Expendable, James Alan Gardner

Avonova, 1997, 337 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-79439-X

Being a faintly patriotic Canadian reader (born and working in Ottawa, no less!) I usually feel almost duty-bound to report favourably on the Canadian SF that I read. While Expendable isn’t bad, it does have enough deficiencies to make one wonder.

National borders aside, James Alan Gardner is a hot new author. In two years, he has published two novels (Expendables and 1998’s Commitment Hour) and a few stories, winning the 1998 Aurora Award for “Three Hearings on the Existence of Snakes in the Human Bloodstream”. He seems to be poised to become as big a success as that “other” Canadian author, Robert J. Sawyer.

But like in Sawyer’s novels, the good mixes in the eek! in Expendables, with uneven results.

Festina Ramos would be a babelicious chick if it wasn’t for the ugly wine-red birthmark covering half her face. Not living in a particularly forgiving society, she’s drafted into the exploration corps as an “expendable” contact specialist because… hey… she’s ugly.

No kidding. First pages. Is this an excuse, a bit of window-dressing, a portent of deeper reasons? No! Though we wish otherwise, ugly makes you a perfect candidate for high-risk job: “In a society where people expect to ease confortably out of this world at a ripe old age, the thought of anyone being killed is deeply disturbing unless… the person who dies is different. […] If the victim was not so popular, not so well-liked and above all, ugly… well, bad things happen, but we all have to carry on.” [Page Three] Right, mate. Explains today’s army, right?

Take a big pill of Disbelief Suspension, and call me back in the morning. Forget about the implication of such a society, or the various alternate methods by which this could be implemented. This is the make-or-break premise. Take it or leave the book.

Those who choose to remain with the book shouldn’t regret their decision. The tale of Festina’s exploits is told reasonably well. The narration is suitably sarcastic -it helps covering up the logical flaws- and the portrayal of a goof tough female heroine is always welcome. Despite many dead moments and a few suspicious scenes (as well as improbable gadgets we sense included just-for-cool), Expendable is a well-crafted SF adventure. Unlike other writers who like to present a clear-cut, rigidly straight vision of the future, Gardner puts a lot of texture, details and off-hand trivia in his prose. The result that even given the ludicrousness of the situation, it has a kind of weird legitimacy as long as one doesn’t think about it too much.

Other aspects of the book, like the over-the-top fiendish plan, are unfortunately head-scratchers when objectively considered outside the self-assigned scope of the novel. Much like a villain who acts in an evil manner for no other reasons that, heck, he’s a bad guy!

As with most other “planet mysteries”, the initial troubling setup works better than the actual revelation of the mystery. Unlikely coincidences abound, like the presence of a gallery of Festina’s friends later in the story.

Sometimes interesting, sometimes discouraging, Expendables is likely to please some and discourage others. It shows, mostly, the promise of James Alan Gardner as an author… especially if he can restrain his initial situations and tighten up his plotting. In the meantime, let’s see what else he’ll write next.

Under Siege (1992)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Under Siege</strong> (1992)

(On TV, September 1998) Not bad. Not very good, either, but what can you say about Yet Another Die Hard clone, this time with a lone cook (Steven Seagal) battling terrorists on a ship (the battleship USS Missouri)? It’s actually decent entertainment as long as you don’t expect much from it. Tommy Lee Jones makes an interesting villain, we get a totally gratuitous nude shot of Miss-July-1989 Erika Eleniak and the battleship scenery is original. On the other hand, there’s scarcely any suspense for anyone (Seagal is never in any kind of real disadvantage) and the story isn’t really innovative. Still, not bad.

Tammy And The T-Rex (1994)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Tammy And The T-Rex</strong> (1994)

(On TV, September 1998) Occasional flashes of interest and comedy (eg; the hospital and the morgue scene) pepper this awful movie that -among other things- can’t decide whether it’s horror or humour. Too bad, since there was potential for a fun teenage comedy here. Starring Denise Richard, who’s rapidly becoming the Queen of Trash Movies with 1997’s Starship Troopers and 1998’s Wild Things. Stay until the end; she does a gratuitous half-strip-tease.

