Monthly Archives: July 2005

Pattern Recognition, William Gibson

Putnam, 2003, 356 pages, C$39.00 hc, ISBN 0-399-14986-4

First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: This is not a Science Fiction novel. It’s a novel formed and informed by the tools, methods and outlook of SF, but it takes place in 2002 and contains nothing that wasn’t possible then. Yes, it’s another “rewind” for Gibson, who’s been writing closer and closer to the present since 1984’s seminal Neuromancer.

It may be that the present interests Gibson a lot more than some imagined future. Pattern Recognition, if thrown in a time machine and sent back to 1984, would certainly read like a science-fiction novel, packed with matter-of-fact acceptance of a global communication network, virtual relationships, catastrophic imagery from an event called “9/11” and post-cold-war geopolitics. Gibson studies the world and presents it with the same amount of clinical detail than he’d use to describe a far-off alien society. It makes for a nice little bit of estrangement, and it’s not entirely inappropriate to the subject matter.

It also fits Gibson’s protagonist who -like most Gibson protagonists- is a loner, an outsider and a misfit. Heck, she can’t even see some trademarks without experiencing a violent allergic reaction. Everything she uses is carefully de-branded. Ironic, because Cayce’s speciality is hunting cool, identifying “the next big thing” and making others profit from it. As Pattern Recognition begins, she’s in London, jet-lagged, and about to see a banal logo-proofing assignment turn into something very strange. You see, compelling bits of anonymous Internet footage have fascinated her for a while, and now her employer wants her to get to the bottom of the mystery. Who makes they footage? Where are its creators? Why do they do it? And, perhaps most importantly in this twenty-first century, how have they managed to create a cult of thousands, all fascinated by this brand new meme? Could there be… commercial applications?

And so the hunt begins. To everyone’s sighs of relief, Pattern Recognition doesn’t abandon Gibson’s root in action/adventure fiction. While the action may be slight and the adventure is definitely Earth-bound (well, aside from the many plane trips), this is a thriller built around a few mysteries and the shadowy influence of powerful people. Thanks to this strong narrative drive and some of Gibson’s most elegant prose so far, Pattern Recognition races forward, demanding to be read until all is revealed and played out.

To this narrative energy, one has to add the careful thematic content skillfully integrated through the entire novel. Gibson writes as if he was delighted at the weirdness of the twenty-first century (so far) and he wanted us to see it as he does. In doing so, he makes the most out of today’s environment and power dynamics. Out of the gate in 2003, Pattern Recognition also tackles post-9/11 issues with something approaching maturity. Grad students and lit-crits will have a blast dissecting this book. (I myself would probably mumble something about this being a novel of cities: London, Tokyo, Moscow and New York in flashbacks, all standing for something different, all on a continuum of progress taken or left untapped.)

But I’m happier to report that this is a good read and a satisfying work even as it strays (but not too much) from the SF genre in which Gibson has made his mark. While my rabid admiration of Gibson is strictly limited to Neuromancer and Burning Chrome, this is a step up from most of his non-Sprawl output, regardless of genre. It portends well for the rest of Gibson’s career, even if he consciously stays away from Science Fiction: I don’t know what he’s going to write next, even less where and when it will take place, but if it’s anything like Pattern Recognition, I’ll read it with pleasure.

βehemoth, Peter Watts

Tor, 2004-2005, ??? pages, C$??.?? hc, ISBN Various

βehemoth: β-Max, Tor, 2004, 300 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30721-9
βehemoth: Seppuku, Tor, 2005, 303 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-31172-0

Regular readers of these reviews may recall my cool but generally positive impressions of the first two volumes in Peter Watt’s “Rifters” trilogy. Starfish and Maelstrom may have been a bit dour and depressing, but they had enough hard-SF goodness to keep me coming back for a third helping. (Or rather a third and fourth helping, Tor having decided -in their usual market-savvy attitude- to split the third instalment in separate books.) Now that I’ve read the full story, my irrational optimism has been fulfilled: With βehemoth, Watts delivers not only a good book, but a great ending to a trilogy that retrospectively makes a lot more sense.

It’s amazing how a short story (1990’s “A Niche”) has grown to this apocalyptic 1,200+ pages epic about free will, evil and the end of the world. We remember the situation at the end of Maelstrom: an archaic super-microbe killing off most of North America; the rest of the world teetering on the edge of self-annihilation; the Internet contaminated by malicious entities. βehemoth picks up five years later, at a time where the whole collapse into fire and rubble has stabilized to a slow glide. Deep below the sea, rifters and corporate elites are about to see their balance-of-life issues settled thanks to the introduction of something even worse than everything they’ve seen so far. When you consider what Watts has introduced in the first two books, that’s saying something.

