Month: February 1999

The Art of War, Sun Tzu (translated by Ralph D. Sawyer)

Barnes & Noble Books, 1994, 375 pages, C$10.99 hc, ISBN 1-56619-297-8

There are times when it’s more appropriate for a reviewer to tell you the best way to enjoy a book rather than if it’s good or not.

With Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, one can comfortably assume even before cracking the spine of the book that it’s great: Arguably written more than two thousand years ago by one of China’s best tactician, The Art of War has been studied repeatedly in the Western world during the last century, from military academies to corporate boardrooms. Some will argue that The Art of War is a military treatise; others will say that it’s a political/social manual, or even a book of philosophical contemplations. It’s certainly not obvious with statements like “In order await the disordered; in tranquillity await the clamorous. This is the way to control the mind.”

The Art of War, even in translation, has long passed into the public domain. You can download several translations from the Internet. Why, then, buy a 11$ book about it? To understand it better, probably.

Ralph D. Sawyer is, putting it mildly, a pretty knowledgeable man. The Art of War itself fits in less than a hundred pages. The remainder of Sawyer’s book is political and military context, commentary, discussion of newly-found versions and more than a hundred pages of notes. (!)

Perhaps more significantly, Sawyer has taken the time to write a new translation of The Art of War. If we compare it to the classical public-domain “Giles” translation (1910), it certainly has more flavour than the classical version. Boring, artless statements like “The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.” (Giles) suddenly become snappy “Warfare is the greatest affair of state, the basis of life and death, the Way to survival or extinction. It must be thoroughly pondered and analyzed.” (Sawyer).

But even with the modern, literary translation, The Art of War is by nature not an easy book to read. Or rather, it is easy to read, but not easy to grasp; it is to be read as slowly as possible.

One thing that might help is to discuss the book with a group. An ex-colleague of mine, Eleanor Glor, holds monthly meetings about Innovation in the Public Sector called “The Innovation Salon”. The subject matter for February 1999 was a discussion of The Art of War, as moderated by David Jones, a enthusiast of Sun Tzu’s book.

I can’t think of a better way to understand Sun Tzu; the discussion was literate, lively, wide-ranging and thought-provoking. I had prepared by reading The Art of War twice, without looking at the commentary and as a matter of fact, David Jones warned us that one should read Sun Tzu and try to form a good opinion of him well before trying to read any commentary.

A good example is, I feel, the debate about the military value of Sun Tzu. Some commentators will try to tell you that The Art of War has less to do with warfare than pure philosophy. I happen to disagree (David Jones’s arguments failed to sway me.) but that assumption is crucial for many commentaries, who are sometimes radically oriented on this simple opinion of the text. (Similarly, some translations are skewed toward the militarist of the non-militarist approach; could it be a coincidence that my translation is though the pen of a scholar from the militarist school?)

Even so, do not get the impression that I’m suddenly a wide-eyed convert to the Ancient Wisdom of the Orient; I think that attempts to reconcile The Art of War with modern life are interesting but misguided. At the same time, a careful reading of Sun Tzu will provide many rather good aphorisms and enough quotable material to impress both colleagues and friends. It’s worth repeating, however, that discussion is almost invariably a far better way to learn to appreciate Sun Tzu; why not try an impromptu reading group?

The Guns of the South, Harry Turtledove

Del Rey, 1992 (1997 reprint), 517 pages, C$16.95 tpb, ISBN 0-345-41366-0

I have traditionally been wary of associating alternate histories with Science-Fiction, perhaps because so much of it tends to be anecdotal, based on whether a bullet went “zang” instead of “zing”. Alternate histories -or at least in the usual anthologies- is usually far more akin to political history (Alternate Presidents) or obvious exercises in either obvious hand-wringing (“Hitler wins war!”) or wish-fulfillment (“Hey! Gandhi with a bazooka!”).

Nevertheless, there is a good argument for alternate-histories-as- science-fiction. For one thing, it’s a mode of historical literature based on the real definition of Speculative-Fiction (“What if?”) For another, a good author can use alternate history as a mean to explore technological changes on a society, which places us squarely back into SF.

