Permutation City, Greg Egan

Millennium, 1994 (1998 reprint), 310 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-75281-649-7

I usually read two books at the same time. One hardcover for reading at home or for where carrying hardcovers around isn’t too much of a problem. At the same time, I usually carry a paperback with me to read on the bus or whenever I find myself with a moment to spare. Given that I’ve been doing this for more that a while (we’re talking half a decade here…), I was convinced that there was scarcely any difference between my perception of a book read on the bus or at home. Looking at the paperback copy of Permutation City on my desk which I’m supposed to review today, I’m not so sure.

Permutation City is about a lot of things, but it really revolves around the concept that sometime in the future, humans will be able to be “copied” to electronic formats, which then live inside a VR environment somewhere on the Net.

Bah! Déjà vu! will say some. Already seen. Sawyer did it in the Nebula-Winning The Terminal Experiment.

Not so fast. Permutation City opens with a copy being activated, realizing that he’s a copy imprisoned in a computer and immediately reaching for the suicide button. Quite a contrast with Sawyer’s “oh yeah, cool!” approach. And, dare I say, somewhat more realistic.

(Please don’t interpret this as unkind words about The Terminal Experiment which, despite significant flaws, remains of the of best SF books of 1995.)

As usual, Greg Egan packs idea upon idea and the results is as exhilarating as it’s mind-bending. One can rest assured that every new Egan novel will be cracking with new concepts and nifty setpieces. Like his other novels, it’s a trip, and a heady one. Unfortunately, Permutation CIty suffers from one usual Egan tic, and an unusual one.

The usual tic is that by the end of the book, all laws are being rewritten, the action is quickly moving on the metaphysical plane and things simply don’t make sense any more. The good news are that Permutation City handles this breakthrough better than either Quarantine or Distress.

The bad news are that Permutation City seems to suffer from a slower beginning than Egan’s other novels. Despite the gripping opening set-piece described above, the first half of the book settles down in a fairly hum-drum pattern that is either very subtle, or uncharacteristically overwritten. (Or, of a philosophical bent seldom seen around here.) This impression of a novel that should have been tightened remains even after the action starts. (Other nitpick: “baling out”… urgh!)

Fortunately, the remainder of the novel brings up so many questions that readers are unlikely to feel cheated. Which brings us back to the paperback copy of Permutation City staring at me. I’ll admit that I wasn’t in my usual frame of mind while reading Permutation City (job interviews will do that to you). Who knows whether or not I would have read a hardcover edition with the same attitude? (Philanthropic readers who wish to contribute to this experiment are encouraged to email me…)

This hardcover/paperback theme turned even stranger if you consider that the hardcover novel I was reading at the time was James L. Halperin’s The First Immortal, a novel about immortality that uses “copies” in what is again a gosh-wow fashion. Egan’s approach, using the usual cautious SF skepticism, does seem considerably more realistic that Halperin’s. It’s probably another element of the considerable different between the two author’s approach: Egan is obviously writing SF shaped by previous SF.

For whatever reason, then, Permutation City didn’t grip me as strongly as Egan’s other novels. I reserve the privilege to re-read it again in the future and change my mind, while still encouraging everyone to grab whatever Egan they can locate. SF is terribly lucky, as a genre, to be able to claim such an audacious writer in its ranks. Let’s see where Egan goes next.

What Dreams May Come (1998)

<strong class="MovieTitle">What Dreams May Come</strong> (1998)

(In theaters, October 1998) This film will undoubtedly appeal to some. Sugar-sweet moralistic fantasies about the possibility of an afterlife always reach a certain crowd (already satisfied in 1998 with the angel romance City Of Angels) and I suspect that this is where this movie will make most of its money. Me? As a coldly atheistic cynic, I appreciated the clever sights, but thought that it was a pretty good Outer Limits episode bloated to two hours and weighted down by incoherent dialogue and bargain-bin philosophy. Robin Williams is okay, as are Cuba Gooding Jr and Rosalind Chao. Not repulsively bad, or even displeasing, but not really one of the shining movies of the year; even taking “afterlife” movies as a category, Defending Your Life was much better.

The First Immortal, James L. Halperin

Del Rey, 1998, 342 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-345-42092-6

Sometimes, it’s difficult to say what’s advancing faster; science or science-fiction. One of the best examples of this might be the recent interest in immortality. To live forever! To end death! To cast off the chains of predetermined lifespans! Sound interesting, but the wonderful thing is how we’re not only talking about it, but we’re doing so in a perfectly rational way. The underlying question doesn’t seems to be “is it possible?” as much as “when will it happen?”

