Monthly Archives: October 1998

Down Periscope (1996)

(On TV, October 1998) This isn’t very good considering the logical plotholes, run-of-the-mill plotting, average dialogue and sophomoric humor. On the other hand, it lets itself be watched quite easily. Few comedies deal with submarines and it’s probably a measure of my fascination with subs that I enjoyed this even despite counting off the stupid mistakes. (Though we get the feeling that the mistakes are intentional and from someone who has at least an adequate grasp of the field.) Lauren Holly, despite being completely useless, is a visual delight constantly renewed (it’s amazing to see the lengths at which movie producers will go to show cleavage in any movie). It’s also kind of cool to see a Village People song used as package for the end credit outtakes, along with bodacious babes in bikinis in the background. A guilty pleasure.

Disclosure (1994)

(On TV, October 1998) Michael Crichton’s reactionary novel about female sexual harassment in a high-tech firm was a pernicious page-turner. Written according to Crichton’s usual stellar standards of plotting, accessibility and superficial issue examination, it seemed like a natural candidate for translation on the big screen. Disclosure is exactly what it purports to be; an average thriller with enough anti-feminist elements to make it attractive to the general public. Some moments are ludicrous (the Virtual Reality sequence, the elevator dream), but the remainder is okay. Demi Moore is hot. Some changes from the book.

The Dreams our Stuff is Made Of, Thomas M. Disch

Free Press, 1998, 256 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-684-82405-1

Don’t bother reading The Dreams our Stuff is Made Of if you don’t really know your Science-Fiction. I mean it.

Good, serious, knowledgeable critical studies of Science-Fiction aren’t exactly common. (recently, only David Hartwell’s revised edition of Age of Wonders and the John Clute collection of reviews Look at the Evidence come to mind) So it wasn’t a surprise if Dreams‘s reputation preceded its arrival in my reading stack. For a book as opinionated as Dreams, it’s a wonder the whole work wasn’t spoiled well beforehand.

Thomas M. Disch isn’t exactly a superstar of SF nowadays, but he has published a variety of deeply impressive stories since the sixties, as well as several “classic” novels like Camp Concentration and 334. He has also published widely out of the SF genre, including a volume of poetry criticism. Part unfamiliar figure, part seasoned veteran, Disch is uniquely positioned to comment on the genre with a view that’s both sympathetic and iconoclastic.

Books like Dreams are written to slaughter sacred cows. And SF has more than a herd of those. Disch spends pages explaining why Heinlein was racist and sexist, then turns around and mows down Ursula K. LeGuin. As if that wasn’t enough, he moves on to easier targets like new-age wackoes, UFO true believers and scientologists only to drive the point home by stating than for better of for worse, these weirdoes were created and are sustained by SF. Many will blush.

Other highlights include an intriguing treatise on why Edgar Allan Poe is the true father of SF, not Mary Shelley, Wells or Verne. While the argumentation isn’t flawless, it’s interesting. Also worth reading is the effect of SF on the cold war, the argument that dreams entail responsibility and Disch’s views on televised SF, Star Trek in particular.

And yet, despite these juicy bits, The Dreams our Stuff is Made of seems curiously tame, almost as if Disch pulls his punches. Call me a bloody ungrateful bastard, but I wanted more. I wanted Disch to spend more time on the Fringe/SF connection, the disappearing place of SF in a society more and more influenced by SF, the effect of contemporary fantasy on SF and the effect of SF on politics. But then again, I also wanted him to name the writers whose output was affected by drugs instead of getting away with such hints as “read between the lines of those senior writers who once seemed so wonderful and who now, so noticeably, are not. The reason, when it isn’t booze, is probably pot.” [P. 114]

The other major flaw of Dreams is more serious. While Disch tries to paint a picture of a whole genre, his examples of written SF are from before 1985, at the shocking exceptions of Greg Egan’s Quarantine, Whitley Streiber’s alien contact “non-fiction” and The Forstein/Gingrinch “collaboration” 1945. He does talk at length, however about INDEPENDENCE DAY while mentioning THE FIFTH ELEMENT, CONTACT and THE LOST WORLD… Is Disch trying to say that written SF isn’t as relevant to the genre? Even though he’s essentially saying this, it might lead some readers to suspect that there’s almost fifteen years of SF that Disch is deliberately ignoring.