I’ve alluded (above) to the splitting of the novel in two separate parts, but one of the happy surprises of βehemoth, even chopped up, is how the two halves feel like separate stories. The three main characters may be the same, but the setting, the dynamics and the storytelling are different. β-Max mirrors Starfish in taking place under the surface, in what feels like a closed set. But you know what they say about conflict in small spaces: it’s all knives and bare hands…

The second half, without spoiling much, takes place over a wider canvas (yes, much like Maelstrom) and steadily plows forward in order to orchestrate a final confrontation between the three main characters, each of which approach issues of guilt, free will and responsibility in a different fashion. Seppuku is also notable in that the mantle of the protagonist, regardless of POV, shifts away from Clarke to Lubin: it’s no accident if Clarke’s role in the conclusion doesn’t amount to much.

It’s no big insight at this point to say that the Rifters trilogy is one grim ride. What’s more useful to say is that once you start studying the shades of black that are left behind, truly interesting morality conflicts start to emerge, usually demonstrated through power plays of various kinds. Reason versus emotion, free will versus neurological imperatives are all explored to some degree and the result is fascinating. (Though it brings back to mind movie tag-lines like “fight evil with evil”.) Characters finally come into focus here, with complex motivations-upon-impulses. (or is it the other way around?)

If I have issues with the books, it’s that if Watt’s prose has seldom been more engaging, he could use a bit of polish in the way he allows readers to absorb information. Sometimes, revelations are made and the story hops to another plot point, without letting implications sink in. It’s not uncommon to go back a few paragraph with the nagging suspicion that something very important just happened.

I suspect that my growing enthusiasm for the series has much to do with learning how to cope with Watts or (if you prefer a reformulation), figuring out what were Watts’ intentions with the trilogy. In retrospect, even the features of Starfish that annoyed me so much all fit in place. Readers who start reading the first two volumes now (and the author has made them freely available on-line, so you’ve got no excuse) will do so knowing that this is a trilogy: their initial reactions will adjust accordingly. As it turns out, the protagonist of “A Niche” are named Ballard and Clarke for a very good reason.

Finally, one loud hurrah for the scientific content (and the crunchy “notes and references” essay at the end of the book). I’m not sure what’s in the Canadian water supplys these days, but we seem to be producing more than our fair share of good hard-SF. If nothing else, I can’t wait to see Watts’ next novel, Blindsight, especially given the tasty treats suggested on rifters.com

The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad, Minister Faust (Malcolm Azania)

Del Rey, 2004, 531 pages, C$22.95 tpb, ISBN 0-345-46635-7

Now that was one interesting fantasy novel.

Interesting as in different, interesting as in readable, but also interesting as in flawed. A too-quick plat description of The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad would be something like “the lives of two twentysomething friends changes dramatically after one of them falls for a mysterious woman”. But given that this encompasses everything from DUDE, WHERE’S MY CAR? to WHITE SKIN, maybe it’s best to describe how this novel is different from the standard Echo-Gen lad-lit template.

For one thing, our two protagonists are pure-breed Science Fiction geeks. Hamza may be more of a media/comics fan whereas Yehat is closer to the hard-SF genre, but that doesn’t make them any less geeky. They’re the protagonists and that makes them cool –especially, I suspect, to the intended readership. But their comfortable wasted lives (Hamza washes dishes for a living; Yehat is a video store clerk) spent in pop-culture ephemera are about to get interesting (as in unpredictable, as in weird, as in dangerous) as soon as Nubian goddess Sherem starts taking an interest in one of them.

I wish SF could be diverse enough that a novel featuring two black Muslim Edmonton-area heroes wouldn’t in itself be worth singling out. But it’s not, and The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad is a welcome bit of difference. The novel soon delves deep into mythology, and it’s thankfully unlike anything west-European writers have done before. Minister Faust (pen name of Edmonton activist Malcolm Azania) bridges the SF culture with his own, and the result is a book that’s quite unlike anything before, melding modern pop hipness with African roots.

