Monthly Archives: April 2005

Man of the Hour, Peter Blauner

Warner, 1999, 478 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60541-7

Sometimes, a book just takes you by surprise: It’s either much better than you’d expect, or you gradually realize that your expectations were completely out of line. With Peter Blauner’s Man of the Hour, it’s a little bit of both. While not flawless, this novel manages to be quite good in a very difficult dramatic register. A cursory glance at the back cover blurb may lead you to believe that it’s another thriller in which an average all-American man manages to battle terrorists intent on destroying western civilization. The dramatic reality of the narrative is quite different.

It’s become something of a cliché to say that the modern heroes are the public sector workers doing their best to maintain security and rationality in today’s world. Policemen, soldiers, firemen doctors, nurses, teachers, all toiling along day after day without ceremonies or awards. Blauner seems to have taken this axiom to heart as he was plotting his novel: Protagonist David Fitzgerald has maybe the toughest job in the world: teaching English in a racially-diverse Brooklyn high school. The novel opens on him as he tries to reach his students, wondering how many of them he can save.

Of course, it turns out that he can’t save them all. In a bit of dramatic irony, the antagonist of the novel ends up being a ex-student of his: Nasser, a confused young man lost between an America he find repellent and fundamentalist role models pushing him toward more and more dangerous acts. Manipulated by opportunists cloaking themselves in hollow jihad rhetoric, Nasser sets in motion a series of events by planting a home-made bomb in a school bus.

By sheer luck, David is there to save the day, in plain sight of television cameras. But even as he becomes a media darling, the fickle nature of his celebrity starts to shift. Suddenly, he’s suspected of planting the bomb himself. His personal problems erupt, his reputation is irremediably damaged and during that time, another bomb is being prepared…

The least one can say is that there’s a lot of stuff to deal with in Man of the Hour: the nature of media celebrity, the plight of immigrants, the challenges of being a teacher. Soon, it’s obvious that this may be a bomb-driven plot, but it’s not a thriller as much as it’s a drama with some built-in excitement. Blauner sets out to write a social drama, not a shoot-em’up.

What’s more, it’s seldom boring. Blauner writes with a eye for the telling detail, and he never shies away from bringing down his characters yet another notch. In one of the novel’s most darkly funny moment, David is not only disgraced, reviled and betrayed, but even his camping trip outside the city turns to disaster as his tent is flooded and he is forced to seek refuge with the FBI agents tailing him. The entire novel is peppered with short, sharp scenes that do much to keep our interest in the narrative.

Similar care is taken to make even the antagonist a curiously sympathetic figure. Nasser may stand against everything America has to offer, but we come to understand the pressures that can lead someone to that point. There is a terrible and visceral scene, early in the novel, in which he points to everyday items and scream his disgust to David. It’s one of many moments that remain in mind long after finishing the novel.

Similar memorable scenes and relationship evolve between the teacher, the antagonist and the young woman uniting them. What’s not so good is the relatively weak ending that caps off the entire novel. While it works more or less well, it’s too convoluted, too drawn-out and doesn’t work as intended. The epilogue brings another sour note, though this one is purely intentional.

But the last fifty pages aside, Man of the Hour is a fine example of an accessible novel that explores human issues with a dash of thriller mechanics. It’s compelling reading, features strong characters and occasional memorable moments. I don’t think you can ask much more from that type of book.

Candle, John Barnes

Tor, 2000, 248 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-58968-8

There are certain archetypal stories in SF, and one of them is the one about the hero of a corrupt society who, after being asked to destroy the rebels undermining the evil empire, discovers that the rebels are right and then changes allegiances to fight against his former masters. Revolution happens and the credits roll. It’s a good story, a familiar story and, by now, pretty much a cliché (unless you’re writing a screenplay, in which case a good EQUILIBRIUM is worth about ten adaptations of classics like The Time Machine)

As it turns out, it’s also the story at the core of John Barnes’ Candle. At a time in the mid-nineties, Barnes seemed poised to take over the SF world and become one of its foremost writers; big books like A Million Open Doors (1992) and Mother of Storms (1994) demonstrated a writer with a good grasp of SF tools, an interest for complex socio-political issues, an accessible writing style and a willingness to shock readers once in a while. Then, something happened. I’m not sure what. The unpleasantness of some of his fiction may have rubbed off a few readers, along with the streak of sadism that ran throughout 1995’s Kaleidoscope Century. Maybe it was Barnes’ excursion in the “men’s adventure” category with the “Timeline Wars” trilogy. Maybe it was Barnes’ personal life, which reportedly took a turn for the worse at that time and may have contributed to the grim conclusion of 1998’s Earth Made of Glass.

