Unfriendly Skies, Captain "X" and Reynolds Dodson

Doubleday, 1989, 236 pages, C$24.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-24824-5

There are some books adequate to read on a long airplane flight, and then there’s Unfriendly Skies.

This book is an informal exposé of the then-current (1989) state of the civil aviation industry in North America. Written by an anonymous airplane captain with journalist Reynolds Dodson, it is at times frightening, hilarious, hair-raising and fascinating.

Captain “X” began his flying career in the military, and then came aboard “a major airline”, where he climbed the steps toward full captainship of an airliner. His experiences span more than twenty years, and he’s got a lot of stories to tell. Somewhere between anecdotal autobiography and diatribe against deregulation, Unfriendly Skies is an immensely readable, thoughtful, witty work.

Captain “X” -through the services of Dodson- tells his stories with a tough, no-nonsense voice. The style is often gripping, and switches with ease between horror and humor. While the aim of the book is to expose the dangers of deregulation, Unfriendly Skies goes beyond that to become the memoirs of a pilot: Readers of Airport will like this one.

This isn’t the shocking “revelations of a deregulated airline pilot” we’re promised on the cover. While the inside jacket copy will try to sell this book as a denunciation of current policies, you will most probably come away from this book as more appreciative of airline pilots than anything else. The fault, Captain “X” says, resides more with the politicians who passed the deregulation legislations than with anyone else.

The material covered by Unfriendly Skies is diverse: Training, Death, Passenger oddities, Hijackers, Airports, Microbursts… Truly a round-up of the pilot’s experiences, this is one of the best books on the subject.

And it is brutally honest. Several airplane accidents are discussed and dissected. Perhaps the most frightening revelation of all are the microbursts, atmospheric phenomenons that can make an airplane fall several hundred meters without warning. What can be done about it? Nothing.

Similarly, Captain “X” tells about the life of the average pilot. How divorces are common, how they always catch colds from the incessant traveling, how their family life is a mixture of absence and presence. It’s not an easy job, and this book shows why.

To take only one chapter as an example:

For a French Canadian, it’s a shock to learn that Montreal is one of the worst city in North America (“Excedrin Capitals”) when it comes to passengers: Captain “X” tells of an instance where a drunk French Canadian woman punched a captain who was trying to tell her not to smoke in the non-smoker section. (And they say that cigarettes don’t make you more aggressive…) Believe it or not, that’s one of the more pleasant stories. From the TV star which poured a cup of coffee on a stewardess to the drugged New Yorker who fondled a sixteen year old and bit another passenger’s nose, we’re quick to realize that the most dangerous components in an airplane might not be in the cockpit…

Unfriendly Skies fulfils most of the qualities of a good general nonfiction book: It’s got style, readability, content and facts. Unfortunately, the book lacks an index and falters when it tries to preach, but redeems itself by an optimistic view of future commercial air travel and a good organization of the material. Recommended… but not as airplane reading.

The Stars are Also Fire, Poul Anderson

Tor, 1994, 412 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-85534-6

I really don’t know why I bought this book.

Granted, I was celebrating my last day on the job, and okay, so it was a Fat First Edition Tor Hardcover at 3.99$(Can.) but still… The Stars are Also Fire is the sequel to Harvest of Stars, another Fat Tor Hardcover bought for 3.99$(Can.) in the throes of a spending delirium. Harvest of Star ended up long and boring. The Star are also Fire is even worse.

The problem, I think, is all in the writing. Even if I gathered that the book was about evolution, AIs, independence and complex family matters (not to mention colonizable planetoids) the writing is so stupefyingly dull that all the excitement of the plot is smothered. Beautiful prose, but complete lack of action. To make matter worse, the book is looooooooong. Even simple actions take three, four pages.

So, no stars for The Stars are also Fire In fact, the remainder of this review would be my appreciation of the book if I had to say it stand-up comedian style. (Sorry, Mr. Anderson.)

So I bought this book last week. [Applause] Yeah, I know. Anyway, it’s from Poul Anderson and the cover’s pretty spiffy. [Shows book to audience] Yeah, the Vincent DiFate picture has absolutely no relation to what’s inside the book, but hey: We’re used to that from DiFate. In fact, if I ever see a DiFate cover faithfully representing what’s in the book; watch out, ’cause I’m gonna sue!

