Month: July 1999

Manhattan Transfer, John E. Stith

Tor, 1993, 381 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-51952-3

New York, New York.

Has a city ever exerted a greater fascination from the popular media? Whether in song, literature or film, New York has invaded the popular consciousness, coming to stand for the archetype of the Big City. One can easily mention multiple movies taking place there (1997: MIMIC, MEN IN BLACK and THE PEACEMAKER. 1998: ARMAGEDDON, DEEP IMPACT and GODZILLA. 1999: EYES WIDE SHUT and THE CORRUPTOR…)

People across the world can enumerate New York’s biggest attractions without ever having set foot on American soil: Lady Liberty, the United Nations, the Empire State Tower, the World Trade Center… Even the districts have acquired reputations of their own: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Harlem, the Bronx… (For bonus points, name movies whose title is inspired by these districts)

For a variety of reasons, New York has become a locus of multiple interpretations. Some of it is simple rural jealousy, though to be honest, in comparison to New York we’re pretty much all rurals. New York stands as the incarnation of all of our feelings toward big cities. Who hasn’t ever dreamt that New York’s problems could be solved by making it disappear?

That’s what happens one morning in John E. Stith’s Manhattan Transfer. UFOs appear and start severing Manhattan’s links with its surrounding: laser beams cut bridges, subway tunnels, roadways, solid earth… Then a bubble is installed over the city, and the whole package is lifted up in the sky, brought inside a spaceship and installed on a vast plain where dozen of other bubble cities are also lying there…

A team is quickly formed inside the human city to try to find out what the heck is happening. As they try to enter in communication with the other cities, they find out that the aliens are installing power, water, and waste conducts. Clearly, the aliens want to keep them around for a while… but why? Is this a zoo, an experiment or a grocery cart? (The alien’s true reason for taking Manhattan becomes far too obvious even at mid-book.)

All of this happens in the first fifty pages of Manhattan Transfer. If only the remainder of the novel could have been that good… Like many premise-driven SF novels, this one falters after the initial setup, and goes on for maybe a hundred pages too long. The middle section is sorely in need of some tightening up. (Maybe by cutting the unnecessary “preacher” subplot?) Fortunately, the novel picks up interest again as it advances forward. If the ending undergoes too many false climaxes, it wraps up in a satisfying, if abrupt, manner.

Adding to the fun, Manhattan Transfer is written with the can-do attitude exemplified by golden-age SF. The characters of the novel are almost invariably competent men and women, and they won’t stay kidnapped for too long! It’s one of the intellectual pleasures of the novel to see how Manhattanites end up coping with this radical lifestyle change. Though Stith is far more optimistic than it could reasonably be expected, his characters are so sympathetic that readers will forgive some easy rationalizations.

Devotees of the hard-SF school of thought will find a lot to like in Manhattan Transfer. Even though the writing isn’t as concise and as clear as it could be, the characters are above-average for this type of story, and there’s a clear narrative drive from cover to cover. An unusual, yet well-handled premise and some cool scenes make this a worthwhile read. Better yet; consider it as an alternate version of INDEPENDENCE DAY.

Standard Candles, Jack McDevitt

Tachyon, 1996, 248 pages, C$20.00 hc, ISBN 0-9648320-4-6

As a marginal Jack McDevitt fan, imagine my surprise as I browsed through the Science-Fiction Book Club’s latest catalogue and discovered a mention of the previously-unknown title Standard Candles. A trip to later, I had found out that this was McDevitt’s first short story anthology, and that it had been published in 1996 (!) by a small publisher.

Given that I’ve read all of McDevitt’s other books, my surprise was compounded by the complete absence of Standard Candles from his bibliography. Granted, McDevitt’s latest publisher (Harper Prism) doesn’t list other publishers’ books, but still… So I ordered Standard Candles, curious to see what McDevitt had produced in short-form SF.

The SFBC edition of Standard Candles is a slim (248 pages) volume containing 16 stories. Given that one of them is more than fifty pages long, the remainder of the stories in this book are fairly short and can be easily read in one time.

