Monthly Archives: January 2008

The Keep, F. Paul Wilson

Tor, 1981 (2006 revision), 403 pages, C$4.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-35705-4

I’m always impressed when the years move on and leave certain books unaffected. To the dismay of anyone trying to write for posterity (if there’s such a thing when there are bills to pay), decades can be very unkind to any kind of fiction. Beyond contemporary settings, there are dozens of ways for books to be stuck in time: outdated social assumptions, unfashionable prose or crude genre conventions. Even in Science Fiction or Fantasy, setting a story in the future or the past doesn’t necessarily erase the mark left by the writer’s present. So imagine my surprise to find out that F. Paul Wilson’s The Keep still feels just as fresh today as when it was published in 1981.

There’s a trick, of course: The version of The Keep I read isn’t the version that was published twenty-five years ago. It’s been reviewed, retouched and reprinted, validated and enhanced along the way like few other early-eighties horror novels have been. Dig deep enough, and you will even find that it was adapted for the big screen in 1983 by none other than director Michael Mann. (Good luck seeing it, though: The film is conspicuously absent from DVD format catalogs, and rumor has it that Mann himself isn’t too keep on reviving it.)

Then there’s the detail that the book was written to be a World War 2-era supernatural thriller, already taking it further away from instantly-recognizable contemporary cultural references. At a time where horror novels simply required a monster and people to slaughter, Wilson aimed for more ambitious targets by reaching back in time and space to set his monster/haunted-house story in 1941 Romania. When a group of Nazi soldiers occupies an isolated keep deep in the Transylvanian Alps, they awaken something out for their blood, at a determined pace of one death per night. Terrified, they ask for help; alas, the elite reinforcements prove ineffective. Desperate, they end up reaching out to an expert on local legends, a wheelchair-bound intellectual who happens to be Jewish. But even the scholar and his daughter don’t suspect the repercussions of what has been unleashed in the keep…

One of the reasons why this book is still in print today is that it forms the cornerstone of Wilson’s Adversary cycle, which also spawned Wilson’s “Repairman Jack” series. While The Keep initially looks and feels like a particularly ornate vampire story, Wilson has a larger framework in mind, and the barest hints of the menace are revealed in this first volume. Suffice to say that this isn’t a mere vampire at play, and that the roots and consequences of the novel won’t be limited to 1941.

But the best reason for the novel’s continued popularity is that it’s slickly written and a hugely enjoyable page-turner. Wilson’s prose is clean and compelling, and his ability to keep readers coming back for “one more chapter” is terrific. While the tight suspense of the first half eventually cedes way to a looser second half, the strong characters keep up interest until the end despite ever-larger developments. The delight with which Wilson multiplies the complications (by bringing in “good” Nazis, the looming menace of another concentration camp, a mysterious stranger traveling to the Keep, unexpected shifts in allegiances, and so on) is the stuff from which satisfying novels are made of. Plus, hey, it’s all-too-easy to lose sight of the most excellent premise: Nazis versus monsters! What’s not to like?

The historical detail is convincing, Wilson generally avoids the easy Nazi clichés and the first 150 pages are a model of increasing tension. No small wonder that The Keep still attracts an audience more than a quarter-century after its publication. Even for experienced horror readers, the novel still carries its own kick. There’s a good chance that The Keep will still be just as readable in 2031.

Ice Station, Matthew Reilly

St. Martin’s, 1999, 513 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-312-97123-0

When I write that some writers should be praised for their insane genius, I’m specifically thinking of Matthew Reilly. You can keep paying tribute to your literary prodigies, your award-winning wordsmiths and your tortured artistes: Meanwhile, I’ll be sitting in the corner whooping it up with one of Reilly’s pedal-to-the-metal action thrillers.

Seemingly written for those who think that Hollywood action blockbusters are too slow and sedate, Reilly’s novels explode out of their premises, multiplying action sequences at the carefree expense of believability. It’s as if a Hollywood screenwriter was unleashed from the bounds of budgetary concerns and insurance liability: Suddenly, unbridled excesses and can-you-top-this action sequences become mere chapters in books that delights in exhausting the readers. Reilly’s novel are amoung the best in applying action movie mechanics to the novel form, and while the result won’t be for everyone, it’s a hugely enjoyable way to pass time.

