The Tin Man, Dale Brown

Bantam, 1998, 429 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-58000-0

I haven’t been kind to Dale Brown’s previous few novels (no less an authority than on-line store linked to my last review as “Christian Sauve’s (brutal) review of Fatal Terrain”), but don’t mistake my lack of enthusiasm as anything but disappointment: if Brown’s first novels remain cornerstones of the technothriller genre (especially Day of the Cheetah and Silver Tower), what’s stopping him from writing another scorcher?

While The Tin Man is ultimately not much of a success, it clearly shows that there’s hope for Brown’s career. It moves away from Brown’s usual aerospace plots, tackles other issues than “there are no problems that a well-equipped B-52 won’t solve” and even spends more time closer to the characters than has been the case over his last five books.

But there’s one big problem with The Tin Man, and his name is Patrick McLanahan. McLanahan, of course, is Brown’s favourite protagonist since Flight of the Old Dog. Brown seemingly can’t let go of his imaginary universe, even when the discrepancies between it and our world are getting too big to ignore. Smarter writers would see the constraints of series fiction, start from scratch, build other novels around other characters and ultimately let things run their course. But whereas Brown has tried singletons before (Hammerheads and Chains of Command), he has never been able to resist the latter impulse to fold them back into the McLanahan series at the earliest opportunity, regardless of internal coherency. (Let’s not even talk about the Taylor/Clinton/Martindale presidencies mash) With The Tin Man, Brown had another ideal opportunity to start afresh. But… no.

McLanahan started life as an air force navigator, evolving -over time- into an all-purpose action hero. This trajectory finds its ultimate expression in The Tin Man as McLanahan, seeking to avenge his rookie policeman brother, asks a few favours from a genius-grade friend and gets a high-tech armour fit to take on a small army of terrorist. (“He’s an air force officer! He’s a nerdy engineer! Together –THEY FIGHT CRIME!” would go the TV spots.)

The “Tin Man” armour is certainly a neat gadget, despite blatantly ignoring every law of physics you can think about. Its wearer can absorb gunshots, manipulate heavy weaponry and kick really high. Armour-clad McLanahan goes on a rampage and soon finds himself battling terrorists and policemen, finding out that vigilante justice isn’t as much fun as DEATH WISH promised. Brown has never let a real-world detail stop him from writing fabulous action scenes, and so The Tin Man at least delivers a few good thrills along the way.

The Tin Man is better-structured than any of Brown’s novels since before Storming Heaven and integrates a number of good technical details about Sacramento’s police milieu. Brown hasn’t lasted this long in the techno-thriller genre without learning how to deliver a copious amount of detail, and so the technical aspects of the novel are relatively pleasant to read: Should Brown decide to abandon the military genre, he’s clearly got a future in police procedural thrillers.

The character details are also better than in Brown’s last few novels. The relationship between McLanahan and his younger brother is compelling, even if it’s in a plotting-101 fashion. It’s also good to see uber-nerd Jon Masters get a featured role in this novel: He’s easily my favourite character from the Brown oeuvre, and his budding romantic relationship is heartening despite lacking in subtlety.

But even my attachment to Jon Masters can’t displace the feeling that if The Tin Man has most of the right elements in the right place, it loses points for some silly on-the-nose plotting, plausibility-stretching sequences and (cue familiar refrain) sticking McLanahan where he doesn’t belong. It would have been much better as a standalone singleton, especially given how this is the first time (and maybe even the last time) McLanahan has even mentioned his younger brother. Oh well; at least it’s better than Fatal Terrain. Battle Born, which apparently brings McLanahan back in a cockpit, is up next.

[June 2008: An anonymous but disappointed Dale Brown fan sends along:

dale browns tin man doesn’t seem so outlandish 10 years later maybe he did something called research those 10 years ago into future weapons systems. every toy in his books is at least under study and or development and feasible sometime down the road they break no laws of physics so maybe you guys need to do some research into a subject called physics

Reprinted without comments regarding Dale Brown fans.]

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Brokeback Mountain</strong> (2005)

(In theaters, December 2005) It’s unbelievably hard to shake off sarcastic giggles when considering the concept of this film. Thanks to South Park, “pudding-eating gay cowboys” had already entered the lexicon as code for “dull independent films”: Seeing such a film with a real budget and actual Hollywood stars is enough to make anyone smile, as in “aren’t they being a bit too obvious about their pretended edginess?”. Then there’s the amusing thought that gays cowboys are two words which, placed in close proximity, can enrage the Religious Right in another bout of fake culture war. But all of the potential giggles and sarcastic snickers quickly die down once the film gets underway: despite my qualms about director Ang “I killed The Hulk” Lee’s brand of slow-moving period drama, Brokeback Mountain does eventually attain a narrative velocity that makes it hard to dismiss. Sure, the romance emerges almost out of nowhere and the tragic nature of the film is a touch too predictable, but most of the film is spent wondering what will happen next. If nothing else, Brokeback Mountain is far more interesting than, say, Aeon Flux or any cheap teensploitation film in terms of drama. This may sound like faint praise because there are indeed limits to my appreciation of the film: I’m not generally a fan of romantic tragedies, westerns, gay-issue or Ang Lee films. But even despite these serious handicaps (plus the giggle factor inherent in the premise), Brokeback Mountain held my attention and wasn’t as dull as I had thought. Not bad.

