Monthly Archives: October 2004

Diary, Chuck Palahniuk

Doubleday, 2003, 259 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-50947-2

You’ve been a fan of Chuck Palahniuk for a while. You can appreciate the hipper-than-thou narration of his novel, the urban nihilism, the gimmicky recurrence of motifs, the catchphrases, the blistering contempt in which he holds the world. You think Invisible Monsters is beautiful trash. You think Fight Club has something deep to say to your generation. You think Lullaby was his best book since Survivor. And yet you’ve hesitated for a year before getting Diary. Lots of books to read on your bookshelves. But also bad comments. Rumours that it wasn’t such a hot book. Whispers that Palahniuk started believing in his own mystique. Then there’s the bizarre way Palahniuk outed himself late in 2003. You couldn’t care less (in fact, you learnt it months afterwards), but they’re all little justifications you can use for not getting to Diary any sooner.

But now you have. You have bought the hardcover right on time, (just as the trade paperback came out) anxious to add another Palahniuk first edition to the nice little collection growing in your library. You have taken a long delighted look at the dust jacket design (with a hidden message inside). You have smiled at the neat unusual touches bestowed upon the book by the designer. You think, how bad can it be? It’s a new (well, almost new) Palahniuk book.

You start to read. Bam; from the first few pages, you’re back in the groove. Nothing makes sense, but that doesn’t matter in the early chapters. Images are created: the fish-shaped island. Weird situations are introduced: people calling to complain that rooms have disappeared in their houses. exotic information is delivered, this time about facial muscles, all cleverly tying back to the emotional state of the characters. Recurring sound-bites are introduced to act as a chorus throughout the novel.

And yet something isn’t quite the same. It’s a lot more somber, for one thing. Palahniuk is never chirpy, that’s for sure, but he’s usually darkly funny. Diary features a female protagonist, a first for Palahniuk (and no, Invisible Monsters doesn’t count). And it doesn’t take place in a city. That’s a major point: it doesn’t take place in a city. Palahniuk doesn’t cope well with rural areas. He’s a man of asphalt, concrete, smog back-alleys and lamplights. Nature doesn’t suit him, and neither do calm vacation communities. Even if the calm island where most of the action takes place has a deep secret that no one wants to reveal…

For the longest time, you wonder where the story is going. Diary may only have some 260 pages, but it feels empty. It’s only in the last hundred that things are set in motion, that the real story emerges from the book. And the story is horror. Sufficiently realistic in parts to make you reject supernatural explanations, and yet subtly off the axis of reality, leaving only irrationality as an answer. There are evil humans and an evil fate united against the protagonist; what more could you ask of a horror novel? Why not a meta-fictional envoi? Because that’s what you see at the end. It’s a cute nod. It doesn’t explain the conceit break toward the end of the novel, as the “diary” form becomes obviously impractical for the teller of the tale.

Ultimately, you close the book left unsatisfied. Oh, you’ve had fun and a few pleasant moments in the company of an author so unlike anyone else. But Diary still feels as if it was a contractual obligation more than a new novel from Palahniuk. You’re still going to remember more of this novel than most of what you’re going to read this year. You’re still going to buy Palahniuk’s next book. But somewhere at the back of your mind, there are alarm signals. Not ringing bells, but quiet electronic pulses, the kind that can make you wait months before getting a new book. And you wonder. You wonder of you’re going to remember Palahniuk’s name the next time you’re at the bookstore.

The Rift, Walter J. Williams

Harper Torch, 1999, 932 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-105794-0

Sooner or later, it happens to every good Science Fiction author who looks longingly at the stacks of Michael Crichton books nonchalantly plastered all over the the “Best-Selling” section of their local bookstore: I’ve got skills, they say to themselves, I can write as well as any of the morons on the best-seller lists. If I wasn’t stuck in a dead-end genre like SF, I could be a superstar. Then they go home and slap together a techno-thriller proposal. If their editor has any sense, they are reminded that SF may be a backwater ghetto, but it’s a faithful backwater ghetto packed with fans that can be cultivated over dozens of books.

But sometimes, the proposal is accepted and the author embarks on a long voyage outside the familiar terrain of SF. Real-world research ensues, along with feverish dreams of mainstream success. The novel is published under a slightly different name to fool the evil Chain Ordering Computers. Few SF fans are tempted by the offer. Time passes. Mainstream success fails to strike. The author comes back to SF, much wizened and downright eager to get back to business.

