Deepdrive, Alexander Jablokov

Avon EOS, 1998, 311 pages, C$19.00 hc, ISBN 0-380-97636-6

Once in a while comes a book that’s not easily reviewable. Whereas most books are easily criticized as being good/bad, some aren’t as simply analyzed. Deepdrive is a case in point; a book with some terrific aspects that nevertheless fails at being a satisfying read.

One of Deepdrive‘s best characteristics is the setting: In a future far removed from us, the solar system has been colonized by both humans and aliens. Strange creatures are transforming Venus. Aliens on Mercury fire a gigantic gun at the sun for mysterious purposes. Dozen of races people the systems alongside humans, most often doing things that other races can’t figure out. These aliens are here, but they can’t go elsewhere: The faster-than-light engines (“deepdrives”) they used to enter the system all self-destructed upon arrival, thus preventing these pesky humans from escaping. Spurred by suspicious rumors, several humans have tried to find out working drives, without success.

Wonderful setting; does Jablokov do anything with it? The plot eventually set in motion resides around an alien called Ripi, a lone representative of his race who’s held in “protective custody” on Venus. Our story begins as a team of mercenaries is sent to recover Ripi. After all, maybe he knows the secret of the deepdrive…

But, as we could expect, things go wrong, Ripi is found, lost, retrieved and let go again. Our mercs fight the police, squabble among themselves, discover each other’s secrets, disband, come together, etc…

The above might have been a superb space adventure in the most classical sense, a fast-paced action-filled SF story with the fun hallmarks of the genre’s most enjoyable romp. Well, in the final analysis it is not.

And it’s fiendishly hard to figure out why.

My first thought was that the prose style was somehow lacking in readability, but that doesn’t turn out to be true: Though Jablokov doesn’t grab our attention like the masters (Heinlein, Varley, etc…) can, he’s similarly removed from the undecipherable prose of his more “literary” counterparts.

Things get more complex when we look at the characters. Despite assembling a motley group of different personalities as his mercenary team, Jablokov has given us no real hero. I had to keep reminding myself that his protagonists were human, because they didn’t act in any manner similar to ours. In trying to be interesting, Jablokov might have gone too far in the realm of the bizarre and the alien. The result is that we can’t focus on anyone and can’t relate to any character.

It gets worse when considering the story from afar. The recovery of Ripi is only the beginning of the adventure. The problem is that everything that follows is less interesting than the first hundred pages. It’s hard to be satisfied with a novel whose dramatic high-point comes at the beginning. I found myself scanning rather than reading because I just couldn’t get interested in the various events.

The novel might have been too long to be snappy, it might have been too short to give us the chance to be interested in the characters. But whatever the reason, the result is not successful. Hollywood often has the tendency to recycle original premises in other films; I find myself wishing for a future novel doing exactly that from Deepdrive.

Mission to Mars, Michael Collins

Grove Weidenfeld, 1990, 307 pages, C$20.00 hc, ISBN 0-8021-1160-2

I have always been fascinated by space. My parents are fond of reminding me -to my great embarrassment- that as a very young lad, I regularly pointed upward at night, repeating “The Moon! The Moon!” to everyone within earshot. As a slightly older lad, I practically cut my reading teeth on Apollo mission clippings and a used copy of Jules Verne’s De la Terre à la Lune (From the Earth to the Moon)

Is it any wonder I became a heavy science-fiction reader? After I had read all about the historical events and witnessed the first few shuttle flights, there wasn’t much left to explore in the real-world. And, up to a certain point, fifteen years later that’s still true: Humankind has ignored the promise of outer space, being content with circling the globe -if that- for strictly pedestrian reasons. It’s intolerable that most people accept the fact that there hasn’t been a human on the moon for twenty-five years.

Historical records show that once Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, Nixon and Agnew were already talking of taking the next step; going to Mars. Of course, we know what then happened to Nixon and Agnew, but the dream of going to Mars hasn’t fared much better.

However, the nineties have seen a renewed surge of interest in plans for Mars. Only in Science-Fiction, we’ve seen almost a dozen novels dealing with Martian exploration, from the definitive Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson to awful franchise novels which shall remain nameless.

But the book that arguably sparked this interest is Mission to Mars, by ex-astronaut Michael (“First Man Not to Walk on the Moon”) Collins. In this 1990 non-fiction account, Collins exposes why and how we should go to Mars, as well as the problems to solve until then.

