Monthly Archives: March 2008

The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger

MacAdam/Cage, 2003, 518 pages, C$25.50 tpb, ISBN 0-965-81867-5

For as long as Science Fiction has existed as a literary genre, its writers and fans have been equally busy considering it a Special Genre and complaining that no one takes it seriously. Why, they sigh, isn’t the mainstream paying attention to SF? Wouldn’t it be cool if mainstream authors wrote SF and SF story were taken seriously as Literature? Cue countless convention panels.

But the twenty-first century so far has been receptive to the blurring of genre boundaries. Amusingly, though, the most successful experiments have come from outside SF looking in: mainstream writers playing with typical SF clichés in increasingly skillful ways, in books published and read as mainstream fiction. (More cynical commentators will snark that it’s easier to teach good writers how to use SF elements than teach SF writers how to write well.)

And so we come to Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, a charming romance between a man unstuck in time and the woman around whom his life revolves. Henry’s life is complicated by a singular genetic trait: Uncontrollably, he travels through time, finding himself naked and confused in his past or future. The only constant is his wife, Claire, which he first meets when she was six but doesn’t see “in real time” until she is 20 and he is 28. Courtship can be complicated when you keep running into the same person at all stages of her life…

Never mind the suspicious genetic rationale for Henry’s time-traveling ability (which behaves as fantasy, but is eventually explained away in scientific terms): Niffenegger has the good sense to develop the tale as rigorously as she can given her premise, and the result can be impressive. Henry develops criminal skills as a matter of survival (finding yourself naked in Chicago in the winter helps make do of scruples), teaches his younger self to cope, obsesses about being there at crucial events of his life, and so on.

At times, it’s a harsh tale: There’s an obvious creep-factor in Henry meeting his to-be wife when she’s a child and he’s a fully-grown adult, but the novel does its best to acknowledge and mitigate the discomfort. On the other hand, the novel breaks other taboos with a smile, and gets grim when Henry defends Claire’s honor. There are heart-breaking scenes when their marriage goes through rough patches, and their first attempts to have a child prove gruesomely unsuccessful. The last hundred pages of the novel get grimmer and grimmer as hints of terrible things accumulate. A movie adaptation is scheduled for Christmas 2008: we’ll see what edginess remains on the screen.

But this is first and foremost a romantic comedy, and the very unusual love story between Henry and Claire is milked for all it’s worth: Despite the element of time-travel, it’s an unusually believable relationship, and this believability does much to contribute to the book’s compulsive attraction: It’s not a short novel, but it feels much shorter thanks to a steady forward rhythm and a series of secrets and revelations strung along the entire length of the novel.

The only nagging aspect to The Time Traveler’s Wife is implicit in its conceit: Henry’s travels through time are “unpredictable”, but dictated by dramatic needs more than anything else. Sequences describing Claire and Henry’s wedding, or the conception of their daughter, are virtuoso pieces of stunt plotting, but it’s at showy moments like those that the story gets less believable.

Still, it’s a small price to pay for a memorable piece of writing. Genre critics will be fascinated to see the way Niffenegger is able to make juice out of the old pressed lemon of time-travel, not by topping decades of genre history, but by looking at the possibilities of the idea through the lenses of mature adult romance. Well-written, well-plotted and well-detailed, The Time Traveler’s Wife also happens to be one of those books that genre fans and genre haters alike are likely to enjoy. Mainstream and SF, for once united: it just took an uncommonly good book to do it all.

Callahan’s Con, Spider Robinson

Tor, 2003, 286 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30270-5

What is it about Spider Robinson’s “Callahan” books that makes them as charming as they’re infuriating?

It’s not hard to see that the series has earned its place in SF history: Callahan’s Con is the tenth book in the cycle, which began with stories published in the mid-seventies and continues with a string of novels ending (so far) in 2003. At its best, the series is a unique blend of light-hearted wordplay, strikingly original characters, permissive politics and good old-fashioned idea-spinning. The story is usually set around a drinking establishment of some sorts, around which cluster a series of old wise regulars (not all of them human) and walk-in lost souls. The prose is sharp, easy, witty and conversational: when the Callahan books hit their stride, they bring readers in an imagined community having the equivalent of the best SF convention chats ever imagined. This, maybe more than anything else, certainly accounts for a chunk of Callahan’s popularity in SF fandom: it’s not hard to wish for the existence of a real Callahan’s where everyone would know your name.

