Monthly Archives: November 2006

The Five Fists of Science, Matt Fraction & Steven Sanders

Image, 2006, 112 pages, US$12.99 tpb, ISBN 1-58240-605-7

I may be getting older, but part of me still identifies with the twelve-year-old nerd that I was back in high school. You know, the one with the huge glasses, a fascination for 16MHz IBM PCs and an unshakable faith in the power of Science! with a capital S and the exclamation point. I may be re-reading these words through laser-reshaped corneas staring at a multi-gigahertz P4, but may faith in the pure power of Science! remains unshaken.

This may explain why I got such a kick out of The Five Fists of Science, a standalone graphic novel that describes how Nikola Tesla and Mark Twain once teamed up to fight (with Science!) a supernatural menace led by J.P. Morgan and Thomas Edison. Yes, it’s pure steampunk fun, not entirely dissimilar to Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. But whereas Moore’s exceptional series often felt more like a literary stunt, The Five Fists of Science has far more audience-friendly goals: It’s designed as smart entertainment, the graphic novel equivalent of a blockbuster film.

From the lovely opening pages onward (“…so save the e-mail complaining about fact and accuracy. We are in the business of verisimilitude –and that cannot be constrained by pedantry.”), we’re in for a ride that winks at history as much as it profits from it. This is what WILD WILD WEST could have been like had it been entrusted to clever people. This is a historical fantasy where even the short introductory character biographies are worth reading.

Though the story may take place in 1899, the storytelling is very contemporary, with winks to superheroes, eldrich horrors, giant robots and a snappy sense of dialogue. The delightful mixture of contemporary hipness and historical detail goes a long way in putting us in the right frame of mind to appreciate this story.

At times, though, the storytelling may be a bit too contemporary, if by “contemporary” you mean “verging on incoherence”. For all of the wonderful premise, snappy writing and interesting characters, The Five Fists of Science often feels disjointed and unclear. Some abrupt scene transitions don’t feel natural, plot developments are unclear and it’s not uncommon to re-read a few pages in order to understand what’s happening. This problem gets particularly frustrating during the last action scene, where everything gets jumbled up without proper build-up. I suspect that both writer and artists lacked time and space to do justice to their ambitions: As it stands now, the graphic novel is a few dozen pages too short, compressed in too small a space for comfort.

The uneven quality of the art doesn’t help the flow either. Though I’m clearly no expert on visual art, I was frustrated at how parts of The Five Fists of Science flowed smoothly while others seemed to present a jumble of indistinguishable faces. I often had the impression that the colouring of the pages compensated for some rushed line work. Once again, this problem is never so obvious as during the last action sequences, where readers have to slow down and carefully make sense what’s happening, where and why. Here too, a bigger page-count would have been helpful in fleshing out the plot in a better-flowing fashion.

What’s even more frustrating is that the execution of the novel doesn’t quite do justice to its premise. These, after all, are the Five! Fists! Of Science! It’s pushing buttons that the twelve-year-old in me didn’t even have at the time! In some aspects, Fraction and Sanders may have fallen in one of the less-obvious traps of cool: the dangers that the premise overwhelms the result, that the actual pages can’t come up to the expectations of the readers.

At this point, I can find no references about a second volume in the series. But don’t let the above misgivings fool you: I really want to purchase and read a follow-up. If Fraction and Sanders can manage to wrangle a few more pages from their publisher, if they can smooth out the rough edges of the art and writing, nothing will stop them from delivering something that will live up to its potential: as it stands now, The Five Fists of Science may satisfy my inner twelve year old, but the jaded reader that I’ve become is heartless enough to ask for more.

The Jennifer Morgue, Charles Stross

Golden Gryphon, 2006, 313 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 1-930846-45-2

The first problem in talking about The Jennifer Morgue is trying to establish how unique it is. The word-blender approach (“geek humour plus Lovecraft horror plus Bond thriller”) works well, but it leads to a second difficulty: the audience either goes “cool: I’m off to buy it” or looks puzzled. The buyers don’t need to be told anything more, while the puzzled are unlikely to ever get why it’s such a cool and unique and wonderful book.

In a sense, The Jennifer Morgue is review-proof: the audience self-selects according to the high concept, their opinion of Stross’ fiction in general, or their take on the prequel volume The Atrocity Archives.