Finally, the book doesn’t really prove its own proposition (“How SF conquered the world”), instead presenting a series of thoughts about the genre. It might be more appropriate to call this an essay collection.

Oh; Page 10: Wasn’t Del Rey books named after Judy-Lynn Del Rey?

Perhaps the most shocking thing about Dreams is the way I wasn’t shocked by Disch’s argumentation. As mentioned, this is a bit of a disappointment. But it might also be a measure of Disch’s ambiguous success, with a book of criticism that’s recapitulative but not definitive, rough but not heretical, less impressive than expected but still commendable.

Death Warrant (1990)

(On TV, October 1998) This scores high on the giggle-meter if only for the setup, where Jean-Claude Van Damme is revealed to be a policeman from Quebec (!) put in a California prison so that he won’t be recognized (!!) while investigating the deaths of several prisoners. (!!!) From stereotypical lecherous hackers to the final showdown between van Damme and The Guy Who Killed His Partner -including the non-resolution of the mystery,- this is bad enough to make you throw a party every time it plays on TV. Better yet; rent it with Sudden Death and bill your experience as Sudden Death Warrant: A Van Damme Retrospective.

Darkman (1990)

(On TV, October 1998) While this film will never be considered a great movie by any rational criteria, it must be said that it’s considerably enjoyable. One of the purest comic-book movies ever, Darkman blends howlingly funny melodrama with the over-the-top direction of Sam Raimi (Army Of Darkness) and the result is silly but exciting. It’s a shock to see Serious Actor Liam Neeson in the title role. A good late-night movie.

Chinatown (1974)

(On TV, October 1998) Even though I’ve used Syd Field’s Screenplay to write a script and generally worship everything the guy says, I don’t agree with his enthusiastic praise of Chinatown. Problem is; it’s just not interesting enough. Three P.I. tricks, incest, unhappy ending and a cut nose. Nope; saw better elsewhere. Nicholson is okay, but the other players fade in the background. It certainly holds up better than most of the other movies of the time (it can be re-watched today without many problems), it’s probably one of the best movies of the seventies, but so far it’s not a favorite of mine.

Casino (1995)

(On TV, October 1998) I had originally intended to complete an assignment on the computer with Casino playing in the background. What happened was that from the very first frames of the movie, I was reeled in by the film and quickly abandoned the thought of doing any useful work on the computer. Not only the tale of Las Vegas gangsters during the seventies, Casino is the type of film that tells a great story in a way that’s completely absorbing. Clearly the work of a masterful director (Scorsese), it makes good use of stars De Niro, Pesci and Stone. While the first half is the best (with its emphasis on Las Vegas rather than advancing the plot), the remainder is no lightweight either. Narration that works, Sharon Stone doing some acting, sympathy for devils: those are only a few of the things that Casino achieve. Rent it now.

Forever Peace, Joe Haldeman

Ace, 1997, 351 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-00566-7

Most experienced SF readers faced with the occasion to read Joe Haldeman’s Forever Peace will inevitably draw parallels and comparisons with the author’s biggest success to date, the 1975 Hugo-and-Nebula winning Vietnam allegory The Forever War. Not only are the titles similar, but both stories star soldiers as protagonists and touch upon the theme of war.

But most differences end there. If The Forever War‘s protagonist Mandella was a true infantryman in the classical sense, Forever Peace‘s Julian Class is a soldierboy operator. Plunged in a full-VR suit, he controls sophisticated “robots” (soldierboys) hundreds of kilometers away. War by proxy, except that like Vietnam, Americans are still faced with a steadily worsening guerilla campaign. Not even the home front is safe, as Class will discover.