I have a special fondness for single-author collections because they tend to succinctly summarize everything you want to know about an author’s interests, style, strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately, in this case, it brought back memories of how, if McDevitt can be great, he can also be insufferably annoying.

For each Moonfall, Engines of God and Hercules Text, suspenseful novels against backgrounds of hard physics, archaeology and SETI alien contact, there’s A Talent for War, Ancient Shores or Eternity Road, disappointing stories that barely explain their own premises and suffer from pointless detours, unresolved events and depressing finales. And so the pattern repeats itself in Standard Candles, in 248 short pages.

McDevitt is not a conventionally optimistic SF writer. His stories are filled with fallen civilizations, sentient stupidity, matrimonial failures and malfunctioning technology. His roots in classical studies inevitably bring us back to boom-and-bust cycles, to uncertain futures and the possibility of total systemic collapse. Even his most optimistic scenarios always include signs that, gee, idiots will always be with us.

Ironically, historian McDevitt often writes Science-Fiction stories in the vein of physicist Gregory Benford, about scientists stuck with very ordinary problems and extraordinary discoveries (“Standard Candles”, “Cryptic”, etc…)

It’s no mistake if this book is classified as being “Science Fiction/Literature” on its dust jacket, especially after reading “Translated from the Collossian” (aliens go around stealing classical literature) and “The Fort Moxie Branch” (about a mysterious library of lost literary gems). Is it a coincidence, however, if these are two of the book’s best stories?

Similarly enjoyable are the two great stories related to chess. “Black to Move” is a chilling (if overlong) story of alien cunning explained in chess terms. “The Jersey Rifle”, on the other hand, is a charming, quasi-comic tale about The Best Chess Player in the World.

There’s nothing charming about most of the book, however. A typical McDevitt conclusion resides heavily on the threat of future Very Bad Things. A welcome exception is “To Hell With the Star”, which certainly ranks up there with the best of the SF wish-fulfillment fantasies. But McDevitt is, by and large, a melancholic, pessimistic writer. Nothing wrong with that, but taken in long sustained doses, it does put a dampener on your day.

Standard Candles is still a worthwhile anthology: McDevitt delivers more often than not, and provided one doesn’t read all the stories one after the other, the dark and depressing tone is a change of pace. More significantly, Standard Candles is a pretty spiffy summary of everything that interests the author, from classical history to hard physics. Fans will love it; non-fans are advised to wait until they’re fans.

Wild Wild West (1999)

Wild Wild West (1999)

(In theaters, July 1999) There are two ways of approaching this film. The undemanding method results in adequate enjoyment, but in the other lies madness. On one hand, we can appreciate Wild Wild West for what it offers: Will Smith looking darn cool, Barry Sonnenfeld’s sprinkling of ironic visual humor (like the sights gags about E.T. and -my fave- RCA’s “voice-of-his-master”), some interesting character dynamics and -boy, oh, boy!- a giant mechanical spider. Mix everything up and you end with an adequate summer popcorn matinee movie: Not too bad, but unfortunately not too special either. And there lies the seed of our discontent: You’ve got a script with the potential to pick and choose over the strongest aspect of James Bond, Steampunk, Buddy Movies and Westerns. You’ve got Will Smith, Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, ILM, Salma Hayek, Barry Sonnenfeld and $180M. How the hell to you end up with such a barely adequate movie? Six of the most attractive actresses in recent memory grace the screen, and the movie can’t even wring some hot scenes out of it? Six writers and you end up with “That’s a man’s head!”? Sheesh… The editors should be shot for letting at least three separate scenes run for a full thirty seconds after we understood the joke. This is the kind of movie that really make you reconsider the average IQ of Hollywood residents. How could you produce such a non-event out of such sure-fire concepts and talent? Watch Wild Wild West to find out.