Whatever it was, Barnes never again regained the reputation he once enjoyed. The jury certainly isn’t out, and I’m woefully behind the times when it comes to his 2000-2005 production, but sarcastic fare like Gaudeamus could either be a work of genius or a genuine catastrophe. We’ll see when we get there: In the meantime we’re here to discuss Candle, its thin plot and how it demonstrate my thesis of an author that is capable of much more.

Loosely set in the same “Meme Wars” (or “The Century Next Door”) universe, Candle presents the story of one Currie Curran, expert rebel hunter living the good quiet life… until the central intelligence controlling Earth requests his services one last time: There’s a last rebel to capture, one last individualist not plugged into the network. The rebel is the last and the best of them, but given how Currie himself was one of the best, well…

It doesn’t take long for the expected beats to fall into place. The track. The chase. The capture. The long monologue in which the rebel isn’t so bad after all. The extended flashback in which the whole future is explained. A bit more action. The counter-twist. The final action sequence. The conclusion.

Some of the book approaches parody, what with those two manly heroes talkin’ to each other’s ears like the studly cowboy type they are, complete with the colourful vocabulary and the false rural accents. Most of the book is deathly dull, as it merely goes through the motions of a well-worn narrative. The conclusion isn’t particularly surprising, especially if you’re there reading and shaking your head in dread that “it can’t be that simple”.

But there are flashes of interest. The description of the Meme Wars (in which ideas literally take over humans and fight themselves) may be filled with wavy hand-wringing and gratuitous violence, but it’s a shining novella-length piece of world-building in an otherwise conventional novel. It’s by far the most interesting passage of the book, once again showing that while Barnes may be dormant, there’s still plenty of stuff for him to kick around. There is some material here and there about the tension between individuality and community, but after fifteen years of hard-core SF reading, I’m asking for a “get out of philosophical discussion for free” card when it comes to those issues: been there, thought about it, nothing new under the sun.

All in all, Candle may satisfy some lenient readers and entertain even the toughest critics, but it’s not much more than yet another average SF novel. The problem is that we know that Barnes is capable of a lot more. And we’re waiting to see him rise once again.

The Miocene Arrow, Sean McMullen

Tor, 2000, 416 pages, C$21.95 tpb, ISBN 0-312-87547-9

Awww, crap.

It’s like being at the premiere for the sequel to a much-beloved movie of yours. The entire cast and crew of the original film is back; the trailers looked fantastic; the premise sounds interesting; early word hasn’t been awful. And then, as the movie unfold, you realize that even if it’s not too bad -and may even be more polished than its predecessor- it’s nowhere near as much fun as the first in the series.

Welcome to Sean McMullen’s The Miocene Arrow, second volume in the Greatwinter Trilogy and sequel to the very interesting Souls in the Great Machine. Once more, we’re two thousand years into the future, following humanity as it finally breaks out of its post-apocalyptic stupor. The first volume introduced us to a strange new Australia, filled with pre-steam engine ingeniousness, human-powered computers, vast networks of communication lighthouses and an irresistible “Call” driving humans to perdition.

This sequel recognizably takes place twenty years later in the same universe. The Call is still a major factor, but the setting is very different: We suddenly find ourselves in North America, where feudal empires have become the dominant form of government. Thanks to diesel-driven engines, small airplanes are instruments of war and prestige; the aristocracy is dominated by “airlords” and hereditary guilds. The feel is different from the first volume, as McMullen quickly plunges us in palace intrigue, warring kingdoms, ill-fated love and all that good stuff.

It doesn’t take much time to tie the novel back to the first volume: Some characters return, though carrying dark hints of what happened since the first volume and what is likely to happen next. What are they doing so far from Australica? To answer the question is to reveal the meaning of the title, and spoil away part of the book.

The one thing worth noting about The Miocene Arrow is that it’s much more technically successful than its prequel. I wrote that Souls in the Great Machine often felt like a great book fighting its way out of inexperienced writing; this one feels a lot more confident, a lot more controlled. The scenes are constructed with more skill, the breaks between scenes aren’t as jarring and the characters’ motivation are generally more believable than they’d been in the prequel. Sadly, if the writing is less intrusive, the story itself isn’t overly interesting.