The Rift is Walter Jon Williams’ own trip in the mainstream wilderness, with typically mixed results. To be entirely fair, while Williams has enjoyed a steady amount of success in the SF field, he has never been totally comfortable within the genre: He started out writing historical naval adventures, then (following Ambassador of Progress, itself almost a medieval warfare novel) found the SF field far more receptive to his talents. His career has spanned several sub-genres of SF, from cyberpunk (Hardwired) to near-future thriller (Days of Atonement). His foray in disaster fiction shouldn’t be surprising. In the SF corral he’s always been the young buck sniffing at the gate.

The Rift, unfortunately, hasn’t done much to further his mainstream career, nor his SF one. You just have to look at the book to suspect why: At nearly one thousand pages, it doesn’t fulfil its epic promise or delivers on the demands it asks of the readers’ time. It it too long, too fluffy. Despite the deaths and the destruction, nothing happens for hundreds of pages.

Given the premise (An earthquake in the American Midwest, straight on top of the New Madrid fault), you already know the story. Plucky heroes with something to prove, faced with the evil born out of desperate situations. Heart-stopping (yawn-inducing) adventures. Lengthy exposition. Potential disasters even greater than earth-shattering quakes, narrowly averted. It’s all there. And yet we wish it wasn’t. Many part of the book are interesting… but many more of them just aren’t.

Reading this thousand-page book is an exercise in self-configuring reading skills. You will quickly figure out to skip the lengthy page-long excerpts. You will learn to recognize the meaningless mini-dramas that extend over three pages (Oh no! A snake! Will it bite???) and then how to gloss over them. You will figure out that the young protagonist’s main task is to run from one bad situation to another, bringing light and happiness down the river. The problem isn’t with Williams’ writing skills. The problem is in the lack of editing, letting a middle-of-the-river tale overflow its natural boundaries to flow shallowly over land it was never meant to cover. This is a book to read quickly, for fear of staying stuck as the flow of your interest will recede in its usual boundaries.

It’s not the first novel about the New Madrid fault, and it’s maybe the weakest one: Certainly, I had more fun reading Peter Hernon’s 8.4 (which clocks in at half the length and twice the excitement). It may not be Williams’ most ordinary novel, but it’s certainly his dullest. Hey, I can’t begrudge him the attempt at best-seller stardom… but it’ll be a good thing to have him back and firing on all cylinders.

The five years since The Rift‘s publication seems to have independently validated this assessment; after running wild for a while (even writing an -ack, ptui- Star Wars novel), he’s now back in the SF corral, producing fine short stories and working on a space opera trilogy. The young buck has stopped sniffing at the gates, at least for a while. Here’s hoping that his next escapade will be more satisfying for all.

In The Beginning… Was The Command Line, Neal Stephenson

Avon, 1999, 151 pages, C$14.95 tpb, ISBN 0-380-81593-1

Now here’s another odd book. Originally conceived as a Wired article, then re-purposed for promotional purposes in time for Cyptonomicon‘s release and put up free on the web, In the Beginning… Was the Command Line is an opinion piece on Operating Systems that somehow found its way in book form, in libraries, available to all. It’s a technical piece and yet not a technical piece, a fantastic read by someone lucky enough to know an esoteric subject in depth, yet still be able to write about it for everyone else.

In a room full of geeks, Neal Stephenson needs no introduction. Lucking out on the fading edge of the cyberpunk craze, his breezy Snow Crash wowed plenty of Science Fiction fans and (later) earned enough good will to net Stephenson a Hugo Award for The Diamond Age. Later books have not been so explicitly Science-Fictional (Heck, his latest trilogy is a work of historical fiction set at the dawn of our modern world) but no matter… for in the meantime, Stephenson had become enough of a nerd demigod that his audience is now willing to follow him wherever he goes.

In the Beginning… Was The Command Line is a chatty essay about the very strange business of operating systems. Those pieces of software mediating the transactions between users and machines, applications and files. That business didn’t exist fifty years ago; now it’s worth multi-billion dollars, most of which are flowing straight into Microsoft’s business account.

In this essay, Stephenson describes his own experiences with OSs, as a student, as a coder and as a writer. He grabs on to just about any socio-technical tangent he can find and tries to find the place of Operating Systems in today’s world. Are they (bad) metaphors? Are they essential? Which audiences do they target?

