Monthly Archives: June 2005

The Princess Diaries (2001)

(On TV, sometime around June 2005) I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this film in the mid-noughties, but it doesn’t come up in a search of my archives as of late 2014, so here goes nothing as a placeholder: The Princess Diaries is an amiable Pygmalion-lite comedy of manners in which a ordinary teen discovers that she is the heir of a throne of some sort. The premise isn’t nearly as important as the various gags and moments as our ordinary teenager is socialized to aristocratic standards. The most noteworthy thing about The Princess Diaries is a early star-making performance from Anne Hathaway, with an able supporting turn by Julie Andrews. Otherwise, this pretty much plays out like the Disney film it is. It’s likable without being deep or meaningful, and that’s all it truly needs to be.

The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases, Ed. Jeff Vandermeer & Mark Roberts

Bantam, 2005, 297 pages, C$21.00 tpb, ISBN 0-553-38339-6

Humour is a subjective thing, and medical humour even more so. My encounters with the health care system have so far been mercifully brief, but I still find myself a hard sell when it comes to humour in a medical… vein. Pain, diseases, death: not funny!

So imagine the uphill battle when it comes to reading and appreciating The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases. As the title suggests, it’s a book of weird medical conditions. What the title doesn’t tell you, however, is that it’s a humorous anthology of fake diseases imagined by a bunch of science-fiction and fantasy writers.

So don’t be surprised if you happen to read about a disease in which bones migrate outside the body (eventually leaving the invertebrate patient quivering like an old squid) or one where the sufferer’s organs slowly transforms themselves into fruits. Despite the hair-raising farther reaches of real medicine, the contributor to the Guide manage to invent an impressive number of even more extreme conditions.

Take, for instance, Steve Aylett’s “Download Syndrome”, in which people rely so much on electronic devices for memory that they become empty vessels. Or Brian Stableford’s “Ferrobacterial Accretion Syndrome”, describing how some individuals form metal sculptures within their bodies. (Not to be confused with Jeffrey Thomas’ “Internalized Tattooing Disease”.) Not to mention Jeff Topham’s “Logopetria”, a condition where patients’ words are, um, literally spat out. And who can forget Michael Bishop’s “Biblioartifexism”; the delusion that one has re-composed a classic work of literature?

Not all entries are so amusing. A number of them aim for horror rather than humour, and if the results can be effective (I’m unaccountably fond of Jeffrey Thomas’ “Extreme Exostosis”, for instance), many of the others simply fall flat. What may seem amusing to a writer may end up looking lame to readers, and so a fair chunk of Thackery lands with a gross thud. But as with any other anthology, you learn to remember the best and forget the rest.

Some of the book’s most effective moments come as it starts playing subtle tricks on the reader. Pay particular attention to the diseases flagged as “contagious”, as those often indicate a writer in the full grip of the condition he’s describing. I was completely charmed by Rhys Hughes’s “Ebercitas”, but then again who could resist the beauty, even unseen, of Eber M. Soler? (Example!) In a grimmer but no-less hilarious fashion, China Mieville’s “Wormword” does a lot of mileage out of a simple memetic concept. David Langford turn in one of the shortest entries with “Logrolling Ephesus”, but as Langford fans know, the man can do miracles in less than a thousand “words”.

Thackery also earns top marks for its sumptuous design, consciously modelled on Victorian-era medical textbooks and often implemented hand-in-hand with the content. John Coulthart’s “Paper Pox” and Brian Evenson’s “Worsley’s Supplement” visually demonstrate their afflictions (chilling and amusing readers in the process), whereas the last third of the book does wonders in re-creating snippets of the Guide‘s “previous editions.”

Maybe a third of the book is not dedicated to the actual description of fake diseases, and that part of the Guide isn’t as successful as the rest. The character of Dr. Thackery T. Lambshead may not be as hilarious as the editors may think he is, and his adventures across the world during the twentieth century are sometimes more tedious than amusing. The “secret history” of the twentieth century as influenced by the Guide is a good concept, but the execution is hit-and-miss.

But, as I said, humour is subjective, let alone medical humour. The Guide has received lavish praise from critics and readers; who am I to spoil the fun? At the very least, I should acknowledge the considerable amount of effort that went in putting together the guide (the visual design alone is worth a peek in the bookstore), even if the ultimate impact is mixed.

