Monthly Archives: September 2005

Foley is Good, Mick Foley

Harper Torch, 2001, 592 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-103241-7

I’m not a wrestling fan. And yet, thanks to the pervasive turn-of-the-century pop-culture complex, it’s nearly impossible to avoid even a cursory knowledge of sport-entertainment superstars. Vince McMahon? The Rock? Chyna? Yup. I’ve never seen a single wrestling match, but I’ve read Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s autobiography, seen Chyna on “Third Rock From the Sun” and enjoyed the BEYOND THE MAT documentary. Knowledge of the small wrestling pocket universe seems to be spreading by osmosis, without any conscious effort from my part.

I even think that Barry W. Blaustein is right in BEYOND THE MAT when he says that wrestling is real. Yes, the outcome of matches is fixed. But so are movie fights, and that doesn’t take away anything from the talents of stunt people. What’s more, stunt people aren’t usually asked to create characters, and do live fights in character every second evening for weeks at a time. Injuries are real, and so is the talent of the performers, however unusual that talent may seem to you.

So that’s how you could find me in September 2005, reading the second autobiography of a wrestler. In one of those “oh, what the heck” second-hand book purchases gone horribly amusing, the book’s time in my to-be-read pile was up.

And you know what? I really enjoyed it. Mick Foley’s writing skills may or may not be artificially enhanced by a team of copy-editors, but his raw honesty is real. A follow-up to Have a Nice Day!, Foley is Good (a slight deformation on the “Foley is God” fan posters) tells the story of Foley’s last few years in the wrestling world. (If “last” is a concept that applies in a universe where one can have a dozen retirement matches.) At a hefty 592 pages, this book aims to tell all and then tell a little bit more. This isn’t just an autobiography, but also an answer to media critics decrying wrestling. In enjoyable but overlong segments, Foley takes some pleasure in disproving conservative groups’ charges against wrestling (hard task, that…) and doesn’t miss an opportunity to point the finger at other sports in the violence department. While his points are often over-articulated (don’t be surprised if you start flipping the pages after muttering “enough is enough”), it makes for an interesting position paper. Foley, of course, has been through the media wringer a few times, and he doesn’t shy away from claiming that “the real world is faker than wrestling”.

You may or may not want to take that last affirmation with a grain of salt, but what’s far less disputable is Mick Foley’s joy in being, well, Mick Foley. In spending time with his family, indulging in theme-park rides, talking movies and ragging on his usual gallery of comedy targets. BEYOND THE MAT showed him as a reasonable family guy doing an unusual performance job. This book does little to dispel this impression, crammed as it is with scenes from Foley’s home life. It’s intended to be very likable, and it is.

What’s not as likable, but perhaps more honest, is the description of how wrestlers are just ordinary schmoes with regular jobs. Travelling from hotel to hotel for weeks, away from family, being forced to deal with constant pain and injuries –wow, no thanks. To add fiscal insult to real injury, the wrestlers themselves aren’t particularly well-paid, certainly not at the level their fame would suggest. At some point, Foley shrugs off soft-drug consumption by saying essentially –they’re bruised, they’re alone and they’re not even home: what do you want them to do? Ouch.

Non-wrestling fans may feel a lot of this material flying well over their head. The lingo is specialized, the feuds are layered and the basic assumptions are… unusual. Compounding the difficulty is that Foley is Good is a sequel to another book. And yet, despite the lack of background knowledge, this is a very accessible autobiography. Better yet, it’s impossible to stop reading once you’re into it: Foley’s chatty style is enough to make you want to read just one chapter before calling it a day. At the end of the book, I’m still not much of a wrestling fan… but darn if I don’t find the whole circus a lot more interesting.

Tomahawk, David Poyer

St. Martin’s, 1998, 371 pages, C$33.99 hc, ISBN 0-312-17975-8

I remember reading David Poyer’s The Gulf a long time ago. I also remember not caring too much for it: not enough action, ambiguous ending, bad plotting and useless subplots. That certainly explains why it took me so long to read another of Poyer’s books. This one is better than The Gulf. Not by much, but it’s better.