So I begin to read the book and fall asleep. I wake up, start to read again, fall asleep again! What’s the matter here? This some kind of US Army experiment? Or maybe they’re gearing up so if the FDA bans sleeping pills, they’re gonna get out literary substitutes?

I tell you, it’s been a slice since I’ve read a something that boring. I fact, I think it was last year’s tax papers. And those were only a few pages while this sucker’s more than 400 pages long! At least with this book, you get your money’s worth of sedatives. And some still say that length doesn’t matter!

Speaking of which, I’m pretty sure your sex life will improve with this book. Soon, you’ll be thinking: Oh, sex with the wife, or a few more pages of this? “Hmm… Oh, Honey?” Afterward, just make sure to make conversation before attempting a chapter or two.

Still, the book has its uses around the house: I was hanging a few paintings lately, and this book helped enormously: It’s so boring, I could use it to drill holes through the walls! Brother-in-law dropping by when you’ve got other plan? No Problem! “Come here, bro: Let me read you a few pages of this. What? Leaving already?”

I should feel lucky, I guess. At least, this isn’t as bad as Michael Crichton’s Sphere. Read that book? Yeah, nay? Well, that Crichton thing ends up by, I’m not making this up, “and it was all a dream.” Yeah, and you’re dreaming if you think I’m going to buy another one of your books, Mickey! That was so bad that I throw my copy on the wall every month. Both covers are now gone, as are a few pages. Once, I was with a friend, threw the book on the wall, at there’s a page that flies away from everything else, okay? So I take the page, rip it up, and eat the darn pieces! Dung it was, and dung it will become again!!

Thank you, thank you, see you next time! [Applause]

(All events are fictional, except for everything in the Sphere paragraph, which is all scrupulously true, including the dung line.)

Rogue Warrior, Richard Marcinko & John Wiseman

Pocket, 1992, 397 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-79593-7

On the surface, Richard Marcinko’s Rogue Warrior appears to be one of the most entertaining autobiographies you’re ever likely to read. Told in the language of warriors, with the tough-guy style and the mucho-macho attitude, it’s the life of Richard Marcinko, SEAL. Marcinko, among other things, fought in Vietnam and Cambodia, founded SEAL Team Six (the Navy’s counter-terrorist unit), founded Red Cell (the Navy’s simuli-terrorist unit) and then was kicked out of the Navy.

Marcinko is a real-life action hero. His training exercises had more bite that the average Stallone movie. Some of his actual operations are sometimes too good to be easily believed. His rise through the rank, even despite his gung-ho attitude, is impressive.

As it’s an assisted autobiography, you can bet that Marcinko plays his tough-guy role to the hilt. He swears, he talks back to superiors, he sleeps around with every female not seriously overweight, he kills enemies, he hates wimpy paper-pushers, he always have impeccable justifications -moral, if not legal- for what he does.

For Marcinko, the ends justifies the means. If he has to disobey orders; fine. Overrule the chain of command; sure. Disregard protocol; no problem. Use excessive force; we’re in a war, man!

And this is where Rogue Warrior becomes fascinating. While such blatant disregard for authority might be excellent fodder for action movies and military thrillers, Richard Marcinko is a real-life figure. He fits the profile of an out-of-control operative perfectly, in acts if not in spirit. He might have been too successful; we (helpless, wimpy, naive civilians) can’t help but being uneasy at the casualness of the swearing, the macho ideal of sleeping with as many women as possible, the quasi-“boys-with-toys” attitude.

Rogue Warrior is likely to be one of the best military-related book you’ll read this year, or any year if you’re a fan of the genre. (Having a predilection for action movies and right-wings political tendencies certainly helps, by the way.) More sophisticated readers will find here a provocative testimony to the difference between fact and fiction.

It seems that even Marcinko realizes this; four novels by the co-authors of Rogue Warrior have appeared since 1993 (Red Cell, Green Team, Task Force Blue, Designation Gold) each with the distinctive tough-guy approach that made this autobiography so readable, but without the “Hey! This happened!” feeling. (Amusingly (?), at least one page on the Internet mixes up the novels with the “real-life adventures” of Richard Marcinko. Doom on us.) I’ve been told the guy’s a regular hero in some of the most extremist right-wing groups. Strangely, I can see why…

February 1998: Marcinko’s forays in fiction aren’t particularly worth remembering, but if you want something really off-the-wall, grab a copy of the non-fiction Leadership Secrets of the Rogue Warrior. It’s worth the quick read. In Leadership Secrets, Marcinko applies his style, vocabulary, anecdotes and attitude to the fine art of… management. No kidding. Corporate America better start shaking in their boots. For the most part, his advice makes sense. (“Lead from the front, keep asking subordinate to prove themselves, do the unexpected, etc…”) But the style is just light-years away from any management book you’re ever likely to read. And the swearwords are the least of it. It’s hilarious and ten times more fun than Lee Iacocca’s biography, it’s the kind of book you keep just to show to friends. A real curio. Just don’t start shooting business rivals, okay?