It doesn’t amount to much in terms of a structured argument. Perhaps it’s best described as a lengthy rant fuelled by considerable intellect. Stephenson fans already know that the man can’t write a decent ending, and it’s a bit of a comfort to find out that he can’t manage to do so here either. But through the whole book, there are fascinating nuggets of hard ideas. The broad distinction of users between Morlocks and Elois isn’t a bad metaphor, reaching deep into something technical help-desk workers have known for a looong time. The parallels between operating systems and Disneyworld touch upon the vast layers of abstraction that have been layered, for centuries, over our society.

Naturally, this book is written for a certain tech-aware crowd, and it often plays shamelessly to the crowd’s favour. There is an amusing segment describing Linux that will resonate with most hackers. (“It’s a tank! And we’re giving it away!”) Stephenson is both conversant in technological trends and gifted enough to write about them; this make In the Beginning. Was the Command Line an interesting artifact, halfway between the literary and the computer field. It’s interesting to note that even though it’s now pushing five years (a lifetime in technological contexts), the book hasn’t aged much: References to the obsolete BeOS system now have be seen in a historical context (a recent interview with Stephenson confirms that he has since become an unabashed fan of Apple’s OSX) but overall, the market dynamics and socio-technical reflexions haven’t changed a bit despite Linux’s growing acceptance and the introduction of Windows XP.

Fascinating from start to finish, In The Beginning… Was the Command Line should provide geeks and technologically-friendly readers with a good read, plenty of minor revelations and maybe even a new look at the tools they’re using on a nearly-daily basis. Best of all, you don’t even have to buy it in a bookstore: it’s all available on-line.

Angels and Demons, Dan Brown

Pocket, 2000, 572 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-02736-0

Curiously, sales and awards often have less to do with the work itself than to previous factors. Movie sequels make most of their first-weekend box-office on the strength of the prequel. Authors sell to established fans. Denzel Washington gets an Oscar for TRAINING DAY. This sort of things.

After the blockbuster success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, it’s only natural that all of his back-list should be reissued in mass-paperback format. But after reading Angels and Demons, the direct prequel to The Da Vinci Code, it’s not hard to feel as if Brown is now getting the success he should have enjoyed with the previous book.

From the first few chapters, we can already recognize the ingredients that would make The Da Vinci Code such a success: A mixture of high technology, esoteric knowledge, straightforward (okay; clumsy) prose, pedal-to-the-metal pacing and an interest in the best-known secrets in history. Here, protagonist/symbologist Robert Langdon is summarily brought from Boston to Switzerland when a murder turns out to have links to the ancient legend of the Illuminati. The murder victim is branded by the sign of the mythical brotherhood, his flesh engraved with an ambigram. But there’s even worse; a canister of pure anti-matter is missing. Obviously, Truly Bad Things are about to happen. It doesn’t take a long time for Langdon to link powerful destruction to the Illuminati and deduce that Vatican City is about to go bye-bye. The rest of the book, needless to say, is solidly in the thriller tradition: Learn secrets! Follow the clues! Catch the guilty ones! Save the girl! Find the destructive device!

But a flippant plot summary can’t do justice to the mile-a-minute sheer reading pleasure that we get while going through the book. Brown isn’t much of a stylist, and his exposition style is annoying when you already know what he’s talking about. (The whole CERN section is a bit condescending if you’re already familiar with it. “We invented the web”, etc.) But that soon stops being a problem as the novel advances and we’re swept along the heroes as they run around Rome trying to pierce the secrets of the Illuminati.

While the ideas and secrets and bits of amusing historical trivia unveiled in Angels and Demons aren’t as arresting as the ones in The Da Vinci Code, this first Langdon adventure is far better-constructed than the more popular sequel. Langdon himself is a far more active hero: He fights, figure things out, gets himself out of impossible situations and gets the girl all in slightly more than twelve hours. Whew! The pacing actually accelerates throughout the entire book, unlike The Da Vinci Code, which started deflating halfway through.

