Month: December 1997

Distress, Greg Egan

Millennium, 1995, 343 pages, C$18.95 tpb, ISBN 1-85798-285-1

Greg Egan!

To hordes of discerning Hard-SF fans (how do you call a quantity of Hard-SF fans? A Mole? A Kilofan? A Clement? Never mind…), an almost-Pavlovian drooling reflex engages when hearing the name. Greg Egan is one of the most capable new writers of pure, undiluted Hard-SF. In a market cornered by fat fantasy trilogies, and media-SF derivates, this willingness to play with the net up is quite laudable.

Not only is Egan capable to write Hard-SF, but he’s also willing to tackle some of the biggest issues there are. His first three SF novels are concerned with cosmology, quantum realities, Theories of Everything, consciousness, and other not-quite-pedestrian subjects.

What makes reading Egan a blast is the apparently effortless idea-tossing found in his fiction: Almost every page contains a new surprising concept, and Egan seldom neglects to explore the consequence of his extrapolations. His stories also make heavy use of biology, a facet of science too often neglected by Hard-SF (usually identified with cold, dependably mathematic physics.) His short stories (collected in Axiomatic) garnered raves everywhere. Now, his novels are doing the same.

Distress begins with a bang, as a video-journalist witnesses the temporary resurrection of a murder victim by police authorities. The sequence is chillingly effective, and goes a long way to establish both the tone and the protagonist of the novel.

Soon enough, we get into the main story of the novel, which is a conference taking place on a man-made tropical country, dealing with the holy grail of modern physics: Theories of Everything. If the novel’s protagonist used of his influence to cover the event, he’ll soon discover that he’s up to his neck in shadowy dealings with entities whose goals are either laughable, or all-important.

And despite a few odd turns of plot, Egan manages to keep all of this pretty well balanced until the last hundred pages, where everything dissolves in a wave of intentionally confusing reversals. Egan is always stronger in beginnings than conclusions (especially when he makes up his mind to reformat the universe at the end of his novels), and Distress is no exception.

But as they say, the trip is half the voyage: Greg Egan has the too-rare ability to conjure up truly believable futures. Unlike other authors who limit their world-building to fancy cars and a sprinkling of neologisms, Egan can extrapolate like the best of them, and the result is -no other word for it- tasty.

In fact, culinary metaphors might be the most appropriate to discuss Distress. Like intricate hors-d’oeuvres, our appetite is whetted by the small details of the protagonist’s ordinary life before springing on us the main course; the trip to the conference. Egan’s take on 21st century theoretical physics makes up most of the nutritive content of the novel. Chef Egan puts too much sugar in his desserts, however, and the overall impression of the meal is marred by the too-rich endings.

Nevertheless, Distress is another success for Egan, and deserves to be celebrated by Hard-SF fans everywhere. It should be out shortly in US-paperback format so interested readers shouldn’t wait to grab it before long.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

(In theaters, December 1997) So this is what happened to James Bond after The Rock: A lot of action, but not much of a solid plot. Still, better than Goldeneye. Pierce Brosnan is a great James Bond. As if killer gadgets, a lovely credit sequence and a few great lines weren’t enough, we get Michelle Yeoh as the very best Bond girl ever. Tomorrow Never Dies is far from being a very good Bond (Bad usage of Teri Hatcher, strange impression of deja-vu versus other Bond movies) but it’s as entertaining as anything we’ve come to expect from the franchise. Even spending the entire movie being half-sick standing against the rear wall of the movie theatre didn’t torpedo the experience for me.

(Second viewing, On Cable TV, September 2019) Time has been kind to Tomorrow Never Dies, especially when you compare it to some of the later entries in the series. Fresh off the renewal that was Goldeneye, this second Pierce Brosnan outing gets back to the basics of the Formula without too much second-guessing. We’re back to grandiose villains, Bond girls, big stunts and ingenious gadgets, handled competently. Brosnan’s take on Bond is endearing in these second installments, blending character traits in a format acceptable to the 1990s… and later decades. Jonathan Pryce turns in a striking villain, one that still has relevance now in an era of normalized lying. Teri Hatcher doesn’t have much of a role here, but Michelle Yeoh remains one of the best bond girls in the series, combining beauty, wit and action chops to rank as Bond’s equal. (It helps that in the Brosnan era, Bond actually cares quite a bit about his partners). Action-wise, we’re in the late nineties and that means over-the-top action sequences, a bit too aggressively edited but impressive in their panache — I particularly liked watching the Hamburg parking-lot chase (with Bond chuckling in the back seat at the effectiveness of his gadgets), but the Hanoi motorcycle chase also has its strong moments. The James Bond theme gets one of its better remixes here thanks to David Arnold.  Ricky Jay shows up at the brains of the evil outfit, while Judy Dench once again takes the M role to the next level. Compared to the Goldeneyeand a surprising number of its successors, Tomorrow Never Dies is straight Bond formula competently executed, something that I’d like to see once more after the off-brand and intermittently interesting entries in the Craig era. You liking of it (especially compared to its immediate predecessor) will depend on whether you’re in the mood for a straight-up, no-flourishes Bond adventure.