Wait… perpetual hunger for better books, lack of satisfaction regarding most things, irresistible compulsion to chronicle inner disappointments on “the web”. What if I have a condition?

Is Dr. Lambshead taking submissions for a second edition?

Old Man’s War, John Scalzi

Tor, 2005, 316 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30940-8

It doesn’t take a long time to become a John Scalzi fan. One look at his on-line blog, “Whatever”, is usually enough to put him on your list of daily diversions. A true writing professional, Scalzi has perfected his on-line voice for maximum impact: It’s clear, strong and immensely entertaining. It’s not much of a surprise, then, to find out that his “first” novel be such a readable piece of work. (“First” novel in a big-publisher sense; a truer first novel, Agent to the Stars, is available on-line and will soon be published by speciality publisher Subterranean Press)

Old Man’s War is self-consciously a derivation on the kind of military SF best exemplified by Heinlein’s Starship Troopers: a novel whose first half is spent seeing our protagonist through training, and the second in actual combat. The main tweak of this well-worn story, in this case, is that the protagonist of the tale is a 75-year old man. John Perry is widowed, bored and enlisted: what sweetens the pot for him is that the Colonial Marines are ready to rejuvenate anyone willing to sign up for a tour of duty.

I expected to enjoy Old Man’s War, but I’m still surprised at how quickly and how effectively Scalzi can hook his readers. The prose style is a model of easy reading, and Scalzi’s got a practised eye for the small details, the mini-scenes, the rich dialogue, the background material required to make readers race from one chapter to the next. His protagonist undergoes his “going of age” adventure with believable reactions given his life experiences. John Perry is a tough guy, but not without his soft side: he misses the simple pleasures of matrimony, is properly grateful for what his old body has done for him and can’t let go whenever he think he has seen something important. This is a bookmark-optional book: Don’t be surprised if you end up reading it in a single sitting.

The military-SF aspect of the story is also handled with plenty of skill. The problem with a lot of industry-standard military SF is that it often seems as if it’s written by soldiers for soldiers. Even well-meaning civilians can have trouble understanding the tactics, the jargon and the common assumptions. Scalzi is not a veteran, even comes from the left side of the political spectrum, but he understand how to treat the subject respectfully. This detachment has a lot to do with the perfect accessibility of his novel for everyone: Even readers unfamiliar with hard-core MilSF will be able to read Old Man’s War without too much trouble. (Naturally, sub-genre devotees will find themselves at home. Through I wonder if the Thaddeus Bender sequence is a bit of red meat thrown to that particular segment of the audience.)

This being said, the plotting isn’t up to the polish of the prose. Scalzi has an annoying penchant for plotting-by-coincidence, and so Perry benefits from a few unbelievably convenient chance encounters: First with his biggest off-planet fan (netting him some initial advancement), then (twice) with someone familiar to him. Once may not have been so bad, but more than that is a bit too much.

I also have issues with some of the background coherency of his universe: Some arbitrary restrictions are made necessary by the plot, (no higher-tech on Earth; permanent exile of the Marines) but the rigid enforcement of those rules are inconsistent with how things work in the real world. Scalzi also struggles with his high-tech toys: the level of technology used by the Colonial Marine isn’t evenly distributed, and even his acknowledgement of those inconsistencies (eg; the discussion of why the “Ghost Brigades” don’t make up the bulk of the Marines Corps) seems a bit evasive. Which is a shame, because Scalzi understands the tech and slings the jargon better than many of his peers: His use of SF tropes is consistent with his goal of updating Starship Troopers to today’s tech standards.

But even with the awful coincidences, even with the iffy parameters of his universe, Old Man’s War remains a delight from beginning to end. I’m not just saying that because it’s a near-certainty that John Scalzi will eventually read this review (sorry for those last two paragraphs, Mr. Scalzi), but because I have rarely seen such a compulsively-readable novel. In terms of pure reading fun, it brings to mind some of the slickest Frederik Pohl novels, or -dare I say it- Heinlein’s Starship Troopers itself. A number of so-called fine writers could take note of the technique. Scalzi is a professional, and when it comes to my entertainment dollars, I’ll bet on the professional over the artist all the time.