The flip-side of this appeal is obvious: At its worst, the series quickly becomes indolent, indulgent, self-satisfied, convinced of its own innate goodness and disdainful of anyone who falls outside the loose parameters of the target audience. After trying to kill the series a number of time (it features at least four changes of venues), Robinson kept succumbing to public demand for more of the same and, indeed, delivered more of the same. For those reading the books in rapid succession, the plots quickly became repetitive: Stranger walks through the front door, tells sad story, is comforted by infinitely wise super-characters. The process is repeated with a few strangers until a threat against the world/universe is discovered, logically deduced from the shakiest logical premises and solved through the inevitable application of a mass telepathy communion that, we’re assured, is in no way comparable to a mental orgy. Don’t forget the awfully heart-wrenching moment in which sad sacks reveal the terrible past trauma that pushed them to the edge because, hey, “Shared pain is lessened; shared joy, increased.”

And repeat.

Callahan’s Con may indulge in a few refinements, but it’s basically the same story. It moves the series to near-contemporary times, features mafia characters muscling in on Key West and features a confidence game whose working depend on a science-fictional device, but wait a bit and the requisite bits appear: the rigid bureaucrat who wants to destroy the characters’ carefree lives, the bon mots between narrator Jake and his patrons, the bizarre stories, the chain of logic leading to a death-defying scenario, the Truly Sad Moment… all there. The structure of the plot is lazy, moving from one element to the other to give each of the series’ characters a few speaking lines and a chance to hog the spotlight.

But this is comfort food, and it doesn’t matter if it’s the same thing as in all previous volumes: Robinson’s cast of character are as charming as ever, the winks to other writers are numerous and his style remains the epitome of readability. Robinson even works overtime to correct some of the bad feelings left by previous books: the bureaucrat turns out to be a fearsome ally, and bridges are mended with former enemies. All is well that ends well, except for that Sad Moment that seems mechanically added to the book just to ward off the accusations that it’s a mere romp.

There’s no doubts that readers who aren’t already familiar with the Callahan’s series may want to start at the beginning: there are so many references to previous books here that even series faithful with short memories may miss most of the extended gags. Taken on its own terms, Callahan’s Con is pure but substandard fan-service with lazy re-use of familiar plot beats. But fans (even doubtful ones) will like it, and there isn’t much more to say about any tenth volume in any series.

Bones of the Earth, Michael Swanwick

EOS, 2002, 335 pages, C$39.50 hc, ISBN 0-380-97836-9

Michael Swanwick is a wonderful writer for many reasons, but one of them is that he never seems to write the same book twice. He bounces between various sub-genres of SF and fantasy, changing styles and approaches as the story warrants it. The only constant that his fans can expect is fine prose and ambitious literary themes: otherwise, it’s a new experience every time.

Since Swanwick’s reputation is one of a literary SF writer, he surprised more than one reader with Bones of the Earth, a classic SF novel deeply set in the most honored traditions of the genre: time-travel, dinosaurs, secret government projects, cognitive breakthroughs… and eventually something else. Something stranger, yet even more familiar for SF fans.

This classic feel even extends to the prose, which is easily some of the most accessible writing than Swanwick has ever produced: From the very first pages, as a scientist is given a fresh dinosaur head, we’re absolutely hooked forward. The novel merrily skips ahead to a paleontologists’ conference that also doubles as a convention for a few decades’ worth of time-traveling scientists. A mysterious yet showy military officer keeps a tight lid on the event and its potential paradoxes, but that doesn’t prevent our hero from getting glimpses of the future and where it may lead.

Few books I’ve read in a while have the sheer narrative hooks that Bones of the Earth so cleverly unsheathes in its first hundred pages. It’s a good thing that I was reading it on a plane rather than on my morning commute, because I would have hated to stop mid-way through.

Even then, much of the energy disappears during the third quarter of the novel, as characters are stranded in the past with tenuous hopes of rescue. The action shifts to a more classical adventure/survival mode, but the plot stops dead until the rescue and the return to the novel’s more exhilarating issues. (Writers should take note: Stranding characters nowhere and making them wait for rescue does exactly the same thing to a novel, especially when it’s obvious that the novel has bigger issues on its mind.)

