Monthly Archives: May 2010

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)

(In theatres, May 2010) It’s hip to dismiss Hollywood summer blockbusters, but there’s nothing quite like the feel of a good well-made escapist fantasy.  Forget about the video game origins of the film, or the loose historical allusions in the title: this first Prince of Persia movie works best as an action adventure fantasy, any kind of verisimilitude joyfully sacrificed on the altar of entertainment.  Disney and producer Jerry Bruckheimer obviously aim to replicate the atmosphere of the first Pirates of the Caribbean, and while it’s not perfect, it works generally well at taking us from one action/effects set-piece to another.  Jake Gyllenhaal makes for a credible action hero while Genna Arterton is almost impossibly sassy/cute in the film’s only noteworthy female role, but it’s Alfred Molina who ends up the film’s standout oddball character as a quasi-modern parody of a libertarian.  Not that he’s the only charmingly anachronistic element in a plot that is based on a middle-eastern invasion motivated by false reports of weapons of mass destruction.  But never mind the politics when the film mixes swashbuckling adventure, an Arabian fantasy setting and an intriguing fantasy plot device.  You can see the end of the story coming from the film’s first twenty minutes (which is probably a good thing, given its reset-button nature), but it’s the telling that’s the charm here.  Not that it’s a complete success like its piratical predecessor: Prince of Persia sometimes feel a bit too long, sorely misses more female characters, could have used another dialogue re-write, has no cultural legitimacy (See “Persia, Prince of”) and often feels driven by incredible contrivances.  But, you know, I’m already looking forward to the sequel.  After all, I’ve just seen Robin Hood: I’ve had my inoculation shot against excessive realism.

The Revolution Business (Merchant Princes #5), Charles Stross

Ace, 2009, 320 pages, C$27.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1672-1

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: If you’re going to start reading Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes series, don’t crack open the first volume unless you know you can get every other book in short order.  Not only is it the kind of addictive storytelling that makes it difficult to stop reading once things get underway, but the combination of high-concept genre-blending, plot twists, large cast of character and complex intrigue makes it essential to keep going as so to keep the entire story alive in our heads.

I am writing this with some experience in the matter: I made the mistake of reading the first four volumes of the series in rapid succession in 2008, marooning me two books away from a satisfying conclusion.  I managed to restrain myself when the fifth volume appeared last year, but now that the sixth is in stores and concludes the series’ current story arc, I had to face the daunting prospect of re-immersing myself in a complex series two years later.

It’s an uphill climb at first, because The Revolution Business picks up briskly after the events of the fourth volume: The Clan of world-travelers previously introduced is besieged by enemies in two different worlds: Stuck in a civil war on a parallel Earth, they’re being viciously hunted down on this side by the US government after a failed attempt at nuclear blackmail by a renegade element.  The already slim chances of negotiation between our heroine Miriam and the elements of the American government charged with tracking down the world-walkers are getting slimmer as Miriam is trapped by the actions of her family and the US discovers that the Clan has stolen six portable nuclear weapons from its military inventory.  Things escalate steadily over the course of the novel until no less than two nuclear bombs are detonated before the last page is over.

After two years away from the series, I won’t try to claim supernatural powers of recognition: It took me about a hundred pages in The Revolution Business to be comfortable once more with the lengthy cast of characters, their multiple agendas and their unfolding plans.  Miriam, the character through which we entered this universe and with whom we spent so much time during the first two volumes of the series, gets very little screen time as Stross is busy moving the various pieces of his plot in place for the conclusion in the next book.  If The Revolution Business has one problem, it’s that it’s very obviously the third quarter of a longer four-book arc and, as such, is stuck in the narrative trap of escalation.  The wild inventiveness of the first three volumes, which introduced one new parallel Earth per book, slows down considerably: this may be Stross’s least idea-driven book so far, so busy is it with the plate-spinning mechanics of storytelling.  In fact, The Revolution Business spends nearly all of its length setting up the fourth volume, and doing so through about a dozen character streams.  Sometimes, it feels as if there is a lot of activity for the characters, but little actual progress in the overall plot.  On the other hand, the payoff is breathtaking: The last paragraph alone kills off one major sympathetic character and destroys a major city.

As you may guess, this isn’t a particularly hopeful passage in the Merchant Princes series.  A cycle that started off as fantasy before being revealed as Science Fiction gets remade in techno-thriller mode as more attention shifts to the American government reaction to the parallel-world intrusions.  As a terrifyingly creepy character takes over the reins of the official response and comes up with increasingly sophisticated devices to replicate the world-traveling capabilities of the Clan, the stakes get higher and higher.  Add to that the evidence of civil war between the Clan and the conservatives of the Gruinmarkt and no wonder this series gets darker at every page.  Some chilling snippets of intercepted conversations hint at even more depressing events to come.

