Monthly Archives: November 2005

Eyes of the Calculator, Sean McMullen

Tor, 2001, 589 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-34512-9

There’s a good reason why I try to read volumes of a trilogy one after another: Wait more than a month between volumes and the characters fade away: It’s possible to spending more time catching up than actually enjoying the latest instalment. Due to a variety of factors (including temporary blindness), I ended up waiting seven months between the second and third tomes of Sean McMullen’s “Greatwinter Trilogy”, and the gap did nothing to improve my experience of the series.

Eyes of the Calculator begins soon after The Miocene Arrow, but returns to Australica after the extended North American trip of the second volume. The atmosphere is correspondingly closer to the first Souls in the Great Machine, although with the inclusion of a few American characters. The final instalment begins as The Call, which had enslaved humans for generations, is shut down. (Given that this was one of the lamest elements of the series, its absence is not missed.) Freed from the constraints of the Call, humanity starts spreading once more, leaving the Aviads without natural protection…

Readers of the first two volumes of the trilogy already suspect what is to follow: Romantic high adventure in a neo-medieval setting, with plenty of romantic heroism and triumphant moments. And indeed, Eyes of the Calculator more or less delivers the good. McMullen is clearly having a lot of fun here, and it’s a treat to see him get back to a familiar setting, bringing along a trio of strong female characters, a return to Rochester’s Great Library, another look at cool ideas such as the human-powered calculator and the consequences of the first two volumes.

It’s very familiar and, in fact, perhaps too familiar. The number of new ideas here falls almost to zero as McMullen continues to play along with known elements and very hastily brings everything to a conclusion of sorts. There is a sense that this is a comfort novel: a last hurrah, but not a significant step forward. Even the characters are eerily familiar, through no coincidence. McMullen takes a number of risks, most notably by making a heel out of one of the second volume’s heroes, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that this isn’t all that new, especially given the originality of the first and, to a lesser extent, the second volume. Not everything works out: As in the first volume, there are a number of suspicious betrayals, and the material about the Gentheist is never as interesting as it could have been.

Thankfully, McMullen has grown as an author and so the writing in Eyes of the Calculator is noticeably smoother than in the previous volumes. Tonal shifts are less jarring; dialogue is snappier; scenes are tighter. Perhaps too tight, as it’s not uncommon to read along and suddenly have to back-track, abruptly suspicious that Something Important has just happened in a very short amount of prose. There is still an unpolished quality to McMullen’s prose that keeps his fiction from achieving its full potential. The first hundred pages of this novel, for instance, take an awful lot of time to cohere in a compelling whole. (It certainly didn’t help, to echo what was written above, that I paused for so long between the second and third novel.)

But when it does, when McMullen hits his groove, the novel truly works. Despite the nasty edge to some of McMullen’s imagined world (he never lets you forget that these are much less enlightened times, or that commoners are cannon fodder), he has a knack for unbelievably strong-willed characters, compelling adventure and triumphant moments. His characters alone, in all of their lusty vitality, are a pleasure to follow. This is high adventure in a good classical vein; too bad it has to work in fits and starts.

Overall, the Greatwinter Trilogy of which this is the conclusion has more good moments than bad, but there’s no escaping the sense that the memory of the trilogy will end up being better than the actually messy reality of its prose. It didn’t need to be so long, nor so scatter-shot: an author with a bit more structural ruthlessness could have made a classic series out of those elements; as it stands, it’ll have to settle for something akin to mere goodness. Which, mind you, is still quite respectable.

Incompetence, Rob Grant

Gollancz, 2003, 291 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 0-575-07533-3

Welcome to a nightmare: A near future United States of Europe where one can’t be fired from any job for reason of age, race, creed… or incompetence. In a place where everything becomes unreliable and approximative, protagonist “Harry Salt” is a detective surrounded by incompetence. There’s just one very very important exception to this level of incompetence: The very competent killer who’s leaving a track of bodies from Rome to Eastern Europe by way of Paris.

This is not, of course, a serious novel. Rob Grant is an ex-member of the “Red Dwarf” comedy troupe, and this stand-alone novel reflects a delicious sense of humour that owes much to Sheckley and Adams. Runaway bureaucracies may be bad enough, but you’ve got real problems when the rot of inefficiency trickles down to even the most average janitor.

