Monthly Archives: June 2006

Act of War, Dale Brown

Morrow, 2005, 384 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-06-075299-8

Finally! After more than half a dozen increasingly awful novels set in the the same tired universe, Dale Brown finally comes to his sense, ditches the Patrick McLanahan series and starts afresh. At a time where military thrillers readers are increasingly reluctant to “take a chance” on unfamiliar characters, it’s tempting to give grudging respect to Brown for doing what he should have done ten years ago.

But don’t be so sure that he’s stretching or being audacious. For one thing, Act of War is not a pure act of literature: Sharp-eyed readers will read the copyright page and notice that “Act of War” is a trademark of Atari Interactive, Inc. Those with a gaming background will already know about the “Act of War” Real-Time Strategy game. In other words, this is a tie-in novel, whether Dale Brown contributed to the game or vice-versa.

For another proof that the author’s not being too ambitious, consider that we’re not too far away from Brown’s pet toys of late: Starting from the “Real-World News Excerpts” that open the novel, we’re back into the “armoured exoskeleton” shtick that Brown has carried along since The Tin Man. Yup, it’s all high-tech robots from there to the end of the novel, as valiant Americans battle terrorists who dare take on the Empire. A new universe? A departure? A stroke of marketing genius? Eh, you decide.

And yet, despite Brown’s unwillingness to stray too far from what he has come to know best, there is an undeniable sense of freedom to be found in this departure. The book opens with a bang, as terrorists set off a tactical nuclear warhead to destroy a petroleum facility in Texas. Then the new characters take over, and for a while it’s fun to see where the tale goes now that McLanahan is nowhere in the way. New protagonist Jason Richter isn’t a big switch from McLanahan, mind you: Younger and more technologically sophisticated, Richter otherwise shares the same personality template with Brown’s best-known protagonist. Rebellious to a degree that seems implausible, Richter gets repeatedly chewed out for disobeying orders but, like McLanahan, always ends up vindicated for using his giant robots against the evil terrorists. Naturally, it’s no real surprise if big robots end up being the perfect solution for everything.

This naturally raises the question of finding out which part of the novel wags the other around. A clumsy mixture of the strategic and the tactical, Act of War initially sets out to re-fight the War on Terrorism on pure wish-fulfilment. As the story advances, we get the feeling that Brown thinks that Bush is a big kitten in national security matters, and that only decisive actions can truly save the American way of life. As Brown’s President seems gung-ho on declaring war on a concept (literally, despite those accursed civil-rights advocates in Congress), it seems obvious that this high-level muck is just there to justify the giant robot antics of Richter and his gang. The alternative -that this ridiculous pap is meant to be taken seriously- is almost too ridiculous to contemplate. Considering that Act of War is a video-game and that the point of video-games is blowing up stuff real good (a task uniquely suited to giant robots), one gets the sense that there’s a bigger dog wagging the novel around.

This being said, I’m trying really hard to avoid painting this as yet another video-game novelization. The prose style is all Brown, including the stiff prose and lack of technical prowess. The characters are generic and if the plotting is generally better than any of the author’s previous half-dozen novels, Act of War still suffers from jerky pacing, and a single-minded obsession about giant robots. It doesn’t help that Brown’s vision of terrorism remains hopelessly quaint: Unlike what we’ve come to expect from the real world those past years, the acts in Act of War take on a cartoonish quality as they are masterminded by an evil cabal too clichéd to feel real. Even in a “hard-hitting” post-2001 novel about terrorism, Brown infantilizes the issue and can’t face the real forces at play.

And yet, even as lousy as it is, Act of War represents a definite step up for Brown. The first few pages of the book carry a little frisson, as it looks like Brown will finally take the next step up. Free of the McLanahan shackles, the novel stretches a little bit and gets back to the wide-screen feel of the author’s first few books. There is a surprising amount of hidden agendas and ambiguous motivations to be stripped off on the way to the true “terrorist-vs-USA” plot and if the end result is another disappointment, the indifferent impression ultimately left by the novel was not a foregone conclusion. It may not be enough to make me read the next one… but it’s sufficient to stop me from discounting the thought altogether.

[February 2009: When you’re got a hammer, all problems look like nails, and ever since Brown ditched his B-52s for Giant Robots, it looks as if he wants to take on every single issue of national interest with his cool toys —including illegal immigration. So don’t expect Edge of Battle to be any better than his previous novels. In fact, it’s markedly worse: bad characters, dumb situations, reams of spurting exposition and some ill-advised plotting all combine to bring this book down. The robots aren’t the worst part, actually: nearly every attempt to use them backfires. No, it’s the attempt to combine innefectual Mexican political leadership with an evil Russian terrorist/criminal that really sinks the novel beyond its lack of entertainment value. And yet, from time to time, we get some exposition that suggests that Dale does understand some of the issues he’s dealing with. It’s just that he never follows up on his best ideas, and that the comic-book plotting of the novel never seems to be adressed to adults. We are, clearly, a long way away from the guy who wrote Hammerheads.]