(In French, Second viewing, On TV, April 2004) Yup: five years later, this film still sucks. While the incoherent pacing may have been affected by the choppy for-TV editing, the lame editing of the surviving scenes still rankles. Oh, the visual design of the film is fantastic: this American steampunk vision is often impressive (despite unconvincing special effects) and the melding of action movie aesthetics with western period flavour is enough to make anyone dream in wonder. But seldom has so much been wasted by so many: The atrocious script is conceptually OK, but fails on a scene-per-scene basis, with unexplainable pauses and lame gags repeated over and over again until all freshness has been squeezed out of them. Salma Hayek is gorgeous (as usual), but is wasted in a role that pops in and out of existence. No wonder so many people, myself included, hated it five years ago: it has lost none of its awfulness.

The Thing (1982)

The Thing (1982)

(On TV, July 1999) This suffers considerably from nearly twenty years of inspired derivatives, multiple homages and endless plain rip-offs. Stories of alien possession and isolated humans threatened by monsters have proliferated since 1982, and the grand-daddy of the genre, while still pretty good, simply doesn’t seems so fresh. Unfortunately for this Special-Effects-based horror film, the effects haven’t aged well either. Finally, the muddy-black cinematography and hesitant direction don’t flow as well as they should, and The Thing is, all things considered, more of a disappointment than still an enjoyable film. Not bad, actually, but not as good as it probably once was.

Spike & Mike’s Classic Festival of Animation 1999 (1999)

Spike & Mike’s Classic Festival of Animation 1999 (1999)

(In theaters, July 1999) Short anthology of animated cartoons, from the highly-technical CGI “Tightrope” (by Digital Domain) to the almost-primitive classic “Bambi Meet Godzilla” (which is followed by a forgettable computer-animated sequel) Lowlights include a few baffling French shorts, and at least one English shoe love story. I wasn’t impressed by 1998’s Oscar-winning “Bunny”, but 1987’s Oscar-winning “Balance” is pretty cool in an eastern-European concentration camp way. Among the undisputed high points of the festival are “Billy’s Balloon” (one of the sickest, funniest shorts I’ve ever seen), the baffling “Bingo”, the opening computer-generated Penguin/Bear gags, the British “Hum Drum” and a rather suggestive scene between a carrot and a grater. Not a must-see but not a total waste of time either, this edition of Spike And Mike‘s animation festival could have been much, much better. Not to mention funnier.

The Dragon’s Eye, Joël Champetier (Translated by Jean-Louis Trudel)

Tor, 1999, 296 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-86882-0

Allow me to preface this review with an important disclaimer: I am not a disinterested reader when it comes to The Dragon’s Eye. I’ve known both author Joël Champetier and translator Jean-Louis Trudel since 1995’s “Can-Con’95” SF convention and if it would be presumptuous of me to claim them as friends, I can at least honestly call them good acquaintances.

Similarly, I’ve been reading French-Canadian Science-Fiction for a long time, and my favorite novel remains La Taupe et le Dragon (The Dragon’s Eye), one of the few adult action/adventure idea-heavy hard-SF novel to come out of the French-Canadian scene. I’ve followed closely the process leading to the English translation of the novel and now I’m pleased to see that the American public can now read one of the best-kept secrets of French-Canadian Science-Fiction.

The Dragon’s Eye takes place nearly two hundred and fifty years in the future. Earth has expanded into space, and the colonization of extra-solar planets has begun. Not all nations have equal means, however, and China finds itself relegated to a barely-hospitable planet in a nearby double-star system. One of the stars is the Dragon’s Eye, a small but dangerous star whose intense radiations cause widespread blindness among the colonizing population. As is conditions weren’t harsh enough, New China is saddled by enormous debts. Rebellion rumors flow freely…

In the midst of all this arrives Réjean Tanner, an operative for an Earth intelligence agency. He quickly finds himself in enemy territory, tasked with retrieving a rogue agent… regardless if the agent is cooperative or not.

