Monthly Archives: May 2009

The Scarecrow, Michael Connelly

Little Brown, 2009, 419 pages, C$30.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-316-16630-0

For series readers, some books are an investment, while others feel like payoffs. While The Scarecrow will be perfectly intelligible and interesting to readers coming in cold to Michael Connelly’s crime thrillers, there’s no doubt that those who are familiar with the Connollyverse are going to get the most out of it. Starting by the fact that it’s a thematic sequel of sort to the author’s most successful book, The Poet.

It’s true that there has already been a direct sequel to The Poet: The Narrows, after all, featured Harry Bosch disposing of the serial killer known as “The Poet”, while Jack McEvoy had small roles in other Connelly novels, most notably in A Darkness More Than Night. But this is McEvoy’s first return as a narrator, and the links between The Scarecrow and McEvoy’s previous adventure run deep.

The Scarecrow certainly opens on some of the most depressing passages ever featured in a Connelly novel so far: As the novel begins, McEvoy has been fired. Newspapers everywhere are downsizing (the novel even includes a timely reference to the Denver Rocky Mountain News, which went web-only in early 2009), and veterans like McEvoy are too costly to keep in an era of corporate efficiency and dirt-cheap bloggers. Given two wholly unrealistic weeks to set his affairs in order and train his replacement, McEvoy is pushed to investigate a murder case where the accused has been coerced in an unconvincing confession. But in doing so, he alerts the real murderer, and this “Scarecrow” is a piece of work: an experienced serial killer with near-magical hacking skills, this antagonist takes no chances in dealing with McEvoy. Events unfold at a surprisingly fast pace from that moment: Only the timely appearance of FBI agent Rachel Walling saves McEvoy’s day, and their rekindled relationship isn’t much of a comfort when Walling’s career is once again on the line.

As a reunion of familiar characters, The Scarecrow does quite a few things very well indeed. Harry Bosch is alluded to along the way, but his absence as the heavyweight protagonist of Connelly’s fiction frees Rachel Walling to become an interesting character once more. McEvoy’s narration is a welcome return to a journalist’s perspective on the usual sordid business that takes place in a Connelly novel: his wealth of experience as a reporter gives a neat twist to the procedural details of the tale (the book’s most telling detail being McEvoy’s recommendation to his successor to move a policeman’s quote closer to the top of the article, so that it will survive editing and create goodwill from the policeman) and echoes The Poet: the motto “Death is my beat” makes a return appearance, even as McEvoy seems at the end of his rope as a journalist.

Otherwise, The Scarecrow hops between California and Nevada, goes from a newsroom to hotels to a data center, features some decent action scenes for McEvoy and doesn’t skimp on the denouement. Connelly’s prose is as crisp as ever, and if the result can often feel a bit familiar (especially toward the end), it’s a solid piece of summer reading with most of the qualities of the author’s fiction and few particular flaws. The novel’s cutting-edge references to the end of the newspaper era may prove to be just a bit too timely to act as an entirely escapist piece of fiction, but fans of Connelly’s output so far will be pleased to see familiar characters on-stage once more, while newer readers will come to understand what all the fuss around Connelly’s fiction is about.

Nothing to Lose, Lee Child

Dell, 2008, 407 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-385-34056-4

In this twelfth entry in the highly successful Jack Reacher series, it’s a given that some plot mechanics will feel very familiar. Reacher being arrested in the first chapter of the book is a reminder of the very first volume of the series, whereas the small-town setting can bring to mind the rural Texas landscape of Echo Burning (with which it also shares an unfair bar-room fight). Reacher is always taking on hopeless odds; what’s wrong with staring down an entire town in this entry?

Yet, at the same time, there’s something new in this twelfth adventure as well. For perhaps the first time, political content makes its way into Reacher’s actions as the background of Nothing to Lose depends heavily on the invasion of Iraq for its premise. In at least three sub-plots, casualties of the war find their way to America, and its consequences weigh heavily on every character. For a series that has so far navigated gracefully between the shoals of American politics, it’s a bit of a surprise to find this twelfth entry embracing material most readily discussed in left-leaning company.

This time, Reacher’s troubles start as he walks over the wrong border: Trying to make his way from one American coast to another, he ends up at the border between the cities of Hope and Despair, Colorado. Things go sour as soon as he’s spotted in Despair: arrested without too much ceremony, he’s eventually scolded and deported back to Hope. Reacher, naturally, doesn’t like being told what to do: His aroused curiosity soon turns to obsession as it becomes clear that Despair holds many, many secrets.

