Monthly Archives: May 2006

Valhalla Rising, Clive Cussler

Berkley, 2001, 517 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-18571-0

I find it very difficult to be overly critical of Clive Cussler’s novels. Despite flaws that would doom any other writer, Cussler is just as daring as his alter-ego Dirk Pitt [TM] when comes the time to deliver the goods. Repetitive plots? Impossible technology? Ridiculous villains? Cartoonish action? Cookie-cutter characterization? Unbelievable twists? Everything-but-the-kitchen-sink plotting? It’s all pure Cussler routine, and after more than a dozen novels following the exact same template, it’s hard to be upset when the exact same features keep popping up from one book to another.

If you want a true look at Cussler’s ambitions, read his interview in the Dirk Pitt Revealed companion guide. Cussler, an old advertising veteran and businessman, knows exactly what he’s doing and has no shame in delivering what’s expected of him. He’s found both an audience and a niche: why should he even mess with the formula? His readership is, by now, so large that he can farm out the Dirk Pitt name to collaborators and still use his royalties to go on real-life treasure hunts. Bully to him: he’s living his life the way most people would like to… and what’s a small thing like literary quality to stand in his way?

Valhalla Rising is yet another thriller to come out of the vast Cussler Inc. Assembly line, and it begins exactly like the earlier ones: With a pair of historical prologues in which disaster strikes from a mysterious source. But before we can dwell too long on what this means for the rest of the novel, we’re off to the Pacific Ocean, where a dastardly plot ensures the sinking of a luxury liner. Is it the end for all passengers? Why, no, not when Dirk Pitt[TM] is around to perform a death-defying rescue. One thing leading to another, Pitt once again finds himself embroiled in a vast adventure that will lead him from the depths of the seas (twice) to a dogfight over Manhattan. Whew!

In doing so, Cussler also stretches the limits of permissible plotting. It’s not enough for him to give himself a cameo in his own work, he also has to act as a convenient deus ex machina to rescue his heroes from one impossible situation and lead them to the next plot coupon. (Mysteriously disappearing when it’s convenient to do so.) It’s not enough to give one big techno/historical reward to his characters: they get three or four of them at the same time, from evidence of American Viking settlements to the real-life Captain Nemo to quantum displacement technology that would revolutionize modern science if this was a novel that actually took science seriously. (No wonder that NUMA’s Turing-bashing AI barely raises any eyebrows when it’s featured as a supporting character.)

But all of the above pales in comparison to the end twist where, with less than ten pages left in the novel (SPOILERS!), a young man and his sister appear out of nowhere, lending a patina of of foreshadowing to Dirk Pitt’s[TM] book-long ruminations on age and his unsuccessful relationships. Yup, they’re his long-lost twin children, born of a mother everyone assumed dead. Cue a few hugs and the promise of a new generation of Pitt[TM] adventures. This is the type of thing that can destroy other writers’ books. With Cussler, it’s just another day on the job. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Chutzpah! is the guy’s middle name.

It’s not all good, of course: Even allowing for Cussler’s customary craziness, Valhalla Rising feels a lot like Cussler’s last half-dozen novels in terms of writing: As Dirk Pitt’s adventures have gotten longer, the prose seems slower and the action scenes seem to balloon out of proportion: It’s now bad enough that you can just skim along the first lines of each paragraph and not miss anything important. Cussler could do forestry a favour and trim his novels by half just by tightening up his writing while leaving the plot alone. Heck, he may even discover that this makes up for faster-paced novels. In the meantime, it’s all to easy to gloss over the action scenes, picking up careful reading only when Pitt lets loose with one of his typical quips. Either Cussler’s writing keeps getting worse, or my patience is wearing thin.

Otherwise, well, it’s the same-old, same-old Cussler. There are nice passages (I particularly liked the Manhattan dogfight and the trip to the Jules Verne archives) and good lines of dialogue in this overwritten mess, but in most other aspects it’s a Cussler that’s equal to all others. Some will see this as a boon, others as a problem, but no one will be disappointed or surprised by what they’re getting. Cussler has made himself immune to parody by delivering it himself. And that’s why, in all the ways that count, it’s hard to be overly critical of any book sporting Dirk Pitt’s TM.

Hidden Talents, David Lubar

Starscape, 1999, 213 pages, C$8.99 tpb, ISBN 0-765-34265-0

I know that I don’t read enough young adult fiction. The problem is that I have enough adult fiction in the queue that I practically would have to be given a YA novel before I’d consider reading it. That’s exactly what happened with David Lubar’s Hidden Talents, a young adult fantasy novel that had stayed hidden in my stack of unread books ever since the 2003 Worldcon, where it was handed over to all attendees. Why did it sit unread so long? Your guess is as good as mine –though there are books in that pile that have been languishing there since the mid-nineties.

