Monthly Archives: July 2004

Ilium, Dan Simmons

EOS, 2003, 576 pages, C$39.95 hc, ISBN 0-380-97893-8

Anyone who’s been paying attention to Dan Simmons’ career know that the man can write anything in any genre, from horror (Carrion Comfort) to thriller (Darwin’s Blade). But even with impressive credentials in other genres, Simmons started out as a science-fiction writer, and it’s still in SF that he produced his most impressive work, from dozen of excellent short stories to the massively successful Hyperion quartet. So any new SF work from him is a major event: Expectation for Ilium ran high as soon as the book was announced.

At first glance, it appears that Simmons has delivered the goods with Ilium, the first part of a duology to be concluded in Olympos. (In a rare feat of honesty, the American EOS hardcover edition says as much both in the liner jacket and on the back cover. Hurrah for honesty!) An adventure tale set in a far-flung future packed with nanotech, quantum tunnelling, moravecs and other exotic technology, Ilium alternates between three plot threads: The story of a Greek scholar resurrected to report on the real-life recreation of the Iliad, the travels of two robots going from the Jovian system to a mysterious terraformed Mars and the adventures of a small group of humans on a very different future Earth.

The first thing of note in Ilium is Simmons’ considerable literary ambition in telling a story which almost-literally takes place during the Iliad, featuring robots likely to quote from Shakespeare and Proust, and minor characters named “Caliban” for relevant reasons. The amount of research involved in writing this book must have been staggering; as a relatively ignorant reader (who had to rely on memories of TROY and visions of Brad Pitt as Achilles) it’s easy to be snowed under the weight of paragraphs packed with references to the Iliad, from character names to interpretations of Homer’s intentions to the complete back-story of even unseen characters. (Heck, this novel even has Greek gods as major characters.) Other literary allusions are just as likely to fly high above any non-scholarly heads, though the presence of such allusions is unlikely to be missed. In short, it’s easy to see classics-loving non-SF readers go nuts for Ilium‘s depth, even as it may not be totally successful in other areas.

Things like pacing or plotting, for instance. Yes, it’s a long book, and one which doesn’t start to cook until well after the halfway point. There’s a ton of exposition (it’s difficult to do otherwise when quoting from Homer), a lot of scene-setting and plenty of description. For Ilium is first and foremost and adventure tale in which plenty of words are spent describing how characters go from point A to point B. There is a complicated plot, oh yes, but for the longest time it’s hard to see the difference between movement and progress.

All of this is complicated by the fact that Ilium is, after all, the first half of a bigger novel. The three hundred pages of setup are for the 1100-pages entirety of the duology, not just for a single book. Some things don’t make a lot of sense; we can only hope that they will once the second half comes out. Similarly, the sense of pointless exasperation sure to strike any reader during the last few pages has to be tempered by the knowledge that the answers so preciously withheld should be coming up in early 2005. (Few of the book’s lines are so ominous as Zeus’s “We’re not?” [P.522]) Frustrating; it’s not for nothing if I usually wait until all the books of a series are out before digging in.

Stylistically, it’s a Dan Simmons novel, so you can bet that there’s plenty of good quotes throughout the entire thing. I was particularly taken by the mixture of Greek mythology and easy swearing from scholic Hockenberry’s narration. (As a proud 20th-century representative, he’s our champion in this post-humanistic tale). The squabbling gods are a lot of fun to read about, though the “post-human” plot line is more often that not an exercise in impatient finger-thumping.

All in all, a solid book but (at this point) not an essential one. I have a feeling that the sequel will deliver on more than enough intriguing suggestions, but a more definitive assessment will have to wait until Olympos.

Web Bloopers, Jeff Johnson

Morgan Kaufmann, 2003, 329 pages, C$75.00 tpb, ISBN 1-55860-840-0

As someone with more than a passing interest in web design (I know enough about what I don’t know enough to avoid calling myself a “web designer”), any book that wants to tell me what I shouldn’t do will be met with a mixture of eagerness and wariness: Yay for the hints and tricks, but really, who are you to tell me what to do?

For Web Bloopers, usability expert Jeff Johnson scoured the web for examples of bad design and collected the worst examples. Government sites, educational sites, even commercial sites are all implacably dissected for lousy usability features in sixty “common web design mistakes”, themselves split in three parts (“Content and functionality”, “User Interface” and “Presentation”) and eight chapters. Aside from the mandatory screen-shots, Johnson describes and dissects the bloopers in detail, then presents solutions to avoid them. Most of the examples are illustrations of things to avoid, but some others are highlighted as best practises worth emulating.

