Month: June 1998

Year’s Best SF 3, Ed. David G. Hartwell

Tor, 1998, 448 pages, C$8.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-105901-3

Who do you trust?

When you get down to it, that’s the only worthwhile question when you buy a “best-of” anthology. Normally, people don’t have the same tastes and chances are that once in a while, a gem to another will be garbage to you. In SF, there are now two annual “best of” anthologies. Gardner Dozois edits one, David Hartwell edits the other.

I’ll state right up-front that from what I’ve seen, I tend to trust Hartwell rather than Dozois. Not only have I met Hartwell and heard a few suspicious things from Dozois about media SF, but the content of the anthologies themselves are very different.

One thing that struck me of Dozois’s anthology is how… well… most of the anthology wasn’t true *Science*-Fiction. Fantasy yes, magical realism yes, social-fiction yes, but hard-SF was practically absent. Not so with Hartwell, who selects stories that are mostly, obviously, from the genre of true science-fiction. (Unlike Dozois, Hartwell has proven his knowledge of other fields by editing anthologies of Horror, Fantasy, etc… Maybe that’s why he doesn’t feel the need to put everything he likes in one big “SF” anthology.)

Year’s Best SF 3 contains more than twenty stories in almost 450 pages. Fortunately, most of them are short and Hartwell avoids selecting interminable novellas (another pet peeve of mine; never mind). Most of them are readable, most of them are firmly based upon new ideas and most of them are enjoyable.

Among those:

  • In “The Nostalginauts”, S.N.Dyer shows us a future high-school graduation where almost everyone there is present twice, at twenty-five years intervals. This is my favourite story of the volume: Densely written, credibly extrapolated, with a fun punch at the end. I look forward to see more of Dyer’s stuff.
  • Tom Cool continues to produce entertaining material (after his excellent debut novel Infectress) with the paranoid “Universal Emulators”, where matters of identities and counter-identities are much more complex -or simple- than we might think.
  • If Tom Cool takes on identities, Nancy Kress does new stuff with moods in “Faithful to Thee, in my Fashion”. Would you believe future seasonal mood fashions? Good sociological extrapolations, fascinating premise and Kress makes it work. Nicely subtle “unhappy” ending too.
  • Geoffrey Landis’s “Turnover” seems to me to exemplify the capacity of SF to provide creative freedom to unorthodox science. Best of all, Landis uses a silly tone to postulate silly theories. The result is a lot of fun.
  • Gregory Benford morphs himself briefly in Ray Bradbury to write “The Voice”, an updated version of Fahrenheit 451‘s basic premise. Meanwhile, Bradbury is in the anthology too, with a decidedly un-hard-SF tale named “Mr. Pale”. Complete fantasy, but enjoyable.
  • Greg Egan is up to his usually provocative self with “Yeyuka”, a tale of bio-technology and technological imperialism.

On the other hand, I wasn’t able to finish the stories of William Gibson, Kim Newman and R. Garcia y Robertson.

Still, given that the remainders of the stories are pretty impressive, Year’s Best SF 3 gets my recommendation for anyone wishing to get an idea of where the genre is going at the moment. Good for neophytes, good for jaded fans, good for everyone, Year’s Best SF 3 is a solid choice. Best of all, it’s even a bit cheaper than the usual paperback!

The Book of Knights, Yves Meynard

Tor, 1998, 222 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-86482-6

I will freely confess that I do not read much fantasy at the moment. I used to be a fan a few years ago, but dropped out sometime since then.

I’m not sure of my reasons. Maybe it’s the implicit rejection of technology and the unrealistic glorification of the European medieval era. Maybe it’s the casual acceptance of destiny as a way of life and the triviality of merit, or free-will. Maybe it’s the constant use of the monarchic system, with its rigid classes of royalty and commoners. Maybe it’s that my cartesian mind can’t deal with different causalities.

Whatever the reason(s), I now usually end up bored stiff by fantasy. Even given that I’m a fairly fast reader, I won’t touch fantasy novels and much less fat fantasy trilogies.

But (conflict-of-interest disclosure time) since I’ve met Yves Meynard a few times and since I like to do my part for Canadian SF&F&H, I decided to try The Book of Knights. Given its relatively thin 222 pages, at least I was assured of a fairly quick read.