It all comes back together for a finale that picks up the classic tools and tropes of classic SF, all the way to a more or less triumphant resolution. There’s romance, there a Big Idea, there’s a round of applause: old-fashioned SF, written up to fine contemporary prose standards. The impression is further bolstered by a lot of well-researched material about paleontology here, as Swanwick transforms himself in a quasi-hard-SF writer in order to create the illusion of a credible novel.

As a reviewer who has had… issues with Swanwick’s material before, it’s this transformation to an old-school SF style that has me most interested in Bones of the Earth: it strikes me that Swanwick’s work always tackles myth to a degree or another. It may be the case that he set out to write a classic SF novel and derived his approach from a deconstruction (formal or otherwise) of everything that SF fans love about classic examples of the genre: The ever-dizzying revelations, the straightforward narration, the abundance of scientific details, the paradoxes and logical games of SF situations… Bones of the Earth may be, in its own straight-faced way, as deliberate a take on a sub-genre as The Iron Dragon’s Daughter.

But these critical games aside, this is a fascinating novel that earned its Hugo Awards nomination back in 2003. The first hundred pages is one of the most compelling opening act I’ve read in a while (ah, that ball trick…) and the willingness of the author to play the classic SF game is as gripping as it’s amusing. I’m still not sure how the same author can write all of those very different novels, but that’s Swanwick’s calling card, and the advantage in that approach is that there’s at least one novel for everyone in his growing bibliography.

Fifty Degrees Below, Kim Stanley Robinson

Bantam Spectra, 2005, 405 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-553-80312-3

Many things change yet stay the same in Kim Stanley Robinson’s second entry in his “Science in the Capital” trilogy, but this isn’t a problem as much as it’s a statement about Robinson’s extraordinary abilities as a writer. The first volume spent most of its duration setting up subplots before flooding Washington DC in a climax of biblical proportion. This time, the plot is in motion and things start happening right away. Global warming has reached runaway velocity, and temperatures soon hit titular record lows as the good folks at the NSF do their best to find ways to terraform Earth back to a semblance of equilibrium.

While Forty Signs of Rain spent time going back and forth between Anne Quibler, her husband Charlie and their friend Frank Vanderwall. Fifty Degrees Below is almost all told from Frank’s viewpoint, a strange choice given the particularities of Frank’s view of the world. Educated in evolutionary biology, Frank keeps seeing the world in terms of primate socialization mechanisms, and it’s that outlook on life that leads him to adopt a consciously homeless lifestyle early in the novel as the housing crisis in Washington reaches acute level during the capital’s reconstruction. Spending his time between the office, his van, the gym and the park where he eventually builds a secluded treehouse, Frank joyously (“Ooop!”) reverts back to an optimodal life, a choice that will eventually have serious consequences are the temperature falls and the rest of his life heats up. Because Frank has found the beautiful woman he was chasing in the first volume… and she turns out to be a deep-secret agent with personal problems that soon become indistinguishable from national security. And that’s without counting the attractive presence of Diane, Frank’s boss at the NSA…

But if the novel revolves around Frank, the world doesn’t and it keeps disintegrating. Khembali, the fictitious country introduced in the first volume, predictably disappears under the waves, and an audacious plan is hatched to reboot the Gulf Stream via a salt dumping scheme of epic magnitude. The tone of the novel changes a bit, introducing enough gadgets to push it a few more years in the future, and enough cloak-and-dagger thriller plotting to send things in a more conventional direction after the refreshingly free-form first volume.

It all comes together thanks to Robinson’s usually excellent prose. The novel spends so much time in Frank’s primally satisfied brain that the very narration comes to reflect that emotion. We grin as Frank finds his true human potential, doing science even as he communes with nature. Ooooop! But at the same time, his romantic escapades are heart-wrenching, and we can’t help but be concerned whenever truly bad things start happening to him.

Yet this is also the story of a planet in peril, and Fifty Degrees Below keeps the balance in mind as it tackles global action and a new activist role for science. NSF, under Diane’s hard-driven leadership, starts meddling in political activities, establishing “Permaculture” as its ultimate goal even as it proposes a “Scientific Virtual Candidate” before rallying to Phil Chase’s campaign.