James L. Halperin’s second novel The First Immortal has a large canvas (two centuries) and an even larger goal: to be the definitive novel about the coming obsolescence of death. In many ways, it succeeds.

Faithful readers might remember James Halperin’s first novel, The Truth Machine. An ill-written, but fascinating novel about the development and consequences of a perfect truth machine, it was a splendid example of pure Science Fiction written outside the genre of SF. (Both novel share the same universe, though The First Immortal goes further in the future.)

The First Immortal is a bit like The Truth Machine on Prozac.

On one hand, it loses the fantastically unlikely characters of the first volume and tones down most of the embarrassing tendencies of the first volume. The afterword is shorter. It’s better written too, although no one will praise the writing other to say than it’s readable. Halperin exerts more control over the plotting, and the result is a better novel.

On the other hand, immortality is not exactly a new subject and considerably less so when compared to a perfect truth machine. A lot of the quirks that made The Truth Machine so infuriating at times also gave it its personality: Since these are ironed out, The First Immortal is less memorable than its predecessor. The ludicrous yet exciting main conflict of the first book has here been replaced by a series of believable, but uninvolving mini-crisis. No wonder that the half of the book is so excruciatingly long and the last hundred seems to be all sugar & sweet… (Idle thought: the book probably wouldn’t work half as well with crackerjax writing and characters… or wouldn’t be as accessible—same thing.)

But considered on its own terms, The First Immortal isn’t bad as it may first seems. Halperin is an enthusiastic optimist (perhaps too much; the resolution of some problems is more formulaic than convincing), and the story shows it, with all its mock-newspaper heading chronicling humankind’s progress over the next hundred years or so. The result is uplifting. The ultimate prize being to live forever, who would dare not being pleased with Halperin’s extrapolations?

From a scientific standpoint, the novel holds together very well. Halperin is obviously someone who’s as meticulous in his research and he is brilliant in integrating it. There are few discernible flaws in his argumentation (though some will quibble about deadline, psychology and sociology) but -ignoring the fact that the protagonists all seem to be world-leaders in their chosen genres- the scientific breakthroughs all seem plausible, even inevitable. Most extrapolative writers concentrate on a single technology at the expense of all others, but here Halperin makes a credible effort at creating an all-encompassing future.

The First Immortal isn’t such a good choice for the die-hard SF fans, who are already quite familiar with cryogenics, A.I.s, nanotechnologies, virtual reality, digital personality copies, cloning and the rest. (In the introduction, Halperin caution the reader to be open-minded, a singularly useless caveat in the case of SF readers.) An intriguing use of the book, however, could be to painlessly introduce non-fans to a whole array of genre devices. Paperback stocking stuffers?

If anything, it might popularize a more hopeful, more optimistic vision of the future. And that would be quite a coup in itself.

Watch this space for “The First Immortal; a retrospective”, to be uploaded in… oh… January 2098.

Sudden Death (1995)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Sudden Death</strong> (1995)

(On TV, October 1998) A Die Hard clone taking place during the last playoff game of the Stanley cup hockey tournament. Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, though that doesn’t really help. As a lifelong hockey fan, it’s clear to me that the writer of Sudden Death has no idea of what’s hockey… (“Sudden Death”, “The save of his life!”) …but I digress. Howlers here and there can’t damage the effect of Peter Hyams’ dynamic direction. Good fun for a late-night movie.

Speed (1994)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Speed</strong> (1994)

(Third viewing, On TV, October 1998) This is still, after several viewings, a devastatingly effective piece of action cinema. Cleverly (if not exactly smartly) written by Graham Yost and marvellously directed by Jan de Bont, Speed understands the dynamics of an action movie, and keeps on delivering what the viewer wants. Great performances by Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock also help. Watch it again; you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

(Fourth viewing, On DVD, July 2003) Good action films are hard to find, and viewing the best ones can be helpful in understanding why. In this case, Speed shows all the other upstarts how it’s done: With panache, taut tension, perfect understanding of technical aspects, sympathetic characters and a little bit of reality-defying insanity. Even after all the flack they’ve received for other roles, Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves are truly a pair of heroes with whom we can relate. Jan de Bont’s direction has never been as good since, and the clean metallic sheen of the whole production gives a mean focus to a film that is all about never going under the limit. It’s not just good: it’s really good at a level that other action films only dream about. If only more filmmakers would study this movie… The “five-star edition” DVD indeed includes everything you’d ever wish to know about the film, from copious amount of production information to a pair of rather entertaining commentaries. The second commentary track is especially entertaining, as writer Graham Yost and producer Mark Gordon take apart the film in far more detail than even the most nit-picky viewers.

