almost all cases, even as Trump doesn’t miss an occasion to blast bureaucracy, tenants, politicians and the media. As with all great works of propaganda and self-aggrandizement (and I say this in the best sense of the term), we read the book firmly on Trump’s side even as our natural sympathies may actually rest with the opposition. (Has anyone ever compiled a “companion guide” detailing the context, alternate viewpoints and ultimate fate of people, projects and places mentioned in the book?)

Now, it’s ridiculous to imagine Trump carefully poring over the prose of this book and so considerable credit must be given to his co-author Tony Schwartz. The best measure of his success is that the written Trump sounds almost exactly like the Trump we know from the media: You can easily imagine his brash no-nonsense voice narrating the book’s chapters. It also helps that it is compulsively readable like few other business books: Packed with great anecdotes and glimpses in the life of the rich, busy and powerful, Trump: The Art of the Deal is just a terrific piece of entertainment.

What is certain is that the story of Donald J. Trump is far from being over yet: He may have seven books to his credit already, but with decades to go in the shaky world of business, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen next to “The Donald”. But to judge from his story, his charisma and his appreciation for the art of the deal, it’s a safe bet that he’s never going to be all that far away from the public eye.

[June 2004: Trump: Surviving at the Top, his 1990 follow-up tome, is more of the same, without the novelty interest but with an interesting look at a Trump on the verge of his early-nineties troubles. His marital difficulties are briefly discussed, but once again it’s The Donald’s dealmaking that deserves center-stage.]

[July 2016: I’m not going to discuss Trump’s presidential run, but anyone interested in The Art of the Deal should take a look at the recollections of its ghostwriter, nearly thirty years later.]

Walking Tall (2004)

(In theaters, March 2004) Let us be forthwith and say right away that this film’s numerous flaws have few things to do with lead actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. He does a rather good job at portraying the wood-packing hero of the story even as the script crumbles around him and the direction can’t keep up to the task. It’s also difficult to say anything bad about the cinematography when Washington State does such a good job at providing gorgeous backdrops. But the script, ow, the script… On the surface, revenge thrillers are a simple thing to write: Beat the snot out of your hero, then have him beat the snot out of the original snot-beaters. But here the script goes everywhere and anywhere, muddling the storyline, lessening the tension, using inappropriate bursts of laughter, transforming characters into plot points and doing nothing with the elements it plays with. Allow me to point out the ridiculous courtroom scene in which The Rock gets acquitted by taking off his shirt; the way a serious drug problem is solved through a funny montage; a no-nudity stripping scene which unexplainably grinds to a halt; a pacifist father who finds inner peace by shooting someone else; a French Connection-inspired car search that serves no purpose; the bare sketch of a romance; a silly mano-a-mano ultimate fight. The list goes on, scarcely helped by overeager “save-this-movie” editing that brings this film under the 80-minutes mark. Ultimately, even if the last half-hour contains a few adequate action sequences, Walking Tall is a mess of a movie whose unblinking apology of vigilantism and police brutality almost acts as a metaphor for American foreign policy. That is, of course, if you believe that “Walking Tall” can be used in the same breath as “metaphor”.

Proxies, Laura J. Mixon

Tor, 1998, 468 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-52387-3

Years ago, in his influential essay Comme un roman, French writer Daniel Pennac outlined a series of unalienable “reader’s rights”, one of them being “the right not to finish a book”. I firmly believe in this particular freedom, even though I don’t usually take advantage of it. In my experience, there are times where a book can actually improve as it goes along. Though quite rare, I have too fond a memory of Walter Jon Williams’ Aristoi (difficult first fifty pages; wonderful rest of book) to quit SF books halfway through. I nearly gave up on Laura J. Mixon’s Proxies but decided to read a few more chapters, and if the end result isn’t up to Aristoi, I think it was good enough to make the first half worthwhile.