Ancient Shores, Jack McDevitt

Harper Prism, 1996, 372 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-105426-7

In High School, we once had a question on a geography exam which went a bit like this: “Why are we sure that there weren’t any other advanced civilizations on Earth centuries ago?” The correct answer being, of course, that we would have found artifacts and other signs of their presences. Given modern scientific methods, it’s a fair bet to say that—despite more than a few new-age fantasies—no other civilizations roamed the earth before ours.

I often thought back to that exam question when reading Jack McDevitt’s Ancient Shores. The novel begin when one farmer hits a “rock” in a field in North Dakota. As any good farmer knows, rocks must be taken out of fields before they can break machinery (I’m speaking from personal experience, here) So they dig, dig, dig… and find a full-sized yacht. A few pages later, we discover that the boat is made of “impossible” element 161…

Ever since seeing that gorgeous Bob Eggleton illustration on the cover of The Engines of God, I’ve been having these weird urges to try some McDevitt. I finally broke down in the Ottawa Public Library “New Arrivals” section, borrowing McDevitt’s latest paperback release, Ancient Shores.

For the most part, it’s an acceptable book. The existence of alien artifacts on Earth produces some very believable reactions, but also more than a few doubtful thought processes. Most of the news snippets about economic collapse due to indestructible materials are, to me, unlikely. Business has too much inertia to experience the rapid downturn exhibited in the novel.

This quibble aside, the book moves quickly enough to satisfy anyone. Only the last part drags, mostly because we know where the novel is going. The ultimate conclusion hovers between the over-dramatic and the just right.

Characters are handled the right way, but there are far too many secondary characters introduced once in great detail, and then never to be seen again. There are times where I miss Brunner’s approach in Stand On Zanzibar, with chapters being explicitly designated as being background material, subplots or integral to the main story.

But by far the biggest problem with Ancient Shores is the impression that we’ve only read the first novel in a series. By the end of the book, many possibilities have been opened, and the effect is more one of dissatisfaction than of mind-expansion. Have I mentioned the possible presence of an alien life-form that’s not even solved by the end of the story?

It occurred to me that Ancient Shores shares interesting similarities with Stephen Gould’s Wildside: A doorway to other worlds, the combat of a smallish band of explorers against government orders to take over the artifact, etc… Unfortunately, Wildside is a better book: In the end, reader reaction to Ancient Shores is likely to be one of vague satisfaction rather than definite liking. Too many loose ends (and possibly too many knots) are left to give a sentiment of satisfaction. Too bad, because McDevitt sure knows how to write in a way to hook the reader.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll go take some rocks out of nearby fields…

[September 1998A Talent For War (Jack McDevitt), despite its name, is not a military SF novel. Instead, expect -if possible- a far-future story where an initially shallow pseudo-historian tries to uncover a historical enigma more than two centuries old. Of course, there are various action sequences sprinkled here and there. Pretty good stuff, but just don’t make the mistake of reading the first hundred pages, letting it lie for a few days and then go back to it; you’ll be hopelessly confused with the dozen of important character names. As ever, McDevitt writes clearly and the result is an unusual novel that can be read easily. Not as good as it could have been (tightening up the action could have been useful) but a good choice.]

[October 1998Eternity Road, by Jack McDevitt, is a disappointment. Despite his knack fro creating engaging plots around far-future archaeological/historical investigations (no less than four of his novels have this motif), here he fumbles and the result is overlong and short on satisfaction. Eternity Road takes place roughly a thousand years in the future, most of these years after the catastrophic fall of our civilization. The plot, roughly, is a quest toward a legendary place through post-apocalyptic countryland. Yes, we’ve seen this elsewhere. Though there are several odd quirky details to keep up our interest (the bank and the A.I. scenes are fun), the novel feels too episodic, to quickly wrapped up, too ordinary to be remembered fondly. It takes almost forever to start, and then cuts off almost in mid-story. Not up to McDevitt’s usual standards, and not really worth your time unless you’re a post-apocalyptic buff or a McDevitt completist.]

