Monthly Archives: August 2004

Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes, Peter Watts

Tesseracts, 2000, 167 pages, C$11.95 tpb, ISBN 1-895836-76-X

[Disclaimer: I’ve met Peter Watts, heard him speak at panels, moderated a panel on which he was a participant, even sat next to him at a convention to live-translate a few panels. I think that he’s a heck of a nice guy. Plus he gets points for being a Canadian author. Adjust review below accordingly.]

While Peter Watts’ first short-story anthology is titled Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes (a nod at Dilbert’s monkeys-on-typewriters comic strip), here are a few other titles that may be appropriate:

Nine Stories, Ninety Minutes: At a slim 167 pages and nine stories, this collection is a bit frustrating. There are no introductions (either to the book as a whole or to the individual stories, though a Publishing History at the back of the book thankfully details each story’s previous appearances) which is a bit disappointing given Watts’ generous propensity toward self-commentary. (See his web site at www.rifters.com for ample illustration.) But the silver lining to this sparse content is that you can read the book in a single sitting: The writing is crisp and clear enough to make you reach for “just another story” on technical grounds alone. Whether you will want to absorb all of this material at once leads us to our second suggestion…

Do You Have Ten Minutes, You Monkey?: I have long maintained that a good story collection gives a better peek in the mind of an author than even a string of novels. Watts seems intent on demonstrating this thesis: The nine stories assembled in this collection offer a disciplined unity of theme and attitude: It’s almost a thematic anthology. Stemming from Watts’ background as a marine biologist, all of his stories reflect deep cynicism (even misanthropy) regarding so-called “human nature”. In tale after tale, characters (often narrators, almost always professional investigators) have to face the fact that biology trumps psychology, that “being nice” is a luxury we can only afford because it’s now counterproductive to kill each other. Take ten minutes to read any of those stories, and you will experience a Total Perspective Vortex that will remind you of your real (insignificant) place in an uncaring universe. No, this is not a collection of stories to read to your children. Which leads us to another title…

Six Billion Monkeys, Twice as Many Bullets: Boy, is this a superficially depressing collection. Not that this is any news to fans of Watts’ fiction (which usually starts as “gloomy” and gets worse), but story after story of humankind killing itself, being wiped out or meeting aliens just as bad is enough to make anyone rethink the wisdom of bringing this book to the beach. But you know what? Lurking behind the facade, there’s a terrific sense of irony to be found here. Watts takes pleasure in perverting the usual ethos of science-fiction though ways that are in fact quite funny once you just step back from the story. Sentient Killer Clouds? Heh. Also consider this excerpt:

[A nutritionist is working on ways to teach killer whales to stop eating fish and convert to vegetarianism.] She’s already had some spectacular successes with her own cats. Not only is a vegan diet vastly more efficient than conventional pet foods – the cats eat only a fraction of what they used to – but the felines have so much more energy now that they’re always out on the prowl. You hardly ever see them at home any more. [P.79]

Now that’s funny. And indeed, there’s a lot of dark humour here and there, not the least of which is the delight of finding such an uncompromising stance on the false kingdom of man’s mastery over (its own) nature. The universe will get us all in the end, that is if we don’t kill ourselves first.

One Great Book by One Author You Should Read: Published by the Canadian small-press publisher Tesseracts, this collection is well-worth tracking down. It’s a smoother introduction to Peter Watts’ fiction than his novels, and it has the advantage of being both short and powerful. There’s plenty of good material here and if some of the stories are repetitive (“Home”, especially, doesn’t add much to “A Niche”), some of it is as good as anything you’ll read elsewhere. I found that even the familiar stories (I had read “A Niche” and “Bethlehem” elsewhere) were better the second time around. If nothing else, this should confirm Watts’ status as one of the many good Canadian hard-SF writers. Why don’t you grab Robert Charles Wilson’s collection The Perseids for an eerily appropriate companion volume?