Squirm (1976)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Squirm</strong> (1976)

(On TV, September 1998) Earthworms. Sounds scary? Well, when they bite and they’re piled up high enough to rain down on a character when she opens a door, I guess it must be somewhat disturbing. Or, at least that’s what Squirm tries to tell us. The result is mildly effective. The science is ludicrous -anybody heard of power line breakers?- and the look is typically muddy-seventies, but the film is considerably helped by two rarities in characters: The skinny, nerdish hero is someone I could identify with, and the heroine (played by Patricia Pearcy) is still very attractive for a seventies’ film. (But then again, I have a weakness for long-haired redheads.) Worth a look. It will make you squirm.

Rude Astronauts, Allen Steele

Ace, 1995, 263 pages, C$6.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-00184-X

As a self-proclaimed Hard-Science-Fiction fan, it seemed a bit strange that I came to discover Allen Steele only recently, several novels after his debut in the SF field. But I’m finally catching up, and read A King of Infinite Space last spring. While that novel suffered from a cheapening conclusion, the remainder of the narrative was so good as to encourage me to read other material by Steele.

Which brings us to Rude Astronauts, Steele’s first collection of short stories. Ten stories, five short science non-fiction articles. Not even a dollop of fantasy in sight.

A collection always offer a good portrait of an author’s common themes and approaches. If nothing else, Rude Astronauts convinced me that Steele was an author worth reading. Steele obviously knows his science stuff: The technical details are impeccable, the science is integral to the stories and the attitude is quintessential hard-SF. Furthermore, Steele writes with a style that’s both journalistic-clear and with a potent stylistic kick. The Diamondback Jack’s story trilogy, in particular, represents Steele at his best.

The fun thing is that Steele writes hard-SF but, contrarily to other practicers of the art, knows the real world. His stories are not about the scientists who think about stuff, but about the mechanics, the technicians, the grunts who take the scientists’s plans and make them into tangible reality. This working-class perspective is unique and refreshing.

Rude Astronauts is divided in three parts. The first, Near Space, is easily the best: Pure hard-SF, with a perspective far removed from the usual squeaky-clean portrayal of space exploration. Here, stories about beer in space, retired astronauts, work-caused deaths in space and Martian music. There’s the Diamondback Jack’s story trilogy, a series of tall tales heard (where else?) in Diamondback Jack’s, a rough bar catering to the Cape Canaveral blue-collar crowd. They make interesting companions to Spider Robinson’s fudgy-goody Callahan’s sequence.

The second part is Alternate Space, two stories about an alternate history where the Americans and Nazis first competed for space exploration and humans landed on Mars in 1974. Both stories are told in an appropriate pseudo-historical-journalistic style. “Goddard’s people” will probably make more sense with people already familiar with wartime american scientists, but “John Harper Wilson” is a good tale of… well, why spoil it?

The third part is not quite as hard-SF. It’s called “Contemporary Space” and presents, quite appropriately, contemporary tales. One, “Hapwood’s Hoax” is a clever examination of the uneasy relationship between SF and the lunatic UFO fringe. Some will see it as a retelling of Scientology; I just consider it a pretty good yarn. “Winter Scenes of the Cold War” is a run-of-the-mill techno-thriller about spies and advanced technology. “Trembling Earth” is a thriller in the vein of Jurassic Park, but nastier, and with a lovely kicker that catches you by surprise.

Interestingly, “Live from the Mars Hotel”, “Hapgood’s Hoax”, “Winter Scenes of the Cold War” and “Trembling Earth” all share a common storytelling structure, which is of either a series of interview of people connected to events, or the “official” version of events (usually during a testimony) intercut with what “really” happened. Coupled with the Diamondback Jack’s trilogy and the pseudo-journalistic approach to the Alternate Space stories, it makes a slightly repetitive effect when read back-to-back like this.