Once again, Robinson is able to strike narrative sparks from material that would have been unbearably dry in anyone else’s hands. Robinson’s progressive politics find explicit expression, and the novel’s readability remains exceptional event as it stays away from conventional plot mechanics. It ends with a political victory, a damaged hero, a planet in the balance and gathering clouds: Phil Chase has powerful enemies out there, and Frank’s messing with one of them in very personal ways.

All good fodder for Sixty Days and Counting, the final volume in the trilogy. This has been an unusual, but satisfying series so far: the conclusion should be more of the same.

The World Without Us, Alan Weisman

Harper Collins, 2007, 324 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-00-200864-8

Most environmentally-minded books usually show their eco-credentials by explaining the impact of humanity on nature. But Alan Weisman smartly does exactly the opposite, showing us what happens when humans go away.

The thought experiment is elegant: “Picture a world from which we all suddenly vanished… How would the rest of nature respond if it were suddenly relieved of the relentless pressures we heap upon it and our fellow organisms? Could nature ever obliterate all our traces?” [P.4]

The first question raised by this thought experiment is how to tackle the subject. There’s no laboratory experiment that will remove humanity and allow the author to see what happens without removing much of the book’s paying audience along the way.

But there are ways to find out. Humans may be known for their insatiable lust for conquering the globe, but there are places that haven’t been colonized yet. This brings us to the last remaining square kilometers of primeval forest in Poland, a never-domesticated preserve that shows what temperate Europe was before humans transformed it to their liking. Better yet: there are a few places in the world where humanity has retreated, leaving behind traces of their presence. Pripiyat, the city closest to Chernobyl, stands as a particularly imposing monument to humanity’s transience.

Because, as Weisman quickly demonstrates in the book’s two must-read chapters, few things can hope to survive without human maintenance. Chapter 2, “Unbuilding a home” fast-forwards through what happens to a typical north-American house when abandoned. Within years, water seeps in and weakens the wooden structure until the house collapses upon itself. Degradation of organic material is relatively rapid, but within decades even metal oxidizes, concrete disintegrates and plastics are under assault by water, temperature, sunlight, animals and bacteria. Five hundred years later in temperate climates, only the ceramics tiles in the bathroom will remain recognizable as such. (Home-owner shouldn’t read this chapter after expensive renovations.) Chapter 3 applies the same logic to cities and shows how quickly a city goes away when no one is there to take care of it. Post-apocalyptic SF fans will get quite a kick out of a serious study of what many have been wondering about over the years. (Curiously, Pripiyat gets a chapter and Savannah earns a passage, but Centralia, PA doesn’t even rank a mention.)

This extrapolation is informed by expert advice, laboratory tests and historical precedent. Latter chapters study specific bits of infrastructure and human activity, and ultimately start wondering which human artifacts may last through the ages. Plastics, alas, may form the bulk of humanity’s few lasting contribution to the universe: very little of it ever degrades (“Except for a small amount that’s been incinerated, every bit of plastics manufactured in the world in the past 50 years or so still remains.” [P.126] is the killer quote in the “Polymers are Forever” chapter) and a surprising amount ends up washed on the shores of every ocean.

But even as traces of humanity disappear, nature springs back. Not in the same primeval fashion as it did before humanity’s passage, but it does come back. Much of the thick forests in New England are reclaimed farmland, for instance, and the always-instructive example of radioactive Pripyat shows the extend to which wildlife can spring back to prominence if left alone for a while.

Paradoxically, this is where The World Without Us is at its most optimistic. If some facets of the biosphere are already irremediably beyond repair (the great garbage patch of the Pacific will be there for a looong time), there is still some hope for a better relationship between nature and humanity, and the results could be rapidly seen as long as some action is taken quickly. It’s hope through humility, of course, a sobering realization of humanity’s truer place in the natural scheme. Of, as you may see it, a recognition of our responsibility now that we can alter the planet, and a recognition of the good we can do if we commit to reasonable stewardship.