The General’s Daughter, Nelson DeMille

Warner, 1992, 464 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-36480-0

I don’t remember much from the 1999 film THE GENERAL’S DAUTHER, and it’s just as well: If my memories are correct, the film adaptation of Nelson DeMille’s 1992 novel is quite different from the novel, presenting a different culprit, extra action scenes, an exploitative rape scene and a suicide that doesn’t happen in the novel. It’s no surprise if my expectations going in this book were low.

But not that low. If you take a look at DeMille’s entire oeuvre (and I’m still working my way though it myself), you will find success after success —and this despite an overall propensity toward books that are two hundred pages too long. From his fantastic 1978 debut (By The Rivers of Babylon, well worth reading even today), he has delivered the goods as a professional writer should. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he has also developed a distinctive style depending on witty first-person narration and technical details that are as delicious as they’re cleverly integrated in the flow of the action. The General’s Daughter is no exception, and even represents a minor masterpiece of the genre.

It stars Paul Brenner, a military undercover investigator. As a member of the Criminal Investigation Division (CID), it’s his job to catch the no-gooders in the army’s half-million-people pay roster. On a summer night as he’s stationed in Fort Hadley, Georgia, he’s summoned from another case to investigate a fresh murder on the base. But the victim is not just another soldier. Captain Ann Campbell is a top-ranked military officer, a West Point graduate, a recruitment-poster girl and, most importantly, the commanding general’s daughter. Finding her murderer becomes essential, but as the clock ticks against Brenner (until the FBI takes over the investigation), more and more suspects start coming out of the woodwork.

As he’ll soon discover, this murder ends up being a gateway to the discovery of a massive corruption scandal implicating most of the senior cadre at Fort Hadley. No one really want Brenner to get to the end of this affair, because most have an interest in silencing everything. If you have read other novels by DeMille, you know how convoluted his plots can become and this one is even more complex than most. So it’s somewhat heartening to find out that “complex” doesn’t mean “complicated” when there’s such a comfortable storyteller at the helm. Brenner’s narration is impeccable, a mix of cynical humor and false tough-guy impassivity against the horror of murder. The biggest difference between novel and movie may just be the first-person narration, considerably more affecting than just an objective description of events. In the context of DeMille’s body of work, one has to note that The General’s Daughter‘s Brenner acts as a precursor to Plum Island‘s John Coffey, sharing much of the background, quips and sarcastic attitude of the latter character.

The rest of the book is just as good: Great dialogue between Brenner and the other characters. Excellent procedural material, with enough details to keep nerds such as myself interested in the mechanical aspects of an investigation. The writing is skillful, even drawing considerable sympathy from a difficult scene that, in the film, seemed gratuitous and self-indulgent. I was particularly impressed by the way Brenner desperately tries to maintain a still upper lip in the face of terrible revelations; this is not quite a reliable narrator, because he doesn’t want to explore what he thinks. Similar deceptions abound when dealing with his personal life. All good stuff.

There’s also plenty of good material in what DeMille has to say about the tensions between the military frame of mind and the baser demands of civilian life, to say nothing about the type of gross criminal activity that Brenner has to face every day on his job. On the other hand, some may feel that the novel, as a whole, is a touch misogynist. I’m not so sure, but it definitely exploits the tension generated by womens’ increasingly important role in the US armed forces.

All in all, a good and solid book by one of the better thriller writers out there. It’s not very different from DeMille’s other books, and yet it’s original (and well-developed) enough to keep our interest throughout. Superior procedural murder mystery; above-average summer beach reading.

Young Wives, Olivia Goldsmith

Harper Collins, 2000, 512 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-06-107553-2

Even trashy authors have their days off.

I haven’t been shy, in the past, in expressing my satisfaction with Olivia Goldsmith’s oeuvre. From her debut with the revenge fantasy The First Wives’ Club to her latter send-ups of entire industries, Goldsmith has always aimed for the lowest common denominator, but with such calculated shrewdness that it was difficult to be overly critical of her cheerfully moralistic bent, or receptive to accusations of slight misandry.

After Young Wives, I’m not so sure.

