Monthly Archives: May 2005

Benedict Arnold: A Drama of the American Revolution in Five Acts, Robert Zubrin

Polaris Books, 2005, 103 pages, US$9.95 tpb, ISBN 0-9741443-1-2

I’m sure that regular readers of these reviews are perplexed: What am I doing, reviewing a historical play about the American Revolution? A good question, almost as good as “What is a space scientist and science-fiction writer like Robert Zubrin writing a play about the American Revolution?” I suspect that the answer is be the same in both case: Because it’s interesting. Why not?

It also helped that this slim volume showed up in my mailbox, unannounced, even as I was wondering how I’d make my review quota this month after spending two weeks not-reading and two more week not-reading-much. Zubrin has been on my shortlist of interesting authors since his SF novel First Landing, and I guess I’ve ended up on his shortlist of interesting reviewers. It’s a fair thing to say that I’ll read anything bearing his name, and when he makes it so convenient to do so… (Sadly, christian-sauve.com has recently announced a “no-review-copies” policy, so this -falling under a twisted grandfather clause- may be the last such author-solicited review you’ll see here.)

You won’t be surprised to learn that, being French-Canadian, my knowledge of the American Revolution mostly comes from Hollywood movies. Still, even one country and hundreds of years away, the name “Benedict Arnold” is familiar, if only as a synonym for “traitor”. (It helps that the American political class, with its tradition of reasoned discourse, has lately taken the habit of using the name to describe anyone they don’t agree with.)

To its credit, the book is exactly what it title claims: a play, in five acts, describing the infamous actions of Benedict Arnold as he betrayed the nascent American republic to the British. There’s romance, there’s plotting, there’s cloak-and-dagger intrigue and there’s even selfless bravery coming from unlikely heroes. Whew!

But reading a play is, at best, only a partial experience: Until some enterprising troupe decides to select Benedict Arnold as its next project, one can only comment on the text. The full impact of the piece depends on its performance by real live actors. The inclusion of songs in the play can be interesting in a final production, I suppose, but their effect on readers will be limited. (It doesn’t help that the play begins by a lengthy monologue that could be set to music, leading one to the awful impression that it’s going to be “Benedict Arnold: The Musical!”)

The back cover boasts that the play is “historically accurate”, and one is led to give it the benefit of the doubt given the lack of exploding chariots. Aside from some creative license in crafting scene construction and dialogue, supplemental reading indicates no major inconsistencies between Zubrin’s take on Arnold and other version of the stories. (This being said, non-American sources tend to be a lot more lenient toward Arnold’s actions, pointing out that there wasn’t yet an America to betray at that time, and that Arnold was only one of many to choose England over the revolutionaries. Most of the others weren’t celebrated soldiers, though.)

On the production side, a number of historical illustrations enliven the book. The play is followed by a short but essential essay on Benedict Arnold and his place in American History. It also comments and contextualizes the play; an ideal way to cap off the book.

Clearly, I’m out of my league in reviewing Benedict Arnold: No knowing much about American History or plays, my comments will be of limited usefulness. Still, the book is short, the story is interesting and I can even claim to have learnt a thing or two about Arnold in the process. Heck, there’s even a Canadian connection, Arnold having invaded Canada (unsuccessfully, one relishes to add) two hundred years before I was born.

I believe that there’s a good future for this book in high schools across America, as a relatively painless way to learn about that particular episode of history: A simple group reading could do wonders to enliven a class or two. Other potential audiences include American History buffs and high-school libraries. I’m also oddly pleased to see Zubrin stretch in this unexpected direction as a writer, and wonder what’s next on his schedule.

The Year of our War, Steph Swainston

Gollancz, 2004, 290 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 0-575-07610-0

While the old saw “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” is excellent advice for life in general, it’s not much use to a reviewer trying to meet his monthly quota. In this spirit, allow me to present a mostly negative, rather tangential, entire content-free review of Steph Swainston’s The Year of our War.

Swainston fans may not wish to read any further. In fact, most casual surfers reading this right now (this means you) may want to skip to the next review entirely. This is not going to be pretty: I usually don’t review books that make me shrug, but I’m desperate for content this month and I have no better candidate for commentary than this book.

Obviously, I didn’t think much of The Year of our War. Didn’t love it, didn’t hate it. Just didn’t care for it or even spent much time thinking about the book when I wasn’t actually reading it.

I suspect that part of the problem is my built-in lack of interest for run-of-the-mill fantasy. While I’m an obsessive Science-Fiction genre fan (see review of The Algebraist, above) and while I am not, in theory, opposed to imaginative fantasy (see review of The Scar, above), most of the genre tends to run into the same dull background of medieval eras, kingdoms, anti-technology, self-consciously heroic characterizations and so on. Typical fantasy’s little pocket universe was mined empty years ago; isn’t it time to move on?