Like most technical books destined to a professional audience, this one doesn’t come cheaply at nearly 75 Canadian dollars. But the flip-side is that few expenses have been spared to give the book a generous design. There are enough illustrations in here to satisfy even the most demanding readers. (Though the accompanying text often tends to run ahead of the illustrating material) The layout is free enough to accommodate illustrations, annotations, cartoons, footnotes and very generous amounts of text.

Perhaps too much text, in fact. Johnson has a tendency to repeat material and describe things in too much detail. His straightforward writing style works well when comes the time to present straight-up information, but it’s a fair thing to say that no-one will read this book for the style alone. Furthermore, the solutions he offers to solve the mistakes he describes are often implicit in the description of the problem. A lot of them simply boil down to “don’t do this”, which is a bit useless after an entire page of “this is not right because…”

Now don’t get the wrong impression: “Too much detail” is a very minor sin in the litany of problems a technical book can suffer from. While Web Bloopers doesn’t have the same density of information-per-square-inch as Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think!, not everyone can be Steve Krug. (Nor can everyone get Steve Krug to pen the foreword to their book, as Johnson has been able to do here.) If you assume that the book will more frequently be read by non-technical web managers rather than actual webmasters, the repetition almost becomes essential.

As someone with a fair bit of web design experience, it was almost inevitable that I would have objections to some of Johnson’s “bloopers”. Non-standard link colours (#53), for instance, aren’t always a mistake; well-used, they can be a boon to the site’s design. (But a cursory recognition of this is included ) Redundant navigation schemes (#16) can, once again, be immensely helpful when properly used. Johnson’s perspective may be influenced by his experience in application GUI design; the web is evolving its own usability standards, and those often run at odds with the “usual” common wisdom. Then you have to consider the target audience of Web Bloopers, more likely corporate web managers than independent web designers willing to push the envelope and purposefully break rules.

But a few disagreements here and there shouldn’t be interpreted as a dislike of the whole book: By and large, Johnston succeeds in presenting an invaluable collection of web design mistakes to avoid. The web would be a much better place if the principles of the book could be drilled into the heads of those wacky webmasters poisoning the experience for all of us. Yours truly included.

Blind Lake, Robert Charles Wilson

Tor, 2003, 399 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30262-4

The most interesting thing about Robert Charles Wilson’s career is how he’s been able to re-invent himself and raise the quality of his work from very ordinary first novels to his current Hugo-award level. While Blind Lake may not be as good as The Chronoliths (even though opinions will certainly differ), it’s still a solid work of modern science-fiction from an author who knows what he’s doing.

It doesn’t start out all that promisingly, if by “promisingly” you mean “Ooh! I have to read this right away!”: We’ve seen top-secret scientific bases elsewhere in fiction, we’ve seen “remote viewing” elsewhere and we’ve seen marital strife elsewhere too. But just wait: From the first few pages (in which one of our protagonists lives the morning aftermath of a one-night stand copiously sprinkled with illicit substances), it’s obvious that this is one novel that is going to take its time and avoid the usual clichés of bygone SF. The novel quickly shapes itself around four characters: A divorced scientist chafing against the restraints of objectivity, her manipulative ex-husband, their troubled daughter and a journalist with plenty of accumulated guilt.

When those four characters are isolated from the real world, along with the rest of the staff at the “Blind Lake” scientific facility, tensions are left free to rise and boil over. The strife between the heroine and her ex-husband keep worsening, dragging along the sympathetic journalist. People are left to wonder why the entire world has cut them off. The daughter resumes having unusually persistent hallucinations. And the very purpose of the scientific facility changes when their subject of study (an alien they can track on its own planet thanks to a quasi-magical technology) dramatically changes its daily habits.

It’s not a story that can be summarized in a few exciting lines. But don’t worry: Wilson makes it ridiculously easy to be engrossed in the lives of its characters, and milks a lot of effective scenes out of low-key events. To an unusual degree, the characters take as much space as the plotting… not that the plotting is in any way deficient once things start rolling. The mysteries of the book are sustained just long enough to make us interested in reading the next page, then the one after that, and yet another… before you know it, you’ve read the whole thing in a straight afternoon.