But to briefly recap the elements of the series so far: The world as we know it is susceptible to invasions from other strange dimensions, and advanced mathematics are one of the surest ways to open portals between dimensions. To protect the rest of us sheep against those extra-dimensional threats, governments around the world have set up secret agencies. “Bob Howard” (not his real name) is a member of the British “Laundry”, and his geek personality makes him an odd fit for the shadowy world of spooks. The Atrocity Archives was his introductory adventure, a mixture of nerd hilarity, high horror and knowledgeable nods to the spy genre as written by Len Deighton.

In this follow-up adventure, Bob finds himself assigned to a mission where he gets to live out the Ian Fleming lifestyle more or less against his will. Fighting a high-tech villain in the Caribbean may sound like fun, but for Bob it’s more of a distraction keeping him away from computer screens. His discomfort quickly becomes something more serious when he finds himself bonded (er…) to an American female demon with unhealthy feeding habits. His sanity becomes at stake, not to mention his relationship with his girlfriend.

Laughs, thrills and chills are once again to be expected from Stross in this second entry in the Laundry sequence: The Jennifer Morgue manages to find new and interesting areas to explore in the chilling mythology of the series while parodying another strain of British spy thrillers. This time, it’s Fleming’s James Bond series (along with the film adaptations) that provide much of the book’s structure and humour, although Stross is too clever to keep this from staying strictly a joke for the readers: there is an ingenious in-story reason (which I’d trying really hard not to spoil) why the plot veers into Bond territory and stays there… though maybe not conventionally so.

I was particularly impressed at how far The Jennifer Morgue was willing to go in order to explore the consequences of its premises. One of the strengths of the series so far is that it features a lot of very disturbing material right underneath the veneer of geek humour. Here, Stross occasionally presents very disturbing developments and though Bob’s narration may soften the blow (“I’m not cleared for sex magick,” [P.90] he protests), it doesn’t make it any less dramatic. This unease also goes deeper than the simple horrible-monsters level: Bob is in a committed romantic relationship, and the implications of having a Bond-like adventures on his domestic life form a significant part of the novel’s underlying tension, which carries through to the very last pages of the book.

Also impressive is how Stross manages to fit the entire Bond connection into the existing mythology of the Laundry universe. The underwater focus of the novel is both very Bond-like, and rich in occult possibilities: The first half of the novel crams in clever ideas about humanity’s true place on the planet, and through this aspect fades as the novel advances, it’s gradually taken up by the Bond mechanics and Bob’s reaction to those clichés.

The Atrocity Archives was my favourite book of 2004, so it’s not a real surprise if The Jennifer Morgue doesn’t manage to out-do its predecessor’s impact in putting together this wonderful mixture of geek culture, deep horror and thriller parody. But this follow-up is satisfying in its own way, and not simply as a continuation of Bob Howard’s adventures. Not many novels, after all, feature death-by-PowerPoint: That should probably be a selling point for the eventual paperback edition.

…and that brings us back to the critic-proof nature of The Jennifer Morgue: Are you more likely to read a book if it comes with a sticker warning “Contains death-by-PowerPoint”? If so, my job here is done. Otherwise, there’s nothing I can tell you to top this.

The Android’s Dream, John Scalzi

Tor, 2006, 396 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30941-6

Things can change quickly.

Two years ago, John Scalzi was “just” a popular blogger to most of the SF community, one whose first novel, Old Man’s War, was about to be published by Tor. His blog spoke for itself, but he was still unproven in matters of fiction: While Agent to the Stars (his first “practise novel”) was freely available on his web site, SF fans and pundits waited for the real thing.

These days, Scalzi is also known as “best-selling, Campbell Award-winning John Scalzi”. Thanks to the runaway success of Old Man’s War and its follow-up The Ghost Brigades, Scalzi quickly found a place as a bright new writer. Agent to the Stars was re-issued as a hardcover. Fans accumulated from within and outside the genre readership. With the release of The Android’s Dream, Scalzi cements his reputation as a reliable source of solid SF entertainment. A comic thriller in the avowed tradition of Carl Hiaasen and Elmore Leonard, Scalzi’s latest novel is pure SF delight from beginning to end.

Trying to explain the intricate details of the plot in a few words would serve no one, but you can rest assured that within a few chapters, all of the required thriller elements are in place: a competent man with a dangerous history, a damsel-in-distress with more than a few skills, an unusual MacGuffin, shadowy organizations with immense resources at their disposal, and enough wheels-within-wheels to ensure copious crossfire. Add to that some SF elements to juice up the action sequences, setting and stakes, and you’ve got all that’s required for a terrific piece of entertainment.