The initial difficulty with Proxies isn’t that it’s incomprehensible as much as it’s just not very interesting. Sometime before the end of the 21st century, humanity perfects a technology which allows operators to control other humanoid bodies across distances. Those proxies are perfect for work in dangerous environment: Space explorations, dangerous manual labour, military operations, etc. But the technology isn’t cheap nor easy to use, and so it hasn’t proved to be the end of menial labour. As you can expect, the gulf between rich and poor has widened even further. And as if that wasn’t enough, Earth’s environmental situation has degraded to the point where normal temperatures are equivalent to today’s worst heat waves.

But things are about to heat up even further as politics start messing with science and top-secret experiments. Before long, complex power struggles emerge, and they all seem to revolve around Carli D’Auber, a recent unemployed super-scientist who just happens to be the daughter of an influential politician.

There’s a lot to shrug about in the first half of Proxies, as this new world is chaotically introduced and the complex power politics of the various plots in motion are hesitantly explained. Mixon’s imagined future is a mixture of the new and the old, with familiar elements competing against more exciting ones. There’s a post-cyberpunk feel to it all that’s neither fresh nor inventive and as the pages are turned, it seems as if Proxies isn’t going anywhere.

But it start coming into focus half-way through. Suddenly, the issues are clearer, part of the background is explained, the characters truly come into their own (though some, like, “Dane Elisa Cae”, still end up feeling over-developed for their narrative importance) and the reading takes on a smoother quality.

The third fourth of Proxies is the kind of stuff we SF readers are looking for. Neat sequences, crisp writing, a dash of humour and some increasingly sympathetic characters. Our poor heroine is insulted, dismissed, battered, blackmailed and kidnapped. It may not be all that great for her, but it’s surely a lot more fun for us readers. Then there is the pleasant patina of “real-world” political sophistication peeking through; for all other flaws, Proxies ends up with an impressive amount of complexity that feels as if, yes, this is a work of true anticipatory science-fiction more than a cardboard future created for a story. Heaven knows that there are worse (and sillier) SF novels out there. If the first half could have been shortened and cleaned up a little bit, maybe Proxies could have been a novel worth commending without reservations. As it is, though, there’s a lot to slog through in order to get to the good parts.

Then there’s the ending; Though not a bad ending by most sense of the term, Mixon so diffuses the climactic elements of her conclusion (by discarding plot threads hastily, by placing the Big Decisions in off-stage minds, by having characters abandon their goals) that the pay-off of the book is similarly diluted. The first half of the book feels overlong and indulgent and so does the conclusion. Some more judicious editing could have improved the impact of the whole thing, along with a hyped-up pacing where all the elements of the conclusion are properly done justice.

As it currently stands, there’s a lot to like about Proxies, but it’s a shame that the readers have to work so hard to get to them. I’m curious enough to go read Mixon’s other novels, but anyone who wants to tackle Proxies may want to keep in mind another item on Pennac’s bill of “readers’ right”: “The right to skim”.

Something’s Gotta Give (2003)

(In theaters, March 2004) After so many years of increasingly unlikely Hollywood romances between decrepit men and nubile starlets, it was about time that someone did a movie about it. Enters writer/director Nancy Meyers, along with pitch-perfect leads Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson. For the first hour or so, Something’s Gotta Give is a whole lot of fun: Diane Keaton is frumpy-sexy, Jack Nicholson does his best-ever impression of Jack Nicholson and there’s plenty of amusing material. But then the beach house setting is discarded (breaking unity of setting), everything becomes a lot more complicated and the last act drags on for so long that viewers are likely to shout “Something’s gotta give, already!” It’s said that audiences will forgive anything as long as you give them a happy ending, but the one in Something’s Gotta Give is so unlikely that it feels like a cheat. There is little doubt that the script is about a third too long; some judicious cutting (and a better use of secondary characters played by Jon Favreau and Frances McDormand, both of whom disappear when they’re most needed) would have made this a snappier, more believable film. As it currently stands, it’s self-indulgent and often dull. But at least it’s got something to say about those creepy May-October Hollywood relationships.