While some blurbers have been prompt to describe Swainston’s debut novel as “incredibly inventive”, “boldly imagined” and “breaking out of the elvish-straightjacket”, I’m not so sure there’s anything dramatically new in here. Once more, we’re back to the Olde Continent Mappe that fits neatly in one single page of the book. Once more, we’re back to a pre-industrial era with Kings and Queens and a constant war with An Enemy Too Hideous To Befriend. Once more, swords and bows and arrows rule the day. Bold imagination? Well, there are newspapers and a steady stream of swearing.

There’s also a severely imperfect protagonist. Our narrator, Jant/Comet, is capable of flight, but as the novel opens he’s struggling with a drug addiction that may come to jeopardize his standing as the kingdom’s hero and -more importantly- his place on the Circle, a select group of fifty experts made immortal by the reigning Emperor. To add to his burden, the war against The Insects (that’s right: The Insects) isn’t going too well even as the tensions are rising amongst the immortals.

If I was sarcastic (and you know that I am), I’d say something akin to “junkie angels don’t make a novel original.” Not when a lot of the novel is boilerplate transitional fantasy. Well-written and not without its share of striking images, sure, (there’s your cover blurb right there) but hardly enough to reconcile me with the sub-genre. Or even make me care about the entire thing.

After a valiant attempt at being interested in the novel, I felt myself slide back in apathy after a hundred pages, disappointed that this was going to be Yet Another Swords-and-Stuff novel with added touches of soap opera and the odd interesting scene. The rest of the novel simply slid past without much impact.

I realize that this is certainly a minority view. On-line reviews have been uniformly positive, almost to the point of over-hype. I suspect that these critics are all coming to the novel with a far better attitude toward the type of fiction The Year of Our War is supposed to re-invent. Or it may be that after a steady diet of Chuck Palahniuk’s fiction, it’s going to take a lot more than a junkie as a narrator to make me say “wow”. In fact, the announcement that this is only the first book in a series was sufficient to make me go “eergh”, which you may loosely interpret as a lack of interest in reading further volumes.

Fortunately, as “some guy with a website”, my credibility is laughable and my commercial influence is nil. As it happen, don’t perceive this as a declaration of war against the author, the genre or you as a reader: Long life to Steph Swainston, may she enjoy a sustained run of acclaimed and best-selling novels. As far as I’m concerned, though, I’m going to continue avoiding traditional fantasy. If nothing else, it’ll prevent further interest-free reviews like this one in the future.

The Algebraist, Iain M. Banks

Orbit, 2004, 534 pages, C$30.00 tpb, ISBN 1-84149-239-6

Space opera is no simple thing. In its purest form, it’s science-fiction for science-fiction’s sake: Tales of rocket-ships and squids in space, written by genre SF writers for hard-core SF fans. Give a space opera story to someone who doesn’t know anything about the clichés and assumptions of science-fiction (even in its most distilled Star-Wars fashion) and they won’t understand a thing about it. It seldom relates to today’s world, isn’t meant to represent a likely future and seldom has any intention other than entertain the reader. Space-opera is to SF what sword-and-sorcery is to fantasy. While I may not be the ideal fantasy reader, (see review of The Year of our War, below), I’m an outspoken (outwritten?) science-fiction fan. Space Opera is the distilled essence of my favourite genre.

I surely found what I was looking for in Iain M. Banks’ The Algebraist. At its core, it remains pure science-fiction for SF fans, riffing with common SF ideas like playing a variation on a well-known tune. In this case, it’s a tale of space empires, strange aliens, galactic secrets and big weapons. The antagonist is pure caricature, the aliens are suitably inscrutable and the plucky hero does his best to hang on from adventure to adventure. Plot is almost irrelevant when the real kick of the novel are the throwaway ideas and the way Banks uses well-worn tropes in a slightly different fashion.

Indeed, perhaps the best thing about The Algebraist is how it casually throws away a bunch of neat ideas, as if the novel had better things on its mind than to spend more time on this kind of stuff. In this space-operatic universe, the galaxy is a buzzing hive of sentience, with slightly-different spheres of consciousness co-existing alongside each other. The very notion of galactic empire has a well-worn feeling to it in this novel, as galactic history is filled with dozens of successive regimes, flaring up briefly when set against a backdrop of a million years. Even Earth-borne humanity end up in a fascinating position, being confronted with another human empire designed by alien abductees. Eschatology (with Tippler-point refinements) makes its way in the novel as the religion of choice for this current galactic empire. And so on: ideas are the raw stuff on which this novel runs.