But even then, Rude Astronauts is a good collection. Easily readable, well-written, in the mould of the best classical hard-SF but with a modern varnish of its own, it’s the kind of short fiction that I’ll read again with pleasure.

Showgirls (1995)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Showgirls</strong> (1995)

(On TV, September 1998) This film doesn’t live up to its reputation of “the worst big-budget movie of 1995” mostly because, frankly, it’s not that bad. Granted, you would have a hard time convincing anyone given the fact that most of the film’s running time features half-naked women. What else do you expect from the story of a Las Vegas stripper? Still, it’s an okay story with a few interesting scenes. The characters are lousy and unsympathetic, the dialogue is laughably bad, the plotting is uneven and the action grinds to a halt whenever director Verhoeven wants to put up a nekkid boobs show, but it’s far from being a complete Z-grade mess of a movie. Anyone wishing for good porn, however, better look elsewhere: For all the nudity and suggestive dancing, Showgirls remains a curiously un-sexy movie. Blame it on nipple overload.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Saving Private Ryan</strong> (1998)

(In theaters, September 1998) One of the most realistic war movie you’re likely to see. Granted, I’ve never even been near a dangerous situation, but Steven Spielberg really puts viewers in the middle of the action in this WW2 epic. Bullets whiz by; tanks rumble under your feet; handheld camera shots gives you what the soldiers saw. Technically, the movie is excellent, although I’ll quibble that there were many unnecessary jerky camera shots. Beyond that, however, Saving Private Ryan tries to be honest, painting neither a gung-ho pro-war or a rabid anti-war portrait. War is hell, but not without a certain meaning. We are free to see the movie and make up our own conclusions. Saving Private Ryan is neither as good, as shocking or as violent that its growing reputation makes it to be, but it’s certainly that rarity; a film that deserves to exist if only to make history come alive. It’s not a crowd-pleaser that will warm hearts all over the country, but much like Schindler’s List, enjoyment is pretty much irrelevant. One of the best movies of 1998.

Rush Hour (1998)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Rush Hour</strong> (1998)

(In theaters, September 1998) One of the best buddy-cop movies you have already not yet seen. The standard formula (reluctant partners battling crime and developing respect for each other… yadda-yadda) is faithfully respected, but enhanced by the charisma of both leads Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan. The racist jokes are (mostly) defused by various factors, not the less being Tucker’s character’s complete social ineptitude. Chan isn’t as good here as his other movies, but still shine. Various clichés here and there (bomb defusing-by-cutting-wires… sigh) but still a lot of fun. Don’t miss it.

(Second viewing, On DVD, September 1999) Use boilerplate buddy-cop movie template. Insert Chris Tucker. Insert Jackie Chan. Stir as necessary. The result isn’t great, but it is certainly enjoyable, even on a second viewing. Chan remains impressive despite being restrained by American insurance concerns. Tucker isn’t as annoying as in his previous films. The DVD has a few interesting options, like a great commentary track by director Brett Ratner (though he pretty much destroys the illusion of a carefully-planned movie by pointing out all the last-minute ad-libs) and a documentary which features an extended long take where you can see Jackie Chan planning one of his bravura fight sequences. There are also more goodies like some of Ratner’s previous work, and a few deleted scenes (one of which, the visit to Peña’s apartment, should have been kept in the film.)

Hung fan kui [Rumble in the Bronx] (1995)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Hung fan kui</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">Rumble in the Bronx</strong>] (1995)

(On TV, September 1998) I just love everything done by Jackie Chan, but even I must agree that Rumble in the Bronx is one of his weakest effort that I’ve seen. Nothing really interesting happens in the first hour for one thing, and the supporting actors aren’t very strong… though the girls are cute. Unlike Supercop and First Strike (other slow-starting Chan films), the comedic bent of the script isn’t strong enough to sustain the first half. Things pick up soon afterward, just in time for a series of rather good action sequences, and a finale involving a hovercraft and a Lamborghini. Guilty pleasure, but fun.

