Monthly Archives: December 2006

James Tiptree Jr., Julie Phillips

St. Martin’s, 2006, 469 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-20385-3

Like any self-respecting late-twentieth-century SF fan, I’ve know the rough outline of James Tiptree Jr.’s “life” from my earliest readings in the genre. Every mention of his, after all, came complete with a pithy note about how “Tiptree” was really Alice Sheldon, writing under pseudonym and managing an amazing career under false pretences, misleading everyone up to the venerable Robert Silverberg. Latter story notes included a tragic postscript: Death by suicide, 1989.

Later on, as my understanding of genre and gender politics grew, it became more difficult not to see the whole story as a feminist parable: A woman out of time, taking a cover identity to achieve what The Man wouldn’t let her. Ah, if only Alice Sheldon had been born in today’s enlightened society. Ah, if only the genre would have allowed her to exploit her talents to the fullest…

But in retrospect, it’s obvious that I had never truly understood, nor even listened attentively to Alice Sheldon’s story. Story notes, encyclopedia entries and convention discussions are a rotten way to understand an author. There is no excuse now: with her densely-detailed biography James Tiptree Jr., Julie Phillips makes it possible to delve deep inside Sheldon’s life, and witness the birth of Tiptree.

For casual fans, the biggest revelation of the book is the description of Alice Sheldon as a young girl, the daughter of wealthy Chicago socialites whose claim to fame was a series of three trips to Africa (then an almost unimaginably exotic destination), lavishly described in written form by Sheldon’s mother, herself an accomplished writer. Alice Sheldon, years before Tiptree, became the heroine of children’s books written by her mother: one can only imagine the expectations placed on such a person growing up.

Her early adulthood wasn’t necessarily more placid: Sheldon re-invented herself every few years, whether it was through a hasty first marriage, a stint in the military, a long stretch as an aerial photography analyst (where she literally wrote the book on the discipline), an unusual second marriage, a few years as a chicken farmer, a brief career at the CIA, academic studies leading to a PhD… and so on. One can say many things about Alice Sheldon’s whirlwind succession of careers, but it’s impossible to say that she live a dull life. One get the impression of a woman constantly looking for something better, something more interesting.

Unfortunately, one also gets a portrait of a person with deep-rooted problems. Drugs prefigure heavily in Sheldon’s life (she battled an addiction to speed during most of her life), as do successive sentimental adventures (rarely settling in an admittedly unsatisfying pair of marriages), problems relating to her mother, a distaste of crowds and an essential lack of satisfaction with anything.

By the time she comes to science-fiction as James Tiptree Jr., almost on a lark, the field is as ready for her as she is ready for it: Her stories quickly find an audience and earn her a string of top awards even as the mystery of her identity remains. Through misdirection (but rarely outright lying, from what Phillips highlights), she’s able to pass her true biography as a male character’s fully realized past, and seduce the SF world into accepting what they were asking for: A writer with world-weary experience, yet also a sensitive man with a unique take on gender issues.

James Tiptree Jr. Is a remarkable book in many ways, but what really distinguishes it is the sheer narrative drive of the book, as it zips through Sheldon’s remarkable life to reach the apex of Tiptree’s time. Carefully but unobtrusively sourced, the biography entertains, educates and keeps up wanting more about Sheldon. Phillips had no particular SF credentials before writing this book, making the exactitude of the genre references even more astonishing. (This may be the first Big Biography I’ve read in which a vague acquaintance, David Hartwell, plays a small part.)

By the time I closed the book, I was particularly thankful for how Julia Phillips, with James Tiptree Jr., defused any reader’s attempt at being judgemental about Alice Sheldon. Her biography is so complete, so unflinching even at the most intimate details that it stands as a complete memento to the person. I can’t imagine any book outdoing this one as the definitive look at Tiptree. Indeed, I can’t imagine any literary biography about a Science Fiction writer being more impressive than this one (though if someone wants to tackle either Paul Linebarger or Harlan Ellison, they’re more than welcome to try.) There may be some further irony in that if even a biographical film is to be made about a modern SF writer, this may be it. I wonder who’ll play David Gerrold and Robert Silverberg.

Liberty, Stephen Coonts

St. Martin’s, 2003 (2004 reprint), 530 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-312-98970-9

The way I wrote about Stephen Coonts’ last few novels, no one would have been surprised had I simply stopped reading his stuff. After the insanity of Saucer, the boredom of America or the misfires in Cuba and Hong Kong, I should have relegated Coonts to the dustbin of failed techno-thriller writers. But stuff happens, used book sales can reveal cheap surprises and books like Liberty can spontaneously appear on my bookshelves.