Tomahawk is a novel in the same “modern Navy” series than The Gulf which stars career Navy protagonist Dan Lenson. As this novel begins, sometime during the late eighties, Lenson is recalled to Washington to work on the development of the Tomahawk missile. Confronting Lenson is a career that’s not going anywhere, growing doubts about the morality of military force and the last tatters of a painful divorce. As he falls for a peace activist and indications of a spy start swirling around the office, what’s Lenson to do? Quit his career or keep working in something with which he doesn’t agree?

I certainly wasn’t expecting much from Tomahawk. Late eighties setting? Pulse-pounding procurement action? Musings on the nature of force? Give me a break: I read military fiction for other reasons. Heck, I read military techno-thriller for fun. Give me something interesting.

Even the beginning of the novel doesn’t inspire confidence, showing a Lenson sinking deeper in self-doubts, stuck in a project attacked from all sides. You can throw as many spies, peace activists and journalists as you want in the mix, there aren’t too many ways of making a weapon development process sound sexy. (Although Stephen Coonts came damn close in The Minotaur)

It’s almost amusing to see Poyer try everything he can think about in order to juice up his inner-beltway storyline. Sometimes, it works: One of the book’s standout sequence show our protagonist surviving a terrible Canadian snowstorm. Another highlight comes later in the book as an espionage sting goes spectacularly wrong. But Poyer isn’t perfect, and so other attempts to inject artificial interest in the material don’t fare as well. A random death comes as a convenient shock (it’s later revealed not to be so random, but still convenient), but the vigilante reaction of the protagonist comes as a dumb idea made even dumber by a secondary character’s lack of self-preservation sense. Being a military fiction writer isn’t easy when readers expect you to shoot, blow or trash something every hundred pages, and Poyer copes only moderately well with the challenge.

Most of Tomahawk isn’t nearly so interesting one way or another. The stale atmosphere of the late eighties isn’t overpowering, but it’s certainly there. Lenson goes to meetings, briefs people, follows night classes, goes to parties, learns how Washington works, deals with his growing doubts and generally experience a mid-life crisis for the benefit of the book’s readers. Yet the novel dares to be something more, something closer to a character study. It is simultaneously more and less ambitious than other military thrillers, almost taking the book in mainstream fiction territory at times.

The surprise is that even with its low-octane content and misguided high-energy spikes, Tomahawk ends up deserving some attention. The various controversies surrounding the testing of cruise missiles in Canada has long since abated (it’s hard to argue with a completed, successful project), but Poyer brings them back in the forefront, along with the palpable sense of a genuinely new revolution in weapon-making. We’ve had fifteen years to get used to the idea that an American president can point at any point on the map and say “destroy this” without endangering any human life in the process, but that is a very new development in warfare, and this book shows a slice of this revolution.

I found myself absorbed in Lenson’s adventures and the way Poyer describes the Washington power game almost despite my most sarcastic intentions, regardless of the sometime sketchy plausibility of the book’s developments. Military fiction may be about people shooting at each other, but there’s a decision-making component in military strategy that ought to be explored more often like Poyer does. Don’t be fooled: Tomahawk won’t make me rush to grab every single Poyer book in existence. On the other hand, I just became far less averse to the though of picking some of them up at the next second-hand book sale.

Scatterbrain, Larry Niven

Tor, 2003, 317 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30137-7

It’s impossible, nowadays, to discuss Larry Niven’s career without mentioning something about how he’s just not as good as he used to be. That would be a gentle use of an understatement, mind you: From being one of Science Fiction’s essential authors during the late sixties and early seventies, Niven has declined to a point where most SF critics would be hard-pressed to even like his latest output. 1980 seemed to mark the decline point in his solo work: His collaborations started sucking much later, but it’s been years since anyone has been impressed by something with “Larry Niven” on the cover. Scatterbrain is unlikely to change anyone’s mind. If nothing else, it’s likely to evoke weak puns on being a scatter-shot collection.

Your guess is as good as mine in trying to guess why the Larry Niven of 1965-1975, once so vital and central to the genre, would degenerate in the sort of parody exhibited in latter work. I have among my prized possessions a dedicated copy of N-Space, the 1990 anthology bringing together essential pieces from Niven’s early career. This was followed by 1991’s Playgrounds of the Mind, a weaker but still interesting collection. Scatterbrain is meant to be a third volume in this best-of anthology series, but the only thing its serves to do is highlight how little there is to keep in Niven’s last decade of work.