Harry Salt’s life is not easy: He’s lucky when his plane lands at the right airport (baggage is another matter) or when his hotel room contains both a bed and a sink. Renting a car can be a lengthy adventure, especially when even the anti-theft device has been stolen. Salt’s U.S.E. may be a few years in the future (complete with automated cars and traffic signalization that can make it impossible to leave Paris), but the comic jabs are straight out of today’s anxieties.

Stylistically, Incompetence riffs off the usual first-person tough-guy narration. “Harry Salt” (no real name provided) is one tough hombre, and he never lets you forget it. Grant overuses hyperbole as if he feared their criminalization, but it fits with the tall-tale tone of the average PI narration. Like most comedies, this isn’t a book that will take you a lot of time to read.

It’s a measure of the novel’s lack of seriousness that the plot is nothing but an excuse on which to hang comic vignettes. See Harry pursue devious criminal; see Harry argue with service personnel; see Harry run for the train. It’s pretty good except when it runs too long, and unfortunately the novel does have a tendency to overstay its welcome, especially toward the end. Some of the comic vignettes work (I was particularly charmed by Captain Zuccho, a policeman with rather serious anger management problems) but many simply run too long: The entire train sequence is a perfect example of a one-note joke dragged on for twenty pages. It doesn’t get much better over the course of the drawn-out conclusion, which tones down the humour and add in useless details.

Not that this is the only thing wrong about the conclusion, in which the novel’s light-hearted tone somehow ends up swapped with a pretty serious conspiracy theory involving competitive geopolitics. Readers will frown at the conclusion and wonder where that came from. But perhaps it’s not such a surprise considering a story featuring an overly competent murderer: Incompetence can be funny if it’s not happening to you; murder is rarely funny even in the abstract.

Still, Incompetence is a laugh for most of its duration, and that’s not bad by itself. Humorous SF is still a fairly rare phenomenon, and this novel is a clue as to why: Short and yet too long, amusing and yet a bit too serious by the end, structured around individual vignettes that aren’t always coherently strung together. The level of individual incompetence exhibited in the novel would quickly bring civilization to a halt, to say nothing of preventing underground prison hellscrapers… but it’s not a good idea to question the coherence of an absurd humour novel.

Pleasant but not exactly unforgettable, Incompetence will fit the bill if you’re looking for a few laughs and an undemanding read. The prose has its pleasures, and so do some of the individual sequences. Otherwise, well, it’s a lot like your average sitcom: A good way to spend time, but nothing worth considering the next day.

The Zombie Survival Guide, Max Brooks

Three Rivers Press, 2003, 256 pages, C$19.95 tpb, ISBN 1-4000-4962-8

Now that’s a curio. The title really tells you everything you need to know: This is a guide, and it’s all about surviving a zombie uprising. Hilariously patterned after a survivalist manual, Max Brooks’ Zombie Survival Guide grabs a concept and runs far, far away with it.

The first part of the book sets the (un)dead-serious tone: Zombies are a real scientific phenomenon, explains Brooks as he details the current state of “scientific knowledge” about the condition. The zombies of this guide are similar to the usual movie canon, with a number of important differences not limited to the demands of a two-hour-long running time. The most important of them is the zombies’ durability: We are made privy to a number of incidents in which zombies successfully traveled underwater, or even thawed after several years spent encased in ice. Brrr!

Product of a “Solanum” viral infection, zombie outbreaks present their set of particular dangers and opportunities. Preparedness is key to survival: Properly-informed citizen can mount an effective resistance, whereas those poor fools caught unprepared might as well settle right now for a fate worse than death.

Brooks never breaks a smile as he goes through scenarios, weapons, tactics and survival strategies. Though billed as “humour”, the the book acquires its own credibility after a while, and people reading through the “living in an undead world” chapter may want to put down the book, look through the window, take a deep breath and repeat to themselves “This is fiction! Humour! Not real! I don’t have to prepare for a zombie invasion!”

The book is soberly presented in a no-nonsense design, often punctuated by simple line drawings. The writing is crisp, to the point and almost too believable at time. Despite the number of contradictions inherent to the concept (for a virus “not yet fully understood”, the fictional Solanum virus seems unusually well-researched), The Zombie Survival Guide creates its own off-kilter reality in which zombie plagues are not exactly unknown.

