Monthly Archives: April 2009

Nano, John Robert Marlow

Tor, 2004 (2005 reprint), 381 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-34071-2

This isn’t a very good novel, but I’m sorry to have missed it when it was first released in 2004.

Regular readers of these reviews have certainly noticed that I’m very lenient when it comes to high-tech thrillers. I’m biased, of course: However bad techno-thrillers verging on SF can be, they’re still speaking my language and engaging me on an level that I can’t find in other genres. The high-tech thriller is all about the technology, and preferably a whole lot of it. It’s a distilled, almost single-minded version of the genre, where two-page digressions about the characteristic of a gadget aren’t just acceptable; they become the reason why the novel exist.

It doesn’t take a long time to figure out that John Robert Marlow’s Nano is more a piece of nanotechnology evangelism than a conventional work of fiction. Marlow’s biographical profile is a hit-parade of science journalism credentials with a heavy emphasis on nanotech. The foreword is by Chris Phoenix (“Director of Research, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology”) and the main text of the novel is followed by twenty-five pages of technical details. With that packaging, it’s not surprising if the plot of the novel itself ends up being nothing more than a showcase for nano-possibilities.

The plot certainly isn’t much to brag about: After the public assassination of a billionaire who was on the verge of announcing the results of a major nanotechnology research effort, a (male) scientist and (female) journalist go on the run, chased by mysterious operatives but equipped with the latest nano-gadgets. Various chases and shootouts all lead to an ultimate confrontation between our plucky heroes and hostile elements of the government. If it reads like a movie, it’s not an accident.

The prose isn’t elegant, the exposition is certainly not gentle and the characters aren’t much more than excuses for as-you-should-know-Bob dialogue. Taken at face value for its ideology, Nano is a clumsy mixture of adolescent libertarianism (“As you should know Bob, we can’t trust the government.”) and juvenile techno-boosterism. (“As you should know, Bob, technology is cool.”) While I’m quite fond of techno-utopianism myself, the political naiveté of the novel becomes an issue, especially when the protagonists gleefully kill dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of people on their way to a conclusion where they set themselves up as not-quite-benevolent demigods. Having indulged in my lifetime quota of nerd exceptionalism, my comments regarding the novel’s underlying contempt for the masses would have been harsher if I actually took it seriously.

Fortunately, it’s hard to consider Nano as a respectable piece of fiction when the action stops so often on the flimsiest of pretexts. Every few pages, there’s room in the chase for a “dialogue” on space colonization, the ineffectiveness of tear gas, or a flashback about a particularly vexing industrial-espionage episode. This is a novel of ideas in ways that would embarrass most professional Science Fiction writers: Marlowe has no shame in going off on tangents, and that does give a certain charm to the whole novel. Reading Nano is a lot like being stuck with a bright sixteen-year-old boy overdosing on Atlas Shrugged: his rants are lively, but there’s a number of rough edges to tolerate until he learns better.

It’s not as if the novel’s completely unimpeachable on a technical level either: Marlow’s credentials as a journalist aren’t much of a defense against Nano‘s most embarrassing scientific mistakes. While the novel’s packaging swears up and down that everything in the story is true and possible, that’s not quite exact: This is a story where the characters can shoot special bullets that will assemble trees in the middle of the road fast enough to crash following cars… a kind of assembling speed closer to fantasy than SF. It’s always the little details that kill, and so Nano has little time to spare regarding issues of information management between assemblers, heat dissipation or where the raw materials come and go during assembly and disassembly. (In one scene, disassemblers get to work and produce a gulf large enough for the sea to rush in, but there’s never any specification as to where the disassembled stuff actually goes. It’s not called a gray goo scenario for nothing!) Again and again, Nano ignores edge cases or cleanup issues: This gets particularly bad toward the conclusion of the novel, during which a nano-infestation is dealt with an a searing fashion that doesn’t sustain real-world scrutiny: The problem with runaway disassemblers is that you still have a problem even if a few of them survive the solution. Understandably, the nanotech-is-cool fun of the novel doesn’t dwell at length on that issue.

But as I’ve hinted throughout of the novel, the nature of the book makes it hard to dislike. Compared with alarmist nano-tripe like Michael Crichton’s Prey, Marlow’s Nano is optimistic, fun, brainy and light. It’s throwing ideas at the readers as fast as it can, so why be angry if a chunk of them just don’t make sense? As long as it’s taken with a pallet of salt, it’s a rare example of pro-technology progressive propaganda that acts as a counterpoint to more alarmist novels. I may dismiss it on dramatic, ethical and scientific grounds, but whatever is left is still close enough to my own interests that I can’t help but still give it a mild recommendation.