Hyperspace, Michio Kaku

Oxford, 1994, 359 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 0-19-508514-0

Long-time readers of these reviews have undoubtedly noticed that I don’t give formal ratings to books. No stars, no percentiles, no “X out of Y”, nothing. The reason is simple; in my mind, formal ratings are a shortcut, and shortcuts are damnably simple. Sure, so you can glance at the rating a decide in half a second if I liked the book or not. On the other hand, you can glance at the rating and not read the review. Or e-mail me endlessly because I gave the same rating to both THE DISPOSSESSED and SEX-HUNGRY MATHEMATICIANS and you feel that’s a personal insult to you, LeGuin and non-sex-hungry mathematicians around the world.

(What’s the link with Hyperspace? Stay with me.)

In brief; I don’t do perfect ratings in these reviews. Privately, I do keep some sort of rating for trivial purposes (It facilitates sorting for “the best/worst SF/mystery book written in 19XX?”) but rarely do I give anything over a 90%: The perfect 100 should be reserved for something like The Bible (If I believed in it, or if it stopped a bullet fired at me), or a book so mind-blowing that it would do nothing less that completely change my outlook on life and (preferably) make me a measurably better person.

Hyperspace doesn’t get the 100, but for the first hundred pages, it looked like it might get a 95. Written by a honest-to-goodness scientist, Hyperspace has the ambitious goal of bringing the reader up to date on the state of theoretical physics. Michio Kaku has the distinction of having made some important advances in this domain in addition of being an exceptional science vulgariser. With Hyperspace he has produced something as good as James Gliek’s Chaos, my scientific-nonfiction-yardstick.

Briefly put, Kaku takes the reader through the entire history of theoretical physics, from the Greeks to today. The point he makes repeatedly is that the laws of physics are far simpler that we think, if we can conceive of them as being manifestations, “echoes” of higher-dimensions phenomenons. Much like shadows on a plan, the laws of the universe could be shadows of hyperspace. It sound crazy, almost SF, but Kaku makes it utterly convincing. And that’s one of the lesser revelations.

You will have to possess some solid physics to understand some of what Kaku says. I’ve got three semesters of college-level physics, and I was lost on a few of the most technical pages. But the level of vulgarization is still impressive: Even a relatively smart high-school student could grasp what’s being said without being too overwhelmed too long. A large dose of the hardest-SF out these also helps, perhaps too much: The last chapters of the book are extrapolations on known facts, but they’re going to appear commonplace to SF readers used to Ringworlds, Time-corps and galactic wars.

But the first half of the book is definitely not pedestrian. Michio shows why Einstein’s work was so important. He talks about string theory, a piece of twenty-first century physics “nobody’s smart enough to understand now.” He chronicles the fascinating lives of some of the smartest people ever. He explains the link between maths and science.

But most of all, he makes a testament to the importance, the excitement and the achievements of Science. That alone makes it a must-read.

Hyperspace is one of the best books I’ve read. Period. My view of the world was reformatted every five pages or so. It’s exalting, unbelievable, breathlessly exciting and deeply moving at the same time. For a self-avowed atheist, it’s the closest thing to religious epiphany. Recommended!

City on Fire, Walter Jon Williams

Harper Prism, 1997, 498 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 0-06-105213-2

Walter Jon Williams is undoubtedly one of the best SF writers today. The fascinating thing is that he has become such by producing an array of remarkably different novels: From cyberpunk (Hardwired) to near-future police procedural (Days of Atonement) to all-out Big SF (Aristoi) to humorous comedy of manners (The Drake Maijstral trilogy), Williams manages to entertain with considerable wit and style.

His latest book, City on Fire is the first “straight” sequel he has written. Strangely, it’s a book that manages to be sufficiently different from the original to be interesting, all the while being a logical successor to the previous work: Metropolitan was probably the truest example of urban fantasy ever. Starting from the basic premise that certain arrangements of metal and concrete produce a quasi-magical force called plasm, Williams crafted a novel of ambition, revolution and multifaceted power. Aiah, a lowly plasm inspector, accidentally discovers a hidden plasm reserve, which she then offers it to one of the aristocrat (Constantine, a Metropolitan) of her city. Romance and revolution ensued, with the result that Metropolitan ended with a newly-conquered city, and tons of loose ends.