From the first few pages, it’s not a promising read. Coonts, comfy in his post-9/11 patriotism, write without irony in his acknowledgements about America being the “civilization and economy that feeds, clothes and houses the six billion people marooned on this small planet.” No one ever accused Americans of thinking too small, but this seems a bit much even by the inflated standards of American self-righteousness. Oh well; onward.

At first, even the plot itself doesn’t seem particularly appealing. Like most techno-thriller writers, Coonts has chosen to write his own version of “the bomb at home” plot: Terrorists buy nuclear warheads from renegade ex-Soviet sources and smuggle them into the US: it’s up to series protagonist Jake Grafton to discover and disarm them. Do I even have to reveal the ethnicity of the terrorists?

But true thriller magic soon emerges from this inauspicious start. Unlike most of Coonts’ previous novel, this one starts to click: If you can do like Coonts and ignore most of his previous book’s geopolitical developments (revolution in post-Castro Cuba, Chinese civil war over Hong Kong, etc.), Liberty soon acquires a steady forward rhythm, even finding appropriate dramatic justification for its recurring characters. As Grafton is tasked with the impossible task of finding the bombs, the story keeps on acquiring further complications.

By far my favourite twist occurs when the US government starts sweeping East coast cities for nuclear bombs… only to find out that there are already several ones ticking away. Preposterous and unbelievable, sure, but also indicative of the way Coonts isn’t going to play it completely safe in this novel. Some scenes work splendidly while others fall flat (such as Grafton/Coonts’ on-the-nose depiction of an all-American neighbourhood complete with disposable bagels), but Liberty is, for the first time in a while, the first Coonts novel where we’re having fun. Despite the flag-waving, despite the heady-handed stereotypes, despite the scattered plotting, this novel brings it back together for a while.

It goes without saying that in fine acknowledgement of Chekhov’s Rule, the terrorists’ four bombs are all in play and all serve to juice up the book’s second half. Even the nuke-purchasing terrorists can’t trust each other when one of the bombs is stolen by yet another terrorist group intent on using it to serve their own vengeance. Oh, yes, Liberty is pleasantly twisted, and this kind of low-grade insanity is what keeps readers going. (But one can’t have everything: The third bomb is found and deactivated by pure dumb luck, which is a kind of a twist by itself, I suppose.) The big overlong Hollywood-finale is almost ridiculous in how many plot drivers it cranks up, but as long as everything ends spectacularly, who’s to complain?

Even the characters all get good scenes: Grafton and Tarkington do well by themselves, of course, but even the smaller and newer characters get their turn in the spotlight. New character Anna Modin and Janos Ilin make a great first impression, America‘s Zelda Hudson is turned into a halfway sympathetic character, while master thief Tommy Cardinelli is stuck into an exceptionally thrilling situation midway through the book.

In short, I’m not only surprised by Liberty itself: I’m impressed at how Coonts managed to rescue a good book from the jaws of a failing career. Maybe this is a fluke in an otherwise nose-diving career (certainly, the “Stephen Coonts’ Deep Black” series isn’t a good sign), maybe this is the turning point leading to better novels now that Admiral Gafton has reached the end of his military career. Somehow, I doubt that Jake is ready for the orchard yet. Let’s have a look at Coonts’ next book, shall we?

World War Z, Max Brooks

Crown, 2006, 342 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-307-34660-9

It’s regrettable that up until recently, the zombie had been a creature of filmed horror rather than written horror. For many, zombies are first associated with the Romero films with little prose equivalent. But given the low-budget limitations of horror film-making, this has stunted the evolution of the zombie as a monster: when it’s impossible to show the magnitude of a zombie plague, films has traditionally resorted to isolated locations and a very limited scope. Exploration of the full repercussions of such an event was usually impossible to fit inside a two-hour-long motion picture. But as the zombie genre gained some renewed attention in the early years of the century, a few books dealing with the subject trickled into bookstores.

A first such attempt to gain mainstream attention was Max Brook’s Zombie Survival Guide, a deadpan parody of paramilitary “survival guides” that never blinked at its reader even as it coolly discussed how to decapitate zombies and discussed the likelihood of a “zombie planet”. Alternately chilling and amusing, The Zombie Survival Guide occasionally attained a pleasant narrative velocity, leaving readers wanting more.

