Month: November 1997

The Truth Machine, James L. Halperin

Del Rey, 1996, 395 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-41288-5

To readers immersed in pure Science-Fiction, it’s something of a shock to discover that the language and assumptions of SF aren’t universal; for instance, a superbly crafted genre-SF novel might be completely lost on a romance reader, for the reason that the romance reader simply hasn’t got the necessary background to easily deal with hyperspace, nanotechnology and virtual realities. This isn’t as much a comment on intelligence as on inexperience: Similarly, witness reactions to horror movies, from the neophyte “Eeeeew!” to the jaded “Cheezy!”

Similarly, an author approaching the genre without the benefit of a few years’ experience with the genre (say, from reading a few hundred SF books) can illuminate the various eccentricities of (our) SF.

Take for instance James L. Halperin’s The Truth Machine. It began as a self-published novel on the Internet, was published by Ivy Press, and then by Del Rey for paperback release. Del Rey curiously labelled the novel without the “Science” in front of “Fiction”, even though The Truth Machine is all about the consequences of a perfect truth machine. Hard-core SF fans will approve when we point out that the core of SF is the exploration of effects and consequences of change, whether it’s technological, social or otherwise.

(Incidentally, The Truth Machine is still one of the only instances of widely successful self-publishing on the Internet. If you’re curious, go ahead and point your browsers to the obvious )

Then why does The Truth Machine feels so… strange?

Part of the answer lies in the clunky style used by the novel. While it’s not particularly horrendous (and probably far better than anything I could come up with), Halperin commits more than a few mistakes, whether it’s in-text footnotes, references to the fifteen-page appendix, flash-forward pacing or a lot of telling-rather-than-showing.

Of course, it would have been impossible to tell The Truth Machine without most of these devices; the canvas is just too big. This novel takes the reader all the way from 1995 to 2050. It offers nothing less than the portrait of a world radically transformed by -among other things- a foolproof truth machine… if it is really foolproof…

The notion of a perfect truth machine isn’t a new one in SF, but it’s very provocative; award-winning novels have been written with lesser concepts. The Truth Machine rarely shies away from considering the implications of its premise, from truthful business transactions to lies-free personal relationships. The plot of the novel serves as carrier for the ideas. Coincidences, “on-the-nose” prose and puppet-characters abound. Ultimately, we get the idea that Halperin isn’t as much interested in telling the story than in predicting the/a future.

And that is the main difference between The Truth Machine and modern SF: For various reasons, contemporary Science-Fiction writers want to tell stories, not predict the future. The sixties’ New Wave introduced literary qualities into the field, and SF never quite recovered. As it is, The Truth Machine is pure SF… a few decades belated.

Ultimately, though, this is all irrelevant to The Truth Machine, since the bottom line is that it’s an engrossing, fascinating book despite suspicious characterisation and too-convenient plotting. Whether or not the book is a 400-page advertisement for the World Future Society, what’s important is that it will make you think. And hope.

Halperin might have more to learn about SF than vice-versa, but readers of all stripe might do worse than give a look at The Truth Machine. It’s readable in a flash (so it won’t waste too much of your time) and, given a suspension of stylistic judgement, it’s gripping stuff.

The Engines of God, Jack McDevitt

Ace, 1995, 419 pages, C$8.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-00284-6

I have already confessed a weak spot for cool cover illustrations, so I won’t go over it again. But everyone should know that the gorgeous Bob Eggleton painting on the cover of Jack McDevitt’s The Engines of God was the only reason why I bought the book. This time, no excuses, no justification and no feel-good rationalisation.

So it’s both a relief and a letdown to find that the scene represented by the cover occurs in the very first pages of the novel: One xeno-archaeologist and his pilot (protagonist Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchins) taking a leisurely sight-seeing stroll on Saturn’s moon Iapetus. The sight to see? An ice sculpture, left behind by an alien race long gone.

One thing that can be said about The Engines of God is that it doesn’t stay at the same place for too long. After this short prologue, we (along with Hutch) find ourselves evacuating Quaraqua, an extra-solar planet soon due for terraforming. The problem is that archaeologists discover a major site only days before the start of the terraforming process. Since it all begins with a nuclear liquefaction of the ice-caps, -along with Richter 16.3 earthquakes- Hutch and the archaeology team have to race against time to get everything (and everyone) out of there before the big kaboom.