There are, to be fair, a number of good bits. A piece on “Autograph Etiquette” provides hard-earned advice to both readers and writers, advice which I intend on following to the letter. His “Ice and Mirrors” collaboration with Brenda Cooper is a decent story, though one notes from the email correspondence that follows that Cooper seems to have done most of the work. “The Woman in Del Rey Crater” isn’t bad either, but it was first published in Niven’s own 1995 Flatlander theme anthology, where it took a back seat to Niven’s earlier work about “Gil the ARM”.

Even Niven’s non-fiction, once so witty and accessible, is noticeably worse this time around. Scatterbrain contains a number of pieces on space exploration, high technology, SF fandom and Niven’s other interests, but don’t blame me if you have a hard time getting through them: Nearly all of them exhibit a tendency to fly away in incomprehensible directions, tripping readers through incoherent content and rambling development. They certainly make an impression: that of a writer who doesn’t know what to do next.

Novel excerpts (from Destiny’s Road and the awful Ringworld Throne) also serve to highlight that Niven hasn’t done much better in writing novel these past few years either. The short stories are all similarly uninspiring, the worst of them recycling once-vibrant Niven creations (like the Draco Tavern and Beowulf Shaeffer) in insipid outings. Reading Scatterbrain is an experience best avoided by whoever still has a shred of confidence in Niven’s greatness: it just serves to suggest that his decline is irreversible. Everything in this volume is an awful reminder that Niven is simply nowhere as good as he used to be.

What’s more, you almost get the sense that Niven and his editors know it. Why else include, in a slim “best of” volume, pages of email correspondence between Niven and his collaborators? Why waste our time with what are essentially scraps and shopping lists culled from Niven’s recycling bin?

No doubt about it: Scatterbrain is pure frustration in hardcover format. It’s a book that scarcely deserves to be placed next to Playground of the Mind, let alone N-Space. And that should tell you all about Niven’s current status as a Science Fiction writer. Sure, if someone has earned the right to coast on an established reputation, it’s the early Niven. But why does it have to be such a painful spectacle for the rest of us?

The Men Who Stare at Goats, Jon Ronson

Simon & Schuster, 2004, 257 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-7432-4192-4

It’s a comforting fiction to think that the world is rational. That people take decisions in their own best interest, that the truth will shine, that rationality ultimately prevails. The last few years have certainly been a shock in this matter, as the American government keeps making one stupid mistake after another (with often-fatal results), as so-called “intelligent design” finds popular favour, as evidence of global warming is casually dismissed by oil profiteers and blind followers.

If that’s not depressing enough, wait until you read Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats, a book describing, in its own subtitle, “what happened when a small group of men –highly placed within the United States military, the government, and the intelligence services- began believing in very strange things.”

It starts early in the “War on Terror” as Uri Geller tells Ronson that he’s been reactivated by elements of the US government. You won’t believe where it ends.

As Ronson starts to unravel the Geller/government link, he begins to hear very strange rumours. A psychic unit deep in the US Army. A “goat lab” where soldiers would stare at goats in the hope of remotely stopping their heartbeat. Plans for a US Army “First Earth Battalion” applying new-age concepts to warfare. A covert war for psychic warriors waged between Al Quaeda and the US government.

Then Ronson starts meeting the people who believe in those things.

Albert Stubblebine, for instance, a general who tried to walk through walls (bruising his nose) and led the US Army’s secret psychic team. (A team so secret it didn’t even have a budget for coffee, and whose lack of success eventually led them to believe they were an expendable front for another even more secret team.) Jim Channon, whose new-age “First Earth Battalion” ideas later led to some curious real-world applications. Guy Savelli, the man who arguably stared a goat to death. Pete Brusso, capable of inflicting extraordinary pain with an ordinary-looking plastic object.

In Ronson’s sweetly disbelieving style, this trail of absurd research is deeply amusing and often laugh-out-loud hilarious. But the laughs taper off as we come to realize the uncritical momentum of a government gone out of control in the drive to wage “war on terror”. “You cannot afford to miss something.” argues Stubblebine while justifying his experiments, and while it’s hard to counter this type of logic, it doesn’t do much to calm down qualms that nuts can be found everywhere, including places of considerable power.