The King of Torts, John Grisham

Dell, 2003, 472 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-24153-7

There is, at first, a comforting familiarity to John Grisham’s The King of Torts, especially if you’ve read most of the Grisham oeuvre: A young lawyer stuck at the Public Defender’s Office gets saddled with a dead-end case that ends being a lot more important than anyone can guess. Pretty soon, hey, we’re back in the old usual groove: The lawyer’s client was on experimental drugs, and the pharmaceutical company sends one of its top fixers with an offer to our hero: a few million dollars in exchange for a quick and jurisprudence-free resolution.

If this would have been an early Grisham novel, you could probably write the end yourself: Lawyer tells fixer to get stuffed, takes the case to court, triumphs over Big Pharma, avoids client’s death penalty, gets hot girlfriend and strikes one victory for the common people. The end, soon to be followed by a major Hollywood adaptation.

But this isn’t early Grisham. Ever since The Runaway Jury, Grisham has been playing around in the legal thriller sandbox, writing variations on a populist theme. Here, we get a bit of The Street Lawyer before slamming into the concrete facade of a few million dollars. Because, oh yes, our young plucky protagonist jumps on Big Pharma’s offer faster than you can say “tort reform”. Just a few millions, he thinks, and he’ll be set for life. Just a few.

Set squarely in an American society where legal matters are often indistinguishable from fiscal ones, Grisham’s novels have often revolved around vast sums of money. The Partner‘s protagonist is only interesting because he’s sitting on a pile of hidden cash. The Runaway Jury and The Rainmaker both revolved around multi-million dollar settlements. More directly, The Summons recast sudden wealth as a morality play: What if you abruptly found yourself in possession of a small fortune of dubious origins? Would it destroy you?

The King of Torts is a thematic sequel to The Summons in more ways than one. Faithful Grisham readers will remember Patton French, the “King of Torts” lawyer whose mastery of mass torts earned him hundreds of millions of dollars and a short but memorable supporting role. French makes another appearance here as a mentor of sorts, counselling our lawyer protagonist as he gets caught up in the high-flying world of mass tort lawyers and a lifestyle where private planes are de rigueur. (Another element back for a return engagement is the dangerous “Skinny Ben” obesity pill.)

From one familiar arc, we jump to another. There is little doubt that the money will come to poison our protagonist’s life: All that remains is to hop along for the ride, tasting luxury with the self-congratulatory certitude that it’s temporary. Pretty soon, after all, our boy-hero will find himself brought back to the pasture where most of us graze. The only real question of importance is in wondering if the protagonist will be very, mostly or slightly redeemed by the time the ending rolls along.

It plays as you would expect. Grisham’s prose style may not be sophisticated, but it’s astonishingly good at what it sets out to do. This is reading as pure entertainment, packed with details about the world of mass torts and the crazy impact that sudden money can have on people. The Summons tracked the impact of a mere two or three million dollars (as a physical object, even), but The King of Torts kicks it up one or two orders of magnitude. Crazy money means crazy people, of course, and part of the fun of the novel is seeing a down-to-earth protagonist being corrupted by so much wealth… and then finding that there is never such a thing as “too much” money.

Technically, The King of Torts slips up from time to time, breaking away from a restricted third-person POV to sequences from a broader perspective. On the other hand, there are a number of fascinating supporting characters, though most of them are unceremoniously abandoned in the rush for the entirely-expected ending. The disappearance of “the fixer” from the narrative is especially disappointing, given all sorts of questions raised about what he knew… and whether part of the plot was a set-up.

But in the end, this is another solid hit for Grisham, who keeps producing surprising results from a limited palette. Gripping from start to finish, The King of Torts is Grisham remixed, almost a compendium of the author’s other work. Think of him as a jazz musician, spinning variations on a few solid themes. Who can go wrong by talking about “too much” money?

Year’s Best SF 11, Ed. David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer

EOS, 2006, 496 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-06-087341-8

While I’m a pretty faithful purchaser of the Hartwell/Cramer “Year’s Best SF” series, I seldom review them: For one thing, I’m never too fond of reviewing anthologies: my satisfaction for them, even Year’s Bests, usually takes the shape of a nice bell curve. Why review only half a book of good stories when I can’t find anything nice to say about the other half?

But Year’s Best SF 11 is an exception. Maybe it was just me, unusually “clicking” with story after story. Then again, it is possible that the selection for 2005 was better than for other years. One thing is for sure: I had a lot more fun reading through those stories than making my way through the Hugo nominated material.