Banks’ centrepiece creation in this novel are obviously the long-lived Dwellers, gas giants-based aliens with a very different outlook on, well, everything. They regard children as nuisances fit to be hunted down. They live unimaginably slow lives, letting empires rise and fall around them (in theory; for dramatic reasons, you won’t be surprised to learn that they don’t do much of that in the novel). They may look slothful and ritualistic and anarchic, but don’t push them too far… One of the novel’s best scenes shows what happens when omnipotent Zen masters meet an ultra-aggressive tyrant: British unflappability has a long future ahead of itself. (“Hmm, I do hope you have enough people.” [P.489])

My previous experience with Iain (M) Banks’ fiction had been mixed. The amusing thing about his novels is that they invariably sound better when they’re explained than at the moment of reading them. The Algebraist isn’t an exception, though it’s better than most: When Banks gets cracking, the results can be amazing. Funny, literate and slick top-notch SF. But too often, the novel loses steam for pages at a time, until another good idea or another interesting scene grabs our attention once more. I never gelled to the “four teenagers” historical subplot and I found that the novel could have lost fifty, maybe a hundred pages without too many problems.

But that doesn’t matter much when the rest of the novel is so rewarding. For a serious space-opera, it’s often unbearably funny. While it may not be accessible to just anyone (and so remains a pure SF novel, destined and limited to ghettoized genre readers), The Algebraist is close to being the state of the art in genre SF. It reconciled me with Banks’ output, gave me a few laughs, expanded my ideas, forced me to forward a lengthy quotes to a few friends (see below) and entertained me for a while.

While most of Bank’s SF output so far has been set in the so-called “Culture” universe, The Algebraist is an exception: A standalone novel set in a brand-new far-future universe, this novel allows new readers to hop on the Banks train and see why few other writers do space opera better than him. Few surprises, then, if it managed to earn a spot as a Best Novel Hugo Award Nominee for 2004.

Still not convinced? Read this perfect one-sentence paragraph:

Picking a fight with a species as widespread, long-lived, irascible and -when it suited them- single-minded as the Dwellers too often meant that just when -or even geological ages after when- you thought that the dust had long since settled, bygones were bygones and any unfortunate disputes were all ancient history, a small planet appeared without warning in your home system, accompanied by a fleet of moons, themselves surrounded with multitudes of asteroid-sized chunks, each of those riding cocooned in a fuzzy shell made up of untold numbers of decently hefty rocks, every one of them traveling surrounded by a large landslide’s worth of still smaller rocks and pebbles, the whole ghastly collection traveling at so close to the speed of light that the amount of warning even an especially wary and observant species would have generally amounted to just about sufficient time to gasp the local equivalent of `What the fu-?’ before they disappeared in an impressive if wasteful blaze of radiation. [P.160]

River of Gods, Ian McDonald

Simon & Schuster, 2004, 583 pages, C$27.00 tpb, ISBN 0-7432-5670-0

Wow. And to think that I didn’t want to read this book.

You have to understand that I’ve got a checkered history with Ian McDonald’s fiction. Liked Chaga/Evolution’s Shore. Couldn’t get into Necroville/Terminal Café. The thought of another door-stopper novel set on the eve of India’s centenary didn’t do much for me given all the other recent stuff I’ve got to read.

And yet, I should have known. Haven’t I been bleating about the need for world-aware near-future Science Fiction lately? Haven’t I been looking for writers whose understanding of the world goes beyond the usual SF clichés? I didn’t pay attention, but others certainly did: The blogoSFere raved about River of Gods immediately upon publication. Then it got nominated for the Hugo Award, making it jump immediately on my reading stack. As it turns out, McDonald’s latest easily ranks as one the best SF novels of 2004.

At first glance, it read like a kaleidoscopic vision of India, circa 2047, through the viewpoints of roughly a dozen characters. It’s a divided nation on the brink of war, haunted by ancient superstitions and future nightmares, where Ganesh co-exists alongside Artificial Intelligences and Shiva is incarnated by US-built killbots. McDonald vividly begins the novel by a scene in which a “Krishna Cop” tracks down an animal-grade Artificial Intelligence that has become slightly too smart for its own good.

But there’s more. In fact, one of the wonders of the novel’s first hundred pages is in seeing how many elements in SF’s traditional bag of tricks are re-used in this complex vision of India’s future. AIs, military robots, environmental problems, genegineered humans, trans-gender neuters, high-tech street criminals, spaceships, virtual pop-stars, high-energy physics are all used here in a kaleidoscope that feels, yes, far more credible than many other recent SF near-future extrapolations.

Slowly, as characters intersect and mysteries are gradually revealed, a plot emerges. But the plot isn’t so nearly as fascinating as its components, and especially the environment in which it evolves. I’d love to read what Indian readers will think of the novel, but it’s instantly fascinating to American readers. To Western eyes, India stands as an accessible alien society: Substantially different, yet sufficiently Anglicized during the British occupation that it’s not completely incomprehensible. But there’s a lot more to it: India’s mix of traditional and modern values is endlessly intriguing, showing a society with deep historical roots, yet open to technology like few others. Most futurists point to China as the emerging superpower of the twenty-first century, but my money is on India.