What’s worse is Ronson’s growing suspicion that some of the “crazy” stuff is deliberate misdirection. Every newscaster became a comedian when reporting that American interrogators were blaring the Barney song to Iraqi prisoners in effort to break them down. Barney and torture: a hilarious combination! But the gut-smile effect of the purple dinosaur quickly takes the sting away from, yes, state-sponsored psychological torture techniques. What if, suggests Ronson, the Abu Ghraib pictures were a completely deliberate way to scare the wits out of Arab audiences already convinced of American decadence? What if ridicule obscured the truth, made it inconsequential?

Despite the laughs and the easy writing style (you can read this book in ninety minutes, easy), The Men Who Stare At Goats is deeply disturbing. It paints the picture of a “war on terror” that justifies just about everything, even things that would be considered insane. While hardly a perfect book (The lack of an index betrays the difficulty in using the book as reference), it’s certainly unique and memorable. Despite the obvious difficulties in confirming some of Ronson’s reporting (a number of conversations are of the “I will deny everything” category, and whole sections are mere informed speculation from Ronson’s part), what can be confirmed is unsettling enough.

The world is not rational. But what’s even scarier is that it may be very rational in being irrational.

Hitchhiker, M.J. Simpson

Hodder & Stoughton, 2003, 393 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 0-340-82766-1

Douglas Adams, author of the mega-selling Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, died in early 2001. As the publishing industry turns, the arrival of at least one posthumous biography could be expected by 2003. The surprise was that there would be two of them: An official biography written by one of his editors (Nick Webb’s Wish You Were Here) and another, unofficial one, written by the ex-president of his fan club. (M.J. Simpson’s Hitchhiker) As a critic, the temptation was irresistible to re-read the two book in light of the HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY video release, with a two-year buffer to check the reception of both books.

Unusually enough, even a casual Internet search shows that the appearance of two biographies within months of each other wasn’t completely unexpected by the authors. They apparently decided, early on, to focus on different aspects of Adams’ life: Webb on Adams’ life and Simpson on Adams’ work. As you can expect, this doesn’t completely remove all duplication, but it means that you can read both books and find something of value in each.

If there’s one recommendation to make before delving too deep in either biography, it’s that Douglas’ work is an essential prerequisite. Don’t assume you’ll be fine because you’ve read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy ten years ago: Douglas only published nine books, and given his fabled tendency to procrastinate, every one of them is important. The “Dirk Gently” duology is important. The Meaning of Liff is important. Last Chance to See is very important. Heck, The Salmon of Doubt is especially important given the wealth of background material information contained therein. Additionally, you may want to beg, steal or borrow a copy of Neil Gaiman’s Don’t Panic! (as revised by Simpson) before attempting Simpson’s book, as he makes clear in his introduction that he tried to avoid duplicating anecdotes. (Granted, you should also read Douglas’ work on its own merit, but I’m trying to be helpful, here.)

Douglas was a complex individual, brilliant and quirky, sometimes genius-level and sometime of an astonishing naiveté. Both biographies do a good job at trying to illustrate what was Douglas’ essence and of the two, Wish You Were Here comes perhaps closest, informed as it was by all-access interviews with Douglas’ friends and family. Simpson’s Hitchhiker, on the other hand, takes a decidedly more sceptical stance toward Douglas’ stories given his gift for self-aggrandizement. The whole “I first imagined a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy while lying drunk in a field in Innsbruck” story, for instance, is debunked late in Hitchhiker, after several other stories (including the Forbidden Planet “so many people mobbed the store I nearly didn’t make it to the signing” story.) are similarly questioned. As per the Webb-Simpson agreement, Hitchhiker is also more satisfying from a critical viewpoint, as Simpson spends more time covering the strengths and weaknesses of Douglas’s work, as well as why it’s so appealing to so many people.

Writing-wise, Webb sometime makes a valiant attempt at writing a book in the style of Douglas, and if it doesn’t always succeeds (some diversions, such as the take-off on left-handedness, are more distracting that helpful), it makes for a more interesting reading experience than Simpson’s workmanlike prose. On the other hand, Wish You Were Here sometimes offer too much information, while Hitchhiker is more to the point.

Ultimately, I find myself unwilling to recommend either book at the exclusion of another. As with most people, Douglas Adams is too complex for a single interpretation. While Webb and Simpson don’t offer very different views, there are facets covered in one work that aren’t covered in the other. Read both in close succession (preferably right after The Salmon of Doubt, which could be called Douglas’ own fragmented autobiography) and you’ll get the idea.