Technically, Wilson has seldom been better, and it’s little tricks of the trade that show how much he has progressed since his early books. While he’s not a scientist, his novel is about scientists and he creates a believable bunch of them, along with the required technical and administrative support required in a modern research facility. He slights the jargon just right, with enough detail to satisfy and yet not too much to bore. (I was especially impressed by the way he described how the “mysterious” technology at the core of the book’s science got so weird: It’s still mysterious to the scientists in the story, but at least we as readers know exactly why it’s mysterious.) By shutting the real world out of the novel’s setting, Wilson is also able to use small hints and references (such as the “Saudi conflict” and the none-too-pleasant-sounding “North American economic confederacy”) to suggest a plausible future society without actually spending too much time describing it.

Not that the entire novel is so credible, of course; it’s hard to imagine the feasibility of a complete shutdown of data transfers, even less so an extended one. The ending of the book is also surprisingly tepid despite the scope of the revelations and the sense of a good story well-told. I suppose that different readers will have different impressions.

This being said, I found a delicious parallel between the plight of the isolated scientists, watching an alien far way, and the possibility that they themselves had to be watched by the rest of the world outside their perimeter. And yet another parallel with us, readers, watching them in their fishbowl…

I wouldn’t have read the novel so quickly after its release had it not been nominated for the Best Novel Hugo Award. But having done so, I find it ranking pleasantly high on my list of 2003 SF novels. After such great books as The Perseids and The Chrononolith, Wilson continues his winning streak with Blind Lake. I wonder: what’s next for him?

Hacking Matter, Wil McCarthy

Basic Books, 2003, 222 pages, C$40.00 hc, ISBN 0-465-04428-X

Oh sure, you know all about nanotechnology. The science-fiction you read describes atoms being rearranged all over the place and you’ve already put a pre-order on Amazon for the first prototype of the HomeNano universal assembler brewing kit. Good for you.

But wait a minute: Not only is high-end nanotech a while away from Wal-Mart, it’s not even clear if it will solve everything we expect it to fix: Issues of energy requirements, information transfer, safe control and speed of operation continue to confound even the sharpest thinkers on the subject. Even when you’re done doing all you can, nanotech simply rearranges atoms around; it can’t create new elements and probably will take a while to work.

Programmable matter is something else. A theoretical concept based on real-world research in the strange properties of quantum dots, it bridges the gap between straight-up nanotech and coarser material sciences. In theory, one could end up with a silicon material that could be programmed at will to emulate the characteristics of other elements, maybe even elements we haven’t yet discovered. While the actual real-world implementations of the technology are still a far way away, the theoretical underpinning seem reasonably solid. Hacking Matter is an overview of the subject, from the labs to the theory to the speculations.

Fortunately, a uniquely qualified author is at he helm. Wil McCarthy is best-known in some circles as a capable science-fiction writer, one whose career has progressed from run-of-the-mill SF adventures (Aggressor Six) to meatier fare (Bloom). But McCarthy is also a tech journalist and an engineer and Hacking Matter is the ideal book for someone at the intersection of those three fields: Not only is he capable of vulgarizing the subject matter, he’s able to speculate on where it’s going, and even make useful contributions to the field himself.

After a whiz-bang intro featuring some of the most outlandish speculations about programmable matter (including what happens when you bash artificial iron with a golf club), McCarthy settles down to the painstaking business of explaining the science behind the speculations. Don’t worry if your high-school physics are too far away to be useful; just keep reading until you reach the conclusions. It boils down to an arrangement of silicon in such a way that electrons are made to behave in unnatural ways. How unnatural? Well, unnaturally enough to recreate the properties of other elements that don’t exist. Unnaturally enough to change behaviour at the flick of a switch.

Thanks to descriptions of the Boston-area research centres where this is taking place, interviews with the concerned scientists and the other usual tools of good scientific journalism, McCarthy efficiently illustrates the field’s current state of the art. But the book truly hits its stride when McCarthy-the-journalist cedes the stage to McCarthy-the-SF-writer. After a meaty chapter on how architecture (houses, cities, etc.) will be revolutionized by programmable matter, it’s hard not to wish for these cool toys, right away. There’s more good stuff squirrelled away in the last chapter (along with a comparative examination of other life-altering technologies currently inching out of laboratories), and if you want even more, well, there’s always McCarthy “Queendome of Sol” science-fiction trilogy.

How credible is that stuff? Though it certain sound credible, that’s not neally for me to say. But simply consider this: McCarthy-the-engineer has his name on a patent application for a “Wellstone”. He obviously believes in it, and so do the scientists currently working on the field. (Check the latest version of the “Programmable Matter FAQ” for more details.) The history of science has progressed from far less likely concepts.