This difference carries through to the prose style, which is driven by the same cooler-than-thou energy one often sees in mainstream novels destined to the younger generation. The prose style is packed with CAPITAL LETTERS-

-abrupt line breaks-

-and tons of references that will be lost on anyone who failed pop-culture 101. The book is set in 1995 for some reason (perhaps because that’s Faust’s “best year” as far as pop references are concerned), but it certainly feels like the work of a modern young writer.

It can be a lot of fun, but as with most first efforts, Coyote Kings is also harmed by a number of miscalculations, or unsuccessful attempts to do too much when little was required.

First, it should be said that the novel is told through multiple narrators: almost a dozen of them. While most of the novel is told by Hamza and Yehat, many of the antagonists get two or three chapters in which to say their piece. This causes a number of problems: It’s confusing (the first few lines of every chapter are spent figuring out who’s talking), it’s unnecessary (even bordering on gratuitous showboating, as if Faust was trying to show that he, too, can write accents) and it takes the action away from the compelling protagonists. Hamza and Yehat are the core of the novel, and every moment spent away from them seems superfluous. While I will recognize that the antagonists’ viewpoints often present information that would otherwise be unaccessible to our heroes, they also feature “the FanBoys”, maybe the most unlikely aspect of the entire novel. Faust smothers his novel with terminal hipness, but even lively writing can’t hide the unevenness of tone that can make Coyote Kings a bit of a bother.

Then there is the ending, which culminates almost as an easy afterthought. While there is definitely a conclusion to the events of the book, it seems to be one borne out of desperation. At least one major loose end remains untied; I wouldn’t care to guess whether this means a sequel, but there’s a sloppiness to the last few chapters that is really annoying.

This doesn’t make Coyote Kings a disappointment, but that’s because it’s so different that the difference itself overwhelms the annoyance. Still, it makes it difficult to praise the novel beyond the prose and the unusual setting. It could have been shorter, better and more focused, but it’s not… and that’s really a shame because the rest of it works quite well.

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, Cory Doctorow

Tor, 2005, 315 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-31278-6

(Also freely available online at craphound.com/someone)

While his reputation in Science Fiction fandom is that of a die-hard tech-head, Cory Doctorow heads in a slightly different direction for his third novel: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town is a self-consciously weird urban fantasy involving, to quote the jacket blurb, “secrets, lies, magic —and Internet connectivity.”

It begins as the amiable “A” moves into one of Toronto’s bohemian neighbourhoods, renovates a house and sets out to write a story. But “A” is no ordinary guy: Son of a mountain and a washing machine, his brothers are (in chronological order), a clairvoyant, an island, a psychopath and a set of three nestled men (like Russian dolls). What’s more, he hasn’t yet met the neighbours…

Oh yes, there’s little doubt that Doctorow is going for weird in his third novel. No one will be blamed for thinking, early on, that he’s laying on the strange paste a bit too thick: For the first few pages, one wonders if this novel is ever going to have internal coherency, or if this is just a random word salad.

What becomes clearer is that if the basics of Someone may have been random free-association, Doctorow spends so much time describing and explaining the mechanics of how, say, a mountain and a washing machine can raise children, that it almost ends up making sense. Somehow. In fact, it doesn’t take much time for more impatient readers to say “enough! Too much useless information!” Doctorow never knows when to stop, and things that are perfectly clear in the present-day storyline are nevertheless re-explained in detail through flashbacks.

Then there is the imperfect integration of the modern-day techno-thriller. This being a Doctorow novel, it doesn’t take a lot of time for protagonist “A” to become fascinated by the possibility of blanketing Toronto with wireless points of Internet access. It becomes a major subplot of the book, complete with pages of exposition on how neat this is all going to be. Not uninteresting, but seriously out of whack with the rest of the novel: Part of it feels like a bone thrown to Doctorow’s usual audience to keep them interested in the other stuff. The brute-force lectures may be fun to read, but do they mean anything in the context of the novel?

The “other stuff”, as it happens, is hit-and-miss. Doctorow’s basic ability to write readable prose remains unchanged, but even clear writing can’t mitigate the growing sentiment of exasperation as the story spends too much time in its own back-story, and not enough in advancing the plot. Once that is finished, however, things become a little bit more interesting, and the last third of the book is somewhat more user-friendly than the rest.