Ronin (1998)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Ronin</strong> (1998)

(In theaters, September 1998) In many ways a throwback to the bare-bone spy thrillers of years past, as given away by the less-than-perfect lettering at the end. The plot is irrelevant, the goal is unknown but the acting is solid and the action scenes are shot is a way that’s not too confusing or hectic. Granted, there are plot holes here and there, as well as details that should have been spelled out, but Ronin is so well-executed that you might not care, except for the lacklustre finale. The two car chases are among the best action sequences seen this year, and the acting of De Niro and Jean Reno is superb as usual. Ronin has a feel that’s significantly different from most other action movies released this year, and should be seen if only for that.

(Second viewing, On DVD, November 2000) The very good and the rather disappointing intersect in this quasi-seventies thriller by legendary directory John Frankenheimer. The very good is easy to identify: The two spectacular car chases and the interplay between the actors—most notably Jean Reno and Robert de Niro. The flaws are more subtle, but no less annoying: The disjointed script that goes nowhere, the reliance over genre clichés and a huge silver MacGuffin. The DVD director’s commentary helps figure out what happened: A good original script (available elsewhere on the web, I believe) being reworked at the director’s whim. (It’s not a good thing to hear “I always wanted to do something about figure skating, so we changed the ending to take place there.”) Action fans and Jean Reno junkies owe it to themselves to see Ronin at least once: despite all its other flaws, it’s a solid thriller.

The Probability Broach, L. Neil Smith

Tor, 1980 (1996 rewrite), 305 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-53875-7

Reviewing The Probability Broach is going to be impossible to do without talking politics. (Some readers may wish to leave at this point)

The reason is simple: L. Neil Smith has been a Libertarian for (says the blurb) more than thirty years and this novel espouses his chosen political views perfectly. The Probability Broach is one of the purest, hardest political propaganda SF I’ve read in a long while.

Which does not mean that the novel sucks. I know, I know: You would expect novels-with-a-message to be stuffy, boring and insufferably didactical. While The Probability Broach does have its slow moments, it usually charges ahead with the readability usually associated with Heinlein. Edward Bear is a policeman in an alternate America where economic decline is so evident that private corporations are slowly being annexed by the government, cities are in full-scale decay, corruption is omnipresent and air-conditioning equipment is illegal. Your basic dystopian scenario.

Through a freak series of circumstances following his investigation of a strange murder, Bear finds himself transported in another dimension where everyone wears weaponry, but also where the standard of living is immeasurably higher than even our own Earth. What’s more, this is a completely libertarian America: There isn’t much of a central authority but everyone seems to get along quite well.

A fertile ground for political propaganda? Of course. Smith spends most of The Probability Broach explaining how (well) his anarcho-capitalist system works. All his characters are unusually well-articulated, and like the best Heinleinian characters, they speak as if any other opinion is obviously, laughably wrong.

From the above, I wouldn’t expect a good novel and yet, I was fascinated by Smith’s utopia. Despite thinking that Libertarianism is really inappropriate, I felt that Smith’s world was an interesting place.

Up to a certain point, then, The Probability Broach is convincing. But even if it would not have been, the truckloads of ideas brought forward by the novel are enough to make this a must-read for anyone even remotely concerned with innovation. (The Libertarian Congress session, in particular, is a hoot.) In a sense, I’m grateful that Smith vulgarized the ideals of the Libertarian movements to make them accessible to a wider readership. Mixing gritty murder mystery with a classic science-fiction approach to exhibit political ideas is a great idea. The characters are fun, again in a Heinleinian everyone-is-ultra-competent way. Female characters are well-handled, even though they too suffer -benefit?- from the Heinleinian beautiful-and-smart-and-tough stereotype. Despite the original publication date (1983), the novel doesn’t feel dated, though some seventies-era gadgets (talking chimps and dolphins, environmental concerns) add a charming eeriness to the whole.