But SF thrillers are a dime a dozen on the shelves. Some argue that they’re one of the dominant forms of the genre. What sets The Android’s Dream apart from the rest?

Part of it is the humour. Despite the high stakes, character deaths and implacable opponents, The Android’s Dream keeps things as light and breezy as they need to be. The tone is set by the book’s now-infamous first paragraph (“Dirk Moeller didn’t know if he could fart his way into a major diplomatic incident. But he was ready to find out.”) and if the end result isn’t quite so ridiculous, the novel lives up to this promising start.

The quality of the writing is also tied to the novel’s easygoing tone. Scalzi has a good pen for amusing banter (especially between his romantic leads) and his prose manages the impressive feat of balancing both the humour and the suspense that are essential to this type of novel. A technique that he uses to good effect is to introduce a character and then unwrap his past history from the deadpan perspective of an omniscient narrator: It works better than you’d think at generating both the laughs and the background exposition.

For some reason (maybe the high-density dialogue), I kept picturing the book as a big-budget action film: Sequences like the “Arlington Mall” chapters have the feel of a purely cinematographic action sequence, down to the obvious set-up and the wisecracks. Even the omniscient unwrapping of characters kept reminding me of a certain post-RUN LOLA RUN school of collage film-making. (I also flashed back on THE FIFTH ELEMENT during the cruise starship sequence, but that’s just me: in terms of allusions, the title of the book itself is a better subject of contemplation.)

As a piece in Scalzi’s career so far, The Android’s Dream fits comfortably next to Agent to the Stars and his two other military-SF novels: The pacing is similar, the humour is in the same vein and the accessibility of Scalzi’s fiction carries through even as Scalzi refines his prose style. You could give The Android’s Dream to a non-SF reader and they wouldn’t have any trouble parsing the content: While this may not give jaded SF readers their jolt of rarefied sense-of-wonder, it will work well on a wide variety of readers. The “Scalzi brand” is taking shape: solid Science Fiction entertainment that clearly works well within the protocols of the genre, while remaining accessible to readers who may not have dedicated the past decades of their live reading SF. Not only does the genre need new writers like John Scalzi, it needs more of them.

Infoquake, David Louis Edelman

Pyr, 2006, 421 pages, US$15.00 tpb, ISBN 1-591-02442-0

As computer graphics are becoming increasingly photo-realistic, an unexpected phenomenon has dogged ambitious attempts to faithfully re-create humans: Viewers of animation movies such as FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRIT WITHIN and THE POLAR EXPRESS have reported unease at seeing the “creepy” human characters. Here, artistry meets psychology as humans seem to have strong built-in distaste for creatures that are almost, but not quite human-like: this “uncanny valley” is an evolutionary protection mechanism against mutations that is now forcing computer animators to either favour caricature (like in THE INCREDIBLES) or even longer R&D development efforts (such as James Cameron’s long-awaited “Avatar” project). In approximating reality, there is a point where almost perfect is worse than rougher approximations.

This relates to David Louis Edelman’s Infoquake insofar as, during the book, I started thinking about the difference between good and great novels, and how a good novel that’s almost great will appear worse than it is. Call it the uncanny valley of quasi-greatness, where reviewers spend way too much time thinking about small niggling details.

There is little doubt that Infoquake is a good and solid SF debut that should put Edelman in consideration for the Dick and Campbell awards. The opening segment is a furious retelling of the dot-com boom as applied to biotechnology: Our characters are members of a plucky start-up trying to fend their way through a hyper-competitive jungle, and their only advantage seems to be a leader without any ethical restraint. Edelman has obviously paid attention during his own dot-com experience, and the result is a science-fiction novel that has fully internalized the lessons of the past decade.

Another significant achievement is in presenting a protagonist, Natch, that is as fascinating as he’s loathsome. Natch (we come to learn) is a type A+ personality, a born competitor uniquely suited to fight in the cut-throat business world. In a stroke of savvy structure, the first section of Infoquake chooses to show him through the eyes of his employees, allowing us to feel his impact well before we can understand what made him so.

Fluent in the languages of business and information technology, Infoquake is a ride through a fresh future, a strong debut from a promising writer, and a proud representative of Pyr’s early line-up. It’s worth a look.

But.

But as I was reading the novel, I kept thinking about how some elements of the story kept interfering with other ones. Through the novel takes place hundreds of years in the future in a world radically re-set to accommodate strange new social structures, it struck me that many of the most interesting things about Infoquake would have been more powerful had they occurred in a universe more closely tied to ours. While Edelman’s meticulously-described future history is original and intriguing, Infoquake may have found greater resonance as a pre-Singularity middle-future thriller. Setting the story in a far future with unusual new political forces (some of them unrealistically “all-powerful and obeyed”) takes away the impact of the novel and places it closer to fantasy. I read SF in large part for commentary on reality: the far-future setting fudged a number of promising resonances, especially given the spot-on first section.