Still, grimness can be exhilarating in Stross’ hands and part of the appeal of the series as it starts winding down is to wonder at how far he’ll push it.  This is an author who has already destroyed the world a few times in other stories: we can justifiably be concerned for his characters as they try to escape from events spinning out of control.  Now that the nuclear genie has been uncorked twice by the end of this volume, it’s anyone’s guess where this will go.  What seems clear is that the narrative arc started in The Hidden Family is ready to wind down, and I defy anyone who’s made it so far in the series not to start reading volume six as soon as they’re done with The Revolution Business.  If you’re about to start reading the series and you don’t have it nearby, don’t tell me I haven’t tried to warn you.

MacGruber (2010)

(In theatres, May 2010) Incompetent secret agents are fast approaching cliché after Johnny English, Get Smart, OSS-117 and many others, so MacGruber has a few other issues to worry about aside from its thin inspiration from Saturday Night Live sketches.  Sadly, what we get is a coarse, violent and generally unpleasant satire on the action-movie genre.  It’s not exactly terrible (it certainly earns its share of laughs), but it could have been quite a bit better.  MacGruber, played by SNL’s Will Forte, is not just incompetent but blustery, crass and with few redeemable qualities: He’s a full-time annoyance and sadly he’s in pretty much the entire movie.  Bland co-star Ryan Philippe does a bit better, although Kristen Wiig is so conventional in her portrayal of the obligatory love interest that I gladly would have seen her switch roles with the always-cute Maya Rudolph.  But character flaws aren’t the biggest of MacGruber’s problems, which betrays its SNL origins by padding 30 minutes’ worth of jokes into an hour and a half of lazy pacing, pauses for laughs and diminishing-returns call-backs to gags that weren’t funny in the first place.  (“I’ll do anything to get back on the case?”  Funny for ten seconds, not forty.  Celery?  Never funny.)  The direction is hampered by a low budget, which the disjoint editing seems to make even worse.  Fortunately, there is about one dumb laugh every ten minutes (how dumb?  Well, I was unexpectedly amused by subtitles on “You’re loco, man”), which still places MacGruber a cut above many other comedies out there.  It’s not a disaster, but the sense of missed opportunities here feels overwhelming.

Robin Hood (2010)

(In theatres, May 2010) The chequered development process that led from a script called Nottingham to this stone-faced “historical” take on Robin Hood may explain a lot about the deadened result, but as viewers we can only see what’s on-screen and wonder what went wrong.  The first bad idea is the pretence of a “historical” look at a legend: It didn’t work in the dour and grimy King Arthur, and it’s not any more pleasant here. (To compare and contrast, the similarly-themed The Last Legion wasn’t very good either, but it had the good idea of being a lot more fun).  This isn’t director Ridley Scott’s first foray in pseudo-realistic historical action, and Robin Hood is just as dirt-dominated as similar sequences in Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven: you can practically feel the plague coming just by watching the film.  But the realism is just surface deep: By the end of the story, in which Robin Hood saves Maid Marian from unexplainable danger during a D-day like French invasion off the cliffs of Dover and then practically writes the Magna Carta from notes left by his lost-lost father, well, we’ve left realism buried somewhere in the copious dirt.  (It won’t take a military strategist to find something suspiciously wrong about an invasion force picking a narrow stretch of beach right in front of impassable cliffs as a landing area.)  While Russell Crowe is fine as Robin Hood and Cate Blanchett can do no wrong as Maid Marian, the film too often feels like a school assignment sucking all the fun out of reasonably entertaining source material.  After watching this joyless take on Robin Hood, I felt a sudden need to go and re-watch Costner’s now-old-enough-to-be-classic Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves all over again.

Buddy Holly is Alive and Well on Ganymede, Bradley Denton

Avonova, 1992 reprint of 1991 original, 290 pages, C$5.50, ISBN 0-380-71876-6

I don’t know much about anything, but one thing I’m starting to understand as an avid reader is that over a sufficiently long time, there isn’t such a thing as “the book that got away”:  Whatever books captured my imagination back when I didn’t have enough money to buy them all keep popping up in the strangest places.  As long as I’m patient enough, chances are that I will end up reading every book whose cover ever struck me as interesting.

So it is that I’ve been fascinated by Buddy Holly is Alive and Well on Ganymede for a long time, on the sole strength of its title.  Never mind the content of the novel itself and contemplate the title once more.  Isn’t it wonderful?  Isn’t it the kind of title that lodges itself in your brain and pops up occasionally to roll off the tongue?  Can you imagine Christopher Walken gravely intoning “Buddy Holly… is alive… and well… on Ganymede”?  Even if you can’t or won’t imagine such a thing, you at least have to admit that any novel that sports that title is worth a look.

It begins in 1989, as one regular guy named Oliver Vale sets down to watch TV and finds out that all channels are showing the same thing: Buddy Holly, strumming his guitar while telling people that he’s stuck on Ganymede, and that Oliver Vale is the one who can explain why.  Vale takes it in stride: after all, he’s been conceived to the sound of a Buddy Holly song on the radio, at the very same time the singer died in a plane crash.  Raised as a rock-and-roll messiah by a single mom with seemingly crackpot ideas about aliens, Vale knows that he’s not the most stable of people, and his first reaction to the TV broadcast is to congratulate himself on the inflated self-esteem of his hallucinations.  But when the telephone starts to ring, it turns out that all channels around the world are showing the same thing… and that everyone has heard Vale’s name and address.  Now they want answers, and Vale doesn’t have a clue what to tell anyone.