The stage is set for an adventure solidly placed in the James Bond tradition. But Champetier has other ambitions, and the action/adventure tale that is The Dragon’s Eye never goes quite as well as planned, never quite as easily as we might like it to be. For veterans of the spy genre, this novel is a blast given the number of conventions it cheerfully overturns. In a way, this is almost the anti-James Bond novel, yet not a satiric one…

An aspect that shines in The Dragon’s Eye is the meticulous world-building done by Champetier. The Eye’s harmful radiations force everyone to take radical steps to protect themselves against blindness and skin cancer; this obsession permeates the book’s society as deeply as one could expect from the best SF extrapolations.

Best of all, The Dragon’s Eye is a wonderful read. Champetier is one of the few French-Canadian authors to deliberately choose an uncluttered style, and the result is a novel that’s easy to get into, very well-plotted for maximum interest, and never too lengthy. I read it in a flash, pulled by the lean narrative.

I had initial fears that all the qualities that I remembered from La Taupe et le Dragon were due to unfair comparison with other French-Canadian works. It’s a relief to be finally able to judge the book in a fair context. Fortunately, the book holds up amazingly well: As an action/adventure SF with a unusually good sense of world-building, one could be hard-pressed to find better. Kudos to Champetier and kudos to Trudel for a pretty good translation. With a bit of luck, Tor will now publish Champetier’s other horror novels… and with even more luck, more SF from him. Though we French-Canadian will get to read it first!

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)

(In theaters, July 1999) Strip away the obscenity, the crude animation and the deliberate shock value of this film and you’ll still end up with one of the wittiest social satires of recent memory. Of course, that’s no surprise to devotees of the show… who will find that South Park is one of the rare movies to actually improve on its source series, in this case by going miles beyond the accepted limits of TV. Make no mistake: This is one offensive movie. But it’s also one of the funniest of 1999, and justifies its vulgarity with some actual meaning, unlike other gross-for-gross-out so-called “comedies”. Further adding to the hilarity are the snappy songs and the occasional parodies (like Cartman’s mock-anime fight!) Sure, not every joke works and the second half of the film doesn’t pack as much punch as the first, but still… who could have guessed that South Park would end up being lauded by critics? Canadian viewers should be tickled pink at the constant references to Canada, which pretty much encapsulate what we all suspected about our reputation south of the border.

(Second viewing, On DVD, January 2002) “Uh-oh” says the tagline for this film, and that’s also pretty much my reaction when viewing the film two years and a half after its theater run. Don’t get me wrong; I still think it’s a terrific satire, a remarkably effective comedy that courageously takes on important subjects in a highly subversive fashion. (Indeed, the 1999 script’s “War on Canada” rhetoric is chillingly close to the “War on Terrorism” propaganda dished out in early 2002.) Furthermore, “Uncle F*cka” is still the best original movie tune of 1999. But the film has not aged well already; once the delightful shock of the film’s vulgarity has passed, the film’s more boring passages become painfully evident. Some of the material is simply dull or annoying once stripped of its shock value. Worse of all, the film’s overall subject matter isn’t as urgent as it once was. Good film, still, but not the classic it could have been had it exercised a touch more subtlety. The DVD doesn’t have much in terms of extra features, though the French soundtrack is a new comedy experience for those used to the original: “Il faut blâmer/le Canada!”

Ngo si seoi [Who Am I?] (1998)

Ngo si seoi [Who Am I?] (1998)

(On VHS, July 1999) This direct-to-video film starring Jackie Chan is, well, deservedly straight-to-video. Though still adhering to Chan’s usual standards of goofy action fun, it takes a long while to revv up, meanders with a needlessly complicated plot (which never makes too much sense) and is far less amusing than his other movies. Fortunately, things pick up in the second half, with some dynamic (but not really eye-popping) fighting and stunts. Otherwise, the movie can boast of rather good production values (with special effects) and a less-misogynistic use of actresses. The car chase is fun, with a fun hack on the Diamonds Are Forever two-wheel-driving stunt. Recommended to Chan fans only, and even then at low rental prices.