In fact, Nothing to Lose isn’t a thriller as much as it’s a description of how Reacher teases all the mysteries out of a puzzle box. Despair features three ongoing sets of secrets and a fantastically unlikely accumulation of surprises that would be unbelievable anywhere but in a Reacher novel. (Amusingly enough, a fantastically unlikely coincidence is outlandish enough to be discussed and rationalized by the characters: As one of them puts it, “That’s a coincidence as big as a barn.” [P.72])

Fortunately, Child knows how to tease information effectively: By the time Reacher faces down a literal human chain of Despair residents determined not to let anyone sneak into their town, it’s easy to believe that something has gone deeply, deeply wrong in that small city. Seeing Reacher take down Despair’s entire police force feels like divine retribution over a hive of sin. The action set-piece of the book is either a demolition derby that leads to the hospitalization of Despair’s remaining police force, or a bar-room brawl in which Reacher manages to incapacitate half-a-dozen opponents and stare down the rest of the patrons.

But such things are to be expected in this series. What’s perhaps a bit wilder is the identity and affiliation of the book’s main set of villains, another signal that will please left-leaning readers of the series. Alas, one of the plots uncovered by Reacher seems a bit too big, a bit too unlikely to sit comfortably. Reacher, after all, is at his best saving widows and orphans, not taking on entire geopolitical issues.

On the other hand, Nothing to Lose proves that there’s still quite a bit of juice left in the Reacher series’ most enduring conceits: Reacher is still believable taking down unbelievable odds and the accumulation of technical details is still layered enough to strengthen the credibility of the entire novel. While this twelfth entry feels a bit like others, it’s also distinctive enough on its own. The strengthened political content may or may not lead to anything in further Reacher adventures, but it’s an intriguing development in a genre that sometimes has trouble balancing political views.

The Joke’s Over: Ralph Steadman on Hunter S. Thompson, Ralph Steadman

Harcourt, 2006 (2007 reprint), 396 pages, C$16.95 tpb, ISBN 978-0-15-101282-4

Hunter S. Thompson was (sometimes) a brilliant writer, but most of his legend is based on stories of hard substance abuse, aggressive behavior and casual disregard for authority. While that makes for spectacular adventures, it’s quite another thing to reflect upon the consequences of that kind of mindset on close friends and family.

Ralph Steadman’s The Joke’s Over is that strangest of autobiographies: a personal narrative almost entirely centered around another person. The autobiography of a sidekick, so to speak. Gonzo fans already know that Steadman is the artist responsible for the signature illustrations bundled with Thompson’s best-known work: The nightmarish caricatures in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas are as much part of the reading experience as the text itself, and so Steadman has become an integral part of the Gonzo Journalism myth, the visual representation of Thompson’s prose aesthetics. Steadman is an accomplished artist in his own right, but there’s no doubt that there are more Thompson fans than people interested in a straight-up Steadman autobiography: Hence The Joke’s Over, a lengthy testimony of what it was like to be a friend of Hunter S. Thompson.

It’s not a simple friendship made of friendly communication and simple fishing trips: From their first meeting in Kentucky (The first chapter of The Joke’s Over reads like the mirror image of Thompson’s “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”, down to Thompson macing Steadman and driving him away to the airport in a cloud of invectives), Steadman and Thompson seem to oscillate between common admiration and shared loathing. Steadman, upon writing down his memories, becomes conscious that it was a relationship in which only Thompson could see himself as the superior one. It didn’t help that the writer suffered from life-long money problems, and that a recurring topic in this biography is royalties and how much Thompson wrangled over his share of the proceeds. Not that Steadman took advantage of his partner: Tales abound about how his illustrations were re-used at a pittance, and how difficult Thompson could become whenever financial issues were discussed.

Steadman never quite says it, but he comes close to acknowledging how much of an abusive relationship his friendship with Thompson could be. While the two remained close during their entire lives (which tells us something about how fiercely loyal Thompson could be, and how he inspired his friends to be the same to him), it wasn’t always smooth or simple. One thing almost left unsaid by Steadman that you have to read about in other biographies is the rift that erupted between the two men in the early nineties as Thompson had a stint in jail (which led to a fund-raiser, which led to more money issues) and Steadman contributed to unauthorized biographies that displeased the writer.