But the book would be so interesting if it wasn’t for Weisman’s arresting style, his judicious choice of international set-pieces and his willingness to let his interview subjects speak for themselves. As a piece of scientific journalism, The World Without Us runs deeper than a mere through experiment about humanity’s disappearance: it’s an exceptional documentary crossing oceans and scientific disciplines in order to inform us. There is a lot of absolutely fascinating material here, from a look at the Korean Demilitarized Zone (now such a heavily mined and regulated area that it has become the Korean peninsula’s best natural preserve) to the operation of the Panama Canal (far more than just a ditch through a jungle.)

The book occasionally errs in numerous digressions that don’t necessarily advance the subject. But it’s hard to separate the chaff from the vital when nearly everything reported by Weisman ends up being so interesting. The style carries even the slower, less relevant passages, and set-pieces such as a quick look at the potential industrial apocalypse of the Texan petrochemical industry may not be strictly necessary, but they certainly leave a vivid impression.

The book has already become an international bestseller, and is now reaching its second wave of readers intrigued by the glowing reviews and the fascinating subject matter. For once, believe the hype: this has a good chance of turning into a minor pop-science classic, and a reference tome for many post-apocalyptic SF writers. It’s a profoundly environmentalist tome that understands its time, avoiding strident calls for action in favor of a calm, almost appealing rhetoric. There’s a real hunger for disaster in a troubled early twenty-first century punctuated by falling towers, drowned cities and the promise of rising shorelines. The World Without Us plays with this sensibility, most notably with its unstated conclusion that we may be the most fragile, most vulnerable species in the whole ecosystem… and that the world can go on quite peacefully without us.

Wild Hogs (2007)

(On DVD, March 2008) There’s nothing like being stuck on a guided tour bus for hours with proud redneck drivers and force-fed DVDs to make you appreciate the finer points of movies you wouldn’t pay to see. But the horrible truth about Wild Hogs is that it made me smile. Despite the generic blandness of Tim Allen, the bloated arrogance of John Travolta, the grating awfulness of Martin Lawrence and the pitiful indignity of William H. Macy (who deserves better), Wild Hogs is cookie-cutter lowest-denominator comedy and it still works. There isn’t much to say about the plot (four guys looking for adventure go on a motorcycle trip to the west coast) except for how it’s engineered to frustrate the “road trip” aspect almost from the get-go in order to provide a consistent plot. It’s the grown-up equivalent of Saturday morning cartoons, with the low-brow middle-aged slapstick and the caricatured opponents, although with the teenage attractions of slap-dash romance, dull homophobic jokes and fear of strong adult women. Everyone and everything is wasted here, including Ray Liotta and especially Marisa Tomei. (Peter Fonda’s cameo being the biggest wasted moment.) Yet it’s tough to actually stop watching: it’s far from being as awful as the trailer suggested, and it’s possible to see here the glimmer of a much better film buried under the star prancing and sub-literate plotting: something about middle-aged anxieties, the wasted allure of pretend lifestyles and how it’s never too late to grow up. But growing up isn’t something that particularly interests either the characters or the audiences of this film, and so Wild Hogs remains painfully limited even if it succeeds on purely mechanical craft.

Presentation Zen, Garr Reynolds

New Riders, 2008, 229 pages, C$32.99 tpb, ISBN 978-0-321-52565-9

I started reading Garr Reynold’s Presentation Zen blog a few years ago. At the time, I had a professional interest in good presentation techniques (I’ve been known to give day-long PowerPoint seminars to needy colleagues), and if that part of my day job has lain fallow for a while, I’m still a faithful reader: Not only am I still continuing to develop presentation skills for myself, but Reynold’s style is engaging and rich in insights. Presentation Zen, the blog, is structured around the “blog like you’re writing a book” concept championed by such well-known experts as Seth Godin, Guy Kawasaki and Avinash Kaushik: Their blogs are dedicated to a specific theme and features fewer-but-longer posts all revolving around the blog’s common theme. Each entry is worth a quick read, and when they’re taken together, these type of blogs feel like a continuing education program in a given field.

Presentation Zen, the book, is more than a snapshot of Presentation Zen’s first few years. It’s a package. Much as Reynolds will repeat that a presentation isn’t a document, a collection of blog posting isn’t a book. While regular readers will nod at a few common themes and approaches (“Oh, here’s the bento box riff!”), Presentation Zen also happens to be one of the best-designed technical books I’ve read so far.

