Kinky Boots (2005)

(In theaters, May 2006) It’s amazing how quickly a good idea can become a tired sub-genre: A group of Brits rally around a naughty idea in order to make money and regain some self-respect, in an innocuous film “based on a true story”. It started with The Full Monty, along with Calendar Girls and Mrs Henderson Presents not far behind. Now comes Kinky Boots with fetishist footwear and drag queens as the star of the show. Completely familiar and utterly conventional: despite the titillation factor of lines such as “two feet of tubular sex”, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone even remotely offended by anything in Kinky Boots. Conversely, this also means a film that’s as unadventurous as they come. The save-the-factory plot is immediately familiar, and if the quality of the writing means that few will be bored, there really isn’t much worth remembering as soon as the credits roll. At least the direction is effective, the rhythm is constant and the actors are sympathetic –though Chiwetel Ejiofor is head-and-shoulders above everyone else as “Lola”. Despite the lack of surprise, one can do much, much worse than have a look at this film.

Descent (2005)

(On DVD, May 2006) They say that imitation is the best flattery, but the producers of The Core can enjoy at least one other benefit from the dull made-for-TV train wreck that is Descent: It will actually make people say ‘You know, The Core wasn’t actually all that bad!’ You can count the similar plot points between the two films and run out of fingers: a government project that goes wrong; the ridiculous “demonstration” of the problem; a machine designed to burrow underground; the necessity to set up bombs deep under the surface; the heroic sacrifice; the underwater finale… and so on. If Descent is not without a few decent moments (the banter between the post-doc students is amusing, Mimi Kuzyk looks scrumptious and Luke Perry at least tries to do a good job as the hero), all those moments serve to do is highlight how much better The Core was in actually delivering on its shaky premise. Here, the catastrophe looks cheap and tedious, barely shaking up Seattle and deep-frying a hockey-loving farmer. Low budget film-making is usually an exercise in compromise, but believe me: I could have tolerated even fewer death and destruction in exchange for better dialogue and clever plot twists. If the script can’t be bothered to care, then neither will I.

Clade, Mark Budz

Bantam Spectra, 2003, 372 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-58658-0

The publishing industry has evolved a lot over the past decade, and one of the most profound changes has been nearly-invisible to end-readers. The consolidation of book distribution to just a few players has wreaked havoc on mass-market paperback distribution in non-bookstore outlets, which means that if your corner convenience store may once have boasted a well-stocked paperback section, today’s books are selling primarily in bookstores and nowhere else. Financially, this has destroyed the niche for mass market paperback, concentrated the buying public in bookstores visitors and driven publishing toward higher-priced formats, hence the explosion in hardcover and trade paperback publishing. The classic mass-market paperback survives, but as a second life for books already very successful on the hardcover circuit.

Alas, this squeezes out newer and mid-list writers who had, up until that crunch, relied on sales from truck stops and drugstores to make up their numbers. Today’s mass-market paperback original is a solitary and beautiful creature in danger of extinction.

Which brings us to Clade, a first novel by SF writer Mark Budz. I know that I should pick up more first novels by unknown writers as a matter of principle, but I can claim no such lofty intention for buying Clade: I just loved Stephen Youll’s luminously futuristic cover. That, and the fact that Budz’s second book, Crache, was neatly shelved right next to it, with matching cover art. Who can tell what will work in convincing people to pick up strange new books?

As it turns out, I’m not displeased at all by this debut novel. The central conceit of Clade is simplicity itself: what if we end up using our knowledge of biotechnology to enclave ourselves? Social classes are already a fact of life, but what if poor people could be made to be sick in rich people’s presence? Wouldn’t that be an efficient way to clean the room for the rich? But why stop there? Why not codify racism as an allergen responses? What if the presence of a certain ethnic group can truly made you sick?

Not a fun future, but one worth pondering. Despite SF’s claims as an all-inclusive literature, class issues don’t often pop up as a issue of interest to its writers. (Cynics will say that as a middle-class American literature, SF loathes to cut too close to the central assumptions of its readership: the very thought that America is a class-stratified society is so taboo that everyone pretends it’s not there.) In Clade, Budz doesn’t shy away from a future where Caucasians are in the minority, where the rich use everyone else for their own purposes and where ethnic/social/cultural barriers are accepted with scarcely more than a resigned shrug.

Calling a novel “post-cyberpunk” nowadays is doing no one any favour, but it doesn’t take too much imagination to see the common links between this novel and the Gibson generation of the late eighties. The world awareness, the dirty side of technology, the idea that corporations certainly aren’t our best friend: These ideas, now familiar, permeate Clade and yet do much to give it the feel of a contemporary piece of Science Fiction.

Given such high and exciting ambitions, it’s perhaps no surprise that the execution of the novel can often be disappointing. Budz’s writing betrays a lack of polished experience, and the structure of the story can be a bit clunky: the ending, in particular, seems rushed and pat. It is a conclusion, but one that seems to leave a lot of material up in the air. (Crache is billed as an independent sequel –we’ll see what that means.)