Class isn’t a full-time soldier, though: once his nine days of continuous duty are done, he disconnects from the machine and resumes his job as physics teacher at an American university. What is at first a subplot -Class’ relationship with a older woman and her stunning discoveries- soon becomes central to the plot, and the main thrust of Forever Peace begins.

It’s not a bad novel. Among other things, Forever Peace has been selected as a Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of the Year and has also won the 1998 Hugo Award for best novel. For the most part, Haldeman succeeds in producing a very good true Science-Fiction novel. Mixing good characterization with plausible science and readable style, Forever Peace is a better choice than many of the other nominees.

But, even despite the risk of sounding needlessly bitter, it might be time to reconsider Forever Peace. For all its qualities, it often has the feeling of a good first novel by a promising author, not the work of a seasoned pro.

Take the worldbuilding, for instance. Nanotech is there and some reasonably valid consequences are explained (like the essential remodeling of the economic system), but on the other hand these consequences still seem a bit irrelevant. The world of Forever Peace looks a lot like ours even though it seems like if a true leisure society has emerged.

Haldeman being a Vietnam veteran himself, it’s a bit surprising to find out that the motivation for the war (and opponents, and tactics, and goals, and…) are so shallow. (“under-examined” might be a better expression.) Of course, Haldeman’s attitude toward war, politics and government is as bitter as could be expected from him. It still doesn’t create a good impression.

(No, but really; nanotech is there… why fight a war?)

Then the second half of the book is plagued with exactly the same problem that almost destroyed Spider Robinson’s Lady Slings the Booze: Strange characters are assembled and shakily establish a doomsday scenario on a foundation of half-deductions, incredible speculation and doubtful assumptions. Then they make up a plan to save the world and the second half of the book is just an implementation of the plan. Booo-

Fortunately, Haldeman maintains a certain level of tension throughout and doesn’t attempt to play it for half-laughs-half-tears like Robinson. Expert commandoes are sent, a few unexpected things happen but the hero still save the day/world/universe on schedule. At least, it’s entertaining.

Yet, Forever Peace is a worthwhile read. Far from being as good as the classic The Forever War, it nevertheless remains a pretty good SF book in its own right. And somewhere near the end, maybe you’ll glimpse the true nature of its relation with The Forever War. The first volume’s resolution is precipitated by an event alien and frightening to the protagonist. The solution this time around is exactly the same and remains alien to the protagonist. But this time, we’re supposed to feel grateful. We have become the alien. There is nothing to fear this time.

Nice trick, Mr. Haldeman.

Beverly Hills Cop III (1994)

(On TV, October 1998) A mess. Purely and simply. Sometime comedy, sometime action, the mixture just clashes—for instance at the end, where all three main characters have been seriously shot and the film plays is as a laugh-aloud funny moment. The more-than-obvious dialogue given to Eddie Murphy doesn’t help either. The worst thing about this unholy mixture of bad directing and awful writing comes after the last scene, when the credit sequence informs us that no one else but John Landis (Gremlins, The Blues Brothers) and Stephen DeSouza (Die Hard) have produced this piece of garbage. Sure, there are one or two good action sequences (the first car chase, and the ride rescue) but the remainder is bad enough to make you grind your teeth.

Antz (1998)

(In theaters, October 1998) The business of making an all-animated CGI movie must be completely different from a normal film: Since all shots are deliberate and cost incredible amounts of money, care must be taken is order to use the best script and voice talent available, perhaps at the expense of artistic innovation. Antz is a good example. The script/story/dialogue is pretty good (best summed up by one of the movie’s best lines: “It’s just your boy-meets-girl, boy-likes-girl, boy-overthrows-underlying-social-order kind of story”) and the voice talent shines. The animation, needless to say, is great. The overall effect is a decent movie. Perhaps a bit lacking in heart and quirkiness, but one that will offer repeated delights for some time. A good choice for a rental.