The collection starts on a high note with David Langford’s New Hope For the Dead, a short (800-words) piece originally published in the “Nature” scientific journal as part of their recurring “Fiction” column. “Nature”, ironically enough, ends up being the source of nearly a dozen stories in this Year’s Best volume –more than any other source. The short-short story ends up being an ideal length for punchy explorations of a big idea. Langford takes on a net.joke and makes a delicious treat out of it, a broad description that also applies to Greg Bear’s “Ram Shift Phase 2”. Amusement also comes with Larissa Lai’s “I Love Liver: A Romance”. Meanwhile, Ted Chiang tackles predestination in “What’s Expected of Us”, another creepy/fun story that fits right into Chiang’s exceptional track record. Big ideas in short texts mean big fun, as demonstrated in Oliver Morton’s “The Albian Message”. Elsewhere, Vonda McIntyre has “A Modest Proposal for the Perfection of Nature” that muses on the uniformity of utopia, even as Tobias Buckell crams an entire geopolitically-aware space program in “Toy Planes”. Not to be outdone, Bruce Sterling imagines the hair-raising results of a 10Kilo-scientist commune. The “Nature” shorts are so much fun that I’m hoping that someone, somewhere, will put together an anthology of those “Futures”. I can understand why Hartwell and Cramer would choose so many of them –twelve story for the space of two!

But as good as those quick-and-snappy short-short stories are, a few of the longer pieces are nothing short of remarkable. A good number of them are slow burns: stories that initially don’t seem to make sense, but eventually reach escape velocity. Hannu Rajaniemi’s “Deus Ex Homine” is the first of them –a story that works even when it looks that it shouldn’t. But nothing quite summarizes the impact of Daryl Gregory’s “Second Person, Present Tense”, which quite unexpectedly hits you on the head midway through and never lets up until the end: It goes from “this is not going to work” to “best story of the year” in a few pages, and that’s nothing short of remarkable. Sometimes, the stories grow on you after they’re over: I didn’t think much of Bud Sparhawk’s “Bright Red Star” while reading it, but the last few lines and a few days’ worth of hindsight make all the difference.

There are also a slew of stranger stories that show how wide an umbrella the term “science-fiction” now encompasses: “When The Great Days Came” by Gardner Dozois shows the apocalypse from the perspective of those who will inherit it all: rats. Small mammals make a further appearance later on with “Mason’s Rats” a not-so-funny tale of farming trouble and tool-using rodents. If you think that’s weird, just wait until Rudy Rucker’s “Guadalupe and Hieronymus Bosch”, a romance whose title tells you nearly everything you need to know. Then there’s the irreverent madness of Adam Robert’s “And Future King…”

There are also more conventional tales of good old-fashioned SF in stories like Matthew Jarpe’s “City of Reason” (Kuiper belt pirates! Arrr!), Lauren McLaughlin’s “Sheila” (AI in-fighting!), Joe Haldeman’s “Angel of Light” (Christmas, Muslims, pulp SF and aliens, oh my!) and R. Garcia Y Robertson’s “Oxygen Rising” (“Hey, human, time to earn your pay!”) Combining straightforward SF story telling with Dickian mind-twists is Alastair Reynold’s “Beyond the Aquila Rift”, another contender for best-story-of-the-year status.

In fact, I ended up reading Year’s Best SF 11 concurrently with this year’s crop of Hugo-nominated short stories and was struck time and time again at how much better the stories in this volume were compared to the works up for the Hugo. For SF fans, this is the one book of short stories you have to grab to get a lot of good SF in one handy package. Year’s Best, and one of the best Year’s Best for Cramer and Hartwell.

[June 2006: A final note: Mark your calendars! This June 2006 release is the first book I’ve bought that feature the ISBN-13 number of the book. Get ready for the future… (And this happened, in an odd coincidence, on the same weekend the Ottawa area switched to ten-digit phone dialling…)]

Barracuda 945, Patrick Robinson

Harper Torch, 2003, 498 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-008663-7

There are five stages to reading a Patrick Robinson novel.

The first is surprise. Surprise that any editor, anywhere, would still be publishing Robinson after reading any of his previous novels. Robinson, after all, is the ultimate anti-writer: the clunkers he serves under the optimistic label of “novels” are nothing more than an exploration of mistakes to avoid for any budding writer of military fiction. Awful writing is only a beginning for him: what usually follows is a parade of undistinguished caricatures in lieu of characters, impulsive militarism standing in for actual thinking and geopolitics that would make blood-thirsty right-wing pundits blanch. Plotting, for him, is just a series of steps to get from Cool Idea A to Cool Idea B… except that both of those Cool Ideas would best be described as daydreams from a sub-literate moron actively enjoying psychopathic megalomania. The biggest surprise, of course, is that someone out there is still buying those books: I’ve never paid more than a full dollar for a Robinson novel because I keep finding them at used book sales. And yet, someone must be buying them new if they keep showing up for a second sale, right?