It’s all great material, but one of the most frustrating things about The Joke’s Over is that it’s best read with ample knowledge of the context: Steadman may or may not be a skilled writer, but the editing of the book is deficient: The stream-of-consciousness gonzo writing style has no place in a biography of the sort: Entire paragraphs of The Joke’s Over are incomprehensible or tangential, veering off in wild political screeds that aren’t uninteresting, but distract considerably from the main text. At 396 pages, Steadman’s book is far too long and disjoint, not to mention unpleasant to read.

It goes without saying that The Joke’s Over is a book for the die-hard Thompson fans: Most will be better off reading William McKeen’s superlative biography Outlaw Journalist to be told crisply what Steadman takes forever to say. On the other hand, skipping over The Joke’s Over means missing out on the feeling of being stuck with the Thompson whirlwind, having pills pressed in our hands and flying off in a daze of violent fear and loathing. The Joke’s Over may not be entirely pleasant experience for grounded readers, but it’s a minor success of gonzo writing taking Hunter S. Thompson as its subject.

Hunter’s Moon, David Devereux

Gollancz, 2007, 231 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 978-0-575-07985-4

The recent explosive rise in urban fantasy (the new kind, with leather-clad heroines) has been one of the big publishing success stories of the past decade, and a lot of it has been fueled by a hybridization of romance with supernatural thrillers. The result, perhaps inevitably, has remained chiefly (although not exclusively) aimed at female readers, with the boys joining in for the thrill of reading about “kick-ass chicks”.

Now comes David Devereux with Hunter’s Moon, a self-conscious reactionary take on the same themes that reads like urban fantasy hammered by military thrillers. It’s almost ridiculously aimed at male readers, and has an admirable determination in fulfilling that objective. The results may not be entirely comfortable, but it’s a bit of distinctiveness in a fast-expanding field that seems determined to race to the broadest generic denominator.

The fun starts with the series tagline: “Magician by Profession, Bastard by Disposition”. Our narrator “Jack” may work for the British government, but he is not a nice man, and he means it. Like an authentically spicy dish in a small restaurant, his brand of nastiness has nothing to do with the watered-down bad boys that populate less determined thrillers: He knows magic and he’s paid to be ruthless. Not content with merely killing opponents, he’ll bring their spirit back from the netherworld and curse it so that even their souls will be lost. Now that’s hardcore.

It seems like overkill to set such a protagonist against a mere convent of witches bent on assassinating the British Prime Minister, but that’s as good an excuse as many to initiate readers to the twisted world of military operations and magical incantation that “Jack” inhabits. One thing that may catch readers’ eyes before starting Hunter’s Moon is Devereux’s forward note saying “All the magic in this book is fake. I made it up. The Principles are sound, but since I don’t want anyone out there trying to do the things that Jack does, I assembled his methods from a wide variety of incompatible systems…” If that sounds like a stronger variety of “Don’t try this as home, kids”, it’s no accident: A look at Devereux’s site reveals an authentic interest for the occult (his first book, an autobiography, is titled Memoirs of an Exorcist) and while we’ll agree to disagree on the existence of occult phenomenas, Hunter’s Moon does a splendid job in setting up a messy magical system that feels as if it’s got the patchwork consistency of an authentic discipline.

The rest of the book flies along at a snappy 230 pages as Jack infiltrates his target, depending either on military skills or occult knowledge to advance in his investigations. The twists and turns pile up, and there’s seldom a dull moment negotiating between national state secrets and black magic. There’s a lot of dark kink-friendly sex and even more neck-snapping violence, so don’t let the kids get a copy of this book unless they really, really want it.

This being said, one aspect of Hunter’s Moon left me quite a bit less enthusiastic. “Jack” may be an equal-opportunity professional bastard, but it’s hard to avoid noticing that his targets in this book tend to be overwhelmingly female. Blame my upbringing, but (even in targeting a witch convent) male-on-female violence tends to stick in my craw a bit more than the other permutations. The torture scene, with its strong overtones of dominance and submissive behavior, is about as bad as it gets (well, if you don’t count the whole excessive kill-a-housewife-then-destroy-her-soul bit mentioned above.) I suspect that other readers’ reaction to this material will vary quite a bit.

Others will argue that this type of discomfort is a good sign that this energetic, relentless urban fantasy is meeting its goals. If nothing else, Hunter’s Moon is a rarity in that it doesn’t have any fat nor mercy: it’s lean, it’s mean, and it’s a fast read. In most circumstances, it would be difficult to find anything more appropriate to say about it.