Accelerando, Charles Stross

Ace, 2005, 390 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-441-01284-1

(Also freely available online at accelerando.org)

This book should come with warning labels.

This book could melt your brain (and that would be a good thing.)

Caution! Content requires some mental assembly.

Warning: High density of ideas. May explode.

Danger: This book dissolves outdated assumptions about science-fiction.

Do not put in contact with people unable to cope with new things.

This, I’m convinced, will be the defining SF novel of this decade. The closest analogue would be Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix, the unheralded best SF novel of the eighties, the one that blew away a generation of influential readers and writers, the truest shift between SF as it was and SF as it became. Charles Stross’ Accelerando, after five years in the incubator, has finally emerged to sweep away the dregs of old-style Science Fiction and show us how things will be done from now on. This is the first true SF novel of the twenty-first century.

High praise indeed, but this novel is liable to inflame even the most jaded SF critic. Accelerando is a fix-up of nine short stories (a trilogy of trilogies) charting the evolution of humanity through a twenty-first century marked by a technological singularity, through the eyes of a cat who’s not a cat —and three generations of a dysfunctional family. It’s almost unimaginably big and it does what few SF writers are even willing to do: stare the Singularity in the face and say “bring it on.”

The first three stories of the book are those of Manfreld Mancx, a genius whose day job is to bring humanity, kicking and screaming, into a turbulent new future. He’s so far ahead of the curve that he is essentially living in the future. The second trilogy of stories sticks close to his daughter, Amber Mancx, as she (and then a copy of her) travels away from Earth as humanity lives through the Singularity. The last three stories follow her son, Sirdhan Mancx, as he confronts the cold reality of a post-Singularity humanity that may be headed toward an existential dead-end.

As a novel, Accelerando is hardly perfect. Stross’ prose owes more to brute-force hacks than to elegance: His story requires so much bandwidth that stylistic flourishes take too much space. So he dumps information any way he can. The result requires you to pay attention, keep going forward and try not to drown under such a torrent of material.

Heady, heady stuff. If you’ve read Stross’ fiction before, you may be ready for his onslaught of ideas. Others may give up in frustration as every sentence needs to be uncompressed for understanding. A.E. Van Vogt used to say that real SF ought to throw a new idea every eight hundred words. Improbably, Stross doubles that average. As if that wasn’t enough, he’s got the sheer guts, the insane audacity to imagine his way through the Singularity and come up with post-Singularity issues. (What’s more, he also manages to deliver a neat solution to Drake’s paradox, a solution that presumes that information science, economics and evolutionary biology all boil down to the same thing.)

To hack a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes: Your mind, once stretched by Accelerando, will never regain its original dimensions. Neither will Science Fiction as a genre. This novel destroys the comfortable futures of old-school SF and redefines the picture we’ve got of the future. I don’t think that SF fans could tolerate a steady diet of novels like Accelerando. But then again, I don’t think that most SF writers could write such novels.

One further word of praise and warning: This is not a Science Fiction novel to put in mundane hands. In order to make sense of it, you will have to either hold a CS degree, overdose on Wired and Slashdot and/or be a time-traveller. As Rick Kleffel has memorably put it, “This is the kind of science fiction that scares normal people” to which I’d add “and those merely pretending to like Science Fiction as it should be.” It’s hard stuff, and all the more exhilarating for it.

But what a trip. If this isn’t the SF novel of the decade, I can’t wait to read what will beat it.

Tomorrow Happens, David Brin

NESFA, 2003, 219 pages, US$25.00 hc, ISBN 1-886778-43-4

Most people tend to roll their eyes and make little “crazy!” hand/head signals when you tell them that much of your philosophy comes from reading science-fiction. That’s all right; they themselves don’t realize how poorer their lives are without a healthy dose of Robert A. Heinlein and Philip K. Dick. I myself would be tempted to add David Brin to my list of intellectual influences, regardless of the nasty glares this may earn me.

There’s a reason why “philosophy” is the first thing that comes to mind when discussing Tomorrow Happens. Brin’s work proudly promotes a number of ideas that, taken together, could be branded as “techno-optimism”. Loosely summarized, Brin’s message is that things are getting better, humans learn from their mistakes and the future is likely to be even more wonderful than the present, even as the present is far more wonderful than the past. (Anyone who wishes to dispute this last assertion is welcome to go spend some time in a century without anaesthesia and proper dental care.)