Geopolitical speculation aside, Rivers of Gods is a technical tour-de-force backed with plenty of stylistic flair. McDonald juggles a dozen characters with apparent smoothness, and cleverly layers the elements of his plot through separate plot threads. If you do the math, each characters gets around fifty pages of plot (the equivalent of a novelette), and yet most of them emerges as complex and fascinating characters. I was especially fond of Vishram Ray and Mr. Nandha, but there’s probably a favourite for everyone in this book. In fact, my only significant problem with the book (apart from a few passages that seemed for perfunctory than interesting) is that the book ends with a spectacular revelation, without an epilogue letting go of the fascinating characters we’ve just met. There is resolution, but not satisfaction.

But that mild annoyance seems trivial when considering what River of Gods does best: it feels like a real future stemming from today’s reality. There is nothing small, simple or old-fashioned in this novel: It embraces the complexity of the world, spins hard-SF speculation like the best of them and adds so much texture that it’s impossible to remain unenthusiastic about it. It is, in many way, exactly what I want from contemporary SF: Something that uses the tools of traditional SF to make sense of today’s world and deliver an engrossing story. Heck, it even has a good grasp of politics, which is more than I can say for most of American SF.

River of Gods was judiciously nominated for the “Best Novel” Hugo Award for 2004. If the other books are as good as this one, I’m going to be overwhelmed with SF goodness. At this point, I can’t imagine anything beating it out of the first spot of my voting ballot.

The Scar, China Miéville

Del Rey, 2002, 638 pages, C$28.95 tpb, ISBN 0-345-44438-8

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about China Miéville is how he manages to delight both highbrow critics and all-average readers by writing… monster books. Despite the critical acclaim, the superb prose and the strong characterization, Miéville has built his reputation on Perdido Street Station , a monster-hunt book, and followed it with The Scar… another monster-hunt book.

Granted, lumping both books in the cheap horror genre bin is disingenuous. It fails to do justice to the craft of Miéville’s writing, the wild invention of his setting, the attention paid to his characters or the touch of humour and tension he weaves into his novels. There is nothing in common between, say, Perdido Street Station and Dean R. Koontz’s Phantoms, even if both feature nightmare-sucking giant moths. Miéville’s stuff is an odd blend of horror intrigue in a fantasy setting approached as a science-fiction world. Add to that the requisite action and adventure, and you’ve got yourself a total entertainment package.

Billed as a sequel to Perdido Street Station, The Scar is more of a subsequent story set in the same universe. It begins in the aftermath of the events of the first novel, as linguist Bellis Coldwine flees the city of New Crobuzon in fear for her life. Following the unsettling events described in Perdido Street Station, friends of Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin have started disappearing as government operatives start taking far too much interest in what they might know. An ex-lover of der Grimnebulin, Coldwine decides to take matters in her own hands and flee by sea to a far-away colony. But stuff happens, her ship is boarded by pirates and she finds herself shanghaied to Armada, a floating city where she is left free… but unable to get away.

There’s more. Much more. A gigantic sea creature. A race of man-sized mosquitoes. Vampires, humanoid cactaes, remade men, spies and other horrors and marvels. Much as he did with Perdido Street Station (and, presumably, King Rat), Miéville continues to stretch the definition of urban fantasy in all sorts of directions. This time, The Scar takes place mostly at sea, bringing along plenty of echoes from other nautical adventures even as it delights in describing the inner working of a very special city made out of ships loosely tied together. New Crobuzon it ain’t, but it’s certainly a neat idea. Miéville has a skilled eye for description, and if The Scar does something surprisingly well, it’s to survive the absence of New Crobuzon (perhaps the central character of Perdido Street Station) by presenting us with another creation that’s just as fascinating.

As with all good horror stories, The Scar also features its quota of fascinating moments, from descriptions of the city to ominous hints about the monster at the bottom of the tale. If you hunger for well-written fantasy that doesn’t try to lose all of its readers along the way, this is the one.

There’s also plenty of good things to say about the characters of the novel. The anchor is, of course, dry and intellectual Bellis Coldwine, who acts as a reluctant narrator to the events of the book. While a solitary person, she also comes in contact with a number of Armada’s other inhabitants, from fellow ex-New-Crobuzoners to Armada natives. Her uncanny knack for being at the right time at the right moment isn’t entirely accidental.

If the novel has an annoyance (beyond a number of lengthy passages; skip the all-italics chapters), it’s the unconventional form taken by the ending. In some way, it flinches and shies away from the objective of the quest. In others, it depends on an arbitrary authorial decision, a decision that torments even the characters as they ask “of all the chances that this could happen…” It is potentially annoying without being too much so; you can actually read it, say “huh, neat”, be satisfied by the revealed visions of what didn’t happen and avoid disappointment. Maybe Miéville has something else in mind for one of his next books. Maybe we’ll re-visit The Scar some day.