This impression gets even stranger in the last part of the book, in which Brooks digs through history to present a series of vignettes detailing the evolution of Solanum infections throughout humankind. There are a number of highly effective passages in here, meshing relatively well with known history and even establishing a Cold War secret history of sorts. SF and Fantasy readers will read this section as a confirmation of Brook’s success in creating his own parallel zombie-friendly reality. Beyond a simple humour book, The Zombie Survival Guide often slips into a horror universe of its own.

It also offers a non-movie look at the zombie creatures, which is precious given how Brooks wastes few words in taking the concept of the zombie to its logical extreme. Indestructible creatures can last a long time, travel underwater and survive unlikely traumas before rotting away or (preferably) being shot in the head by a prepared citizen. This type of long-term deep extrapolation would be unworkable in a movie context. Here, Brooks spends a lot of time pondering “What if?” and the chapter on living in world where zombies have effectively taken over (for at least a generation) is a fairly original piece of work.

All told, you may want to buy The Zombie Survival Guide as a gag gift, but you will end up reading it with a deepening sense of deliciously realistic dread. A book of that title might have just been a collection of stupid tricks learnt from zombie movies, but Brooks has spent a lot more time creating his own work of fiction. Not bad at all.

[December 2009: The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks is a graphic novel re-telling many of the historical vignettes collected in the last part of The Zombie Survival Guide.  Ibraim Roberson’s busily detailed artwork is in luscious grayscale, and if the stories tend to repeat themselves as variations on the old bite-bite-fight, there’s enough menace in the various introductions and conclusions to make it all seem unsettling.  At less than 150 pages, it’s not a big book, and is best aimed at those who already liked The Zombie Survival Guide at lot.  But after three zombie books in a row, Brooks could definitely try something else.]

Life of Pi, Yann Martel

Vintage Canada, 2002, 368 pages, C$21.00 tpb, ISBN 0-676-97377-9

(Read in French as L’histoire de Pi, translated by Nicole and Émile Martel)

As a convinced genre reader, I look at general literature with deep suspicion: In a mirror image of all mainstream readers convinced that there is nothing of interest in genre fiction, I frown at literary fiction and ask if something can be worthwhile if it’s not genre fiction.

While even a cursory explanation of Life of Pi suggests that it’s not exactly mainstream literature, it has won the 2002 Man Booker prize and, as such, pretty much represented the literary establishment for a solid year. It sold briskly, earned critical accolades and was read by mass audiences. Not bad for a book written in English by a French-Canadian author.

It is, nominally, a story of survival about a shipwrecked boy stuck on a lifeboat with scant supplies and a full-sized tiger. It’s hailed by the over-narrator (who’s not the boy, at least not always) as a story fit to give you faith in God’s existence. It’s a story of meshing cultures, careful observation and improbable coincidences. A second level of reading is even suggested late in the book.

But here’s the kicker: You can read it as a fantasy or as a thriller. Yann Martel has fashioned an ingenious cross-genre story with wide appeal for very different groups of readers. The opening note, written as from the author, imperceptibly takes us from reality to fiction, setting up the level of fantasy that soon becomes essential to the book. Nearly a hundred pages of somewhat realistic fiction follow, as protagonist Piscine (“Pool”, in French) describes his early childhood experiences, halfway between his father’s zoo and his town’s religious establishment. Careful details pepper the narrative with an astonishing accessibility, setting up Pi’s character and the offbeat quality of his life. Numerous digressions about zoology and religion add interest to the book.

Then catastrophe strikes and Pi finds himself shipwrecked on a lifeboat with numerous animal companions —including an adult tiger. By this time in the story, we know (though Pi’s education) that tigers are truly dangerous animals: spending five seconds on a tiny lifeboat with one seems impossible, let alone entire days. But that’s what happens, as the other animals are “removed” and Pi learns how to survive. Early on, it’s mentioned how he’ll spend more than half a year drifting on the ocean. Will Pi manage to keep the tiger away? Will he have enough food to last? What happens once thing start breaking down?

Through a careful accumulation of credible details, Martel will make you believe in the reality of Pi’s unreal situation. Through a techno-thrillerish density of technical details and a clever number of observations, Pi’s struggles are credibly described. The result is a gripping section that scarcely lets the reader pause for a break.