The Guns of the South is the first book I’ve seen that has “Alternate History” as category on its spine. It’s also one of the finest examples of science-fiction that I’ve read recently, and this for two factors:

The first is the obvious usage of an SF device as inherent to the plot. The novel begins in January 1864, during the American Civil War. Things are not rosy for the Confederate forces; the Yankees are able to out-produce them and General Lee is aware of the precarious state of his forces. But a tall man with a strange accent arrives in camp to show a new weapon. He calls it an AK-47.

This, of course, is a time-traveler. He says he’s willing to furnish the South with as many weapons as they may want, for a quasi-ridiculous price. It doesn’t take long for the Confederates to accept the offer and equip their men with these fancy new “repeaters”. The rest is alternate history. Able to literally outgun the North, the Confederate smash into Washington and force a peace on their terms. Barely 150 pages in the novel, we see the beginning of the new C.S.A.

What follows is a difficult peace for both our protagonists: General Lee at the top of the changes, and a schoolteacher name Nate Caudell as the smarter-than-average citizen’s viewpoint.

The second element that brings me to associate The Guns of the South to science-fiction is the novel’s examination of technological change on society. The men from the future simply want the South to win for racist reasons. But by introducing themselves and their technologies in the 1860s, they themselves have an effect on the affairs of the C.S.A. Soon, Lee himself begins to disagree with his benefactors…

The Guns of the South gains most of its point, not through its meticulous research, but from the ease with which it can be read. As a French-Canadian, I consider myself as being as ill-informed about the Civil War as it is possible to be; yet, Turtledove does a splendid job to produce a perfectly entertaining novel. Good characters and a fast-moving narrative aren’t the least of the novel’s virtues.

I do have an objection to make, though, in that we never learn quite enough about the time traveler’s means in their original time period. As so-called SF, The Guns of the South is more complacent in using time-traveling as an easy justification than a seriously thought-out device (otherwise, the time-travelers could have simply killed Lincoln, Grant and nuked Washington to ensure easy victory without the fuss.)

But these quibbles are irrelevant when considered against the goal of Turtledove’s effort. There are many adjectives to use when praising The Guns of the South, but “fascinating” seems like a good one to end with. With this novel, Harry Turtledove has fashioned a little classic of the sub-genre. It’s a book that holds the interest by its erudition, but also by virtue of action, readability and intellectual interest. And a happy ending. Great stuff.

Desperation and The Regulators, Stephen King & Richard Bachman

Signet, 1997, ???? pages, C$??.?? mmpb, ISBN Various

Desperation, Stephen King: Signet, 1997, 547 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-451-18846-2
The Regulators, Richard Bachman Signet, 1997, 489 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-451-19101-3

Any way you look at it, Stephen King is an interesting author. Springing to national fame after two unusually successful movies adapted from his novels (Brian DePalma’s CARRIE and Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING), he has reigned over the bestseller lists for more than two decades. While lesser authors might have comfortably rested on their laurels, releasing formula novels every year or so, King is a genuine writer who’s not afraid to take risks. These risks don’t stop at what he write, but also extends at how they’re published. To promote Insomnia in 1994, he travelled through the United States on a motorcycle to do signing in independent bookstores. He agreed to publish The Green Mile in six small instalments, like the serial novels of yore. In 1996, he simultaneously released two novels: One under his name, and the other one as his pseudonymous alter-ego, Richard Bachman (also known as the author of Thinner and The Running Man, among others)

The experiment doesn’t stop at the simple simultaneous release of two books. Where it gets really interesting is that both novel share their cast of character, the name of the villain and even some common lines. Up to a certain point, one can argue that the events of both novel sport a common history.

Nevada, 1858: In the middle of nowhere, a small town has sprung up around a mine. The soil isn’t exactly stable, so the company hires Chinese personnel willing to work for almost nothing under horrific conditions. One day, while more than forty men are working underground, the mine caves in. Accident or totally intentional event? In any case, the mine is re-discovered more than a century later, as a blasting uncovers the mine shaft.

Here, the stories part ways.