Bhaji On The Beach (1993)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Bhaji On The Beach</strong> (1993)

(On DVD, December 2005) A charming dramatic comedy from director Gurinder Chadha, (who would later go on to make small gems such as Bend It Like Beckham and Bride & Prejudice), this film studies the life of a few Indian-English women as they make a day trip to Blackpool Beach. The men aren’t far behind, but they’re more like personified problems than actual characters: The real strength of the movie comes as it studies vastly different generations of non-Caucasian women as they relate to England, their own Indian culture and each other. As a comedy, it’s low-octane and leadened by dramatic moments of variable impact. But as a pleasant melodrama, it’s hard to do better than Bhaji On The Beach: Despite a tepid start, it soon cruises along to its own rhythm, and if the schematic nature of the dramatic arc can be a tad too obvious (including a final dramatic moment that seems forced and calculatingly unforgivable), there’s a pleasant flow to the dialogue and relationships. Without too much fuss, this film tackles on weighty issues such as racism, sexism, conjugal violence, cultural incomprehension and the clash of generations. Intimate to a degree that will remind you of its TV drama roots, Bhaji On The Beach is nonetheless a quietly fascinating little film, well-worth tracking down if you were charmed by Bend It Like Beckham.

Æon Flux (2005)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Æon Flux</strong> (2005)

(In theaters, December 2005) The premise was iffy, the trailer was dull and the casting was unpromising. Small wonder Æon Flux only lives up to the most modest expectations. As SF, it’s pedestrian and wholly recycled from better films. As an action film, it sputters from one scene to another without much regard to plausibility or even excitement. It’s nearly perfect as a piece of cinematic dystopian-SF tofu, though: If all you’re asking is a B-grade film with kooky aesthetics (even though they clash unsuccessfully), this is pretty much it. Charlize Theron manages the neat trick of looking completely unattractive in tight black clothes. Meanwhile, the other actors seem to be befuddled by the wacky sets. A mishmash of dumb science (oh no; not another clones-have-memories subplot!), stupid mistakes (for the last time: a rifle can’t suddenly transform in a machine gun!) and outright indifference (a sister, you say?) cap off the rest of the experience. Aeon Flux doesn’t take a lot of time to reduce its audience to a seething mass of complete indifference: what follows is an almost unbearable wish to see the film end as soon as possible, as it predictably doesn’t. Expect to see it in the bargain bin in a matter of months.

The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies, John Scalzi

Rough Guide, 2005, 325 pages, C$21.99 tpb, ISBN 1-84353-520-3

There has been a number of books about science-fiction films over the years, but few of them are as enjoyable as John Scalzi’s The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies. Beyond a simple overview of the field, Scalzi’s guide manages to find a clever balance between fact, personal quirks and consensus opinion. The result is a reference book that will inform neophytes and please long-time fans; no mean feat considering the nature of the field.

The good people at Rough Guide have done their homework: The book covers an outline of the field’s history, a canon of essential films, a series of “icons” (notable people, characters, places) and a bunch of related information. In addition to the fifty essential film of the canon, The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies briefly reviews 250 other SF films: It’s hard to think of another movie that ought to have been included. (Well, maybe not that hard: EQUILIBRIUM should have been mentioned. But seriously, how would you manage to fit an entire genre in no more than 325 pages?)

The meat of the book are, of course, the fifty films selected as canon. Most of the expected classics are here (STAR WARS, 2001, BLADE RUNNER, THE MATRIX, TERMINATOR 2, etc), alongside some more daring choices (BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET, ALPHAVILLE, 28 DAYS LATER). Some choices will generate some controversy (THE INCREDIBLES?) but the list is, overall, quite solid for a historical overview. If the list, read cold, can seem bizarre, it’s hard to disagree after reading the full write-up of those films: Scalzi does a fine job at explaining why those particular films were selected and why influence often trumps quality or success.

But the canon isn’t the only worthwhile part of the book. More than half of this Rough Guide is spent discussing the historical origins of SF (including a short but good history of the written field), the icons of the genre (including actors, directors, characters and landmarks), an overview of SF cinema around the world and a quick look at television SF. All put together, it does give a good overview of the field for whoever would want to know more.

But the Rough Guide will also interest core genre geeks: Scalzi is a knowledgeable cinephile (his credentials include a decade-long stint as a movie critic) and a confirmed member of the SF community: He can discuss the field like the best of them, and so for genre geeks the book is like sitting down with a fellow fan who’s seen pretty much everything. What’s also noteworthy is that while Scalzi isn’t afraid to hold some strong opinions, most of his outlook on the genre will match the collective opinion of well-read fans. (Dissing STAR WARS is a hard sell at the office, but it’s almost de rigueur at a Science Fiction convention ) Unlike, say, C.J. Henderson’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies, there is no significant re-evaluation of the field in here: knowledgeable fans will, despite a few hasty generalizations due to lack of space, feel comfortable in handing over this guide to neophytes.

Alas, The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies was roughly shoved through production, and the unacceptable number of small silly mistakes shows how quickly the book was produced. Beyond the simple typos (“Fishbourne”, etc), there are a number of other slight errors (Seaquest DSV was retitled and lasted a second season; AMERICA’S SWEETHEART was released in 2001) that mar the otherwise reasonably exact content of the book. Hopefully all will be corrected in the second edition.

Any discussion of Scalzi’s work would be incomplete without acknowledging the accessibility of his prose. Scalzi’s writing has been forged by years of journalism and blogging: His prose is crisp, crystal-clear and immediately enjoyable. Grab the book in bookstores, start reading a page at random and see how long it takes you to stop.

All in all, Scalzi’s Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies does what it set out to do. The material can be thin, but the selection is appropriate, the sidebars are satisfying and it’s hard to find significant fault in the book’s overall stance toward SF cinema. Given how it’s a quarter of Rough Guide’s slate of genre cinema guides, I’m awfully tempted to rush out and get the three other books.