McDevitt uses this tense, exciting section to introduce both a small roster of characters (soon to be fleshed out in the latter parts of the novel) and the context in which The Engines of God takes place; your basic mildly-dystopian future, along with an overpopulated Earth and clueless politicians calling for an end to the space program (shoo! shoo!). FTL communication and travel might be humanity’s saving grace, but as Hutch will eventually discover, they might not even be enough…

Along the way are extinct alien races, tantalizing mysteries, nick-of-time escapes, spectacular visuals, a dash of tasteful sex, destruction and death. Truly the ingredients to a satisfying SF yarn, and that’s mostly what we get here. Of course, Hutch is a likable character and McDevitt knows how to fascinate his readers. The Engines of God is the kind of novel that reaffirms why you’re reading “this Buck Rogers stuff” while inserting a few cool sociological ideas in your head during the process.

Of course, said readers shouldn’t expect a perfect work. For instance, more than a few loose ends aren’t properly tied up (an usual McDevitt tic); sequels are possible. The death of certain characters appear more gratuitous than anything else, even if that was probably the author’s intent. While McDevitt offers adequate answers to the questions raised in the novel, I couldn’t help but feel that more would have been possible. The conclusion is also ultimately depressing, although not in the immediate time frame.

Still, most should find what they’re looking for in The Engines of God. Solid science, fast action, claustrophobic tension, awe-inspiring finale. It’s difficult to find better. There’s more here to the book than just a pretty cover. It’s definitely worth the paperback price (hey, now that I’ve bought it, I have to rationalize my purchase!) or the library loan. Give it a try; maybe you’ll discover an author. I know that McDevitt can now count me as one potential fan.

Illegal Alien, Robert J. Sawyer

Ace, 1997, 292 pages, C$30.95 hc, ISBN 0-441-00476-8

In interviews, Canadian Science-Fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer has often stated his love for both SF and mysteries. He even said that he’d like to take the time to write a “straight” mystery—if the market would allow it. In Illegal Alien, Sawyer has fashioned a compulsively readable hybrid of the two genres that will undoubtedly entertain scores of readers.

In an industry where an author producing one book a year is considered prolific, Robert J. Sawyer managed to release two hardcover novels in the span of six months: June 1997 saw Frameshift (Hardcover from Tor) and Illegal Alien (Hardcover from Ace) arrived just in time for the Christmas’97 holidays. While publisher politics are reportedly responsible for this schedule, Sawyer fans suffered from an embarrassment of riches with the release of the author’s seventh and eighth novels.

These two novels also mark a change of style and direction for Sawyer: While his earlier End of An Era, Golden Fleece and more particularly Starplex represented the kind of old-fashioned, gloriously wondrous whiz-bang SF, his two latest books (and, to a lesser extent, his Nebula-winning The Terminal Experiment) are much more introspective in nature, reflecting (said Sawyer at Can-Con’97) the kind of SF he would now want to read.

Frameshift surprised a lot of readers -including this reviewer-, especially following the exceptional Starplex. Illegal Alien is closer to Sawyer’s previous novel, but still illustrates where Sawyer is now headed.

Plot-wise, Illegal Alien‘s premise is summed up in its title; shortly after first contact, a human is found, murdered. Forensics establish that the murder weapon is of alien origin. Before one can say “California has the death penalty, right?”, an alien suspect is arrested. This isn’t the OJ Simpson trial, and Illegal Alien takes great care to distance itself (and even illuminate) America’s favourite murder trial.

(Of course, things won’t stay that simple for long. Revealing more wouldn’t be ethical.)

This strong premise is, as usual, carried by a style that’s more descriptive than polished. This isn’t meant as a criticism: For one thing, Illegal Alien benefit from the same strong narrative drive that ensured the success of Sawyer’s first novels. Readable in a single afternoon, and even perhaps in a single sitting, the novel breezes along without stretches.

Sawyer obviously did his research regarding California’s judicial system, and it shows. Even such topics as jury selection reveal themselves to be tantalizingly fascinating. Sawyer’s law proves to be as exact as his science. The result is an air of authenticity that goes a long way toward grounding Sawyer’s aliens in the realistic framework.

Illegal Alien could conceivably be used to “convince” mystery readers to take a look at the SF genre, and vice-versa. While the novel begins and ends in SF mode, the remainder is as good a legal mystery as anything else this reviewer has read in the genre.