In the meantime, there’s more than enough stuff here to keep us entertained. Miéville’s talent at writing top-notch pulp fiction is just as good here than in the novel that established him as a major writer, and few will be disappointed by this follow-up. The writing is delicious, the characters are worth our interest and the narrative is packed with fascinating asides. What are you waiting for? An excuse to flee the city?

Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005)

(In theaters, May 2005) Good? Bad? Does it really matter when it’s a film labouring under such expectations? A bridge between the much-maligned Episodes II and the classic Episode IV, Revenge Of The Sith just needs to be satisfactory. Which it is, but just. George Lucas’ shortcomings in matters of dialogue have been obvious before, but they’re even more glaring here, with wince-inducing romantic material and lines that don’t end up meaning what the writer intended (“Good relations with the Wookies, I have”: Thanks for an instant fan punchline, George!) He doesn’t fare much better with the overarching elements of his script either: the grandiose “fall of the republic” is too simplistic to be believable, and so is Anakin’s conversion to the dark side. The most tragic part of the story, though, is the shabby way it disposes of Padme (the luscious Nathalie Portman, now with added curls) as a porcelain doll who can’t live without her man. As a director, Lucas is doing better than ever with the way he moves the camera around (though one may wonder about the positive influence of his special-effects people or the rumoured involvement of Steven Spielberg), even though his grasp of actors remains as shaky as ever: Ian McDermid and Ewan McGregor do well, but Hayden Christiansen looks and sounds like a petulant brat who mumbles a lot. (“Darth Vader: The Sullen Teenage Years”). Fortunately, Lucas doesn’t come up with everything in the film, and so the design work and special effects remain as deeply impressive as ever: ILM truly brought their A-game to this film, with particular praise heaped upon the first twenty minutes of the film, the epitome of what a “Star Wars!” film should feel like. I have my doubts about other elements of the film (such as the inconsistent use of Force powers), but bitching about “Episode III” is no better than beating a dead horse. Revenge Of The Sith manages to satisfy what we expected from a film whose ending we already knew, but no more.

(On DVD, December 2005) You know, this film is a whole lot better with the commentary track turned on. I may still not think too highly of the dialogue or the pedestrian fashion with which George Lucas capped off his wholly unnecessary trilogy, but the special effects are nice and there’s interesting design touches here and there. With the multi-source audio commentary, you can at least give points for effort and technical prowess as the filmmakers explain what they intended to do with even the silliest sequences. Fittingly, the best thing on the DVD may be “Within a minute”, an exhaustive making-of documentary covering what goes into making only one minute of the finished film. Neat concept: there doesn’t appear to be a single production team left untouched by the end of it. A fair number of other targeted featurettes complete the portrait. Star Wars fans already know that the DVD is the essential missing part of their collection going in between volume II and IV; others may want to wait until the inevitable cash-in box set.

Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut

Delta, 1973 (1999 reprint), 302 pages, C$21.00 tpb, ISBN 0-385-33420-6

(Experienced as an audio book, as performed by Stanley Tucci) Caedmon, 2003 , 6.5 hours (unabridged): ISBN 0-06-056497-0

Meet Kilgore Trout, perhaps the worst SF writer in the known universe. Meet Kurt Vonnegut, creator of perhaps the worst SF writer in the known universe. Meet Dwayne Hoover, a man at the end of his sanity, uniquely predisposed to mistake Kilgore’s stories for the awful truth. Meet the town of Midland CIty, a city in the mid-west where the id of America is hideously exposed. Meet a bunch of characters without secrets to you, the reader, thanks to him, the writer.

By now, Breakfast of Champions is a minor classic of American literature, and Kurt Vonnegut one of its undisputed demigods. This novel shows why he’s held in such high esteem: Breaking every rule of conventional fiction, it still manages to entertain and remain relevant more than thirty years after publication. It helps that it’s often laugh-out-loud funny in a deadpan fashion.

In some ways, it’s the story of a successful middle-age man going mad. In others, it’s a road trip by a rotten SF author throughout the wasteland of twentieth-century America. It’s about Vonnegut, it’s about modern culture, it’s about life as lived by those strange human creatures. And so on.

While the comparison may send some Vonnegut fans into early graves, there’s some similitude between his stylistic quirks and the type of prose favoured by later writers such as Chuck Palahniuk. In Breakfast of Champions, three recurring motifs quickly become apparent.

The least significant of those is the recurring enumeration of items, habits, names, quickly followed by “…and so on.” Vonnegut himself explains the significance of that particular quirk in-text, but it does bring to mind similar prose tricks in other authors.