And so Hacking Matter remains a tease of bigger things to come; clocking in at 175 pages without appendices and the index, it’s leaves us hanging just as things get interesting. A fitting impression for a book describing cutting-edge tech: How are we going to perceive this book in twenty years? As an overly-optimistic pop-science work, or the first mention of a commonplace technology?

Tilt, Nicholas Shrady

Simon & Schuster, 2003, 161 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-7432-2926-6

Designers will be the first to tell you you that design isn’t about funky colours, outlandish forms or eye-splitting typography. Design is, more than anything else, the art of solving problems. A well-designed chair is, simply put, more useful, more comfortable, more perfectly a chair than a badly-designed one. Granted, design can also be beautiful (ugliness is just another type of problem, after all) and not all problems are solvable at the same time (a chair designed to “solve” high manufacturing costs may not present the same solutions as a chair designed to “solve” lack-of-comfort), but those are minor issues when measured against the goal of good design.

In publishing, the biggest problem is simple: How do you sell a book? How to you convince your average book-buyer to take hard-won money and exchange it for a mixture of paper, ink and glue? Success is measured both individually (has at least one individual been convinced to buy a book that, with an inferior design, would otherwise have been left on the shelves?) and collectively (has the publisher made more money on the book than would have been the case with a lesser design?)

While I can’t say anything about the overall success of Nicholas Shrady’s Tilt (I did, after all, find it at a discount bookstore), I’m the living example of individual design success: Had the book been ordinary, I would have left it on the shelf without a second thought. The subject isn’t that compelling to me. But throw it a little bit of inspired design and, whoops, there I find myself at the cash register.

You see, Tilt is no ordinary book-as-a-physical-object. Rather than being as square as most of the other books you’ll see in your life, this short history of the Tower of Pisa is… skewed. It’s a parallelogram. The edges of the books don’t meet at 90 degrees. Open the book flat, and it looks like a fat chevron. Put the book upright on the table and it tilts… just like the Tower of Pisa (albeit at a sharper angle).

It’s a gimmick, of course, but also an inspired piece of design. Everyone knows the tower of Pisa because it’s skewed, because it’s unusual, because it looks as if it’s not supposed to exist like that. Well, Tilt is exactly like that.

As a “biography” of Pisa and it’s infamous campanile, Tilt is slight but serviceable. At a scant 161 pages, it’s not very profound, and even pads its subject matter with (not uninteresting) digressions on Galileo and Italian history. It’s readable, features a few fascinating facts, includes a fair number of illustrations and pictures (though not quite enough to my own liking) and does its share to debunk many rumours about the Tower’s history (not built for skewing, not an experimentation site for Galileo). Even readers with a casual interest in the subject will get what they seek. If nothing else, it’s a lovely little (too little) piece of engineering non-fiction.

But let me go back to the subject of the book’s design, given that it has its share of problems. For one thing, the interior design of the book hasn’t been optimized to take advantage of the tilt: The recurring page numbering and book titles are uncomfortably close to the edge, and copious amount of blank space is left in the “extra” areas. Maybe that’s part of the point (if the campanile wasn’t built to be skewed, why should it be the case with the book?), but it leads me to suspect that the skewed design was finalized after the interior layout of the book. The dust jacket itself is skewed.

The second issue is that in Tilt‘s case, the design doesn’t just overshadows the content of the book; it stomps on it and leaves it as a mere afterthought. Just look at this review; I’ve spend one mere paragraph on the book’s content, and the rest of the words discussing the actual physical object. An ordinary version of Tilt may not have been bought, but it would have been reviewed with a greater attention to the actual quality of the text.

Yes, sometime design can be too successful. And I’m not just saying that because I bought the book knowing fully well that I will never figure how to position it on my bookshelves.