The novel begins as a young boy named Adelrune discovers a tattered volume in his parent’s attic. This volume is, of course, The Book of Knights. In a small town where official doctrine is rigidly followed, the book represents evasion for Adelrune and soon, he’s running away to become a knight.

He eventually enters the service of a mage that will teach him, barring a hefty price. Then it’s off in the vast land, for Adelrune must prove his worth. Adventures ensue.

From the plot synopsis, it might appear as if Meynard didn’t take any chances, combining a familiar premise with a surefire way to maintain interest. I found myself constantly reaching for my copy of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

But it must be said that however classical The Book of Knights‘s premise is, Meynard does a pretty good job with it. Furthermore, the details themselves are original: We seldom feel as if we’re reading recycled Tolkien outtakes. Sagacious readers will experience a delicious thrill from time to time, as things suddenly go quite unlike how they could be expected to go.

Better yet, The Book of Knights manages to be satisfying and morally ambiguous in a genre where whiter-than-white victories are usually the norm. Adelrune’s quest might tangentially resemble other quests, but the resolution of it is certainly different. The quest itself was probably not the point of the book.

The Book of Knights is also unusually readable, something that may surprise readers of Meynard’s other stories. Despite a few longish passages (after the Inn passage, after the Ship passage), this novel can be read in almost a single sitting. Dialogues are written in a literate pseudo-medieval way (“I am very much older than I appear. All those whom I grew up with are dead; the country I dwelled in has been parcelled out into five duchies and patched back up several times.”) that somehow seems neither ridiculous, over-polished or intrusive.

While my basic opinion of fantasy remains unchanged, even I have to admit that The Book of Knights is a pretty good book. Although the hardcover might still be a bit overpriced at this moment (borrow it at the library), the paperback should be a worthwhile investment for a large segment of the SF&F readership. A strong contender for next year’s Aurora awards, The Book of Knights also heralds the arrival of a major new talent on the Fantasy scene. I can’t wait to see what Meynard writes next.

The Intruders, Stephen Coonts

Pocket, 1994, 375 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-87061-0

Readers already familiar with military fiction already know that most of it takes place during wars. Whether historical or imagined, war seems a natural place for highlighting the efforts, sacrifices and emotions of average (?) military characters.

Stephen Coonts’s first novel was Flight of the Intruder, a Vietnam-era story of naval aviators trying to do their job as well as they could under the hesitant American political system. It was turned into a movie, albeit not a very successful one.

Afterward, Coonts branched out in fiction that was closer to thriller territory than military action… Terrorists taking over an aircraft carrier (Final Flight), a witch-hunt for soviet spies in a top-secret aircraft project (The Minotaur), drug dealers taking over Washington (Under Siege, not the Seagal movie) and hijinks in post-USSR Russia. (The Red Horseman)

All these novels starred Jake Grafton, a professional naval officer. In Flight of the Intruder, he’s a pilot. In Final Flight, he’s an air wing commander. The Intruders fills in some of the gap between the two novels. What’s unusual about it is that it’s straight military fiction without a war.

It’s 1973. The Vietnam war is over, at least for the Americans. Jake Grafton has narrowly evaded a court martial for his acts at the end of Flight of the Intruder and is now enjoying his leave in the United States. Things don’t go too well: Drinking in a bar after a stormy meeting with the parents of his wife-to-be, he gets mad and defenestrates a guy who’s ragging against the military.

For his troubles, Jake gets an affectation on an aircraft carrier, teaching carrier aviation to Marines. What follows is almost two hundred pages of miscellaneous anecdotes and a seventy-page adventure tacked at the end.

This is not meant to be disparaging: The Intruders is quite enjoyable overall, with its detailed description of life aboard an aircraft carrier cruise. Simply put, carrier aviation is not for sissies: There’s probably no more difficult task for a pilot than to land on the ridiculously short deck of a carrier, at night, during rotten weather where the landing deck can suddenly jump up and down by several feet. Even departing from a carrier, as Coonts shows us, can be hair-raising.

Much like the movie MEMPHIS BELLE, Coonts compresses dozens of exciting incidents, big and small, in one trip. Most of them happen to protagonist Jake Grafton, (Someone is the book says: “Stuff keeps happening to you, man!”) who decides early on that this will be his last cruise. Of course he will stay (see the later novels), but why?