In Stephen King’s Desperation, the action stays in the small mining town of Desperation, Nevada. During the first hundred pages of the novel, various visitors are brought together in the town’s jail by a crazy policeman. Few remain alive in the town, and who knows if the policeman has anything to do with this? For that matter, even the few surviving citizen of Desperation seem ready to swear that the policeman isn’t his usual self…

In Richard Bachman’s The Regulators, the action stays in Wentworth, Ohio. More particularly, in the suburban picture- perfect Poplar Street. It’s a superb summer afternoon until a paperboy is killed by a shotgun blast fired from a futuristic red van. Before long, half the street’s residents are dead and the other half are waiting for the next devastating attack. It doesn’t help that Poplar Street isn’t in Wentworth any more…

You can read one or both novels in any order; neither is sequel or sideshow. There are, however, interesting bonuses to be gained from doing what this reviewer did and reading both concurrently, fifty or a hundred pages at a time in both: backstories are fleshed out in one novel but not in another, subtle personality changes take more significance, background details seem more pertinent. The fate of characters isn’t identical, of course. Some survive to both, die in one or die twice.

As interesting as the concept is, however, one almost wishes that the interplay between both works could have been deeper, even maybe up to an absurdly almost-postmodern point (one character could “know” something learned by the other book’s character, and similar tricks). In any case, the experiment raises interesting questions, and readers should be thankful that King has experimented with this.

Besides literary curiosity, however, it’s a relief to find out that King has written some of his most “characteristic” novels in years with Desperation and The Regulators.

Desperation, with its desertic, almost post-apocalyptic locale and its ultimate combat between the forces of good versus an incarnation of evil, is not without bringing back memories of King’s The Stand (though being nowhere near that novel’s power). King’s seemingly-effortless management of a multi-character cast also recalls some of his most successful older novels. On the other hand, it has more than a few lengths, also like King’s previous work. In any case, it’s a change (improvement?) from King’s last three novels, which took a far more intimate psychological approach.

The Regulators is closer to Bachman’s previous five novels in that there are few lengths and more violent action than King usually puts in his novels. Shorter than Desperation and more classically exciting, The Regulators also marks a radical departure from King’s last few novels, which were becoming more and more sedate. Not exactly the ultimate tale of suburbia terror (the villain simply doesn’t let itself to this goal), The Regulator is nevertheless fast-paced action with a supernatural premise. Bachman’s narration is honed to quasi-perfection; the result is great.

Both novel also mark a return to two of King’s favourite themes; children (saviours in both, but more ominously so in The Regulators) and writers (heroes in both, but more ominously so in Desperation).

One flaw shared by both novels is that the opening chapters (creepy in Desperation and action-packed in The Regulator) promise more than is ultimately delivered. While this is not a new problem in horror -where menace is almost always more effective than execution- it seems more disappointing here perhaps because of the interplay between both novel. In The Regulators, it’s a bit difficult to express outright rage at the antagonist, while in Desperation it doesn’t seem quite so threatening in latter stages than in its policeman incarnation.

In the end, however, Stephen King is having fun and the result is a return to old familiar places. (The second drive-by shooting in The Regulators is almost as merry to read as the degeneration of the villain in Desperation) Either novel is good by itself. Taken together, however, they become special. Maybe not as great as could have been expected, but still worthy enough of the King mark of quality.

It remains to be seen what else Stephen King plans for us…

Storming Heaven, Dale Brown

Putnam, 1995, 399 pages, C$28.50 hc, ISBN 0-399-13931-1

It’s always a pleasure to go back to a favourite author, only to discover that his newest novel is as good as his previous efforts.

Dale Brown is an ex-Air Force pilot who has specialized in far-out aerial techno-thrillers. His writing appeal to me for various reasons; an emphasis on plot, a love of details, a knack at serviceable characters and an eye for the Cool Scene. Contrarily to techno-thriller ubermeister Tom Clancy, Dale Brown’s novel have remained manageably lengthy, and in roughly the same familiar territory.

Storming Heaven is, at the same time, solidly similar to Brown’s previous novels and an encouraging venture in new directions. Like all Brown novels so far, it’s about war in the air. This time, however, America isn’t sending units to fight far away. This time, the battle is at home.

After a perfunctory prologue (Summarized: “I say that America’s borders should be more protected!”, “Ha-ha, you crazy old fool, go home!”), the action kicks in high gear as American authorities try to apprehend Henri Cazaux, the world’s most wanted terrorist. Cazaux doesn’t see it that way, of course, and departs in a small plane after killing a good half-dozen Federal Agents. After National Guard fighters units join the battle, Cazaux is cornered and fights back like a mad dog, blowing up a substantial portion of the Los Angeles Airport in the process.