Ice Station may have been Reilly’s first professional publication (Contest was initially self-published; though re-worked and republished later on) but it already showcases Reilly’s characteristic style. Taking place in Antarctica, it initially describes how a team of Marines investigates the mysterious disappearance of nearly all personnel from a US research station. Things soon spiral out of control as the Marines are attacked from all sides: There’s a killer in the station, strange lifeforms in the pool at the bottom of the base, and enemy forces closing in on the surface.

But that’s still mere prelude to the sheer insanity of the novel as it develops all of these threads. Because there’s something very dangerous about Wilkes Station where most of the action takes place: something buried deep in the ice, and something that several governments are clearly ready to fight over… or destroy if they can’t have it.

But geopolitical considerations are mere background information when the shooting begins. Close-combat heroics, hovercraft demolition derbies, mutants, three successive waves of elite attackers, nuclear-powered weaponry and high-tech gadgets are only some of the elements that give Ice Station its hard-edged charm. The characters are secondary at the exception of protagonist Shane “Scarecrow” Schofield (who later goes on to star in three more of Reilly’s novels), but the centerpiece action sequences are very well-done. Reilly’s special genius is that he understands the mechanics of an action sequence: the impossible situations, the small accumulation of mini-objectives, the ratcheting tension in every twist and turn, the cool little ideas that help the protagonists fight their way out of desperate odds…

I suspect that few serious critics will be kind toward Reilly’s work: He does cheat and lie to his readers in order to crank the tension, and the over-the-top ridiculousness of his accumulating action will be lost on anyone who’s not already a fan of kinematic action. But there’s a lot of clever genre-bending in Ice Station, which earns some distinction by being one of the few thrillers to set up an extraterrestrial element, then tops it with an even less likely development that manages to keep the novel in the realm of the techno-thriller.

So, no, Ice Station will never get any respect, but it doesn’t really need any: As a techno-thriller, it wipes the floor with the shattered corpses of most other novels of its genre. Reilly’s talent is in his visceral understanding of what make a story move, both at the sentence-by-sentence and the structural level. He is, not insignificantly, a thriller writer with is own distinctive style, and that should be enough to earn him enough faithful readers to enable him to write whatever he wants. Insane geniuses deserve their own dedicated followers, you know.

Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology, Ed. James Patrick Kelly & John Kessel

Tachyon, 2007, 424 pages, US$14.95 tpb, ISBN 978-1-892391-53-7

One of the most endearing traits of Science Fiction as a genre is its almost pathological need to examine itself for new trends. Commentators steadily scour new publications for trends, recurring leitmotivs and emerging clichés. When The New Thing proves to be difficult to identify, they go back to The Formerly New Things and kick them around for inspiration. But the sad truth is that cyberpunk remains the last coherent SF movement, its shadow still looming over genre criticism fifteen years after it was clinically declared dead from embarrassment.

One suspects that the deathbed conversation over cyberpunk will keep on going until the entire genre is absorbed by the singularity, and then be carried over by intelligence much vaster than ours yet still punier than John Clute. In the meantime, any pretext is good enough for a post-cyberpunk reprint anthology like Rewired.

The choice of anthologists isn’t accidental: Both James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel were active writers in the heydays of cyberpunk –although whether they were part of the movement or opposed to it as “humanists” depends on who you speak to.

Students of genre history will have a lot of good material to digest in Rewired: Not only does it come with a lengthy introduction discussing the characteristics of “Post Cyberpunk” (“PCP”) SF, it’s also peppered with excerpts of correspondence between cyberpunk chairman Bruce Sterling and Kessel, in which both authors tackle issues surrounding the movement and its aftermath.

But people don’t read reprint anthologies for the introductions: many of them read it for the table of content. For beyond the empty “post-cyberpunk” claims (yes, yes, SF has absorbed the lessons of cyberpunk; can we move on, now, please?) Rewired is most interesting as an attempt to define a canon for modern science-fiction. The choice of pieces is not accidental, and even a quick glimpse at the content of the book will reveal a number of proto-classics that have a good chance to form the SF canon of the last dozen years.