Coonts’s characters have always been fairly interesting, and he surpasses himself in The Intruders. Not only are Grafton’s friends more polished than ever before, but Grafton himself acquires an extra depth during the novel: his evolution to the mindset of a professional Navy aviator is very credible. Meanwhile, we get an insight in the psychology of naval pilots, probably one of the toughest job on Earth.

The novel suffers somewhat from the inclusion of a pirate adventure (really!) at the end, another case of “Uh-oh! Got to have a plot!” anxiety.

Exciting, fascinating, gripping and not without an extra layer of significance, The Intruders manages to overcome the potentially off-putting barrier of “historical non-warfare” military fiction to produce a novel that’s commendable to anyone interested in the genre. You will learn stuff, and you will enjoy it.

Death by Deficit, Richard Rohmer

Stoddard, 1995, 234 pages, C$26.95 hc, ISBN 0-7737-2902-X

It’s been said that Canada is a country shaped by paranoia. Given the antagonistic relation between the two original founding nation (France and England), the frightening bully-like power of its southern neighbour (The United States), the rebellious streak of its French province (Quebec) and the increasingly multicultural nature of its population, (see Toronto) it’s no wonder that the nation is always going from one overblown crisis to another, second-guessing itself and feeling terribly insecure about its future.

In the process, Canadians have shaped the best country of the world.

But insecurity sells, and Richard Rohmer has built a career upon this. Author of more than a dozen novels and half-a-dozen nonfiction books, Rohmer has specialized in intricate, high-stakes political/military thrillers featuring Canada as the protagonist. Ill-written and badly constructed, Rohmer’s novels often feel like solutions in search of problems; clever concepts ineptly inserted in rotten novels.

Nevertheless… it sells. Provided you’ve got some time to lose and borrow the book from the library, Rohmer’s novels might even be not entirely unenjoyable. Death by Deficit goes straight in this category.

A few years ago, in the middle of the latest recession, the Canadian economic and political scene went berserk on the concept that Canada was irresponsibly running a budget deficit of nearly forty billion dollars a year. After several years of profligate spending by parties in power, an effort was made to reduce the deficit to manageable levels.

Today, the zero-deficit budget isn’t yet here, but it’s surprisingly close, especially given “common wisdom” of not even ten years ago. Through massive cuts everywhere (and quite a bit of screaming), the Canadian government is finally getting a hold of fiscal maturity. (Alas, the debt will remain for quite some time…)

In 1994-1995, though, things weren’t so rosy and it seemed possible to imagine a future where Canada would simply go bankrupt. Quite a few people dwelled on the consequences, including Richard Rohmer.

Death by Deficit is nothing but an intellectual exercise in which the goal is to un-bankrupt Canada. As a fictional work, it is simply laughable: Characters are ill-defined (and all women are beautiful), dialogue is hilarious, narrative flow is broken by the inclusion of a (real-life!) news program transcription, etc…

But as a thought-exercise, it’s a pretty fascinating read. Rohmer exposes the problems and shakes the sceptre of the consequences, then proceeds to find three different solutions to the problem. Although none of them are terribly convincing, they offer some food for thought.

The technical details of the inner workings of the government and national fiscal policy are credibly exposed: Chances are that you’ll learn a few things. Given its alarmist nature, Death by Deficit is frightening and memorable; The old scare tactics still work well.

“Hard economy-fiction” might not be the best-selling category out there, but Death by Deficit shows that fiction, even incompetent fiction, can help a great deal to expose and sensitize readers to issues that might only be of interest to accountants and newspaper columnists. Don’t read Death by Deficit for gripping accounts of super-special economic agents or even decent storytelling, but take a look to appreciate what Canada might have narrowly avoided, and what may still be in store for us if we’re not careful.

The Divide, Robert Charles Wilson

Bantam Spectra, 1990, 249 pages, C$10.95 tpb, ISBN 0-385-26655-3

Intelligence -and higher intelligence- has always been of interest to SF writers and readers. Maybe it’s because of the usual belief that persons interested in SF are, on average, more intelligent than the common person. Maybe it’s because highly intelligent protagonists suffer from a sense of alienation akin to what the usual SF fan feels. Or maybe because it’s SF’s job to fulfil fantasies… and being smarter is probably high on everyone’s list of fantasies.