The first strike against this novel is its similarity to The First Wives’ Club. Once again, we have a trio of women betrayed by their husbands, teaming up to take revenge. While the specifics are different (among other things, these wives are not ridiculously rich), they’re close enough that another writer would have been tarred with accusations of “rip-off!” had they tried the same thing. But, hey, if you can’t steal from yourself, who can you steal from?

But the next strike against Young Wives is the banality of its premise. Books like Fashionably Late and The Bestseller skewered industries such as (respectively) fashion and publishing, while The First Wives’s Club had an implicit element of originality in its depiction of “First Wives” commonalities, Young Wives has none of that. One wife is cheated upon by her upwardly mobile husband; another struggles to support her children despite a lazy partner; a third discovers that her husband is implicated in shady activities. Ordinary stories, all, without much in terms of unifying force. Rather than focus her satiric pen against something concrete, Goldsmith scatters herself in multiple directions.

This, perhaps inevitably, leads to the third major problem with the novel, which is its lopsided pacing, which begins at a snail’s pace and then only picks up very late in the novel. The disproportionate length of “Ring One” (303 pages) versus “Ring Two” (40) is emblematic of the problems. Heck; one wife doesn’t even get discover that her husband is a dirty scoundrel until halfway through the novel. While it is true that tepid pacing has always been a problem with Goldsmith’s novels, this one is worse than other given the lack of focus: At least books like The Bestseller could fill up the first third with details about the publishing industry.

These three strikes duly noted, a lot of stuff about Young Wives suddenly become harder to gloss over. The misandry, obviously: In addition to the trite and explicit epigrams (“Men are mostly dogs and marital diplomacy is all about saying ‘nice doggie’ until you find a damn rock” [P.305]), the constant barrage of failed marriages in this book is somewhat disheartening. (All of these failures, alas, are the men’s fault) I’m a cynic, damn it, but some things are too depressing. Constant “dogs are better than men because…” jokes and the harsh revenges don’t help the atmosphere, and neither do the caricatures taking place of characterizations when comes the time to define the male antagonists. I’m a bit surprised about this, really, because I’ve never had such a problem with Goldsmith’s other books: This one just rubbed me the wrong way.

There are other problems here and there: The funding of a lazy husband’s lavish divorce lawyer is never explained. Some expressions are repeated too many times. Contrivances abound, from abrupt wife-beating to a custody trial that simply rings false. Goldsmith never convinces in describing characters that are black and/or poor. Ironically enough, this book concludes on an unlawful act, leaving an unpleasant taste that makes me want to take back everything nasty I’ve said about Goldsmith’s moralistic universes.

In short, this has to be my least favourite of Goldsmith’s novel so far. Now it remains to be seen whether this is a fluke, or if the other novels I haven’t read from her are as disappointing. Oh, please let this be a fluke, a day off, a “message” novel that went awry…

The Demon in the Freezer, Richard Preston

Ballantine, 2002, 292 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-46663-2

It’s not required to have read the first two volumes of what Richard Preston calls his “Dark Biology” trilogy (The Hot Zone and The Cobra Event) in order to appreciate The Demon in the Freezer, but it does help. While this book isn’t, strictly speaking, a sequel to The Hot Zone, it does exist in a very similar context and features a number of the same scientists as characters.

In The Hot Zone, Preston studied Ebola, an exotic disease that may, someday, cause a widespread epidemic. In The Demon in the Freezer, he takes a look at another disease, one that has already killed more humans than anyone can count: smallpox.

In many ways, it’s an even more interesting subject than Ebola. I’m part of the first generation that never had to worry about smallpox: Thanks to worldwide efforts by the health community, the disease was eliminated in 1975, the year I was born: Doctors vaccinated entire populations, setting up “firebreaks” the once-rampant disease couldn’t infect. Safely contained, smallpox burned itself out and disappeared from Earth in one of the most significant public health victories in humankind’s history.

Officially, existing stocks of the disease were consolidated in two places: Atlanta’s CDC and Vector, a research facility on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Officially, all agreed to keep copies of the virus “just in case”, maybe for developing better medicines. Officially, that’s where the trail end.