In any case, I have no one to blame but myself for missing out so long on a perfectly enjoyable fantasy story that happens to star teenagers. Hidden Talents is an exceedingly clever book, and one that does much to raise my opinion of YA fiction.

It starts as narrator Martin Anderson is dropped off at Edgeview Alternative School, the “last chance school” for his area’s losers and misfits. Each of them has proved to be unteachable by conventional means: now Edgeview is where they’ve been placed in the hope that they will either get better or older enough to let them go away. Martin is smart, but he’s got a mouth big enough to get him kicked out of four schools in rapid succession. But if Martin’s got a talent for being a smart-alec, the other students he meets have other problems. One is a recreational pyromaniac; yet another is a compulsive cheater. Then there are the bullies and the teachers of dubious competence: Harry Potter never had it so bad.

In a few short chapters (and a variety of interstitial material such as letters, notes, drawings and transcripts), Lubar paints a vivid portrait of good kids stuck in a school gone wrong. There is, of course, more to their alleged problems than just attitude. Martin discovers, midway through, that the problems of his friends have rather… paranormal roots: The kid nicknamed “Cheater” isn’t one: he’s just a telepath who plucks answers out of his neighbours’s heads. “Torchie” is a pyrokinesic, “Flinch” is clairvoyant… and so on. None of them, of course, have ever recognized their abilities, leading them in all sorts of behavioural problems.

As a premise, that’s fantastic stuff for a YA novel, tapping directly in a few teenage anxieties about being exceptional and how to best use one’s abilities. As a dramatic driver, it’s nothing short of brilliant, especially the way it’s developed by Lubar. Martin is dubious about his findings, but that’s nothing compared to how his friends react to his suppositions: they can’t even bring themselves to consider the possibility of their powers and what it would mean to control them. It takes a pretty spiffy demonstration of scientific thinking for them to even begin to acknowledge the truth.

For a novel that can be read in less than ninety minutes, Hidden Talents seldom skips good characterization. Even filtered through Martin’s perception, most of the characters are sharply drawn and somewhat sympathetic: for misfits they’re just a lot of fun to read about. While Lubar’s plotting is hardly perfect (the first half of the book is a bit slow as Martin struggles to understand the situation, while the last act is marred by a predictable save-the-school subplot), it’s more than good enough to keep things hopping along.

Ultimately, it’s this charm and easygoing narration that keep Hidden Talents afloat for adult readers: It’s all too easy to use a book in order to tap onto one’s hidden teenager and wonder how unbelievably cool it would be to discover hidden powers. Lubar’s treatment of superpowers through doubt, demonstration and training is a believable real-world approach when such fantasy usually leaves little doubt as for the power of paranormal abilities. The narration is sharp and compelling. While Hidden Talent is unlikely to leave any lasting memory beyond its clever premise, it’s a lot of fun to read. Maybe I should make room in my stack of stuff to read for a few more YA novels…

American Backlash, Michael Adams

Viking Canada, 2005, 230 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-670-06370-3

I don’t think it’s possible to be too laudatory about Michael Adams’ previous book, Fire and Ice: Canada, The United States and the Myth of Convergence. By putting some statistical rigour onto a national feeling that had been growing for years, Adams crystallized the Canadian zeitgeist at a time where it finally manifested itself. It’s a bit pretentious to say that 2003 was the year that Canada grew up, but it certainly stands as a significant moment where (thanks to marijuana, same-sex marriage and staying-the-hell-out-of-Iraq) the country realized it was truly different from the United States. That it wasn’t just not converging with the US, but actively moving in a different direction. Sharply written with a mixture of structured polling results and pop-culture references, Fire and Ice went to to earn wide acclaim and healthy sales.

American Backlash is more or less a direct sequel to Fire and Ice, except that the analysis focuses almost exclusively on the United States. Once again, Adams takes a look at the results of his periodical household opinion surveys and draws inferences about the American character. What’s that fuss about culture wars? Is it true that, socially, the US is made of very different regions? Is the US growing more nihilistic by the minute?

As a Canadian, I’m almost disturbed at Adams’ presumptuousness in daring to psychoanalyze another country, especially if that country is the US. Through written and published for Canada, American Backlash takes on the risky task of finding out what Americans think, and if Canadians know one things very well, it’s that the US never, ever reacts favourably to outside opinion. Wouldn’t it be better, asks the polite Canadian, if we just avoided the subject altogether? I wouldn’t enjoy reading Adams’ hate mail after the publication of this book. It’s hardly surprising if the book still hasn’t found an American publisher.

But never mind my nervous fretting of hands. What does Adams have to say about the US?