Séraphin: un homme et son péché [Séraphin: Heart Of Stone] (2002)

(In French, On DVD, March 2004) I don’t usually respond very well to manipulative tearjerkers or works glorifying Quebec’s rural history, which makes Séraphin all the more surprising. Yes, it’s shameless in how it sets up a tragic love triangle between manly hero, selfless heroine and sadistic villain. But just as you think that it’s never going to work… it does. Quasi-parody scenes turn out well and the film is involving even as it’s playing all of the obvious cards. The lead trio (Roy Dupuis, Karine Vanasse and Pierre Lebeau) does excellent work, but it’s the cinematography of the film that steals the show; the historical re-creation of the era is top-notch, with plenty of telling details and beautiful shots. Charles Binamé’s direction is constantly interesting and even the most ridiculous moments (ah, tastefully-placed sunlight…) are effective. I’m not sure how foreign audiences will respond to a romance set in 1890 rural Québec, but even I am surprised at how well it played to me.

La Peau Blanche [White Skin aka Cannibal] (2004)

(In French, In theaters, March 2004) I’m not a very objective critic when it comes to this film adaptation: I’ve owned the original book ever since it came out, the writer is a good friend of mine, I worked on the movie’s preview web site (some of my copy even made it on the final web site) and I was even present at the cast and crew premiere. So adjust accordingly when I say that it’s a pretty good film. Fans of quiet horror/suspense films like The Others and The Sixth Sense are best-prepared to appreciate the way this teen romance gradually evolves into something far more sinister. The acting is excellent (with mad props to leads Marc Paquet, Frédéric Pierre and Marianne Farley), in no small part due to the very natural dialogue and crisp direction. There’s also plenty of good things to say about the film’s cinematography and polish, especially given how the crew had to work with a pitiful budget (under a million Canadian dollars) and tight shooting conditions. Hooray for digital cinema! First-time feature director Daniel Roby has a bright future in front of him: I just hope that the right people see this film and I can’t wait to see his next effort. Some viewers may not like the way the film keeps switching genres, or how the third act is a full-bore descent in darkness. Tough for them; as for me, I’m just pleased to have been associated, even so tangentially, with such a slick film.

Alice in Wonderland and the World Trade Center Disaster: Why the official story of 9/11 is a monumental lie, David Icke

Bridge of Love, 2002, 514 pages, C$41.95 tpb, ISBN 0-9538810-2-4

What a long and strange trauma it’s been.

The events of 9/11 were a shock to all, myself included. Some of this shock even made its way to these reviews and there’s no use apologizing or recanting this: It’s a reflection of what was happening at the time. (see my comments on Nelson DeMille’s The Lion’s Game for an illustration of my immediate reactions to the events)

But now, more than two years later, things have changed. The “day that changed everything” is sinking back in history, and we now have the advantage of that tiny hindsight in reconsidering our reaction to the event. Reviewing a book like Alice in Wonderland, which purports to tell the “real story” of 9/11 in the tradition of the best conspiracy theories, would have been impossible in, say, October 2001. When French journalist Thierry Meyssan published L’Effroyable imposture in March 2002, accusing the Bush government of the worst possible conspiracies in creating 9/11 (including the “no plane crashed in the Pentagon” theory), few were ready to do anything but dismiss the book as knee-jerk anti-Americanism. I should know; I was among those who called the book despicable.

But, as I said, things have changed. Two years later, tempers have cooled and logic is once again prevailing. And so it is possible for me to be at a used book sale, see a book like David Icke’s Alice in Wonderland, peek inside, see something about “world government” and “mind control”, shrug, smile at “those conspiracy nuts” and buy it.