Unofficially, this is a much spookier story. Evidence exists that, the lax state of Russian security being what it was in the 1990s, copies of the virus have been made, replicated and tested… maybe even sold to other countries, or stolen by agents of these countries. Given the extremely contagious nature of smallpox, the most paranoid virologists have long dreaded an engineered strain of a disease with smallpox’s transmission characteristics coupled with the devastating effects of, say, Ebola.

Now public research is making progress in areas that are related to such a nightmare. A mousepox virus that just tears through existing vaccines. A successful attempt to make monkeys sick with human smallpox. Genetic engineering always progresses forward, and Preston faithfully report on it: “I spent days with Chen during the time he engineered the mouse supervirus. ‘It’s not difficult to make this virus,’ he said to me one day. “You could learn how to do it.’” [P.267]

The supreme irony being that the virus is still out there, waiting to be re-used. This demon still awaits in the freezer. In the book’s perfect concluding paragraph, Preston notes that “the virus’s last strategy for survival was to bewitch its host and become a source of power.” [P.283] In this post-2001 age of anthrax letters and hyper-terrorism (all covered in here), who’s to say what’s next?

Granted, I’d advise a bit of scepticism. In The Hot Zone, Preston makes a lot about “the coming plague”, a claim later disputed by books such as Ed Regis’ Virus Ground Zero. (Preston even takes a break to defend his argument in this book). Similarly, his inferences may be a touch too alarmist: While the back cover trumpets “Iraq (…is) almost certainly hiding illegal stocks of the deadly virus”, later events have shown this assertion to be, er, false. (On the other hand, Preston’s narrative is less categorical, and even includes an interesting scene in which White House officials almost pressure Peter Jahrling in saying that the Anthrax letter could have been produced in Iraq [P.225]. Hmmm…)

Nevertheless, it’s good (and entertaining) to be swept along by Preston’s prose. With his novel The Cobra Event, he confirmed his talent for writing a compelling narrative and many of the tools he used then are repeated here: Smooth transitions from exclusive interviews to historical narrative, powerful anecdotes and a careful arrangement of material. I find it regrettable the the paperback edition of the book doesn’t include an index (a general flaw of non-fiction books that bothers me more and more with time), but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more reader-friendly pop-science book on the subject. It’s splendidly entertaining, more than a little scary and unbelievably gripping. With The Demon in the Freezer, Preston scores a solid third hit in a row; I wonder what’s next on his publishing schedule.

Ying Xiong [Hero] (2002)

(In theaters, August 2004) Wow! After seeing the film, it’s hard to understand why Miramax held on to it for so long: While it may not be the most profound martial arts film ever shot, it certainly ranks up there as one of the most beautiful, along with a pleasing patina of sophistication when it comes to plotting. At first, it appears as if Jet Li plays a stoic warrior asked to tell the emperor the story of how he managed to kill three ferocious would-be assassins. But that’s not the real story, and that’s what we slowly discover as the film progresses. It’s not a complicated plot, but the structure is unusual enough to keep us interested. Of course, the fights are the core of the film’s appeal. Mercifully well-edited, they flow seamlessly and end slightly before we grow tired of them. But what puts this film over and above its comparable brethren is the flawless cinematography, which paints every fight scene with a very different colour palette. Digital effects are sagaciously used to heighten the sense of unreality that make this film so unique. In the end, Hero achieves an unusual distinction: that of being a martial art film of interest even to people without much interest in martial films.

Wicker Park (2004)

(In theaters, August 2004) There is something interesting in how this romantic drama has all the trappings of a thriller without, in fact, being much of one. The somber pacing, the Hitchcock-inspired shots, the constant intimations that a psycho is on the loose may all contribute in making a vaguely creepy trailer, but they’re misleading in a way that becomes increasingly obvious as the film progresses. Oh, there’s much to applaud in the way the scenario is assembled, with flashbacks and dramatic ironies that make the viewer work in putting the story together. But once the story is put together, there just isn’t much left in terms of tension; just a dull love story that has no way of ending in a satisfying fashion. Acting-wise, John Hartnett once again proves that he is incapable to express any emotion beyond befuddlement. Matthew Lillard also once again proves an ability to triumph over lifeless material, mostly by acting in a different (but vastly more interesting) movie than the rest of the cast and crew. Otherwise, well, it’s not that Wicker Park is bad or all that dull, but that it falsely presents itself… and would have been vastly more entertaining had it been made as a comedy rather than a tepid drama with thriller aspirations.