Spider-Man 2 (2004)

(In theaters, July 2004) Maybe I’m getting too old for this stuff; I wasn’t a particularly enthusiastic fan of the original Spider-Man (too dull, too ordinary) and if the second one is distinctly better, I’m still not all that convinced. Oh, certainly, I just love parts of this sequel: the operating room sequence is pure Evil Dead Raimi, the action sequences are directed with impressive fluidity and the villain is a lot of fun. Even the over-arching story makes sense and at least tries to reach above the usual superhero crap. But it’s not through dull romance and mortgage concerns that I try to escape reality, and so Spider-Man 2 just isn’t as much fun when it’s dragged-down to harsh reality, especially when it starts forgetting that there’s a super-villain running around. Worse is the heavy-handed direction and the on-the-nose dialogue, which makes sure to highlight every single emotional nuance to make sure that even the dumbest teen in the audience doesn’t miss a thing. By the time the crotchety old lady delivers her speech about the importance of heroes, it’s hard to tell if the filmmakers are laughing at the audience. Oh well; at least JK Simmons is excellent as J. Jonas Jameson and Alfred Molina gets to show that fat middle-aged men can be super-villains too! (Talk about an untapped segment for wish-fulfilment) Blockbuster-wise, it could have been worse. But it could have been better too, and it does no one any favour when the film’s aim reaches so obviously for the broadest common denominator.

Sleepover (2004)

(In theaters, July 2004) Granted, I’m not the target audience for this film. It’s still not much of an excuse when the result is so uneven. Comedies aimed at 10-to-12-year olds can be simplistic if they wish, but that’s not an excuse for them to be stupid. Here, the writing oscillates between decency and eye-rolling awfulness. There’s a faintly creepy atmosphere in how it blatantly aims, through innuendo, sexual situations at pre-teen girls… but what do I know about that age group, right? I was, truthfully, a bit more disturbed by the way the characters lived in upper-middle-class paradise (complete with private security forces) as if it was normalcy. There’s no attempt at teaching any kind of deeper message here beyond “cool is good and happiness can be found only through a boyfriend”. Gaaah; it’s the revenge of superficial status-seeking for a new generation. If you’re going to feed stupid teen comedies to you kids, at least make sure they have the right message. At least, acting-wise, there are a few rewards: Alex Vega shows that there is a career for her after the Spy Kids trilogy and she’s ably helped by Mika Boorem in a strong supporting role. Laugh-wise, most of the good stuff is focused on Sam Huntington’s quasi-stoner big brother, with some additional laugh going to the skateboarder trio. A early-teen comedy barely worth remembering if it wasn’t for its surprisingly creepy undertones.

Mean Girls (2004)

(In theaters, July 2004) Now that’s a teen comedy worth watching even if you’re older than 15. Scripted with great skill by Tina Fey, from Rosalind Wiseman’s non-fiction book Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence (!), Mean Girls even feels like a teen comedy written by adults. It’s not quite Heathers, but it’s almost up to Clueless‘ level in sheer sustained viewing pleasure. (It’s also jam-packed with good quotes). Lindsay Lohan is cute and believable as Cady Heron, a home-schooled girl abruptly thrown in the cesspool of high school at age 16. Fortunately, she’s not the only highlight in this film, which features a strong supporting cast of characters, with even the most minor ones getting a chance to shine (props to Rajiv Surendra and the Mathletes!). I especially liked the “rediscover your inner nerd-ness” message implicit in the finale, and the biting social commentary on schools. This film is a blessing after so many cookie-cutter teen comedies without any kind of social conscience (yes, Sleepover, I mean you.) A fine film that is probably going to find its own adult audience.

(Second viewing, On DVD, December 2004) Months later, this film still retains a tremendous amount of wit and charm –enough it leave it squarely in the running as one of the most enjoyable releases of the year. Written by an adult for brainy teenagers, Mean Girls could have coasted a long time on the innate charm of Lindsey Lohan and her assorted co-stars, but there’s a lot of depth to the screenplay, and the direction is suitably efficient. More than worth a look, and the extra material on the DVD will do much to satisfy all fans of the film.

Rules of Engagement, Gordon Kent

Berkley, 1998, 474 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-17858-7

If you read a lot of military thrillers, you may feel as if you can know everything about this book merely by reading the cover jacket: A young naval aviator following the footsteps of his celebrated father. A mysterious accident during a combat mission. The hunt for a traitor. Ah-ha.

Reading the first few chapters, in which our protagonist comes to learn about life on-board an aircraft carrier, you may even feel that your assumptions are correct: This is going to be yet another average military thriller, with plenty of military details and vignettes, all leading up to a confrontation with the evil traitor. With a few combat scenes.

Well, the above summary is not entirely incorrect (especially the part about the final confrontation), but the twists and turns in the tale make it a little different from the usual military thriller.