Which is more than appropriate for a book that presents “Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery”. As the title suggests and the subtitle makes clear, Reynolds is out to promote the idea that less is better. That presenters should separate the presentation from the document, and should strive to make the slides a part of their speech. An American designer/consultant periodically working and living in Japan, Reynolds is ideally suited to shake up the traditional view of slideware presentations. Presentation Zen seeks to stop people from hammering any type of argument in the dull six-bullets-per-slide PowerPoint format. It argues against repeating the content of a presentation to any living breathing audience. It suggests cleaner graphic design, eye-popping stock photography, flexible unity of design and (shock!) logo-less templates. (The examples of chart re-design on pages 123-125 are worth the price of the book by themselves.) It gives pointers on how to behave in front of an audience, it encourages presenters to think of themselves as creative thinkers and even throws in a detailed method for preparing presentations—away from the computer. A good chunk of the book is pure inspiration, with strong quotes and inspiring passages citing Zen philosophy elements.

More importantly, it practices what it preaches. The book is fantastically designed: its gorgeous photography, generous white space, full-color layout and copious examples (including Guy Kawasaki’s foreword, which is presented as a slide show) not only give instant credibility to the book, they also enhance the sheer reading pleasure of the book. Yes, I said “sheer reading pleasure” for a business book. Reynolds’ prose is as clean and accessible as the rest of his book, and the book’s cleverly chunked structure is as compelling to read as, yes, a blog. How much fun is it to read? Well, consider that I got the book from my organization’s library (they bought it on my recommendation) and ended up reading it for pleasure at home. I may even buy a copy for myself.

I also goes without saying that Reynolds’ ideas may not be applicable to all contexts and organizations. Presentation Zen is provocative in how it forces readers to think about why its recommendations may clash with their corporate culture. As far as my industry is concerned, it’s obvious that there are cultural penalties for making attractive presentations: People expect efficiency and speed in drafting presentations, which makes pretty design immediately suspicious. (The irony is that the same “quick and speedy” presentations usually involve lengthy “urgent” revisions by dozen of people that drag on forever and produce eye-straining results.) Other cultural factors make it impossible to even try separating the content from the presentations: Absent managers and meeting coordinators will insist on being provided on copies of the deck for distribution and “study” (Another ironic truth: nobody ever reads presentations once they’re given), and loudly complain if they can’t make sense of the presentation by itself. I could go on, but nobody ever wins in the corporate machine.

But this isn’t a reason to give up. It’s easy to see how Presentation Zen can be a terrific addition in any preventer’s quiver of design techniques, even in the most rigidly traditional environments. I have already discussed the standout passage on how to simplify and redesign overly-busy charts, but other passages about slide design, presentation storyboarding and stand-up delivery can be stealthily adapted to every corporate template. Plus, hey, no one ever knows when some shock tactics may not be more efficient that the usual routine. (I’m not confessing to any practical implementation of any Presentation Zen ideas in my own presentations. Oh, no, never.)

Of course, Presentation Zen is only as effective as its readers allow it to be. Let’s face it: presentation geeks like myself, who love designing and delivering presentations, already have a pretty good idea of what to do, and how vital it is to avoid “Death by Powerpoint”. Reynolds’ book has probably already reached a good chunk of its audience. Meanwhile, the truly hopeless PowerPointers bore on blissfully, completely unaware of a different way of doing things and unwilling to learn better. Thus it falls upon the converted masses, the Presentation Zen readers and the game-changers to take this book and shove it somewhere in their corporate culture where it can do some good. Suggest it to your organization’s library. Cite excerpts. Make copies of choice passages and leave them stapled to bulletin boards. Kill your audiences with Presentation Zen techniques and don’t leave them wondering how you did it. The topic may be zen, but this is an all-out war against dull presentations and ugly slideware decks. Read the book, live the book and get your next marching orders from Reynolds’ blog.

Read Or Die: OAV (2001)

(On DVD, March 2008) I remember seeing the first two episodes of this series a few years ago and being quite amused by the blend of high-concept (“British Library Special Operations” has got to be the coolest division title ever put on a business card), super-powered characters and wild anime action scenes. But a new look at the series reveals the stupefying power of decaying memories: If I’m still generally entertained by the series, it now seems to me that it does little with the possibilities at its disposal. “The Paper” isn’t nearly as proactive as I remember her, and the “British Library operatives” conceit seems to be discarded early on as the series adopts a more conventional superhero structure. It’s still worth a look, but I’ve got plot hamsters running around telling me how unbelievably better this concept could be with just a few tweaks.