As could be expected, we get a solid description of the current state of our knowledge about the Red Planet, as well as practical considerations for making the trip. We don’t have Star Trek technology: Our closed-loop environmental systems are imperfect at best, and the weight of the spacecraft we’ll be sending there will remain a significant problem for a long time.

Collins is no armchair commentator; he’s been up there and he knows what he’s talking about. Mission to Mars is peppered with candid -often tough- advice about a myriad of small and big subjects.

The book really lift off, however, in its last third, where Collins writes a small docu-novella describing in fictional format the adventures of the first colonists. A testimony to the power of good science-fiction, this account repeats the arguments and issues of the first two-third of the book while making them more interesting and certainly more memorable. While no Hugo-winning piece of work, it is serviceable enough to serve as centerpiece to the book. (As for the “straight” non-fiction part of the book, the two highlights are chapters about submarines and Antarctica as related to a Mars Mission.)

Though not exceptionally well-organized, Mission to Mars flows well. The index ensures that it will be usable as reference material.

Where Collins fails, however, is to convince me that we should forego the Moon to go directly to Mars. I’ve suggested elsewhere that it’s this attitude that made us go on the Moon before we were ready to follow up exploration by colonization. In my mind -and Collins didn’t change it-, we should establish a permanent colony on the Moon even before thinking of going to Mars. If the goal is to move permanently into space -and I can’t think of any other overriding goal for humankind-, it’s far better to expand in the neighborhood than take a short trip in next country.

But, personal preferences aside, Mission to Mars is a succinct compilation of the whys and hows of going to Mars. It’s worth the time for anyone who still looks above at night and wonder why we’re not already up there.

Beggars in Spain, Nancy Kress

Avonova, 1993, 407 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-71877-4

All together now: Science-Fiction is all about studying the effects of change on human beings.

More succinctly put: What if, rationally?

The best novels of the genre usually spring from a good single premise. Something that, preferably, hasn’t been done before. Then, the best novels explore the repercussions of this premise over human society, preferably using sympathetic characters to illustrate the repercussions on a personal level. Finally, the best novels do this seemingly effortlessly, with a lively style and a wonderful story to tell.

While Beggars in Spain isn’t perfect, it certainly adhere to most of the criteria above. The result is an above-average pure science-fiction novel.

The premise is one of the most simple yet fascinating encountered lately: Due to genetic engineering, the gene responsible for sleep is eliminated from a few children. This leads, obviously, to individuals with far more time for work, study or play but also, more surprisingly, to happier, smarter, more balanced individuals. There are no disadvantages. Their abilities are such that they quickly graduate at the top of their classes, get good jobs and generally outperform their sleeping colleagues. As could be expected, this leads to strife and conflict between the Sleepless and the Normals. Beggars in Spain is the tale of Leisha Camden, a Sleepless which allies with neither side and tries to moderate the conflict.

Nancy Kress has been the “Writer’s Digest”’s own fiction columnist for several years, and the technical mastery that has landed her this column is so well-practiced in Beggars in Spain that it shines by its transparency. The prose is simple yet effective. The plot goes effortlessly from one significant event to another. The characters are sketched rapidly and developed as Kress goes along; despite a rather large cast of characters, the personae dramatis is rarely confusing.

But if the characters are good, the plotting is only average. The novel is divided in roughly four parts, each of them chronologically distinct from the other. This gives the impression of four linked stories, not a single novel-or maybe a novel like those old-fashioned family sagas, spread over several generations and at least half a century. In any case, it does seems like the most interesting conflict of the novel is at the beginning, where the first sleepless have advantages so important over the remainder of humanity that sparks develop between the two groups, not the curiously anticlimactic three-partitioned conflict near the end.

It’s important to note that the believability factor of Beggars in Spain is, all things considered, quite low. This would have been less of a problem if Kress hadn’t attempted to couch everything in plausible-sounding biology. Her argument that sleep was an obsolete evolutionary trait is senseless (otherwise natural selection would have eliminated the oft-sleeping lions, etc…) and come perilously close to sinking the novel. But, again, the “What if?” predominates and the premise of a sleepless, all-around better human must be accepted. (It might have been better to assume quicksleep -thirty-minutes naps once every forty-eight hours or so- rather than sleeplessness.) Another curious oversight is the absence of comment on how boring it would be to live through the night every night and see all friends go to sleep; what is there to do?