Given that Tomorrow Happens is a collection of Brin’s fiction and essays, it naturally takes the form of a book-length discussion of Brin’s natural areas of interest. Much like his previous collection Otherness, Tomorrow Happens contains both provocative essays (such as “Do we really want immortality?”) and short stories on roughly the same themes. It’s a bit exhausting if read in rapid succession, but it’s a darn good immersion in Brin’s thought-space.

The Jim Burns cover, reminiscent of his own classic illustration for Brin’s Startide Rising, suggests a strong similarity to the “Uplift” novels, and so few will be surprised to find out that the opening piece of the book, “Aficionado”, is an early prequel to the “Uplift” series. Such links are not uncommon, of course. As suggested above, Tomorrow Happens feels a lot like Otherness, and Brin’s ideas are common to his entire oeuvre. Some essays prefigure ideas what he would explore in books like The Transparent Society or even the Hugo-nominated novel Kiln People.

David Brin has made a number of, er, un-friends in the SF field, mostly thanks to the same character traits that make Tomorrow Happens such a joy to read for his fans: He is unbelievable self-confident, playful with his ideas yet utterly unshakable in his themes. He often returns time and time again to the same topics and he’s never above a truckload of lousy puns. His style is clear and direct like few others: it’s hard not to feel the joy of his mindset through the words he sets down. Taken together, the stories and essays show why he inherited Larry Niven’s reputation as the SF writer having the most fun with the ideas, themes and possibilities not just of science-fiction, but the whole future.

Tomorrow Happens is an oddball book, once that may not have been published if it wasn’t for the efforts of NESFA press, the dedicated small-scale publisher run by the same group of Boston-area fans responsible for such fine things as the Boskone and Norseacon4 conventions. The book itself is indistinguishable from the works of bigger publishers (as it should be!) and is cleverly tuned to what Brin fans expect from his work. A fine, fine book, and one that shouldn’t be missed by anyone with an interest is Science Fiction as the herald of a bright future.

I know that Brin’s techno-optimism may not resonate well with some of the most mentally down-trodden members of today’s society. But that’s exactly why Brin is so important and often so right. The present is better than the past. The Future will be better than the present. There is a lovely implicit challenge in this book’s title: Tomorrow happens; what are going to do about it? Tomorrow happens, are you ready?

Hell yeah. And I like to think that writer/philosophers like David Brin are part of the reason why I look forward to what will happen tomorrow.

The Engine of Recall, Karl Schroeder

Robert J. Sawyer Books, 2005, 271 pages, C$26.95 hc, ISBN 0-88995-323-6

There are books whose very existence is enough to make me want to pump my fist in the air and shout “Yes!” Karl Schroeder’s Engine of Recall is one of those: before labelling me a fist-pumping yes-shouting weirdo, take a look at the author, the publisher and the fact that this is a short-story collection of ten hard-SF stories.

Karl Schroeder is one of the best hard-SF writers in the world today. He may not have a long publishing history so far, but his first two novels speak for themselves: Ventus and Permanence both feature rich characters, top-notch extrapolation and beautiful writing. Schroeder understands the nature of genre SF like few others (he co-wrote the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Science Fiction, after all) and his material integrates science with fiction like few other writers.

Robert J. Sawyer Books, as the grandiose name suggests, is a small press imprint edited by hard-SF writer Robert J. Sawyer. Already one of English Canada’s two biggest genre publisher (along with Edge/Tesseracts), RJS Books confirms the emergence of a strong genre industry in Canada and now allows the publication of books that may otherwise go nowhere in today’s increasingly consolidated publishing environment. The very thought that Robert J. Sawyer may allow Karl Schroeder to publish a short-story collection (never a viable commercial project) is enough to cheer me up.

Finally, consider the promise of ten short stories by Karl Schroeder. Most of them had previously appeared in small magazines, so it’s a real treat to see them enjoy a wider distribution in book format. All of those stories conform to some definition of Hard-SF, though some of them extend from “supernatural events that are described in what must be a rational fashion” to “near-contemporary techno-thriller”.