But.

But this is the first volume of a series (explicitly so, as the cover specifies “Volume I of the Jump 225 Trilogy”), and trying to figure out my issues with this novel has only reminded me why I don’t like to read first volumes without having the rest of the series on-hand: Infoquake‘s deep world-building (partially explained in a series of appendices) contains enough philosophical/spiritual hooks to suggest that we haven’t seen anything yet. I have the suspicion that Edelman has kept a number of cards up his sleeves, and that many of the above objections are likely to be answered or nullified in the next instalment. Edelman may very well take his series in a specific direction where he’ll exploit or subvert many of the certitudes first introduced in Infoquake. As it is, the novel is never too far away from tongue-in-cheek irony: I’m wary of taking it too seriously.

So you can attribute the above hesitations to “incomplete information: not enough data” and assume that I’m on-board for the rest of the trilogy. Natch may be an amoral bastard, but he’s a fascinating one. I can’t wait to see if Jara will make it out of his orbit of influence without too much damage. Certainly, this is one area of the novel where the uncanny valley of criticism doesn’t apply: Good characters, interesting story and a promising future. Not many novels make it this far up: let’s avoid dwelling on the idea that this is an almost great SF novel and focus on the fact that it’s a very good one.

Sun of Suns, Karl Schroeder

Tor, 2006, 318 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-31543-2

After three solid hits with Ventus, Permanence and Lady of Mazes, I can state with confidence that Karl Schroeder writes the kind of Science Fiction that keeps me a fan of the genre: Intelligent, literate extrapolations of technological trends, with strong narrative qualities and intriguing relevance to the way we live. Schroeder’s fiction is dense and (initially) difficult, but it’s challenging on a number of philosophical, social and creative levels and ultimately rewarding in ways that are unique to the Science Fiction genre.

(Not that you can trust me when it comes to Karl Schroeder: I’ve known him for years, and can’t pretend to any objectivity when it comes to reviewing his fiction. You’ve been warned.)

With Sun of Suns, Schroeder tackles a looser style, with more attention paid to adventure and visual special effects than to deep intellectual concerns. Unlike his three previous novels, this one has been conceived as pure entertainment in the planetary romance tradition, even despite the conspicuous absence of a planet. Think of it as a micro-gravity swashbuckler and you won’t be too far-off.

Imagine a gigantic sphere of tough carbon material floating in space. Now fill this sphere with air and put a blazing sun in the middle. Now put in tons of water, organic material, nanotechnology as well as, oh, people and let everything evolve for centuries. Now peek inside.

You may find that this sphere, Virga, has evolved in ways not entirely dissimilar to nineteenth-century empires, loosely arranged around smaller peripheral suns. You will see people travelling from one spinning wooden city to another by way of wooden ships and pedal-powered personal flyers. You may find courtroom intrigue, piracy, naval battles, rich characters, outsiders and hints of higher technology coming from outside Virga.

At least that’s what you’ll get in Sun of Suns. Schroeder has cleverly invented a brand-new hard-SF setting (reminiscent, but not similar to Larry Niven’s Integral Trees) and has filled it with an environment ripe for adventure. As a piece of entertainment, Sun of Suns is pure delight: the world starts making sense almost immediately, and part of the fun is in seeing Schroeder work out the implications of his creation, with all of the consequences and rich dramatic possibilities that they imply.

A fascinating group of characters are lucky enough to inhabit this fantastic new world. An orphan with a revenge fantasy; an avowed manipulator who misses courtroom backstabbing; a scientist with secrets to hide; an admiral that can be both driven and friendly; and a nondescript man with skills no one can predict: all come to form the backbone of the novel’s appeal, making Sun of Suns more than an empty exercise in world-building.

But don’t think that Schroeder has completely abandoned the type of high-end intellectual speculation that has marked his fiction so far. Beyond Virga’s astonishing world-building (including a spectacular segment from the point of view of a “lost” bullet), he suggests a number of intriguing possibilities about the world outside: A line about a “Chinese Room Personality” had me grinning for minutes, while other hints about “flexible realities” outside Virga remind us that Schroeder’s favourite themes may not be as far away as we think.