Oh, there are still numerous problems with the book: Beyond the clumsy style, the book’s opening is marred by a sense of unreality. Sorry, but CERN doesn’t have an X-33 ready for takeoff. No, “they” don’t have magical powers when it comes to find telephone numbers over the web (unless they’re using DNS records and on-line phone books like the rest of us shlubs.) After that, well, Brown does himself no favours by setting up a false religion/science conflict and lecturing the audience about “who won” in chapter 94. And when the identity of the secret Illuminati master is revealed, well, anyone could have seen it coming…

…but wait! Because right after the big explosion, just as we expect the book to wind down to a graceful finale, something is wrong: There’s still fifty pages left even though everything is in the bag. Could this mean… a twist?

Hell yeah. And not just one. The type of insane twists-upon-twists that pile up and either make the book or destroy it. We’re lucky: Angels and Demons doesn’t just redeem itself, but vaults in the “great thriller” category thanks to the stunning, laugh-in-disbelief finale. Grand revelations. Wonderful red herrings consumed. Dan Brown triumphant, setting the stage for another Langdon adventure.

With retrospect, the success of The Da Vinci Code seems more an more like an inevitability. Books like Angels and Demons are kind of truly honestly good book that end up setting the stage for something bigger. The backlash against Brown is, by now, considerable, but it’s also misguided; if he was still toiling away in obscurity, we’d be in awe of his unusually brainy thrillers.

The Leaky Establishment, David Langford

Cosmos, 1984 (2001 revision), 216 pages, US$17.95 tpb, ISBN 1-59224-125-5

Over the years (and he’s been at it since the late seventies, almost as long as your reviewer has been alive), David Langford has built an enviable reputation as one of Science Fiction’s foremost fan writers. Through sagacious reviews and columns for a variety of outlets, through his editorship of the Ansible newsfanzine, though his involvement in electronic fan networks (Usenet, the web, etc), Langford reigns as a fandom superstar. (It helps that he’s supernaturally well-read in many genres, holds a nuclear physics degree and often write in a style guaranteed to make you laugh out loud.)

But to merely call him a fan, even a superstar fan, is doing him a disservice. His for-profit bibliography is equally impressive, even though most of his books have now achieved the kind of mythical status only allowed to out-of-print works. Best-known amongst them was The Leaky Establishment, a tell-all bureaucratic comedy set in the bowels of Britain’s nuclear research facilities.

The good news is that the recent rise in small-publishing houses (hurrah for technology and Internet bookstores) has allowed Langford to bring back into print a number of older works. Cosmos / Wildside Press alone has republished four of them in 2003, including The Leaky Establishment.

The best way to describe the book would be as a twisted hybrid between a bureaucratic thriller, a dry British comedy and a tell-all confession about the United Kingdom’s nuclear research establishment. It sets in motion as protagonist Roy Tappen drunkenly smuggles part of the British nuclear deterrent outside the research facility where he’s working. Horrified by the mistake, he tries to smuggle it back in… only to find out that the facility has, over the weekend, upgraded its gate sensors. In an environment where misplacing a calculator can bring the wrath of the bureaucracy down on hapless workers, this places Tappen in an untenable position, especially when his neighbour (a fellow nuclear research scientist) starts commenting on elevated levels of radiation coming from Tappen’s house…

And so the stage is set for a comedy in which Tappen takes on an entire research facility in order to keep his job, his wife and his sanity. Not that his mental well-being isn’t already threatened by the inanity of his workplace. You can more or less imagine the rest, especially when you throw in VIP tours, trips to the local pub, distressing working conditions and complex plans to smuggle nuclear material inside a research facility.

But to focus on the story would be to short-change the typically delicious nature of Langford’s prose, equal part brainy comedy (the scientific bits are convincing) and bone-dry British humour. It wouldn’t work in an American setting or with an American author: The Leaky Establishment is a British work through and through. Fans of Ansible’s bite-size wit in are in for a treat with this novel: it shows not only more of Langford’s trademark humour, but impressive plotting skills and a true ability to sustain a book-length work. The comic timing works perfectly and the dialogues ring true.

They may be actual transcripts, for all we know: Readers interested in knowing more about the truth behind the fiction should try to get The Silence of the Langford (an excellent book by itself) and read “The Leaky Establishment: The Final Drips”, for a behind-the-scene examination of his primary sources in writing this novel. (Here’s a hint: He worked there)

Revised in 2001, The Leaky Establishment has lost none of its considerable amusement value since 1984. Good jokes, great pacing, compelling prose and unusually good science should do much to attract a vast audience for the book. Science-fiction fans already know how good David Langford is; now it’s time for everyone else to find out.