Oh, there’s combat, there’s action, there’s romance and there are neat inventions here and there, but nothing with the vertiginous sweep of a librarian-driven war, or the heady thrill of reading about a human-powered computer in meticulous detail. The airships are neat, the train-powered Internet has potential, but McMullen is a great deal more conventional in The Miocene Arrow, and if the result is smoother, it’s also blander.

Things also take a long time to advance, and if the last hundred pages finally attain a good rhythm (the resolution of the romance is especially satisfying, though in typically sadistic fashion, it takes several deaths and the casual demonstration of life-and-death elite power to get there), the novel feels far too long for what it’s trying to say. I wasn’t completely satisfied by the links to the first volume: In a few sentences, most of the great characters and accomplishments of Souls in the Great Machine are discarded, maybe in anticipation of a third novel or maybe not.

I concluded my review of Souls in the Great Machine by saying that a sequel was both superfluous and intriguing. At this point, I’m tempted to stick with “superfluous”; I’ll let you know of my final verdict once I’m done with Eyes of the Calculator, the third and final volume of the series.

Rebel Moon, Bruce Bethke and Vox Day

Pocket, 1996, 282 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-00236-8

It’s true that you always approach a book with the accumulated mass of your life experiences up to that point. But even by those standards, I approached Bruce Bethke and Vox Day’s Rebel Moon with a truckload of preconceptions both good and bad.

On the positive side, you can put my admiration for Bruce Bethke: His debut novel Headcrash was not just a fairly funny novel, but the last biting nail in cyberpunk’s coffin. Given that Bethke himself coined the word “cyberpunk”, he should have had the last word on the subject –and he did. That he co-wrote a second novel was cause enough for celebration and anticipation.

That the novel itself would be a near-future “war of the worlds” Earth-versus-Moon revolution novel Could have gone both ways. On one hand, Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a bona-fide SF classic. Furthermore, this particular theme is also one of the truly inevitable stories that SF has to tell: Sooner or later, off-Earth colonies will gain their independence from Earth, and how we deal with that juncture in time will mark one of the most vital chapters in human history. Sadly, for some reason, the scenario has proved particularly addicting to libertarian writers, leading to a steady stream of such stories re-fighting the American Revolution over and over again, usually with rugged über-American colonists predictably rebelling against a corrupt, communist and overbearing Earthican government. Yawn.

And finally, on the gripping hand, there’s Vox Day, best known as Theodore Beale, a veciforous blogger, a right-wing columnist and an author of -they say- fine fundamentalist SF. (I don’t need to tell you how I feel about fundamentalists and right-wing pundits)

But wait! There more! You see, Rebel Moon is the first volume in a trilogy meant to novelize a series of video games… of first-person shooter video games.

Maybe I should have stopped there, shrugged and forgot about the book.

But oh no. I had to see for myself. Memories of the Doom novelizations weren’t enough to stop me.

I’ll be mercifully blunt and to the point: Just avoid this novel, m’kay? It brings nothing new to the “Libertarian Moon versus Evil Earth” sub-genre. It bashes the UN like that was an endangered sport. It can’t be bothered to include more than one mildly interesting character. It reads like military SF pablum, filled with gunfights and explosions than mean nothing and make no difference. It ends on a note promising a trilogy that remains unfinished to this day, but don’t worry: you won’t be asking for it.

If you put the novel in a cyclotron and spin it at ludicrous speeds to extract the good from the bad, you may end up with a few concepts and passages worth saving. And, to its credit, it doesn’t take long to announce its colours: Barely a few pages it, interest isn’t piqued, the novel has no sense of place, the usual “Terra-UN sucks! Luna-USA rawks!” rhetoric starts to play and it’s obvious that it won’t get any better.

I remained unconvinced by aspects of the set-up: The moon is portrayed as a major food source for Earth, an idea so nonsensical that it’s difficult to even begin explaining why it’s dumb. (But start with shipping costs, delivery delays and the relative density of food: pharmaceuticals may be fit for essential lunar production, but simple sustenance food? Er, no.)

It’s also unclear if the authors know how to manipulate the tools of the trade: a lack of communication delays between Earth and Moon is mentioned early on (as a hint of You-know-what), but curiously unexplored until late in the novel, demonstrating characters almost too dumb to live. (You-know-what also screws up a lot of the hard-science pretencions of the story, but hey –they were only pretencions.)