The Atrocity Archives, Charles Stross

Golden Gryphon, 2004, 273 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 1-930846-25-8

Stop the presses! It’s only August, but unless I hit another brain-burner before December (and Charles Stross’ own Iron Sunrise may very well do the trick), I’ve found my Book of the Year.

Oh, the chances are that you won’t like it. It’s been a pet theory of mine that what is great to one cannot be great to all: Given that the great stuff appeals to unique facets of a personality, such quirky likes and dislike won’t be shared by all, ergo stuff that reaches you won’t necessarily affect everyone.

And -whoah- does The Atrocity Archives push most of my buttons: Computer Science, Office Work, Lovercraft Mythos, Spy Thrillers, Tech Jokes, Historical Trivia are all thrown in a particle accelerator and the result of this experiment is a book that just about grabbed me by the ears and demanded to be admired. It wasn’t much of a fight: Scarily enough, Stross thinks a lot like I do, or at least like I would if I were a lot smarter.

Consider the premise: Today’s world is a fragile reality. Right underneath the surface, evil creatures are just waiting to emerge, and the way to bridge the gap is through higher mathematics. Or, in practice, advanced computing. The only reasons why we haven’t yet been crisped and ketchuped by tentacled creatures is that there are shadow agencies working to keep the unmentionable, well, unmentioned.

We find our narrator in the middle of all this. Bob Howard is a computer wizard working in the bowels of the British “Laundry”, wizard being no mere metaphor in this context. As the novel begins, he’s drafted in a complex operation involving three secret services and a lovely red-haired philosopher who has unknowingly discovered a very dangerous piece of knowledge. Before soon, Howard finds himself neck-deep in very dark matters best left to professionals. Without spoiling anything, let’s just say that Nazis are involved. The short title novel (“The Atrocity Archive” is 70,000 words long) is followed by “The Concrete Jungle”, another spooky novelette combining Total Surveillance paranoia with a -literal- Medusa effect in the middle of an ultra-dirty bureaucratic war. (A passing reference to “something” set for 2007 is one of the most frightening things in the book.) An afterword describing links between thrillers and horror caps the rest of the book. Whew!

But plot summaries usually fail to do justice to Stross’ fiction, and The Atrocity Archives is a perfect example of this. Scarcely a paragraph goes by that doesn’t include throwaway references to layers of imagined back-story integrating mounds of arcane knowledge. Sentences have to be unpacked for maximum meaning. Stross doesn’t write as much as he encodes entire novels in lossy compression schemes leaving just enough hints to make us wonder at the rest. He effortlessly discards more stuff in a chapter than most lousy writers manage to pack in trilogies. Even though the book clocks in at less than 300 pages, there is plenty for your money in here: You will end up reading the book as slowly as possible to get every reference. And, if you really get into it, you won’t want to stop before you’re through.

Of course, your mileage may vary. Unless you can get references to “maze of twisty little passages”, “Old Ones”, “the Wannsee Conference”, “NSA Echelon”, “the Church-Turing hypothesis”, “are belong to us” and so forth, it’s a safe bet that you won’t get maximum enjoyment out of the novel. If, on the other hand, cryptic expressions such as “BOFH becomes Bond” are enough to make your eyebrows shoot up, Golden Gryphon is the small-press publisher you should patronize.

The Atrocity Archives isn’t just good: it’s “oh goodness my mind is blown”, “this is turning me in a drooling fanboy”, “I’ve been waiting to read this book half my life” good. It’s the kind of book fit to be lent, or gift-bought in massive quantities. Scary reactions: As a reviewer, isn’t it my job to be professionally jaded by now?

Aw, stuff it: Book Of The Year. If it’s not, I can’t wait for the better book.