As the months at sea slowly pass, the reality of the situation slowly gives way to fantasy. It eventually leads to a lengthy dream-like passage in which the normal rules of reality take a leave of absence. A mysterious island is discovered, a terrible discovery is made and an escape ensues; what it all meant will be left to students struggling with their essays about the book.

It concludes with a twist, as an alternate explanation is quickly delivered. But as even the characters remark, the tiger is the better story. And so it goes.

I’m not terribly interested in delving deep in my critic’s brain to find out if I truly liked Life of Pi (hey, it’s been a long month), but even if my appreciation of the book is partially rooted in my surprise at how interesting a Man Booker winner could be, that’s more than good enough. Even if the adventure story is misdirection and metaphor for a far more awful true story, see if I care: I got my entertainment out of the book, and it doesn’t bother me if it’s a superficial way to read an award-winning mainstream book. Life of Pi is written to allow several interpretations, but even my fellow literalists will come away pleased by the story as it is presented on the page. The cover blurb by the San Diego Union Tribune ends up as an eerily appropriate exit line: This story may not make you believe in God, but it may make you believe in literature.

Les Rivières pourpres, Jean-Christophe Grangé

Albin Michel, 1998, 405 pages, C$29.95 tpb, ISBN 2-226-09331-1

(Available in English as either Blood-Red Rivers or The Crimson Rivers)

I wish I could tease you by saying that Jean-Christophe Grangé’s Les Rivières Pourpres is one of the best French thrillers I have ever read and that it’s forever out of the Anglo-Saxon literary sphere. Fortunately for you, the book is available in English as either Blood-Red Rivers (the original title) or The Crimson Rivers as the movie tie-in edition.

Additionally, most English-speaking cinephiles probably remember the 2000 French movie starring Jean Reno and Vincent Cassel as two policemen investigating what turns out to be related cases. But as it so often happens, the novel and the movie don’t necessarily agree.

For one thing, the characters are very different. In the film, Inspecteur Pierre Niémans, played by Jean Reno, is a grizzled but basically competent policeman, riffing off Reno’s quasi-patented screen personae to good effect. The novel version is a lot darker: in the dynamite opening chapter, Niémans severely beats a homicidal hooligan after a soccer riot, leading to a messy internal investigation that drives him out of Paris and into a tragic character arc that finds resonance in the novel’s conclusion. Things aren’t much better for his partner, as Arab-French policeman “Karim Abdouf” suddenly becomes “Max Kerkerian”, under the handsome Gallic traits of Vincent Cassel. Exit the entire beur back-story of a young troubled youth becoming policeman for fear of becoming a criminal. Exit the dreadlocks. Exit, indeed, most of the character’s distinctiveness, replaced by a cool “I don’t like fascists” one-liner to stoke the film’s memorable skinhead-beating.

Oh well.

I suppose you won’t be surprised to find out that the movie ends up on a far more optimistic note, won’t you? The book, after all, doesn’t leave much room for a sequel…

But never mind that. Finding a translated copy of the book in North America will be challenging enough; too bad you won’t be able to experience the book in its original form: If Les Rivières Pourpres does something exceedingly well, it’s to present a French-language thriller that is initially as gripping as its American equivalents. French authors can do mysteries with the best of them. Thrillers, on the other hand, require a different discipline. French authors have a hard time recreating the urgency, the electric charge of a well-plotted suspense. Les Rivières Pourpres is an exception.

From the beginning, there is a fluidity to the writing, a hardness to the dialogue that makes Les Rivières Pourpres a pleasure to sink into. Grangé writes well, but he doesn’t leaden his prose with useless words; the story moves along at a brisk clip, and the very particular atmosphere of the book (set deep in France’s rural Alps) has a unique quality that immediately distinguish this thriller from countless others. Grangé isn’t afraid of gore, and a number of scenes are simply dreadful in a delightful fashion.

Alas, I’m not so fond of the book’s latter half, which pretty much reflected my disenchantment with the movie’s second half: The ominous rumblings of a gigantic conspiracy turn out to be bottom-basement eugenics that never reach the promises of the book’s initial mystery. As with many other thrillers, The Secret so murderously well-protected doesn’t seem all that important after the fabulous set-up. At least the movie had the sense to end on an action sequence; no such luck here in a rushed finale that settles things far too easily.