New Eden (1994)

New Eden (1994)

(On TV, July 1999) This made-for-TV movie will try to make you believe in Stephen Baldwin as a marooned engineer who manages to build an agrarian culture on a desert planet and defend it against The Bad Guys. It has some good moments (the engineer-as-hero, Lisa Bonet, some dialogue), but is overwhelmed by the bad moments we’ve all seen before (the annoying kid, the fights, the ridiculous “sand pirates”, etc…) Not bad, but somewhat boring.

Inspector Gadget (1999)

Inspector Gadget (1999)

(In theaters, July 1999) I still can’t fathom why critics savaged this film. Not only is it a perfectly respectable kid’s movie, but it’s got enough humor, action, Special Effects and clever wit to hold everyone’s attention for its dynamic 90 minutes. The opening sequence alone is so wickedly over the top that I was clapping in unrestrained admiration barely sixty seconds into the movie. Matthew Broderick plays his role well and Rupert Everett turns in a delicious performance as the megalomaniac. Parodies abound: Robocop, Mission: Impossible, even Godzilla in a scene that had me shrieking with laughter. The special-effects alone are very well-integrated in the story, promising almost a surprise a minute. Directed with competence and written with better-than-average skills, -it’s mostly clean humor too- it would be a mistake to miss Inspector Gadget. Go, go, gadget video!

Signal to Noise, Eric S. Nylund

Avon/EOS, 1999, 371 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-79292-3

Despite what naysayers might say, the science-fiction bookshelves of your nearby bookstore have never been so attractively filled with dozens of potentially interesting books. This diversity, unfortunately, has made it more difficult than ever to find the really good stuff. Today’s savvy SF reader must learn to negotiate the thin line between hype and actual value, between signal to noise. In this game of equilibrium, it doesn’t take much to drown out any potential interest.

That happened in early 1998 as I was at the local SF bookstore considering my next few purchases. An unusually-colored hardcover attracted my eye: Eric S. Nylund’s Signal to Noise. Unfortunately, the jacket copy began by claiming that the novel was the first instance of a new emerging genre—hyperpunk.

That was far too much marketing jargon crammed in a single word. I placed the book back on the shelf.

A year -and several good reviews- later, I finally bought the paperback copy, noticing that the “hyperpunk” blurb has disappeared from the cover. Strangely, after reading the novel I find myself in agreement that, yes, Signal to Noise is truly “hyperpunk”… or cyberpunk pushed to hyperspace.

Jack Potter is a typical cyber-protagonist: A young single male computer expert trying to survive in a world dominated by gigantic corporations barely restrained by governments. So far so cyberpunk. But the fun starts when Jack discovers a way to instantly communicate with aliens light-years away. The aliens are traders, and for their first swap, Jack gives them the human DNA code. They send back “an enhanced version.”

Shades of A for Andromeda, yet? Before long, Jack’s the Favorite Person of at least two intelligence services, two alien races, several venture capitalists and assorted other bad guys. They implant stuff in him, give him enough money to go in business, double-cross him a few times and wring him dry of any further alien trading results…

Intricately plotted and not without some occasional confusion, Signal to Noise signals the arrival of a potentially major new talent on the SF scene. This isn’t Nylund’s first novel (despite holding two science degrees, he previously wrote three previous fantasy books), but his first full-length SF effort displays a mastery of plotting and hard sciences that’s simply too intriguing to be ignored.

His writing style combines simplicity and density for a satisfying reading experience. His characters are believable, with some special attention given to the flawed protagonist. His plotting is filled with surprises, passing through a few paradigms before the large-scale finale. A few late-book choices left me puzzled (the selection of sidekicks, for instance) until I realized that Signal to Noise sets up a sequel. This usually irks me, but Signal to Noise can stand alone by itself. It’s my duty as a reviewer, however, to suggest that shrewd readers should wait until they have both books before reading Signal to Noise.

Fast-paced, imaginative and exciting, Signal to Noise is exactly what readers should expect from a good SF novel. Ignore the “hyperpunk” hype; this book is pure signal to the background noise of your bookstore. I really look forward to the sequel, and anything else from Eric S. Nylund.