On the other hand, the ending crashes down like an after-thought. Stuff happens, fulfilling the basic requirements of “an ending”, but elements of the conclusion end up raising thornier issues than they resolve. A very important plot thread is displaced, and then flees without further news. The protagonist retreats, and that’s the end of that. The rest just goes up in flame. That may be an ending of sorts, but that’s not a conclusion. It certainly leave the reader with an unfulfilled yearning: this is a weird story, yes, but what is the point of it?

Part of the problem is that Someone is at least twice the size of Doctorow’s previous novels. Those extra words don’t necessarily add up to extra depth. There doesn’t seem to be any interaction between the subplots, no deeper meaning to the metaphors and not much of a metaphorical value to the fantasy elements.

I had too much fun reading the book to call it a failure. But it’s certainly Doctorow’s weakest novel yet, and taken with the deficiencies of Doctorow’s first two novels, it suggests a number of things to fix if his next novels are to improve. It’s not simply because Someone dares to be unusual that it’s any better. At this point, his best work remains Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, which also had a pleasantly high quotient of weirdness.

Lady of Mazes, Karl Schroeder

Tor, 2005, 286 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-31219-0

After only two solo novels (Ventus and Permanence), Karl Schroeder has already established himself to be one of the best Hard-SF writers in the business. Combining deep characterization with far-ranging speculation, Schroeder has wowed critics and earned a small legion of loyal fans —not to mention an Aurora Award for Permanence. His third solo novel was eagerly anticipated. Now Lady of Mazes comes to fulfil all expectations.

Almost jokingly set in the same universe as Ventus, Lady of Mazes owes more to the short scene in Permanence where the characters’ reality is altered by an interface sitting between their brain and their senses. Inscape, as it’s called, can be used to augment reality in different fashions. An elementary application would be to kill-file people in real life: Inscape would simply “blank out” the person and steer us around that person should they be in the way. (Kill-filing would presumably be most effective when it’s mutual.)

But that’s just small potatoes when you consider the logical ramifications of Inscape technology. Why bother kill-filing one person when you can get rid of an entire segment of the population? Why not create a conservative utopia by getting rid of all of those icky liberal meddlers –and vice versa? What’s to prevent several mutually invisible population from co-existing in the same physical space?

And that brings us to the first few pages of Lady of Mazes, a story largely set on a ringworld where Inscape technology is universal. Several populations co-existing in the same place, completely ignorant of what the others are doing. You want to ignore certain types of technologies? Join the appropriate reality. One of Schroeder’s key notions are “technology locks”, the idea that societies choose their appropriate levels of technology for their preferred existence and then implement safeguards to prevent further progress.

Our heroine, Livia Kodaly, may exists in one reality, but she also has the unusual ability to “travel” to other realities, acting much like an ambassador. Not an esy job, and it becomes even more complicated when the ringworld is attacked and the help she needs exists in a completely different way of life. Post-human power games and unusual social structures suddenly acquire some importance as she tries to go back and liberate her home reality…

Lady of Mazes may be significantly shorter than Schroeder’s previous solo novels, but don’t be fooled by the size: There are enough Big Ideas here to make you go “Whoah!” ten times over. Schroeder tackles new and fascinating concepts at a furious rate, showing us a complex future crammed with original possibilities. Your head will hurt, but in a good way. Inscape alone is the kind of new idea fit to be stolen by a generation of other writers and integrated in the core of SF’s bag of gadgets.

But in Lady of Mazes, Schroeder has also managed to fashion a cheerfully political novel. Pure politics, not simple dumb partisanship: Lady of Mazes takes a long hard look at how humans can live next to another —or choose not to. It studies concepts such as “adhocracies” and “open source politics” and “emergent social organization systems.” It stares at post-humanism and laughs at it.

Exhilarating stuff, with the proviso that you almost have to be a hard-core SF fans to make sense of it. Lady of Mazes is a pure genre novel in that it requires a lot of background information in order to make sense. Can’t distinguish animas from AIs? Tough luck.

To this, one has to add that Schroeder loves to throw his readers in the bath before handing them the soap: The first hundred pages of the novel are high in unexplained weirdness and low in straight-up exposition. Don’t be surprised to find the first third of the book to be a difficult slog. It clears up shortly afterwards, once we’re back in a reality whose language is more familiar to ours. But then buckle up, because the rest of the novel rarely lets up. The conclusion appears a bit rushed and easy, but by that time the chances are that you’ll be too exhausted to care.

It’s definitely a trip, and a strange one at that. With this third novel, Schroeder proves that he’s among the vanguard of modern SF writers, not afraid to confront a new future by wrapping fascinating speculation in good storytelling. Fabulous stuff for SF fans: it’s the kind of novel that makes Science Fiction look good.