It gets weirder.  Much weirder, what with Vale riding his motorcycle to Buddy Holly’s grave site, being pursued by his own psychotherapist, mobs of unhappy TV viewers, a ruthless enforcer from the FCC, two sets of aliens and a cyborg dog.  (The dog belongs to one of the alien couples, which explains at least one thing.)  Every chapter alternates between Oliver’s first-person narration and third-person viewpoints: the technical juggling of those points of view in portraying the story as it happens is impressive, especially given Vale’s frequent flashbacks to his childhood.

An extended chase sequence set in the American Midwest, Buddy Holly is Alive and Well on Ganymede is the kind of novel that ends up delivering an experience no one even imagined they wanted.  It’s fun, it’s pleasant to read, it’s inventive and it seldom stops for breath.  The characters are memorable (just wait until you meet Grechen), the prose is delicious and the tone is an unusual blend of light-hearted whimsy, pop nostalgia and a few surprising action scenes.  The lead character manages to be sympathetic despite a grab-bag of issues, something that largely owes to Denton’s affectionate attitude toward his characters.  It ends curiously well.

For a narrative that features a lot of references to fifties rock-and-roll music, Buddy Holly is Alive and Well on Ganymede is nonetheless accessible to readers who may not recall the era or the music first-hand.  Even the messy conclusion doesn’t do any damage to the impression left by the rest of the story.  The result is an interesting time-capsule of a comic SF novel, something worth reading even today –and a confirmation that the 1991 Campbell jury was on to something when they named it the best Science Fiction novel of the year.

I ended up finding my copy of Buddy Holly is Alive and Well on Ganymede in a small used bookstore in Winnipeg after nearly 17 years of not-so-assiduous looking, but you don’t have to wait that long: A fact-checking Google trawl ended up revealing not only that a movie adaptation is slated for release sometime soon, but that the entire content of the novel has been freely made available online under Creative Commons licensing.

The Sheriff of Yrnameer, Michael Rubens

Pantheon, 2009, 269 pages, C$27.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-307-37847-7

Science Fiction comedy is rare partly because it’s difficult to do well.  For every Douglas Adams and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (a book that even Adams found hard to top), there are ten other guys who think that slapstick in zero-G is enough farce to go around.  The best comic SF comes from setting the strengths of the genre against each other, most frequently by using ridiculous iconoclasm to undermine the more sublime tendencies of SF.  Adams understood this (perfect example: the Babel Fish), and embraced the national British notion that underplaying something is quite a bit more enjoyable than being a buffoon mugging for laughs.

But it’s really unfair to compare anyone to Adams, except when it tells us something about when a story doesn’t work.  As it happens, Michael Rubens’ The Sheriff of Yrnameer does work, but not without a soft reboot, some error-correction and a bit of indulgence.

It took me two attempts to really get into the story.  A first read ended less than fifty pages in, stuck on a complete lack of interest.  Something about a deadbeat adventurer, a debtor who wants to use his body as an incubator and a flurry of tedious detail.  Stop.  Shrug.  Go back in the to-read pile.  Blame the weather.

Things went much better the second time around.  The Sheriff of Yrnameer follows the adventures of an engaging rogue named Cole, who is seriously, unarguably, dangerously in debt.  A temporary reprieve from a very competent bounty-hunter creditor named Kenneth –who can’t wait to find a living body for his eggs and has an ovipositor ready to go past the first indebted eyeball– only buys him enough time to hijack a space freighter and have a few adventures before crash-landing on Yrnameer where he’ll get to help a small town threatened by criminals.

If nothing else, The Sheriff of Yrnameer is competent funny SF: The tone is ridiculous, Rubens plays with a few classic SF concepts (I was particularly fond of the sentient AI who’s too stupid to trip the sentience-destruction routines) and while the laughs are few, the book at least manages to earn a semi-permanent grin.  The narration is charmingly elliptical, slyly undersells the jokes and rarely mugs for attention.  There are a few good characters in the mix, and their interactions become increasingly more important at generating the punch-lines.  Never mind why such a competent bounty-hunter as Kenneth would hang around a dead-end planet for weeks at a time: He gets one of the best lines of the book with “there’s no need to keep saying ‘Hello, Kenneth’ each time you enter a new room.” [P.223]  If the story wraps up a bit bitterly for the hero, there’s always the chance of a sequel to make it up to him.

What the novel doesn’t master so well is sustained build-up.  There are three broad acts to The Sheriff of Yrnameer and each one seems at best semi-linked to each other.  While the first-third setup of Cole’s troubles tortuously leads to a midway sequence set on a training station where corporate drones have been turned into zombies, there’s a clear cut between those first two-third and the last act spent defending a small town from bandits.  It explains why the novel’s sub-genres also keep switching on us: The SF-heavy first scenes eventually lead to horror parody and then to western comedy.  This tendency to punch the reset button every ninety pages weakens the novel by making it a string of disconnected vignettes more than a sustained narrative.