Man Of The Year (2006)

(On DVD, March 2008) Barry Levinson’s career is filled with ambitious misfires, and so this film isn’t much of a surprise. The idea of a comedian being elected President isn’t a bad one, and it certainly powers Robin Williams through a zinger-filled performance that’s entertainingly close to his stand-up personae. But good comedy seldom meshes well with tense dramatic suspense, and that’s the tack that the script chooses to take here, much to the film’s detriment. Once again so that everyone can follow: Comedian using stand-up material to subvert a presidential debate: funny. Whistle-blower being injected with paranoia-inducing drugs so that she behaves in a way that will result in her losing everything? Not funny. Now that we’ve got that squared away, we can see how the wild tonal shifts of Man Of The Year doom it to frustration. Oh, sure, Christopher Walken is fine (if wasted) and there’s some fine-tuned political content here. But the lazy romantic material, the weak technical details (including a “software bug” which makes no sense even assuming rotten quality control) and the increasing heft given to unfunny material pretty much sabotage the film before it gets to a uniquely yielding finale. It should have worked much better, perhaps in the hands of a less ambitious director. In the meantime, it’s an interesting film that’s almost good.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)

(On DVD, March 2008) It only took twenty years, but I finally got to see this silly SF comedy. The stupidity of the film’s surface hides fairly sophisticated writing: the collision between the sublime nature of the SF devices (Go back in history! Meet historical figures!) and the ridiculousness of the dim characters is a constant laugh generator. It’s not much of a Science-Fiction film, but it does manage a neat twist on the paradoxes of time travel that will leave savvy SF readers grinning for days. The film has generally aged well, though the valley-speak patois of the lead characters has been co-opted later on by the antics of the Wayne’s World movies and such. Still, the movie is great good fun in the silly-SF-comedy vein, there are a few priceless scenes and the quotes are infectious.

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)

(On DVD, March 2008) This sequel to the well-regarded SF comedy expands the scope of the original universe to include scenes from the future and a picture of the afterlife. A lot of it works well: just about anything linked to the evil Bill and Ted robots is hilarious, as is everything about the character of Death. But the film also overreaches and loses its focus with elements that overstay their welcome or simply fall flat: The Hell sequence is far too long despite a promising start, and the “Station” character is a blight on the rest of the film: I can’t believe they didn’t go for something –anything– else. Otherwise, it’s a fairly successful follow-up that keeps the spirit of the original. Don’t see one without the other.

The Clan Corporate, Charles Stross

Tor, 2006, 320 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30930-0

I won’t claim that Charles Stross can do no wrong: after all, I’ve read his web-published early novel Scratch Monkey and it’s still early in his career (his first novels were more or less published in 2003), but The Clan Corporate, third book in the “Merchant Princes” series, is a superb example of how he’s one of the most reliable, interesting and entertaining genre writers currently working.

Ignore the “fantasy” label on the book jacket: Stross develops even his “fantasy” novels with the rigor and sheer extrapolative joy that is to be found in the best science-fiction. (This is, after all, the type of parallel-universe fantasy indistinguishable from sufficiently-advanced plot science.) But this third volume furthers bends the genre classification of the series by introducing strong thriller elements that take this novel to the boundaries of the techno-thriller.

If you remember the end of the previous volume, you’re probably wondering how much mayhem a high-ranking defection has caused for Miriam Beckstein and her family. The answer, as you may guess, is more trouble than anyone can seem to handle: The Clan operations are in disarray, especially now that the US government has taken an interest in world-walking. The defector’s insurance policy, a nuclear device hidden somewhere in an American city, keeps ticking away despite all-out efforts to find the device. New characters make appearances, none more intriguing than Mike Fleming, an ex-boyfriend of Miriam’s, now working for the DEA but drafted in a new deep-secret interdepartmental government effort to find out more about the world-walkers smuggling merchandise just under their noses. In a post-9/11 environment featuring “Daddy Warbucks” as a particularly ruthless vice-president, the US government really isn’t playing nice.