That Vonnegut would himself (as the author) comment on that recurring pattern of writing is in itself an example of a stylistic trick. Vonnegut sometimes (presumably) slips into autobiography with this novel, establishing parallels between his live and elements of his characters, but that’s not the least of the author/work transgressions in this book. Vonnegut tells the reader, in advance, what’s going to happen and why. He plays with the omniscience of the narrator if it was a toy, telling us things about his characters and their surroundings just for the heck of it. Near the end, he practically disengages from the story, allowing us to read about the author commenting his story rather than the story itself.

This, in turn, feeds into the constant sense of detachment exhibited in the novel. Cultural detachment, especially. He chooses to tell the story almost as if he was narrating to an alien in one of Trout’s stories. Facets of early-seventies pop-Americana are laboriously explained, with constant reminders that however weird it sounds, that’s the way things were there and then. Early readers of the novel must have felt the dissonance with pleasure. Thirty years later, it acquires another layer, as we readers born after the novel’s publication date have become, in a sense, aliens to the period thus described. Those laboriously explained cultural markers become historic footnotes required to understand the universe being described.

It all amounts to, well, a lot of fun. Deliciously weird, and not without its dark sarcastic laugh-aloud moments, Breakfast of Champions demands a certain energy from its readers, but rewards them richly. I have often been bemused by Vonnegut’s work, but seldom less than satisfied. The pattern holds true here. Plus, any novel starring a science-fiction writer (even if he’s the worst one in the universe) gets mad props in my ratings.

I experienced the novel as an unabridged audio-book as performed by character actor Stanley Tucci. I didn’t do so by choice (I was suffering from the after-effect of eye laser surgery, hence being unable to read “real” books), but it was certainly an occasion to experience Vonnegut’s prose and not rush through the book. As a result, several of Vonnegut’s recurring motifs became clearer, and the steady ploughing ahead of the “story” was most clearly felt. I also loved Tucci’s voice performance as Kilgore Trout, as he infuses the character’s speaking cadence with an oddly likable mischeviousness. A perfect reflection of Vonnegut’s own text.

[December 2005: …but not a perfect reflection of Vonnegut’s book, which includes a number of naive illustrations that add another layer to the narrative.]

Kingdom Of Heaven (2005)

(In theaters, May 2005) It strikes me that with the latest historical epics, the only worthwhile question is “how’s the Big Battle?” In this case, director Ridley Scott has been handed a juicy target: The Crusades! The siege of Jerusalem! Armies against armies! It’s how we get to that point that just isn’t as interesting: Here, we follow a humble blacksmith-farmer as he improbably learn to be a knight, does everything right and ends up leading an entire population against the attackers. Slow at first, Kingdom Of Heaven finds its footing on the Holy Land: Protagonist Orlando Bloom becomes a gentleman-farmer, somehow becomes the favourite of both a king and his sister (in entirely different ways!) and quickly earns the respect of his fellow knights. Still, the film remains of shaky interest until the third act. One can blame the plot shortcuts on the rumoured cutting of several scenes, but it’s hard to imagine that a longer version could improve on the pacing of this lumbering monster. I suppose that we should be thankful that the end Big Battle is, indeed, worth the 90 minutes leading up to it. It’s not a bad film. At least it skilfully navigates a path between warring faiths without resorting to cheap racism. (Indeed, the most compelling character of the film is Ghassan Massoud’s Saladin) But Kingdom Of Heaven remains a bit slow, a bit improbable, a bit ordinary. Ridley Scott is a gifted director, but he seems to have phoned in this one. But really, in historical epics, why ask for much more than one Big Battle?

Aliens (1986)

(Fourth viewing, On DVD, May 2005) This is one of my all-time favourite films, and even a Xteenth viewing fails to dispel its magic. On a script level, it’s written with attitude and skill: usually billed as an action film, it nevertheless contains only three pure action scenes, with the rest of the film being dedicated to buildup, tension and stark terror. The last act grabs by the throat and never lets go. Fantastic stuff, ably supported by excellent performances and generally excellent special effects. Perhaps the most accomplished special-effects film of the pre-digital era, Aliens has survived admirably well to the passage of time and increased technical sophistication. (I have some issues with the back-projection work, but that’s pretty much it. Oh, and the 1.78 aspect ratio, but even James Cameron regrets that today.) Great, great film; the epitome of what a sequel should be. The “Alien Quadrilogy” box-set special edition is packed with supplementary material, including a good audio commentary, tons of documentaries and -hurrah!- an extended special edition that’s even better than the original. See it now and see it again soon!

Alien (1979)

(Third viewing, On DVD, May 2005) What is left to say about this film? It’s a classic, well-designated as such. Fantastic atmosphere, impeccable technique, excellent premise, savvy execution. As a child of the MTV generation, I still think it’s a touch too slow, but given how older critics tend to beat me up when I say such things, I may just qualify that with a “maybe”. The “Alien Quadrilogy” box-set edition offers a truckload of supplementary material, including an all-inclusive set of documentaries that will tell you all about the film, and a rather good audio commentary featuring most of the relevant players. An essential SF/Horror film, and the basis of a great series.