It’s noteworthy that this is a science-fiction comedy novel published outside the usual genre publishers and, as far as I can tell from a casual trawl through blogs, didn’t get much attention from SF genre readers.  There are a few explanations for this (Rubens hails from comedy TV writing, not genre fiction) but no real excuses.  While it’s true that the SF elements in The Sheriff of Yrnameer play off generic devices and so have very little to contribute back to the SF genre discourse, it’s still a fairly entertaining take on elements that should be dear to SF readers.  Still, even though a familiarity with dystopian space operas, egg-laying parasites, corporate zombies and far-west bandits certainly doesn’t hurt, Ruben’s first novel is also a book that should appeal to readers who aren’t necessarily steeped into genre conventions.  No matter how you look at it, it’s a book that reaches its own expectations and delivers a good time along the way.  Not every book can be a new Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; sometimes, it’s just fine to make references to it.

Who’s Your City?, Richard Florida

Random House Canada, 2008, 374 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-307-35696-3

If you don’t like where you live, maybe it’s not you, but where you are that’s the problem.  Go ahead and leave!

That, in a nutshell, is where Richard Florida leads readers with Who’s Your City, a book that not only argues that globalisation makes physical location even more important than ever, but that we should expect to move from one place to another according to our interests, or even our stage in life.

As ideas go, this is relatively uncontroversial.  Alvin Toffler discussed nomadic lifestyles decades ago in The Third Wave, whereas most college-educated North Americans are well-acquainted with the phenomenon of leaving home to go study at post-secondary institutions, and then relocating in yet another city to find gainful employment.  Anyone interested in certain industries knows that the best place for movies is in Los Angeles; that book publishing jobs are in New York, that computer geeks cluster around San Francisco or Boston, that oil executives can opt for either Calgary or Houston, that political wonks end up in Ottawa or Washington.

It takes a few dozen pages of statistics for Florida to make his point, but once he’s done the statistical evidence looks unarguable: Geographical location is crucial even despite modern telecommunications, and the tendency for super-clusters is to become even more specialized as people move to take advantage of this specialization.  In this context, why ignore the evidence that moving to another city may make you happier?  Grab Florida’s evaluation criteria and go pick your city off the menu of available choices!

It doesn’t mean that I have to like his thesis, mind you: In Florida’s jargon, I’m one of those “rooters” who have settled down somewhere and won’t even think of leaving.  I’m pretty happy in the Ottawa area, which combines a right-sized city with easy access to both Montréal and Toronto, with weather I like (yes, even the snow), a close relationship to nature, a well-educated population from which I can easily make friends, and an opportunity-rich environment for my chosen profession.  I’ll let others speculate on how much Ottawa has shaped me versus how much of a fit I would have been for other cities had I been raised elsewhere, but what I know is that the more I travel, the more I find myself coming home knowing why I like it.  I may not be a rooter as much as Ottawa fits my own list of things that I consider essential to my daily happiness; in other words, I may be living Florida’s thesis despite not liking its implications.

My other personal lesson from Who’s Your City is that Florida’s work confirmed a few impressions about why, as a tourist, I liked some cities more than others.  Apparently, if I can’t identify with the urban density of Ottawa (in Denver or Calgary), can’t enjoy the combination of smarts and money (in Boston or San Francisco), can’t benefit from the superlative quality of world-class cities (in New York or London) or can’t see plenty of nature (in Vancouver), then I’m liable to start turning on my host city like I did in Los Angeles, Miami or Winnipeg.  Again, this tends to prove Florida’s work more than I care to admit: Much like people, cities have personalities.

More seriously, I do wish that Florida had spent less time telling people where to move and more time discussing the potential pitfalls of self-segregating urban areas.  We can study Detroit as a dramatic illustration of what happens when smart rich people do pick up and leave for better pastures.  Brain drains are serious business, as is the political stratification caused by the clustering of like-minded people.  Red states, blue states, anyone?  What about well-balanced social classes?  Aren’t the upper-classes always more mobile than the lower ones?  Florida’s “pick up and go” triumphalism is less than useful to people who are either too poor or too stuck in obligations to leave; there is some acknowledgement of all of those issues, but not quite enough when balanced against the latter “Escape Kit” portion of the book that is meant to help readers pick a better city for themselves.

As you may gather from a “review” that’s two-third musings and personal confessions, there is a lot food for thought in Who’s Your City?, which only confirms something that’s already obvious to anyone with friends and family who moved elsewhere.  It’s well-researched (although focused almost exclusively on the US), accessibly written and provocative in its conclusions.  Don’t necessarily start poking at real-estate ads in other states yet, but think about it: What if your city really wasn’t the city for you?