I wasn’t impressed by the Rebel Moon video-game demo floating around the web, and let me tell you that the novel doesn’t fare any better. The only thing making it even slightly memorable are its problems. It’s probably fitting that the game and its publishing company have sunk in oblivion. It sucks that Bruce Bethke disappeared from SF after this novel. It figures that Theodore Beale, under whatever name he chooses, would find a more receptive audience in right-wing groups. It’s sad that copies of this novel will continue to haunt readers for the next few decades.

Mindscan, Robert J. Sawyer

Tor, 2005, 303 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-31107-0

Only cranky critics can call award-winning books “disappointments”, and so let me be bold in saying that Mindscan is a return to form for Robert J. Sawyer after the award-winning “Neanderthal Parallax” trilogy. Granted, Hominids (2002, Book One of the Trilogy) won the 2003 Hugo Award for Best Novel. Still, most fans and readers will be reluctant to call this one of Sawyer’s best, especially as the trilogy went downhill in Humans and Hybrids (both 2003). But all is forgiven with Mindscan, his newest standalone novel.

With it we see a return to what he does best: the rigorous exploration of an idea. Here, the concept is consciousness transfer: What if it was possible to duplicate consciousness in an artificial body? How do you redefine identity? Who, of the copy or the original, is the real person?

In order to play around with the concept, Sawyer resorts to a protagonist with a time-bomb ticking in his skull: thirtysomething Jake Sullivan is afflicted with the (fictional) Katerinsky’s syndrome: At any time, a fatal stroke could kill him. So when immortality through consciousness duplication is introduced to seniors, young Jake sees it as a way to solve the niggling problem of his impending sudden death. There are a few complications, though: As the “original’ Jake is shipped away to a far-off lunar base for permanent relocation, his copy is embroiled in a few adventures of his own…

If you’re a long-time reader of Sawyer’s fiction, a lot of Mindscan‘s material will feel familiar. The way Sawyer kicks an idea around for a few hundred pages. The blatant Canadian nationalism. (In this future fifty years removed, Canada has become a liberal paradise whereas the US has devolved into this ultra-conservative religious state) The fondness for courtroom drama.

Sadly, many of Sawyer’s faults also make return appearances. For all of his skills in exploring ideas and his patience in researching all aspects of his stories, Sawyer still can’t break out of a rather pedestrian writing style. Bad jokes are bandied about as if they were unbelievably witty. The dialogue is banal. Many sentences are clumsy: you just look at them and think “There’s got to be a better way of saying this!” There’s a pedantic quality to Sawyer’s writing that quickly becomes annoying, almost as if he didn’t trust his readers to understand the material. It leads to on-the-nose writing which has to be ignored if the book is to be enjoyable.

In addition to these usual flaws, Sawyer can be a little bit too quick and silly in setting up the mechanics of his plotting. Here, you can guess part of the plot-line as soon as they announce that the copied persons are shipped off to the Moon (why so far? Etc.) for permanent relocation. It sounds like a bad idea, and it is. The pro-Canadian angle is also annoying -even to a fellow Canadian- given how it ignores that not all Americans/Canadians are happy with the current state of things and assumes that current trends will simply go on without cyclical shifts. (But that takes me into the whole “societies aren’t monoliths” rant I went into in a previous review of Sawyer’s work.)

Still, I’m buying Sawyer’s stuff in hardcover for a reason, and that reason is that even with the usual stylistic flaws, his work is top-notch when comes the time to straight-up extrapolation. Sawyer does a lot of thinking for every one of his novel, and Mindscan delivers a lot of satisfying SF content as it explores issues of consciousness and identity. While the ending of the novel is easy and disappointing (in a “no man, no problem” kind of fashion), the slingshot epilogue almost redeems it with a mind-expanding finish to a satisfying novel. Good stuff.

Perhaps best of all is the sense that this is a return to form for Sawyer, who really should stick to standalone novels from now on. It’s perhaps my favourite Sawyer book since Flashforward in how it defines its area of interest, and then proceeds to explore every single facet of it. As is usual with the author’s work, you can read this book in one single sitting, and chances are that you will want to: Once the plot is launched, there’s no chance to be bored.

Spin, Robert Charles Wilson

Tor, 2005, 364 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30938-6

What’s deceptive in Robert Charles Wilson’s work in that he makes it seem so simple. While other science-fiction writers really want you to sit down and study their books as if they were flight operation manuals, Wilson does the work for you, puts ordinary characters in the middle of big ideas, and then shows you what happens to them. This, of course, is how all SF should be: The difference is that Wilson, especially in his last three books, has mastered the mechanics of SF writing like few of his contemporaries.