But high intelligence is often seen as much of a handicap than a blessing. From Stapleton’s Odd John (referenced to in The Divide) onward, high intelligence is a source of pain and misery. The Divide takes the normal/high intelligence difference further by creating a protagonist with multiple personalities: one of average wits, the other… definitely not.

Robert Charles Wilson has never been a particularly inventive author with his premises. (Although his latest, Darwinia, is an exception) You can almost pick off the major themes he explored book-by-book: Time-travel/cyborgs in A Bridge of Time, alien invasions/metaphysical transcendence in The Harvest, parallel universes/alternate histories in Mysterium

But Wilson more than makes up for his pedestrian subjects by treating them with a sensitivity uncommon in SF. The characters in his stories are almost always fully realized, depicted like real humans, and given the chance to exhibits genuine traits. What’s more, Wilson writes with a commendable clarity: His books are difficult to put down because their narrative intensity -even for low-key novels!- is so strong.

The Divide might not be Wilson’s best work (for reasons soon explained), but it is certainly a pleasant read. For a contemporary novel with a low body-count and a sentimental approach, The Divide grips its reader in the opening pages and doesn’t let go.

John Shaw is the product of a secret government project (gee!) conducted thirty years ago to enhance human intelligence. When the project was disbanded, John was put in a foster home. Twenty-five years later, the scientist in charge of the project thinks that John is in trouble-and he’s not far from the truth: John Shaw’s mind has created Benjamin, an averagely-smart alter-ego. But now, Benjamin is taking over…

As the scientist’s assistant tracks down John and Benjamin’s intrusion in John’s life are becoming more and more frequent, stakes are raised with the arrival of the brother of John/Benjamin’s girlfriend-a dangerously unbalanced young man with a troubling history of violence.

In lesser hands, The Divide might have been an insipid rehash of old plots, stale Freudian (or Jungian) stereotypes and a sappy love story. But Wilson is aware of these pitfalls and the novel weaves well between these pitfalls. The only disappointment comes at the end, where the books ends up more like a trashy Hollywood thriller (fight in an abandonned warehouse, etc, etc…) than what we might have expected from the book so far.

Nevertheless, this is a pretty solid choice for anyone interested in Canadian science-fiction, Robert Charles Wilson or “quiet” science-fiction in general. The Divide has tremendous potential to reach outside the borders of the genre. Toronto citizens will enjoy the cover illustration, in whose background the CN tower is hit by lightning…

The Green Progression, L.E. Modesitt Jr. & Bruce Scott Levinson

Tor, 1992, 312 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-51641-9

Are you the kind of person that loves to say exactly the opposite of what everyone else is saying? Would you take on the job of being the devil’s advocate? Do you think that a bit of discussion is better than unthinking unanimous agreement, even if you happen to agree with what’s being discussed?

If so, you should have a blast reading The Green Progression. Perennial libertarian iconoclast L.E. Modesitt Jr. has teamed up with relative unknown Bruce Scott Levinson to write a reactionary environmental novel.

Everyone more or less assumes that the environment is something worth protecting. Everyone should cheer when Washington adopts stricter environmental standards, since it means that less pollutants will be released… and if there are less pollutants, it means the environment is better off, right? Anyone who complains must be evil industrialists trying to protect their profits, right?

Modesitt and Levinson take the position that enough is enough, and that environmental standards in the US are good as they are. But how to spin a novel around this? You wouldn’t think a novel whose protagonists are lawyers, bureaucrats, researchers and politicians could possibly be exciting. And yet, The Green Progression is surprisingly gripping.

Jack McDarvid is a former pilot, a former CIA operative, a former EPA staffer but a current husband, father and consultant at a law firm that specializes in environmental issues. At the beginning of The Green Progression, his boss is gunned down in a drug hit. Then, his inquiries in his former boss’s last case are proving very sensitive to some important people…

Modesitt and Levinson happily mix a few other threads in the plot. A Russian operative is shown encouraging tougher environmental standards in the US to drive away the high-tech industries. McDarvid’s associate gets involved with a woman implicated in radical environmental movements. A humble staffer receives a scholarship for her daughter in subtle exchange for… information. CIA, congressmen, French industrialists, radical lefties and other characters all get caught in this political/bureaucratic thriller.