Many of the big names of recent SF are there, even when the stories themselves may or may not be the most representative of their work. There’s even an odd dash of exoticism is calculated to make Science Fiction look like a genre with literary respectability. Hard-SF favorite Greg Egan (“Yeyuka”) sits next to the red-hot Cory Doctorow (“When Sysadmin Ruled the Earth”) and underrated veteran Walter Jon Williams (“Daddy’s World”), while Jonathan Lethem and Gwyneth Jones lend their respectability to the exercise. There’s a bit of something for everyone in this anthology, even for those who know the corpus: It’s hard to avoid re-reading the brilliance of David Marusek’s “The Wedding Album”, Charles Stross’ techno-heavy “Lobsters” or Bruce Sterling’s still-amusing “The Bicycle Repairman”.

Meanwhile, like all good reprint anthologies, Rewired offers the chance to read some stories that may have escaped first notice: Paul Di Filippo’s “What’s Up, Tiger Lily” is a fun romp that proves again why Di Filippo remains one of the genre’s most overlooked short story writer.

Even though, it’s hardly a perfect anthology. Some choices seem motivated by variety and/or notoriety, leading to puzzling selections. William Gibson’s “Thirteen Views of a Cardboard City”? Hmmm. And, of course, there’s never any accounting for taste either for the anthologists or the reader: Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Calorie Man” and Christopher Rowe’s “The Voluntary State” still seem as overrated as when they were nominated for the Hugo. Your mileage, as they say, may differ.

But if you forget about the “post-cyberpunk” marketing hook, Rewired more than holds its own as a reprint anthology of recent material. The names on the cover offer a good and recent overview of the genre, the table of content features a a few diamonds and that’s more than enough to make Rewired a welcome contribution to the ever-lasting genre discussions.

[June 2008: Noted without further comment: Tachyon Publication seems to be developing a line of reprint anthologies seemingly designed to re/define genre movements. After Rewired, the last few months have seen the publication of The New Weird and Steampunk. One awaits Infernocrusher.]

Waitress (2007)

(On DVD, January 2008) You wouldn’t necessarily expect a film about an unexpected pregnancy in the middle of a loveless marriage, leading to an affair between two married people, to be a feel-good movie. And yet that’s exactly what it is: a sometimes-bitter, but mostly-sweet film about a woman rediscovering herself and taking control of her own life. The direction is charming, the script is steadily amusing and the acting is right where it needs to be: Nathan Fillion and Kari Russel are an ideal romantic couple, and the supporting characters hold their own. The ending is a perfect cap. What doesn’t work as well is a certain unevenness of tone whenever the abusive husband is concerned: as soon as he enters the picture, Waitress seems to hop into a far less pleasant reality –which is part of the idea, but still disconcerting. I could quibble about the deus-ex-inheritance of the ending, but it does fit a certain fairytale ideal. Plus, I can’t stay mad at any film that uses Cake’s “Short Skirt Long Jacket” so effectively. Don’t be surprised to develop a sudden craving for pie while watching.

Volver (2006)

(On DVD, January 2008) As someone without much knowledge of Aldomovar’s work other that “oooh, Aldomovar”, I watched Volver feeling as if a good chunk of the film was hidden away from view. But even on a pure surface level, it remains an interesting, often endearing look at the lives of a few desperate women. Even with the deaths, betrayals and less-pleasant details of the film, it still feels like a feel-good comedy. Penelope Cruz is radiant as the driven protagonist; she seems like an entirely different actress in Spanish while away from the tepid roles she’s been offered in English. What really amused me most about the film, though, was that as a seasoned fantasy/horror fan, I had no trouble accepting the possibility of a ghost, clinging to that explanation long after I should have figured out the truth. Otherwise, well, the film is definitely too long and the cultural context can be a handful to absorb at once, but that does tie back to my lack of familiarity with the director’s other work.

Les Voisins [The Neighbours] (1987)

(On DVD, January 2008) Some TV specials should never escape the vaults, and this eighties TV-movie is a fine example of why some archives are better off mouldering in silence. The DVD’s promotional material will try to sell you the film as a satire about the emptiness of suburban lives, but it fails to add that the film itself becomes the equivalent of nails scratching a blackboard. The dialog, the acting, the cinematography: everything is so grossly amateurish that it’s hard not to suspect a practical joke or a modern art project. But the effect is indistinguishable from a truly awful film: I contemplated life, obsessions and my DVD remote throughout most of the film, wondering if I absolutely had to go through it. The shifting levels of dialog alone (sometimes formal, sometimes slangy, always stilted) are enough to drive anyone crazy. The worst thing about Les Voisins, though, is that it’s crammed with half a dozen competent and funny actors who would go one to much better things: it’s disheartening to see people such as Louise Richer stuck with a z-grade script and even worse direction. Avoid, just avoid.