While Illegal Alien isn’t as brilliant (read: impressive, overwhelming, awe-inspiring) as Starplex or The Terminal Experiment, it is only fair to say that it’s a more balanced work. There is scant to dismiss and a lot to like here: As usual, Sawyer delivers a well-crafted piece of thoughtful entertainment that will only solidify his reputation. Illegal Alien is a recommended purchase in paperback, and a suitable gift in hardcover.

Starship Troopers (1997)

Starship Troopers (1997)

(In theaters, November 1997) Very loud, very juvenile and very stupid adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein’s novel. It’s supposed to be loads of fun, but it just didn’t work for me. The tone oscillates between inane teenage drama and uber-gory war “comedy”: It’s either “Look at this guy get ripped in half; ain’t it cool?” or “Look at this guy get decapitated; ain’t it funny?” Unimaginably idiotic military tactics and physics make this movie really funny for even slightly knowledgeable people. Stupendous Special Effects can’t rescue a bad script, but might just net an Oscar. Only a few weeks after seeing Starship Troopers, I find my opinion of the movie sinking lower and lower, much like last year’s Independence Day. And after seeing Titanic, even the Special Effects Oscar isn’t so sure…

(Second viewing, On DVD, December 2007) I hadn’t seen this film in ten years, and the decade has been kind to Paul Verhoeven’s glossy space-opera. For one thing, I’ve seen much worse since then. For another, it seems as if the political subtext is a lot more interesting than it was years ago. It helps that this fully-loaded 2002 DVD special edition is so solidly defensive. Both of the audio commentaries, along with the new making-of documentary, are chiefly concerned about the film’s initial critical reaction, and desperately try to point out the real meaning behind the film. (For sheer entertainment value, few DVD audio commentaries in history have surpassed the one in which Paul Verhoeven keeps saying “Fascism Is Not Good”.) Both the commentaries and the documentary reveal a lot about the film and the ways the filmmakers may have screwed it up, though they’re awfully quick to blame the audience when they fail to respond to a film trying to have it both as a dumb blockbuster and a satire of such. Oh, I still don’t think it’s a wonderful film: I’m still disturbed by the gleeful gore and the nonsense science, and even for a satire there are some inner contradictions that weaken the entire atmosphere. But the direction is clean and sharp (especially after nearly a decade of increasing confusion behind the lenses), most special effects are still wonderful (oh, that lunar sequence!) and I have developed a fondness for cleaner-than-clean cinematography even as most movies have gone the other way. Starship Troopers hasn’t aged that badly, and when it has, it’s usually in the trivial details like the CRT monitors and primitive graphics displayed on such. If you think you still hate the film ten years later, do yourself a favour, rent the DVD and listen to the commentaries: I think you will be pleasantly surprised, or at least decently entertained.

Shadow Conspiracy (1997)

Shadow Conspiracy (1997)

(On VHS, November 1997) Utterly, utterly forgettable movie about yet another cover-up at the highest level of the government… yawn. In fact, only a few days after seeing this movie, I was unsuccessfully trying to remember the ending, at no avail. Suffice to say that this movie reminds one of the term “preposterous”, and that the usually dependable Linda Hamilton is unexpectedly weaker here than usual. Try this for a quote: Shadow Conspiracy redefines an entirely new level of blandness.

Mining the Oort, Frederik Pohl

Del Rey, 1992, 264 pages, C$24.00 hc, ISBN 0-345-37199-2

The paths of science and science-fiction are sometimes surprisingly similar. For instance, it’s a well-observed fact that all of science builds upon itself: It took a few centuries of observed experiments and a genial mind to conceive of the Theory of Gravity, but after that, all scientists could use this breakthrough as a basis for their own theories. From Gravity to Relativity to -perhaps- Superstring Theory, the way is toward higher, better, more comprehensive models of reality.

Similarly, science-fiction is a genre that -some say- is often centred on itself. (In fact, that’s John Clute’s theory of First SF… but that’s neither here or now to discuss.) It took a few centuries of scientific understanding, a few decades of SF groundwork and one imaginative mind to create Ringworlds, but once that was done, every SF writer could use the concept or improve upon it, like Ian Banks and his orbitals. Which is why even SF romances can use hyperspace without having to re-explain the wheel -or the hyper-dimensional drive- again.

Theoretical scientists often simplify problems by defining black boxes (“If we could produce petawatts of energy at will…”), until other scientists break up the black boxes in further components (“If we could make fusion work…”) until the problem’s solved. Similarly, SF works often postulate grand ideas (“We can terraform Mars…”), work out a few theories (“…by obtaining water from comets…”) and then some (“…which can be brought down from the Oort Cloud.”)!