As everyone licks their wounds, Cazaux realizes that this is how to take revenge on the Country That Abused Him. He quickly hatches a plan to make devastating strikes against the USA’s largest civilian airports…

Most techno-thrillers remain solidly in the military world, barely according attention to more humdrum civilian concerns. Storming Heaven is an exception, given that it’s solidly built around the world of civilian aviation. As is the norm with the best novels of this type, Brown takes us places we wish we could visit: High-stakes financial boardroom, an air controller’s station, a gigantic plane storage park…

As for the novel itself, it might not be the best Brown yet, but even an average Dale Brown novel is better than the norm. Perhaps too disjointed (the novel often appears to be a string of big action sequences tied together) to be fully satisfying and too loosely connected to its characters to be involving, Storming Heaven is still interesting enough to sustain our attention.

Still, the novel has significant shortcomings. Henri Cazaux might be fine even (because) when he’s so over-the-top, but the same can’t be said of his “love interest”, Jo Ann Vegas, who oscillate between victim, sadist, astrologer, punching bag, manipulator, oppressed and genuinely puzzling personality. In a genre so founded on hard facts, it’s puzzling to see the appearance of such a mystical character. She’s the weak link of Storming Heaven. Stylistically, Brown still has a way to go. There has to be a simpler way of saying “The vertical and horizontal antenna sweep indexers of the F-16 ADF’s AN/APG-66 radarscope continued to move, but a small white box had appeared at the upper-left portion of his F-16 Fighter Falcon ADF’s radarscreen.” [P.232] even though I appreciate this level of detail…

Oh; Storming Heaven links together Brown’s Hammerheads (given Ian Hardcastle’s supporting role) and Chains of Command (with the thinly-veiled references to the Clintons, more acidly Hillary who’s described as “The Steel Magnolia”.) even though only Hammerheads (a substantially better novel) is useful as background material.

At least Brown doesn’t forget to have fun, as he slips in some barbs about the Clintons (P.352: “’She’s got bigger things on her mind these days… like how to keep her and the President from being indicted.’”) and self-congratulates himself (P.205: “’Ludicrous. This is not some damned Dale Brown novel, this is real-life.’”)

Not the best Brown novel, but still a darn good one, Storming Heaven should please more fans of the authors, as well as bring in a few new ones.

Dreaming in Smoke, Tricia Sullivan

Bantam Spectra, 1998, 401 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-57703-4

As most semanticians point out, words are not “just” words. They are linked to specific emotional content in our memories. “fresh red apple” has a different feel than “structured organizational content” or somesuch. Some words possess deeper associations than others; “Beauty”, “Songs”, “Love” all play on another register than “Fear”, “Honour”, “Orders”. (These last three words are taken straight from three successive Tom Clancy novels. The former are from fantasy novels.)

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Point of Impact is a substantially different book than -say- Bimboes of the Death Sun. Marketing directors have obviously realized this long ago, and so it’s not a conceptual breakthrough to go from there to a more general theory of book selection: If the title sounds good, buy it.

Dreaming in Smoke might be Tricia Sullivan’s third novel, but it was my first exposure to this new SF author. It wasn’t the title that grabbed me, but the intriguing cover illustration, which depicts a very SF-looking metallic structure above a frail sail-driven boat floating over a golden sea, surrounded by clouds of green-tinged vapour.

This is human colony T’nane. By some quirk of history, this inhospitable planet has been selected as a suitable place to send colonists. Temperatures are high, the air isn’t breathable… Worse: the planet (or, at least the parts we visit) seems to be a vast ocean almost always on the verge of ebullition.

Placed nearby a volcanic area lies the first planetary base, controlled by an AI named Ganesh. There is no human life on T’nane without Ganesh: the survival of the colonists depend on precise environmental controls, and that’s where the AI comes in.

Meanwhile, research is ongoing to find ways to cope with the harsh environment. Scientific research occasionally takes a different form, as scientists use a dream-like state to sort between intuitive hypotheses. (Maybe Tricia Sullivan has read once too many the account of the discovery of benzene) That’s where Kalypso Deed comes in: she’s a “shotgun”, a more detached observer who directs the creative energies of a dreaming scientist toward more productive ends.

Kalypso is also something of an underachiever. Despite her genetic potential, she has consistently failed to attaint the expectations of her elders. She doesn’t understand the maths that her scientists are using; that will be her salvation. Because bad things happen, and they do early on; fifty pages in the novel, Kalypso’s routine “shotgun” shift goes wrong and the AI crashes, carrying most of the station’s life support with it. As the elders try to blame someone, Kalypso is quickly dragged in over her capacities… or is she?