Surprisingly, this 2004 novel completely failed to register on my radar until recently. I can almost understand why; despite its strong scientific content, it’s frankly not good enough from a literary standpoint to survive and be discussed in today’s top-tier SF market. In hindsight, I regret not only that I missed the novel at the time, but that it hasn’t been followed by a second Marlow novel yet. Until that happens, Nano remains an intriguing book whose particular strengths do much to compensate for some significant flaws. It’s pretty much the definition of a book for a narrow audience –if you like it, you will like it a lot… and will forgive it many things.

Prodigy, Martin James

Sanctuary, 2002, 315 pages, US$18.95 tpb, ISBN 1-86074-356-0

The March 2009 release of The Prodigy’s fifth studio album Invaders Must Die rekindled my interest in the band to such a point that I was primed to buy anything about them on sight. The Toronto HMV on Yonge having cannily placed copies of Martin James’ Prodigy on an end rack to promote the band’s recent local concert, I went from “I had no idea this book existed” to “I’m buying this now” in about a second.

But don’t feel sorry for my impulse purchase: Prodigy manages to fulfill every expectation a fan could have regarding a musical biography. A much-expanded rewrite of a biography first published in 1997, it’s a complete narrative of the band from its early-nineties roots to 2002. It covers nearly every single piece ever produced by the group (some of them still unreleased even today), gives a fair impression of what it would be like to hang out with them and doesn’t shy away from covering the more controversial moments of their history.

If you’re receptive to rock and techno music yet aren’t already a fan of The Prodigy, I would suggest listening to either The Fat of the Land or their greatest-hits compilation Their Law. Chances are that you too will be hooked by their infectious mixture of energetic rhythm. They bark their vocals over catchy melodies, but they’ve never forgotten their roots in the rave scene: Their music is meant to move you until you drop from blissful exhaustion as the sun comes up. If Martin James does one thing particularly well at the onset of Prodigy, it’s to give us a good idea of the music scene in the early 1990s as Liam Howlett started assembling the foundations of his musical group. James is no mere scribbler with a book contract and access to a good bibliography: As the first few pages of the book make clear, he’s a long-time friend of the band, and his own concert memories often dovetail nicely with The Prodigy’s growing success. The result is a biography with ready access to the band members, almost but not quite veering in hagiography: Prodigy doesn’t shy away from the band’s less glamorous moments, and while it usually presents The Prodigy’s version of events as the correct one, it never forgets to give at least a cursory summary of the opposing arguments.

It goes without saying that the best way to read Prodigy is to do so with your favorite MP3 player and the best possible assortment of the band’s tracks. I ended up listening to my entire Prodigy catalog a few times as I was making my way through the book, an approach made easy by a single-by-single discussion of the band’s discography as it is assembled. Since the video clips are also discussed, you may as well start looking for the DVD anthology of The Prodigy’s video clips while you’re collecting the complementary material. The various spin-off albums from members of the group (such as Flightcrank, the Dirtchamber Sessions or Liam Prodigy’s “Back to Mine”) can also help in rounding up the remaining references. (As luck had it, my first visit to a used record store after completing the book ended up netting two Prodigy singles and a copy of Flightcrank!)

One of the best things about the book is how is contextualizes many of the tracks for those who weren’t in the scene at the time. For North-American fans, for instance, it’s hard to understand the political subtext behind Music for the Jilted Generation without understanding the changing nature of the British rave scene due to authoritarian clamp-downs: “Their Law” indeed!

Weighing in at 120,000 words, this revised and expanded biography leaves little uncovered, although its 2002 publication date is getting more frustrating every year: A lot has happened in the band’s life since then, including the “Baby’s Got a Temper” episode, the mixed reception for Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned, a few more side projects, the reunion of the group and the well-received release of Invaders Must Die. The Prodigy is still touring, and their music is still unmistakably as hard-hitting as it’s ever been. If someone’s paying attention over at Sanctuary Books, a third edition of the book would be more than welcome.

Bad Luck and Trouble, Lee Child

Dell, 2007 (2008 reprint), 512 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-440-24366-3

Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series turns eleven with this latest tough-guy thriller, and as it enters its troublesome teens, it becomes a series that is starting to ask questions about its own existence. Reacher’s getting old, and the issues that were raised in The Hard Way are getting more and more uncomfortable here. So much so that Reacher’s getting some help this time around.

It starts as one of Reacher’s friends and ex-colleague is brutally assassinated, thrown off a helicopter over the desert between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Reacher’s in Portland when it happens, but it doesn’t take a long time for a coded signal to make its way to him and bring him to California. That’s when he meets an old friend, Frances Neagley, who informs him of the situation: One member of their old military investigative unit has been killed, and Neagley’s bringing them all back together to figure out what’s going on. As their old team slogan had it, You do not mess with the special investigators.

For readers used to a lone wolf such as Reacher, the dynamics of a team investigation are almost new: While Reacher’s been part of small teams before (most notably in Without Fail, where Neagley also had a strong supporting role), Bad Luck and Trouble brings him back to the dynamics of his old military unit. They may now be in the private sector, but they still work well together and they all have their own specialties. In some ways, Bad Luck and Trouble is an intriguing follow-up from Reacher’s military days described in The Enemy, while creating some space for another prequel in a similar vein.