The second stage is bemusement. Bemusement that Robinson hasn’t learnt anything from his previous novels, and that no one has deemed it appropriate to tell him what’s wrong about his books. As Barracuda 945 gets underway, the first hundred pages are all about the book’s main villain, Ray Kerman, a top SAS operative forced to defect after killing one of his own men during a raid in Southern Israel. Despite a thoroughly Western education, Iranian-born Kerman proves surprisingly adept in becoming the next Top Terrorist, although Robinson’s favourite protagonist Arnold Morgan is quick to point out that you really can’t trust anyone who’s not of solid Anglo-Saxon material. And so it goes. Kerman (soon rechristened Ravi Rashood) is, of course, intensely reminiscent of USS Nimitz and HMS Unseen‘s Benjamin Adnam… but that’s hardly the only recurring feature from the rest of the series. Morgan’s back, of course, and so are fluffy bride-to-be Kathy and Jimmy Ramshawe, a randy young analyst who can figure out the obvious faster than anyone else. As for the other characters, the only one of interest is the lovely (yet predictably deadly) Shakira, an ex-housewife whose interest for American movies merely matches her tactical genius. I could detail how she finds her way in the novel and Kerman/Rahood’s arms, but then you would accuse me of lying.

Moving on: The third stage in reading a Robinson novel is dismay. Dismay that Robinson can still rely on the same tired tricks without being called on it. Dismay that he’s really not getting better at either the plotting or the writing of his novel. Here, the focus of the so-called plot is a fiendish plot to strike at America’s power sources from the stealth of a missile-armed submarine. Never mind that China and Iran once again team up to buy two top-notch nuclear submarines to give to a turncoat terrorist. Never mind how the US Navy could ping the heck out of the West Coast to find out where the submarine’s hidden. (Heck, never mind how the listening posts could pinpoint the launch coordinates of any sea-launched missile.) It doesn’t really matter: Barracuda 945 has maybe five important plot points and the rest is filler. Filler written with the glee of a thirteen year old who’s just telling his friends what a neat neat idea he’s just had for their next D&D campaign.

The fourth stage is amusement. Amusement at Robinson’s worst excesses and his uncanny tin ear for either dialogue or humour. Barracuda 945 features a few scenes that were probably intended as humour, but end up making the author look like an idiot with tons of unresolved issues. Right in the middle of a military thriller, Robinson takes a break on P.388-392 to describe an Academy Awards ceremony, with jokes that fall flat more quickly than you’d ever imagine. Robinson may think he’s funny, but there’s still a long way to go from his brain to the reader’s mind. Then there’s the screamingly funny bit at the end of Chapter 10 where the action grinds to a halt and Robinson’s favourite characters all rant and rail against Clinton’s decision to scrap the military restrictions on GPS. As they scream epithets against Clinton and find themselves very funny (as indicated by Morgan’s “ability to bring the house down” [P.364]) the scene only reveals Robinson in an unguarded moment of pure insanity. (It doesn’t help that one character points out the benefits of military-grade GPS for everyone, shutting up the characters for three lines before they start railing against Clinton again.) As Robinson shows, the problem isn’t with conservatives; it’s with dumb conservatives. In the meantime, you can just read the passage out loud to friends and wonder how that ever got past his editor.

But why worry? After all, the fifth stage of reading a Patrick Robinson novel is author-specific pyromania.

A Scientific Romance, Ronald Wright

Picador, 1997, 352 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 0-312-18172-8

As a unapologetic genre reader, few questions fascinate me more than the relationship between genre fiction and so-called “literary fiction”. What distinguishes a novel written from inside a genre from a novel written by a generalist, even though the two stories may share common elements? Part of the difficulty in answering the question comes from the idea that genre has its own gravitational pull: genre writers often start as young genre readers and keep reading in the genre (steadily but not exclusively, one hopes) until they’re ready to put pen to paper. It’s exceedingly rare that someone without any knowledge of a genre will write in it.

So when a book like Ronald Wright’s A Scientific Romance makes it in print, it offers a unique case study in how a smart outsider can write science-fiction without it necessarily being shaped by classic science-fiction. Wright is not a child of the SF ghetto: he’s a trained historian, an essayist and an academic. As an orphan work standing in the genre but not being linked to it, A Scientific Romance offers a glimpse into the common, sometimes unexamined engines of SF.

Actually, it’s not completely true to say that A Scientific Romance is not linked to genre SF: it’s just that its inspiration goes back a few decades earlier than most quick Heinlein knockoffs. A Scientific Romance uses no less an authority than H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine as an explicit jump-off point (it must help that Wells is widely acknowledged as a literary giant). Here, our academic narrator gets is given a previously-unknown Wells letter announcing the return of the putative Time Machine. Everyone else thinks it’s a joke, but our narrator (haunted by the memory of a dead girlfriend) wants to believe. Carefully arriving at the appointed time and place, he finds the machine and starts refurbishing it, planning ahead for a little trip in the future.

The problem with using Wells as a distinguished ancestor is that you’re likely to miss out on what’s been done since, and so Wright pointedly ignores the whole body of SF time-travelling tales. This, interestingly enough, doesn’t damage the book as much as you may think: It allows A Scientific Romance to go places without being burdened by the baggage of genre SF, and helps give the book a very different flavour.

