Month: May 1997

SSN, Tom Clancy

Berkley, 1996, 336 pages, C$21.00 tpb, ISBN 0-425-15911-6

Tom Clancy wants your money. It’s as simple as that.

The sad thing is, he used to be my favourite author. But that was in the good old days where the only Tom Clancy books were his novels, not tons of derivative franchise items.

The problem started when Clancy became a publishing category. Now, we’re getting companions, nonfiction books, “Op-Center” franchise novels not written by Clancy and this, surely the lowest of the low, a companion to a video game.

SSN (The game) is a simulation of submarine warfare currently available in stores for PC compatibles (CD-ROM) I have not played it. Clancy was allegedly heavily involved in this game, (There’s a logo for “Clancy Interactive Entertainment” on the game box) so it was more or less predictable that anytime soon, something written “by Clancy” would appear in stores. This is it.

SSN wants to be the exciting description of a submarine’s actions in (says the jacket copy) World War III. Instead, it ends up being a shoot’em up.

This reviewer will freely admit at having somewhat of a fondness for highly-detailed military fiction. Even if the most elementary literary characteristics are sadly deficient, one can get some enjoyment out of even the most inept shoot’em up. But there are limits, and those have been breached with SSN.

Almost everyone who has played a few RPGs has said, at one moment or another, “Wow, this game would make a good story!” Most of the time, they’re wrong. Personal involvement in a story makes it appear much better that it actually is. (Witness movies versus books, for one thing)

Folks, SSN is worse than the Doom books, and that’s no mean feat. Almost everything stinks, from the top to the bottom. At the top, there’s an implausible war between the US and China (why China? Because no one else has a decent navy to fight against!). It tries to be sophisticated, but ends up being myopic: Seems to the reader that only the USS Cheyenne fights the war. (Another weakness of gaming novelizations: “The world’s last, best hope!”)

Then, while the book is filled with potentially exciting situations, the reader’s pulse never goes up. It’s succession after succession of boring one-sided fights (the Cheyenne being no match for inferior Chinese technology) and briefings. (There are occasional POV switches in the middle of a chapter, but always to show a hapless Chinese commander about to commit a fatal mistake.

The prose is dull, dull, dull… There is absolutely no character development. In fact, there might be no characters at all! Great literature bores me, but I was nearly grinding my teeth at some of the horrendous passages in there. (Don’t tell anyone, but this review is almost better written that the book, and that’s saying something!)

SSN, in my judgment, is a manuscript that would belong on the slush pile. It’s not even worth your time, so it far from being worth any of your money. Clancy, come back when you’ve go something better to offer.

And please stop the merchandising. You’re just embarrassing yourself.

The Walls of the Sky the Walls of the Eye, Jonathan Lethem

Harcourt Brace, 1996, 293 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 0-15-100180-4

On the values of single-author collections: One could do worse to discover a new author that to peer into an anthology of his works. Not only are the stories shorter, but they also represent a good cross-selection of the author’s interests, strengths and weaknesses.

Jonathan Lethem is a relatively new author in the SF&F business. His first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music received good reviews, and winning at least two prizes (Locus, best first novel and Crawford, best fantasy novel). Furthermore, Lethem is now in nomination for a Hugo (best short story).

Having not read any of Lethem’s work before, I was intrigued. When I had the opportunity to pick up Walls…, I seized it. (Actually: Winning the book at a local science-fiction convention.)

The physical appearance of the book is horrible: Ugly cover art, carefully studied “wacky” fonts on the dust jacket, and “[These] pages are not acid-free” as jacket copy. No plot summaries anywhere. A creepy photo of the author. Weird stuff.

But truthful. What’s inside the book is even weirder. Consider:

  • A prison built, literally, of “hardened criminals”
  • A man alternating between his life… and his hell.
  • Basketball teams made of players playing other player’s talents.
  • An alien who follows you around… forever.