While this may not be Schroeder’s most intellectually fulfilling book, it’s his most accessible solo novel so far: The adventures of the characters are thrilling, the guided tour of Virga’s strange new environment feels exhilarating and the novel’s steady forward momentum will disappoint few readers. I was pleased to note that the novel’s “click point” (the moment at which the background makes sense) was only a few pages in, compared to Lady of Mazes which required a substantial reading investment before paying off. It suggests that Schroeder will be able to re-use this “new” sense of fun and accessibility (which should be no surprise to readers of The Claus Effect) to further enhance his next works of fiction. If everything works well, Sun of Suns will earn Schroeder a legion of new fans and happy critics.

Your mind will be satisfied and your swash will be buckled: what more could you ask for, a sequel? Well you’re in luck, then: Queen of Candesce is coming out in 2007, with a third volume coming up sometime later.

[September 2008: Queen of Candesce is a bit better upon re-reading, but there’s no denying that it feels like a side-show after the events of Sun of Suns. It follows dangerous Venera Fanning as she ends up on a decaying habitat rife with small conflicts; they don’t stand a chance against her political instincts and the unbelievable coincidences that propel her from one advantageous position to another. The mystery of the bullet is solved, not entirely satisfactorily. Some of the chapter transitions are choppy, but the feeling of rousing adventure remains.]

[October 2008: Volume three, Pirate Sun, feels more like a true follow-up to Sun of Suns, but suffers from its own internal side-show moments. Following Admiral Chaisson Fanning as he escapes from captivity and returns, disgraced, to his homeland, it too has the usual amount of swashbuckling goodness we’ve come to expect from the Virga series (albeit with a bit more material about the Artificial Nature that threatens the habitat from outside). But some parts feel useless, especially when they don’t amount to much. It’s a good read, but nothing more, and the newness of Virga is wearing thin. It’s time for Schroeder to return to meatier subjects.]

Foop!, Chris Genoa

Eraserhead, 2005, 293 pages, US$17.95 tpb, ISBN 0-9729598-9-0

I get book recommendations from the strangest places. In this case, it was at a panel on Cyberpunk at the 2006 Worldcon. Well-known SF author John Barnes was exploring the differences between older and younger readers, and how many younger readers are fond of “flip and dip” reading, basically approaching a book like a loose collection of passages that can be read in any order. He recommended Chris Genoa’s Foop! as one of the big underground hits among younger readers, and a book likely to be dismissed by older readers. That sounded like a challenge: I jotted down the reference and later asked my local bookstore to order a copy.

It turns out that Foop! is a Science Fiction comedy. Or at least tries to be. And Barnes certainly has a point when he identifies the book as a test for readers.

Set in a future often indistinguishable from our present, Foop! is about the timeless problems facing young single men, what happens when their bosses puts them on a “special project” and why, sometimes, there really isn’t any other option but to kill Abraham Lincoln.

That because our narrator, Joe, is a junior tour guide at an outfit that provides time-travel tourism packages and his job requires him to make sure that his clients are happy, even when they mess around with history. But that particular incident is almost normal when compared to what’s waiting for him back at the office: A shiny new position as Chief of Probes, the first probe being finding out why his own boss is being most unpredictably and uncomfortably, er, probed. More trouble starts piling up as he tries hitting on a cute girl at the office and (in a possibly unrelated development) finds himself stalked by two strange characters on the subway ride back home.

But trying to impose a plot on Foop! is disingenuous, because the book never works better than as a surreal collection of loosely related riffs. Like many film comedies, the plot is just an excuse to get from funny sketch to funny sketch. It works well most of the times, but some chapters stand out as being particularly out-of-place, especially if you make the mistake of trying to make sense out of the book as being more than a collage of amusing situations. Chapter 12, featuring an excretory ghost that only serves to send the narrator out of the apartment, is a particularly frustrating example of this tendency to flash-and-forget.

Such deliberate nonsense also serves to illustrate why, if Foop! is futuristic and funny, it’s not really comic science-fiction: Genoa’s casual indifference to consequences and coherence is such that the imagined universe of his novel never serves a larger thematic goal. Sheckley and Adams this isn’t, despite segments that may feel similar. It’s not necessarily unpleasant as long as the gags keep coming up, but it’s eventually a disservice when the novel attempts meatier heartfelt segments (such as the “dawn of time” sequence late in the book) or when the reader tries to form an impression on the book as a whole rather than snippets of it.