“The Dragon of Pripyat” is one of those techno-thrillers, set in a near-future where the UN employs a specialized troubleshooter, Gennady Malianov, to investigate disturbances in dangerous places such as Chernobyl. I remember reading this story with great pleasure when it first appeared in Tesseracts 8 and I re-read it with the same fun here. A loose sequel featuring the same lead character, “Alexander’s Road”, appears for the first time in this collection. It’s a fine and exciting story, and we can only rejoice when Schroeder promises that there will be more stories in this series.

Five of the stories (including “Halo”, set in the same universe as Permanence) take place in extraterrestrial settings and show Schroeder to be a skilled inheritor of the classic hard-SF story in the Clarke or the Niven mold. Schroeder’s prose is far more refined than his predecessors, though not quite as limpid as it should be. Hard-SF fans will recognize those stories as the pure-SF meat of the book, and rightfully delight in seeing all of them brought together.

Three stories are set on Earth in near-contemporary times and carry a decidedly more fantastic edge. “Hopscotch” looks at supernatural phenomenons with a sceptical eye, but ends on a conclusion that may not be entirely rational. “Allegiances” takes a fantastic premise and treats it with both rigour and meanness. “Making Ghosts” is halfway between cyberpunk and horror, with a mournful tone

All short story collections manage to give a good idea of the author’s pet obsessions, and The Engine of Recall is no different. In the introduction to “Alexander’s Road”, Schroeder maintains that his stories all revolve around the theme of the inaccessible place. Reading them, I was struck by the fact that most of Schroeder’s characters are true and unashamed loners. (Stephen Baxter alludes to the same thing in his laudatory introduction.) They seldom work well with others and they love to find places where they can be alone. Perhaps fittingly for a genre optimized for intellectuals, Schroeder’s stories are often inner mind games set against the universe: the measure of success resize in figuring out how to win, even if “winning” means “getting away from everyone else.”

In the case of Schoeder’s fans, however, “winning” means “seeing this book in print.” Schroeder’s novels have deservedly attracted a good amount of praise and attention, and so this short story collection lives up to those expectations. It’s not often that I have to praise an author for editorial work, but Robert J. Sawyer has done some good in publishing this collection. Hopefully, there will be more of them.

Haunted, Chuck Palahniuk

Doubleday, 2005, 404 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-50948-0

By now, we all know that Chuck Palahniuk is one sick puppy. His fans, his publicists and his editor all thank him for it. But at some point, believing one’s own press releases becomes a dangerous thing. A feedback loop is created in which reputation takes over and self-parody soon follows. While that tendency has been obvious for most of the author’s past books, Haunted comes closest to crossing the line at which the myth of Chuck Palahniuk may be consuming the real author.

Haunted is arguably a departure for Palahniuk. Obviously, it’s his longest book to date: Whereas his previous novels all nestled comfortably under 300 pages, this one goes above 400. But this is not really a novel. It’s more accurate to call this a fix-up, a short story collection thinly disguised by a framing device that becomes increasingly more clumsy as the narrative advances.

As a short story collection, hey, it’s classic Palahniuk: humour and horror mixed together with a heady side-order of sadism, cynicism and post-modern detachment. Palahniuk’s universe is crammed with sociopaths and the whole point of his fiction is seeing this world through completely depraved minds. It takes a special kind of reader to appreciate what he’s doing with his fiction: kind of a who-blinks-first game of gross-out. Readers now expect the extreme from Palahniuk, and the man cheerfully obliges.

So we get stories like “Guts”. If you’re a Palahniuk fan, you already know about it: It’s the infamous story that has caused, so far, over four dozen people to faint at public readings. Strong advance notice and if readers are liable to just read it and go “ewww/coool”, it’s not difficult to image how a public performance could make people swoon. Other stand-out stories of the book include “Foot Work” (about the dark side of new-age, though its final conclusion is telegraphed pages ahead), “Slumming” (acting like hobos is fun until people get killed), “The Nightmare Box” (in which the ultimate truth drives people crazy; I’ve got my hunch on what “it” may be), “Product Placement” (a story that may make you re-think putting a bad review on-line: Uh-oh!) and “Obsolete” (perhaps Palahniuk’s first foray in outright SF, even as outdated fifties-style Science Fantasy.)