Untraceable (2008)

(In theaters, January 2008) I anticipated this film with a mixture of cringing and dread: “Cyber-Crime Movies”, after all, have a terrible track records: From The Net to Firewall (with a special dispensation for Hackers‘ in-jokes), the field’s been a laughingstock of dumb technological mistakes and routine thriller with a techno paint-job. Untraceable goes through the motions well and almost masters the jargon early on (you can spot the line where fiction leaves reality), but life keeps ticking out of this paint-by-number film almost as fast as the victims of the lame “Internet killer” anchoring this story. Diane Lane stars as an FBI agent on the case, but it doesn’t take three acts to figure out the predictable outcome of the film as the identities of the victims come closer and closer to her. Worse: The unnerving nature of the film’s high concept actually gets less and less interesting as the script ties it up together, as disappointing motivations get in the way of a pesky exercise in torture-porn film-making. The setups are obvious, the suspense is practically absent and the script seldom gets to the quick of its thesis on consequence-free voyeurism. The film’s last thirty seconds are a mish-mash of reheated vigilante justice and an ironic coda that only server to highlight the issues avoided and the hypocrisy of the entire project. Tssk-tssk-tssk; so many wasted opportunities here. I’ll grant that it’s better than Firewall, but that’s the very definition of low expectations.

Getting to Know You, David Marusek

Subterranean Press, 2007, 297 pages, US$40.00 hc, ISBN 978-1-59606-088-3

The worst thing anyone can say about David Marusek’s Science Fiction is that there isn’t enough of it.

For a writer whose bibliography dates back to the mid-nineties, Marusek’s output so far has been scarce and precious: Barely a dozen stories since 1993, and at least two of them rank amongst the finest SF stories published during the nineties. Marusek fans finally got their wish for a novel in 2005 with Counting Heads, the first volume in a projected series. With Getting to Know You, Subterranean Press brings together Marusek’s portfolio of stories, and if the result can feel familiar to fans of the author’s much-anthologized best pieces, it’s also a strong argument in favor of writers who put quality above quantity.

Getting To Know You opens with an introduction in which Marusek briefly discusses his relationship to short stories, highlighting the experimental nature of their writing, and how “you wouldn’t exactly call me a prolific short story writer” [P.14] He also adds that five of the stories in this anthology are set in the same universe as Counting Heads.

Marusek’s best-known story so far is probably “The Wedding Album”, which made a splash upon publication in 1999, was widely nominated for a number of award and eventually won the 2000 Theodore Sturgeon Award. The same story opens Getting To Know You, and it’s an inspired choice: In the span of a novelette, Marusek manages to set up an affecting human drama, several vertiginous perspective shifts, at least one scene that’s as hilarious as it’s spectacular, and a future history that still hasn’t been explored by the rest of Marusek’s writing in this universe. It’s one of the finest SF short stories published during the nineties, and it’s a good anchor for this volume. It also a decent introduction to the type of dense, humane, unflinching Science Fiction that typifies Marusek’s work. There are a lot of very exciting ideas here, but also a number of unsettling scenes and tragic destinies. Marusek’s fiction can have the manic energy and inventiveness of golden age SF, but it’s certainly not so nostalgic when it comes to the consequences of the technologies he explores. The mixture of peppy toys and downbeat fates echoes through the entire anthology.

“The Earth is on the Mend”, for instance, is pure post-apocalyptic fiction, almost mainstream in its purposeful lack of ideas. “A Boy in Cathyland” settles the fate of a minor character in “The Wedding Album” in a manner that will not please readers of the original novella. Neither tale stand out against their heavy competition elsewhere in the collection. Neither does “Listen to Me” later on, though “My Morning Glory” is short and terrifying in its implications. (For a measure of Marusek’s merciless humor, consider that he calls it “my only story with an unalloyed happy ending” in his story introduction. It’s all a matter of perspective, of course. Marusek would get along splendidly with Peter Watts.)