Alas, it’s a flavour leavened by endless rumination. Wright is an intellectual and so is his narrator, so it’s not sufficient to sketch a love triangle, a dead girlfriend and a twisted personal history. Oh no: There has to be pages after pages of endless introspection, of flashbacks, of self-pity and recrimination. Personal guilt is the fuel of literature, and there’s plenty of that in this novel, starting from the fact that the book is written as to the narrator’s dead girlfriend. At some point, you just want to slap the poor sap and tell him to be a genre protagonist, suck it up, buy survival equipment, step in the time machine and go get himself a foxy girl from the future.

By the time he actually cranks up the time machine and goes off flying in 2500, we have almost forgotten that this in fact supposed to be a time-travel novel. But if you were expecting the wonders of an advanced civilization or the wide-screen spectacle of an evolved humanity, brace yourself: Wright is a serious literary writer, and so his future London can only be abandoned, half-destroyed and overgrown with tropical abandon.

The most interesting element of this second part is seeing the protagonist use his training as an archaeologist and slowly piece together the factors that led to the fall of civilization. Clues can be found in the most unlikely places, and if the novel has a sharp commonality with genre fiction, it’s in those sections describing the future past in bits and pieces. A few scenes of uncommon power are to be found here and there, such as the brief passage where the narrator finds a building with four tall chimneys and, nearby, a bulldozer. Brrr. [P.202]

But this interest progressively phases out, even as the narrator meets the devolved remnants of the English people, indulges in a bit of anthropology, gets crucified for his sins and discovers what happened to him in another future. Naturally, human hubris gets blamed, along with the dangers of modern science and yadda-yadda: Someone should tell Wright that this story has been done before. Despite a good final chapter with flashes of interest, the novel sinks in the same self-introspective morass that nearly doomed its first section. In the manner of ruminative literary novels anywhere, there is no victory, no breakthrough, no palpable happy ending; just resignation at impending death, and a shrugging acceptance of the end of civilization.

In genre SF terms, there isn’t much in A Scientific Romance that hasn’t been done better elsewhere. The book is interesting, but more as an exercise in contrasts than a pure reading experience… although mileage may vary according to attachment to genre fiction. There’s a reason why genre readers don’t care too much for introspection, defeatism or knee-jerk rejection of science: It’s dull and, from a certain perspective, it’s exactly the kind of things that genre Science Fiction seeks to disprove.

Tau Man Ji D [Initial D] (2005)

(On DVD, June 2006) It takes some skill to make a boring racing film, and that’s almost what this is: Initial D feels limp and repetitive, hampered by subplots that go nowhere and a rhythm that seldom gets above first gear. Eschewing the technicolor craziness of movies such as The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift, Initial D is down-to-earth and plausible, which makes the film seem even longer. We’re scarcely given any chance to get excited about the sullen protagonist, let alone find any reason to cheer for him. The accidental way in which he worms himself in a series of racing competition seems to reflect a passive observer more than an active participant. While the races themselves are well directed, the lack of diversity is a serious problem, not to mention the hum-drum nature of the featured cars. But the film at least has a special kick during the racing scenes –which is more than we can say about the non-racing subplots, the worst of which has to be a half-hearted romance with a spectacularly unsatisfying wrap-up. I suppose that a greater familiarity with the source manga might have helped, because the film on its own just doesn’t hold up.

Rize (2005)

(On DVD, June 2006) There is a lot to like about David LaChapelle’s debut film, a documentary about the clowning/krumping dance movement. The advantages of tracking such recent cultural phenomenons is that it’s easy to reach back to the original movers and shakers, which in this case means spending time with “Tommy The Clown”, who first defined clowning. As with most things involving the American black community, there is a huge sociocultural element to Rize, and the film never shies away from it, telling once more the story of the ghettoized blacks of Los Angeles, and how clowning/krumping can be a way to rise above day-to-day life. (In a striking segment, LaChapelle reaches deep into archival footage to show African tribal dances, which share a strong similarity to the “modern” dance movement studied by the film.) When Rize truly gets into its subject, it’s gripping stuff: The “Battle Zone” sequence has a strong narrative drive, and its conclusion is the type of thing that breaks your heart. The dance footage itself is nothing short of beautiful, especially when LaChapelle breaks out the mineral oil for some final staged sequences near Los Angeles River. “The footage in this movie has not been sped up in any way.” the film tells us, which is ironic because it’s often most astonishing when it’s slowed down. Alas, if Rize has a problem, it’s that it could have used more narrative cohesion. Granted, the whole city of Los Angeles often seems like an alien culture to me, but still: I often felt as if the film needed commentary, context and explanations. (I’m not sure that this review is coherent, but I can guarantee it would have been even less so if it hadn’t been for Wikipedia.) Yet Rize remains fascinating, even when it’s difficult to figure out what’s happening: the wonders of pure energy.