Rework, Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson

Crown Business, 2010, 279 pages, C$26.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-307-46374-6

The 37signals blog Signal vs. Noise is an interesting read, one of the few corporate blogs worth reading even if you don’t even want to use the company’s products.  37signals has made its reputation providing simple but well-designed web applications and they take delight in doing thing contrary to fashion.  When competitors offer more features, 37signals offers fewer but makes sure that the ones they have are working as well as their customers want.  They have stayed small, shared their accumulated knowledge widely and focused on their core expertise rather than branch out too quickly.  To put it simply, they do things differently.

So when comes the time to offer advice in the form of a business book, they also do things differently.  Rework weigh in at a slim 27,000 words, padded to 279 pages by use of iconic illustrations, big font size, generous line-leading, wide margins and content chunked in nearly 90 chapters.  (The original length of the book’s first draft was about 59,000 words, we learn at the end of a passage on why it’s better to build half a great product than a complete product with half of what it needs. [P.70])  But don’t dismiss the book because of its size: Rework is about staking counter-intuitive claims and letting minds free to imagine better business models.  A longer, more soundly documented book wouldn’t have been any better.  In some ways, this is a book-sized blog post of ninety counterintuitive ways businesses can improve by rejecting conventional wisdom.  Holding fewer meetings; ignoring the competition; letting customers go; avoiding being a hero; refusing outside investments; ignoring résumés: Rework tells us that everything we think we know about business is wrong.

Such attention-getting claims are, of course, 37signals’ mode of operation.  As long as it has worked once for them, it can become a triumphant new way of doing business from now on.  (Perhaps my favourite story from the book is how when 37signals launched their flagship program Basecamp, they didn’t even have a billing system: “Because the product billed in monthly cycles, we knew we had a thirty-day gap to figure it out. So we used the time before launch to solve more urgent problems that actually mattered on day one.  Day 30 could wait.” [P.93])  Of course, 37signals isn’t an ordinary company.  Free from manufacturing, it can exist as a fully virtual organization, adapt its business process to the online application model and operate on smaller budgets than many other companies.  They don’t conform because they don’t have to conform.  It’s good to take their self-serving advice with a grain of salt.

But then again maybe not a whole salt shaker: While Rework is best enjoyed as 279 pages of bite-size motivation smothered in special counterintuitive sauce, it’s also a thought-provoking collection of ways in which prevailing wisdom can be questioned.  Following all of their advice to the letter is probably disastrous, but by showing ways to think outside the box, Rework’s authors are enabling business thinkers to be less comfortable with the status quo.  Much of their suggestions (“Send people home at 5”, “Forget about formal education”) leads to a better, more respectful workplace that places more value on the individual strengths of each employee.  Rework is also a refreshing business application of the Unix philosophy of “Write programs that do one thing and do it well”, one that runs counter to the kind of corporatism fever that leads to conglomerates doing too many thing not very well.

It’s also very entertaining.  I started reading Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline at roughly the same moment as Rework, and finished Rework before I was done with Senge’s first chapter.  The tone of the book is conversational, compelling, and impossible to put down even though this is a book best read in small doses fit for contemplation.  It’s better not to adopt all of 37signals’ advice in all situations, but with Rework they make an interesting contribution to business culture, and their book will impress even those who can’t stomach most business books.

Iron Man 2 (2010)

(In theatres, May 2010) As one of, apparently, only half-a-dozen people who didn’t go completely crazy about the first Iron Man film, my expectations for the sequel were kept in check.  So I was pleasantly surprised to find myself nodding in agreement at this follow-up’s overlapping snarky dialogues, well-choreographed action sequences and pleasant character beats.  The force of the film remains the character of Tony Stark as played by Robert Downey Jr, one of the few superheroes around to actually enjoy the superpowers at his disposal.  Contrary to many of his brethren, this sequel tackles the responsibilities of power from another direction: while the parallels with alcoholism get heavy at times (in-keeping with the source material), it’s a neat bit of character affliction that keeps things interesting even when stuff is not exploding on-screen.  Add a little bit of honestly science-fictional content in how Stark manages to synthesize a solution to his problem (“That was easier than I thought”, the movie self-knowingly wisecracks) and there’s enough fun here to pave over the film’s less convincing moments.  Never mind how a single suit-equipped billionaire can apparently create world peace, or Sam Rockwell’s unconvincing grandstanding as another, dumber billionaire, or the shoe-horned intrusions by the rest of the Marvel universe, or the lengthier stretches in which Iron Man 2 occasionally bogs down.  At least the film has a good understanding of the character’s strengths, and works hard at maintaining them.  I can’t say enough nice things about the replacement of Terrence Howard by the ever-dependable Don Cheadle, nor of Gwyneth Paltrow’s adorable reddish bangs: director Jon Favreau is fine on-screen and even better directing the whole thing.  Iron Man 2 is, unlike other superhero movies often dominated by angst, about joy –and the feeling is infectious.  It may not be a classic, but it’s a decent follow-up.