Which is a shame, because most of Foop! is hip, hilarious and a pleasure to read. It’s difficult to hold a grudge against a book that keeps up the laughs. Despite the nihilism and the swearing, it’s a likable book: I still get a kick out of the Joe/Warren bit (or all of Chapter 6) and wish that it could have led to something else later on.

But, in an illustration of the whole concept of surrealism, Foop! is as frustrating as it’s likable: The indulgence of its readers in putting questions aside in the hope of a latter payoff is never satisfied. Foop! practically defines what is a cult classic. In the end, I can see John Barnes’ point about younger and older readers and how Foop! represents a certain style of writing influenced by film comedies and fast cutting: If a joke is boring, well, there’s always a new one coming up. ADD is an advantage Foop!‘s readers, especially if it makes them forget everything that happened more than five pages before. Reluctantly, I’ll have to throw my support to “the older readers” generation, and hope that when the younger readership will put us up in old-age homes, they will forget to lock the doors as they go on reading their new-fangled blipvels.

Gee, I feel old.

(I should probably note in conclusion that the small-press origins of Foop! are a bit too obvious to be glossed over: Beyond the physical feel of the binding, the lower-quality printing and the scattered editorial oversight on the content, the font of the book itself sometimes changes from paragraph to paragraph, subtly passing to a bigger point size without changing line height values. I have no idea why this is so (though I suspect late-minute modifications to the electronic manuscript), but it’s another vexing reminder that Foop! may have made it out in the world with insufficient quality-control.)

Hollywoodland (2006)

(In theaters, November 2006) As historical Hollywood crime dramas go, this one doesn’t have the insane pyrotechnics of The Black Dahlia, but it may be just a bit better in the end. Certainly, it’s a slog to make it to the conclusion: Taking place on an intimate scale, this examination of George Reeves’ mysterious death isn’t particularly fast-paced, nor rich in dramatic action. On the other hand, the look at the life of TV’s first Superman is full of details, and even compassion for the characters. But what truly makes the film, beyond a number of solid performances (and yet another proof that Diane Lane get sexier with age) is the conclusion, which wisely presents no explicit explanation to the mystery of Reeves’ death, but does tip the scale toward an explanation that negates this film as an investigation. Gutsy move, and one that makes this film rank reasonably high on the historical accuracy charts. A generally solid, unpretentious film.

The Fountain (2006)

(In theaters, November 2006) Brilliant or pretentious? Fabulous or dull? Too-simple or cryptic? There’s no easy answer with Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, which steps boldly into experimental film territory with all the predictable consequences: Lush visuals, skilled direction and a disregard for anything approaching narrative coherence. Thematically, it’s a big blender of Important Themes: Death, Love, Life, Monkeys, etc. That it’s brilliant is undeniable. That it’s a mess that cares more about its director than the audience can be argued. Those who know they love these films can already go and get the damn DVD: everyone else looking for more conventionally entertaining material can go stare at swirling paint for an hour and a half. Martin Scorsese could have directed this as a short film and still have time to put in a Mafia subplot: Here, we’re stuck along with the important music, important visuals, important camera angles and important themes. Every year sees its own “you must be this masochistic to see this film” entry, and The Fountain is it. Genius, yes, important, maybe, but that doesn’t necessarily translate in anything like satisfaction or even lasting reputation: Who remembers Soderbergh’s Solaris even four years later?

Blindsight, Peter Watts

Tor, 2006, 384 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-31218-2

After years of knowing the author, I’m hardly the most objective reviewer any more when it comes to Peter Watts’ stuff. Still, even I didn’t expect him to bat it so far out of the park with Blindsight, a strong contender for best-SF-novel-of-the-year accolades. It’s a crackling good read, a compendium of dangerously counter-intuitive ideas and the best novel yet from a writer at the top of his game. As if that wasn’t enough, it’s also a work of hard Science Fiction that provides good arguments to anyone arguing in favour of the literary merits of the genre.

The premise is immediately familiar to anyone with even the slightest experience in the genre: decades from now, an alien ship is detected. A crew of specialists is sent to meet and greet the extraterrestrials. It doesn’t go well. Pure first-contact scenario, the bread-and-butter of SF-specific stories.

(Warning: Thematic spoilers ahead.)