“Yurek Rutz, Yurek Rutz, Yurek Rutz” is a bit heftier, as an epistolary tale that exploits Marusek’s unusual living conditions in Alaska and provides a few smiles. Echoes of the tale provide one of the very few grins in “VTV” a story with “no redeeming value” (writes the author as introduction) that goes for broke in an effort to alienate the reader from human society. There’s a clever setting up of expectations in the way Marusek describes a media gone out of control in service of an audience that can only be roused of its complacency with spectacular blood-letting.

“Cabbages and Kale or: How We Downsized North America” and “Getting to Know You” will be more familiar to Counting Heads readers, as they look at other facets of Marusek’s imagined universe. Both tales are told with an energetic, falsely-funny tone that belies surprisingly disturbing implications.

But for Counting Heads flashbacks, the ultimate is to be found in “We Were Out of Our Minds with Joy”, a line-edited version of which makes up the first part of Marusek’s first novel. It’s still a triumphant story, a strong novella and a Science Fiction masterpiece that bursts with invention even at a time where post-Singularity tales are multiplying. Readers with fresh memories of Marusek’s novel will probably skip this story, but not including it in this anthology would have been ridiculous, especially since it allows scholarly readers to see the slight changes between the originally published version and the one that made it in the novel.

Those lucky enough to be able to afford the limited signed edition of Getting to Know You will also get a small chapbook reprinting “She Was Good, She Was Funny”, a 1994 thriller tale (then published in Playboy magazine) featuring a philandering narrator, a jealous husband, and the implacable Alaskan climate. A perfect little desert on top of a sumptuous meal. The story may not be science-fiction, but it’s recognizably by Marusek with its clever conceit and curiously triumphal ending.

If Getting to Know You proves anything, it’s that much like Ted Chiang, Marusek’s slow-but-steady pace has its advantages: His short story output is solid, and show a skilled writer working at a consistent level. But there’s more to this book that a collection of stories loosely bound together: From the recurring themes, approaches and tonal beats in his stories, we get a far more representative portrait of Marusek’s fiction than one could glean from either Counting Heads or his best-known stories in isolation. A love and respect for Alaska; a jokey kinetic tone that hides darker undercurrents; an accessible, even compelling writing style; an enthusiasm for ideas that doesn’t shy away from their appalling consequences: These are what makes Marusek a writer to watch, even if the pace of his publications can be trying at time.

So, when is his next novel due in bookstores?

There Will Be Blood (2007)

(In theaters, January 2008) Every year, I do what I’m told and check out the Oscar-nominated films, catching up what I haven’t yet seen. Usually, this is an exercise in tediousness: Oscar rarely agrees with the paying public, and there’s usually a reason why I haven’t yet chosen to see those nominated films. But I think of it as a master-class in respectable cinema. There Will Be Blood is one of those films that aren’t all that enjoyable, but are made of very impressive pieces. Daniel Day-Lewis is exceptional as the obsessed oilman around whom this film revolves, an ultra-capitalist who’s not above two or three shocking gestures to prove his point. The clipped delivery of his dialog is only one of the elements that make his performance impossible to miss. Other sections of the film also hold up, in particular the historical re-creation of the early California oil boom. But writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson isn’t particularly interested in an accessible piece of cinema: The soundtrack of the film is as deliberately grating as in Punch-Drunk Love and his family epic stutters on and off without much connecting tissue. The film is about thirty minutes too long and yet so much material is missing that it often feels more like a series of sketches (or snippets from Upton Sinclair’s original novel) than a coherent film. The shock value of his character’s sudden violence also wears off quickly, leaving little to process once it’s done with a bang. At some point, I even started musing about how a battle between capitalist and preacher isn’t all that different from yet another Alien vs Predator film: whoever wins, the rest of us lose. (Am I the only one who dares compare those two films?) (Also: and am I the only one who started imagining Daniel Day-Lewis doing a cover of Kelis’ “Milkshake” at the end?) Other directors would have been able to do much better with the same material, but here we’re stuck in a deliberately myopic view of a fascinating time with an even more mesmerizing character. But, hey, if that’s the kind of thing that the Academy likes…