It’s not that he never makes mistakes. I don’t think a review of his Darwinia has been written yet that doesn’t include the word “flawed”. But out of Darwinia grew Wilson’s current golden age (and got him a steady spot on the Hugo Awards nomination lists ever since) His last few books, including The Chronolith and Blind Lake, have been very well-received, and Spin is another work in the same mold. In fact, it has more than it shares of similitudes with The Chronolith: Once more, a character describes, in retrospect, how he lived through a few tumultuous decades, in light of what may charitably be described as an invasion from the unknown.

This time around, though, Earth isn’t colonized by mysterious monuments as much as it’s enveloped by a distortion field blocking it from the rest of the universe. Shades of Greg Egan’s Quarantine, you’ll say, except that Wilson develops the idea much further: The sun is blocked, but something substitutes its light and heat. The Moon disappears but its tidal effects survive. Satellites fall but the barrier is permeable. Then they discover that time passes a lot faster outside the field than inside… enabling Earth to survive more or less intact through thousands of years. Clearly, someone or something has gone through a lot of trouble to put the planet in a high-tech Mason jar. But why?

Big ideas indeed, but Wilson would rather focus on a few characters and so, after front-loading most of the Big Ideas at the beginning of the novel, he then slows the pace down and focuses on three main characters. Spin then becomes a romantic/family saga spanning a few decades, throughout which our three main characters experience and demonstrate the social changes afflicting an Earth cut out from the rest of the universe. There’s still plenty of SF goodness to come (including a Hail-Mary Mars colonization plan whose result I won’t spoil here) but Wilson makes it all accessible and compelling through savvy writing. It will help non-SF audiences that Wilson knows how to make his characters as compelling as his ideas.

Neither flashy nor boring, Wilson’s writing style finds beauty in simplicity. His prose is polished until all that’s left is the bare essentials. It looks easy, but it’s not: even after decades of development, SF writers often has trouble finding a good balance between good fiction and good ideas. It helps that Wilson (not a scientist himself) understands and respects SF’s base assumptions as well as any other SF professional, while acknowledging how the world really works. Spin, for instance, shows a good understanding of the interplay between politics and business. It also recognizes that the instincts of SF readers aren’t those of the real world: Worldwide superstition and irrationality end up forming a core part of the book, despite the main character’s understanding of the situation.

There’s an elegance to this book that is difficult to describe in only a few short sentences. There are a few flaws (the lengthy rescue section, for instance, should have been shortened), but Spin leaves the reader fulfilled and entertained, just as any good science-fiction story should. It also demonstrates why Wilson is, in his own quietly spectacular way, one of the best writers in the business. Three of his four last novels have netted him Hugo nominations: this one won’t break the trend.

Sin City (2005)

(In theaters, April 2005) For film geeks, any new Robert Rodriguez film is an event in itself, and Sin City is a little bit more than that. A triumph of style in service of substance, Sin City is what you’d get should you decide to film the black gunk left after you’d squeezed all niceness out of the fifty darkest films you can imagine. A pitch-perfect transposition of Frank Miller’s celebrated graphic novels, Sin City breaks new ground in film-making through rapid digital production and a look unlike anything ever seen before. It’s the kind of film that, to a certain public, escapes critical value: Beyond being either good or bad, it’s fascinating to watch and even more interesting to discuss. As it happens, the blacker the better, and so Sin City emerges as one of the movies to watch for 2005’s year-end Top-10. Sure, it doesn’t embrace the clichés of noir as much as it revels in them: It’s unbelievably violent (even to jaded freaks like me), crammed with forced wall-to-wall narration and unrelentingly bleak. This is not a film for everyone, and that’s what makes it so good: In an age where lowest-common-denominator conformity is the way to greater stockholder profits, Sin City takes chances, keeps its budget manageable and reaches its target audience. There’s plenty of things to say about the film’s unrelenting characterization (all men are brutal, all women are, well…), but all of that should be seen through the quasi-satirical max-noir lens of the concept. Simply put, Sin City is meant to be grotesque and unreal. It seems almost retro to speak of performances in such a stylized film, but the impressive ensemble cast would be worth celebrating in any context: Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke and Clive Owen are spectacular as the damaged men telling the stories, but the women also do well, with particular props to Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson and Devon Aoki. All in all, a splendid time at the movies, and a film that gives hope in a wasteland of bland studio products. I already can’t wait for the DVD.