One of his early conclusions is that the so-called culture war in the US is taking place upon the least important social axis. While Adams finds clear differences between self-identified conservatives and liberals (although those differences are almost orthogonal to one another: “liberals have issues while conservatives has values” he memorably coins on page 156), committed voters on both sides are very similar in terms of aspirations and community engagement. The real difference comes when you study voters versus non-voters: Perhaps predictably, non-voters are more likely to be hedonistic, consumerist and accepting of violence. It’s not such a stretch to assume that those evils that conservative and liberals are arguing against are to be found not in each other, but in this politically disengaged third group. (Ha! And you thought gansgta rap fashion was just an aberration, not a personification!)

At a thin 230 pages (only 177 of which are the main text, the rest being taken up by notes on methodology, sources and an index), American Backlash doesn’t have much more space for other subjects. It still does manage to study regional characteristics of America (suggesting that the stereotypes about this or that area of the US are largely based on real differences) and present a short history of political trends in twentieth-century America. (Hence the title, painting a picture of American politics mostly defined by what it opposes rather that what unites: the modern conservative movement as an overreaction against the evils of those “liberal hippies” of the sixties, just as the hippies were overreacting against mainstream values of the fifties…)

Unfortunately, American Backlash is not designed to speak about Canada, or how the US compares to other nations. Beyond cursory mentions of increasing liberalism everywhere else in the first world, Adams remains focused on the American national character. Readers hoping to catch a glimpse of Adams’ 2004 survey results for Canada will have their appetites whetted but left unfulfilled: you can bet good dollars that those results will have to wait until Adams’ next book. (In the meantime, Adams shows a sharp turn toward authoritarianism in the US from 2000 to 2004, and suggests a similar, but not as extreme trend in Canada.)

This being said, I think that fans of Fire and Ice will be the most disappointed in American Backlash. While the book is interesting and relatively solid, it does cover a lot of ground already explained in the previous book, and adds only a few points of interest. I supposed that many American readers will be offended by the besmirching of their national character, but then again they will have to make an effort to get the book from its Canadian publisher. For everyone else, it’s an interesting analysis of the social mood south of the border: will it be proved right just as Fire and Ice found its own vindication?

Plan of Attack, Dale Brown

Morrow, 2004, 345 pages, C$39.95 hc, ISBN 0-06-009411-7

Long-time readers of these reviews may ask why I keep reading Dale Brown’s novels if I obviously hate them so much. Part of the answer lies in my admiration of Brown’s early novels: If he was able to do it once, why not again? But the real answer is elsewhere: For years, I just kept purchasing Brown’s books whenever I found them at used book sales, piling them up unread and always thinking that I’d end up reading them all sooner or later. My mistake was in assuming that they would get better. Now I have to tough it out until the very end.

And Plan of Attack, if I’m to judge from Brown’s web site, is a temporary end of sorts: The last Patrick McLanahan novel before Brown’s newer series. You would think that this would be good news: after all, haven’t I spent the last mumble-mumble reviews of Brown’s books complaining about how the McLanahan universe is now completely irrelevant to the new geopolitical reality? Wouldn’t it be great to see Brown properly dispose of McLanahan and his cohorts? The only problem is that I’m not convinced Brown is done with McLanahan yet. Then there’s the fact that even just one last lap may be too much to bear again.

Picking up where Brown’s last half-dozen snooze-fests have left off, Plan of Attack begins with Yet Another Stupid Move by McLanahan, one that results in another international incident in McLanahan’s long career. This time around, though, this very career takes a hit as McLanahan is busted down a grade and shuffled to another area of the Air Force. Still, you can hardly count him out, especially when he discovers evidence of an audacious plan by Russia’s president to bomb America’s strategic nuclear arsenal…

Said Russian president is insane, of course, and so is the novel. While Plan of Attack is generally more interesting than Brown’s previous three novels put together, it’s the kind of interest caused by train-wrecks or forensic reports: it’s horrible, but fun to piece together why such a bad thing happened.

The main problem, of course, is that Brown’s fictional universe has long lost any relevance to the current geopolitics. McLanahan has now battled enemies in eleven novels stretching all the way back to the last days of the Cold War: Any attempt to reconcile it with real-world event is doomed to failure. (And so is any attempt to point out that the plot is pure paranoid nonsense.) Yet Brown piles on the incoherences by weaving 9/11 in the narrative, though without it having any impact on the characters or the environment in which they work: Brown’s “American Holocaust of 2004” [P.340] ends up casually dwarfing 9/11 and that’s that. A better, more confident writer may have used this premise as the basis for an alternate history novel set in a different Reagan era, but one gets the sense that Brown isn’t interested in pushing the envelope, just in delivering a pat novel that does exactly the same thing as any of his previous novels.