One thing’s for sure: Reacher certainly needs the team this time around. He spends an inordinate amount of time thinking about his slowing reflexes, his increasingly outdated knowledge of the world and even his dwindling financial resources. Incongruously, he also gets a new skill this time around as he abruptly becomes an arithmetic savant just in time to benefit the plotting of this newest adventure. [May 2009: Those new math skills seem to have disappeared in the follow-up Nothing to Lose.]

Fortunately, it’s not all contrived math tricks on the road to the end of the mystery: Bad Luck and Trouble goes from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, oscillates between weapon-contracting concerns and gambling schemes, features a smashing sequence with a Chrysler 300 sedan and provides a satisfying give-and-take between Reacher and some old friends we didn’t even knew he had. It’s also, significantly, a far more personally-motivated story than usual for the series, and it avoid most of the coincidences that have plagued some of Child’s premises so far.

As usual, the novel couldn’t be more compelling with its sentence-by-sentence prose and convincing details. Reacher is still a supernaturally effective investigator, and his skills for tactical thinking are still as mesmerizing as they ever were in previous installments. This volume’s standout action scene takes place on a deserted Las Vegas sidewalk near a casino construction site, as Reacher and friends take on a would-be assassin with maximum prejudice. It’s a beautifully choreographed sequence, taking place in bullet-time as Reacher’s brain races to out-think his opponents and trust his colleagues to do the same.

After eleven installments, it’s almost normal to find out that the series is having growing pains: Child must be itching for a chance to try something new (if he hasn’t done so already, knowing his history of multiple aliases), and it’s not unreasonable to wonder if Reacher’s musings about his own limitations don’t reflect some of the author’s growing doubts about his character.

But even if his doubts are growing, the thrills are still up to expectations. A look at Child’s bibliography to date suggests that there are still two more Reacher adventures to go (the thirteenth, Gone Tomorrow, was published this month). While the series may be weakening, it’s still running at a level that would intimidate most other thriller writers. With a track record like that, there’s no rush in replacing Reacher.

State of Fear, Michael Crichton

Harper Collins, 2004, 603 pages, C$36.95 hc, ISBN 0-06-621413-0

Few novels ever achieve the kind of over-the-top notoriety that Michael Crichton’s State of Fear immediately earned upon publication. Released during a crucial election year, it immediately became infamous for dismissing global climate change and environmentalism. Crichton got a warm reception from the Bush administration and associated right-wing groups, earned a critical trashing from most of the scientific community, and shot to the top of the best-selling lists.

That, right there, tells you all you need to know about Crichton’s marketing instincts. This isn’t the first of his novel to tackle an issue from a contrarian perspective: Rising Sun (1990) could be seen as xenophobic race-baiting about the influence of Japanese interest over American business, while Disclosure (1994) was recognizably a reaction to the then-heated discussions around workplace sexual harassment. Even as far back as 1975’s The Great Train Robbery (which began with a foreword warning against the idea that all criminals are stupid), Crichton has been an admirably canny writer with a good instinct for themes that would promote themselves by ruffling established sensibilities. State of Fear may have been the least subtle manifestation of those instincts, but it’s hardly an exception in his bibliography.

What is most unusual, though, is the extent at which it fails at being more than a controversy. Rising Sun may have raised the hackles of non-reactionary readers, but it remains a terrific mile-a-minute thriller. The same goes for most of Crichton’s fascinatingly uneven bibliography: his willingness to deliver thrills and chills could usually overcome and compensate for his hypocritical trolling. State of Fear, alas, lets the controversy take center-stage, with the sad result that even the narrative is undermined.

You don’t need to know much more about State of Fear‘s plot than the following: It’s basically a “young man learns better” plot in which likable lad Peter Evans learns that global warming is a sham, science is corrupted and environmentalism is a religion. The novel is a series of lectures, one-sided discussions, myth-busting and overdone action set-pieces during which Evans gradually comes to accept the truth.

In short, it’s more than six hundred pages of on-the-nose didactics, complete with in-text graphs, footnotes and no less than forty pages of appendices, sources and bibliographical references. All of it meticulously chosen, twisted and forced in service of Crichton’s rabble-rousing thesis. As with so many works in which the Holy Truth is gradually revealed to the innocent, the dramatic structure of the so-called fiction is thin. Here, every environmentalist is revealed to be a dupe or a mustache-twirling villain: Hollywood tree-huggers are unmasked not only as idiots, but female-molesting egomaniacs whose limousine lifestyles are dramatically at odds with their stated ideals. Other environmentalists are either bloodthirsty terrorists or greedy hustlers living large on donations to their movement. They gleefully kill people using esoteric means and plan global catastrophe for their own purposes. It’s as ridiculous as it’s unconvincing, and it’s a good thing that the polemic aspect of the novel is there to distract from the pulpish plotting.