Sahara (2005)

(In theaters, April 2005) Clive Cussler’s adventures have always been preposterous, and if this film does one thing well, it’s keeping that trait intact. Civil War-era warships in the Sahara, eco-catastrophe mixed with a civil war and high-tech machinery mixed with low-tech chases and gunfights: It’s all there in glorious adventure-movie ludicrousness. (Those who complain about how far-fetched it is shouldn’t read the novel, which is even more unlikely) It’s all good fun, even though fans of Cussler’s books will howl at the way their favourite characters are portrayed. Everyone, without exception, is miscast: Matthew McConaughey is too boyish as Dirk Pitt, Steve Zahn is too slim as Al Giordino, William H. Macy is too short as Admiral Sandecker, Rainn Wilson too geeky as Rudi Gunn and so on and so forth. It doesn’t mean that they do a bad job (Macy finally gets to play a man who knows what he’s doing, and Steve Zahn steals the show as the wisecracking Giordino) but as far as picturing them as characters… forget it. As far as the plotting is concerned, let’s just say that lapses of logic may be swept over in a novel, but they’re all too apparent in a film. Coincidences, improbable decisions, impossible acts abound throughout this film, problems that the mere label “adventure” can’t adequately cover. This being said, Sahara‘s big-budget large-scale approach still makes the film interesting: As ludicrous as it is, it’s hard not to smile at the improbable stunts and the sense of adventure. The soundtrack has its moments (what with its classic-southern rock fixation) and so does the cinematography. As far as the rest is concerned, though, Sahara ends up being the almost-exact equivalent of Cussler’s novels: Good fun, worth a few hours’ distraction, but hardly something to get excited about.

The Interpreter (2005)

(In theaters, April 2005) Well, that’s unfortunate: While The Interpreter could have been a good straight-up thriller in the traditional vein, writer/director Sydney Pollack goofs up in his attempt to transform it into an Academy Awards showcase for stars Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn. For the longest time, the film doesn’t give much to chew on: Besides an unprecedented look at the United Nations and some fascinating details at the universe of professional translation, The Interpreter loses itself in cheap setup, easy drama and interminable development. Things pick up once a bunch of characters all converge on a single city bus, in one top-notch suspense sequence that shows what’s possible when a good old pro like Pollack starts paying attention. The suspense then falls down once more until the mildly diverting ending, which throws one or two surprises in the mix and stirs weakly. The self-conscious performances of the two leads are wasted in a film that should have focused on suspense rather than drama. It’s not bad, but it’s not particularly good either. Sadly, it certainly won’t do much to raise excitement in what the United Nations represent.

Hopscotch, Kevin J. Anderson

Bantam Spectra, 2002, 468 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-57640-2

The pulp-magazine origins of genre science-fiction have allowed it to evolve its own self-sustaining market, its own rarefied standards of extrapolation and its own sub-culture of specialized fans. SF has prospered under these conditions, but in working within its own ghetto, has also relied too long on a few lazy habits that are hard to break. Intentional simplification is one of those conventions that has to go, and otherwise satisfying works like Kevin J. Anderson’s Hopscotch demonstrate why.

The standard procedure goes like this: Given a really good idea, the author’s temptation is to write a story set in a future shaped almost exclusively by this idea. For most of SF’s history, this has meant flying cars in settings identical to white American suburbia, circa 1950-1960. Caucasian heroes saving the galaxy while their housewives are busy raising the mutated kids. Nuclear families with atomic rocketships.

But back in the real world, we know that the present isn’t so simple, and that the future is even less likely to be so. The hallmark of today’s best SF writers (as represented by Sterling, Stross, etc.) is to present a future that is as textured, as shattered as today’s society. Futures with political complexity. Futures with doubt, incompetence and all sorts of human failings in environments that will never gleam with glass and chrome. Old-school SF, in this context, can still be enjoyable —but it just doesn’t hold up as a piece of credible extrapolation.

Kevin J. Anderson’s Hopscotch, despite considerable lengths and a regrettable political naiveté, is a lot of fun to read. From a basic concept (what if minds could easily hop from one body to another?), Anderson imagines four hundred pages’ worth of incidents, anecdotes, economic transactions and other neat consequences. The plot is built as a template on which to hang as many of those body-switching ideas as possible. In many ways, it’s a throwback to the pure idea-throwing fun of classic genre SF. After the first few pages, it’s obvious that Hopscotch doesn’t mean to be cutting-edge SF, but a nostalgic idea-driven romp. (The hopscotching process itself is left purposefully vague, relying on foggy noosphere notions that aren’t developed very well.) The writer is purposefully playing a very specific SF game, and well-behaved readers will know how to play along.