Dreaming in Smoke could have either been (based on the title) an incredibly boring novel in the “Beauty, songs, love” tradition or (based on the synopsis) a pretty spiffy novel of adventure against a background of a crazy AI and a hostile environment. Unfortunately, title and blurb clash and the novel has too much hard scientific content and attitude to be dismissed easily, but drags on far too often to be considered enjoyable. Over a hundred pages could have been slashed, easily. The Dream motif doesn’t help, as many metaphoric scenes just end up being senseless and confusing. It would have been helpful to tighten the action around the Kalypso/Azamat (hAZArdous MATerial?) axis and clean up the prose.

As it stands, Dreaming in Smoke is a thoroughly average SF novel that doesn’t really deserve either condemnation or commendation. Sadly, there is so much better stuff out there than the only reason to pick up this novel would be to discover Tricia Sullivan. Which isn’t a bad reason, mind you: for one thing, she’s able to overcome push-button titles.

Traces, Stephen Baxter

Harper Collins, 1998, 359 pages, C$37.50 hc, ISBN 0-00-225427-1

I’ll admit it right away: For a hard-SF student, I’ve been negligent in my recommended readings. I skipped over Benford, forgot Forward and simply didn’t pick up Clement. But I’m catching up on Stephen Baxter. I really liked The Time Ships and thought of no better way to follow up than to borrow the British edition of his latest collection, Traces, at the local library.

I’ve discussed elsewhere my preference for collections over novels for unfamiliar authors, so there’s no need to go over it in length again here. Briefly put; a short story collection like Traces gives a better idea of the author’s scope and versatility than one single long-form story.

So what can one deduce of Baxter’s interests, strengths and weaknesses from Traces? A fascination for history probably; alternate history certainly. A competence with the hard sciences. An impatience with overdetailed characterization. A melancholy for the now scaled-back dreams of the early space age. A respect for the elders of SF like Wells, Verne, Clarke…

But by far the best thing about Baxter is that he’s fully aware that “short” is half a successful short story. In 360 pages, Baxter packs in 21 stories; no fifty-page novellas here, no interminable seed novel.

Perhaps the most regrettable thing about Traces is that despite being composed of easily categorizable stories, there is no attempt at organization. David Brin’s collection Otherness did this with some success; maybe Baxter could have done the same, redistributing his comments about stories around these categories instead of lumping them into one single afterword.

There could be an “Alternate Histories” section, with pieces like “No Longer Touch the Earth” (where Aristotle’s concept of a celestial orrery proves to be true… and unnoticed until Amundsen and Scott) and “Brigantia Angels” (where the British invent the plane in 1895).

A more specialized section could be dedicated to “Alternate Space Programs”, led by “Moon Six” (an astronaut on the moon is carried in several alternate realities where space exploration is at different stages of development) and followed by “Mittelwelt” (Germany wins WWI and is able to launch a space program), “A Journey to the King Planet” (England discovers antimatter and jump-starts a space program during Queen Victoria’s reign) and “Pilgrim 7” (a Mercury-program astronaut orbiting the Earth is carried away to a more peaceful alternate reality shortly after the Cuba crisis goes nuclear)

There could always be a section called “I learned from the masters”, where Baxter could prove that he’s able to write stories like Wells (“Columbiad”, where Jules Verne’s classic From the Earth to the Moon is fact), Clarke (“Traces”, a big-scale remix of “The Star”), Niven (“Something for Nothing”, which has significant similarities with Niven’s “The Hole Man”) and golden-age planetary-exploration adventures (“In the Manner of Tree”, with requisite gruff starship captain and mysterious natives)

Traces is not a flawless anthology, sinning sometime by tediousness (please forgive me if I admit to skipping large parts of both “Downstream” and “The Blood of Angels”) and pointlessness (“George and the Comet”’s point is undiscernible, “Inherit the Earth” simply falls flat.) But the remainder is pretty good, and certainly worth considering in paperback at your next trip to the local SF store.

Any author that can claim to rewrite Superman and actually do a good job (“Good News”) as well as write a rousing story about a dead classical poet (Lord Byron in “Darkness”) deserves at least a modicum of attention. Traces might just be the best way to get acquainted with Stephen Baxter.