City on Fire begins as Aiah returns to the newly conquered city, ostensibly to take up a new job as head of a plasm enforcement unit, but also to be closer to Constantine. Most of the book is political in nature: The crosses and double-crosses necessary to maintain a fragile new alliance over the recently liberated city are numerous, and not uninteresting.

The sequel is a bigger book than the original, and also possibly a better work. After the first few pages, the reader is completely integrated in Williams’ latest world. Political fiction always run the danger of becoming a meaningless jumble of names and parties but fortunately, Williams’ storytelling skills avoid this.

The style has a certain flourish, but most readers won’t notice this, as they’ll be caught up in Aiah’s rise through the city’s hierarchy. The main protagonists are exceptionally well handled, and even minor characters are distinct and easily remembered. Every scene in the book is intercut with headlines and ads from the city’s media, an effective trick that was under-used in Metropolitan.

Since this series seems to be headed toward being a trilogy, it is interesting to note that in Metropolitan, Aiah is Constantine’s subordinate. By the End of City on Fire, however, she is beginning to be his equal. This will be interesting to watch in the third volume.

Metropolitan had the distinction of being a fantasy with most of hard science-fiction’s concern for consistency and world-building. Indeed, some reviewers called Metropolitan SF, rationalizing the shield and plasm as sufficiently advanced technology. The debate isn’t likely to be resolved in City on Fire, but the indicators seem to point toward an interesting sequel…

While City on Fire isn’t exciting at the level of Williams’ best novels, it is a sufficiently attractive read for any reader with an interest in the author, Metropolitan, or complex political stories. Perhaps not flamboyant enough to warrant being bought in hardcover, but probably worth the paperback price.

The New Alchemists, Robert M. Hazen

Times Books, 1993, 286 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 0-8129-2275-1

Before reading this book, I thought I knew about pressure. A veteran of several college exam weeks, I just know that these times are some of the most pressurized situations anyone can expect to meet. Seemingly ordinary elements will begin to experience radical changes at high pressures, exhibiting strange new properties and even cracking up under the pressure. My family can testify that even middle-mannered me can develop troubling characteristics while under pressure.

Which means absolutely anything, except to introduce the subject of an impulse buy and this review: The New Alchemists, by Robert M. Hazen.

This nonfiction book is divided in two parts: Section one is titled “The Diamond Makers”, and details the various theories, experiments and failures that led to the synthesis of the first diamonds. The account begin at the beginning of chemistry, and spends quite a lot of time discussing the various failures met on the road of diamond making. As Hazen reminds us in the introduction, failures can be as enlightening as successes.

And a fascinating history it is: From the early 19th century, many scientists and charlatans have tried to make diamonds. (In an excellent first chapter, Hazen oversees the history, properties and beauty of diamonds, thus setting the stage for the desirability of its synthesis) It does take a few attempts, but scientists finally find out that diamond is the product of intense pressure and heat applied to ordinary carbon.

From then, attempts are more focused, but not necessarily more successful. A Swedish team finally obtains something in 1953, using one of the weirdest process I’ve ever read about. However, it will take until late 1955 and a General Electric team of researcher to devise a working, less cumbersome method and broadcast the results to the world. (The story or the breakthrough itself is immensely fascinating reading, offering a glimpse into scientific feuds and unresolved recriminations.)

From then on, it becomes an engineering problem to produce the most synthetic diamonds for the less money. Now, GE has a virtual diamond mine in Ohio, where they produce more than 33 tons of diamond a year.

But the story isn’t over; the diamonds made by high-pressure physics are now helping high-pressure physics itself: Using “diamond anvils”, researchers are pushing back the barriers of pressure, attaining higher and higher levels each year… The second part of this book is titled “The Diamond Breakers”, and tells of some of these researches. Perhaps less focused (and hence, less gripping) than the first part, it nevertheless makes engrossing reading.

Robert Hazen knows how to write, and this book shows it. This isn’t some dry exposé of unfathomable researchers: The community of high-pressure scientists has a gallery of colorful personalities and events, and The New Alchemists takes delight in telling them. Tales of frauds, explosions, smuggling and “bags of diamonds” abound. This is better reading than most of the novels I’ve read this year.