It works well, but only up to a point. I’m not going to say much about the straight-to-the-fact writing and the utilitarian style, mostly because genre SF has evolved a tolerance for efficient prose. What hurts a lot more is the emptiness of Hopscotch‘s world beyond the hopscotching. It all takes place in a vaguely specific America, with absent political structures and undefined social issues. (As you may expect, if the US is an abstraction in Hopscotch, the rest of the world is even less visible.) There’s a brand-new, all-powerful regulatory agency to prevent hopscotching abuse. Otherwise, well, you’re left wondering. The very concept of hopscotching seems to have been greeted with widespread approval, and there’s no word of anything looking like a counter-hopscotching movement.

But is it fair to nit-pick this novel with such base concerns? Hopscotch, after all, doesn’t aim to present a “real” vision of the future. The lack of technical details points the way: this is old-fashioned science-fantasy, using the rational language of SF to make a point after a purely speculative, even fantastic premise. If the characters act like dim-bulbs through the entire plot, it’s to precipitate the action. If the world has no political complexity, it’s to simplify the plotting. (Even the organizational politics don’t make sense; an FBI agent today would not be allowed to head an investigation tracking down one of his best buddies.) Hopscotch has chosen to be a mean idea machine.

A more serious objection to Hopscotch as a piece of old-school SF is that by those very same old-school standards, it’s almost unbearably long. Novels of the sixties barely topped 250 pages. This one clocks in a nearly twice that, and the last third of the novel seems needlessly long. Worse; it’s precipitated by stupid actions by characters. You know that a novel, as fun as it is, has overstayed its welcome when you wish the runaway character would just give himself up.

It’s enough to drive you nuts: Hopscotch is a fun, fine novel, packed with ideas and easy to read. Yet it remains so far and so close to something better, something that could actually have relevance to today’s world rather than yesterday’s genre.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (2005)

(In theaters, April 2005) The first three books of Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide” series may be classics, but this film certainly won’t. Oh, calm down, it’s not a disaster. But it’s also nothing more than “okay”, and that’s just too bad. While Adams’ best-known comedy work has been featured onto many medium (starting on radio, making its way to a TV series, a computer game and the theater stage), this film plays with the material as if it didn’t know what to do. While the film features some fantastic sense-of-wonder moments (I’m thinking specifically of the planet-yard and the “Goodbye Earth” pullback), a lot of the rest of the film feels cheap and homely. The “Adams-approved” changes to the book don’t really work all that well, and there’s a tendency to reach for cheap laughs whenever things go on for too long. Oh, many of the best bits of the books are on-screen, but not all of them, and those who are often feel a bit out of place. The film suffers from a mishmash of tone, a curious lack of comfort with the material that somehow inhibits laughter: I ended up smiling a lot and occasionally nodding in recognition, but for some reason I didn’t laugh a lot even when I wanted to. The good news, I suppose, is that the film isn’t a complete catastrophe. On the other hand, I have a hard time imagining that anyone will remember it in a year or two. Which may be for the best, really, as people will be able to pick up the books without having them tainted by the stench of what could have been a horrid adaptation. It could have been worse…

Kung Fu [Kung-Fu Hustle] (2004)

(In theaters, April 2005) It’s a well-known truism in the movie business that action translates around the world whereas comedy doesn’t. So you can imagine the mixed reaction when a Chinese action/comedy hybrid like Kung-Fu Hustle makes it to American shores. The most unfortunate thing about the film is that it begins in a very peculiar fashion, slowly mixing low-level comedy with some surprisingly gory violence. Don’t be surprised if, fifteen minutes in the film, you don’t know what to make of it: It’s hard to care about a film that starts out with the brutal shotgun murder of a woman (in the back, no less). But keep at it; despite a few early missteps, Kung-Fu Hustle gradually reveals its glorious insanity, ballooning into a delicious parody of martial-arts films complete with the biggest density of computer-generated special effects I’ve ever seen in a comedy. Writer/Director Stephen Chow isn’t always funny (for every gag that works, another one fails) but the film as a whole improves throughout its entire duration, ending with a dynamite combat sequence that leaves most other kung-fu movies in the dust. If you’ve seen Shaolin Soccer (which shares many of the same actors), you know what to expect: A long buildup followed by an unbelievable payoff. Not for everyone (especially with the early violence), but fans will understand how good it becomes.