Rambo (2008)

(In theaters, January 2008) There really isn’t much to see in this dry, dull and wholly unnecessary fourth entry in this faded series. The threadbare plot is just an excuse to crank up blood-lust until it’s all released in a long and self-mocking third act that is all about violent retribution. Thanks to cheap CGI and two decades of gore-hardened audiences, decapitations and amputations feature heavily in the cringe-inducing butchery; even jaded viewers will wince at this 300-level type of carnage. Not that there’s any attempt at a deeper level of insight: The emotional beats of the story are trite, the moral arguments are non-existent, the villains have no personality beyond simple evil and the addition to the Rambo mythology are laughable. And even that is spending far too much time dissecting a movie that deserves no interest or attention.

La petite Aurore l’enfant martyre [Little Aurore’s Tragedy] (1952)

(On DVD, January 2008) If you’re looking for one of the biggest cultural icon of 20th-century Quebec, look no further: This is it. The movie that nearly every French-Canadian has seen at least once on TV, the classic story of an abused child suffering at the hands of her adopted mother in deep rural Quebec. (It’s based on a true story.) I hadn’t seen it in a while and while parts of the film appear quaint today, others have survived surprisingly well. It’s a surprise to recognize megastar Jeanette Bertrand in an early role, and hardly a surprise to remember that the actress who played the abusive mother, Lucie Mitchell, was instantly stereotyped and was reportedly assaulted in real life by people who couldn’t dissociate the actress with the character. Parts of the film are unbearably naive: The plot drivers are obvious, the technical quality of the film is poor, the staging is theatrical, the dialogs are on the nose, the scenes are slapped together (if you want to talk iconic, talk about the stove scene) and the ending reaches an apex of melodrama. But some fine bits still shine through: The outdoor scenes have a really convincing feel to them, the portrayal of an meek priest unable to stop the abuse can be seen as a daring criticism of the then all-powerful clergy, and as manipulative as it is, the melodrama still has a rough and respectable power. Certainly worth another look for anyone interested in French-Canadian pop-culture.

Persepolis (2007)

(In theaters, January 2008) As a confirmed fan of Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel autobiography, I had a number of apprehensions about this adaptation, but most of them were swept away by the end of the movie: It works both as a film and as an adaptation, and the mixture of drama, history and humor is just as balanced on the screen than in the page despite significant differences in how the story is told. The basic idea remains the same: This is the story of a young Iranian girl who, growing up, sees the Islamic revolution first-hand, survives the Iraq/Iran war and is sent to Europe when her rebellion gets to be dangerous. (Not that the story ends there.) The film itself is a wonderful piece of stylistic charm, mixing high technology with Satrapi’s iconic black-and-white drawings for a result that is quite unlike anything else in theaters this year. The writing is sharp either in French spoken dialogs or English sub-titles (one of which, regrettably, obscures a visual gag late in the film.) Fans of the original graphic novels will be pleased to note that the film exists as its own entity, with scenes that couldn’t exist on the page; film fans will be even happier to discover the wealth of extra material that the graphic autobiography (now available in a single unitary edition) has to offer. There’s a lot of biting humor and a lot of material to reflect upon, and the everyday details of life under an oppressive regime are telling. Comic books in written form have long escaped the “just for kids” stigma, and Persepolis will help do the same for the cinematographic form. If we’re lucky, it will mean more animated adaptations of successful graphic novels.

The Family Trade, Charles Stross

Tor, 2004, 303 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30929-7

Most polls prove it: the single biggest reason why people pick up books by specific authors is because they are already familiar with their work. In an American market where 100,000 books are published every year and most people don’t read even one book per month, why should casual readers take a gamble on unproven authors when they can just buy a “name” book knowing what to expect?

Of course, some authors make an effort to avoid being pigeonholed. Although Charles Stross is better known for idea-crammed Science Fiction, he consciously diversified genre, publisher and readership with The Family Trade, delving into so-called fantasy for Tor Books. His process was even amusingly codified on his blog as “Five rules for cold-bloodedly designing a fantasy series”. But when a quintessential Science Fiction writer like Stross feels free to play in another genre, no one should be surprised if some of his established strengths carry through the genre frontiers.