For one thing, the biggest departure takes place as soon as the protagonist ends his tour of duty and goes back stateside for an assignment in naval intelligence. Yep; no more aircraft carrier life for us as we’re thrown, unusually enough, in the mechanics of intelligence analysis at home. While you’d except a fictional traitor to be exposed within days, Rules of Engagement stretches out over weeks, then months, then years. The death of the protagonist’s father is investigated, then dropped, then raised again.

Rules of Engagement is, at times, a military thriller, a procedural mystery, an adventure novel and a spy suspense. The story twists and turns, characters are introduced or dropped (I especially liked the sudden revelation of the hero’s initial love interest as a promiscuous, coke-addled schemestress. Whew!) as the story is told over years, spanning the Gulf War (carefully kept in the background, if you can believe that of a military thriller) and the evolution of a career. Even the usual right-wing slant of most military fiction seems carefully leashed here, a smart choice that will broaden the book’s appeal to all sorts of readers.

The focus on desk-bound analysis and intelligence work is certainly interesting: Apprehending a traitor takes a lot of work from several people, and it’s a treat to see this treated as a bureaucratic endeavour, with a team of investigators and the usual amount of red tape. The way this is mixed with spycraft and military protocols is quite intriguing and does a lot to distinguish this novel from countless other similar novels. Gordon Kent (actually a pseudonym for Ken and Christian Cameron, a father-and-son team whose web site can be found at www.navnow.com) knows his stuff and shows an impressive ability to ground his fiction in believable reality. It all moves more slowly than usual, but there are a lot of good details in this book.

That’s good, but is it good enough? Well, it all depends on your tolerance for drawn-out plots. At some point near the novel’s two-third mark, things are proceeding too rapidly: The villain has been identified and all that’s left is to apprehend him. But, just as the novel should slide smoothly to a perfect finish, complications arise, and an unwelcome fourth act springs from the third, transforming the cloak-and-dagger intrigue to an adventure in a dangerous foreign land. It may sound intriguing, but once it happens, it’s hard to keep going the extra mile along with the author; a shorter finish would have done much to keep the best parts of the novel intact. As it is, the pleasantness of the book is almost stretched beyond reasonable indulgence by the last hundred pages.

It’s still a pretty good book, mind you. But the lengths are barely justifiable in the context of a genre novel which should move as quickly as possible. It doesn’t help that the conclusion requires the involvement of another major character who really shouldn’t have been involved. Still, if that’s the kind of thing unlikely to bother you, there are certainly worse novels out there than this intriguing debut.

The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

(In theaters, July 2004) While the idea of remaking the classic 1962 film was completely unnecessary, the actual finished film captures the paranoid essence of 2004 like few other have the guts to do: By replacing the anti-Communist material with an anti-corporate message, The Manchurian Candidate knows where to go for paranoid thrills. Throw in some science-fiction gadgets, the Gulf War, War-on-Terror rhetoric and the result is a film that may very well come to represent the unique feel of the Bush II administration. Meryl Streep, Liev Shreiber and -especially- Denzel Washington all deliver when comes to time to portray intense characters. Director Jonathan Demme is ideally suited to give life to this paranoid nightmare, what with his propensity for flat close-ups (even in conversations) and the off-beat way he films even simple scenes. Granted, the plot is often silly, unconvincing and packed with implausible events. But that goes with the territory of a nightmare. Even the eerie sound landscape of the film contributes to the uneasiness. Not an easy film to love nor enjoy, but nevertheless one that sticks in mind.

King Arthur (2004)

(In theaters, July 2004) While I’m partial to the concept of presenting “the real story” behind the myths, that kind of stuff isn’t in itself sufficient to sustain my interest in a film. The first half of King Arthur passes in a drowsy daze, as director Antoine Fuqua seems content in simply showing how much mud existed at the time. Fortunately, things pick up (from a pacing standpoint) as soon as Guenevere (Kiera Knightly, an average casting choice at best) is rescued from a damp dungeon. While “realistic”, the film doesn’t do much to acknowledge real science given how hand injuries are easily forgotten, unlikely arrow shots find their targets a mile away and heroism takes precedence over simple physics. Oh well; at least it’s easy to warm to the title character (a fantastic Clive Owen) and his merry band of knights. Some low-level flirtation, along with a gruff Merlin and a shot of a round table, and we’ve got the making of myth. But it’s the action scenes that work better than anything else, from a great little frozen-lake sequence to a rather good final clash between two (or three) armies. Nifty, but they can’t excuse the tepid storytelling nor the bombastic details. It’s a mixed bag, really; better than expected from the lifeless trailers, but still not quite up to the level of quality offered from other recent historical epics.