The Haunting (1999)

The Haunting (1999)

(In theaters, July 1999) Are horror films basically incompatible with the Hollywood blockbuster mentality? This film offers part of the answer. This big-budget, star-studded Haunted-house offering from Dreamworks manages the rare feat of being a completely ordinary horror film without one good scare in it. Aside from a mild jump-shot or two, The Haunting fails at eliciting anything approaching dread from the audience, with disastrous results. In many ways, this is a movie from another time, where you could afford to build up the suspense for an hour before letting it all flow. This approach could have been applauded if The Haunting has done anything worthwhile… but this build-up only elicits impatience rather than tension. The below-average script doesn’t help things, with some particularly bad dialogue (mirroring almost everything the characters feel despite the fact that it’s blindingly obvious to the audience.) and a lack of any sympathy for the characters. Jan de Bont’s direction is far from being as dynamic as I would have expected from his work on Speed and Twister. Catherine Zeta-Jones is as lovely as ever, but she has to fight against the House itself in the looks department. The bad ending finally seals The Haunting‘s rating to, at best, barely average.

The Full Monty (1997)

The Full Monty (1997)

(On VHS, July 1999) Why did I miss this in theatres? A charming little movie faithfully echoing the Flashdance paradigm (cleverly cited) of ordinary people being transformed by… er… art and personal self-fulfillment. No, but really: A quirky, comic British film that’s just too sympathetic to miss. Some obvious jokes, but also some delightful moments. Perhaps a bit lower on the laugh-o-meter than its reputation has made it to be, but still worthwhile. Never mean-spirited, and always in good taste despite the raunchy potential of the material. Could have used an epilogue, maybe over the end credits. Great soundtrack, of course.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

(In theaters, July 1999) I don’t worship Stanley Kubrick and this film won’t change my mind. Long-anticipated and released in the midst of controversy, this is a movie that actually lets people see what they want in it. It is a bore; it is a masterpiece. It’s filled with undressed women; it’s hugely unexciting (The most erotic scene is, curiously, a kiss between two fully-clothed adults). It’s a love story; it’s a conspiracy thriller. It’s beautiful; it’s ugly. It’s too long; it’s too short. It’s easy to see that Eyes Wide Shut is the kind of movie that has it both ways, by being simultaneously an empty disappointment and a multi-layered success. Me, I’m ambivalent: I thought it was too long, focused on the wrong story (the couple rather than the secret society), not as hard-hitting as it could have been and not as well-scripted at it should have been, but also found it beautifully directed, with involving questions, good acting and a half-naked Leelee Sobieski. Oh, pervert that I am…

Evil Dead II (1987)

Evil Dead II (1987)

(On VHS, July 1999) Simply put, a blast. A shotgun blast. Effectively mixing dark comedy and liquid gore while making the most out of its small budget, this movie works by sheer audacity. Director Sam Raimi’s devilishly inventive camera angles and non-stop pacing (the movie’s 85 minutes, but packs a wallop) are as frantic as anything you’ve seen elsewhere. Plus, Bruce Campbell is very cool and the special effects are pretty well-handled. Drags a bit by the end. Works simultaneously as a movie, a parody and MST3K fodder. Clever, hip and simply a lot of fun. Rougher than its sequel Army Of Darkness, but well worth the rental.

(Second viewing, On DVD, August 2006) I’m sure that this film does get old at some point, but watching it every few years is still a treat: The mixture of horror and comedy is one thing, but Sam Raimi’s hyperkinetic camera style is still a blast after twenty years and countless imitators. The film manages to top itself minute after minute, and this despite an introduction that repeats the entire first film in a matter of moments. It also helps that Bruce Campbell truly emerges as an icon right on time at the beginning of the third act. Good gags, appropriate gore and tons of creativity: ah, if more horror movies could be like this… The DVD contains an amusing commentary by the principal crew members, who take the time to reflect on the film shoot in general and how specific scenes were shot.