The Amityville Horror (2005)

(In theaters, April 2005) This so-called “horror” film has a number of problems, but its worst one is that it tries to maintain the pretence of a “real story”. There is, of course, no such real story: the Amityville hoax has been disproved twenty years ago. But in their attempt to make believe an “authentic” haunted house story, the filmmakers end up delivering a dull film that only finds its biggest chills in its most extreme moments. The over-the-top babysitter sequence is one such scene; the last thirty seconds are another. In both cases, you can see evidence of horror mechanics borrowed from Japanese horror. Alas, the rest of the film is boredom put on screen: dumb scenes, tepid writing, slow pacing and bad ideas. Only Ryan Reynolds manages to emerge of the mess with his dignity intact. Sadly, the same can’t be said about the audience, which stays frozen solid in disbelief that they actually paid good money to see such dull stuff.

Wall Street, Doug Henwood

Verso, 1997 (1998 revision), 372 pages, C$25.00 tpb, ISBN 0-86091-670-7

The cover illustration really says it all: A Wall Street sign punctured by bullets. This is Doug Henwood’s critique of the financial system, informed by a solid background in economics and years of experience as a journalist. You wouldn’t expect such a book to be fun to read, but it is. And even the increasingly dated statistics in the book don’t make any less of a valuable exposé even today.

I should explain that I’m neither an economist nor a political scientist, but as a layman I don’t do too badly with the stuff. I may not be able to pass Econ 101, but I’m able to follow the financial news to my satisfaction, and I like to spend some time looking at the trends out there. In some way, I’ve got a science-fiction fan’s interest in financial matters: Economics are just another way of explaining how the world works, and it’s just as worthy of consideration as hard science. Perhaps even more so when you take a look at today’s world, in which economic and political power is so closely matched.

I should also add that I harbour some deep doubts about the sustainability of the capitalistic system. While free markets are better than the alternative, they also encourage a winner-takes-all mentality that’s incompatible with a good number of social values. I belabour this point; I’m just mentioning it given how it puts me in the target audience for Wall Street. This book will not convert the unconverted, but it will confirm vague suspicions and provide more arguments to support a sceptical stance.

Structurally, the book moves on from target to target in successive chapters, gradually digging deep into capitalistic systems before a broader conclusion. All the main players of the financial scenes are studied one after the other, from the corporations themselves to the traders and the regulators, as well as the academics playing with their models without regard to reality. Surprising statistics help Henwood present some resonable arguments about the insanity of the market.

Quite technical at times, Henwood’s work is also clearly aimed above my head. I won’t try to claim that I enjoyed every page of the book, because it started to lose me somewhere in the more academic “money market” section. Not being an economist, it became more difficult to associate Henwood’s subject matter with what I already knew as he started chewing on Marxist theory, modern economic models and other more theoretical concepts. On the other hand, you could always rely on one or two zingers per page. (My favourite comes on page 113, as Canadian celebrity father/businessman Frank Stronach is quoted as saying “To be in business, your first mandate is to make money, and money has no heart, soul, conscience, homeland.”)

It’s easy to recognize enthusiasm and audacity even as the actual mechanics of the arguments remain obscure, and Henwood has tremendous energy to pour in this project. Even econ-challenged readers will get some enjoyment out of the anecdotes, quotes and arguments described by Henwood. Wall Street is a seriously funny book, even though I’m willing to concede that my definition of “funny” changed after pages of economic theory. If nothing else, the first three chapters (“Instrument”, “Players” and “Ensemble”) are reasonably accessible, as is the Conclusion.

In hindsight, Wall Street gains a bit and loses a bit. On one hand, its cautious tone was vindicated three years later as the exuberance of the dot-com boom turned into the dot-bomb doom, wiping entire fortunes and making a great number of Wall Streeters look like idiots. On the other hand, the market moves quickly, and so the numbers from 1997 may not reflect today’s environment. Certainly, it’s hard to read Wall Street without wanting to know what Henwood now thinks of the current insanity of American economic policy. (Fortunately, you can alway head over to leftbusinessobserver.com for regular updates about what Henwood’s been up to.)

I’m not sure that the above is meant to be a recommendation for the book. I’m glad I read it, but I’m not sure I understood most of it. I was entertained, but it took me a number of weeks to get through it all. I was fascinated by some facts and anecdotes, but I’m not sure how valid they are nearly a decade later. But then again I can recognize that few people will be able to fully understand Wall Street . You’ll have to decide whether that includes you. (And then you’ll have to find a way to get the book: a quick look at abebooks.com suggests that it’s a collector’s item.)