I, Robot (2004)

(In theaters, July 2004) I truly hope that die-hard Isaac Asimov fans blow a fuse while watching this film. No, it’s not even near a adaptation of Asimov’s short stories. This is Hollywood, what do you expect? A faithful but dull collection of vignettes? Please; simply think of the film as iRobot, an average sci-fi action film that happens to have a few cool winks and similarities with Asimov’s work, including the Zeroth Law. As such, it works fairly well: The bright futuristic landscape is delicious and the action scenes can be spectacular. (Robot-to-robot bullet-time combat! Roadway rampages! Chi McBride with a shotgun! Rotating cameras! Sweet!) Sure, the film doesn’t make much real-world sense: The mechanics of the NS-5 roll-out are unbelievably dumb by any business standards, physics are routinely humiliated (advanced machinery isn’t a substitute for F=MA) and the variable scope of the story is frustrating. Throw in some silly stuff like fully-furnished houses being scheduled for destruction scant hours after the death of the owner (huh?), plus some obscenely blatant product placement, and it’s hard to take this very seriously. And yet it works. Will Smith turns in an unexpectedly dramatic role as a policeman with cybernetic issues, bringing along his usual considerable charm. Bridget Moynahan is a good-for-Hollywood Susan Calvin (no actress in Southern California is plain enough to play Asimov’s Calvin) with a believable arc from cold scientist to fluffy action heroine. But frankly, the robots are the star performers of the film: Even as we’re supposed to be too jaded for modern special effects, those in I, Robot still manage to impress. All in all, a satisfying film. But don’t expect much fidelity to the original material. And that’s a good thing.

(Second viewing, On DVD, March 2005) I’m in the minority on this one, but if you’re looking for an action SF film, you can do much worse than I, Robot. Sure, there are plot holes big enough to accommodate a robotic house-wrecker. But on the flip side, the film is competently directed, has at least one or two levels of subtlety, can rely on a likable lead (Will Smith, scoring another hit as an action hero) and even includes one or two nods toward the original material. Not bad, and hearing SF geeks scream their betrayal is actually part of the film’s attraction. It holds up well to a second viewing. The DVD is a bit thin on the “making-of” side, especially given the fantastic CGI work. The commentary instills some respect for the complexity of the script. Wait; did I just qualify the I, Robot script as being “complex?

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)

(In theaters, July 2004) No one goes to the movies expecting a cogent treatise of geopolitical power and tips for more efficient warfare. Yet that’s exactly what The Fog Of War is all about; a late-life summation of what ex-Secretary of Defence Robert S. McNamara learnt during his life and his tenure at the top of the Kennedy/Johnston administration. From World War 2 to the Vietnam War, with a scary detour through the October 1962 Cuban Crisis, McNamara reminisces, summarizes, explains and justifies thirty years of American foreign policy. Good stuff, coming from someone who was heavily involved as it was happening. There is probably another film to be made to show the same events from another viewpoint; through The Fog Of War, we get flashes of McNamara’s reputation, but Errol Morris’ film merely presents his subject’s viewpoint without much by way of counterpoint. Still, the film is fascinating, especially given how it features one single talking head for most of its duration. McNamara is a mesmerizing speaker, and what he has to say would be most appropriate within the pages of a scholarly history book than a film. Military buffs and student of post-WW2 world history will learn a lot from it.

The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, Neal Pollack

Harper Perennial, 2002, 205 pages, C$20.95 tpb, ISBN 0-06-000453-3

I suppose that there’s something to be said about blogs when it comes to self-marketing: Had I not already been under the spell of Neal Pollack’s prose and his pleas to buy his books, it’s unlikely that I would have picked up his stuff at the local remainder sale. Hurrah for shameless self-promotion!

Now, keep in mind that Neal Pollack is the very definition of shamelessly self-promoting writer. (And I don’t say this as if it’s a bad thing) His latest book, Never Mind the Pollacks, is a rock-and-roll novel telling the story of Neal Pollack, famous rock journalist and confidante to rockstars from Elvis Presley to Kurt Cobain. His first book, The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, is a mock collection of snippets from the decades-long career of Neal Pollack, greatest American writer. While Never Mind he Pollacks is best left to those with enough knowledge of rock to appreciate the fine in-jokes, the Anthology is something else.