The book’s first two chapters are indeed a masterpiece of crackpot writing. Here, shapeshifting reptilian bloodlines are controlling the world through the Illuminati, and nothing (nothing, from presidential elections to the death of Princess Diana) is anything but further evidence of a plot by “them” to control “us”. It’s easy to laugh and dismiss such rantings, mostly due to the feverish way Icke (like his partners in conspiracy theories) manages to bring everything together as a coherent whole. This is conspiracies-as-religion: the belief that, yes, everything can be tracked to wilful intentions and nothing is left to the vagaries of pure change and competing interests. There isn’t much in these first few chapters that’s not already known to conspiracy buffs, 9/11 or not.

But the book changes gears when Icke starts looking at the 1991 Oklahoma City bombing and then delves into the events of 9/11. In 400+ densely-detailed pages, Ickes raises dozens of questions and inconsistencies with the “official” version of the events. Contrarily to the “Illuminati” material of the opening (which is sourced back to Icke’s previous books), this stuff depends mostly on articles and testimonials published in the mainstream press. There are tons of real-world references and dozens of Really Good Questions. While a lot of Icke’s point can be explained by incompetence, slips of the tongue (saying “Monday” rather than “Tuesday”) and just plain confusion in the heat of the events, there are enough discrepancies to arouse interest.

In some ways, it’s just too easy to disbelieve the assertions of Alice in Wonderland. Icke has an unfortunate tendency to pepper his narrative with gratuitous references to “The Illuminati” and that makes as much sense as blaming Santa’s Elves for everything. It doesn’t help that his sources are inconsistently convincing: He makes a lot out of a rather suspicious book called The Trance Formation of America, in which George Bush Sr. (among many others) Is revealed to be a sodomite pederast who takes delight in describing his favourite perversions to an aroused Dick Cheney, who ultimately comes to join Elder Bush is his lascivious satanic activities. (!!!) Who can be blamed for dismissing such a narrative, tentative as it may be?

The last two chapters don’t help: Here, the shape-shifting lizards bloodlines make their way back in the narrative, assorted with a dastardly plot to take over the world as we know it. Parallel dimensions are discussed, along with a “solution” that isn’t much more than holding hands and believing in the power of each other. The last section of the book is poignantly titled “I love you, George Bush”, and features such gems as “I love you George Bush, father and son; I love you Cheney and Powell and Kissinger and Carlucci and the Illuminati High Council and the reptilian hierarchy in the inter-space plane.” [P.486] Woo!

There’s no need to point out that Icke’s all-encompassing Illuminati plot is ludicrous, or that he seems uncommonly adept to twists facts to fit his grand conspiracy and ignore those who don’t fit. Never mind that his interpretation of rigid top-down hierarchies fly in the fact of demonstrated incompetence. One wonders if such things as the Lewinski affair, the Enron scandal or the spectacular failure of the XFL can also be explained away by Illuminati links. No doubt he’ll find a way to make them fit in his next book.

But I found my own reaction to Alice in Wonderland to be revealing, regardless of alleged plots by shape-shifting reptilians. Strip the first and last few chapters of Alice in Wonderland, replace instances of “Illuminati” by “the abstract concept known as the cold invisible hand of western capitalism”, ignore the Bushes as child-abusers and the book simply reads as an extreme version of what many have been saying since the inauguration of the Bush II administration. The section where Icke details the biographies of the two Bush presidents and their cadre of advisers is packed with very familiar information and connections. The links between the Bushes and the bin Laden families, for instance, have been well documented in the mainstream press, and so have many of the relationships between the Bush advisers and their looong association with various Republicans administrations. Alice in Wonderland is insidious as it takes well-know facts and weaves them back into its own conspiracy theory. Bits and pieces of the book can’t be completely dismissed, and the line between truth and conspiracy is a lot harder to draw than it was even years ago. While I’m not terribly convinced that the “official story of 9/11 is a monumental lie”, let’s just say that I’d appreciate a thorough debunking of Icke’s assertions.