Unfortunately, those would be the exact same things that made his previous novels such painfully uninteresting piece of work. The overdose of jargon and minutia; the wretched dialogue (“’This is unbelievable!’ President Anatoliy Gryzlov shouted. ‘I cannot believe the sheer audacity of these Americans!’” [P.330]); the reliance on fantasy technology like the “Tin Man” suits; the indifferent characterization; the flat prose; the lack of interest in following the story where it truly leads (you will never read a less involving nuclear war novel); the way the high tech equipment makes it easy for the protagonists to kick ass without any personal danger or involvement. Whatever was promising in previous instalments is constantly neutralized and defanged: if you were expecting a political showdown between President Thorn and Martindale, you can forget it as one of them (you’ll guess who) simply steps aside off-stage to let the Republican take charge. Lazy plotting doesn’t stop there: When two powerful commanders league up to stop McLanahan, they are neatly taken out of the plot by a convenient plane crash.

I like to be lenient on military thrillers and enjoy them for that they try to be, but there’s a limit to being complacent: After a steady string of failures, enough is enough: it’s safe to assume that Brown’s not aiming particularly high any more.

If there’s any consolation to the fact that I’ve got yet another Brown book in my stack of stuff to read, it’s that Act of War promises a brand-new hero and a focus on the war on terrorism. As long as Brown keeps recycling McLanahan, he’s at a dead end. It’s high time for him to do the honourable thing and let McLanahan retire. Or else Brown himself can start thinking about doing something else and leaving the novel-writing business to professionals.

[March 2009: After two off-McLanahan novels that were substandard even by the low standards of his late career, Brown returns to his favourite series in 2007’s Strike Force, but brings back links to nearly all of his unconnected novels so far, ignoring huge chunks of his backstory for the sake of bringing all of his novels in one continuity. The increasingly self-satisfied solipsistic nature of his writing gets worse, and the result is a novel so awful that I’m thinking that enough is enough: for the near future, I’m done with Brown. Anyone in the market for a full run of his hardcovers?]

The Gold Coast, Nelson DeMille

Warner, 1990, 626 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-36085-6

As I slowly make my way through Nelson DeMille’s oeuvre, two things strike me about his books: The first one is that they all succeed to a degree or another. Some of his books are less interesting than other, but they’re still well worth reading even with the skimming and the speed-reading. But the second thing about DeMille is the most fascinating: His books work even when they shouldn’t.

Even though we could point at Word of Honor and Spencerville as other books that shouldn’t be as gripping as they are, The Gold Coast is the clearest example so far of a story that simply shouldn’t be as preposterously readable. A bare plot description is trite beyond belief: it’s about a rich middle-aged man who starts doubting his life and finds uneasy comfort with a new friend. I shudder to imagine how many awful novels have been written about mid-life crises, especially once you start looking at literary novels written by middle-aged academics. To imagine DeMille, master of the contemporary thriller, tackle such a subject is almost beyond description. Where are the guns? Where are the thrills?

As it turns out, you may not need any of the above –though they do make an appearance at some point. No, the big surprise is that The Gold Coast is a middle-age crisis novel written by a writer who’s a pro at holding his readers’ attention. Protagonist John Sutter is like every other DeMille narrator so far: self-deprecating, smart-alecky, perhaps a bit too smart for his own good. He’s living in a curious situation, having married well above his class: he makes a decent living as a Wall Street lawyer, enjoys his boat and drives nice cars, but his wife is the one with the real class, being the latest in an old-money family living on a Long Island estate that dates back to an earlier and more glorious time. For Sutter, trouble starts once his new neighbour moves in: Frank Belladonna, an old-style Mafia don who starts taking a bigger and bigger portion of Sutter’s life.

Belladonna, of course, is a magnet for danger. When guns finally make their appearance in The Gold Coast, they come courtesy of the Mafia. But that happens relatively late in the book: what really makes up the meat of the novel is DeMille’s description of the last remnants of old-style American aristocracy, compared and contrasted by the similarly dying nobility of the New York Mafia. Sutter see this through the troubled eyes of a besieged man, with a wife that grows more distant and tax troubles that are not coincidental to the tug-of-war between his neighbour and the federal government. Sutter lives at the edge between the world of the super-rich and the rest of us: an outsider to all, he makes a rich narrator who notices everything.

And indeed, the interest of The Gold Coast comes not from the late-book thrills, but in the vivid study of a way of life, of characters living down an era. DeMille’s characterization is impeccable: don’t be surprised if you’re seduced by the rough-hewn charm of Belladonna even as he’s clearly more trouble than Sutter can handle. The Gold Coast is a trial by fire for Sutter, and part of the fun is seeing him harvest the just deserts of his life so far. Scenes after scenes of delicious characterization make this novel a lot more fun to read that you’d expect from a 600-page novel about some rich guy undergoing a mid-life crisis.

And so I remain astonished at DeMille’s capacity to wring interest from an unpromising premise. Unlike some of his novels (The Lion’s Game being the worst offender), he also maintains our interest through the entire duration of the book: It’s hard to look at any 600-pages book and not think that it should be cut by a hundred pages, but trying to guess where to cut in The Gold Coast would be an exercise in futility. Suffice to say that it’s a book that will never be too far away once you start reading it. DeMille’s prose here is like popcorn, with a very real “just one more chapter” quality.