As with all other short story collections in the history of literature, there are a number of other stories that don’t work so well. “Exodus”, for instance, is almost unbearably disturbing in its depiction of a child abuse police squad turning out to be latent child abusers themselves, but at some point the story becomes so extreme that the only reaction is a chuckle and a “Oh, Chuck, you’re just trying too hard now”. At least a handful of other stories are similarly too much. Once you figure out that people are going to die in nearly every story, it’s not difficult to guess the ending pages before it happens. It doesn’t help that the cumulative effect of Haunted is closer to repetition than horror. Grand Guignol style works, but it may work better in thirteen stories rather than twenty-three.

What’s also unfortunate is that the framing story isn’t as strong as it could be. In a few words, it’s about a group of “writers” isolating themselves at a retreat in order to spend three uninterrupted months writing a perfect masterpiece. But things go wrong (or right) when everyone involved in this retreat (including the organizer and his assistant) are revealed to be latent psychopaths. They kill each other, they tell stories (the twenty-three short stories) and they kill each other some more.

On one level, you can certainly read the framing device as a warped take-off on reality television. This becomes especially obvious when the collective narrator (the “I” of the framing story is meant as a royal singular) admits that all of them would rather survive through a harrowing ordeal and write that up rather than spend any effort creating something original. As long as the others do the dying, why not sabotage the heating, burn the place, spoil the food and enhance the suffering? What’s a little self-mutilation, cold-blooded murder and outright cannibalism when you can emerge from the experience with a fat film contract about your life story? Why not select a role and try to kill each other according to dramatic logic?

It’s twisted, it’s quirky, it’s original and it’s even a little bit of fun. But that fun disappears quickly once the demolition derby starts and it becomes obvious that none of the characters are worth saving. Heck, they’re not even up to the talk of being honest writers, let alone survivors. What’s a story without heroes? ponders Palahniuk, knowing fully well that his own novel doesn’t have any. It’s not that the book doesn’t have any interest (for all it’s fault, it’s impossible to stop reading), but that the reader clearly emerges on top of the author in this game of gross-out. Once readers figure out where things are going, it’s hard for Palahniuk to pop any more surprises out of his twisted mind. And it’s a shame, because there are some really good moments in the framing story. It’s just a shame that it doesn’t really work as the framework of the novel.

And that brings us back to the stories, which don’t really fit in the framing device any better than the framing device holds up together: A number of them suppose apocalyptic experiences that don’t lead back to the framing situation. The device of punctuating the straight prose segments with “poetry” about the characters doesn’t work either: the “poetry” reads like regular prose with quirky line breaks and it’s not those line breaks that improve the content.

All told, Haunted isn’t truly satisfying, but it’s more of a disappointment than a failure. Palahniuk’s style remains as hypnotically readable as ever before, even as you find yourself smirking over the content. Should you be able to shake the book hard enough to send all the weaker parts flying away, you’d be left with a decent 200-250 pages volume of savvy shocks and thrills. The main mistake of the book is in trying too much, breaking the suspension of disbelief so important in reading about Palahniuk’s peculiar world.

Disbelief is so unsuspended, in fact, that Haunted may the Palahniuk book that may make sceptics out of regular fans. I even found myself snapping out of the stories at some point, muttering stuff like “now I know that you’re making this up.” (Movie studios don’t pay “line people”, Chuck. Heck, save for Star Wars, there aren’t even any “line people”, Chuck.) And once you step back, even slightly, from the gross-out game so crucial in appreciating the nihilistic charm of Palahniuk, it’s hard to get back in the proper mindset. Suddenly, the puppet lines of Palahniuk’s fiction become a little too obvious. The body count loses its importance. The horrors become pleas for attention. The gross-out becomes tedious. And Haunted loses its power to haunt by trying too hard.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke

Bloomsbury, 2004, 782 pages, C$29.95 tpb, ISBN 0-7475-7411-1

It’s not every day that a fantasy novel by a first-time author ends up on the best-seller lists and the Hugo Award ballot. It’s ever rarer to see mainstream critics falling over themselves in praising the book and find out that the first-time writer in question is familiar with the core fantasy genre. But here’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a big fat book that makes all of the above come true.