For one thing, I suspect that it’s a bit more accessible to everyone. In this book, Neal Pollack’s character is that of a writer as a rock star, a fantastically self-absorbed man’s man whose universe revolves around him. It may be useful to be an avid magazine reader to piece together the pieces of his parodies (I kept flashing back to Sebastian Junger’s Fire pieces myself), but the bombastic quality of Pollack’s alter-ego is amusing enough that even people unaware of, say, Norman Mailer, will laugh along.

The biggest wonder of the Anthology, surprisingly enough, is that it sustains this simple satiric concept for a full two hundred pages. Pieced together as an anthology of “Pollack”’s forty-year-long journalism career, it’s merely an excuse to explore different themes and subjects as a knuckle-busting, hard-drinking man’s man. “Pollack” has been everywhere from the USSR to Mexico, has written back from countless wars, has seduced hundreds of women (most of whom just have to hear his name before cooing “take me!”), is best buddies with this world’s leading figures (but especially John McCain) and has stopped at least one dastardly plot against the USA. Whew! Just take a look at some of the chapter titles: “I Am Friends With a Working-Class Black Woman”, “The Burden of Internet Celebrity”, “Why Am I So Handsome?”… An interview with his sister is, of course, all about him. Hubris seems too small a word for this oversize personality.

(The “real” Neal Pollack, should you be spoilsport enough to ask, is in his thirties and is only beginning to take the literary world by storm. If he exists at all. But the real danger in reviewing Pollack is in either trying to be as funny as him, or doubt nothing.)

In some ways, this is reminiscent of Mark Leyner’s Et tu, Babe?, another delicious piece of humour writing in which the author was left free to push the limits of literary self-disillusion to insane levels. While Leyner’s book was funnier (c’mon; visceral tattoos?), Pollack’s Anthology holds better as a unit. As a parody of those other “anthologies of literature”, it’s pitch-perfect… from the ancillary material (chronology, family tree, study guide…) to the tapestry of the star protagonist’s imagined career. Faked photos included.

From what I can gather, the original hardcover version of the Anthology, as published by McSweeney’s, was a superb design parody of this type of book. (Head over to Amazon, and “look inside” the hardcover for a few extra laughs) While the Harper Perennial edition isn’t quite as respectable-looking, it does contain a third more material, and even brings up “Pollack”’s career to the Post-WTC era. It also includes Jack Shafer’s New York Times Book Review piece on the Anthology, which says everything I wanted to say about it, and better. (Bastard.)

I’m always a sucker for satire, and this one is better than most. While the book didn’t make me laugh out loud constantly, I had a hard time wiping a constant smirk off my face; The only reason not to read it in a single sitting is running out of time. (Hey Neal; you can use this as a blurb: “There aren’t enough hours in a day for Neal Pollack.”) Witty, well-executed and liable to make you look at literary celebrities in a whole new light, The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature is well-worth a look. Even if Neal Pollack’s ceaseless stream of self-promotion hasn’t yet reached you.

The Corporation (2003)

(In theaters, July 2004) The real revelation here is not how corporations are amoral entities whose ethical concerns are non-existent in light of shareholder profits; we knew that, and several of the examples used by the filmmakers to demonstrate their thesis are also quite widely known. No, the real pleasure and interest of The Corporation is in how captivating one can weave talking heads, dramatizations, stock footage and editorial cinematography in one captivating package. It’s nearly two and a half hours long, but it’s all good and fascinating from the beginning to the end. Interviews from an impressive variety of guests (from a Fraser institute representative to Michael Moore, Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky) are cleverly integrated in a strong structure. Eerie narration (echoing a “future viewpoint” reminiscent of The Animatrix‘s “Second Renaissance”) and original computer-generated sequences provide the framework of the piece, which -like many recent documentaries- doesn’t even try to provide a balanced viewpoint. This is a thesis, not an attempt at a definitive study. One thing for sure; this is brainy entertainment, the kind of intellectual material that is surprising to see in theatres. No wonder if it’s a film adaptation of Joel Bakan’s eponymous non-fiction book. A few of the stories told here are well-worth pursuing, including the tale of an attempted 1933 coup to overthrow… the American government (Search for “Smedley Butler” for more details). More modern examples of corporate malfeasance are even worse, from attempts to privatize rainwater, to modern-day advertising, to the ruling stating that televised news don’t necessarily have to be truthful. Despite occasional missteps (such as the pretty portrait of anti-globalization forces), it all adds up to a convincing argument, one that is sure to become even more important over the next few years as the divide between civil rights and corporate profits will become even more obvious.