Still, don’t get the impression that Beggars in Spain is not worth your while. In fact, the various nitpicks are signs more of a stimulated intellect than a desire to dismiss the book. Kress vaulted in the big leagues with this novel (it was nominated for the Nebula Award, as I recall) and the ultimate result is a fascinating examination, according to the rules of the genre, of a very intriguing “What if?”.

Man o’ War, William Shatner

Ace/Putnam, 1996, 256 pages, C$30.95 hc, ISBN 0-399-14131-6

I must have Lemming genes somewhere in my DNA.

Otherwise, who else to explain me reading this book? I have heard, time and time again, the maxim that novels “written” by Star Trek actors are generally beyond bad. Heck, I even wrote that in a previous review.

And yet, I still bought Man o’ War. The fact that I paid 50c for a good-quality hardcover at a charity sale is a pretty sad rationalization for what was, after all, an unexplainable poor choice.

Let’s review facts, shall we? William Shatner is a Montreal-born actor whose greatest claim to fame is the starring role of “Captain Kirk” in the most famous Science-Fiction television series, “Star Trek”. Even though the series lasted only three years, it gained a huge cult following that eventually made it a cultural icon, along with Shatner.

In the early nineties, Shatner “wrote” a rather fun novel called “Tekwar”. The quotes around “wrote” are important, given that most insiders credit SF author Ron Goulart with the novel and subsequent series. To say that the first novel was fun in no way implies that it was good; the sequels went downhill from there, both in quality and enjoyment.

Man o’ War is not related to the Tek series. Here, the hero is Benton Hawkes, ace diplomat. As the book begins, he’s just made the biggest mistake of his life: taking the side of the poor oppressed people against the big evil corporation in delicate negotiations. As punishment, Hawkes is sent to Mars, where colonists are allegedly revolting against the government. Gee! Is he going to be able to defuse the situation?

There’s nothing terribly original in the above outline, and there’s even less originality in the actual novel. Between the nicely-designed cover minimally illustrated by Bob Eggleton, we don’t get much more than ink on paper in actual real value.

It’s a real sign of trouble when the action scenes in an action-oriented book are more boring than what surrounds them. In fact, they’re handled with so much ennui that we practically feel revulsion for the protagonist while he’s dispatching the opposition: Why so much bloodshed when Hawkes himself isn’t worth our interest?

And so on and so forth: There’s nothing remotely interesting in Goulart’s, er, Shatner’s future, neither on Earth nor Mars. Man o’ War is a complete waste of time.

But the novel descends even further in mediocrity by a blatant disregard for anything resembling solid economics, basic physics or simple logic.

Economics: The novel will try to make you believe that Mars is able to produce vital quantities of foodstuff for Earth. Uh? What about the costs of shipping the stuff? Why should the colonists be oppressed if they hold Earth’s stomach in a grip?

Physics: The Earth-Mars trip takes a dozen days. Uh-huh. Right. Wait, there’s more! Like unexplained artificial gravity on the ship. Or even -that’s where my already-well-stretched suspension-of-disbelief snapped-, in Chapter 37, Hawkes phones up an acquaintance on Earth… and start talking in real-time. Okay, everyone associated with this book: it’s time to go back to high-school physics!

Logic: The Evil Guys ships hundreds of soldiers to Mars -casually disregarding expenses- in hope of fermenting a rebellion. Why the heck? Why not just pay the darn colonists?

Anyway… Stay away from Man o’ War. It’s one of the best example of pure garbage produced by a gaggle of people without the slightest respect for A> Science-Fiction, B> Your Money and C> Your Intelligence. This goes far beyond the Curse of Star Trek Actors-cum-Novelists: It’s a literary debacle of INDEPENDENCE-DAYesque proportions. There are no redeeming features to this book. And my review will stop there, because now I’m getting really angry.

High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess, Charles Fleming

Doubleday, 1998, 294 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-48694-4

Everyone’s fascinated by Hollywood.

Not that there isn’t something to be justifiably fascinated about: The lovely, sunny weather. The movie business, with its public displays of fame and fortune. The glamour of the stars. The women, the men, the mansions, the cars… Who in North America -oh, even the world!- wouldn’t jump at the chance to be part of the Known Universe’s biggest Dream Factory?