“More” is now here as World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, a follow-up tome describing a world-wide zombie uprising via interviews and narratives from survivors of the event. This scattered way of describing the events works in favour of the story: The structure frees Brooks from following certain characters through the least interesting events of their adventures, while the scattered viewpoints allow him to focus on the dramatic high-points of the story regardless of where they take place on the globe. A few characters make return appearances, but most vignettes are self-contained.

Those who are unfamiliar with The Zombie Survival Guide shouldn’t worry: World War Z is not really linked to its predecessor and may even work better without knowledge of the first book. (Among other things, the “solanum” virus is never mentioned and the “secret history” revealed in the last section of The Zombie Survival Guide doesn’t seem to be a prequel to the events of the second book.) What does carry through is Brooks’ clear imagination for the consequences of a world-wide zombie plague: Not content to describe the apocalypse, Brooks takes the next steps and imagines how humanity could fight back, and what kind of world may be left once the “War” is won.

Working in a more obviously fictional context also allows Brooks to be merciless in how he portrays the war. The vignettes of his oral history are usually strong (with a small number of exceptions) and take us where things are happening, around the world or above it. A scene late in the book describing an Alamo-type military engagement at a town called “Hope, New Mexico” leaves an indelible mental picture: World War Z was reportedly optioned for a movie adaptation, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the scene as the movie trailer’s money shot, right after the title card.

It’s the completeness of Brooks’ vision that gives the book its edge, even despite the fascinating subject matter and the smooth writing: Beyond the usual “fighting zombies” scenes so familiar from countless movies, Brooks goes beyond those clichés and dare to imagine the rest, from how to maintain discipline in a demoralized Russian army to “Quislings” unable to cope with the menace to frozen or seaborne zombies. Delicious!

Readers may be surprised to find fleeting but strong criticism of the current US administration in the early part of the novel, as it’s shown ignoring the problem, then promoting a false sense of security and then falling apart when the cracks start to appear. A friend of the administration makes a bundle of money and runs away when his scam is unveiled. Still, justice seems to prevail by the end of the novel, as the former chief of staff is interviewed in a fairly appropriate job for someone of his moral alignment.

A further fascinating aspect of World War Z is how it tackles the zombie theme with a rigour that wouldn’t be out-of-place in a hard-SF novel: Beyond the obviously fantastical element of zombification, the rest of the novel is wonderfully steeped in reality: While some will prefer the more action-packed segments of the story, I found myself oddly fascinated by the tangents about how the US rebuilds its industrial infrastructure, how the nightmarish “Redecker Plan” is adopted as official war policy, or how monetary policy is re-established after the fighting. Glimpses of the post-war world are at times encouraging (a more community-based world, with a renewed interest in environmentalism) and horrifying (a Russia gone back to theocracy).

It’s a shame that by virtue of being published as a mainstream book, World War Z will fly over the radar of genre readers: it’s, by a significant margin, one of the best and most unique reading experience of 2006: don’t be surprised to read it almost straight through.

Visionary in Residence, Bruce Sterling

Thunder’s Mouth, 2006, 294 pages, C$21.50 tpb, ISBN 1-56025-841-1

So, Bruce Sterling has a new short story collection. Do you really need to be told to go read it?

It’s true that you may not be aware of Sterling’s reputation as a hip writer of cutting-edge fiction, sometimes in Science Fiction and sometimes not. As one of the young turks of cyberpunk, Sterling was the voice of the eighties’ generation of SF writers. Since then, he has matured comfortably into the role of an elder statesmen of the genre, a top-notch writer who has lost none of the fervour that animated him twenty-five years ago, nor the world-wide span of attention that earned him the short story collection title Globalhead.

It’s also true that you may have read most of Visionary in Residence‘s short stories already. The opening “In Paradise”, a charming little story blending a universal translator and Homeland Security threats with an inter-ethnic love story was republished in at least one “Year’s Best SF” anthology, and so was “Ivory Tower”, in addition of their initial publications in (respectively), F&SF and Nature. “Luciferase” and “The Scab’s Progress” were both first published online at SciFiction, and so on. Sterling’s been selling steadily over the seven years covered by this collection (the first one since 1999’s A Good Old Fashioned Future) and good SF readers had to work deliberately to avoid reading any of the 12 stories reprinted here. Only one, “Message Found in a Bottle”, a short-short originally written for Nature, is here published for the first time.