The first obvious thing about Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, even before cracking open the pages of the book, is that it’s meant to be a throwback to another time. Save for the hefty price, the cover design is deliberately unrefined, suggesting a time where dust jackets were actually meant to protect against dust, not act as marketing instruments. And, whaddaya know, the book is about another time: An alternate early-nineteenth century England in which magic returns after a much-discussed absence. Shy and reclusive magician Mr. Norrell emerges as the nation’s preeminent magician. He’s not alone, though. Despite Norrell’s best efforts at discouraging other magicians, he is soon joined by another gifted wizard named Jonathan Strange. Given their opposite temperaments, the two will share a complex relationship…

There is a lot to like and admire in this massive fantasy novel. The flagrant Englishness of the book is one of them; the narrator of the story quickly becomes a character in her own right, tut-tutting events she finds distasteful and reminding the readers of the proper way to act as proud Englishmen. The style is accordingly tweaked, giving the impression that we’re reading something that may conceivably have been written back then. Some of the spelling is altered in consequence (a quirk that is sure to annoy some readers) and the narration takes on a meandering, discursive quality that is not without considerable charm.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell also does well with its story, characters and atmosphere. If nothing else, Clarke proves to be impressively ambitious with this first novel: Not simply happy to create a historical portrait of England slightly altered to accommodate magic, but she sends her characters in the middle of the Napoleonic wars and alters (not very much) the course of history. The completeness of her vision is impressive: The narrative is studded with lengthy footnotes (some extending over multiple pages) that, taken together, add an extra layer of depth to the world of the novel. References to fake works discussing the history of English magic are interspersed with richly-imagined side anecdotes and commentary, putting the novel itself in the middle of a (fictional) mini-continuum of English literature.

Techno-geeks are even liable to see a Microsoft/Open Source parable in the way Norrell and Strange each consider magic: One wants to buy off all competitors, close the spells to neophytes and keep everything firmly under his control, whereas the other wants magic to be used as widely, as openly and as freely as possible. Hmm…

Take all of the above together, and it’s difficult not to be impressed by Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. It’s big, it’s bold and it’s unusual.

However, since there is always a however

For readers used to a snappier pace (and I suspect that the usual fantasy-reading target audience is more tolerant about these things), the book eventually takes its toll. As the narrative advances, the initial charm of the first few hundred pages wears off, and before the reader knows it, he’s stuck on page 550 with too much energy invested to quit, yet still a discouraging number of pages to go before the end. It doesn’t help that some subplots never take off despite their importance to the plot. The Stephen Black passages, for instance, never gel into something interesting despite a promising start. Every page spent away from the two titular characters seems like a forced digression.

This being said, few 800+ pages books are likely to escape the charge of being too long. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell does a better job than most at staving off the inevitable exasperation. It even manages something even stranger: Sell millions of copies, enrapture critics around the world and deserves every bit of its success. Well done… but please, no sequel.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005)

(In theaters, June 2005) Director Doug Liman should be stopped. After a middling performance on The Bourne Identity, he comes and singlehandedly destroys what could have been a fantastic action/comedy romp through a heavy-handed “realistic” approach. Mr. & Mrs. Smith is, at its heart, a fantasy: How else can you interpret a story in which husband and wives are both members of rival assassination teams? How else do you show a story with big guns, fast cars, thick sexual tension and a sly take on matrimonial strife? This calls for a Bruckheimer/Bay sheen of glowing cinematography where not one single detail is left to realism. But Liman has other ideas, and Mr & Mrs Smith struggles with useless grit, leadening something that should have been more light-hearted. Even the action sequences suffer from too-rapid cutting, ugly cinematography and a lack of graceful charm. In sticking close to an unattainable reality, Liman also brings too much attention on the distasteful “conjugal violence” aspect of the story: However fun and cool the rest of the picture is, there remains a distinct discomfort in seeing husband and wife shooting at each other, and then moving on to punches, kicks and low blows. Summer action comedy? Not quite, no. Fortunately, it’s not all bad when you see the good work that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie bring to their role. Each play according to their media image: Pitt as the slightly-doofus handsome guy, and Jolie to the fatal seductress icon in which she has gradually evolved since her goth-cutter beginnings. As entertainment, Mr & Mrs Smith hits and misses. But one can see the potential for a far better film buried in the rubble.