But don’t jump to conclusions yet. Because the aliens may not be understandable, and the humans on board the exploration vessel may be even stranger than the extraterrestrials. Clearly, Watts is after more than a simple fuzzy story of first contact. After a while, his theme becomes clearer, as every character illuminates a different facet of non-standard consciousness. The title already alludes to actions that escape rational thought: the rest of the novel explores the same area. Before the novel is through, hard-SF fans will feel the pleasant sensation of hitting the floor nose-first as the rug is pulled from under them: For Blindsight uses the oldest SF scenario in the book in order to question one of hard SF’s core assumption: What if conscious thought wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be? What if consciousness was a wasteful illusion? What if consciousness wasn’t a way to solve problems but was, in itself, the problem?

Readers of Watts’ previous “Rifters” trilogy-in-four-books already know that the author isn’t afraid to follow implications where they logically lead. Even if the conclusion ends up indistinguishable from existential horror. But Watts’ fondness for deeply disturbed characters also allows him to explore issues through destructive testing. Here, the human crew is so far removed from baseline human stock that they each become a different way to ask the central question of the book in different ways.

This is more interesting than it first appears to be, especially considering how Blindsight embraces the type of Science Fiction that sticks closely to current science. Locking the novel in a straight-jacket of reality gives a convincing edge to the book’s speculations, but the impact of Blindsight‘s hard-SF elements goes beyond that: Indeed, one can make the case that hard-SF is the only mode of expression that can reliably explore the characters that Watts posits. Their interactions become thought experiment given dramatic form, thier personal quicks becoming wedges of illumination. There is something fascinating in how this novel understands the rules of the hard-SF game and uses them to its advantage. If anyone ever starts questioning the literary value of scientifically-knowledgeable authors, just give them this novel.

It helps that Watts has never written tighter, more steadily compelling prose. Told by an unreliable narrator, Blindsight appropriately plays tricks of perception, directly addresses its audience (“Imagine that you are…”), skilfully presents exposition into dramatic scenes and works wonders with scientific metaphors.

In many ways, this is the most remarkable accomplishment in Watts’ career so far, displacing even his short story collection Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes as a defining expression of his favourite themes. Biological determinism, a lack of sentimentality and playful pessimism have always been components of the Watts oeuvre, but here they find a clarity of expression that will convince even those who want to disagree with his conclusions. The inevitable nature of Blindsight‘s final chapter will resonate a long time with its readers, virtually ensuring the novel’s impact as anything but a safe and comfortable commodity in the genre SF assembly line.

Even in a year where SF fans were well-served by new novels such as Charles Stross’ Glasshouse and Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End, Blindsight stands as one of the highlights of the year. Crammed with jazzy ideas, fully fluent in genre conventions and written to a compelling polish, Blindsight ought to land straight on the Hugo nominee list and find its place as a reference in the hard-SF genre.

You don’t even have to take my word for it: Blindsight is freely available on Watts’ web site. Read it. Think about it. Hold on to your illusions.

Deja Vu (2006)

(In theaters, November 2006) The good news are that director Tony Scott has stepped back from the brink of madness: After Man On Fire and Domino, Deja Vu looks positively restrained even as it starts messing with the fabric of time and space. Denzel Washington is up to his usual screen presence in a role seemingly tailored for him. The technical savvy of Scott and producer Jerry Bruckheimer is on full display, with enough techno to please any geek in the audience, and that’s not even talking about the cool conceit at the heart of the story. The premise leads straight into, by a significant margin, the best car chase of the year, a masterful segment that positively shakes with energy. Alas, the film chokes upon its own high-concept, taking it a step too far and ending on a far more conventional note than you’d expect from the middle section of the film. The rules change arbitrarily, and the screenwriters go straight for the tragic conclusion that clears the way for a romantic finale. That the film is incoherent from premise to details is too bad, because its beginning is promising and it contains a number of neurone-sizzling moments. Fortunately, the problems can’t overwhelm the idea that this film is worth a look… and maybe even a second one.

Casino Royale (2006)

(In theaters, November 2006) At a time where we thought we could simply dismiss all new James Bond entries as scarcely more than action films, here’s another reinvention of the franchise that goes back to the dark psychological roots of the character, and doesn’t forget to include two or three of the best action scenes of the year, smoothly wrapped in the classic glamour and exoticism of the series. Daniel Craig is very good in the iconic role, presenting a performance that’s closer to Connery (or Ian Fleming’s own depiction) than any of the other Bonds since. The direction is nervy enough, the script is polished and the cinematography is luscious. The only notable problems are a long lull late in the film, a torture scene that sticks a bit too closely to the original book and a whiff of the familiar “love conquers secret agent before making him even meaner” series plot. But really, what else do you need to know? Bond’s back, and his future looks bright.