Roughly divided in eight sections, Visionary in Residence effortlessly shows how Sterling has grown larger than anything describable with the mere label “science fiction writer”. At he points out in the introduction to the mainstream nerd romance “Code”, the commonplace used to be strange, and mind-blowing before becoming strange. When Sterling now turns his talent to “Fiction about Science” with “Luciferase” (a story about the mating cycle of insects), the results can still be fascinating. Even a series of memos between cubicle workers can emerge as something else in “User Centric”: “There are no happy endings. Because there are no endings. There are only ways to cope.”

But don’t think that our man’s Sterling has gone all softy-real on us. Two of the book’s most successful SF stories are to be found in the “Cyberpunk to Ribofunk” section, in two collaborations (“The Scab’s Progress” with Paul diFilippo and “Junk DNA” with Rudy Rucker) that don’t push the edge of SF as much as they shake it really hard. “Junk DNA”, in particular, is weird and scary and disgusting and cool in ways that can only be explained in gooey post-dot-com ways, with high biotechnology, Russian immigrants, dodgy financial details and wasted genius. It may or may not be the volume’s best story, but it’s certainly the most visceral. It’s also, in fine Sterling/Rucker fashion, almost compulsively hilarious.

Only one section, frankly, seems to leech some energy out of the blend: The closing “The Past is a Future that has already Happened” ventures into historical, even fantastical terrain. I didn’t find this section as interesting as the rest of the collection, but that may be due to fatigue as much as anything else –reading this collection straight-through is not recommended.

With Visionary in Residence, Sterling delivers another concentrated blend of hip technological trend-spotting, sharp writing, steady laughs and mid-expanding consciousness. In recent years, Sterling has spent less time dealing with out-and-out science-fiction and more time trying new and unusual occupations: he has spent time in a design school, gotten married again, travelled the world widely, spoken at conferences… truly embracing the strange new opportunities that the twenty-first century can throw at a scribbler of invigorating fiction. There’s seldom been any less genre material in Sterling’s fiction, and yet it’s rarely been so at the very cutting edge of the future. This is not a paradox: it’s the nature of SF as it exists now.

The Patron Saint of Plagues, Barth Anderson

Bantam Spectra, 2006, 372 pages, C$18.00 tpb, ISBN 0-553-38358-2

This is my least-favourite type of book to review.

No, it’s not as if I hated it: If I had, it wouldn’t be difficult to fill a page about how this or that didn’t work, or how the story didn’t make sense or any of the problems that are so obvious in bad novels. But no: I respect Barth Anderson’s The Patron Saint of Plagues a lot and think that it’s a perfectly respectable first novel.

I’m just not very enthusiastic about it. And beyond a few superficial blanket statements, I’m still not sure why, exactly, I wasn’t more deeply taken by the book.

It does deal with interesting issues: As the name indicates, this is a Science Fiction novel with contagious deceases at its core, an engineered plague going through a future Mexico City (renamed Ascensión) even as the Mexican federal government can’t or won’t do anything to fight the problem. When expert virus hunter Henry David Stark is brought in from the North to look at the issue, he eventually realizes that beyond the lack of official help lies a far more serious problem: He’s not fighting a disease as much as he’s matching wits with another expert –one that, as it happens, Stark already knows very well.

But beyond the plot, there’s also a lot to like about Anderson’s unusually bleak future. Not only has Mexico turned into a dictatorship heavily tinted with theocracy, its standards of living now tower above those of the decadent United States. The border now blocks Americans from seeking good fortune in the South, as the crops die up north and the Americans are left to wonder what happened. (In an often-annoying bit of futurespeak, Anderson has his American characters sound dumber by speaking an ungrammatical version of English.) Heck, one of the subplots even concerned the Mexican Government’s hunger for even more land up north, whether or not the US government is ready to cede it. The Mexican population has the advantage of being linked together through always-on neural communication networks, though this carries along vague mystical yearnings satisfied by “Sister Domenica”, who may become the titular Patron Saint of Plagues.

Yet that fun world-building pales a bit compared to the in-your-face tension that Anderson manages to depict as his investigators try to crack the plague that is killing thousand. The overwhelming feeling is one of obsessive determination being the only thing keeping the virologists from dropping dead from exhaustion. Anderson manages to present a portrait of his heroes as a bit crazy, but necessarily so in order to keep working at it. His depiction of the inner workings of virology is similarly intriguing, doing much to present the subject without riffing off too obviously from The Hot Zone and other similar books.