War Of The Worlds (2005)

(In theaters, July 2005) The least one can say about Steven Spielberg, it’s that he can still scare the socks off his audience when he wants to. And so War Of The Worlds is best seen as a showcase of scare sequences loosely strung together with bits of plot stolen from H.G. Wells’ classical SF novel. The scares work; the rest, well, not so much. Don’t think that I say that because the film is unfaithful to the novel: screenwriters Koepp and Friedman manage to retain both the flavour and some plotting of the original while updating the entire story to contemporary situations. No, what doesn’t work so well are the stupid coincidences and conveniences that advance the plot. Half the movie will be spent bitching about how this or that particular aspect is plainly impossible. Visually, the film goes for a drab and unappealing look, trying just a bit too hard for showy realism when a more conventional palette would have been less obtrusive. Fortunately, the scares work, and some of them work because they embrace 9/11 imagery like few other films so far: The initial sequence of alien nastiness is breathtaking, and some of the latter scenes are quite impressive as well. It’s sad, then that the film bogs down in such a fashion during most of its third quarter, stuck in a cellar with some boring crazy guy and featuring a home-invasion sequence that goes on for about three times longer than it should. (Plus; will someone just stop screaming? Goodness.) All in all, a mixed bag, perhaps more good than bad and still worth a look one day or another.

Tootsie (1982)

(On DVD, July 2005) This classic comedy has both aged well and not so well. On one hand, you can watch it easily enough, and the performances are still as good as they were. (I’m still not sure about the believability of “Dorothy Michaels”, but that’s better left unquestioned). The sense of New York is well-done, and the casting roster is impressive even today. (If an early performance by Bill Murray isn’t enough to make you interested, consider Terri Garr, and seeing a young Geena Davis in her underwear. Woo!) What’s more, even people allergic to fake-identity-plots (like myself) will be forced to admit that the story isn’t nearly as annoying as it could have been. On the other hand, well, the anti-sexism message seems a bit alien nowadays (were people ever so retrograde? Wait; don’t answer that!) and the pacing could use some tightening up. Still, a pleasant film to watch. The bare-bones DVD has no extra features worth writing about.

Getting Near the End, Andrew Weiner

Robert J. Sawyer Books, 2004, 268 pages, C$26.95 hc, ISBN 0-88995-307-4

In his introduction to this novel, writer/editor Robert J. Sawyer mentions that Andrew Weiner’s “favorite writers are J.G.Ballard, Barry Malzberg, and Philip K. Dick.” As a set of reference, this more or less represents the key to the entire novel that follows. Three paragons of seventies SF slipping toward mainstream nihilism; can you guess where Getting Near the End is going?

Heck, the title alone nearly says it all. In the decaying wreckage of a collapsing society, mega-star singer Martha Nova is a seer and a guide. Her visions of the future inform her songs, and her songs are taking the world by storm. Getting Near the End begins on The Final Night Of Something, and through flashbacks we come to understand how The End is shaped.

Adapted from a 1981 short story of the same title, Getting Near the End may take place twenty-three years later (the original story took place, of course, on December 31st 1999), but it doesn’t really add much meat to its original material. The story beats are roughly similar, the characters are essentially the same and the ending is identical down to the final lines. There are a lot more flashbacks explaining the background of the story, but otherwise it’s more or less the same content.

How you feel about the novel will depend on how you feel about those seventies SF stories that promised doom and gloom for everyone. Getting Near the End does a faithful job at recreating the kind of future that seemed so inevitable thirty years ago. Ballard, Malzberg and Dick indeed: You don’t have to look any further than the title to know that the only suspense here is if this will be The End, or just An End leading to a new beginning. (Even then, would you be surprised to find an ambiguous ending?)

The above may suggest that I was less than impressed by the book, but that’s not quite the case. Weiner is a fantastic short story writer (have a look at his collections Distant Signals and This is Year Zero for proof) and his clear prose style does much to propel the reader forward even if the story advances only by fits and spurts. If you want the plot, read the short story. If you want the atmosphere and the characters, have a look at the novel. Weiner’s technique is superb, his understated prose works well and if one can quibble about the extended flashbacks, the overall impact of the novel is strong and distinctive. Getting Near the End is, simply put, a pleasure to read despite the depressing content. Readers looking for more of “that seventies groove” will certainly find it here: One can easily imagine this book escaping from 1975 and time-travelling intact to the present.