Despite Bruce Sterling’s wry admonition that “there’s a quality in a good translation that you can never capture with the original”, I’m not sure that even the best possible translation of Les Rivière Pourpres could recapture the sheer fun of an original French-Language thriller that has nothing to envy from les Américans. (Chances are that the English translation will be read as “just another thriller.”) It’s both a comfortable quality and a mildly refreshing treat; even with the lacklustre conclusion, Les Rivières Pourpres is a darn good read, and that often all that’s necessary. If you can’t get the book, why not have a look at the film?

Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005)

(In theaters, November 2005) Unapologetically directed at kids, Zathura: A Space Adventure will likely bore adults for at least part of the first act. The kids actors are annoyingly good at portraying pre-teen infighting and result is just about as pleasant as being stuck with two real turbulent kids. Fortunately the plot soon blasts into orbit and the rest of the film becomes a lot more interesting. In fact, the film is likely to inspire a heavy bout of nostalgia for anyone who was a kid SF fan: While Zathura is, at best, fantasy with SF gadgets, there’s still a good part of wonder in contemplating, say, a house floating around a gas giant. And that’s not saying anything about meteor strikes, mad robots, stranded astronauts, carnivorous aliens and the other good stuff that unfolds. It’s possible to quibble about the deterministic structure of the plot, the on-the-nose sentimental moments or the weak conclusion, but it’s difficult to do so while entertaining a bit of childlike sense of wonder. Zathura is unlikely to be much more than a blip in the SF canon, but in some ways it exemplifies a lot of what initially attracts fans to the genre.

Star Wreck: In The Pirkinning (2005)

(Downloaded, November 2005) Non-nerds need not apply for this fan-made Star Trek / Babylon 5 crossover parody. The video is of the muddy digital variety, the acting is amateurish, the script is merely adequate. No matter, though: the film is freely available, has astonishing special effects and frankly deliver all that a fan could ask for, including a slam-bang finale that’s easily better than the latest canon Star Trek movie. A number of series in-jokes and regional gags may diminish the accessibility of the material for even hard-core Trek/Babylon fans (Star Wreck is the sixth instalment in this Finnish parody series), but no matter: Once the first act is over, it gets easier to understand and a whole lot more fun to enjoy. If you’ve got the bandwidth, download it as soon as you can!

Unvanquished: A UN-US saga, Boutros Boutros-Ghali

Random House, 1999, 368 pages, C$28.00 tpb, ISBN 0-812-99204-0

(Read in French as Mes Années à la maison de verre , translated by Simone Dreyfus)

2003 was, all things considered, perhaps the worst year on record for relations between the United Nations and the United States. (Of course, some will say it was also the worst year for relations between the US and the rest of the world.) Even the most geopolitically unaware citizen couldn’t miss the headlines: UN withdraws inspectors from Baghdad. Bush ignores UN Security Council. US invades Iraq. The US, secure in its position as the world’s sole remaining superpower, felt justified in ignoring, even belittling the UN whenever it didn’t agree with the wishes of the White House, even as a majority of Americans we in favour of UN approval. But then again, the Bush administration was never too keen on diplomatic relations where it didn’t get to dictate the results.

UN-bashing is hardly a new thing, though, nor is it an invention of the Bush II administration. Given W’s rotten record on just about everything, it’s hard to remember that the Clinton administration also played a number of dirty tricks on the UN, ignoring and dismissing it whenever it served its purposes. In Unvanquished , former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali recounts his five years spent at the helm of the organization between 1992 and 1996, and how the United States did their best to undermine him and his work. Those tensions would eventually lead to the American veto of a second mandate… and a revealing memoir that pulls few punches.

Unvanquished thus doubles as a meaty high-level description of the state of the world circa 1992-1996, a turbulent period stuck between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the War on Terror. For the UN it’s a period characterized by more ambitious peacekeeping missions and a stronger emphasis on international cooperation on development and environmental issues. Boutros-Ghali’s strong influence as a committed internationalist and a defender of the third-world is not a coincidence to these new roles for the UN.