Titanic (1997)

Titanic (1997)

(In theaters, December 1997) 200$M movie worth every penny. Director James Cameron proves once again that he’s one of the best film-makers around with this -mostly- seamless hybrid of romance and disaster genre. Despite a disappointing script (still better than most of what we’ve seen this year), Titanic is tremendously moving, and never bores despite lasting 3h15. Exceptional special effects and unforgettable shots highlight one of the first movies to use digital effects in a truly mature fashion. This might not be my favourite movie of the year (even though it’s close) but it’s certainly one of the best.

The Last Boy Scout (1991)

The Last Boy Scout (1991)

(On VHS, December 1997) There is a cathartic need for stupid action movies where the down-on-his-luck tough guy hero gets to know a wisecracking sidekick, regain the affection and admiration of his rebellious teenage daughter, make his adulterous wife beg for forgiveness (and call her a slut with her full approval), indirectly kill all bad guys by the end of the movie, throw punches to everyone not even remotely sympathetic and play with big guns ‘n fast cars. That this one stars Bruce Willis is a bonus. (There’s also a cathartic need for two-line reviews that include an obscenely long phrase…)

An Exchange of Hostages, Susan R. Matthews

Avonova, 1997, 372 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-78913-2

Do you trust cover blurbs?

Most of the time, I do. I tend to stick with publishers who know what their audience expect, so I’m rarely disappointed by the relation between plot summary blurbs and actual novel content (a pleasant exception are Robert J. Sawyer’s novels, when you get more in the book than what is presupposed by the blurb, but I digress…) (Cover illustrations are another entirely different thing, but I’ll stop talking about that right now lest I begin to digress again…)

But do you trust author’s comments on book covers? (“Good” -Author Nonymous) Here, the situation’s more complex, depending on your gullibility quotient, you appreciation of Author Nonymous, and all that’s in between. But most of the time, you can get clues. If there’s something like (“I loved it” -Saddam Hussein), then…

(Book reviewers can also extract useful pointers for their reviews by re-reading other people’s comments… but it’s not like I do that… ahem… oh, seems like I’m digressing again!)

So when you see something like (“Susan R. Matthews simply doesn’t flinch” -Stephen R. Donaldson), you just know that you’re holding potentially nauseous material. Donaldson, renowned as the author of some of the most displeasing cycles around (The Gap cycle, the Chronicles of Thomas the Uncovenant, etc…) calling Matthews unflinching? A bit like: Pot to Kettle; “Hey wow, I like your shade of black!”

So what is An exchange of Hostages? At the core, it’s yet another one of those “training-camp” novels, like Starship Troopers, Ender’s Game and shelves of other SF books. Who says training camp also says “personal development” novel, and so An Exchange of Hostages is the story of Andrej Koscuisko, heir to an empire and “promising young surgeon”. At the beginning of the story, he enters (against his will, but what can you say when your daddy’s the Big Boss?) an academy where they train Ship Inquisitors. In other words, he’s going to learn the fine art of… torture.


While at this point some readers are hurtling the book against a wall, others are raising the objection that a civilized galactic empire can’t expect to use torture as a formal part of their judiciary system. While that’s an excellent objection, it’s also irrelevant: An Exchange of Hostages is one of those stories (much like fantasy-type allegories) which depend on a single assumed factor. You either swallow it or you don’t.

This is an extraordinarily powerful novel. As his training advances, Koscuisko will find out that his training and skills as surgeon at first hinder, then facilitate his progress. Much like the reader, he will be disgusted by the tasks he’ll be asked to performed, then achieve a more jaded outlook. Along the way, he will make unexpected friends. The protagonist’s relation with his personal slave is one of the surprises of the novel.

It’s never a pleasing story. But it’s engrossing reading. Despite all my preconceptions, I found myself devouring pages after pages, finding out more about Kocuisko’s fate. As a novel, An Exchange of Hostages would be more or less unremarkable if it wasn’t for the special nature of the training camp. As such, I expect opinion to be sharply polarized around the novel, with definite camps for or against it.

In view of this, the only recommendation I can give is that you have to like hard edges, uncompromising plot-lines and quiet, character-driven SF to like this one. Even then, I think a lot of potential readers will abandon the book before completing it. It remains to be seen what else Matthews will write next.

[April 1998: Prisoner of Conscience is the second book in Matthews’s series about a doctor-cum-torturer in an interstellar empire heavily dependant on this form of… interrogation. The first volume, An Exchange of Hostages wasn’t for squeamish readers, but was an interesting bildungsroman with well-defined characters, an engrossing plot and a few hard lessons. Prisoner of Conscience loses most of these attributes. The result is an excruciatingly long and uninvolving read. Following the rather trivial plot of this second book, I can see this series becoming something like an aimless eight-book series especially beloved by S&M enthusiasts. A plot should back up Matthews’s bloodlust, or else it’s just torture for us as well as the characters. For me at least, the series probably stops here.]