So: not a bad book.

Still, I’m having a hard time mustering up any enthusiasm for it. As smart and skillful it is, The Patron Saint of Plagues is nearly as exhausting as the disease preying upon is characters. Even at 370 pages, it feels long and unfocused. While unarguably Science-Fiction, the simple “Fiction” moniker on the spine and a back cover blurb that starts with “this biological thriller of the near future” clearly show that this was marketed not exclusively to the SF crowd; maybe a smart move, but one that suggests the relatively pedestrian nature of the story inside. As I was making my way through the book, I was stuck both at the laborious pace of my progress, and an unbidden question: if this novel had all the right elements, why wasn’t it more interesting? Though relatively well-written by the standards of SF and/or thrillers, the novel also leaves the impression that it’s overwritten: Too many words obscuring the story.

And so I’m left without satisfaction, wondering what went wrong either with the book or with my reading of it. I’m curious about Anderson’s next book, of course. But his first novel will remain a mystery.

Rope (1948)

(On DVD, December 2006) Any Hitchcock film is now regarded with respect, but even on its own, this cleverly-made thriller would be worth a look. The first and most obvious distinction of the film is how it’s conceived as a filmed play with a minimal amount of cuts: The lengthy segments lend an air of sustained tension to the storytelling, showcasing the skill of the actors. But beyond the surface, there’s a lot of subtext to the piece, whether it’s the references to the Leopold/Leob case, or the heavy allusions to homosexuality. James Stewart unfortunately looks like a boy-scout in the middle of all this, but his reassuring presence makes up for his lack of emotional involvement in the story. The technical fascination of the film’s making-of only adds to the interest of the film itself, making for a viewing experience that will reward viewers even sixty years later. Among other questions raised by the film is this one: Why hasn’t this type of film-making been attempted more often since, aside from oddities such as Mike Figgis’ Timecode?

Nervous System, Jan Lars Jensen

Crown, 2004, 273 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 1-55192-687-3

They say that Science Fiction can make you crazy, or that only crazies are interested in Science Fiction. They may be wrong, but it’s not a book like Jan Lars Jensen’s Nervous System that will convince them otherwise.

Observers of the Canadian Science-Fiction scene in the late-nineties probably remember the name: Jensen, after all, was one of the genre’s rising starts, with a few stories in the Tesseracts anthologies (including the deeply disturbing “Domestic Slash and Thrust” in Tesseracts 5 and the Sterlingeseque “Moscow” in Tesseracts 7) His first novel, Shiva 3000, was released in 1999 and then… nothing.

Well, not much from a publishing perspective. In his own life, Jensen was literally being driven crazy by the publication of his first novel. Nervous System is his story: how he became convinced that his novel was going to usher in a new world war, how he attempted suicide and eventually checked himself in a psychiatric institution. His arrival at the psychiatric institution is described in Chapter One: The rest of the book explain how he got there and how he managed to break himself out of his particular madness.

There’s nothing funny about the events described in Nervous System, but you wouldn’t know it by reading the book, which carries a straight edge of dark humour throughout the book, sort of a “Aw shuck, jus’ went crazy of a while: all better now” kind of comfort. This is far more effective than the alternative: not only does it remove the first impulse of simply feeling sorry for Jensen, it allows us to understand what happened a lot better than a drier description of the events.

I was unnerved by how easily I bought into the logic of Jensen’s apocalyptic reasoning. As a sometimes-novelist who actually enjoys the cognitive dissonance of living in two universes at once, I had no trouble seeing how a writer can, to put it charitably, spend far too much time in one’s head. Popular prejudice is that all writers are a bit crazy anyway, and his increasingly frantic discussions with his agent seems to bear out this cliché as he’s reassured that there’s really nothing to worry about. (Alas, the beauty of paranoid reasoning is that this is exactly what they would say.) Heck, his reasoning —that his book would be branded as disrespectful to a major religion and that the consequences of the religious protests would escalate into a nuclear exchange— doesn’t even seem so far-fetched after the “Mohamed Cartoon riots” of early 2006.

I was far more concerned about Jensen’s inability to read for pleasure while deep in his episode: Like many writers, Jensen is foremost a reader, and to see something so basic disappear seems like a betrayal. Despite the subject matter of Nervous System, nothing else in the book quite compares to that episode.