The Green Progression is not an easy book to read. It uses more -much more- hard-science jargon, assumptions and concepts than most hard-SF novels on the market. (There’s a glossary at the end) The separate threads are difficult to differentiate at the beginning. The plot takes a while to coalesce, leaving the reader confused for the first part of the book.

But then, the novel somehow pulls itself together and the result is a fairly enjoyable, mostly ingenious novel that doesn’t quite resemble anything else you’re likely to have read so far. There’s a happy ending.

It’s a fascinating novel not only for its focus, but also for its attitude that takes pleasure is showing the reader how much of what he thinks he knows is wrong. The bureaucratic process involved in making new standards is very well described, with the result that the book expands your knowledge of how government works. (Whether or not you trust the authors is up to your confidence in their research and ability to represent reality!)

Some readers will enjoy the anti-rabid-environmentalist viewpoint, others will loathe it. That’s normal. The Green Progression will probably find a ready home among hard-SF enthusiasts, most of them already receptive both to the pro-technology agenda and to Modesitt himself, who’s better known as a SF&F writer. Unusual thriller; worth a look.

The Truman Show (1998)

The Truman Show (1998)

(In theaters, June 1998) “The best movie of the decade”? Not really. “One of the better Hollywood films in a while?” Probably. Penned by Andrew Nicol (of the excellent Gattaca, which shares many similarities with The Truman Show), this lighthearted (but darkish) socio-fiction is a surprisingly good vehicle for Jim Carrey (who had more or less prepared for this role with last year’s Liar Liar). The concept is about as high as they come (a man finds out that his whole life is a TV show) and so it’s no surprise that the movie isn’t as good as we would imagine it to be. Several aspects of the script, and the way it chose to resolve some issues, are especially disappointing and fall apart under closer scrutiny. But no matter: The Truman Show, like Gattaca, works better when considered as a loose metaphor rather than an literal work. It’s not close to being perfect, but it’s still recommended viewing. And the closing scene is almost perfect, although most viewers won’t realize that ultimately, the joke is about them.

Out Of Sight (1998)

Out Of Sight (1998)

(In theaters, June 1998) I do not like what I’ve read of Elmore Leonard, but he’s currently Hollywood’s darling author (with Get Shorty, Jackie Brown and Out Of Sight). His stories are slight tales of small-time crooks and overcomplicated heists. So, it’s a surprise to find out that while Out Of Sight keeps these flaws, it’s still better-constructed than most of the other movies I’ve seen this year. George Clooney is better than usual as the male protagonist and Jennifer Lopez is as good as his counterpart. Nice use of non-linear storytelling makes this a movie a notch over the rest. The last act is the best one, the comedic content being cranked up and the action being more focused. As for myself, I find my reaction to Out Of Sight to be an ominous sign of my cinematic preferences: While I can say that it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen this year so far, I think it would have been a better choice on video… I like my movies-at-the-theatre to be loud, explosive, Special Effects-filled and quick-paced.

House Party (1990)

House Party (1990)

(On TV, June 1998) Guys organize party, guys meet girls, guys get in trouble, guys get happy ending and girls. Now that the plot has been given away, let’s just say that House Party is a notch over the average entry in this genre mainly due to a certain innocent fun that’s present both in the actors, and in the making of this movie. Far from every joke works, but those who do, do. Since it’s a musical, it’s no wonder that the movie’s highlight comes at mid-point during a delightful dance sequence and a good-natured rapping contest. (The French translation I saw had at least the good taste to leave the rapping in the original English version!) Good-natured, mostly harmless fun.

Factoring Humanity, Robert J. Sawyer

Tor, 1998, 350 pages, C$31.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-86458-2

Robert J. Sawyer’s latest novel, Factoring Humanity, is about a estranged couple. Heather Davis is a psychology teacher at the university of Toronto: She had devoted her career to the deciphering of an ongoing alien message. Kyle Davis is a computer scientist: He’s working on artificial intelligence and quantum computing. In the first chapter, the gulf between the separated couple widens as their daughter accuses Kyle of sexual abuse. During this family crisis, the extraterrestrial message stops and strange individuals begin to have more than a passive interest in Kyle’s research…

Good? Bad? It won’t surprise anyone to learn that Factoring Humanity confirms what most fans already know about Robert J. Sawyer’s fiction.