Team America: World Police (2004)

(In theaters, October 2004) While this film ranks as one of the year’s most unusual release (an action-movie parody using… puppets?), it also finds its way on the “most disappointing” list. The first half of the film isn’t bad at all, actually, earning at least a marginal recommendation: As a commentary on American foreign policy (kill the enemy; don’t mind the damages and civilian casualties), it’s biting and as a parody of action film, it works well. There’s over-the-top theatrics (“Use… your… acting!”) and the novelty factor of puppets is still high enough to amuse. (Still, it’s telling that Team America wouldn’t work as a live-action film.) Everything has to be read on a second level, and that’s just fine. But then writer/directors Matt Stone and Trey Parker (of South Park fame, of course) try to have it both ways and the film slowly progresses into a parody of itself. Or, rather, as simply a non-parody: By the end, as Team America is portrayed heroically without any second thought, the film has shifted in what had started as its target. It doesn’t help that the use of Hollywood celebrities as opponents just doesn’t work as well as it should, raising as many shrugs as smiles. One gets the impression than in trying to be as non-partisan as possible, Team America sorts of misses its own point… if it had one to begin with. But then again, it may be the case that the film is just too American to succeed as a parody.

Veniss Underground, Jeff Vandermeer

Prime Books, 2003, 207 pages, US$15.00 tpb, ISBN 1-894815-64-5

I’m not a big fan of fantasy. I’m not too fond of gratuitously-grotesque fiction. I can handle weird stuff (whether it’s the old weird or the new one), but I like my weirdness funny, not grim. Cordwainer Smith, you say? I reply Bah. In short, I’m not the target audience for Jeff Vandermeer’s Veniss Underground, a dark fantasy book borrowing equally from SF and horror, a nightmare trip through a far-future city that owes as much to Gregor Mendel than to Hieronymus Bosch.

But the novel (and Vandermeer himself) kept getting such rave reviews in the specialized SF&F community that trying to ignore the novel was getting to be actively embarrassing. So when I found myself at the 2004 Boston Worldcon with twenty dollars, the new trade paperback edition of Veniss Underground and Vandermeer nearby, well, it all happened very quickly. “I hope you like the book” said Vandermeer after autographing my copy. Well, he wasn’t alone in sharing the sentiment.

But I do, fortunately. I even do like Veniss Underground quite a bit, considering that I’m not an ideal target audience for it. It’s well-written, has plenty of good moments and enough spectacular images to satisfy even one of the most reluctant hard-SF fan in the crowd.

Divided in three sections, Veniss Underground evolves and unfolds gradually, only revealing its true dramatic arc in the third section. At first, we get to meet Nicholas, an artist with good intentions but a rotten streak of luck. He slums in the garbage zone, and he is only too willing to tell us a story in exchange for water, food or drugs. His story is, all things considered, ordinary. A quest for a criminal overlord (or is it a genius scientist?), as Nicholas’ last chance at putting his life back together.

But the story doesn’t go where you think it’s going. Soon enough, you become Nicola, Nicholas’ sister, an upper-class programmer who lives high above the city of Veniss. (You become her because you are the protagonist of part two, much as Nicholas narrated part one and part three is told via a third-person point-of-view) Her brother gone, Nicola finds herself the recipient of a curious gift, a genetically-modified meerkat only too willing to be her servant. But where is her brother? Could her meerkat be part of the answer… or the root of the problem?

But wait again; before you even think you know where this is going, we settle in our final protagonist: Policeman Shadrach, who will have to venture underground (deep underground) to rescue what he loves and destroy what he hates. As he climbs deeper down, Veniss becomes poorer, stranger, crueler. This voyage to the heart of darkness won’t be easy… nor without consequences. What he finds down there could have repercussions for the entire human race.

And that’s the book in a nutshell. But what this plot summary can’t tell you is the way it’s all shown to you. Vandermeer isn’t your usual SF&F-as-entertainment punk who only wants to tell stories. No; he’s a real writer, and this love for good writing shows throughout the entire book. Savvy structure, tons of allusions to classic literature and fine descriptive passages should please even picky readers. Those looking for a story aren’t as richly rewarded, but there’s a strong (if simple) plotline running throughout the entire novel, one that delivers a satisfying resolution to boot.