But even then, most people will almost immediately add that celebrity doesn’t mean happiness-as demonstrated by the sob-stories of the tabloids. How many times has Hollywood has been compared to a soulless ambition-devouring monster? How many people have failed miserably in their dreams and ended up broken by Tinseltown? Great power does not exist in a vacuum: it takes away from others.

The life and death of Hollywood producer Don Simpson is not as much the subject per se of High Concept as it is a springboard to examine the “culture of excess” that surrounds Hollywood. Prostitution, drugs, vanity or simple unbridled spending are staples of the industry and Don Simpson indulged in all of them.

To casual moviegoers, Simpson might best be remembered as one half of the Bruckheimer/Simpson duo of Hollywood producers. In almost fifteen years, they brought to the silver screen a string of “high-concept” blockbusters: FLASHDANCE, BEVERLY HILLS COP and its sequel, TOP GUN, DAYS OF THUNDER, CRIMSON TIDE, BAD BOYS, DANGEROUS MINDS and (posthumously for Simpson) THE ROCK. But at the image of these flashy, loud, often violent movies, Simpson lived a life in overdrive: High Concept follows Simpson from his childhood Alaska to sunny California, where he made his first big hit with AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN. Then he teamed up with Bruckheimer (Simpson was the hyperactive creative guy; Bruckheimer was the calm, nuts-and-bolts person) and went on to glory.

But if Hollywood magnifies success, it also extracts a terrible price from anyone with even the slightest moral flaw. Simpson found himself in the position of the high school nerd suddenly surrounded by money and debauchery. His downfall was inevitable.

Charles Fleming makes an icon out of Don Simpson. In successive chapters, he examines the excesses of Simpson and places them in a context “devoid of negative consequences… In another industry, Simpson’s excesses would have resulted in a firing, a suspension, a forced stay in rehab, intervention by his superiors or abandonment by his peers. In Hollywood, though, Simpson simply became another show business character.” [P. 11]

High Concept is the condemnation of an entire industry. Tinseltown created the false paradise that ultimately destroyed Don Simpson. “Hollywood fiddled while Simpson burned and after his final self-immolation, fiddled on.” If you want dirt, Fleming dishes out the dirt. But this is well-documented (10 pages of notes), contextualized dirt. With the benefit of hindsight, we get full access to Hollywood’s most notorious drug dealers, madams and over-indulgers. If Don Simpson is forgotten for a few pages, well, that’s the way the town is all interconnected. Because it always comes back, one way or another, to Simpson.

Fleming’s style is wonderfully readable, mixing anecdotes with more pondered insights and tentative conclusions. While certain chapters are weaker (Doctor’s Orders) than others (Hollywood High), the whole book is solid, crunchy reading. This isn’t tabloid gossip; this is a serious look at a diseased industry racing to destruction, much like Don Simpson.

Ultimately, though, High Concept is a powerful cautionary tale. I can see this book being used, much like Peter Biskind’s Sex, Drugs and Rock’n’Roll, as a source-book for every Hollywood-hating fundamentalist. The remainder of us will be reminded of the price of success… and what if we found ourselves in the same situation?

Because at the end of High Concept, I’m still a guy from Ontario who would jump at the chance of making a few million dollars in Hollywood. As, I suspect, would anyone.

Wing Commander (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Wing Commander</strong> (1999)

(In theaters, March 1999) It takes less than five minutes to realize that one will go crazy trying to evaluate Wing Commander as good Science-Fiction in the purest terms. But even considering it as B-grade MST3K material isn’t as satisfying as one might expect. The script is generally quite poor, with particular awfulness being reserved for two howlingly funny “dramatic” scenes. It takes nearly ever war/space cliché and throws them together, going far beyond the usual “sounds in space” blunders. Even worse; I realized halfway through that the movie was boring. Even the space battles and fancy special effects don’t arouse interest. The directing is average, the acting is average, the special effects aren’t that special… Wing Commander only poses one question: What did we SF fans do to get a genre with movies like this?

Poison Pen: The True Confessions of Two Tabloid Reporters, Lysa Moskowitz-Mateu & David LaFontaine

Dove Audio, 1996, 208 pages, C$24.99 hc, ISBN 0-7871-0916-9


“I thought I’d die!” says bespectacled reviewer!

ROCKLAND (CLS) — Today, in a stunning display of willpower, noted book reviewer Christian Sauvé has finished reading Poison Pen, a 208-pages tome about tabloid reporting. In a press conference given to the press, he has agreed to share his impressions about the book.