Shutter Island, Dennis Lehane

Harper, 2004, 400 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-73186-X

(Experienced as an abridged audio book, read by David Strathairn) Harper Audio, 6 hours (abridgment approved by the author): ISBN 0-06-055417-7

I have always been dubious about audio books. Why waste X number of hours listening to someone reading a book when you can spend even less time reading the perfectly serviceable paper original? Given my speed of reading, my dislike for abridgements and my right to flip forward or backward whenever I like, audio books always come up short when compared to the real thing.

But what happens when you can’t read? Faced with the prospect of at least a week of reading downtime following an impending laser eye surgery, I decided to use audio books as a lifeboat, a way of keeping sane at a time where I wouldn’t even be able to see properly. My first selection was Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island: I could use a good crime thriller as an easy “read”, and I thought I knew what to expect after Lehane’s Mystic River.

Oops.

The setup for Shutter Island is immediately familiar. It’s 1954 and Teddy Daniels, a US Marshall, is on a boat headed from Boston to Shutter Island, an isolated strip of land with a lighthouse and an insane asylum. Daniels and his partner are there to investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando, a murderous inmate who somehow managed to slip away from her cell. But as the investigation evolves, things aren’t as they appear on Shutter Island: Things don’t match, people lie, strange clues accumulate and Daniels begins to suspect that there’s a lot more to the story than just a missing patient. What’s more, it all seems to involve him.

The days following an operation involving painkillers are, so put it nicely, not entirely rational. Your first impulse is to sleep, and so you pass the next day or two in bed, slipping in and out of slumber. Now add to that a paranoid thriller in which Dennis Lehane does M. Night Shyamalan and you’ve got a recipe for one seriously weird “reading” experience.

I usually speed-read thrillers at a pace of nearly two hundred pages per hour, so being restricted to a narrator’s cadence can be both maddening and revelatory. Lehane can write, that’s for sure: His turns of phrase and the way he sets up his scenes are interesting, and I’m not sure I would have gotten as much out of the prose had I ended up reading the book the traditional way. On the other hand, things can get a bit too long. Six hours to listen to a book I’d read in 120-150 minutes? In most circumstances, I’d say no thanks.

It’s made even worse by the lop-sided way the plotting is handled. After a fantastic build-up, the Big Twist is revealed at around the end of the third cassette, leaving one more cassette to go. That last cassette is spent listening to the intricacies of The Twist, even as we readers don’t need to be convinced. Then, just as you think all is wrapping up, there’s another fifteen minutes of needless flashback as Lehane laboriously explains the real story, a real story that we readers didn’t need to be told after all of the clues left throughout the novel. This may be an area where the abridgment may be at fault (It’s possible that the last quarter of the novel was left untouched), but I doubt it: It’s likely that Lehane, as a rational mystery writer, is ill-equipped to handle twists best suited to fantastical stories.

But even with this problem, Shutter Island is a fine paranoid thriller, with enough buildup to hold the reader’s interest throughout. Definitely not the same thing as Mystic River, but that’s not a problem.

As far as the audio book is concerned, I truly enjoyed David Strahairn’s narration: He manages to give distinctive intonations to most characters, up to a point where you wonder why they didn’t simply give in and make this a radio play. While being oddly pleased by the experience, I’m sticking to my original opinion: While audio books are better than no books at all, they’re no replacement for the real thing.

Alien³ (1992)

(Second viewing, On DVD, May 2005) I didn’t like Alien 3 on first viewing, and it’s not another viewing with thirty minutes of special edition material that will enhance my opinion of the film. Sequels are usually launched with the implicit premise that the built-in audience is buying the tickets in exchange for familiar characters and premises. This film ignores this implicit agreement and spits in the face of everyone looking for a little bit of Aliens magic. But even more sadly, it doesn’t offer anything worthwhile as a replacement: muddy criminal monks, all alike, being eaten one by one. Ripley becoming a hollow shell of a character. There may be intriguing visuals here and there, but there’s scarcely a memorable scene in the entire film (well, except for the lava pit back flip), nothing that would want you to see the film another time. Let’s not even try to find a good character in this mess. Sad, humourless, dull and depressing, with nary any viewing pleasure. And there’s scarcely any innovation in terms of the Alien mythology. Fortunately, director David Fincher’s career survived this mess and went on to better things. The “Alien Quadrilogy” box-set special edition includes tons of documentary detailing in obsessive detail the flawed development process that made the failure of the film a foregone conclusion. Heck, even the commentary track participants spend some time discussing their disappointment. Fincher is nowhere to be found as a primary participant to the supplementary material: We don’t wonder why. We just wonder why the film was allowed to exist.