The other problem with the book is that it works as long as you’re willing to grant the author a bit of indulgence. When words like “ecocaust” figure heavily in the novel’s backstory, it’s a good hint to stop worrying about consistency and just enjoy the ride: Standard post-apocalyptic SF reading protocols suggest that said catastrophe frees the author to do whatever is necessary to required to set up the world of the story. That the “cades” and “pherions” of the story aren’t plausible isn’t the point: The point is using those tools to tell a story about something. It’s just a shame that it’s impossible to believe in this future as anything but authorial decree, a feeling that the sometimes-silly thriller mechanics don’t do much to dispel.

But I still enjoyed the book: as a debut novel, it’s got good energy, a few terrific idea and -perhaps most importantly- the willingness to engage with some vital issues. Crache is up next on my reading stack and I’m looking forward to it. While Clade may not blow open any doors nor any minds, it’s a perfect example of the type of good solid mid-list SF that is threatened by the disappearance of mass-market paperbacks. Do yourself a favour: The next time you’re in a supermarket, have a look at the paperback originals on the wire racks.

[June 2006: Alas, sequel Crache isn’t nearly as interesting. While more complex, better written and gifted with higher stakes than the prequel, Crache is far less grounded in reality, and that ultimately takes away a lot of Clade‘s initial appeal as a champion of the lower classes. There are three plot-lines in Crache and the only one I found constantly interesting was the one about “L. Mariachi”, a former rock star now surviving as a migrant worker. The rest was hit-and-miss, damaged by lengthy interludes, wonky plot mechanics intersecting hard science (including programmable matter, straight from Will McCarthy’s speculations) with quasi-mysticism in which a guitar song can cure cancer. (Well, maybe not cancer, but at least an otherwise incurable disease.) Some aspects of the book are stronger than Clade (something I have to admire), but the overall impact is muted. Though billed as an independent sequel, Crache uncompromisingly re-uses so much jargon and setting from the first novel that people reading this without the required background may find it a hard slog.]

The Da Vinci Code (2006)

(In theaters, May 2006) This film is as critic-proof as they come, what with its built-in audience, puffed-up controversy and all-star cast and crew. No matter what anyone say, it’ll make zillions and find a modest place of some sort in film history. Stripped of the hype, though, it’s no surprise to find that The Da Vinci Code is merely an average thriller, competently made but hardly innovative. In many ways, it’s fitting that two of the blandest Hollywood stars of the moment, director Ron Howard and star Tom Hanks, would help in delivering the epitome of mass-market cinema entertainment. Perfectly blending French and American cinema, The Da Vinci Code delivers endless conversations rudely interrupted by car chases and modest gunfights. Of the actors, only Ian McKellen is any fun at all as a mischievous historian with a flamboyant streak: Tom Hanks, Paul Bettany, Jean Reno and Audrey Tautou are wasted in roles that either don’t suit them or are cut short without much conclusion. But the film’s most distinctive trait is how it alternates between talky exposition and very average thriller episodes. To be fair, the book was just as bad, except that the roughshod charm of Dan Brown’s clunky-but-earnest prose had a forward rhythm of its own. I expect a huge number of academic papers to be written on the adaptation of this story from one medium to another, especially when you consider that the book seems faster-paced that the film. While the critical knives had been drawn in anticipation of this film, the end result in no way deserves a critical savaging: in most aspects, it’s perfectly serviceable, with a tiny thrill of irreverence considering the subject matter. I’ve seen both better and worse this week. In the end, most people will find this film to be a mirror of their own expectations: Fans of the book will be pleased, curious film-goers will be satisfied and literary critics will find another reason to call Dan Brown the Anti-Christ. Now that’s entertainment for everyone!

Alien Apocalypse (2005)

(On DVD, May 2006) The Sci-Fi channel is now infamous for producing trash films that only serve to hook the dumbest members of its audience, and if Alien Apocalypse isn’t quite the worst film I’ve ever seen, it does make Battlefield Earth look good… and I write this knowing fully well the repercussions of admitting such a thing. Bad movies are usually exasperating, but Alien Apocalypse quickly reaches a level of apathy that is only reserved for those stuck watching kiddie TV shows over and over again. To put it bluntly, Alien Apocalypse seems written for dumb twelve years olds by an even dumber sixteen-year-old. The tired shtick of the premise (Astronauts come back to Earth to discover that humanity is enslaved by aliens: they teach everyone to fight back) wouldn’t have be publishable for the past forty years in the lit-SF world, but the treatment is even less imaginative than the premise. Even lead actor Bruce Campbell can’t salvage this piece of trash (though he does get a fun drunken monologue and one Ash-worthy line of dialogue: “Your stupidity is terminal. And now you’re cured.”), which get progressively less pleasant as it advances. You will stop caring a lot sooner than the film finishes, leaving the rest of the experience as a grating sensation of losing brain cells to the burning stupidity of the film. Not a pleasant experience; celebrate every day in which you don’t get to see Alien Apocalypse.