Superman: Red Son, Mark Millar & Dave Johnson

DC Comics, 2009 re-edition of 2003 series, C$29.99 hc, ISBN 978-1-4012-2425-7

I don’t have much use for the standard superhero comic-book, which is too often an exercise in comfort reading, featuring melodrama that never amounts to much real growth and useless fight scenes thrown in to satisfy fan-boys.  Someone who stops reading a series and picks it up again years later misses out on little: The same archetype will continue to battle it out for as long as there is demand for it… and now that superheroes are big in Hollywood, you can bet that no one wants to upset the moneymaking genre, as narratively stale as it can be.

I’m not completely immune to the genre’s charm (I’ve got too many Batman trade paperbacks on my shelves to claim otherwise), but I won’t pick up superhero stories unless they’re sold at a bargain, they’re particularly striking examples of the form (Identity Crisis) and/or they’re different.  And Superman: Red Son is certainly different enough.  The premise is suggested early on: What if Superman, rather than landing in a Kansas cornfield, had landed on a Soviet farm?  Audaciously blending Cold War history with the DCverse, writer Mark Millar delivers an alternate history that ends up veering far from ours, and reflecting upon Superman’s innate potential for fascism.

It’s quite a change from the usual quasi-moronic goody-two-shoe persona that writers often impose on Superman.  This Man of Steel eventually takes up political power, shamelessly uses friends until their breaking point, has a few significant control issues and ends up remaking the planet to his liking.  Brainiac, Lex Luthor and Lois Lane plays important (and unusual) roles in the story, Batman goes against Superman, we get to feel sorry for Wonder Woman and even the Green Lantern corps makes an intriguing appearance.  On top of everything else, Red Son also ends up being an occasional critique of US imperialism and inner power struggles –Millar, of course, is not American.  Best of all, the ending actually wraps everything together, delivering a resolution, an utopian epilogue and a poignant coda.  For a three-book miniseries, it certainly contains a lot of material, even though some of the fights (most particularly the final one) seem a bit gratuitous.  The artwork is fair, although a bit more consistency would have been helpful –along with a better respect for Batman’s aesthetic preferences (you‘ll understand once you see the hat.)

This vision of Superman is intriguing in part because it plays upon the Superman archetype itself.  A symbol of American power becomes its opponent, and Lex Luthor becomes the noble (and arrogant) genius taking up the task to preserve American Hegemony even as the United States starts seceding.  Millar’s Sickle-and-Hammer Superman also gets free reign to indulge his gift for invention, the genius of which is an aspect of Superman that has often been forgotten in recent incarnations of the character.  After taking up the reins of the Soviet Empire, Superman is free to impose his own version of peace, order and good leadership –as long as it goes through him.

Red Son is also refreshingly told in shades of gray.  Free from years of accumulated history, Soviet Superman makes mistakes, over-coddles the planet and goes up against enemies that are led by pure and honourable motives.  Lex Luthor is a study in genius-level intelligence tainted by easy cruelty, but he ends up doing good despite his methods.  Wonder Woman is destroyed and discarded.  Batman, well, you’ll have to read it to see for yourself.  Despite the somewhat optimistic tone of the story, terrible things happen along the way.  Superman’s always been about power fantasies, but Red Son tackles the flip side of raw unchecked power.

The result is something I wasn’t expecting: A Superman story that manages to make a believer out of a confirmed superhero sceptic.  Superman: Red Son is about as good as superhero comics get, even acknowledging that it gets most of its power from upending what everyone knows about Superman.  The 2009 deluxe edition is serviceable enough and while the end sketches don’t add much, the entire package is a good showcase for a series that is actually worth reprinting in hardcover.  Don’t miss it, even if you think you don’t have any interest in Superman.

Gunless (2010)

(In theatres, May 2010) Canadians being politely nationalistic, we won’t help but feel a bit protective about this latest homage to the land of maple-flavoured beavers.  Gunless is, conceptually, an attempt to upend the traditional US-based western: A lone American (played by Paul Gross) comes to town and looks for a fight.  Unfortunately, he has wandered over the frontier in a quaintly Albertan village where everyone is polite, mild-mannered and unarmed.  Through thin plot mechanics, he gets to woo a local widow, defend the village against even worse Americans and learn a few lessons about the value of peace, order and good government.  It’s pure catnip for Telefilm Canada, but it’s not exactly the most satisfying film to ever earn government grants: The nationalistic winking gets old real quickly, and Gross seems to believe that enough square-jawed smiles will be enough to make us ignore that Canadian archetypes are often unstoryable.  The traditional American western is a show of dominance, of guns as equalizers –serving storytelling needs by making up a difference between numerous evildoers and lonesome do-gooders.  Making a movie that satirizes this plot structure is tricky, because it asks audiences to run against their best instincts.  There’s seldom a way to bring this off to a satisfying conclusion without being hypocritical and Gunless is certainly no exception: Despite the film’s celebration of Canadian gunlessness, we know that a gunfight is coming: after all, it’s a western!  When it comes, we also know that its consequences will be dramatically unsurprising: after all, it’s a comedy!  The result is more interesting in how it confirms Gross’ reputation as one of Canada’s fiercest cultural nationalist (also see: Men with Brooms, H20, Passchendaele) than for its limp take on American-style westerns.  In many ways, Gunless feels like a bit of cultural content made “because it’s good for you”: Expect to see it re-run often on Canadian TV stations as a cheap and unobjectionable bit of Canadian Content.  The problem is not that we’ve seen better; it’s that it’s really easy to see better movies.  Many of them were even made by Americans.