But resolution isn’t everything, and so it’s the nightmarish imagery of the book that is likely to resonate with readers long after the final page. The trip through a magnificent organ bank (and a less-magnificent organ pile). The way to go to the last underground level. The final confrontation between hero and villain. The mixture of SF, horror and fantasy.

No, I’m not the ideal target audience for this book. As a die-hard partisan of genre restrictions and a Hard-SF reader convinced about the primacy of plot over style, I didn’t go bonkers over Veniss Underground like so many of my fellow reviewers. But I liked it well enough to consider it time and money well-spent. As a piece of twenty-first-century imaginative literature, there’s even something to be said about the way Vandermeer borrows from multiple genres in order to tell the story he wants without necessarily fitting it in a particular niche like would have been the case thirty years ago. (Usually in SF; I’ll try to say something more about this purification of the “science-fiction” label in a latter review, preferably as a companion to the “domination of fantasy isn’t a bad thing” argument) Good work, Mr. Vandermeer. Yes, I liked your book. Am even looking forward to your next novel.

Taxi (2004)

(In theaters, October 2004) I’m not going to attempt a spirited defence of Luc Besson’s original film because, frankly, it just wasn’t all that good to begin with: But as a French action movie, it wasn’t completely bad, and it had enough action and laughter to make it an amusing diversion. This widely-predicted remake, on the other hand, is tedious in entirely familiar ways, from flashy nonsensical casting to by-the-number plotting to rampant incoherences. It doesn’t take three minutes for the filmmakers to show their open contempt for the audience by revealing a svelte and athletic bike courier as… waddling hippo Queen Latifah. It gets better once she’s behind the wheel of her taxi (at least we can believe that she can sit there all day), but as a gravity-defying cyclist, it’s hard to even believe that the bike can support her weight. But she isn’t the worst casting decision of the film by far; that would be the insufferable Jimmy Fallon, here hired to personify pure annoyance. His character should be a sympathetic doofus, but he plays it as an idiot without any redeemable quality. Oh, the film gets point for some amazing chase cinematography (which doesn’t last very long, unfortunately), and for miscasting sex kitten Jennifer Esposito as a police lieutenant. But it’s a fight every step of the way to enjoy anything in which Fallon doesn’t die a horrible death. You would have thought that a thin excuse for car chases transplanted in New York City would be amazing action movie material, but the sad truth is that, neutered by the American action/comedy film process, Taxi ends up being a pale shadow of even a lacklustre original.

Shaun Of The Dead (2004)

(In theaters, October 2004) It’s a zombie movie! It’s a slacker comedy! It’s a romance! And surprisingly enough, it’s actually quite good! These are two-days-in-the-life of Shaun, British lad with relationship problems and no clear goal in life. But that’s all about to pale in significance as the zombie problems goes from background chatter to full-blown problem. Plans are hatched. Sight-gags abound. Wishes are fulfilled. Stuff happens. Through it all, Shaun Of The Dead manages a tight act holding together elements of three different kinds of movie into a cohesive whole that never betrays its characters. Sure, you can point at moments here and there where the characters are unbelievably stupid, or where “it can’t happen like that!” Still, the film feels unusually clever at combining background jokes, zombie-movie lore and everyday British life. Nice, funny and constantly interesting. Most recommended, especially if you found fault with the dreary 28 Days Later.

(Second viewing, On DVD, March 2005) Not quite as surprising upon a second viewing, this horror/comedy/romance hybrid nevertheless survives well to an encore performance. The performances feel natural, the writing is crisp and the direction moves its pieces with admirable efficiency. As a respectful take-off on the notion of zombie films, it’s not bad at all. The DVD contains tons of extras, all of whom are worth watching, sometimes surprisingly so.

Shark Tale (2004)

(In theaters, October 2004) The diversification of CGI films outside the Pixar tent continues to stretch the envelope. Even if the parallels between Shark Tale and Finding Nemo are a bit fishy, there’s no denying that the end result is still good enough. It’s certainly not a classic (the pop-culture jokes will carbon-date it instantly to 2003-2004) and its emotional depth is nil, but it’s an innocuous comedy that’s simple enough for kids and pop-referential enough for young adults. You have to love Will Smith in order to like the movie, though; even as a fast-talking voice, he takes over the whole film and makes it fit in his usual shtick. Don’t expect much more than an extended sitcom episode in terms of plotting, but keep your eyes open for tons of visual references. I particularly loved the split-second “Before you die, you see… The Hook” movie ad gag. A soundtrack drenched in hip-hop further drives the point home that this is clearly aimed at the younger audiences. But not all is lost for older viewers; there’s a fair amount of visual experimentation going on, though special flashbacks and wild camera moves, extending the cinematographic language of animated films further into the possibilities offered by the medium. As for the rest, well, it’s (usually) fast, it’s effective and it’s funny. No need to go any further than that.