La Vita è Bella [Life Is Beautiful] (1997)

La Vita è Bella [Life Is Beautiful] (1997)

(In theaters, February 1999) has a brilliant premise, but unfortunately couldn’t do it justice without bringing along a series of significant flaws. The first of these is the division of the movie in two very different halves. The first is a romantic comedy that sets up the protagonist as a clever innocent that has no other defense against the world than humour; the second is a dark comedy that shows him, eight years later, as trying to protect his son from the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp by masquerading the camp as a game. Despite the jokes and the funny faces, the overall structure is nevertheless definitely tragic and that’s why the effect is split. Also grating is the movie’s reliance on shameless coincidences and often sophomoric humour. Still, don’t get the impression that this movie isn’t worth it; some sequences approach perfection -like the translation scene- and something must be said about Roberto Benigni’s unflappable charm. Making this movie took courage, and the result is impressive despite its flaws.

The Number of the Beast, Robert A. Heinlein

Fawcett, 1980, 511 pages, C$4.75 mmpb, ISBN 0-449-14476-3

Given this new millennium, some particularly silly person will undoubtedly try to poll Science-Fiction fans to try to find out was the foremost SF writer of the twentieth century. I say “silly”, because the contest is over even before it begins; the honour logically goes to Robert A. Heinlein.

Say what you want, gnash your teeth, moan loudly or run away screaming; Robert A. Heinlein is the defining SF writer of the twentieth century. He has shaped the genre to his liking, inspired more writers than anyone else, provoked more arguments and debates than any other and influenced more people than most politicians. He’s not only the author of the hippie manifesto Stranger in a Strange Land, but also the militarist fantasy Starship Troopers and the libertarian classic The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Notice, however, that these novels were all written in the first two-third of Heinlein’s career. In the seventies, the author was severely affected by poor health and his post-1970 novels were marked by a severe lack of editorial revision, increasing authorial indulgence and a detestable tendency to praise a small group of fictional characters very much like Heinlein at the expense of everything else.

The Number of the Beast is widely known as one of Heinlein’s worst books and an interminable exercise in solipsism. Given that it’s one of the very few Heinlein novels I still hadn’t read, I was curious to see for myself what the fuss was about.

After reading the novel, I’m still unsure whether the book was a satire or not. A straight plot summary of the book will not do: what would any serious SF reader think of “two couples of geniuses are chased by aliens and forced to depart through space and time aboard their specially-modified car”? Right…

It’s apparent from the start that this is a novel that will defy conventional assessment. When hitherto-unknown characters marry in the first thirty pages, when all four protagonists have multiple doctorates and when alternate universes are defined by SF stories, it quickly becomes apparent that anyone applying rational literary standards will quickly regret it.

Which is essentially saying that anyone expecting a conventionally entertaining novel won’t like The Number of the Beast. Critics are right when they say that the four protagonists in The Number of the Beast are all Heinlein in disguise. It’s not enough to be ready to wackiness; it’s almost a prerequisite to be very familiar with all of Heinlein’s corpus up to 1980 to be comfortable with the discussions in this novel.

But is it enjoyable? It depends which part of the novel you read. The opening 150 pages have some plot, and are carried through mainly on Heinlein’s sheer narrative verve and great character introductions. The protagonists are so ridiculously ultra-competent that we’re reading in part to see which one will top the other with some other outrageously exotic skill.

But the 350 remaining pages are, despite the lively prose, often an exercise in tediousness. Interminable, useless technical descriptions are wrapped around some more (not unenjoyable) Heinleinisms. The impression is one of a writer who’s lost his outline. Even the spirited Envoi does nothing to reconcile ourselves with a novel that’s two-third empty.

That’s the conventional way of enjoying The Number of the Beast… but I’m not sure the unconventional way is open to anyone save the late Robert A. Heinlein himself.