As a straight geopolitical treatise, there’s little doubt that Unvanquished can be boring, maybe even a bit redundant. It’s as a biography that it shines most brightly. How does one man feel after taking the helm of such an organization? What does he think when he talks to heads of state, when he visits war zones? Boutros-Ghali emerges from his autobiography as a uniquely sympathetic individual, a man at the helm of an organization constantly threatened by the selfish political ambition of people destined for the dustbin of history. US diplomat Madeleine Albright is particularly singled out as a hypocrite; Clinton himself doesn’t shine too brightly from Boutros-Ghali’s perspective. Ironically, then-humbler US diplomat John Bolton (whose 2005 nomination as US ambassador to the UN would create a firestorm of controversy, to say nothing of his scorched-earth tenure) has an amusing cameo with a fairly sympathetic quote. Canadian Prime Ministers also make one-line appearances: Mulroney is criticized; Chrétien is not.

It adds up to a slightly overlong book, but one that contains a surprising number of small nuggets. It’s a must-read for whoever wants to understand the nature of the UN-US antagonism (including the US’s perennial refusal to pay its financial contribution to the organization), and it’s a surprisingly enjoyable primer on high-level diplomacy. Boutros-Ghali is an effective narrator, and his vision of the UN as a global mediator is a ray of optimism.

The French-Language edition of Unvanquished is closer to a revised second edition of the text than a simple translation: Fluently francophone, Boutros-Ghali revised the translation and used the opportunity to revise and clarify some material. The result flows well, within the caveats described above, and proves once more why French has long remained the language of high-level diplomacy.

Reading the book from a perspective five years removed ends up telling us more about the events of the book than a 1999 read would have. As a convinced internationalist (hey, I’m Canadian), Unvanquished does little to disprove the notion that the UN is a relevant body that will only grow stronger. Even latter events tend to support the notion; even the deep wounds left by the madcap rush to invade Iraq have done little to diminish the UN’s reputation outside the United States. Even as I write this, historians are grumbling about Bush being the worst president in a long while, even as the UN seems to be accommodating Bolton’s fiery ambassadorship. In four years, do you want to be who’s going to be left standing? UN-vanquished? Don’t bet on it.

Rent (2005)

(In theaters, November 2005) Movie musicals may engender a lot of sarcastic comments about their fey nature, but a good one will successfully use the tools of cinematographic grammar to create an experience quite unlike anything else in other mediums. This makes adapting a stage musical a tricky proposition at best: a bland director will simply copy the original staging and let the camera roll. Now let’s face it; there are fewer blander directors than Chris Columbus, and his Rent may have a few good moments here and there, but it seldom coheres into a top-notch movie musical. For every “La Vie Boheme” or “Tango Maureen”, the film muddles through syrupy ballads and what looks suspiciously like mid-1980s music videos. Part of the film approach self-parody: Not only was it difficult to see the film without thinking about Team America‘s “Everybody’s got AIDS!” number, but I was never convinced that Maureen’s performance wasn’t meant to be a satire of truly awful performance art. This, and other missteps such as having artists agonize over selling out, make it remarkably easy to be cynical about the Gap-branded lip service paid to vie bohème counterculture. Not that the film is a complete disaster, mind you: Rosario Dawson is scorching hot and the whole experience is superficially pleasant. But it’s nowhere near the height of what we’ve seen movie musicals achieve since Moulin Rouge! singlehandedly revived the genre.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

(In theaters, November 2005) Writer/Director Shane Black took a long time in coming back to the big screen after hits such as Lethal Weapon, The Last Boyscout and The Long Kiss Goodnight, but the wait was worth it. With Kiss Kiss Bang Bang he manages to deliver a black comedy filled with snappy dialogue, off-beat characters, unusual situations and cleverly-used detail. That it pays homage to pulp detective fiction and is peppered with Hollywood in-jokes is just icing of the cake. Robert Downey Jr is a compelling protagonist (his sarcastic narration is good for a number of chuckles), Michelle Monaghan has a luminous turn as an almost-failed actress on the edge of bitterness and Val Kilmer exudes a comfortable confidence as a detective with plenty of trick up his… underpants. But the star of the picture is Shane Black; he first made his reputation with fantastic scripts, but his first directorial effort portends a number of even better films in his future. This isn’t a classic for the ages, but it’s a whole lot of fun. Fans of criminal fiction will find much to love in this unassuming low-budget effort… provided they don’t mind a bit of sarcasm and more twists than in a yellow paperback thriller.