A Year in the Merde, Stephen Clarke

Bantam, 2004, 335 pages, UK#9.99 pb, ISBN 0-593-05453-9

As a French-Canadian, watching England argue with France is a bit like being caught between squabbling parents: No matter if most of my family tree left France back when it still had a king, I just wish both of them would get along.  Fortunately, we live at a blessed era in history –one where the enmity between France and England has been reduced to humorous books and snarky blog posts telling us that either Paris or London are overrated.

As it turns out, I spent a bit of spring 2010 comparing the merits of both capital cities, and it’s only after coming back to London from Paris that I found a copy of Stephen Clarke’s A Year in the Merde.  This not-entirely-fictional comic novel follows the always-hilarious story of a young Englishman (Paul West) who takes a job in Paris.  The narrative of the book follows Paul’s first year in France, as he gets to understand and be further mystified by the French.  Various hijinks ensue, always with madcap results and just-as-always caused by characters exemplifying some kind of French flaw.  Had I read this book a month earlier, I would have been offended on behalf of France at its stereotyping of the French national character.  After coming back from Paris, however, I just find the entire novel spot-on funny.

Surliness, strikes, cheese, corruption and near-constant eroticism are the only constants of Clarke’s novel, but you will find that they’re more than enough to fill three hundred pages.  Our plucky Brit hero comes to France to impart some of his Anglo-protestant work ethic, but quickly finds out that it’s no match for ever-striking workers, haughty French waiters, passive-aggressive colleagues and the smouldering sexiness of just about every woman he meets. Clichés?  Well, yes.  But it doesn’t mean they’re not based on reality.

What really counts is what Clarke chooses to do with them.  An idyll with the boss’ daughter leads him to a seemingly perfect country house purchase opportunity which eventually turns sour when it uncovers a complex mess of political influence, back-scratching and outright corruption.  A seemingly sweet deal for an apartment (much sex included) blows up spectacularly, leaving him in the street with only a foreign cleaning lady to help him out.  He falls sick at the moment there’s a pharmacist’s strike.  All of his girlfriends eventually reveal other boyfriends.  It just goes on like that.  Fortunately, the readers are the net beneficiaries of Paul’s misfortunes, smiling from beginning to end.

Like the best humour books, it zips by at a pace that will make readers wish it had gone on just a bit longer.  The prose is amusing, the many characters and bit-players are well-portrayed, and the asides about Paris have a well-worn quality that betrays Clarke’s long experience with the city.  How much of the book is true?  A bit more than half, says Clarke, although one notices that having spent twelve years in France, he was able to condense a lot of material in just twelve months of hell for his stand-in hero.

As a look at France and Parisians, it’s quite a bit insulting, but also affectionately tongue-in-cheek.  Originally written for British readers, A Year in the Merde has since found international success and even, yes, a French translation named God Save la France.  (A quick check of the amazon.fr’s user ratings for the book reveal that it’s been received quite a bit better than you’d expect: “sympa et très british” says a sample review.)  Call it a must-read for anyone coming back from Paris or on their way there.  At the very least, this is one book where it’s a relief if the reality fails to match the fiction.

[March 2011: Follow up Merde Actually is markedly less interesting, in part because it shits gears from one-shot hilarity to ongoing romantic comedy.  Romance is one of those genres where “happily ever after” is preferable to all other alternatives, and it’s not quite as amusing to see Paul go through another number of girlfriends in the sequel. The novel, inevitably, doesn’t feel as fresh or compelling as the first one, and it’s easy to feel as if the first book said everything that could be said about France as seen from an Englishman’s perspective.  Oh, the writing is accessible and the entire book is amusing… but at a basic and forgettable level.  There are now two further novels in the series, but I’m in no hurry to read them.  Used book sales will provide… eventually.]

Män som hatar kvinnor [The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo] (2009)

(In theatres, May 2010) Already a monster hit everywhere in the first world, Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy is slowly conquering the American market, the belated release of this first movie preparing the terrain for the release of the third volume in translation, and maybe even an Americanized version of the films.  It’s no fair betting that the eventual remake will be a lot less distinctive than the Swedish original, which does quite a few things differently from what we’d expect.  For one thing, it starts slowly.  Really, really slowly: While the mystery is suggested early on, there isn’t much of an investigation for the first hour of the film, and its main characters are kept apart for a long while.  The film later moves very leisurely, and takes forever to wrap up after the action climax of the story.  But those who have read the original novel know that it’s even worse at pacing than the film.  Fortunately, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo places so much emphasis on its characters that the plot doesn’t reign supreme: Instead, we can be fascinated by the odd pairing of a pudgy reporter (Mikael Blomkvist, appropriately underplayed by Michael Nyqvist) and a prickly hacker (Lisbeth Salander, incarnated definitively by Noomi Rapace) in unravelling a decades-old mystery by the slenderest of threads.  The thematic underpinning of the story is all about violence against women (the original title translates at “Millennium: Part 1 – Men Who Hate Women”), and the film finely upholds the original’s progressive political outlook.  The Swedish setting only adds to the interest of the picture, as we get to see the character dig through decades of local history and travel throughout Sweden.  It all adds up to a crime thriller that works in unusual ways, taking advantage of strong characters to paper over a weak structure and inconsistent pacing.  It all adds up to a fascinating thriller, and one that flows quite a bit better than its 158-minutes running time and slow pacing would suggest.  Bring on the sequels!