Absolute Zero (2006)

(On DVD, May 2006) Some say that you can learn as much from the bad than from the good, and in this case you can probably try to get a full credit in dramatic arts from watching Absolute Zero. Incompetently structured, badly written, this straight-to-DVD film (by way of TV broadcast, we’re told) can’t even be bothered to do a good job in ripping off The Day After Tomorrow. While the CGI shots aren’t too bad, the writing shows a rare streak of tone-deaf dialogue, unimaginative developments and lack of scientific literary. Suffice to say that in this doomsday scenario, global warming polar inversion mumbo-jumbo freeze up the tropics while heating up the poles. (If you can figure how that’s possible without four-dimensional topology, email me.) But that’s a minor sin compared to the way the script can’t be bothered to introduce most of its character until after the thirty-minutes mark (in a film barely 96 minutes!) or where dialogue is seen as an afterthought. (“Science is always right”; uh, no, and every real scientist will tell you so.) It eventually degenerates in a low-budget “suspense” last-act that seems to slow down even as various countdowns are supposed to make us care. Yawn. This is almost worth a look thanks to its truly awful science… but just listening to an eight-year-old explaining his vision of the world can be just as entertaining.

The Merchants of Souls, John Barnes

Tor, 2001, 398 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-58969-6

John Barnes’ work may have polarized readers, but his career has been fascinating to follow. Now solidly ranked in the Science Fiction mid-list after a promising debut in the late eighties, Barnes has written everything from hard-SF blockbusters (Mother of Storms) to glorified men’s adventure (The Timeline Wars trilogy), with an orthogonal side-step in fantasy fable with One for the Morning Glory. And yet, over a career that now spans two decades, his most solid work may be the cycle initiated by Ten Thousand Doors: four novels charting the life of special operative Giraut Leones as he works in a far-flung future where humanity has colonized thousands of planets.

The first novel in the series was interesting and almost charming, but the second one (Earth Made of Glass) ended on such a terrible note that it felt like a sucker punch: The double whammy of a failed marriage and a failed mission, with the likely death of an entire planet as a consequence. Not the kind of stuff that’s worth cheering for, especially when it looked like the end of the story for Giraut.

But it wasn’t the end of the story. As The Merchants of Souls picks up, Giraut is still reeling from the aftermath of his divorce and what has since become known as “the Briand disaster”. Friends get together to cheer him up, but nothing works like getting back in the saddle again. Before he can catch his breath, Giraut is once more an Office of Special Projects operative. This time, he’s headed for Earth and its billions of inhabitants at centre of human civilization. But he’s not working alone, and this time he’s trying to stop all of human society from making a big mistake. What’s more, he has no clue who his true enemies are, or what they’re up to…

Beyond the “portal” technology linking all thousand planets together, the most distinguishing feature of Barnes’ “Thousand Cultures Universe” has been the “psypyx”, a device allowing another mind to “ride” a functioning human. This usually takes place for medical purposes, as a clone is force-grown for a psypyx personality back-up: To train their mind, resurrected personalities undergo a period of apprenticeship by re-learning human skill in someone else’s skull. Perhaps the best thing about The Merchant of Souls is how it plays with the concept, both as a plot driver and as am innovative feature of the narration.

Giraut gets fitted with a psypyx not only to help out a friend who is about to be re-born, but also to demonstrate (on OSP’s orders) something vital to the teeming population of Earth. As humanity has retreated further and further in entertainment-driven lives, some are pushing for psypyx exploitation: imagine the lure of millions of lives saved on silicon, ready to be popped into the entertainment console for cheap thrills. The fact that those are human lives and not ready-made casual entertainment barely resonates among those pushing for the exploitation of that particular natural resource: in fact, they’re denying that psypyx images are even sentient. Giraut, allowing an old childhood friend (Raimbaut) access to his mind and body, hopes to convince the decision-makers that this isn’t the case. From a special operative, he’s reluctantly forced into the role of a lobbyist.

And so The Merchants of Souls goes on, with the added narrative twist that the tale is told by two narrators sharing a single body. This makes for curious scenes and ellipses, as Giraut may go to sleep just to allow Raimbaut to do his thing (or vice-versa). Hilarity ensues when both of them end up falling for different women. While the mechanics of body-sharing can be a cause for some head-scratching, it adds another layer of interest to a novel that, for a long time, seems to spin its wheels.

Let’s be clear about this: The Merchants of Souls is never dull, but there are times, especially in the middle third, where it looks as if the plot is just idling and waiting for something to happen. If it’s an intentional ploy, it works remarkably well: When the third act kicks in, it does so with an event so shocking that it sends the novel spinning in another direction entirely. Suddenly, psypyx-drilling becomes a front for something much more dangerous. While this part of the tale isn’t flawless (Barnes can be a bit abrupt and gloss over crucial details when the action starts firing up), it strengthens what had been, up until then, a moderately good but unspectacular SF novel.

It also made me reconsider a number of things I didn’t initially enjoy about the series. Now that I’ve seen where Barnes intended to go with this book, Earth Made of Glass suddenly feels a lot more appropriate as a step away from the innocence of the first novel. With its juiced-up ending, The Merchants of Souls fulfils its potential and promises much for the fourth volume, The Armies of Memory, which made it in bookstores as I was reading this volume. You can be sure that it’s going on the pile of things to read.