I highly recommend The New Alchemists: For everyone who wishes to have an insight into what scientists do, to the fans of fascinating stories. This is one book not to be missed: I place it near the top of my shelf for scientific literature.

(Post note: While talking to a ex-physics teacher of mine (Serges Desgrenier, University of Ottawa), I discovered that he has his name in The New Alchemists… something I hadn’t caught when I read the book. My amazement at this fact was only compounded by my annoyance at this failure of my pattern-recognition software.)

Threshold, Ben Mezrich

Warner, 1996, 336 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60521-2

A smart, competent hero. A beautiful heroine apt to be the target of bad guys. A mad scientist. A plan to radically change humanity. Explosions, guns, shadowy government projects and enough technical jargon to confuse the heck out of anyone not remotely familiar with the subject.

And the question was: What are ingredients to a good techno-thriller?

Threshold has all the required qualities of a good techno-thriller. The surprise is that it comes from a new author rather than one of the established masters of the genre.

Jeremy Ross is headed for a solid medical career when, suddenly, a ghost from his past appears and asks for help: Robin Kelly, an ex-girlfriend. Her father, the secretary of defense, (never mind this unlikely coincidence…) died a few weeks back and she doesn’t think it was an accident. So it’s up to Ross’s skills at medical hacking to uncover the truth. But when bullets start flying, he’s quick to realize that he’s in something far deadlier than a simple autopsy analysis…

A better-than-average thriller ensues, with car chases, creepy world domination plans, serviceable characters and stupid mistakes by the bad guys. The prose is as exciting as it should be, if not entirely clear at a few critical junctions. Threshold makes perfect summer reading.

Which is not to say that the novel is flawless: Serious suspension of disbelief is necessary at a few place (60 billion$?). The villains’ actions aren’t always logical (why two set of pursuers in the car chase?). A few characters aren’t kept on stage long enough (Christina Guarrez). The remarkably young age of many characters -while plausible- is sure to annoy a few. A final objection is that the villain’s plan is so… compelling, that the elitist reader will eventually root for its success. (The ultimate resolution also appears a bit tidy.)

As a first novel, Threshold is quite impressive. Mezrich has the potential for being a serious competitor for Crichton, Cook or Clancy: He’s got it as far as pacing, intelligence or characterization goes. This reviewer will anxiously await Ben Mezrich’s next novel.

Star Trek Phase II, Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens

Pocket, 1997, 357 pages, C$21.50 tpb, ISBN 0-671-56839-6

I was a teenage Star Trek fan.

But I’m much better now.

Science-Fiction is a terribly pernicious addiction. When you begin, everything is good stuff, regardless of actual value. But as one increases one’s level of SF literacy, some things don’t appear so hot. Clichés, déjà-vus, staleness begin to creep in.

This is where most non-prose SF (Media-SF) doesn’t hold up. Most of the time, it rediscovers concepts that were introduced, explored, and discarded years before by written SF. (And, usually do them wrong!) Add to that the unsatisfying nature of episodic SF and…

The epitome of Media-SF is certainly Star Trek, whose history is now the source of countless legends, and almost as countless spin-off products. A fascinating case in itself, Star Trek is one of the only TV series to successfully re-invent itself, nearly twenty years after its first diffusion. The Original Series mutated in The Next Generation, and the rest is TV history.

But the path from TOS to TNG included one surprising attempt at a Star Trek sequel, starring most of the cast from The Original Series. The name, Star Trek II. The time: 1977.

While the tale had been quickly sketched elsewhere, most notably in George Takei’s autobiography, Star Trek Phase II presents the “official” history of the aborted series.

In a series of event roughly paralleled in 1994 with UPN and Star Trek: Voyager, Paramount announced in 1977 that it would launch a new network of its own, using a revived Star Trek series as its flagship. (pun; ha-ha) Actors were signed, scripts were written, sets were constructed… but funding was lacking, so the series was scrapped and the pilot episode transformed in STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE.

Star Trek Phase II is divided in four parts. The first, -by far the most interesting- is a journalistic account of Star Trek II’s creation and downfall. Informative and even entertaining, this is the heart of the book. The second part presents the series “bible”; an exceptional document for Star Trek completists and TV series students. The third part contains the original story treatment by Alan Dean Foster and the first draft script by Harold Livingston for what would become STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE. This section is of interest mainly for ST:TMP fans, if any are left (see below). The fourth part is nothing less than a few of the initial ideas for episodes of STAR TREK II. Notable are works of Ted Sturgeon, Norman Spinrad, and the complete script of the ST II episode that was eventually remade as the ST:TNG episode “The Child” The interest of this last section is highly variable: Most of the time, the story outlines made references to characters (Illia, Xon, Decker) unfamiliar to the casual reader.