The Great Shark Hunt, Hunter S. Thompson

Simon & Schuster, 1979 (2003 reprint), 602 pages, C$25.00 tpb, ISBN 0-7432-5045-1

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Hunter S. Thompson’s work is how short his most productive period has been: From Hell’s Angels to the end of Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, his best years all took place during the 1965-1975 decade, with significant fallow periods within: Aside from his prolix biweekly schedule during the 1972 election (one that he wasn’t able to sustain past August/September), Thompson wrote far less than you’d expect from such a well-known journalist.

But still frequently enough that a collection of his best work between 1960 and 1980 manages to fill a hefty trade paperback. From the National Observer pieces in which he criss-crossed South America to the post-celebrity pieces of the late seventies when Thompson had carte blanche to write about anything, The Great Shark Hunt is the essential collection of his pure journalism work.

All the big classics are there: “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” marked the launch of Gonzo journalism, where the journalist becomes a primary motor for the events being described. Even today, no one is too sure how much of the piece is outright fiction and how much is altered fact: it certainly reads like a lively short story, and still works best as such even as the culture revolving around the Kentucky Derby has completely changed.

Other landmark pieces include “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan”, a typically apocalyptic piece (featuring attorney Oscar D’Acosta) that would eventually lead to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. That article would be bookended six years later by “The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat”, which served as a requiem of sort for the still-absent D’Acosta. In between we get the entire 1972 campaign, the Watergate hearings, and the beginning of Thompson’s legend as a drug-addicted, catastrophe-minded, anti-authoritarian symbol. The title piece of the book may have been the first and purest piece written by Thompson as playing on his own legend: The subject becomes secondary to Thompson’s chemically-fueled adventures facing the emptiness of his assignment.

For fans, half the fun is in discovering lesser-known material. There are a number of more overly humorous pieces here that leave an impact, from the Swiftian satire of “The so-called ‘Jesus Freak’ scare” to the overblown aggression of “The Police Chief” (which features the line “[tear gas] only slaps at the problem: nerve gas solves it” [P.416]). Other great moment in Thompson history include the bittersweet let-down at seeing Nixon resign in disgrace in “Mr. Nixon Has Cashed His Check”, to a fanciful speech from the balcony at the beginning of “Fear and Loathing at the Super Bowl” that brings to mind the kinship between Thompson and Transmetropolitan‘s Spider Jerusalem.

In many ways, The Great Shark Hunt is designed to be the perfect introductory volume to Thompson’s work: In addition to the pieces that would make his renown as a Gonzo journalist, we get some of the best excerpts from his three best-known books: The “Edge” piece from Hell’s Angels is here, as are the first few pages of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the “220 million used car salesmen” rant from the end of Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. If you only get one Thompson book, get Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas… but if it’s not available, you won’t go wrong with The Great Shark Hunt.

Still, it could have been a better volume. Insufficiently organized in four sections (unnamed, but summarized as “The Birth of Gonzo”, “Politics 1968-1976”, “Pre-Gonzo Journalism” and “Full-Gonzo Thompson”), the collection often seems to veer from one piece to another without reason, and now sorely lacks connecting material. Thompson’s prose is always an acquired taste, but the book often seems to assume that the reader is already convinced of Thompson’s brilliance.

Hunter S. Thompson’s flame may have burned too briefly, but never as brightly as during the years chronicled in The Great Shark Hunt. If you’ve been wondering which volume best showcases Thompson’s considerable writing talents, look no further.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)

(In theaters, May 2009) “Wolverine is cool! He’s got claws!” seems to have been the operative memo that launched this film, because there really isn’t more to this film than claws without consistency: The historical details are hysterically wrong, the logic of the film is cribbed with holes and even simple physics takes a beating whenever Wolverine takes out his oh-so-cool claws. (So cool that they bend space and time to allow our hero to slice a rolling vehicle without having his arm snap back at a hundred klicks per hour). Yet science neepery doesn’t do justice to the failings of the movie even as popcorn entertainment: The script lurches from one useless battle to another, laboriously sets up obvious plot twists and dismisses its characters with trite dialogue. For another entry in the generally superior X-Men series, it’s a shocking reminder that most comic-book movies are pretty bad: this one has none of the thematic heft or sheer sense of fun that sustained the three first films in the series. The various contortions that the film goes through in order to justify its “prequel” status are more painful than enlightening, and the result is seriously underwhelming. It doesn’t help than Ryan Reynold is criminally under-used (he was the best thing about Blade III, and his speaking moments are once again a good chunk of what’s good with this film), and that none of the film’s screenwriters know what to do with Logan’s Canadian citizenship. It’s one of the film’s minor fault that it, being shot in New Zealand, is never convincing at portraying the Canadian wilderness, but it’s far more important that, shot as a superhero film, it’s never convincing as anything more than a routine entry in an overcrowded field. From Watchmen to this is a brutal return to the reality of Hollywood.