Oh yes, the “Merchants Princes” series hasn’t yet made its SF underpinning clear, but we’re not in fantasyland any more. Stross’ keen nose for thriller mechanics is familiar to fans of his “Laundry” sequence, but it’s developed to great effect here, placing Miriam against yet another capable enemy. Better yet, this volume’s introduction of real-world thriller elements makes it feel even closer to our reality than ever before.

Not that she needs the extra complications, in between setting up a new business in third-Earth New London and trying to keep her own family away from her. After the events of the previous volumes, no one is particularly keen on seeing Miriam run around without supervision—she eventually finds out the limits of her freedom after a particularly bad mistake. Poked, prodded and ceremoniously prepared for unwanted nuptials, Miriam comes to realize that it will take the intervention of a third party to free her. Fortunately, third parties aren’t particularly rare in this series so far…

Plot twists, developments and extended idea riffs continue to abound in this superbly readable entry in the series. The ending is abrupt, but the multi-party power struggle makes the plot deliciously convoluted, and the series’ distinction of featuring an abundance of very smart characters continues to produce unexpected sparks of interest. Miriam’s becoming less of a central character, but the series continues to chug along without any dip in interest. Stross has hit a fertile streak with this series, and his execution so far will be enough to reassure any reader that the series is in good hands.

Still, one crucial word of warning to the impatient: The Clan Corporate is the first in a tightly-linked sequence of four books: It ends with a flurry of new plot developments and an unpleasant cliff-hanger. People susceptible to hissy fits over incomplete stories may want to stock up and wait until the fourth volume in the sequence comes out in 2009. Yes, that’s a long time. But it’ll be worth it.

 

The Bank Job (2008)

(In theaters, March 2008) This old-school heist drama has everything it takes and a little bit more: A true premise, a capable hero (Jason Statham), a lovely girl (Saffron Burrows), good dialog, several twists, national secrets, at least three sets of villains and a gritty old-fashioned seventies film-making atmosphere. From black nationalists to organized criminals to MI6 officials to kinky royal family members, this slick and efficient crime drama is pure old-fashioned entertainment, down to the occasional nudity and the straight-ahead plotting from beginning to end. It sometimes falters when it tries to keep close to reality (the “informant” thread is a bit of a let-down, for instance), but the rest is as good as this type of film ever gets. I’ll let others pick apart the ratio of truth-to-fiction in this film “based on a true story”, but even those who know nothing about the “Walkie-Talkie Robbery” will get a kick of of it.

Appurushîdo [Appleseed] (1988)

(On DVD, March 2008) I’m not sure how I managed not to see this film in two decades, but I’m glad I finally did: While I’m not going to say it’s a classic, it does feel like a historically important anime: It presents big (if sometime naive) SF ideas in the only form that could do it justice at a time where CGI was still a fanciful notion. Politically, it’s a bunch of pretentious nonsense with cardboard world-building, but it still works more than it doesn’t. Some sequences have aged well even despite the primitive animation, but I’m guessing that the brain does a lot of back-filling on behalf of the animators themselves. It amounts to a predecessor to Ghost In The Shell in more ways that one (the conceptual artist is the same, and the sensibility is identical), which automatically makes it interesting to whoever is a fan of SF, anime or animated films for adults.

50 First Dates (2004)

(On DVD, March 2008) This film never fully resolves the awful situation that powers its laugh generator (a woman without long-term memory), but at least it acknowledges it, by dialog (“She’s got brain damage!”), by a creepy sequence of existential horror in which every day is reset, and by an ending that doesn’t shy away from what’s been set up thus far. It’s a surprising film, and not only thanks to the usual brand of secondary characters that seem to cluster around Adam Sandler in whatever movies he headlines. There’s a steady slide from familiar to unfamiliar territory here, and it’s just as intriguing as it’s not entirely comfortable. There’s some rich material peeking through from time to time, whether it’s about the male protagonist’s chosen inability to form attachment, to the female heroine’s literal inability to do so. That it’s one of Adam Sandler’s least irritating film isn’t saying much, especially since there are a number of substantially grosser (and weaker) moments to act as distraction from the rest of the film. However intriguing 50 First Dates is, it never completely succeeds. There’s a fairly significant problem at the root of it, and like the Caribbean music used to score a film set in Hawaii, it never fits together even if it manages to become harmless.