The reason for this is obvious: Over the past few years, the entanglement of business/government relationships in the Bush II administration, coupled with “Boy George”’s uncanny talent for acting as a divider (not an uniter), coupled with the cold wind of post-9/11 law-enforcement, coupled with the rise of corporate power over individual freedoms (see DMCA, Eldred vs Ashcroft, etc.), coupled with such things as the Guantanamo concentration camp… have all taken their toll. Anyone who still had a smidgen of respect for presidential honesty got bitch-slapped by the cold realization that the White House lied in order to manipulate America towards the invasion of Iraq. Who, a
fter those crazy four years, can still regard conspiracy theories as completely unlikely? We’ve seen one unfold before our very own eyes, in daily headlines. As Teresa Nielsen-Hayden has said time and time again on her blog, “I deeply resent the way this administration makes me feel like a nutbar conspiracy theorist.”

And so I find myself, as someone who’d rather not believe in conspiracy theories, slightly shaken by the mass of assertions made in Alice in Wonderland. The most troubling thing, I believe, is the common-sense remark that even at this moment (and here I mean “March 2004”, two-and-a-half years after 9/11), we still haven’t seen an entirely transparent congressional investigation in the events of 9/11. And what investigations have taken place so far have been marred with censorship, closed-door sessions and allegations of partisanship. It won’t take much to bring me back in the mainstream camp; just answer the questions already. [January 2005: I’ll let you know as soon as I finish The 9/11 Commission Report.]

And that takes me back to another surprisingly positive appeal of Icke’s work (and conspiracy theories in general): the doubts regarding the official version of events, the impulse to ask ever-more probing questions. “Question authority” could be the uniting slogan of all conspiracy theorists, and after seeing the meek way in which the Bush II administration was treated by the press and most of the American public, it’s hard to avoid thinking that we could all use an extra dose of scepticism. What if this book, as ludicrous as it may sometimes be, forces you and me to ask better questions? What’s the harm in that? What if more people read Alice in Wonderland?

It’s somewhat of a marvel that I’ve come so far as to take nutty conspiracy theories semi-seriously in barely thirty months. Certainly I’d like to be able to say “claptrap” and throw back the book in disgust. But as, say, newer facts start to emerge from disgruntled ex-members of the Bush administration about the inside view of the lead-up toward the invasion of Iraq (ie; that it had been planned early in the administration and that 9/11 proved to be a convenient way to justify it), the true story of what happened seems to be validating those who, at the time, had been branded as anti-patriotic conspiracy theorists for doubting the official motives. As for Icke’s depiction of 9/11 as a vast conspiracy to take over basic rights and freedom, well, can you reasonably affirm that Americans are freer now than they were in August 2001?

Uh-huh. Sometimes, it doesn’t take a conspiracy to enslave us. Maybe that’s a lesson we can now see, thirty months after 9/11.

The Hire (2003)

(On DVD, March 2004) This collection of BMW short films is obviously a promotional item through and through, but when it’s wrapped in such delicious filmmaking, why complain? Collecting eight short films from eight top-notch directors, The Hire stars Clive Owen as a driver with a fondness for BMW vehicles and dangerous situations. While the cars remain a constant, the mood of each piece varies considerably, going from drama to comedy to romance to fantasy. Good stuff, and with the calibre of the directors involved (John Woo, Joe Carnahan and Tony Scott are only the first three names on the credits), each short film is a pretty spiffy work in itself. Then there are the extras: documentaries that are longer than the short films, audio commentaries, technical specs and plenty of pretty pictures. I don’t think that this is available in stores, but DVD addicts and fans of action film making will certainly want to head over to bmwfilms.com and order their copy. It’s well worth the ten bucks or so.

Calendar Girls (2003)

(In theaters, March 2004) One wouldn’t think that seeing a bunch of British retirees taking off their clothes would automatically translate in a good time at the movies. But that assumption is twice flawed: First, that’s ignoring the fact that lead actress Helen Mirren is still a fox at age 58; second, that the film is developed not like a porn movie but as a light comedy in the “Brits-take-it-all-off” The Full Monty vein. Whew! It’s not a complete success, however: Adapted from a true story, the script suffers from gratuitous drama and other forms of padding. The third act runs far too long for little payoff and it’s difficult to buy into the supposed rift between the two lead characters. It’s hard to be critical about such a piece of fluff comedy, or even to spend too much time reflecting on it, so Calendar Girls simply gets a mild recommendation and not much else.