In short, The Gold Coast makes an unexpected entry at the top of DeMille’s oeuvre: Well-written, endlessly fascinating and surprisingly engaging, it shows what happens when genre writers turn their sight to more prosaic literature: perfect pacing and sharp characterization in the service of a story for the ages. It shouldn’t work, but it certainly does.

X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

(In theaters, May 2006) If I actually cared about the X-Men as a comic book with a decades-long history, I may be peeved at the way they handled the “Dark Phoenix” idea. But given that I don’t (and haven’t even read the Dark Phoenix Saga), I thought the film was a good-enough summer action blockbuster and a good third instalment in the series. There is, certainly, a bit too much material and characters to handle gracefully: “The Cure” was a concept strong enough that the Dark Phoenix subplot wasn’t strictly required, and some more time with the characters may have been beneficial. But when the leather hits the pavement, X-Men 3 is a straight-ahead action locomotive: Brett Ratner is a better action director than Brian Singer, and the way he handles the rest of the film is unlikely to annoy anyone but the tedious anti-Ratners and the even more tedious X-Men integrists. Hey, it’s not deep cinema (despite the deeper-than-usual thematic resonances, simple concepts such as “succession planning” still seem to elude Professor X) and the only yardstick required in this case is the good old “was I entertained?” question. Of course I was. End of story… but don’t bet on this “last stand” being the end of the series: Peek at the end of the credits to understand why.

United 93 (2006)

(In theaters, May 2006) And so there it is: The first widely-released motion picture explicitly about September 11, 2001. And a curious piece it is, consciously eschewing glossy movie-making in favour of a quasi-documentary approach that cranks up the intensity to a level that will be unbearable to some. As it stands United 93 is a bit of a schizoid film, starting in techno-thriller territory along with the air traffic controllers, to end as a claustrophobic thriller aboard flight 93. But regardless of the split, United 93 works when it should: Director Paul Greengrass’ shaky camera, so annoying in The Bourne Supremacy, works exceedingly well here as he captures an “over the shoulder” approach that skirts a fine line between exploitation and glorification. His script similarly presents the event in a matter-of-fact, quasi-documentary approach, only deviating from knowable facts in the final minute. (In an attempt to provide catharsis for its audience, United 93 has the passengers break into the cockpit, whereas black box recordings suggest this never happened.) But as a piece of cinema, its artistic worth almost becomes irrelevant to its place in history as “the first of those films.” For non-Americans, it mark a welcome step toward the “acceptance” stage of America’s national grief after a rather long “anger” stage.

The Draco Tavern, Larry Niven

Tor, 2006, 304 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30863-0

Long-time Larry Niven readers only need to be told one thing about The Draco Tavern: This is another one of Niven’s mostly-reprint anthologies, but it’s much better than the other ones. Even the newer stories don’t suck as much as you would expect.

Niven’s career, by now, is a case study in wunderkind turned has-been: From fresh, vivid and compulsively readable material in the sixties and seventies, Niven began a steady slide into mediocrity starting with The Ringworld Engineer in 1982, a decline only stemmed by a number of collaborations —although even those have started to stink since The Gripping Hand. The latest development has been his repackaging of linked short stories in a series of themed anthologies revolving around specific characters or universe: While N-Space and Playgrounds of the Mind were decent best-of collections, books like Crashlander, Flatlander and Rainbow Mars could be described in one damning sentence: Collection of several good stories from the early Niven, followed by an unreadable new story by the later Niven. Sequels like The Ringworld Throne did nothing to enhance Niven’s tarnished reputation, to say nothing of “original” works like Destiny’s Road or collections of recent sub-standard work such as Scatterbrain. So imagine the low expectations upon reading The Draco Tavern.

As usual, the beginning of the book plays to expectations: Niven’s new introduction is rambling and repetitive, whereas the early stories are classic Niven from his prime. Many SF writers try bar stories at one point or another and it’s not hard to see why: the classic set-up involves a world-weary but removed narrator, inebriated guest stars and stories that -being told twice-removed- may or may not be true. (Arthur C. Clarke packaged his bar stories into one of my favourite books, Tales from the White Hart, whereas Spider Robinson turned his Callahan’s stories into a career.) Niven states that he designed the Draco Tavern cycle as a way to explore the Big Issues, and the first few stories do justice to his ambitions, regaling us with ideas and speculations about life, the universe and everything in-between. I still vividly remember those stories from the classic Niven era, from the punchline of “The Green Marauder” to the unsettling core idea of “The Subject is Closed”.