Robert J. Sawyer Books (which I constantly want to write as “RJS Books”) was created, in part, to give a chance to novels that may not find favour with today’s corporate-driven mass-market publishers. Getting Near the End is a near-perfect example of that kind of novel: Well-written, but a bit depressing and without a definitive ending. The kind of novel that could be well-received three decades ago at the end of the New Wave movement, but would be a hard sell today. Perhaps best of all is the idea that this publication may cause Weiner to write some more material: He’s been absent from the scene for too long, and it’s been a long time since This is Year Zero.

Briefly: You will have to haunt used bookstores for a long time before finding copies of Andrew Weiner’s Distant Signals, but the results will be more than worth it. A severely underrated short story writer, Weiner has an amazing ability to come up with one worthwhile story after another. Collections are usually hit-and-miss affairs, but save for Weiner’s earliest story (“Empire of the Sun”, originally published in 1972’s Again, Dangerous Visions!), all of Distant Signals is delicious reading. Weiner writes with a sly sarcastic voice, and his talent doesn’t lie in his ability to generate original ideas (although one story, “The News from D Street”, anticipates the whole MATRIX craze by a dozen years) as much as his skill in telling stories. His prose is a model of clarity and accessibility. It’s hard to pick favourites, though “The Man Who Was Lucky” has undeniable charm and “Fake-Out” manages to go to the logical conclusion of its premise. Also included: “Getting Near the End”, the short story that would later be expanded in a novel of the same name.)

[January 1999: I have rarely read a short story by Andrew Weiner that I didn’t like, and this statement remains true after This is Year Zero, his second anthology of his short stories. Short (192 pages) but packing 13 stories, this collection is a constant delight. Each story is short, to the point and usually enjoyable even despite the impression that some of them are jokes without punchline (The is Year Zero) or punchlines without jokes (The Alien in the Lake). Weiner obviously has a fascination for the alien, but his aliens are far closer to us (or representations of us) that otherwise. The iconoclastic sense of Weiner is also evident in his perversion of the usual unwritten SF assumptions. An alien is gunned down in matrimonial dispute—and there’s no further repercussions. Humans are conquered by aliens—and stay conquered. A man has to choose between boring, ordinary life and space colonization—and makes the boring choice. Few writer could get away with this kind of constant genre perversion, but Weiner’s prose style is such that is stories are so readable you won’t mind at all. One of my leading choices for the 1999 Aurora awards.]

Sen To Chihiro No Kamikakushi [Spirited Away] (2001)

(On DVD, July 2005) I doubted that this film would come up to the expectations set by its impeccable reputation, but it did. Maybe ten minutes before it ends, Spirited Away hits a solid 10 on the charm-o-meter and stays there. This is fantasy as it should be: inventive, original, absorbing and ultimately very compelling. There’s some terrific design in there, wonderful character moments (the soot!) and excellent sequences. The heroine is adorable, and so do most of the characters surrounding her. Fantastic stuff; see it as soon as possible. It’ll win over even the most jaded viewer. The DVD contains a good making-of featurette and a number of other slight pieces.

Ritânâ [Returner] (2002)

(On DVD, July 2005) Feeling a lot like a mix between The Terminator and E.T., this science-fiction film is not without a good moment or two, but you may be better off watching the trailer rather than the film. The standard “rescue the stranded alien” with the “time-traveller tries to prevent something terrible from happening” shticks aren’t terribly innovative, and the limp execution doesn’t do much to help. The leads are pop-star bland, with only antagonist Goro Kishitani worth noticing. At least the direction offers a number of unusual moments, though those tend to be clustered around the action sequences. Some of the CGI work is interesting, but the trailer will act as a showcase reel far more effectively than the film. The film certainly never knows when to quit, with a third act that stretches away to infinity and beyond. (Fully ten of the last fifteen minutes are completely unnecessary.) The techno soundtrack can’t do much to save the film. Watchable but in no way remarkable. The DVD contains some mildly interesting making-of footage.