The Village (2004)

(In theaters, August 2004) The most striking trend about M. Night Shyamalan’s films since The Sixth Sense is how, movie after movie, director Shyamalan has improved even as writer Shyamalan has lost touch. In terms of how to direct a suspense film, The Village is almost as exemplary as Signs in how to position a camera to show, but more importantly not to show some things. His use of colour is skillful, providing a visual segue into the theme of social manipulation that lies at the heart of the film. Director Shyamalan also retains his touch when comes the time to coax great performances out of his actors. This time, it’s Bryce Dallas Howard who manages to outshine everyone else as a spunky blind tomboy. Visually, the film is magnificent, and the tortured rhythm of the historical dialogue gets to be hypnotic after a while (it wouldn’t be pleasant to speak like that all the time, but wouldn’t you wish that everyone else did, sometimes?) A lot of good stuff, really. But then there’s the script, with the expected Big Shyamalan Twist. My advice: Spoil yourself rotten before seeing the film. Ask your friends to tell you the surprise. Read the script. This way, you won’t be driven to a film-burning rage by the way the last few minutes unfold –and retroactively screw up all the film up to that point. Don’t worry: spoilers will enhance your experience, removing the suspense of the twist while leaving you free to admire all that’s good and successful about The Village. Otherwise, you may be left with just Shyamalan to blame.

Suspect Zero (2004)

(In theaters, August 2004) I see it all the time, yet I still hate it all the time: A boffo premise trashed by over-development, partially redeemed by just about enough directing/acting skill to make us long for the film that wasn’t. Zack Penn’s original 1997 screenplay was reportedly a barn-stormer of a script, a take on the serial-killer genre with plenty of things to say. I’m not sure what happened to it in the meantime, but the 2004 filmed version of the story is a hodge-podge of supernatural crap without much in terms of a sustained storyline. The structure is off, revelations are made too late, coincidence abounds, silly shortcuts are taken and, worse, some bits (the fifty-foot shark) don’t make sense without prior knowledge of the script. It gets, in other words, profoundly silly, and that’s exactly the wrong tone in a serial-killer picture. The matter-of-fact acceptance of “remote viewing” hurts most of all, but the rest of the picture isn’t all that special either: the energy has been sucked out of the script, resulting in, yes, a dull film. There is an interesting patina of good directing here and there (though it too-often falls into the “dark is scary” mode), along with a good performance by Ben Kingsley (his ear-rie shadow is spooky). It’s enough to rescue the film from a total catastrophe, but not enough to make it any good. Hey, Universal, how about re-making that first draft?

Siu Lam Juk Kau [Shaolin Soccer] (2001)

(In theaters, August 2004) It took years for this film to come to North America and be released in theatres, but it was worth the wait: This soccer/kung-fu sports comedy is just about what you’d expect from the premise (a bunch of misfits use shaolin skills to become a top-notch soccer team) and the execution is just as energetic as you’d except from a Hong Kong action film. Crammed with an astonishing amount of special effects, Shaolin Soccer is, by far, the funniest football/soccer film you’ll see: It’s a wonder why it wasn’t judged sufficiently commercial by Miramax, especially after the rather good translation/re-editing job they did on the film. (The film itself is subtitled -hurrah!- but the text snippets on-screen have been translated.) Writer/Director Stephen Chow is an enormously likable lead, but the entire cast gets the chance to score some points in the comedy department. As far as the sport scenes themselves are concerned, well, you will have to see them for yourself: The cartoonish nature of the stunts (including flaming footballs, shock waves and shattered concrete) is perfectly balanced with more simple gags and the result is a film that practically begs to be shown to the entire family. Good, great stuff.