Soldier (1998)

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

(In theaters, October 1998) I usually have a very high tolerance for bad SF, especially if it can be enjoyed as cheap SF. Soldier started out as a promising prospect: Written by David Webb Peoples (Blade Runner), directed by Paul Anderson (Event Horizon) and starring Kurt Russell, it seemed to be headed for a mix of intelligence, dynamism and coolness. It ends up as a disaster with neither. The script is beyond ordinary, offering no surprises and ever fewer interesting moments. The direction is flat, a shocking thing from Anderson who, despite being a moron (read any interview with the guy) had proved himself to be a visually interesting action director in Mortal Kombat. The only star emerging with his dignity intact is Russell, who despite saying a handful of words (estimates vary between 69 (Russell) and 104 (Edward Johnson-Ott). I counted around 75.) does wonders with what he had. But even that can’t rise above the ludicrousness of the setup (as serious SF, it fails in the first minutes), the cheap-looking sets, the awful touchy-feely song used as montage backdrop near the middle, the boooooring “action” scenes and the simple lack of imagination. I might have accepted this from B-series newcomers with low budgets. But given the talent and money that went into Soldier, the result might be best confined to the garbage planet (*Garbage Planet?*) it’s taking place on.

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Rosemary’s Baby</strong> (1968)

(On TV, October 1998) Now, can anyone explain to me why it’s supposed to be such a great movie? Glacial cinematography, coma-inducing pacing, painfully obvious plotting, ugly heroine, laughable scenes (the would-be horror showcase scene of the movie sent me in uncontrollable giggles the moment the words “Satan is the father! Hail Satan!” were pronounced) and a conclusion without any real payoff makes this ridiculous movie a relic of the past. It would have been far better as a half-hour “Twilight Zone”, although I doubt Rod Serling would have allowed such silliness on his show. It’s a measure of the movie’s lack of effect that I found myself thinking that real-life witches are unfairly discriminated against by Rosemary’s Baby.

Dust, Charles Pellegrino

Avon, 1998, 387 pages, C$19.95 hc, ISBN 0-380-97308-1

There is a fascination about contemplating the unthinkable. Survivalists, civil safety officials, prophets and science-fiction writers all depend in large part on this fascination. Somehow, imagining that everything we hold dear -including our lives- could be snatched away at any time makes us appreciate what we have even more.

Yet, destroying the world is easy, at least for the fertile imaginations of the latter twentieth century. From the oh-so-very-sixties retro nuclear apocalypse, we’ve moved on to plagues (King’s The Stand), celestial objects impact (Niven and Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer), Black Holes (Bear’s The Forge of God), Alien Invasions (Again, The Forge of God) and the like. J.G.Ballard has even written four books dealing with end-of-the-world scenarios. At this point, it would seem unlikely to find a new and exciting way to end the world, but that’s exactly what Charles Pellegrino does with Dust.

This time, the novel start with a deadly whimper as hundreds are eaten alive by swarming clouds of mites. But, as Pellegrino makes it very clear, this is only a symptom of a deeper problem; the disappearance of insects.

Sounds like a doubleplusgood thing to you? Not quite. Pellegrino neatly dissects Gaia’s ecosystem with his clear and incisive imagination. Even early on, the novel makes no secret of the fact that this is The End. As in; no more human race. We’re going the way of the dinosaur. Ecological collapse isn’t quite as frightening as the resulting social, politic and economic descent in anarchy.

But why are the insects disappearing? That’s one surprise best left between Dust‘s covers. As he had done with the concept of relativistic bombs in his previous solo novel Flying to Valhalla, Pellegrino pulls straight existential horror out of simple facts and reasonable extrapolations. “A novel even scarier than Jaws” blurbs Arthur C. Clarke. This is no inflated hype.

Dust is so stuffed with surprising factoids, ideas and concepts that the twenty-five pages scientific afterword is more than welcome. Pellegrino loves to have ideas and play with them; we should be grateful that he also loves to share them.

As a novel, most will agree that Dust isn’t quite up for the Pulitzer. Characters are annoyingly similar to one another and rarely given the chance to distinguish themselves, the action is sometime jerkily shown (when it isn’t simply told rather than shown), the dialogue -while seemingly authentic for scientists- is a bit stiff, the plotting has imperfections, etc… But given the density of Dust‘s narrative -it packs the end of the world in less than 400 pages- and the excellence of everything else, it really doesn’t matter. Readers of hard-SF, techno-thrillers and other high-fact-density fiction will find here exactly what they wish for: a good, scary, unflinching and eminently plausible end-of-the-world novel.