Then, true to Niven’s career, the level of quality of the stories begins to slide down. The freshness of the Draco Tavern stories turns bland. The action occasionally moves away from the tavern itself (“Table Manners”), with mixed results. Niven transforms his narrator, Rick Schumann, into an active participant —but fails to develop his character unless it serves the stories. Packaged closely together like this, the stories in The Draco Tavern offer the outline of a dramatic arc as Schumann gets married, has a kid, sees the tavern get destroyed at least twice and then rebuilt. Unfortunately, it remains only a faint outline: particularly disappointing is the lack of attention paid to Schumann’s personal life, which barely gets more than a passing mention except when it’s meant to be a plot driver. (See “Playhouse” for an example.)

But the big surprise is that even if the late-Niven stories aren’t nearly at neat (nor as readable) as the first ones, they still maintain a basic level of interest. Unlike most of Niven’s short fiction since the early nineties, the more contemporary half of The Draco Tavern is still a good read. The verve is gone, but it still works somehow. Readers who were disappointed by Niven’s most recent collections won’t feel as cheated by this one.

Still, there’s still plenty to criticize in the last half of the book. The jarring introduction of contemporary references to Toshiba laptops and 9/11 terrorism strips away some of the timeless quality that such a collection should have. Niven’s increasingly cranky politics also muscle their way in the narrative with a conspicuous lack of cleverness. There’s a tin-eared reference to Saddam Hussein on page 257 that makes Niven look like an idiot who overdosed on Fox News. Those details pile up so that, in the word of another Niven story, “the magic goes away”.

But these false notes and atonal passages are almost reassuring: it just wouldn’t do to assume that “Niven’s back!”, wouldn’t it? It may be just a bit better to feel that the time-tested template of the Draco Tavern stories was enough to keep the brain-eater at bay, just for this one book. For those who wondered where the early Niven went, The Draco Tavern won’t offer any happy explanation… but it just may be enough to feel that he still has a few more good stories left in his head.

The Triangle (2005)

(On DVD, May 2006) After watching far too many awful TV miniseries, my hope weren’t high for The Triangle –but I enjoy being pleasantly surprised, and it doesn’t take much time for this miniseries to intrigue: The opening credits are a visual joy to behold, and the first few scenes efficiently set up both the characters and the mystery at the heart of the story. Writer Rockne S. O’Bannon is not a novice, and his TV experience on shows such as Farscape shines brightly on this modern take on the Bermuda Triangle. Characters are initially sceptical, but come to be convinced by a bunch of interesting developments, including the salvage of a downed airliner that looks as if it’s aged half a century in only a few hours. It’s all fascinating, and if the three-part miniseries can’t eventually match of fulfil the expectations set up by its initial 90 minutes episode, it keeps a level of quality well above the norm for SF miniseries, especially at the Sci-Fi channel. The direction is pleasantly self-assured, juicing up even expository conversation thanks to dynamic camera setups. The numerous CGI shots are as well-done as they bring an extra interest to the story. Not all the plot threads are created equal (the Lou Diamond Philips sequences, in particular, are a bit tedious compared to the other characters), but the level of interest remains high. Too bad that the facile ending can’t explain everything that has popped up in the preceding four-and-a-half hours. Still, an above-average effort that’s worth seeing, especially if your alternative is all of the other straight-to-DVD releases at your local Blockbuster.

Supernova (2005)

(On DVD, May 2006) Immediate intervention is required! Deep inside this three-hour-long miniseries lies an acceptable catastrophe film, but it’s been smothered in insipid dialogue, drawn-out development and an entire serial-killer subplot that seems spliced from another film entirely. This script shows clear signs of metastasizing plot threads: See that Peter Fonda subplot? It wander on for two hours, well past its relevancy to the action. And that serial killer thing, oh my: Have we just wasted forty minutes on something this painfully predictable? Did we just squander forty expensive minutes on that stuff? What about those false-escape subplots that serve no narrative purpose except goosing the already-exasperated viewers? Did you fall asleep too during those bits? Well –you’re not alone. Whoah, we’re not done, though: Check out that “Australia” in which everyone sounds American, everything looks South African and where the death penalty was re-introduced without anyone looking! Gee, and what about those Hanna-Barbera cartoons? –oops, those are supposed to be top-notch CGI sequences. Oh well. Hey, don’t feel so sorry for the film: if you’re going to use a title as generic and derivative as Supernova, evoking memories of the awful 2001 film, you pretty much deserve everything you’re going to get. (Hey, isn’t that Tia Carrere? She’s a bit older than the last time we saw her, but isn’t she still as cute as ever?) I can understand that this made-for-TV thing isn’t meant to be a work of art, but the least it could do was avoid wasting everyone else’s time: While there’s good stuff in Supernova (When was the last time we saw St. Louis trashed by plasma bolts? What about seeing the Sahara desert transformed in peaks of molten glass?), it simply squanders away any chance at snappiness or energy through useless subplots and mountains or irrelevance. Re-cut that poor thing and call me whenever Tia Carrere gets most of the screen-time.