The Lost Fleet: Dauntless, Jack Campbell (John G. Hemry)

Ace, 2006, 293 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-441-01418-7

It’s an uncontroversial assertion to say that an author’s name is a more reliable marker for satisfaction than a genre label, which is why savvy readers are advised to take a look at “Jack Campbell”’s The Lost Fleet: Dauntless and flip over to the copyright page, which blandly attributes the book to “John G. Hemry writing as Jack Campbell”

Hemry, of course, is the writer of the well-regarded “Paul Sinclair / JAG in Space” tetralogy. While the series obviously didn’t sell all that well (hence explaining the transparent name change), it was above-average military Science Fiction with an appealing protagonist and strong moral underpinnings that informed the content of the fiction. Those are the very same qualities that help make this first volume of The Lost Fleet series so engaging, even for those who don’t have any particular affection for military SF.

The premise has its own kick of interest: A hundred years after being cryogenically frozen following an military engagement between two splinters of humanity, Captain John “Black Jack” Geary is revived to find out that the war is still going on, and that he’s been placed in charge of a fleet far away from home. The enemy is closing in; his own troops are demoralized and his reserves are running low. That’s the first chapter.

Trying to learn as quickly as he can, Geary meets his first fans (who love the long-lost legend more than the real man), makes a few enemies and manages a few fancy military maneuvers. Then things get worse.

Unfrozen out of his time, Geary quickly realizes that some things have changed dramatically in a hundred years. His own side isn’t quite as honorable as it used to be, and the constant toll of fighting has lowered strategic standards. Some of his early victories depend on tactical knowledge forgotten during the intervening century; others depend on a willingness to take the decisions that everyone else wants to avoid. But even then, a substantial number of officers under his command think that they can do much better than a quasi-mythic war hero…

The first volume in a series with five volumes as of spring 2009, Dauntless is about setting up a rich framework for adventure. So there are plenty of expected and not-so-expected hints and portents: Geary’s mythical reputation; warring power blocks; the war’s history; hints of a third force; a quest to get back home; and Geary’s own doubts are all put on the table in this first entry. It remains to be seen whether they can sustain the series until the end, or keep it humming until it changes shape. It’s not a baseless concern: If there’s one lasting criticism about Hemry’s previous “Paul Sinclair” books, it’s that they all had the same structure, and that one book was a reliable guide to all the others.

But at the same time, “Campbell”’s prose style is just as readable as Hemry’s, which can make the difference between reading a single book and committing to an entire series. It helps that Hemry doesn’t write the kind of military SF that most people picture when they think about the subgenre. Here, the emphasis is placed on the burden of being part of a military unit, not on the glory of combat: Geary is acutely conscious that every battle means death for someone, and that his forces aren’t strong enough to sustain the kind of spectacular battle that is the staple of the sub-genre. Oh, there’s clever combat all right –but the interest of the series is just as strong in matters of logistics and politics than it is when the weapons start firing.

And that, in itself, is a good indicator of Hemry’s writing skill —no matter which name he uses on the cover. We’ll see how many volumes The Lost Fleet sustains, but if previous indicators are a reliable guide to future performance, it will be -at worst- a really entertaining series.

[June 2009: The Lost Fleet: Fearless indeed keeps things moving in the right direction.  The stakes are raised with unexpected new characters, defections, a romance and stronger suggestions of alien interference.  There are also a few more space battles, although they don’t overshadow the series’ more interesting issues about leadership and cooperation.  The prose style is a jolly good read, and the series manages to hit a sweet spot between shoot-em-up military action and more thoughtful resource-management problems.  The growing sophistication of the characters is a hallmark of addictive fiction.  In short; this is one series that’s doing everything right so far.]