Ladder 49 (2004)

(In theaters, October 2004) In this post-9/11 era where firefighters are the new demigods of civic responsibility, funding for a movie such as Ladder 49 comes naturally. Even the trite by-the-numbers script plays it safe in a transparent attempt to mythologize the plight of the ordinary firefighter. The result is a sure-fire populist hit and film likely to be a firehouse fixture for years to come. For those with an average interest in firefighters, however, all that’s left is an ordinary drama that makes to attempts at being a thriller (unlike Backdraft) or more than a straight-up biographic drama. This is a life (or maybe an instructional video), not a story. Save for a manipulative framing device, events simply happen without dramatic tension or surprises. Is it earnest or calculated? I suspect that those who go for the film just won’t care.

Cuba, Stephen Coonts

St. Martin’s, 1999, 390 pages, C$38.99 hc, ISBN 0-312-20521-X

The events of September 11, 2001 haven’t been kind to techno-thriller writers, ushering a brand-new age of geopolitical realities (some of them shifting on a monthly basis) and instantly relegating a whole decade of post-cold-war fiction into the dustbin of alternate realities. I took my time in making my way to Stephen Coonts’ 1999 novel Cuba and I shouldn’t have: Five years later, the novel seems both oddly prescient and irremediably dated.

Not completely dated yet, though: As of this writing, Fidel Castro is still alive and (presumably) doing well, though getting ever-older. But Cuba open as Castro is dying, an event that will set in motion a number of highly unpleasant changes in the country’s ruling class. Meanwhile, the Americans are taking biological warfare components out of Guantanamo under the supervision of Coonts’ usual protagonist, now-admiral Jake Grafton. (But in a classic case of an author struggling to merge an unfolding military series with ongoing reality, Coonts has to ignore the events of his earlier Under Siege in order to briefly revive Castro once more.) After a prologue in which an old ex-Russian soldier contemplates a missile silo hidden under Cuban farmland, well, it’s obvious where things are going sooner or later. Viva la revoluçion!

Setting a novel around the political changes to affect Cuba after Castro’s death isn’t too far-fetched, nor has it (by itself) passed in alternate realities. What’s more unsettling, however, is the fashion in which the Americans are driven to attack Cuba. You see, evidence shows that the country is developing weapons of mass destruction… oh, you heard that one already? Fortunately, in Coonts’ universe, there are actually a number of real weapons of mass destruction on the island. Whew!

But wait a second: Through the first half of the novel, we’re led in following a plot-line in which the dastardly Cubans steal a shipment of American biological weapons taken out of Guantanamo Bay base. Weapons shipped out by what appears to be a Cuban freighter, no less. (No, that didn’t make sense to me either. But there’s worse; keep reading:) The shipment is hijacked to be sold (we’re told) to those even more dastardly North Koreans. But that’s not all! As we then discover, the Cubans already had a biological weapon program ticking away in warheads pointed to the United States. At this point, sharp-eyed readers may want to frown, let loose with a little “Whaaa?” and wonder why the Cubans, even as crafty as they are, would want to take the risk to steal American biological weapons even as they’re cooking up a few. Even granted an unexplainable Cuban freighter used by the US Navy, it does seem a little bit odd. The reason for this, of course, is sheer authorial decree. Much as the Bush administration fudged around for having an excuse to go to war with Iraq, Coonts fudges around for an excuse to go to war with Cuba.

It certainly didn’t need all of this elaborate charade. If there’s anything significant in this novel in the context of Coonts’ oeuvre so far, it’s that he at least attempts to extend his novel past his usual military material. There’s some political and financial material, in addition to some espionage thrills and a memorable number of scenes set aboard a small civilian boat in peril. Cuba itself is described with a certain flair while Jake Grafton and friends don’t take over more than a half of the book. Sadly, when they do take it over, they do it will all the importance of pet characters; they fly planes, disembark on disabled freighter, go into action and do all sorts of things best left to subordinates. There are a few battles scenes; they are fun but quite ordinary.