Slipstream (2005)

(On DVD, May 2006) I will at least admit one thing: Slipstream had the potential to be interesting. Not fascinating, nor even original, but interesting: The premise involves a gadget that can rewind reality ten minutes back in time, a nerdy scientist and a bank robbery that goes wrong. Add to that a number of very nice production values (including CGI, helicopters, a decent truck crash and a good SWAT stand-off) and the result could have been a decent B-grade genre film. But bad writing and even worse direction dictated that this wasn’t to be: Slipstream quickly worsens with a pretentious (and nonsensical) opening monologue, and then proceeds to dig down even further. Sean Astin’s protagonist is immediately repulsive, and never recovers our affections later on. Vinnie Jones does better as a stereotypical crazy criminal, but Ivana Milicevic brings nothing special to her role as a FBI agent. Worse is the script, which can’t be bothered to wring any cleverness beyond the initial premise. The film still feels long even though it’s less than 90 minutes, which is a telling commentary on a film chiefly concerned about time. But where Slipstream really suffers is in the direction, which steals freely from dozens of better films without quite understanding why style usually serves a storytelling purpose. By the time we get to the merry-go-round of shooters (hey, don’t ask), it’s obvious that the director is padding twenty minutes’ worth of story into the length of a feature film. The result is a mess, not without potential but ultimately broken by its own incompetence. In the time-travel genre, Primer did a whole lot more with a whole lot less.

Poseidon (2006)

(In theaters, May 2006) I don’t think that many people were actively petitioning for a remake of the disaster-classic The Poseidon Adventure, but someone somewhere decided otherwise and suddenly threw 150 million dollars to Wolfgang Petersen to make it so. The end result is surprisingly dull: while the special effects are fabulous and the disaster is a workout for any decent theatre setup, it’s really hard to care for the moronic characters and their dwindling numbers. At least two of them die in entirely expected ways, raising barely more than a shrug: the pre-disaster characterization was reportedly left on the editing room floor, but I doubt that even compelling back-stories would have done much to enhance the episodic nature of Poseidon‘s running length. Characters try to get somewhere, see an obstacle and work their way through it (often losing one of their numbers in the process). Wash, rinse, repeat. Do we really want to see any of them succeed? Not really, and especially not when they’re as annoying as the kid who can’t stay put: it’s hard to cheer for characters whose cluelessness should be terminal. As the Poseidon finally sinks, so do most of our memories of the film. For all of ILM’s fantastic special effects (with a respectful nod at the fabulous all-digital opening shot), this is a straight-to-DVD film writ large, with bigger stars (including Kurt Russell, who rocks in anything) and slightly smoother dialogue. Looking at the sinking box-office results, the public seems to be in agreement. Pick it up in the bargain bin in a few months.

America, Stephen Coonts

St. Martin’s, 2001, 436 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-312-98250-X

Genre fiction is often an exercise in balancing realism against excitement. Real life is boring, doesn’t make sense and shows an annoying reluctance to pay off in dramatic satisfaction. Yet fiction that relies too heavily on dramatic conventions is more easily dismissed as unrealistic. Hence the tightrope act of any fiction writer in balancing the demands of reality versus the thrills of a good story. Ideally, it’s best to establish just enough reality to suspend disbelief, and then step hard on the dramatic accelerator.

This balance between reality and fiction is tricky to get right in any genre, but military thrillers present their own particular problems, and it’s a mark of the sub-genre’s low storytelling standards that even its best-selling authors have such a hard time succeeding. Too much realism, and the novel sinks in impenetrable jargon, uninteresting details and amiable characterization featuring idealized martial clones. Too much action, and the novel leaves reality as we understand it to end up in a paranoid fantasyland where every non-American is best killed with extreme preemptive prejudice. Dale Brown is particularly bad at this, but he’s far from being the only one.

Stephen Coonts has usually been more successful than most of his colleagues in delivering solid stories with just enough real-world foundations. While he’s been slipping as of late (Saucer and Hong Kong certainly weren’t his best efforts), the early Coonts managed a good mixture between believable realism and big-screen thrills. America, unfortunately, is closer to a disappointment than a success, even though all the elements are there for something much better.

It begins as the United States’ newest nuclear submarine, the USS America, is boldly hijacked by a group of terrorists. That in itself would be bad enough, but what’s in the launch bays makes it even worse: a bunch of cruise missiles equipped with EMP warheads.

This premise by itself wouldn’t be a bad start to a crackerjack thriller. There’s an element of originality, a built-in tension (especially if the missiles are launched in separate waves) and a good hunter/killer element. Find a good antagonist and the rest of the novel practically writes itself.