Jarhead (2005)

(In theaters, November 2005) Most military fiction either glorifies the nobility of war or decries its murderous nature, but there’s a little-known third alternative, that of military service as a long stretch or boredom, loosely interrupted by terror, dashed expectations and boys being boys. More or less faithfully adapted from Anthony Swofford’s blisteringly honest autobiography, Jarhead follows the path of a Marine as he undergoes training and is then shipped off to Saudi Arabia just in time for Desert Storm. Director Sam Mendes gives a decent polish to this modern wartime story, but it’s what doesn’t happen that gives the film its unique edge: the protagonist’s testosterone overload is never quite satiated by the war, even though it is likely to end up being his life’s defining moment. Jake Gyllenhaal turns in a decent performance as “Swoff”, but it’s Jamie Foxx who steals the show as a professional soldier who does actually find satisfaction in being a warrior. (Hoo-Ha.) There’s plenty of political resonance between this and the American occupation of Iraq, but readers of the original volume will be disappointed by how Swofford’s explicit critique is here relegated to a minor character’s ranting. Visually, the film has a number of great moments —including a walk through a burning oil field. What doesn’t work so well is the suggestion that there’s a much better picture lurking under the surface, a movie with more daring and more energy. A movie closer to the book, one is tempted to say. Ultimately, Jarhead veers too closely to its subject matter: boredom.

The Ice Harvest (2005)

(In theaters, November 2005) Director Harold Ramis here makes a blatant bid for the “Coen Brothers” type of film, only to fail when it becomes obvious that the script is only a pale copy of the “small city black comedy” sub-genre. Sure, protagonist John Cusack is always sympathetic (though he’s reaching an age where boyishness ceases to be an option), Connie Nielsen plays a suitable femme fatale and Billy Bob Thornton is effortlessly dangerous. But there’s a a lack of urgency in this script, despite the tight time frame, despite the desperate circumstances, despite the potential for interesting characters. Certain scenes rise above the others (isn’t it surprising how a guy talking his way out of a locked trunk is comic gold?) while others just linger in place. At least there’s plenty of skill to admire in the film’s first act, as it plunges us boldly in a situation where characters already have established relationships. To be fair, The Ice Harvest doesn’t attempt to be anything more than a low-octane criminal comedy, and it achieves this goal with a relative ease. The performances are relaxed, the direction is unobtrusive and until the drawn-out ending, the film moves at a comfortable rhythm. Not exceptional, but not too bad either.

Emergency Deep, Michael DiMercurio

Onyx, 2004, 464 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-451-41166-8

(Read in French as Alerte: Plongée Immédiate, translated by Dominique Chapuis)

One of the most frustrating aspect of military techno-thrillers is how often authors working in the genre will write series even when it doesn’t make sense. The problem can be tracked back to Tom Clancy, whose Jack Ryan found himself embroiled in a series of high-stakes adventures in one book after another. This makes sense when, say, your series is about events that have no impact on the shape of the world. (Which serves to explain the popularity of detective series) But wars, even when they’re imaginary, have a way of messing up geopolitical reality, and authors should at least take that in account, or abandon their fictional world once it has diverged too far away from reality. Seeing Harold Coyle trash Egypt, Iran, Mexico, Columbia and then try to merge it with real-world development (and then desperately “reset” the series in God’s Children) is almost too sad for words. Inevitably, the author ends up cheating by trying to exploit their reader’s attachment to characters while ignoring the lasting consequences of their actions. Even by the lowered literary standards of military fiction, this isn’t playing fair.

All of this to say that poor Michael DiMercurio found himself stuck with his “Michael Pacino” series after Terminal Run. By then, the fictional world he’d set up was so divorced from current reality that his series was closer to Science Fiction than to current-day military relevance. This divergent universe had kept him shielded, somewhat, from the uncomfortable realities of post-Russia submarine warfare: In a real world where submarines were tools for superpowers and there remained only one superpower, how to justify submersed thriller without resorting to highly improbable scenarios like Joe Buff’s series, or feeble-minded absurdities like Patrick Robinson’s novels? The Pacino sequence offered ever-imaginary enemies to fight against. Alas, sales were down (even for an author who, at the best of times, didn’t escape the military fiction mid-list) for a series so hermetic than only fans of the previous volumes felt welcome. Hence the perils or continuing a techno-thriller series past its expiration date.