Babel (2006)

(In theaters, November 2006) One gunshot, four stories. But while the presence of a rifle, deadly danger, abusive policemen and an investigation that spans the globe may suggest an international thriller, Babel is closer to a set of four very intimate dramas. But then again, Babel isn’t about the stories as much as it’s about the way people fail to communicate, or simply the way they all live in today’s world. The solid ensemble cast is one of the finest international group of actors assembled for a single film: While American mainstream audiences will flock to see Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt, their presence is scarcely more than a small portion of the entire film. The direction is skillful despite the impression that the stories aren’t as linked, nor as interesting as the screenplay wants them to be. It’s certainly a film for an older, less impatient audience, what with the time-jumping, relatively small scales and sometimes-unnerving subject matter. It speaks volumes, for instance, that any discussion of “horny Japanese schoolgirls” in the context of this film is a prelude to unimaginable heartache more than anything else: the conclusion is as significant for what didn’t happen that what did. And that’s the kind of film Babel ends up being, despite depending on one single gunshot.

The Prestige, Christopher Priest

Tor, 1995 (2006 reprint), 360 pages, C$18.95 tpb, ISBN 0-765-31734-6

Given how often movie adaptations of good books are disappointing, a saner way to think about it would be to see adaptations as lavish advertisements for the humble book that inspired it all. For those without any knowledge of the story, why not upgrade the experience by going from the film to the book?

That’s part of the reason why I deliberately held off on reading Christopher Priest’s The Prestige until after I had seen the film. Given my knowledge of the Science Fiction genre, it’s rare that an SF film adaptation will tackle a book that I haven’t read: I thought it would be fun to do the plebeian thing and pick up the movie tie-in reissue.

At this point, I could spend a lot of time discussing the meticulously well-constructed machine that is Christopher Nolan’s adaptation of THE PRESTIGE, but most of it boils down to two conclusions: First, the book and the movie are substantially different. Second, the film was far more satisfying than the book.

Not that the book isn’t a success: Here, Priest plays around with the notion of feuding Victorian-era stage magicians, and the result is fascinating. More or less told through two diaries within a contemporary first-person framing device, The Prestige describes a duel between skilled illusionists who turn their obsessive nature to one-upping and humiliating each other. Their quest to defeat each other’s illusions gradually takes them in increasingly fantastic territory –although the “fantastic” here isn’t always related to science and technology.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the novel is its exploration of the world of Victorian stage magic. At a time predating most of what we now regard as “mass entertainment”, stage magic was a big deal: It’s easy to imagine the whole of London looking on as Priest describes the routine of the job and explain the prestidigitator’s trade. (Though without explaining their tricks –another way the film is more satisfying.) The atmosphere is top-notch, and the illusion of verisimilitude is perfect.

The diary format also allows Priest to delve deep into the minds of his unreliable diarists (which may serve to explain why the duller contemporary narration is less interesting) and give them all very different characteristics through simple use of language. Viewers of the movie won’t have any problem identifying the characters, even though the adaption takes liberties with at least one character by sheer necessity. Writing-wise, The Prestige is a pleasure to read, the Victorian-era language never overpowering the compulsively readable nature of the narrative, even for those who think they know the upcoming surprises.

But there are some very important differences between book and novel. Even for such a twisty story, the plot turns and revelations are arranged in a different order, and the book contains at least two extra surprises that take the story much deeper into the Science Fiction genre. I’m not convinced that these extra twists are essential, though: By the time we’re back to the contemporary frame, the last surprises seem a bit inconsequential and superfluous: If the film has a particular strength, it’s to rearrange the revelations in such a way that they give an extra thematic meaning to the story: I particularly loved the way that the film one-ups its high-tech twist by one of the oldest double-switch trick there is.

While the book is good and pleasant and immensely readable, it meanders without making optimal use of its own strengths. The film may be short and simple and predictable (to some), but it has the luxury of extracting the diamonds in the rough draft of Priest’s story, and stringing them along for a stronger narrative. Both stories are successes in their own chosen storytelling modes, but the film has an extra kick that can only leave viewers shaking their heads in admiration. (There’s probably an extra generalization to make here about what distinguishes good adaptations from bad ones, but I’ll leave that as an exercise to the reader.)

Looking at my database of books read since 1994, I realized that I had never read any book by Christopher Priest before The Prestige, a curious oversight ill-explained by the confidential distribution of his books in North America. Whatever the reason, I have now started correcting the situation: Priest’s The Separation is now on my bookshelves. The Prestige, while a paler double of its own adaptation, convinced me to see out the rest of the author’s backlist.