If the sub-problems are exciting enough, other SF writers can write a novel about the “niggling detail” of the bigger scheme. That’s exactly what Frederik Pohl did with Mining the Oort Cloud. (He said, bringing this long and tortuous introduction to an end, nearly halfway down this review.)

As might be inferred from the above, Mining the Oort is about comets slamming into Mars. The book begins as the young protagonist Dekker DeWoe sees the first comet strike, and the narrative move along with him through training until he becomes one of those who make it happen. Along the way are the typical Pohl predictions of a grim economic future, unpleasant romantic subplots and the odd last fifty pages where the novel has to find a plot to conclude on an action-adventure note.

Most of the time, it works. The first pages aren’t tremendously exciting, but the pace picks up when protagonist DeWoe enters Oort Miner School. Fans of such work as Space Cadet, Ender’s Game or Starship Troopers already have an idea of the possibilities of a “school”-type of novel, and if Mining the Oort isn’t as exciting, it kept this reviewer interested. This type of novel often lives or die with its characters, and it’s a relief to find that Pohl hasn’t lost his touch at creating interesting supporting actors.

A few details ring false to late-nineties readers, like blaming the Japanese for almost every economic problem, or the fascination of a few characters for ultra-violent porn movies… but Mining the Oort entertains as much as could be expected from Pohl. It also occurs to this reader that this might be the ultimate comet-harvesting novel, until a few new ideas make an update necessary. Certainly, Pohl has fashioned a decent, entertaining novel of hard SF, one that might even be considered as one of his best.

Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997)

Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997)

(In theaters, November 1997) Calling this a bad movie would be too generous, even though it’s not that bad. One of the few things this film manages to make look good is the original, which was at least a decent example of tremendously entertaining mind-candy (Paul Anderson’s exciting direction, missing here, might be a factor.) If you can make it through the horrible fifteen first minutes, the remainder isn’t so horrendous. But unless you’re really in the mood for this kind of stuff, avoid.

Ging chaat goo si III: Chiu kup ging chaat [Police Story 3: Supercop] (1992)

Ging chaat goo si III: Chiu kup ging chaat [Police Story 3: Supercop] (1992)

(On VHS, November 1997) Jackie Chan paired with Michelle Yeoh? Wowsa! This Hong Kong-produced comedic action movie takes more than a while to rock, but the final half-hour’s remarkable. Once again, Chan proves he’s got the right stuff, and Yeoh assumes a presence far beyond even the most capable Hollywood heroine. Among the movie’s biggest assets (apart from the two leads) is that it doesn’t takes itself seriously at all.

(Second viewing, On TV, June 1999) Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh in the same movie? Don’t look for me anywhere else but in front of my T.V. Screen! Upon a second viewing, Supercop is actually more enjoyable. For one thing, you get to expect the very slow pace of the first hour, and to expect the Really Good Scenes. Plus, you do get to appreciate the totally incredible Chan/Yeoh dynamic duo: Will there ever be a better onscreen action couple? The U.S. Re-release includes a quirky hip-hop soundtrack, in addition to the required bad dubbing.

Denei Shoujo Ai [Video Girl Ai] (1992)

Denei Shoujo Ai [Video Girl Ai] (1992)

(On VHS, November 1997) Everyone has a few guilty pleasures, and sappy Anime Romances are one of the best around. Pretty potent teenage fantasy material (A video girl materializes, and tries to help her “owner” get the girl he’s lusting after before herself falling in love with the guy) simultaneously undermined and enhanced by the usual Anime tics. Unexpectedly moving at times, but then again I cry at Saturn commercials… The first two episodes are a laugh riot, the second third is effective melo-romantic material but the final hour manages to make a muddle of everything. (Pretty cool symbolism, though.) Once again (see Ghost In The Shell), this manga adaptation feels like half of the relevant material has been left in the original source.

Alien: Resurrection (1997)

Alien: Resurrection (1997)

(In theaters, November 1997) Given the near-classical status of the two first movies of the Alien series and the widespread loathing of the third segment, it won’t be a surprise if chapter 4 fits somewhere between those opposites. More of a film version of the Dark Horse comics than a satisfying extension of the series, Alien 4 manages to be relatively entertaining, but not enough to be fully liked. The biggest flaw of the movie is that it introduces a few new concepts to the saga, but does so in typical stupid Hollywood action movie fashion (where a character can use two right-angle ricochets to hit a villain through a helmet, and other assorted physically impossible antics). Oh, and the ending sucks… even though “sucks” here is as much a statement of fact than opinion.