Tyubeu [Tube] (2003)

(On DVD, September 2005) Well, I suppose that the South Korean film industry should be proud of itself: With Tube, they have now proved that they can make overwrought B-grade dumb action pictures like Hollywood. Produced with impeccable production values but a minimum of cleverness, Tube is that old action standby, a hostage drama in a confined space. In this case, a rogue special operative goes after a politician in the Seoul subway system, and it’s up to a difficult policeman to solve the situation. The images hold their own. The pacing, not so much. A key to action film is their sense of fluidity, but Tube keeps squandering whatever good will it manages to accumulate through endless character scene padding. The characters are either clichéd or annoying, and the story simply doesn’t move quickly enough. After the promising Shiri (from the same film-making team), Tube goes nowhere, lacking a clear sense of storytelling direction. Viewers will finish the film with a sense of exhaustion, which really isn’t the emotion action movies should be aiming for.

Transporter 2 (2005)

(In theaters, September 2005) It’s all too common these days to watch action movies and say “well, that was impossible”, but nothing will prepare you for the level of quasi-comic preposterousness displayed by this wholly unnecessary sequel. Oh, sure, Jason Stratham is fabulously cool as the driver for whom nothing is too difficult or too impossible. There are, to be fair, a number of cool stunts, but let me repeat it: you have never seen a film with such sustained physics-defying action. (Though the simplest are often the most effective: computer-enhanced car-jumping from building to building is good for a bored meh, but reaching underneath an 18-wheeler front wheel is enough to make you jump in surprise) The excessively rapid editing doesn’t help: at some point, the action attains a cartoonish quality that defies Stratham’s image as a hard-nosed protagonist. As for the plot, well, the less said the better: Luc Besson doesn’t have a clue when it comes to plausibility, and so the yadda-yadda about viruses and antidotes is dismissed almost as quickly as it’s heard. Let’s not even discuss the characters or the quality of the dialogue. Fortunately, Miami takes up the slack in the beauty department and even despite everything, maybe even despite its audience, Transporter 2 ends up being an adequate action film.

Serenity (2005)

(In theaters, September 2005) As a reluctant fan of the original TV series (love the characters; can’t stand some background SF elements), I was part of the film’s core audience: Please give me more of the characters, regardless of the story. The good news is that like Star Wars III, Serenity is satisfying to its audience: plot threads are picked up and tied together, the characters keep their appeal and the Special Effects budget is adjusted upward. What’s more, the writing quality is generally high and the dialogues have some classic moments. Some characters have have been given short thrift, but I’m generally a warm and happy fan. But as a more serious SF fan and movie critic, I’ve got my reservations: Once you’re past the fabulous first few minutes, the quality of the film’s structure devolves, falling apart in the last act. The fights go on for too long, the conclusion takes a few gratuitous shortcuts, one character changes his mind far too easily. (Truth will make you free, but spin locks up those who don’t want to escape, I’m tempted to say) For non-Firefly fans, this film is unlikely to make much of an impact: it’s just not that unique. The film is better than most of the science-fiction we’ve seen on-screen this year, but it never completely escapes its TV origin. (Reavers? Still dumb.) Too bad, because there are some uniquely visceral moments here and there (Atmospheric re-entry has seldom been best portrayed on-screen) and the Special Effects work is quite nice. Will the movie make enough money to justify a sequel? Don’t know. But let’s hope so.

(Second viewing, On DVD, April 2006) For fans of “Firefly”, watching this film in theatres was a mixture of expectations fulfilled and hope for more. Months later, watching the film on DVD has the warm bittersweet feeling of one last time with the whole gang. Oh, we do love the characters, the dialogue and writer/director Joss Whedon. Oh, the gang at Universal has done a superb and generous job at putting together a top-notch DVD. (Well, they could have added an all-Morena Baccarin special featurette, but that’s just me.) Oh, Joss Whedon’s audio commentary is everything we’d hoped for back in theatres. Are DVD sale going to be high enough to justify a sequel? Is this the end for the Firefly saga? Your guess is a good as mine, but the film is still a lot of fun, and it takes a well-deserved place on the shelves right next to the TV show box set.