[May 2010: It took six volumes, but The Lost Fleet: Victorious finally wraps things up.  The conclusion is satisfying, but the series has spent a long time doing nothing before revving into gear in the last volumes and a half.  What could have been a satisfying trilogy has become a badly-paced series.  Good characters, satisfying emphasis on the burden of leadership, but take out some scissors and snip away at the middle third of the series, because it almost overstays its welcome. There’s a reason why I haven’t even mentioned tomes 3-5.]

The Visitor (2007)

(On DVD, May 2009) Fans of heavily-plotted genre pieces won’t find much to like at a first glance in this drama about a middle-aged man brooding through a late-life crisis. Nor does the film improve sharply once he discovers intruders in his New York apartment, or when he befriends them just before one is taken prisoner by the US Immigration services. But the film gradually becomes more interesting as our protagonist uncovers the harsh way immigrants can be treated in his country (The Visitor says a lot about the society in which it occurs, unaccountable imprisonment, tortuous immigration processes and all) and comes to reach some kind of fulfillment when he reconnects with life. Richard Jenkins is terrific in the lead role, and the rest of the cast around him also does well. Fans of director Thomas McCarthy’s The Station Agent will here find the same blend of plotlessness, familiarity, tentative relationships and mood pieces. The Visitor ends, frustratingly, in mid-story, but it’s meant to linger in mind like a half-digested meal.

Terminator Salvation [Terminator 4] (2009)

(In theaters, May 2009) Since I have decided that the Terminator series ended at the end of the second film, I’ve been able to consider all the multiple spin-offs and retreads with far more equanimity. Terminator 3 was a competent action picture, but nothing more than glorified fan-fiction. This fourth entry, alas, struggles even with the “competent” part: While two or three sequences show some action-cinema skills (ah, that helicopter crash!), the script itself is a load of nonsense compounded by an execution that seems determined to evacuate all ideas of fun from the result. Drab and dreary cinematography reinforce the idea of a post-apocalyptic world at the expense of entertainment: It’s not as if dystopias are rare nowadays, even in the evening news, and the peppy shiny future of Star Trek seems a lot more interesting than the blasted deserts of Terminator 4. As for the story itself, the series is stomping harder and harder on an ever-smaller plot of sand: There are few innovations this time around, and the rules of the series, so well-defined in earlier films, seems inconsistent here. (Sometimes the terminators will answer to loud music, whereas other times it takes a quasi-nuclear explosion.) The logic of the film’s world is nonexistent: The screenwriters would like us to believe that the human resistance uses A-10 planes, conveniently asking us to forget the infrastructure required to maintain such things up and running after a nuclear war and years of attrition. At other times, skyscraper-big terminators manage to silently get close enough to the characters to give them wedgies. And need I ask why the terminators would need to herd humans rather than shoot them on sight like they’ve done so far in the series mythology? Also; heart surgery in the future is really easy. But the worst thing about the film remains a script that follows dozens of characters without really committing to any of them. Christian Bale growls his John Connor while Moon Bloodgold makes enough of an impression to warrant a film of her own, but few others are worth remembering. Elsewhere, plot threads are raised and dropped incoherently, but there’s little of the tight human element that made the first two movies such classics. Oh well; it’s all fan-fiction whenever James Cameron’s not involved anyway.

Star Trek (2009)

(In theaters, May 2009) I’m the worst type of Star Trek fan: A lapsed one. While Trek formed a good chunk of my formative Science Fiction viewing, the limitations of the series quickly led me to other things once I started reading more widely in the field. So it is that I had practically no baggage of expectations regarding this younger, hipper reboot of the original series to 2009 standards: They could have produced a musical comedy “with Kirk as an ocelot or something” and I still wouldn’t haven’t blinked. And yet this reboot seems exactly what the doctor ordered for a musty old franchise: Fresh, funny and captivating, the film roars past without too many lengths, yet stays true to a bunch of the original series’ strengths. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, mind you: The whole premise of reuniting all characters is a cheat from the get-go, and it begs for exactly the kind of coincidences, contrivances and clumsy plotting than we get throughout the entire film. The bad science is hideous, the misogyny is unacceptable (Uhura as a toy for the boys?) and the cheats required to bring all the characters together would be unforgivable if the rest of the film wasn’t so much compulsive fun. (Who would have believed a Star Trek film featuring the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage”?) What’s more, this Star Trek made me realize two things: First, that I had forgotten how much fun Kirk, Spock and company could be. Second, that despite my protests, I still had enough of an inner Trekkie to be annoyed at some of the more outlandish deviations from the canon. Spaceships being built on the ground? Vulcan destroyed? Uhura/Spock? Meerp? At least we get the single best-looking Orion Girl in the entire Trek filmography so far. As for the rest, well, I’ve got enough issues with the film to fill a full-hour panel at a convention, and that says far too much about me than I care to reveal: I, apparently, am a lapsed fan no more.