Horloge Biologique [Dodging The Clock] (2005)

(On DVD, June 2006) Films about relationships are really not what I look for when I sit down to watch a DVD, but Horloge Biologique was such as success at the Quebec box-office that it was impossible to put off watching it much longer. It starts broadly enough, sketching portraits of three guys in the middle thirties are they each come to terms with much-delayed adulthood, settling down and having children. Ricardo Trogi’s direction is sharp and crisp, and the comedy seems relatively innocuous at first, headed toward the usual redemptive character arc. But that changes as the male characters are further defined as repulsive bastards, ones that can’t be bothered to make the right decisions even if it’s obvious. The female characters don’t fare much better: though presumably more level-headed than their boyfriends, they’re underwritten to such a degree that their roles as plot objects for the benefit of the protagonists becomes only too obvious. By the time the film wound down, I was actively hoping for a bus to mow down all characters. While I have to acknowledge the film’s ruthlessness (not everyone gets a happy ending, and even fewer of them deserve one) and competence in achieving exactly what it sets out to do, it’s too easy to loathe everyone in it.

The Codex, Douglas Preston

Tor, 2004, 404 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-34629-X

Over the years, Douglas Preston has established himself as one-half of the Preston/Child team behind such preposterously entertaining thrillers as Relic, The Ice Limit or The Cabinet of Curiosities. But he also has a number of solo works on his shelves, The Codex being the latest of them.

Fans of the Preston/Child thrillers will certainly feel right at ease as soon as the premise of the novel is explained. From the moment the three mismatched Broadbent brothers are summoned to their rich father’s side for a mysterious meeting, our interest is sparked: why is said father missing, his house empty of its treasure trove of valuables? It takes only one videotape to clear up the mystery and start the adventure: As a team-building exercise, their dying father has squirrelled away most of his fortune and hidden it somewhere in the world, in what will either become their inheritance or his tomb. Their only chance to retrieve the vast family fortune is to unite their forces and go treasure-hunting.

A more straightforward thriller would see the three brothers shake hands on the deal and set off for primitive countries. But such a thriller would last about fifty pages and please no one. So the brothers all decide to forget about it and return to their lives. But the idea stays on, and it doesn’t take much time for all three brothers to either initiate the chase or be manipulated into following their father’s trace. They won’t go alone, of course, and it’s their companions that will determine their chance of success. From that moment, it’s the good, the bad and the clueless: Tom is the no-nonsense veterinarian reluctantly pressed into service by a young woman and the promise of invaluable medicinal information, the “codex” of the title. Philip is a haughty academic who soon finds himself way over his head as the quasi-prisoner of the private investigator he hired to help things along. Meanwhile, placid third brother Vernon bumbles from one adventure to another as his guru seems unusually concerned about the One Hundred Million Dollars! at the end of the chase. The three brothers separately set out to get the treasure, but they may not be alone in their quest…

The cover blurb on the cover of the paperback edition bills the novel as “Raiders of the Lost Ark meets The Amazing Race!” and indeed, the novel is never as gripping as when the initial pieces are placed on the table, and we are promised a vast chase across the jungle as different teams all race toward the treasure. It’s a fabulous hook for a thriller, and for a while it looks as if The Codex is destined for great things.

What follows is not exactly a disappointment, but it’s not quite up to the initial expectations. As all adventurers make their way deeper in the jungle, the usual adventure thrills are all here to be found: natural dangers, isolated tribes, character infighting and so on. Making everything a bit better are a few surprises to shake things up, and a number of amusing supporting characters. But the teams soon converge and end up with the classical good-versus-evil face-off, with too much book left to string along. The last act really stretches things a bit past the point of comfortable disbelief, creating a nagging sense of let-down.

It doesn’t help that some subplots never achieve liftoff. A lengthy stateside digression involving a CEO is notable for an atypical ending, but it seems superfluous in the context of this novel. Worse: its interaction with another subplot where a troublesome love interest is morally dismissed smacks of cheap plotting.

Nevertheless, The Codex is still a lot of fun, especially if it’s been a while since your last jungle-bound adventure. As for myself, I ended up reading it in unfortunate proximity with James Rollin’s earlier Amazonia (which sports a Douglas Preston blurb on its jacket, interestingly enough) and that may just be too many jungle thrillers to handle in the same fortnight.

Taken on its own, though, The Codex is a serviceable thriller: exactly the kind of page-turner that’s a delight to read on the bus or on the beach. Its easy fluency with genre elements augurs well for Preston’s solo career. Indeed, back-cover indications show that Tom Broadbent makes a return appearance in Tyrannosaur Canyon. We’ll see about that.