Airplane! (1980)

(Third viewing, On DVD, May 2005) The daddy of the “spoof comedy” subgenre still remains extremely funny today, but it’s a fair thing to say that it hasn’t aged as gracefully as one could have hoped for. Part of it has to do with the intentionally derivative intent of the film, based on cultural icons and conventions that aren’t as prevalent today. Part of it has to do with the way the “rules” of this type of comedy have been re-used in latter films. Finally, part of it may have to do with the low budget of the production, with all of the noticeable shortcomings that implies. I still think it’s one of the most fabulous comedies ever (and a significant childhood icon; I remember seeing it on a rented laserdisc player!), but Top Secret! remains the champ in the sub-genre. The DVD contains a remarkably frustrating audio commentary track. Maybe half of it is interesting.

Airplane II: The Sequel (1982)

(Third viewing, On DVD, May 2005) If even you happen to watch this film right after its prequel, you will be shocked -shocked!- at how many gags are lifted wholesale from the first film. This may not be a surprise when you consider that none of the guiding lights of the original signed on to do the sequel: When in doubt, the apprentice steal from the masters. The plot is just a touch more coherent and the production values are obviously superior to the original, but many of the jokes are repeated quasi verbatim and there’s an odd calculation to the entire production that makes it surprisingly artificial. Still extremely funny, of course, but do yourself a favour, and avoid too-close contact with the original. The DVD, sadly enough, is a bare-bones edition: Wouldn’t you love an audio commentary by William Shatner?

Toast, Charles Stross

Simon & Schuster, 2004, 227 pages, C$37.10 hc, ISBN 0-7432-3591-6

Well, this is it: the state-of-the-art of the science-fiction genre at the turn of the twentieth century. Perhaps even its future. While other authors are reluctant to face the new possibilities offered by the information revolution, Charles Stross not only embraces strange new tomorrows, but revels in them. Lives in them, one could say. The result of this vision is Toast, a brilliant anthology of short fiction that doubles as one of the best example of what cutting-edge SF has to offer.

If you’ve never read anything by Stross before, be prepared for some concept overload. The title of the book says it all; if the only thing you can think about when you say “toast” is lightly-burnt bread or banquet platitudes, then you may not be the ideal public for this book. Stross’ hacker-jargon “toast” is all about severely damaged hardware or humans shell-shocked by change. Much like your brain once you’ll be done with this collection.

It starts out with a bang, with “Antibodies”, one of the neatest stories of the past decade. Here, a yawn-inducing statement (“someone’s come up with a proof that NP-complete problems lie in P!”) ends up being the harbinger of the end of the world. Our narrator knows this because he’s from somewhere else. Too bad; he had such hopes for this universe.

Other standout stories in the volume include “Big Brother Iron”, a computer-heavy follow-up to George Orwell’s 1984 in which the day-to-day job of sysadmins makes them natural revolutionaries. Clever, much like “Extracts From the Club Diary”, a series of letter chronicling the evolution of a very special group of addicts. Both of those stories skirt the edges of strictly science-fictional content, but their detail-heavy execution, packed with concepts and consequences, is straight from the Science Fiction school of thought.

Direct echoes of Stross’ longer-work resonate through the collection. “Bear Trap” is loosely set in a variant of the Eschaton universe explored in Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise. “A Colder War” is recognizably from the same imagination that came up with The Atrocity Archives, though in a much darker vein. The same fascination for the H.P. Lovecraft mythos carries through material like “A boy and his god”, a light-hearted story where the title really says it all.

Stross has been an active member of SF fandom for decades (you can find mentions of him in David Langford’s Ansible as far back as October 1984) and it may be no accident if two of the stories in the book take the form of convention reports. “Dechlorinating the Moderator” is amusing if not quite believable, but “Toast” is the stuff pure SF is made of: at a convention of technical enthusiasts, boredom may be the first stage of transhumanity.

It’s not all so cutting-edge, mind you. “Yellow Snow” (1990) has visibly aged, set in an obviously cyberpunk setting with a few extra twists. Not bad, not dull, but its kick now has more to do with nostalgia than anything else. A similar fate is reserved for “Ship of Fools”, a Y2K story that probably worked well when it was published in 1995, but seems overly talky now that this particular crisis has been worked out. The last line is a lovely inside-joke, but it’s a slog getting there.

To be fair, both of those stories are singled out by Stross himself in his fantastic introduction “After the Future Imploded”, a presentation piece that reads like a manifesto for current SF writers. If you’re not convinced that this is an author on the leading front of the SF field, this essay will remove your last doubts. Stross knows the genre, understands what it can be used for, and not-so-secretly delights in the possibilities at his fingertips.

Toast may not be widely available in bookstores, but in terms of impact it’s a welcome throwback to the heady days where single-author short-story collections ruled the SF world. Here we’ve got a collection of excellent stories, unified by a unique vision that masters the tools of the Science Fiction genre and it willing to nudge it forward. It’s heady, brainy, funny stuff: another success for Charles Stross.