Alas, Coonts chose to burden his scenario with too many elements that only serve to defuse the tension and increase the giggle factor. There’s an underwater satellite recovery subplot that scatters the story in a direction it didn’t need (and suffers in comparison with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Bright Star), along with money-grubbing villains (some of them French, of course) whose motivations and methods don’t even make sense.

What also contributes to America‘s failure is Coonts’ annoying tendency to re-use the same characters in novels set in the same universe. I’m rarely a fan of loose series, and they make no sense in the military thriller genre: Once you’ve nuked a city, killed a president or fought a war with China, what’s left to do? Coonts has been bitten by this bad habit before (resurrecting Castro for Cuba after killing him in Under Siege) and his habit of trotting out Jake Grafton, Toad Tarkington and Tommy Carmellini for little more than secondary roles is truly starting to grate.

Worse yet is America‘s flat-line dramatic tension. The writing is limp and without energy, with scenes strung along a thin clothesline of plot. Hampered by their existing back-stories, the recurring characters are simply not placed in good positions to follow and intervene in the action. Everything feels removed, distant and telegraphed. It’s only too easy to see where the novel’s good sequences (a cruise missile attack on New York, an underwater submarine duel, a failed assassination attempt) could have been strengthened with just a little bit more dramatic glue. Instead, America often feels like the product of a tired author, a formerly hot novelist now phoning them in for an undemanding audience. After the dramatic drop in quality of his previous few novels, I can’t say that I’m surprised or even disappointed.

Still, what’s especially frustrating about Coonts is that he’s not completely clueless. Unlike Dale Brown or Patrick Robinson, his plotting is serviceable, and there are hints that he still understands the demands of dramatic tension. His writing seldom slides into jargon-heavy militarism, and intermittent flashes of interest show that there may still be hope for him. Unfortunately, I’m thrice-burned, twice-shy on his stuff. If I end up reading the follow-up Liberty, it’ll be by pure used-book-sale happenstance: like so many of the young techno-thriller punks of the late eighties, Coonts has become and old tired warhorse practically fit to be put to pasture, defeated by the twin inability to keep it real and keep it interesting.

Over The Hedge (2006)

(In theaters, May 2006) Kids, computer animation and suburban animals: three things that go well together. It helps that PDI/Dreamworks have been improving their non-Shrek movies since A Shark’s Tale and the underwhelming Madagascar. Learning from earlier mistakes, Over The Hedge is almost free of pop-culture references and feels fresher for concentrating on the character comedy between a bunch of newly-suburbanized animals. The voice talent errs toward celebrity stunt-casting, but those actually fit: hearing William Shatner over-emote death sequences over and over again is such a natural match that it’s a wonder it hasn’t been done before. (Although considering Shatner’s long self-deprecating streak, it just may have been.) Still, the movie belongs to Steve Carrell’s “Hammy” as a hyperkinetic squirrel who would be unimaginable without the wonders of modern computer animation. The film’s most memorable scene features the world from his point of view and it a sustained thirty seconds of payoffs on various gags set up earlier in the film. The technical aspects of the animation are excellent (So much hair!) and the creative direction certainly helps: During its most inspired moments, Over The Hedge has a classic Warner Brothers feel. Unfortunately, not all of the film is like that, and it so happens that the movie occasionally skips a beat for thirty seconds, in a drawn-out effort to teach kids the Family Is Important. But, hey, it is a kid’s film: I suppose we should be lucky that it’s accessible to adults.

Mission: Impossible III (2006)

(In theaters, May 2006) Sure, Tom Cruise is a loon. But now that we’ve disposed of the obvious, let’s look at Mission: Impossible 3 as a movie rather than a star vehicle. It’s certainly a different film from the first two movies in the series: Here, the team is back in action, leading to a number of crunchy heist sequences that don’t just bask in the glory of Tom Cruise. Similarly, we can sense that some care has been given to the script underlying the entire film: Director J.J. Abrams is a veteran of such TV shows as Alias, and this go-for-broke intensity is one of the most pleasant aspects of Mission: Impossible 3. As the often-ludicrous twists pile up, the film speeds up and acquires a pleasant velocity. It brings some of TV’s best tricks to the bigger-budgeted world of action movies and at least gives the illusion of doing something new. Seymour Philip Hoffman’s villain is a case in point: a role that may have been ridiculous in the hands of another actor is here exploited to its most vicious extent by an Oscar-winning actor seemingly having some fun. Even the dramatic underpinnings of the story make sense (though that’s not always the case with the details) despite overly-maudlin romantic moments and some eye-rolling twists. From the electric opening sequence to some of the best action scenes of the year (that Chesapeake Bay Bridge action sequence, complete with armed UAV and palpable desperation, is a piece of art), Mission: Impossible 3 is a crowd pleaser that delivers exactly what it intends. Heck, it even has the potential to revive a moribund franchise.