Poison Pen, written by an ex-couple of scribes for national tabloid newspapers, contains numerous shocking revelations about this shady world of gossipy publishing. From snooping techniques of investigative dirt-digging to the back-stabbing office politics of tabloid papers, the subject matter of this tome is fertile ground for anecdotes. “Poison Pen is a portrait of the wild and wicked world of tabloid reporting” writes LaFontaine.

“And it is wild and wicked!” says Sauvé. Among other saucy anecdotes, you’ll find in this non-fiction account are how Lafontaine impersonated a doctor to try to get access to Lisa Mary Presley’s hospital room and how the couple ambushed Ted Danson and Whoopi Goldberg in a hotel during a weekend tryst.

“What’s more, these guys are absolutely shameless about it!” exclaims Sauvé. Indeed, Lafontaine writes that “readers want to be told that celebrities are just as miserable as they are. Hate to spoil your cherished illusions, but by and large, celebrities are having a hell of a lot more fun than you ever will.” “I was a quick study in this business of deceit.” adds Moskowitz-Mateu. “I learned how to write catchy lead, how to exaggerate the truth… In the tabloid industry, being a good liar is considered a highly desirable trait.”

“You would expect a book about celebrity gossip reporting to be entertaining” says Sauvé, describing his foolhardy presumptions, “and Poison Pen is simply hilarious. The tales of how they try to get scoops -and even those where they fail, like the Liz Taylor marriage, are incredibly funny. I thought I’d die laughing.” Sauvé singled out the chapter on celebrity marriages as being most indicative of the book’s madcap subject.

Readers should expect to find more serious material, however, in the coverage of some of Hollywood’s biggest recent stories in the pages of Poison Pen. The 1989 California Quake is meta-covered by LaFontaine, who looks at the tabloid reporting itself in the face of the crisis. Similar material is assembled about the Oklahoma City bombing and the O.J. Simpson trial which, according to LaFontaine, changed forever the face of news-reporting in America: “Viewers have grown accustomed to hearing stories reported in the finest tabloid style, built around a kernel of fact and surrounded by a nebulous cloud of rumor, assumption and hype.”

This type of honest self-assessment is one of the highlights of the book. However, as Sauvé says, “you end up with a book that’s half-great, half-repulsive. Generally speaking, Lafontaine writes the most interesting parts of the book, providing both history, context, rationale and significance to the phenomenon of tabloid newspapers. Moskowitz-Mateu acts like a blonde bimbo by restricting herself to inconsequential anecdotes.” The worst example, according to Sauvé, is in Chapter 7 -about addiction- where “Moskowitz-Mateu repulsively tells of a friendly chat with Paula Abdul about eating disorders, and then dumps her whole guilt on us by writing that she was sickened by the whole thing and decided not submit the story.” Independent reports have confirmed Sauvé’s adulation for Abdul.

“In the end, you have a good book that could have been even better.” concludes Sauvé. “I would like to see another book by LaFontaine going even deeper in the business. But as for Moskowitz-Mateu, heck, leave her in the cesspool because she brings no valuable insight to her work.”

Rushmore (1998)

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

(In theaters, March 1999) It’s unfortunate that Rushmore‘s biggest claim to excellence are the things it doesn’t do rather than what is actually shown on-screen. Granted, it takes genius nowadays to make an original coming-of-age film, but doing so doesn’t ensure success. The star of Rushmore is its protagonist Max, a brilliant (?) student who can’t be categorized with easy clichés but doesn’t necessarily deserve unqualified sympathy from the audience. (Why does he keep on pursuing the teacher when the Asian girl is so much hotter?) The script itself is fairly good, but oscillates between the absurd and the realistic in a way that tantalizes audiences with the promise of a far funnier film.

The Parallax View (1974)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Parallax View</strong> (1974)

(On TV, March 1999) This conspiracy thriller has a good reputation among film buffs, but it doesn’t really deserve it. The problem is not so much the typically-dark seventies ending, but the lack of satisfaction given by the film. We never adequately find out what’s the matter with the Parallax corporation, or get explanations for some of the most outlandish events. If you add the slooow pacing and the inconsistent directing, the result isn’t really impressive.