The Island (2005)

(In theaters, July 2005) Oh, how Michael Bay teases me so. He knows that I like good Science Fiction. He knows that I like his glossy filmmaking style, even though I wish he’d tone down the pacing of his cuts once in a while. He knows that I love intricate action sequences. The prospect of a movie bringing all of that together had me salivating, but as usual the reality doesn’t come up to the potential of the premise. Part One of The Island is a glossy, stylish study of social control where everything isn’t what it appears to be: a bit flawed, but better than what we usually see in big summer blockbusters. The second part is what we see in big summer blockbuster: a dumb and lengthy chase involving gunfights and explosions. Not bad, but we’ve seen this before, in other Michael Bay movies. The third part is where the movie sputters and dies thanks to silly by-the-numbers plotting, unexplainable developments and an anticlimactic finale. The logical flaws of the film are too numerous to describe, but let’s just say that the security problems alone are worth a seminar. Despite the good eye for details and some initial promise, The Island just stops working after a while, and even the action scenes seem like bad clones of what Bay has done before. Neither Ewan MacGregor nor Scarlett Johansen do much with what they’ve got (Johansen, particularly, seems particularly bland in a role that could have been played by just about anyone): only Steve Buscemi can be relied upon to inject some life in the whole thing. I really wanted to give this film a chance. Unfortunately, it crumbles upon itself without much scrutiny.

(Second viewing, On DVD, April 2006) There isn’t much to say about the film, because a second viewing pretty much confirms the first one: Good first third, fun middle section, dumb third act. The only thing worth noticing about the DVD edition is Michael Bay’s audio commentary, and how he rationalizes the film’s flat-line performance at the box office. (In short: “We made tons of money internationally! The marketing just sucked in the US! Yes, it was all about the marketing!”) The only time he comes close to admitting that the film isn’t all that good is when he idly muses about the disappointing nature of the last act, and why he would have remade it granted a few more million dollars. (Which, coming after numerous mentions of how the production blew money in the wind, is enough to make even big-budget movie fans wish for more El Mariachi films.) So what else is new? If you’ve seen the film in theatres and feel no particular affection for Bay’s energetic direction, skip the DVD and save yourself a few hours.

Fantastic Four (2005)

(In theaters, July 2005) Well, that was bland. The nice thing about good superhero movies is that they make it easier to point at the bad ones and say “this is not how it should be done!” And so, Fantastic Four is not how it should be done: By-the-number script, languid pacing and pedestrian special effects. Well, actually the script is closer to “bad” than simply “by-the-numbers” (the Ben Grimm romantic subplot alone is worth a howl), but let’s be generous. As an origin story, it’s too long, and doesn’t contain enough stuff. There are two-and-a-half action sequences in the story (one of which being a disaster created by the Fantastic Fours themselves, in an eerie echo of the much-better The Incredibles) and that, too, is not enough. Casting-wise, Jessica Alba simply doesn’t measure up as “The Invisible Woman”, although her lack of impact as a character supposed to be shy-and-effacing may have more to do with the script than acting talent. The rest of the cast does better, although the main villain is simply yawn-inducing. Perhaps the best sequences of the film are those in which Johnny Storm expresses his sheer joy at his new-found abilities; the rest is just dour and featureless. This film won’t even be worth a passing trivia questions five years from now.

Relativity, Robert J. Sawyer

ISFIC Press, 2004, 304 pages, US$25.00 hc, ISBN 0-9759156-0-6

You may not have heard about ISFIC Press before, but don’t feel bad about it: Robert J. Sawyer’s Relativity is their first title. Following in the footsteps left by the venerable Boston-based NESFA Press, the ISFIC (Illinois Science Fiction in Chicago) fan association has decided to publish anthologies of material from their WindyCon Guests of Honor. Whether this represents another encouraging sign about small-press genre publishing will be a question best left to other pundits; what is certain is that the quality of Relativity promises much for the publisher’s next projects.

Naturally, Relativity is aimed at fans and collector of Robert J. Sawyer’s work. Few of the material included here is original. Half of the short stories have appeared in Sawyer’s fiction anthology Iterations, and almost all of the non-fiction content is already available on Sawyer’s web site.

But as even e-book enthusiasts will admit, there is something nice about well-designed paper copies of on-line material. There is something even nicer in bringing together a bunch of material in a carefully-crafted package. I may have already read more than three-quarter of Relativity over the years, but that didn’t stop me from re-reading it almost cover to cover: Sawyer’s prose may sometimes be clunky, but it’s seldom any less than compelling.

The biggest strength of Relativity compared to Iterations is that it reprints mostly non-fiction and has carefully selected which stories to reprint. (Not all of Sawyer’s short fiction is worth re-reading twice; the man’s a natural novelist and he doesn’t cope well with the constraints of the short form).