One: It’s unusually readable. Sawyer’s journalistic training has taught him to write concisely, which is a change from the over-padded SF&F trilogies that we almost take for granted. The prose style is compulsively readable, a combination of effective writing and intellectual suspense.

The pattern repeats itself with his latest novel. Don’t bother looking for a bookmark before reading Factoring Humanity: Chances are you won’t put it down before reading the last line. On one hand, it’s a wonderful reading experience to be absorbed so completely in a novel. On another hand, it’s disappointing to finish a pricey hardcover in a single afternoon.

Two: The Big Ideas are there. After tackling death and the soul (The Terminal Experiment), cosmology and immortality (Starplex), genetic destiny (Frameshift) and the legal ramifications of accusing an alien of murder (Illegal Alien), Sawyer takes on the matter of (collective) consciousness in Factoring Humanity. Add to that the trifles of artificial intelligence, quantum computing and extraterrestrial messages and we get a busy book.

Almost too busy. Even though the book’s already full of interesting themes, Sawyer still piles up more, with the effect that some of the subplots seem rushed. For instance, much more could have been done with Cheetah, the “Approximate Psychological Experiences” computer simulation which has a small part in Factoring Humanity: it could have been the subject of a story by itself. (Later on near the end, we almost expect Sawyer to link Cheetah’s thread with the “organic consciousness” issue… it doesn’t quite happen. And it’s difficult to be more explicit without spoilers.)

Three: A more forgiving ability to suspend disbelief is necessary. For all its virtues, Sawyer’s fiction is always somewhat suspicious in plotting. Coincidences, unlikely character relations, half-integrated plot elements are always there to help the plot advance, whether it makes natural sense or not. There always seems to be a few contrived situations here and there. (Witness, per example, the unusually high proportion of exotic genetic problems around the protagonist of Frameshift. Or the earthquake in Far-seer. Or the diary in End of an Era. Or…) Some of the character’s psychology is also slightly suspicious.

Factoring Humanity repeats this accumulation of unlikeliness by linking the discovery of another extraterrestrial message to Heather Davis’s ex-boyfriend, among other things. The novel also has the added disadvantage (?) of luring the reader with a hard-SF beginning, only to end with a distinctively metaphysical tone.

Four: Sawyer’s usual themes are there. Religion and matrimonial problems once again find their way here, which isn’t a surprise since most of Sawyer’s novels so far have included something like this. Philip K. Dick once said that the greatest failing of SF was its inability to deal with marriage. It seems that Sawyer is single-handedly proving Dick wrong.

Five: You will read it. Not only is Factoring Humanity a strong contender for next’s year’s awards, it also shows why Robert J. Sawyer is now the foremost SF writer in Canada today. Hugo, Nebula and Aurora alert!

Hard Target (1993)

Hard Target (1993)

(On TV, June 1998) Take possibly the best action director on the planet at the time (John Woo). Take one of the blandest action “star” of the moment (Jean-Claude Van Damme). Take one of the most routinely average B-movie action script possible. Mix’em up together and you get Hard Target, possibly the most beautifully directed action B-movie ever. It’s far beyond ludicrous, it doesn’t have any surprises, it’s impossibly outlandish, but even then the directing is so compelling that it elevates the whole to a watchable state. Woo couldn’t make it any good, but he could make it impressive. A portentous fore-runner to Broken Arrow, and the superlative Face/Off.

Grease (1978)

Grease (1978)

(On TV, June 1998) My sister was almost speechless when she realized that I was watching Grease for the first time. “It’s a classic!” she finally said. “It’s a movie that defined a generation!” Well, maybe not, but it has a certain naive charm. Never mind that their fifties is a complete figment of their imagination, Grease is fun to watch, especially with a young John Travolta (and an equally-young Jeff Conaway, of Babylon-5 fame) The songs aren’t that good, but there are at least two memorably snappy tunes (“Summer Nights” and “We go Together”). Mercifully, the French version I saw had the good sense to keep the musical numbers in their original English version.