As luck has it, Avon book is offering this full-size hardcover novel at a bargain price (16$ US, 20$ Can.) Rush to your bookstore and order it if they don’t have it; it’s worth every penny. It’s frightening, thrilling, thought-provoking, ironic, brilliant and stunningly entertaining.

Dust offers a shocking contrast with the usual Hollywood-produced disaster story. Everything is convincingly explained, well-developed and brought to its logical conclusion. There is no last-minute reprieve, but if Dust is implacable, it is not entirely without optimism. Somehow, this is a happier, more satisfying ending than “Boom went the asteroid and they all lived happily ever after.”

(Keep your eyes open for the lovely mention of Fahrenheit 451.)

Risky Business (1983)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Risky Business</strong> (1983)

(On TV, October 1998) One co-worker is fond of saying that Risky Business is one of the most subversive comedies of the eighties. He’s right: Not only is the premise (guy starts a whorehouse at home while his parents are gone on vacation) pretty amoral, but the movie makes no attempt whatsoever at any kind of message or fairness. Bordering on soft-porn at time, it’s definitely a memorable film. Unfortunately, that doesn’t quite mean it’s good: Overlong at times, suffering heavily from an infernal Tangerine Dreams early-eighties electro-synth soundtrack (and a Genesis song that was so singularly awful that it managed to make me fast-forward through a nude scene), not really witty in term of dialogues and muddily shot, it’s not quite as good at could have been. On the other hand, Tom Cruise is suitably sympathetic, Rebecca de Mornay is breathtaking and the unabashedly perverted tone is decidedly worthwhile.

Q [The Winged Serpent] (1982)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Q</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">The Winged Serpent</strong>] (1982)

(On TV, October 1998) It’s always a good time for a movie in which a monster takes over New York, and this one is quirkier than most. Titled Q because nobody (including me) can spell Quetzalcoatl, this is a low-budget horror film that has a few surprises but few rewards. The basic story (loser criminal discovering monster nest; police tracking down monster’s nefarious deeds) is better that average for the “monster”-type of movie, but it’s also unfortunately quite silly and burdened with laughable effects. Not a lot of suspense either, and not enough of that monster.

Pleasantville (1998)

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

(In theaters, October 1998) Hot on the heels of Gattaca, Dark City and The Truman Show, here’s yet another quirky, imaginative film that truly gives hope for Hollywood’s future. What if those 50s sitcom were real, and you could live in them? What if you could change this universe? Pleasantville takes this rather simple premise and runs with it, delivering a scattershot of social commentary that is, more often that not, on target. Superb acting barely takes precedence over a wonderful use of digital effects to show the changing nature of Pleasantville. Without seeming like it, this is actually one of the most pernicious movies in recent memory; one -er- “flaming” visual pun is so obscene that I’m too ashamed to describe it here. I had problems with several elements the conclusion (Writer/Director Gary Ross wrote himself in a corner) until I rationalized them as Pleasantville‘s way of highlight one of its central thesis; uncertainty must be accepted. (I also have issues with the way that few of the other idealized values of Pleasantville are thought desirable.) Thought-provoking, uplifting and simply very well-done, Pleasantville vaults to the top of this year’s crop. Do not miss it.

On Deadly Ground (1994)

<strong class="MovieTitle">On Deadly Ground</strong> (1994)

(On TV, October 1998) What happens when idiots get money, power and guilt? This. Starring, produced and directed by Steven Seagal himself, On Deadly Ground is an inferior action picture wrapped (smothered might be a better word) in insipid environmentalist drivel, outright glorification of primitive lifestyles -with assorted mysticism- and belief in the urban legends of “Big Business suppressing clean technology”. This is the most hypocritical movie in ages, where Seagal beats up people to make them understand, destroys an oil rig to save the environment and doesn’t even kiss the girl. On Deadly Ground has little of the campy fun so pleasant in cheap action movies: here, we sense that Seagal is earnest and the result is more pitiful than fun. There are only one or two good action scenes. Don’t (or rather, do) miss the final five minutes, which may be the single most incompetent attempt yet to include a message in a movie.

You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, Julia Phillips

Signet, 1991, 628 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-451-17072-5

Sex! Power! Drugs! Money! More money! More power! More sex!