Back to the Future (1985)

(Second viewing, On DVD, May 2009) Now here’s a film that hasn’t aged a bit in nearly twenty-five (!) years. A snappy, energetic, refreshing blend of comedy with a loose science-fiction premise, Back to the Future exemplifies mid-eighties Hollywood film-making at its finest. The script is a well-oiled machine of setups and payoffs, with just enough cleverness to make it rise above the obviousness of its plotting. Michael J. Fox is the rock around which the rest of the film revolves, but there’s more than enough successful elements elsewhere (from Christopher Lloyd’s madcap Doc Brown to a surprisingly restrained turn by Crispin Glover as George Brown) to tie everything up. Perhaps the most interesting undercurrent through the entire film is the naughtiness of the subtext, not only linking the protagonist to his mother, but the suggestion that “the fifties weren’t as wholesome as you may have been told”. And yet the result remains squeaky-clean for the entire family. Sure, some of the SF elements (like the altering picture) make no sense except in script-logic. Yet the entire things feels solid and admirable even decades later: the “eighties” moments now have a historical charm, and the pacing of the result seems as fresh today than it did back then. Catch the film if you haven’t seen it, and re-watch it if it’s been a while: you may be pleasantly surprised.

Next, Michael Crichton

Harper Collins, 2006, 431 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-06-087298-4

It’s fitting that Michael Crichton’s last novel before his death in 2008 would encapsulate so many of the most distinguishing characteristics of his fiction. An alarmist techno-thriller with enough hypocrisy to choke two talking monkeys and a sentient parrot, Next is a polemic more than a novel, and it’s best appreciated with tons of contextual information.

Intentionally structured in a scattershot fashion, Next reads like a free-form exploration of issues surrounding genetic research. For the first half of the book, readers will struggle to identify a plot thread as unrelated scenes pile up, starring dozens of characters that appear out of nowhere and seem to return to obscurity just as quickly. In interviews about Next, Crichton likens the novel’s various plotlines to DNA, with its genetic material that may or may not be important. It’s as fancy an excuse as one can imagine for a free-form whirlwind of loosely connected vignettes. After all, Crichton is less interested in telling a story than he is at baiting readers.

For a man whose nonfiction writing career has been spent shouting down new technological development (starting with information technology in 1971’s The Terminal Man), it’s a return to basics more than a late-career affectation. Crichton even makes references to his own Jurassic Park (a novel that has aged far less gracefully than you’d expect with its gratuitous references to then-hot chaos theory) and how the state of genetic research has evolved since then.

So it is that nearly all of Next‘s characters are either villains or victims: Rich businessmen trying to exploit genetic research for their own personal gain, or poor ordinary folks finding themselves in impossible situations —from a man whose DNA is patented by a commercial entity to another one who’s framed for proclivities blamed on genes. Not all victims are humans, this being a novel with an inordinate fondness for talking animals.

It all gets ridiculous after only a few pages. Crichton’s accumulation of manufactured outrage gets tiresome and transparent; it doesn’t help that after a dozen novels of contrarian shtick, his methods are more obvious than ever. Everyone with money is evil; anyone with power can be counted upon to do the wrong thing; there are no solutions. This knee-jerk cynicism gets as tiresome as idealist naiveté, but reaches exasperation much, much faster.

Hypocrisy has always been synonymous with Crichton’s fiction, and Next is no exception: Once the fiction is over, associated notes and interviews bundled with the book go on to reveal that Crichton basically feels optimistic about genetic research… provided that a few laws are passed. Not that you would know that from reading the main text: any optimistic viewpoints are carefully kept away from the plotting, and no solutions are portrayed during the course of the novel: It’s as violent a case of intellectual whiplash as you can get without reading an author’s note that says “I really didn’t mean what you just read.”