(Second viewing, On DVD, May 2005) When discussing the flaws of the Alien series, most will spend their time rehabilitating Alien 3. I’d rather champion this film, an uneven and disappointing entry that nevertheless contains ten time the action, interest and humour of the third entry. Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet would go on to write and direct Amelie, but his quirky sense of humour and his impeccable eye for style is already on full display here, as he plays around with the Alien mythology, brings it further in the future and generally has a good time. There are a number of terrific visuals in the film, and a few good dialogue scenes. It’s a shame, then, that the third act is so atrocious, that the action scenes are so improbable, that the humour isn’t a bit more reigned in or that Sigourney Weaver was allowed to have such an influence on the production. I was never able to shake the odd feeling that this was a live-action adaptation of a Dark Horse comics, but no matter; I still find something worthwhile in this film, warts and all. The “Alien Quadrilogy” box-set special edition includes a fair number of supplemental material, including a “special edition” with better bookends and a number of added dialogue lines. The documentary featurettes are a bit disappointing, failing to offer a complete overview of the film production. A fair audio commentary completes the material.

3001, The Final Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke

Del Rey, 1997, 263 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-345-31522-7

Let’s get two things out of our way first:

One: I dearly like Arthur C. Clarke. I’ve read most of his books and at the exception of his collaborations, he rates from okay to excellent. While his stories are often exercises in problem-solving and his plots thinly-disguised travelogues, that’s what he does best and that’s why I keep going back to Clarke. Apparently, millions of other readers think the same thing, because Clarke repeatedly hits the bestseller lists with each new book.

Two: 3001 is a rotten novel. In almost 300 pages, Clarke commits enough narrative mistakes to send a less-renowned author back to a few more rewrites. The first part of the novel is a brief look at Earth, 3001 style. In the second, he tells more than shows. Five minutes pass in one chapter, 30 years in the next. Stylistic errors abound, although that might be compounded by the translation I was reading. There’s even one factual error -verified in the original untranslated text- in chapter 32, when it is stated that Frank Poole was born in 1996. (Which would have given him the tender age of… 5 during the 2001 mission. Right.) Ping, Mr. Clarke!

Surprisingly, it doesn’t really matter. 3001 might be one of Clarke’s last novels and he’s entitled to a few shortcuts. Certainly, this is a better work that other latter-day Asimov or Heinlein. To compare apples with manure, even a middling Clarke is better entertainment that a middling Hollywood product. (Although 3001 ends on a note surprisingly reminiscent -of all things- of INDEPENDENCE DAY. Even Clarke apologizes for this in his afterword; synchronicity strikes again.)

Thematically, the novel has only tangential links with the previous three volumes. It “ties” up a few loose ends, and ignores the remainder. After reading 3001, I went back to 2061 and found out that the epilogue, titled “3001”, was completely disregarded by Clarke this time around. Others small discrepancies are smoothed over, and retro-adjusted. Obviously, humanity won’t go to Jupiter for 2001 any more than Hal was activated in February 1997. The future described in 3001 nevertheless remains quite plausible: Much like our own memory of 2001 has faded, the inhabitants of 3001 describe our own times as, of course, a century of unparalleled barbarism.

One unrealistic attribute of the characters is their tendency to constantly refer to events five centuries past. When’s the last time you quoted extensively from a 1497 philosopher? Overall, 3001 is a pretty similar place to 1997. A few cosmetic changes perk up the scenery, but far less that what the Singularists (from Vinge’s hypothesis) might suppose.

But 3001 is top-heavy with ideas. From Ring City to Religion As Mental Disorder (chuckled softly the atheist), this novel at least offers an entertaining travelogue. Whatever one may think of Clarke’s style, at least he’s kept his swiftness with innovative concepts. Extensive notes (30 pages of assorted sources, acknowledgements and goodbyes.) complete the book, providing an enjoyable dose of further readings, short editorials by Clarke (Does he believe this stuff? Absolutely!) and, generally, words by the master. Hard-SF fans will slurp this up with glee. At least I did.

Despite all its faults, 3001 remains a very enjoyable read for Clarke fans. Others might not agree; their loss. The novel works better as a travelogue with a loose relation to the original trilogy; don’t go back and read all three books attentively before beginning this one. Don’t buy it in hardcover either; it’s poor value for your money unless you’re a confirmed Clarke collector. But it’s definitely worth a read for its target audience.