All of which leads me to regard this novel as the kind of book best described as a contractual obligation. Yes, it’s decent entertainment, but there’s scarcely any of the fun and excitement we could expect from a top-shelf techno-thriller. It’s as if Coonts woke up one morning to find a note on his to-do list saying “write next novel”. It results in a novel that gives some warmth but not fire; some whiffs of interest but no flair. Hey, it’s better than what most of his colleagues in the military fiction business were able to write at the time. But it’s still not much of a reason to buy the hardcover, or slog through it if you’re not already a fan of Coonts’ work.

The Grudge (2004)

(In theaters, October 2004) First thing first: Yup, this film is packed with chills and scares and spring-loaded cats and gratuitously wrong imagery. On these grounds alone, this ranks as a successful horror films. There’s only one catch, though: Even as your lower reptilian cortex is being so effectively stroked, your higher-level brain functions will violently react as they try to make sense of what is ultimately a pretty dumb film. The implicit pact between filmmaker and viewer is broken: The early weird scenes do not end up making sense. We are to believe in a haunted house that takes sadistic delight in killing everyone who enters it, but then we see a real estate agent waltz in and out. Then the house starts going after victims just about everywhere in Tokyo, under guises that don’t actually reflect the internal logic of the triggering trauma. Then some people are killed efficiently while others are left to suffer for a bit, and maybe even take the bus back home. In short, there’s no internal logic, no “rules” to play with. This, contrarily to what others may say, doesn’t make the film scarier: It makes it cheaper, lazier and dumber. A year after The Ring, I still have chills over it thanks to a simple plot line that worked. A day after The Grudge, I can scarcely remember it already.

Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry (2004)

(Downloaded, October 2004) There is little doubt that this is a hagiography of John Kerry, carefully structured to bolster his image both as a soldier in Vietnam and then an opponent of the war after his tour of duty. And it delivers in spade. An “invisible documentary” with little overt intervention by a narrator, George Butler’s Going Upriver does wonder with archival footage and talking heads, describing Kerry’s formative experiences with skillful effect. In doing so, however, it manages something more; it holds its own as the capsule description of a time and a place from Vietnam to Washington. John Kerry predictably emerges from the film looking like a hero, but the context surrounding him is even more impressive. As someone born the same year Saigon fell, the description of anti-war protests is an eye-opener, going well beyond the usual encyclopedia articles about the subject. Kerry’s leadership qualities are manifest, but so is the dedication of the movement he’s spear-heading. It’s unusually moving, especially given the natural tendency to associate this war, so long away, with another still unfolding as I write this. In this mash-up between Kerry the soldier and Kerry the activist, it’s the activist who emerges as the clearest hero. Powerful stuff: the archival footage is excellent (including large portions of Kerry’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee testimony) and some of the pictures are nothing less than breath-taking. (Among the film’s surprises is seeing John O’Neill pop up, thirty years ago, as a White House-selected Kerry opponent. And they say history history repeats itself…) It all ends with a clever montage of photos from later in Kerry’s career, showing his ascension to positions of power. How can this man not be elected president?

The Forgotten (2004)

(In theaters, October 2004) The curse of most average SF/Fantasy movies these days is the market imperative to pad a story until it’s roughly 90 minutes long. While the plot of The Forgotten may have been mildly entertaining as a 20-minutes Twilight Zone episode, it severely overstays its welcome as a feature film. Plot development is held back, obvious revelations are drawn out and the movie dilutes its impact through bad pacing. Truth be told, there just isn’t enough in the premise of the film (a woman sees elements of her life being “erased” from her life, including in other people’s memories) to justify more than a short story’s worth of material. Over ninety minutes, the basic problems of the story become obvious: All-powerful “erasers” able to modify minds but unable to paint over a wall? People “magically” remembering things? Silly chases through open fields? The powers of the opposition just don’t match the cat-and-mouse game (and the silly clues) in the film. Dumb, which wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t asking for a full hours-and-a-half of our attention. But it does. And shouldn’t. Calling a dumb little movie The Forgotten is asking for a reaction in kind. Just give me a week or two.