But, hey: Michael Crichton. Hypocrisy and self-contradictions have always served him well. Frankly, it’s not as if he never gets anything right: In the middle of the whole reactionary mess that is Next, one can find this unarguable passage:

Science is as corruptible a human activity as any other. Its practitioners aren’t saints, they’re human beings and they do what human beings do –lie, cheat, steal from one another, sue, hide data, fake data, overstate their own importance and denigrate opposing views unfairly. That’s human nature. It isn’t going to change. [P.62]

Replace “Science” with “writing a novel” and there aren’t many better epitaphs about Michael Crichton’s novels. I happen to believe that fiction should allow for the possibility of being better than our own natures, but you can chalk this up to a philosophical difference between Crichton and myself. At the very least, I’ll grant one thing —Next may or may not be very good, but it’s as entertaining in its own way as the rest of his fiction.

Back to the Future Part III (1990)

(Second viewing, On DVD, May 2009) While no disaster, this third entry in the trilogy certainly brings to mind the law of diminishing returns. After the time and reality-hopping of the second film, this entry maroons the characters back in time, overplays many of the same jokes and gives the impression of turning in circles over familiar terrain. There are some wonderful things about this third volume (Mary Steenburgen, obviously), but a lot of it seems overly familiar. One suspects that not everyone will share the same fascination for the Wild West as the filmmakers and the ever-self-referential nature of the gags makes the film of interest chiefly for those who have paid a lot of attention to the first two entries. The linkages with the second part, which was shot at the same time, are more or less successful, although they all come into play fairly cleverly in the film’s extended epilogue. Some of the stuff is fairly clumsy (I was never fond of the whole “Chicken!” subplot), but the final few moments do evoke some of the sense of wonder that was so precious to the end of the first film. All in all, not a bad final chapter, but also a good excuse to end things there.

Back to the Future Part II (1989)

(Second viewing, On DVD, May 2009) No mere follow-up could recapture the magic of the original, and while this sequel often has moments of interest, it ultimately makes the mistake of hugging its predecessor a bit too closely. The first half takes a welcome trip in the future, even though the situation it develops never completely lives up to the promise left by the last moments of the original film. A more interesting trip through a hellish alternate reality follows, but then the film sticks itself back in familiar territory by going back to the first film. While the concept is promising and rich in irony, the ultimate result seems self-referential to an unhealthy degree: at some point, the film cries out for an escape to someplace new. One thing is sure: this film hasn’t aged nearly as well as the first one. The vision of 2015 may be increasingly ridiculous (a minor sin in a comedy), but a lot of the concepts that seemed challenging or new in 1989 are now part of the assumed background of even unsophisticated SF viewers: Alternate realities are now mainstream, and the circumlocutions of time-travel have been explored many times since then –the various 1955 twists of the film now bring to mind Futurama’s overloaded time-travel storyline. Still, as a piece of self-conscious blockbuster movie-making, Back to the Future II takes a few more chances than strictly necessary and manages to deliver an experience that extends the original. A few good moments complete the film with style.

Angels & Demons (2009)

(In theaters, May 2009) I really liked Dan Brown’s novel in part because of its preposterous eccentricities. But while Angels & Demons as a film does a few interesting things in smoothing out some of the book’s most ludicrous moments, it also loses a lot of what made the book so fascinating. The first and most significant victim is the book’s mixture of rapid pacing and endless exposition: What seemed so interesting on the page now looks contrived and perfunctory on the screen as the heroes race from a Roman checkpoint to another and keep telling themselves things that they are the only one to know and possibly care about. Tom Hanks is fine as Robert Langdon (while Ayelet Zurer’s legs practically deserve an award of some sort) and the cinematography features about the exact type of images you’d expect from a movie set in the Vatican. Fans of the book will notice that a significant portion of the book has been altered, from removing one set of antagonists entirely to changing the jaw-droopingly overdone parachute climax to something far more palatable. Surprisingly, the film is significantly less religious than the book: The alterations to the plot undermine the book’s anti-science subtext, while Langdon himself is allowed to remain atheist throughout the film without a nagging quasi-miracle to change his mind –a rare luxury in the middle of an American media noosphere that default to deniable theism whenever it can. (Of course, some will argue that protestant-dominated America can allow itself to be less than enthusiastic about promoting the Roman Catholic church.) Thematic considerations aside, it all adds to a bit of a misfire; a sometimes-ponderous thriller that doesn’t embarrass itself, but similarly fails to ignite much interest either. While generally better than the even-more-flawed The Da Vinci Code (Langdon is far more active a protagonist, for instance), Angels & Demons remains a bit dull, a bit long and -worst of all- a bit ordinary. Which certainly wasn’t the case for the novel.