I had fun going through The Probability Broach. Few novels read recently even approach it in term of pure readability. There might not be much of a plot, but the whole book is pure delight anyway. Of course, people with low tolerance for sermonning might disagree, but they’re probably not the kind of people who enjoyed Heinlein’s novels either.

Even if you do not consider yourself a political theorist, a libertarian or an anarcho-capitalist, I’d recommend The Probability Broach. I found in it most of what initially attracted me to SF: Strange, new ideas worth evaluating, crystal-clear prose, strong readability and a happy ending. Preachy, sure, but that’s part of the fun.

(For the record, I consider myself a complete centrist in political terms. This, of course, is easier to achieve in Canada than in the USA. Even though I tend to consider politics as a spectator sport, I respect the idea of democracy too much not to vote, but am too cynical to vote for any of the major parties. While writing the above review, it dawned on me that I had voted Libertarian during the last federal election!)

Raging Bull (1980)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Raging Bull</strong> (1980)

(On TV, September 1998) Right after watching this cine-biography of boxer Jake LaMotta, I felt indifferent. Shot in stark black-and-white, with unsympathetic characters and an episodic structure, Raging Bull is not a movie that lets itself being instinctively liked. But as the days passed, I kept thinking at the movie and as the cliché goes, it grew on me: the skill of director Martin Scorsese and actors Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci is obvious, some images and lines of dialogue stay in mind and the result is nothing short of the classic movie that Raging Bull is. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Primal Fear (1996)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Primal Fear</strong> (1996)

(On TV, September 1998) It’s no mean feat for a courtroom drama to sustain interest when any sufficiently intelligent viewer can guess the major plot twists coming around at least one good half-hour before they happen. Usually, I try to go along with the game, but Primal Fear didn’t help out by revealing its oh-so-clever premise in the opening line (“What do you do when you know your client is guilty?” Duuuh! What do you think will happen, now??) The usage of standard thriller gimmicks (the sex videotape; oh, how shocking!) also lets the plot being comfortably predictable. Yet, Primal Fear is not a complete waste of time, mostly due to the good acting by Richard Gere, Laura Linney and Edward Norton. It’s also nicely directed, and the script (despite its predictability) is entertaining. Catch it on TV.

La Cité des Enfants Perdus [The City Of Lost Children] (1995)

<strong class="MovieTitle">La Cité des Enfants Perdus</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">The City Of Lost Children</strong>] (1995)

(On TV, September 1998) Once upon a while comes a movie so radically different from a visual viewpoint that it transcends its own weaknesses and becomes something of a gem. La Cité des Enfants Perdus is such a movie. Story, script, characters: Okay, but could have been better. But the visuals, however, probably can’t be improved. The vision is “steampunk”, a dark and grimy fantasy world of high-tech concepts executed with Victorian-era technology made of glass and brass. None of director Jeunet’s characters are beautiful; most are grotesque. The film is packed with delightful visual inventions. It is not enough to see it once. A very worthy video rental.

Knock Off (1998)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Knock Off</strong> (1998)

(In theaters, September 1998) Delightfully bad. Not only from an acting standpoint (Jean-Claude Van Damme, Rob Schneider… duh?) but also from the technical angle, where almost every possible camera trick is used in the first fifteen minutes. Knock Off is a study in how to mishandle an action sequence: Stuff that would have been incredible in John Woo’s hands (eg; the supermarket fight) ends up tepid here. Granted, Knock Off makes more sense when considered as a Hong Kong action movie that happens to star van Damme, but that doesn’t really excuse it. On the plus side, however, Lela Rochon is quite watcheable and the movie is simply great for the late-night party-with-friends type of watching. It’s bad… but in a way that won’t make you angry.