Batman Begins (2005)

(In theaters, June 2005) Now this is a welcome change of pace after the contemptuous ludicrousness that Joel Schumaker brought to the Batman series. Director Christopher Nolan and writer David S. Goyer do their best to anchor Batman in a more plausible reality, and if the result doesn’t quite transcend the typical superhero silliness, it brings to the film an aura of respectability. Christian Bale finally gets his blockbuster starring role after impressive performances in a string of smaller movies, Liam Neeson continues his streak of mentor figures and Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman all get wonderful supporting roles. (Sadly, Cilian Murphy is unremarkable as Dr. Crane and Katie Holmes is completely miscast as a character supposed to be tough and resourceful.) Batman Begins remains an origin story, but it flies by so quickly that it’s just a pleasure to watch. The mythology of Batman is rethought, retooled and revisited with good details, even if a lot of it seems awfully convenient at times. But no matter; while not a great film, Batman Begins is a lot of fun and even makes one curious about the inevitable sequel. Batman Reset, in other words… and the reboot hasn’t crashed yet.

Iron Council, China Miéville

Del Rey, 2004, 564 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 0-345-46402-8

Sooner or later, the law of diminishing returns always applies to any fantasy series. The point where the new world, once so shiny and so new, starts to look faded and dull. The change is usually gradual, with plenty of warning signals to stop reading while the books are still reasonably good. China Miéville’s third Bas-Lag book, Iron Council, is one such warning signal; while it’s still an impressive novel, there are signs that the Bas-Lag universe may be running out of steam.

By now, no one needs to be told about the wonders of Perdido Street Station or The Scar: With those, Miéville created a brand-new fantasy playground and used it for superlative monster tales. With Iron Council, Miéville tries something new, doesn’t completely succeed, but manages to finish the book with his reputation intact.

Simply put, Iron Council is the book where revolution comes to Bas-Lag —or more specifically to the city of New Crobuzon, arguably the central protagonist of the trilogy-so-far. In this book, New Crobuzon’s atmosphere has become actively oppressive; so much so that the citizen are openly mulling open insurrection, spurred by the promise of a legendary group of revolutionaries named the Iron Council. The Council escaped, decades earlier, by hijacking a train and leaving in the wilderness. Now, they’re ready to come back, and bring the revolution along with them.

Miéville has never been shy about his political tendencies, but neither of the first two Bas-Lag books made much of it. In Iron Council, though, he’s left free to study the roots and the mechanism of social unrest, even make it the central theme of his book. It’s a risky departure from the material in his first two books, but it works well in sending the series in another direction. At the very least, Miéville should be commended for his willingness to stretch the boundaries of his series.

Sadly, it’s an unsuccessful experiment dogged by its execution. The biggest problem with Iron Council isn’t with the quality of the prose (once again superb, though perhaps a touch too verbose) but with the way his narrative unfolds. Perdido Street Station and The Scar each depended on strong protagonists with a clear voice. Iron Council, unfortunately, struggles without a sympathetic narrative anchor. Jubal is too removed from the action and too powerful to sustain much interest. Cutter is annoying. Low-level criminal Ori shows promise, but he remains offstage for most of the novel.

Lacking a way in the heart of the story, the reader struggles through the book. There is a lengthy flashback that doesn’t quite work. The storytelling is fractured between places and time, never achieving the deliciously compulsive readability of Miéville’s previous novels. There is also a sense that the ending, while completely deliberate, betrays a lack of nerve in going to the end of the path he has made for the story. It stops in mid-track, perhaps to be elucidated in another novel.

And that’s where the law of diminishing return kicks in. For all of Miéville’s sustained imagination (the last image of the book is one that will stay with me a long time, to say nothing of the Iron Council’s initial bid for freedom), Iron Council is starting to repeat itself and betray the limits of the Bas-Lag universe as shown to the readers so far. There is less to this novel than the previous ones, and over-critical readers may see in this book the beginning of the end.

It doesn’t have to be, of course: Maybe the next novel in the series will tighten up the writing, feature a fascinating central character and meld Miéville’s political themes with a rousing story. Certainly, this may even be a minority opinion: Iron Council itself has been warmly received elsewhere, even earning a Hugo nomination. But as far as I’m concerned, there’s something missing: a little bit of fun.