Nope, I’m not talking about Washington. The New Babylon, as most suspect, is Hollywood. Tinseltown is what happens when you funnel millions (assuming that every American spends 25$ a year to see movies on screen or video, that’s six billion dollars, folks.) and you place it in the hands of people without talent, brains or restraint. I’ve never had too much of a high opinion of Hollywood (that’s what happens when you identify more closely with the writers and CGI animators than anyone else) and it sank even more with You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again.

Lunch is the autobiography of Julia Philips, a movie producer. Her filmography is semi-impressive: In the seventies, she produced The Sting, Taxi Driver and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Other than that, not much. No wonder that most moviegoers haven’t really heard of her.

But outside a simple filmography, Phillips spent most of her time in Hollywood (and most of this book’s hefty 600+ pages) doing drugs. Lunch is a confessional where she describes her ascent, descent and recovery. It’s less glorious or fascinating than it sounds.

Lunch, in a few words, teaches important lessons: When reading an autobiography by someone you don’t know, it is essential that:

A> The narrator is likeable. Not the case here, since Phillips is most definitely someone I wouldn’t like to meet (and this is reciprocal; “Scorsese, Dreyfuss, Milius, Spielberg, Schraeder, etc. A rogues’ gallery of nerds. There is not a single guy here I would have dated in high school or college.” [P.131] I happen to be a nerd; G’bye, Julia!). Her constant, and unrepenting, abuse of drugs, alcohol and sex doesn’t help. You’ll excuse me if I don’t find attractive folks accepting Oscars while on a coke high. What also grates is that while she says she stopped doing coke, by the end of the book she’s still heavily in the so-called “softer” drugs… Redemption? Really?

B> If you can’t be likeable, be interesting. Here too, Philips fails: Lunch is six hundred pages of minutia, of boring and unlikeable anecdotes, of flings with people we couldn’t care less about. Some will say that this only adds texture to the narrative; I say that this would have been a crackerjax 200-pages autobiography. As such, most of the time we’re wading in irrelevancies. I didn’t skim, but I really wanted to.

C> The narrative should attach itself to known markers. Here, Philips is most interesting when she talks about the making of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, Steven Spielberg, Arthur C. Clarke or known actors. Since we’ve already established that we’re not interested in her life (see A> and B>), she might as well talk about others. Sadly, this doesn’t really happen as often as we wish it would. (In the middle of a chainsaw autobiography, however, it’s fun to see who remains unscathered. Speilberg comes out okay.)

but finally…

D> Be coherent. And Phillips isn’t. As said before, the book is overlong. But it’s also full of digressions that aren’t related to the tale, of sermonizing little philosophical speeches and of self-congratulatory monologues. Problem is, most of them don’t make as much sense as she thinks it does (I did mention she was still doing soft drugs, hmmm?) and the remainder is just embarrassingly juvenile. It also doesn’t help that Phillips consider herself as exceptionally intelligent. I was reminded of a line in John Brunner’s The Sheep Looks up: “If [she’s] so intelligent, then why isn’t she so smart?”

The result is a bloated failure. Fortunately, a complete index will help out the impatient reader anxious to get to all the good parts. Read the sections about CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, about Spielberg, Beatty, Clarke, Gere, Rice, Truffault and (Don) Simpson, but don’t give Phillips the karmic satisfaction of dumping all her anxious neuroses on you.

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Hudsucker Proxy</strong> (1994)

(On TV, October 1998) A delight during its first hour, where we see the unwitting ascension of a slightly-naïve young man. The visual style is wonderful, the performances (by Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Paul Newman, Bruce Campbell…) are excellent and the story draws you into the movie. The second half is more conventional and loses steam, though it still keeps your interest. The final ending, though, is a cheat. Overall; good entertainment.

Gridlock (1996)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Gridlock</strong> (1996)

(On TV, October 1998) It’s a well-known fact that high-profile film project often inspire cheap b-series movies. Jurassic Park spawned Carnosaur and Twister spun off Tornado (with Bruce Campbell) but here, Gridlock is a low-budget TV-movie exploitation of Die Hard 3: With A Vengeance. To wit: Robbers cause mayhem in New York to cover the fact that they’re robbing the Federal Reserve Bank. But instead of Following Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson through New York, we get to see David Hasselhoff as a police officer trying to rescue his fiancée -played by supermodel Kathy Ireland- from the evil robber terrorists. Hasselhoff is actually credible and Ireland is pretty to look at. The remainder of the movie is an exercise on how to film a standard action flick without the big budget, a competent action director or a big budget: While the preposterous story is adequate by the standards of the genre, the final result falls short of even the most average actionners. (Favorite stupid detail: They steal gold and paper money and erase the numbers of both in the main computer. Why not just grab the gold and melt it afterward? Duuuh…)