I was very impressed at the readability of this book, and the way Jensen comes across neither as a victim or a hero: His writing is lucid, well-structured in how it gradually spirals out of the initial admission at the psychiatric clinic, believably detailed and almost too clear in how he manages to explain what happened. There is a lucidity to his progressive madness, and one of the book’s strengths is how we can both live inside his state of mind and yet realize how off-reality it is: By the time Jensen suspects that government snipers are stationed outside his place of work, just waiting to take him out, it merely seems like a logical development to the reader.

Jensen, or his editor, are very careful not to even write the words “Science Fiction” until very late in the book: before then, we get hints than Jensen love Stephen King and that Shiva 3000 is a work set in the future, but the actual expression “Science Fiction” is left for after we come to understand what happened to Jensen. Almost as if mentioning the gremlin too soon would cause the readers to reach for unwarranted conclusions.

As it is, I expect that the readership of the book will split in two parts: Those who already know Jensen through his SF publishing history and those who don’t. I’m not sure which group will be best-served by the narrative. On one hand, it’s good to know what happened to Jensen after Shiva 3000: may he come back to literature (any genre, any style) soon enough. On the other hand, it does nothing good to correct the impression that SF appeals to off-kilter minds and upsets them some more. Which may be a badge of distinction to some (who wants to be normal, after all?), but surely not to the extent of a psychotic episode. Regardless of your own fondness (or not) for SF, Nervous System finds a place of choice on the literary autobiographies bookshelf: There has never been a narrative quite like this before. I’m stuck by the idea that if Jensen’s first book may have been the trigger to his madness, his second one may be the keystone of his recovery.

Happy Feet (2006)

(In theaters, December 2006) This film may be many things, but it’s certainly not what you’re expecting. Those who go in expecting another one of the many, many CGI-animal-comedy films released this year will be surprised by the action scenes, the explicit environmentalism, the romantic drama, the religious satire, the ethnic references, the soul/rap soundtrack and the often unusual turns of the plot. Technically, it’s a stunning piece of work: The Antarctic landscape is fabulously well-rendered, and the animators work miracles with the relatively limited constraints of penguin anatomy. The direction, by Mad Max alumni George Miller (who’s no stranger to off-beat family films such as Babe 2: Pig In The City), is slick and never hesitates to use the possibilities of CGI to its fullest extent. The action scenes alone are surprisingly enjoyable. But it’s on a story level that Happy Feet is most audacious: The film meanders here and there on the emotional map, opting for segments that range from amusing to nightmarish: The density and variety of the story makes the film feel considerably longer than its 108 minutes. Unfortunately, it also gives it a disconnected, almost incoherent feel: by the time it pulls itself together for a toe-tapping finale, it feels as if the film pulls itself out of a corner by jumping out the side window. Perplexing, but still more interesting than most CGI film released this year. The music alone makes it all worthwhile: Beyond the Moulin Rouge!-esque musical sampling of the first few minutes, the latter segments all lift the film well above its usual level and are guaranteed to make you smile… and tap.

The Good Shepherd (2006)

(In theaters, December 2006) Given the traditional association between spy stories and popcorn movies, it’s a surprise to find that this historical drama is far more interested in the emotional burden of espionage than in gunfights and thrilling chase sequences. Matt Damon is surprisingly restrained in the lead role, even when surrounded by a fabulous cast that includes director Robert De Niro, Angelina Jolie, Alec Baldwin and many other familiar names. But this restraint has a point: the script is an intricate mixture of secrets, betrayals, codes and detection: Closer to John LeCarré’s brand of dreary spy fiction, The Good Shepherd is a grown-up entry in the spy genre. But like many films dedicated to an older audience, it’s also dull, dreary and far too long for its own sake: Clocking in at a languid two hours and a half, The Good Shepherd tests its viewer’s patience without mercy. Self-consciously ponderous and deathly serious (there’s maybe three laughs in the entire picture), it’s not without qualities, but it really requires its audience to work in order to get at them. CIA history buffs will appreciate, but others are likely to keep staring at their watches.

Flushed Away (2006)

(In theaters, December 2006) Aardman’s studio first CGI film is a smashing delight: While it doesn’t have the classic status of Wallace and Gromit, Flushed Away has learned all the good lessons from its more famous sibling: the action sequences are furious, the world-building is inventive, the sight gags are numerous and the entire production has a charm that makes it impossible to resist. The characters are realized in typical Aardman-clay style, with intentional surface texture defects and the characteristic eyes we’ve come to associate with the studio. The humour may be a bit more juvenile, but one of the surprises of the film is how successful it is even when it’s using naive gags: One gets the sense that the writers are almost apologizing for the clichés even as they milk them for all they’re worth. Visually busy and not one minute too long, Flushed Away is a solid hit: not a classic, but a title well-worth revisiting. Who would have thought that slugs could be such a hoot?