…and three other stories, one of them (Hugo-nominated) with a title that I’ll reproduce here, chastely, as “Five F*cks”. (The story itself is much more conventional, if barely coherent.)

Lethem loves the low life. Young criminals, pathetic losers, people stuck in aimless directions are the majority in these seven stories. No shining cyber-knights or larger-than-life superheroes populate this author’s realms. Gratuitous, unromantisized violence also finds its way into many tales, in sync with the uncompromising tone of the prose.

Lethem’s science might not exactly be wrong, but hard-SF it ain’t. We’re closer to Harlan Ellison than to Larry Niven. The book works better as urban fantasy than anything else. Lethem dreams up fascinating situations, but seldom explain them.

This intentional failure to explain also ties into a failure to resolve: Many stories are vignettes, without conflict or clear resolution. We often leave the protagonists in a situation as bad (or worse) than at the beginning of the narration.

(It should also be noted that the first-person narrator is a favourite of Lethem, counting for four of the seven stories.)

Nevertheless, it’s an entertaining collection. Some stories are average, but beg to be read again in a little while.

It’s not worth the hardcover price. It might not be worth the paperback price. But it’s probably worth the time to be read: Grab it from the local library, borrow it from a friend, but do cuddle up with Lethem’s words.

(If you only have time for one story, choose “Vanilla Dunk.”)

And keep reading single-author collections.

[January 1998: The Walls of the Sky, the Walls of the Eye won the 1996 World Fantasy Award for Best Story Collection.]

The Lost World, Michael Crichton

Knopf, 1995, 393 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-679-41946-2

As I write this, mud is everywhere around the house. The sun is shining, but that’s an unusual occurrence: It’s been raining intermittently for the last two weeks, and more rain is predicted for the next few days.

Nevertheless, summer is coming, or so they say.

And one of the greatest things about summer is… no, not girls in miniskirts… although that’s no trifle either… summer movies! Where we unplug our brains and open our eyes and ears wide. I don’t go to movies for plot any more: The name of the fun is Special Effects.

Discounting 1992’s TERMINATOR II: JUDGEMENT DAY, the first big-budget plot-less summer SFX extravaganza probably was 1993’s JURASSIC PARK. Adapted by Steven Spielberg from a popular novel by Michael Crichton, it was a smash hit. Even before the summer was over, there were talks about a sequel.

Here it is: The Lost World. Not content with recycling the title of Arthur Conan Doyle’s superior dino-novel, Crichton also recycles most of Jurassic Park.

Scientists-as-heroes? Check. Two smart kids in peril? Check. Ian Malcom attacked by dinoes? Check. Finale with computer systems? Check. Evil corporations? Check. Bad guys eaten by dinoes? Check. Paleontologist explaining every detail of dino behaviour? Check.

The plot? A few years after the events in Jurassic Park, there are rumours that new animal species are appearing in Costa Rica. Reckless paleontologist Richard Levine mounts an expedition, reluctantly backed by Ian Malcom. Eventually, everyone’s running around on InGen’s other island.

It’s astonishing how Crichton manages to produces most of the same novel than Jurassic Park. Even if sequels are more or less expected to trod the same grounds as the first volume, The Lost World takes this to an astonishing degree.

But it’s an imperfect copy. Reading The Lost World is sometimes a frustrating experience, perhaps because of JURASSIC PARK. The movie showed us dinosaurs, oohing and aahing us instead of telling us a complex story. Here, it’s just dull. Many pages pass before anything happen, and when it does, it’s déjà-vu.

It’s one of the worst Crichton novels. But still, it’s good stuff for fans: The style is typically featureless, direct and descriptive. Crichton also puts in the narrative all sorts of more-or-less popular scientific theories. (The delivery is sometimes ridiculous, as when a character babbles on while boosted on morphine) The technology used is mouth-watering and the action (when it finally starts) is fast-paced.