A Simple Plan (1998)

A Simple Plan (1998)

(In theaters, February 1999) This succeeds where Very Bad Things crashed miserably; telling a tale of increasing grimness with the appropriate tone. Three men find four million dollars in the woods; for this price, what wouldn’t they do to keep the secret? Whereas Very Bad Things tried to fashion a hip comedy out of a gruesome series of murders, A Simple Plan plays it more maturely. (Ironically, A Simple Plan‘s director is Sam –Army Of Darkness– Raimi, never before known for his restraint) The result is nothing short of a very good film, emotionally gripping yet non-manipulative and superbly concluded. Great acting across the board. Perhaps a bit suspicious around the edges (what about Hank’s wife’s abrupt attitude reversal or the unlikely hypothesis that just happens to be right?) and longuish at times, A Simple Plan is easily one of the best films of 1998 for those with the will to stomach a dark tale about human greed. At least it won’t try to make you laugh.

Payback (1999)

Payback (1999)

(In theaters, February 1999) This film will probably be misunderstood by a bunch of so-called critics and tremendously enjoyed by those who actually get the intent of the film. Not-coincidentally co-written and wonderfully directed by L.A. Confidential‘s Brian Hegeland, Payback is an homage to the whole era of pulpish hard-boiled noir stories. In this case, however, the protagonist is not a Private Investigator, but a tough robber double-crossed by his wife and partner. He wants his money back; the movie’s plot is as simple as that. The lengths with which the protagonist will go to get back his due are what holds our interest. Cool acting by Mel Gibson, a hilarious presence by Lucy Liu as a dominatrix, a crunchy soundtrack and good direction make this movie an enormously enjoyable treat for fans of the genre.

Office Space (1999)

Office Space (1999)

(In theaters, February 1999) The cartoon strip Dilbert has enjoyed a long and successful run during the past few years by satirizing the hitherto-ignored daily frustrations of office work. Office Space covers more or less the same ground but, unfortunately, has more than three small boxes in which to delivers its punchlines. The first half of the movie is hilarious as characters, environment and small set-pieces are delivered without attention to story development, and the jokes are funny. Anyone with even the slightest experience with white-collar jobs will laugh along heartily. It’s in the second half that the movie discovers it has to have a plot, and fulfilling this obligation takes away a lot of the movie’s previous care-free fun. Still, it’s more than worth it for its target audience: Some bits are wonderfully directed, most characters are very well sketched and the whole is very enjoyable. Better still; see it with a group of colleagues.

(Second viewing, On DVD, March 2002) White-collar workers of the world, unite and go fetch this little film! Writer/director Mike Judge pokes fun at the meaningless work in which so many of us are stuck and delivers a solid, unpretentious 90-minutes comedy that will leave you smiling. Not many laughs the second time around, but it doesn’t matter a lot when the characters are so sympathetic. The second-half lull is more obvious the second time around, though. Sadly, the DVD doesn’t contain any extras worth mentioning.

(Third viewing, on DVD, October 2009): I hadn’t seen this in a while, and another viewing leaves me both happy and set straight. Sure, this workplace comedy has survived pretty well its first decade: the technology may have changed, but the issues tackled here are more or less the same, and the humour of the film remains applicable to most office contexts. On the other hand, the cult status of the film among IT and office workers may have skewed perceptions a bit: The film is considerably gentler and less steadily hilarious than I recalled it. It’s an ensemble piece, and an atmospheric one: There are moments in the film that glide from one amusing moment to another without necessarily going for the cheap gag. As a result, any compendium of best quotes from the movie doesn’t exactly reflect its genial, easygoing flow (albeit occasionally broken by hardcore rap.) Still, it’s a charming comedy, much closer in tone to director Mike Judge’s subsequent Extract than anyone is likely to remember.

Maximum Risk (1996)

Maximum Risk (1996)

(On TV, February 1999) This film perpetrates the most fatal error that an action movie can make: It’s boring. Okay, so you can’t expect much from a Jean-Claude van Damme picture but still, this one is unusually lifeless. The curiously uninspired direction (by Hong Kong legend Ringo Lam) is partly to blame, but as usual the script is the weakest part of the whole. Maximum Risk picks up during its third act (excluding that forgettable meat-locker scene) but can’t make up for the lackluster first 90 minutes.

Immortality, Dr. Ben Bova

Avon, 1998, 283 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 0-380-97518-1

Immortality has been a staple of Science-Fiction for as long as the genre has existed, from at least Greek mythology onward. Most of the time, Immortality was presented either as a goal for mad scientists (“With this ingredient, I shall live forever and enslave the world!”) or, perhaps more ominously, as a curse bestowed on an unlucky few.