Crichton has always been a complex personality, equally admirable for his polymath skills and frustrating for his hypocritical ramblings. He railed against information technology in The Terminal Man in 1972, yet created a computer game in 1984 and won a technical Academy Award in 1994 “for pioneering computerized motion picture budgeting and scheduling.” Few other science-savvy writers have so consciously written to blatantly reactionary purposes, their fiction running against everything else in their backgrounds.

State of Fear is not a bad example of his contradictions: It seems ruthlessly well-informed, and starts from ideas that any intelligent reader would consider to be reasonable: Science is corruptible, environmentalism has become a dogma, and it’s important to study the evidence before coming to an informed judgment. (The title of the novel refers to the somewhat accurate assessment that our society is being manipulated for material gain to go from one unthinking fear to another by the media, politicians and activist groups. Although what this has to do with Crichton’s own novels is a delicious irony best savored at length.) But from those self-obvious premises, Crichton hammers his way to an outlandish set of conclusions that ignore the vast wealth of information available on the issue of climate change and environmentalism. State of Fear is fascinating for Crichton-watchers, but it’s not convincing in the slightest when comes the moment to promote its agenda. It makes a great case of Crichton as an entertaining iconoclast, but not so much as a fact-finding truth-teller, or even a professional storyteller.

It also sets the stage for Next, a similarly alarmist novel about the “dangers” of genetic manipulation that went from obvious premises to ludicrous conclusions. But let’s hand it to Crichton: this is a guy who, from the early seventies to the late aughties, was able to remain almost continuously in the spotlight with a variety of button-pushing ideological positions and media incarnations. He designed computer games, directed movies, wrote novels and became a celebrity in his own right. While most novels of 2004 have already faded in obscurity five years later, State of Fear remains interesting even if it falls apart as a work of dramatic suspense. Frankly, I’m going to miss having Crichton around to plot his next coup d’éclat.

Earthdoom!, David Langford & John Grant

BeWrite, 1987 (2003 reprint), 283 pages, C$24.26 tpb, ISBN 1-904492-11-8

I don’t usually recommend books because they’re awful, but I’ll make an exception for David Langford and John Grant’s Earthdoom! for one good reason: It’s intentionally, skilfully, almost masterfully awful. It’s a parody of the type of bottom-basement catastrophe Science Fiction novels that are published with monotonous regularity whenever there’s a paying audience for that kind of stuff.

Earthdoom! has its roots in the boom of disasters SF novels that populated much of the British mid-list during the seventies and eighties. Not that the formula has entirely disappeared… Even unseasoned readers with a general education in the field will be able to distinguish the familiar dramatic arc as it emerges: The portents of doom, the various incidents leading up to the catastrophe, the wide-screen scenes of death and destruction, and then the efforts of the plucky survivors to survive and prevent something even worse from happening.

Here, it’s not one catastrophe than threatens the Earth but half a dozen of them ranging from the serious to the ridiculous. It’s one thing to suppose comet strikes and an accidental nuclear detonation in the London underground; it’s quite another to feature Hitler’s clones, the Antichrist, invading aliens and the Loch Ness Monster. Not that the heroes are any less ridiculous, in-between oversexed astronauts, clumsy psychics and lovelorn mathematicians. No cliché does unturned, no character has less than a master’s degree of exotic expertise and and no female character is (repeatedly) described as being less than beautiful.

But people who know David Langford and John Grant may already be familiar with the whole approach. Earthdoom! is in many ways a companion volume to Guts!, their subsequent effort to parody horror novels in most of their repugnant permutations. So it is that we get a large cast of deliciously stereotyped characters, countless vignettes of destruction, dozens of unfolding subplots, intricate wordplay and a sense of fun that can’t be overstated.

Trying to summarize the jokes is useless: They span techniques from conceptual set-pieces to knock-knock jokes. Like many full-length comic novels, Earthdoom! is best read in small doses in order not to rush through every page’s minefield of jokes. Like other spoofs, it’s heavy on snark and is probably best appreciated with a good knowledge of the subgenre being mocked. Finally, don’t form lasting attachments to any of the characters, as few of them can expect to survive, much less be ennobled as protagonists/victims in a disaster novel.

It has survived the decades since its original publication better than you’d expect: If a number of references don’t make much sense any more (and that’s even accounting for the possibility of a slight re-write to accommodate the 2003 edition of the book), the musty charm of the whole is starting to look like a reflection of another generation. North-American readers are likely to have a tougher time puzzling the localized British references than dealing with the dated feel of the story.