This novel is for fans of the first volume only. It’s neither exceptional or especially interesting but should satisfy a casual interest.

I just hope the movie (out in a few days) differs sensibly from the novel, much as the original movie was a leaner, faster version of the written work. From what I’ve heard (T-Rex stomping on a bus, etc…), I have hopes. It might even be better than the novel…

[January 1998: THE LOST WORLD was indeed “better” than the novel -thanks to the inclusion of an exciting third act- but was still a rotten movie with plenty of supposedly smart characters doing incredibly stupid things. My feelings about the movie are best described elsewhere, see my Movie Reviews]

Beowulf’s Children, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Steven Barnes

Tor, 1995, 382 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 0-312-85522-2

Sequels. Everyone think they suck, yet people are still buying (and writing) them in quantities. The Legacy of Heorot was a great stand-alone book that didn’t really need a follow-up. But we got one anyway, thanks to the tryptatic trio of Niven, Pournelle and Barnes. (What’s tryptatic? Don’t ask me.)

In TLoH, a bunch of colonists had to unite to defend themselves against a mean bunch of alien critters. It was a novel of ecological balance, of fast-paced action and of clear prose.

But story-wise, it’s now twenty years later. The colonists have given birth to many children, and the first serious troubles are beginning to brew between the two generations. Most of the Seconds want to establish a permanent colony on the mainland, and deride the cautious aspect of the Firsts. After all, it’s well known that most of them were brain-damaged to an extent or another by the hibernation process necessary to cross the ten light-years to Tau Ceti…

And so it goes. The Grendel menace is there, but kept under control. We get to discover new deadly aspects of Avalon’s ecology. Strife between the two generations; new characters, and the death of some old friends…

There could have been powerful stuff here, and the novel does succeed more than it fails. But it’s still a disappointment. On several level.

At the technical level, I had the impression that the style could have used at least another revision. It’s not anything precise (although there are a fair amount of typos), but some dialogue was barely coherent, and a few parts are too quickly glossed over.

It’s also a book that’s too long for the action it contains. It’s a good hundred pages bigger than the first tome, yet less happens. There could have been a good tightening of the action.

Then there are plot threads that are ominously raised, yet abandoned in thin air. Whether this sets up later sequels, or is just lack of attention from the author’s part remains to be seen.

Finally, we run into the “commonly known alien” problem: The Grendels in TLoH were formidable, and ruthless. Those in Beowulf’s Children are more complex, but arguable more boring, because less ferocious. And the ending… well, I found it goofy.

Overall, this is a less focused work that its predecessor. We get a fascinating tour of a brand-new ecology, an easily-guessable murder mystery, and some conflict that goes nowhere. But not a mean, lean narrative like the first volume. There’s also quite a lot of sex, (not all of it meaningful) but that has become somewhat of a staple in the works of those authors.

This being said, Beowulf’s Children is a good sequel. Not in the same vein, but I could buy that the first book’s finale could give rise to the situation described in this novel.

Fans of the first one should at least borrow this from the library. Others… definitely should read the first one beforehand.

Anyone wants to bet that the third book involves more colonist from Earth?

Idoru, William Gibson

Putnam, 1996, 292 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 0-399-14130-8

TONIGHT, on “Litterarly Incompetent!”:

Is William Gibson still living off Neuromancer‘s Reputation?

Ever since the release of his latest novel Idoru, fans are asking the same question: Is this good stuff for you, or good stove fuel? Is Gibson back, or still living in Wired magazine? Is there life after Neuromancer?

Tonight, we will attempt to answer these questions. And the answers may not please you. Please welcome the Literary Incompetent himself, Christian S.!

Fancy introduction, but does the job.

For various reasons, I’ve been less than enthusiastic about William Gibson in recent times. Neuromancer was a classic, but far less can be said about Gibson’s later works. I’ve been variously bored and confused by everything else. Cyberpunk’s nice, but it’s also mostly irrelevant: Low-life people living in dirty cities doing insignificant things. Is this what I want in my SF?