Les rivières pourpres 2 – Les anges de l’apocalypse [The Crimson Rivers 2: Angels Of The Apocalypse] (2004)

(In French, In theaters, August 2004) There’s no use pretending that this is a classic for the ages, but this darkish thriller not only feels better than the original film, it represents a small step up for Luc Besson’s screenplays. Oh, it’s still rife with silly stuff, coincidences and frustrating developments, but at least it’s not as broadly silly as some of his more recent material such as Taxi 3 and Yamakasi. Even his dumb ideas have a certain panache: It’s hard not to smile at a film mixing apocalyptic imagery, monk ninjas and Nazi revivalists. (Whew!) Sure, the characters are wafer-thin and the conclusion is lame… but when the entire film is so drenched in atmosphere, there’s reason enough to be interested. Olivier Dahan does a fine job at the helm, showing what he’s capable of in a series of spooky scenes that borrow much from other films but still manage to create an appropriate atmosphere. (Ooh, crucifixes) Jean Reno is as good as usual in his reprise of “Commissaire Neimans” while newcomer Benoît Magimel is a good-enough replacement for Vincent Cassel’s character in the original. It all adds up to a pleasant-enough film, perhaps a bit tired about the 1999 wave of “Christian apocalypse” horror films (Bless The Child, Stigmata, End Of Days, etc.) but nonetheless not too shabby.

God’s Children, Harold Coyle

Forge, 2000, 316 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-86296-2

I’m glad I’ve read this book. As a big fan of Coyle’s early work, I was dismayed to see that his return to contemporary-era military fiction after his “Civil War” trilogy had been marred by two clunkers, Dead Hand and Against All Enemies, two terrible novels that made me wonder if Coyle had lost his touch. The bad news are that God’s Children still isn’t up to the dizzying standards set by his earlier novels. The good news is that it’s a heck of a lot better than the two other books.

In some ways, it’s even more of a surprise considering the subject matter. While everyone can agree that peacekeeping missions are important and dangerous, they’re not exactly an exciting subject for a techno-thriller. Coyle has, in the past, specialized in engagements taking place on a much larger scale, from World War Three (Team Yankee) to a second American Revolution (Against All Enemies). Here, our protagonists are simply thrown in the mud and the snow of Eastern Europe, on a peacekeeping mission where neither side wants protection and everyone wonders why Americans are intruding in the affairs of another state.

Plot-wise, Coyle keeps a tight focus on a small cast of American soldiers at the exclusion of everything else: As their patrol is cut off from the rest of the world, no cuts to the White House or reassuring media reports come to break our isolation. It’s a repeat of stylistic choices made in Team Yankee (which followed an armoured team in the far-away context of John Hackett’s The Thirld World War) and it’s the single best element of the book. For it informs everything else and places the reader right alongside the soldiers forced to fight their way back to the base. It’s interesting to see that a simple plot (“get back home in one piece”) trumps such extravaganza as a Siberian meteor strike (Dead Hand) or war in Mexico (Trial by Fire) in sustained interest.

Part of the novel’s continued attraction is based on, once again, a very simple conflict between seasoned protagonist Nathan Dixon (son of Scott Dixon, protagonist of numerous Coyle novels) and Gerald Reider, an officer fresh out of West Point. When a regular patrol turns into something far more dangerous, Reider find his theoretical knowledge useless and his platoon taken over by Dixon. As tensions mount between the two men and enemy forces get closer, repercussions of their personal animosity become more and more significant. Simple plot dynamics, but boy do they work.

What also works well, but sometimes turns into straight-up lecturing, is Coyle’s description of what it’s like to be a soldier. At times, God’s Children, seems written to be taught at West Point. At others, it truly puts readers into a soldier’s mind. While Coyle is not a master stylist (Try this sentence: “Laced with the smells of mold and mildew common to wooden structures built by men to be used by men when enjoying manly pursuits was the pungent odor of urine.” [P.208]) but he’s certainly earnest and in military fiction, sincerity counts for far more than technique.

Still, good technique can make you avoid simple blunders such as the abrupt ending of the book or the lack of definition for some of the secondary characters. Technique could have streamlined some exposition, cut some of the most conspicuous lecturing and wrapped some of those loose threads. Fortunately, God’s Children is good enough and interesting enough to compensate for those flaws. Make no mistake: It’s still military fiction, impenetrable to laymen and reprehensible to anti-militarists. But for anyone who has been looking for gripping tales of modern warfare, it’s not a bad choice at all. In fact, it’s making me curious about Coyle’s latest books, which is certainly something I couldn’t say after Dead Hand or Against All Enemies. Time will tell which of those three books is the aberration.