Fidel (2002)

(On DVD, December 2006) While this 200-minutes long film may not be easy entertainment, it’s a splendid piece of docu-fiction that at least gives the impression of teaching about Cuba’s post-WW2 history, through the life of Fidel Castro from his early days as a lawyer to the dictator of today. Fidel himself makes for a complicated subject, a heroic rabble-rouser who comes to be corrupted by his own ideals. While the film goes easy on the historical character during its first half, things get a lot more dramatic after the revolution, as Casto becomes darker and his regime… doesn’t measure up to the expectations. The quality of the reconstitution is adequate, especially given the reduced budget for a four hours-long made-for-TV docu-fiction. It’s surprisingly accessible, even despite the dropped threads, lopsided structure and often-simplified historical material. The Cuba crisis is particularly condensed, though it does a fine job at explaining the situation as seen from Fidel’s viewpoint. A good choice for anyone looking for a bit of easy history: not so good for those who just want to see a movie.

Tiger Cruise, Douglas Morgan

Forge, 2000 (2002 reprint), 289 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-56859-1

Sometimes, reviewing the book’s story isn’t as interesting as reviewing the story about the book.

For instance, there are a number of pleasant things to say about Tiger Cruise, but nothing particularly outstanding: It’s a competent military thriller, unusually accessible for civilian audience. It feels too short and linear, but those end up being small flaws in a generally enjoyable piece of good reading.

It starts at Diego Garcia, the major US base in the Indian Ocean. It’s a festive time: The USS Cushing is coming back home after a long deployment, and a group of civilians has opted to spend some time aboard the destroyer. This “Tiger Cruise” is supposed to be uneventful, but that’s without counting on the ambitions of a group of terrorists intent to seizing the destroyer and its arsenal of “special weapons”. Cruising through one of the most dangerous seas on Earth quickly has consequences: the ship is boarded and it’s up to the crew, cut off from the rest of the world, to fight back against the pirates. Meanwhile, the Australians are taking their own dispositions to make sure that no one escapes with a bunch of nuclear missiles…

The best thing about Tiger Cruise is that it’s pure beach-side entertainment. Not too demanding, not too silly, with just enough characterization to do the job and credible details about life on board a modern destroyer. “Morgan” knows enough about the way the military works to describe it well, but isn’t so obsessed with ranks and rivets to make the book inaccessible to civilians. The tension is cranked effectively, and the basic plot flows along smoothly.

Where it doesn’t work so well is when the story wrap up to a conclusion: After a promising start, the pirate onslaught whimpers out and the heroes are able to counterattack relatively easy. Readers may feel that there’s an extra twist missing, especially when the arrival of the much-anticipated Australian strike force fails to have much of an impact on the situation. Tiger Cruise ends too quickly, sailing to a smooth finish almost as if it couldn’t be bothered to make the most out of its setup. Those with good memories for action movies may mutter something about this not being much different from the Steven Seagal vehicle Under Siege.

And that, in a nutshell, would be the review of the book.

But something interesting is revealed when you start poking around the web for more information on Tiger Cruise‘s “Douglas Morgan”: He doesn’t exist.

Or rather, he’s a pseudonym for none other than husband/wife writing team Debra Doyle and James D. McDonald, the latter of which is widely know both as a co-editor of the popular “Making Light” blog, and for his own writing advice as “Uncle Jim”. Better yet: The acknowledgement page shows that none other than Teresa Nielsen Hayden co-edited the book, adding another layer of “but I know this person!” to the entire story-about-the-story.

But wait! It gets better: Reading through the lines, it becomes clear that Tiger Cruise was meant as a novelization of a movie script, which makes the entire shortcomings of the story come into focus. “Morgan” (or rather Doyle/MacDonald) took on the job of fleshing out a story already developed by Pamela Wallace and Susan Feiles. Suddenly, the straightforward plotting and the simplistic ending of the book all make sense when viewed through the lenses of a novelization from a story developed by others.