And I’d rather not talk about The Difference Engine.

In Idoru, we meet two very different persons: A man named Laney, whose particular talent is an uncanny ability to spot relevant information in a sea of virtual data. Then, a fourteen-year-old girl named Chia, member of Seattle’s Lo/Rez Fan Club. Both are going to Japan, to search for the same thing.

You see, Rez (one “half” of the band Lo/Rez) has declared that he will soon marry. Except that his bride-to-be is an Idoru, a virtual person with a programmed personality and no corporeal existence. Both Laney and Chia, from their own perspectives, are investigating why Rez would do such an idiotic thing.

Idoru is in many ways a step up from Gibson’s previous work. It seemed shorter, read faster and felt better than Virtual Light, (less filling, too) although Virtual Light wasn’t such a bad novel.

But Idoru is far from being a great work. It’s a good story, well-written, with sometimes confusing action. As a first novel, it would be fine, even promising. But as a sixth novel by a “master of the genre”…

Fortunately, it’s written with the same hip style than the previous novels: Not always clear, but usually with a certain potency. Gibson has an eye for details and unusual gadgets are strewn around the story.

The problem with Idoru is that I’m running out of things to say. Much like the novel itself, I’m trying to cover that up by fancy style and rhetoric. And failing miserably.

So yeah, basically, it’s decent and well-written, but that’s about it. There are no sparks, no flashes, no fireworks from this. It’s the kind of novel that gets two stars out of four: Not really bad, but nothing exceptional either.

Definitely wait for the paperback, borrow it from the library but don’t use the waiting list, etc…

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

(In theaters, May 1997) The good news are; it’s only vaguely based on the book, it’s somewhat better than the written work and it’s got some terrific sequences in it. The bad news was expected by every single moviegoer in North America: It’s not nearly as good as the original. Some stupendous special effects (notice the “shaking camera” shots: Flawless composting!), a few exceptional action/suspense sequences (the cracking glass sequence will remain in most viewers’ memory for a long time) and a likable hero are highlights. In director Steven Spielberg’s capable hands, everyone can expect to be entertained. Unfortunately, The Lost World suffers from the same disease that will (should) make the “thrill ride”-type of movie extinct: The story thread binding the great sequences is frayed, sometimes hastily knotted together. Characters act like (literally!) idiot savant; making the same stupid mistakes, going against ten+ years of their own experience, not reacting like normal human beings would, etc… The mind wobbles at the number of incredibly easily-fixed errors in the script. (and in the direction too: Don’t gag at the brain-damaged gymnastic sequence and don’t yawn at the fifth consecutive “Dah, amazing!” close-up.) Don’t count the incoherencies; they come with such a boring regularity that you’ll soon fall asleep. Still, it’s moderately fun. The story is (in broad strokes, if not in the details) better than the original. The last act is a blast, and the preachy anti-science tone of the original is mostly gone. Not a great movie by any means, but a moderately satisfying matinee.

Le Cinquième élément [The Fifth Element] (1997)

Le Cinquième élément [The Fifth Element] (1997)

(In theaters, May 1997) Big, colourful, loud European science-fantasy comic book brought to live-action. It’s probably the best movie ever in its particular sub-genre. Whether you’ll like it or not is an entirely different matter. It’s not good, it’s only occasionally smart, it’s even insulting given the amount of highly-talented artists assembled by this movie. But it’s a blast. A wacky sense of humour helps, as well as a fondness for unsubtle not-quite-mature shtick. Tremendous debate has occurred on the newsgroups and elsewhere concerning T5E, but this reviewer had more fun there than at his last previous movies. The polarization of opinion over the DJ Ruby Rhod character is especially intriguing. There are a lot of things going on screen, so don’t doze. (As if you could!) Great music, good performances by Willis and Jovonovitch (the last being too thin to be “perfect”, though), some stupendous editing and a definitely French attitude. Just don’t gag over the plot, costumes and finale. It’s worth seeing on the big screen.