The Matrix (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Matrix</strong> (1999)

(In theaters, March 1999) Oh! That’s probably one of the few things left to say right after seeing this film. Oh cool; a mixture of Hong Kong-style action, far-out existentialist Science-Fiction, straight-out over-the-top theatrics and pure imagination. Oh sharp; the direction is simply wonderful, bringing stylistic excess to mesh with the carefree hyperkinetic action. Oh yeah; this is the best action movie since Face/Off, the best SF film since Dark City and the best comic book visualization since The Fifth Element. Whatever your “Oh!” means, The Matrix is one heck of a ride. Despite the numerous logical flaws in the script (don’t get me started on that…), some juvenile pop-philosophy and uneven pacing (not to mention the criminal underusage of Carrie-Anne Moss), The Matrix gets top marks as a superlatively put-together blockbuster. See it on the biggest screen you can.

(Second viewing, In theaters, April 1999) I very seldom go twice to the same movie, but The Matrix is definitely cool enough to make me do so. (Okay, granted, I was going with someone else, but still…) Though I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s as good the second time around, it’s still so technically well-done that even another viewing is worthwhile. The Wachowski brother’s direction is very visually exciting and makes even the slow moments (of which there are quite a few, all things reconsidered) interesting. The stoopid science, plot holes and juvenile philosophy are still sore spots, though. Now a surefire choice for my top-ten list of 1999, The Matrix almost compensate for all the other awful SF movies released by Hollywood lately. Almost.

(Third viewing, On DVD, September 1999) At a time where most SF films tend to be brief flash-in-the-pan visual delights, it’s a relief to see that The Matrix still holds up pretty well to a third viewing. The special effects are still as good, the pop philosophy is still as unsubtle and the bad science still as grating, but the direction, art design and acting each do a lot to maintain interest. The DVD is exceedingly well-done, packed with a “Making of…” feature, two short special effects documentaries and a rather tepid commentary track by Carrie-Anne “Trinity” Moss, Special Effects supervisor John Geta and Editor Zach Straenberg. (Unfortunately, the commentary is badly edited, often redundant and with lengthy pauses.) The DVD-ROM content is promising, but will have to wait until I get an adequate player.

(Fourth viewing, On DVD, May 2003) Four years later, I’m still jazzed up about this film, which holds up admirably well to yet another repeat viewing. The direction is still as good as ever and shores up a film that suffers a lot from structural problems both in the first half (where all is explained and nothing happens) and the second (where a lot of stuff blows up but nothing is explained). It’s a shame, in retrospect, that the heavy noir influence of the first five minutes is seldom seen afterwards. Well worth another look in light of the last two volumes of the trilogy, as the meanly focused nature of the story expands into something much bigger later on, and given that two or three throw-away images of this original film end up taking quite another significance after even only The Matrix Reloaded

The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Long Kiss Goodnight</strong> (1996)

(On TV, March 1999) The biggest problem of this film is that it’s a quasi-parody of action movie clichés (including the infamous outrun-the-explosion idiocy) that takes itself seriously. I hesitate to place the blame on Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson (though Davis plays it so that “Charlie” is actually less interesting/attractive than “Samantha”) so scriptwriter Shane (Lethal Weapon) Black deserves all complaints. Still, there are a few good action sequences… but don’t be surprised to find yourself wishing for a more focused film from the rather good basic premise., Kara Swisher

Random House Times Business, 1998, 333 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-8129-2896-2

As an experienced computer user (I started in 1983 with the Commodore 64, graduated to the IBM PC five years later, went on the Internet in 1993, got a Comp.Sci. degree and never looked back), I’m the type of person who finds inner peace and contentment in poking around the Machine itself rather than to be simply contented with using it for other purposes. My computers are open more than half the time, my Operating Systems are customized, my head is full of intricate procedures to coax the last possible unit of performance from my system… I must face the blight of being a nerd, someone as interested in How It Works than What It Does.

I’m not the type of user that America Online wants.

This online service has made its fame and fortune by grasping what most technically-oriented companies were slow in understanding: The average users don’t care about technology. They want the benefits without the hassles. They want everything to be as simple as possible. And, by most standards, AOL has delivered what users wanted, opening the Internet to hordes of users without the kind of hard-won civility that comes from accessing something after a considerable amount of effort.