Star Trek Phase II is definitely for the confirmed Trek fan. Other will want to read something… fresher.

Addenda: The very same day that I put down the book in question, I was zapping through channels when a familiar name in a familiar font attracted my attention: “Executive producer: Gene Roddenberry.” Three bars of music later, I was sitting down for three hours. ST: TMP had begun.

I used to consider this movie one of my favorite (for the slickness of the production alone) but sadly, my memories don’t match up to the actual film. It’s long, it’s almost plot-less and by goodness, the then-much-lauded special effects are now almost ridiculous!

Mimic (1997)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Mimic</strong> (1997)

(In theaters, August 1997) Dark, creepy but also surprisingly forgettable suspense movie about giant insects taking over the lower levels of the New York subway. (And, presumably, the world afterward since those pesky insects are pretty much unstoppable, y’know?) Mira Sorvino is quite pleasing to look at as a top-notch entomologist, and director Del Torro sure knows how to effectively create a suspenseful atmosphere. Low points include a letdown finale (earlier scripts reportedly had a more appropriate, if darker, conclusion) and a really annoying subplot about an autistic child. (High points, however, include the killing of sympathetic children and a dead dog in the same scene, so there’s still hope for Hollywood scriptwriters…) A decent video rental for those in the mood for a “bug” movie.

Resurrection Man, Sean Stewart

Ace, 1995, 248 pages, C$14.50 tpb, ISBN 0-441-00121-1

Resurrection Man is a quirky book.

There’s no other way to characterize a book which opens with the protagonist making an autopsy on his own body. Or a novel where family matters are explored more thoroughly than a completely original backdrop where magic has returned to the world. Or a narrative that contains both some of the funniest and the saddest passages in recent memory.

Sean Stewart made quite a splash in the Canadian SF scene with his debut novel, Passion Play (Winner of the 1993 Aurora Award, as was his second novel, Nobody’s Son.) Resurrection Man is likely to enhance his reputation as one of the most accomplished SF writer in Canada today.

What if the horrors of World War II had been enough to bring back magic in this world? Many fine novels could be written to explore the concept but -perhaps unfortunately- Stewart’s offbeat fantasy doesn’t really care about the big concept, focusing instead on a dysfunctional family, the Ratkays. The protagonist has to deal with the fact that he’s becoming a powerful magic channel, the sister is an overweight and bitter stand-up comedian, the father is an authoritative physician, the aunt… well, you get the picture. Add a few deep, dark family secrets and soon you’ll be saying “and I though my family was mucked-up!”

From the first pages (the self-autopsy), it is apparent that this isn’t a run-of-the-mill, escapist fantasy novel. Steward is writing in the laborious style so beloved of literary aficionados everywhere. Neat turns of phrase and sharply drawn characters almost hide that the book’s plot is perhaps less than overwhelming. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you might even be bored.

Since this is a novel about a family, the characterization is truly top-notch. Characters spend a lot of time pondering themselves, their dislike for each other and the assorted armful of childhood traumas that seems to loom over everyone in this type of fiction.

This also means that the background setting is deliberately out of focus, at the intense disappointment of this reviewer: The truly non-classical view of magic (where minotaurs, butterflies, coins and grandfather clocks all are magical symbols) would have been fascinating to read about. Another weak element is a part of the conclusion (“But of course it wasn’t mine; it was his!”) that is highly doubtful and doesn’t make much “classical” sense. Fortunately, by the point Steward has redefined the novel’s internal coherency so much that most readers are likely to shrug and enjoy the remainder of the conclusion, which is fairly moving.

Whether or not Resurrection Man will be liked depends mostly on the reader’s personal preferences: Is he fond of complex characterization, polished prose, nontraditional fantasy and family-type novels? Or is he more interested in fast-moving action, world-building or logical extrapolations? This isn’t a breathlessly entertaining thriller, a mindless action novel or a fluffy-goody fantasy; readers beware!