[June 2006: What about James Rollin’s Amazonia, you ask? Well, here’s the paradox: Even if Rollin’s curiously similar book (down to paternal matters) has a grander scope and a better pacing, it’s not quite so much fun to read as The Codex. Rollin’s characters are a bit flatter, and if his ideas are generally more wild and interesting than Preston’s, he is seldom as slick as his colleague in delivering the expected adventure. On the other hand, Amazonia is one of Rollin’s top books so far, proving that he’s getting better with time.]

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)

(In theaters, June 2006) There’s something about this series, I don’t know what, that hits all of the buttons that come pre-installed with the Y chromosome. I’m no car freak, and yet plunk me in front of a The Fast And The Furious instalment and watch me cheer over the hot cars, the race sequences and the kissing girls. (It’s not a Fast And Furious film if there are no kissing girls.) Here, the action takes us to Japan, a move that plays heavily on the cultural dissonance and the most outrageous aspects of Tokyo culture. Here, drift-racing clubs take on the air of an cosplay convention and some movie-magic transforms drifting from a tire-squealing risky manoeuvre to a romantic, even heroic endeavour. The film makes no sense, of course, but that scarcely matters once the action has begun. Yup, the hero is a moron; sure, he looks twenty-five; no, he couldn’t have done all of that without being Pearl-Haboured by the Yasuka. But who cares: There are cars, there are girls (whoo, Nathalie Kelley), there are races and there is plenty of fun. As a B-movie, it’s remarkably successful… and it’s even better than 2 Fast 2 Furious.

(Second viewing, On DVD, July 2007) A year later, this film holds up surprisingly well. Yes, the cars and the action scenes are still the only reason to see the film: The emphasis on drifting makes it feel fresh and original, and the script knows how to vary the thrills of the action sequences. On the other hand, well, the script is still as bland as it was in theatres, with too many incoherences to count and a final act that really misses Sung Kang as the film’s most intriguing character. But what makes the film hold together even as other cheap teen action films fade away is the unusual Tokyo setting, the rapid pacing and the go-for-broke modernity of the atmosphere where reggeaton, a southern white boy, a latina girl and American hip-hop all mix joyously in a Japanese setting. It almost makes one hopeful for the future of the younger generations. In the meantime, there’s still the cars, the girls and the terrific soundtrack to enjoy.

Cars (2006)

(In theaters, June 2006) From anyone else but Pixar, this film would be a mega-hit and a critic’s darling. From Pixar, it’s just another film in their collection, maybe not as good as some of the other ones. It’s certainly problematic at times: overlong, too sentimental and afflicted with muddled nostalgia. While Pixar films usually stand up well to multiple viewing, I have the feeling that many will choose to fast-forward a number of segments. Plus, I defy anyone to watch the romantic subplot and not think “Car Sex? How does that work?” And yet focusing on the film’s problems would be doing a disservice to the film’s undeniable qualities. While the story is a threadbare feel-good classic of redemption and the characters are pretty much all out of central casting, there’s a relentless degree of creativity in how the designers and animators were able to give human characteristics to cars. Some of the attempts look goofy, but others work surprisingly well. (I was particularly amused at the celebrity caricatures.) Otherwise, well, it’s “just” a solid movie for kids and adults alike… though the adults may not want to see this more than twice.

C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005)

(On DVD, June 2006) There’s no real way to go around the fact that a film about growing up in Quebec during the seventies (growing up gay, no less) sounds like an unbearable chore. The clothes? The haircuts? The colours? The… ergh. But C.R.A.Z.Y. embraces the era and, in no small part thanks to a fabulous soundtrack that ended up sucking a good proportion of the film’s budget. Despite the homosexual sub-theme (which is, despite the film’s reputation, only a small part of the whole), the film feels like an old-fashioned family drama, handled with competent care and attention. The episodic storyline runs a bit too long and loses track of itself during the third act, but nonetheless leave a pleasant impression. It doesn’t go much farther than that, but that’s often just good enough. (Hey, I was just born in the seventies, okay? I didn’t stay there long.)

Banlieue 13 [District B13] (2004)

(In theaters, June 2006) French cinema has often threatened to become an action powerhouse, but attempts so far have proved disappointing and -worse- fleeting. Still, writer/producer Luc Besson tries and tries again, and with Banlieue 13, he may come closest to replicating the insane energy of Jackie Chan films. Loosely set in a dystopian near-future where whole districts of Paris lie fallow and ungoverned, Banlieue 13 uses parkour and street fighting as inspiration for action scenes, with stunts that are good enough to leave you gasping. The narrative set-up is interesting (though ultimately disappointing, in no small part thanks to Besson’s predictable distrust of authority), but never mind the story: what really shines here are the two lead actors (Cyril Raffaelli and parkour guru David Belle), who kick and punch and jump their way to the end. They’re enormously likable characters, so let’s hope that they can keep it up: action cinema is often a matter of leads, and these two seem perfectly able to carry a film on their shoulders. As for the rest, well it’s almost all good: there is a definite lack of women in this macho film and the social commentary is overdone, but the film as a whole is dynamic, fresh and fun-fun-fun. Now let’s see the next one.

Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About, Mil Millington

Flame, 2002, 338 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-340-83054-9

You really can’t argue against name recognition. Years ago, Mil Millington started a web site on which he started posting short humorous snippets of his daily arguments with his German-born girlfriend. The web site was a big hit, up to and including being ripped off in one of Britain’s biggest newspaper. Apologies, compensation and writing gigs from competing newspapers soon followed, along with a book deal. When looking around for a title and subject matter, Millington played it safe and resorted to the good old “write what you know” axiom: His first novel shares both a title and a basic premise with the web site that launched his career.

Narrated by ordinary Brit bloke Pel Dalton, Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About is not too dissimilar to the post-Bridget Jones wave of chick-lit, or the Nick Hornby “male confessional” sub-genre: Tales of young adults lost in today’s society, trying to do the best they can with what life handed over. Pel is the classic underachiever, working in IT for a university library and trying to do as little as possible in order to make it from one day to another. His self-deprecating narration is immediately sympathetic, but he’s hardly the star of the novel.

Oh no, that honour would have to go to Ursula, his German girlfriend. Much like what we know of Millington’s home life through his web site (though Millington assures us that it’s not an autobiography), the two of them are constantly arguing about the most ordinary things. Pel, of course, never wins. But don’t get the impression that the two of them are unhappy: As Pel’s work life becomes increasingly chaotic, the comforting crazy routine of his home life is just about the only thing keeping him grounded. In an interesting twist on the usual fictional relationships, they argue because they feel so comfortable together, not because it’s driving them apart.

But the plot of the novel itself is nothing more than a clothesline on which to hang a series of humour vignettes. A trip to Germany is nothing but an excuse to riff on Anglo-German relations, in-laws, ski accidents and travel woes. Pel’s troubles at the office keep escalating to an absurd crescendo of wild circumstances that wouldn’t be misplaced in a thriller. Naturally, everything just keeps getting funnier as his life goes from bad to worse. If you’re looking for a laugh-aloud novel, this is it. Pel’s narration is packed with good lines, and there’s something for everyone as he goes from a rotten office job to a home life that’s no less stressful. A good assortment of supporting characters does a lot to complicate Pel’s situation… and crank up the laughs. The fact that Pel himself isn’t the most competent character around is funny, but the increasingly dysfunctional characters that surround him are even funnier. It’s a fast read, a good read and Anglophiles will find a lot to love in the dry British narration.

The only problem with the novel is both minor and significant. As the novel unfolds, Pel gets embroiled in stranger and stranger problems at work, cumulating functions, learning dangerous secrets, rubbing shoulders with unsavoury characters and earning the enmity of his colleagues. Naive readers may expect all of this to reach a conclusion of sorts, as absurd or contrived it may be. But no: Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About simply stops even as everything goes up in a storm. It’s an absolutely deliberate gag: the point of the novel is to show how, even as they argue during the worst crises, Pel and Ursula are inseparable. But the effect is still one of disappointment, a vague sense of having been cheated of a resolution even as Millington took pleasure in making life hell for his protagonist with no intention whatsoever of resolving the various problems. Your tolerance for ambiguous endings will determine whether this is a book-throwing problem.

But once you ignore the ending, Mil Millington’s debut novel is perfectly adequate: fans of the web site will recognize the style and the premise, fans of modern humorous romance will be satisfied and more generalist readers will enjoy the vignettes. Purists will also note that Millington’s hardly a one-trick writer: two other novels followed this one, with no end in sight.

An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

(In theaters, June 2006) There is a moment during this film (I suspect it will be a different moment for everyone) where you just stop and tell yourself “Hmm… I just paid ten dollars to see a slide presentation on a scientific subject… and it’s great!” As a sucker for science, environmentalism, presentations and American politics, An Inconvenient Truth has a number of effective hooks on me: but the fact remains that this is a concert film where a slide presentation of global warming takes the place of a rock show. Al Gore makes an affable, enormously likable presenter: Ironically, the film falters when it stays with him and his family history, picking up as soon as the presentation starts again. It’s a slick piece of work, both from a technical and an rhetorical sense: The visual information is meticulously well-calibrated, dosed with humour and delivered with honed passion. As someone who’s already convinced of the importance of Global Warming, the film was already playing to a converted audience: still, I could only appreciate the build-up of the film, the oratory prowesses and the archival snippets (did you notice the footage from Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Day After Tomorrow?). While the film often plays hard and fast with causality (I wanted to ask questions at times, or point out areas that could use a bit more explanation), one of An Inconvenient Truth‘s best characteristics is how it make a complex scientific subject a lot of fun. Yay, science! The other big asset of the film -and one that may go unnoticed from the doom-and-gloom trailers- is how the film ends on a real note of hope, something fit to make anyone stand up and do something. A unique film –and one well worth seeing.