For all of these reasons, I don’t like America Online. They could disappear tomorrow with nary a qualm from me. But it’s not essential to like AOL to like

This “biography” of America Online begins at the very beginning, with the foundation of a company in the early eighties by an entrepreneur with too many ideas and too little common sense: Bill Von Meister. After an extended limbo where the company repeatedly changed names and incarnations, AOL finally hit it big in 1993, with more than 500,000 users. But the drama wasn’t over: The following five years would find AOL struggling with growing pains, the arrival of the Internet, a more techno-savvy audience, a massive nineteen-hour shutdown and a huge commercial battle with Microsoft. Every year, another crisis seemed to engulf the online service, which has already been declared dead more time than it can recall. But AOL has always survived-for better or worse.

Wall Street Journal reporter Kara Swisher brings this whole story to life in, meticulously chronicling the history of AOL up to the beginning of 1998. Despite Swisher’s collaboration with American Online for research -she was reportedly granted unprecedented access to the company for more than a year-, the result is sharply critical of some of AOL’s biggest blunders. She does know her material, even if the spin she puts on a few elements (like James Exon) tends to be grating to seasoned online veterans.

Though the book tends to concentrate on anecdotes rather than analysis, the writing is easy to follow and fun to read. The incessant crises that rocked AOL during most of its existence make for good drama and Swisher doesn’t have to dig deep to find fertile material for her book.

The organization of the book is also irreproachable, at the exception of two chapters at the end, both detailing AOL’s battles with the American government’s efforts to censor the Internet. These two chapters are unexplainably split and offer repeated information, though their payoff is sweet: The diskette used to relay the Supreme Court’s decision overturning the government’s Communication Decency Act from the judges to the Internet was one of the ubiquitous AOL diskettes distributed across the country!

Despite all its virtues, couldn’t manage to make me like America Online, but certainly convinced me to respect it. The Little Online Service That Could should, by all rational standards, be dead now. But it endured and the story of its success is well-told in

Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels (1998)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels</strong> (1998)

(In theaters, March 1999) This film not only has one of the best titles of the year, but will probably also stand out on my year’s end list as having one of the most convoluted plot I’ve seen recently. It starts out with a rigged poker game and ends up as one riotously funny crime comedy. Bodies pile up like cordwood, but the audience never stops laughing. It’s unfortunate that the thick English accents often distract from the plot (though it’s far worse at the beginning), so the rumors of a Tom-Cruise-produced American remake don’t disturb me as much as they should. While it is true that the characters might have been fleshed-out a bit more -probably beginning by reducing their numbers from the start-, Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels is directed with great flair and benefits from a good soundtrack. (The inclusion of “Payback” is appropriate, given that it shares at least an attitude with the Mel Gibson vehicle.) Aptly described as a meeting between Trainspotting and Pulp Fiction, this film is worth your time.

(Second viewing, On DVD, October 2001) Revisiting this film after two years and director Guy Richie’s second feature –Snatch– is a lot like a short visit to a few rowdy friends. Yes, the film holds up quite well to another viewing. Granted, Snatch is a more polished film and a cooler piece of cinema, but you won’t feel cheated by Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. The directing, editing and complex storyline will manage to astonish you again. The DVD adds the essential subtitles, hurrah! A great crime comedy. You know you want to see it another time.

Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (1994)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles</strong> (1994)

(On TV, March 1999) What happens when you adapt an original, but murderously slow seventies gothic romance/horror novel to the cinema of the nineties? Something really enjoyable, actually. The comatic prose of the novel is gone, so we’re free to enjoy the relatively fun story of Anne Rice’s vampires. Good production values (influenced by fire fetishism), a high giggle factor and a better-than-average script make this a relatively worthwhile moment to spend. Far more so than reading the novel.

EdTV (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">EdTV</strong> (1999)

(In theaters, March 1999) Much better than its source material, the French-Canadian film Louis 19. Professional direction (by Ron Howard), competent actors (McConaughey! Landau! Harrelson! Hurley! Hopper!) and a sharp script (until the third act, that is…) make this a pretty slick, kind of enjoyable comedy. Obvious parallels exist between EdTV and The Truman Show, but I believe that if The Truman Show had both the merits and handicaps of brilliance, EdTV might be the most enjoyable of both films. (In any case, the show/audience relationship is best presented in EdTV.) It’s worth a look. If anyone in HollywoodLand wants an idea for EdTV 2, here’s one: Why not replace Ed with someone who’s really smart who really understands from the start the position he’s in?