But wait! It gets even better: Look around the Internet Movie Database for a movie called “Tiger Cruise”, and you will find reference to a 2004 Disney Channel original film (!) describing the aftermath of the September 11th attacks on the civilians and crew of the USS Constellation aircraft carrier. No terrorists, which may be explained by the fact that this is an entirely different film with a different production crew. Are you confused yet?

Even so, I have the sneaking suspicion that there’s even more to this story that hasn’t made public: If Pamela Wallace is a well-known writer, Producer “Susan Feiles” remains an enigma with a scant web presence. Was the Disney film a hacked-together attempt to revive the title? What happened to the original script concept? Is Douglas Morgan going to write another techno-thriller? Should we ask Uncle Jim?

Eragon (2006)

(In theaters, December 2006) There it is: one of the first explicit Lord Of The Rings rip-off that exists because of the other film and is just as ridiculed because of it. There’s no doubt that the financial success of Peter Jackson’s adaptation trilogy unlocked the coffers for this film. Alas, the same trilogy provides a far better point of reference for all critics: Eragon is derivative trash, incompetently made and crammed with talent that can’t do anything with the material it’s given. Bad fantasy films aren’t anything new, as veterans of Dragonheart or Kull The Conqueror will attest, but The Lord Of The Rings now acts as a reference to prove that, yes, it’s possible to make good fantasy films. Eragon isn’t merely a pleasant derivative work like Narnia often felt: it’s minimum-effort film-making with a blatant disregard for its audience. The dialogue is particularly trite, with lines that you can anticipate (and ridicule) well before their utterance. Not that the plotting is any better, as severe suspension of disbelief or mild mental retardation is required to accept the plot cheats required for the story to go on. It speaks volumes that midway through the film, I found myself thinking that any slash fanfic coming out of this film is bound to be more interesting and entertaining than the source material. By the time the credits rolled, I had even started to giggle at the obvious slash hooks in the story: the protagonist is so not interested in the girl. Given the good odds that she may end up being his sister, it’s probably a good thing that he’s not into females without scales, wings and fire breath.

Blood Diamond (2006)

(In theaters, December 2006) At a time where Hollywood blockbusters seem more concerned about marketing than social edification, it’s a mixed blessing to see a film like Blood Diamond, which cleverly mixes all of the trappings of an action thriller with a heavy-handed social drama about the plight of Africa. It works far more often than it doesn’t, but the didactic edge to the film often lends it a moral righteousness that works at odds with the film’s entertaining nature. Compared to the similar The Constant Gardner, Blood Diamond feels like a blunt instrument swung wildly, often making contact but with far less grace. Entire chunks of the film feel superfluous, but none more than the shoehorned romance between the two white leads: Though Leonardo DiCaprio turns in a fabulous hard-edged performance on the heels of his turn in The Departed, Jennifer Connelly is a bit lightweight as a journalist who’s supposed to have seen everything –though she’s stuck in an underwritten role. Whatever the case, their romance feels like a weak and mandatory plot element, which is disappointing given the richness of the film’s other thematic concerns. Third-world exploitation, child soldiers, cyclic patterns of insurrection, private wars, first-world indifference, gun-dealing and other weighty issues are all tackled with some skill here, and the script even allows itself a generous helping of gunfights, chases and explosions. The result is a good film, but one that stops short of being great. Ironically, it’s not because it’s lacking something: it’s because it has too much of the wrong stuff. A leaner, less Hollywoodish third act would have been a perfect cap on an excellent film: as it stands now, Blood Diamond is still one of the better films of the year, but struggles to be anything more.

Apocalypto (2006)

(In theaters, December 2006) That wily Mel Gibson! Who would have thought that his vast Mayan epic would be an excuse for a Rambo-like 40-minutes chase sequence? (Probably the same one who saw The Passion Of The Christ and said “Hey, that’s a shlock horror film!”) Despite the subtitles and lush visuals, despite the historical recreations and the fundamentally different nature of its protagonists, Apocalypto is both a travelogue and an action film, first taking us from jungle to decadent civilization and then following its protagonist through an extended chase where he picks off his opponents one by one. Tons of very painful gore belie Rousseau’s “noble savage” ideal, but finely uphold the violent nature of Gibson’s oeuvre so far. I do have a number of problems with the exactitude of the historical recreation, but not its verisimilitude. Though the film relies on two honking Once-in-a-Century Big Events as plot drivers, these contrivances pale in comparison to the pulse-pounding effect of the film’s third act. Apocalypto ends up being being a surprisingly accessible, vastly entertaining film. For those who can take the bloody nature of it.