The first edition being long out-of-print, Earthdoom! is now available almost exclusively online from a publisher whose books feel a lot like print-on-demand products. The result looks a bit cheap (and the interior design could certainly be more readable), but the content is worth a look, especially for those who are already fans of David Langford’s brand of dry humor. Earthdoom! is a must-read for those growing numbers of Langford completists: Not only are you unlikely to read a better spoof of catastrophe SF novels, chances are that you’ll be unwilling to do so.

State of Play (2009)

(In theaters, April 2009) It has been a long time since the last solid thriller to focus of the world of journalism, and this one acquits itself fairly decently. Russell Crowe is compelling as the crusty veteran that anchors the picture, although more could have been done to resolve the old-paper/new-blog dynamics between him and Rachel McAdams. Handled with competent care, the picture manages to wrestle a complex story that touches upon a number of sizzling contemporary issues. This being said, the picture twists one time too far: While the last plot curve-ball strengthens the lead character’s ethical dilemma about his definition of good journalism, it undermines a lot of the picture’s solid thematic material against private military contracting. But that’s a small last-minute complaint about a thriller that’s quite a bit better than most: There’s a lot going at this intersection between politics, business, romance and truth-seeking, and it’s to the filmmakers’ credit that the result remains intelligible throughout. There’s a refreshing contemporary feel to the picture’s musings about journalism at a time where the very fundamentals of the profession are being questioned from all angles. With a bit of luck, this may become a time capsule of the times, like so many of the seventies’ most competent thrillers.

The Boys on the Bus, Timothy Crouse

Random House, 1973 (2003 reprint), 383 pages, C$20.00 tpb, ISBN 978-0-8129-6820-0

My ongoing Hunter S. Thompson reading project is taking me to some fascinating places. Take, for instance, Timothy Crouse’s The Boys on the Bus, a book-length study of the media during the 1972 elections: I probably never would have been tempted to read it if it wasn’t for its association with Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72.

It’s not a thin connection either: Hired by Rolling Stone magazine to, essentially, baby-sit and post bail for their star writer Thompson, Crouse not only played the straight man to his colleague’s impressionistic wildness, but also spent his time studying the press corps surrounding them. An article on the media snowballed into a full-length narrative and then on to an enduring classic that, like Thompson’s book on the campaign, remains just as readable and worthwhile today than when it was published.

Maybe even more worthwhile, even. Yes, political journalism has changed completely since 1972. The twin revolutions of cable-driven electronic news-gathering, and then the recent always-on pressure of the political blogosphere, have altered the field in ways that would have been unimaginable back then: One of the book’s first pleasures is in seeing the mechanics of reporting back then, with journalists depending on land-lines to report back to their papers, and the laborious process of (literally) cutting a TV spot every day to cover the campaign. Reading The Boys on the Bus, it’s not hard to imagine the all-male, all-WASP atmosphere of journalism in the early seventies, and to understand why alcohol played such an important part in their lives.

Crouse notably uses his book to profile some of the foremost political journalists of the time, most of whom are only passing footnotes today. This is one book meant to be read with access to Wikipedia, if only to get a quick summary of what later happened to the careers of the various personalities mentioned along the way. Some profiles take up nearly a dozen pages. Hunter S. Thompson himself is described during the latter half of the book, although the profile has as much to do with the rest of the press corps’ reaction to Thompson than Thompson himself. (Through those reactions, though, Crouse highlights one crucial distinction between Thompson and the others: The Rolling Stone journalist was writing for a specific audience and could dispense with the balanced approach that big-outlet writers had to use. A number of mainstream journalists envied Thompson’s freedom, but Thompson was not exactly playing by the same rules as they were.)

There are a number of highlights to The Boys on the Bus, but perhaps one of the most haunting ones are the two chapters dealing with the White House press corps which, at the time of the 1972 elections, had to contend with a Republican candidate who was barely campaigning and whose approach to the press was contentious at best. Where that chapter hits home is in comparison with the Bush-era press corps, which scarcely did any better than the cowered journalists that covered the Nixon administration. A number of White House official tactics described in the book are suspiciously similar to what occured during the Bush administration, and there is no comfort in reading Crouse’s explanation of why even the best reporters are neutered when they accept the White House beat: at the utter mercy of the President’s staff, they can’t do any serious journalism that would jeopardize this level of access for their organization. (In one of the bitterest ironies of the entire book, Crouse explains how and why the entire Watergate business was initially uncovered by crime beat reporters, with practically no input from political journalists.)

That’s only one of the many aspects of the book that remain curiously relevant today, cell phones and digital cameras and Twitter updates aside. I’m sure that the excruciating toll of the campaigns on the press corp is just as awful today as it was in 1972, and that many of the pressures that Crouse describes haven’t gone away in the slightest. Some of The Boys on the Bus has the same startling conclusions than the often-merciless dissections of journalism practiced by some of the most insightful political blogs. The description of “pack journalism” (how journalists never go wrong by saying the same thing as the rest of their colleagues) is still as accurate now than then. Nothing ever changes, really.