Dip huet seung hung [The Killer] (1989)

Dip huet seung hung [The Killer] (1989)

(On VHS, June 1998) Before coming to America and directing Hard Target, Broken Arrow and Face/Off (each much better than the previous), John Woo was already a famous movie-maker in his native Hong Kong. There, he wrote are directed several action movies that are now coming over to North American video stores. The Killer is reportedly one of his best efforts. The film might seem a bit unpolished by Hollywood standards, but still contains a native energy that is amazing to watch. The gun battles are even more over the top than almost any other movie. The story, while not perfect, works. In its own way, The Killer is as preposterous as any Jackie Chan movie, but made dramatic rather than comedic. A quirky choice, but memorable.

Masque, F. Paul Wilson and Matthew J. Costello

Warner Aspect, 1998, 342 pages, C$29.00 hc, ISBN 0-446-51977-4

It’s funny how books can remind you of food.

I have absolutely no idea why this is so.

Maybe it’s a purely personal prejudice: after all, I can’t go a few days without some reading much as I can’t go more than a few hours without food.

Maybe it’s because you eventually learn that beyond “good” and “bad” books, there are books that are perfectly adequate without being any good and there are great books that somehow fail to satisfy you. Rather like food doesn’t necessarily divide itself between “poisonous” and “healthy”.

Masque, for instance, is the SF equivalent of a meat and potato meal with a small amount of soya sauce thrown in: completely ordinary, but with a few interesting bits.

Since van Vogt’s Slan (and probably even before then), science-fiction has always had a soft spot for ostracised minorities with special talents. In Masque, we have Mimes, a group of genetically-tailored humanoids that can change their shape according to specially programmed templates. In this story, all Mimes are owned by warring corporations (yes, it’s a wacky wonderful cyberpunk future all over again!) to be used as spies whose identities can be re-created at each mission.

(Scientific verisimilitude of humanoids able to change to another form in a matter of minutes is interestingly obscured by convincingly-sounding techno-babble, but the basic premise remains pretty unbelievable.)

Our hero is Tristan, a mime who is about to accomplish the final mission of his contract. It seems simple: infiltrate an enemy base and steal plans. Of course, obstacles will turn up. Whether it’s inconvenient scruples, mutants, underground sects, fighting pits or constancy duplicity, Tristan will soon discover he’s way over his head in tactical complexity.

Nobody will be shocked to learn that he meets a girl, kills bad guys and overthrows a regime or two before the end. No surprises here. Scant excitement too. Masque plays it very safe by using Standard Plot #32 and portraying the protagonist as a sweet, almost innocent hero-to-cheer-for. Why? Because he’s sweet, innocent and the protagonist.

Which is to say that there’s some character development, but not that much of it. No matter: even the freshest characters this side of Shakespeare couldn’t have saved this pretty generic SF thriller from bare adequacy.

Science-Fiction, like science itself, advances primarily through individual contributions to the whole discipline. Despite having done a competent job at cribbing together elements from umpteenth stories, Wilson and Costello’s advances to the genre are pretty equal to nil.

Still, Masque has a legitimate place in the SF ecology. By being an adequate thriller, it might be translated to the screen and become an unusually smart SF thriller. It might introduce readers to SF. It might be something to read while waiting for the next good SF novel. It might make money for Warner Aspect. It might entertain a few readers for a few hours.

Grossly overpriced as a hardcover (this is the prototypic paperback SF novel if I ever saw one!), Masque might still, given these caveats, be a good choice at your local library. But only if there’s nothing better available in the New Arrivals bookshelf.

Going back to the food analogy, Masque is average fast-food, competently put together by chefs who have the capacity to do much, much better. It will fill you up until the next meal, but will also quickly evaporate from your memory when said next meal will arrive.

Cadillac Man (1990)

Cadillac Man (1990)

(On TV, June 1998) This was actually the second time I saw the movie. The first time, I saw only the latter half of the movie, during which a hostage situation happens. This time around, I saw all the development. My conclusion is that it’s a pretty good hostage comedy, but that the first hour can be safely skipped. Otherwise, you get a movie that goes awry at mid-point. Robin Williams is okay. Oh, and the girls are pretty cute.