(Fans of Coyle’s Dixonverse should note that even though Against All Enemies was published after God’s Children, it was written earlier and so explains why and how Nathan Dixon came to replace Scott Dixon as the series’ protagonist. Not an essential read, but it may explain some of the references in God’s Children.)

Open Water (2003)

(In theaters, August 2004) There is definitely something to be said about the purity of this film’s premise: What if you found yourself stuck in the middle of the ocean in a scuba suit? There’s an innate terror there as the situation is so far removed from the daily reality of us land-lubbers. For more fun, add in some jellyfishes, wounds, dehydration, exposure and the usual sharks. Visually, the director cleverly lets the camera hang only a touch above the stranded divers’ heads as they bob up and down in the ever-changing ocean landscape. Yup, some good stuff here –and I’m not even talking about Blanchard Ryan’s completely gratuitous nude scene. But what could have been a one-note premise turns out to be exactly that and even at a mere 72 minutes, this film still feels overlong. Granted, the pedestrian screenplay doesn’t do much to heighten our involvement: The two leads are basically yuppie scum, and while their everyman quality gives a this-could-be-you quality to their plight, it doesn’t go beyond that. Visually, it’s both a shame and a achievement to see that the film was shot in muddy digital video. Sure, it means that a film that otherwise wouldn’t have existed was shown on thousands of cinema screens across America. On the other hand, well, it looks like digital video on a two-storey silver screen: There is no arguing that this is a bottom-basement budget film. So; a mixed bag? Well, yes, but I suspect that the clincher will be the cheap ending, which makes the whole thing feel quite irrelevant. Eh: I call it low-budget film syndrome.

Gothika (2003)

(On DVD, August 2004) Hey, that wasn’t terrible. Oh, it’s no great art: crazy people, an insane asylum, a murder or two, possession by vengeful ghosts, yadda-yadda. The best thing about this film is Mathieu Kassovitz’s direction, trashy in a B-genre fashion with enough CGI stuff to keep things interesting. Otherwise, well, it moves relatively quickly and seldom wastes any time in setting up its scares. As long as you enjoy Halle Berry in a shower; what else do you need? Well, a plot maybe, and one that doesn’t solely bring back memories of What Lies Beneath. But then again it’s “just” a horror movie, and a decidedly non-scary one at that despite the desperate spring-loaded cats at regular intervals. The audio commentary on the DVD shows both director and cinematographer struggling to make this something more significant than an average horror film, only to hear Kassovitz cave in at the end and ruefully recognize that this is, after all, just a silly genre film. (Oh, don’t get me started on the last scene…) Still, not bad. Could have been worse.

Ghosts Of The Abyss (2003)

(On DVD, August 2004) Yes, James Cameron still hasn’t directed any feature-length fiction film since 1997’s Titanic. But if this is the kind of stuff he’s doing on his “holidays”, well, it’s just as good. In this documentary, we follow Cameron and his crew (including stalwart actor Bill Paxton) as they revisit the wreck of the Titanic in late 2001. Paxton makes a useful everyday character as he’s (justifiably) impressed by the whole proceeding: his doofus act as they take him to the wreck is a useful proxy for everyone in the audience. The technology used for this round of exploration is quite impressive, bringing movie-making savvy to underwater exploration, along with a full underwater lighting rig, 3D cameras (whose footage is sadly converted to 2D on the DVD) and remote-controlled ROVs. The exploration of the Titanic itself is cleverly augmented by CGI, overlays of live-action footage and interviews with experts. Hard-SF fans will squeal in glee at the appearance of Charles Pellegrino, author of several books on the Titanic, archaeology and other nifty stuff. It’s engrossing material, but becomes even more so when the tale evolves into a techno-thriller mode as one of the robots has to be rescued after technical difficulties. Fascinating stuff, though some knowledge and passion for the subject of the film is almost essential. Well worth tracking down.