Eventually, given SF’s own tendency to pervert its own assumptions, more balanced work have emerged. Increasingly realistic biomedical advances in the real world have helped to steer fiction away from the “mad immortals” cliches. The SF of the nineties has seen a renewed interest in the concept. Kim Stanley Robinson made it one of the keystones of his grandiose “Mars” trilogy, even though some will argue that it was a mean to develop the story with the same characters, not an end in itself. More recently, James L. Halperin vulgarized the subject in 1998’s quasi-mainstream novel The First Immortal.

Ben Bova’s Immortality, despite Bova’s solid reputation as a Science Fiction author, is a non-fiction work. It explores the avenues by which medicine may reverse aging, the consequences of such a scientific triumph and the desirability of immortality.

Doctor-Bova-the-scientist has meticulously distanced himself from Ben-Bova-the-SF-writer in Immortality. Indeed, his “Other books by Ben Bova” blurb lists only non-fiction works and even then it’s staggering to see that he has written more non-fiction books that most writers will write novels in their lifetimes. But Bova has carried to science writing the same limpidity of thought and writing that has earned him his legions of SF fans.

Immortality is an unusually accessible work about a subject that is unusually complex. It’s no coincidence if it take more than a hundred pages to get at immortality itself: Bova has to carry the reader through elementary chemistry and biology before really tackling immortality. Fortunately, it’s a much more pleasant read than the prospect of “a hundred pages of basic sciences” might imply. Side-bars, personal anecdotes, catchy headers and other techniques make Immortality a model of good scientific vulgarization. As might be expected, Bova’s research is meticulous. At the end of the book’s first part, we can’t be anything but convinced that immortality is just around the corner. The scientific evidence so far is overwhelming.

As stunning as is this conclusion, it’s the second part of the book that will fascinate. Here, Bova explores his previous assumption by looking at the social repercussions of Immortality. He reasonably intuits that not everyone will welcome this revolution with equal fervour. He also posits “what-if?” scenarios based on the costs of immortality treatments, availability and continued medical research on the subject. Alas, this part is over much too quickly; if the book has a weakness, it’s that this examination of social impacts could have been expanded. Bova makes simplistic assumptions that will give ammunition to overcritical readers.

But no matter. After finishing Immortality, it’s difficult to disagree with Bova’s assertion that death will eventually become, not obsolete, but far less implacable than today. It’s a breath of fresh air in a marketplace of end-of-the-world predictions.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Immortality is not the prediction of immortality -after all, it’s been a common fantasy for a while now-, but the fact that this prediction is detailed, quite reasonably, in a popular science book. Even long after first reading the last lines of the book, they will resonate as strongly as before:

The first immortals are already living among us. You might be one of them.

Jerry Maguire (1996)

Jerry Maguire (1996)

(On TV, February 1999) I’m still not too sure of what to think about this film even a few days after seeing it for the first time. I get the impression of a darn good sports comedy (complete with outrageous odds, game-turning events and triumphant finish) mixed with a puzzling “realistic” romance (with less-than-honorable intentions but still a triumphant finish.) In the end, however, the uneven mix-and-match and the sometime creaky attempts at mature love story takes a second step to the movie’s biggest strength: the acting. Tom Cruise is even better than his usual good standards as a sports agent with a budding moral streak (However, -dare I ask-, is it reasonable that he would get fired for a passionate memo? Don’t think so…) but he almost disappears behind the hyper-energetic performance of Cuba Gooding Junior, who eclipses his other roles as something of a sissy-boy (see Outbreak, As Good As It Gets and What Dreams May Come) by playing an ultra-confident football player. Rene Zellweger is breath-taking while still remaining comfortably adorable; heck, even the kid is fun to watch! The script is okay and the direction is rather good. The result, as one colleague suggested, is a movie with everything for everyone: Romance for the girls and football for the guys.

The Cable Guy (1996)

The Cable Guy (1996)

(On TV, February 1999) This film was critically disliked when it first came out and it’s not hard to see why: the script tries to do two things (have a wacky Jim Carrey movie and tell a tale of a psychopath) at the same time and fails at both. Despite good direction by Ben Stiller (yes, that actor Ben Stiller), great usage of a good soundtrack and some clever asides, the movie suffers from its dichotomic script and a less-than-impressive conclusion. Give a medal to Carrey because he’s one of the few actors that had a chance to pull this role adequately, but take the screenwriter to the firing squad.