Commitment Hour, James Alan Gardner

EOS, 1998, 343 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-79827-1

First, a truly horrible confession, then the review.

My truly horrible confession is that I don’t care all that much about Science Fiction that sets out to explore the limits of gender identity. It’s a theme that just doesn’t interest me. Now, this wouldn’t mean much to most, but in a field which has hailed works like The Left Hand of Darkness and pioneered feminism before it was hip, well, it’s a bit like claiming to be a heretic. Broadly speaking, I have a really hard time getting excited about anything that makes in on the Tiptree Award ballot. (“An annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender.” says www.tiptree.org)

Which makes my reaction to Commitment Hour even more surprising.

Shortly stated, Commitment Hour is the story of a small village in a distant future in which the young ones switch, year after year, from one gender to another. After their twentieth year, they get to choose what gender they’ll remain for the rest of their lives.

Normally, I would simply shrug at the premise and grit my teeth at having to read hundreds of pages on the subject. But the wonder of Commitment Hour is how it quickly and efficiently draws its reader in the lives of protagonist Fullin and the rest of his/her village. Before long, their calm routine is disrupted by the arrival of an outside observer and his neuter companion, an especially troubling event given the village’s widespread hatred of neuters.

As the story unfolds, so do the layers of meaning and purpose behind the village’s unusual society. While the story may start in a cheerfully retrograde pastoral fantasy setting (another one of my pet peeves), Gardner slows strips away the false simplicity of Fullin’s life until we’re left with brushed steel and active nanotechnology. Good stuff.

All the while, Gardner’s voice does wonder at keeping the preaching to a minimum. A few lines are surprisingly funny (“As a forty-year-old woman, (she) actually had a remarkable body… then it struck me that I was ogling (…) my mother. I shuddered with a sudden case of the icks.” [P.151]) and the overall light tone of the novel is a welcome change from the dreary self-importance in which most Tiptree-Award nominees usually smother themselves. The accumulated goodwill created by the novel is strong enough that its impact isn’t soured when the story hakes an abrupt turn toward dramatic intensity during the course of its conclusion. Then again the conclusion is suitably uplifting, a minor miracle given the twenty or so ghastly pages leading to it. A lot of it has to do with the novel’s plot-driven thrust: Here, the genre-switching is an important part of the story, but certainly not the end of it; it’s only a part of a larger mystery and a good excuse for exploring other issues. Could this be why this book interested me despite elements I wouldn’t normally go for?

Technically, there isn’t much that’s wrong with Commitment Hour. The writing is efficient, the numerous character are well-sketched and the story steadily advances, page after page. The protagonist has a few unpleasant choices to make, and every chapter seems to be bringing extra complications. The only aspect where I felt a discontinuity between the author’s intentions and the actual execution were in presenting the protagonist’s different thought processes as s/he switched from male to female personalities.

But no matter. Commitment Hour is still an unexpected good read. In fact, it’s even more surprising given how little I had cared for Expendable, Gardner’s first novel. His second effort seems more compelling, more interesting and, yes, more successful. You can reliably bet that I’ll be taking another look at this author’s works from now on.

Even my reluctance to appreciate works lauded for the Tiptree award can be explained after all; while doing research for this review, I cam across the “long list” of works considered for the 1998 Tiptree, and saw that Commitment Hour had been dismissed as too conventional and mainstream. Go figure. Show’s em how much they know.

Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London (2004)

(In theaters, March 2004) While the first film in the “Cody Banks teenage spy” series had its moment, it suffered from too slavish an adherence to the Bond formula, resulting in a film that lost a lot of interest as it went along. While the sequel isn’t all that much better, it’s somewhat truer to itself and avoids repeating the typical Bond arc. Frankie Munez is back, and charming as ever as the lead character. Angie Harmon is sorely missed as Banks’ “handler”, but Anthony Anderson does his usual buffoon shtick to good effect. While the film occasionally panders to the kiddie audience with stupid plot tricks, some grossness and silly wish-fulfilment, there is still enough here to entertain adult audiences. The violence gets tiresome, though (especially the fist-fights, which seem out of place in a film for younger teens), and this exasperation is carried over in the third act, which is slightly too long for its own good. Otherwise, there are a few good gags, a few good action scenes and a few clever gadgets. It’s not a must-see, but neither is it a must-avoid.

Spencerville, Nelson DeMille

Warner, 1994, 639 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60245-0

Ten, maybe fifteen years after the fact, it’s obvious that the end of the Cold War has been a disaster for thriller authors. No longer could they rely on their favourite Soviet villains as convenient plot devices to rile up their audience. Columbian drug lords, Russian mafioso and right-wing militia groups kinda did the trick until everyone re-discovered Islamic fundamentalism, but for a while the American thriller has in serious trouble.

And so it’s not difficult for bestselling thriller writer Nelson DeMille to create a convincing character in Keith Landry, a freshly-retired master spy at loose ends after being taken off the global chessboard as part of the “peace dividend”. Looking for something to do, he travels from Washington to his old hometown of Spencerville (after an absence of twenty-five years) and starts puttering around his parent’s farm while they live the easy life in Florida. But they say you can never go home again, and in Landry’s case that’s truer than usual: For he’s sharing the small town with an old flame and her husband, a man who uses his job as the sheriff to do terrible, terrible things.

The most interesting thing about Spencerville is how much of a romance it is. Yes, it’s coming from an author who specializes in suspense novels. Yes, it’s a cheerfully macho story of good versus evil. Sure, it’s got pages and pages of detail about spycraft, guns and torture. But at its heart, it’s the story of a romantic relationship and all the obstacles in the way of this union. While the book’s protagonist is Keith Landry, you could make the argument that the true hero is Annie Prentis. Add the despicable (boo, hiss) Cliff Baxter to the mix and you’ve got a classic love triangle.

A love triangle that deals in automatic weapons, dirty tricks and dripping violence, mind you: It doesn’t take fifty pages for major characters to start pointing guns toward each other: Even before Keith’s arrival, Cliff is depicted as a wife abuser who may be running out of time. Add to that the rampant police corruption and Spencerville starts looking more and more like a lawless town in a western epic, waiting for a no-name man to take down the rot.

There are many pleasures in Spencerville and not the least of them is seeing a covert operative apply his skill to a town in mid-western America. As Landry finds out, the basics of overthrowing a corrupt police work aren’t terribly different from operating in Eastern Europe. In return, reading about small-town policemen trying to impress a man used to the KGB’s methods is rather amusing.

But the comedy soon turns to drama as the emotional stakes are driven even higher. Romance blooms, and so does the antagonist’s madness. By the time the book is midway through, well, there isn’t much doubt in how the book will end.

Which makes the book’s latter half even more disappointing. At more than 600 pages, Spencerville is far too long for what it has to say. The last hundred pages are especially tedious, as the resolution is obvious and extra obstacles are placed in the way just for the sake of further obstacles. The contrast with DeMille’s fast prose and his tepid pacing becomes increasingly uncomfortable and the book’s impact suffers because of it. But then again, this is neither the first nor the last work from this author to suffer from drawn-out endings. (See his latter Plum Island, etc.)

Overall, though, Spencerville is an unusual and slick thriller, with just enough off-beat elements to make it stand out in its field. Overlong but never less than interesting, it’s a really good choice for DeMille fans and general thriller readers, with some cross-over potential for romance readers. If nothing else, it’s a way of showing that there’s no need to time-travel to 1980s Moscow to find good suspense, even as the genre’s favourite playgrounds have been closed.