All The President’s Men (1976)

(On TV, October 1998) I remember reading All The President’s Men, a few years ago. At the time, I had been stunned by the non-fiction account of the Watergate scandal by the two journalists who broke the affair, Woodward and Bernstein. This film version, starring Robert Redford as Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein, isn’t as complete as the book but faithfully translate the gripping tension of the book. Effective direction, a good script and great acting help, but the real star of the movie remains the Watergate story, which stays relevant even twenty-five years later. This movie has its place besides Schindler’s List and other great historical dramas.

Ribofunk, Paul Di Filippo

Avon EOS, 1998, 241 pages, C$3.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-73076-6

It’s no surprise if Ribofunk rhymes with cyberpunk. In his own way, Paul di Filippo created his own genre, a mixture of deeply ironic low-down technological anti-glitz combined with a distinctive narrative style that is, as pointed out in the opening-page blurbs, to biotechnology what cyberpunk was to the consumer electronic market segment.

Ribofunk is a series of thirteen short stories -published 1989-1995- unified by a common future history. Sometimes late next century (or maybe the one after that), biotechnology has progressed to the point where bio-modifications of the body are as commonplace as -say- tattoos, sentient human/animal beings are commonplace and North America is ruled by Canadians. Among other things. It’s not an enviable future: despite the wonderful aspect of many technologies, it’s also a world constantly threatened by genetic terrorists, runaway splices and experiments gone awfully wrong. It far less “clean” that even the dirtiest cyberpunk.

But what a trip it is! Ribofunk is a frenzied, ultra-dense ticket to a richly-detailed future too good to miss. di Filippo packs more ideas in a twenty-page story that some writers manage to put into full-length novels. Given some of the latest headlines, most of it even appears quite reasonable. It’s been said that biotech will the twenty-first century’s biggest science. Ribofunk shows that the same might be true for twenty-first century’s science-fiction. When mixed up with the traditional SF elements like robotic servants, nanotechnology, space travel, moving walkways (take that, Heinlein!), amusement parks and such… it’s an experience that will leave you wanting more. DI Filippo’s satiric tone also helps.

Even better; up to a certain point, Ribofunk impresses more with is style that with its ideas. Di Filippo writes like Heinlein on an overdose of Gibson; densely-packed futurespeak evoking a fully-realized future that feels immensely real. One story is told by a narrator whose brain was damaged in such a way that he unpredictably breaks into rap rhyming in times of stress; it’s a hoot. Another is a series of dispatches from a soldier increasingly affected by biological warfare. Three stories are in a deliciously noir-ish tough-guy PI tone of voice. Another one tells of a genetically-modified Peter Rabbit going against farmer McGregor… Virtually every page of this collection can be examined for textbook examples on how SF should be written. Di Filippo has done truly stupendous things with the English language.

Given this onslaughts of stylistic merit and overflowing ideas, it seems almost ungrateful to speak of shortcomings, and yet… Ribofunk‘s stories exhibits a curious tendency to falter at the end, or ending abruptly without any kind of after-denouement. Some stories also appear quite simplistic in retrospect, although most readers will probably be so caught up in the prose that they’ll miss it the first time around. Characterization is adequate, although most will agree that di Filippo’s world is the principal character. The last story also appears out of place with the remainder of the future history, for reasons that will remain a spoiler.

Still, Ribofunk takes its place along with Egan’s Axiomatic as an SF tour-de-force, an array of future wonders and completely absorbing storytelling. One of the best collections in recent memory, and an exceptional value for anyone given its positioning as the last 3.99$ Avon/EOS special offer. It’s the kind of book that creates fans. Don’t miss it: As the jacket blurb says, “The future isn’t electronic, nuclear or cyber… it’s organic.”