This being said, I’m not sure that the 1972 campaign -coming on the heels of the carefree sixties- has ever been equaled in matters of debauchery. If there’s a movie to be made about The Boys on the Bus, the screenwriters may want to begin with the lighter passages dealing with “The Zoo Plane”, the nickname of the aircraft carrying the technicians, backups, minor-outlet journalists or outcasts following the campaign: Hanky-panky at 30,000 feet (“The fourth [stewardess] had a thing for Secret Service men and entertained no less that eighteen of them before the campaign ended. [P.351]”), hotel key collections and prodigious amount of drugs and booze. The intensity of the campaign coverage is described just as well as the let-down once the last flight has returned to Washington and the reporters, now a band of brothers having been tested for months by an exhausting odyssey, part ways for the last time.

The sober truth, more accepted now than in 1972 but not by much, is that the sober just-the-facts reports we read are in fact written by fallible humans taking notes in the middle of a hurricane of events. Crouse is not unsympathetic to them, and the failings he identifies are so systemic that they can be perceived even today. Politicians and journalists come and go, but there’s a sense that the game remains the same. The Boys on the Bus, manages to capture that truth so well that it has sailed through the years with few wrinkles. No wonder if I had fun reading for pleasure a book that is still on the syllabus of journalism courses today.

Captain Mike Across America aka Slacker Uprising (2007)

(On DVD, April 2009) This weakest Michael Moore film yet has little of the wit or ferociousness of his other polemics: It’s not much more than a low-budget video chronicle of his 2004 efforts to motivate college students to vote against Bush. The effort failed, obviously, which takes away from the effort from the get-go. Moore can either be annoying or inspiring, and the limited material quickly wears thin. From time to time (such as when Moore deals with hecklers), the film picks up a bit; otherwise, it’s insipid partisan propaganda even to those who are basically in agreement with Moore’s policies. It doesn’t help that Moore is often his own worst advocate –and by making himself the focus of his own movie, well, he grates early and often. Obviously, this film (freely released as a download on the eve of the 2008 election) aimed to convince another political mini-generation that Obama was worth fighting for. But in retrospect, a more interesting piece may have been to compare 2004 activism versus what happened four years alter –with the added sweet bonus of Obama’s victory at the end of the narrative.

Saw V (2008)

(On DVD, April 2009) I can’t say that I’ve followed this series closely (I’ve seen the third and fourth installment in bits and pieces, just enough to keep up with the storyline), but this fifth entry is easily the least satisfying yet. While the series has always been a contrived exercise in self-referential carnography, the third and fourth volumes at least had the decency of some intricate plotting, along with occasional flourishes of cinematography (such as the clever scene transitions in Saw IV) and rough morality. This fifth entry, on the other hand, is more nihilistic than sadistic, and does little to enhance the series: Everyone even remotely sympathetic dies horribly (I predict that no one in this series will survive it), and there’s no point to it all. The traps have finally become a substitute for plotting, and the appeal of Jigsaw as a lead character feels more overdone than ever. Yet Saw VI is nearing post-production…

Obsessed (2009)

(In theaters, April 2009) Every generation needs its Fatal Attraction remake, so it’s not a stretch to suppose that the current twenty-something audience deserves nothing more than a limp reiteration of the same dramatic situation, except with bad storytelling instincts. The lead male character is dull by design: Despite an intriguing back-story of womanizing, he spends the picture being holier-than-thou, and escapes jeopardy mostly by the intervention of others. But that bad storytelling aspect takes a back-seat to the complete shift in protagonist that occurs during the last ten minutes, as the putative “hero” is sidelined to an SUV commute while another character resolves the main conflict of the picture. It’s dumb, deeply unsatisfying, and telling of the relative star-power of Idris Elba versus Beyoncé Knowles. It’s a very pretty movie with attractive characters, but the script is all wrong, and barely interested in its most interesting aspects. Even Ali Larter, as the designated psycho, gets little to play with as none of her character’s motivations are explored. Obsessed shows how unsatisfying a bad script can be even when most other aspects are handled professionally: there’s nothing left of the “psycho stalker” suspense except the memory of other, better films.

Fighting (2009)

(In theaters, April 2009) There’s far more drama and far less fighting in this picture than you might expect. While most bare-knuckles-fighting movies beef up their action with an insubstantial plot, this film seems like it was first conceived as a hustling drama with fighting scenes penciled in. The tension could have revolved around chess-playing that it wouldn’t have changed much to the overall impact of the film. Alas, this approach leads to perfunctory fighting scenes that barely affect the characters and leave no lasting memories. As it is, Fighting is bit dull, and hardly deserving of any “action” designation. As a drama, it’s definitely centered around New York hustlers, which limits its appeal somewhat: Channing Tatum’s lead character knows how to fight and flirt, while Terrence Howard as his new best friend (and agent) remains steadfastly stuck in his cloying wimp mode. Zulay Henao isn’t too bad as the perfunctory love interest, but the rest of the picture is simply too dull and convenient to warrant much attention. With better filmmakers willing to cut away at the endless “dramatic” scenes, this could have been turned into a far more interesting picture, even it would have erred on the side of exploitation.

Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, Hunter S. Thompson

Grand Central, 1973 (2006 reprint), 481 pages, C$20.99 tpb, ISBN 978-0-446-69822-1

Few things age faster that political reporting, especially when covering actual elections. Today’s hot scoop is tomorrow’s accepted wisdom and next week’s irrelevant history. It’s no surprise that political commentary has been embraced so fiercely by the instant-publishing world of blogging, when every moment counts and no opinion goes unpublished.

But it wasn’t always so, and a lifetime ago (my lifetime, at least) some periodicals had to be content with running election coverage once every two weeks. Few people would be crazy enough to accept such an assignment, but gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson wasn’t an entirely sane man even when he was completely sober. When Thompson managed to convince the biweekly Rolling Stone magazine to cover the 1972 presidential elections, a unique match was struck between reporter and venue: Thompson would set up shop in the nation’s capital and cover the election from an avowed left-leaning perspective, without any regard to keeping bridges standing longer than it would take to make it to November 1972.

From the very first installment, in which Thompson describes a hellish wintertime drive from Colorado to Washington (speaking to some suspiciously convenient interlocutors along the way), it’s obvious that this isn’t routine objective political reporting. Thompson barged on that world with an outsider’s perspective, and no amount of official accreditation would alter this mindset. By the time he allows his press credentials to be used by a heckler to climb aboard disliked candidate Ed Muskie’s whistlestop tour, and later plants rumors of Muskie’s Ibogaine drug addiction, it’s obvious that Thompson is neither neutral nor interested in playing it safe. That largely explains why the result of this year-long electoral chronicle still remain compelling, more than 35 years after publication.

Much of the book has aged ungracefully: Despite Thompson’s intent to explain the mechanics of the presidential campaigning process to readers discovering politics for the first time, many of his off-hand references to contemporary figures and events are now mystifying: Readers may want to invest a few minutes into reading a more objective summary of the 1972 campaign before leaping into the more impressionistic, commentary-enhanced prose of Thompson’s chronicles. Some of the photos, most notably, could now use updated captions as the event surrounding them have completely faded away and the surrounding text doesn’t help.

Thompson isn’t nearly as interesting a reporter as he is a commentator, or a walking stereotype of his own burgeoning legend. Some of the most dramatic hard-news moments of the campaign (such as the attempted assassination of candidate George Wallace) are distantly described at a remove, whereas some of the book’s strongest passages occur as Thompson takes flights of fancy into the mystique of a hard-boozing reporter stuck between hellish working conditions and inflexible deadlines, or editorializes the results of the election —famously saying

“This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves, finally just lay back and say it —that we are really just a nation of 220 million used-car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.” [P.389]

and proving that some things remain true even decades and a few more million Americans later.

But the insane pacing of a presidential campaign eventually takes its toll on the reporter. It’s not insignificant if more than half of the book focuses on the Democratic party primaries and if nearly two-thirds of the narrative occurs before the end of the two party conventions in Miami –the rest of the campaign is covered limply, and a good chunk of the book’s last third takes the form of post-election analysis. In the grand arc of Thompson’s career, Fear and Loathing: On The Campaign Trail ’72 marks an intellectual crescendo of sorts; an enduring proof of what he could do when running in peak condition. But many biographers also describe how the campaign broke Thompson’s spirit, dogged him through tense personal moments, led him to harder drugs and made him a celebrity, all of which would make it impossible for him to go back to the type of work he was capable of doing between the release of Hell’s Angels and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (which was finally published in book form during the campaign). More significantly, it’s also the book that cemented Thompson’s credentials as a celebrity political commentator —a role he would adopt until the end of his life.

But On the Campaign Trail ’72 hasn’t aged as well as Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in part because its ground-breaking quality gets increasingly less distinct as the years go by. For modern readers tempered in the fire of the 2004 and 2008 elections, Thompson’s prose reads a lot like pungent blog entries fueled by an unusual level of access. Thompson’s then-revolutionary subjective viewpoint is now a common quality of partisan blogging, and his “getting the story” gonzo-journalism shtick has now been co-opted by an increasing number of blogs set up by established mainstream reporters. In their own ways, bloggers are the true children of gonzo, reporting quickly and without any editorial filters to their readers and trusting them to see where reporting ends and subjective commentary begins. (No wonder if some of Thompson’s last writing was published on ESPN’s web site, in a style faithful both to his earlier gonzo work and to modern blog-writing.)