So the result is a book labeled as fantasy, but conceived according to the rigor of hard-SF. Miriam Beckstein is a Boston-based high-tech/business journalist, but her latest scoop is more trouble than her bosses can stand: she finds herself fired and sent home. Coincidentally, an artifact from her past unlocks a latent ability to travel between parallel worlds, at the price of terrible headaches.

It’s a promising setup, but it’s what Stross does with it afterward that transforms The Family Trade from a run-of-the-mill fantasy (“Plucky orphan discovers that she’s rich and powerful in another world”) to an excellent start to an ongoing series. Whereas lesser writers may have dawdled in describing the wonders of discovering another parallel universe, Stross thinks harder: The parallel world is still at a medieval-era level of development, and taking advantage of world-walking isn’t simple when there’s another culture and language to learn. But it gets better, because Miriam is far from being the only world-walker, and the rest of her family really doesn’t want her running around without supervision. Miriam may be fearsomely intelligent (there are no “you stupid heroine” moments here), but her opponents are just as crafty in their own way, and her continued existence depends on a web of complex political alliances more than her family’s filial bonds. Further revelations make it even clearer that the source of the family fortune is not legal, and that other families definitely want Miriam to die.

In between learning the social rules of her second universe and defeating assassination attempts, Miriam turns her business experience into a plan to profit from her ability. Complications quickly pile upon further complications, making The Family Trade a lively and sometimes-unpredictable read.

Stross’s typical strengths are a mixture of accessible prose, fascinating ideas and a willingness to engage with social and economic issues. All of those traits are admirably deployed in The Family Trade, resulting in a mesmerizing reading experience. This is a terrific first volume in an ongoing series, although impatient readers should be warned that this is really the first half of a tightly-linked two-volume set: Get both The Family Trade and its follow-up The Hidden Family if you want to reach a satisfactory conclusion to Miriam’s initial adventure.

But Stross fans already know that everything the man writes is gold: In the past five years since Singularity Sky, Stross has established himself as a solid and reliable writer whose books just keep on getting better and better. Now even the most reluctant anti-fantasy readers can pick up this series without fear of disappointment. And as Stross cold-bloodedly designed, this is a series with quasi-limitless potential. If Stross can keep up the density of plot developments, this is going to be a wild ride.

El Orfanato [The Orphanage] (2007)

(In theaters, January 2008) The best horror films are often those that don’t reach for your throat with cheap shocks, loud stingers and oceans of blood. The Orphanage will feel immediately familiar to fans of The Sixth Sense, The Others and Pan’s Labyrinth: For a long time, there’s little to suggest that this is a horror film, and the hints only accumulate gradually. Cranked like a purring machine, The Orphanage is light on shocks and deep in atmosphere. Belén Rueda’s performance carries nearly the entire film as her character falls apart over the course of the events. There’s much to applaud in the script, from the double-trigger twist to an emotionally satisfying climax that works by not wimping out. There are a few rough spots for dramatic purposes, but the rest of the film holds together and is easily better than the vast majority of American horror films. Remember the pedigree I mentioned? This is the horror film that every connoisseur will have to see this year, if only to nag those who haven’t.

Norbit (2007)

(On DVD, January 2008) Every year, the Oscars play a dirty trick on completists by nominating the worst sort of tripe for one of the technical categories. Last year it was Click; this year it’s Norbit for best make-up. Well, props to the Academy: The makeup effects that allow Eddie Murphy to play three roles alongside himself are top-notch and withstand way-too-close scrutiny. On the other hand, makeup is the only thing worth noticing about this tedious comedy that multiplies the Murphy Mugging factor. The plot concerns a henpecked man (Murphy), raised by an adoptive father (Murphy), hounded by a massive wife (Murphy) rediscovering his inner strength when a long-lost love (Thandie Newton, to be pitied) moves back into town. There’s little to the predictable plot but a series of fat jokes and slight gags. The characters aren’t caricatures; they’re lobotomized stereotypes that highlight how the film was made for 12-year-old audience. The script is leadened with a series of overused jokes, unfunny concepts and dumb staging that will only make sense if you know nothing about the way the world works. (Hence the ideal 12-year-olds audience). Occasionally, Norbit manages to strike a mildly amusing note or two; otherwise, it’s a dreadful experience without much value.