Lost In La Mancha (2002)

(On DVD, September 2005) True, Terry Gilliam’s filmography has a hole in between 1998’s Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas and 2005’s The Brothers Grimm. Watch this film to understand why: A true documentary gem for any serious cinephile, Lost In La Mancha is the story of a failed film project, one that even started shooting before being shut down. Imagine the worst luck that can fall on a film project, and there you will find Gilliam’s failed Don Quixote, the odyssey of which is luckily captured in Lost In La Mancha. Ironies run thick in the making-of that ended up being a work in itself: We can only look at the few pieces of completed footage and wonder how the film could have turned out had it been successful. At times hilarious and heart-breaking, Lost In La Mancha is a unique documentary, especially if you’re addicted to those “making of” special DVD features. Heck, it even has its own deleted scenes and special two-disc edition…

Lord of War (2005)

(In theaters, September 2005) Being disappointed with Lord of War feels a lot like being ungrateful given how it’s already better than most of what you’ll see in theatres this year. This docu-drama about the life of an international weapon dealers is heavy in sardonic humour and originality. On the other hand, sometimes it slips and grinds to a halt as it clumsily goes for earnestness when cynicism works so much better. Nicolas Cage works wonders with a role that plays so well with his image, but the real star of the show is writer/director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, S1m0ne). His script, based on real events, offers a unique and even daring look at the recent history of gun-running, with details as fascinating as any documentary. A number of crunchy scenes enliven the show, from a life-of-a-bullet opening credit sequence to the highly entertaining aftermath of an emergency plane landing. The movie suffers from trying a bit too hard to be moral in the last third (we already know that arms dealing is bad, m’kay?), but recovers just in time to conclude with a final three minutes of savage realism. Lord Of War is good, but the worst thing about it is that it’s just good enough to make one see how it could have been even better. It’s sort of a Goodfellas-lite, but it could have been a Goodfellas-full.

Flightplan (2005)

(In theaters, September 2005) There are many wrong things with this film, but few of them are so annoying as the film’s false pretencions at being a psychological thriller. The first few minutes give the misleading tone: Dark snowy depressing weather, along with a protagonist on the edge of losing it all. In a reverso-The Sixth Sense counter-twist, the film tries to question the existence of a main character, leading to a too-lengthy sequence where even the viewer doubts what really shouldn’t be doubted (otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story). Once past this interminable moment cluttered with red herrings, the film shifts in wrong gear as it becomes a straight-up thriller even more ridiculous than anything else you’re likely to see this year (well, at the possible exception of Transporter 2). Bad twists, nonsensical actions, rotten physics and a needless complicated plot kill this film even before it lands, leading to a last five minutes dominated by a growing sense of disbelief. Bad, bad film (I’m not even getting into the whole “shouldn’t she be thrown in prison?” question) which makes the similar Red Eye look like a minor work of genius. At least Red Eye didn’t take itself too seriously, and moved quickly enough that all of its faults became inconsequential. That’s clearly not the case here with this Flightplan not just gone awry, but flawed from the start.

Venus, Ben Bova

Tor, 2000, 382 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-87216-X

Like the true professional that he is, Bova delivers another entirely ordinary novel with Venus, the result being good enough to make us think that this is entirely acceptable.

Bova, of course, is one of the Grand Old Men of hard Science Fiction. A scientist and engineer, his career in the genre dates back to the late sixties and his bibliography is, by now, as long as some people’s entire libraries. Looking through the titles, one finds a good number of solid works, but not one single classic. There’s a good reason why.

While Bova can occasionally be funny (Cyberbooks) or meddle in alternate history (Triumph), most of his output is nuts-and-bolts hard-SF with plenty of details and a fascination for the future history of the Solar System. His career is even long enough that his first future history (The “Kinsman” saga) was obsoleted by the end of the Cold War, requiring a new one loosely inaugurated by 1992’s Mars. This second series, the “Grand Tour,” is nothing less than an attempt to write a future history of the Solar System, one book and one astronomical feature at a time. As of late 2005, he’s up to fifteen books; more are promised.

Despite having been one of the first “Grand Tour” books written, Venus is, in internal chronology, supposed to be one of the last. It doesn’t matter much, of course: The story stands well alone and the background information is of the classical future variety: If you’re a faithful SF reader, it doesn’t take much effort to assume the standard “mine the asteroids, colonize Moon+Mars” stuff.