In the fiction category, Relativity deservedly re-prints a number of Sawyer’s best stories, including “Just Like Old Times”, “The Shoulders of Giants”, “The Hand You’re Dealt” and “Star Light, Star Bright”. To those, it adds a number of stories published since Iterations‘ release: “Immortality”, “The Stanley Cup Caper” (Ergh said the critic), “Relativity” and the Hugo-Nominated “Ineluctable.”

The decision to focus the rest of the book on non-fiction is for the best: Sawyer’s non-fiction work is a model of clear writing and even those who can’t read his fiction without wishing for a red pen will be a lot more enthusiastic about his essays. The real meat of the book comes after the stories, with essays, columns, articles, speeches and a lengthy autobiography. As mentioned before, most (if not all?) of that material is available on Sawyer’s web site. But that doesn’t make it any less interesting.

For instance, I have heard “The Future is Already Here” once and read it another time (vehemently disagreeing with parts of it both times), but I couldn’t help but read it another time here. Also included in the speeches section are short gems like Sawyer’s 2003 Hugo Awards acceptance speech, a reference-studded speech about AI in SF and an off-the-cuff speech about SF’s relationship with social change. Whoever has seen Sawyer at conventions knows that he’s a capable public speaker, and part of his success depends on his well-written source material.

Relativity continues with a series of shorter pieces on subjects as diverse as Canadian SF; SF conventions; Judith Merrill; God and SF; why write trilogies; why privacy may not such a good idea; three pieces about the future and two more articles on Margaret Atwood. While many of Sawyer’s references will be familiar to genre readers, those pieces were usually destined to a more general audience, and despite some repetitious content, they’re still well-worth reading.

The next fifty pages bring together twelve short columns about the craft of writing, columns originally published in On Spec magazine. Here Sawyer reveals a few tricks of the trade in his usual lucid fashion. People interested in the nuts-and-bolts of Sawyer’s technique may learn much here: not just about writing, but also about the way would-be professional authors should act when confronted with the cold realities of the marketplace.

Relativity ends with a lengthy but highly informative autobiographical essay, as well as a complete bibliography. Another end-piece by Valerie Broege is billed as a “critical essay”, but it’s far more laudatory than critical, not to mention repetitive after the previous 300 pages of material: Sawyer simply does a better job at speaking about himself. Mike Resnick’s introduction is much more interesting. Oddly enough, a crossword completes the book.

People who already like Sawyer’s work won’t need to be told twice about this book, though its limited availability may mean that they’ll have to wait until the next convention dealer’s room to find a copy, or simply order it on-line. Even those who are skeptical about Sawyer’s short stories may want to give a look to the non-fiction material –although it must be said once again that most of it is available on-line. In the end, Sawyer fans and collectors will know whether they want the book or not: As it stands, it’s a beautiful collection of material, worth reading or re-reading.

D-Tox aka Eye See You (2002)

(On DVD, July 2005) Yup, the thought of seeing Sylvester Stallone in a slasher film is just as bad as what’s up there on the screen. Starts as a boring serial killer cop drama, then becomes even worse as a slasher film where the bodies pile up so quickly you barely have the time to register who’s dying. I’m not kidding: the first few victims are greeted by “What? Who?” before yet another person gets killed. The setting has promise (in the usual “dark and damp” category), but the rest is just tedious. Stallone, surprisingly, seems better than the surrounding material. It all implodes in a blah fashion: the killer is revealed, everyone shrug, no-one wonders why this film was held on the studio’s vaults for three years before making it straight to video. Too bad; the reviews from theatre film critics would have been entertaining to read. The DVD contains some useless extra material, including deleted scenes that are even more wretched than the whole film.

Cidade De Deus [City of God] (2002)

(On DVD, July 2005) Wow! Dynamic crime drama, straight from one of Brazil’s most dangerous neighbourhood: If you thought inner-city black crime movies had it bad, then nothing will prepare you for the casual fashion crime is portrayed in this film. Kids with guns, shooting others and laughing to tell about it. Any thought of “boring foreign cinema” will quickly evaporate as the director changes styles, plays structural tricks and never loses our attention. Many characters are gracefully handled with minimal confusion: the script is a minor tour de force. This is a fabulous film: maybe not one you’ll care to see twice, but definitely one that deserves to be see once. The DVD contains a fabulous one-hour documentary that shows that the reality is even worse than the fiction.