Interface, Stephen Bury

Bantam, 1995, 583 pages, C$15.95 tpb, ISBN 0-553-37230-0

American politics are -rightfully- an endlessly fascinating topic, especially when seen from the outside. With power, greed, money and lately -as if it was the only thing missing-, extramarital sex, you can’t really go wrong. The increasingly mediatic aspect of, specifically, high-office campaigning have been the inspiration for many fine works (THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, Primary Colors, ROB ROBERTS…) and Interface is an attractive new high-tech work dealing with the subject.

Half of Stephen Bury is better known as Neal Stephenson, writer of such SF masterpieces like Snow Crash and The Diamond Age. With Interface, he switched technological gears and collaborated with his uncle to produce one of the most entertaining political techno-thriller you’re likely to read this year. Or any year.

The jacket blurbs will try to sell you Interface as a chilling novel where one presidential candidate has a chip implanted in his brain that lets him get instantaneous audience feedback. The truth is that this particular subplot is fairly insignificant, barely exploited and then quickly forgotten. But the remainder of the novel is even better: Public Opinion moguls, redneck psychos, government-controlling conspiracists, crazy spin doctors, humble housewives, foreign neurosurgeons, nerdy engineers and a few million voters all tangle, fight, debate, act, flee or react to make this a complex, but engrossing story.

Interface is an incredibly dense novel. This is definitely one that you’ll want to read attentively; not only is there a lot of plot, but there’s also a lot of details. Stephenson is also known by his articles for Wired magazine, and his fascination for the sociologies of America is evident.

The style of Interface is even better than anything we could have hoped for. Bury’s combined voice is sardonic, clear, often hilarious and always compelling. With some books, the reader feels smarter than the author but here, not only are we conscious that Bury’s smarter, but we accept this without resentment. (“Why didn’t I think of that?”) The amount of detail is incredible; protagonist Cozzano is not described as a rich guy, but his whole family history is unwrapped before us. It’s a measure of Bury’s talent that this exposition and erudition does not feel forced or boring. Similarly, these authors don’t skimp on characterization: Everyone here, despite some very unlikely stunts, feel like actual human characters, and not puppets moved on a stage for our entertainment.

But beyond all this, beyond the enthralling prose and the grrrreat characters, what makes the novel are the Cool Scenes. Cool Scenes are these almost-perfect snippets of prose that aren’t always related to the plot, but stick in the mind for a while. We’re talking Dune‘s sandworms. Neuromancer‘s public-telephone trick. The snowballs thrown at the Moon in Earth. The cruciform resurrections in the first Hyperion volume. Interface has a lot of these Cool Scenes: A Politician vandalizing an ambulance; a blow-by-blow description of dirty campaign tricks; a psychological test; an unemployed housewife taking on a presidential candidate—and winning. This is what elevates Interface over the rest.

Despite all of this, Interface‘s conclusion is a bit rushed. Some of the parts don’t quite gel together. Threads are left untied. And we never get the “robo-candidate” novel promised on the blurb.

But nevertheless, Interface is more than a keenly successful satire on American politics: it’s great, great entertainment. You will probably even learn a few things. Buy it.

All Our Yesterdays, Robert. B. Parker

Dell, 1994, 466 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-22146-3

It’s become something of a cliché to represent every best-selling author as someone with deep literary aspirations who resort to simple, exciting, shallow novels to support himself while s/he’s writing the Great American Novel. (Even Olivia Goldsmith’s The Bestseller does this…)

For instance, everyone knows that Stephen King can write shlocko horror novels at the rate of two or three a year, but his fans also know that meanwhile, King is also writing deeply serious, profound works of literature with his Dark Tower series (among other things, including his short stories.)

In this case, Robert B. Parker is best known as the best-selling author of the detective series “Spencer”. In these novels, a witty Boston private investigator fends off the Mob and other assorted thugs while solving crimes and engaging in witty banter with his psychologist girlfriend and a gallery of sharply-drawn characters.

I more or less became hooked to Robert B. Parker in early 1997, when one friend gave me a box of crime novels which contained two “Spencer” thrillers. I don’t usually read much crime fiction (perhaps ten-fifteen books a year in good years) but somehow became a “Spencer” fan.

And now this, a non-Spencer Parker novel.

All our Yesterdays traces the affairs between two families over three generations, beginning in 1912 and ending in 1994. The legacy of an affair between an Irish revolutionary and an American nurse will ultimately end up in Boston (considering Parker—where else?) being played-out in a city-wide gang war. Three generations of cops, trying to deal with crime and love.

This book is a much more ambitious novel than any of the “Spencer” novels. It’s also nastier, as if Parker realized he was writing for a more jaded audience than his usual crowd. His characters are darker; his prose style is harsher. People swear, have sex and beat up others even more. (They don’t seem to kill off each other in greater quantities, though.) Even given the not-always-fluffy tone of the Spencer novels, this is something. Unfortunately, a lot of the humor is also left behind. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since Parker retains his grip on how to write crackling dialogue.