For those who have read a lot about Thompson and his writing process, it’s hard to read this collection of essays without sparing a thought for the Rolling Stone editors who had to wrestle Thompson’s undisciplined output into readable shape. The effort isn’t completely transparent: The columns still have a herky-jerky stream-of-madness quality that reads more like a stack of related items than a sustained narrative. The last third of the book is particularly scattered, as the “notes from the editor” multiply and narrative fiction is suspended in favor of interview-like questions-and answers. After lengthy missives earlier during the year, the entirety of the month of October fits in four airy pages of anguished prose about the inevitability of Nixon’s victory.

It’s hard to make out the true shape of the campaign at is occurs, but the final pages are made of savvy analysis about the campaign. For modern readers, the 1972 presidential campaign remains one of the most baffling one in American history: Even as the Watergate scandal was picking up steam, a war-torn America still awarded Richard Nixon one of the largest majority on record, only a few months before he resigned the presidency —and that’s not even mentioning Spiro Agnew’s straight journey from the vice-presidency to prison. Thompson’s instant analysis provides a few clues as to what happened, but it’s noteworthy that his undisguised loathing of failed vice-presidential democratic candidate Thomas Eagleton would dovetail with the 2007 revelations that Eagleton
was the undisclosed originator of the “Amnesty, Abortion, and Acid” catch-phrase that so damaged George McGovern during the campaign.

But the most remarkable thing about the book is that even nine presidential elections later, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 remains an intriguing read for American politics junkies. The good moments are still a joy to read, and the time-capsule aspect of the narrative has a certain interest. Needless to say, the book amply proves why it remains near the top of Thompson’s bibliography. It’s a just a shame that he was never able to reach that level of sustained political analysis ever again.

Fast & Furious aka The Fast and the Furious 4 (2009)

(In theaters, April 2009) It’s useless to try to judge this film by most conventional standards. Its sole goal, after all, is to stroke the pleasure centers of automobile enthusiasts (a group that mostly overlaps with Y chromosomes) and its success it directly tied to how much automobile goodness it crams on-screen. The return of the first film’s cast isn’t a bad idea, but the boys have all the fun while the girls are kept off-screen or hastily taken out of the picture. At least Vin Diesel and Paul Walker have some fun rekindling their on-screen rivalry. Action-wise, the standout remains the opening chase sequence: The rest of the picture is a bit too over-edited and CGI-enhanced to make much of an impact. As for the cars, well, they’re a satisfying mixture of modern rice-burners and classic American muscle. It’s a shame that the cheerful multicultural shock of Tokyo Drift isn’t as strong here, but make no mistake: Between the colorful Southern California locale and the reggaeton soundtrack, this is still a twenty-first century motion picture for the young and licensed. It’s fun, it’s not often boring and, most of all, it shows fast cars and girls kissing girls –there’s no denying that it’s another entry in the ongoing franchise.

Crank: High Voltage (2009)

(In theaters, April 2009) I remain severely conflicted about this film: While I admire its go-for-broke audacity, it carries along the unpleasant smell of moral decay. I’m a sucker for any kind of cinematic experimentation, especially in the action genre –but there was a clear moment in the film, as a stripper’s fake breasts start pouring silicone from a well-placed gunshot, that I realized that my moral integrity was being forever tainted by the excesses of this picture and everything it represents about the state of contemporary cinema. This film is about movement and thrills: its human characters are mere flesh puppets to abuse in the pursuit of ever-more nihilistic visual flashes. Sure, Ling Bai is a whirlwind dervish, and Jason Statham is just as solid as ever. But little is redeemable about this film, not when it sacrifices basic logic and decency in the pursuit of cheap laughs and gross-out moments. Most will agree that Crank 2 is fantasy cinema, and various elements such as a character running around with an artificial heart, fighting like Godzilla and throwing away disembodied heads will only underscore this. Yet there are moment in this film that can’t be unseen, and it may not be too late for a moment of stark moral reflexion: This film only enables the next and worse step that will push the boundary of moral disgust even further. Have I really written this review? Crap, I’m getting old.

12 Rounds (2009)

(In theaters, April 2009) There’s nothing deep or subtle about this pure B-grade action-fest, and that’s quite all right: For all of its faults, plot-holes, impassive protagonist or by-the-numbers direction, 12 Rounds understands that it’s there to deliver some car-crushing, house-blowing, fist-fighting action. And that it does, thanks to a simple high concept that requires our square-jawed oxen protagonist (Wrestler John Cena, in a decent follow-up to his role in The Marine) to run all around New Orleans to stop a master criminal/terrorist from killing his girlfriend. It the kind of movie where a trip to Point A to B turns into a demolition derby with a firetruck. Renny Harlin’s direction is just enough above hum-drum to make us care, but this is the kind of film where the audience has to bring its half of the fun. It thankfully doesn’t take itself too seriously, and if the result may not linger too long in memory, it’s about as good as middle-grade action cinema can aspire to be. Not bad, all things considered.