But Venus isn’t your usual kettle of cold fish. Easily one of the most inhospitable places in the Solar System, Venus is almost deliberately hostile to human life. Not only is it devoid of life-bearing features like most of the solar system, but it’s also hot enough to melt lead, with an acidic atmosphere that’s hungry for man-made material. The usual space-going technologies won’t be enough for whoever is bold enough to explore the second planet.

As the novel begins, Venus has already made one victim: Alex Humphries, brother of our protagonist Van and son of Martin, one of the solar system’s richest individual. Our protagonist isn’t the type of man heroes are made of: sickly, superficial and reluctant to face danger, Van is rapidly forced to made a bold gesture when his allowance is cut off and he’s manipulated in retrieving the remains of his long-lost brother. A simple objective with complicated prerequisites, including a vessel capable of diving deep inside Venus’ atmosphere. But he’s not alone in looking for the prize: His father’s worst enemy is also heading for Venus…

As a story, Venus is straight-up classical hard-SF. Define a problem, put the protagonist in danger, reduce the size of their survival box and provide plenty of technical details. There are twists and turns, but nothing terribly surprising. (Even the surprises are seen well in advance: One particular plot twist is shouted nearly a hundred pages before: only the dullest readers will fail to perceive the implications of a successful blood transfusion.)

If I’m being flippant, there’s good reason to: You can almost imagine a reader of fine literature grabbing ahold of Venus and singlebookedly confirming his or her worst predictions about genre SF: shoddy characters, by-the-number plotting, featureless prose and a dramatic arc designed to end on a happy note. Whoever is interested in state-of-the-art SF won’t find it here: This is comfort food for fans of engineering fiction, with nary an unsettling moment.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad. Despite the book’s flaws, I was surprised to feel swept along for the ride in the best tradition of classical SF. Venus won’t make a splash in the memory pool of genre fiction (five years after publication, it’s possible to be definitive about such a statement), but it’s adequate reading for fans of the sub-genre. We all need good mid-list books now and then, if only to keep the careful illusion that there is indeed a “genre” out there from which the best books can distinguish themselves. Venus is part of the solid whole of SF, exactly -indeed- the kind of work to confirm whatever prejudices one may have about Science Fiction.

If nothing else, it doesn’t take a long time to read.

Dog Soldiers (2002)

(On DVD, September 2005) Low-budget, but effective hybrid between a horror movie and a military action film. The hook is simple: a platoon training in Scotland finds itself hunted by a pack of werewolves. They barely make it in an isolated country house before being besieged by the creatures. Who will last the night? The beginning is a bit slow and the seams of the budget sometimes show in the restrained direction, but Dog Soldiers does have an extra bit of oomph to make it stand out in memory. In the grand tradition of cheap horror films, writer/director Neil Marshall uses what he has at his disposal in the most effective fashion and the result holds up even to jaded viewers. There are a number of twists and turns, along with a suitably chaotic conclusion. Not bad.

Deliver Us From Eva (2003)

(On DVD, September 2005) Most romantic movies start with a unique hook before devolving in identical third acts, and Deliver Us From Eva is no exception. A biting start featuring a strong-willed female character and some fluid directing leads to a third act that seems indistinguishable from countless other romances. Disappointing, but not too much: There is still plenty to like here and there in the film. I, of course, am an unabashed fan of Gabrielle Union, and she gets plenty of fabulous material as the eponymous Eva, going from shouting matches to romantic smoothness to energetic moments like “And-then-we-burned-a-hole-in-the-floor!” Faaabulous, which makes the last-third erosion of her character all the more disappointing to see: In a development that is sure to anger not just feminists, her hard-willed character becomes a mewling kitty as soon as she gets a good night’s of, er, not-sleep. At the same time, the three sympathetic henpecked boyfriends who get the plot moving are revealed to be moral weaklings who pretty much deserve everything they can get. None of that is meant as a slight of James Todd Smith (aka LL Cool J) in the male lead role, appropriately smooth and amusing as needed. The direction also has its moments, though those tend to sputter off as the film advances. In the end, Deliver Us From Eva a decent film, worth watching for Gabrille Union fans, but also a disappointment and a sign that there’s still plenty of room for improvement in how romantic comedies are structured.