So DiMercurio resets the clock and starts a new series with Emergency Deep, starring a new protagonist named Peter Voronado. The setting is recognizably closer to our own “War on Terror” universe, with threats coming from an unholy alliance between old-school Russian capabilities and new-style terrorist ideology. As the CIA gets wind of a plot to attack Israel, they inexplicably come up with a plan not to destroy the danger, but to infiltrate a spy in the enemy’s rank.

This spy is Peter Voronado, champ submarine captain beached ashore by an extraordinary health problem. The first third of Emergency Deep is spent bringing together the elements of the plot, thanks to two lengthy prologues, one of which has no business in this novel in its current form. But DiMercurio is a military fiction writer; efficient writing is not his style, and so the novel takes an awful lot of time revving up to cruise speed. By the time Voronado finally reaches his covert position, a certain lassitude has already settled over the novel, a slight annoyance that only gets worse.

As with many of his veteran colleagues, DiMercurio writes what he knows, but forgets how many details just aren’t useful to the vast majority of his well-meaning civilian readers. Emergency Deep quickly falls in the familiar trap of too many acronyms and not enough energy. Further problems develop along with a pair of unlikely romances, a few plotting issues and a clear lack of tension. The result is one solidly average military thriller that stretches a bit outside the usual confines of a submarine thriller, but not enough to be particularly memorable.

One can’t fault DiMercurio for finding a way to ally Cold War equipment with concerns about terrorism, or for spending a lot of time “off the boat”, so to speak, in order to explore new directions. But Emergency Deep doesn’t do much with those elements, and fails at attracting new readers. It’s a good step in the right direction while remaining comfort food for his usual audience. But it’s unlikely to make him new fans, or even revitalize the moribund submarine thriller genre. Emergency Deep is slated to be the start of a new series of books; DiMercurio may want to re-think that plan.

Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire (2005)

(In theaters, November 2005) I’m afraid that the Harry Potter series has achieved escape velocity: every instalments is so competently made as to escape any worthwhile critical commentary, leaving the rest of us reviewers fighting over scraps like “ooh, isn’t Hermione such a cutie?” Slightly more accessible than The Prisoner Of Azkaban, but still feeling as if a number of important relationships were short-changed by the adaptation, Goblet Of Fire hits all of the expected notes and continues J.K. Rowling’s lucky streak in seeing respectful adaptations of her books. Not that the source material is flawless, of course: Harry’s passivity in this instalment is so pervasive that it leads to one asking “just how good a magician is he anyway? Isn’t he just an average wizard with a bunch of handy friends?” But even that gratuitous bit of sarcasm isn’t enough to dim the good movie-going pleasure that this film offers. The darkening of the Potterverse continues as it becomes more apparent than ever that Harry is stuck, pawn-like, in a larger tapestry of dangers not of his own making. Good stuff, especially if it develops into something even deeper in the next episodes. Which I’ll see as soon as it comes out, of course.

Derailed (2005)

(In theaters, November 2005) Dour and ponderous, manipulative and sometimes incoherent, Derailed is further hampered by bad casting choices and a wholly unnecessary double ending. But don’t let that deter you: as a thriller, Derailed knows that it’s not playing in the big leagues, and this basic honesty does much to reconcile viewers with the picture’s raw exploitation. Nominally yet another vigilante story in which an innocent man’s small transgression gets him caught in ever-bigger lies, Derailed easily turns into yet another revenge picture. Here, Clive Owen is arguably miscast as a passive character who eventually learns how to, er, settle his issues decisively. Jennifer Aniston isn’t much better as a tragic heroine. (Only Vincent Cassel is pretty much perfect as the criminal mastermind, even slipping in a line that only Francophones will appreciate) The story is out to manipulate the viewer, and isn’t above lying, cheap shocks and an all-powerful villain to do so. Never mind the plot holes, of course. It adds up to a cheap thriller that at least doesn’t waste too much time. The third act isn’t so good, but by then the movie has to assume the choices it made. Too bad about the cheap second “Kill the bad guy! Kill him!!!” ending. It’s the kind of thing fit to make you wonder how the entire film would have worked so much better as a silly comedy. Chances are that you may enjoy the film as it runs. But you’ll have a hard time respecting it the next day.