(Second viewing, On TV, January 2000) While watching this film again doesn’t pack the same wild rush of first approach, it still highlights the good editing, nice direction and wacky humor that are the strengths of this French SF comic book made live-action. Sure, the humor is a bit juvenile, and the imagined future too weird to fully believe. But who cares? Fast pacing, unique gadgets and an overall sense of fun missing from most current SF films make this one a treat.

Slow River, Nicola Griffith

Del Rey, 1995, 343 pages, C$25.00 hc, ISBN 0-345-39165-9

I approached this book with the worst intentions. Faithful readers of these reviews may remember that a while ago, I panned Nicola Griffith first novel, Ammonite: Story was linear, science was goofy, agenda was anti-tech lesbian and everything worked better as a soporific than a SF novel. I had made a resolution not to touch Ms. Griffith’s work if that was possible.

Sadly, the 1996 Nebula Award results came in, and Slow River won the Best Novel category, beating out The Diamond Age and Starplex. Since I’m a Nebula completist, there was no choice but to read the g’dang thing. With stupefaction, I now have to admit that Slow River is a good book.

Story-wise, we’re miles beyond the ultrapredictible linear lesbian fairy tale that was Ammonite. As Slow River begins, a young girl finds herself wounded, moneyless, without ID in an unknown city. The girl is Lore Van de Oest, the youngest daughter of one of the world’s richest family. She just escaped from her kidnappers and she can’t return to her family for complex reasons. She is quickly taken under the protective embrace of Spanner.

Actually, Slow River begins a few years later, as Lore tries to build an identity separate from the domineering influence of Spanner… No, Slow River begins when Lore is five, and… Confused? Don’t be. The book is made up of three threads: Lore-Present (1st person POV), Lore-Near-Past (3rd person; her time with Spanner) and Lore-Past (3rd person, separate chapters; her life before/during the kidnapping) All three threads intersect nicely, even though sometime, I couldn’t wait to go back to the Lore-Present story. The plot is decent. Even though Lore isn’t (to me) a particularly engaging heroine, her struggles for love, identity and independence are gripping.

Surprisingly, this is a novel with a lot of science in it: since most of the story revolves around water purification, it’s no surprise that we get a lot of tech-talk about “bioengineered bacteria” and the like. I can’t vouch to the accuracy of everything, but at least it sounds right.

There should be a word or two here about the explicitly lesbian content of the novel: Lore is gay, and her behaviour (ie: falling for the most available girl(s) ) is about the same as we would expect from an active heterosexual young male. Whether this is ridiculous, or just indicative of the different society Lore lives in, is left to the reader’s prejudices.

Notice, however, the careful wording of the jacket copy, which uses no gender terms relating to Spanner. (Who is, naturally, female) Even though a quick search/replace job could be done to replace Lore by John with scant impact on the novel, I’ll argue that Slow River would be a weaker novel without a lesbian protagonist. (And certainly wouldn’t have won the Nebula novel) Those who think that Slow River is a militant gay novel are… wrong. Despite the fact that the only hetero couple is presented as dysfunctional, that most males are evil or weak… The fact that [Spoiler] is [Spoiler] should convince even the most paranoiac bible-thumper that this isn’t a Pink Lambda recruitment pamphlet.

Well, that’s a lot of wordage to say that despite my worst intentions, I can’t help but recognize this a decent novel. There are still a few problems here and there (The motivation and identity of the kidnappers is a bit far-out, but fits in the twisted logic of the book.) but nothing as blatant as her previous novel. The emphasis on another theme (water) makes the feminist/lesbian subtext much more tolerable.

I kinda liked it, and most readers with a sufficiently open mind should, too. While not being superior to Starplex, it’s better than Ammonite, and redeems the author to my eyes.