The characters of the novel are deliciously complex, and often end up acting in ways you’re not supposed to expect. The relationships between the characters is more dynamic than in the average novel, and it’s one of the pleasures of the novel to see everything being played out. It may be argued that the small scale of the novel is unsatisfying, but Parker makes simple dialogue more exciting than explosions, so everything evens out. The style is unusually readable, this 450+ pages novel being easily readable over a single day.

All our Yesterdays, despite its bigger aspirations, isn’t that much of a step over the Spencer series. (A testament of the overall quality of Spencer novels more than anything else) As such, fans of Spencer will certainly enjoy this novel as much as the other ones. Others might see this as a good one-time introduction to Parker’s fiction.

The Quintaglio Trilogy, Robert J. Sawyer

Ace, 1992-1994, ??? pages, C$??.?? mmpb, ISBN Various

Far-Seer (1992), Fossil Hunter (1993) and Foreigner (1994)

Funny animals, dinosaurs.

Funny in the sense that they can lend themselves to a multitude of interpretation; their image in the popular psyche includes things from Barney to the T-Rex in Jurassic Park. You can have’em fluffy or bloodthirsty; there’s room for everything in-between. Even intelligent dinosaurs.

With the Quintaglio Trilogy, Canadian author Robert J. Sawyer sets out with big ambitions. He set sout to explore no less than the path to our modern Western scientific mindset by telling us a three-volume story about an alien race (said Quintaglios) gradually discovering the truths of the universe. In the few hundred pages composing the trilogy, they (we) will go from Galileo to space-flight. It’s a lot of stuff, but Sawyer manages it well.

The first book of the trilogy, Far-Seer, is simultaneously the most interesting and the most ludicrous book of the cycle. The narrative structure is familiar; a young protagonist goes on a voyage of discovery that will change him. (The rest of the world will follow) It’s a fine coming-of-age story. Some parts are breathlessly exciting. Unfortunately, this volume doesn’t unfold as much as it is unwrapped by the author. Like most Sawyer novels (although this one is worse than most), Far-Seer relies a lot on suspicious plotting and awfully convenient coincidences. Earthquakes, sudden deaths and leaps of logic happen when they are the most needed.

The other books are less classically definable, but also rely less of Amazing Authorial Plot Tricks. If the first volume is about Galileo, Fossil Hunter is about Darwin and Foreigner is about Freud. You’ll have to supply the ability to believe that all of this happens in less than a century. With protagonists mostly related to one another.

But reading the Quintaglio trilogy only for the story is a bit unfair. For one thing, the characterization is adequate and the style is the usually limpid prose that Sawyer has used with great success in his other novels. Like the author’s other novels, the Quintaglio books are readable in a single sitting, although you might want to make them last a bit further. Scientific details are exceedingly well-researched, which brings us to the biggest virtue of the Quintaglio trilogy: World-building.

The most amazing thing about the Quintaglio trilogy is the way everything holds well together. The world has an impact on the biology, which has an impact on the psychology, which has an impact on individuals… A lot of subtle and unsubtle details show us how the Quintaglio differ from us and how we can emphasize with them. (My favorite is an insult: “Eat Roots!” Pretty offensive statement for a carnivore…!) Despite dealing with beings closely related to our dinosaurs, Sawyer makes them as sympathetic and likable as human characters.

Careful readers of Sawyer’s work won’t be surprised to find that his usual themes of religion and marital problems find their way into the fabric of the Quintaglio trilogy. A concordance of the Quintaglio world is included at the end of the third volume. Very useful material, but contains spoilers so don’t peek ahead. The illustrations by Tom Kidd (Vol.1) and Bob Eggleton (Vol.2-3) are okay. This trilogy cries out for an omnibus edition.

A final comment; the third book’s emphasis on Freud might not go down well with a few readers overly unconvinced by Old Sigmund’s theories. It would be a mistake, however, to assume a one-to-one analogy with our human theories; the Quintaglio way of life is suitably different from ours, and we get the drift that Freud would have been vastly more successful (or at least, accurate) there than here. (In a bizarre coincidence, I read Foreigner while my elective psychology class was studying Freud. Talk about synchronicity!)

L.A. Confidential (1997)

<strong class="MovieTitle">L.A. Confidential</strong> (1997)

(In theaters, February 1998) I can’t wait I waited this long to see this movie. To L.A. Confidential, I offer my ultimate movie-criticism compliment: It was as enjoyable as a good book. A triumph of storytelling, L.A. Confidential packs a staggering amount of material in less than three hours, which fly so fast that you’ll never realize it is almost a three-hour movie. Every minute is worthwhile, and few moments are boring. A masterful script is backed-up by excellent performances by all six lead actors (Kim Basinger, yeah!), surprisingly great direction and equally excellent editing/scoring. L.A. Confidential gives me back my faith in cinema. Or rather; I go see movies for things like L.A. Confidential. I’m not sure if Titanic or L.A. Confidential is my favorite film of 1997, but I’m sure that L.A. Confidential is the better movie of the two.