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson

Viking Canada, 2008 translation of 2005 original, 465 pages, C$32.00, ISBN 978-0-670-06901-9

As an avid six-books-a-week reader, I’m finding increasingly difficult to resist the allure of the It Book.  You know the one: The book at the top of the best-seller lists.  The book that everyone else, casual five-books-a-year readers that they are, can’t stop talking about.  That’s how my bookshelves have somehow acquired copies of The Da Vinci Code, The Celestine Prophecy and even The Secret, along with a number of otherwise respectable books in movie tie-in editions.

So when I realised that nearly everyone around me was reading Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy, I started thinking that I was missing out on something.  The series certainly has a fascinating background: The work of a left-leaning Swedish journalist who died in 2005, the Millennium trilogy was published posthumously to near-instant international acclaim.  A trilogy of movies speedily made their way around the world, first landing in Canada in French translation about two years before the English editions.  By the time the first movie hit theatres in English and the third novel was published to good sale numbers, I decided to catch up on what had everyone raving.

It turns out that contrary to elitist belief, quality and sales sometimes have something to do with each other.  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, first volume in Larsson’s trilogy, is a pretty good mystery set in modern-day Sweden.  It presents an effective enigma, two fantastic lead characters and is written with the kind of attention to procedural detail that only mystery readers can fully appreciate.

It starts unusually enough, as its hero-journalist Mikael Blomvkist is convicted of libel against a rich industrialist.  Disgraced, he quits his position at the Millenium magazine he co-founded and plans on idling away the days until his prison sentence.  But things take another turn when he is hired by another rich businessman to investigate on a decades-old disappearance.  Working from the slenderest of threads with an unlikely ally, he manages to not only gain clues about the mystery he’s been asked to resolve, but uncover a far more terrifying one as well.

Never mind the story, though: The real heart of the novel is the unlikely team between our journalist and a prickly hacker named Lisbeth Salander.  He is kind, honest, smart, a bit passive, a hit with the ladies and working from the privileged position of a well-off white male.  She, on the other hand, is moody, asocial, brilliant, considered a ward of the state and unable to form attachments with anyone.  They’re mismatched, but they develop an understanding.  Still, their partnership isn’t without its issues, and it’s that dynamic that ends up carrying the novel as much as the development of the plot.

It also helps that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has quite a bit of thematic depth.  The original title of the book (and indeed the subtitle of the French edition) is Men Who Hate Women, and that theme does end up having an impact on the entire story on more than one level.  It’s no accident, for instance, if Salander is the one character of the pair who is both most victimized and most capable of violence.

What does end up lessening the novel, though, is its relatively slow pacing.  It seemingly takes forever for the mystery to be revealed to the character, and even longer for any criminal activity to become apparent.  The investigation itself is fine, but the action climax of the novel happens far too early: The rest of the novel reads like an extended epilogue as all the remaining threads are slowly tied together.  If I was feeling generous, I would call this a delightful change of pace stemming from the different cultural milieu in which the novel was written (ie; the Swedes take their time).  For more impatient readers, however, this may end up being a sticking point.

(Nitpick: The translation of the Canadian Viking edition also has the annoying tendency to translate measures in American-style imperial, rather than the metric system common to both Canada and Sweden.)

But this aside, The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo is not just an enjoyable mystery/thriller, but also a promising first volume in an ongoing series cut short to a trilogy by the author’s death.  Blomvkist and Salander are a fascinating team, and there are at least two more books to spend with them.

Labyrinth (1986)

(On DVD, May 2010) Watching this film today is, in many ways, an exercise in nostalgia: As big-budget pre-CGI fantasy filmmaking, it visibly shows its age and the presence of puppets as creatures is a conceit that probably wouldn’t be allowed to go forward given today’s special effects technology.  So watching Labyrinth is, apart from seeing a young Jennifer Connelly in a first starring role, also a game of effect-spotting.  Fortunately, the story is strong enough to sustain scrutiny on its creakiest effects: As a fairy tale, it’s still strong and interesting after nearly a quarter-century.  What doesn’t work as well is the unwieldy mixture of scares and thrills in a film aimed to the younger set, as well as a few musical numbers and comic set-pieces that drag down the story for a while.  Still, Labyrinth’s not such a bad viewing experience, and seeing David Bowie in full goblin-prince attire is enough to compensate for a whole lot of other issues.