Fans of complex family-affairs novels will want to take a look at Resurrection Man. As for others, though it may be heresy to say so, Harry Turtledove’s The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump is a more entertaining look at a contemporary magical world.

Metro (1997)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Metro</strong> (1997)

(On VHS, August 1997) A bland title for an even more unmemorable movie. The plot has been seen a thousand times (Hero cop. Dead partner. Smart bad guy. Car chase. Girlfriend in peril. Explosion. The End. Oh, there’s a New Partner in there somewhere) and Metro confuses smart touches with incoherence (or maybe the other way around). The Girlfriend is cute and there’s one rousing good sequence in the movie (the car chase, surprise!) but the remainder will flee out of your memory as the credits scroll. At least, I didn’t pay to see it.

Mars Attacks! (1996)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Mars Attacks!</strong> (1996)

(Second viewing, On VHS, August 1997) Seen last year during its first week of release, and again this month with great pleasure. By no means a great movie, but one that’s just cool to miss. See it again for the subtle stuff; most of the comedy in this movie is of the type “I can’t believe I’m seeing this.” In retrospect, one of my favorite of 1996.

(Third viewing, On DVD, January 2009) Twelve years later, this spoof of Alien invasions works just as well, and maybe even a little bit better than when it was released. There have been a certain number of alien invasion films since then (and even a few alien invasion spoofs), but Mars Attacks! still holds up thanks to self-conscious camp material, a visual style of its own, and performances from a variety of actors you may not expect, from Jack Nicholson to Jack Black. There’s a cheerfully counter-authoritarian streak running through the film, as the victims are usually people with inflated opinions of themselves and the plucky working-class heroes manage to triumph over everything. It’s still decently amusing, and some of the gags are best appreciated with prior knowledge of the film rather than seen cold.

Kull The Conqueror (1997)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Kull The Conqueror</strong> (1997)

(In theaters, August 1997) Worst movie of the summer, but it’s so much fun (in a sick kind of way) that you’re unlikely to notice, or to be angry at the picture. Slightly different narrative scheme (Kull becomes king in the first few minutes) is unlikely to mask the awful dialogue straight out of comic books. Acting is uniformly bad; Tia Carrere should do much better. (But she’s redheaded here, so all things balance out!) An enjoyable Friday-night TV movie for a crowd of rowdy MST3Kers (“Brings new sense to the term frigid!”, etc…) but scarcely anything else.

A Miracle of Rare Design, Mike Resnick

Tor, 1994, 247 pages, C$6.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-52424-1

The best science-fiction does two things.

First, it uses the traditional science-fiction devices to bring light on what it means to be human. The point of SF is not the gadgets, but the gadget’s effects on the human mind.

Also, the best SF entertains as much as it enlightens.

A Miracle of Rare Design fares very well in both regards.

Xavier William Lennox is an author, an anthropologist and a very driven human being. In the first chapter, he gets caught by aliens in a sacred temple, and is almost killed for his troubles. Mutilated but not beaten, he then agrees to be transformed into an alien to study them better.

The book is unpredictable: It goes on for longer and covers more territory that would be expected. Along the way, we get glimpses of a few fascinating alien races. Unusually, Resnick doesn’t bore with interminable descriptions of alien societies and mores: He moves on to other things. At times, the novel almost reads as a fix-up, but an single theme underlies the whole book.

Strangely, as Lennox becomes more alien, he also appears more human: His drive toward understanding, exploration and new experiences will strike most as being more representative of the ideal human drive than the more conservative supporting cast of characters.

Almost readable in a single sitting, A Miracle of Rare Design is also a miracle of economic writing. The prose is lean, and propels the reader from one adventure to another. There is a very definite narrative drive. It is almost strange to speak of suspense in the case of this novel, but it is put away only with the greatest reluctance. A Miracle of Rare design is good, satisfying SF. It can be read either as entertainment or literature, and succeeds well on both levels. Recommended.

BRIEFLY: The Widowmaker, by the same author, is another entertaining short novel, readable in a flash and as enjoyable as anything written in the genre. The story of Jefferson Nighthawk (clone of the famous bounty hunter Widowmaker) is told quickly and simply. There are more than a few memorable scenes, and even more good replies. In many ways, The Widowmaker is a throwback to the simpler, more amusing years of classical SF. The biggest flaw of the book is that it eventually moves beyond its initially light tone to become much darker and tragic. Otherwise, good stuff for all. First in a trilogy, but stands quite well alone.