Dark City (1998)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Dark City</strong> (1998)

(In theaters, February 1998) Somehow, great things spring up from nowhere. Last year, low-budget lower-impact movie Gattaca managed to be the best SF movie of 1997, appearing out of the blue and sinking almost as fast. This year (so far), Dark City can claim to the same distinction. It’s not a “warm”, “easy” or “fun” movie, but it’s certainly cool, impressive and tremendously exciting. Dark City is a riff on the unusual themes (for cinema) of memory and identity, well-mixed with a good old-fashioned mortal-against-gods story and a very stylish noir atmosphere. Not your run-of-the-mill SF flick, but possesses terrific editing and visual effects. It’s not without faults, of course (said editing is often over-the-top, premise more “Science-fantasy” than otherwise, parts of the ending are disappointing, some visual effects are uneven) but it’s likely to be some of the best stuff this year.

(Second viewing, In theaters, July 2000) Ironically for a film about memory, I had nearly forgotten how good a film Dark City was. Decently scripted, wonderfully directed and amazingly designed, this is a film that will endure, most probably because it was designed from the onset to be timeless, which its quasi-retro look and atmosphere. A second viewing reveals wonderful small details that may be missed on first viewing (such as the protagonist’s fish fascination, or a shot where a rock thrown through a window flips over a sign from “Closed” to “Open”) Best of all, this is a film that’s enthralling for its whole duration. Most assuredly one of the best genre films of the decade, Dark City is a must-see-again.

Blues Brothers 2000 (1998)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Blues Brothers 2000</strong> (1998)

(In theaters, February 1998) I began 1998 with the firm resolution to go only to worthwhile movies. It’s a downer to find that my first movie of the year is so very ordinary. The Blues Brothers still stand in my mind as one of the best musical comedies ever, but this sequel doesn’t even approaches the 1980 original in terms of coolness, musical energy, plotting, general fun or even coherence. Despite having seen the man in person, I’ve been less and less of a fan of Dan Aykroyd ever since his shameless propaganda for paranormal phenomenon, and he sinks even lower after the markedly mercenary intent of this film. (It’s probably no coincidence that it features an explicit Revelation From God and a witch temporarily turning the heroes into zombies.) The musical numbers are so lousily integrated in the movie that we almost expect the little MTV logo to appear in the corner at the beginning and end of each song. Finally, if everything else wasn’t depressing enough, the movie isn’t even very funny, and has no real conclusion to speak of. On the other hand, Joe Morton, John Goodman and the few female roles are somewhat enjoyable. There are also a lot of blues in-jokes you won’t understand.

The Bestseller, Olivia Goldsmith

Harper Collins, 1996, 514 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-06-017822-1

It’s inevitable. After reading a few hundred books, the compulsive reader is not only interested in the stories that the book tell, but in the books themselves. Some become authors; other read about authors.

So, it’s quite a treat to see such a witty and accomplished novelist as Olivia Goldsmith (The First Wives Club) turn her attention on the wonderfully twisted world of New York publishers. Of course, since this is a best-selling novel about best-selling novels, it naturally follows that adultery, crime, punishment, sex, sex, sex, betrayals, horrid incurable diseases, sex, suicides, multimillion contracts and more sex than usual is portrayed here.

In short, The Bestseller is a blast.

At 514 pages, The Bestseller manages to be long and compulsively readable… after a while. The premise is simple: Five books are eventually bought by one of New York’s biggest publishing house. We follow their fates, along with their authors and almost everyone remotely associated with the books’ publication: Editors, agents, librarians and the other members of the family…

Author number one dies in the first pages of The Bestseller: Her mother goes on crusade to publish her daughter’s masterpiece. Author number two is a best-selling romance writer on the decline: Is she going to be able to keep her sanity in addition to the number one spot? Author number three is a young Englishwoman in Italy: Is love or fame the most important thing? Author number four is not only an author, but the publisher himself: Vanity publishing, or honestly good novel? Author number five is a pseudonym for a husband-and-wife collaboration: What happens when the husband “forgets” about his wife and claims the credit?

Then there are the agents (the good and the bad ones), the editors (the good and the bad ones) and the publishers. (again; the good and the bad ones) We visit sales conference, the ABA, bookstores, a few author tours. We read about ghostwriters, famous scandals, publishing lore and wisdom… Truly, The Bestseller tries to reward its reader, who should preferably be a Reader.

Due to the number of plot-lines kept in the air, it does take a while for The Bestseller to cohere. Once it does, however, we’re in for the ride! Goldsmith paints her characters adequately enough to care for them. By the end of the book, it feels like we’ve made new friends.

The Bestseller, however, is rather heavy-handed. As the novel advances, characters are further divided in two mutually exclusive camps: The Good characters will get most of what they want. The Bad characters will get what they deserve. Melodrama happens, but strangely it does not harm the book. In fact, The Bestseller would have been much less enjoyable with moral ambiguity. Everyone likes a happy ending, and it’s refreshing to be in a narrative where everything happens as it should happen.

Escape reading? At its best! Goldsmith’s prose is undemanding yet not without a certain elegance. Whatever happens is clearly described (aside from one unfortunately intentional “Let’s hide the gender of this character” misstep.) and there are very few barriers between the reader and the story.

A few audacious in-jokes pepper this book, further rewarding the attentive reader. But most will be content just to read page after page, sinking in the story like it should be with any big, good bestseller.